Friday, May 20, 2022

Hate is not a mental illness? It sure as heck is not a sign of mental health

This poster is popping up all over my Facebook feed the last couple of days. The logo on the poster suggests that it was put out by Mental Health America, an orginazation that is, according to its website, "the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the overall mental health of all."

And, from what I can see, everyone who has posted it garners lots of "likes" and even "loves." Comments to these posts tend to be of the "Amen" variety.

But I'm really not so sure.

I completely and totally agree that "mental illness" can never be a justification for the murder of innocent grocery shoppers, such as happened in Buffalo this past Saturday. It is certainly not any sort of excuse.

Legally, it may be a defense to the crimes for which the shooter now stands charged. But I have no opinion on the viability of the insanity defense in this case. Anyway, whether or not the Buffalo shooter is legally insane probably just bears on the question of where the shooter spends the rest of his life, whether in a mental institution or a jail.

But hate is not a mental illness? Before last weekend's massacre, the Buffalo shooter apparently posted rambling screeds online, spewing hatred of Blacks, of Jews, of large corporations. Surely irrational hatred of various groups is not normal. Surely we have not yet sunk that low.

And -- even if you are one of those who thinks that those with whom you disagree -- you know, the other half of the country? -- are motivated by irrational, unfounded group hatreds -- even you must admit that most of these -- the vast majority of these -- do not act on their irrational racist beliefs by acquiring semi-automatic weapons and body armor and searching for and shooting up a 'soft target' like a grocery store.

The unreasoning, unyielding hatred of persons for merely being born Black -- or Jewish -- or Taiwanese (the victims in a California church shooting last Sunday) -- is not normal. It's not healthy. It may not itself be a mental illness.

But it sure is a symptom.

In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, Lt. Cable sings "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," a song that argues racial and ethnic hatreds are not hard-wired in children, but have to be learned. Someone has to teach a child to hate.

I don't pretend to know where the Buffalo shooter learned to hate as he did. But I can be pretty sure it was not an official part of his school curriculum growing up. I am equally sure that there are dark corners of the Internet, equally accessible to you and me as well as the Buffalo shooter, in which all manner of hatreds can be sampled. But why does it take such deep root, and produce such lethal fruit, in the case of the Buffalo shooter, when so many of us can ignore and dismiss it for the garbage it is?

Hate may not be mental illness, no more than a skin rash is chickenpox. But that rash may suggest the presence of chickenpox, and unreasoning hatreds may likewise suggest the presence of mental illness.

The alternative is too chilling to contemplate.

Monday, May 16, 2022

When a play camcorder is not a play camcorder

Those of you old enough to find this site on your own will no doubt recognize the object pictured above as a toy camcorder, complete with a toy cassette.

This was not one of my kids' toys when they were growing up; at least, I don't remember it. I suspect it came from the Abuela Collection: When she passed we brought over a lot of the toys she had available in her rec room for visiting grandkids and great-grandkids.

Whatever its true provenance, the object is a favorite among my younger grandkids.

But it isn't always a camcorder. Which is understandable, inasmuch as none of them have actually seen a real camcorder. I suppose it's remarkable that some of them recognize that it is some sort of camera at all -- usually more like a Polaroid than a camcorder, though: One of the kids will take my picture by pressing the big yellow button that opens the cassette door and, voila, there is my picture. (I don't really look that much like Cookie Monster, but I always agree that it is a good likeness.)

The other day, my three-year old granddaughter (Grandchild No. 8) decided that this object was not any sort of camera... but that gets ahead of the story.

Let me back up, just a bit.

Middle Son and his wife Margaret have been over quite a bit recently, which is nice.

But the reason for the increased frequency of their visits is not so nice. At least, not so nice for Long Suffering Spouse and me.

Margaret has accepted a transfer to Detroit. She works for one of the Big 4 accounting firms. In my day, it was the Big 8. I remember when it was the Big 6, too. But, as I understand it, it's down to four now.

Anyway, she's in line to be a partner in the firm -- but there is no partnership slot available for her in her tax specialty in the Chicago office. There are opportunities in San Francisco, Miami, and Detroit. Middle Son and Margaret, both CPAs, promptly vetoed San Franciso (no one was offering a $5 million housing allowing, they explained, and they'd need at least that much to purchase a home similar to their far less pricey home just in the next parish). I might have considered Miami for a bit, if I were in their shoes, but they claimed to be uninterested in that possibility, too. They have no connections there.

But Detroit was another story. Margaret grew up in Michigan, not far from Detroit, and she has lots of family in the area. And Middle Son initially had visions of getting a gigantic house in the Detroit area with the proceeds of the sale of his Chicago-area home.

And then he started looking.

Yes, there are now working farms in Detroit, but housing costs in the more desireable suburbs are at least comparable to anything around here.

Now that their house is up for sale, they have noticed it is better to be away from the premises when it is shown -- and they find it is much easier to keep the house ready to be shown if they keep their three children (4-year old Grandchild No. 5, one-year old Grandchild No. 10, and the aforementioned 3-year old, Grandchild No. 8) out of the house as much as possible.

So we're seeing a lot of them, these days, and we are doing our best to be grown-up about it, and supportive, and encouraging, and helpful... even though it also makes us very sad.

Middle Son was not here on this particular visit a week or so ago; he's working on an MBA now, too, and he was doing something in connection with that. (What's that list of most-stressful life events again? I think he's got most of them currently ongoing.)

But Margaret and Long Suffering Spouse were conversing in the living room. Grandchild No. 10 was clinging to his mother. We'll refer to her as Mom now, for the duration. Grandchild No. 5 had some toys in which she was very engaged. Grandchild No. 8 seemed likewise engaged, I thought, as I surveyed the peaceful domestic scene from the comfort of a recliner.

I must have looked too comfortable for Grandchild No. 8's tastes. Perhaps she thought I might doze off. (I do that, now and then.) In any event, Grandchild No. 8 announced that she was going grocery shopping and, moreover, I would go with her.

I suggested that we would drive -- I was already seated, of course -- but this suggestion was rejected.

No, Grandchild No. 8 announced, we will go to the grocery store and, wherever that might be, it was not in the living room. I got up as ordered.

Grandchild No. 8 has a very vivid imagination. My only question about her is which is better -- her imagination or her vocabulary? When she starts imagining things, she tends to supply all the dialog -- hers and anyone else who participates. And she does not always appreciate improvisation: If she has given me a line, I must recite it as directed.

So she took my hand and started leading me around the house. The grocery store was not in the dining room. It was not in the old den either. But, as we went into the new den, and she saw the Sesame Street camcorder sitting on the kitchen table there, she announced that we had arrived.

The Sesame Street camcorder turned out to be an apple dispenser -- her words -- did I mention she has a great vocabulary? -- and it turned out we needed an apple.

But how to make it dispense apples? Grandchild No. 8 -- who knows perfectly well what button to push to open the cassette door -- insisted on pushing every other button first. "How are we going to get our apple from this dispenser?" she asked with every successive button-push.

Let's try the green one, she said. No, not that one.

Let's try the blue one. No, not that one either....

Finally, having exhausted all other options, she pressed the big yellow button. The cassette door opened -- and out popped the apple.

Hooray! We have our apple!

Now you may think that our apple looked suspiciously like a Cookie Monster videotape. But you are not 3-years old. That was an apple, right enough.

Well, I inquired hopefully, now that we have gotten our apple, shouldn't we go back to the living room and tell Mom and Grammy about our shopping trip? (And, maybe, allow Grampy to take his place again in the recliner?)

Grandchild No. 8 saw right through that one.

No, she said. We have more groceries to get. We need an orange.

"Where will we go for that?" I asked, mostly because I, too, am not 3-years old and don't remember how these things work.

Grandchild No. 8 popped the cassette back in the camcorder. The camcorder/apple dispenser at once became a camcorder/orange dispenser.

And, funny thing, as smart as this child is, she could not remember which button to push to get the orange out! We went through each button again, one by one, before -- finally -- on the last possible try -- the orange popped out.

Said orange did bear an uncanny resemblance to the apple we'd so recently acquired but, it turns out, there was a crucial difference: This orange could fly! And it started flying away immediately.

What could we do but chase it?

We chased it into the kitchen, but it was too fast for us. We chased it into the dining room but we could not catch it. We chased it into the living room where Mom and Grammy looked up from their conversation to inquire what the heck we were doing. I explained as best I could -- but there was no time to dawdle. We had to catch that orange before it got out the front door.

And we did. We wrestled that runaway orange back to earth on the landing going upstairs. What an exhausting grocery trip! I was now standing next to the recliner and I could hear it call my name -- but Grandchild No. 8 said we were not yet done shopping. We needed a banana.

And back we went to the camcorder/banana dispenser.

Once again, we had to press every single button except the one that would give us our banana. I challenged Grandchild No. 8 about this, pointing out that she has a tremendous memory and surely she could remember which button to push without trying all the wrong ones first.

But that was one of those improvisations of which Grandchild No. 8 does not approve. We kept pushing buttons.

Let's try the green one, she said again. No, not that one.

Let's try the blue one. No, not that one either....

Finally, on the last possible try, the banana popped out! Hooray!

Admittedly, this banana looked exactly like the orange and the apple but -- what was more important -- this banana behaved just like our wayward orange: It flew away making a beeline for the front door.

We gave chase, of course, but the flying banana got through the kitchen and the dining room and into the living room again. Mom and Grammy weren't quite as suprised this time when we came rushing in, but they offered no assistance either. We had to use our last burst of speed to capture that banana in the exact same place where we'd run that runaway orange to ground.

Surely by now we must be done with our shopping, right?


We also needed a pear.

Well, I told Grandchild No. 8, as she began pushing every button but the right one on the newly repurposed camcorder/pear dispenser, this had better not be a flying pear. I'd had quite enough of flying produce for one day, thank you.

Grandchild No. 8 would make no promises. You never know, she said philosophically as, for the fourth time now, the green button did not open the dispenser. And the blue button did not open the dispenser. And so on.

But, finally, we reached the last possible button.

And guess what?

The pear popped out -- and promptly flew away!

Who would ever have expected that?

OK, admittedly, I was a little suspicious that this might happen -- but it did me no good. Even though I was prepared for this eventuality, the pear got through the kitchen and dining room and into the living room, just like the banana and the orange, before we could capture it, in the same place where we'd snagged the other flying fruits, seconds away from their getting out the door.

I think Grandchild No. 8 might have had a longer shopping list, but by this time Mom had received a text from the Realtor. The coast was clear. The family could return home.

And so they did.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Curmudgeon family goes to the dogs -- Part I -- family history

Not my immediate family, mind you. Long Suffering Spouse and I have not acquired a pet.

But Younger Daughter just did. And Older Daughter tried to.

In fact, in the last month or so, Younger Daughter acquired three puppies, one of whom was the one that Older Daughter tried to get.

I'll explain presently -- but let me back up just a bit first.

I have a complicated relationship with dogs. I like them well enough. I'm not fond of cleaning up after them. (Is anyone?) As near as I can tell, most dogs like me well enough, too.

My parents almost always had a dog when I was growing up. One, of course, was "my" dog.

When I was in first grade or thereabouts one of the kids at school had a dog (of indeterminate lineage) who had puppies (of even more indeterminate lineage). This happened at one of those rare times when my parents had no dog (they had recently gotten rid of a dog, Sam, who turned out to be a cur -- I suppose he must have bit one of my siblings -- or my parents thought it was inevitable that he would).

Anyway, my parents agreed that we could look at the new puppies and, just possibly, pick one out.

I think very few humans are immune to puppies. I'm not, certainly. I was smitten as badly as either of my daughters recently or any of their kids with any of the puppies referred to above. And it just so happened that, at the time of our visit, one of the litter was not yet spoken for.

That became "my" dog.

My parents extracted all the usual promises: I would clean up after the dog. I would feed it. I would walk it. I would take care of it. Day or night. No excuses. No whining. I meant each and every word of every solemn vow when I made them. And, like every kid before and since, I broke each and every one of these vows within weeks, if not days, thereafter.

The dog was still "my" dog because I got to name it.

My father had very specific criteria for dog names: Something simple. One or two syllables at the most. That way, the dog would recognize its name, he explained, and learn to come when called. If at all possible, the name should describe some characteristic of the animal.

I pondered long and hard over this naming business. Eventually, though, inspriation struck.

I remember my father was shaving when I gave him the good news. I had a name: Piddle. Two syllables. And it certainly described a characteristic of the animal -- it seemed to be the animal's primary occupation.

To no one's surprise, except my own at the time, my father's response to my announcement was less than enthusiastic. But he was kind about it. "Suppose the dog gets out of the yard," he asked, putting his mug and brush aside (I'm not that old -- it's just what he used), "and you had to go out to call the dog back. Would it be a good idea to yell 'Piddle' out on the front sidewalk?"

I had to admit that I hadn't thought of that.

"You'll just have to think of another name," he said, and resumed shaving.

I was hung up on this defining characteristic thing. "Will the puppy be very big when he is full-grown?" I asked.

"Not particularly," my father replied. He knew about this stuff.

"Will he be very small?"

"No, sort of in-between."

"So not big or little, but medium?" I asked.

"I suppose, yes."

"That's it then!" I enthused. "We'll call him Medium."

"That's three syllables," my father said, or started to say. But he seemed to know the battle was lost as soon as he said it. I recognize the feeling now, only too well. I'm sure he thought well, it's better than Piddle. And, besides, he had to finish shaving.

* * * * *
Medium became the kind of dog a future Curmudgeon would appreciate. Mean. Ornery. Irascible. He didn't like most people, men especially. He excepted my father and me from his general disdain for the male of the human species, although there was one time, long after we'd moved to Boondockia, that he seems to have forgotten that he liked my father, because one day, for no apparent reason, the dog turned on him, and my father had to remind the dog of their long-standing mutal affection with a 2x4 that he just happened to be carrying.

I realize that looks awful in print. It wasn't quite so bad in reality. You'll just have to take my word for it. (At one point my father explained he quickly realized the dog had simply forgotten himself. "If I thought he really meant to attack me," he said, "I would have killed him. But, instead, I just knocked some sense into him.")

I'm not sure if the explanation helps.

In any event, thus reminded, Medium resumed cordial relations with my father that lasted for the rest of the dog's life.

I was not present when "my" dog died. He lived to a ripe old age for dogs and, by that time, I was living away from home.

However, I thought one afternoon that I had witnessed the dog's demise. We lived on a country road in Boondockia. There wasn't much traffic at the busiest times and there wasn't much concern about the dog being out in front of the house. He had never chased cars before.

One afternoon, however, the dog apparently decided to tick that particular item off his bucket list: He attacked a school bus coming down the street. I saw the dog get run over................. and I saw him come out of the other side, shaken, perhaps a bit chastened, but otherwise unharmed. The bus, likewise, was uninjured and continued on its way. That dog was so mean he could fight a school bus to a draw. As far as I know, however, he never sought a rematch.

Medium had one talent. He could pick things up off the floor and return them to the nearest human. The human's expected response was, "Thank you," whereupon the dog would drop the item or allow it to be pried from his muzzle. For this service, the dog expected to compensated with a dog treat. Which was promptly provided. I mean, it would be the height of folly to keep a mean dog waiting.

Socks, used facial tissues, laundry that didn't make it in the hamper, a kid's toy -- anything on the floor in the house was subject to retrieval in this way. If you didn't want the dog to put it in his mouth, you learned to keep it off the floor.

One day, after we'd moved to Boondockia, my mother was tending to bushes in front of the house when Medium approached with something he'd found outside. He dropped a wriggling, badly injured, and thoroughly terrified baby bunny right in my mother's lap, expecting "thank you" followed by a dog treat. He was not expecting my mother's ear-piercing shriek.

I wound up taking the bunny back into the field next door from whence it most likely came. I don't suppose it survived -- it's possible -- but the dog learned that picking things up outdoors was not as rewarding as picking things up indoors.

* * * * *
I was in high school when my aunt and uncle followed us up from Chicago's South Side to Boondockia. I don't remember, now, if there was some delay before their house was ready but I do recall that their dog came to reside with us for several months during this time of transition.

Taffy was as sweet and good-natured as Medium was mean and ornery. One might think that a recipe for disaster, but exactly the opposite provded to be the case.

Taffy was enormously fat when she came to us. But Medium soon sweated the pounds off her. Both were rejuvenated by the experience.

When his canine cousin returned to her regularly scheduled family, Medium moped to the point that my parents decided to get another dog to keep him company. And they did. From that point on, my parents always had two dogs.

Four, altogether.

Three of them were large enough that, standing on their hind legs, they could rest their paws on my shoulder and take my chin in their mouths.

Dog fanciers will know that there is no greater sign of affection. My wife, who thought she was a dog fancier, but grew up with a miniature poodle and a pekingese mop head and so didn't know better, was scared to death the first time she saw that.

The point is, I liked dogs. Still do. They like me. And, after I moved out of my parents' home, I never, ever wanted one of my own.

When you have a dog, you live according to the dog's schedule. I make fun of saccharine pet food commercials that ooze about loving 'pet parents,' but, disputes over nomenclature notwithstanding, I agree that dogs are people, too. The dog's needs must be taken into consideration. The dog must be let out, even when you want to sleep in. You can't stay too long with friends after work if no one is home to feed the dog at its accustomed time. One certainly can't just disappear for a few days. Vacations must be planned around the dog, if not actually with the dog.

I had five children, ultimately, and each had different needs and interests and schedules. A dog would have only added an entirely unwelcome additional set of complications.

Not that my kids didn't try, when they were younger, to get me to relent on the dog issue. Older Daughter was the most insistent.

In fact, one night when she was in third grade, Older Daughter told us, with absolute and grim certitude, that her teacher required all her students to have dogs. As homework. If we did not get a dog immediately, Older Daughter would fail third grade.

It must have seemed to her to be a brilliantly logical, foolproof plan. Older Daughter knew we valued education and we would never let her fail third grade if we could prevent it merely by taking in a dog.

She failed to take into account, however, the possibility that we might seek confirmation of this 'assignment.'

Not that we were in any way confrontational. Rather, we approached the teacher with the story as related to us by Older Daughter and asked if she could figure out any reason why Older Daughter would come up with such a whopper. Which of course there was: It seems Older Daughter wanted a dog so badly that she had actually made up stories about her longed-for dog and (to mix an animal metaphor) the chickens were coming home to roost. Evidence of said dog had been requested by skeptical classmates.

Toward the end, my parents' schedule completely revolved around their dogs. Boondockia was nearly an hour away from where Long Suffering Spouse and I set up our household. When Younger Daughter was an infant, my parents decided Boondockia was getting too crowded and they sold their one acre home for one set on 10 acres, another half hour (or so) further away. (In the Chicago area the 'half hour' is a unit of distance, used instead of miles or kilometers.)

Even before they got too sick to travel that distance, my parents' visits were always cut short by the need to "rescue the dogs." I suppose it's possible that my parents used their dogs as an excuse to extract themselves from the chaos of my household. At least sometimes. My kids could be rather loud. We live on a major O'Hare flightpath -- and I used to tell the kids that the airport had called complaining that they were so loud the control tower couldn't hear the jets coming in for a landing. I couldn't do anything about the physical damage to my eardrums, but I could take the edge off my nerves with an occasional scotch.

My parents were never teetotalers. In fact, if all the benefits claimed for red wine were true, both my parents would still be alive today. And my father would certainly join me if I offered scotch, though he might ask for vodka instead. These days I drink more vodka than scotch, too. Easier on the insides. Provides the same soothing effect despite the noise made by my 10 grandchildren (or whatever combination is present on any given occasion). The grandkids are at least as noisy as were their parents.

So I suspect that, when my parents expressed a need to "rescue the dogs" after visiting with us for only an hour, or even less, they were generally sincere.

I don't know how much time I'll have with my grandchildren. (Thank you, Captain Obvious.) But I don't want whatever time I do have to be cut short by taking care of dogs.

So, while I like dogs, I don't want dogs of my own and I've counseled all of my children against owning dogs. And, if you've ever stopped in here at all, you'll know how far I got with that advice.

I haven't forgotten that I set out to tell the tale of how Younger Daughter had three puppies in the last month, including one that her sister tried to get. But, before I get to that story, finally, there is still a little more you need to know first. I'll get to that next time.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

Coming soon: Our first gender reveal party

We've heard of them, of course. They make the news from time to time -- when they cause apparent earthquakes in New Hampshire or devastating wildfires in California -- but we've never actually been invited to one.

Until now.

On Saturday afternoon Youngest Son and his wife Danica are planning a gender reveal party at their west suburban home. Hopefully it will not make the evening news.

When they informed me of their plans, using my best patriarchal voice, I strongly advised the kids against doing anything explosive. So, there's what? Maybe a 50-50 chance they'll listen?

Youngest Son and Danica have been longing to start a family of their own for some time. They've had their troubles, which I won't burden you with here. Suffice to say that, after what they've been through, if Danica and Youngest Son want to have a gender reveal party, Long Suffering Spouse and I enthusiastically support it. Even if (no surprise here) I don't entirely understand why a party is really necessary.

When my kids were coming along, gender reveals generally took place in the delivery room.

I was in the delivery room when Older Daughter came along, in 1984, watching the proceedings from my wife's bedside, at the head of the bed. I remember the doctor congratulating me on the birth of a healthy baby girl.

I also remember the thought that flickered through my little pea brain -- how can you tell?

In my defense, you must remember that I'm a lawyer. Like soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, I'm not a biologist.

Also, at that exact moment, I could only see the baby's backside.

But young parents in the 1980s did not typically know whether they were having a boy or girl until the child made its appearance in the world.

Obviously this has changed. It was already changing by the early 1990s, when Youngest Son was born.

Not that there weren't all sorts of people willing to venture predictions in those days. When Older Daughter was coming along, total strangers would come up to Long Suffering Spouse in the grocery, on more than one occasion touching or tapping her belly, and offering prophecies. Long Suffering Spouse took these intrusions in stride. Not once, insofar as I know, did Long Suffering ever slap away an offending hand and say, "Look, lady, the watermelons are over there."

Even without a party to announce it, today's parents can, and often do, find out the gender of their infant long before birth. Long Suffering Spouse has noticed that baby clothes these days are almost exclusively pink or blue (with an occasional Millennial gray, she will concede). She attributes this to new parents knowing well in advance whether they are having a boy or girl. In our day, she reminds me, newborn clothes were frequently yellow or green -- neutral colors that could be purchased before the blessed event but which could be worn by either a boy or girl. I've recently started looking for myself in the course of our increasingly frequent post-Pandemic retail forays and I can confirm Long Suffering Spouse's observations about baby clothes being almost exclusively blue or pink.

This gets me to thinking... has anybody informed Twitter about this gender reveal phenomenon? Or about the predominance of pink or blue baby clothes in the stores?

In the Twitterverse it seems gender is merely a construct, and a fluid one at that. If, in a moment of boredom or curiosity, a little boy picks up a dolly instead of a ball or a little girl plays with a truck, anxious adults start researching puberty blockers and gender reassignment surgeries. I suggest this may be a bit extreme. Sometimes, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, a truck is just a truck.

Anyway, back to Saturday. I wish to venture one of those fearless predictions that will forever exclude me from the ranks of real pundits: Though I'm no biologist, I predict that, on Saturday, we will find out that Grandchild No. 11 will be a boy.

Or a girl.

Just, please God, make him (or her) healthy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Ginni Thomas, Anne M. Burke, and Doris Kearns Goodwin

How's that for a clickbait headline? But, Dear Reader, I think I can tie this up.

Let's start with Ginni Thomas, a/k/a as Mrs. Clarence Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and author of some "batshit crazy" text messages sent to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows after the 2020 election. Quoting now from Bess Levin's March 25 article for Vanity Fair, "Should Clarence Thomas be impeached over Ginni Thomas's deranged text messages?"
On November 5, for example, before Joe Biden was officially declared the winner, Ginni quoted a right-wing website, writing: “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.” On November 10, after news outlets projected the Democratic candidate had the electoral votes, she texted Meadows, of Trump: “Help This Great President stand firm, Mark!!!...You are the leader, with him, who is standing for America’s constitutional governance at the precipice. The majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History.” Two weeks later, she told Meadows not to “cave to the elites,” and later, “I can’t see Americans swallowing the obvious fraud.” Midway through the month, she urged Meadows to make Sidney Powell—the lawyer who promoted claims like “there is a secret server that all the votes go to where they [are] manipulate[d]”—“the lead and the face” of Trump’s legal team. At one point, Ginni wrote to Meadows: “Sounds like Sidney and her team are getting inundated with evidence of fraud. Make a plan. Release the Kraken and save us from the left taking America down.”
The assessment that these texts are "batshit crazy" is also Ms. Levin's. I am entirely certain that there are no crazier texts that Ms. Levin could find because she surely would have quoted them if such were available. On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine that there are any texts not quoted that could provide some context in which these might not appear quite so crazy. Therefore, for the record, I agree that Ms. Levin's assessment is entirely reasonable.

You will not be surprised, perhaps, to learn that Ms. Levin answers the question posed by the headline of her article with an emphatic "yes." The allegedly impeachable offense is participation by Justice Thomas in cases where his wife has staked out a very public position or been even more directly involved -- but this is not as neat and clean a question as some in the media would see it. In a lower court, if there are grounds for Judge Smith to recuse herself, Judge Jones can be called upon to take over. Often Judge Jones is right down the hall.

But justices of our highest courts have generally, and traditionally, taken the position that they are required to decide the cases before them; there is no one that can tap in for a particular case. This does not mean that individual justices haven't recused themselves in some cases. Justice Kagan recused herself from a number of cases that she had handled as U.S. Solicitor General, prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court. Other justices have taken themselves off of cases, too.

But, as George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley points out in two recent articles, "No, Justice Thomas Did Not Commit an Impeachable Offense" (March 27) and "Justice Thomas Faces Calls for Investigation and Sweeping Recusals" (March 28), this has never been required of Supreme Court justices. The Suprme Court has long (long here meaning even before Trump) taken the view that it is not bound by the Code of Judicial Ethics it has imposed on lower courts. (Again, for the record, Professor Turley wishes the Supreme Court would apply the Code of Judicial Ethics to itself.)

And, also for the record, I hate myself for quoting a law professor on anything. In this one instance it seems appropriate.

Though she did not expressly so state, I think Ms. Levin would be inclined to agree with the proposition that Ginni Thomas's expressed opinions and documented behavior so taint Clarence Thomas that anything he says or does is irrevocably suspect. For example, since Ginni Thomas thinks (or at least thought) that the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump, Clarence Thomas must think so, too. The sins of one spouse renders the other unfit to serve.

What, I wonder, would Ms. Levin make of Anne M. Burke?

Anne M. Burke is the Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. In addition to her distinguished career on the bench, Burke was one of the founders of the Special Olympics. She became Interim Chair of the first National Review Board commissioned by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops to address, and root out, the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

On the other hand, she is married to Chicago Ald. Ed Burke. Ed Burke has been under federal indictment since 2019. The indictment has to do with how he allegedly got business for his law firm -- which specialized in seeking reductions of county property taxes -- but, before his indictment, very few people were elected to the bench in Cook County without his approval. The longtime Committeeman of Chicago's 14th Ward, Burke chaired the Cook County Democratic Party's judicial slatemaking committee. Put it this way: Chief Justice Burke would not have been elected without her husband's support.

Was she, too, irrevocably tainted by her husband's alleged criminal misconduct?

Here is one very important distinction: On March 24, the Illinois Supreme Court handed down an opinion in the case of Sigcho-Lopez v. The Illinois State Board of Elections, 2022 IL 127253. In this case a Chicago alderman challenged his predecessor's use of campaign funds to pay legal bills related to the predecessor's federal indictment. (After being cornered by the Feds, the former alderman, then still in office, agreed to wear a wire so that the Feds could go after, inter alia, Ed Burke. If the case against Mr. Burke ever gets to trial, this former alderman's testimony -- and recordings -- will be key evidence for the prosecution.)

And, no surprise here, Ald. Burke is paying at least some of his enormous legal bills from his very substantial campaign funds. Of course they are substantial (were you paying attention?) Ald. Burke had enormous say in who got to serve on the local bench. Oh, and his City Council Finance committee determined what claims against the City got paid, and for how much. And there was the property tax reduction work he did on the side, too.... I haven't looked lately to be certain, but I'd be willing to bet that there's no longer much of anything coming into his campaign funds these days. But there was so much already there.

In its unanimous opinion, not quite a week ago, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed that the practice of paying a politician's criminal defense fees from that politician's campaign fund is not prohibited by statute.

But... here's the distinction... Chief Justice Burke "took no part" in the decision. And, rather than leave her off on the island by herself, her two colleagues from Cook County likewise did not participate. (That was only possible because the four other justices were in agreement on how to dispose of the case; the Illinois Supreme Court can not decide a case without four votes for or against.)

On the other hand, if Clarence Thomas had recused himself from the text messages ruling would Ms. Levin have been mollified?

Which brings us, at last, to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the eminent historian. I'm just now reading her 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit, which is subtitled "Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism." Kearns presents Edith Carow Roosevelt and Nellie Taft as vital to the careers of their respective husbands. Kearns makes the case that, though their quite different wives provided different things, TR and Taft could not have achieved what they did without their spouses.

In the Bad Old Days, a woman could only succeed in public life indirectly, through her husband. Kearns was more favorably inclined to Mary Todd Lincoln in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln than was Lincoln's first biographer (and last law partner) Billy Herndon in his. Herndon didn't like Mary Todd Lincoln one little bit (in fairness, she didn't like him either). But both Kearns and Herndon would agree on this much: Without Mary, Lincoln would probably never have become President.

A woman now can look forward to an independent career, but that same commonality of interests that attracts a man and woman in the first place will often lead to at least some overlap in careers for married couples. Hopefully each would be a positive influence and support for the other -- but when one spouse becomes controversial, or even toxic, must the other be damaged?

The answer should be "no" -- at the very least it certainly should not be automatically crippling to one's career that one's spouse stumbles -- or even is "batshit crazy."

But I also know that this is not how the world works.

My wife teaches in the local Catholic school. Were I to suddenly assert a position at odds with Catholic doctrine, my wife's job might be in jeopardy. Probably would be. Even with an anonymous blog, I was very cautious about criticizing our former pastor (as I did here, here, here, and (later) here). So the problem of one spouse potentially damaging another's career is not theoretical to me. It is very, very real.

I can sympathize with Justice Thomas and Chief Justice Burke. Both face howling mobs. Very little overlap between their mobs, I should think, but mobs just the same. And I suspect that no member of either mob would be moved by my plea to judge each individual on his or her respective merits, regardless of their spouses' missteps, actual or alleged. But perhaps you, Dear Reader, may be persuaded. One by one, bit by bit, perhaps we can build up a majority on this one small point. Leave it to history -- to Professor Kearns and her successors -- to evaluate how tangled were the strands in these and other cases.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson gets a supreme opportunity

I admit, I have not watched any of the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

It's not bitterness... I hope... although even I am beginning to suspect that neither this White House (nor any other) is ever going to call me. Why, I no longer even sit by my phone.

No, the real reason I'm not watching is that I am increasingly intolerant of stupid people, the most stupid of which seem to wind up as United States Senators. And I'm not just talking about the Republicans -- who are feigning suspicion -- now -- that Judge Jackson (who they just confirmed to succeed Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit) is a closet Communist, or anarchist, or whatever. I cheerfully include the Democrats, who fawn over Judge Jackson, who strew rose petals in her path, who wish only to touch the hem of her garment and so achieve enlightenment.

Not that the hearings for Amy Coney Barrett or Brett Kavanaugh or Neil Gorsuch were any better. It's just that the Fawners now were the Feigners then and the Feigners now were Fawners. It's all theatrics -- and bad theatrics at that. It's garbage. I am so sorry that Supreme Court nominees are required to endure this nonsense.

Let's get this out of the way immediately:Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is not the single most-qualified person who could have been picked to sit on the Supreme Court. There is no one such person. There are, instead, a great many. She is one of these.

This is a big country. We have a great many lawyers -- roughly 90,000 in my home state of Illinois alone. Surely more than half of these would be in waaaaaaay over their heads if they were nominated to the Supreme Court. But would 10% be out of their depth? Would only 1% of Illinois lawyers be capable of rendering useful service on the United States Supreme Court if given the opportunity? That's still 900 lawyers. And that's just Illinois.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is one of probably thousands of lawyers across this country who would acquit themselves honorably if asked to serve on the Supreme Court. But thousands were not asked. Judge Jackson was. By all credible accounts she is more than qualified. And she is in the right place at the right time. Good for her!

On the other hand... I don't know if you noticed... but Judge Jackson is yet another former Supreme Court clerk (she clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she will soon take on the Court) who is getting a shot at sitting on the nation's highest court and hiring clerks of her own. She is yet another Ivy Leaguer (two degrees from Harvard in her case) who will join a court composed almost exclusively of Ivy Leaguers and former Supreme Court clerks.

Don't believe me? Let's look at the record:
  • Chief Justice John Roberts -- Harvard undergrad, Harvard Law School -- clerked for Justice William Rehnquist;
  • Justice Clarence Thomas -- Yale Law School -- did not clerk for a Supreme Court justice;
  • Justice Stephen Breyer -- Harvard Law School (Oxford undergrad) -- clerked for Justice Arthur Goldberg;
  • Justice Samuel Alito -- Yale Law School (Princeton undergrad) -- did not clerk for a Supreme Court justice, though he interviewed with Justice Byron White after clerking for 3rd Circuit Judge Leonard Garth;
  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- Yale Law School (Princeton undergrad) -- did not clerk for a Supreme Court justice;
  • Justice Elena Kagan -- Harvard Law School (where she was later Dean) (undergrad at Princeton and Oxford) -- clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall;
  • Justice Neil Gorsuch -- Harvard Law School (undergrad at Columbia, PhD from Oxford) -- clerked for both Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy;
  • Justice Brett Kavanaugh -- Yale undergrad, Yale Law School -- clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy;
  • Justice Amy Coney Barrett -- Notre Dame Law School (not an Ivy League school, although Domers have a hard time accepting that) -- clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia.
That's diversity?

Only if diversity means Harvard or Yale. Put somebody on from DePaul night school or even any state school and get back to me.

And, speaking of states: With the exception of Justice Kagan, every single current justice of the United States Supreme Court comes to that bench from a Federal Court of Appeals. Judge Jackson fits the pattern. No state high court justice need apply? Holy Cardozo, Batman!

But... it is true that Judge Jackson will bring something to the nation's highest court that her colleagues lack. That they don't have and never will have, namely...

(wait for it)

... actual courtroom experience in a courtroom where she was not presiding.

(You thought I was going for something else, didn't you?)

Actually, Justice Sotomayor did some courtroom work, too.

But most of them... no.

Some of Judge Jackson's new colleagues did brief stints in big firms or in high level government positions and some of them got to argue in court. Justice Kagan was Solicitor General of the United States. Former Supreme Court law clerks are in great demand as counsel in those vanishingly few cases that make it to the docket of the nation's highest court.

But Judge Jackson has faced a jury on a client's behalf. That's a different perspective -- a diverse perspective -- that she can bring to the Supreme Court.

As for the rest of it... well, I'm sure President Biden meant well... but I don't think he did Judge Jackson any favors in publicly announcing that he would limit his search for Justice Breyer's replacement to Black women. Again, Judge Jackson is one of many, many persons (a great many of whom are also Black women) who are well-equipped to serve honorably and usefully on the Supreme Court.

The important thing is that Judge Jackson has been given the opportunity. Not that she cares, but I congratulate her, and wish only the best for her. I hope she will do great things.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

There is no such thing as a free lunch, part 549

Recently, on Zach Weinersmith's SMBC:
The embedded comment in the original comic (you'll have to click the link above to see for yourself) is, "The front part of my gas powered car is also emission free."

It's not quite as bleak as Mr. Weinersmith portrays it. Yet, if you consult the Wikipedia entry for Lithium-Ion battery, you will find (as of 2/23/22, internal links and footnotes removed):
Extraction of lithium, nickel, and cobalt, manufacture of solvents, and mining byproducts present significant environmental and health hazards. Lithium extraction can be fatal to aquatic life due to water pollution. It is known to cause surface water contamination, drinking water contamination, respiratory problems, ecosystem degradation and landscape damage. It also leads to unsustainable water consumption in arid regions (1.9 million liters per ton of lithium). Massive byproduct generation of lithium extraction also presents unsolved problems, such as large amounts of magnesium and lime waste.

Lithium mining takes place in North and South America, Asia, South Africa, Australia, and China.

Cobalt for Li-ion batteries is largely mined in the Congo....
The linked Wikipedia article also notes, "Cobalt sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is often mined by workers using hand tools with few safety precautions, resulting in frequent injuries and deaths. Pollution from these mines has exposed people to toxic chemicals that health officials believe to cause birth defects and breathing difficulties. Human rights activists have alleged, and investigative journalism reported confirmation, that child labor is used in these mines" (internal links and footnotes omitted).

I'm not suggesting that you ditch your Tesla, if you have one, or don sackcloth and ashes for the sin of driving a Prius.

EVs provide still another illustration, if one were really still needed, that there is nothing perfect in this very imperfect human world. The issue is whether EVs are better, on balance, for the world generally, and for the environment in particular, than gasoline-guzzling vehicles. I suspect that the scales tip, at least slightly, in favor of EVs, particularly when one considers the horrors that pertrodollars (or petroeuros) have unleashed on the world.

Kids in the Congo may balance the scales differently, I understand.

Which is why the search for 'clean' energy no more ends with EVs than it did with swapping coal for wood.

Friday, February 11, 2022

All you newspeople get off of my lawn!

I may have found a new avatar.

I'm not actually this bald (yet) and I haven't worn a moustache since law school. And, of course, that long-ago moustache was never as luxuriant as the one on this old codger. Not too surprising, given how young I was then, that my moustache was more of the starving caterpillar variety.

But this fella's all-you-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn bravado rather neatly sums up my attitude toward... toward... toward, well, just about everyone these days, actually.

I am particularly disturbed, these days, with the news.

It's not that the news is bad. News is always bad. Always has been. Crime, poverty, hatred, taxes, war, disease -- and stay tuned for the full 7-day forecast right after these messages for medicines whose side effects sound worse than the diseases they supposedly treat.

What's different about the news these days, I think, is that it's not just always bad, it's always the same bad. Trump, Covid, masks, Trump lawyer, Covid protest, vaccination passports, Trump, Covid, MASKS.... Everything repeats endlessly, but ever more shrilly with each repetition.

I think it's starting to affect our collective mental health. I know it's affecting mine.

And no one makes a mistake any more. No, any little inconsistency between what was said yesterday, or last week, or ten years ago, and just this moment, is seized upon as proof of lying. LIAR!

Sometimes, of course, professional politicians do lie. You know the old joke:
Q. How can you tell if a politician is lying?

A. His lips are moving....
But that's a joke, not a statement of Holy Writ. If it's in their best interests, a politician can be counted on to speak some version of the truth. More or less. Most of 'em, anyway.

Moreover, not every civil servant is a politican. Some are. Especially in the highest places. But most are just pepole who keep their heads down and do their jobs to the best of their understanding and ability.

Most judges aren't politicians either. Even on the U.S. Supreme Court. Whatever the hysterical fund-raising emails say. Despite the braying of 'experts' on cable news. Judges are political animals only because all humans are. It's a fact of our evolution -- our primate heritage. Like saying cattle or bison are herd animals. Or bees and wasps are hive animals. But it's a different brand of politics; judges are by and large not professional politicians.

In many states, including my home state of Illinois, judges are elected. Even these elected judges -- with a few exceptions -- are not professional pols. (Now and again someone will move from the ranks of other elected officials and onto the bench. It's not the most common career trajectory. To the extent that Illinois pols become involved with the courts, it's usually before the bench. In the dock, as they say 'cross the Pond. We had a governor some years back who later went on the federal bench -- and then to federal prison. But that was an unusual case. (Bonus points if you remembered Otto Kerner before I gave you the answer.)

If you stop and think about it -- something I suspect that our media masters really don't like us to do -- there are a lot of men and women who have influence on the health and security of our polity without ever holding real elected office. Thank God!

Sometimes the reason people, even professional politicians, say one thing at one time and then another later on is because they've learned something in between. It happens.

Perhaps not often enough, but still....

All this back and forth about lying, and all these elegant accusations of he's a liar or she's a liar, no matter how passionate, no matter how fraught, is ultimately sterile. Useless. It doesn't fill a single pothole, or pick up anyone's garbage, or repair a single bridge. It doesn't make our streets safer, our schools better, our banks less rapacious.

The genius of America has always in our ability to hunker down and do things. We used to do what worked, regardless of who proposed it, or where the idea came from, leaving it to the academics or the Europeans to figure out labels for it after the fact. Meanwhile, we enjoyed the benefits.

Did we always get it right? Hell, no. We can catalog our national failures some other time. (The fascinating thing about that exercise is that, if it is done honestly and in good faith, anyone can see how far we've come, and how we've improved the human condition, despite our many flaws and failures.)

You will read surveys here or there, or articles, or videos, about how this Scandanavian country is happier than America, or how that other country has reduced wealth inequality. Other countries can boast less street crime. But the poor and persecuted across the world still look at America as a place of refuge and safety.

Why can't we?

I lay some of the blame on our media -- that stokes our fears and divides into warring camps in the pursuit of bucks and clicks. To them I say, get off of my lawn.

I want to secure the Blessings of Liberty to my Posterity, and this will be impossible if We the People descend further, from our current stalemate, to political violence (the first dangerous rumblings of which have already been seen in our sad country), and ultimately to civil war. Don't tell me it can't happen here. It happened to the Roman Republic. Our Founding Fathers wanted to spare us that fate. They knew Roman history intimately, and debated it, and drew (often conflicting) lessons from it. Our kids don't even study the fall of the Roman Republic in school. But that is a story for another day.

Meanwhile... turn off your TVs (at least as soon as the weather segment is over). Embrace your community, greet your neighbors, and remember, while you may not like everyone the same, we are all in this together and we have an obligation to try and get along.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

A downside of 'working from home' that we never thought of

As you can see above, it's snowing in Chicago today. It's worse in the south suburbs and (not surprisingly) in Northwest Indiana (they call it the NWI) but many of the Catholic schools around my home on the northwest side of Chicago are closed today, too. Long Suffering Spouse has the day off (which isn't as good a thing as it might be on another day -- but that is outside the scope of this essay). Middle Son's oldest daughter (Granddaughter No. 5), who attends a nearby parish school, also has the day off.

And therein lies the problem.

Like a great many people since the start of our two-week shutdown to flatten the COVID-19 curve (a shutdown now almost two years old), Middle Son and his wife Magaret, both CPAs, are now working from home. Every time one or both of their employers starts talking about reopening their long-shuttered offices, the public health authorities find that Covid has spun off a new Greek-letter variant and reopening plans are shelved as we brace for a new surge.

We're on omicron now. Will it be over when we get to omega?

Granddaughter No. 5 is a sweet, well-mannered child. She's also four. And for all her sweetness and good manners, she can and will get underfoot while Mommy and Daddy are trying to get their work done.

Unexpected closures, such as we're experiencing today in the Chicago area, put a wrench in child-care arrangements for a great many young parents. If there were a foot of snow on the ground, or more, Middle Son and his wife would be more understanding. But, while it's still snowing, at least off and on, and there may be some lake-effect to deal with later today, there's only about six inches on the ground so far. So they're not happy.

Why? Because they know that there is every expectation -- in this brave new day and age of working from home -- that business can go on as usual no matter how much snow comes down. And why not?

When people had to toil in offices, we'd put on boots and extra layers and slog and stumble our way to the train. If we were among the first to make it in on a crumby day like today, we could imagine ourselves as heroes, the most dedicated of the dedicated, valiant workers in the vineyard. We could put on the coffee and look down our noses at the people straggling in who didn't have such efficient train service or who had to endure travel at glacial speeds on our supposed 'expressways.'

Of course, they thought themselves heroes too, having had the tenacity to traverse what the salt trucks and plows had yet to clear. And, of course, we could all look down on the poor shlubs whose cars would not start or who wound up in a ditch. There was plenty of feel-good-smugness for everyone who made it in -- and if any work did get done on such a day it was more by coincidence or accident. But so what? We had a little triumphal moment.

There's no analogous moment of triumph for the at-home workers, like Middle Son or Margaret, who have only to roll out of bed and come downstairs to their respective "offices." Getting to work would not sap, could not sap, and had better not sap, one's energy quota for the day. Whatever they are expected to do today had better get done, whether the snow stops or piles up to the roof. And they must accomplish their day's work despite the added complication of having to keep Granddaughter No. 5 entertained.

When I was in their shoes, I had the office to slog to and, if the schools were closed, Long Suffering Spouse was home anyway. Even after she began teaching, she would have been home on such a day because she taught (and continues to teach) at the school my children attended.

Working from home has been great for a lot of people, my kids included. But it's been even better for their employers, hasn't it? And that's without even talking about the money the bosses will eventually save on rent as they can contract their offices to fit the new realities.

A day like today shows the unexpected downside of working from home. But that's life: There is always bitter with the sweet.

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Finding just the right card

I saw the young woman yesterday, crouched down at the greeting card rack. One whole display rack -- 15 feet long at least -- at our local Target was devoted to Valentines Day cards and this person was poring over a large selection of 'for husband' cards that were on the bottom levels, somewhere near the center.

I know because I looked.

I looked because she was there when I went up the aisle, toward the back of the grocery section, looking for something, and because she was still there when I returned, empty-handed, after a lengthy and thorough search.

Some people are card people. These may not be exclusively female, though, in my experience, that has always been the case. Long Suffering Spouse is most definitely a card person.

Long Suffering Spouse will spend agonizingly long minutes in card aisles when a child's or grandchild's birthday draws nigh, searching diligently for just the right card. One of the most popular posts on this site, currently, is this 2012 essay about Long Suffering Spouse choosing just the right card for our daughter-in-law, Abby.

When I have the misfortune to be with Long Suffering Spouse during one of these searches, she will invariably grouse that I am "rushing" her. Which I suppose I am.

I mean, I could content myself, for awhile anyway, looking at the allegedly humorous and/or 'naughty' cards. Strictly for my own amusement, of course. Some of them are amusing. But Long Suffering Spouse would never consider any of these for anyone.

And that's the problem: If she sees me looking at such cards she is keenly and immediately aware that I am not fully engaged in the quest at hand. That's a problem. More specifically, that is my problem.

With grandchildren, it's easier to stay out of trouble. One of the little ones is turning four? She loves Paw Patrol? Grab three cards with Paw Patrol puppies on them and proudly hand them to my wife: See? I'm contributing.

Of course, keying in solely on cartoon characters can backfire. (As my wife hands one of my three cards back to me, "Um, Curmudgeon, are you blind? This is an Easter card!")

Our oldest grandson just turned four. He likes Paw Patrol well enough -- but he is currently obsessed with dinosaurs. And that verb is carefully, and correctly, chosen. I hope he eventually becomes a palentologist because he is filling up a lot of brain buffers at an early age with the Latin names of obscure dinosaur species. If he becomes the next Jack Horner, Paul Sereno, or Robert H. Bakker, he's getting a great head start... but, if he doesn't, he's going to need to write over a lot of brain storage.

Picking out a birthday card for him should have been easy. Grab a handful of cards with dinosaurs on them (there were quite a few); hand them to Long Suffering Spouse.

But nothing in this life is easy. Long Suffering Spouse had to consider a number of issues before selecting just the right card. Is this dinosaur too scary? No, this is a leaf-eater. Doesn't the kid favor carnivores? Which does he like better, raptors or tyrannasours?

Granted, Long Suffering Spouse's considerable efforts were rewarded: Younger Daughter later told us that the boy took his not-too-scary carnivorous dinaosaur card to bed with him the night we celebrated his birthday. But I wonder whether any of the five or six carefully considered finalists might also have been similarly favored if they were selected....

Here's the thing with cards: They're nice. It's good to be remembered on one's natal day, or at Christmas, or whenever. But, at some point, the grandkids, like their parents before them, are going to open the cards in such a way as to immediately ascertain whether there is currency, or a negotiable instrument, or perhaps a gift card, embedded within. Some will be less subtle about it than others. If there's sufficient cash inside, it doesn't matter if what is outside. Blank paper would serve just as well.

Long Suffering Spouse would be aghast that I dared utter such an heretical thought aloud, or even on an anonymous blog. Perhaps, however, deep inside, she may even suspect that I'm right.

But it will not stop her. Or even slow her down. Like the young lady in the Target store yesterday, she will hunch over the card racks for hours, if she can find the time, searching for just the right card.

And she will always find it.

Monday, January 24, 2022

A lesson in relativity involving relatives

According to my calendar, it has been only one month since Christmas Eve.

This seems impossible to me, and perhaps it may seem so to you, now that I've called it to your attention.

So much has happened since.

To set the scene, Middle Son and his wife Margaret were very responsible and grown-up and decided that, since their youngest (he's just more than nine months old now) had been exposed to COVID-19 at Daycare at the beginning of that week, they should stay at home on Christmas Eve, lest any of them or their three children turn out to be contagious.

I pouted. But the often-dormant grown-up part of me eventually surfaced, understood, and (reluctantly) accepted their decision.

So only four of our five children could be with us for Christmas Eve.

It all worked out, as these things do. But in the rush of events leading to our Christmas Eve gathering, Younger Daughter and Olaf asked Olaf's parents to watch their four kids on December 23. Olaf's parents are not vaccinated against COVID-19, and deliberately, and defiantly, so. But they were in apparently good health on that occasion.

They were less healthy on Christmas Day, when Younger Daughter and Olaf brought the kids by for more presents, but they didn't mention it.

If you are tempted to contrast the behavior of Olaf's parents unfavorably with that of Middle Son and Margaret on this divisive issue of guarding against infecting others, I will not try to stop you. Anyway, Olaf's parents got progressively sicker after Christmas, to the point where, after first floating the notion that they must have picked something up from the grandkids, they actually sought testing. (They have both recovered, as far as I know, and neither required hospitalization -- thank you milder omicron variant -- but they were pretty sick for a solid week or so.)

Middle Son and Margaret's exposure turned out not to result in any Covid at their house, and they were thinking of rejoining the world in time for New Year's Eve, but the positive diagnoses of Olaf's parents scotched that idea pretty quick. Depending on your attitude, I suppose, Middle Son was either being Eeyore or merely philosophical when he predicted that, once his kids went back to school and Daycare they'd catch the Covid for real. Meanwhile, Olaf and Younger Daughter and all their kids came down with the disease. (Oddly enough, the two grandkids under five, who can't be vaccinated, had it worst. The rest, who are as vaccinated and/or boostered as their ages will permit, exhibited mild symptoms only.)

Anyway, Middle Son's pessimistic prediction proved accurate. We eventually delivered all the Christmas presents for his family still at our house along with chicken soup and crackers and Cuban sandwiches (so they wouldn't have to cook) and other things that were meant to provide aid and comfort whilst they recuperated. (Middle Son had not yet been boostered; he seemed to have the most serious case, even more substantial than his kids, none of whom are old enough to be vaccinated.) Long Suffering Spouse and I wore masks when we dropped these off on their front porch and ran like flushed pheasants.

Oldest Son and Abby went to Notre Dame's bowl game debacle in Arizona. We babysat Rodent, their now elderly dog. On the flight back from Arizona to Chicago, they were seated in front of a man who kept hacking and wheezing. Though they're both fully vaxxed and boostered, when Oldest Son came down with a sore throat, a few days later, Abby insisted he take a Covid test. He turned up positive, too.

Why did you bother getting tested when you had such negligible symptoms? I asked him via text when he reported the diagnosis. Well, he replied, Abby is paranoid about these things. She insisted. (Fully vaxxed and boostered, they both recovered quickly.)

So much has gone on -- and that's just the family Covid report card. Surely, two months must have elapsed since Christmas, or even three....

But, no, the calendar insists it has been only a month as of today.

Physicists will tell you that time slooooows down, relative to a stationary observer, as a traveler approaches the speed of light. Our hypothetical space traveler would potentially age far less on a near lightspeed trip to Proxima Centauri than would her friends and family on Earth. Eons might pass outside in the seconds it might take someone trapped in the event horizon of a black hole to be pulled into his constituent atoms. Time, they teach us, is relative.

As if we didn't already know that instinctively! Duck into a tavern sometime on your way home from work for a quick one. Hours may pass for your anxious and then angry spouse waiting at home, while only a few happy minutes seem to pass by inside the gin mill. The minutes stretch out to infinity and beyond when you're waiting for someone to return a phone call. Meanwhile, time compresses to a whoosh when you have to leave by a certain time and you just have one more thing you want to finish. For a grownup, the weeks before Christmas rush by in a mad blur. For a little kid, the weeks before Christmas are an agonizingly slow torture. Every minute is an hour, every hour is a day.

And in the crush of events following another Pandemic holiday, as happened to me this morning, one can be jolted by the realization that the months that have zoomed by since Christmas have really only taken 30 days....

Thursday, January 20, 2022

There's Siri, Alexa, and, at our house, Grampy....

One of my favorite comic strips, Tim Rickard's Brewster Rockit, has noted that our increasingly ubiquitous digital assistants, like Siri and Alexa, are apparently all female, and has asked the question, what if the personal assistant were male instead? Hilarity, or at least some cleverly recycled jokes, followed:

Yesterday's installment poked fun at 'mansplaining':

Mansplaining, for any of you who might not know, is... wait... I'm walking right into that one, aren't I?

Anyway, at the Curmudgeon home, we don't have Siri or Alexa. The whole idea of one of these 'listening' constantly, waiting to be of service, just creeps me out. And Long Suffering Spouse completely agrees with me on this. Besides, she doesn't need Siri or Alexa. She has me.

My wife's relationship with technology (as they used to say on Facebook) is 'complicated.' She must use it every day at school and, usually, long into the night at home (on schoolwork). During the total lockdown phase of our never-ending Pandemic she had to master a host of new apps -- Google Classroom may have been the biggest, but there were several plug-ins that she needed to learn, too. And, for whatever reason, just as in every other trade or profession, apps and programs for teachers are constantly being 'updated' (which usually means 'made worse'). At best, new software means learning new commands and orders of operation because why leave well enough alone?

I think software programmers must have a sadistic streak. Some, anyway.

But my wife copes with these -- not without complaint, mind you, but she copes. And learns. And manages.

However, my wife also can not turn on the TV. If the TV is on, she can not change the channel. And she has no concept of whether a program is on the satellite dish (for the moment, until I get around to it, we remain DirecTV subscribers) or streamed on Roku. And during the height of the Pandemic, when the faithful were not allowed to attend the Mass in person, we watched the services from our home parish via Twitch. Which involves changing plug-ins. Long Suffering Spouse was never going to do that.

So it has become my job to operate the TV. And in the sense that, maybe sometimes, it takes quite a while for me to find a program I am willing to watch, today's Brewster Rockit hits sort of close to home:

Actually, I also had TV operational responsibilities in my youth.

When my folks moved to Boondockia, in the late 60s, the National Football League still blacked out home football games in a team's home market. That meant if the Bears were playing at home, the game would not be broadcast in Chicago. But Rockford had its own TV stations, of the low-powered UHF variety, but still. And Rockford was only a little further from Boondockia than was Chicago, albeit west instead of southeast, and the Rockford stations were permitted to carry all the Bears games, home and away.

As a South Sider, my father grew up a fan of the Chicago Cardinals. The Cardinals left Chicago in the late 1950s (first for St. Louis, later for Arizona). The Bears' owner, George Halas, was widely blamed, among Cardinals fans, for driving their team out of town. I am sure some Chicago football fans transferred their allegiance from the departing Cardinals to the remaining Bears as a matter of course, but my father was not one of these. It took me years to figure out why, but we watched an awful lot of American Football League games back when I was a little kid. (If you even skim the Archives here, you will find many examples of how I've been equally slow on the uptake in a variety of other matters.)

I don't know what ultimately softened my father's attitude toward the Bears. Maybe it was the heroics of ex-Bear George Blanda for the Oakland Raiders. Blanda was still an effective QB for the Raiders well into his 40s, albeit only in limited action, mostly late in games, if Daryle Lamonica was injured or ineffective. Blanda was Tom Brady before Tom Brady was born (although, in his 40s Blanda looked twice as old as Brady does now). On the other hand, Blanda also kicked field goals and extra points. This is something Brady never did. And is unlikely ever to do.

But while Blanda may have had something to do with my father's change of heart, my best guess it was the move to Boondockia that sealed the deal. I think my father may have felt he was finally getting his own back on Halas a little bit by bringing in the Rockford signal of the Bears' home games into our den. And we got that signal with me, holding the antenna on the TV set in some awkward pose, or holding the antenna detached from the set in an even more contorted pose. The picture, what I could see of it, was at best a bit snowy, even on sunny days. It was a good thing the Bears wore navy blue uniform shirts during home games.

So maybe my youthful TV operation is not entirely comprable -- I don't have to get out of my recliner now, for one thing -- but the point is, I am used to operating the TV on command.

But these are not the limits of my duties as an older, male Alexa.

We will be watching a movie and Long Suffering Spouse will remark, "That actress was in something else we like. Look her up." Mind you, my wife's phone is next to her at all times and, if she is not on her computer, she is probably on her iPad. But I must be the one to look it up. And report.

Or she will be doing schoolwork. She'll look up and say, "Hey, have we heard from Middle Son this week? Text him and find out how he is doing." I always include her on the group chat lest she think I have failed to carry out her command and, also, so she will have the response she is looking for immediately, without the middleman.

When she is through correcting, Long Suffering Spouse has to assign grades. "So, there's 26 points on this quiz," she'll tell me. "What's 18 out of 26?" I promise you that she has calculators on her phone, her iPad, and her computer, but I have to perform the calculation. "69%," I will report (in case you were wondering).

I have many advantages over Alexa or Siri. Nothing I hear is getting beyond the room we're sitting in, at least not by accident. Who knows who might be listening at Apple or Google? And Long Suffering Spouse does not have to worry about getting weird ads on her phone just because she asks a question. That's now my problem.

"Curmudgeon," Long Suffering Spouse said to me recently, tossing me the label from a skein of yarn (she'd been making scarves for the grandchildren). "Order me three more of these. Same color."

I obliged, of course. And had the softest, fluffiest popup ads ever, for about a month....

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Perhaps the biggest problem with the 24/7 news cycle

I wanted to boast that I've identified the 'real flaw' or 'real problem' with the 24/7 news cycle. But, when I take a deep breath and think for a moment (a dangerous thing for any wannabe pundit to do, obviously), I remember that there's seldom only one problem with anything, or only one solution to any problem. The world is a more subtle and interesting place than that. When we pundits (real pundits as well as wannabe pundits included) start proclaiming about sole causes or simple solutions we risk sounding like crazy Howard Beale in the eerily (and presumably unintentionally) prophetic movie Network. Although he would have dominated on cable.

The 24/7 news cycle is a fact of life these days, even for those not addicted to cable news. Our local O&O (network owned and operated) and major independent TV stations start news broadcasts at 4:00 a.m. Local news or national info-gossip-tainment (GMA, Today, et al.) is on until at least 10:00 a.m. Some stations take an hour off, but pretty much all of them start a noontime news window from 11:00 to 1:00. Judge Judy or Ellen or Jeopardy have only a small fraction of their former daypart before the news starts up again at 4:00 p.m. and runs, on several stations, to 7:00 p.m. The late news starts as early at 9:00 a.m. on a couple of our local stations.

News programs are so popular with network and station owners because they are so economical. Cheap, really, compared to the cost of a scripted comedy or drama. I mean, on programs like that, you actually have to pay, not just writers and directors, but actors. A popular anchor will be well compensated -- but he or she will always be cheaper than the star of a popular series. And you have the costs of building multiple sets, or renting locations, with a scripted series; you just need one set for the news programs. You can send your news camera crew out to any number of locations for the price of the truck and the camera and the microwave transmitter and sample the seemingly endless parade of grieving mothers, mangled cars and trucks, and the occasional big fire. Fires always provide compelling visuals. Special effects without blowing the budget.

Yes, news is cheap.

Especially as it is done now. Too cheap. Too cheaply done.

So much of what you hear on the news these days is taken, often verbatim, from press releases. There are no questions asked -- just rip and read. Press releases are a great starting point -- don't get me wrong -- and I use them myself in my real-world blogs. But a press release is what the agency, politician, or corporation wants you to know about something. A crime, a scandal, a benefits program, a new product or service. There may be more to the story than that. There probably almost always is.

But reporting takes time and costs money (reporters, field producers, even interns all have to eat, too, you know). Instead of taking the time to dig into a story proffered by a press release (or find a story that no one is actually pushing) it is far more cost-effective to rip and read and repeat. And, in between, to fill the time, we can speculate (spout balloon juice) about what this means or about what might happen. If we have a pre-conceived narrative -- a point-of-view -- we can 'explain' how everything fits that pat worldview. That can fill a lot of time.

The Chicago Bears just fired their coach and general manager. Lots of people have been scheduled for interviews. Reporters are not invited to sit in for these (obviously). So there's not a lot of news to report there -- listing the names and dates of the interviews won't take more than a couple of minutes -- but there are hours of airtime to fill. So the sports journalists and ex-jocks bloviate ad nauseum about who would be the best fit, or why this OC or that DC would be better than that one.

At least speculation is understandable in that circumstance, perhaps unavoidable. But the news covers everything like sports: All personalities, all speculation, all the time. No one expects the sports reporter to break down game film, or analyze tendencies, much less find a way to explain these intricacies to fans who are mostly interested in the point spread. And, similarly, we don't require the political reporter to read statutes, or bills, and puncture the balloon juice and hypocrisy that is the bread and salt of the political class -- no, we want personalities, and conflicts, and rooting interests. The media thinks that, when it comes to covering the affairs of the nation, or state, or county, or city, we are interested only in who wins and by how much, just as in sports.

And that's how we can all lose.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Masked confusion

In his most recent Sunday strip, Stephan Pastis engaged in sorta-kinda wishful thinking. Yes, Lucy pulled the ball away, as always, but, right now, in the U.S. at least, nobody is seriously saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

New reported infections have reached record levels, hospitalizations are soaring, ICU beds are scarce -- it's gotten very old. It's like Groundhog's Day every day... except the calendar advances and we're all Bill Murray. I remember when we used to chuckle acidly when we asked whether the "two weeks to flatten the curve" were up yet. It may have still been amusing two months in. We're coming up on two years now of these miserable two weeks.

Until recently, anyway, the Curmudgeon family has fared remarkably well during this time. During the initial phase of the lockdown, Long Suffering Spouse (who, as you will recall, is a teacher) learned the intricacies of Google Classroom and a bunch of other related stuff. However, as the Spanish teacher, she was not required to conduct regular classes during the Spring of 2020 (the focus then was on keeping the kids going on math, English, and history). While Long Suffering Spouse did all sorts of school-related work during that time, she did have more time on her hands than she was used to.

Then, one gloomy Saturday in April -- on or about April 4 is my best guess but, of course, all the days were really the same when most everyone took the lockdown seriously -- we saw a story on the news about masks.

I know it must be hard to recollect, now, nearly two years later, but there was a time when the public health authorities were not all persuaded about the utility of masks. In fact, some authorities -- recognized authorities I'm talking here, not YouTube or TikTok crazies -- were concerned that constantly wearing masks might endanger the health of the persons wearing the masks! And, besides, they argued then, there was no certainty that wearing a mask would ward off a COVID-19 infection.

Of course, at that time -- and remember, please, I'm talking about nearly two years ago now -- there was some serious dispute as to whether Covid could be contracted from the air. It turns out -- I remember looking this up, and I had a lot of time, at that time, to look things up -- that medicine generally has (had? by now hopefully had?) a knee-jerk prejudice against believing in airborne viruses. So... droplets? Sure. Contaminated bananas at the grocery? Wipe everything down before putting anything away. It doesn't matter if I don't have all the details right here; I'm confident I have the gist of it.

Health care professionals should wear masks -- that was the original position -- but the rest of us either did not need them or, even if we did, should not wear them because PPP, like toilet paper, was a scarce commodity. It was our patriotic duty not to wear masks. Save them for the doctors and nurses and EMTs!

And that's why, that gloomy April Saturday nearly two years ago, it came as a bit of a surprise when the TV news advised the CDC had decided that mask-wearing might not be such a bad idea for everyone after all. However, since PPP was still scarce as hen's teeth, we the people should go online and find patterns for cloth masks. Thus advised, Long Suffering Spouse immediately got up and got out the sewing machine. And started making masks. Lots of masks. For us. For the kids. For the grandkids.

Her early models had long ties, kind of like the surgical masks on old TV doctor shows. Mask down, I was Ben Casey (I'd leave the bottom string tied up around my neck). Mask up, I was fixin' to rob the 3:10 stage from Dodge City. (Throw down that chest with the railroad payroll money!)

But Long Suffering Spouse soon graduated to models with elastic ear loops. And we ran out of old sheets pretty quick, too. That meant trips -- careful, cautious trips -- to Michael's or JoAnn Fabrics for cloth for masks. In the many, many months since, Long Suffering Spouse has created all sorts of seasonal masks. She needed 'em -- her school was open throughout the 2020-2021 school year and she wore a new mask each day -- and she would fill special orders from the kids and grandkids too (you want unicorns? mermaids? no problem).

I had my one brief shining moment concerning masks during one of these fabric scrounging trips some months back. I saw a bolt of gray fabric with a black and white Dunder Mifflin Paper Company logo. "Grab some of this," I suggested, "the kids will love masks made from this pattern." My wife had no idea what I was talking about -- but she got the fabric and made the masks and the kids did like them. I think one of the kids, or at least an in-law, actually wore The Office mask on a brief trip to his or her actual office. Remember just a couple of months ago... when people were talking about reopening offices?

Anyway, I think it safe enough to say that Long Suffering Spouse has a serious investment in cloth masks. A personal investment.

But the news changed again, just within the past few days. The omicron variant is so contagious that cloth masks alone will no longer suffice. Even if decorated with mermaids, unicorns, or the logo of a fictional paper company. Cloth masks would have to be worn, if at all, with the blue surgical masks. Better yet, according to the latest thinking, we should all start wearing the KN95 masks or their equivalents (the equivalents have similar names but are manufactured in different places) that were in such short supply at the outset of these interminable two weeks.

And then the news advised that all of Chicago's 50 aldermen had been provided with KN95 masks to give away to constituents.

Apparently the supplies of KN95 masks have been replenished. (But... have you noticed? Toilet paper seems to be getting scarce again. On our last two trips to the grocery, before and after Christmas, the shelves that weren't empty in the toilet paper aisle were filled with no-name, off-brand substitutes....)

Anyway, my course was clear. And, if I hadn't figured it out all by myself, Long Suffering Spouse made sure I understood: I was to get myself to the alderman's office posthaste and grab me as many of those masks as I could get. And maybe I could ask, while I was at it, if some of these special masks might be made available to the teachers at my wife's school.

It's good to have a purpose. I've spent most of this global Pandemic as an empty vessel into which stimulus checks might be poured. The checks didn't make up for the costs of groceries I consumed... but it was some contribution anyway.

Anyway, I sent an email to the alderman's office inquiring about the availability of the masks, and while I was at it I asked about masks for the teachers as well. I got a prompt response, too: The alderman had made arrangements to take care of the school.

You could read the email in such a way as to think that maybe I had something to do with that. Long Suffering Spouse thought so, when I forwarded it to her. Her principal may have thought so, too, when Long Suffering Spouse forwarded it to her.

But the truth of the matter is entirely different. The alderman and one of the other teacher's husbands are buddies and the masks came through him.

Ah well.

But I did pick up our household allotment of 10 KN95 masks and Long Suffering Spouse is wearing one of them now. Or maybe one of the ones dropped off at the school. These masks all look alike. No mermaids or unicorns or anything.

I guess we need them. The Covid is all around us. Again. And, unlike past surges, or peaks, the disease has this time hit close to home: Since November, four of my five kids, three of their spouses, and seven of my grandkids have come down with the bug. Only four of my grandkids are old enough to receive vaccinations, but everyone who could has had at least two shots. Most of us (including me) are fully vaxxed and boostered. Thankfully, the virus has made no one in our immediate family seriously ill. My wife attributes this to the vaccinations and the masks. She's probably right. But I don't care as much as I suppose I should: I just want this to be over.