Archive for February, 2007

Pots of money

February 28, 2007

This is the editorial I wrote for yesterday’s paper expressing doubts about the Fort Wayne Community Schools building rehabilitation plan. Contrast it with The Journal Gazette editorial giving a hearty endorsement to the project. That’s the value of having two editorial pages — on many issues, those still trying to make up their minds can get arguments supporting both sides. And out on the Web, you can get other opinions from local blogs and even see the best arguments from the school system and the counter-arguments from those planning to oppose the plan. If you don’t have enough information to base a judgment on, it’s not because it isn’t readily available.

I’d like to elaborate a little on something I mentioned in passing in the last paragraph of my editorial:

Taxpayers probably won’t demand a full justification for every single project in every single school. But they need to be reassured that they will be getting all the value for their money that it is possible to give. When one or two projects are proposed at a time, that value is rather easy to demonstrate. When a public body has a $500 million pot of money to dip into, it’s a little more difficult.

To rationally assess the project, we need to be able to critique each component and say, on balance, more of them are justifiable than not. But as recent stories have indicated, the school system keeps making changes, deciding to do this, not to do that. And it will continue to do so — the bond issue won’t be a blueprint precisely locking the school system into unalterable plans for specific buildings. This would just be a $500 million pot of money the school system could spend from.

And big pots of money seldom stay dedicated to what they were originally promised to be dedicated to, for which there is much evidence. The state’s windfall from the tobacco companies was supposed to be dedicated to health issues but went into the general fund. Lottery money was supposed to be for education and infrastructure, but was spread all over the place. The money from the lease of the toll road was to be earmarked for specific plans of statewide significance itemized in a long-range plan, but there is a bill still alive in the General Assembly to divert some of the interest income to local road projects. Big pots of money are tempting, and those with access to them tend to want to play with them.

We are seeing a significant change in the way way government business is done, which probably had its start with state lotteries and will be accelerated by the new fascination with leasing government operations for big up-front sums of money. No longer will there be a need to identify problems, propose government solutions, tell the taxpayers what it will cost them, let the voters make a judgment by voting the politicians in or out. The new way is just to figure out a way to get a lot of money, then look for ways to spend it. If you think government has grown unreasonably in the past, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

And in the current atmosphere, why should a school system be restrained, start by identifying critical needs and try to build taxpayer support from there? Just go for that pot of money to spend.

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Shame, shame

February 28, 2007

The Anna Nicole Smith saga is now complete. Anna Quindlen has come along to tell me the whole sordid mess is my fault — and yours, too, by the way:

A hundred years ago a girl like Vickie Lynn Hogan, which was Anna Nicole Smith’s real name, would have lived in a small town, and everyone would have talked about her behind her back until she moved on to someplace bigger. Britney Spears would have left her babies at home to bounce around the bars, and it would have been Topic A at card games and knitting circles.

Instead of reading on a Web site that the embalming of Anna Nicole’s body was complete, you would have heard it from the funeral director at the Elks Lodge. Instead of being told on TV Britney needed to clean up her act, you would have heard it from your cousin who heard it from the choir director who heard it from the principal’s wife. Human nature being what it is, people would have pretended to be sympathetic when they were really feeling superior. Sinclair Lewis nailed it in his novel "Main Street," the propensity of the herd to try to bring down the maverick.

But the big difference between then and now would have been twofold: most of the people doing the talking would have had actual knowledge of the women involved, and from time to time they would actually have had to see them on the street, or in the store, or at church. Eye contact has always had a dampening effect on trash talk. It’s shame-making, quite properly so.

In our frantic modern world, in which many people don’t know their neighbors well enough to gossip to or about them, it’s a different story. No one has to feel bad about gawking at Anna posthumously slurring her words on videotape. No one has to feel bad about staring as Britney frantically shaves her head inside a beauty parlor, the moment caught on a lens that gives precisely the effect of the scope on a hunting rifle. Distance insulates us.

In the column there is  only the barest suggestion that Nicole and Britney and Paris and all the rest might be irresponsible or selfish or superficial or self-destructive. These child-women are "mavericks" that the "herd" (that’s us) must try to bring down.

Quindlen has a point about our ability these days to indulge in remote gossping without the need to ever come into personal contact with the ones being gossiped about. But she ignores the symbiotic relationship between the gossip-mongers and the "famous for being famous" crowd. The fame is desired and must be created, so the gossipers that everyone ends up deploring are first courted.

Also overlooked is the social function of gossip and its shame-generating effects. No society can exist without norms. Pointing at the ones who don’t meet the norms and snickering about them is part of reinforcing the group’s values. Mavericks exist to be noticed.

Not that many people feel all that much shame about anything at all these days.

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My beef with Harrison Square

February 28, 2007

Apalace The Palace is a goner. Is there any point in continuing to pretend Harrison Square is a matter of debate instead of a done deal?

The city has agreed to purchase the Palace restaurant, a key property inside the city’s Harrison Square project boundaries, for $2.4 million.

City officials and restaurant owner Rick Rogers are set to close the deal at 11 a.m. today, said Greg Leatherman, deputy director of community development.

Purchasing the property will save the city money when building a parking garage there, Leatherman said. The parking garage would have needed to be “L”-shaped around the restaurant, costing more than a rectangular-shaped garage.

I’ve been stopping at the Palace (formerly Bill’s Palace) for more than 20 years. When Lincoln had a lot more people downtown, there was a guaranteed stream of business, and Bill’s offered a variety of plain but tasty food, including the best Beef Manhattan in town, at reasonable prices. That makes this downtwon debate personal — where can I now get such a good sandwich? Pay $5 for a hot dog at the ball game?

It was the kind of unpretentious place it felt comfortable to hang out in, not the business developers want to see surrounded by a multimillion-dollar development. Was it worth $2.4 million? Absolutely, since that’s what the city was willing to pay for it. The Palace was the last Harrison Square holdout.

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Wasted lives

February 27, 2007

Here’s a fun way to feel bad about yourself. Enter your age and find out what other people accomplished when they were the same age.

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It still does wonders for the breath

February 27, 2007

Thank God it still tastes so good: 

Garlic may be good for a lot of things — spicing up your diet, for sure — but it seems to be no good at all at lowering your cholesterol.

After conducting one of the most elaborate studies yet on garlic’s effect on cardiovascular health, scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine said Monday that they could find no benefit in terms of reduced levels of LDL cholesterol, the "bad" form linked to heart disease.

Most people live by certain food rules. My top three are: 1) Chocolate is good; more chocolate is even better. 2. Cheese! 3) There is no such thing as too much garlic.

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Big heads

February 27, 2007

The self-esteem movement bears fruit:

All the effort to boost children’s self-esteem may have backfired and produced a generation of college students who are more narcissistic than their Gen-X predecessors, according to a study led by a San Diego State University psychologist.

The Internet, with all its MySpace.com and YouTube braggadocio, is letting that self-regard blossom even more, said the analysis titled “Egos Inflating Over Time.”

In the study released today, researchers warn that a rising ego rush could bring personal and social problems for the Millennial Generation, also called Gen Y. People with an inflated sense of self tend to have less interest in emotionally intimate bonds and can lash out when rejected or insulted.

If you keep telling kids over and over they’re special, for no particular reason, they’ll grow up thinking they’re special, for no particular reason. If your main goal is not to hurt their feelings, they’ll grow up believing their feelings are more important than anything. Lost is any sense of self-worth legitimately based on effort and accomplishment.

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A fair redo

February 27, 2007

At one point in the American Revolution, things looked pretty grim for our side, and there were many people who probably decided that we had done the wrong thing. It’s too bad we didn’t have somebody like Nancty Pelosi and her compatriots to revisit the resolution that got us into the mess and do a little makeover:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ask its rulers to be more reasonable and to assume among the powers of the earth , plead to be taken more seriously, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect reasonable compromise to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.carefully explain the reasons they are unhappy so there is no possiblity of misunderstanding.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, are fairly certain that all men are created equal should be treated fairly, unless there is a good reason not to do so that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, and if that fairness doesn’t seem to be present, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness, there should be immediate negotiations among all the stakeholders to ensure that the interests of all are given their fair consideration.

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Now it can be told

February 27, 2007

I’m glad Helen Mirren won the Oscar for best actress. She’s a sexy old broad who can keep the minds of us libidinous old coots off the 22-year-olds at least for a few minutes every once in a while. I’ve very much enjoyed watching her as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in the "Prime Suspect" episodes of "Masterpiece Theatre," a wonderful detective series.

I haven’t seen "The Queen" yet, but I hope it does justice to Elizabeth II. She’s about the only one who came out of the orgy of grief over Princess Di’s death with any dignity at all left. I wrote a column back then deploring (editorial writers are very good at deploring, and our lamenting is pertty good, too) the over-the-top, gushing coverage of Diana and the relatively subdued coverage of Mother Teresa, who died around the same time. It was like: "OH, NO! Diana has been TAKEN from us! How could someone so young and beautiful and good and noble DIE like that! Oh, what WILL we do now? The world will be SO MUCH worse off. Oh, this just in. Mother Teresa died. But, DI DIED, and that was a REAL TRAGEDY!!!!" It was, I thought, symbolic of how screwed-up our priorities had become. And, of course, we have come from there to Anna Nicole Smith. The pope and the president would have both had to die on the same day, and only if they killed each other in a shoot-out, for the coverage of her death to have been toned down much in the past couple of weeks.

But the column never ran — I think that’s the only occasion in all my time here when one was actually spiked. I guess I can write about it now, since I have survived the executive editor and the publisher who were around then and, come to think of it, the company that owned the newspaper, too. It was patiently explained to me that our loyal readers, like most other Americans, had a great affection for Diana and that they might misunderstand the column and be offended by it. Actually, I think the problem would have been that they might understand it very well and be offended by it, but never mind.

I normally have a pretty even temperament, the king of cool. But I remember printing out a copy of that column and carrying it around with me all day, waving it in people’s faces and demanding they read it. "I’m sure you’ll like it," I’m told I yelled at people, "but you’d better read it here, because this is the only place you can read it, because IT’S NOT GOING IN THE PAPER! WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?!"  Was I beside myself? Where else would you be if you’re out of your mind?

Wish I’d saved it. It would have made a wonderful Anna Nicole tribute.

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So long, Louis

February 26, 2007

Louis "Judaism is a gutter religion" Farrakhan says God is mad because those of different religious faiths can’t get along:

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan stressed religious unity Sunday during his final major speech, saying the world is at war because Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths are divided.

The 73-year-old Farrakhan told the tens of thousands at Detroit’s Ford Field that Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad would embrace each other with love if they were on the stage behind him.

"Our lips are full of praise, but our hearts are far removed from the prophets we all claim," he said. "That’s why the world is in the shape that it’s in."

Is this like a deathbed conversion? If we’re lucky, and this really is his "last major speech," we may never know.

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Fleecing the suckers

February 26, 2007

This is why Gov. Daniels’ plan to privatize the lottery is a horrible idea, no matter how worthwhile the deeds he wants to fund with the profits:

The Hoosier Lottery has a mediocre track record, with more than half of U.S. lotteries boasting higher sales per resident.

[. . .]

The idea is facing some tough opposition, in part because doing so will mean turning over operations to a private company that will try to maximize the lottery’s potential, most likely by wringing as much cash as possible from Hoosiers’ pockets.

[. . .]

The bill being considered would require a company to pay the state at least $1 billion upfront and $200 million a year for 30 years.
[. . .]
It’s a tall economic order.
Only twice has the lottery topped $200 million in profits: in fiscal 2006, when it made $218 million, and in 1999, when it made $204 million. That means any company that took over would have to increase profits significantly to make the deal worthwhile.
Daniels thinks that’s possible.

It is not good public policy to fund virtue with vice. Daniels is deliberately setting out to increase the amount of money spent on gambling, in a game in which the chance of winning is worse than the chance of getting hit by a meteor. The state is already in the business of fleecing the suckers; this will just increase their number. The governor’s privatization efforts represent a worthy experiment as long as they don’t go too far. On this one, "too far" can be seen in the rearview mirror.

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Dumm

February 26, 2007

The people who assemble our popular cuture, they be dummer and dummer. I pressed the Comcast Digital Cable magic information button for last week’s episode of "Jericho," and this is what I saw: "A flashback through the 36 hours before the bombs exploded sheds light on the action of Jake and Hawkins, and reveals Hawkins’ compliance in the events." Compliance? I’m guessing "complicity" is what was meant.

Cool show, by the way. Or at least it has hooked me.

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Intelligent design

February 26, 2007

Never say it’s as silly as it can get when it comes to the state finding things to protect us from. Rather than link to it — it’s short — I’m reprinting the whole thing so you can appreciate the awesomeness of the idea:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A state lawmaker is sponsoring a bill that would require the interior designers hired to spruce up Hoosiers’ homes and businesses to be registered in the state.

Despite the seemingly innocuous subject matter, this is at least the third year the bill has been debated in the General Assembly.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Kruse, has sponsored the bill for Fort Wayne businessman Paul Lagemann, who is upset with the quality of work of some Hoosier interior designers.

Kruse concedes there is no clear reason why the state should oversee interior designers. “It is not a need as much as a want of interior designers to be recognized as professional in what they do,” said Kruse, R-Auburn.

Under the change, the designers would pay fees to register with the Board of Architects within the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, which would maintain a designer registry.

Of course they want to be "recognized as professional in what they do." The people in a profession usually end up writing their own rules when they come under state protection. Requiring licensing and fee-paying is a way to keep the riff-raff out and the prices up. It must be some kind of record for common sense that the legislature has turned this down at least twice.

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A matter of Semitics

February 23, 2007

Of all the prejudices people have, antisemitism has always been the most incomprehensible to me. Just don’t get it. But obviously it thrives, even in places like Indianapolis:

    "I personally see Israel going into Iran and Syria in the next couple of months. I’m sure you realize — well, most people don’t — millionaire Democrats outnumber millionaire Republicans four to one. It’s mainly because of the Jewish faction inside the Democratic Party. Most Jewish people are Democrats and they bring that wealth. My opinion is, if Israel would go into Iran, Democrats would follow that cause. I really do believe that."

    Personally, I have the same reaction to Israel taking on Syria and Iran that Oliver North displayed for the U.S. Senate when he was asked what he thought about America encouraging the Contras to take on the Sandinistas: Cool.

    Besides, this "Israel has so many friends in this country that it’s running our foreign policy" argument has the right complaint but the wrong country. Everybody knows it’s really Mexico.

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No reasonable doubt here

February 23, 2007

This advice comes too late to help Simon Rios, but let it be a lesson to any others who are contemplating the commission of heinous crimes. If you think you might end up pleading not guilty, don’t show police where you left the body.

A friend asked me how I would like to be on this jury. I was reminded of something from a movie, perhaps the one about Judge Roy Bean. "I’m going to give you a fair trial and then hang you."

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Sleeping through a crisis

February 23, 2007

So, if students ar taking tougher courses and getting better grades but are still scoring miserably on national tests, isn’t that an indication that, as they say in accounting circles, the books are being cooked?

"I think that we are sleeping through a crisis," said Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll, a governing board member. He said the low test scores should push lawmakers and educators to enact school reforms.

The new reading scores show no change since 2002, the last time the test was given.

"We should be getting better. There’s nothing good about a flat score," Winick said.

"We should be getting better." No kidding. Wait, I know! Let’s spend half a billion dollars on buildings.

I know, I know. That was a cheap shot. The two issues are unrelated. But, jeez. It’s become clear that just increasing spending on education isn’t the answer. The fact that nobody has declared an academic crisis requiring half a billion dollars to remedy can’t go unremarked on, though.

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Doh!

February 23, 2007

The 50 funniest Homer Simpson quotes. My favorite: Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand.

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School times

February 22, 2007

Former Fort Wayne educator Eugene White is shaking things up in Indianapolis:

INDIANAPOLIS – From 180 days a year in school to 210? That is what IPS Superintendent Eugene White thinks middle school students need. As he expected, White’s idea is meeting immediate controversy.

IPS middle schools were closed Wednesday so that teachers could get some extra training. Middle school students will get an extra six weeks of classroom instruction each year, if White’s idea becomes a reality.

"We need additional instructional time," White said.

Basically, kids would have only July off. I’m not sure what I think about this yet. I know our school calendar was based on an agricultural society that no longer exists, but it’s not clear that teaching students longer is a good substitute for teaching them better.

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On the way

February 22, 2007

I think I’ve said more than once that, because of the Constitution’s full faith and credit clause, the gay-marriage issue is certain to be decided by the Supreme Court. So now it starts:

Rhode Island should recognize state employees’ gay marriages that are performed in neighboring Massachusetts and extend benefits to their partners, the state’s attorney general said in an opinion released Wednesday.

Rhode Island prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and also extends benefits such as health insurance to domestic partners of state employees, Attorney General Patrick Lynch noted in the opinion, requested by a state department.

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Today’s quiz

February 22, 2007

What is the preantepenultimate word in this sentence?

Hint: "Penultimate" does not mean "ultimate, only more so."

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Life and death

February 22, 2007

This article by the governor of Maryland contains a lot of the usual reasons to be against the death penalty, which are wrong for the usual reasons. The death penalty is not actually a deterrent, he says, and executing someone is a lot costlier than just keeping them in prison for life. But one of the main reasons those two things are true is that anti-capital punishment people such as the governor have so complicated and lengthened the appeals process that people can sit on death row for 20 years. (And, as it has been pointed out by many people, the execution does deter one specific person.)

But he raises one issue that is troubling even to those of us who still feel the death penatly must be an option for some people who commit certain crimes:

These examples prompt a deeper question. Notwithstanding the executions of the rightly convicted, can the death penalty ever be justified as public policy when it inherently necessitates the occasional taking of wrongly convicted, innocent life? In Maryland, since 1978, we have executed five people and set one convicted man free when his innocence was discovered.

The most convincing argument against the death penalty, then, is not one of the usual liberal ones but a libertarian one. How can a government we think is barely competent to build roads be trusted with the most serious life-and-death issue there is? But even here we have to be careful. The "DNA tests show innocent people have been on death row" argument contains an obvious counterpoint: The DNA testing that wasn’t available before is now and can help us be more sure that only the guilty face the death penalty.

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News you can use

February 22, 2007

If newspapers are to make a comeback and compete with the online world, it will probably be with hard-hitting, incisive journalism like this: What’s in your fridge? The feature is just what you’d think. The paper asks people what’s in their refrigerators and shares the information with readers. Today’s guest is Quinn Buckner, whose fridge includes peanut butter, ketchup, mustard and the usual eggs and also — sit down for this! — strawberry sorbet and — gasp! — both American and string cheese!

Whew! That was too intense. I must go rest a while now. I can’t wait for "What’s on your closet floor?" Or maybe that one is still being run by the focus groups.

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This just in

February 21, 2007

It’s official. Tom Henry is the Democrats’ major candidate for mayor.

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Black and white

February 21, 2007

Thank God Barack Obama has one white parent and is clean and articulate and was raised in Hawaii far from the mean streets of America. That means he is white enough for people like me, who want to seem colorblind but have never had anybody but a white man to vote for and, really, do we want to hear rap music from the Rose Garden and start seeing White House recipes for fried chicken?

On the other hand, Obama had that one white parent and is clean and articulate and was raised in Hawaii, which means he is not nearly black enough for some people:

The discourse, occurring mostly among black people, has been dominated by questions about Obama’s being biracial, his immigrant father and his suitability as a presidential candidate, given that his life story doesn’t parallel that of most blacks born in the United States. Some have implied that only a black candidate whose ancestors were slaves here or who have themselves experienced the trauma of this country’s racial history can truly understand what it means to be black in America and represent the political interests of black Americans.

"Represent the political interests of black Americans"? Excuse me? What about the interests of Jews and Protestants and lesbians and Hispanic jugglers and Asian-ancestry deaf mutes? And not to get too personal, but what about my interests? Yes, we have become a very divisive nation, but the president is still supposed to be the president of all the people, and those who are trying to push Obama in some other direction are doing neither him nor themselves a favor.

So many millions of words have been written about this country’s racial and ethnic challenges and multiculturialism and English as a second language and sensitivity and self-esteem and so many related topics. But it all comes down to black and white. Until we get over that — or through it — none of the rest is even remotely achieveable.

A related concern: Is Giuliani white enough? And, hey, we’ve already had a black president, so what’s the big deal?

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Dog survives, and putzes, too

February 21, 2007

Most people who hear about this story will probably go, "Aww, that’s so cute!"

GOVERNMENT CAMP, Ore. – Thanks to a high-tech electronic gadget and a big warm dog named Velvet, three climbers rescued after a harrowing fall and a night in the wind and cold high on Mount Hood are expected to be fine.

[. . .]

Searchers credited the group’s rescue to two things — Velvet, a black Labrador mix who provided warmth as the three climbers huddled under sleeping bags and a tarp, and the activation of an emergency radio beacon the size of a sunglasses case that guided them to the group.

My reaction: If you’re going to go on a suicide mission, leave the poor mutt at home. And, by the way, if, after reading all the other stories about climbers getting trapped or stranded and dying in a winter storm, you still insist on going out there in the middle of February, I think you should do a little jail time for reckless endangerment of the rescuers. Assuming you survive, you putz.

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Don’t invite me

February 21, 2007

Come on, ‘fess up. Haven’t there been times when you wished you’d had this much guts?

Fed up with spending too many weekends going to weddings, an Argentine couple took out a paid announcement on the social pages of a major newspaper expressing their desire for some social neglect.

Adolfo Caballero, 66, told a La Nacion reporter the flood of invitations came from the children of his dozens of cousins, friends from his club, and clients of his law firm.

If you run across me at a wedding, I’ll be the one hovering around the food, waiting for the announcement that it’s time to eat. If it’s a party, I’m the one standing in the corner looking like he’s waiting in the doctor’s office.

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