Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Curmudgeon becomes a grandfather again -- Part II

For Part I, scroll down the page or click here.

I raced home from the office expecting to see my wife, Younger Daughter, and the Baby-Who'd-Better-Get-A-Name-Soon sitting on the front steps glaring at me. But they weren't through packing yet: There were decisions to be made about what food to bring and what to leave behind. My consent was required (merely as a courtesy, you understand) for the clothes that Long Suffering Spouse had picked out for me. And which electronic devices would be taken, and where were the chargers?

At some point, I was told to take Granddaughter #1 into the backyard and jolly her up whilst her mother and grandmother finished putting things together. One of us -- either me or the toddler -- was apparently in the way. (Yes, I suppose it was me, too.)

Anyway, it was a glorious day in Chicago last Tuesday, the kind of day when you'd want to be outdoors anyway, and #1 Granddaughter was very pleased at the opportunity to play on the jungle gym (I spotted her down the slide) and she shrieked with pleasure when she sat with me on the swing. Before that, though, I checked my messages. My phones have an uncanny way of ringing five minutes after I leave the office. Sure enough, I had a message from one of the attorneys (an ex-partner, actually) who was trying to engage me in a new matter that would be up in court tomorrow. I'd already told him that would be impossible, and he'd already agreed that it should be possible to get a continuance in the circumstances. Now, though, he wanted to talk to me about the papers I'd need to review for court. I returned the call from the backyard, as the planes flew continuously overhead on their way to O'Hare. The new runway configuration has somehow resulted in increased traffic over the Curmudgeon Manse. Granddaughter #1, knowing no better, does not mind; in fact, she waves 'bye-bye' to the planes as they pass. She is getting very adept at 'bye-bye.'

"There's too much to scan," my ex-partner told me, reversing an earlier proposal to email me the materials I needed to review. "We could deliver them to your office, but you're already home?" he asked. And leaving momentarily, I lied, not knowing how far preparations had yet advanced. In the end, it was decided to overnight the materials to my house. That way, when I got back into town I would have them immediately. That struck me as sensible. I hung up and went to play on the swings.

It turns out that swinging on the swingset isn't quite as easy as it looks when you have to hold a toddler in place. I tired quickly. Granddaughter the First was made of sterner stuff; she was prepared to keep going for a much longer time.

Nevertheless, I told her, we have to see if it's time to go bye-bye. I got her car seat out of the little car and hooked it up to the van. This was difficult to do while holding onto the Baby-to-Be-Named-Soon, so I had to trust her not to rush into the street when I put her down on the ground. Fortunately, her mother did not catch me while I was doing this.

Then, having hooked everything together as best I could, I installed the child in the car seat and went inside to see if I could carry any bags to the car. Indeed I could, I was told -- and back and forth I trudged. I'd left my briefcase in the van anyway (just in case I was going to find time to get some work done) but there was plenty else to carry.

Granddaughter #1 was happy to see me galumphing to and fro. It doesn't matter the age or the relationship, the female of the species likes it when the male is constructively engaged.

Eventually Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter came out to inspect my handiwork. Long Suffering Spouse rearranged everything in the trunk while Younger Daughter eyed the car seat skeptically. "You put this in?" she asked. "I did," I said, and not without a little pride. "Hmmmm," she said, and she tugged here and pulled there before pronouncing the results inadequate. She fixed it. I pretended not to mind.

Finally, though, we were ready to hit the road. It was too late now to go back through the City (rush hour in Chicago, especially on the inbound Kennedy, starts by 3:00 and it was nearly 3:30). Actually, we'd be going with traffic on the Tollway route as well, and we'd be tied up there, too, unless we got going immediately.

Long Suffering Spouse got a text from Older Daughter just as we were pulling out of the driveway. They broke the bag but nothing's happening, the text read. It was adorned with a frowny-face as well. You have to wait awhile, Long Suffering Spouse texted back.

So would we, as it turned out.

There were no more texts from Older Daughter, even after Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter fired off a couple of inquiries. Involuntary radio silence descended on our expedition as we worked our way south and east.

There is a wind farm now along I-65, about halfway between the beginning of the highway and Indianapolis. For the anxious adults, the rows of giant, slowly rotating windmills, looking more like giant table fans than anything else, provided confirmation of our journey's progress. For #1 Granddaughter, the windmills provide a source of wonder and entertainment. She pointed and commented and gibbered. I've no doubt that she was expressing her opinions on alternate energy sources, but, at roughly 18 months, her diction is not yet precise.

By the time we made Lafayette, the continuing telephone silence was becoming worrisome. Speculation had been exhausted. Maybe she's already had the baby -- maybe she's having a problem? -- maybe she'll have to be C-sectioned, too! (Younger Daughter had a C-section, and she's a bit sensitive about it still, as if she somehow did something wrong. The vigorous, healthy toddler in the car seat next to her should have satisfied her on this point, but there you have it.)

It was determined that extraordinary measures would have to be taken. "I will text Hank," Younger Daughter announced, and Long Suffering Spouse, who had until now opposed such a radical step, agreed that it was time.

I did not participate in this discussion about whether to text, or not to text. We didn't have texting when my kids were born. I can well imagine my response if my phone had beeped in the middle of events, however. I am pretty sure the phone would not have survived. I can't say whether I would have crushed it underfoot or dashed it against the wall, but I am absolutely certain that I would not have simply responded to a text.

Hank responded. His initial message -- that things were fine -- was a bit terse and incomplete for Long Suffering Spouse's and Younger Daughter's taste, but they were somewhat relieved.

And there were further communications from inside the labor room. I can't recall the exact sequence now -- only a week afterward -- but, at one point, he said that Older Daughter was 'taking a break' from pushing.

Long Suffering Spouse was incredulous. "Taking a break? Taking a break?" But all her labors were quick and extraordinarily intense. In her experience, pushing had not been something that could be interrupted, much less suspended.

The other datum which had been communicated by Hank was the name of the hospital where Older Daughter was laboring and more importantly (since there are apparently about six hospitals in Indianapolis with that same name) which of these was the correct one to aim for.

We would have to rely on GPS to find the place.

I hate GPS.

It is unreliable. Certainly it is insufficient as the sole means of providing directions: How many news stories have you read over the years of people turning off highways and into ditches or onto railroad tracks (and not at a crossing) because they slavishly complied with the dictates of their GPS? I really started to hate GPS, though, when we traveled as a family to Oldest Son's wedding in San Antonio, Texas, a place where I'd never been. I'd put some time into reviewing maps and printing out directions beforehand; my children all pulled out their smart phones (I was years away from getting one myself) and solemnly assured each other, and me, and Long Suffering Spouse, and my increasingly fearful mother-in-law, that I had led them to the wrong hotel. In the wee small hours of the morning. After a delayed, and cramped, flight. And they were wrong. I was right.

Just last summer I had to produce a witness for a deposition in the western suburbs. I met him at the Kane County Courthouse. We adjourned to the Starbucks across the street to prepare him for his testimony. We then were to drive our own cars to the other lawyer's office which was located, literally, in the middle of nowhere. I called for directions. My witness -- one of those 20-somethings that lives on his mobile phone -- used GPS. I was on time. He was a half hour late -- GPS had gotten him hopelessly lost -- and he never would have made it had he not called me for directions.

So I wasn't wild about relying on GPS. "Well," I growled to Younger Daughter, "you relay the directions. I don't want to hear the stupid phone voice."

"That way it will be my fault," Younger Daughter said. She didn't ask. She didn't have to ask.

"Right," I confirmed.

Do you have traffic circles, sometimes called roundabouts, where you live? We have one in the Chicago area not too far from us. We avoid it like Chernobyl. It scares me to death. On the couple of occasions that I have been forced, for one reason or another, to venture through it, traffic seems to be coming from every direction at once, and randomly, and unpredictably besides.

But apparently the power-that-be in the outlying areas of Indianapolis are greatly enamored of traffic circles. At least they have installed them approximately every two blocks on the road that we were forced to take to the hospital.

We were forced to take this literally circuitous route because the main highway was closed due to construction. There was no surprise here. Wherever I want to go, no matter when, no matter how, I will encounter serious construction.

"At least it's still light out," Long Suffering Spouse said as I careened through still another traffic circle. "I'd hate to try this in the dark," she added.

"Yes," I managed. I was the picture of concentration, focused entirely on the swerving traffic around me. Still I heard Younger Daughter add, "Just two more of these to go and we're there."

And, for a wonder, the GPS was right.

Darkness was descending on Indianapolis as we parked in the hospital lot. So much for encountering traffic circles in daylight, I thought, but did not say. We'd not heard anything from inside the hospital for awhile (our last instruction was to come to the third floor waiting room). I scanned the darkening skies anxiously. I didn't see any storks.

Yes, I'm stretching this into three parts, I guess. Next: Waiting with the unhappy in-laws.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Curmudgeon becomes a grandfather again -- Part I

I hadn't written about Older Daughter's pending Blessed Event for reasons explained in this post. She's had such a tough time of it, and I didn't want to tempt Fate or Karma or Anything Else by writing prematurely. However, I believe the embargo is now lifted....

"If that kid is born deaf, don't say I didn't tell you so," I grumbled once again as Long Suffering Spouse regaled me with the tale of Older Daughter's latest ultrasound examination. "Even if the kid isn't deaf, she'll go berserk every time a dog whistle goes off anywhere nearby."

Because of the problems Older Daughter had in getting and staying pregnant, she took every possible opportunity to get an ultrasound examination performed. As a nurse in Indianapolis, Older Daughter found many such opportunities -- far more, I'm sure, than the average expectant mother in a different line of work. Older Daughter has more pictures of her child in utero than my wife and I do of our Youngest Son in the first year after he was born. Granted, there's a drop off in the number of photos taken of any child from the oldest to the youngest. By the time Youngest Son, the fifth-born, came along 21 years ago, we'd pretty much stopped taking pictures altogether. If he'd been kidnapped as a child, we'd have needed to use the annual school picture for the milk carton.

Anyway, with Older Daughter's pending child, we already knew she was a girl, and, thanks to the considerable advances in ultrasound technology since our own children were born, we'd already been subjected to debates about whose nose she has, or whose ears.

And Older Daughter got so big, so fast. I remember when Long Suffering Spouse was carrying Older Daughter. My wife still fit in her own jeans in the sixth month (she doesn't remember things quite that way, but I do). We both recall that she got bigger sooner with successive kids -- "well, everything has been stretched out of shape already," she'd lament -- and maybe that's what happened to Older Daughter, too. She never got very far with any of her previous attempts, but maybe her body reacted like this was a sixth or seventh pregnancy and not the first, true, lasting one. Maybe it's an IVF thing. I don't know. I don't really want to know.

It's not just here on the blog that I've been quiet about Older Daughter's baby. In real life I've been rather circumspect, too. Many of our close friends did not know until recently that Older Daughter was on the nest. I didn't mean to cause offense. Put it this way: The time to be happy, I'd say, on those occasions when I was challenged on account of my reticence, is when the baby is safely here. And not before.

Nevertheless, we were obliged to attend a baby shower a month or so ago in Indianapolis -- an event that surely rates its own post, or perhaps a chapter in the book I'm getting more and more determined to write -- but, with that exception, and it was forced upon us, Long Suffering Spouse and I have been verrrrry quiet about this pregnancy.

That doesn't mean that Older Daughter's pregnancy wasn't Topics A, B, C and sometimes D on the agenda at every family discussion. Older Daughter would call my wife two or three times a day, more on weekends, and she'd call her sister just as often. My mother-in-law would check in daily at least to inquire about Older Daughter's status. Granted, she'd want to tell us about the coming rainstorm, too, or the forecast of more snow (she always latches on to the most pessimistic weather forecast) and to talk about the latest topics in the news besides. It had gotten to the point where I couldn't exchange pleasantries with my wife until around 8:00 p.m., whether I came home early or late, because that was the time it would take for the day's phone calls with mother and daughter to wind down.

There was a flurry of speculation within the family that the baby would be born on Easter Sunday (the actual due date was May 3). My wife pooh-poohed such speculation, or she had, until sometime late last week, when her baby sense began to tingle.

I have mentioned, I think, that Long Suffering Spouse has an unerring sense of when a wee beastie has gotten into the house, whether she sees evidence of the creature or not. She just knows. And once she knows you had better be prepared to drop all regular activities for as long as necessary until said wee beastie is dispatched. With extreme prejudice.

In addition to that superpower, my wife also possesses an amazing baby radar. She can size a pregnant woman up and, in a moment, say, "soon," and the baby will come soon. Sometimes she can say "tomorrow," and you could make book on tomorrow. This extrasensory perception apparently relies on more than just sights and sounds. It also relies on pheromones or Higgs bosons or dark matter or something nifty like that, but nothing (of course) that my wife can articulate. But she knows just the same.

With Older Daughter away in Indianapolis, my wife's baby sense was not so sure -- even radar works better with objects closer as opposed to further away -- but she did have a lot of phone time with Older Daughter. That, and the report that Older Daughter made of fresh blood, which her doctor assured her was the "plug" coming loose (no, I don't really know exactly what that means and, no, I don't really want to know), caused, by the weekend, my wife to stop pooh-poohing those who were predicting Easter Sunday. She would not go so far as to commit to a day, however; she only pronounced "soon."

In her condition, Older Daughter could not join us for Easter Dinner. And, besides, as a professional church singer (in addition to his day job as an architect), Hank is extremely busy during the Triduum and on Easter. But Oldest Son came over with his wife, and Middle Son with his fiance, and even Youngest Son came down from South Janesville College for the day. (He was driving his girlfriend's car, but his girlfriend was in Europe, visiting relatives.) Our regular tenants, Olaf and Younger Daughter and the Baby to Be Named Later (and pretty darn soon now, since there's two of them), went to dine with Olaf's parents and aunts and uncles, but they joined our party already in progress. I was fairly bushed by the end of Sunday and my wife had this week off anyway and I had nothing up in court on Monday. I didn't need to think too hard about extending the weekend.

Besides, whether Older Daughter had the kid or not, Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter had committed to journeying to Indianapolis to provide such aid and comfort (and retail therapy) as they could. I counseled that they'd be better off going earlier in the week, as opposed to later, and my wife was coming around to this view. So by staying home Monday I could have one day with my wife during her week off.

Naturally, Long Suffering Spouse spent most of Monday morning on the phone with Older Daughter. Their discussion was focused on what they would do when Long Suffering Spouse got there (what, specifically, still needs to be bought?) and what food they would be bringing and how long they would be staying (Older Daughter wanted them to stay all week; Long Suffering Spouse was thinking Tuesday and Wednesday and being home for dinner Wednesday evening).

But, even in the midst of all these delicate negotiations, my wife was able to perceive that I wasn't really 'working from home,' as I had proposed to do Monday, I was merely playing a computer game. And having much too good a time at it, too. So Long Suffering Spouse decided that I needed to take the van in to get the tires rotated. "It's been a long winter," she told me, needlessly. No one who's been around this winter would need reminding. "And we're going to be driving this van a lot and soon, depending on when she has this kid." I grumbled a bit, but I could not dispute the logic. I saved my game and left.

"Have them check the brakes, too," she called on my way out the door. "I'll come get you if they're keeping the car."

She texted me shortly after I got to the tire place. There was at least one car ahead of me, I told her, and they hadn't yet looked at the van. I told her to stay home until I texted her.

"Well, your daughter is at the doctor's again," my wife texted back.


"More blood."

"More? That doesn't sound good."

"That's why she's at the doctor."

The tire rotation took 20 minutes or so; I apparently don't yet need new brakes.

I raced home to resume the conversation.

"They're giving her another ultrasound," my wife said -- and that brings you right to the beginning of this post.

We waited and we fretted. We fretted and we waited. We voiced our worry to each other.

Younger Daughter expressed surprise. "This is a side of you I didn't see when I was expecting."

Well, of course not, we told her. When you were in this situation, we explained, you didn't need to see us worry, though we did. Privately. But around you we were all happy and reassuring. That's our job.

"And, besides," added Long Suffering Spouse, "you were right here. We had a better sense of what was going on. Your sister is so far away."

Younger Daughter joined in fretting with the both of us.

Eventually the phone rang. Long Suffering Spouse was on it in an nanosecond. There was a pause, and, then, "OK, call us when you're situated." Long Suffering Spouse looked up at Younger Daughter and me hovering anxiously. "They're admitting her."

Apparently they weren't happy with the baby's heart rate. It was too low and, they said, it dropped further when Older Daughter stood up.

"So they're inducing?" I asked.

"No," said Long Suffering Spouse. "They're monitoring. They don't want to induce because she's still a couple of weeks early." Older Daughter was permitted to go home and pack a bag and return. "We'll know more in the morning."

Well, we didn't know much more next morning, you understand. We were told that, according to the monitoring devices, Older Daughter and baby passed the night just fine. These devices also documented that Older Daughter was in labor and the prior reservations about inducing gave way, among her medical providers, to a recommendation that they break her bag and put her on Pitocin. Older Daughter initially refused these enhancements, but her doctors weren't going to send her home regardless. The last tumblers clicked for my wife's baby sense. "Tonight," she said authoritatively, "tomorrow at the latest."


Given the imminent prospect of meeting a new grandchild, I decided to attach myself to this expedition. My wife agreed that they might find things for me to do. But first I had to stop in the office and see what, if anything, was going on.

You know, I have to tell you: I think my kids should have kids more often. It may be only coincidence, not cause, but I had two new files waiting for me Tuesday. I thought I was going to have to turn one of the new matters down -- they wanted me in court Wednesday and I had to explain I was about to leave town. Honestly, the surest way to attract legal business that I have found (and I have found very little business, of course, so take this with a large grain of salt) is to say that one is too busy to handle it.

I had to stay in the office a little longer than I'd planned. My wife called looking for me. "She's gone from 3 to 8," my wife told me. "They're going to break the bag." I have a vague, male understanding of what this jargon means. It means get the lead out, things are moving right along. I got moving as quickly as I could.

NEXT: The stork, and the Curmudgeon family, converge on Indianapolis.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The resiliency of nature -- expressway edition

Things are very busy for me at the moment. I expect to explain later but -- for now -- it being Earth Day and all, I thought I might recycle this post from September 2010 about humanity's relationship with Nature. It seems sort of appropriate, at least to me.

The three dead pigeons, lying close together on the shoulder of the expressway, didn't faze me, but I was curious. Were they poisoned? They were lying near a railroad overpass. Were they part of a group that was sitting on the tracks? Were these three too slow to move out of the way of an oncoming train?

I had to drive to work this morning and I couldn't help but notice Nature in the least natural of places, to wit, the inbound Kennedy Expressway.

It was the small patch of green in the pavement, no more than a couple of feet long and a few inches wide, erupting through the joint that separates the roadway from the shoulder, that got me thinking along these lines. It wasn't grass, but it was a ground cover of some sort and it was green. Really green.

From then on, I was looking. There were all sorts of spots were plants had taken root -- one plant here or there -- mostly scraggly looking, but alive. I'm no gardener, but these looked like weeds to me. A foot tall or more, some of them, with thin leaves and cone-shaped, purplish flowers on several. Most of these had sprouted underneath the concrete medians, concrete blocks four roughly feet tall that strongly discourage traffic moving one way from drifting into a lane moving in the opposite direction. So there is massive concrete sitting atop a concrete floor -- O wondrous the mighty works of Man -- and, yet, every 100 feet or so, sometimes less, sometimes more, there was another plant pushing through.

Thus, the dead possum on the Ohio feeder ramp, just entering the downtown area, came as no surprise. Why shouldn't there be wild animals (not just rats) anywhere at all? Nature bides her time with us, our human infestation. So many of us think we control her: So many of us believe we can plant mighty cities anywhere we choose, in swamps (like my Chicago) or deserts (Phoenix, Las Vegas). We believe Nature will conform meekly to our desires. Al Gore's disciples are more afraid of Nature, but still they think they -- we humans -- can control her. They think Nature will do our bidding if only we curb CO2 emissions.

But a trip into the City, through one of the least natural landscapes possible, shows that it's more complicated than that. Nature will do what she wants, when she wants, whether we like it or not. Whether we can survive it or not. We can fight, of course, but -- for the foreseeable future -- we must lose. Nature is far too strong. It's too bad we don't have a space program anymore. By our inaction, we have placed all our hopes, all our futures, at the mercy of an oft-capricious Nature. But anyone who has studied history and geology and paleontology, even casually, knows that Mother Nature can be one tough mother at times.

Of her own choosing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Solving public pension woes: Unleash the trial lawyers!

Illinois faces an enormous public pension problem. Pensions for firefighters, police officers, teachers, and government employees of all ranks and titles, state and local, are "underfunded" by billions of dollars. Our recent "temporary" state income tax hike will almost certainly become permanent (repeat after me: there is no such thing as a 'temporary' tax hike) but that won't solve the problem by itself. In Chicago, property taxes are almost certain to go up, possibly way up, to bring the local pension deficits into balance.

You already know that, right?

Now... let's think about this for a moment. How does something like this happen?

Every two weeks, when a public employee is paid, a certain amount is taken from his or her check for the pension fund. That money can add up, all by itself, to a significant sum.

In our many public corruption cases here in Illinois, for example, it has (finally) become fashionable to deny a public pension to a politician who has been convicted of impropriety in office. But the disgraced politician is eligible to have his or her pension contributions refunded. Years after former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was convicted on corruption charges, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled he was ineligible to keep even a portion of his public pension (the argument had been that Ryan was entitled to a pension for government service in positions where he wasn't charged with corruption). Ray Long and Michelle Manchir reported the story for the Chicago Tribune in February 2010:
[Ryan received pension payments of] $635,000 from Illinois taxpayers in the three-plus years between his retirement and his major political corruption conviction, a top pension official said. Ryan also got a refund of $235,500 when his pension was taken away -- the amount of personal contributions he made during his more than 30 years in public office.
Anyway, one part of the pension contribution comes from the public employee who hopes to some day receive the pension. When you hear teachers and firefighters and cops say, hey, we did what we were supposed to do, believe them. They contributed. They had no choice.

But there are two other components to the pension equation.

The public body is also supposed to make contributions to the appropriate pension fund and the rest of the money is supposed to come from the income earned by investments of these sums.

Public pension funds took a beating around the country when the banks torpedoed the economy and caused the Great Recession in 2007. Growth forecasts and investment projections proved just as overly optimistic in public pension funds as they did in your 401(k) at home.

In Illinois, however, the problem was greatly exacerbated by the fact that our dedicated public servants did not make the pension contributions required by law. To the extent that some of them may have thought about it at all, they bet that the bull market and the never-ending appreciation of real estate values would cover up their malfeasance and nonfeasance forever; meanwhile, they took the money that they were supposed to have invested for the future of public employees and put it into programs, grants, jobs for idiot relatives -- all the usual stuff that governments do. But this was money that should have been unavailable for any purpose but pension investment.

Worse, our public pension funds, unlike your 401(k) at home, were managed by the politicians, or more precisely by their friends and relations, and they invested liberally in other friends and relations with little regard to the safety or security of the bets they were making.

In a lengthy article for the November 18, 2010 Chicago Tribune, headlined "Pension bets not paying off; Public funds fall further behind after making risky investments," Jason Grotto wrote:
Trustees of Chicago's failing public pension funds have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into highly speculative investments that have not only failed to realize outsize returns but also saddled them with underperforming, long-term assets that can't be sold off, a Tribune investigation has found.

The investments, which involved buying equity stakes in businesses ranging from fast-food franchises in Mississippi to a Los Angeles grocery chain, were supposed to plug huge holes in pension fund coffers by yielding gains of up to 20 percent a year.

But a Tribune analysis of nearly 130 private equity and real estate investments made by four pension funds since 2000 found that nearly half have lost value so far. Of the $1.3 billion invested to date, the pension funds have seen just $60 million in added value on their balance sheets.

Had the funds used an equal amount to buy and hold a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond offered in 2000, they would have received $893 million in interest payments to date -- and their principal investments would be secure.

Trustees of the city's pension funds made these risky calls because they were hoping to make more than the modest returns offered by government bonds. For years, they have been under tremendous pressure to make up for city agencies' inadequate contributions to the funds, which promise retirement security to the city's public employees.
Among the beneficiaries of these investments was a real estate firm, co-founded by a nephew of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, Robert Vanecko, a brother of R.J. Vanecko, who recently pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter on charges arising from a late-night altercation on Rush Street. According to Grotto's article, City pension funds put $60 million in Vanecko's firm -- and lost $11 million. (The other co-founder of DV Urban Realty was lawyer and real estate developer Allison Davis, the man who gave a very young Barack Obama his first job after law school. In Chicago, everything is connected somehow.)

The politicians themselves are probably immune from suit for failing to do their legislative and executive duties, allocating public pension money for public pension funds.

That's a shame, although if I were an ambitious prosecutor, I'd be thinking about how I could make a criminal case of this astounding dereliction of duty.

But the losses accumulated by the pension funds may be another matter. You can't sue the fund that ruined your 401(k) because it made bad business decisions. In the Great Recession, thanks to the megabanks -- the "too big to fail" banks that We the People bailed out, for reasons I'll never understand -- there were a lot of bad decisions made. But the fund that tanked your 401(k) probably wasn't speculating in investments touted by the offspring of fund managers. A lot of public pensions apparently were. There can be liability for making unsound investments with inadequate disclosures of risks and conflicts.

If I were running the SEIU or another public union whose members are about to be shafted by this pension mess, I wouldn't limit my lawyering-up to only those who will challenge the constitutionality of the bills we've passed here purporting to trim increases for current pensioners and cut benefits going forward for employees still on the public payroll. I'd also be looking for lawyers who can sue the funds that invested the money, the recipients of those investments, and anybody else I could find who might help defray the costs of this debacle besides taxpayers like thee and me.

The unions might be a tad suspicious of the deep-pocketed, silk-stocking lawyers they'd need for this purpose, because these are usually deployed as management tools, trying (and generally succeeding, at least in the private sector) to minimize the union footprint on the American economy. But, if I were a public employee union executive today, I'd be shopping.

Actively. Unleash the trial lawyers!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Curmudgeon is reminded that he lives in the city

The ride to work is usually uneventful. I take the CTA Blue Line from O'Hare to the Loop. Granted, the outbound trip has been more exciting, particularly on one recent occasion....

But that's the exception, not the rule.

The Blue Line is generally pretty tame. There are occasional homeless people camping out in the train cars; there probably have been more than usual this winter, given the terrible weather we had. But even the bums on the Blue Line are generally a cut above the bums on other CTA lines. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I had to change to a Red Line train to get somewhere, probably a doctor's appointment. I notice that the car that stopped right in front om me seemed rather empty and I had just begun to congratulate myself on my good fortune when I stepped into the train and into a cloud of the most terrible stench I can recall ever smelling. There were three or four recumbent forms in the car, at various locations throughout. I couldn't tell which was the prime offender. There were a few ordinary commuters, like myself, sitting in the car, stony-faced, glassy-eyed, breathing as little as possible. I made it one stop before I bailed out, gulping lung-fulls of subway platform air as if I were suddenly transported to a springtime orchard in full bloom.

So, yes, some of our bums on the Blue Line may be a tad pungent, but never, ever anything to match that.

There was a sleeping bum on the train when I got on the other morning. I took my seat across the aisle and busied myself in the morning Sun-Times. The train filled up in the usual course. As is ordinarily the case, even when the train car was full and people began standing in the aisles, no one had sat next to the sleeping man.

Here's a tip for you travelers out there: If you want to get your own seat on the train, don't bathe or shave for at least a week. Make sure your clothes are filthy and that you are carrying a plastic bag or something similar that all and sundry will assume is the sum total of all your possessions on this earth. Make the occasional random noise, preferably in a low sing-song voice, and you should be able to keep a seat entirely to yourself all through the rush hour, no matter how crowded the train may get otherwise.

The operative word in the preceding sentence, however, is "should."

The other morning, a younger man, with tattoos covering all his visible skin (his face excepted), with long, greasy black hair and wearing an orange T-shirt, boarded the train and decided that he would sit next to our sleeping bum. The newcomer took the bum's plastic bag off the seat next to the seemingly sleeping bum and put it on the floor.

That woke the bum up.

He did not wake up in a cheerful mood. Indeed, he took offense that this younger man had moved his bag and he said so. Loudly.

The bum was older than the newcomer, but I wouldn't want to guess whether he was 30 or 40 or 50. Nobody looks their best when they've been drinking for a long time, and my guess would be that he'd been drinking as often as possible for a loooooong time. Still, he was bigger than the newcomer and, by waking up like that, he did have the element of surprise working for him.

The younger man was not fazed by the sudden revival of the bum. In fact, it soon became clear that he would not likely be fazed by much short of a shotgun blast, and only then at close range. I would be guessing were I to suggest what drugs he was taking, but his drug of choice was not alcohol; of that much I can be certain.

He therefore responded to the challenge from the bum in a belligerent manner, unapologetic about moving the bag. A lively debate thereafter ensued. An increasingly loud and lively debate.

I looked up from my newspaper and watched my fellow passengers carefully sneak peeks at the two disputants. They were calculating, as I was, just how likely this argument was to end badly. I would dare say that most people, even most persons impaired by drink or drugs, would have responded to the bum's challenge by mumbling an insincere apology and getting the hell out of there. But not our tattooed gentleman. Retreat was not in his vocabulary.

As the dispute escalated ("You got no right to move a man's stuff!" "You got no right to leave your stuff on the seat so people can't sit down!" I don't want you sitting down by me!), I found I could no longer pretend to read the newspaper. My fellow passengers had put away their screens as well. One young woman, deciding it might be more prudent to go stand over at the other end of the car, offered Mr. Tattoo her seat on her way out. A lot of the passengers immediately adjacent to these two began to move out of their seats. I followed. I didn't know whether either of these two had a weapon of some sort. I did know that I did not want to be collateral damage.

The train moved from the elevated Milwaukee tracks into the subway, approaching the Division Street station. The doors opened; the disputants stood up.


I don't know who swung first. I do know that almost all the passengers surged out the doors at this point, onto the platform. I was looking for the button to alert the motorman; there's one by one set of doors in every car, but it must have been the one closer to them than it was to safety. I wasn't going there. I got off the train with everybody else. Almost everybody else. The two combatants now had more room to flail at one another.

I found a button on a column on the station platform that is supposed to summon a station agent at the same time a young lady did.

And then I realized that not everyone had left the train besides the two guys fighting.

There's a Cook County Deputy Sheriff that gets on the train at my stop; I've seen him around for years. He's assigned to the Daley Center. Going on 10 years ago now, he used to be the courtroom deputy in a room that I was in every week without fail. Naturally, we've struck up a nodding acquaintance. I've never learned his name; he doesn't know mine either. I say, "Hey, how ya doin'?" and he says, "Hey, counsel."

He's not a young guy, and he's not tall or particularly muscular. If anything, he's a little pear-shaped. There is, or has been, a deputy on the 22nd floor at the Daley Center who has as many tattoos as the guy on the train, and this particular deputy has massive muscles. He's also a little mean, I think. (Steroids? Who knows?) When he shushes you in the hallway, you get the distinct impression he'd prefer that you didn't shush as requested so he could wail on you. Maybe even use his service revolver on you. Either as a club or according to manufacturer's directions depending on how much lip you wanted to give. But scary muscular deputy wasn't there. Deputy Howyadoin was. I don't want to guess how old he is. I'd say he's my age, but I'm terrible at guessing ages. Anyone from 40 to 70 seems to be my age these days. I'm pretty sure he's not 70, or even 60. But he's no kid.

Still, he was trained to intervene and he did. He waded in between the two of them, grabbing Tattoo Man from behind and pushing him away from the bum, all the while telling the bum to back off.

I'm still on the platform at this point. I know this because I remember seeing the CTA station agent running up, a slender young man armed only with a walkie-talkie, stopping right next to me. Oh, good, I thought, that'll be a big help. He was talking into the radio. "...two men fighting... African-American and Hispanic males... there's a Cook County Deputy Sheriff trying to break it up...."

I marveled a little at that. Chicago police and Cook County Sheriff's deputies may travel in uniform, but they generally wear baseball jerseys over them. So, unless you already know, you really can't tell. The young man on the walkie-talkie was more perceptive than I at first thought. Still, I wished he was two or three rather burly cops, in uniform, with billy clubs. But, alas.

Deputy Howyadoin seemed to be having some success in getting the two separated. He got Tattoo Man to sit down, a couple of rows away. The bum, meanwhile, was still on his feet, rockin' and ready for more, and making no secret of his desire in this regard. A couple of younger African-American men tried -- very gingerly -- to walk the bum back from the situation, but it didn't look or feel resolved.

I got back on the train. I had no idea of what I was going to do, or how. It's just -- well, I know this guy, sort of, and if things reignited, I felt I should try to do something.

It happened quickly. Tattoo Man was back on his feet facing the bum, barking at him. The bum had never left his feet and he was barking right back. The deputy was trying to move Tattoo Man back again; the Good Samaritans were trying to move back the bum.

Now, again, the way it works in all the best movies is that the two combatants, or one of them at least, lets himself get pushed away, barking all the while so it doesn't look like he's backing down, but allowing himself to be maneuvered to a safe distance. Bob Hope used to do this to great comic effect. But that wasn't happening here. Both guys were being pushed, but both were resisting. And, just like that --


The bum got off a good one almost right away, pushing Tattoo Man into a window -- and breaking it (it's safety glass, so it did not shatter but merely spidered, but still, these guys were not playing) and I was still ineffectually trying to figure out what I could or should do that might help and -- suddenly -- it was all over.

The bum took off.

Maybe honor had somehow been satisfied when he nearly pushed the punk Tattoo Man through the window. Maybe the bum thought that, now that there was significant property damage, he did not want to face the police. Maybe he'd been doing a silent countdown in his head right along, calculating the time he had before the police might arrive. Whatever, he suddenly departed for greener pastures. Deputy Howyadoin got Tattoo Man (who to all appearances was entirely uninjured despite the collision with the window) to sit down again. The passengers got back on the train and we resumed our trip to the Loop.

Now it was Tattoo Man who had a seat to himself. And the seat in front of him and behind him, too. No one wanted to set him off again.

Tattoo Man decided to get off at Clark and Lake. I thought he might barrel through the people in front of him when the doors opened. I think they thought so too; they moved with some alacrity just as soon as the doors parted.

Deputy Howyadoin and I got off at Washington, at the Daley Center. I made it a point to engage him a little in conversation as we trudged with the rest of the commuting hoard down the platform. "Heck of a morning," I offered lamely. "Not the best way to start the day," he acknowledged. "Thank you," I said. I probably said some other stuff, too, and so did he. But "thank you" was the important bit, I think.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The perils of having an opinion: No one may disagree with today's orthodoxy -- even yesterday

I use Firefox as a browser but, frankly, I'd never heard of Brendan Eich, until recently the CEO of Mozilla, the company that created Firefox.

And I was actually doing some legal work last week (it comes in fits and starts) so I hadn't really been closely following the news. But I noticed a lot of churning and angst in my Facebook news feed, from generally serious persons, many of them lawyers, about boycotting Mozilla and Firefox because of an opinion expressed by Brendan Eich.

Then Mr. Eich fell on his sword, or pulled the rip-chord on his golden parachute, resigning as Mozilla CEO, and peace and harmony were restored in my Facebook newsfeed soon thereafter. I guess I can use Firefox again, wrote one lawyer.

I wondered what unspeakable opinion had led to Mr. Eich's downfall. Had he expressed a fondness for Adolf Hitler? Had he come out foursquare in favor of legalizing child pornography? Well, he was a CEO -- maybe, I thought, he wanted to eliminate all taxes on successful people, something to give those of us rooting about in the gutters some 'incentive' to succeed. Maybe he was promoting cannibalism as a solution to world hunger.

I figured it had to be something truly awful for him to lose his job and stir up such a hornets' nest that it even reached my isolated corner of the social media world.

It turns out, however, that Mr. Eich's fatal offense was contributing $1,000 in 2008 to support California's Proposition 8 -- which would have banned gay marriage.

This was a ballot initiative that was so outrageous, so extreme, so radical that, of course, it actually succeeded at the polls.

Wait. What?

Yes, a majority of California voters agreed with Mr. Eich -- in 2008 -- that gay marriage wasn't marriage. The courts invalidated the election results, as you know, and now the social media has pushed Mr. Eich out of his job, with a company that he helped to found, because of a perfectly acceptable position that he then held.

There is, according to some polls today, a majority coalescing around the idea that gay marriage is marriage after all. Since 2008 gay marriage has been legalized in several states, including my own state of Illinois.

But in 2008, that was definitely not the case, in California or elsewhere around the United States. Mr. Eich and Barack Obama were on the exact same side of the issue -- in 2008. I was on their side then, too.

I still don't think that marriage should be redefined as many courts and the legislatures of several states are redefining it. I also recognize that I am losing the argument.

I see the problem as linguistic. I don't have a problem with the law recognizing a union between same-sex couples that is accorded the exact same dignities and privileges as what we used to call marriage. I continue to believe, as I have for a decade or so (as far as I can recall it was around 10 years ago that I first had occasion to think about the issue), that the state would be better off getting out of the "marriage" business entirely, leaving the question of what is, or is not, a marriage to the churches, but requiring the separate civil registration of all unions between consenting adults, whether recognized by churches as marriages or not. The civil registration would be determinative for all tax, inheritance, pension and other benefits questions.

I don't mean to trivialize what some have characterized as the great civil rights issue of our time, but I see the issue as this: Civil Marriage and Religious Marriage are getting a divorce and are having a very public custody battle over the right to the use of the name Marriage.

I have no problem with gay couples living together and raising families and being accorded full legal rights as domestic partners, just as I and my Long Suffering Spouse have been domestic partners now for almost 32 years. I'm not threatened, I'm not worried, I'm not scared. I wish all couples, gay and straight, joy and happiness and long lives together. I do not, however, see why my objection to calling the arrangement between gay partners a "marriage" makes me a hater.

Which means, of course, that I can never be the CEO of Mozilla. It also means that no one is ever safe expressing an opinion, even a popular one, lest it become unpopular with the passage of time. Isn't that sad?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Time to reset the sidebar again -- baseball edition

Well, I've always been a recycling enthusiast. When you have a long running blog, why not collect and recycle some pieces that may be of interest to persons who have not been following me for since I started this blog in December 2005?

Chances are, the way people drift in and out of my blogging world, most of you who happen on this post will not have read most, if any, these baseball-themed posts, which are now added to the blog sidebar as well. Submitted for your approval:

A travel baseball parent defends his -- and his kids' -- experiences

Bee will be mad at me for doing a number of sports-themed posts in a row, but I was inspired this morning by Lenore Skenazy's post on Free Range Kids, Your Child is NOT Going to Play in the Pros. She provides an excerpt from a longer piece by an Indianapolis ER doctor, Louis M. Profeta, that appeared Monday on DGIWire.

If you just read the Free Range Kids post, you'd think that Dr. Profeta was hostile to all organized sports, especially travel teams. It's really not the case; Ms. Skenazy let her own biases come through in her editing. She has a distinct point of view and -- for any younger parents that might be happening by -- if you're not looking in on her occasionally, you should. She's a breath of fresh air and common sense in an increasingly fearful world.

On the issue of travel teams being generally bad (her apparent view, not necessarily Dr. Profeta's), however, I must respectfully dissent. Links in this introduction will take you to both Ms. Skenazy's post and Dr. Profeta's original article. What follows started as a comment I left on Skenazy's post this morning.

The good doctor is right on one thing: Injuries will probably prevent most kids, even talented ones, from ever being pro athletes. The people who make it to the pros have a special combination of talent, determination and durability that most kids don't.

Lenore, two of my three boys played travel baseball. We didn't know it existed before my oldest boy tried out for his high school team. He made the team, but he came home from tryouts insistent that his brother find a travel squad. My oldest son played baseball through high school. His younger brothers pitched in college (the youngest is still in school). They both played Division III ball. It was not the big time. My middle son didn't get any interest from the pros (though he was the ace of his staff, and a lefty, his back gave out in the course of his senior season and he was ready to retire). My youngest boy probably will never see a pro contract at any level either, but he wants to teach and coach. His experience will help him get a job in his chosen field. My middle son got a job from baseball, too -- as an accountant -- because one of the players on his college team had a father who worked for an accounting firm and got both my son and his into jobs there. My son would never have had this connection without sports.

Along the way we've seen one kid from our park league make the majors (well, sort of, he's a Cub) -- and that kid left the house league early for travel ball. My middle son played with a kid who got drafted by the Nationals but never made it out of A ball because of, you guessed it, injury. My son also struck out a kid (twice) in high school who's now the starting second baseman for the Cleveland Indians.

You know what? We didn't do it from fear; we did it because we liked baseball (still do) and because the kids wanted to do it.

I coached in the park league when my youngest was little (before we thought it was time to find a travel squad -- although there are some travel teams for toddlers out there). I was the worst coach in the history of what I call Bluejay Park. But six kids on my last team made their freshman teams at various area high schools, including my son -- and baseball is a cut sport. So they didn't burn out. They had enough fun to want to keep playing.

The park, or house, leagues are supposed to be recreational -- less competitive. But every parent thinks their kid is a surefire Hall of Famer when they start playing T-ball -- and then they get discouraged quickly when the kids don't know where to run, how to catch or how to hit. By the time the kids can actually play something resembling baseball, a lot of the parents aren't coming out any more. It's a shame, too, because those games can be a lot of fun to watch.

Of course, sometimes the joy of watching is tempered by the fact that some of those in attendance are entirely crazy, and some of the coaches are the worst. I remember one game when my oldest son was playing -- he still played in the park during summers during high school because he never got on a travel team -- and the coach from the Colt team from the next park over was threatening to kill the umpire and anyone who tried to stop him. I live in a part of Chicago where many of my neighbors are policemen. I watched a few of them checking their service weapons in case things got really ugly. Someone eventually walked the belligerent coach back to his car (the coach was an off-duty cop, too) talking to him about his pension and how this game wasn't worth risking it.

I never saw anything comparable at a travel game. Ever. The parents were generally nice, often knowledgeable (OK, Youngest Son played on a team where the parents were still learning), and I think most of the kids -- not just mine -- did it for fun. For the love of the game.

I think my kids are better for the experience; they deal with authority better, they are less afraid in social settings than I'll ever be. And I include my girls in this, too, at least to an extent -- even though neither played baseball for more than a few years.

Monday, April 07, 2014

A toddler, a cracker, a lawn chair and an unexpected encounter at a baseball game

OK, so last week you got Curmudgeon the outraged father, demanding that all schools of education be closed, railing not just against schools of education generally, but in particular railing against the poor, benighted education department at South Janesville College, the fake name I made up for the very real school that Youngest Son attends.

I got very little work done Thursday or Friday as I talked frequently to my son, wrote carefully worded letters to his coach and to the financial aid department, and generally tried to keep Long Suffering Spouse from going up there and raising holy heck with Youngest Son's professors.

We had to go up there on Saturday anyway.

Youngest Son was pitching.

Given the weather we've been having, Saturday wasn't entirely terrible: Crisp but sunny, easily 55 degrees. There was a breeze that wasn't quite a wind chill. In full sunlight it felt almost not-cold. Almost.

I wore my down coat, of course, over a wool sweater and a flannel shirt, with scarf and gloves and a hat with ear flaps. Long Suffering Spouse wore the lighter of her two winter coats (but we brought the heavier one just in case) with scarf and stocking hat. She brought blankets, too. And we always bring lawn chairs.

At South Janesville college there are a set of bleachers on the home side of the dugout; we've never sat there. We set up our chairs on the other side of the dugout, past the adjacent bullpen. If I actually sat in the chair, I'd not be able to see the players from the shoulders on up; there's a big found yellow guard that runs atop the chain-link fence. This prevents a clear view of the field, but it's great for leaning on, if you pace to the fence, and away from it, and back and forth as the game situation and pitch count dictates. The kid may be doing all the work out on the mound, but I'm fretting enough for both of us.

For you younger parents, or those who never had a kid in sports, trust me when I tell you, it was ever thus. I can go with you to a park of your own choosing, anywhere in the United States where a baseball game is being played, and I can spot the pitchers' parents. They're the ones who are writhing in pain or pacing fitfully or wringing their hands. As parents, we want our kid to do well -- but there's not one darned thing we can do to help when he's out on the mound. So we worry.

That's one reason why we don't sit in the bleachers with the other parents and girlfriends and other fans.

Another reason is that the stands are too close to the umpires.

Now -- again for you younger parents -- you will never help your kid by screaming at the umpire, even when his strike zone is consistently inconsistent.

And coaches will bench a kid sometimes just because the kid's parents get on the umpire's case. It can hurt the team to get the ump mad.

So I never, ever yell at the ump. But sometimes I can't help an involuntary sharp intake of air, or a sigh, or even a moan when a good pitch isn't called for a strike. Umpires have rabbit ears; they can hear stuff like that if you're too close to the plate. And they won't like it. So I like being down the line a bit.

If you could promise me that the kid would do well, maybe I could sit with the others. But if he struggled and if, heaven forbid, someone should get on him a bit, I might have difficulty in not responding. I would never yell at another kid on our team -- but if someone made a bonehead play or dropped an easy fly ball or uncorked a wild throw in the infield I might have that sharp intake of breath, or sigh, or moan -- all involuntarily -- and that kid's parents wouldn't like that either. And I don't blame them.

So that's why Long Suffering Spouse and I keep to ourselves at the games.

Actually, Youngest Son has had a very good spring. He came into Saturday's game with an ERA under 2.0 and a winning record. He's established himself as the number two starting pitcher on the staff. That's pretty good for a junior.

But Youngest Son also had a horrible week. His graduation plans were dashed, the education department pulled a surprise evaluation on him, and he's running a class of pledges at his fraternity and the initiation is almost upon him. The kid had to keep his cool with his professors and keep his outraged parents under control.

I was a little concerned about how he might fare. Could he shut out all these distractions and focus on his game?

He got into some trouble in the first, giving up three runs -- more in that inning than he'd given up all year so far. When he came out for the second I mentioned to Long Suffering Spouse that, if he didn't have a shutdown inning, he was going to have a tough afternoon. Long Suffering Spouse was talking by then with Youngest Son's girlfriend. She came over from the bleachers to say hello. That's pretty brave, don't you think?

If Youngest Son was in any way concerned about his girlfriend socializing with his parents he did not show it. He had his shutdown inning. He had righted the ship. He'd pushed the stress of the week outside the lines.

People wander around at these games. Parents, kids, students, neighborhood people. The women's softball game was going on the next field over and there'd been a lacrosse game over on the football field earlier. So I don't mean to say that Long Suffering Spouse and I were entirely alone. There was another man in a folding chair a little further down the left field line. He looked pretty young for a player's dad, but I think he was.

So, anyway, it was no surprise that, at some point, a toddler wandered over, clutching a cracker, now dropping it, now picking it up and sticking it right back in her mouth.

Her anxious father was close behind. He was a young man, bearded, perhaps the age of Older Daughter. My grandfather instincts kicked right in. As the little girl picked up the cracker I called over to the father, "It probably tastes better that way."

"It's an organic cracker," the father responded. "Now it's a little more so."

The little girl reminded Long Suffering Spouse and me of our own granddaughter -- she was a little thinner, perhaps, but nearly as a tall. She was a month or two older than our granddaughter and so had a couple of actual words down pat. "No," for example.

Somehow that's just about the first real word kids learn. Mama, perhaps Dada, and then "no!"

The toddler thought our lawn chairs were the most interesting things she'd ever seen. One was a table for her cracker first. Then she decided she'd like to sit in it. The father was apologetic, but we egged the kid on. Made a fuss. Cooed at her. Made faces. She was interested in our sunglasses; her father wasn't wearing any.

Both benches were lively during the game. When the other pitcher was having trouble finding the strike zone (even the umpire didn't know where it was for most of the afternoon, truth be told) our bench whooped and hollered. Their bench whooped and hollered right back when Youngest Son went back on the hill. "You see?" the father told his daughter. "Boys are crazy. Stay away from them."

Well, of course Long Suffering Spouse and I played along with that, too.

But I had to watch the game, too, and occasionally have those sharp intakes of breath, or sighs, or moans. The father asked which one of the boys was ours. The pitcher, I told him. "Oh," said the toddler's father, "he's one of my students." He stuck out his hand to introduce himself more formally.

Yes, you guessed it. This nice young man with the cute toddler was one of the education professors who turned down my son's petition to student teach in the fall.

I took his hand, of course, and tried not to blanch visibly. My wife and I had one of those moments of telepathic contact that sometimes occur with long-married couples: We somehow both resolved not to bring up our son's issues right then and there. I wanted to -- I wanted to haul off and belt the guy once I knew who he was -- but I just couldn't justify that after the amiable manner in which we'd been conversing to that point.

Our conversation continued, but we were wary now. He realized that my wife was grading papers (she's always grading papers) and asked if she also taught high school. "Elementary," my wife said, after just the briefest pause. She didn't want to say that she taught at a Catholic school in case this professor was anti-Catholic as so many at the very secular South Janesville College seem to be. And she didn't want to say junior high either, lest it trigger a discussion of the education department's sua sponte consideration -- and rejection -- of a proposal to let Youngest Son student teach in junior high next fall instead of high school.

Youngest Son looked over at us at some point and saw with whom we were speaking. "I almost lost it right there," he told us later. I promise, I told him, we did not talk business. This professor must still grade Youngest Son; Youngest Son was concerned that we might say something sufficient to goad the professor into dropping his grade. But we stayed mum. Honest.

In the end, it was the toddler that brought us together; it was the toddler who decided it was time to part. She had tired of the chair. She wanted new excitement elsewhere. Her father had no choice but to comply. We were relieved to see him go.

Seriously, though. What else could we have done? Should we have raised our issues? I could have tried to be polite -- I can be, at least for short spurts when it's really, really important. Or were we wise to not inject those issues into what had been a relaxed social encounter?

The good news is that South Janesville came back to win the game; Youngest Son went eight innings and got the win. But, for now at least, he still must expect to do his student teaching in his ninth college semester.


Thursday, April 03, 2014

All "schools" of education should be closed -- immediately and permanently

My wife is a Spanish teacher, and a good one. Her students go on to success in high school, which surely is the only true measure of success for a junior high teacher, isn't it? Many of her students place out of Spanish I in high school; the ones who don't routinely report that they cruise through the introductory high school Spanish course, almost all getting A's. In other words, they were well-prepared.

Youngest Son wants to be a teacher. He's playing baseball at South Janesville College (the name I made up for his actual school) and majoring in history and education. He is one course shy of completing his history major. He wants to student teach in the fall of his senior year.

After he started school -- after he took C's in a couple of introductory education courses -- the education department at SJC decided to impose a 3.0 GPA requirement for student teaching. Youngest Son is a few tenths of a point short, although he has better than a B average in his history major. He was not grandfathered in. Yesterday, the education department allegedly considered his petition to student teach next fall -- as a senior. They turned him down. On the most bogus pretext, too: He "has a ways to go" he was told "in disciplinary content." Really? He's already passed the certification content exam for history and (remember?) he has exactly one course left to complete his history degree. And the kid is still a junior.

Now I will grant you that Youngest Son is no Einstein. He's a kid, like most kids, meaning that, when he's interested and engaged he does fine and when things are dull and boring he tunes out. He was apparently indifferent (that's a polite word, isn't it?) in several of his classes freshman year. He passed everything -- that much I know, since he was invited back. But, of course, thanks to Federal privacy laws I haven't seen one of his report cards -- ever. He's the fifth of our brood to go to college; I've never seen one report card from any of them. I got tired of asking the kids -- they'd tell me this grade was posted, or that one, but nothing beyond that. And I could never actually get to the site where the grades were allegedly posted. I needed a password that the kids always neglected to give me. Privacy, you know. Somehow, though, privacy laws do not extend to tuition bills. Colleges send those to me.

Among the courses in which Younger Son floundered as a freshman were his introductory education courses. He was very discouraged. "Education classes are terrible," my wife -- the good teacher -- agreed. "They're pointless. But you have to get through them to get to the methods classes. That's when you find out whether you're cut out for teaching."

For those who may not know, "methods" classes involve getting up in front of a class and presenting lessons. Some folks have a knack for it -- my wife does, for example, and, judging by the glowing responses he's gotten so far, Youngest Son may have the knack as well.

And Youngest Son has grown up some in college, just like he's supposed to. He has his eyes on the future now, and he wants to graduate on time.

But "education" departments don't let kids graduate on time.

I'm not talking just about South Janesville College. Middle Son and Younger Daughter went to different schools in the Chicago area, both of these traditional teachers' colleges. Neither of them is a teacher -- Younger Daughter flirted with the idea for a semester until she took an introductory education course and was so repulsed she abandoned the notion -- but both of them have many friends who did pursue teaching degrees.

And they all got saddled with an extra semester. A ninth semester. Education majors 'walk' with their classmates at graduation -- but a lot of them don't get their diplomas until they return to student teach. Because education departments don't let many of their majors student teach until after they are supposed to have graduated.

And, of course, student teachers aren't really on campus -- and certainly not frequently. They teach in schools and their colleges get extra tuition.

This is a scam, a sin, a crime and a shame.

And -- pardon me -- but there are too many lazy, incompetent, stupid teachers out there for any education department at any school to claim that it is doing a good job.

Think of your own education. How many truly good, memorable teachers did you have? One? Two? I was lucky -- I can think of a half dozen without stretching -- including one teacher who saw promise in a tall, skinny kid who absolutely deserved the D he received in his introductory high school science class. That teacher decided I was bored, not stupid, and recommended me for the honors course in Chemistry and Physics (yes, I was the D student). Wonder of wonders, the teacher's recommendation was accepted and I started getting A's and B's. In the honors courses.

How about your kids? How many really good teachers have they had? How many times have your kids come back to you and said something like, "Thank goodness for Mrs. Smith! Without the foundation she provided, I never would have passed Trigonometry!"

We spend boatloads of money on public schools -- many of which are terrible, so terrible that responsible parents sacrifice their futures to send their kids to private schools. That are somewhat better. Sort of. Sometimes. (The 'best' schools in Chicago right now are probably a handful of public high schools -- e.g., North Side College Prep, Walter Payton College Prep, Jones College Prep, Whitney Young Magnet School -- but it's easier to bring explosives into the White House than it is to gain admission to one of these schools. They are that competitive.) But, on average, for normal people, people without über-clout, private schools are better in the City of Chicago -- and many Chicago suburbs -- than the publicly funded ones.

There are societal reasons that explain why so many schools fail, of course: Hunger, poverty, drugs, crime. But the poverty-stricken drug addicts of today were yesterday's public school students. Parents, or the lack thereof, may be the single most important factor in shaping the next generation (I think so, certainly) but teachers contribute to the success and failure of our offspring as well.

Meanwhile, American test scores are in free fall (professional educators' "solution"? eliminate testing!). American kids place well down the lists of achievement in math and science. In Europe, kids speak two and three languages without working up a sweat. But our kids are getting dumber here at home.

Years ago, my parents gave me a reprinted set of McGuffey Readers -- stuff they used to use to teach little kids. Compare these to the watered-down pap given to our little kids today. It's embarrassing.

No -- the problem with schools is not money. Money is being spent, but not wisely.

Let's get smart.

To begin with, let's close all the education departments and schools of education.

If someone wants to teach math, let him or her first become a mathematician. Then let him or her apprentice to a math teacher for a term -- a semester, perhaps. If he or she likes teaching, and if the kids prosper, and the senior teacher agrees -- voila! he or she is a math teacher. Oh sure, there will be many slugs and parasites that will have to age out of the school system; we can't fire them all. But even observing slugs and parasites has value: One learns what not to do. Maybe we'd need two or three terms, apprenticed to different senior teachers, to fairly evaluate a candidate's potential. But these apprentices should be paid -- not at a full teacher's pay, perhaps, but maybe half-pay. Because teaching is a knack, a skill -- a talent -- not a set of equations or theorems that can be reduced to writing and taught to any stiff off the street.

Long Suffering Spouse is encouraging Youngest Son to stick it out and suck it up and get certified. His baseball coach gave him the same advice. Get past these parasites and get the credential so you can get a job. I hope he will. I think he will. But no thanks at all to the 'education' department.

Tear it down.

Tear them all down.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How Warren Buffett proved that time travel will not exist for the foreseeable future

Mr. Buffett
Even those who don't follow sports will recall that Warren Buffett teamed with Quicken Loans to offer a billion dollars (that's billion with a "b") to anyone who could accurately predict the outcome of each and every game in this year's NCAA tournament.

Oh, sure, most people have office pools -- the winners in these may have two or three of the Final Four pegged accurately -- but Mr. Buffet's contest required entrants to correctly forecast the outcome of every game -- predict every single upset -- and identify all the winners. Mathematicians calculated odds of anywhere from 1 in a billion to something like 9.2 quintillion to 1 against -- and you had better believe all those smarty-pants mathematicians heaved a sigh of relief when the last perfect bracket was eliminated just days after the tournament began (Mercer's upset of Duke wiped out most entries).

But what does this have to do with time travel?

Think about it. Here's this immensely rich guy who made arrangements to have a billion dollars available (no, he wasn't really going to write a personal check -- you don't get to be the Oracle of Omaha by doing stupid stuff). Actually, Buffett was going to use one of his insurance companies to insure the billion and he probably had Quicken Loans, his co-sponsor, pay the premium, estimated by some at $15 million. You can probably guarantee Buffett made a profit on this deal. That's how you get to be an Oracle. Or Wizard. I hear tell he's been called both.

Anyway, Buffett's announcement makes huge news -- the Intertubes are ablaze with the billion dollar bet -- it's a PR stunt that will long be remembered... you know, well into the future?

And yet, not one of my great-great-great grandkids showed up with a cheat sheet for me to use as an entry.

In fact, nobody's did. Because if somebody's great-great-great grandson or daughter showed up with the perfect bracket, Buffett and his fellow investors would, at this point, be getting just a wee bit concerned about having to make good on the bet.

And you can imagine our little time traveler passing out investment advice after the billion is paid out, too, feathering his or her nest for a very comfortable future.

Now, this doesn't prove that time travel is impossible any more than travel into outer space proves there's no Heaven. Warren Buffett, for all his wealth and fame now, will presumably be largely forgotten in time -- it may take centuries before he is unfamiliar to historians specializing in 21st Century America, but it probably will will happen. Therefore, what this proves is that time travel will not be invented while this March Madness bet is still remembered. Time travel might be invented after Warren Buffett has faded from the footnotes of history so that no one knows what a golden opportunity the inventors of the time machine missed by not looking up their old ancestors.

Alternatively, I suppose, it could indicate that, in the future, our descendants won't care so much about money.

But that seems about as likely as correctly predicting the outcome of each and every NCAA tournament game.