Friday, August 26, 2016

Book 63: The stories of people who didn't make the team.

Someone once asked me why I wrote so many sad short stories. I said I didn't know, and then wrote a happy one.

It seems to me that books are more often sad than movies and television shows, and short stories are more often sad than book-length stories.

Of course, there are happy endings, and then there are happy endings. I also once noted that all Xmas movies seem to have the same basic plot: A person has a life. That life gets a little worse. On Xmas, the person is restored to his original status: It's a Xmas miracle! Everyone's happy.

So what really constitutes a sad ending and what really constitutes a happy one? Audiences hated the original ending to Fatal Attraction, which had Glenn Close winning. Instead, the 'happy' ending had Anne Archer shooting a woman in their home, a little girl's pet dead, a family if not destroyed at least extremely disrupted. Not to mention which: there is no indication that Glenn Close's character was crazy before meeting Michael Douglas; it's entirely possible that had she never met him, she would not be dead at the end of the movie.  Happy indeed!

Those were the kinds of things I ended up thinking about the stories in Tenth Of December, which are beautiful and amazing stories but which were so gut-wrenching that at least three times in the book I had to simply stop and go do something else. These are not stories for the faint-hearted, emotionally speaking, and even when they are happy they are sad -- and when they are sad, they are devastatingly so.

The collection begins with Victory Lap, in which a girl getting ready for a dance recital is abducted at knife point just as the boy next door arrives home. The story switches perspective between the three characters, with each switch getting darker and sadder, moving the story far above the melodrama it might have been.

Sticks is a great example of how flash fiction should work: the story, about a man who has a sort of crucifix of sticks in his yard on which he hangs various holiday decorations, is supershort. While it could easily be longer, there is a synchronicity between the brevity of the story and the way the sticks play a role in the man's life, and its shortness is itself almost like a stick, in that the story just comes in and wallops you and then is gone.

Puppy was where the collection started to move into the kind of emotional minefield that made me occasionally turn the book off: the story is a simple one about a mother taking her kids to buy a new puppy, and the first half of the story is told from the purchasing mom's perspective, with the second half from the much-poorer selling mom's point of view. The odd similarities between the two create a sort of there but for the grace of God moment in the story, which ends in a way that will choke you up.

One thing about Saunders' stories is that the characters in them, while somewhat distinct, have a tendency to feel cut from the same mold if you listen to (or read) all the stories in a short time. That's not a bad thing, because they start to feel representative of a certain kind of person, a certain way of existing. Saunders' characters have a tendency to let their train of thoughts move them into a dark place before seemingly remembering that in our society, we don't do that, and pulling themselves back. A person will think, for example, that he's not happy with his work, and how he hasn't achieved very much, and maybe his dreams as a kid were sort of dashed, before suddenly saying no but I know work is great it's an honorable way to make a living.

It's an odd tic Saunders resorts to over and over that starts to resonate, and makes you think about how we have these things we just... do. I once noted that whenever someone says Of all the people in the world who would you most want to have dinner with, or something similar, we should just automatically fill in "besides your mom" because we all feel this obligation to say something like Well um my mom and Jesus... or some other space filler. We're trained to almost say these things by rote: we're not supposed to tell people they're not good people, and not supposed to complain about some things. How many times have you heard someone -- even me -- say We live in a great country but... as if we can't say something's wrong with the US without first hedging our bets? Saunders' characters do that so easily, so facilely, that it lays open the lie within it: like a multiple choice test, often the first answer is the right one.

Escape From Spiderhead moves into science-fictiony territory: the story of a man imprisoned for murder, with other murderers, on whom various drugs are tested is eerie not just in its presentation but in how likely it actually seems it could be. As with many such dystopian setups, the story takes a dramatic and startling turn for the weirder and worse before finishing with what conceivably might have been the only happy ending possible -- and it's one of those but is it happy endings.

Al Roosten is a glimpse into the muddled mind of a man running a sort of antique store on the night of a local businessman charity auction where the people are supposed to bid for a lunch with the businessman. Al is like Walter Mitty, only more desperate and sad. Where Mitty daydreamed of being a pilot (I think? That was a long time ago) Al's dreams are simply that he would get invited to dinner with the rich guy in town, and that at that dinner, his nephews who are living with him after his sister's divorce wouldn't break anything. It's like Walter Mitty woke up in the midst of the Great Recession.  This is what men can dream of these days, it seems to say: we can't aspire to fly, to have adventures, to break out of our humdrum existence. We can only hope that the rich will share some of the glory with us as their occasional guests.

That theme carries into The Semplica Girl Diaries, another scifi story of sorts in which the main character is a middle-class guy living in a rich city; at the outset of the story he and his family go to the birthday party of his daughter's classmate, and are walked around the rich folks' house, noting the three stocked trout streams and fancy treehouse that's said to be as big as the narrator's house. The story is narrated by the man writing in his diary, frequently making reference to future people reading it and what they might make of it.

The "Semplica Girls" are girls from foreign countries, brought to America in exchange for money paid to their families; the girls agree to come here and spend the first few years or so here as lawn decorations, with a 'microline' strung through their brains so they can hang and sway in the wind on people's lawns, smiling and waving and chatting, if the owners want, and they play a central role in the story, which doesn't so much end as just... trail away.

The last few stories in the collection are like that; they have endings that don't feel final, in that you cannot picture the words the end in any concrete way set after the last period -- and yet, in a very inchoate way each of the last few stories does end. It just takes a while to set in that yes, that was the ending.  The stories are almost unsettling that way; at first your mind thinks wait it's not over but then you realize that there's really only one way things could go, that even if you don't know exactly how they got there, they're going to end up in that spot where you can tell they're headed.

That, too, was strange. I was thinking one day how when you watch a movie like, say, Captain America, you know the good guys will win. The suspense really is in how they get there: how will he win, what twists will the story take. Saunders' stories are the opposite of that. In these stories, you know that at the end of the line there is no gold medal, no glory. These are the stories of the people who didn't make the team, and even though they're headed in a different direction, they will end up there as certainly as Captain America will shake hands with the president and wave to the crowd.

That's where it's hard to read these stories, sometimes, hard but necessary, in the way that I find it hard but necessary to read every story about every special needs kid with any troubles anywhere: it's necessary because by knowing what I might be in for, I know what to look out for and can try to avoid it. But it's hard because if nobody else could avoid it, how can we? Reading these stories it's difficult to shake the feeling that these really are the stories of the rest of us: these are the stories about all the people who usually don't get stories written about them.  And the reason for that is that these stories are not uplifting, not "the feel-good movie of the year." Nobody shows up on the doorstep to take these kids off to a magical castle. There is no last-minute rescue helicopter barely making it to the ledge to get people off the mountain. In these stories, nobody gets out alive.

Why do we write sad stories? I wrote 365 stories in a single year, one a day, and a great great many of them were sad. I said at the time that I was writing out my sadness. Life -- as Saunders' characters seem to recite by rote -- requires that we put a happy face on so much. We have to smile and grin and bear it and say that no it's no big deal or that's okay or you're right. We have to tell ourselves that we love our jobs even though there are about a million things we'd rather be doing, and let's be honest: that's true. I think I have a pretty good job: my own boss, helping people, I make okay money, I have a lot of flexibility, it's different nearly every day. Despite all that, if I won the lottery right now I'd probably never work a day in my life again, because if you could, instead of waking up Monday and getting showered and heading to an office to spend the day taking phone calls from lawyers (lawyers are the worst kind of people and they barely qualify as people in most instances), if you could skip that and sleep until you felt like waking, then walk outside and see the Caribbean sky, all blue, with the water only slightly disturbed by a bit of a breeze, if you could spend the morning swimming and then eat lunch and in the afternoon read for a while or go for a walk or boating, and then have a nice dinner, if you could have every day be trips to the zoo and going to the Statue of Liberty and making giant Hot Wheel tracks in your yard, instead of cleaning out the gutters and putting more paper in the copier, who WOULDN'T do that?

So we tell ourselves life isn't so bad, that we have good jobs and lots of vacation time and that, but we know that life isn't so good, that we haven't somehow found a way to make life better for ourselves and everyone around us, but we can't spend every second of every day saying life isn't so good. So we patch on a smile and make the best of it, but there's that sadness in the background that comes out, sometimes. If you're a writer, maybe it comes out in your stories.

Home and My Chivalric Fiasco are both interesting but feel somewhat incomplete; if this collection has a weak link it is these two. In Home a man has come back home on the night his mother is getting evicted, just as he is on leave or perhaps discharged from the military. The story follows his wanderings over a few days, but the unexplained mysteries -- what happened, this weird store he runs into, his wife's new husband -- make the story feel underdeveloped.  My Chivalric Fiasco is similar, but a bit worse: a man gets a promotion after witnessing his boss essentially raping a coworker, and then blows it. The story feels rushed and sketchy, like it wasn't really ready to be read. Take these stories out of the book and the rest would be stronger. They're not terrible, just not done.

Tenth Of December, the final story, is a knockout. It starts with a kid heading out to walk around in the woods playing pretend, then stumbles into a man attempting to kill himself by hypothermia, and the way the story jumps back and forth between the two perspectives makes it all the more astonishing; like with Victory Lap the change in points of view makes the story rise above the plot, and drives it into your mind. I felt like I was on the edge of my seat waiting for it to happen.

Overall, Saunders is John Cheever writing for the 21st century, which is a high compliment from me, as Cheever's stories are amazing. Saunders captures moments in time, and elements of mood, that feel essential. His stories are only superficially about plot and characters. They are, on  a deeper level, stories about what it means to be alive, when being alive might be the only good thing about your life. They are stories about now, and while you may not always want to read them, they are the kind of stories we should not turn away from.

You're not really helping.

Doing our weekly budget meeting the other day, Sweetie mentioned that we gave $10 or something to our nephew for his football program fundraiser. His football program fundraiser for a football program run by the school.

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, I know how you feel about those," she said.  "But the team writes everyone's name on a blackboard and shows how much each raised and I didn't want him to be zero."

So: schools are publicly shaming kids at the same time we cut taxes all around the world, transferring the burden of paying for things from everyone in equal measure to those who care enough and can afford to give something.

There is a sign in the door of the health club across town, the one we go to because Mr F loves the pool even though they think he's a terrorist because: forks.  The sign asks people to "Pack The Bus" or something: to give money to buy school supplies for kids who can't otherwise afford it, since the school won't have the extras.

So: communities are asking people with enough money to join a health club to help pay for kids with school supplies.

Over the past 10 years, budget cut after budget cut has been made at the local, state, and federal level. These cuts are almost always supported by most of people who live in the community where my nephew plays (Reedsburg, Wisconsin, is in Sauk County. Sauk County narrowly voted for the Democrat in the last governor's election, 50.9% for the Democrat. It narrowly voted for Republican Scott Walker in 2010.)

A 2014 study showed that more than 1/4 of all states had cut school funding by 10% or more in the past six years. 35 of 50 states cut school funding over that time. In the states where funding was increasing in 2014, the increase was illusory: New Mexico, for example, spent $72 more per student in 2014 than the year before, but over the previous five years had cut per-pupil spending by $946.  New Mexico students have a pretty big hole to climb out of.

In addition, state spending levels during that time may have been artificially propped up. Another review found that state spending decreased sharply after federal aid was reduced in 2012. Interestingly, despite the decreases in funding, total state spending in relation to personal incomes has remained between 8-9% (state funds only) for the past 20 years.

What does it say when spending per capita remains the same but school budgets are continuously cut? It says that budgets are not being cut across the board: If you spend 8% of your income continuously, but cut back on Expense A, that means Expenses B-Z are getting more of the same amount of money.

Many states have gone Republican over the past 10 years. Kansas is one of them. Kansas by 2015 had the lowest taxes per capita of any state. (Although it should be noted, Kansas' average of $2500 is only $200 less than the national average, period, so most states have modest if not nonexistent taxes.)  1/2 of all of Kansas' tax revenues come from sales tax, which is an unfair, regressive tax: the poor and middle-class cannot as easily afford to pay a flat-rate tax like a sales tax. Almost none of Kansas' revenues come from property taxes. (In 2009, to make up revenue shortfalls, the sales tax was increased by 1%.)

The vast majority of state spending is done on education and human services.Wisconsin -- another recent Republican state -- spends 50% of its total budget on education and human services. Connecticut spends about 50% of its budget on those two items. Florida, 58%.

 Kansas, meanwhile, spends about 90% of its money on those two items. 90%.  Why is Kansas' percentage of spending so out-of-whack? Because Kansas has no money.

What do states do when they have no money? They cut spending. In Kansas, government spending increased by 0.7% in 2015 -- less of an increase than the year before, and less than the rate of inflation. An increase of less than the rate of inflation is a budget cut. If your expenses are 10% higher this year than last, and I give you a raise of 5%, you will have to cut back on something. Kansas' Republican governor, Sam Brownback, vows to continue to reduce spending by Kansas government. Since only 10% of Kansas' spending goes to anything but schools and human services, guess which expenditures will continue to bear the brunt of these cuts?

This year, the Kansas State Supreme Court ordered Kansas to find a way to pay for schools for 2016-2017 or "the schools won't be able to open."

One of the problems the Kansas courts found? The poorest systems received $54,000,000 less in funding under the state's scheme -- the exact word for this program -- for funding schools.

What do states do when they run out of money? They raise taxes. Kansas, under Brownback, increased taxes in 2016. The taxes they increased? They raised sales tax again. They reduced tax deductions for middle class workers -- a tax increase by backhand -- and imposed taxes on managed-care facilities. Kansas literally taxed the sick and the poor to help make up a budget shortfall.

What do states do when money runs short? They borrow. The last two 'debt certificates' Kansas has issued were records: $840,000,000 in 2015, $900,000,000 in 2016. A 'debt certificate' is temporary borrowing by IOU. The state describes this as "borrowing from itself." That is incorrect. They are issuing bonds to investors. A bond is, as you probably know, a promise that if you give the state money now it will pay that money back later, with interest. Kansas' total debt in relation to its state gross domestic product is 17%.   Its credit rating was downgraded during Brownback's regime, meaning that it costs more for Kansas to borrow: they are a subprime borrower and have to pay higher interest rates (just like you and me!) The New York times said in 2014 that because things were so bad in Kansas, Brownback faced a stiff election challenge.  It was in fact, stiff: Brownback lost in seven counties. The other 100 or so voted Republican. Public debt has risen by 3,000,000,000 dollars in Brownback's tenure. Three. Billion. Dollars.

The financing of government by borrowing has the effect of using government money to pay investors, rather than to provide schools or roads or human services. Just as increased interest rates on your debt would leave less money for groceries and more for banks, Kansas has the same thing going on.  Bond spending cannot be cut back, not without a fiscal crisis.

Kansas' general fund is nearly $200,000,000 lower in 2015 than it was in 2014.

State budgets are complex things not easily reduced to a few paragraphs. Let me take this complex issue and reduce it to a few paragraphs:

1.   When you vote for anyone who promises a "tax cut," know that IN ALL OF HISTORY NO TAX CUT HAS LED TO GREATER GOVERNMENT REVENUES. When you vote for a 'tax cut' you are voting for reduced spending by the state or federal government.

2.  50% or more of all state spending is education and human services. When you vote for a 'tax cut' you are voting to cut spending on education and human services.

3. When you then give money to school fundraisers, or charities performing those fundraisers, you are voluntarily opting to increase your own taxes. Those things used to be paid out of school budgets.

On that note: even the best charities spend 10-20% of their money on paying their employees. In many charities that ratio is far higher. But more importantly:

The wealthy give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than the poor. Conservatives are more likely to be wealthy than liberals. The majority of conservative donations goes to their religious organization. Which means:

4.  When you give money to school fundraisers, you are allowing rich conservative Republicans to put their money elsewhere while you fund a disproportionate share of the public burden. Where do they put their money? Many times, investment funds that buy state bonds. So the $10 you gave your niece to buy wrapping paper as a fundraiser helped pay interest on a bond to a hedge fund.  :(

15,842 New Words: Notwithstanding everything else in this article, "Wattle and Daub" would be a great name for a pair of 17th century scientists who also investigate crimes in a steampunk-like setting where they occasionally run into historical figures like Ben Franklin and science is vaguely magical.

Now that he was looking at it more closely, he realised that this wall was different in construction to the other three sides of the room. Whilst the others had the typical brushed look of traditional wattle and daub structures, and each wall was a single sheet of the stuff, this one was made up of more than a dozen sections, a criss-cross framework with only the lumpy runnels of thickened mud dried between them. The hole his head had made was smack-bang in the middle of one of these smaller frames, and Marius could see that the edges were thin and brittle, as if there was no internal structure holding the mud together. He gripped the edge of the hole and pulled. A sheet of daub the length of his forearm came away, shattering against the floor. Marius looked at it in amazement. 
"No wattle," he said to himself. "No damn wattle! But how…?"

The Corpse-Rat King, Lee Battersby


Usually I can get what something is from the context, but here all I was able to figure out was that wattle and daub was some sort of construction material.  I was curious as to why Marius would be so amazed that there was no damn wattle.

So I had to look it up.

Wattle is a woven lattice of material -- wood, etc. -- onto which a sticky substance (clay, usually) is daubed. The technique is 6,000 years old, although Wikipedia says not only do some parts of the world still use it, but it's becoming more popular as a sustainable building technique.

But despite Wikipedia's assurances that this was becoming more popular nowadays, I couldn't find any other reference claiming that we 21st Century folk were starting to build our 14,000-square-foot McMansions with mud-based materials.  It seems more aspirational on the part of whichever Wikipedia editor slipped that bit of information into the wattle-and-daub entry.  Hmmm I bet I can get my Wattle'n'Daub Home Construction Manual to sell better with some judicious editing.

That same person also seems to have been at work on the linked page explaining the similar technique of cob, a form of building that involves simply mounding clay and straw and the like into a large wall; the entry for cob tells us that

Cob is fireproof, resistant to seismic activity,[2] and inexpensive. It can be used to create artistic, sculptural forms and has been revived in recent years by the natural building and sustainability movements.

The footnote is to this 2007 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which asks the obviously-rhetorical question "Thinking Of Building A Cob Home?" Contrary to the 'fact' that cob is 'resistant to seismic activity,' the article quotes the Seattle Building Inspector as noting cob would cause concerns because Seattle gets earthquakes.  The article asserts that a study was done on cob's ability to withstand earthquakes, and 'according to one account' cob did very well, per the article. Since scientific studies are not usually anecdotal, I checked that out, too.

A 2012 UBC study investigated using "cob and/or straw bales" to build nonresidential structures. It notes that a cob structure in California "had to be reinforced with other non-natural and semi-natural materials like adobe and steel beams" and that such buildings are "structurally unpredictable."  Just what you want in a sustainable home!

People thinking of building their home out of cob should note what I assume to be a heavily-sarcasm-laden quote from that building inspector about whether you could build a home out of cob:

"In a sense, there's no material that couldn't possibly be used."

Straw, sticks, whatever you want: go wild, sustainable building folk!  Why not Silly Putty, so your house could be decorated with impressions of the Sunday comics on all its walls?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Children Standing In Front Of Old-Timey Marketing

"The only law was the judge." If you want to take over the world, don't worry about becoming president.

I was reading a wrap-up of the end of written by Tom Scocca, when he said the quote that is the title of this post.  Scocca wrote that after detailing, at the end of the Gawker case, how the judge repeatedly denied Gawker a stay of the judgment for a period of 7 days; Gawker wanted to have the judge stop Hulk Hogan and his shadow puppet master Peter Thiel from ransacking the company while they appealed the defamation ruling. The judge wouldn't give the even 7 days, making it necessary for Gawker to file for bankruptcy before filing for appeal.

The upshot of that is, if Gawker wins on appeal, the result might be a hollow one. This week, Gawker was bought at a bankruptcy auction and then shut down. Whether or not you agree with Gawker's decision to publish a story about the Hulk Hogan sex tape (I agree with it, and think the verdict was ridiculous and the result of a childish plutocrat mad that he was outed and having a temper tantrum the way only hypocritical billionaires can), the fact is that the circuit court judge in the defamation case made law.  The circuit court judge essentially issued a ruling that said If you are accused of bad enough stuff, you do not have an effective right of appeal.

I was already thinking about things like this, because last week in a case of mine, the Court of Appeals ordered us to file additional written arguments on an issue that was recently decided by the US Supreme Court. The issue itself is a somewhat arcane one, having to do with 'concrete injuries' and the concept of standing (which is the right to sue: you have standing to sue if you have suffered a concrete injury, to greatly simplify the concept.)

That new ruling, from the US Supreme Court, echoes rulings around the country from lower courts, rulings that I am acutely aware of because 99.9% of my work takes place in lower courts -- in the courts that are in the local courthouse downtown in your city, rather than the lofty appellate courts in Chicago, or Washington. I have never argued a case before either the Wisconsin or US Supreme Court, and I may never. But my cases have helped shape the law for as many people as if I had, for better or worse.

For most people the trip to the local courthouse is as far as it goes. If you have a traffic ticket, a minor criminal charge, a divorce, a foreclosure case, a contract dispute, if you even make it to court it would be surprising; but making it to an appellate court or the Supreme Court is extremely rare, for many reasons.

In Wisconsin, last year, nearly 48,000 civil cases were filed. Of those cases, only 600 actually went to trial. Nearly 19,000 were settled in some other way.

When cases settle, that is law. That's law happening. There's a fascinating study by the University of Chicago that demonstrates that settling cases has a tendency to make it harder to win cases in the future. Here's why, in a nutshell: If you are a plaintiff, you have, generally speaking, a case that is good, or bad. It is worth a lot of money, or a little money.

Good cases worth little money settle out - because the defendant is likely to lose.

Bad cases worth little money settle out - because it is often cheaper to settle than to litigate.

Good cases worth lots of money settle out - to avoid the risk of higher damages at trial or bad publicity.

The cases that make it to trial are, by a majority, bad cases in which the plaintiff wants a lot of money. More cases are tried to judges than to juries these days, and judges dispose of cases by means other than a trial. So the odds are that most civil cases a judge sees are cases that have some weaknesses, and in which the plaintiff is overreaching.  Judges tend to rule against those cases, and those rulings are upheld -- and thus the picture of the law becomes these cases cannot win.

Settlements make law, and often settlements make law because litigants can't afford, emotionally or physically or financially, to fight their opponent. Today, the opponents in cases I discussed with my clients were: two major banks, a group of unions, a lawyer from another state, and a major loan servicing company. My clients are not multinational corporations. If they did not have a lawyer who would let them pay what they can afford, they would probably not have a lawyer, and would be thrown out of court.

In court, the judges at the lowest level often make law informally, as well. If a judge rules in your case and you cannot appeal to get a reversal of that decision, that decision is your law. Even if it is blatantly wrong (as sometimes they are, not always, or even often, but sometimes), if you cannot get an appeal filed, you are stuck with it. Sometimes, as with Gawker, you are stuck with it even if you can appeal.

Judges run on platforms of law and order, criminal sentencing, the like, but the decisions judges make have to do with insurance coverage, with custody and placement of children, with money owed by small businessmen, with what to do about kids with parents who cannot handle the job of being a parent.

Which brings me back to the point about the judges making the law. Within the past few years in Wisconsin, there have been overt attempts to roll back consumer protections: a law was passed limiting the amount of attorneys' fees people like me can win from the other side (many consumer laws require that the company violating the law pay the lawyer's fees if the company loses the suit; these are called 'fee shifting' laws, and make it possible for people like me to represent someone who cannot otherwise afford to pay for a lawyer.) After that law was passed, four lawyers promptly stopped providing the kind of representation I do; I know they stopped because of the law, since they told me so. They now do something else, and I tried to pick up the slack.

Recently, another change was rammed through the state legislature, making it easier for credit card companies to sue people without providing information to them. The lawyer who helped lobby for the bill, a debt collector, talked to me about it. "Were there any debtors' lawyers on the committee?" I asked him.  "You know, " he said, sounding sincere, "We called a bunch of them and nobody wanted to help us."

"I must have missed your call," I told him.

Those are ways to change the law, but a more subtle way is to convince judges to agree with you. There have been a rash of defenses raised by debt collectors and foreclosing banks, defenses aimed at obfuscating and confusing the issues, at sub rosa raising the bar for litigants of the type I represent. Many judges rule in favor of the defenses. Are they right to do so?

"When a lawyer and a judge disagree on what the law is," a judge once told me, "The lawyer doesn't win that argument."

It often is not a question of whether they are right, or whether they are last. When a judge at the local level rules against my clients, we have to try to appeal it. Often times we appeal it under heavy attack from the other side, which files motions and complaints and assert rights to fees and claims cases are frivolous whether they are or not. (One recent case saw me spend 2/3 of my time defending our right to bring the case, with only 1/3 on the actual case.) Appeals are costly and time-consuming: appealing a case costs $10,000-$20,000 for a simple case, and if my client can't pay we have to hope we win and get paid at the end of it.

Any case a client doesn't appeal becomes the law, at least for that client, even if the judge happens to be wrong. A few years back, I had two cases pending on behalf of two different clients; both happened to be against the same bank, but were in front of different judges. The bank filed motions to dismiss on each, and claimed our case was frivolous and wanted us to pay their fees. The motions were heard on back-to-back days. The first judge, a local judge here in Dane County, dismissed our case and said we had no right to sue the bank for what the bank had done. She suggested, at least, that we could appeal and noted this was a new issue not decided before.  Out in the hall, the bank's lawyer said if we appealed the bank would continue trying to get us to pay the bank's fees.

The next day, with the same lawyer but a different judge, deciding the same exact issue against the same bank, brought by a different client of mine, we won. That judge declined to dismiss the case.

Which judge was right?

The median age at disposition of a civil case in Wisconsin is 65 months: 1/2 of all civil cases take longer than 5 1/2 years to resolve.

If you do appeal, the appeal takes even longer. The average length of time for an appeal was about 8 months, in Wisconsin. Appellate judges on average decided 185 cases each, per year. That works out to only 15 per month, but only about 1/2 of the appellate opinions are written by a judge; the other half are written by staff attorneys and approved by the judges. There is a difference.

Over the next three months, a ton of attention will be paid to presidential elections, senate races, and the control of Congress. These are important issues, and deserve attention.

But the real law is often being made in conference rooms at lawyers' offices, and in small courtrooms with no public in attendance, by judges who may or may not have any background or understanding of the case, in situations where the checks and balances we take for granted -- appellate review, the adversary nature of court cases -- is often out of whack and may result in decision-making that is not what it could, or should, be.

These things don't just affect millionaires and billionaires and websites and newspapers. The law that is shaping around you right now will determine in the future if you lose your house when you become unemployed, whether you can be sued by a company you've never heard of for a debt you don't remember, where your children or your house or your asset might end up if you have a run of bad luck or someone gets mad at you.

It is time that we, as a people, started paying attention to the system we have created, and trying to see if that system is the one we want. More and more, it seems to me like it is not, and that the country we imagine we live in is no more real than Hogwarts.

Operation Sandman Night 8: "Yes; bless the man who first invented sleep (I really can't avoid the iteration); But blast the man with curses loud and deep, Whate'er the rascal's name, or age, or station, Who first invented, and went round advising, That artificial cut-off,—Early Rising."

I skipped last night, because when we got Mr F into his bed, I first went to get a glass of water and knocked a bunch of stuff over and then tripped over Sweetie in the hall so I gave up and went to bed at about 8:15, where I read for 5 minutes before falling asleep and not waking up at all until 6:45 this morning.

Anyway, tonight's my night. We went for the usual ride and he's been in bed about 15 minutes. He groused a little at the end of the ride because he wanted to go around again, but I said No not just because we'd just taken one but in fact we'd taken two: before his nightly ride we'd gone for a ride as a family because it was raining and Mr Bunches was scared and wanted to settle down.

I can hear him fidgeting in there, but he's not too bad.

Sweetie reported that last night he only woke up twice, at 2 and at 4, and each time he went back to sleep pretty quickly. The problem last night was Mr Bunches: it rained last night, too, and he heard the thunder and woke up at 1. He never got back to sleep, and a couple times he called for Sweetie.

We're thinking once school starts next week it might help. We don't know if the lack of a routine during the day makes it worse. They have a bit of a routine with Sweetie, but it's not as rigid as when school's in session. Routine really, really, helps them be calm. Plus school tires them out, more than we could possibly do even if we ran around all day doing stuff, which we do a lot of days anyway. School's just more strenuous all around, probably because there are so many things they have to think about.

But he seems like he's doing better.

The other night I watched an old Seinfeld where Kramer decides to sleep only 20 minutes every three hours, like Leonardo Da Vinci did.

The trouble with that is that there's no proof that Da Vinci actually engaged in what's called "polyphasic sleep," meaning "sleep for more than one period a day." Polyphasic sleep is an example of a circadian rhythm disorder, when the body is out of whack from the normal sleep cycle. It's sometimes caused by head injuries, and I wondered if Mr F might have that from his old head injury, but that was four years ago (almost four years to the day), and it doesn't seem like it would just crop up now with no other symptoms or problems.

While I was reading about that, I came across the concept of "sleep inertia," which is actually a thing! (Mr F is in there talking to himself now; I just shushed him. It's 9:10 pm as I write this.) I've felt often that even though I woke up, I didn't wake up wake up, so to speak. That's sleep inertia.

"Sleep inertia" is grogginess and clumsiness when you wake up. It happens the worst if you're awakened in the first 10-30 minutes of sleep; the few times this year that I've dozed off on a lazy afternoon or evening, and been woken up, I've felt the rest of the day like I'm still half-asleep. So at least I know my thing is actually a thing and not just me  being lazy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

If he can make 12 years' worth of Rex Morgan MD jokes funny, he can probably write a pretty good novel.

Josh Fruhlinger, whose blog The Comics Curmudgeon is one of the few things I regularly read on the Internet, wrote a book called The Enthusiast a while back. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list to get.

He wrote a very informative and interesting article about how much he made and how he did it. If you're a would-be or struggling writer, it's worth reading. Check it out here.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Book 62: Holy cow. Just... holy cow.

It was in chapter 41 that I decided that Bird Box was a genius book, but well, well before that I knew this book was one of the greatest books ever.

Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic story, I guess, but I think of it more as a horror story. It takes place at the start of a strange set of occurrences as people around the country begin going mad, attacking and violently killing each other or themselves.  At the same time, Mallory, the main character, learns that she has accidentally gotten pregnant. Living with her sister, Shannon, Mallory only slowly starts to pay attention to the news reports Shannon keeps talking about -- a trucker gone crazy in Russia, then some more incidents around the world, until word spreads that there is some kind of creature, or creatures walking around, and that if you see them you go mad and kill yourself.

If that setup sounds a lot like The Happening, yeah, I thought so, too, and for a moment at the outset of the book I was worried it would end up terrible like that movie, but this book is what The Happening was supposed to be. It is genuinely frightening in a dozen different ways on level after level, as Mallory tries to cope with a world in which people have to blindfold themselves to go outside, block all the windows, and never open their eyes if they are unsure who (or what) is around them.  There are enough truly frightening moments in this book to make any horror fan happy, and they range from the unsettling to the wildly terrifying.  (Chapter 41, as I said, is so brilliant, it actually gave me goosebumps and made me feel a bit nervous.)

The book unfolds in the back-and-forth style that's pretty common in horror novels these days. But unlike books like, say, It, in which a flashback (or flash-forward) ruins any suspense, here the way the story develops the method actually increases the tension and fear, because it allows little things from the present to help you suddenly realize that something bad is going to happen in the flashback.

Bird Box also benefits from the fact that there is a lot the story doesn't come right out and tell you; like the best horror stories it lets your own subconscious scare you a lot of the time.  I honestly couldn't wait to get back to the book and keep listening to it, and on the final night I was glad that Mr F wanted an extra-long ride because it meant I could wrap up the final chapters all in one ride -- one deeply unsettling and terrifying ride, as it turned out.

It's easily one of the best books I've read all year, and is definitely in the top 5 of horror novels I've read in my life (The other four: The Stand, A Good And Happy Child, Slade House, The Passage.).

I can't really say much else about it that wouldn't spoil the entire book.  The author (it's his first book, apparently he's in a band and just sort of wrote this book) comes up with interesting characters who manage to feel like complete people without a jillion pages of backstory. He's got clever ways of showing just how hard and awful life in such a world would be, as well as demonstrating how people would react differently to it. (Consider that one character at one point drives a car to go retrieve some items, but first paints all the windows black, driving in an abandoned world at 5 miles an hour, totally blind.)

To follow up on the this is like The Happening thing: When I first started thinking that, it came close to spoiling the book for me, and I later wondered why. It doesn't wreck a book if it features vampires -- like The Passage -- or demons (A Good And Happy Child) -- so why would it wreck it if it features a mysterious force or thing causing people to kill themselves? I decided that while some things have become more or less everyone's property, like vampires, some things are unique to an author, like killer clowns or those weird twins in Slade House. Using something everyone's used doesn't feel like stealing, while using something that seems unique does, a bit. Luckily (a) The Happening was so terrible that even if this did directly rip it off it would be worth it, because this book is so good, and (b) this ends up being nothing like The Happening really, on any level, really: any similarities go out the window pretty quickly and within about a chapter I had forgotten any misgivings I might have had.

I can't recommend this book enough. I wish I could go read it again all over, experiencing it for the first time. Every book should be this good.

Operation Sandman, Night 6: "The amount of sleep needed by the average person is five more minutes."

Sweetie reported that Mr F woke up only twice last night, between 2 and 4. He's pretty overtired today still. He's been having tics all week: he does a series of short, sharp inhaled breaths, over and over, in this strange rhtythm: hs hs hs    hs hs .

When I got him in bed tonight, I started to walk back out the door. He got mad and stormed into the hall. I showed him that I was sitting down the hall -- I'm five feet from his door, out of his sight, with the door half-closed. He went downstairs and tapped the picture for 'car ride,' but since we'd just come from that I told him no, it's bedtime. He groused quite a bit but he's in bed and laying quietly now.

... Literally just as I typed that last line, Mr Bunches whispered from inside the room.  "Hey dad," he said.

"What is it?" I whispered.

Mr F yelled something over Mr Bunches' answer. When Mr F calmed down I whispered "Say it again?"

Mr Bunches whispered: "I dreamed that when I was little I hurt my head on the snow and ice."

"It was only a dream," I told him. "Your head is okay."

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Operation Sandman, Night 5: "There never was a child so lovely, but his mother was glad to get him asleep."

Just a quick one tonight.

Friday, Mr F woke up twice, once at 12::30, and once at 2. Both times Sweetie got him back to sleep and made it back to bed in about 1 hour.

Last night, he woke up at 1230, and I was able to go back to bed around 1:15. But he woke up again right away, and this time it took until 2 a.m. before I could get back to bed. Then he slept until 7:15 am.

Tonight is off to a rough start. We took a long ride, but he didn't settle down, so we took another shorter ride. Things are quiet up there right now.

Update On First-World Problem, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Books More Than Anything In The World Including Oxygen.

This morning I saw on Twitter this Book Riot lead:

I responded by retweeting it, which is the only way you should ever show appreciation for a tweet by the way -- "liking" or "favoriting" do nothing for the person who tweeted it; that person put it on Twitter so people would see it. Retweeting it helps that. Liking or favoriting simply buries the tweet. Have you ever looked at someone's liked tweets? No. -- and in retweeting I asked is a book slump really a thing? So because I actually like Book Riot I went to read the article to see what this was all about.

It apparently is a thing, and it's such a thing that this is like their fourth article about it. including not less than EIGHTEEN TIPS for ending a reading slump. I thought I would share them with you because they are ridiculous.

A 'reading slump' is I guess when you are not reading very many books. This is a statement that I immediately have a complex relationship with, because while I embarked on my 100 Books project specifically to read more books because I felt like I was wasting a lot of time on the Internet and not reading much, I also feel that no reading is 'wasted.' My mom used to look down on some things, saying that I was wasting my time reading science fiction or fantasy or comic books; I disagreed with her, and I think in general that in the choice between reading and not reading, one should always say reading is better than not reading. As for what you read, the quality of what you read is, like your hairstyle or your clothing, a personal choice. If you like reading on the Internet, then reading on the Internet is fine. People who judge other people's reading choices are jerks.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let's see what help Book Riot offers for people who simply cannot force themselves to read books right now.

Book Riot has been talking about this a long time. Back in September 2014 they posted "5 Tips For Getting Out Of A Long-Term Reading Slump."  It begins:

D’you ever find yourself . . . just not reading? For weeks? Or months? Maybe years?
I have gone through long-term reading slumps that have made me ashamed even to keep calling myself a reader. 
I don't know that this happens. I do know that I dislike the Internet's way of making every single like into an obsession. You can't like to read, or like Star Wars, or like "Stranger Things." You have to live it. You have to wear it, talk about it, blog about it, do it to the point of neglecting the rest of your life, get a tattoo of it, and name your cat after it.  Sports fans are not alone in acting obnoxious. Fans of everything act that way. People who make fun of Dolphins fans for painting their faces and calling sports-talk shows should check out Comic-Con.

Anyway, back in 2014 it was simpler times and you could jump-start your reading by, Book Riot proposed, by re-reading an old favorite or seeing if one of your favorite authors has a new book out, to "prime" you for reading new stuff.

You could also "plan a reading day," a whole day to sit in your pajamas and read.

Or you could go to the library, or buy an e-reader.

So far, my problem is that this presupposes a problem -- you are going weeks or months or years without reading... anything? Is this a problem? And if it is, is it simply that you are not reading? Is this hypothetical person just staring off into space in their off hours? Because I don't think life works like that.

I can't think of a time that I didn't read something -- the news or a website or magazines or something. Possibly when I was in Morocco and had limited access to English reading materials, which led to me reading Les Miserable (in English.) But times that I'm not reading I'm usually doing something else -- watching a movie, playing with the boys, working, etc.  So possibly getting access to new books or pulling out an old favorite would make me say hey I like this thing [the book] better than that thing [the movie, playing, etc.] but my 'slump' was mostly just choices of entertainment. And why should I feel ashamed to choose something I find more entertaining than a book? That's book snobbery on a par with people who say I don't own a TV.

Also: two of those solutions require real money: an ereader or an entire day of doing nothing but reading suggests some ready cash and plenty of leisure time. If you've got money and leisure time and you're not reading, you're probably just not a reader.

Book Riot, which I assume has a vested interest not just in encouraging people to read but in encouraging book readers to act towards books in the rabid obsessive fanboy way Packer fans react to football, then published "7 Ways To Break A Book Slump" in 2015. (They published it twice that year, in fact.)

These suggestions ranged from the useless ("Wait it out") to the impractical:

Make a LEGO diorama of your favorite literary scene in the faint hope it will bring you back to your love of the written word.
(?!) to the bizarre ("Imagine your favorite authors are roommates")

to the useless (Read fanfiction, look at art made from books, read a book you've already read, go to a bookstore.)

Some of them are essentially "So you're not reading? So what?" Others are "You're not reading? Read." They are akin to You're depressed? Well cheer up in that they are useless, but unlike that example they also address something that is not actually a problem (unless you make your money through telling people to read, ahem.)

The others presuppose, again, lots of time and money -- have you ever tried making a diorama, let alone a Lego diorama? -- or resurrect book snobbery. I still don't know what exactly to make of this one:

4. Imagine your favorite authors being each other’s roommates. My preferred pairing is Jane Austen/Charlotte Brontë, because they would have hated each other and it would’ve been hilarious.

Other than to note that fans of Austen and/or a Bronte are every bit as rabid as Jets fans, only far more precious and annoying about it. Jane Austen is the bacon of the literary world: annoying, overrated, and far more important in the imaginations of a few than the real world.

A couple weeks later Book Riot followed up with "How To Start Reading Again." This one acknowledges that reading is a choice and that the real world sometimes insists you not imprint on Jane Austen novels:

I know that it is hard sometimes to decide to read instead of doing something else. Today instead of reading I 1) did not wake up early to go for a walk with my audiobook, 2) went grocery shopping on my lunch break instead reading the book I have in my purse, 3) took a nap when I got home instead of starting my book club book. That is three times just today! 

before telling you you are not working hard enough:

But I also decided I was going to read a solid chapter over dinner, and I did. 

This article, too, goes on to give tips like trying a new genre or new format -- although it allows that perhaps people cannot run out and buy a bunch of new books by suggesting checking with your library to see what kinds of e-books and audiobooks you can get. As these go, they are not bad. They amount to if you don't have time to read maybe get an audiobook, which is something I started doing because I drive so much and hated talk radio, which is all sports or right wing nutjobs.

The article, not surprisingly, also suggests joining a 'book community' and thinks that maybe talking with Book Riot people might be a good idea. Fair enough. They're running a business, and a big part of advertising is creating a problem (ring around the collar) and then a solution (don't wear shirts.)  So you're not reading enough? they ask, guilting you into thinking you should read more, maybe talk to us about how you're not reading enough, then buy a Book Riot bookbag to put all your books in!

They do suggest Set A Goal, which is exactly what I did when I decided to read a hundred books in a year, and finish with this refreshing thought:

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to read. You can still have a good life without reading books. You are not terrible because once you got out of school, or had kids, or picked up the oboe, or whatever, you stopped reading. You don’t have to read!

Of course, if you did take up the oboe you would have to bookmark Oboe Riot and read 21 Tweets only Oboe Players Will Understand on Buzzfeed and get a tshirt that says Oboe-ists are "REED"ers too a shirt I just made up that I'm sure will sell heavily in the former reader/current Oboeist community if I can only work in a Jane Austen angle.  But in 2015, Book Riot's last word on the subject was, more or less, hey reading's cool and all but you know there's other stuff, a refreshing change from how the Internet treats everything.  (I swear to God, once, I posted a link on the website Gather to a blog post I'd written. A person commented on the link and said It sounds interesting but if you're trying to get me to go to a different website forget it: I read Gather.)  Not everything has to be an obsession. You can just like things. Way back when, I was a big Buffalo Bills fan: I watched their games and wore jerseys and knew all the players and went to their stadium on my honeymoon.

Now, I watch maybe one football game a year, and I couldn't name three Bills players. I sometimes run into other people who like the team, even in Wisconsin, when I'm wearing a t-shirt. Hey, the Bills they yell, and I have to sort of shrug and say yeah well it's just a shirt now.

But Book Riot really can't let you think reading is just this guy, you know? They have to sell you reading so you will listen to their podcasts, go to their website and live shows, buy their merchandise, etc.  They have to make reading more than a hobby. They have to make it a lifestyle.

The world of sports is again a good analogy. Monetizing a thing is difficult to do unless you can convince people that they need it so much they will pay money to put stickers on their garage floor to show how much they love this thing. (Stickers on garage floors being an actual thing sports fans buy.)
NFL Teams make money in a couple ways: televising games (all teams share all profits equally), ticket sales (teams keep about 60% of sales at their stadium), and merchandise, which is divided equally if you buy from anywhere but that team's shop.  Merchandise sold through that team's shop is solely the teams.

In Packer country, the Green Bay Packers have elevated obsessive fan love to an art form. They sell fans worthless stock in the team for $50 a share. They sell fans dirt. But just liking football wasn't enough. The NFL has now monetized the draft and the NFL Combine, which is where college players go to see if they can catch teams' attention and get drafted. More than 7,000,000 people watch the NFL Combine, and by 2013 the NFL was looking for a way to make the combine "more fan-friendly."  

This is how you make money off entertainment, these days. There are a billion different ways to capture people's attention.  The easiest way to grab onto your share is not just to make something interesting, but to make it an obsession.  This is why there is "geek culture" and ComicCon is a huge media event on par with the Oscars and why there are a billion listicles that follow the formula of "[X] Things Only [Y]Lovers Could Understand": Because someone will not make enough money if you do not spend all of your money on that thing.

So Book Riot creates the idea of a "reading slump," which is: you are not reading enough, so let's interest you in reading about how you're not reading enough.  Today's "6 More Ways To Beat A Reading Slump" demonstrates how creating an obsession is used to pull you away from other forms of media and back to Book Riot, in particular:

1. Unplug. I find that the internet (gulp) is one of my main culprits for a lack of reading. Being online presents one with endless stimuli and I find that it can dampen that itch of needing to read something. (Maybe also because a lot of interacting with the internet is actually reading-based.) Either that, or I get caught up binge-watching shows and I can’t do both that and read at the same time. Cutting off that constant stimulus sometimes brings back my reading appetite.

"Stop doing something that's not reading books."

2.Groove on some nonfiction topic that interests you.Nonfiction might not be your thing, and that’s cool. I have a few pet topics that I’m highly interested in (neurology/psychology and food politics, mostly) and even when I don’t feel like reading a novel, I can usually find a book on an interesting topic to dive into. Nonfiction is a different kind of reading for me so it isn’t necessarily subject to the same reader’s block

"Read other kinds of books." (News is nonfiction, as are many things on the Internet, but remember you've already unplugged.)

3.Surf Goodreads or some listicles for new titles and ideas. ...Going back to the bookternet helps in the same way that browsing my cookbooks helps when I am bored with all of my regular meals. We have a bunch of must-read lists here at Book Riot that might have something to tickle your fancy

"But before you unplug check Book Riot to find out what kinds of books you should read."

Tips 4 and 5 are "Take a ME Day" and "Read before bed." Tip 6 is:

Keep picking up books from a stack until something hooks you. This sounds hyperbolic, but I have actually done this on multiple occasions. My favorite way to do this is to gather up a big ol’ stack from the library, flop down with it, and go through it book by book while (gently) tossing anything aside that doesn’t grab my interest. I keep going until I find something to read or I have a whole stack of discards. If I have the time, I do this at the library and then I don’t even have to make an extra trip to return all the books I didn’t want.

Or: "Read more."

Book Riot has a store that sells clothes, glasses, etc., that are all book-heavy. They have an entire section devoted to things that are kind of library-ish like socks made to look like checkout cards in books. They also sell "book boxes," hand-picked boxes of books and 'book-ish' things you can get monthly, for $60 a pop -- or $720 a year on book stuff. (My total book-related expenses this year are ZERO unless you count my occasional trip to used bookstores to get copies of books I loved, in which case it's about $40 so far.)

I couldn't find out if Book Riot does product placement or paid endorsements; such things are supposed to be labeled by FTC rule but rarely are.

Book Riot is run by "Riot New Media Group." Here is how that company sells itself to investors and advertisers:

Riot New Media Group, founded in 2011, creates content-driven communities around niche interests that delight fans and celebrate their diversity. Sometimes we are serious and sometimes we’re silly. Some of our contributors are pros. Many of them aren’t. We like a good list just as much as we like a good review, and we believe that there are smart, funny, and informative things to say about both.

Emphasis mine. A 2013 article mentioned that one of the Book Riot founders attended "Book Camp," the goal of which was in part getting 'average' people to read more:

There are a lot of people like me — big readers who spend a lot of time thinking about what they are going to read next. Book publishers do not have to worry about these people. At the same time, getting average readers to be interested in book discovery — getting average readers to visit Bookish, for instance — is going to be difficult, because you are also going to have to require these people to make big shifts in their behavior and in their media consumption patterns.

How do you make someone who doesn't read a lot of books read more books?  Tell them that not reading is a problem.  The Internet creates obsessions for the same reason we know what "Ring Around The Collar" is supposed to be, or buy fish sticks: Someone had something they wanted to sell.

I didn't start trying to read more books out of some fake desire to solve a nonexistent 'slump.' I had been reading fewer books because I have a demanding job and some demanding kids, and often I felt as though I was simply not up to reading more complicated stuff -- but I wanted to challenge myself, the same way I once set out to try to lose weight, or write a novel.  I'm not obsessed with books, and I still watch a fair amount of television shows and movies.

It's okay if you're obsessed with books, or with anything. It's okay if you're just not that into stuff, too. Just don't make your choices based on marketing programs designed to make you feel guilty about not loving something enough. Let people pull you by the nose too much and one day you buy $50 worth of dirt and put it on your mantle.