Monday, October 7, 2013

Author shines her "Warmth" on Chicago

     Being well-read doesn't mean there aren't still big holes in your education.  Which is what makes a program such as One Book/One Chicago so valuable. Starting with the very first selection in 2001—"To Kill A Mockingbird," which I had somehow missed—the city has offered a gentle prod for Chicagoans to read excellent books that not only help them grow as individuals, but add bonds of commonality to our diverse city. This year's choice, "The Warmth of Other Suns" was perhaps the best yet. I tweeted the book as I read it, sharing its many high-points and jaw-dropping details. Though I wrote an earlier column about the book in July, I thought the author's appearance in Chicago last week might be worth attending, and I wasn't disappointed. 

    Isabel Wilkerson visited the Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Center last week to talk about her excellent 2010 book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and I stopped by to hear her.
     The Winter Garden was packed, an encouraging sign in this era when the future of print books seems so uncertain. Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced her enthusiastically, revealing that not only was her book the obvious choice for the city’s One Book One Chicago program this year, but it was his go-to Hanukkah gift to give friends.
Isabel Wilkerson at the Harold Washington Center.
     And why not? While weighing in at 550 pages, it masterfully weaves together the story of three Southern black Americans — Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster — beginning with their humble origins in Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana, following them on their daring escapes northward and their sometimes arduous journeys to become, respectively, a humble Chicago church lady, a dignified New York Pullman porter and a flashy LA doctor.
     When you see the enormous effort these daring people took to get the barest chance in life, the hardship they endured, there’s always another shoe to drop, the question: what happened after? Why did succeeding generations, facing declining yet still real barriers, often fail to follow their examples to make that climb to success? Why did they become stuck in the sprawling ghettos that ring Chicago and every other major city?
     The mayor touched upon it.
     "It reminds all of us of the work that remains ahead of us in order to keep the promise of Chicago alive," he said.
     Toward the end of Wilkerson's speech, she referred to "all of the lost talent, all of the genius" that was squelched by the brutal apartheid of Southern racism — the jazz musicians, the playwrights the surgeons — who never reached their true potential but spent their lives picking cotton or scrubbing out the kitchens of white ladies.
     She talked about how close Jesse Owens — who ran for gold in the 1936 Olympics, sticking an American thumb in the eyes of the Nazis and their pretensions to a master race — came to running errands down South instead of running track. How John Coltrane might have never had a saxophone placed into his calloused hands.
     She said one thing that surprised me. As easy as it is to portray the white hierarchy that kept racism in place as mere villains, as cliches, she observed that they, too, paid a price for their domination.
     "Their loss was a spiritual loss," Wilkerson said, generously. "If you are going to hold someone down in a ditch, you have to get down in that ditch with them."
     Or you did then. Our world is much less brutal now, but it also has created distance between the oppressor and the oppressed. The system — deprivation here, over-abundance there — now does the dirty work the field bosses and landowners once did.
     A youngster in Englewood might have a slightly better chance of reaching his potential in Chicago today than he would in Alabama in 1913, but still not nearly the chance were he in Wilmette. In a sense, his grandparents had an advantage — they knew the deck was stacked against them and knew where they had to go to find hope. Where should their grandchildren go?
     "These people freed themselves," she said of the first migration. But the task is not finished. "We have been bequeathed a beautiful burden, to make their sacrifices mean something. . . . You can change laws. You can not as easily change hearts."
     That's it. White society does not hold blacks down in the same way it once did — less force, more finance. But its heart is still hardened. We don't quite see the kids dying in sharp focus. That's why Wilkerson's book is so valuable. It is like a heart-valve transplant, to make the indifferent reader more invested in these fellow citizens or, rather, to know how invested we all are. And to remind the hopeless that their forebears mustered hope in the face of greater odds.
     The Pulitzer Prize winner said one more thing, a lovely thought, in regards to her parents coming to Chicago from different states in different years, meeting here, leading to her, an event she is grateful for.
     "It's nice to exist, you know," she said.
     It is, or it should be, if you are free to live life in a manner congruent with your desires. If you can go through your daily routine without fear someone might shoot you or your kids. If you have access to the same opportunities.
     "Here in the land of our birth, our work is devalued and our very lives are devalued," Wilkerson said of the subjects of her book. That was true then. And it's true now.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

But does it have to be as lovely as a tree?

I like poetry. The Poetry Foundation, well, I try to like them too. It can be hard, because they're a foundation, and something about foundations is antithetical to the poetic spirit, the way that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland doesn't embody rock and roll so much as entomb it. They do try to get poetry out there, though I wish they made more of an effort to occasionally have some kind of edge; buy a round of drinks at the Poetry Slam, something. Still, I like to keep tabs on them. They're good at heart. I didn't plan on touting their favorite poem er, "event"—I just stopped by to meet the new boss, Robert Polito. But the favorite poem thingy hasn't been announced yet —you read it here first, folks! —so I thought I would ballyhoo the con... whoops, something-close-to-but-not-quite-a-contest. (Isn't that the problem in a nutshell? That they won't call their contest a "contest." Too much foundation and not enough poetry). Then I got hung up on the fact that they're asking people to make the effort to write about their favorite poems, but aren't giving any prizes, other than to appear in their video. Any local saloon would dig up prizes. It seemed chintzy. 

     If you asked me to name my favorite poet, I’d be hard-pressed. I mean, yes, I keep trotting out Dante, but the dour Florentine can be heavy lifting. I’d hate to be forced to balance my affection for him against, say, Walt Whitman, lustily grabbing the reader around the neck with one hand and drawing him close, while the other hand — well, ahem, never you mind.
     But could I pick Whitman over Mary Oliver? Willow leaves in her hair, swallows fluttering around her head like a Disney heroine? A poem of hers in your pocket is like an aluminum bottle of cold water jiggling on your belt as you set out on a hike in the forest. You’re glad it’s there and even gladder when you pause to take a long, soul-satisfying pull.
    Does she really trump Rilke? Or Virgil? Or John Berryman, addressing the Lord? “I fell back in love with you, Father, for two reasons: / You were good to me, & a delicious author...”
     No matter. The Poetry Foundation isn’t even asking for your favorite poet — that would be hard enough. They’re asking for your favorite poem, in the about-to-be-announced Favorite Poem Contest: Chicago, reviving the contest that Robert Pinsky held when he was America’s Poet Laureate.
     Is that even possible? "Favorite" has to be time specific. Favorite now. Favorite at the moment. For a long time my favorite poem was Robert Browning's "Andrea del Sarto," the ambling, melancholy justification of a painter who was merely excellent, rationalizing why he wasn't a Michelangelo. " Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?"
     But did I like that better than Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man," a novel compressed in a few pages, with lines never to be forgotten: "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
     I learned about the contest after stopping by the Poetry Foundation's spare, elegant West Superior clubhouse to meet its new president, poet and scholar Robert Polito. He took exception to my suggestion that poetry squats on the outer margins of our culture.
      "It's hard to say exactly where poetry is," he said. "It would seem a lot of people would say it's on the periphery, it used to be more important. In a lot of ways, there's never been a better moment to be a poet and to be a reader of poetry than right now."
     He cited the explosion of small presses, local poetry scenes and books of poetry.
     "There's an enormous amount of poetry in the culture," he said.
     Further boosting poetry into the mainstream, from Oct. 15 through Nov. 15, the foundation is inviting Chicagoans from all walks of life to write about a poem they love and why they love it.
     Five entries will be chosen to participate in a video that will debut on the foundation website in January. And that's it — no prizes, as this is not a contest, for reasons I'm sure are dull and unpoetic and involve lawyers. (I did try my best. "C'mon," I told them. "You gotta have prizes. A coffee cup, a T-shirt. Something.")
     Still, entering isn't difficult. In fact, I'll go first. My favorite poem is ... "Leaves of Grass." It has to be, Whitman's bold, brilliant, timeless ode to the bounty and promise of America. Particularly the part where Whitman, who spent the Civil War as a nurse tending wounded soldiers, ministers to the reader.
     "O despairer, here is my neck," he says, practically leaning over your bed. "By God! You shall not go down! Hang your whole weight upon me."
     Whitman nearly clamps his lips over yours, filling your lungs with air.
     "I dilate you with tremendous breath ... I buoy you up; Every room of the house do I fill with an armed force ... lovers of me, bafflers of the graves; Sleep! I and they keep guard all night."
     I always smile at Uncle Walt and his motley band of mid-19th century inverts, in their floppy Jed Clampett hats frayed and homespun, toting Sharps rifles, taking up strategic spots around my house, dutiful midnight sentries. He wrote it to strengthen, and it does, every time.
     That's mine. What's your favorite poem? Don't tell me; tell the foundation, starting Oct. 15: Good luck.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Your government (not) at work

 47th Street, Chicago, Oct. 4, 2013 

     In the furious exchange of partisan blame going on in Washington at the moment, no claim is too outrageous or unfair to be fired off by the Republican side, increasingly frantic at how the public is somehow blaming them for their shutdown of the government.  Arkansas Republican Rep. Tim Griffin, during the police chase of a disturbed woman who drove her car at blockades, tweeted, "Stop the violent rhetoric President Obama, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. #Disgusting."

     The Democrat side, as always, is more reality based and temperate. For instance, one thing I don't blame the Republicans for is their sentimental focus on the closing of the national monuments in Washington. Even though it's their fault, entirely, there is something so sad about the idea of people visiting our nation's capital, as a pilgrimage to honor this great country, and being thwarted. The country is so screwed up that it can't keep the Washington Monument open. Or trying to visit the national parks, places of extreme natural beauty created by nature and put off limits by our tottering politicians.

     I've felt that frustration first hand.

     Ten years ago, I took my family to Washington, as it happened, a few days after the war in Iraq broke out. I went because my oldest boy was in 2nd grade, and when I was in 2nd grade, my family had taken a memorable tour of the FBI. But the FBI Building was closed, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was closed, as were other national monuments.  It seemed cowardly, as if the feds felt they had to sandbag the National Archives in case Saddam Hussein's elite guard showed up to burn the Constitution. 

     The idea that this was happening because of a new war almost got lost. Small problems somehow have a way of burrowing into your mind more directly than the big picture disaster. Yes, cancer research is on hold because of the current shut-down, and poor children might not get food aid, and a hundred other problems, growing each day with no end in sight. But long-planned weddings being prevented from taking place at Yosemite! Isn't that heartbreaking? 

     When this crisis was still only looming, at the end of August, I was being bothered by the approaching helium cliff. I wrote this column, about how the United States government for decades squelched the market for helium by selling it too cheaply, and now threatened to send shock waves through a variety of industries that use helium, from semi-conductors to medical imaging to aerospace, due to a short-sighted 1996 law forcing the government to pull out of the helium business whether other suppliers had stepped up or not. The noble gas issue seemed a small but significant metaphor for how badly the government can screw up even something simple. Yes, the shutdown was certainly on the radar, but we hoped it might not happen, and I preferred to worry about something that literally could not be seen. 

     Now, in one of those minor but delicious ironies, Congress, in the middle of all this shut-down business, actually took the time to slap a bandage on the helium problem. The government was allowed to close down, but we're okay, helium-wise. The necessary stopgap fix was passed by Congress. All the president has to do now is find a moment to sign it. So the one thing that I worried about specifically and at length is going to be just fine. It's the rest of the government that has come crashing down. It's like one of those cartoons where the character saves a lone china cup while the whole house collapses around him. 

     Still, the law didn't come soon enough to prevent widespread helium shortages, and this sign, spied on the door into the Hallmark card shop in Northbrook last week made me sad too. "I'm sorry Chrissie, no birthday balloons for you, because the United States government somehow found a way to create a shortage of the second most abundant element in the universe." 

     In 1969, the United States landed men on the Moon. Now we can't even fill party balloons in Northbrook. We seem to be sliding backward at an alarming rate. 

 47th Street, Chicago, Oct. 4, 2013 

Friday, October 4, 2013

If I say something will he kill me?

    If you walk down the streets of Chicago long enough, you'll see just about everything. 
    In all my years commuting to the newspaper—26 and counting—I've never, as I did Wednesday morning, found myself behind a man wearing his shirt inside out. 
     This is something new, I said to myself, standing behind him at the light, waiting to cross Madison. 
    A brown polo pullover with yellow and white stripes—not the best look when worn properly. To me, they're the kind of shirts I wore when I was 7. A child's shirt. It's jarring to see grown men go to work in them.  I briefly considered saying something. "Hey pal," or words to that effect, "do you know you have your shirt on inside out?" 
     But he was a big strapping guy, with a healthy gut hanging over his belt. As I imagined saying those words, as I formed them in my mind, trying them out, my next image was him turning with a snarl and plunging a steak knife into my chest. Or screaming in some thick Eastern European tongue as his hands close around my throat. That kind of thing happens. Mind your own business, I told myself, hurrying up Wacker, crossing at Washington. 
     I thought about other things. But at Franklin, he was back, coming north. We had taken different routes, but were now converging, intersecting, and I had the chance to say something again. Could this, I wondered, be a style? No, it had to be some sign of disturbance, some person in the grip of a mania, who just put their clothes on in a disordered fashion. Do not enter into his world. Flee.
     He crossed Franklin, and now we both were going north, paralleling each other. I tracked him out of the corner of my eye; he walked with a certain bearish, rolling gait. And suddenly I felt like a coward. This man needed an outside opinion. This man needed my help.
    I crossed the street in the center of the block, hurried to catch up, fell into step beside him. Approaching Lake, as we passed under some scaffolding, I made my move.
    "Excuse me," I said.
     "Yes?" he said, brightly, pleasantly. "Can I help you?"
     "I was wondering if you knew that..."
     "Yes, my shirt," he laughed—his voice regular, friendly, not the guttural bellow I had anticipated. "I put it on backward. I'm going to change it as soon as I get to the office. Thank you though." He smiled.    
     "Well, that happens," I said, trying to be comforting. "I once spent the day wearing a kilt backwards, with the pleats in the front. Nobody told me." 
    "I noticed some odd looks at the train station," he said. "I thought maybe I just looked extra handsome today..."
     "I'm lucky to have my wife give me the once over before I leave."
     "I live alone," he said.
      And we exchanged a few more words, until we got to Wacker again (for you readers in Indonesia, Wacker Drive curves through downtown, in a gentle right angle, so you can travel in a straight line and still cross it twice. It has North, South, East and West addresses, which can be confusing to newcomers). I bid him farewell, and he bid me farewell, and I walked north puzzling: Why are we so afraid of each other? Why are we so reluctant to talk to strangers? Why do we assume the worst, the very worst, about those we don't know? Most people are not fiends. Most people are nice. So why the excess of caution? Is it just me? No, that seems to be the common practice. I spend two hours commuting most days, and people are loath to look at each other. I could show up at the train station wearing a Carmen Miranda fruit hat and the people I see every day would edge away but not say a word.  A little wariness is necessary in a city like Chicago. But too much, and you live in your own personal desert, a lonely island in a sea of humanity. No need for that. No need to cringe in your little protective bubble, alone. He was a nice guy who happened to put his shirt on the wrong way.  If I hadn't had talked to him, I never would have known. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Never-Ending Goodbye

     Mocking Oprah Winfrey is a dirty, thankless task, but someone's got to do it.  I've cheerfully assumed that futile but fun burden for nearly 20 years, and while it hasn't made a dent on the vast, sky-hogging, culture-spanning, armor-plated Death Star edifice that is Oprah Winfrey, objections were raised, and that counts for something. At least someone once referred to her as "that froglike dominatrix presiding over her Theater of Pain." As a rule, I try not to curse the inevitable, try not to shake my fist at the sun and decry the omnipresent. But with Oprah, I make an exception because, really, otherwise the chorus of praise, much of it from herself, is just too damn nauseating to endure:

     Oprah, Oprah, Oprah...
     How can we miss you if you never go away? It seems only minutes after your painfully protracted, celebrity-spattered farewell to when your talk show shut down Michigan Avenue for days — OK, it was in 2011, but it feels like yesterday — and now we’re being called upon to bid you goodbye yet again, this time as you put your West Side studio complex on the market, and maybe your swank Gold Coast duplex, too.
     Well, ta-ta. It’s been fun. Don’t let the door hit you in your ...
     No, no — positive thoughts. The high road.
     Well, ta-ta. Don’t be a stranger ...
     Oh, right, you were a stranger. As much as you liked to float your Chicago street cred when basking in the endless celebrity limelight that trailed you like your own personal sun, it wasn’t as if you were ever really here beyond the confines of your 15,000-square-foot Water Tower Place duplex. Not a lot of Oprah sightings in all those years you did that hall-of-mirrors show of yours. No river of Oprah bucks watering thirsty Chicago charities. More like a trickle.
     Eighty years after Al Capone went to prison, he’s still associated with Chicago, too much. Two years after you left, well, as much as you must think of the city as one vast cargo cult, sitting in the lotus position learned from one of the endless chain of sham gurus you ballyhooed, scanning the skies for your return, well, we’re not.
     But let's not go negative. Let's be positive. Let's wish you had been more supportive of your adopted hometown, in real, tangible ways beyond all that self-serving blah-blah, and then, why it'll become true, right? That's how "The Secret" works, right? Factual, tangible reality is for the soulless, the unspiritual. It's what's in our hearts that counts, and in my heart, you were a fixture each summer at the bake sale at Misericordia . . .
     Whoops. Negative again. Maybe you did us a favor by not associating too much with Chicago, a practical city, a hardworking city, not given to crystals and magical thinking and the brand of snake-oil quackery that your program daily injected right into the brainstem of the American body politic. Why blame you if people bought it hook, line and sinker? "OWN" —the Oprah Winfrey Network, a vanity project on steroids. I guess "Me Television" was already taken.
     Or, in your defense, the public's gullibility was already there, and you just reflected it. You had your moments. Sure, too many were spent in squealing worship of brand materialism at its basest. But sometimes you rose above: One show, you sent a family from St. Louis to live in Mongolia in yurts. It was interesting.
     (I should probably say, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I was a guest on Oprah's show once, nearly 20 years ago, promoting my second book. A four-hour ordeal I remember as a blur of endless waiting punctuated by frantic assistant producers with clipboards lunging past, of fellow guests blinking in wonder at indoor plumbing, of cheap vending machine muffins sweating oil in their plastic wrap, piled in the Green Room by minions of the richest woman after Queen Elizabeth II. Of how flinty, disinterested and queenly in a bad way you were in person. It is not a happy memory).
     But let's not be negative. Let's not. Let's be positive. Our thoughts become our reality. The bullets will not harm us . . .
     Credit where due: The West Side was a blighted war zone interspersed with pickle factories and sheet metal companies in 1990 when you opened your studio. Six years before Rich Daley snagged the Democratic National Convention and put in all those wrought iron fences and planters. So kudos to you, a true pioneer, if buying distressed real estate and putting in a TV facility that has no interaction with its neighbors is pioneering.
     At least you'll make money selling this one, probably, as opposed to the store you sold earlier this year, at a $1 million loss, or the condo last year, losing $2.9 million (though really, what is money to you at this point? Which is another talent of yours we must marvel at: the ability to make lumpen, hair-in-curlers America feel that you were relating to them in the 46 minutes you spent gazing at their representatives sympathetically, a human version of Nipper, the RCA hound, except of course when you were always happy to cavort with the celebrities who beat a path to your door.)
     So yes, off to Los Angeles with you, as if you weren't there already. Chicago will, let us say again, get by just fine without you, in a fashion remarkably similar to how we got along with you. Sort of how the TV-watching public adjusted to the loss of your program by emitting a complacent "moo" and flipping to whatever was on the next channel.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One Thing You Must Do Before You Die

     I hate the phrase "bucket list"— the idea of having a checklist of accomplishments and highlights you must do and see "before you die." Places you must visit, achievements you must reach. There's a certain grim conformity to it—a stations-of-the-cross obligation. The old top-of-the-class mentality translated to old age, one more hoop for you to jump through, landing in the grave on the other side. You must see the Blue Mosque. You must try the Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's. 
     There's nothing wrong with having concrete goals—you'd like to climb Mount Fuji, or have a drink at Harry's Bar in Venice someday. And there's nothing wrong with trying to achieve those goals. But the implication that doing these things will add some kind of meaning to your life is dumping too much significance on what are in essence, exotic peak experiences.  You have to always keep in the back of your mind that even if you achieve these life pinnacles, you will not necessarily be transformed. Realize that your big deal dream might in reality not be such a big deal. My brother climbed Mt. Fuji. It's unpleasant. I've had a drink in Harry's Bar in Venice. It's small.
     Your life isn't defined by its high-points, unless you're Neil Armstrong stepping on the Moon, and then the struggle is to not let your high point define and destroy you. There are only two tragedies in a man's life, to trot out Nietschze: the first is not to achieve your dream. The second is to achieve it. 
     Given the inevitability of those two tragedies, what seems to truly define a life well spent, is not gaping at the Taj Mahal, but nailing life's daily, small moments. They add up. They aggregate. How you feel every day when you open your eyes is a lot more important than being able to post pictures of yourself snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef on Facebook. An asshole is still an asshole standing at the summit of Mount Everest. Maybe even more so. 
Paragliding atop Rendezvous Mountain, Wyoming
     Besides, all lives are different. My bucket list would involve taking naps, raking leaves, drinking coffee, reading books. I wouldn't actually create that list, never mind force it on you, because the things that embroider my life could leave you flat. Most likely they would. And visa versa. Rafting the Snake River is fun. Must you do it before you die? Well, that depends on whether you like water. The whole idea of offering up a template for another person to measure his or her life by is ludicrous. You know whether you've used your time well or not, and if you don't know, well that should be number one on your list: figure that one out. "Tell me," as Mary Oliver writes, "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
     Or don't tell me. There is an element in bragging in these bucket lists. You're not doing things for yourself, but to impress other people. How sad is that? If you achieve your life goals, and don't tell anybody, do they still mean something? People don't pay $500 a ticket to see the Rolling Stones, they pay $500 a ticket to tell their friends afterward what great seats they had.
     Maybe that's too cynical. Not that I'm against telling people things, obviously. Do fun stuff, show off to your friends about it. I'm there too. But I don't pretend that I'm having a transformative life experience while I'm doing it. That's an important distinction.  
     Why couldn't your bucket list be things you failed to do? Your life can be just as easily defined by what you avoided as by what you attained. Dante never got the girl—Beatrice married someone else and died. He never got a chance to return to his beloved Florence, never mind be crowned with laurels there. But he made do, writing his great masterpiece.
     So my list would include things I'm never doing: I'm never putting a Christmas tree in my living room. I'm never having plastic surgery. I'm never wearing cargo shorts and shower clogs to work. I consider those life-affirming accomplishments.
     And my list, by necessity, would be endless; there will always be more places to see, more books to read and to write. The idea that you can get some portion of them, in a methodical way, seems to be willful denial of how much you won't. Besides, the peak experiences tend to be things you don't plan, that just happened. The family was in Monterey. Ross saw a brochure for whale watching, so we took a boat and went whale watching. Was it fun? Sure. Do you have to do it? No. I would say it depends whether you are in Monterey or not.
     Focus on what you can do right now. My bucket list would include dozing under trees -- never enough of that in a lifetime. It would include walking the dog whenever the dog wants walking. The great achievements that make up our lives are not those that require we travel to India, or big down payments. The point is not to impress people. The point is to impress yourself.  No matter how well-travelled, no matter how adventurous, we finish our lives having done practically nothing, having met practically no one.  The number one item on my bucket list is to understand and accept that.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A shameful moment in American history.

    The way I explain the need for some kind of national health care—not that anyone is listening, but assuming people were—is like this:
     Say a baby shows up on the curb in front of your house. Your wife—or husband—looks out the window, says, "Hey hon, there's a baby on the curb." You go out and bring it inside. How could you not? Six months old. Wrapped in a blanket. Flushed in the face. Looks sick. Croupy cough. Sounds sick.
    What do you do? You don't say, "Well, I guess we better raise it as our own." You don't shrug and go put the tot back on the curb. Someone needs to take care of this sick baby that appeared on your curb. Someone who is not you. 
     And who may that someone be? Well, you probably dial 911, which brings, the police, or an ambulance, or both. Which are representatives of—stay with me here, this is the big leap—the government. Now if the police officer, or ambulance driver, looked at the baby, and said, "Gee, we just do crime. Sick abandoned babies aren't our problem," and turned to go, you would be shocked. Because you think you live in a nation that cares about that kind of thing. Because you expect the government to do its job. Which at the moment includes doing something about this baby.
     That's about my mindset right now. I'm shocked. I'm shocked that such a minimal, meat and potatoes, in-every-country-but-ours health insurance plan like Barack Obama's is being met by this collective Republican mental breakdown. There is no other term for it. I hate condemning the other side so roundly—the Tea Party has given that practice a bad name—but it is the only way to describe what is happening here. The Republican House has doused the whole country with gasoline and lit a match. The government is shutting down over something every other industrialized country has wholeheartedly embraced, years ago. Even the Republicans, who hate Obama with a fierce and undying passion, at some point, you think they'd say: "Okay, we despise him, but the country really needs this. People get sick, they need insurance. It's immoral otherwise. And it's the law—passed by Congress, approved by the president, who not only won in 2012, but thumped us. The Supreme Court said it was okay."  
    Political rancor is nothing new, though it feels like we have sailed into new and unwelcome territory. The Republicans hated Franklin D. Roosevelt, too, but they still helped fight the Nazis. Would they do so again today?
    The baby, of course, is unfair; it puts a thumb on the scale of your judgment, because it's a baby. An appeal to your emotions. What if it were a 4-year-old girl? Same thing, right? How about a 12-year-old boy? You'd leave him to die on the curb? No, you take him in too, give him cocoa. How about if he's 14? 18? What if he's black? 
     You can shift the specifics of exactly what kind of person is out there, sick on the curb and feel your sympathy and concern drain away. Or maybe not. In my view of the world, whoever is out on that curb, sick, you want to live in a society that tries to take care of that person, at least a little. That's what makes me a left wing wacko liberal. Or maybe just less of a hypocrite than the Republicans. They'd sure want to live in that caring society if the sick person were their precious selves. Or their families. I have yet to hear anyone say, "You know, I lost my job, and lost my health insurance, so now I'm digging graves in the backyard for myself and my family because when we get sick we'll be too weak to. Nobody to blame but ourselves."
     Maybe they never think it through that much. Maybe they never wonder how they can be so fiercely certain that unchecked gun ownership is a basic civil right, but health care isn't. That seems a moral inversion.  
     The shutdown of the government is shameful and the pending default on our financial obligations is shameful. The hypocritical, unfair blame that the Republicans pour on their opponents make flinging the same back at them sound hollow, as much as they are worthy of it. Their wild partisanship corrupts the very idea of one side being wrong, and forces the thinking person toward an undeserved balance. Though in the end, there is no reason to divide the blame by party. That is our entire government shutting down, our collected leaders who are doing it, the Republican side pushing the crisis, the Democratic side weak enough to permit it. We can all agree on that, can't we? It's happening. It's happened, with no end in sight. Who's at fault doesn't ultimately matter. The American people are at fault. The buck stops there. It is we who elected these guys, who will re-elect most of them. It is we who should be disturbed and aghast, but somehow, incredibly, we aren't. It is we who hardly seem to notice or care, at times, which is how we got into this mess in the first place. Though I bet we will start noticing now. I hope we do.