Monday, October 31, 2005

Brass in the Pocket

My brother the cop returned from the firing range, where he and his colleagues had undergone firearms training using new techniques. It was good, he said, to have their thinking periodically challenged. Qualifying by firing at paper targets from a stationary position, with no one shooting back, made it easy to fall into a routine. To forget what you were really trying to do out there — that it's about survival, not marksmanship.

The new training, he explained, did more to simulate stressful situations where the officers would be under fire, requiring them to move and make decisions on the fly. (As someone once said, if you really want to practice for an actual shoot-out, first, poop in your pants.)

Back in 1970, a tragic shoot-out involving two bad guys and four California Highway Patrolmen helped change how officers are trained to deal with dangerous situations. Reconstruction of the incident in which the CHiPs were overpowered revealed that some officers had paused to fully reload. The brass from their expended cartridges was found in their pockets — a repetition of what they did on the firing range, so the range master didn't have to clean up the empties at the end of the day.

Under stress, the men had reenacted what they'd practiced — good range etiquette.

Most of us will never have to perform in such a life-and-death situation. We should respect those who are called upon to defend us, and be careful to presume how people will act under extreme pressure. And I wonder in my own life, what habits am I grooving that could come back to bite me when I act reflexively?

Where is the brass in my pocket?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Wuhan Walking

They heard the sonnet. This was something few American students could do, at least in my experience... The Chinese had spent years deliberately and diligently destroying every valuable aspect of their traditional culture, and yet with regard to enjoying poetry Americans had arguably done a much better job of finishing ours off. How many Americans could recite a poem or identify its rhythm?
—Peter Hessler, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

We get off the boat and head briskly left past the drivers hosing down their buses, instead of taking a right to the waterfront bonsai market. The wide thoroughfare is no good for walking and the banks and other institutional buildings are no good for sightseeing, so we bear east toward a promising clock tower. From there, a broad, stone-paved street radiates south through the heart of the city, and we take it.

It's Sunday morning, but people are out in force. The stylish shops are opening, gates half rolled up, lights coming on inside. Music plays loudly from tinny boombox speakers as groups of women dance in unison or perform tai chi with fans or swords. Sleepy teens fish their breakfast from cartons before starting work. Pedestrians have to themselves the full width of the street, which could have been in Amsterdam or Sienna.

A graceful wrought iron stairway crosses a busy intersection. At the top, a thin old man in a grey suit stares trance-like as he repeatedly rubs his palms from forehead crown. Presses into his cheekbones, working tiny circles just where the curve falls off under the eye sockets, then moves to the bridge of his nose. Pinches earlobes between thumb and forefinger and works them for awhile before massaging the rest of his ears, and then burrowing in. It's like watching a man take a bath and tiger pacing a cage all in one.

To my western eyes, he seems shell shocked, perhaps a victim of the Cultural Revolution, publicly going through an obsessive routine. But I am repeating some of his moves now as I recall the scene, and it seems possible he may have been meditating and practicing self-massage as part of his morning ritual.

Twice, we step over pavement where an elderly person is painting calligraphy in water with a long, mop-like brush, one character per stone. Later we learned these were classical poems, and the act a form of mental and physical exercise.

The shopping street eventually returns to moving traffic, so we turn up a narrower side street, lined with the typical owner-occupied shops. Why is there a line waiting for won ton at this shop, when so many others nearby offer quicker fare. The men sitting there on the sidewalk all have small hand saws. Not some with hammers, others with paint brushes. Are they waiting for work?

I stop in a school supply store, looking for funky Chinese pencils. A girl about 10 follows me, demonstrating products as I move along the shelves. She carefully clicks a dozen binary switches to show me how they lock a pink diary. I have to buy something, so I pick up a journal that is more subdued than the Hello Kitty inventory.

On the way back, I see gathering knots young people in orange t-shirts and sashes that look vaguely political. Off to the side, two older men also wearing orange shirts confer. They have whistles around their necks like referees. One young man with spiky hair hands cards to selected passersby. (I am not selected, though, I realize, I am wearing an orange t-shirt.) The man in the grey suit is gone. The poems have evaporated.

Back near the boat, some vendors are laying out their wares on blankets at the entrance to the bonsai market. I have 20 minutes before departure, so I decide to make a quick foray. There's a lot of the usual junk, but then a reddish chop with a beast carved in the top catches my eye. It has a nice heft and appears to be an original. I make an offer, which causes the woman seller to snort and bug her eyes out. Since the boat will soon leave, I don't have to pretend. I start to walk away.

Okay, okay, she says, and as she wraps it, she thrusts another chop toward me. I laugh and make a gesture of refusal. I'd looked at this one, but have the one I want. She writes down her price. I strike it out and offer one-third as I walk away. Okay, okay. She presses small carved cube in my hand. No, no, I am laughing. I have to go. She hands me the paper and pen. I write down a ridiculous price, about $2.50. She doesn't even counter. Okay, okay.

Later, the boat's resident culture expert says inscritpions indicate the second chop has used by a general in Beijing some 80 years ago, and the first, about the same age, may have been used for an intellectual's books and writings. The actual characters on the chops are too old for him to read.

But by now it doesn't matter. This is the day I will remember, long after my words evaporate.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Born Born-Again?

When my pen pal Dr. Rick Scarborough isn't busy defending families of faith against activist judges, he's defending them against homosexuality:

As readers of this report know, September 15, 2005 was a black day for the pro-family movement. For the first time, the House of Representatives voted in favor of making homosexuals a protected class for civil-rights purposes.

The measure (an amendment to a popular bill to increase penalties for pedophiles) would make those who attack homosexuals (motivated by an aversion to their lifestyle) subject to federal prosecution and a harsher penalty than would be the case for victims who didn't qualify for protected status.

Currently, the federal hate-crimes law covers race, ethnicity and religion. If the disastrous amendment is enacted into law, those whose sole distinguishing characteristic is sexual behavior would be added to the mix...

Contact your Senators and tell them that individuals are born black, Hispanic and Jewish — but they are not born homosexual. Express your opposition to homosexuals being included in federal hate crimes law. For Christian conservatives, this is a make or break issue.

Excusing Dr. Rick's willful ignorance about homosexuality and accepting his criterion that you should be born a certain way to merit hate crimes protection, where does that put religion as a protected category — since born-again Christians aren't born born-again?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Mao Watch

For any pack of Anglos traveling in China, some things are impossible to avoid. Street vendors, for example. (Lord of War is already out in DVD.)

And Mao.

Mao has been dead for nearly 30 years, but he is omnipresent. In a fading portrait of the young revolutionary at the porcelain factory. As the man in full overseeing Tienanmen Square. In a visage staring back at every citizen who handles currency in any denomination.

This is the Reaganite wet dream come to complete fruition.

But Mao is also a comic lord, a patron saint of the new "market economy," which is Chinese for screw all the oppression of the past 50 years and the whores it rode in on.

Mao included.

The Mao index is a refreshing, or at least revealing, measure of how economic reforms are affecting China. Mao is not simply a political icon. He is the ultimate dead celebrity icon — the Mona Lisa, Einstein, George Washington and Marilyn Monroe rolled into one.

He is for sale on rucksacks, medals (real or reproduced), stamps, t-shirts, the little red book, with helpful English translation, and the ubiquitous Mao Watch.

Forget bogus Rolexes; the Mao watch is the souvenir you want. I picked up two for $6.00. One is still running, and the other can be coaxed back to life. It's just hard to get used to winding a watch, especially one you think you might break. (Needs no battery, if you want to look on the bright side.) Versions of these are available in states, starting at $1.00 on eBay — plus $16.00 shipping & handling — but don't have the same cachet as one brought back from the Forbidden City ( shipping & handling may be higher).

I could be wrong, but I didn't read this as a hero worship. More like the ultimate exorcism. What better way to be rid of a monster — a new biography argues for monsterhood — than to exploit him commercially?

China, the Postcard Version

I have resisted mightily passing myself off as an authority on China after spending only two weeks there, mostly in the company of people dedicated to making sure I had a good time. Nevertheless, this is the Blogosphere, not Foreign Affairs, and I have honed my responses after one steady week of conversations that start out, "how was China?"

There are many directions the conversation goes from there. To food — not at all disgusting, surprising variety, little rice, and many delights. To bicycles in Beijing — not as many as in the old newsreels running in your head, and a lot more cars. To safety — yes, we felt quite safe. To pollution and health — not horrible, not as bad as expected, but far short of what we'd consider acceptable here. To language — not as dislocating as you might think; lots of people who can speak some English, at least enough to conduct a transaction. And to the people — really wonderful; proving once more we should never undertake war with people we haven't met. Trip of a lifetime? Depends.

Scotland. Could go back again and again, but would never want to live there.
Mexico. Good memories and that's good enough.
Italy. Loved what it did to my state of mind, and could see the appeal of retiring there, but would never want to work there.
New Zealand. Christchurch was the only place I've ever looked at real estate ads. But I've already lived through the 1950's once, and that's enough.
China. My eyes and heart were opened to the Chinese people. Every American should visit there, especially while it is still China.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

2,000 and Counting

When armies begin to move and flags wave and slogans pop up watch out little guy because it's somebody else's chestnuts in the fire not yours. It's words you're fighting for and you're not making an honest deal your life for something better. You're being noble and after you're killed the thing you traded your life for won't do you any good and chances are it won't do anybody else any good either.
—Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun

Getting back to books was one sweet consequence of freeing myself from the momentary distractions of current affairs. On the 13-hour flight to Shanghai, I started with Dalton Trumbo's 1939 National Book Award-winning novel, and gulped it down.

Find this book and read it.

The story of a horribly maimed WW I soldier — sightless, deaf, faceless and limbless — was published in 1939, just two days after the start of WW II. As the U.S. entered the conflict, Johnny went out of print, and even Trumbo agreed that was not a bad thing, since the book had become embraced by extreme right wing isolationists who wanted a quick peace with the Nazis. Once the war ended, the book was reprinted, but didn't catch on again, and by Korea was again out of print.

Taken simply as a novel, it is far too good to be lost. As a commentary on romanticized patriotism and its follies, it is essential for the times.

The protagonist, Joe Bonham, speaks for war's dead.

You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else's life. They're plenty loud and they talk all the time. You can find them in churches and schools and newspapers and legislatures and congress. That's their business. They sound wonderful. Death before dishonor. This ground sanctified by blood. These men who died so gloriously. They shall not have died in vain. Our noble dead.


But what do the dead say?

Did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them ever come back and say by god I'm glad I'm dead because death is always better than dishonor? Did they say I'm glad I died to make the world safe for democracy? Did they say I like death better than losing liberty? Did any of them ever say it's good to think I got my guts blown out for the honor of my country? Did any of them ever say look at me I'm dead but I died for decency and that's better than being alive? Did any of them ever say here I am I've been rotting for two years in a foreign grave but it's wonderful to to die for your native land? Did any of them say hurray I died for womanhood and I'm happy to see how I sing even though my mouth is choked with worms?

Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can't talk. So the words about noble deaths and sacred blood and honor and such are all put into dead lips by grave robbers and fakes who have no right to speak for the dead. If a man says death before dishonor he is either a fool or a liar because he doesn't know what death it. He isn't able to judge. He only knows about living.

As I post this, the U.S. casualties in Iraq are likely to have pushed beyond the 2,000 mark. For the sake of them and all soldiers, Trumbo asks through "the nearest thing to a dead man on earth":

How did they feel as they watched their blood pump out into the mud? How did they feel when the gas hit their lungs and began eating them all away? How did they feel as they lay crazed in hospitals and looked death straight in the face and saw him come and take them? If the thing they were fighting for was important enough to die for then it was also important enough for them to be thinking about it in the last minutes of their lives. That stood to reason. Life is awfully important so if you've given it away you'd ought to think with all your mind in the last moments of your life about the thing you traded it for. So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?

You're goddam right they didn't.

They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for the things they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend. They died whimpering for the voice of a mother a father a wife a child. They died with their hearts sick for one more look at the place where they were born please god just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life. They knew what was important. They knew that life was everything and they died with screams and sobs. They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Blissful Ignorance

Like a fat man lowering himself into a hot tub, I am immersing myself slowly back into the news-intensive existence I left behind for two-plus weeks. Don't want to shock the system.

The day we started our trip to China, Delay's indictment and Bush's Supreme Court nomination were on the airport monitors. It was the last bit of news I would deliberately consume until my return. No email or surfing. No newspapers or TV. No phone calls. And little chance of stumbling across stray bulletins, isolated by distance, language and a river boat continually pushing upstream through lands where farmers worked as they did centuries ago.

Instead of keeping up with current affairs, I turned my attention to the swirl of the river, the line of the mountains, the variety of Chinese faces. Instead of capturing these things in photos, I practiced seeing them, sketching roughly as they passed. Instead of grazing on the blogosphere's instant outrage, I dug into products of deeper reflection, called books.

Only four bits of U.S. news and world reports penetrated this pleasant, peasant-like consciousness, during a brief exposure to CNN Asia. New York City issued a terror alert related to a potential subway attack. Mexico suffered severe flooding. An earthquake hit Pakistan. And Boy George was arrested for cocaine possession.

Guess which story got the most air time?

I figure if this was all that got through, the world was not about to end in my absence. Pat Robertson had not yet ascended into heaven and Tom Delay had not yet descended into hell. At least all the way.

Now I'm back wasting my time checking out things like the Rapture Index:

You could say the Rapture index is a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end time activity, but I think it would be better if you viewed it as prophetic speedometer. The higher the number, the faster we're moving towards the occurrence of pre-tribulation rapture.

Oh, bliss!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Is There a Nobel for Acting?

Flying back from China and seeing that Harold Pinter won the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature, I was reminded that more than 50 years ago the winner was Winston Churchill. Maybe all Nobel Laureates aren't equally deserving, but it's unimaginable that any current politician could aspire to win the literature prize. In fact, it's difficult to imagine politicians of any magnitude writing anything of beauty or consequence ever again.

I should be un-jet-lagged in a day or so. Meanwhile, thanks so much to Gus and Lars for keeping the kettle boiling. It was great fun to open their presents yesterday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hurricane Harriet

With the meltdown of the Bush administration dominating the news cycle, I am on schadenfreude overload these days. (I’m trying not to peak before the Plame indictments arrive.) This is a source of internal conflict, because it feels like I’m rooting for bad news.

I have to remind myself that I’m not. I am acknowledging that my evaluations of this administration’s policymaking and character were correct.

I wish Bush had proved me wrong. It would have been hard to take, no question. It would have been awful. But I wish it had happened. I wish we had turned the elusive corner in Iraq, pumped up the economy, and handled Hurricane Katrina skillfully. This would have forced me to reconsider my assumptions, reexamine the facts, and reconcile my dire predictions with a country that was inarguably moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the past 10 months have been a cavalcade of disasters. No WMD and nearly 2,000 KIA in Iraq. Private, er, personal accounts. The prescription drug benefit. The energy bill and ANWR. The transportation bill and its bridge to nowhere. Mike Brown and FEMA.

Which brings us to Harriet Miers, whose nomination is causing a refreshing moment of clarity among true conservatives. These people have been working for four decades to establish a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. This nomination -- replacing a moderately conservative swing vote with a reliable, consistent conservative -- was supposed to be a shining moment of glory, an everlasting moral victory.

Right now, real conservatives are realizing what liberals have known about Bush from the get-go: He looks out for number one. Miers’s qualifications, her intellectual curiosity, her potential impact on decades of American life -- all of these are secondary concerns.

Conspiracy theorists say Bush wants a ringer on the court in case Plamegate goes nucular. I think it’s more pathetic than that. I think he just likes her. He thinks she’s great and vice versa. Most important, he knows she will remain loyal.

The rest of this second term will be interesting, to say the least, if more conservatives decide that loyalty has its limits.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Cheering for a fiery chasm

As a native of suburban Chicago, I couldn’t have been more pleased with how my Bears played yesterday—or more accurately, how poorly the Vikings played. I’m a realist: the Bears are bad, but thank Odin, the Vikes are worse.

As a native of a northern Chicago suburb, which geographically makes me a Cubs fan, I couldn’t have felt sicker than when the White Sox clinched the American League Pennant last night.

If there’s one great divide that I’m unwilling to cross, it’s Madison Street in downtown Chicago—the street that acts like the city’s Mason-Dixon line.

My wife—also an Illinois native, but she’s from Rockford, which might as well be Peoria in terms of sports allegiance districting—called me “small” and “petty” for rooting against a fellow Chicago team. She reasoned that I went to college with several guys from the south side of Chicago, kids from Irish neighborhoods with names like Rafferty and O’Connell. One of my best friends is a Sox fan. “Why can’t you be happy for them?” she questioned.

Because I’d rather be happy for me.

If there’s one bonus to being a Cubs fan, it's the opportunity to be bi-polar: feeling maligned and bitter in fall, then hopelessly optimistic come spring. Wait ‘til next year.

Furthermore, I just can’t stand the White Sox and anything associated with them. I don’t like their players or the way they play baseball. I don’t like their stadium (the new Comiskey Park is to Wrigley Field as a hospital is to a neighborhood bar…plus, they just renamed the park U.S. Cellular Field, how tacky). I don’t like their side of the city (there are few good reasons to venture south of the Loop, and the Museum of Science & Industry is for nerds). And I don’t like people who cheer for them. I have a few friends who are Sox fans, but I have them mentally filed under the category “friends with a significant character flaw,” alongside my friends who are philanderers or trade stocks with insider knowledge. Not surprisingly, many of my Sox-fan friends would have made the list for these other reasons anyway.

Back in my college days, in one of those highly intellectual salons that occur after “quarter-beers night” at the bars, I recall some philosophizing with friends about the societal benefits of sports that resulted in the following postulate: sports are good because they give people a socially acceptable avenue for hatred. People have been hating other people since we started walking upright, maybe before then. Today we all recognize that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of sex, color, or creed. But we can still vent those feelings, in a more healthy fashion, by hating Packer fans. My grandfather didn’t like people from the south side of Chicago because they were Irish. I, being more socially evolved than my granddad by two generations, don’t like South Siders because they’re Sox fans.

But for a Cubs fan like me, there’s an even greater danger looming in the World Series. It’s possible that the arch-nemesis St. Louis Cardinals will win the National League Pennant. If that happens, then I guess I’ll be rooting for that same outcome I cheered for in the 2000 World Series, which pitted New York’s Yankees against its Mets (did I mention I hate New York, too?).

Here’s hoping a fiery chasm opens in the earth during Game 1 and swallows both teams…and their fans.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

All Dogs Go to Hell

In my Walter Mitty moments, I imagine myself running for mayor of Minneapolis on a virulent anti-dog platform.

I would get the cat people behind me, as well as the nature preservationists, the noise pollution folks, maybe even the Animal Liberation Front. I would get hate mail from dog lovers worldwide, and the Westminster Kennel Club would run negative ads against me (“Wrong on dogs, wrong for Minneapolis”).

In the end of this fantasy, I squeak out a narrow victory and reach a compromise with the city council, enacting an ordinance that makes unchecked barking subject to a $10,000 fine and/or 60 days in an airline pet carrier.

If you can identify with this sentiment, then you understand why I welcome the coming winter, with its serene stifling of the yipping and yapping. And also why I was so excited about Saint Paul City Ordinance 200.14, enacted last spring, which states "it is unlawful for any person to own, keep, have in possession or harbor any dog which howls, yelps, or barks to the reasonable annoyance of any other person or persons."

Consider me reasonably annoyed -- in Minneapolis, unfortunately. Before you make any assumptions, however, let me state for the record that I like dogs. I owned a dog growing up, a fiesty beagle-basset-mutt mix that loved to eat broccoli and tree opossums on the backyard fence. I do, however, detest dog owners who (apparently) despise their own pets.

Why own a dog if you’re just going to chain it up in your front yard for hours -- starting at, say, 7 a.m. on a Saturday -- to bark and bark and bark, and then, for a change of pace, go completely berserk when someone walks by? Why own a dog that needs daily exercise if you have no intention of walking it? Why own a dog that needs room to run around if you own a two-bedroom bungalow on a postage-stamp lot?

Like this blog’s author, I’m a transplant to Minnesota. I grew up in California, where dogs can be what they are meant to be: outside animals.

So, closeted dog-haters who own dogs, I implore you: come out. Own up to your true feelings. Admit you made a mistake. You don’t have to drown it in the river these days. You can put it up for adoption.

I believe the "moving to a farm" story will still work.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

My Summer Vacation in Wisconsin, or, Crossing a Great Divide in my Mind

Sometimes a great divide can be something to be cherished, even if it's only in your head...

I came to Washington Island expecting an extension of the hustle and bustle⎯the highly concentrated chic and kitsch⎯that has infected the Door County Peninsula. But when I stepped off the ferry, I stepped into an endangered species in American tourist country: a genuine small town, where folks enjoy slow living and long coffee breaks.

Those coffee breaks happen at the Red Cup Coffee House, a genuine coffee house if I ever saw one. The building looks like an old-fashioned general store; a cheery hand-carved, hand-painted wooden sign beckons visitors. There’s a front porch for sipping lattes and watching small-town comings and goings. Inside, there’s a reading room with a cast-iron wood-burning stove in the corner.

To my jaded metropolitan eye, it looked more like a Hollywood set than an actual coffee shop. I recently moved from urban south Minneapolis to suburban south Maplewood, where we don’t have local coffee shops. I now have to drive across highway 494 to even-more-suburban Woodbury for the privilege of drinking Caribou or Starbucks coffee. If I’m lucky, I might a score a spot on the couch next to a faux fireplace (real fire might be too dangerous and warm, I reckon).

The baristas are mostly cheery at Starbucks and Caribou, though. Here at Red Cup, I happily find the owner to be a very non-scripted grump. When I ask him what time the shop opens, he replies, “7 a.m. I get here at 6 a.m., but don't you show up that early. I need some time to myself."

Over the course of my week on Washington Island, there are more grumpy encounters at the Red Cup. One time, the owner snapped at his teen-aged barista taking orders at the counter when she had trouble relaying the words "vanilla latte decaf." Later, he snapped at a couple of kids playing with the handles on an antique wooden dresser that serves as a cream and sugar station. "Your kids break that, you bought it, buddy," he informed the dad. "And I bet you can't afford it."

Back at the cottage, my wife and I had a grand time speculating about how the owner of such an idyllic coffee shop in a slow-paced town could be so tormented and grumpy.

On the drive back to the ferry to head home, I stop by Red Cup one last time. Sipping my coffee on the porch, the grumpy owner appears by my side and asks if I’d like a refill. When I say sure, he hustles off and returns promptly with a full cup. Then he remarks about what a beautiful day it is.

Maybe he’s in a better mood because it’s Sunday and there’s an exodus of tourists from the island. Or maybe he’s not so grumpy after all. Maybe my wife and I wrongly extrapolated from a few isolated events.

In a way, Red Cup was a set after all⎯a stage for the theater of the vacationing mind. If only there were such stories to be dreamed up after visiting the Starbucks in Woodbury.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Blue State, Red Tape

Most babies walk at one year. So when my son wasn’t even “cruising” (walking along furniture) by 15 months, our pediatrician recommended physical therapy and gave us the number for early intervention services in Minneapolis.

We called the next day, and a week later a pair of state and county employees showed up at our door. They spent 15 minutes with my son, determined he was eligible for the program, and then we started in on the paperwork.

“So, when does the therapy start?” I asked.

“Oh, this is just the initial interview. We’ll do the full assessment later.”

Another week passed, and a trio of people arrived. One was from the original pair, one was from the public schools, a third was from health and family services. We all spent another 15 minutes watching my kid crawl around.

“So, when does the therapy start?” I asked.

“Well, we need to process this paperwork and develop his action plan first.”

Another week passed. Another trio arrived. Again, only one face was familiar. This time we reviewed and approved the plan.

“So, how much will all of this cost?”

The agency folks looked aghast. “Oh no,” they said. “There’s no cost. You pay nothing.” We were glad the service would be free, and we looked forward to scheduling the therapy.

We heard nothing.

Weeks passed. We placed a couple calls, didn’t hear back. Was the program on hold for the summer? Was the state government shutdown to blame? Was our son at the end of a waiting list? There was no way to tell. To top it off, the first communication we received was a survey asking us to rate our experience with the program.

My son is now 20 months old. He has received two visits from a talented physical therapist, and he is finally walking. (Staggering, really, like a drunken mummy. But walking nevertheless.)

I chose this story for my first entry here because it sits right on this blog’s eponymous divide, illustrating how traditional liberal/conservative thinking is incapable of addressing an important issue.

The bureaucracy in this program is out of control. It should not take six state and county employees to coordinate two 30-minute therapy sessions. It takes fewer people to plan a wedding. Yet liberals would be reluctant to investigate the program or accept cuts to its budget. Many would agree that nobody should pay extra for these services, even two professionals who can afford it.

At the same time, the program is clearly helpful and necessary. Our therapist ruled out some of the scarier underlying causes of late walking, which put my mind (and my wife’s mind) at ease. She showed us some exercises that helped our son get moving. In addition, as the program team informed us, medical insurance does not cover early intervention. Yet conservatives would likely identify this program as a prime example of government bloat, and target it for defunding -- a hard choice made to preserve fiscal integrity.

Neither position makes sense. These services should extract some dollars from recipients who can afford to pay, and they should be delivered more efficiently. But reducing the program’s budget would not make it run more smoothly. If anything, wait-time would increase. And cutting it entirely would leave a lot of needy kids in the lurch.

What would get us across the divide is an honest evaluation of the program and its objectives, how it can meet these goals with less bureaucratic nonsense, and whether it should be free to all, regardless of means.

This would be, as our President likes to say, hard work. More important, it’s the kind of work that requires genuine bi-partisan collaboration -- the kind that becomes impossible in a divisive political climate. Here’s hoping we can do better.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Parallel Worlds

Just when I start thinking I'm a relatively worldly guy, I get my cultural wires crossed. As I was leaving Colorado, I discovered I'd missed the Gateway Fire Department Dynamite Shoot. For the last 40 years, they've been shooting at small targets packed with explosives (these days, pop cans). You can hit the link for the details.

Then, in a more upscale publication, I discover watch winders. For those proud owners who have more ostentatious watches than wrists, they can park them in a watch winder and not have to worry about keeping them wound.

"All of a sudden, it seems, there are a lot of watch winders on the market," the print ad intones.

Yes! That's exactly what I've been thinking. But oh, how to choose?

For only $395, you can pick up a starter module, or for the really acquisitive collector, you can buy The Fifty.

I think I'll remember this next time someone tries to tell me we're all basically the same deep down.


Tomorrow morning, I depart for two weeks in China. The laptop will stay home as we journey down the Yangtze River, and I'll rely on a journal to feed future posts.

To keep the kettle boiling, I've asked two writers (and non-bloggers) to contribute here while I'm gone. Lars Ostrom and Gus Axelson have both labored in my vineyards but have long since grown into their own. Lars and I both hail from the west, went to the same college, play music, and get grouchy about similar things. Gus edits a conservation-oriented publication and ventures places where I'd spend more time if I didn't love cities so much.

Gus and Lars. Thank god my name isn't Einar, or you'd start to get the wrong idea.

I've asked them to keep this place interesting over the next several weeks, and I'll be interested as anyone to see how it turns out.