Our Boys Always Botch It

Monday night, a day in the life. Cowboys at Met Life, playing the Giants. Don’t know if you’ve been to Met Life or not. I’ve been by there several times – New Jersey state fair is held in its parking lot, and I’ve had to go by the Meadowlands racetrack any number of times when they were using it as a COVID-19 vaccine megasite. Met Life looks like a megascale model of your air conditioner. I finally made it inside this summer, for an Elton John concert that I expected to be hotter than First Baptist Hell, but it turned out to be quite comfortable.

I won’t trouble you too much about the details of the football game; it was tied well into the second half, and then New York managed to break Saquon Barkley for a long gainer that put the Giants ahead. The Cowboys tied it, and then scored another touchdown, and there we were in the fourth quarter.

Cooper Rush was leading the Cowboys at the time, and the cameras kept catching Dak Prescott on the sidelines (he’d broken his thumb in Week 1, you remember) and he was just staring at the field, with a look of pure stoicism on his face. I can’t find a picture of it, but he looked kind of like this:

I mean, you had to see that face. It was like Roy Kent passing a kidney stone. It was a look of abject misery, and I knew why. Any Cowboy fan knows that face. It’s the one that we all make when the Cowboys are ahead late. It’s the face that says I know they are going to foul this up; I just don’t know how they’re going to do it.

So here’s the thing. Whatever Dak and I were waiting on didn’t happen. It just didn’t. The Cowboys were up by seven, and kicked off to the Giants. The Giants did… well, pretty much what pessimistic Cowboys fans expect the Cowboys to do in that situation. They went three and out with a penalty. The Cowboys got a long punt return from their USFL castoff, which put them inexplicably in field goal position. Even though the offense couldn’t move the ball, the Cowboys were up 10. Dak kept staring out at the field, waiting for the Cowboys to self-destruct on defense.

Well, that didn’t happen, either. I mean, it wasn’t ideal. The Cowboys gave up a fifteen-yard facemask penalty that put the Giants on the 22. But the defense found new life. Giants QB Daniel Jones missed on three passes, the last with the kind of intentional grounding penalty that’s just designed to wreck drives. The Giants were held to a field goal. All the Cowboys had to do was get a couple of first downs. But they only were able to get one, and kicked it back to the Giants with a minute-forty-five left. I know they’re going to foul this up. Dak kept staring at the field, resolute stubbornness masking the beginnings of a stomach ulcer.

And what happened? It was the Giants that fouled up–they managed to not only lose the game on an interception, but lost their best WR to a ligament tear incurred by, from what it looked like, taking a gentle jog at the end of his route. Whatever horrible thing that the Fates or the Football Gods or your malevolent deity of choice were going to unleash upon Cowboys fans… didn’t happen.

Okay, I am not going to sit here and tell you that the Cowboys are good, or that they can beat the Bills or the Dolphins or the Packers. That’s not my point. I am not here to raise anyone’s hopes in that particular direction.

My point is this. Both Dak and I, who have seen more calamitous Cowboys games than either of us can easily digest, were going into that fourth quarter expecting the Cowboys to do the same stupid things that they usually do. Idiotic holding penalties. Dumb interceptions. Dropped passes. Inexplicable play calls. Nonsensical coaching decisions. Except that… this time, it didn’t happen. I mean, the Cowboys weren’t perfect. They could have done done more. But what they didn’t do was arguably more consequential. There weren’t any turnovers. There weren’t any holding plays wiping out long gains. There weren’t any missed field goals or muffed punts. Nobody tried to, oh, I don’t know, run a draw play with sixteen seconds left and no time outs. All of the mistakes that you’d expect to see never materialized–or else they managed to happen to the Giants, which is just as good.

So that led me to my question. What if we didn’t do the stupid, self-destructive things that we usually do? Not, saying, again, that we have to be perfect. Not saying that we have to make the outstanding play or make the heroic effort. But… what if we just stopped doing the bad things?

Before the Monday night game, I’d run low on gas, and I’d stopped where I usually stop, at one of the gas stations at Pennington Circle. I went inside and got a little bag of cashews, and a Coke Zero. I was dog-tired. I hadn’t gotten anything like enough sleep over the weekend. I have a demanding job that includes an hour-long commute both ways. And I have several other excuses if you’d like to hear them. But what ultimately matters is my behavior, and this particular behavior was to grab a Little Debbie Zebra Cake and a package of raspberry coconut Twinkies. (The Zebra Cake was, unfathomably, stale.)

So… what if I stopped doing that?

Let’s ignore the scale of things a bit. I get that me eating a little bit of junk food that I shouldn’t eat is nowhere near as consequential as, say, the Cowboys offensive line getting flagged for holding to bring back a sixty-yard Tony Pollard scamper. No one is setting me back ten yards for illegal Zebra Cake. But it’s the same thing, isn’t it? I keep making stupid decisions that I know are stupid decisions, and engaging in self-destructive behaviors that I know are self-destructive behaviors. And they matter. Not every one of them matters in and of themselves, but cumulatively, they do matter. And the only way to reverse their effects is a long, slow gradual process of self-improvement and self-discipline that’s… difficult.

Maybe it’s easier to start with not doing things. Tom Wolfe famously pointed out about the pre-Mercury program in THE RIGHT STUFF that “Our rockets always blow up and our boys always botch it.” Maybe the first step towards ultimate success is to stop failing so much. Once you stop failing, maybe the sky’s the limit.


Walker, Texas Rangers

Friday evening, a day in the life. I had gotten an email from our local chain steak restaurant, which had just barely stayed open during COVID and had been operating off of a drastically shortened menu for years now. The email said they had brought back their prime rib, so we made reservations for 7PM. We got there, I ordered the prime rib.

“We just ran out,” the waitress said. Of course they did. (They went on to serve the Mrs. chicken that was still pink inside, and didn’t comp us anything. Drat, double drat, and triple drat.) So while we were waiting for food that was not prime rib, I made the announcement.

“I have something to play for you when we get back in the car,” I said. “I have to warn you, it’s really stupid and inconsequential. But it’s a nice thing.”

I will not ask you to listen to the episode of the podcast in question–it is the jokey Joe Posnanski-Michael Schur meta-podcast about sports, kind of–but I will discuss a little bit of the context. The current recurring bit on this podcast is the idea that more baseball teams should have “unofficial nicknames.” For example, the only constant in terms of the uniform design for the franchise currently known as the Los Angeles Angels has been the use of a halo around the letter A (lowercase or uppercase), and so they are occasionally referred to by baseball announcers and ESPN anchors as the “Haloes.” (If you did not know this, you are excused from reading the rest of this post.) Posnanski and Schur have taken it upon themselves to think up similar alternative “unofficial nicknames” for every MLB team. This has been a lengthy process, which has resulted in new monikers for the Washington Nationals (“the Feds”), the Cincinnati Reds (“the Chili”) and the Chicago Cubs (they eventually settled on “the Ivy,” sure, why not). But Posnanski and Schur were stumped by several teams, and asked for listener input.

I am not immune to sudden bursts of inspiration.

And I thought that would be the end of it. The tweet got 32 impressions; nobody saw it, nobody cared, which is as it should be. And sure, San Francisco is famous for its fog, and had actually gone so far as to incorporate the light gray color into an alternate uniform. And the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers are forever linked in baseball history; of course the names should echo each other. The “Fog” and the “Smog.” Another silly idea sent into the nameless void.

Only this time…

I listened to the podcast on my way home (I have an hour-long commute from my home in suburban Princeton to my office in Northeast Philadelphia), probably about a week after it aired, and was jolted with surprise to hear my name being mentioned in connection with–I cannot stress this enough–this stupid tweet about this silly enterprise on this ridiculous podcast.

What I expected next was a fair bit of ridicule–why not? It’s a stupid idea. But… no. They liked it. They bought it. The nation’s most well-known sportswriter and the producer for The Good Place liked my idea and adopted it. So I played it for my wife and kids, with the caveat that, of course, all of this was relentlessly pointless. (The Mrs. was impressed, Child A was amazed that someone on the car radio had said my name, and Child B ignored the whole thing. Par for the course.)

Photo of three San Francisco Giants players, somewhat obscured by fog, wearing light gray uniforms with the Giants logo partly fogged out
You gotta admit, there’s something to it.

Andy Warhol talked about having fifteen minutes of fame. This was maybe a fifteenth of a second. Maybe it wasn’t that much. I know it couldn’t be that much, because I have not had a single Giants or Dodgers fan approach me and tell me how stupid my stupid idea was. (For which I am profoundly grateful.)

So, anyway. I wrote all this to set up the central idea of this piece, which is that my beloved Texas Rangers deserve an unofficial nickname, and it should be the “Walkers.”

If you have ever thought about the Texas Rangers in your life, it is likely because of these events:

  • Nolan Ryan beating the absolute whey out of Robin Ventura
  • Elvis Andrus sneaking up behind Adrian Beltre to touch his head, and Beltre overreacting
  • The Dodgers winning the 2020 World Series in Arlington, over an AL team that, somehow, was not the Rangers
  • The famous seventh inning between the Rangers and Blue Jays in the ALDS that ended with Jose Bautista flat-out murdering a baseball and then flipping his bat
  • Game Six of the 2011 World Series, which is making me angry just thinking about it
  • The 2010 World Series, where the every-other-year Giants smothered the Rangers in their first WS appearance
  • Josh Hamilton winning the Home Run Derby in Yankee Stadium, after a lifetime of taking enough drugs to make Keith Richards say, “Maybe you should taper off, sonny.”
  • The team declaring bankruptcy, and Nolan Ryan buying them at a fire sale
  • Alex Rodriguez taking a quarter of a billion dollars to play in Arlington and then decamping for the Bronx at the first opportunity
  • Nolan Ryan throwing two no-hitters without taking anything stronger than Advil
  • Jose Canseco having that baseball bounce off his dome and over the wall in Toronto
  • The ridiculous jerseys they wore throughout the 1970’s, with RangerS or TexaS on the front
  • The Rangers throwing high-school hurler David Clyde to the wolves

That’s it. That’s the franchise history. Oh, there were any number of foolish trades in there, dumb decisions, players that did not pan out. But this is what people remember, and only a couple of those memories are good.

The Rangers already, of course, have an alternate nickname; they have been called “the Strangers” since I can remember, and they usually deserve it. But, you know, come on. What kind of alternate nickname is that?

I have been thinking about this, waiting for inspiration to strike. I like “the Punchers,” to honor Ryan’s epic beat-down of Ventura, but that’s sort of short for “Cowpunchers,” and that’s too close to “Cowboys.” (The Dallas Cowboys, which of course play in Arlington now, are sometimes called the “Pokes.” I am just throwing that out there.) I like the “Bush Leaguers,” after my old boss George W. Bush, but of course he hasn’t been involved with the team for years, and his greatest moment in baseball occurred while he was wearing a Yankees jacket, so there.

For years, while the Rangers played in the fortress-like Ballpark in Arlington, the local sports radio guys would say that Rangers home games were played in “The Temple.” I like calling the Rangers “the Templars,” but nobody would get it and they don’t play there anymore, and the Temple is now home to the Dallas XFL franchise, which just makes me physically ill.

So that leaves one option. The alternate nickname for the Rangers should be “the Walkers.”

poster for TV show "Walker: Texas Ranger" featuring Chuck Norris walking through saloon doors

Mike Schur said on the podcast that the Rangers “don’t have an identity.” Well, you know who has an identity? Chuck Norris, that’s who. All I am saying is that maybe he has a little identity to spare, to help create an unofficial nickname for a beleaguered American League franchise that has not won a World Series title since they were moved from Washington in 1972.

So, again, I am throwing this out there into the void, after having spent an hour writing this inane blog post about an unofficial nickname that almost nobody will ever use. “You wanna go see the Phillies tonight? The Walkers are in town.” “Oh, sure. Sounds fun.” Yeah.

If you read this all the way through, thank you.


Obvious Injustice

Mary Jo. C. v. N.Y. State & Local Ret. Sys., 707 F.3d 144 (2d Cir. 2013)

Why This Is Not a Law Review Article

You see — maybe you don’t — I write law review articles. I’ve written five so far, plus a couple of journal articles here and there, from when I was working in academia. I’m not going to bore you here in the opening paragraphs about what they are all about, because that’s exactly what would happen.

Two things you need to understand first. The first is that law review articles are exercises in vanity, and vanity is a sin. The only people on God’s green earth who need to write law review articles are legal academics who are trying to pad their respective curricula vitae. I was never a legal academic. I wrote the first law review article for the journal where I clerked in law school because they sent out a call for articles and I thought it would help my career. After that it was just vanity. I wrote the last article after I quit my last legal job; I was an overage grad student at Rutgers on an independent study project and I had to write a paper; why not try to get it published?

But that doesn’t mean that it was a good idea for me to write yet another law review article. To put it bluntly, you don’t get paid to write law review articles. They’re difficult to write, and the footnoting is hell. Not to mention that I’m not working as a lawyer anymore, and nobody I know is going to be impressed if I write any more law review articles. It’s a pointless, painful exercise at this point in my career.

And yet…

Okay. I’m doubling down on the vanity thing here. The second thing you need to understand is that the articles I’ve published have been in, um, well, not the top tier of law reviews. Like, y’know, the North Dakota Law Review. There is not one thing wrong with the North Dakota Law Review, and I am proud to have published there, but it ain’t Harvard. Not that I am shooting for Harvard, you understand. I would just love to have something in the Texas Law Review, just once. Or the Baylor Law Review. It would… mean something for me. (I don’t expect you to understand, why would you?)

I just figured I could write one more, a good article, a big article, and maybe I could get it published someplace with a big nationwide reputation. And I had an idea of what to write about. There was a case I’d read, years ago, which was what I thought of as a good case. Mary Jo C. was a very pro-plaintiff Americans with Disabilities Act case, out of the Second Circuit. There aren’t that many pro-plaintiff ADA cases. And the case had been published years ago; I figured there were a lot of cases since that had cited it, and I could spend many happy hours reading them and seeing how the other federal courts and state courts had dealt with the issues in that case.

I want to say it was September 2020 when I started thinking about turning the Mary Jo C. case into a law review article. I had just gotten a new job, and so didn’t have to spend every evening and weekend scouring the job sites. I was locked down, so I had the time, and I needed a new project. I logged on to my Rutgers alumni account and accessed the Westlaw online legal database. And… come to find out that the free Westlaw access I had when I was a grad student was no longer available. Blast and damnation. I could access Westlaw, but I had to access it from the Rutgers wireless network, and that meant I had to schlep to campus, and that wasn’t happening. (I am not the sort of person who is going to pay for Westlaw access to write an article for which I am not ever going to see so much as one thin dime, so that was out.)

So I set the idea aside for the time being — and used my free time to write a novel, as it happened — and didn’t come back to the idea until March 2022. By that time I’d already gone through COVID-19, so I wasn’t worried about catching anything. It was a fine sunny Saturday. My wife had taken our daughters to see her hairstylist in South Jersey. I had a free day and had nothing better to do than to schlep over to New Brunswick and download what was probably a hundred or so law cases from the last few years. Why not?

I didn’t do it. I took a nap instead.

It wasn’t too much longer before I decided maybe the best way to approach the Mary Jo C. decision was by easy stages. I re-read the Second Circuit case. I took a closer look at the lower-court decision. And I realized that when I’d looked at the case before, I’d just looked at the holding. I hadn’t taken a good look at the reasoning. I hadn’t really taken a good look at the process.

What I realized is that what was going on in Mary Jo. C. v. N.Y. State & Local Ret. Sys., 707 F.3d 144 (2d Cir. 2013) wasn’t just your average ADA Title II case. I realized that this was a case that implicated deeper policy questions about the role of people with disabilities in society, the ongoing stigma of mental illness, and the way that society understands basic issues of fairness and justice. It was too good a story to be turned into a boring, flat law review article that would sit for generations on dusty law library shelves.

All I had to do was figure out how to tell it.

The Remedying of this Situation

Exterior of Kingsboro Psychiatric Hospital, Brooklyn, New York
Kingsboro Psychiatric Hospital, Brooklyn, New York

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a psychiatric hospital. Probably you haven’t. I have been lucky enough that every time I’ve walked into a psychiatric hospital, I was able to leave and go home. When I was working as a lawyer, I had several clients who were in different psychiatric hospitals — Ancora in South Jersey, Trenton across town from my office, Greystone up in Morris County. Spend a couple of hours in one of those places, and when you walk out, the world turns back into Technicolor. The air smells sweeter, the sky is blue again.

Let me put it another way. There aren’t many large state psychiatric hospitals left, but there are still some, and they’re hard places. They’re oppressive. They can be dangerous. They’re intimidating. And what maybe you don’t realize is that they’re also difficult places to work.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, talking about evil, that in the Managerial Age, the greatest evil is done “in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.” If you work in this kind of office — I do myself — imagine walking out a perfectly reasonable office door and stepping into a literal madhouse. The offices at Greystone are like that; you’re not ever more than ten feet away (and a locked door) from someone with mental illness so serious that they can’t care for themselves. The contrast is… jarring isn’t the word for it. And the white-collar staff, you understand, sits in their quiet little cubicles, and all the time, right on the other side of the wall, is the modern-day Bedlam.

Well, Louis Callace wasn’t a white-collar anything. He worked at Kingsboro Psychiatric Hospital in Brooklyn for twelve years until he was fired in February 1984. (Kingsboro is still open for business as of 2022.) Callace was an assistant cook when he was fired. Twelve years as an assistant cook in a psychiatric hospital is not anyone’s idea of an easy job. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that he developed symptoms of mental illness himself.

The one good thing about working twelve years as an assistant cook at a New York state psychiatric hospital is that you’re eligible for state disability retirement benefits. There was just one catch. The rule at that time — the same rule that’s still in force, and would play a big role in the Mary Jo C. case — was that you had to file for disability retirement benefits within ninety days of your last day of work. Louis Callace didn’t do that. He didn’t get around to filing until March 1985, more than a year after he was fired. The State of New York, in its august majesty, wasn’t in the mood to cut Callace a break. They denied his application for disability retirement benefits. Callace filed for a fair hearing, claiming that his mental illness kept him from filing on time. He lost, and appealed through the New York state court system.

The case was assigned to an appellate judge named Norman Harvey. The official bio says that Judge Harvey was an Air Force veteran who completed 74 missions over German-held territory. If you know anything about the air war in Europe, 74 missions is just an unGodly amount of missions. So we’re talking about someone who was a very brave and tough individual, someone who had seen a hell of a lot in their lives.

I want to just highlight the last paragraph of the decision here:

While the result of this case is an obvious injustice, particularly in light of petitioner’s 12 years of service and the uncontradicted psychiatric testimony, it is clear that Retirement and Social Security Law § 62 does not provide a waiver provision similar to the Federal statute. Nor has petitioner pointed to any authority which would allow the Comptroller or this court to carve out such a waiver. Accordingly, the remedying of this situation rests with the Legislature.

You caught that first part of that first sentence, right?

Okay, so imagine you’re Louis Callace, struggling with mental illness, about to lose his one source of income for the rest of his life, and you hear the judge say, “While the result of this case is an obvious injustice.” Hell, imagine you’re you. Doesn’t matter what kind of case it is. The judge is up there, in his black robes, and he’s telling you that you lost, and that it’s an obvious injustice, sorry, go bother those folks over there in Albany and get them to change the law.

What the hell do you do with that? And how do we accept that as a society?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Justice

I don’t want to shock you or anything here, but there is a very good argument that the American judiciary is not really about what we think of as justice.

I mean, you’d think so. The person who is nominally in charge of the whole thing from an administrative point of view is known as the Chief Justice. The other nine appointees to the Supreme Court are Associate Justices. There is a whole agency in the federal government called the Department of Justice. You kind of get the idea that what the entire process is there for is, you know, justice. But that’s not quite correct.

The leading modern philosopher on justice is the late John Rawls, Harvard professor and author. Rawls developed a theory he called perfect procedural justice, which basically means that in a perfect world, you set up procedural systems that always reach the right outcome. Rawls illustrates as follows, in A Theory of Justice:

Toillustrate the former, consider the simplest case of fair division. A number of men are to divide a cake, assuming that the fair division is an equal done, what procedure, if any, will give this outcome? Technicalities aside, the obvious solution is to have one man divide the cake and get the last piece, the others being allowed their pick before him. He will divide the cake equally, since in this way he assures for himself the largest share possible.

There is, I submit, a reason why Rawls picked this example, because there are not a lot of other examples of perfect procedural justice in this sad old world. Case in point; I have twin teenage daughters who are well-provided for in every conventional sense, so they spend their days racking their brains to prove that some element of their lives is unfair. The most common complaint is that they have to share a bathroom, and — oh, the horror — this means that one of them has to take a shower first in the evening, while the other gets to laze around and read for ten extra minutes. In order to deal with this horrifying injustice, we have determined that one child will take her shower first on odd-numbered days, and the other child will take her shower first on even-number days. Perfect procedural justice? Oh, no. Not on six days out of the year, where the odd-numbered child must take her shower first on the thirty-first of the month and then the first. (Our response to this has been as follows: shut up and get in the shower, kid.) Perfect procedural justice is only going to be found in the rare situations where there’s a simple rule that everyone understands that can’t be misapplied.

So besides perfect procedural justice, Rawls identified imperfect procedural justice (which is what we get most of the time, more about this in a minute) and pure procedural justice, which is what you get when everyone agrees that there’s a fair procedure, even when the procedure guarantees that you never get a just result. (I think this is where Rawls goes off the rails a bit.) Pure procedural justice is like the old rule in the NFL that the winner of the coin toss in overtime got the ball first; it wasn’t generally seen as fair in an overtime game between the Saints and Vikings that if the Saints won the toss, and scored, that it was the end of the game. Pure procedural justice doesn’t have to be fair; it just has to use a fair process to achieve some kind of result.

Rawls uses the specific example of a criminal trial to illustrate imperfect procedural justice, and this is the point I am trying to make here. What the justice system in America is trying to do is to try to get the procedure as fair as possible, and if that happens, you’re more likely to get a just outcome.

Graphic showing the four elements of procedural justice: voice (all are given a chance to tell their side of the story), trustworthiness (decision makers convey trustworthy motives), respect (all are treated with respect and dignity), and neutrality (decisions are unbiased and guided by transparent reasoning)
This illustration is from a Yale Law School website about procedural justice; the site doesn’t mention John Rawls, which is pure anti-Harvard bias on the part of the Yalies, don’t let anyone tell you any different. (I went to Baylor and don’t really have a dog in this fight, just sayin’.)

Legal scholars have expanded the concept of imperfect procedural justice (which Rawls gives short shrift to) to include the concepts in the illustration above. Taking these concepts and applying them to the Callace decision: Was he treated with respect? I suppose so, hard to say. Can we trust Judge Harvey to make a fair decision? Sure. Was Callace given a voice? Yes. Was the decision neutral? No doubt. (A biased judge would have tossed out the law and given the decision to Callace, rules be damned.) There isn’t a procedural flaw in the Callace case that I can see. But the result was an obvious injustice; even the judge said so. (More about this a little later.)

The point of the justice system is not — despite its name — to provide justice, but to make sure that the procedures are fair, in the hopes that imperfect procedural justice will occur. Justice and procedural justice are very different things, as Louis Callace could tell you. The difficulty in looking at the Callace case as an example of imperfect procedural justice is that the problem with this case is not that the procedure is either fair or unfair, but that the law was unfair — and as Judge Harvey rightly pointed out, it’s not the job of the justice system to fix unfair laws. And in fact, the New York law that doesn’t allow for any exceptions to the rule that you have to file for disability retirement benefits within ninety days hasn’t changed. It’s still on the books. What did change was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 — five years too late to help Louis Callace, who never got his disability retirement benefits.

I wanted to reach out to Louis Callace, if I could, to get his opinion on the case. Unfortunately, he died on September 11, 2001. (In Orlando, of natural causes — just a coincidence.)

A Question of Stigma

Entrance to Central Islip Public Library, Long Island
Central Islip Public Library, Islip, New York

We don’t know a lot about who Mary Jo C. was, and that is by design. She was a librarian, working in central Long Island. She had experienced mental illness since she was a teenager. She worked as a librarian from 1986 until she was fired in November 2006. During this time, she moved around to several different After she was fired from Central Islip Public Library, Mary Jo C. approached a legal clinic at Touro Law School for representation, and was accepted.

The lawyer representing Mary Jo C. from Touro was William Brooks, and he made two decisions early on in the case. First, he redacted the plaintiff’s last name in the complaint. Second, he did not identify the specific mental illness that she experienced, and did not provide any details about whatever behaviors that she may have experienced that led to her being fired. (This was a mistake, as we’ll see.) The purpose of this was to protect the plaintiff’s privacy, but was also, in my view, done to mitigate the societal stigma against mental illness.

The problem with not providing this information, from my (admittedly selfish) position, is that it leaves a lot of room for speculation. My best guess here is that Mary Jo C. might have had schizophrenia, and that she was at some point institutionalized. But I don’t know that, and frankly it’s inappropriate for me to even guess.

Whatever the real reason might have been, the facts are that Mary Jo C. missed two important deadlines. The first was the same deadline that Louis Callace missed; Mary Jo C. also failed to file for her disability retirement benefit within the 90–day window after she was fired. The second was the 180-day filing deadline for filing a disability employment discrimination case with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

This led Brooks to include two causes of action in the complaint. First, the complaint named the New York State and Local Retirement System, alleging that the ADA required the state to modify the 90-day rule to allow Mary Jo C. to file after the deadline. Second, the Central Islip Public Library was included in the complaint for employment discrimination under Title II of the ADA. This was ultimately unsuccessful (and is the holding for which the Mary Jo C. case is most well known for); both the lower court and the Second Circuit would go on to rule that you can’t sue for employment discrimination under Title II (the part of the ADA requiring state and local governments to not discriminate), you can only sue under Title I (the part of the ADA that prohibits most employment discrimination on the basis of disability). Got it? Okay, won’t bring that part of it up again.

The first filing by the defense in this case was a motion to dismiss. This is a standard part of pretty much every civil case in the US. The motion to dismiss is for cases where the plaintiff has, according to the defendant, failed “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” It works like this: the defendant is essentially saying, “Even if everything the plaintiff says is true, the plaintiff still can’t win.”

One of the first things you learn in law school is that the jury decides the facts of the case, and the judge decides the law of the case. The motion to dismiss is the perfect example of how this works. The motion to dismiss presupposes that everything the plaintiff says is correct. The plaintiff doesn’t have to prove that the facts stated in the complaint are correct at this stage; that would be for a jury to determine if the case ever gets that far. What the defendant has to show is that, if we pretend for the moment that everything the plaintiff says is true — even if the plaintiff is wrong, mistaken, or lying — that the plaintiff can’t win as a matter of law. And because that’s a judicial decision, the motion to dismiss means that the judge decides the outcome of the case before it ever gets to a jury.

The judge in this case, by the way, was Sandra Feuerstein, a George W. Bush appointee who held the unique distinction of being a judge and also having her mother be a judge. She filed her opinion on May 11, 2011. The first stage of the analysis — which is a very common issue in ADA cases across the board — was whether Mary Jo C. had a disability.

I mean, if you are just a normal person sitting out there, reading this on your phone instead of playing Ticket to Ride or something, you might think, “Well, this is someone who has had mental illness for years, and supposedly got fired for it, you’d think she had a disability, why are they litigating this?” A good question. First part of the answer: the plaintiff’s disability always gets litigated. Unlike most other federal civil rights laws, the ADA only applies if you can show you have a disability. Showing that the plaintiff doesn’t have a disability is a quick and easy slam-dunk win for defendants. Second, the ADA definition of disability is tricky anyway — and it’s even trickier if you have a mental illness.

Under the ADA, you have to show that you have an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Brooks, in trying to limit the information about Mary Jo C.’s disability, just asserted that she had mental illness. In drafting the complaint, Brooks didn’t go through the process of identifying which major life activity was affected, or whether there was a substantial limitation. (Generally speaking, the “major life activity” that’s affected in mental illness is “thinking,” and it’s harder to show a substantial limitation in terms of thinking than it is for, say, seeing for a person who is blind, or walking for a person with paralysis who uses a wheelchair.)

So that was bad enough. Judge Feuerstein then discussed the main issue of the case — the 90-day deadline. Brooks argued in this case that the State of New York had a responsibility under the ADA to provide a reasonable modification to the rule to accommodate Mary Jo C.’s mental illness. And Brooks had a strong argument that a modification could have been provided. As it turned out, Mary Jo C.’s brother had contacted the comptroller’s office, asking for an extension. The request was rejected, but the comptroller said that Central Islip Public Library could file on her behalf, allowing her to meet the deadline. (Did the good people at the library take pity on Mary Jo C. and file the paperwork for her so she could get her disability retirement? Reader, they did no such thing.)

The New York Attorney General’s office, representing the august majesty of the Empire State, had a simple argument. The 90-day deadline wasn’t just a rule that could be modified. It was the law of the State of New York. The ADA, the AG’s lawyers reasoned, only required a reasonable modification. For the state to ignore its own law would not be reasonable, therefore, the state was within its rights to tell Mary Jo C. to buzz off.

An Erie Coincidence

I have to tell a little story here. I was in first year at the University of Texas Law School in 1991. I ended up going to a Federalist Society meeting — the only one I ever went to; not sure why. Anyway. All I remember about the speaker, whoever he was, was that he mentioned the Erie decision. The Erie decision dates back to 1938 and goes like this: sometimes federal judges have to interpret state law, and when they do that, they have to follow the decisions from state courts. (If there’s not a decision on point, the federal judge has to guess what a state might do.)

So it’s the next morning, and I’m sitting in the back row for whatever first-year law school class I’m in — don’t remember which one — and the professor asks the question, “Why does the federal court follow state law here?” I pop my hand up. “The Erie decision,” says I. One hundred heads turn my way.

I was not, you understand, known as a legal scholar at that time. It must have been, for my fellow students, like hearing your dog spout the Pythagorean Theorem. And it did not, sorry to say, make me very popular, as I had — rather unintentionally — shown them all up.

All right then. So Judge Feuerstein had an Erie problem. She had to look at the state substantive law to make a decision. And there is only one case on point — that of Louis Callace. The Callace case is very clear; the New York law cannot be waived. Judge Feuerstein cited the Callace decision for the proposition that the 90-day deadline may not be extended or waived by the State.

What Judge Feuerstein does not do is point out that the author of the Callace decision said that the outcome as an “obvious injustice.” She might have asked a very basic question here; whether the Erie doctrine should apply in cases where the state court has done something manifestly unjust. She did not. What she did was to throw out Mary Jo C.’s case with prejudice, arguing that she was not a “qualified person with a disability” because she was not entitled to have the New York law modified.

After reading her decision, I wanted to contact Judge Feuerstein and ask her, now that ten years has passed, if she thought she had done the right thing. Unfortunately, not too long before I started working on this project, Judge Feuerstein was killed in April 2021 in a hit-and-run accident in Florida. The alleged driver, arrested shortly afterwards, was a young woman named Snape. When she was arrested, she claimed to be Harry Potter. You can’t make this stuff up.

I Become A Pollster

When I look at both the Callace decision and the first Mary Jo C. decision, it doesn’t take me long to reach the conclusion that both cases were badly decided. But I spent a lot of time as a plaintiff’s counsel in these kind of cases. Of course I’m going to think this way.

I remembered the following bit from Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels:

Then he talked to me for a while[about slavery], and he was trying to get through to me, just as I had tried with the minister. The difference was that this was a brilliant man. He explained that the minister was a moral man, kind to his children, and that the minister believed every word he said, just as I did, and then he said, ‘My young friend, what if it is you who are wrong?’ I had one of those moments when you feel that if the rest of the world is right, then you yourself have gone mad. Because I was really thinking of killing [the minister], wiping him off the earth, and it was then I realized for the first time that if it was necessary to kill them, then I would kill them, and something at the time said: You cannot be utterly right. And there is still something every now and then which says, ‘Yes, but what if you are wrong?’ ”

So maybe I was wrong. Maybe not everyone else thinks that these plaintiffs were treated unfairly. We live in a society where you can’t get people to agree that water is wet. I had to check whether I was maybe a little bit turned around on this, and the best way to do that was to become a pollster.

The way that you do that is through the Amazon Mechanical Turk program, which will (for a very small amount of money) allow you to set up whatever survey you want, and a good-sized sample of people will answer it in exchange for a nickel. I set up a one-question survey:

Carolyn worked as a state employee for twenty years. She became ill and was fired from her job. Carolyn was eligible for disability retirement, but because of her illness, she was unable to complete the application form within the three-month deadline. Because she missed the deadline, the state agency she worked for denied her application for disability retirement. Carolyn appealed this decision, but was turned down. Carolyn currently does not receive any disability retirement benefits because of this decision. Was Carolyn treated fairly by the state agency?

bar graph showing 25% saying Carolyn was treated fairly and 75% saying that she was treated unfairly
Again, you can’t make this stuff up.

I was, well, a little surprised by the result, which was a 75/25 split. A quarter of the responders thought that the fictional Carolyn was treated fairly? That couldn’t be right, could it? If I had phrased it as a political question, okay, maybe there’s a political bias against people like Carolyn. But I didn’t.

So I decided to try again. I made two changes. I included that Carolyn had a mental illness, and I asked people to say why they made their decision. The result was very similar, a 73/27 split, with slightly more people saying Carolyn was being treated fairly. Most of the comments were from people who thought there was unfairness. But the other comments (outside of the mean one that called poor Carolyn a “wack-a-doo”) followed two lines of argument. The first was that Carolyn had the opportunity to get help from someone:

  • She had three months to take care of it or ask someone to help her do it.
  • I understand that Carolyn has mental illness. But unless she was in the hospital, she should have been able to find help filling out the form.
  • She had time to fill out her disability application. If she was unable to do so, she could have had someone (HR office) help her fill it out.
  • Carolyn was given 3 months to complete and if they already reviewed the case and said she had the ample amount of time, then regardless of her mental disability that is her responsibility.

What I did not include in the question is the fact that Mary Jo C.’s brother did try to help her — and that her former employer refused to lift a finger to address the situation. So that sorts those people. But the other folks had a different issue:

  • She knew that there was a 3 month deadline to complete the application, and should have adjusted accordingly to compensate for it.
  • She had every opportunity to get her application filled out and I seriously doubt her mental health issue was so severe she couldn’t fill out an application in 3 months,
  • Because as per rule Carolyn need to apply for retirement benefits within three months period which she failed to complete.
  • She missed the clearly stated due date.
  • They had rules set in place, and she did not follow them.
  • The rules are the rules that everyone must follow.

The Rules Are The Rules That Everyone Must Follow

I am going to talk about baseball here for a little while if that’s not too much trouble. (If you don’t like baseball and want to skip this part, I understand.)

Here’s the situation. October 15, 2015. Rogers Center, Toronto. The deciding Game 5 between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers, American League Division Series. The winner goes on to the next round, the loser goes home. Top of the seventh at Rogers Center, game tied 2–2. Two out. Rougned Odor of the Rangers on third, Shin-Soo Choo at bat. Aaron Sanchez, a second-year starter pushed into relief duty for the playoffs, is on the mound and has worked Choo to a 1–2 count. He throws a 94 mph fastball over the plate, but the pitch sails high. The umpire calls it a ball. The count is 2–2.

Okay, maybe you didn’t get or understand everything in the proceeding paragraph. Doesn’t matter. What you need to understand is that when the pitcher throws the ball to the catcher (assuming the catcher, you know, actually catches the ball and it’s not put into play), the catcher then tosses the ball back to the pitcher. This happens a hundred times a game, more or less. It’s a completely routine action.

Then this happens:

Maybe you skipped past the video, so I’ll explain it. Three things happen, one after the other:

  • Martin, the catcher, attempts to throw the ball back to Sanchez, the pitcher, like you would normally do. Except that this time, the ball glances off the upraised bat of Shin-Soo Choo, the batter, and dribbles out towards the infield.
  • The runner on third, Rougned Odor, takes a second to process the situation, and then sprints down the line and crosses home plate before the Blue Jays infield can throw him out.
  • The home-plate umpire, Dale Scott, sees what Odor is doing, walks out from behind the catcher, waves his arms and points in the direction of third base.

So here’s the situation. Dale Scott, and the entire Toronto fan base, was of the opinion that the ball should have been called dead once Martin caught it. Exactly two people in the stadium knew the rule — Harold Reynolds, the color commentator in the Fox Sports booth, and Jeff Bannister, manager of the Rangers. (I don’t credit Odor for knowing the rule — maybe he did, it’s not clear, but I think he was acting on instinct or directions from the dugout.) Bannister comes out to argue that Odor’s run — which, as you may remember, was the go-ahead run in an elimination playoff game — should count.

So Bannister goes out, tells Scott what the rule is and the umpires huddle. They decide that, yes, the ball was live and Odor’s run should count. Bannister pumps his fist and heads back to the dugout. Toronto manager John Gibbons storms out from his dugout to confront the umps. Odor gets high fives from his teammates in the Texas dugout. The score is now 3–2 Rangers.

There is a longer version of the video that goes on for ten more minutes, showing the reaction of the Blue Jays fans in the stands. If you watch the whole thing, keep in mind that these are Canadians. Nice, polite Canadians, who are going absolutely batshit over this. Why are they doing that? I don’t think that it’s just because it was a call that went against their team.

I think that the absolutely apoplectic reaction of the Toronto fans was because they thought a basic rule was being violated. Keep in mind that nobody (other than the announcer and the Rangers manager) knew the rule. This is in part because the rule is completely obscure. It’s also because nobody had ever seen this before. Joe Posnanski covered the game for NBC:

Because: NOBODY HAS EVER SEEN THIS BEFORE. One-hundred-fifty years of baseball, we’ve seen throws kill birds, we’ve seen relievers brought to the plate in little cars shaped like baseball caps, we’ve seen a pitcher throw a no-hitter on LSD, we’ve seen a 3-foot-7 person draw a walk, we’ve seen closers choke stars, but WE’VE NEVER SEEN THIS BEFORE.

The rules, as my commenter said, are the rules that everyone must follow. And when that didn’t happen — when it appeared that the umpires had thrown the rules out the window — people reacted. They reacted poorly.

Why? Because, as people, we like rules. We like what lawyers like to call “bright-line rules.” We like it when other people follow the rules — even if we’re always willing to give ourselves an exemption. All the Toronto fans in the stands thought there was a bright-line rule that the ball in this case was dead — not just because it benefited their team. That’s the logical thing to expect. Even the umpire thought so. And then when the rule was disregarded, the nearest thing to a riot broke out. It wasn’t that their team got a bad call. That happens all the time. It was that an injustice had been done. The rules weren’t being followed.

And that’s just what the commenters said in the above poll. The 90-day rule was a bright-line rule, and poor Carolyn didn’t follow it. Might these people have some sympathy for people like Louis Callace and Mary Jo C.? Most of the people in the poll did, but a quarter of them put the rules over whatever sympathies they might have had. I am not saying that these people are bad people. They’re not. They’d just prefer to see the rules followed, and if you can’t follow the rules, for whatever reason, too bad for you.

Oh, and as much as it pains me to say this as a Texas Rangers fan, in the bottom of the inning, this happened:

Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays hits the game-winning home run and flips his bat in celebration.
You know how many playoff games the Texas Rangers have won since this happened? None. Even the Dallas Cowboys have won at least one playoff game since October 2015. The Rangers are 0–3 in the playoffs and are in the middle of another losing season. I will remind you again that this essay is called “Obvious Injustice” for a reason.

Fundamental Alterations

So the Mary Jo C. case was appealed, and found its way to the Second Circuit.

So I was giving a speech one time to a group of people I thought were lawyers. Turns out all the lawyers in the office (no fools they) bailed on the speech, and my audience didn’t understand what I meant when I was talking about the different circuits. So a brief explanation: the intermediate federal appeals courts (the ones between the district courts and the Supreme Court) are divided into twelve regions. The First Circuit is in Boston, the Second Circuit is in New York, etc. etc. There are eleven Circuits plus the DC Circuit in Washington. Most cases at the circuit court level are heard by three-judge panels. The Mary Jo C. case was heard by two circuit-court judges and a district court judge (“sitting by designation,” which is not all that uncommon).

The judge who authored the Mary Jo C. opinion is Robert Sack, a Clinton appointee who is now the senior judge for the Second Circuit. He started out his analysis by asking an interesting question: so just how important are the rules we follow, anyway?

Tom Cruise arguing a case in “A Few Good Men.”

Lt. Kendrick: Lance Corporal Dawson disobeyed an order!

Kaffee: Yeah, but it wasn’t a real order, was it? After all, it’s peace time. He wasn’t being asked to secure a hill or advance on a beachhead. I mean, surely a Marine of Dawson’s intelligence can be trusted to determine on his own which are the really important orders and which orders might, say, be morally questionable?

So that’s the question. Is the 90-day deadline enshrined in New York law a “real” rule that has to be followed no matter what? In the text of the ADA, there’s a concept called “fundamental alteration,” which basically says that there are some rules that are so important that you can’t change them, but any other rule can be changed to accommodate a disability. The most obvious example is the driver’s license; the ADA does not mandate that a state has to give a driver’s license to someone who is blind and can’t drive. But since the driver’s license is often used as an identification card, the ADA does mandate that the state has to provide an alternative identification card for people who can’t drive due to a disability; that’s not a “fundamental alteration” to the driver’s licensing function.

You may be familiar with the concept of Chesterton’s fence:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’

This is, without putting too fine a point on it, what the “fundamental alteration” analysis is all about. Let’s assume here that Chesterton’s fence does more than block a road; it denies access to someone in a wheelchair who can’t get around the fence. Under the ADA, the fence has to come down if it’s an architectural barrier that results in unfair discrimination, unless pulling the fence down is a “fundamental alteration” — i.e., there’s a good reason for the fence to be there, whether that is obvious or not. (Or an “undue burden,” if the cost of pulling the fence down is prohibitive in some way.)

The precedent that Judge Sack looked at was the famous Supreme Court decision in PGA v. Martin, in which the Supreme Court struck down the rule that professional golfers had to walk the course to accommodate Casey Martin, who could not walk the course without a great deal of pain and was requesting to use a golf cart to participate on the PGA Tour. The Supreme Court found that the rule requiring players to walk the course “is not an essential attribute of the game itself.”

This led to a classic dissent by Justice Scalia:

But the rules are the rules. They are (as in all games) entirely arbitrary, and there is no basis on which anyone–not even the Supreme Court of the United States–can pronounce one or another of them to be “nonessential” if the rulemaker (here the PGA TOUR) deems it to be essential.

The rules are the rules! But the rules are entirely arbitrary. And if the rules are entirely arbitrary, and result in discrimination — if not, as we’ve been talking about, obvious injustice — then why do we need to follow them? The 90-day deadline, even though it is enshrined in New York law, is completely arbitrary. There’s no good reason for the state to require forms to be in within 90 days as opposed to 91 days or 92 days or 93 days. Is there? Is there something so magical, so ineffable, about the 90-day rule that anyone who applies on Day 91 is required by law to never claim the disability retirement benefits that they earned over a decade or more of work?

If the rules are the rules, Judge Sack reasoned, and all of the rules are equally important (no matter how arbitrary they are), and all of them always have to be followed, this “seems to us to run counter to the ADA’s broad remedial purpose by allowing states to insist that whatever legal requirements they may set are never subject to reasonable modification under Title II of the ADA.”

What’s more, as Judge Sack pointed out, the state of New York had already waived the 90-day rule for anyone who had been impacted by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. So if the rules aren’t the rules for 9/11 survivors, why should they be the rules for people with mental illness? Why not make the same sort of accommodation for Mary Jo C.?

A Clear and Comprehensive National Mandate

So the one time in my life I got called for jury duty, I was trying like hell to get off the panel. The case was a drunk-driving case involving a rich defendant who was obviously guilty, and the defense attorneys announced early on that they would extend the trial by any means necessary to delay the defendant’s inevitable prison stay. (That case is still being litigated, twelve years later.)

I am a civic-minded kind of guy, but I am not a patient person and there was no way in this world I was going to hang around for this kind of nonsense, not when I had made up my mind that the defendant was guilty. So I told the trial judge the truth; I had a pending case before the Appellate Division and could be called in to give oral argument at any time. This… did not go over well. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the Appellate Division could go hang.

The entire point of appellate courts is to tell trial courts what they got wrong. That’s all they do. This does not make appellate judges popular with trial judges. Trial judges make lots of decisions during the course of any case, and of course every decision is second-guessed by somebody.

In the lower court, Judge Feuerstein’s analysis in Mary Jo C. stopped at the finding that the 90-day deadline was New York law and that it would not be reasonable for the state to disregard its own law. Judge Sack took the analysis one step further. “We must inquire whether Congress, when it enacted Title II’s reasonable modification provision, intended to require modification of state laws under certain circumstances, thereby preempting them, or whether it instead intended the reasonable modification provision to stop short of encroaching on state laws.”

What Judge Sack means here by “preempting” is to say that federal law trumps state law when there’s a conflict. And that’s true even when there isn’t exactly a direct conflict. It was not as though the New York legislature, when it passed the law creating the 90-day deadline, was rubbing its collective hands together and chuckling to itself about how it was totally going to screw over Louis Callace and Mary Jo C. They probably never gave it a second thought. But the conflict isn’t between the laws, it’s between the New York law and the purpose of the ADA. Judge Sack noted that the purpose of the ADA was to implement a “clear and comprehensive national mandate” to stop discrimination against people with disabilities. If the ADA were to be subject to the vagaries of state law, “the ADA would be powerless to work any reasonable modification in any requirement imposed by state law, no matter how trivial the requirement and no matter how minimal the costs of doing so.”

What’s more, if Judge Feuerstein’s opinion was followed, “any state could adopt requirements imposing unreasonable obstacles to [people with disabilities], and when haled into court could evade the antidiscrimination mandate of the ADA merely by explaining that the state authority considered possible modifications and rejected them.” (Judge Sack is here quoting Crowder v. Kitagawa, a Ninth Circuit case where the court struck down a Hawaii law which put unreasonable restrictions on guide dogs coming into the state). Let’s suppose New York had a law that said there was a 90-day deadline to file for disability benefits, unless you had mental illness, then it was just 45 days. That would be clearly discriminatory, wouldn’t it? If New York could pass that law (which it could), the only recourse left for the people who were discriminated against would be that it would be preempted by the ADA.

As for the last issue in Judge Feuerstein’s opinion, that Mary Jo C. did not have a disability, Judge Sack reasoned that the only reason why Judge Feuerstein made this decision was because she thought the rest of the plaintiff’s claim was futile. Accordingly, he allowed Mary Jo C., on remand, to amend the complaint to show that she could meet the ADA disability definition.

Stipulated and Agreed

Exterior of US courthouse in Islip
U.S. Federal Courthouse, Islip, NY

Although it would be nice to think that Judge Sack’s opinion ended the Mary Jo C. case, it was sent back to Judge Feuerstein on remand. What she made of the Second Circuit’s decision is not recorded. What we do know is that, four and a half years after the complaint was filed, and a year and a half after the Second Circuit decision, the case of Mary Jo C. v. New York State and Local Retirement Sys. was settled. Mary Jo C. agreed to dismiss the case, and the state comptroller agreed to deem her previously filed application for disability benefits as timely filed. And Mary Jo C. agreed that the state had not admitted that it “has in any manner or way violated plaintiff’s rights, or the rights of any other person or entity.”

So was this justice, at long last? Technically, it wasn’t even the end of the case — the issue of attorney’s fees lingered for quite some time afterwards. Certainly Mary Jo C. got more justice than Louis Callace did, thanks to the ADA. But was it worth it?

Berkeley law professor Malcolm Feeley, in 1992, wrote a book called The Process is the Punishment, which was about how the criminal judicial process itself was a form of punishment for those accused of a crime. Having to go through four and a half years of litigation to get a just outcome may qualify as imperfect procedural justice, but it is no less imperfect for all that.

Having said that, the lasting impact of cases like Mary Jo C. is not just the benefits that they provide to the winning party. Having a strong Second Circuit opinion that state law is not a safe harbor against ADA reasonable modification requests is something that helps every future litigant with a similar claim. Every person with a disability going forward with a claim against a state will be helped to make their case because Mary Jo C. and her attorney stuck it out and got a positive decision.

Of course, that leads to the question, “Just how much good has the Mary Jo C. case done to help ADA plaintiffs over the last ten years?” And that’s a question that calls out for further legal research. Something like a law review article.

Which I suppose, now, I have to write after all.


Hey, Can We Stop Fighting Just Long Enough So Both of Us Can Get Off This Narrow Metal Catwalk?

Just hear me out for a second, please, All right? Tell you what. I’ll put down my shovel, and you put down that rusty pipe, and we’ll talk, okay? Just talk.

And there are, like, sharp edges on all that machinery down there, too, you think about that?

I know you want to keep fighting, and I understand that. We’re not going to settle our differences any other way. But, you know, we are up here on this narrow metal catwalk. And I’m just a little concerned about what might happen to the loser of this fight.

This used to be a chemical factory, did you know that? Mr. Rosemont bought it at auction about six years ago. He used like three phony corporations based out of the Cayman Islands to keep it off his balance sheet, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that whatever’s in those giant chemical vats right under us probably isn’t any too stable.

I don’t know if the chemicals are corrosive or not. What I do know is that this is a very narrow catwalk, and it’s made of metal, and whatever vapors there are may have corroded the metal somewhat. Not to mention that the roof is maybe a little leaky, and there’s probably some rust. And I don’t think that these railings are really up to code.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mr. Rosemont killed your partner. I get it.

You want revenge. Sure you do. I am not saying any different. I am saying that I should take that staircase and go down to the first floor, and you should take that staircase behind you, and we’ll meet in that big open area over there, and we can start fighting again.

I am not saying Mr. Rosemont’s not a bad guy. Because he is. I mean, he’s a meth dealer. But he takes care of his people, you know what I mean? I got a 401(k) and dental insurance, thanks to him, and if you get lucky with that pipe and bash my head in, I get workers’ comp.

Yes, you could bash my head in just as easily over here. But then I end up falling in one of those vats. And maybe I grab at you and we both fall down there. That’s going to be messy. We can do this just as easily down there as up here, don’t you think?

If it means that much to you, we can fight over there, by the forge. There’s a big pool of molten metal or something. I don’t even know why we have that running, to be honest with you. We’re making meth here, not doing blacksmithing. But Mr. Rosemont pays the utility bills, so what do I care?

No, I’m not just going to let you take Mr. Rosemont out. Look, you probably don’t remember this, but you killed my partner.

Yes, you did. You shot him in the guts with an arrow from a crossbow. You said, “Next time, don’t cross me.” Ha. Real funny. Wasn’t real funny when I had to carry his coffin at his funeral. His name was Mike, and he had a wife and three kids. You think of that?

So, yeah, I want to knock your brains out with this shovel just as much as you want to shove that pipe up my ass. I am not saying that we shouldn’t do that. All I am saying is that maybe we go downstairs first, okay?

I’m gonna take a step back, and then you’re gonna take a step back. Then two steps, and then three steps, and then we’re both at the head of our respective staircases. Then we both race down to see who gets to the ground floor first. You can even slide down the bannister if you want. I don’t even care.

Why can’t we do the sensible thing here? I mean, I don’t even know how we got up here. I think I was thinking about dropping that light fixture on your head, but that thing is bolted in there pretty good. I’d need twenty minutes with an impact wrench to even get it loose.

No? Really? I knew you were a bastard, but I didn’t know you were such a jerk. Okay. Here goes. You want a piece of me? Come on. Let’s do this. Let’s have this senseless, violent confrontation here, on this rickety piece-of-crap catwalk, suspended over a chemical plant, with open vats of God-knows-what kind of horrible corrosive shit down there. Let’s go. Show me what you’re made of.

Okay then? Okay. Now we’re talking. See you downstairs, chump. Don’t drop your pipe on the way down.


Just How Effective is Twitter in Selling Independent Books?


My name is Curtis Edmonds, and I am an independent author and CEO of one of the world’s tiniest publishing companies, Scary Hippopotamus Books.

We’re scary like that.

Selling books online, you guys, is really, really hard. It’s difficult. I am not saying that it’s impossible, because I’ve sold some books, after all, but it’s not easy and nobody should think that it is.

There’s really three ways to sell books online now. One is to use sites like BookBub to advertise books. But BookBub is very selective (a term which here means that you need more than a little bit of luck to advertise with them) and expensive (although it is TOTALLY WORTH IT). And the other sites aren’t as effective, or they haven’t been for me.

The second way is to build a newsletter. The idea is that people will sign up for your newsletter, and then you can let them know about your new books, and they will buy them. Newsletters are very effective, but it takes work to build them, and I haven’t put that level of work into mine.

The third way — and by far the most common way — is to spam the living hell out of your Twitter feed, day after day. Don’t believe me? Go on Twitter and follow some self-published writers (well, not me, those other people) and you’ll start seeing tweets like this:

Okay then.

Okay, look, I have no beef with Marsha A. Moore, and I have no quarrel with anyone who writes this kind of stuff, or sells it, or reads it. (I picked this at random out of my Twitter feed; could have just as easily been werebear erotica.) I just don’t think this is a very effective way to sell books. I don’t think this because (as a self-published writer on Twitter) I see an absolute ton of these ads, and I never click on any of them. I don’t think most other people do. How do I know this? Well….

I am maybe a little vain.

OK, I use Twitter to sell books, too. Guilty. I have two Twitter accounts; my own (around 1700 followers) and my business account (over 14,000 followers, which tells you that life ain’t fair). My question is: just how effective is Twitter as a book-sales platform?

So I set up a little experiment. I started sending out tweets which offered a free giveaway (via Instafreebie) on all of my books, in exchange for people signing up for my newsletter.

Please RT, you guys.

Note that this tweet does a couple of things. It uses the #free hashtag, because people are cheap. It uses the #romance hashtag, because that’s what two of the books that I’ve written are. And it links to my site, which explains the promotion — basically, what I promise to do here is to send out an e-mail to the newsletter list with links to where you can download the books for free (which I won’t be sharing here).

I sent out similar tweets using HootSuite from January 15 through January 31, an average of five tweets per day. And whenever I had a spare moment, I would go on Twitter and send out a few more, and re-tweet other people who were doing the same thing (with the idea that they would re-tweet my books, you know).

And this was a controlled experiment, as I didn’t do any other marketing on any of the books, because if I did that, then it would skew the results. (You’ll notice that the tweets don’t mention anything about the books other than their genre.)

How did that work out for you, big guy?

Well, over the first week, I had over 20,000 impressions, and 8 clicks on my link, and two subscribers. This is despite having over a hundred retweets. So my subscription average was one in ten thousand, which is sucky, but it’s literally two more subscribers than I thought I would get. (A lot of the retweets were from bots, mostly with “egg” icons that indicate that they’re new or junky Twitter accounts.)

The total over the two weeks was over 45,000 impressions — but I never got any more additional subscribers than just the two. On my single best day, I got 3100 impressions — or a fifth of my actual Twitter following. And that’s with getting over 200 retweets.

Only one tweet got over a thousand impressions, due to 16 retweets. And it didn’t lead to any link clicks, and hence, no sales.

And I should also point out that I didn’t sell any books during this time period — not overly surprising, because I was hyping a giveaway, but still.

So, what have we learned?

  1. Having a lot of Twitter followers just means you have a lot of Twitter followers. It’s a meaningless metric. It doesn’t guarantee you impressions, and impressions don’t guarantee you link clicks, and even link clicks don’t guarantee you sales.
  2. As a result, getting more Twitter followers is like isometric exercise — you don’t get anywhere and it’s not nearly as fun as drinking a cold frosty beverage on a warm tropical beach.
  3. Spammy Twitter posts about books don’t get you anywhere and never will — you almost literally can’t give books away anymore, not on Twitter.
  4. Life is an endless dark void devoid of meaning, riddled with despair and agony.

Is selling books on Medium any better?

I don’t think so, but if you’ve read this far, enjoy this free copy of WREATHED, my latest novel. Thanks!