|From The Editor
On a beautiful warm Saturday, the parking lot at the Huntington Library has overflowed and a line of people are walking in the street towards the library entrance.
Joining them, I noticed that the curbs on both sides of the streets all around the library, except for those touching its grounds directly, are posted with "no-parking" signs on wood stakes jammed into the lawns at regular intervals.
The manicured lawns -- I mean they are perfect, mint green, not a blemish, freshly mowed -- are in front of palatial estates that are like ambassadorial residences, enormous, grand entrances, flagpoles, one oddly flying a Brazilian flag, and Romanesque facades to modern-day castles.
A friendly Huntington employee -- the library's volunteers and staff have been unfailingly pleasant so far -- is counting the number of people walking in.
I ask him about the signs and his open expression turns to a slight smile.
He says the signs are indeed official, put there by the City of San Marino, and they are indeed temporary, only there when the great unwashed or just the non-ridiculously wealthy want to take a stroll through the gardens on a sunny day.
The employee says in careful terms, but still with an amused expression, that the locals have a lot of money and so they have influence with the city. He adds that the local government has a lot of community meetings.
So streets that are public, owned by the public and paid for by the public of California and the nation, are nevertheless treated as the private property of those who live alongside them. Because the rich do not like the rest of us that much, especially our presence anywhere on public ways close to where they live.
The amazing thing, because I have seen it plenty of times, is that the city officials don't stand up to it. They serve their masters.
But of course we and a true flood of people are walking onto the grounds once owned by the family of a fabulously wealthy railroad tycoon. And the gardens are definitely open to the public which is all over the place, speaking Chinese, Korean, Russian and of course a smattering of English, walking through the rose gardens, snuggling on benches, playing with the carp.
I had been almost forced a couple weeks ago to visit the Huntington, which is just a few blocks from my apartment in Pasadena -- funny thing, I had avoided going for years because I heard you had to make a parking reservation and the whole thing just sounded so uptight.
But none of that was true and $120 got me a year-round pass for two.
On Saturday, I wanted to check out the current exhibition, which included a chest of drawers for a woman who was killed by French soldiers allied with local Indians. Nearby is the painting of a serious, busty woman who is known, we are told, for having been courted by Andrew Jackson before he "withdrew his attention."
Another painting depicts a snow sleigh turned on its side in front of a tavern, with a man and woman spilled out. On the ground in front of their out-stretched hands is a bottle and a newspaper, clearly titled the Pittsburgh Gazette.
The explanation on the wall says the painter despised the Gazette because of its editorial position advocating compromise with the South during the Civil War.
The true objective of the day trip is a little café in the Chinese Garden where we can have a beer next to a little lake. As the tables fall into shadow and the day wanes, a brightly colored male duck starts bobbing his head rapidly, all the way up and down, as though spring-loaded, while a dun-colored female does the same.
Quick as you please, he paddles around behind her and practically drowns her as he does a rapid and frenetic bit of business. Immediately afterwards, he stretches his full torso up out of the water and spreads his colorful wings wide. Another male paddles straight over and also spreads his wings, as the female demurely swims away.
On the way out, a fit, blonde woman walking in front of us explains to her early college-age son and his three friends that Henry Huntington first bought the grounds from a rancher, then built the enormous residence, and then built the library to house his books and artwork.
Leland Stanford, she continued, was also made rich through the railroads. He and his wife Jane established the university for the youth of California after their son died at a young age.
Jane was "very emancipated," she tells the boys, and as a result the university admitted women from the time it opened, which was very uncommon at the time. She added that the school was a pioneer in the development of moving pictures and it was at Stanford that it was proved that a horse does not touch the ground when in mid-gallop.
That was the only part where the boys seemed interested.
As we walked back along the street to our car, at the end of a beautiful, sunny day, I noticed that all the no-parking signs were gone. They were no longer needed, the public was leaving.
My new hero is Ursula Weatherford. She is 82 and lives in Vinita, Okla.
Ursula made my life better and it took just a few minutes for her to do it.
Here's what happened.
Monday had been bad, driving across the country. It rained on me for 210 miles in Oklahoma. It rained like hell, and then it rained harder, in Tornado Alley. I was a wreck when I pulled into the Holiday Inn in Vinita, in the northeast corner of the state.
Waiting in line to check in, I made some dumb joke to the guy in front of me. He gave me a look that indicated not only that I am a despicable excuse for a mammal, but that I do not exist. It was such a vile look it made me think that one of us was a serial killer, and maybe it was me.
As I loaded up on the hotel's buffet breakfast the next morning at 6:15, pouring coffee directly into my frontal lobes, an elderly lady asked me how I had slept last night. Just fine, I said.
Where was I going? Vermont, I said.
Really? She had relatives in Rhode Island.
Something about her cheered up me so thoroughly I knew it would be a good day. She moved along to the next person, and the next one, keeping the room tidy and the coffee fresh.
She made everyone in that room happy. It wasn't the small talk. It was that she listened, and cared how we responded.
I took a second cup of coffee out to the truck, then went back to the hotel and begged her pardon and asked her name.
"You've cheered me up so much I'm going to write a column about you," I said.
We stood by a table occupied by an elderly couple. He looked like a New England banker: stoic, white hair, wearing a tie to breakfast, mouth a grim straightedge. He broke into a big grin.
"She's always like that," he said. "Every time we pass through. Friendliest person in the world." His wife gave us a big smile.
Ursula told me her name and her age. She's worked at the Holiday Inn for seven years. She used to manage a Denny's. She was born and raised in Vinita.
Old Grumpy Guts from last night sat at a corner table with a bowl of Special K and skim milk. Something about him indicated that no one, not even Ursula, should try to chat him up.
Then I realized: Old Grumpy Guts wasn't grumpy last night. He's been grumpy his whole life. And Ursula isn't cheerful and kind this morning; she's been cheerful and kind her whole life.
I used to be a cheerful guy. A jazz musician. Broke, obviously, but so what? Then I got into the news business. They made me an editor and for 30 years I've been turning into a grumpy guts. Hazards of the profession.
What a waste of life, I thought. Every 200 miles that day when I stopped for gas I chatted people up and listened to their stories. One old guy walked away from the pump with his arm over my shoulder like we were old pals.
Now when I find myself turning into a grumpy guts again, which happens most every day, I think of Ursula Weatherford, from Vinita, Oklahoma, and I cheer right up.
I couldn't prove it, but I bet Ursula has done more good on this planet than all 535 members of our U.S. Congress combined. Just by actually listening to people, and actually caring what they say.
|From The Courts
Is Happiness a Good Thing?
More and more law firms have decided it's not their job to torture employees.
Something called the Legal Executive Institute last week published an article called "Making Your Law Firm a Great Place To Work," in which we're told that law firms being great places to work "is a trend that will only accelerate."
Why is this a trend?
Is it really a trend?
I don't have answers to those questions, but I do have another question: Why does the author of the article - someone who is described as the "founder and principal consultant" of LawyerBrain LLC - feels he needs to go on at length to persuade us that law firms should be great places to work?
Is there an argument against this? Why would you not want your firm to be a great place to work?
Are managing partners out there who happen to be surfing the Internet, come upon this Executive Institute page and say to themselves: "Why didn't I think of that? And here all this time I thought having a lousy workplace was the best way to go ..."
Two things need to be explored here: arguments in favor of terrible places to work and the methods for turning an office into a great place to work.
Let us begin with the pro-lousy position.
Naturally, an entrenched law firm partner should want his or her firm to be a miserable place. The primary reason is obvious: Happy associates will want to stay and become partners. The more partners you have, the more you have to divide profits.
So what firm leaders should do is recruit eager young new lawyers willing to work too many hours for their health in the vain hope that the effort will someday lead to a partnership. Pay them a competitive starting salary to lure them in.
Once you've squeezed as much as you can from the young blood for a few years, start being overly critical of their work, demand more hours, and make fun of their clothes. They'll be eager to leave the firm as quickly as possible.
Then begin the process again with new blood.
You'll never have to expand the firm name.
And if you make things miserable enough around the office, you may be able to drive out some of your old partners.
Just remember to be nice to the clients.
I should point out here too that there are advantages for non-bosses in miserable workplaces.
I've worked in several miserable places in my so-called career and I have fond memories of the camaraderie with my suffering co-workers. This can make for some great parties and nights out at bars.
It's better than foxholes because no one is shooting at you - unless it's a really bad place to work.
I treasure the time spent shooting videos mocking my employers. With the Internet and phone video cameras today, this is easier and more fulfilling than ever.
But if you insist on a happy place to work, I won't argue with most of the suggestions in the Institute piece. I do think they require some supplemental notes.
For one thing, there is no mention of removing the primary cause of bad workplaces: lousy bosses.
You know what I'm talking about - the guys who scream at you for the mistakes they made, the guys who take the credit for your work, the guys who think they know everything but know nothing.
If you give everyone a vote on who gets to be the boss, or the amount of the boss's salary, you'll have a happy workplace.
An annual Dunk The Senior Partner carnival booth is a nice morale-booster too.