Never Again…

I was on a plane, third in the queue for take-off to the northeast from Laguardia Airport, when the second tower was hit. From my window seat on the right side, I had a straight line of sight view to downtown Manhattan, and the resulting explosion.

Just a moment later, our captain came on the PA and said simply and quietly, "It's a sad day for America, we're going back to the gate."

My wife Ellie had dropped me off about 45 minutes earlier, and was on her way to her parent's home on Long Island at the time, without a cell phone in those days. It took about an hour to reach her with reassurances that mine was not one of the planes involved in the tragedy.

We had spent the night of 9/10 in Manhattan, at our favorite hotel, and woke up on that terribly bright, cloudless Tuesday fully convinced that the most memorable thing about our visit would be having had drinks 6 feet away from Paul McCartney in Bemelman's Bar the prior evening.

Instead, my memories are of the experience related above, followed by several days of shocked numbness, TV running round the clock, with one thought surfacing again and again, "Our world has changed."

It had, but excepting for the victims, life would go on. A week after the events, Ellie and I were back on a plane, headed home to California. I've flown something close to ten million miles over the years, and it's been a long time since I've been a nervous flier (if I ever was). I'll admit however to having a start at each and every bump on that flight, and to looking at my fellow passengers with a different sort of curiosity than ever before.

Exactly six months later, we were back in NY, on the night the pale blue memorial towers of light were lit.Twin_towers_tribute_of_light

We were there a month later too, when they were extinguished.

Two 9/11's ago I flew home from NY to Oakland on Jet Blue, and spent the majority of the time watching the readings of the victims names, broadcast from Ground Zero, on the seat back TV, unable to stop watching, or crying.

The most affecting moment for me however came not on a 9/11 anniversary, but in the summer of 2002, when we were looking for a home to purchase on Long Island. One of the nicest we saw was on the north shore of Nassau county. It was a large, old place, with tons of character and the kind of warmth that comes from being a home to a nice family. Swing set in the backyard. Family pictures arranged on tables throughout the living room. Bar set in the butler's pantry, ready at hand for an end-of-day drink…

A drink that would never be enjoyed, we learned however, because at that point in our tour the realtor answered one of our questions, gaze averted, by explaining that this house was being sold by a 9/11 widow. I can still picture the monogrammed glasses, the half full carafes of scotch and gin, the silver tray… and it all comes back.

A Small Step Forward

Idea for how students should be prep'd for the president's talk to them on Tuesday…

The teachers should say something like this:

We're a country built on ideas. Some of these ideas end up as laws that govern the basic rights, responsibilities and duties we have as citizens. Others shape how our money is spent, how we trade with other nations and when we go to war.

These ideas get developed, debated and ultimately decided on in the process we know as politics. It's often pretty messy and loud, and people (both professional politicians and the folks who elect them to office) tend to band together into groups where everyone shares pretty much the same ideas, and says the same things.

All too often, they stop listening to folks outside their group, and start just labeling them (sometimes with nasty names). Once this happens, progress in ideas stop moving forward, and our governing processes break down.

Churchill This is one of the reasons that a very famous man once began a sentence by saying, "Democracy is the worst form of government…". How he finished that sentence is pretty important however. Here's the full statement he made (after losing an election), "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Democracy only works well however when we all listen, really listen and try to understand, most importantly to what others who think differently from us are saying.

We can't really learn much if we only listen to others who think exactly like us, can we?

OK, so today, we're going to listen to what the President has go to say. And then tonight, with your parents, I'd like you to listen to a few news programs about today's speech, and what others are saying about it; some will agree with Mr. Obama, others will disagree.

What I'd like you to do is to write down as many of the ideas supportive of what the president says as you hear and think of yourselves, and as many opposing ideas you hear and can think of too. The goal is not to judge right and wrong ideas, only to listen for them, and to try and understand what they mean.

Judgement should only come later… after understanding. Understanding can only come through learning and thoughtful consideration. Learning starts with listening to others, especially those with ideas different from our own.

We'll talk about this more tomorrow. Now let's listen, really listen…

Coda: Now, who's going to prep the parents?

Changing Health Care: What’s the Challenge?: The Balance Sheet : The New Yorker

Not to beat up on David Brooks two days in a row, but his Op-Ed piece in today’s Times is a bit peculiar. Brooks’s argument in the piece is that instead of pushing for incremental reform, the Obama Administration should be pushing for fundamental reform, and particularly that it should be pushing for the kinds of reforms that can bring about serious cost control in the health-care industry. This is a reasonable position, even if I think Brooks is dramatically underestimating the difficulty of selling this idea to the American public, and even if he also seems strangely indifferent to the importance of helping people who are currently uninsured get affordable insurance (even in the absence of cost controls). What’s strange about Brooks’s piece, then, isn’t the thesis. Instead, it’s his assumption that the Obama Administration is somehow unaware of—or indifferent to—the importance of cost controls. So Brooks writes that if he were advising Obama before next week’s big speech on health care, he’d “ask Obama to go to the Brookings Institution Web site and read a report called ‘Bending the Curve: Effective Steps to Address Long-Term Health Care Spending Growth.’ ”


I like James Surowiecki. David Brooks too. But they're talking past each other in their respective pieces. Common malady.

Putting aside all of the specific policy pros and cons of the current debate, it seems to me that Obama is committing one fundamental error in his push for health care reform, compounded by another of near equal magnitude: He hasn't focused his proposal and supporting arguments, and he's run too far out ahead of the centrist majority whose support is critical to effecting any major change in how things are done in our country.

I think that this is Brooks' central point, although it's obscured by his less compelling specific assertions and opinions. And Surowiecki is quarreling with a straw man argument about Obama being in touch and listening.

My two cents:

Obama needs to say in effect, "I believe that there are many things that can, and likely should be improved about how we deliver and pay for health care in this country. But right now, I want to focus us all on one thing: [INSERT HERE: (1) We should be getting a lot more value for our money, or (2) We can't leave the 40 million of our neighbors who want and need health care out in the cold without an affordable way to get it, or (3) The system is stacked with too many unfair advantages in favor of powerful interests, and all of us are getting hurt and paying the bill as a result]. Further, I believe we know what to do about it, and now's the time to roll up our sleeves and do it. This is not about hoisting one agenda over another, or some big social engineering project. It's simply about fixing a problem that we need to deal with now, for our own good, and for the good of our children. Here's how…."

By allowing a smorgasbord of ideas, developed in Congress with minimal guidance from his administration, to bubble up as "his" plan, it was inevitable that it would lack focus (or even coherence).

By focusing his bully pulpit remarks almost entirely on the need to do something, RIGHT NOW, he's left many folks, (especially in the center, where they don't have animating agendas that pre-define their views on matters such as this), with the most basic of questions:

  1. What problem are we trying to solve?
  2. What are we going to do about it, exactly?
  3. If it involves spending more money, where will than come from?
  4. How will it effect me and my family?
  5. Why are you rushing to push something through, when the answers to 1 – 4 aren't clear? (I'm not sure I can grant you a "Trust me…" on this just yet — don't know you well enough.)

If you want to get something complex done, you'd better focus. And you had better make sure that when you look back at your supporters, most of them are still there, right behind you.