What if the US had to write a constitution from scratch?

(Also appeared in the August 19, 2005 Christian Science Monitor)

What if, like the new Iraq, we in America had a matter of months to draft a new Constitution? Could we do it? No way – we can barely meet our annual October budget deadline.

First, we’d argue over whether current amendments should stick around; over whether there should be new language articulating a right of privacy. Someone would float a provision protecting the flag from the scourge of desecration. Another would propose limiting the right to bear arms, so Uzis don’t flood the cafes. Someone would maintain it’s critical for us to define when life begins, so we can protect the unborn from abortion. And so on. You can make your own list from today’s headlines.

Indeed, the main stumbling blocks for the Iraqi negotiators – the status of religion in government and its effect on women; the way to parcel out cash-generating natural resources; and the way the political parties can coexist – are ones we share here, in the land of the free. Recall, as just one example, the fierce battles over the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courtroom.

On many of these questions, I fear we’d never agree. Like the Iraqi negotiators, we’d need another week. At least.

I feel for the Iraqis, portrayed in the media as bumbling when it comes to new nation stuff. The Bush administration doesn’t help in this respect, damning with faint praise its efforts to develop a police force and speaking of “training wheels.”

The White House response to Monday’s missed deadline, while calculated to put the best spin on things, has clear notes of disappointment, as when reluctantly giving a child a second chance at some task. Liberals, not to be outdone in the unhelpfulness department, have jumped on the setback as more evidence the war was a fool’s errand to begin with.

But a new constitution is a trick I doubt we could pull off here. Our pride in being the shining example of democracy is a bit overblown. We’re coasting on past successes.

For all the talk of a “real” America where people share a common ground, that place recedes into fiction the moment the public square is entered. Out in the public square, compromise is derided as capitulation, tolerance blasted as weakness. The atmosphere is brutal. Every advantage must be pursued, or your allies will excoriate and excommunicate you. Ask the senators in the “Gang of 14,” the ones who forged a compromise avoiding a shutdown of the Senate earlier this year, how happy their own party members were about the helpful efforts. Well, Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio, for one, is now facing a primary challenge.

What have we done for democracy lately? This isn’t a question posed to some government institution, or even a political party. This is a question we can all ask of ourselves. What have I done, today, to make the public square the kind of place where debate can occur? What have I done to ensure fairness for the other side as well as my own? Most important: What would I be willing to give up for the good of the nation and not just my corner?

These are unwelcome questions. They ask individual citizens to put their own well-being behind that of the nation. It’s the kind of sacrifice we ask of soldiers. We should ask it of ordinary people, too. And we should outright demand it from the political leaders who now pollute the public square with vitriol and make progress impossible.

In Crawford, Texas, grieving Cindy Sheehan won’t budge until she gets a meeting with the president so she can demand that he end the war in Iraq. President Bush has dug in, refusing to meet with her. Outside agitators have entered the fray, and it’s already escalated to vandalism and name-calling. Another bad example we should hope others don’t emulate.

Iraq, I’m optimistic, will be able to draft its constitution in a reasonable amount of time. Lives depend on this. Here at home, I’m just glad we don’t have to.

(c) 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. Used by permission.

It's What We Leave Behind

(From the August 15, 2005 edition of The Christian Science Monitor)

There we were, my son and I, at the top of a four-foot quarter-pipe ramp. We are learning “aggressive inline skating.” This particular ramp is one that always bothers me, because it starts vertically, and I often fall, skidding across the asphalt below. We watched as a car drove up and parked outside the fence. Out came two young boys, and a man. The man had on a helmet. “Good,” I thought. “Another old dude. I won’t feel so out of place.” I made it down the ramp and skated around.

This new pursuit has taken me back to my days in the schoolyard. I stand out by my height, my age, and my poor skills. When I strap on my skates and glide into the half pipe, I am 15 again: desperate to fit in, worried about being ridiculed by the bigger, better skaters.

This man was maybe five or 10 years older than I. His equipment was fancy and new. He and his boys had stickers from various cool-sounding places on their helmets. The boys were better than I ever hope to be – and the man was, too.

As we passed one another, I grinned and said hello. No response. Later, I tried to strike up a conversation, only to get cold shoulder. Finally, I asked him how he learned to skate, and where else he rode now.

I immediately regretted the maneuver. He announced that he had been on skates since he was 2 and that it really took a long time to get good. He pointed out all the things about the park we were in that he didn’t like – the ramps were angled wrong, they were arranged poorly, and the grind rails were the wrong shape. I felt enveloped in a black cloud.

I spent the next bit of time that afternoon moving away to a different ramp, trying to put distance between me and the black cloud. I tripped and fell more often than usual, as I wondered how lame he thought I was.

Then three more tall figures entered the park. They were not my age, however – 18, maybe 20. They looked like today’s version of juvenile delinquents, with bushy retro hair, super-baggy corduroy pants showing their boxers, and a squinty look on their faces.

They exploded onto the ramps and it was quickly clear that everyone else was outclassed. Great, I thought. Maybe I should pack it in.

I was again at the top of a quarter pipe. One of the newcomers popped up next to me as though he could fly. He smiled – genuine. “Hey, what’s up?” he asked in a laconic drawl.

“Nothing,” I mumbled. “Just trying to stay on my feet.”

“Right on,” he answered, and stuck out his hand to shake. I am certain I did it the wrong way. But he didn’t seem to mind.

“Check this out,” he said, pointing across the park to where his friend looked about to try some jump that would guarantee me a fall. He missed it and fell.

“Bummer,” said my new acquaintance. He skated over to the friend and shook his hand as he got up. From a distance, I learned the right way to shake hands if you are part of this subculture. It’s a sort of sideways finger tap.

The rest of the afternoon, I skated better than ever before, and had more fun than ever before. I tried things I hadn’t tried. Mastered new skills. I was transported by the sheer fun of trying to get air off the half pipe, and transfixed by the fluid, incredible moves of these three skaters.

My thoughts of the Negative Dad, as I had come to think of him, shrank smaller and smaller until I forgot about him.

I will probably never see my bushy-haired friends again. I doubt they will ever read this. But they taught me a lesson that I just can’t shake. It’s about sportsmanship. It’s not whether you win or lose, and it’s not how you play the game, either. What matters is what you leave behind and how you make the other players feel. After all, sports are not a big deal.They’re just games. Everyone ought to have fun.

The next weekend, at a different skate park, I tried out the new lesson. I hung out with the skaters who were my speed (mostly 11 years old and younger).

I spent much of my energy trying to make the people around me feel good about their skating. And they returned the favor, showing me tips and congratulating me on my small triumphs. We fed each others’ enthusiasm for hours. We all got better. We all had fun.

It was an awesome session, me and those kids.

(c) 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. Used by permission.

It’s What We Leave Behind

(From the August 15, 2005 edition of The Christian Science Monitor)

There we were, my son and I, at the top of a four-foot quarter-pipe ramp. We are learning “aggressive inline skating.” This particular ramp is one that always bothers me, because it starts vertically, and I often fall, skidding across the asphalt below. We watched as a car drove up and parked outside the fence. Out came two young boys, and a man. The man had on a helmet. “Good,” I thought. “Another old dude. I won’t feel so out of place.” I made it down the ramp and skated around.

This new pursuit has taken me back to my days in the schoolyard. I stand out by my height, my age, and my poor skills. When I strap on my skates and glide into the half pipe, I am 15 again: desperate to fit in, worried about being ridiculed by the bigger, better skaters.

This man was maybe five or 10 years older than I. His equipment was fancy and new. He and his boys had stickers from various cool-sounding places on their helmets. The boys were better than I ever hope to be – and the man was, too.

As we passed one another, I grinned and said hello. No response. Later, I tried to strike up a conversation, only to get cold shoulder. Finally, I asked him how he learned to skate, and where else he rode now.

I immediately regretted the maneuver. He announced that he had been on skates since he was 2 and that it really took a long time to get good. He pointed out all the things about the park we were in that he didn’t like – the ramps were angled wrong, they were arranged poorly, and the grind rails were the wrong shape. I felt enveloped in a black cloud.

I spent the next bit of time that afternoon moving away to a different ramp, trying to put distance between me and the black cloud. I tripped and fell more often than usual, as I wondered how lame he thought I was.

Then three more tall figures entered the park. They were not my age, however – 18, maybe 20. They looked like today’s version of juvenile delinquents, with bushy retro hair, super-baggy corduroy pants showing their boxers, and a squinty look on their faces.

They exploded onto the ramps and it was quickly clear that everyone else was outclassed. Great, I thought. Maybe I should pack it in.

I was again at the top of a quarter pipe. One of the newcomers popped up next to me as though he could fly. He smiled – genuine. “Hey, what’s up?” he asked in a laconic drawl.

“Nothing,” I mumbled. “Just trying to stay on my feet.”

“Right on,” he answered, and stuck out his hand to shake. I am certain I did it the wrong way. But he didn’t seem to mind.

“Check this out,” he said, pointing across the park to where his friend looked about to try some jump that would guarantee me a fall. He missed it and fell.

“Bummer,” said my new acquaintance. He skated over to the friend and shook his hand as he got up. From a distance, I learned the right way to shake hands if you are part of this subculture. It’s a sort of sideways finger tap.

The rest of the afternoon, I skated better than ever before, and had more fun than ever before. I tried things I hadn’t tried. Mastered new skills. I was transported by the sheer fun of trying to get air off the half pipe, and transfixed by the fluid, incredible moves of these three skaters.

My thoughts of the Negative Dad, as I had come to think of him, shrank smaller and smaller until I forgot about him.

I will probably never see my bushy-haired friends again. I doubt they will ever read this. But they taught me a lesson that I just can’t shake. It’s about sportsmanship. It’s not whether you win or lose, and it’s not how you play the game, either. What matters is what you leave behind and how you make the other players feel. After all, sports are not a big deal.They’re just games. Everyone ought to have fun.

The next weekend, at a different skate park, I tried out the new lesson. I hung out with the skaters who were my speed (mostly 11 years old and younger).

I spent much of my energy trying to make the people around me feel good about their skating. And they returned the favor, showing me tips and congratulating me on my small triumphs. We fed each others’ enthusiasm for hours. We all got better. We all had fun.

It was an awesome session, me and those kids.

(c) 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. Used by permission.