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Friday, December 31, 2010

Rock Around the Sun

It seems appropriate as we start a new year to look around and see where we are. Okay, where are we?

We are the dominant species on a rock circling a star that is one of 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Billions! Think of that! But it gets better: our galaxy itself is one of 100+ billion other galaxies, making up the enormity that is our known cosmos. Frankly it's impossible to imagine the immensity, too big to comprehend, leading to us shaking our heads and giving up. But stay with me here because its important.

This universe is very old, currently pegged as 13.75 billion years (give or take a billion) since the Big Bang started it all. Even stranger, science is beginning to find evidence that there may be other universes, perhaps as many as there are stars, with new universes popping into existence (their own Big Bangs), lasting mind-boggling amounts of time, and then dying out. As we go about our daily activities on the planet Earth it's both exciting and terrifying to think about what is happening on a cosmic scale, where stars explode and galaxies collide, producing devastation on a gargantuan scale.

Though our universe is old, human history is not. I read a recent article that, for the sake of comparison, compressed the universe's timeline into one calendar year. In that conflation, the Big Bang occurs on January 1, but life doesn't appear on Earth until October 2. Mammals evolve on December 26, and human beings as we now call ourselves arrive at the end of the last day of the year at seven minutes to midnight.  All of recorded history occurs in the final ten seconds of December 31st.

What I've listed above isn't fiction. It isn't even in doubt. However, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that all of this is true (and I mean evidence so overwhelming that no objective person questions it), there are those who refuse to look at reality and insist on ancient misunderstandings of how the world works. That would be defensible—no one believes more firmly in freedom of religion than I do—if big decisions (such as what to teach our students in schools, or whether it's morally right to fly airplanes into buildings) weren't still being made based on these ancient misunderstandings. An ostrich-like head-in-the-sand "I don't believe in science" approach to our world is a roadmap for disaster, as (unfortunately) history has demonstrated, tediously, over and over again.

In spite of our short time on it, we human beings have completely conquered this planet, every inch of it. Think of what an accomplishment that really is! We went from being hunted by lions and wolves to worrying that we'll wipe each of them out as a species unless we work very hard to keep the pitiful remnants of their kind alive. In just the blink of an eye in geological time we've moved out of the caves into the condos. While we bitch and moan about the problems of Earth and its peoples, we are striving mightily, creatively, to solve those problems. So, just for now, stop focusing on problems, remembering that if they were all resolved this very day, by morning there'd be new ones. As the old year ends, let's celebrate the wonderful accomplishments of humanity. We've established a worldwide understanding on what is right (democracy, peace, equal treatment of women, cooperation between the races, exchange of information on a global instantaneous basis, free trade—naming but a few of our planetary aspirations) and what is wrong (war, intolerance of differences, trade barriers, depletion of Earth's resources, etc.). As a planet we're enforcing these new standards, condemning those who will not follow them to live in their own little bunkers (think North Korea) until they can be brought one way or another into the world's community. We should be very proud of this international establishment of a human morality, one that we're forever tinkering with until we can make it as rock solid as possible. (The lions and the wolves never got beyond regulating their own individual prides/packs, much less negotiating a predators treaty.)

No one knows whether, in all the vastness of this universe, other life forms exist, or, if so, have evolved to our level or beyond—there's speculation going either way. But when we take our first baby steps on our solar system's other planets, and then bigger leaps through the Milky Way, and finally mega-journeys to other galaxies, we'll export our human morality wherever our vessels touch down. If we do encounter other advanced life forms, we'll likely have the difficulties already familiar from the collision of civilizations in Earth's stormy history. But we can hope these meetings will eventually reach the same result: a success story in which our values prevail over darker outcomes. On the other hand, if it turns out we are indeed alone in the vastness of it all, then the triumph of civilized principles will expand exponentially as long as our universe lasts. If you think my prediction is too optimistic, I reply it's what has already happened, providing a template for its replication in new venues.

So as we begin 2011, let's raise a glass and reflect not on our many problems but instead on our many successes. As I clink my glass to yours, I wish everyone on the planet bigger and better things in the new year.
Related Posts:
"Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun," May 29, 2010
“I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
"Electricity and Cave Man Living," February 4, 2011
"Life's Little (But Important) Rules," April 23, 2010
“Catholicism and Me (Part One),” March 13, 2010
“Superstitions,”March 21, 2010
“Catholicism and Me (Part Two),” April 18, 2010
“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
“Explosion at Ohio Stadium,” October 9, 2010 (Chapter 1 of my novel)
“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010
"Escape From Ohio Stadium," November 2, 2010 (Chapter 2)
"Open Mouth, Insert Foot," November 21, 2010 (Chapter 3)
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"Muslim Atheist," March 16, 2011
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"A Mormon Loses His Faith," June 13, 2011
"Is Evolution True?" July 13, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
" Urban Meyer and the Christian Buckeye Football Team," February 19, 2012
"Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Designer?", May 12, 2012
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Book Reading," May 17, 2012
"'The God Particle' and the Vanishing Role of God," July 5, 2012
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012
“Mitt Romney: A Mormon President?” October 17, 2012
“The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others,” December 17, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Missing Grandmother

The three people in the photos (click to enlarge) are my grandparents, all interacting with me in 1944 when I was not yet one year old. The man is John Whaley, and the couple on the ground are Carrie and Roman Kunkel, my mother's parents. The missing grandmother is John's first wife. My 100th post on this blog is about her and her sad story. I'll start by showing you her high school graduation photo:

Mary Ferguson

Mary Frances Ferguson (distantly related to President John Adams through a common ancestor), was born on May 29, 1885, somewhere in southern Indiana (where all of my grandparents were from), probably in Milltown, Indiana, where she's buried. On June 20, 1906, she married John Alvin Whaley.  The above photo is from their wedding day; John is on the far left, and Mary is the third from the right.  John Whaley was not a handsome man (photos of him make it clear that I inherited his large ears, including the prominent way they stick out), but he was described by his brothers as something of a rake, and quite the snappy dresser in his day. [Dad once told me that his father, when young, was twice sued in bastardy proceedings by women he'd romanced, with what outcomes I know not.] 
John Whaley, Hot Dude

John's marriage with Mary Ferguson was apparently a happy one, and produced three boys: Wayne, Jack, and Robert (my father). 
The Whaley Brothers: Wayne, Jack, and Robert
Dad, the youngest, was born on June 20, 1919.  Here is another picture of Mary with her oldest son Wayne:

Before my father reached his third birthday, his mother  and both brothers were dead. Wayne died on December 22, 1916, Jack on August 16, 1920, and Mary on February 21, 1922.  Dad later told me he was unclear what killed them, but pneumonia was his guess, though the famous flu epidemic of the period could also be involved. In the photo below you can see how very ill Mary Whaley looks as she tightly holds on to the arm of her last remaining child, my father.

John Whaley rarely talked about his wife to anyone, not even his surviving son, but late in his life he asked Bobby (as he called Dad) if he remembered her at all. Dad said he recalled being at the feet of a lovely woman who was reaching down, fingers waving, as she picked him up. He also asked his father if her coffin wasn't displayed for days in the living room of their home, which he seemed to remember. John confirmed that was right. John also bitterly commented that if you want to know true sorrow—the kind that brings you to your knees and makes suicide seem attractive—lose your young wife and two of your children in the span of one year. The only thing that kept him going was the need to take care of his Bobby.

When I was ten and my sister Mary Beth eight, Dad took our family to Milltown. He showed us around the tiny place in which he was born and lived until he was a teenager and moved to Jasper, Indiana (where he met my mother). At one point we went to the Milltown cemetery to find his mother's grave. Mary Beth and I were walking ahead of the others and suddenly she stopped cold and went white. "What's wrong?" I asked her, worried. She pointed. The grave right in front of us had "Mary Whaley" carved prominently on the tombstone. Seeing her own name like that was quite a jolt.

Eventually John Whaley decided that his son needed a mother, so when Dad was nine years old John married Ruth McCarty in Milltown. Ruth (whom everyone, including John, called "Mack") taught Home Economics at the Milltown High School—who better to take care of a small boy? Dad always laughed when he remembered that she gave him his first pair of long pants, apparently a big deal early in the last century. Mack was quite a character, and some future post in this blog will tell her complicated story (I represented her in four different legal matters late in her life—she loved suing people).

But at this late date what can we know about Mary Ferguson Whaley? There are some clues. My sister Mary Beth (who was named after her) once spent a couple of years in Indiana, and explored the Whaley family. Talking to Whaleys who had known Mary, my sister says they would brighten up and smile when her name was mentioned. Apparently she was much fun to be with.

She almost had to have been a gifted storyteller with a great sense of humor. Why? Because Dad was a genius at telling wonderfully funny stories (and Mary Beth and I inherited our storytelling ability in large part from him), but John Whaley did not possess this trait. While my sister Mary Beth says he was more forthcoming with her, I never saw him make more than mild attempts at humor, never heard him tell a single story (even when prompted to do so), and never heard him talk much at all. John Whaley had real talents and there are a lot of interesting things he did in his life (his story will be told in a future post, and will include such things as his prowess with a shotgun, his love of birddogs, his golfing battles with my mother, how he had his eye shot out, and his descent into and recovery from mental illness), but he was not charming. The only time he ever volunteered a comment to me that wasn't dictated by the circumstances occurred when I was ten and he gave me this advice: "Save your money, Doug." In his defense, I should mention I didn't know him when he was at his best: he was quite old, as grandparents go. When I was born in 1943 he was 61, so by the time he and I could possibly interact in any meaningful way he was in his seventies or older. John died in 1964 just shy of his 82nd birthday, when I was a junior in college.

Anything more about Mary Ferguson Whaley's personality is lost forever. Bothered by that knowledge gap, I decided to assign her some mythical traits, just to create a connection with my unknown grandmother. The only one I've concocted so far is silly, but fun. Ferguson is a Scottish name. One of the supposed traits of the Scots is being tight with a penny. I'm generally not known for that, but I do have the annoying habit of trying to use every bit of any product, particularly food, that I've purchased. Thus I will, for example, scrape a peanut butter jar down to the last tiniest morsel, even when this is a waste of time and borders on the fanatical. Someone who once saw me doing this (I don't remember who) asked me why I worked so hard at mining the dregs, and I heard myself indignantly reply, "Didn't I pay for it all?" Without the slightest justification for believing it true, I pretend that this stinginess comes from the Mary Ferguson Whaley genes. If I catch myself going overboard when scraping orts from a jar, I mutter, "Give it up, Grandma!" That makes me laugh and I quit.

It's about all that's left of that mysterious woman I dearly wish I'd met.
Related Posts:
“My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010
"Goodbye to St. Paddy's Day," March 2, 2010
“Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer,” March 28, 2010
"My Mother's Sense of Humor," April 4, 2010
“The Sayings of Robert Whaley,” May 13, 2010
“Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule,” June 26, 2010
“Bob and Kink Get Married,” June 2, 2010
“Dad and the Cop Killer,” July 19, 2010
“No Pennies In My Pocket,” July 30, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk,” August 20, 2010
“The Death of Robert Whaley,” September 7, 2010
"Bob Whaley Trapped in Panama," January 21, 2011
"The Death of My Mother," March 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Douglas Whaley, Deckhand

U.S.S. Rockbridge

Sailor Doug
After I left Navy boot camp (see "The Boot Camp Fiasco" (April 21, 2010) and before I was transferred to Bermuda (see "My Year in Bermuda," February 9, 2010), I spent much of a year of my life as a lowly deckhand on the U.S.S. Rockbridge, a troop carrier. The ship's mission was to transport army or marine (typically the latter) troops to a combat site, and then run them ashore in little boats (called "Papa" boats), with a drop-down front ramp—just like ones used at the D-Day landing. I joined the ship at Newport News, Virginia (near Norfolk), in October of 1961. I'd turned 18 while in boot camp, and, quite the innocent, I had no idea what was in store for me.

Assessing my talents, the powers that be immediately made me a deckhand, assigning me to the forecastle (pronounced "folk-sell"), which is the open deck on the front part of the ship; the anchor is stored there when it's not being hauled up or down. Indeed, as one of my duties I was part of the "anchor detail," handling the iron monster every time we entered or left port and had to put the ungainly thing over the side or pull it back up again (i.e.,"anchor's aweigh," a phrase that technically means what it sounds like: the anchor is no longer resting on the bottom, but has its full weight ("weigh") on the chain). Mostly my duties were the sort of things you'd expect a seaman to do: swabbing the deck, chipping and painting (my ability to paint a very straight line proved useful), standing watch, etc. Standing watch one cold late December night in Boston, at the very tip of the forecastle, I figured out why sailors wear bell bottom trousers: it's so that the freezing wind can get to every part of the legs.

After spending the end of 1961 transporting army troops up and down the eastern seaboard, the Rockbridge joined a fleet of ships heading for a six-month cruise in the Mediterranean early in 1962. There we would get much practice running boats into the beaches of the islands in that lovely Sea. We visited many Italian cities: Naples, Le Spezia, Genoa, and Taranto, as well as Patras and Athens, Greece, and Barcelona Spain (and practiced landing soldiers on the islands of Sardinia, Corsica and Crete). For this cruise the troops were "aquatic" marines, and they were old hands at the whole procedure. While they handled sea life better than army troops (less likely to be seasick), they maintained a quasi-friendly warfare with the sailors. Here's the sort of thing that would happen: I'd have just finished washing the forecastle deck and it would be sparkling, but then the grunts would erupt from below en masse and clean their rifles, creating ugly streaks of oil all over. They'd smile at the mess as they went below for chow. To this day I have an irrational reaction to the word "marine," gallant fighters that we all know them to be.

In the Mediterranean our home port was Naples, and it's a beautiful city (as is the famous Bay of Naples, the Isle of Capri immediately south of the city, and the fascinating ruins of Pompeii right next door). At one point I took a weekend of leave and treated myself to a tour of Rome. Moving along with a guided group through the Vatican, I found myself suddenly standing in front of Michelangelo's "Pieta" the statue of Mary and her dead son, Being only 18, and untrained in art, I didn't know it was famous (nor who Michelangelo was), but I remember thinking, "You know, that isn't half bad!"

Remembering those six months now, I wish I could go back and do it the right way. But, sigh, I was just a kid, fresh from high school, newly escaped from his parents, pretending I was an adult. Mostly when we hit port we did what sailors always do: we got drunk and had sex (and/or bad tattoos). My first sexual experience was with a prostitute in La Spezia, but I was so drunk I remember little of the adventure except getting sick in her chamber pot, which SHE DID NOT LIKE. There was a day in Athens when a group of us, newly liberated from the ship, were walking through the city, and the sun burst through the clouds and lit up the Acropolis high above us to the left. It looked just like a postcard. "God damn!" one of us said. "That's fucking beautiful!" We all nodded, awestruck. "Let's get drunk," someone else said, which we immediately did. That was my only experience of the Acropolis. 

There were adventures along the way: climbing into the crow's nest (yes, the Rockbridge really had a crow's nest, one of the last ones in the U.S. Navy) only to find that the man I'd relieved had already relieved himself by crapping in the narrow space; watching another sailor who'd been painting a funnel fall to his death when he reached out to correct a mistake just as he was being lowered to the ground, surviving a storm that had the ship pitching almost completely horizontal over and over again, nearly being court martialed over a missing pair of binoculars, etc. But let me finish this post by telling you about the Bosun.

When the whistle blew for the anchor detail to assemble on the forward deck, the operation was under the control of Chief Warrant Officer J. H. Eastman, always simply called "The Bosun." He was one of those old hands who knows more about seamanship than any twelve officers on board put together, and was the person the Captain turned to in time of trouble with the ship. The Bosun was quite a character. One night in some port we had to raise anchor in the dark during a downpour complete with massive wind, lightning and thunder—it was just like a bad movie. We were all waiting on the forecastle for the Bosun, when he theatrically sprang out of the hatch, spread his arms wide, looked up at the turbulent skies, and with the rain streaming down his face, yelled to the heavens, "HOWL, YOU SONS OF BITCHES!!!" We all looked at him in wonder. "That's Shakespeare," he explained with a sheepish smile.

When we were in the Mediterranean his extensive knowledge and talents were put to a real test one beautiful day in port when our anchor somehow became wrapped around the anchor of the Monrovia, our sister ship. This tangle was dangerous. If either ship pulled on its anchor the laws of physics dictated that the ships would collide. What to do? Both captains simply turned control over their vessels to the Bosun and told him to handle it. Fortunately the water was very clear, so the fouled anchors could be easily seen, permitting the Bosun to maneuver the ships around so that the anchors became less entwined. Finally it was his plan to have the ships each reverse while slowly pulling their respective anchors up. It was his hope that the anchors would come apart before the ships smacked together. All of us on the anchor detail were naturally worried about this, since if things didn't go well we were standing at the point where the ships would meet head first. I was phone man for the anchor detail, meaning that I wore large clunky headphones and relayed the Bosun's commands to the two bridges. When the ships began reversing, the Bosun suddenly ordered everyone off the forecastle but himself. "Give me the phones, Whaley," he ordered. "I'll wear 'em myself." I frowned and shook my head. This was before the days of wireless, and the phone operator was necessarily plugged into an outlet on the bulkhead with a short cord. There was no way that the Bosun could run from one railing to the other and talk on the phones at the same time. "You’re going to need to be mobile," I advised him. He looked at me. "You sure?" he asked. I nodded. He shrugged. "Okay." Then he started shouting instructions as he maneuvered things beautifully, and the anchors parted at the last moment it was possible to do so and avoid trouble. The ending was anticlimactic, but it could have been very bad for both of us. Many years later someone casually asked me if I'd ever done anything brave. I flashed back to this moment, but I'm not sure if it qualifies. There's a good chance it just reflected the innocent stupidity of youth, the one time in life when we all think we're immortal.

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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

One Year of This Blog

The original Flag Counter for this blog was wildly inaccurate (see my January 12 post: "Flag Counter" for an explanation of the problem), so beginning August 20 I switched to StatCounter which has logged around 700 visitors a month since then, and a large number of foreign visitors (just this morning there were visits from Poland, India, and Mexico!). Extrapolating from that, over 8000 visits have been made to my blog.  As of Sunday, December 19, 2010, StatCounter's new flag count looks like this (click to enlarge):

It's now been one year since I started, and who knew I could have as much fun as I've had writing this blog?

After my heart transplant I was told that following life-altering events one is required by law to begin a blog, and, being a law-abiding citizen, I did as directed. The heart transplant was the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2009, but, in the beginning, the steroids they gave me made my hands shake so hard I couldn't fill out a check, much less type a document of any length. But thereafter the doctors decreased my steroids steadily (and stopped them entirely last summer), and by December 17th I posted by first blog entry. It, and the two that followed, are uninteresting—I hadn't yet hit by stride and was unclear what I wanted the blog to be. But by December 27th, when I posted "Dog Meat" (the story of nearly being mauled by two Doberman Pinschers at a party in D.C.), I was into the rhythm of it all. I decided that my blog would not just be musings about current events or the minutia of the day, but would be little essays on a wide range of topics: stories, advice, reflections, helping people in trouble, and advocacy. Some posts are just plain fun ("Doug's Favorite Jokes," November 11, "Some Cartoons I've Saved," October 20, "The Best of My Library," August 27). In the beginning much of what I wrote was about the heart transplant and meeting the donor's family (see, for example, "My Heart Belonged to Andrew," February 17), but since then the topics have been all over the map.

The Stories. I'm the son of two gifted storytellers, and my sister is also a storyteller, so apparently it's a family trait. Thus many of my blog entries are the stories (like "Dog Meat") that I've often dragged out to entertain friends in the past. A huge number of these are about my family. My father is the subject of many because nothing he did was dull: joining the Air Force for WWI ("No Pennies In My Pockets," July 30, "Bob and Kink Get Married," June 2), growing up ("Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer," March 28), or practicing law in a most unconventional fashion ("Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule," June 26, "Dad and the Cop Killer, July 19). But many other characters show up for their share of these tales: my fascinating mother ("Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk," August 20, "My Mother's Sense of Humor, April 4), my ex-wife Charleyne ("I Married a Hippy," April 14, "Charleyne and the Giant Cookie," September 16), and many others ("Mary Beth and the Gay Teddy Bear," September 25, "Two Stories About Tom," October 6, "Recidivist: A Criminal Who Does It Again," September 10).

Law. While I've said quite a bit about law teaching (see "The Socratic Dialogue in Law School," January 31), most recently I've been explaining to lawyers and the courts the necessity of producing the original promissory note before mortgage foreclosure is possible, and a large number of the blog readers have come for this information (see "Update: Mortgage Foreclosure and Missing Notes," November 16). I hope it serves them well. One of my posts on this topic was entitled "The Sexy Promissory Note," (August 17th), and I was puzzled by the many foreign visitors to this site who came specifically to read this particular post. Why, I asked myself, would they care about mortgage foreclosures in the United States? Then I realized that they were misled by the word "sexy" in the title! Doubtless on learning the true identity of the sexual object, an inanimate object (albeit portrayed with an arm around a hooker, see photo which accompanied the original post) they didn't stay to read more. However, many foreign visitors have signed on to view my thoughts on the next topic:

Homosexuality. I have a great deal to say about why people are gay, how many there are, and attempts to change them (see, for example, the most Googled post: "Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory," April 25), but I won't belabor the point here. I do like to think I've given some guidance and even hope to those, wherever in the world they may be, who are lost in the dark woods of homophobia and struggling to escape.

Atheism. Another common blog topic concerns my nonbelief (see "When Atheists Die," October 17). These posts reflect my opinion on how human beings should behave on the planet, as seen through the eyes of someone who is bothered when our most important decisions are guided by ancient misunderstandings of the world.

Fun Things. A large number of the posts are simply meant to be entertaining ("The Carolers: A Comic Christmas Song," December 7), or humorous ("Teaching English to Cats," August 6), or speculative ("Men, Women, and Pornography," December 10; "Football Advice for Coach Tressel," October 23, etc.). [Alas, I'm not above hawking some of my own works: my novels, the songs, etc.—but, not, you will notice, the things that really pay the bills: the law books. I do thank those of you who've been so kind as to buy my novel, "Imaginary Friend," or download some of the nutty songs.] Perhaps the post I'm proudest of is "Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun" (May 29), which expresses the simpleminded optimism I feel about this incredible world we live in and rarely appreciate.

Readers. I can't tell who's reading my blog from the statistics gathered by StatCounter, which only lists cities and dates and sometimes (but rarely) what was read; to look yourself, click on "View My Stats" in the upper left corner of each page, and then "Country/State/City/ISP" in the left column. The identities of a few of my persistent readers are obvious because of their location. My Beaumont, Texas, fan is my beloved cousin Jane Birge (about whom I will someday publish a post that will make eyes pop), and Cleveland is Susan Brown, a friend from long-ago (about whom I did publish a post, disguising Ms. Brown with a pseudonym, which drew an amused email). But most constant readers are simply strangers. Someone in Los Angles has read every word of the blog (quite a chore), but I have no idea who he/she is. There are some interesting foreign visitors as well. Take the mysterious Adelaide, Australia, reader who on October 5 found the blog through a search entitled "what caused the change gay rights," which led him/her to my post "How To Change Gay People Into Straight People" (November 8). After a long visit that first day, this reader has returned on four subsequent occasions, exploring posts that have nothing to do with the original topic of interest. I find the idea that someone in Adelaide, Australia, is reading my blog quite wonderful. What a world we have where this kind of communication is so casually possible!

I close this anniversary post by thanking all of you who've taken time out from your busy lives to spend a moment or two in mine. If you have comments about anything I've said—good or bad—I'm always open to hearing them, and I promise to respond. Send an email to

May you all have a happy 2011!

Douglas Whaley

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

1999-2001: A Dramatic Story

I was a Visiting Professor at Boston College for the school year 1999-2000, and I had a very good time in the great City of Boston. I lived in a rented apartment in the Back Bay with two parakeets. My students at BC were fun to teach, and things went very well until I started developing heart difficulties. I noticed in class that my heart was skipping beats to the point where, more than once, I wondered if I'd pass out in front of the students. But then the badness would pass and I'd continue the Socratic dialogue as usual (see "The Socratic Dialogue in Law School," January 31, 2010).

Off and on I'd had an irregular heartbeat all my life, as had my mother. I'd assumed this was fairly common, but I was wrong. A cardiologist later told me that only about one percent of humans have such a problem. It never seemed to bother me much. When working out with weights, for example, if my heart became too erratic, I'd simply pause for a minute or so until it kicked back into a more normal rhythm. Whaleys are famous for ignoring important symptoms by rationalizing them away, a trait that’s killed more than one of us.

Atrial fibrillation means that the top chamber of the heart is beating too rapidly (ventrical fibrillation, when the bottom part does the same, is much more serious, often fatal). In the fall of 1999 I first experienced "a-fib," and went scurrying to the emergency room at Brigham Hospital in downtown Boston because it wouldn't stop. The doctor hooked me up to an EKG and the monitor on the wall clearly showed the rapid spikes of my heartbeat, which I stared at in fascinated horror. "Atrial fibrillation, all right," the doctor said casually, as if it were no big deal to her. "What can be done to stop it?" I asked, alarmed. "Well," she replied, "we can either treat it with medicine or electrically." "ELECTRICALLY? PADDLES!!!" I said, perhaps too loudly, mentally revisiting TV medical moments ("CLEAR!"). "Oh, look," she said, smiling and pointing at the wall, "it's stopped!" I peered at the EKG readout. My heartbeat was normal. "What happened?" I asked, confused. "You scared yourself back into a normal rhythm," was the comforting reply.

I began taking medicine to control the a-fib, but in the coming year it became worse, and by the summer of 2001 it was clear I needed to have a defibrillator implanted. Dr. Charles Love of the Ohio State University Hospital system opened my upper chest and inserted a defibrillator/pacemaker in July of 2001; it had two leads going into the heart, with the top one (defibrillator) prepared to shock me if my heart began beating very fast, and the bottom one (pacemaker) making sure that my heartbeat did not drop below a certain level (never a problem for me).

Things went well for over a month, but then I developed a difficulty: when I would sit up perfectly straight (or stand straight, though it was harder to notice then) I’d feel my heartbeat as a steady thump in the muscles of my left abdomen. This wasn't painful in any way, merely annoying. So I phoned Dr. Love and told him about the problem. "Hmm," he replied, "that means the bottom lead has come out and is sticking into your abdomen muscle—this happens in about one percent of the cases." "What's to be done?" I asked. "I'll have to go back in and reposition it." Since I had a social function coming up over Labor Day in another week, I asked if we could postpone it until I returned. We agreed that "the procedure" would be done on the Wednesday after Labor Day in the late afternoon. I had a class to teach at the law school from 3 until 3:50 p.m. on Wednesdays, and Dr. Love said I should have someone drive me to the hospital immediately after class; he would perform the 45 minute operation at 4:30 p.m. So that's what we did. Barbara (see "The Woman Who Runs My Life," May 5, 2010) drove down from her home three hours away (she lives near Youngstown, Ohio), took me to and picked me up after class, ferried me to the hospital where Dr. Love sliced me open ("Real shame," he muttered, "that incision was healing nicely"), and then drove me home. The next morning I taught my 10 a.m. class with my arm in a sling, and I assumed that was that.

I was wrong. The following Saturday as I was watching an OSU football game on TV with my friend Pam, I felt rhythmic thumping in the same left abdomen muscle. Damn. I sent Dr. Love an email entitled "Bad News With Whaley's Procedure," explaining the return of the thump, and his email in reply said "This never happens in my operations!" (With surgeons it is frequently, I've discovered, all about them.) "Come in next Tuesday after your 3 o'clock class and I'll reposition it again, and this time I assure you it won't come out!"

As I've explained before in this blog, I've been sliced open many, many times in the past (see "The First Time I Nearly Died," August 8, 2010). By the time Dr. Love proposed playing around yet again with my innards, I was fed up with letting medicine have its way with me. Pills seemed to be controlling the a-fib pretty well, so I sent him an email telling him that I would come in on Tuesday, but I wanted him to remove the device completely—that I was done with letting doctors tamper with my heart. Alarmed, Dr. Love sent me back an email saying to do as I suggested would, in effect, be a decision to commit suicide. I thought about that for a number of long hours, then sent him a reply that I still wanted the thing out and would take my chances. "Why?" asked his responding email. So I told him: I was about to turn 58, I'd faced death much in the past and was unafraid of it, my life had gone very well both from a personal standpoint (my son Clayton was living happily in Seattle and I was proud of him) and professionally (I'd just been voted "Outstanding Professor of the Year” by the OSU law school graduating class, and it wasn't the first time that had happened), and if my time on earth was over, well, it'd been a great run. But I was finished with medical experiments that may or may not work. Indignant, Dr. Love wrote back that it would work this time, and that I should come in next Tuesday after class and we'd discuss it in detail, at which point he'd either take the device out forever or reposition the bottom lead. I agreed and said I'd see him Tuesday afternoon.

A weekend spent thinking about one's impending death does (as the saying goes) focus the mind wonderfully well, but, in the end, that possibility didn't alter my desire to be done with the device. I called Barbara, told her about all this, and asked her to come down on Tuesday so she could again take me to the hospital after class. Poor Barbara was conflicted. She usually supported me in my decisions (unless they involved matter of taste, of which I have none—see "The Many Faults of Douglas Whaley," March 31, 2010), but this decision meant the possible death of her beloved Doug, and she didn't know what to say. Disturbed, but knowing she was needed, she agreed to accompany me on Tuesday.

That next Tuesday morning as I was going into my ten o'clock class, the Dean's secretary asked me if I'd heard the astounding news: an airplane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center! Thinking, as we all did, this was just an unfortunate aviation accident, I was shocked but then went on to conduct my class. While that was going on, both towers collapsed. I emerged from class and entered the general confusion and amazement we all felt that terrible day. I drove home, radio on, and as soon as I was home I planted myself in front of the TV, staring at the screen, dumbstruck with horror as the events in NYC, D.C., and the Pennsylvania countryside were graphically detailed. In the early afternoon of that day no one was sure how many people had died, and the estimates were upwards of 10,000 people, which put the possibility of my own death into a much smaller box than it had occupied when I woke up on September 11, 2001. [Coincidentally, September 11th is my mother's birthday, but she was no longer alive to learn how iconic that date would become].

When Barbara arrived around noon, she looked as bewildered as I felt. "It's surreal out there," she commented, explaining that she'd learned the news when she stopped along the way to get gas and everyone at the station, customers and employees, were standing in front of a TV at the cashier's station.

"Is Dr. Love still going to do the operation?" she asked me. I didn't know so I called him. He told me that, like all of us, his plans had been cancelled (OSU had suspended classes). The good doctor had been planning to fly to Europe that evening for a medical conference, but, of course, no planes were leaving the ground on September 11th. "Why don't you come in at 2 p.m.," Dr. Love suggested, "and we'll talk about whether to replace the lead or take the device out." I agreed to that.

All of us were in a very strange mood when we met at Dr. Love's office. He and I argued about the wisdom of letting him put the bottom lead in its proper place, but Barbara sat there very quiet—upset on many levels. When people she loves are threatened (and to my great good fortune I am one of those lucky people), she reacts like a mother grizzly bear whose cubs are in harm's way. But in this bizarre situation she didn't know what or whom to claw.

After about twenty minutes of serious discussion, Dr. Love suddenly announced, "Of course, we could just turn the bottom lead off." Silence filled the room for a moment and then I repeated, "Turn it off?" "Sure," he replied breezily, "you don't really need it." "How hard is that to do?" I asked. As an answer, Dr. Love reached across his desk, picked up a doughnut-shaped object attached to his computer by a cord, placed it on my chest over the incision, punched a couple of keys on the computer, and then announced happily, "It's off."

I thought Barb was going to leap across the room and rip his throat out! All the angst we'd been through could have been avoided if Dr. Love had had this thought days ago. Talk about an anticlimax!

So, for me, whenever 9/11 is mentioned this strange twist on that awful day comes to mind.

Let me end the story by mentioning that the defibrillator was removed at the time of the heart transplant (never having gone off except, inappropriately, at the moment of orgasm, which—trust me on this—puts a real crimp in one's sex life). These days I'm through with artificial devices living inside my body. I'm very pleased to state that Andrew's heart never misses a beat.

Related Posts:
"About That Heart Transplant," January 24, 2010
"My Heart Belonged to Andrew," February 17, 2010
"Another Letter to Andrew's Parents," March 10, 2010
"A Toast to Andrew," May 2, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"The First time I Nearly Died," August 3, 2010
"Rehabilitating Doug," June 12, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"Naming My Heart," March 24, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Friday, December 10, 2010

Men, Women, and Pornography

I have a close woman friend who loves pornography and has quite a collection. Jerry, my partner of twelve years, never liked pornography and thought it useless. Since the point of this post is that, in general, women dislike and don't understand pornography while men embrace it, I wanted to start with the obvious: there are exceptions to every rule. When in this post I say "women," I don't mean all women, I mean most women. Similarly, when I say men, I mean the majority. This is also true of other groups I reference below: straight people, gay men, lesbians. A group characteristic doesn't extend to everyone in the group, just the greater number of them.

Having lunch many years ago with a female law professor friend whose judgment I revere, I was startled to hear her say that she thought all pornography should be banned (she was an expert on Constitutional Law, which has always had an uneasy position on the relationship between freedom of speech and porn). When I told her that I found pornography valuable, not only as an entertainment but also because studies show that sexual criminals who use pornography commit fewer crimes, we had a discussion that ended up lasting days.

I believe that men and women as groups approach pornography differently because of evolution. As readers of this blog may know, I believe evolution is responsible for much of what we do.

Men are pretty liberal when it comes to sexual encounters because evolution encouraged them to spread their seed widely. Studies show that men think about sex a lot: at least once a day such fantasies appear and in many men more often than that; only one quarter of women report such desires. Men masturbate more often than women do. For most men, if sex is available they'll consider it seriously, even with partners they're not wildly attracted to. With partners who are truly "beautiful" in the eyes of the man, that alone is criterion enough for most men to have at least a casual encounter.

Genetically women are hard-wired to be much more selective when it comes to sexual matters. Women, after all, must worry about pregnancy, and evolution punished promiscuity in women harshly. Since human females can become pregnant at any season of the year, evolution produced women who are cautious about sexual activity, who choose their mates based on a lot more than beauty or mere availability. A woman's sexual partner had better be a steady and responsible type who will be around in nine months and who can provide and care for any family that might be coming. As civilization has developed protections against pregnancy, modern women have become more sexually adventurous, of course, but that doesn't change the hard-wiring, nor the fact that most women want romance to play some part in sexual encounters.

One of the most illuminating letters I've ever seen about this was written by a lesbian to a gay news magazine. She scolded the editors this way: "Let's stop talking about sex in public places as a 'homosexual' problem—it's not. It's a MALE problem. Straight men would have sex in parks if straight women would meet them there."  She's absolutely right; and note that no news story has ever complained about lesbians in the bushes.

Common experience tells us what I've said above is so. Prostitutes are almost always women in the straight world, men in the gay male world, and a lesbian hooker would starve to death. Nuns handle vows of chastity much better than priests do. Men love orgies; women, as a group, do not. Many gay men have hundreds, sometimes thousands of sexual experiences; lesbians bond frequently but as a group do not casually fall into bed with the next woman who comes walking by. The old jokes go like this: (1) "What does a lesbian bring on a second date?" Answer: "A U-Haul." (2) "What does a gay man bring on a second date?" Answer: "What second date?" A study, published in a book entitled "American Couples," concluded that long-term gay male couples often allowed some sort of extra-marital sex, and rarely broke up because of violations of rules as to sexual encounters. Straight couples could also frequently weather a man cheating, but had more frequent breakups if the woman was the non-faithful partner. Lesbians, amazingly, broke up more often than the others because their relationships demanded fidelity, and even slight deviations tended to destroy their unions. Phrased another way, put a man in the picture and it's predictable he'll treat sex casually in a way women do not.

If men choose sexual partners based on looks and women do not, that would mean that women would have to make themselves as beautiful as possible if they wanted to attract men (dress nicely, wear makeup, take care of their hair, paint their nails, wear earrings and other jewelry, shave their legs, and much, much more). Men wanting to attract women would do some of that, but their appearances could be much more sloppy and still not rule out sexual adventures. Ah, but in the gay world things would switch! If gay men wanted to attract other men, they'd have to be as beautiful as possible: stay in shape, dress provocatively, take care of their skin, and hair, and cleanliness, and much, much more (gay men are forever complaining about this, I'm one of them). Lesbians, on the other hand, could get away with being much less fastidious about appearances (again, I'm talking about as a group—I know some "lipstick" lesbians who work hard at being beautiful all the time). So, I ask you: is this our world?

Tying it all up: when it comes to pornography, men, tending as they do to choose based on the visual, will love it. Women, demanding as they do much more out of sexual encounters, will think of pornography as a poor sexual stimulant, and will likely be contemptuous of men who succumb to its charms so easily.
Related Posts:
"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010
“Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory,” April 25, 2010
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
“How To Tell if You’re Gay,” August 31, 2010
“The Thunderbolt,” September 3, 2010
“How To Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 20, 2010
"How Many Homosexuals Are There in the World?" November 8, 2010
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Good Sex/Bad Sex: Advice on Making Love," November 9, 2011
"Fifty Shades of Grey: Corbin Milk in the BDSM World," December 26, 2012

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Carolers: A Comic Christmas Song

If I worked in retail and had to endure the same Xmas songs being played constantly as background music I'm sure at some point I'd just lose it. About the 4,000th time through, say "The Little Drummer Boy," my sanity would snap, and I'd go down on all fours, biting customers on the ankles and snarling like a mad dog until captured and institutionalized. One can only take so many rum pum pum pums.

Through the years I've collected Christmas songs that are not the usual fare. These come from many sources, including Broadway shows, which are a surprisingly prolific source for new holidays music. I'm particularly fond of comic Christmas songs such as "I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas" (I have several versions, including one sung by The Three Stooges!) or "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (which, when first released in 1952, was condemned as immoral). But only a few of my favorites are funny, and many are quite lovely. Years ago I put them on a looped recording and played them during the holidays in lieu of the usual fare. I assumed visitors would be pleased to hear this new Christmas music, but my then-partner Jerry's mother complained that she missed the traditional songs! That hurt.

To add to the festive mood of late December, I once wrote a comic Christmas song of my own, "The Carolers," and included it on my album, "Strange Songs" (see the post of that title, September 29, 2010, explaining the madness). You really need the music to appreciate "The Carolers" completely, but I thought it might amuse you to get some idea of the piece. We recorded it in 1977, with Gregory Stobbs singing the lead vocal, Tim Ihle at the piano, and "The Strange Songs Choir" (all law students or law professors of the day) performing their hearts out, while William Cooper, another law student, handled the sound effects (which were extensive). I myself sang the voice of the monster at the end.

                       THE CAROLERS

[A loud and happy group of carolers, both men and women, sing a series of "fa, la, la"s. Then the soloist takes over.]

Listen to the merry sound! [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!]
Carolers have come around! [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!]
The night was dark and still they sang,
While in the park one of their gang
Heard first a bark, then felt a fang! [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!" They continue to sing these syllables while a dog is heard mauling a screaming caroler.]

They lost a voice, but they don't care. [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!]
One less caroling book to share! [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!]
Quite undeterred this hearty choir
Sang like a bird, they didn't tire,
And then they heard the sniper fire! [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la! Shots ring out and two carolers are picked off .]

Their numbers thinned by tragedy [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!]
Still they sang out lustily [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!]
Another dog began to bay [Dog howls]
They had to jog to get away,
And in the fog, the truck looked grey [All sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la! Sound of large truck coming fast, carolers scream as a bunch of them go under its wheels]

Two carolers, just you and me [He and the remaining caroler
sing "Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!]
Sing in two-part harmony [Same]
A friendly soul said, "Come in here
And have a bowl of Christmas cheer!"
You drank the whole, a poisoned beer! [Both sing
"Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!" and then he continues to sing these
syllables as she chokes, sputters, and dies in agony.]

And now I carol all alone—Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Behind that tree I heard a groan—Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!
And while I sing I strain to see
What sort of thing is tracking me!
I'm struggling to stay on key—Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la!
[As he continues these syllables, the monster pounces, and the soloist manages to say "Oh, my God!" before being devoured. The monster finishes the remaining fa, la, las]

My nephew Adam, when around eight years old, became fascinated by "The Carolers."  He played it for a number of his friends, thus traumatizing an entire neighborhood.

Should you care to hear the Strange Songs album version of this choral masterpiece, you can listen to it free at

Now, I ask you: isn't "The Carolers" an interesting addition to the usual holiday music? Let's all gather around the tree, hold hands, and sing it together!
Related Posts:
“The Boot Camp Fiasco,” April 21, 2010
"Strange Songs, Inc.," September29, 2010
"The Evil Big Birthday Song," November 5, 2010

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Doug, Take Me With You!"

After I left Bermuda in the summer of 1963 (see "My Year in Bermuda," February 9, 2010), I moved to College Park, Maryland, to finish up my undergraduate work at the U of M. My family was still back in Bermuda (where my sister Mary Beth graduated from high school), and it was difficult to get home for holidays, having to cross half an ocean to do so. I decided that I needed to find a job for the summer of 1964, and after applying around I obtained one as the drama counselor at Jayson Camps near the town of Monterey in western Massachusetts, in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains. I was told that in addition to running the drama programs at both Camp Owaisa, the girls' camp, and Camp Monterey, the boys' camp, I would be a camp counselor for one cabin (called a "bunk") of boys for eight weeks.

Hmm, I thought. Live with a lot of kids for an entire summer? I'd had no dealings with children to date, and worried I'd be terrible at making small children happy and/or obedient. Could I handle them at all, or would I just give up and sneak away into the woods one night, never to be seen again? Phrased another way, I had the same worries all expectant parents have when contemplating rearing children.

In the event, I accepted the job, and even talked them into taking me a week early since I had no place to go once Maryland closed down my dorm. The other counselors arrived at the end of my first week for a week of orientation. This involved learning things like how to canoe, set up a tent, shoot an arrow, etc. I'd been a Boy Scout when I lived in Japan, so some of these things were not new to me (though I was a sorry Boy Scout, spending over two years as a Tenderfoot); it also helped that I was a Red Cross-certified lifeguard. After my first two weeks at Jayson camps, the children arrived for the start of their eight week adventure. My co-counselor for Bunk 8 was a nice guy, but he couldn't take much of the eight nine-year-old boys we lived with. He had a hair-trigger temper, and, fearing he would strike one of them in a fit of frustration, he simply quit, leaving me with quite a handful for much of the summer.

But from the beginning I adored the kids. They were sweet, fun be with, and, with one or two minor exceptions, pliant and obedient. There were lots of interesting moments, and I did find myself saying the oddest things such as, "Even if he put your socks in the toilet you shouldn't have buried his glasses in the sandbox" or "I don't care what you heard, there can't be a bear in the bathroom!" The first day of archery went particularly well. Repeating the basic steps I'd been shown just the week before, I nocked an arrow, pointed at the target some fifteen feet or so away, and, talking as if I knew my subject, explained how to aim at the target. I then let it loose and—I'm not making this up—by happy accident the arrow flew smack into the middle of the bulls-eye. The kids almost gasped in admiration, but I pretended not to notice. Though they asked, they never saw me shoot another arrow.

One interesting thing was that 90% of the kids, counselors, and all the people in charge of the camp were Jewish. I am not, and that meant I frequently didn't understand things—ah, but I learned a lot that summer, particularly about Jewish food. Most of the jokes seemed to have Yiddish punch lines, and when the joke was told everyone but me would laugh. I would then be belatedly furnished with the translation. One example: A rabbi dies and finds himself at the Pearly Gates, confronting St. Peter who informs him that Judaism was wrong and Christianity right after all. The poor rabbi is amazed and asks for proof. "Anything you like," is St. Peter's friendly response, at which invitation the rabbi states he'd like to visit the stable in Bethlehem. He's promptly whisked there, and, reverently, the rabbi approaches the Virgin Mary, who is holding the Christ child in her arms. "How does it feel to be the Mother of God?" he asks her. Then comes her reply in Yiddish, and all present except the goy laugh. The eventual translation? "Oy vey, I wanted a girl!"

During the first week of camp there came a rest day (Saturday, of course), so we could make our own schedules, and sleep in late (with bagels and cream cheese provided, along with lox,(which I'd never even seen before). My co-counselor and I were trying to nap while the kids were playing in the cabin, and I realized that since half of the kids bunked on his side of the room and half on mine, they'd decided to play a game of Jews v. Christians (he being Jewish and me, nominally, Catholic), but the enterprise fell apart because none of the boys wanted to the Christians. Oy vey!

I was also the drama counselor for the two camps (which were located next to each other, with a common messhall), and that meant I had to put on shows with children of various ages, all musicals. Both summers that I did this I wrote the musicals and the lyrics, but talented other counselors wrote the music and helped me stage the shows. Our presentations were amateur hour writ large, but the kids gave it their all. I have recordings of many of the shows, and I listen to them on the odd occasion with both pride in the kids and embarrassment at how bad some of the material was. Let me give you a sample. One of the girls' shows was called "After Ten in the Counselors' Den," and the campers, all about twelve years of age, acted the parts of counselors who had put their charges to bed and were meeting in the Counselors' Den and then going into the nearby town of Great Barrington (where the events of "Alice's Restaurant" once occurred). Were they meeting the male counselors there for good fun? No. Just as in real life they went to the laundromat to wash their clothes. So the girls sang:

Great Barrington (population 7,527)

(Scene: switches to a Laundromat)


Counselor Elaine Farrington put this lyric to a sexy rumba rhythm, and I staged it with the girls dancing around with bags of laundry; the audience loved it. Okay, it's hokey, and (sigh) I wrote a lot of these things. In the second summer I was at Jayson Camps we put on seven shows (six with campers, one with counselors), with seven songs a show, so 49 songs just for that summer. I learned a lot about writing, directing, producing, and staging shows at the Jayson Camps. It was valuable training for much of what I know about theater.

With my boys in Bunk 8 there were many adventures. One particular overnight camping trip in the Berkshire Mountains was typical. The head counselor went with me (for which I was grateful in that he knew what he was doing, as I did not), and things went well: hiking to the camp site from the drop-off point, making a fire, doing some fishing and cooking, and, since the weather was beautiful, spreading the sleeping bags in a circle. I made the mistake of telling the kids a ghost story before bedtime, and, of course, they had much trouble getting to sleep. So then I told them a funny story, and that helped. They were soon settled down and near sleep when a family of raccoons walked right into the middle of our circle, searching for food, and this spooked one of the boys, who screamed. The raccoons promptly climbed the only tree in the middle of the circle. That meant they had to come back down that same tree at some point, and we were up half the night before that happened. Just about dawn I awoke with the realization that a skunk was standing on my back (I was snug inside my sleeping bag). I couldn't see him, but, of course, my nose told me it was a definitely a skunk. And he was heavy (40 pounds or so)! What to do? I wisely decided on doing nothing. He sniffed around for a minute before climbing lazily down and walking away from me, into my line of vision. He'd obviously had a lot of experience with campers, and, giving me a bored glance, ambled into the woods.

Parents Day arrived mid-summer, and I was pleased to me meet my boys' mothers and fathers, who were all very nice people, and who enjoyed hearing stories about their offsprings' adventures. (The camp made sure the kids constantly wrote letters home.) The parents all attended one of my shows, and the performing kids made them proud.

That night when taps was played the kids settled down in our bunk, and when they appeared to be asleep I joined the other counselors in the Counselor's Den and we carpooled our way into town. The camp was patrolled each evening by the Duty Counselor, who went from cabin to cabin to make sure all was well. When I returned to Bunk 8 around midnight, I discovered to my surprise that the littlest of my boys was sitting up in bed, surrounded by his own vomit, and shivering. He'd eaten too much of the candy his parent had brought that day and gotten sick. "When did this happen?" I asked him. "Right after you left," he replied. "Why didn't you tell the Duty Counselor?" I wanted to know, astounded. "I waited and waited, but no one ever came." He burst into tears. So, of course, I got him up, cleaned him off, changed the bed, made sure he was snug and comfortable (none of the other boys woke at all), and then I went off to the Head Counselor's Office, where the Duty Counselor was supposed to have his base of operations. I was in a fury—wanting to kill somebody for harming my kid!!! It turned out that due to a scheduling muddle, there was no Duty Counselor. I was mad about that too, but what could I do? The next day, thinking about it, I was amazed at my reaction. I really had been almost out of control Some basic primordial instinct had been triggered, and I didn't know it was down there.

On the last day the parents showed up to collect their children, with a lot happy shouting and some tears as friends parted. One of my little boys wrapped his arms tightly around me and begged to go home with me, telling me tearfully that "I don't want to live with my parents!" Of course, there was no such option, and to this day I've wondered why he didn't want to go home—but I'm not sure I really want to know the answer. In any event, by this time I'd learned I wasn't afraid of dealing with children, and believed I had a good shot at being a decent parent when and if that arose. (You'll have to ask my son Clayton if it proved true.)

I enjoyed my summer so much that two years later, between my first and second year of law school, I came back and did it all again (and by that time I was of legal drinking age, which proved important). The picture at the start of this post is from the 1966 summer at Jayson Camps, and the man on the far right is Alfred Jayson ("Chief"), the owner (I'm second from the left). Once again I was one of the two counselors living for eight weeks with too many nine-year-olds. To this day if a nine-year-old boy comes within a hundred yards of me, my sixth sense begins to tingle (like Spiderman sensing evil), and I straighten up with a mixture of suspicion, fondness, and alarm.
Related Posts:
"Catholicism and Me (Part One)," March 13, 2010
"Catholicism and Me (Part Two)," April 18, 2010
"The Boot Camp Fiasco," April 21, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk” August 20, 2010
"Charleyne and the Giant Cookie," September 19, 2010
"Strange Songs, Inc.," September 29, 2010
"The Evil Big Birthday Song," November 5, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How To Make Ethical Decisions

If you're a lawyer in the State of Ohio you are required to earn a certain number of "continuing legal education" credits every two years in order to retain your license. In the past my law school teaching, lecturing outside the classroom (like that recent trip to Boston about promissory notes and foreclosure), and the publication of one or more of my seven casebooks, have always done the trick, with one exception. The State requires lawyers to take a 2.5 hour course during the period on "Ethics, Professionalism, and Substance Abuse." Today I spent the morning in such a course, and, for a change, it was well done. Two of the presenters kept saying "you know," but let that pass.

Douglas Whaley Walks to Work, 1968
Ethical issues are tough, and any lawyer can tell you that when they come along they can keep you up nights worrying about what to do with, say, the client who propositions you, your partner who is drinking too much, the judge who asks for a campaign contribution while hinting at quid pro quo in future cases. When I graduated from law school and went to practice law in Chicago I was 24 years old. Ethical problems came up almost immediately. One of the associates at my firm, a mentor, took me with him when he went down to the Cook County Sheriff Office. "I'm going to show you how we bribe a sheriff in this town," he told me. I was horrified. "Why do it?" I asked, pointing out he could be disbarred. "If we don't do it, the sheriff won't serve the summons at all, and our lawsuit won't get started." I protested that the sheriff's practice should be reported promptly to the judge. "The judge takes a kickback from the sheriff," he replied, adding, "The whole system is as corrupt as it can be, but we have to do what we have to do." Shortly thereafter I was promoted within the firm and put in charge of sewer assessments bonds for four states. It was tedious work, which I hated, but at least I never had to face the choice between bribing a sheriff or resigning from the firm. [I like to believe that Cook County, Illinois, has since cleaned up this corruption.  I like to believe that.  I do.]

Whether you're a lawyer or not, when faced with ethical dilemmas it's all too easy to make the wrong choice and cause yourself major trouble. Some ethical decisions can be decided by application of basic rules of fairness and/or the guidance of a spiritual counselor. Others require a more complicated analysis.

For four decades I've given the following advice to my students about how to avoid being reported to the disciplinary committee of the bar association.

First I tell them to avoid asking the WRONG questions when making their decision.

Wrong question #1: "Can I justify this to myself?" That won't help at all---you will almost always be able to justify what you want to do. All of us are very good at putting our actions in the best possible light.

Wrong question #2: "What are other people in this situation doing?" That sounds appealing until you realize that the number of people getting into trouble doesn't excuse them from punishment—it just means you'll all be going down together. The fact that there are lots of other lemmings going over the cliff with you does not soften the bounce at the end. If the Cook County sheriff bribery scandal had erupted, all the lawyers involved were going to face disbarment and/or jail.

What I ultimately urged upon my students as the right question is what I call the "Ugly Headline Test": how's it going to sound when some reporter who doesn't like you writes an article, naming you, detailing what you've done, and then publishes it for all the world to see? If the headlines get ugly enough, it doesn't matter that you're the President of the United States (Richard Nixon learned this, and Bill Clinton had his problems with it too)—down you go. So before you act, ask yourself how it's going to sound when it's become big news and everyone from your mother to the prosecutor learns the facts.

More than once through the years I've run into former students who told me that the Ugly Headline Test had saved them from disaster. One said that when all the firm's lawyers agreed to try a shady practice, he'd stopped it cold by reciting for them what the possible headline might say, and how the body of the news article would then explain it all. "I wasn't very popular," he comment, "but we chose to do something else that wouldn't ever be newsworthy."

How long should you think these dilemmas over before choosing? It's a delicate question. Deciding too quickly frequently means that you didn't have enough information, nor give sufficient thought to the issue before making your choice. The opposite, however, is dithering over the decision for too long a period of time, going nowhere. Give yourself a realistic deadline for choosing, and then choose. If it can't be reversed, immediately quit debating whether it was the right choice or not. When it's done, it's done. Move on to dealing with the consequences.

No one said life is easy. Sometimes you have to do hard things.

Accept that and do the best you can.
Related Post:
"The Deathbed Test," July 27, 2010
"Life's Little (But Important) Rules," April 23, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013