My first day in court … and my second first day in court

After two years of reading cases and statutory supplements, writing complaints, memos, briefs, and other papers, and compiling, distilling, and rewriting outlines, I finally got “my” day in court.

As a participant in a UNC financial law clinic, I was at a local Superior Court with my client for his foreclosure hearing one weekday morning in October. I had gotten the case in the third week of the semester. Two weeks and a crash-course later, I put on my best suit and felt ready to explain why the opposing party, a large national lender and servicer, was not legally entitled to put my client out on the street.

FirstCourtAppearanceThat may seem like a breezy and cavalier way to put it. I don’t mean it to be, because my supervisor and I put in a lot of preparation in those two weeks. But this case has been a jarringly fast education. I’ve come across several practical issues that I never imagined while in the classroom. I spent a surprising amount of time in those two weeks tracking down my client with additional questions, checking in with the opposing party, and then, on the morning of the hearing, printing and labeling exhibits.

Another surprise: The hearing was postponed to early December because we were there to contest it. A deputy clerk had been assigned to handle the matter, but the local elected clerk of court, who is a licensed attorney even though Chapter 7A of the General Statutes don’t require him to be, has a policy of presiding over contested foreclosure hearings personally. In any event, the lender had not arranged counsel.

On the rescheduled date, I came back with a different suit, a deeper knowledge of the relevant case law, a written response, and an illustrative poster exhibit for the court.  Again, the lender was not represented. Again, the hearing was pushed back, with no advance notice to us, this time to January. What do they say about the wheels of justice?

I am not complaining about the delays. They’ve allowed my client to get his finances in better order. They’ve allowed us more time to run dozens of different scenarios for a mortgage modification using guidance from the Federal Housing Administration and the Treasury Department. He’s now in a better position to make one of those scenarios work.

The delays have also provided some valuable lessons: Be diligent about checking in with the court and with opposing counsel. Prepare the client for the unexpected. Be able to shift one matter onto a back burner for an appropriate time so I can deal with other matters coming down the pike.

Lastly, our court delays are one facet of my client’s larger bureaucratic tangle, a window into his predicament. He has sought help from his mortgage servicer, from one nonprofit housing counseling agency, and then another, from one nonprofit law firm, and finally from our clinic. He has been given various conflicting advice.  Meanwhile, he’s going through a divorce, which precipitated the mortgage troubles. It must be bewildering, Kafkaesque, and I can see that it is taking a toll on him. It’s a reminder to us, as his attorneys, that our role as advisors can go beyond the strict scope of the legal representation, and that society needs us, that we’re helping to fill a little part of a very wide gap.


Highway 21 Revisited

It was a good but tiring day. I got up at 6:15 and rode 25 miles at a pretty aggressive pace, southwest into Chatham County and then up across Highway 54 on Dodson’s Crossroads before turning back home.

It was also a little tiring emotionally, as is often the case when I’m back on campus at Davidson. I drove over there for a few hours to meet up for lunch with my friends Rebecca and Natalie, who were bringing Natalie’s daughter to a three-week summer camp there, on campus. I felt a bit of the same heavy, bittersweet nostalgia that usually seeps in as I approach. Occasionally, I’ll see a familiar restaurant and wish I’d taken a certain girl to dinner there.

It’s especially strong when I take the back roads, as I did today, instead of I-77. I’ll see a certain barn or some other rustic landmark, or a certain meadow or particular road and think “Damn, that would’ve been a great road to ride on if I’d been a cyclist back in college. Why didn’t I get out there?” This morning, my Google Maps app directed me off of I-85 a few miles south of Salisbury. It wasn’t the way I would’ve thought to go, but the sunshine and temperate weather made the idea of zig-zagging across twenty miles of back roads all the more appealing.

The roads didn’t disappoint: I saw a ramshackle barn in the middle of a meadow that stretched 500 yards back to a line of trees just beyond the crest of a low hill. And then another. But the bittersweet feeling was there to match: I didn’t recognize a single damn one of those twelve or thirteen roads, or even know where I was until I was within a mile of campus. How in the world had I managed not to get out and see this? What the hell did I do with myself for four years? Did I not even get out here in my car?

It’s not that the upside is completely lost on me. I realize that this is all a natural result of wanting to keep learning, of being open to new hobbies. If I hadn’t gotten so deep into cycling at age 29, I wouldn’t even be capable now, at age 39, of having this particular regret about age 19. The problem is that the feeling hits me before I can think through it rationally like that. I never know exactly when I’m going to drive around a familiar bend, see a familiar scene, and suddenly get the impression that 1995 is right there again for the taking and that I’ll know what to do with it this time. And then it’s gone and I’m back in 2015.

All of this wore on me a bit today. I got the flipside of it this evening, though, on the way home. As I sped back toward Chapel Hill, I remembered that I had hauled myself up Dodson’s Crossroads twelve hours earlier, just after dawn, with no cars approaching from either direction, when everyone else was still asleep. And I’m pretty sure that I felt a faint grin creep across my face.

Internet users HATE this!

ImageIf you’ve been on the Internet for more than 10 seconds in the last year, you’ve probably seen the “…hate this!” ads. Apparently, trainers HATE a new dietary supplement that helps you build muscle mass while you sit on the couch!!! Dermatologist HATE a “local mom” who discovered some kind of anti-wrinkle treatment!!! And there are dozens of others!!! Every industry, every profession seems to be HATE someone who has exposed their secret.

ImageI’m willing to bet that all of these ads come from the same back-alley advertising outfit. Or maybe there are two or three.


Everyone in these low-budget ads seems to hate someone, even if they don’t come out and say it.

They’re ridiculous, of course, roughly on the same niveau as the “one weird trick” ads. I’ve seen them mainly on Facebook, occasionally on Yahoo, and occasionally elsewhere. They seem to reflect an extreme scatter-shot approach to advertising. Unlike the targeted ads that have become common in the last couple of years, these appear to be completely indiscriminate. If I’m right about that, then the advertiser is paying less per impression than buyers of targeted ads, and the low-budget strategy obviously extends to the advertising agencies and graphic design firms who develop the ads.


Internet users hate these freakin’ ads!

Regardless, I think these ads are a sign of the times, and not just the economics of online media. They’re also further evidence that our attention is drawn to conflict (see also, e.g.: cable television news, checkout-aisle tabloids), or at least that our attention spans are shorter and/or we’re getting so many different stimuli, particularly on the Web, that advertising tactics can get our attention only by dialing up the id.

They’re not very well thought-out. Take the bodybuilder above: Who is he, and why do trainers hate him? Is he the one of the scientists in Cambridge? Or maybe his very image is just inherently maddening. I’m beginning to feel that way about all the people in these ads.

Shakes me, makes me lighter

The song “Teardrop” came up in my MP3 player’s rotation last night, and it gave me an instant of vertigo.

I had just climbed into my car across from Weaver Street Market and was about to drive a couple of miles to the south edge of Carrboro, where one of the law school’s student groups was hosting a cocktail party. I paused for a minute in the driver seat while the song’s intro played. It’s a rising series of notes on a sitar over a loop of snare drum rim shots that sounds like a heartbeat. Low piano chords come in after the first few bars. (It’s also the theme song from the TV show “House.”) The music filled the car as I watched young people trickle into and out of the pools of light on Weaver Street; in that moment, it felt like it filled the world, like a theme song for entire chapters of my life.

MassiveAttackMezzanineThat’s a melodramatic way to say it, but I think it fits. The intro sounds mysterious and full of infinite possibility, a prelude to everything. It’s still playing in the background of my memory of August 1998, when I had just arrived on the west coast of Japan for two years. Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album itself was pretty new. My friend Simon, a New Zealander who lived a bit down the coast from me, lent me the CD for a couple of weeks; I’d play “Teardrop” over and over at night as I went to sleep in my futon with the grassy-smelling tatami flooring just inches from my face. I was fresh out of college, suddenly on the other side of the world and meeting awesome new people every day. Even a trip to the grocery store was an adventure. Sometimes I’d lie awake for an hour as I tried to wrap my head around the possibilities of the coming year or two or three. And yet I slept like a rock during those first few months, because I was so happy and so satisfied.

The song grabbed me so hard last night because it brought back that feeling of endless possibilities for a couple of minutes. At age 37, I’m committing to three years of school, putting myself in a very different social milieu, and starting a new career. The music made for a fortuitous mood as I drove off on Weaver Street to go meet a roomful of strangers.

My cottage, mycology

The fungi are getting out of control here. I’ve worried a couple of times in the last few weeks that they’re on the verge of becoming self-aware.

My roommate and I just spent a couple of hours eradicating mildew from the windowsills and bathrooms. That was a couple of weeks overdue, and it felt good to do.

The front yard is a little more vexing. I’ve been attacking the mushrooms out there every couple of days with a garden trowel, digging up a couple at a time and then tossing them into the street with a flick of my wrist. It’s quick and easy: Kschrrt! Whhht! But it kind of hurts, because I love mushrooms.

The ones that really stand out, so to speak, are the ones that look kind of like uncircumcised penises. They first show up as little lumps about the size and shape of quail eggs, but with rough leathery surfaces (Wikipedia tells me that this surface is called the “universal veil”). I’ve seen, two, three and even five of them clumped together. Then one of them shoots up overnight and is suddenly three or four inches tall in the morning. You don’t have to look too hard to find one of them with his two little brothers hanging out next to him. Then he wilts and melts a day or so later, and then a little brother shoots up. The wilting/melting happens quickly, because these things are mostly moisture and air. The mass of one of the balls expands into a shroomstalk of five times the volume.

I have two or three of them out there right now. Three weeks ago, when it was a little rainier, I’d have a half-dozen out there some mornings.

I wish I knew what to call all these different varieties. This particular kind looks like a newly sprouted netted stinkhorn, but it doesn’t get the nets that netted stinkhorns get, and it doesn’t really stink. They even smell strangely pleasant, maybe a little like something I might stir-fry, when I’m able to forget that the damn things have taken over my yard.

Back when it was rainier, I’d get gigantic hemispherical clumps of golden-orange mushrooms, which were much worse. Each clump was six to 15 inches across, with one- to two–hundred stalks. Those smelled pretty bad when they were alive, and they absolutely stank when they wilted and then rotted. After putting up with them for a couple of days, I went on a rampage with my hiking boots and the garden trowel, and almost completely filled up a kitchen-sized trash bag. I must’ve collected about 15 pounds of the damn things. I’m kicking myself of not getting any pictures. I tried a few Google searches just now and didn’t come up with anything that looked even remotely similar. They didn’t look particularly ugly – just kind of like humongous brains sitting in the middle of my yard.

In the last week or so, I’ve noticed several less-obtrusive varieties of mushrooms. Some remind me of tiny black clam shells. They seem to grow within a few inches of the stinkhorns, so I’m wondering if they might just be different body parts of the same organism. A couple of other varieties look more conventional. You can see all of them below in the slideshow below.

Never in my life have I had so many mushroom varieties right in front of me. These are all in my front yard, which is only 30 or 40 feet wide. I live in an apartment complex of about 100 units. Each building is four to six units. They’re almost like little cottages.

I’m pretty sure they’re all feeding on the roots of a tree that was cut down or ripped out two or three years ago. I think I know right where the stump was, even though most of it got taken out. It was smack in the middle of my little yard. The ground is kind of soft and spongy right there, and the grass hasn’t fully grown back yet. You can actually see a little piece of a root sticking out in one of the pictures.

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Rusty Iron

I just watched “The Iron Lady,” and was disappointed. It could’ve been so much more.

Specifically, it could’ve been twice as much. Two films, instead of half-hearted attempts at two films crammed into one. It was 1) the story of Thatcher’s career and 2) a portrait of an old woman puttering around the house, looking back on her career and her marriage. And neither of these two mini-films was very effective.

The senility frame story just didn’t make me care. A lot of elderly people become senile. If this particular case was worthy of a movie, then please give me a reason to care about it, or even understand how it happened. Was it Alzheimer’s? A blow to the head? Emotional trauma from her husband’s death? A lifetime of stubbornness?

Maybe “Iron Lady” could’ve had several more scenes showing how her senility developed, to link the two mini-films. We got a hint of this in the scene where Thatcher berated her deputy for the grammatical errors in the draft of a policy paper. If indeed she began to lose touch with reality while she was prime minister, that would’ve been interesting to explore in several additional scenes.

Of course, I can see how difficult it would be to make an American audience care about Margaret Thatcher’s senility; most of us just don’t know enough about her — particularly those of us who came of age after she left office.

Then again, I never would’ve guessed that a movie could make me care about George VI’s stutter, and the “Iron Lady”‘s shortcoming only heightens my respect for “The King’s Speech.” But that movie made a choice that perhaps should’ve been obvious: It focused squarely on the period when George was improving his speech and made me care about that process. It wouldn’t have been compelling if the focus had been split between 1) the speech lessons and 2) a comprehensive overview of his reign as king.

I can’t write about “The Iron Lady” without noting Meryl Streep‘s performance. She richly deserved the Oscar.

Growing my anti-bad-grammar peeves

This is a rant about several non-standard usages of words and phrases that have become common in the last few years. It’s kind of a petty rant, and you might think it’s a silly rant. But I haven’t had a rant in a while, so I think I deserve one.

1. Portmanteauverboard!
First, I think portmanteaus are getting out of hand. We’ve got “Obamacare,” “Brangelina,” “ginormous,” “advertorial,” and God knows how many others. I even have a tube of “hydratensive” cortisone lotion.

Most of these are fitting, or at least clever and fun. And I guess it’s a half-second quicker to use a portmanteau in place of an “x,” an “and” and a “y.” More importantly, a portmanteau can save a few characters when we’re limited to 140, like when we’re texting… and maybe also when we’re sexting. So I’m not too riled up about portmanteaus. I just think we’re going portmanteauverboard with them. I’m getting portmaneauverload.

2. Anti-overused prefixes
The prefixes “pro-” and “anti-” also save time for writers and politicians who want to sum up the views of protagonists and antagonists with just four or five extra characters each. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also exacerbates our tendency to reduce a complex issue to two opposing viewpoints. The speaker or writer throws in the prefixes and moves on to the next sentence without taking an extra 10 seconds to explain the two, three or four angles in the issue.

I think these two suffixes work better when they describe categorical support for or opposition to something. And I think that’s how they were used initially. Take anti-aircraft guns, for example. They were widely used for the first time in World War II, to blow enemy aircraft out of the sky. No time or reason for nuance. (And of course nobody needed to specify that they were “anti-enemy-aircraft guns.”)

But now we have “anti-illegal immigration” activists and God knows how many other compound pros and antis.

I understand their purpose. Take the phrase “anti-illegal immigration.” Nearly all of these activists say they’re against illegal immigration, not all immigration, and I think that’s true for most of them, as it is for most other Americans. But the “anti-” prefix makes the opposition seem absolute, visceral and categorical. It’s unfortunate, because illegal immigration is a complex issue. Those of us who oppose it have varied reasons for doing so, and I like to think that most of us understand that we have to balance that opposition against other priorities and values to one extent or another.

In sum: If a topic is complex enough to require an adjective, it’s tricky to be categorically for or against it.

On the other hand, I guess it makes sense when the goal is to pigeon-hole someone: “I believe the Republican Party will not nominate a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate from Massachusetts,” Newt Gingrich said of Mitt Romney on Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

3. An unlikely usage
When and why did “likely” become an adverb? News writers started using it as an adverb about five years ago, usually to express a probability of something happening in the future, as in this AP headline from last weekend: “Right-to-work protesters will likely continue if bill signed.” A couple of my friends have started using this construction in e-mails in the last year or so.

Nobody uses this construction when talking. So why in writing?

And did everybody forget the word “probably”? Here’s my little theory: Saying something “will probably” occur acknowledges that we don’t know for sure, and readers immediately recognize this because writers and speakers have been using the phrase “will probably” for hundreds of years. But a lot of news writers — and a lot of other people — want to avoid standing out as being uncertain. The phrase “will likely” doesn’t stand out that way (even though everyone who thinks about it for a split-second realizes that the writer is not really claiming to know the future.)

4. Growing misuse of “grow”
“Grow your business” has become a business buzzphrase in the last couple of years. I don’t think it’s because businesspeople have forgotten the verbs “build,” “expand” and “foster.” I think it’s a sort of jargon that the speaker or writer uses to identify with the business community, and to imply a sort of exclusivity, a sort of subculture.

“Grow” is supposed to be an intransitive verb in most cases: Children grow into adults. Improper use of a word grows out of control. It’s supposed to be transitive only when the object is something that grows biologically. Farmers grow crops. I’m growing a beard. When someone says he’s growing his business, I wonder how often he waters it and whether he’s using compost.

The grow-as-transitive buzzword has gotten so out of hand that I even hear and see it used to describe increases in numbers. “We’re growing subscriptions!” “Jim-Bob Inc. is growing jobs!” These are doubly silly: Not only do they misuse “grow” as a transitive verb; they’re saying that the subscriptions are getting bigger, or the jobs are getting bigger.