I’m Retiring…Just This Blog

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Dear Loyal Readers,

I want you to be the first to know that I am officially retiring this blog.  This will be my last post. Now for the good news. In addition to practicing law I am also writing fiction and have created a new website, called Legal Fiction. You can find it here.

On my new website I will be publishing my original short stories. As a matter of fact I have already published my first story titled Forged in Pain, which took me six months and dozens of drafts to write. I would like to extend a special thanks to my wife, a couple of valued friends, my legal assistant and last, but certainly not least, my editor, Vicki for all of the help and encouragement that each of  them gave me.

I will also publish my blog posts on the Legal Fiction website. My posts will be mostly true stories and information similar to this blog but now that I have unleashed my imagination there might be an exaggeration here or there, poetic license if you will. The first post is there and it is surprisingly titled, What is Legal Fiction?

So, I hope all of you will allow me to continue to notify you by email when I have published something new and, perhaps, take time to read. You can sign up for notifications on Legal Fiction.

Thank you for following Learning Through Life and Law. I have enjoyed writing and sharing it.

Kurt

The Unknown at Our Fingertips

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Are you a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or other social media user? Do you Google for information?  Does Alexa quietly listen to everything you say, answer your questions and follow your commands like an eerily intelligent robot in your house? Or is she really just a spy who only helps you to keep you talking? I guess you heard she recently sent one couple’s private conversation to an unintended third party. OOPS!

How often do you read the Terms and Conditions of Use of the web service providers you use? Have you ever read the Privacy Policies? They can be boring and hard to understand.  I guess we all have clicked “I agree” without pausing to wonder “to what exactly.”

Terms and Conditions are contracts. We get to use the company’s software and content and in exchange we give the company access to all of the personal information we expose.  They keep track of everything; the posts we write and read, the pictures we post, the things we “like” and “share.”  Maybe you just read and look, never liking or sharing or posting anything; surely they know little about you. Wrong. They monitor what you look at and how long you spend looking and reading  content on their sites so they know what and who you are interested in and then they follow you and keep records as you journey around the internet.

Website Terms and Conditions can be difficult to understand.  Part of the reason is the way they are written.  Facebook states “we will never sell your information to anyone.” I think this is misleading. While they may not “sell” our information in the strict definition of the word, they do contract with others, advertisers especially, to provide access to our data in exchange for money. They call this “sharing.” They use vague terms in their Privacy Policies to tell us how they share our information.  The Privacy Policy is also part of the contract.

When we log on, search and select from the universe of websites and service providers we find, we have no simple way to keep track of what information we are giving to them. Generally we know it is information involving our use of their services but through the “cookies” they embed into our devices’ software, they also track the other websites we visit to learn more about us. By “sharing” the data they collect from us these companies make billions.

Recently companies have been sending out revised data and privacy policies  which they claim are more clearly written. This is due partly to the bad publicity of recent security breaches and partly due to a new privacy law in Europe known as the General Data Protection Regulation. As U.S. citizens that law does not protect us but some companies, like Facebook, changed their policy language universally. In Europe a person who wants to use social media or other websites’ services must “opt in” or agree that the user’s data can be shared. In the USA, the default choice offered by most companies if we want view their content, is agree to their terms or get off the website.  Lately, I have refused to agree and just left the website. It felt empowering.

Facebook’s new data policy is somewhat clearer but I am finding it challenging to find all of the information they have about me and how I can control it.  When I learned about the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica data breach which allowed a researcher for a political advisory firm to access Facebook’s user data well beyond what Facebook had authorized, I became quite alarmed and curious. Facebook violated its contract with us when it allowed this to happen. I naively thought a sophisticated company like Facebook would have the proper controls in place to “share” only the intended data and honor its contract with us. Sadly, we’ve learned time and time again that our information can be hacked, shared and used by seemingly unlimited, unknown others in ways that can be harmful to us.

Over the years I have liked and shared some political commentary posts. When I reviewed the profile information Facebook had compiled on me I found Facebook’s categorization of my political interests.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised but seeing myself categorized in a political box on Facebook was startling.  I promptly withdrew my permission for Facebook to use or share this portion of my profile. To Facebook’s credit they do allow us to restrict approval for it to share portions of our profiles. How long it will stay restricted is unclear. Facebook does not tell us that.

I wonder what would happen if all of us simply said we are going to stop giving you our information until we get a better deal; like more privacy or more features. Maybe there should be a universal day of removing all of our faces from Facebook. How about a day of silent birdies; just people actually talking to each other? What a message that would send.  Oh well, back to reality.

Often I have to bribe myself with a sweet reward after daunting hours of reading and analyzing these contracts. So, while I do that here is my challenge to my readers. If you have a social media profile, take an hour or so and explore to find out as much as you can about your profile. Then go eat a cookie as your reward. I prefer those to the ones that stalk me around the internet.

I Couldn’t Be More Surprised…

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We live in an unpredictable world. Have you ever said, “I thought I’d seen everything until…?”  My favorite line of surprise comes from the movie, Christmas Vacation when cousin Eddy says, “I couldn’t have been more surprised if I woke up with my head stapled to the carpet.”   Now, that’s a big surprise.

I’ve had plenty of surprises in my life. Trigonometry turned out to be less important in the practice of law than I thought. The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show is no longer on TV (I do miss that show). I am wearing socks with dog pictures on them as I write this. Some clients really do tell me all of the facts when I ask. There’s been plenty of average surprises like this.

Then there those bigger surprises, like the kind that make you say, “no way.”  Airlines are making seats smaller because people are getting smaller.  Right. Grey’s Anatomy is still on TV.  Our country has never had a woman president.

As some people get older they say that nothing surprises them any more. Not me. I think I have experienced some of my biggest surprises in just the last couple of years.  We own a car that stops without touching the brake pedal.  Donald Trump was elected President.

And, one of the biggest surprises to me is that I just started writing fiction. Never in a million years did I think I would write fiction. To be more accurate I should say I am trying to write fiction. Time will tell if it qualifies as writing.  But it is fiction. As I have recollected many of my experiences in life, I think some are kind of interesting but you probably wouldn’t. So, I started to imagine how these experiences could become interesting enough to share. So I tried making up stories based on the experiences.

My first project is about a young lawyer named Harry who opens his own law office in Washington DC. He is a composite of people I have known and so are the people and other creatures he encounters.  My loyal spouse, Sharon, good friend John and former co-worker Ginny have been my guinea pigs and offered valuable feedback to my early drafts. Who knows, dear reader, you may become a character in this fanciful world of Harry’s. Don’t worry, I will change the name of anyone who is innocent so I am sure you have nothing to worry about. Right?

Here I am in the frosted-pumpkin season of my life, starting a new hobby of fiction writing.  I don’t think I could be more surprised if I woke up tomorrow…..

 

 

 

What Law School Did To My Mind

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The day I was accepted into law school I thought I would learn the law. I learned much more.  I learned to weigh the importance of various facts, apply an appropriate legal principal and reason out a decision.  Law school was more like my math and logic classes than my other liberal arts classes in college. But a math problem has one correct answer, an answer to a legal question is less certain.

Outside of class we read mountains of court decisions to learn how judges worked through this process.  Then we “briefed” each case by identifying the facts we deemed important, the legal issue(s) in the case and the court’s application of legal principles to the facts to reach a decision about the issue(s) involved. This was challenging but not as challenging as the classroom experience.

Often class started abruptly with the professor calling on a student to stand and face a series of questions by the professor. It was not your typical question of “what is the answer Ms. Smith?” No, the professor might start by asking for the court’s decision in a case and then evolve into a “what if” labyrinth of questions. Each question involved changing a fact or two in the case. We were to figure out how, if at all, those different facts might change the outcome.

Teaching through serial questioning like this is called the Socratic Method after the Greek philosopher, Socrates. Socrates engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for truth; often elusive.  The Socratic Method is used to develop critical thinking skills in students. It plays out something like this:

Mr. Contracts Professor:  Mr. Holloway, what is the definition of a contract?

Mr. Holloway: A contract must have and offer, an acceptance, consideration and common understanding between the parties about those terms.

Mr. Professor: OK, Jim says to John, “I’ll cut your lawn for $50.00.” John replies, “That sounds good to me.”  Do we have a valid contract?

Mr. Holloway. It seems so. The consideration Jim offers is the lawn cutting and the consideration he wants in return is $50 and John reciprocates by agreeing.

Mr. Professor: What if Jim cuts John’s lawn on Monday but John wanted it done Tuesday? Did the parties have a mutual understanding?

Mr. Holloway. They did not discuss when the lawn would be cut but it seems John still owes Jim $50. Yes, they did have a mutual understanding of the service and price and that is enough.

Mr. Professor: But, doesn’t the misunderstanding of the day the lawn was to be cut show they did not have a mutual understanding?

Mr. Holloway: Perhaps not on that issue, but it does not seem right that John could avoid paying Jim since John did not specify the day he wanted it done. He should have told Jim he wanted it done on Monday.

Mr. Professor: If they had a contract, can John change it by adding a new condition?

Mr. Holloway: I don’t think so.

Mr. Professor: Can John unilaterally terminate the contract if Jim doesn’t agree to the new condition?

Mr. Holloway: Nothing was said about termination.

The Professor now calls on a new student to continue the questioning. I sit down, perplexed by the exchange.

And on it goes as Mr. Professor introduces the concept of “reasonableness” adopted by courts for interpreting contracts that omit terms or are ambiguous. Again, Mr. Professor grills the student with hypotheticals for five or ten minutes to flesh out an understanding of reasonableness.

Some professors were more difficult than others and might grill a student for 30 minutes. Classes were typically in a lecture hall with fifty or more students. If your logic was flawed or you were unprepared it would be in front of a large audience.  But no one was laughing because any sign of enjoying another’s struggle only increased your chances of being next. It felt like we were Roman citizens who were lucky enough to have scarce tickets to the brutal “entertainment” in the Coliseum. The only difference was any of us could be dragged from the audience to be part of the entertainment. It was great incentive to do each day’s assignment.

Teaching by the Socratic Method taught us that facts matter. Changing facts can change legal outcomes. We also learned to think critically; to think like lawyers.  But lawyering in the real world is more complicated because lawyers search for facts from people, not books. I’ll share some thoughts about that next time.

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Finding Inspiration from 2017?

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New Years baby 2018

A year of turmoil. That’s how I would describe 2017. Even in turmoil there are moments of clarity of spirit and purpose which can inspire. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gave the commencement address at his son’s ninth-grade graduation in June. Reading his words inspired me. Here are parts of it I would like to share with you.

 Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes. 

The Greek philosopher Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ And while ‘just do it’ might be a good motto for some things, it’s not a good motto when it’s trying to figure out how to live your life that is before you. And one important clue to living a good life is to not to try to live the good life. The best way to lose the values that are central to who you are is frankly not to think about them at all. 

So that’s the deep advice. Now some tips as you get ready to go to your new school. Over the last couple of years, I have gotten to know many of you young men pretty well, and I know you are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it. 

When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school. Another piece of advice: When you pass by people you don’t recognize on the walks, smile, look them in the eye and say hello. The worst thing that will happen is that you will become known as the young man who smiles and says hello, and that is not a bad thing to start with. 

The last bit of advice I’ll give you is very simple, but I think it could make a big difference in your life. Once a week, you should write a note to someone. Not an email; a note on a piece of paper. It will take you exactly 10 minutes. By the end of the school year, you will have sent notes to 40 people. Forty people will feel a little more special because you did, and they will think you are very special because of what you did.

I would like to end by reading some important lyrics. I cited the Greek philosopher Socrates earlier. These lyrics are from the great American philosopher, Bob Dylan. They’re almost 50 years old. He wrote them for his son, Jesse, who he was missing while he was on tour. It lists the hopes that a parent might have for a son and for a daughter. They’re also good goals for a son and a daughter. The wishes are beautiful, they’re timeless. They’re universal. They’re good and true, except for one: It is the wish that gives the song its title and its refrain. That wish is a parent’s lament. It’s not a good wish. So these are the lyrics from Forever Young by Bob Dylan: 

May God bless you and keep you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

And may you stay forever young

 

May you grow up to be righteous

May you grow up to be true

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous

Stand upright and be strong

And may you stay forever young

 

May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful

May your song always be sung

And may you stay forever young.

 That is how Chief Justice Roberts ended his speech.

Dear Readers, thank you for taking the time to read the thoughts and stories I’ve shared this past year. Without you to share them with, there would be little purpose for my writing. May all of us be the type of parents, grandparents and people we aspire to be in 2018.

A Place at the Table.

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(Harry Holloway and Jane Kurtz wedding picture February 1, 1946)

Harry was born July 9, 1916, one of three sons, to a poor working couple living in a poor working class neighborhood in Pottstown. His parents, Harry and Anna  (Weikel) Holloway had little formal education. Hard work was valued more than education.  His family’s frugal necessity learned during the Great Depression would leave a lasting imprint on him for life. When he finished high school he began his factory working life.

Jane was born November 3, 1922 and had an older brother. They were raised in Lower Pottsgrove Township a rural area outside of the village of Sanatoga and neighboring Pottstown. Her mother, Florence (Shantz), was a housewife and her father, Herbert Kurtz, a self-employed contractor. A strong work ethic and traditional values ruled in this family over any thought of advanced education for a girl. Jane, however, was a free spirit and after graduation from high school she moved to the Poconos to work in the resorts and enjoy her freedom from family.  Eventually pressure from her mother to settle down brought her back to Pottstown after several years.

Harry and Jane married in Las Vegas on February 1, 1946 and had two children, my sister Lynn and me. My parents separated in the summer of 1964 and were divorced in 1966.

After the separation I lived with my mother and my relationship with my father began a slow distancing over the following years. As a teenager I had a strong desire for independence from my parents so he gave me room but never walked away.  He attended my sports events and taught me how to fix and build things. Indeed, there were many ways I could count on him.

Mom had the truly tough job of raising a teenage boy as a single working mother. My behavior was average but even average teenage behavior will give a mother grey hair.  She also gave me room to grow but was quick to pull me back when she thought I ventured too far from the straight and narrow.  Her silent sacrifices spared me from true awareness of our pay-to-pay tight budget.

My parents were not regular church attenders but they made sure that their children were exposed to Christian education in Sunday school and church during our pre-teen years and later in confirmation class.

It was rare to hear either of my parents criticize the other. Even after their divorce my mother invited my father to holiday dinners. There was always a place at the table for him. When he came, she treated him as though he belonged there.

When Hurricane Agnes hit Pottstown in 1972 my mother and I had to leave our apartment due to rising flood waters. My father opened his house to us for days until the water receded.

My parents’ relationship had many flaws and the divorce was hard on both of them but they overcame the hurt and treated each other with respect and, in my eyes, kindness when it mattered most.  They taught me many lessons about living a life that mattered.

My father died on November 17, 1973 at just 57 years old. Thanksgiving that year was only five days later. There was no plate set for him at the table that year but he surely was there with us. My mother died October 23, 1993. Unlike my dad she lived long enough to know and be known by all of her grandchildren so memories of her as mom and Gram still generate laughter.

Each year when Thanksgiving rolls around I often think of my mother’s tradition of offering a place at the holiday table for my father and of the sacrifices both parents made for me. I have been blessed by God, loved by my family and treated well by many people. All of them are invited and will be joining me at my place at the table for the years to come.

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(My dad on the right and mom’s brother Sam Kurtz on the left. Picture taken in 1972 at a holiday dinner in mom’s apartment, one year before my dad died.)

Kindness, Power and Cranberry Juice

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It was a Thursday morning and when I finished my morning routine I was heading to the Board of Assessment Appeals office to file a tax appeal for our house. The filing fee is $50 so I wrote a check and put it in my pocket. I went downstairs, ate my breakfast and got out the cranberry juice to mix with water for my usual breakfast drink. I shook the juice bottle and out sprayed cranberry juice on my white shirt. I had forgotten to put the cap on the bottle tightly the day before. Ugh! So, I changed shirts and put the wet one in the laundry sink with some detergent to soak. Sadly, that was not the first time I’ve done this. You would think I would remember after the first time. After my little laundry diversion I headed for Norristown with our assessment appeal.

At the Assessment Appeals office I handed the clerk the appeal, she stamped it and asked for the filing fee. I reached in my pants pocket. No check. I paused and thought, I know I put that check in my pocket, what happened to it? Oh, yeah, I put it in my shirt pocket which is now soaking with my shirt. Dumb. I told the clerk my little tale of woe. After a few seconds she said, I’ll keep your appeal stamped as received today since the deadline is only two days away. Just mail the check to me. Wow, what a break. This woman’s kindness just saved me another trip back to Norristown the next day. The trip is about two hours round trip so her gesture was a real time-saver for me. She didn’t need to do this favor for me. For all I knew she was bending the rules by doing this. She had the power to hand back my appeal and tell me to bring it back with the check.  Other filing office clerks have followed the rules strictly in other situations where something I tried to file was just not quite by the book.

Since I had this experience I’ve given some thought about people’s simple acts of kindness. It sure is nice to be on the receiving end of kind acts and words. Reflecing about it makes we aware that I could do better. Give someone my place in line or that parking space, drop a dollar in the bucket, say a kind word to a stranger or a child.  It seems some people spend a good deal of energy trying to gain and keep power over others in relationships, work, government and any situation where people need to interact with each other. A good deal has been written about power. There have also been studies showing how acts of kindness make the doer feel better and prompt some recipients to pass kindness on to others.

When people who have power over me show me some kindness I admire them. That clerk was a person who had the power to make me jump through hoops but instead acted kindly. She gave up some power to help me, a stranger.  Just imagine what the world would look like if, just for a day, everyone gave up a little power and performed one act of kindness for someone.

And some of us need a little more kindness than others.

cranberry juice and shirt