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Someone once told me laughter is always at somebody else’s expense. I disagreed and lamely rejoined, “What about babies? They laugh and not at someone’s expense.”

On later reflection, I had to admit he was mostly right. And not just about jokes at the expense of lawyers.

Generally speaking, it’s rare to find humor without a ‘victim.’ I think it’s because most people don’t find victimless humor very funny. Take, for example, this victimless jest, “My two sons are a doctor and a major league pitcher — a healer and a hurler.” A real knee-slapper that one.

As for self-deprecating humor, “I am so clever,” said Oscar Wilde, “that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” I like Oscar, especially when his self-directed put downs remind me of people I’ve worked with. For example, his “I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about” so reminds me of an ex-boss.

Some people just lack the ability to laugh at themselves

As for making light of yourself, actress Ethel Barrymore once said “You grow up the day you have your first real laugh — at yourself.” Or at least, that’s what Ethel thought about growing up.

But as theory goes, when humor isn’t self-effacing, then someone else is the butt of the joke. As I said, I’m not so sure about the theory.

Everyday examples of humor and laughter abound where a butt of a joke isn’t involved. For instance, every time I walk our dogs, there’s humor and laughter. And people at play find fun and laughter.

And as awful as most puns are, puns don’t hurt anybody and sometimes, even elicit laughter. And pay no mind to wags who demur that “Puns offend the language.”

Besides, who says humor at someone’s expense is always funny? I never thought Don Rickles, the so-called Master of Insults, was amusing. And where’s the humor in Internet trolls and listserv flamers.

It would be a terrible shame if laughter required victims, particularly when as the unconventional, lower case poet e.e. cummings said, “the most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” And what of Plato who claimed “even the gods love jokes”?

Prompting all this about humor and laughter was yesterday’s telephone conversation with my sister. For all of 10 minutes, our exchange was punctuated with chortles of mutual laughter. There wasn’t even a joke, although we did also discuss my problem with . Nor was there any meanness. It was just shared remembrances of growing up that reduced us both to gales of laughter.

The fact is that there’s little better than shared memories between friends and loved ones. And it’s not necessarily that those recollections were funny back when they happened. Years later, they can be howlers — even if they weren’t at the time. But best of all, there’s nothing as much fun as ending a conversation — while you’re both still laughing.

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Photo Credits: “First Chompers” by dee at morgueFile.com;IMG_1884 by xandert at morgueFile.com; “Fits of laughter,” by Doug Ford at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.

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Long time readers know I’m continually inspired by ‘seize-the-day’ true believers of any age and persuasion, but especially by those still sucking the marrow out of life — even as the sun ebbs.

Last July, I was enthused by Oliver Sacks’ testimony to Sacks, a neuroscientist by profession, offered his life reflections about old age in a New York Times essay on the eve of turning 80. Besides being a time of leisure and freedom, Sacks observed that with old age, those remaining sands of the hourglass also provide a time “to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”

A terminal condition.

But recently, I learned Sacks had returned again to the pages of the ‘Gray old lady,’ but this time to reflect anew not only about life — but also about “his luck” running out on learning that at 81, he has terminal cancer.

Writing last month, Sacks described how “a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver.” The news, he declared, gave him “a sudden clear focus and perspective” with no room left for the “inessential.”

Not to be unsympathetic, his was hardly the uncommon reaction. It was Samuel Johnson, after all, who long ago observed, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

All the same, Sacks resolved, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

And ever introspective, dwelling on the abruptions felt with the passing of his generation’s contemporaries, he poetically reflected, “There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

With his concluding thoughtful ruminations, I have to admit how much I gained from what Sacks said so evocatively. He was moving and meaningful. He again inspired those paying attention to live more deeply felt, more fully awake lives. “I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he wrote. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

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Photo Credits: Hourglass, by AliHanlon at Flickr via Creative Commons attribution license; Bridge into fog by SPC Lasha Harden, U.S. Army at Flickr via Creative Commons attribution license; Flaming From Behind, by AliHanlon at Flickr via Creative Commons attribution license.

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An occasional break from legal profession snark can be welcome, especially when it’s been a good week. And how about this for one more reason?

Earlier this afternoon, I watched an enjoyably memorable 4-minute video Frans Hofmeester created over 14 years of his daughter, Lotte. It shows Lotte growing up in time-lapse. Starting in 1999 and every week thereafter, he filmed his daughter from first capturing her animated baby face and then to magically memorializing her developing charm, personality and exultant spirit. And Frans’ project continues.

 

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lipstick pigProbably thinking I needed it, someone recommended a book with pithy business and life advice. When I looked it up, I discovered it was larded with the kind of time-worn advice that if you live long enough, you’ll see over and over again. Only the color of the lipstick changes, but it’s still the same pig.

Besides, how many times can you write about building a better mousetrap? It would appear, interminably. Cicero had his moral lessons and Marcus Aurelius his meditations on life and Ben Franklin his “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” And almost 30 years ago, Robert Fulghum had “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” with his version of epigrammatic life lessons, including for example,

“1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first words you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8b/Pannage_in_the_New_Forest.JPG/320px-Pannage_in_the_New_Forest.JPGObviously, there’s a lot of wisdom in such writings. So there’s a reason the old chestnuts are repeatedly repackaged for consumption for each generation.

Over time a few of the aphorisms and “lessons” have even made their way here.

So a few days ago, courtesy of Dumb Little Man – Tips for Life, I came across Dan Bacon’s “10 Ways to Be a Better Man (No you aren’t already doing them all.”

Which of course made me immediately think of a favorite romantic comedy, “As Good as It Gets and what Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) memorably told Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) on their dinner date — “You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man.”

And has it really been 17 years since that movie came out and she called it “the best compliment of my life”?

But no matter. Time to take stock of Bacon’s iteration and of course, to challenge his gender conceit of a “better man.” Clearly, the 10 ways can also apply to women. Consider it was feminist Gloria Steinem who said, “Far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to be the right person.”

“1. Don’t Crumble Under Pressure.

2. Give, But Also Expect Respect in Return.

3. Love Others Without Judgement.

4. Have Life Purpose and Follow Through On It.

5. Be a Man of Your Word.

6. Always be Yourself.

7. Maintain Control of Your Emotions.

8. Be Someone That People Look Up To.

9. Take the Lead in Situations.

10. Take Full Responsibility For Your Own Success or Failure.”

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Photo Credits: “Pig and piglets in woodland alongside Ober Water, New Forest” by Jim Champion at Wikipedia Commons, the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

 

 

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“I’d like to see lawyers for god’s sakes say something about the RULE OF LAW and doing what we came to do – ENHANCE FAIRNESS AND JUSTICE FOR ALL,” a lawyer friend wrote me the other day.

Her words resonated with me on several levels. First there was that odious discriminatory bill passed by the Arizona Legislature. Dim-witted Governor Jan Brewer dallied, deliberated and finally vetoed it because as one pundit properly put it — because she was “more afraid of the Chamber of Commerce than the Tea Party.” Rogue Columnist Jon Talton had one of the better assessments about why crazy stuff like this keeps happening here in “Satan’s crotch” at “SB 1062: The aftermath.”

Spirits 19Second, I’ve been musing about justice, fairness and unfairness because I’m halfway through Houston death-penalty lawyer/professor David Dow’s The Autobiography of an Execution.

Read this excellent book and you can’t help but dwell on systemic unfairness and as a lawyer — about Dow’s statement, “Sometimes I think I became a lawyer because I believe rules matter, but I suppose I could have the cause and effect reversed.”

Author of six books, Dow is a strongly opinionated death-penalty opponent. He’s also litigation director at the Texas Defender Service and founder of Texas’s oldest innocence project, the Texas Innocence Network.

Scales in blue light uid 1“I used to support the death penalty,” Dow writes. “I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is. If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist unprincipled regime, a regime where white skin is valued far more highly than dark, where prosecutors hide evidence and policeman routinely lie, where judges decide what justice requires by consulting the most recent Gallup poll, where rich people sometimes get away with murder and never end up on death row, then the death-penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you no end.”

“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.”

“I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”Bill Watterson, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury

Third, ever since getting tossed out of 8th grade with a number of my classmates for what we thought was a principled stance but which the nuns strongly disagreed, I’ve tried to reconcile and admittedly without much success Calvin’s view of the world’s unfairness. Throughout the rest of my academic life and even into my corporate working life, I’ve weighed the merit and demerit cards life and circumstances have passed out.

So I’ve had this thing about fairness and unfairness for as long as I can remember. It matters most where the moral equities lie, especially now as a lawyer.

ButPeople 38447 I’ll not credit a lifelong creed with animating a desire to be a lawyer. That’s a romantic notion but it wouldn’t be true. No, a long extent and inherent disposition toward skepticism — even cynicism would forestall such idealized foolishness. Indeed, of cynicism I often joked that when I came out of the womb — I slapped the doctor first.

navelAnd finally, the past few months I’ve done more than contemplate my navel about this topic. Besides work and a personal life, I’ve been busy combating an unfairness just foisted on Arizona lawyers by our ‘friendly state bar.’

The mandatory bar and specifically, its board of governors finally succeeded in doing what they first tried in December. Last week they voted to raise our annual attorney licensing fees. No matter that they were already among the highest in the country. The easiest money to spend is always somebody else’s.

And unhappy with having to deal with the complaints of a restive lawyer hoi polloi, at one point the board even tried without success to tack on an automatic cost-of-living escalator tied to the consumer price index — as though what state bars do has anything to do with the price of milk and bread in Peoria — Arizona.

Objects 1324Now I’ll concede that compared to losing life, liberty or significant property interests, a dues increase is obviously a trifle, a thimble’s worth of irritation. “It’s not like we’re trying to cure cancer,” a colleague quipped.

But all the same, it was the same kind of bullshit unfairness that’s rankled and inflamed passions my whole life. I’ll have a lot more to say about it later.

But for now, I think another admonition from Christopher Hitchens is appropriate, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

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Photo Credits: “Fairnesszone,” by PatrickSeabird at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “Calvin 12,” by Frankie Kangas at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution.

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roughing it 54“Why are lawyers killing themselves?” That was the sensational headline to a CNN story that ran a few days ago.

Talk about implicit assumptions. Talk about a leading question. Long on anecdote, short on data but no matter for CNN — if it bleeds, it leads.

And lest I be accused of callous disregard, let me quickly add that even one death by suicide is one too many. As John Donne famously said, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” And yes, regardless of occupation, depression is a very real problem. I only wish CNN really knew what it was talking about.

A widespread problem?

So is there an epidemic of suicide in the legal profession?

According to the last available U.S. data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) — across all age groups, genders and racial groups, there were 38,364 deaths from suicide in 2010. And those numbers break out differently by age, gender, race and location, which means there’s a great deal of variability given the comparatively small populations involved.

Businessmen uid 1But out of that number, how much self-inflicted death occurs among the approximately 1.3MM lawyers in the U.S.? No one really knows for sure. Certainly, the risk factors that impact all people also encompass lawyers.

Men, for instance, are about four times more likely than women to die from suicide and the CDC also highlights risk factors like previous suicide attempt(s); a history of depression or other mental illness; alcohol or drug abuse; family history of suicide or violence; physical illness; and feelings of isolation. But as for an increase in lawyers killing themselves, the ‘proof’ seems mostly anecdotal extrapolation and pure conjecture.

Not much data.

Sure lawyers get stressed out and anxious — but more stressed out than firefighters, police officers, pilots, and military personnel? According to CareerCast’s recently published list of the 10 most stressful jobs, lawyers don’t even make the list. And with the caveat, “data on occupational suicide is hard to find,” lawyers aren’t on the list of 13 careers where you’re most likely to commit suicide. Dentists come in first on that list — but even that is challenged as “Urban Legend” — the myth of the suicide-prone dentist. And coming in at No. 5 are authors who are supposedly 2.60 times more likely to commit suicide than average. Are male lawyers who blog at greater risk?

Ronald Maris, Ph.D., Director for the Study of Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior at the University of South Carolina, points out, “Occupation is not a major predictor of suicide, and it does not explain much about why the person commits suicide.” Indeed, even the American Psychological Association says of “Suicide by profession: Lots of confusion, inconclusive data.”

So corroborating evidence tying suicide by occupation is sparse. Some researchers even maintain that “occupation may not be much of a factor in suicide. Psychologists have long documented that among the top predictors for suicide are diagnosable mental disorder, co-morbid substance use, loss of social support and availability and access to a firearm.”

File:ChurchBell.jpgNevertheless, CNN still tolled the bell and highlighted Kentucky where it says at least 15 attorneys have committed suicide since 2010. USAToday in their own report last June, reported a different number and said 12 lawyer suicides have taken place in Kentucky during that time. Either way, these are tragic incidents, especially for the families left behind. But either number represents less than one percent of Kentucky’s 17,500 lawyers. Indeed, across the country, the CDC lists suicide as tenth among the leading causes of death. Heart disease and cancer are 1 and 2.

Mandatory mental health.

Woman covering her eyes uid 1But leave it to your friendly state bars to respond to the supposed crisis with the usual knee-jerk overreactions and pious prescriptions. Mistaking action for achievement, they hold meetings, create task forces, and in several jurisdictions, impose mandatory continuing legal education programs on mental health. Recalling my undergraduate Jesuit logic and philosophy class — it’s argumentum ad populum — ‘if many believe so, it is so.’

Which brings me to a recent commentary on the purported prevalence of new lawyer anxiety and the usual state bar claptrap to supposedly fix what ails these new lawyers.

Written by Wisconsin lawyer at “The Legal Watchdog,” the title says it all, “State bar recommends new lawyers do free legal work to reduce their anxiety from not having money or legal training.” It’s worth reading and is reblogged below with express permission of the author.

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State bar recommends new lawyers do free legal work to reduce their anxiety from not having money or legal training.

By Michael Cicchini, MBA, CPA, JD

Young business man standing pulling his pockets inside out uidIn November, 2013, a special task force report by the State Bar of Wisconsin concluded that a large number of new law grads can’t find jobs to pay off their staggering student debt loads.  In addition, many of those who were fortunate enough to be employed (or underemployed) were afraid to practice law because they didn’t know how.  Here’s a nice excerpt of a summary of the report from the bar association’s e-newsletter:

“My debt is higher than a mortgage for a nice house. It’s all I think about. And I know I will be strapped in a job I don’t want paying debt for the rest of my life,” said [one new lawyer].

“I’m buried under debt. I’m terrified that this is what the rest of my life is going to look like. I’m also scared to start my own practice, because I don’t have the practical litigation experience. I can’t afford a pet, let alone kids. I live paycheck to paycheck. It’s very, very scary and disheartening,” was another response from a new lawyer.

Another lawyer said the job search left the lawyer feeling “suicidal” and “terrified.” The lawyer also feels alone and scared of making a mistake in practice but is hesitant to tell anyone about these mental struggles for fear of being disbarred.

. . . [A] task force member and past president of the State Bar’s Young Lawyer’s Division[] said the lawyers who made these sorts of comments “are fast becoming your average member of the State Bar.”

So, in short: lots of stress due to high debt loads, no jobs, and the fear of practicing law because of the lack of training and the related risk of disbarment.  So what is the state bar’s solution?

j0439359In December, the state bar sent out an email to all members titled “Reduce your stress with exclusive benefits for State Bar of Wisconsin members.”  One of those “benefits” was the “opportunity” to do pro bono legal work, because “volunteering can help improve people’s mental heath.”  Fortunately, “Whether you are an experienced lawyer or just getting started, there are pro bono opportunities available to you throughout the year.  Visit the State Bar’s online volunteer directory[.]”

Now, in fairness, even though this email came out after the state bar’s “special task force report,” the person who slapped this email together probably didn’t even know the task force report existed or, if he did, probably never had any reason to read it.  But although these two documents are not related, the irony is rich.  First, the state bar acknowledges that new grads are stressed out (to the point of having suicidal thoughts) because they don’t have any money and don’t know how to practice the profession they just paid handsomely to learn.  And second, to alleviate this stress the state bar recommends that these new lawyers offer free legal services to real people with real legal problems.  This is almost too much for me to process, but two thoughts come to mind.

People 3050First, while I appreciate the softball my mandatory state bar just lobbed me, this whole “giving back” culture is starting to grate on me—in fact, this is the classic stuff of law schools and state bar organizations.  Granted, this particular state bar’s email thinly disguises the “giving back” theme with a self-interested twist: give back for your own good—it will reduce your stress!  (No thanks.  Practicing law creates stress, and I’ve done enough involuntary unpaid legal work this year.  I’ll just sit on my couch and watch a bowl game instead.)  But more to the point: new law grads are saddled with staggering debt, haven’t been taught how to file a motion let alone try a case, and, if they are lucky enough to find legal work, are unwillingly thrust upon an unsuspecting public—and now they’re supposed to worry about giving back?  I think they’ve been drained of most of their life force already.

And second, while I can’t do anything about the legal job market and its approximately one legal job for every two law grads, I can do something about teaching grads and students how to practice law—at least in my field of criminal law.  So, if a state bar wants to hire me to design a training program for newly licensed attorneys, or if a law school wants to hire me as a prof to design and teach a series of courses on criminal law, procedure, and practice, let’s talk.  And don’t think of my salary as an additional “expense”—think of it as “giving back” to your membership or students.

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