Saturday, November 21, 2015

Books(h)elf: A Civil Action

Many years ago, I sold off nearly all my 'real' books. Since then I have from time to time gone out to purchase a new copy of a book that I can't get out of my mind. I figured I would start telling the stories of these books, and how they relate to my life.

A Civil Action

As I look back on it I am not sure what made me go to law school.

I tell people that it was because I got hit by a drunk driver and broke my neck, and we had to hire a lawyer to sue my own insurance company because I had underinsured motorist coverage, but the insurance company claimed I was not ‘underinsured,’ and I thought my lawyer had a cool job and seemed like a great guy.

I think that’s all true.

It’s true about the drunk driver. It’s true about the broken neck. The rest is subject to speculation and possibly remembering the things I want to remember. For example: I say that I sued my insurance company but I cannot find a record of a lawsuit having actually been filed, and while online records going back to 1989 or 1990 are sketchy, there are records back that far. Sometimes I think I didn’t sue them at all, but if I did not, then how did I get $35,000 as a settlement just prior to my going to law school? That was well after the statute of limitations would have run. I know about statutes of limitations, now, sitting here 23 years after all that, and I look back and wonder what really happened, then.  Did I file a lawsuit? Did my parents file a lawsuit? How could they? I was an adult, although I still lived at home. They hired my lawyer for me, though. I still remember him (and coincidentally have just been hired by someone whose opponent is represented by my old lawyer, the first time I have come across him in 17 years of practicing.)

I have to admit that I don’t really know how I came into the $35,000, which was a lot of money to me, but maybe not enough money, really, to compensate a 20-year-old whose neck was broken and who had to have his vertebrae fused in an operation and still has a lot of stiffness and soreness, all these years later. Who knows? I’m sure it was all handled properly.

That was not the only part of my life, my early 20s, where I left significant factors unexamined and just sort of barged headlong while assuming everything was okay because it was okay enough.  I would repeat that sort of behavior about 20 years later, when I became a partner with a couple of other lawyers and for four years made less money each year, without ever seeing the books and ever understanding, really, why things were falling apart – this at the end of a 10-year period where I never made as much as I probably should have, but I made enough to not hate it, so I put up with it. Is it okay to go through life not demanding to know the truth about anything, if you are happy with how things seem to be?

Another reason I went to law school was that when I was thinking about going to law school I took a 6-month paralegal course from one of those schools that is almost certainly ripping everybody off, although I have to say I did learn quite a bit there, so while it was far far more expensive than it should have been, I did at least get some benefit from it. I graduated that program and got my (unpaid) internship at the Milwaukee Public Defender’s office, where I interned mostly for a lawyer whose name I think was Jeff. I remember him vaguely looking like a cross between Paul Rudd and (a younger) Dustin Hoffman. Jeff had me do some research on a motion to suppress some evidence. I did the research and then he asked me what I’d found. I gave him the cases and talked about them a bit and he nodded and said “Uh huh uh huh” and acted like I hadn’t really found anything at all. He let me go to court with him on that motion. As I watched him argue the issue, I sat at the table thinking I could do better. It was probably actually that moment that made me decide that yeah I would go to law school.  Not only that I could do better but that I didn’t want to be the one sitting at the table taking notes. I wanted to be the guy standing and making arguments.

I’ve never understood why someone wouldn’t want to be the quarterback, the lead singer, the President as opposed to the Vice President. I have this weird sort of dynamic in that I want to be left alone and really don’t want people to bug me – I really do, most of the time, hate most people.  Not even abstractly. I hate people actively, and personally – but at the same time I want people to know who I am and look at me and be amazed by me. Not talk to me, but to think that I’m awesome.

Remember that scene in Almost Famous where Jason Lee gets mad because the guitarist or whoever is popular and he says something like I’m only the lead singer. That is a sentiment I understand and endorse: Why are you caring about that person when I am here is one of the guiding principles of my life.

We had to read A Civil Action for I guess the beginning of probably the second year of law school. I am trying to guess at the timing because as I recall, Sweetie read it before I did, so we must have been dating already, and that means that it probably wasn’t maybe until the second semester of the second year of law school. Although that seems weird, because by then I’d taken all the classes on civil procedure that lawyers have to take. So maybe I read it before that and then she read it? That doesn’t seem right: I recall distinctly her beginning to read the book, possibly because she was just stuck hanging around my apartment or something and there wasn’t much else to do, back then: this was the mid-90s and there wasn’t an Internet to speak of. I didn’t subscribe to any magazines at the time. We had some sort of weird low-budget cable at the apartment I shared with my friend Dan, and got about 4 channels, one of which was Cinemax, which used to be about as dirty as things got, pre-Internet.

A Civil Action is about an environmental lawsuit, something to do with contaminated land, Erin Brockovich, et al.  That is all I remember about it, that and the part where one of the lawyers in the book drafts up a “Rule 11” motion. “Rule 11” motions are motions alleging that part or all of a case is frivolous. I recall that part of the book, but whether I recall it independently, or whether I recall it now because so much of my identity as a lawyer is in one way or another staked on Rule 11-type issues is an open question. In my practice, I face a lot of Rule 11-type motions. I face them in part because I practice an area of law that is under used and not very well known. I face them also because I sue banks and law firms and insurance companies and corporations, and these defendants have jillions of dollars and hire giant law firms made up of lawyers who must keep up their billable hours and who drive Porsches and who wear suits to the office on Saturday – where they have to go, because they cannot not work on Saturdays -- and these lawyers are often trying desperately to find something, anything, to push back against me, so they argue that the case is frivolous.  I find it annoying. I fight them (and win them) all the time, and I wish that lawyers would stop doing it, as it simply wastes time. But lawyer are terrible people. If you randomly selected 100 lawyers around the country, maybe one of them would be a decent person. Maybe.

That was true of law students, too. I think the only people worse than lawyers are the people who desperately want to be lawyers.  I didn’t like many of the law students I knew in law school, any more than I liked many people I knew, anywhere. But law students seemed worse. I am, and was by that time, used to people knowing so much more than me about everything. Every thing. I can recall in 5th grade, one of my earliest memories, the whole class suddenly getting up and lining up. Where are we going? I remember thinking. What are we doing? Everybody else seemed to know. I didn’t. We walked to the gym or the presentation room or something, I don’t remember where we went or what we did, but I clearly recall the fact that everyone seemed to know what the plan was, except me.

Another time, we were going on a field trip to the Milwaukee Public Museum, and I didn’t remember that we were, and so I didn’t have a cold lunch with me. When I think about that memory, though, it seems hazy and indistinct, like the kind of memory I might have if I saw a movie of something and then later thought maybe the movie wasn’t a movie but was actually my life. So I am not sure if that happened to me, or not. But I remember it almost like it did.

Law students, though, not only knew more than anyone else, but wanted desperately to project how much more they knew than everyone else. It was like they were constantly pushing back against insecurity and had to shove it onto people around them to avoid suffocating. From the first day of law school, I was inundated with people talking about things like outlines. I didn’t know what they were, in the law school sense. I still don’t, really. I have gathered that outlines are just notes that were organized into better, post-class form, but still: outlines were a thing people talked about incessantly. They were always going to outline things, and work on their outlines, and meet in study groups to outline things, and meanwhile I was trying to figure out if this week my $20 for groceries would be able to buy me more than ground turkey, Jiffy baking mix, and oatmeal. That was my budget for groceries per week my first week of law school: twenty dollars. It was 1995. I just did an inflation calculation on the web, and found out that my $20 in 1995 dollars would have the same purchasing power as $31.23 in 2015 dollars.

My twenty dollars for grocery budget was so tight, and my understanding of society so slight, that one day, when I saw a flier for a grocery store, I thought it could get me free money. Shop at Cap Centre Foods and pay with your debit card, it said, And get up to $20 cash back. I interpreted that to mean that by shopping there I could actually be paid money. This was a thing I thought. I was 26 and in law school. I called the store on the phone. My phone back then had a long cord that stretched from one end of the studio apartment I’d rented to the other, and I couldn’t afford to talk long-distance very much because it cost me $0.10 per minute after 8 o’clock and something like 17 cents a minute before.

I got someone from the Cap Centre Foods on the phone.

Hello?” they said.

Hi I’m calling about the twenty dollars cash back for the debit purchase?” I said.

Yes?” the person asked.

How does that work, exactly?” I asked. How does it work that I could purchase groceries, use my debit card to pay, and get cash from you, free? I was wondering.

Um.” The person said. There was a pause.  “Um. You pay with your debit card and you can hit one of the buttons to get cash of 5 or 10 or 20 dollars at the register.” A pause. “From your bank account,” the person added, having apparently suddenly realized what I meant.

Oh. Thanks,” I said, my hope for free money crushed. It would not be until 2015 that I would tell Sweetie that I had decided that there would never be a windfall, never be free money, never be an inheritance from any of my terrible relatives, never be a gift of money or a partner who would treat me fairly and be good at business.  I will have to make any money I make on my own, I announced, having made it to 46 years old still believing in genies and possibility that I might win the lottery.

Law students talked about interviews and law review and blue books, and all sorts of things I didn’t understand. One thing to know about me is that I essentially sleepwalked through more or less the first 24 years of my life. I do not say this to brag but to apologize: I was smart enough for most of my life to never have to try. I breezed through school without any effort. In second grade they tried to skip me a grade to third grade but it didn’t take: I didn’t do well enough and was unhappy so they moved me back and from then on out school couldn’t have possibly been easier, really. I once got a 108, out of 100, on a high school British Lit test and I hadn’t read a single one of the stories or books. In high school, I couldn’t skip out so I went to class and just doodled and sort of listened enough to know what to say on tests and then said that. I got through algebra and geometry and trigonometry simply by brute force: I learned how to mimic math much the way I had, at 4 years old, memorized the eye chart at the doctor’s office so that for a brief moment they thought that somehow my legally-blind lazy eye had somehow developed 20/10 vision. I never understood math. What I understood was how to repeat the math well enough to get a B, or sometimes an A. I got only two C’s in my first 12 years of school, one in fourth grade for whatever, I don’t remember, and one in Chemistry as a junior in high school when I couldn’t fake my way through the final exam, which required us to figure out what kind of salt we’d been given by doing various tests on it.

In college, I learned, initially, how disastrous this was, to live this way and never learn anything more than how to fake having learned. It wasn’t that I was dumb: I read all the time and understood a lot about science and politics and literature. I just didn’t want to learn when I was forced to. So by the time I went to college I was used to the idea that everything would just be easy and I could continue to just fake my way through. Then I failed my calculus midterm – I was only in calculus because I thought I wanted to be pre-med, which was what my mom had told me I should want to be – and dropped the class. Then I began failing chemistry, and had to get an A on the final exam just to pass the class, period. I read 17 chapters of chemistry in the few days before the exam, desperately trying to learn enough to pass. I did: I got a 93 out of 100 and passed the class with a D-. My grades for my first semester of college in 1987. I only took four classes that semester, dropped one and nearly failed the second. When I returned home for Xmas, my family life, already not strong, deteriorated further: My parents insisted that I had to get better grades, I insisted it was y life, they said they wouldn’t pay for the next semester at college, and I dropped out. I drove up to the campus in my parent’s car the first day after spring break and packed up my dorm room. I listened to Led Zeppelin’s Fool In The Rain on cassette as I drove past the dorms for the last time that year.

When I went back to school, intermittently, in 1989 and 1990 and then 1991 and so on, it was easy again. I’d switched majors to political science, because I liked politics. Poli Sci was good, though, because it was back in the realm of subjects that don’t require me to actually learn anything. What I recall of my academics from the next 2 years, at UW-Waukesha’s 2-year satellite campus, was that I worked at the radio station, which was a cable radio station and I don’t think anyone listened to it. Who gets their radio through cable, even in 1990?

I also took fencing at UW-Waukesha, because fencing was something I had tried while at UW-Madison as a club sport back in 1987. I was pretty fat and unathletic, but that turned out not to matter too much in fencing, especially with the caliber of fencing I faced in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

So I drifted back through undergrad, with a semester where I took a paralegal certification course and some classes at UW-Milwaukee, and I went to Washington on an internship and to Morocco on a foreign study program, and other than the few things that I liked which kind of stuck with me all the way to today – a few words in Japanese, some Arabic, remembering where Cassiopeia is in the sky and what a red shift is – I learned nothing much else that I retain, all these years later, other than maybe some of the basic concepts from my logic class, and a sort of memory of how regression analysis works that I actually used in a deposition recently.

That was how I ended up at law school without really knowing anything about anything. To me, school had never been a place to learn anything. School was a way to get to the next thing. I had to go to high school because they made me. I had to get good grades in high school so that I could go to college. I didn’t need to learn to get to college; I just needed to get good grades. If I can do the latter without the former, my younger self thought, so much the better. In college, political science became a degree that would get me to law school.

It was in law school that I first began to try. When I first drove back to Madison to find an apartment, I walked to the bridge that leads from the library mall to Bascom Hill.  This is a bridge you can see in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School; Bascom Hill is the place where they filmed the scene where Rodney told his son he was going back to school.

I stood on that bridge and looked up at the hill and back at library mall and down at the road. It was August, 1995. It was hot and sunny and still and heavy. I got scared. I thought what if I can’t do it?

That was the last time ever that I thought that, about anything. That was my last doubt about my ability to do anything.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Updates On God: #WWJDASRWMBTBTAMNBHCICTTFETTB*, or the ten best responses to the Washington Post article about how Jesus would handle Syrian Refugees

(*That stands for What Would Jesus Do About Syrian Refugees Who Might Be Terrorists But Then Again Might Not Be Holy Crap I Cant Take The fear Everybody To The Bunker.  Let's put it on a t-shirt!)

The other day, the Washington Post published the provocatively titled, if not particularly well-researched or written, article "Would Jesus Take In Syrian Refugees."  For those of you who missed it when every single policy decision was framed in terms of how much God loved Americans, we may be heading back to those glorious days when fears of terrorism in Europe caused America to arrest and hold, without a lawyer or even telling his family where he was, an Oregon lawyer who, it turned out, was not only entirely unconnected to the bombings but HA HA THE FBI HAD BEEN TOLD THAT BEFORE HE WAS ARRESTED.

Good times, good times.  That's why, as a person who despises his civil liberties but LOVES simplistic interpretations of complicated foreign policy and religious doctrine, I welcomed the Post's attempt to inject Jesus into the 'debate' about whether we should let Syrians come here and blow up our babies.

Unfortunately, the article sheds no light on what Jesus would actually do about Syrian terrorists WHO MIGHT BE BEHIND YOU RIGHT NOW *whew can't be too careful* but fortunately the commenters had their fingers right on Jesus' pulse, as it were. Here are the top ten comments, in order:

10. User Dana Goldman knows God helps those who help themselves (fight a bloody civil war):

The women and children can come. The men need to stay and fight for their country. Hand up no hand outs.

9. Unlike Starbucks, Brian Fejer didn't forget the reason for the season:

If only we had a seasonal appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge, turned away by the heartless! The Republican Party is emulating the barbarians! ‪#‎WWJD‬

8. It's all a matter of how good your screening is, says Jackie Buchanan:

Jesus would know their hearts.

7. "IPDaily" HA I GET IT knows their hearts, too:

I'm sure Jesus would take them in, just before they cut his head off!!

6. "lazerfox" felt the debate was too narrow: who ELSE would Jesus love?

Ouch baby. Very ouch.  Jesus also wouldn't condemn homosexuals, hate others for not being christian, nor hold racist opinions.

5. Hey, "Dave27," the bracelet isn't what WOULDN'T Jesus do:

Jesus wouldn't create Taliban to fight Russians. Jesus wouldn't ask western Ukrainians to kill off eastern Ukrainians. Jesus wouldn't create ISIS to fight Assad government.

(PS DAVE 27, everyone knows Jesus is #upforwhatever.)

4. "Hyphenated" has the solution: not in MY backyard:

The truth is letting in a few refugees is a lottery - for them and for us. Only a fraction will be allowed in and there is a risk that among that fraction it will increase terrorism now or in the future. The kinder thing to do at this point is to provide a lot of aid as close as possible to their current homes, so they can return when the fighting stops.  
 This may take a long time, but it will actually help more people and not export the risk to the US.

3. User "Inajeep" nailed the left-wing conspiracy the Post is attempting to pull off:

WaPo, of the Democrat party who booed God at their convention now invokes Jesus in their desperate attempt to allow terrorists to come into America so they can report on a Paris-style tragedy in the US. Nice job
(Honestly the Post is probably just trying to get the GOP back for how Bush let people think the terrorists blew up the World Trade Center. WAKE UP SHEEPLE.)

2. Vick Valoure also saw trouble on the American front:

Once a society becomes grasped in the clutches of zealous hysteria, the outcome is inevitable.  I'd like to think that we could resist the power of herd-mentality but we were "designed" that way to fuel progressive change for our benefit. Because chaos & hardship fosters creativity & success.  Proof of this theory is the fact that we are divided today more than ever in USA's past because of our ideological differences. Just like we were right before the civil war,...but even more so this time!

But the best comment of all was from the cleverly-named "Kingy of all Mankind," who saw right through Jesus' clever disguise:

1. I don't care what some middle eastern person of the past would do. I'm not for those middle eastern people in my country. They don't like US and they want the moon to be happy with US. Send them back for their election with ASSad.


I see what you did there! ASSad. Take THAT, centuries of complicated Middle Eastern politics.

What Mr Bunches Is Watching

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I had this moment

I couldn't remember
how the
theme from Rocky went
sort of sad.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Slacktivism doesn't help: Paris Edition

OMG Jennifer Lawrence (net worth $60,000,000) WORE A TRI-COLOR PARIS PIN TO HER MOVIE PREMIERE the other night!

The Daily Mail called it an "unprecedented show of support."

Paris is fixed :)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

10 Minutes About "So You Want To Be A Wizard."

I found out about So You Want To Be A Wizard through a recommendation on IO9, which said that "Diane Duane's Young Wizards Is The Fantasy Book Series Everyone Should Be Reading." I don't know if I agree that everyone should read it, but I did and I liked it, and I'm pretty picky, so you probably should, too.

So You Want To Be A Wizard is the first book in the series, and it somehow hits every single step we expect of a book about a girl who gets to be a wizard, while somehow making the story still seem fresh and interesting.  That's tough to do, especially since competing with Harry Potter in that department is kind of like writing a swords-and-sorcery adventure using elves and wizards without being accused of mimicking Tolkien -- and while still being original.

I should note that So You Want... actually precedes Harry by nearly two decades, so while I read Rowling's series first, if anyone copied anyone... forget that. J.K. Rowling is superlitigious, as is apparently every single person who ever read her book, according to this Wikipedia article on the number of people who sued her and lost badly.

So You Want To Be A Wizard has a misunderstood and bullied protagonist (Nita) who finds a magical book accidentally (the Wizard manual), learns that she is one of the rare few people who can be a wizard, and sets out on a quest that involves her saving the world... eventually. It has a fire-breathing dragon, it has a friend who is better at spells than Nita is who kind of shows her the ropes, it has trees coming to life and battling, and it features kids who really use about two or three spells to get everything done.

That said, the book doesn't really feel like it's full of tropes, at all, first because the writing is done pretty well: the book moves along at a good pace.  I suspect it's aimed as a YA book but like the Potter and Narnia books it resembles (or which resemble it) it doesn't feel like it's meant for a 13-year-old.

In addition, Duane adds nice touches to her magic: the magic is a combination of the heavily-detailed magic that Lev Grossman uses in his Magician series and science. The magic here is largely used through Speech, which is a way of describing the world that helps keep things alive and which also can change things: wizards work in part by simply talking in magical language that convinces things to be other things, so Nita can change a stone wall into a door by convincing it that it's a door.  That's a neat concept that I wish I had thought up.

Duane also gives a reason for magic and magicians to exist: They keep the universe from running out. The mythos behind the series has to do with a master of evil, who goes by a lot of names but mostly is referred to as You-Know-Who, because nobody can say his name.

AS AN ASIDE I think we can stop that now: The Villain Whose Name Can't Be Said Because He Will Hear And Destroy You is dumb. I never liked the concept, and it hasn't grown any better with repetition.  JUST SAY THE VILLAIN'S NAME.

Anyway, this Master of Evil at the dawn of creation got scared and introduced entropy, and thus death, to the universe, meaning that one day the Universe will end.  So wizards have the Speech, which they can use to keep things alive, and the main collection of the Speech is found in The Book Of Night With Moon, which honestly is an awesome name and is another example of how Duane's book rises above average-level Magical Kid fiction.  Periodically, wizards have to get The Book of Night With Moon and read from it to keep the universe from ending, and that's [SPOILER ALERT THAT YOU'D PROBABLY HAVE SEEN COMING IF YOU GAVE A MOMENT OR TWO'S THOUGHT ABOUT THIS BEING THE FIRST BOOK IN THE SERIES] what Nita and her young wizard friend Kit have to do: They try to practice their first spell to find a special pen a bully stole from Nita, and in doing so accidentally call into their world a sentient white dwarf star they call "Fred" who teleports the pen to the monstrous version of New York where You Know Who lives, and where it turns out the Book of Night With Moon happens to have been hidden.

The white dwarf star thing is an especially nice touch: Fred is one of the better characters I've come across in any book, and again is one I wish I'd thought of. It's stuff like that, and the monsters in Alternate New York, and the fact that the whole book feels super-well-thought-out, that makes this book worth reading.

So, not maybe for everyone. In terms of 'kids discovering they would save the world' books, it's nowhere near as good as the Narnia books or His Dark Materials, but it's at least equal to Harry Potter or those Prydain books.