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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

My Lifelong Loathing of Buttons

I want to know who—in 2017—still thinks that buttons are the best way to fasten clothing?  Show me this person and we’ll have a debate that at some point will escalate to the point where I pull out some of the choicer words I learned in my Navy days.

Let me start by making it clear that I don’t suffer from koumpounophobia, which is the tongue-twisting name for the fear of buttons.  I don’t fear buttons.  I just detest the vile things.

Starting when I was a little boy struggling to push a button through a tiny slit slightly larger than the button itself, up to yesterday when I grabbed a shirt from the closet that had just come back from the dry cleaners and realized that even though I was in a great hurry I would nonetheless have to fasten fourteen buttons before I could get out of the house, my hatred of the damned things been a steady feature of my life.

I’m not a particularly clumsy person, nor am I remarkably adept at motor movements.  I guess I’m more or less average when it comes to maneuvering small objects about.  But for unknown reasons I struggle mightily with buttons.  The ones up and down the front of a shirt aren’t bad, and those are routinely dealt with quickly when I first put on a shirt.  But I don’t see the need to unbutton this shirt when I plan to use it again.  I just slip it off over my head the same way you’d exit a sweater.  When I need the shirt again I ship it back on, already buttoned and ready to go.  This saves much time when one is in a hurry.  Once at a doctor’s office when he asked me to take off my shirt, I slipped a buttoned shirt off over my head in this fashion, and the doctor looked astonished.  “”You’re the second man this week who’s done that!” he exclaimed.  “Yeah, yeah,” I mumbled, “we’re members of a secret society.”

When it comes to the evil buttons on shirt sleeves I approach these with a practiced dread.  Typically there are two buttons on each sleeve (and, happily if rarely, sometimes only one), but for all too many shirts the sadist who made the creative decisions has decided to use as many as three buttons at each wrist.

One of my actual shirts

Mysteriously, when I’m purchasing a shirt it never occurs to me to count the sleeve buttons, and I certainly wish it did.  On bad days I can fumble through the fastening process for over five minutes, going from mumbling, to grumbling, to profanity in an ugly progression.  If, happily, my husband is home I often end up walking pitifully to him, wrists out, confessing failure, begging help.  If he’s not available our cats have, alas, proved useless in this regard.

Why do we use buttons at all?  What is their allure?

They’ve certainly been around a long time.  For thousands of years they were merely ornaments and not fasteners at all, but in the 1200s in Germany they were first used to connect parts of clothing together, and this became a fashion and custom that is still with us over 800 years later. 

Enough!  It’s time to stop.  It’s time for a new fastening fashion.  There are wonderful possibilities, and in this inventive new century there are no limits to what might be possible as button substitutions.  Obvious candidates are snaps, hooks, Velcro, magnets, and that old standby: the zipper.  Why aren’t these common replacements for buttons?  Think of the time we would save if we never had to struggle with buttons again!  [I also hate shoe laces, but let’s save that for a later blog post.]

Readers of this post: are you also fellow button-haters?  Are you with me?  Let’s start a movement!  Create slogans

We could put those slogans on buttons!  Wait a minute!  What did I say?  Buttons? 


(Whaley loses it and has to led from the room.)

Related Posts:

“Gephyrophobia: My Phobia of Crossing Bridges, September 28, 2011;

“Douglas Whaley, Deckhand,” December 22, 2010;

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

Thursday, April 27, 2017

When Lawyers Fail Their Clients: My Cork Floor Litigation

Even though in theory I’m retired from teaching law, this spring I’m finishing up my 41st year of being a law professor at The Ohio State University (and my 47th year in this profession overall) by conducting a course in the law of Sales.  One of the classes I now schedule as part of the course is a detailed exploration of an actual lawsuit that I filed right here in Columbus, Ohio, in the Municipal Court in 2014 involving my purchase of cork flooring materials for my condominium.  I use what actually happened as a practical lesson in the lawyering of a dispute over the buying and selling of goods.  It teaches, I believe, a valuable lesson about the difference between conducting a lawsuit and finding justice for the parties involved.  My conclusion is that in the end the lawyers look bad and the lawsuit was a waste of time for everyone involved.  As someone we all know tediously says, “Sad.”  Read what follows and judge for yourselves.

In 2011 I decided to replace the carpeting on the first floor of my condominium with cork flooring.  I chose cork because Norman Anderson, a contractor friend who was experienced in this field, said it was both durable and handsome.  Norman and I went to a local Columbus retailer to look at samples, and, with him as my agent (and installer), I purchased the cork flooring that became the subject of the lawsuit I filed two years later.  In the description that follows I have changed the names of the major parties and the lawyers that became involved.

Perhaps it can all best be summarized by the December 23, 2013 letter I wrote to the manufacturer of the product and the retailer who sold it to me in 2011, and which was eventually attached to the Complaint I filed in the Franklin County Municipal Court:     

            When I retired from The Ohio State University where I was a law professor for over 30 years, I bought a condominium in Dublin, Ohio, and in late 2011 I decided to replace the original carpeting in the downstairs with a cork floor, which I had done some research on and was pleased to learn how durable such floors were reputed to be.  In October of that year I went to the premises of Superior Floor Coverings with the contractor who would install the floors, Norman Anderson, and we picked out some samples and then took them back to the condo.  We eventually picked out WonderFloors New Dimensions, Slate Cork, and on October 17, 2011, Mr. Anderson, as my agent, ordered 40 cartons to be sent to my home (I immediately reimbursed him for the expense, which was $6,474.73). 

            The cork arrived in late December and was installed by Mr. Anderson, with the job being finished in mid-January of 2012.  The flooring, which was almost black in color, is beautiful, and I loved it.  As time went on, however, problems developed from the fact that the cork surface was eggshell sensitive to things like scratches and the pressure of furniture.  I have two cats, both declawed (but possessing rear claws), and their routine running around the house produced major scratches and sometimes even scars in the portions of the floor open to much traffic, such as the halls.  Since under the very thin black surface is a tan base, even tiny scratches left obvious marks in my beautiful floors.  In the beginning I covered these with a black Sharpie pen, and that worked well enough at first.  But as time went by the large number of such markings became a major chore, literally requiring hours of work (spread out since installation) on one’s hands and knees.  If you look closely you can see where these cover-ups have occurred, and as their number mounted it’s become more and more obvious.  I spent much time working with that Sharpie pen because in the spring of 2013 I put the condo on the market and wanted the floors to look as good as possible for potential buyers.  But there were other problems as well.  Everywhere on the floor where they were placed, objects of furniture caused major indents (visible by moving any piece of furniture) and damage to the cork floors happened from any significant contact other than mere walking across them.  At one point I moved the living room sofa for a two week period and, when I moved it back to its original position, was astounded to realize that major deep indentations had been made in the cork during this very short period just from people sitting on the sofa.  I found myself trying to figure out how to hide the damage to the cork from future buyers, and feeling like a fraud as I did so.  That had to stop.  I took the condo off the market last month.  It’s clearly time to repair the floors, and this particular cork flooring is completely unsuitable in my home (or any home).

            As I mentioned at the start of this letter, I’m a law professor and, as it happens, I am one of the leading experts in the United States on the law of warranties and consumer rights.  If you doubt this, Google up my name or just go to Amazon and look at the many books I’ve written on Commercial Law, Contracts, Sales, Consumer Law, etc., seven of which are used as text books throughout the country.  Huge numbers of lawyers in Ohio are my former students either in the classroom or bar review lectures.  The Uniform Commercial Code [UCC], which is at the heart of this dispute, is my chief area of expertise.

            So I consulted the paperwork I was given to see what it said about the warranty on the cork flooring.  Superior Floor Coverings invoice says nothing about the topic, but WonderFloors, Inc. had given me a “Lifetime Residential Limited Wear Warranty.”  Let’s talk about the latter first.

            The lawyers who drafted it up had one goal in mind: disclaim almost anything that can happen other than the product being damaged by the manufacturing process.  Instead of being a warranty it’s mostly a disclaimer of liability for most of the problems that could occur with the product.  One interesting clause disclaims “Damage due to . . . scratches, gouges, scuffs, punctures, cuts, indentations, . . . lack of proper furniture rests or any intentional misuse of the product.”  Hmm.  Another disclaims liability for “abuse caused by items such as roller skates, golf shoes or pets.”  The “warranty” also requires that “the flooring must be maintained in accordance with WonderFloors maintenance instructions,” but none were given to me, nor is there a definition of “proper furniture rests.”  I can understand WonderFloors, Inc. not wanting to warrant against misuse of the product by the owner’s pets (say a dog who tries to dig through the floor), or misuse by running around in golf shoes or roller skates, but this warranty in effect says that routine use of furniture or routine activity by pets that ruins the eggshell finish of the cork is not covered.  Far from being durable, the surface on this flooring is very delicate.  Phrased another way this very limited warranty means that WonderFloors’s product cannot be used in homes with either pets or furniture.  No court is going to read the warranty disclaimer this broadly, and instead is likely to say that the warranty merely protects WonderFloors, Inc. from misuse by the owner.  I certainly will contend in future litigation that I in no way misused the product.

            No document from SuperiorFloor Coverings disclaims the implied warranty of merchantability created by UCC §2-314.  That section creates a very interesting warranty that is automatically part of the transaction unless disclaimed, which was not done here by either WonderFloors, Inc. or SuperiorFloor Coverings.  So let’s explore what the implied warranty of merchantability entails.

            According to the UCC section cited above this warranty is that the goods sold shall be “fit for the ordinary purpose for which such goods are used.”  I tell my law students this is the warranty that the goods will work.  In the lawsuit that I will shortly file in the Franklin County Municipal Court unless this matter is settled to my satisfaction, I will contend that a cork flooring that is so delicate that routine use by the owner leads to major surface damage within a period of under two years is not fit for its ordinary purpose.  I will then ask for damages in the amount of the purchase price of $6,474.73 and the wasted installation cost of $6,530, plus court costs.  These damages are all clearly allowed by UCC §§2-714 and 2-715.  I will be representing myself pro se, so I will have no attorney fees (though you certainly will).

            I will file the lawsuit by January 14, 2014, so let me hear from you before then.

Douglas J. Whaley

In my mind the lawsuit asked one simple question: was a floor covering that was this sensitive fit for its ordinary purpose?  I believed I could prove it was not.  The major legal defense I knew I would have to battle (and which caused me some worry) comes from UCC §2-607(3)(a) which states that “the buyer must within a reasonable time after he discovers or should have discovered any breach notify the seller or be barred from any remedy.”  Hmm.  I’d waited almost two years before I gave the sellers notice.  Was that within a “reasonable time”?  My argument was that during this period I was battling to live with the problem so no notice was proper until I finally concluded that this was impossible, and from the very beginning there was no “fix” for this defect other that complete replacement of the product.  Every single panel installed had the same unacceptable finish.  But the judge (who would be the judge of both the law and the facts) might decide otherwise, so I was concerned about how the §2-607(3)(a) issue would play out. 

Scratches---some covered with Sharpie Pen

Both the retailer and the manufacturer hired lawyers and they promptly filed Answers to my Complaint.  They raised a lot of non-issues (I had “misused” the product, or I was “negligent” myself, etc.) but—to my astonishment neither Answer mentioned the §2-607(3)(a) lack of notice within a reasonable time defense!  Amazing!  In my opinion this was malpractice on the part of both the defense attorneys.  They were not experts on the law of Sales, and so they just filled out Answers from form books and winged it. 

Superior Floor Coverings, the retailer, was represented by a lawyer from a small firm, and for purposes of this blog I’ll call him “John Smith.”  As things progressed I would meet him on three or four occasions at the courthouse when he continually moved for more time to “conduct discovery” and “prepare for trial,” but as far as I can tell he never did anything to help his client.  Certainly he did not request any discovery from me (such as a deposition).  At one point I offered him a settlement: I would knock $4000 off of my damages as compensation for the use I did get out of the flooring.  He said he would get back to me about that, but he never did.  Superior Floor Coverings’s owner (whom I’ll call Alex Jones) was astounded to learn of this offer when I told him of it at the end of the case (see below), since Smith never mentioned it to him at all.  Waiting in the seats outside the courtroom at each of the scheduled hearings I’d gotten friendly with Mr. Jones as we sat there for long periods until Smith belatedly showed up.  While we obviously couldn’t talk about the case, Jones told me about his ongoing divorce trial where he was fighting with his wife over custody of their daughter.  He confessed he was weary of lawsuits and lawyers.  I sympathized.  His lawyer, John Smith, nicely dressed and quite flashy, talked a good game, but appeared to me to be all appearance and no substance; I did not, however, say that to his client until much later (also see below).

WonderFloors was represented by one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in Columbus, here called Big Firm.  Its Answer missed the “no notice” defense but did raise the defense of “lack of privity” between the manufacturer and me.  “Privity” means sufficient legal connection to sue.  Here the manufacturer sold to the retailer and I bought from the retailer, so there is allegedly no “privity” between the manufacturer and me.  This is a ridiculous concept in a world in which the manufacturer provided a warranty along with the product and that warranty was clearly directed to the ultimate buyer—and, after all, the manufacturer is the entity that should bear the liability for the defective product that it produced (as opposed to the poor retailer, who did nothing more than pass on the product to me).  But the Ohio Supreme Court had issued a ludicrous opinion some years before adopting this “privity” defense protecting out-of-state manufacturers (at the expense of Ohio retailers like Superior Floor Coverings), and when I had first read the decision, I decided it was clearly wrong, an example of how the Ohio Supreme Court sometimes just didn’t understand commercial law, and forgot about it.  Now I was annoyed that it had come to life and that Big Firm had decided to use it.  I debated challenging that decision in our case and, on appeal, trying to talk the Court (which had some of my former students on it) into changing the result, but that would take years.  Hmm.  I phoned the lawyer at Big Firm who had created their Answer (also a former student of mine, but to whom I had not taught Sales) and we talked.

I told him about another section of the Uniform Commercial Code, §2-607(5), which creates a process called “vouching in.”  It says that if a retailer is sued for a defect created by the manufacturer then the retailer can give the manufacturer a notice to join the lawsuit.  If the manufacturer does not do so the manufacturer is then bound by the factual conclusions reached at trial.  Big Firm’s lawyer had never heard of this “vouching in” notice, but I assured him I would tell John Smith about it and thus such a notice would likely be coming to WonderFloors shortly.  “Does Big Firm really want Mr. Smith to try this case and have the result bind WonderFloors?”  The Big Firm lawyer said he would get back to me.  In the event, I never heard another word from him, and I did dismiss the Complaint against WonderFloors, but told Smith about the vouching-in notice and sent him the statutory language to use when sending this notice to WonderFloors (thus binding it to the outcome of our lawsuit).

The judge kept setting a date for trial and Attorney Smith kept getting extensions for “discovery” that he never conducted.  Finally the court announced a date for the trial and it looked like we were ready to go, but suddenly in the mail I received a pleading filed with the court by John Smith in which he withdrew from the case because the insurance company of the retailer that had been paying his fee had decided that the policy did not cover this sort of legal problem.  The court approved his withdrawal the week before the trial was to start!

Astounded I phoned Smith and asked him what this was all about.  He explained that once the insurance company withdrew he simply couldn’t continue.  I asked him if he’d looked at the policy to see if the insurance company was right or just trying to wiggle off the hook, but he said no, he hadn’t.  I asked him what he had done to get his client ready for the trial.  He said he couldn’t go into that.  I asked him if he’d sent the manufacturer the vouching-in notice I’d provided advising them of their duty to participate in the trial or be bound by the outcome.  No, he’d never gotten around to that.  [I also later learned he’d not told his own retailer client about my settlement offer either.]  I was furious and my anger came through in my voice.  “You’re just dumping your client on the eve of trial!  You can’t do this!  You owe your client a duty of zealous representation according the rule of professional conduct.”  “Well," he replied, “technically my client is the insurance company.”  “No, it’s not!” I thundered.  “Your name is listed as the attorney of record for Superior Floor Coverings!”  Smith was done with this conversation, so he tried to cut it off.  “What should poor Superior Floor Coverings do?” I asked him in perhaps too loud a tone.  “Get a good lawyer,” was his outrageous response, to which I replied, “That would be something new because they certainly didn’t have one in the first place.”  He started to reply but I terminated the call, fuming.

I called Alex Jones, the owner of Superior Floor Coverings, who, as I said above, I’d gotten to know and like.  He was depressed.  I told him he should send the vouching-in notice to WonderFloors, and that I would send him the language to use in an email, so that the manufacturer would know that they would be bound by whatever happened at the trial.  Alex Jones said he would send that notice and thanked me.  I asked him what he was going to do and he confessed that he didn’t have the money for a new attorney.  “Isn’t there any way to make this go away?” he asked me.  “Well, replace the floor,” I replied.  He paused and then said he’d get back to me.

Within a couple of days he phoned me and said he'd worked out a deal with WonderFloors by which they’d provide a new and better flooring to by chosen by me from their online site and he would use his workers to install that flooring, all at no cost to me.  I was delighted with this offer.  It was all I ever wanted.  I drafted up the settlement agreement and we signed it, and I dismissed the lawsuit.  Within a month the new flooring (bamboo and imperious to scratches, etc.) was installed and the whole thing was over.  The flooring has now been in my home for almost a year and a half and it is still beautiful.  All I was out financially was the filing fee of the lawsuit ($123).  I did provide Alex Jones with the relevant forms and information for filing a complaint with the bar association against John Smith, though I have no idea if he ever did so.

The New Bamboo Flooring

When I teach this lawsuit to my Sales students I ask them what really happened here.  Did the attorneys do their job?  Did the rules of law help or hurt?  Think about that.

My conclusion is that the law failed everybody involved (except me) horribly.

First of all the Ohio Supreme Court should never have handed down a decision that was clearly out of line with what Congress intended when it passed the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a statute designed to make manufacturers live up to the warranties they make to consumers.  Instead the Court read the statute to permit manufacturers to make warranties and only be liable to the retailer, thus leaving the consumer with no immediate remedy against anyone other than the retailer.  Such a “warranty” by the manufacturer to the consumer is no warranty at all, but the Court never discussed (nor, apparently, considered) the practicality of what it was doing.  Instead its mindless decision put all the onus of the manufacturer’s warranty breach on the poor retailer who sold the product to the consumer.  Yes, in theory, the retailer could then pass the liability back to the manufacturer, but John Smith, the attorney for the retailer, at one point told me that the contract between the two required such a suit to be brought in Georgia where the manufacturer was located.  Superior Floor Coverings couldn’t finance that suit.  Thus the Court’s decision meant that entity creating the defective product escapes liability because a technical lack of “privity” (legal connection) with the consumer.  Some other jurisdictions have also reached this ludicrous result, but most have not and the legal commentators all say it’s dreadfully wrong.

Then along came the retailer’s attorney, John Smith.  He took the case without a basic understanding of the law of Sales.  That’s malpractice, and he exhibited it by missing his best defense (lack of notice within a reasonable time by me, the buyer), and not knowing or using the vouching-notice to the manufacturer to come in and defend.  Smith took the money that the reatiler’s insurance company paid him, but he never did a lick of work on the case other than filing an Answer.  He didn’t send the notice I provided him that would keep the manufacturer on the hook, he didn’t conduct any discovery (and misled that trial court about this), and he bailed on his client in an inexcusable way when the trial finally was unavoidable.

Big Firm does somewhat better, but it also missed the best defense (my lack of prompt notice), and that’s malpractice.  My students had no problem coming up with it, but that’s because they do understand the law of Sales.  Why would Big Firm take this case if it didn’t have similar expertise?  The answer, alas, is that most lawyers think of Sales Law as just an extension of the law of Contracts, which they did study in law school, and believe (wrongly) that they can just wing it by copying defenses out of a form book.  Big Firm did find the privity defense, but that had a bad result: it left their client’s ultimate fate in the hands of the retailer’s attorney, which (see above) was a major mistake. 

I ask my law students what should Big Firm have done.  Hands go up to mention the lack of notice defense, but I tell them that isn’t what I would have done if I were the manufacturer’s lawyer.  I make the students sit and think about it.  Then I give them a clue.  “What should the lawyer have asked the manufacturer at the beginning?”

Long pause.  Finally a student raises his/her hand and gets to the real issue.  I always emphasize in my classroom this question: “What’s really going on here?”  Forget the law.  Look at reality.  What’s in dispute?  Who is right and who is wrong?  Do we need a lawsuit at all?  The student who’s hand went up was right in phrasing the issue as follows for my case, “Was there really a warranty breach?  I mean, was the product defective or was the buyer misusing the product?”  Yep.  That’s the right question. 

The Japanese have a saying that is often repeated: “If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.”  Lawyers aren’t advisors with only one weapon: a lawsuit.  Lawyers, I tell my students, are problem solvers, and a lawsuit should almost always be the last resort, not the first.  Was it wise to spend whatever large legal fees Big Firm charges battling Douglas Whaley, an expert on the law of Sales, if the manufacturer was in fact at fault here?  Were I Big Firm I would have wanted to know about the product that was sold.  Did it have an “eggshell” finish as Whaley contended.  You can bet in the trial Whaley was going to come into court with a sample of the flooring and demonstrate how very easily it was marred.  If the client’s response showed that this lawsuit was a loser, then for heaven’s sake settle the damn thing!  What you don’t do is throw up a legal barrage of non-defenses, miss the big one, and hope “privity” will somehow get rid of that pesky Whaley.

Law (including the Ohio Supreme Court of course) failed all of the clients here that hired lawyers, vainly counting on their help.  As soon as the lawyers disappeared from the suit the clients themselves settled it easily and quickly.

I worry that’s all too often the case.  For someone who has devoted his life to the law, it’s a depressing thought.

Related Posts:

"I Threaten To Sure Apple Over an iPad Cover," April 8, 2011;

"The Payment-In-Full Check: A Powerful Legal Maneuver," April 11, 2011;

"What Non-Lawyers Should Know About Warranties," October 11, 2011;

"How To Write an Effective Legal Threat Letter," October 19, 2011;

“How To Win Arguments and Change Someone’s Mind,” August 5, 2012; 

"Mortgage Foreclosures, Missing Promissory Notes, and the Uniform Commercial Code: A New Article," February 11, 2013;

"Legal Terms You Should Know,” September 13, 2013;

“How To Respond to a Legal Threat.” March 29, 2014;

“Clicking on 'I Agree': Sticking Your Head in the Lion's Mouth?” September 27, 2014;

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

Monday, March 27, 2017

Douglas Whaley: Atheist Minister/Officiant/Celebrant

[Click to enlarge]

At a meeting of the Freethinkers Book Club last summer Nathan Weller, its president, mentioned that he and his fiance were looking for a nonreligious officiant at their upcoming wedding.  I casually said I’d been thinking about doing that sort of thing, and within the blink of an eye it was a done deal!  I applied online to the Universal Life Church to become one of their ministers (which costs $25 and included a handsome certificate).  Their "Ministry" has only two tenets: (1) “Do only that which is right,” and (2) “All should be free to worship as they see fit.”  I had no problem agreeing with those precepts.  Next I had to register with the State of Ohio ($10), and then was ready to go.  Nathan and his bride, Karla Norquist, wrote the ceremony with some minor input from me, and the wedding was held on a Monday afternoon, October 17th at a country venue on the north side of Columbus. Everything went off splendidly, and the happy, handsome couple and their guests had a lovely wedding and reception. 

David Vargo, my husband, thought it wonderfully funny that his atheist husband is a minister, and he began clowning around claiming (in a mock southern drawl) that he is now a “minister’s wife”!  Doubling down on that, I commissioned our friend Kat Stout to cross-stitch a sampler which I had framed and presented to him as a birthday gift this past December.  Here it is:

I’d assumed this would be a one-off event, an amusing and interesting episode in my life, but I was wrong.  Under advice from others I registered as an officiant with the Humanist Community of Central Ohio (of which I am a member), which is a chapter of The American Humanist Association.  HCCO’s mission is to provide a supportive local community for humanists and other nontheists in the Central Ohio area, having monthly meetings, social events, outreach activities, and much more.  As readers of this blog may know I am the author of an atheist thriller (“Imaginary Friend”) and I’ve given bookreadings from it at HCCO and gave a speech there once when they gave me an award.  Among the services HCCO provides is a list of officiants who will conduct weddings or preside at memorial services.

When I joined this list I was told that there were standard rules for Humanists who are officiants, and so I met with the two other local men who are registered and we had a couple of fascinating meetings.  They were very helpful in guiding me to websites and other sources for officiants in the atheist community.  Among other things I was advised that if I was not going to charge for my services (which I don’t) I probably should suggest to those who asked for them to make a contribution to HCCO in the usual amount.  They pointed out that they needed the income, and even if I didn’t it was unfair to siphon off their business.  This is of course true, so I resolved to do as they suggested if it ever came up that I was needed again.  The usual fee for a wedding, they mentioned, is $200 to $250.

Turns out I should have asked about memorial services since that’s what happened next.

About three weeks ago a woman contacted HCCO in search of someone who could conduct a non-religious memorial service for her sister-in-law who had recently died.  The woman and almost all of her family and friends were non-believers so a traditional minister would set entirely the wrong tone.

The other officiants on HCCO’s list all were busy on the named date so it fell to my lot to reply to this woman and volunteer to help.  She explained that her husband, the brother of the deceased, was having problems dealing with his sister’s death, and she was doing most of the work in setting up the service, to be held in Marion, Ohio (50 minutes north of Columbus by car), on Saturday, March 25th.  I arranged to meet with the two of them at Starbucks the next day.

At that meeting I introduced myself to the handsome couple when they arrived and we talked for over an hour.  The husband explained that his sister was only 45 years old, but that she’d died mysteriously in her own bedroom during the night in mid February.  Her mother, with whom she lived as a caregiver, found her body lifeless on the floor beside the bed.  The sister had a history of depression and additions, and the cause of her death was still unclear.  An autopsy had been done, but the results wouldn’t be available until April.

Compounding this tragedy was the fact that during most of her life the sister was a very intelligent, personable, vibrant woman, and she had many friends and relatives who adored her.  The sister was working on a biology degree from Ohio State, was a lover of animals, a major singer, great cook, and always the life of the party. 

Her brother, looking very haggard, turned to me on the edge of tears, and confessed that he wasn’t doing so well.  His sister was four years older than he was and  since their mother worked multiple jobs when he was young his sister had been the primary caretaker during his early years.  They were very close.  Her name was not Alice, but let’s call her that for purposes of this post.

Suddenly, as I sat there listening, what had begun as a lark the previous summer jumped to a new and scarier level.  My respect for trained ministers soared as I contemplated what next to say to this grieving couple.  Certainly I have no experience or expertise at handling the delicate task of tending to those in need of comfort.  Weddings, happy events that they are, are one thing.  This death, which may have been a suicide, of a woman who was the same age as my own son, was another.  I’d given no thought to being an officiant at a memorial service, but if I had I would have assumed that my services would be needed for an atheist who died of old age, a much easier task than this tragedy.  

What to do?

Well, I’m 73 years old and, perforce, I’ve seen many deaths.  Moreover, as this blog attests, I’ve nearly died myself on at least three occasions.  Life has given me some preparation for handling trouble of many kinds.  So I took a deep breath and began the work.

When the husband said he didn’t know how to deal with his grief, which was overwhelming him, I looked him in the eye and asked if he’d thought about asking the one person who could give him the best advice on what to do.  What did I mean, he responded, puzzled.  “Why Alice, of course,” I replied.  “If she were here now what would she say to you?”

He looked startled, blinked twice, and then his eyes widened.  His face cleared and he almost smiled.  “Oh,” he said in a firmer voice, “that helps.”  I had the impression he was mentally hearing Alice talking sternly to him about manning up and handling the situation.

Keeping the focus on Alice I asked for stories about her, and to hear her history.  The love both of them had for Alice poured out, and as they told of her adventures  there was even some laughter at these memories.  We then moved on to planning what I was to say.  They had thought of a collage of pictures (it eventually turned into a fascinating slide show), and I suggested that a large picture of Alice be displayed.  I asked them to have Alice’s friends and family (and particularly her mother, who I was told was not a shy, quiet person) send me recollections of Alice.  It was important that I have her biography and know the key players in her life.

At the memorial services I’ve attended through the years, I’ve always been annoyed when the minister begins by saying that he/she didn’t know the deceased and then has nothing but platitudes about death to offer.  That sets the wrong tone.  On some level a memorial service has something in common with theater, about which I know quite a bit.  It should have a good beginning, be interesting throughout, deliver its message, and have a satisfying finish.  As I prepared my remarks I kept all of that in mind.  It was always planned for this ceremony to have a segment in which those who wished to do so could come forward and speak about Alice.  Good.  I began counting on that to put meat on the bones of what could be planned ahead of time.

Many emails were thereafter solicited and forwarded to me about Alice.  Her mother wrote two long ones and they were the most helpful of all.  Lots of Alice’s relatives and friends sent in contributions and the one thing prevalent in all of them was that Alice had been very much loved.  Everyone was shocked by her early death.  They truly needed a memorial service to process that awful truth.  But the shared memories were about all the happy things in her life: how she took in every stray animal she ever met, how her terrific voice made glorious music, how she collected books that ranged from major scientific tomes to the complete works of Steven King, how she cooked major meals that even included making her own croutons, etc.  One of her mother’s comments I read in its entirety at the service:

She was a liberal, a feminist, and believed strongly in equality for all people. She was not afraid to speak her mind about her hatred of racism, bigotry, misogyny, animal cruelty, the right for all people to love and be with whomever they loved.  She was an atheist.  She didn't like religion as she saw too much hatred, wars, and atrocities being committed in the name of religion (of all types) throughout history, up to the present.

These emails also allowed me to say this early in the actual memorial service:

This is, of course, a very sad day, but I think we need to ask ourselves how Alice herself would have wanted us to remember her.  All of the shared memories that have been pouring in say, over and over again, what a joy she brought to everything she did, how she could light up a room.  Here are some other quotes: “She was always two steps ahead of the rest of us with a laugh and a smile.” “No matter what, she was always, always REAL.”  Her mother said, “Many people, including myself, thought she had the talent of a standup comedian.”  Or, as her sister-in-law said to me in a text last night, “Alice was LOTS OF FUN!!!”

Last Saturday David and I drove to the rental hall where the service was to be held and we began meeting the assembling mourners.  I particularly went over and thanked Alice’s mother, whose emails had given me much helpful information for my remarks.  Finally there were about 40 people assembled.  As Alice had had her bisexual side one of the guests, standing alone and looking out of place, was obviously a lesbian.  I went over to her, began talking to her, came out, asked her relationship with Alice (they had dated after meeting in recovery), and then introduced her to my husband, who was sitting alone.  They hit it off fine and then both had someone to talk to before the proceedings began.

The sister-in-law, who had borne the heavy lifting for the creation of this event, welcomed everyone and made a few comments before introducing me.  I began by explaining that I was an officiant with the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, and described its mission.  Next was the substance of the service.  At no point did I mention that I’d never met Alice—I let them wonder about that.  But my remarks included a number of items I’d found online that were relevant, including my opening quotation: “Many people walk in and out of your life, but only true friends leave footprints on your heart.”  Eleanor Roosevelt said that.

I then highlighted events in the life of Alice, cobbled together from what I’d been told, focusing on upbeat things.  Some humor was involved, but most of it was somber.  When I mentioned her addiction to Steven King I frowned and looked disapproving as I noted he was not known for being of high literary quality—before confessing that I too had read most of what he’s written, and even corresponded with him years ago.

When it came time for others to speak I reminded them of how much fun Alice could be, and asked that their stories contain as much humor as they could remember.  Around ten people or so spoke, and most of them did tell funny stories about Alice—how she foisted “the worst cat in the world on me,” and how she “introduced me to all the angry chick music and taught me how to sing it,” and “how as five years olds led by her we broken into empty apartments and found a treasure of six pennies!”

Most telling was the long and heartfelt eulogy given by her brother, who’d been worried he’d be unable to say a word, in which he memorialized all of the wonderful things he felt about this woman he so clearly adored.  He finished by saying that death is hard for atheists, but that he and Alice had often talked about it, and though it was difficult, it was something he could accept.  He finished with a quote from ­­­Epicurus (the Greek whose philosophy was to find a tranquil life free from fear), who said about dying, “Death, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Death of a known atheist is very different from the death of a believer in an afterlife.  The reason is obvious.  With a religion in the mix mourners can at least console themselves with the thought that the deceased still exists on some ethereal plane, and there is the possibility of joining him/her after one’s own death.  For atheists that not available.  Death is death.  That makes things harder, but reality is reality.  Life is not easy, nor is death, particularly when it comes as soon as it did to Alice.

Yes, theists get some comfort in believing in an afterlife, easing the path to one’s death.  But surely most theists also worry (even if they never articulate the thought) that their beliefs are possibly wrong and maybe there’s really nothing after death, and their “comfort” is muddied  by that frightening possibility.  If this were not so why wouldn’t death always be an event to celebrate?  Why would believers “mourn” for loved ones now in a “better place”?

When the speakers were finished with their part of Alice’s ceremony, I summed up before inviting everyone to the supper that followed.  First I said:

Memorial services like this are not for the person who has died, but, of course, are for the living.  They are a way of coming to grips with her passing, and for exchanging the memories of this beloved woman, thus making sure she continues to live in our thoughts.  But remember my admonition to view this service and take it as Alice herself would have wanted it viewed.

I ended by reading a poem by David Harkins entitled “She Is Gone”:

You can shed tears that she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love that you shared
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

I think everything went well, and all those I talked to kindly said so.  Alice’s mother told me that it was useful to get away from dealing with Alice’s recent death and instead be reminded of the treasure she’d been when alive.  Alice’s brother and sister-in-law also thanked me and added they’d be sending a donation to the Humanist Community of Central Ohio in Alice’s name.

Would I do this again?  Hmm.  Yes, I think so, but next time I’m needed for a memorial service at least I won’t be the neophyte that I was this past month.  I’ve certainly learned that the word “minister” requires one to actually minister to the needs of others, and that’s no small task.  It is a sober responsibility that requires treading very carefully for each step taken take and each word said.  Perhaps the next one will be easier.

Related Posts:

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

“The Happy Atheist,: December 22, 2105;

“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012;
“An Atheist’s Christmas Card,” December 23, 2011;
“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010;
“An Atheist Interviews God,” May 20, 2010;

“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010;

“Why Even Believers Should Read My Atheist Thriller ‘Imaginary Friend’,” October 29, 2013;

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Parents “Surprise” Gambling Experience

My Mother and Her Trophies

Whaley Family 1954
Robert Whaley, my father was in the Air Force so we moved a lot when I was young.  In the summer of 1954 he was transferred to Yokota Air Force Base in Japan, where we would live for three years without returning to the States.  I turned 11 that September and was 13 when we returned in 1957, and it was an interesting immersion in a completely different world.  All of us change dramatically as we morph into teenagers, and for me it was like coming to life in Japan and not quite knowing who or what I was.  The United States seemed a mythical land which I only vaguely remembered, and appeared to be some sort of paradise for kids my age.  At the base PX I would buy, say, a Superman comic book and see advertised in it all sorts of similar comic books that were not for sale at that PX.  Did American kids really have the ability to go into a drug store in the U.S.A. and walk up to a display of all these comic books, readily available for purchase?  Wow! 

When we did return to America I remember my sister Mary Beth (two years younger) and I wandering around downtown Seattle with our eyes wide at the riches so casually on display for ordinary people.  In Japan we hadn’t even had television—just movies and radio rebroadcasts of popular shows of the day.

My Mother and Sister in Japan

For my parents Japan was a game changer too.  Both of them were athletic—indeed Dad had flirted with the possibility of a professional baseball career earlier in his life as a catcher, but threw his arm out when exploring that world.  He was a pretty good golfer too, but my mother, Lenore Whaley, was not a serious golfer until we moved to Japan.  There she learned that a young Japanese maid would come in Monday through Friday from 9 to 5 p.m. for $10.00 a month (remember, readers, that prices were very different then—it was impossible to force more than $3 worth of gasoline inside those large American cars in 1954!). That’s when Mom became serious at both bowling and golf. Before we left Japan in 1957, she bowled the highest score a woman ever bowled in Japan to that date: 270 (for which she rolled seven strikes in a row!). Dad was her teacher, but she was an apt student and very, very good at whatever she tried [for their amusing softball adventure, see “My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010);]

As I said, Dad was a good golfer, but Mom, compared to other women, was excellent, and the two of them were soon playing matches against any two men on Yokota Air Force Base and nearby similar bases. They almost always won these matches, and Dad began betting small amount on the game by making a bet with the other two golfers as to which would be the winning pair.  Evidentially the amount escalated over the course of a couple of years of such competitions, and therein lies this story.

Years later, when I was in law school, there was some event for which I and my fellow students were gathered in the apartment I shared with two other students, all of us there with our dates, dressed up (I forget why), and Mom and Dad were, for some reason, also present. Dad, ever the storyteller, got to discussing these long-ago golf matches, a twinkle in his eye. “Doug’s mother,” he told the assembled young people, “knew there was betting going on, but she didn’t know the amount.  When we reached the green at the final hole one of the other golfers casually mentioned to here that a bet of $400.00 depended on her making a downhill putt, about nine feet from the hole. “She was both shocked and furious,” Dad continued his tale, “and while I was hurrying around moving leaves out of the path of her putt and making soothing noises to calm her down, she hit the putt, I jumped out of the way, it plopped in the hole!  We won the money!”

Having told this story Dad then paused and smiled. “Now you think I’d be pleased she made that putt, wouldn’t you?”  We all nodded and his smile broadened. “That shows you’ve never been married. She spent it six times.”

I heard him tell this story a number of times and it was always the same, but what it really meant didn’t register on me until recently.  I got to thinking about the amounts and what they meant in the mid-fifties.  I looked this up on the internet.  In 1956 the value of $100 would be worth $900.87 in 2017.  This surprised me greatly.  It meant that a $400 bet was the equivalent in today’s money of $3,603.46!  Yikes!  That was a lot of money for a couple with two children living on the salary of an Air Force major!   They must have been living much better for awhile—at least until Mom started spending the money over and over again.

Dad did mention that this incident was the end of their gambling on their prowess on the greens.          

Lenore and Robert Relaxing

Related Posts:

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

“My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010);]

“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk,” August 20, 2010;

“Put-Out at Home Plate,” February 14, 2010;

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Embracing Michael Pence’s Coming Presidency

When Mike Pence was the Governor of Indiana he made a major embarrassment of himself in 2015  by pushing a “Religious Freedom” bill though the state legislature that allowed discrimination against LGBT people if based on a sincerely held religious belief.  He happily signed the bill into law in the presence of an invited group of religious leaders.

Of course such a bill means that hatred of gays was now legal in Indiana.  All you had to do was claim “God made me do it” and you could bar the door to gays who wanted the services of your business, or to rent your apartment, or to be hired at your organization.  Moreover this animosity against gays was part of a long held belief that Mike Pence has maintained throughout his political life.  Whatever the far right embraces, he likes it, urges it, and pushed its agenda both when he was a Congressman, and as a governor when he signed bills into law.  He is the darling of the NRA, hates legislation restricting tobacco (“Smoking doesn’t kill,” Mike has stubbornly insisted), dismisses climate change as fantasy, loves charter schools, and has said that the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Obamacare was as bad as the 9/11 attacks (though he later apologized for that absurdity).  In Congress and as governor he has worked hard to abolish any right to abortion.  He signed into law a bill that would have made women who aborted fetuses bury or cremate the remains, and made it a crime for doctors to assist in an abortion if the woman’s stated reason was a disability in the fetus—a law later struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge.  Michael Pence doesn’t believe in evolution, favors using coal as a major energy source, and signed a bill that forbade Indiana municipalities to raise the minimum wage above the federal level.  Mike sums himself up as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order." However when he had the Indiana legislation pass his Religious Freedom To Discriminate Act he didn’t get away with it.  The reaction from the rest of the country astounded him.  Quickly companies pulled out of deals to open up shop in Indiana, sports organizations threatened to move big events elsewhere, major celebrities went to social media and whipped up anti-Indiana activity, other states forbade governmental travel to Indiana.  Faced with this tsunami the Indianapolis Star (itself a quite conservative newspaper) published a front page banner headline stating simply “FIX THIS NOW.”  This sent Pence and the state legislature into full retreat, and led to the passage of a revised version of the bill which more or less restored the status quo prior to the original legislative sin.

I myself am a native Hoosier, having been born in southern Indiana, the fifth generation of Whaleys to be Indiana bred.  I haven’t lived there except for the fifth grade and when I taught for five years at the Indiana Indianapolis Law School in the early 70’s, but I have many relatives and friends in the state, and they’ve informed me that Mike Pence was not a popular governor and was facing an iffy reelection bid this past year had he not thrown his lot in with Donald Trump by becoming his Vice Presidential nominee.

Once Trump picked this unknown man from the crowd of pretenders to the second spot I assumed he’d be every bit as pathetic as Trump himself, and for awhile that appeared true.  His first appearance with Trump on 60 Minutes was embarrassing as poor Pence wasn’t allowed to do more than smile and nod while Trump bloviated happily about himself and how wise he was for choosing this second-rater.  But my opinion of Pence began to change during the Vice Presidential Debate he had with Senator Tim Kaine.  In that debate Kaine appeared both overeager and overprepared, while Pence was surprisingly calm and—to my annoyance and chagrin—quite intelligent and articulate.  Hmm.  He was not quite the dummy I’d assumed.

But Pence’s opinions on important issues I cared about were just as bad as always, so I stopped thinking about him, concentrating instead on the manifesting horror that was Donald Trump extraordinaire.

Like most everyone it never occurred to me that Trump would actually win the presidency, and on election night I was one of millions who sat staring at the TV, stupefied with shock.  At the end of a month or so of his presidency I’m daily slammed against the wall by his inane and dangerous deeds, thoughts, and mindless tweets.  My very liberal husband foams at the mouth two or more times a day as he contemplates Trump’s latest idiocy.  It’s no small fancy to imagine a situation in which Trump feels himself forced to pull out the nuclear football, examine it curiously on his lap, and then push one or two buttons, blowing us all up, all over some personal indignity for which a tweet won’t have quite the oomph he needs.

The hope many of us feel deep down inside is the possibility—hell, the likelihood!—that Trump will make a major mistake and do something that he can justify in his own mind but which is, oops, illegal under the current laws of the land.  When that happens—and who would take a bet that it won’t?—the impeachment proceedings will start, he’ll fight, and he’ll lose.  Out he’ll go.  The first President of the United States to be impeached and removed by trial in the Senate.

Or—dreadful to think about, but all too possible—some deranged individual decides to join the Presidential Assassins Club and takes Trump out in a clever way the Secret Service didn’t anticipate.

But now we come to the point of this post.  In the event that Donald John Trump is unable or prevented from completing his presidency Michael Pence would become president.  When this is mentioned—and people are talking about it—a number of Trump haters will shake their head and just say, “But Pence is no better, so it’s all the same.”

And that’s just wrong. 

Donald Trump isn’t like any other president we’ve had in our history.  The other 43 [yes, 43: Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president] were sane, responsible, and bound by at least some sense of ethics.  Trump is an ego-maniac with no exposure to history, literature, religion, common decency, or empathy.  He has the attention span of a puppy and the self-control of a two-year old.  Lately he’s been calling for more nukes!  Think of that!  More nukes!  Who else on the planet thinks that’s a good idea?  It’s been said that doing so is comparable to two men waist-deep in gasoline arguing about who has more matches!

Oh, I’d love to be wrong, but I think that there is a serious—and I mean SERIOUS—chance that Donald Trump will do something that causes world-ending bombs to go off.  He could play “mine is bigger than yours” with Putin, or dare Kim Jung Un to fire a ballistic missile at California, or _________ (fill in the blank with some other act of madness).

I’d never enter a voting booth and pull the lever for Mike Pence as President of the United States.  He’s against most everything I stand for.  But that's not the question.

I don’t think he’d be a dangerous president.  I just think he’d be a lousy one we’d replace fast at the next election.

Between that choice and the nightmare we currently have, give me President Michael Richard Pence, 46th President of the United States. 

I’ll take him tomorrow over what we have today. 

Related Posts:
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

“A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act,” March 30, 2015;

“Trump's VP Choice: Introducing Sarah Palin . . . uh . . . Mike Pence!” July 18, 2016;

“Careful What You Wish For: Making Trump an Illegitimate President,” January 20, 2017;

“President Preposterous: Donald Takes the Helm,” November 14, 2016;

“Calm Yourself: What Trump Can and Cannot Do About LGBT Rights,” November 16, 2016;

“Fake News You Might Like to Read,” February 17, 2017;