Archive for December, 2008

What’s in a Title?

December 30, 2008

DSL’s latest opus is at least in the running for Longest Title Ever, and possibly among the Top Ten. But I have somewhere in my papers at home the paragraph-long title of a 17th-century political pamphlet, which I found in the card catalog at Harvard’s Widener Library back in my undergrad days while looking for something else altogether. Sorry, D, you haven’t quite made it.

Somebody, I forget who, once said he didn’t care who writes the laws of a society, if he could write its songs. More to the point, it matters little who writes the news; what matters is who writes the headlines. Most of us forget that the two are almost never written by the same person. And that, more often than not, they are not read by the same people. Back in my free-lance writer days, I got tired of writing great articles with marvelous titles and seeing editors tweak them into meaninglessness (and then, in some cases, decide not to publish them because they didn’t mean anything.) So I developed a trick I now recommend to all of you with aspirations in print—write whatever you want to, and then give it the most awful title you can think of. The editor will, of course, change the title. And may then decide that s/he has made his/her mark and need do no more tweaking. You will end up with a totally vacuous title, but the rest of your text will probably survive intact. What more can a writer ask?


The Via Negativa in Advertising, or I’ve Got Plenty of Nuthin'(tm)

December 23, 2008

It all started many years ago when a friend of mine whose last name was Noone decided to run for public office. In fact, he never actually got around to it, but he had a great scheme for his ads—just put a space in the middle of his name. Like, “Who will give you honest government? No one.” “Who can get things done in Springfield? No one.” “Who can you trust? No one.”

And then a few years back, when I was still teaching a medical ethics-related course and put a lot of time into keeping up with developments in the field, I read a fascinating article about the placebo effect, and some scientist who wanted to harness it for the pharmaceutical companies. Of course, the FDA is still fairly strict about unsubstantiated claims, so he figured he would have to say, somewhere in the literature, that “this medication has no active ingredients.” Would people buy it anyway? He wasn’t sure, and nobody seems to have gone anywhere with that scheme either.

So when I heard an ad for an OTC painkiller the other night—“Nothing eases headache pain better than A****. Nothing fights muscle pain better than A*****. Nothing works better than A*****,” I suddenly realized that here was an idea for a brand new product. Nuthin’. (It’s a lot easier to trademark a misspelling than a real word, although the latter is not impossible—just ask Apple Records.) Nuthin’ gets your clothes cleaner than T***. Nuthin’ cures the common cold. Nuthin’ wards off the ills of aging, like gray hair and dementia. Nuthin’ helps you to lose weight without dieting or exercise—yes, even that last ten pounds. Nuthin’ can make your average balding fat middle-aged klutz overwhelmingly attractive to skinny gorgeous blondes. The possibilities are almost limitless, and the manufacturing costs are incredibly low. All the cost is in packaging and marketing.

Hands off, guys. I’ve trademarked it. Nuthin’ ventured, Nuthin’ gained.

Red Emma

Inaugural Invocation

December 19, 2008

I’m as uncomfortable as most of my friends at Obama’s choice of Rich Warren to do the inaugural invocation.  He’s not my least favorite person, and I probably wouldn’t even cross the street to avoid shaking his hand.  And these days, he’s taking some fairly decent positions.  Rumor has it that, in his new-found environmental concern, he is working on a book to be titled “The Porpoise-Driven Life.”  Nonetheless, his concerns exclude from the Kingdom of Heaven approximately 10% of the population, many of whom are close friends of mine.


So, okay, Obama has made his post-partisan statement in the religion department by choosing Warren.  But who says Warren should get to write his own invocation?  If I were writing it for him, here’s what it would say (with apologies to the writers of Hill Street Blues):


Almighty Creator and Holy Blessed One, we have found ourselves in times full of both danger and possibility.  Protect us from the danger and help us to find and fructify the possibility.  Help us to work together to come through these times.  Help us to remember that those You choose to walk beside us may not be the people we would choose.  Never let your servants, including Barack and those he has chosen to work with him, but also the rest of us, forget that we are mortal and fallible.  Thank you for the opportunities You have placed before us, and the protections you have placed around us through the mechanisms of our Constitution and laws.  Remind us to be careful out there, and let’s roll!


Peace and light to all of you.


Jane Grey

Captain Ahab and the Search for the Great Whitewater

December 15, 2008

The Republican National Committee is apparently prepared to pursue the possibility that the President-Elect, or at least somebody on his staff, at some point indicated a willingness to pay to play with the Illinois governor over filling Obama’s now-vacant Senate seat. The Constitution does not seem to provide for the impeachment of a federal official before he actually takes office, which is probably okay with the RNC, because their real goal is to make it impossible for Obama to govern after taking office, since they have failed to steal the election from him. Never mind that our governor was recorded by the feds calling Obama and his people [bleeps] for offering him “nothing but appreciation” for the Senate seat (“[bleep} them”), a testimonial of innocence that goes far beyond the mere raising of reasonable doubt. Never mind that, if God’s Own Party were serious about keeping the White House clean, they would have seen to it that the issue was raised by some legislator or other, rather than the leadership of the political party as such (which just makes the whole thing look, ummm, partisan.)

Our hope for effective governance after January 20 is twofold: that the people, including Republican and independent voters, will rise up in outrage at any attempt to hamstring government at a time when its operations are so necessary, and that the Supreme Court, having learned its lesson last time around, will decide that any legal questions about the President’s pre-election conduct have to be postponed, and the statute of limitations tolled, until after he leaves office.

Aside from that—am I embarrassed to live in Illinois? Well, not really. This is my third “home state” (I note with approval the fact that, during this last presidential campaign, everybody seemed to accept without boggling the fact that a person can have more than one home state these days), and the other two (Florida and Massachusetts) were no great shakes on political integrity either. (You may wish to google those state names along with the term “political corruption” and see what pops up.) I do however feel sorry for the lawyers who wrote this year’s version of the Chicago Bar Association’s annual Christmas Spirits musical comedy/political satire production, who probably had to stay up all night finding a rhyme for Blagojevich. (One of our office staff went to the show Friday night—I will have to ask her whether they succeeded.)

Red Emma

A Night Among My Neighbors

December 12, 2008

Last night, our condo association held a meeting. Normally I don’t go to those meetings, even though they occur in a meeting room directly under my kitchen. I am the only condo-dwelling attorney I know who has never served on the condo board. Mostly I am satisfied with the job the board is doing, though I have minor objections to the latest set of doorbell-intercoms, middling objections to the newly-installed windows which seem to be causing trouble to several of our neighbors (though ours are okay so far), and serious objections to the cost of installing new porches, even though the alternative would have been paying a whopping fine to the city.

But the current board president, an upstairs neighbor of ours, specifically asked me to come last night, to observe problems with a fellow owner who appears to be both a jailhouse lawyer and an empire-builder, who poses the possibility of serious legal problems down the road if not dealt with sooner. The Board has recently retained legal counsel, thank heaven. I couldn’t provide that if I wanted to—it would be a conflict of interest if I did, and furthermore, condo law is an esoteric specialty about which I know only the rudiments. But seeing The Empire-Builder in action was useful. It gave me something to tell the President to ask our Board Counsel to look into. Hopefully that will head off more serious trouble.

Long ago, I read somewhere [this may be the most important piece of parliamentary procedure you will ever see. It should be written on your heart in letters of fire] that Robert’s Rules of Order provides that a point of order, a point of information, and a point of personal privilege all take precedence over any other business currently before the membership. Joe McCarthy got a lot of mileage out of the point of order stuff. And Abraham Ribicoff got a fair amount accomplished with a point of information at the 1968 Democratic Convention before Daley the Elder shut off his mike. I started last night’s meeting with a point of personal privilege, to wit, why don’t we have space heaters on in this basement meeting room? The Board promised to see to it for our next meeting, in January, but in the meantime, we all froze. The President later pointed out that it kept the meeting short. I have heard of CEOs who removed all chairs from their meeting rooms, on the same principle.

Anyway, forgive the moderately boring preamble here. What Prexy wanted me to see The Empire-Builder doing was writing him long letters accusing him of violating the applicable laws, by-laws, and regulations, and urging him to resign before things got really bad. After my earnest plea for space heaters, The Empire Builder raised such issues in reading the latest nastygram aloud for the membership and asking Prexy to comment. Prexy said, “what laws or by-laws are being violated here?” and The Empire Builder said, “I can’t tell you exactly but I know they are.”

Back when I was an English teacher, I advised my students that anybody whose papers include the phrase “the Bible says” without citation to chapter and verse gets an automatic F for the assignment. I was, of course, displacing onto my hapless students my hostility to self-designated biblical literalists who do the same thing, like the guy with whom I had a longish debate on some Quaker (of all places) e-list, who said, “the Bible forbids” abortion. Naively, thinking perhaps I had missed something, and on this kind of list I could reasonably expect somebody to lighten my darkness, I asked him for chapter and verse. “Oh, there isn’t any particular place,” he said, blithely. “I just don’t believe that a God who would give us the Scriptures to guide us would fail to place a human soul in the unborn fetus.”

The anonymous Quaker would probably have been horrified to find himself in the same drawer in my mental filing cabinet with the Kentuckian school parents, back in the ‘80s, who objected when their children were required to read textbooks that depicted men cooking, because that was “unbiblical.” If you have a concordance ready to hand, check out “cooking,” and you will find that something like 8 of the first 10 references either attribute the cooking to men, or do not attribute it at all. Even if you remove all of the Levitical barbecues, that will change the stats very little.

What I advised Prexy was to make sure our Board counsel became extremely familiar with chapter and verse of our Condo Declaration, By-laws, and rules and regulations. In the unlikely event that any of them substantiated the Empire Builder’s complaints, those complaints need to be addressed immediately. Otherwise, a long letter dealing item-by-item with those complaints, and quoting the applicable legal texts, should get rid of the Empire Builder with a minimum of hassle. Yes, it will take our counsel some time and cost us some money. It will be money well-spent. Would that the biblical literalists could be dealt with as easily and cheaply.


The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage

December 11, 2008

What does it say about this week’s news from my home state that I would rather write about same-sex marriage than Illinois politics? Okay, here we go, on this week’s favorite topic other than the soon-to-be-former Governor of Illinois: the Newsweek article on biblical endorsement of gay marriage. As a divorce lawyer, I figure there is little enough love and commitment in this world that we should enthusiastically welcome it wherever it turns up. And I say this even though same-sex marriage would probably be bad for my practice, which currently includes all kinds of devices for making nonstandard same-sex families look like standard-issue straight families, including cohabitation agreements, custody agreements, and separation agreements.

The first thing any serious student of the Bible should notice, upon reading what it says about homosexuality, is that, in almost any paragraph where homosexuality is mentioned, adultery is also mentioned, and subjected to precisely the same penalties. So any biblical literalist who is not willing to see adulterers stoned to death should probably rethink the whole thing.

`The next, admittedly more subtle, thing for a Bible-reader to notice, is that almost everything the Jewish Scriptures (that’s the Old Testament, to you gentiles) says in the abstract about sex has to do with proper relationships of power and property. All of the “forbidden relationships” enumerated in Leviticus 18 and 20, for instance. Almost all of these strictures are addressed only to men (grammatically this is unmistakable in the Hebrew), except for intercourse with animals. No, that’s not the result of any sexist presumption. It’s the result of the political reality of biblical times, that only men could take the sexual initiative.

Sex with women “belonging” to other men was an infringement of property rights. Sex with women “belonging” to one’s father were an infringement of his dominance in the family. Sex with women “belonging” to one’s sons or brothers—that is, lower-ranking males–was an abuse of dominance. In this context, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” suggests strongly that power is an issue here, too, and that what the Author is really talking about is male-on-male rape, of the sort that happens in prisons. Which I think is an abomination, too. (Although I do like the interpretation of a rabbinical friend of mine, that lying with a man as one lies with a woman means grabbing all the covers and snoring.)

The fact is, most of the abstract things the Jewish scriptures says about sex have absolutely nothing to do with love and companionship (as opposed to several narratives about particular people falling in love and getting married.) The only exception is directed at polygynists—if a man has two wives, and loves one and hates the other, he is not allowed to let that disparity influence his treatment of their children. Which, as a divorce lawyer, I still think is a good rule, but these days, of course, we apply it only to serial polygamy.

What about the New Testament and sex? Well, Jesus had absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality, not a single word. On the other hand, he objected pretty strongly to divorce, either forbidding it altogether or permitting it only where adultery was involved. This was consistent with one of the major schools of rabbinical thought of that era, the School of Shammai. Which is interesting, given that Jesus mostly followed the teachings of the other school, the School of Hillel. But I digress.

Paul wasn’t keen on sex of any kind, gay, straight, married or unmarried. But, as with his Jewish predecessors, where he talks about homosexuality at all, it is almost always in the same paragraph and under the same strictures as adultery.

I’m not willing to go as far as Lisa Miller in her Newsweek analysis; I don’t believe the Bible necessarily endorses same-sex marriage. But I do believe that it provides for regulating it, as it regulates heterosexual marriage, along with eating, drinking, earning and spending money, and all of the other activities of daily life. Thus, another rabbinical friend of mine who will bless same-sex marriages the same as straight marriages, but will not do interfaith marriages of either kind, is, I think, being perfectly consistent by her own lights and the Jewish Tradition. Similarly, I believe that the Illinois Domestic Violence Act, which forbids assault and battery between husband and wife, cohabitating man and woman, and domestic partners (along with a whole bunch of other people in current and former relationships), is on the right track.

I also strongly endorse the distinction, utterly unknown to the Bible, between civil and religious marriage. Some of my clients have entered into religious marriages and never registered them with the state, either because state recognition violated their anarchist principles, or because it penalizes them in receiving Social Security or other benefits. A lot of my clients have married civilly but not religiously, because they just didn’t want to do the church thing, or felt they couldn’t afford it. When the religiously-but-not-civilly-married bunch shuffle off this mortal coil, they will undoubtedly make work for some lawyer, possibly me, regardless of their gender mix. The civilly-but-not-religiously-married bunch may make work for some Roman Catholic canon lawyer, or some rabbi, but thank heaven, that’s not my problem. I figure Jefferson’s sublime insight that the state and religion should stay out of each other business is especially sensible where marriage is concerned, and there is no reason not to apply it to same-sex unions too.

The Proposition 8 gang should read up on what happened (early in Gandhi’s career) when the British colonial government decided to stop recognizing all non-Christian marriages in South Africa. The results were a major setback for the colonial administration by people who, as Gandhi eloquently expressed, saw their wives branded as whores and their children as bastards. This hits people, quite literally, where they live.

Okay, enough for now. The heat has gone off in my office and I’m going home. Peace, light, and warmth to you all.


…Or What’s a Metaphor?

December 9, 2008

[gads, you guys are getting to me!] Re: additions and deletions from dictionaries—I’m less sure than I used to be that lexicographers are mere “harmless drudges.” Shrinking the language, and deliberately deleting the stuff our children are least likely to be familiar with, is scarcely harmless.

But then, I’ve been unhappy with the state of lexicography for a while anyway. Most dictionaries don’t include what my former students needed most: derivative terms, including past tenses and plurals, and usage clues, such as which propositions/adverbs follow which adjectives/verbs. As a result, I spent 20+ years reading papers in which my students “sayed” and “seeked” “copys”, and were “different to” their friends.

The other thing most dictionaries are short on is etymology, with the result that most of us have no compunction about claiming to have been “undermined” by a “heat wave,” because we don’t even realize that those terms are metaphors with concrete referents (mines and waves, for instance.) Back when I was an English teacher, I had a lot of fun pointing out to my students that almost all profanity is metaphor. It made the subject stick in their heads remarkably well. Think about it. Sexual congress as a metaphor for ill-dealing? Excrement as a metaphor for unnecessary household goods? Urination as a metaphor for enforcing dominance? You get the idea. I then went on to point out that cats, for instance, understand metaphor. When your cat tastes a new brand of food and responds by scratching at the floor around the bowl the same way he does in the cat box, what is he saying if not “This food tastes like excrement?”

The OED is fun, and includes some of these metaphorical antecedents, but not nearly enough. Am I missing some super-dictionary by sheer oversight (or, as Johnson would say, sheer ignorance)? I welcome suggestions.


Praying for a Bailout

December 8, 2008

Petitionary prayer is an iffy kind of thing for Jews, to begin with. Some of us don’t believe in it at all; others believe we aren’t supposed to do it on the Sabbath (either because the Holy One is also entitled to a day off, or because praying for stuff we need detracts from the joyous and grateful mood we are supposed to be in on Sabbath.) In point of fact, the Jewish tradition includes lots of petitionary prayers, for good weather, for good crops, that there shouldn’t be an earthquake in Sharon, that people plotting against us should be thwarted, for peace and prosperity, and so on. But praying for a Big Three bailout? This seems a bit much.

Part of my problem is with the whole idea of The Economy. We talk about it as a thing, or even as an idol. May The Economy smile upon you. As a card-carrying nominalist, I have trouble with this. The economy is merely the sum total of a particular species of human decisions, large and small, wise and stupid, virtuous and corrupt. We can and probably should pray that these decisions (especially the large ones) be made in wisdom and compassion. And not hurt people. And if they do hurt people, that the rest of us be kind enough to share and alleviate their burdens.

But, like weather, The Economy includes a lot of variables we don’t really understand, that sometimes work together in ways we can’t anticipate. Praying for a bailout of the Big Three automakers to straighten out the economy is like praying for a new Ice Age to relieve Global Warming. We have no idea whether it will work, or actually make things worse. Better to pray that the people who make these decisions get the best information possible and use it in the most sensible way they can. Which is probably how most of our petitionary prayers should be phrased. Peace and light to you all.

Jane Grey

Winter Solstice Song

December 8, 2008

I wish you more
Of whatever lights your darkness;

Fire by night, a friend’s embrace,

A lover’s touch, the wisdom of the past,
Whatever bears you up through life’s endeavor
And whispers to your heart that winter
Will not last forever.

I wish you more
Of whatever warms your winter,
Wine and tea and coffee,
Song and dance and sweet waiting silence,
Whatever ties to life time cannot sever
That call to your mind that darkness
Cannot last forever.

As winter closes,
Night devours your days,
Join me and those who light
The candles, logs, or trees that fire our faith
That life is more than bending to the weather,
And sing, proclaiming in the winter darkness
That darkness will not last forever.

Marian H. Neudel

The Triple Domestic Goddess

December 4, 2008

Women rarely have existential crises. I remember having one in college, desperately trying to figure out what my life was for. Forty years later, I realize that I haven’t asked that question in—well, in nearly forty years. Because most women have no trouble figuring out what their lives are for. We are surrounded by people eager to tell us, if the question comes up. We are for doing all the stuff that falls around the edges and between the cracks of what Important People do, so that Important People are freed up to do their thing.

At the moment, I have a disabled husband, a small independent law practice, a cat, and a cluttered condo. And Social Security, Medicare, and a free public transportation pass. Not much in the way of savings, no investments whatever. (Mr. Wired never believed in the stock market. By George, he was right!) So I’m having a sort of existential mini-crisis about whether I should retire, or just cut back on my law practice to the extent possible, or try to ramp up my practice so I can put some money away while I’m still up to it.

Most lawyers don’t exactly retire anyway, they just cut back their practices. (The only lawyers I know who have actually retired within living memory are one of my colleagues who shut down his practice and moved to Florida to live on his investments, and then got bored by Florida and impoverished when his investments tanked ten years ago or so, and who is now back in court where I see him just about every time I’m in his regular courtroom, and a former judge who just got back safely from the bloodbath in Mumbai and who is probably reconsidering retirement as I write.) A colleague I used to work with at Legal Aid, who was admitted to the bar the year I was born, has cut back to part-time. I asked her at the time what differences she noticed. She said mainly it was that now, when she was doing the laundry, all she had to do was the laundry. Another colleague, who had his hundredth birthday a couple of years ago, is still more or less in practice.

And retirement, for most women, doesn’t exactly mean playing golf and reading magazines all day. I asked a friend of mine, who recently retired from her IT job with the Federal Reserve, what she noticed about being retired. She says it’s mostly that she no longer falls asleep in concerts and movies, because she is no longer sleep-deprived.

Retirement, for me, would mean spending a lot more time with Mr. Wired, who would like that a lot, since he doesn’t get out much. And a lot more time with the cat, ditto. The condo would be cleaner, obviously. I might have time to get rid of some of the clutter on Craigslist and Freecycle. (Anybody need a Sharper Image Bionic Air Cleaner with extra filter, still in working condition? How about an Onion Blossom maker? Lotta books? Miscellaneous kitchen gadgets? Coupla humidifiers?)

Retirement might also mean getting back into freelance writing, or maybe even working on a book, which I have roughed out in my mind. And knitting, which is coming back into style, and which I haven’t done in a long time. (Mr. Wired’s mother, of blessed memory, used to keep us both in beautifully knitted sweaters, but they’re wearing out now.)

As it is, I come in to the office later when I don’t have to be in court first thing in the morning. I often leave early, especially in winter, so I can get home before dark. I work from home more than I used to. But sometimes retirement really appeals to me. Simone de Beauvoir warns women against letting their lives be consumed by “women’s work,” but sometimes it’s tempting, and shoot, I’ve spent more than enough time doing The Important Stuff. I still fall asleep in movies, and when I do laundry, I’m generally doing a bunch of other stuff too. I welcome feedback. Peace and light to you all.