Friday, February 26, 2010

Forum doesn't cure health care reform

Yesterday's health care forum was an extraordinary political and governmental event, a formal meeting of the executive and legislative branches to seek a compromise on one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the decade. But it seems unlikely that it will result in a legislative breakthrough. Although discussions were reported to be civil, neither side had an epiphany that would bring about a deal.

The rhetoric indicates both sides are deluding themselves. Republicans postured as the defenders of the public, who, they said, doesn't want health care reform. They cited polls showing opposition to the health care bill pushed by Democrats in the Senate and the House. But the Republican leaders are ignoring polls showing widespread, nearly universal dissatisfaction with the cobbled-together, unintended system of job-based health care insurance we now have. The public decries the high costs of coverage, which most workers are sharing with their employers, the arbitrary and unexplained changes in coverage, the arcane and inexplicable rules about what is and isn't covered, and the fundamental unfairness of denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions or other reasons. The public as a whole thinks the current system leaves a lot to be desired. If Republicans expect to gain by keeping the same old system without any changes while health care costs continue to rise exponentially, they're deluding themselves and misleading the public.

Democrats, however, seem to have a tin ear when it comes to constituents' desires. Most voters want the current system fixed, meaning that their primary complaints with health insurance would be resolved. That incremental reform should not be so complicated, but Democrats in Congress have pushed complex bills that would overhaul the entire system of health insurance (while leaving health care itself largely untouched). Various aspects of these massive bills raise objections from the public, and conservative opponents of the legislation have harped on these individual provisions, sometimes in misleading and disingenuous ways.

Now Democratic leaders are threatening to push their legislation through using a simple-majority reconciliation provision, avoiding a procedural vote requiring 60 senators to end debate. Although Democrats have 59 reliable votes in the Senate, using reconciliation would be a suicidal maneuver. Yes, reconciliation has been used in the past, as Majority Leader Harry Reid has said, but the rare invoking of reconciliation has been limited to final budget votes, not to substantive new laws as complicated as this one.

Democrats should be able to push through many, if not most, of the provisions in their overall plan through a series of individual bills, each one addressing a health care concern, such as denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions. They should be able to attract a number of Republican votes on many of the provisions. If Republicans refuse to take part, they will be revealed as partisan obstructionists more interested in political points than in legislation.

President Obama has taken much of the blame for the failure of health care reform, and he is guilty of misjudging the recalcitrance of both parties. By leaving the legislation up to Congress, avoiding the 1993 mistakes of Bill Clinton, he has tied his popularity to a Congress that is seen as less trustworthy than used car dealers or pool sharks. But give Obama credit for being willing to compromise (although his left-wing supporters were aghast over his shifts).

For all its historic significance, yesterday's health care forum looks like it will not result in any breakthrough, leaving Democrats and Republicans with the task of finding common ground, if they can, on an issue that has sharply divided a public that wants reform but not that reform.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Young people keep faith, lose religion

America is losing its faith. Or is it?

An intriguing Pew Foundation study has found that Americans are not as religiously affiliated as they used to be. Younger Americans, especially the Gen X'ers (born 1965-1980) and the Millennials (born 1981 or after), are much less likely to have a church affiliation or to profess membership in any particular church or faith. That much probably doesn't surprise church-goers a whole lot. Look around the congregation, and you're far more likely to see gray hair and bald heads than the latest 'dos of the younger generation.

What is interesting is that, although Americans are less likely to profess a religious affiliation, they resemble their elders in responses to questions about belief in God, belief in an afterlife and belief in miracles. Although they say they pray on a regular basis, for instance, just 26 percent of the Millennials are affiliated with any religious group. The Pew study delves into a variety of beliefs and habits, including views of the factuality of the Bible and the concept of evolution, and these findings will no doubt provide fodder for hundreds of church evaluations and pastoral seminars for years to come.

Just the contradictions of the Pew findings are enough to keep a minister's mind spinning. Young people believe in God, pray to God and believe in divine miracles, but they don't belong to any religious organization or subscribe to any particular faith. It's difficult to explain this apparent contradiction.

Perhaps the lack of religious affiliation is related to the younger generations' general lack of confidence in all institutions. Civic clubs and charities struggle to find members and volunteers because the American ethos of volunteerism and civic involvement, which was chronicled by de Tocqueville 175 years ago, seems to be dying away.

Churches face some unique obstacles in attracting the carefree young. Religious worship requires a quietness and concentration that is often not appealing to raucous age groups. Some churches have responded with rock music, drama and a casualness that would appall our religious forebears in an effort to lure youthful wanderers. The Pew research finds "mainstream" Protestant churches lagging behind evangelical Protestant churches in attracting younger members, but it's not clear whether that is the result of different worship style or more evangelical (proselytizing) practices.

When people tell me, as some have, that "I'm not religious, but I am spiritual," I want to tell them to stop trying to be an oxymoron. Religion is spiritual, and spirituality is religious. Worshiping with other believers is rewarding and fulfilling. "Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there," Jesus promised, and most religions encourage group worship. Those who say they believe in God and heaven and miracles but eschew church affiliation are like musicians who refuse to play with other musicians. They're missing most of the joy and excitement of their efforts.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Recession's impact extends to society

The recovery is upon us. Long live the recovery.

But not so fast. Recent articles are predicting that this recession that is officially, statistically in the past, might linger for years, even a decade. The New York Times is proclaiming the arrival of what it calls "the new poor." Long term unemployment — meaning more than six months — is at the highest level ever recorded. The United States has kept track of this statistic since 1948. In January, 6.3 million Americans were in the long-term unemployed category. For people who are unemployed for a long time, the job market is increasingly frustrating. And a long period of unemployment raises doubts in the minds of potential employers. "If this guy was any good, why hasn't he found a job before now?"

In a long and depressing article, the march Atlantic magazine peers into the economic future and sees gloom and doom. Writer Don Peck points out that there is more at stake here than a few economic statistics. Long-term unemployment and under-employment can transform society. Some cities may become hopelessly dysfunctional because of a lack of jobs. When people are out of work for a long time and their government benefits give out, they turn to whatever they can to survive, including robberies, larcenies and drug dealing. Lingering unemployment will affect the institution of marriage, Peck says. Men don't think about marriage, and women don't want to marry them, when they're unemployed. Unemployment is already affecting marriage and relationships. Men accustomed to being breadwinners are disproportionately affected by this recession. Their self-esteem and self-worth are damaged, and this affects their relationships with wives and girlfriends. In some areas, marriage might fade away among a working class frustrated and embittered by the lack of jobs.

The recovery from each recession over the past 20 years has been slow to rebuild the jobs that were lost, and job growth has slowed more with each recovery. We're almost certainly going to face unemployment in the high single digits for the 2010 and 2012 elections, and these numbers will have political repercussions. Jobs will be harder to find, especially for older males in declining industries, and those available will go only to the well-prepared and most fortunate. Unless new tax and tariff policies bring back some of the manufacturing jobs that have been lost to foreign competitors, there seems to be little hope of keeping the social fabric knit together.

The rending of the social fabric and the loss of communitarian identity and involvement, which has already begun, is even more frightening than a double-digit unemployment rate.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Don't do that to your grandchildren

President Obama could hardly have found two better co-chairs of his new deficit reduction commission than Erskine Bowles, the former White House chief of staff and current UNC president, and Alan Simpson, the retired Wyoming senator. But it's hard to be optimistic about the commission's chances.

On the day of Bowles' and Simpson's appointment, conservative Republicans were engaging in an ideological purity festival, egged on by former Vice President Dick Cheney. These conservatives sounded an alarm that they were ready to destroy their own political party (and its golden opportunity in 2010 elections) by demanding fealty to their doctrine. Their purge would eliminate anyone willing to consider new or increased taxes to solve the nation's deficit problem or anyone willing to even talk to Democrats. Disregarding the catastrophic consequences of doing nothing, these true believers made it clear they would prefer to destroy the nation than to raise taxes.

Democrats seem no less intransigent. The Democratic leadership in Congress seems just as adamant about its own ideology and its unwillingness to make serious spending cuts in a federal budget that is $1.4 trillion in the red this year or to abandon the system of earmarks to which they've become addicted. Both parties seem more interested in making partisan points than in governing. It's no wonder the public's faith in Congress is astoundingly low.

Simpson and Bowles made it clear that everything would be on the table in their deliberations. That means Social Security benefits, payroll taxes, income taxes, estate taxes, Medicaid, Medicare, defense, entitlements, etc., etc. That is as it has to be. There is no easy way out of this dilemma, and time is short before our profligate spending really hits the fan. Whole programs will have to be eliminated; revenue will have to be increased.

If these painful actions are not taken, both Bowles and Simpson emphasized, our grandchildren will suffer egregiously. Why would we do that to our grandchildren?

Once found guilty, he's an innocent man

By any measure, it's a historic moment: A man found guilty has, 17 years later, been found innocent.

The extraordinary tale of Greg Taylor, found innocent by a commission of three judges this week after being convicted of murder by a jury of his peers in 1993, should send shivers up the spine of the criminal justice system. Taylor owes his freedom to North Carolina's unique Innocence Commission, which has the power to review allegedly wrongful convictions and find convicted prisoners innocent, regardless of what a jury might have found. Testimony at the hearing into Taylor's conviction found that exculpatory evidence was ignored, evidence presented to jurors was misleading or incomplete and police and prosecutors focused their investigation on Taylor and ignored contradictory evidence.

But here's the clincher: A jury can be wrong. Other men have been exonerated in recent years by new DNA evidence that had not been available at trial. Darryl Hunt was twice convicted of rape and murder before DNA evidence proved his innocence. Dwayne Dail was identified by a rape victim and convicted, but DNA evidence proved the victim's identification to be wrong. What makes Taylor's exoneration unique is that DNA evidence was not involved. Here was a case of a judicial commission determining that a jury had been misled in coming to a wrong conclusion.

The constitutional protection of a jury of one's peers assumes that 12 people will be able to sift the truth from evidence fairly presented at trial. This system reforms an earlier, easily abused system of verdicts handed down by monarchs, chiefs, dictators or appointed judges. But the current system is obviously not foolproof, and the weak link may be the prosecutors. In North Carolina, district attorneys wield tremendous power. They can decide what charges to file and when to hold a trial. District attorneys control the court calendar, giving them great leverage over a defendant or defense attorney by dragging out pretrial confinement or selecting a favorable judge. And in some cases, we now know, prosecutors can present incomplete or misleading evidence in their search for a conviction. North Carolina elects district attorneys, but these elections are only rarely high-profile. And some high-profile D.A. elections go horribly wrong, as in the case of Mike Nifong in Durham.

Greg Taylor will never get 17 years of his life back. Darryl Hunt will never get two decades of his life back (though he did get a large financial settlement). The defendants in the Edenton Little Rascals day care scandal had their lives ruined on the basis of perhaps well-intentioned but clearly hysterical and unfounded claims about child abuse.

The Innocence Commission is a brave step in righting wrongs in the criminal justice system, but the state could go further. Prosecutorial misconduct should be better monitored, and district attorneys' imbalance of power in the system should be limited (an independent trial calendar manager would be a simple step). That said, the vast majority of convictions in North Carolina are fair and just. Most of the time, the system works as it was designed to. But even one mistake is one too many.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

'To dust you shall return'

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The Ash Wednesday liturgy takes on a greater poignancy at times when we are faced with the limitations of life. I've attended more than my usual share of funerals in the past month, and although some were called "celebrations of life," their sadness was not diminished by a more upbeat name. Tonight I wear crossed black smears on my forehead as unnecessary reminders of the limits mankind has known since the days of Adam and has recognized philosophically at least since the writing of the Torah some 3,000 or so years ago. Each funeral, each painful passing, each empty chair reminds us that our lives are as fleeting as the windblown dust and as commonplace as the dust itself.

We delude ourselves by thinking that we are important, that we are more than the dust of the earth or that our importance will last. Ash Wednesday reminds us that our greatest achievements, our grandest schemes and adventures are nothing more than cosmic dust in a universe more vast than our minds can comprehend.

The 40 days of Lent begin, like the first day of boot camp or football practice, by tearing down the ego so that it can be rebuilt. The Lenten season — so called from the lengthening of the days at this time of year — ends with the triumph of Easter. The Resurrection gives hope where there was none, glimmers of precious gems among the dust. When the windblown dust has settled, its force, its sting, its beauty and its love will live on in collective memories.

You are dust, but the dust will not be soon forgotten.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Goodbye, dating; hello, relationships

It's the day after Valentine's Day and a time for some reflection on the unofficial holiday devoted to romance. More than one recent article has indicated that romance, as Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and our parents or grandparents knew it, is dead. An article in Sunday's News & Observer included this comment: "He points to the work of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, who theorizes that we've moved from a marriage system to a relationship system." Whitehead, who has researched and written extensively on family issues, has exposed the elephant in the room.
Forty years ago, when I was pursuing the single life, sexual relationships were based on "dating." We followed a ritual that had been developed centuries before to replace the arranged marriages that began in ancient times. The suitor, meaning the male, humbly approached the female and asked for the pleasure of her company. The ritual was woven from preconceptions of etiquette, familial interests, class biases (the son of cotton-mill workers would be frighteningly reluctant to ask out the daughter of the town physician, for example), and protection of young girls, who were viewed as fragile and largely defenseless. Although this ritual changed over the centuries, it was essentially based in Victorian and pre-Victorian mores.
There seems to be little left of that grand ritual today. As this New York Times article notes, college-age students rarely "date" anymore. On campuses, such as UNC-Chapel Hill, where women outnumber men, women make themselves readily available without all of the anxiety of asking out and being asked out. We've gone from a dating culture to a hooking-up culture. Romance has been replaced by "relationships," which are often short-lived and serial.
When my younger daughter was in college 15 years ago, I was shocked to discover that the formal parlors where young men had waited nervously for their dates to meet them on the ground floor of women's dormitories had been eliminated entirely. The huge room with comfortable sofas, formal draperies and a grand piano was nothing more than an empty space where male and female students passed each other, barely noticing. That entire culture, and the expectations it involved, had been swept away into the ash heap of history. Formal dating had been replaced by group rendezvous or casual hook-ups. The ritual dance had been eliminated; the eventual goal, a sexual encounter, had been expedited.
Some would argue that the elimination of the pantomimes and the counterfeit obsequiousness is a good thing, but I'm not so sure. Despite all the disappointments and anxieties of the old system, it worked pretty well for a long time. There is a certain pitiable desperation described in the NY Times article of well-turned-out young women cruising bars looking for a hook-up that might, somehow, turn into something long-term.
Not that I wouldn't have enjoyed such a culture when I was 20 years old. When I was in college, men outnumbered women by about five-to-one until the university concluded that favoring male applicants over females, which it had done for generations, was illegal. Men were the desperate ones, angling for a date, sometimes resorting to bringing in a date from a "girls' school" or back home. But the culture of the times dictated that even in that desperation, men must follow the ritual — the uncertainty of anxiously and humbly beseeching the woman's favor and attending to her interests.
It was not a perfect system, and it was salted with anxiety for both men and women. But its formal rites provided protections that are missing in today's informalities.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

This is my kind of snow

Today's snow, which started last night with soft, feathery flakes falling silently in the darkness, is the kind of snow poets and lyricists extol. The light, fluffy flakes are stuck to every leaf and branch, coating every adornment like a thick layer of confectioner's sugar icing. The world takes on the appearance of a bakery's display case. Best of all, little has stuck asphalt, leaving roads mostly clear. Few travels will be disrupted by this snow, and the relatively high temperature, hovering just below freezing, and the lack of wind make it possible to go outside and enjoy this fresh decoration. My wife and I took pictures of the fluffy icing coating our plants.
In the past decade, this area has known a few winters when no snow fell, but this year is giving us an excess of snow (but not nearly so much as our neighbors a few hours to the north). For native southerners, one good snow a year is our custom. Any less, and
we're disappointed. Any more, and we lose our composure.
The storm two weekends ago left us with the worst kind of snow — wet and icy, with temperatures well below freezing, turning streets and sidewalks into danger zones. It made us pine for springtime. Today's snow is much more to my liking — a soft, silent blanket that cushions the winter and leaves the streets alone. And because it's coming on a weekend, few people have to risk their lives getting to work on slippery streets.
This is the kind of snow almost everyone, and not just the snow bunnies, can enjoy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

'Fiasco' or 'Debacle' by any other name

At the Wilson County Public Library a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a book I'd been wanting to read for several years but had never gotten around to. Part of the problem was I kept getting the title wrong: I kept thinking "Debacle," but the title of Tom Ricks' 2006 book is "Fiasco." It's an apt title for his thorough history of American errors in the Iraq War.
Ricks' analysis of all the things that went wrong — and almost everything went wrong or was based on false assumptions — is devastating. From the initial decision to launch the invasion, based on the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that he was tied to the 9/11 attacks, to the failure to secure weapons caches that later supplied the insurgency, to the failure to plan for post-invasion governance, the Bush administration misjudged and mismanaged everything.
In one sense, the history of the early years of the Iraq War, which is still not over (we still have 100,000-plus troops there), is a Greek tragedy. Hubris, that personality flaw that drives so many Greek tragedies, is evident aplenty in this history. The neo-conservatives in the Bush administration were so absolutely certain that they knew what was best for Iraqis and how Iraqis would react to an invasion that they never considered what might happen if Iraqis did not welcome invaders with open arms or if the toppling of Saddam's regime resulted in anarchic chaos. The planners of this war apparently never considered the impact of sectarian hatred or the absence of any history of democratic institutions. The key players in this tragedy — Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle — stubbornly stuck to their preconceived notions of how this adventure should end, despite the devolution in other directions.
The invasion of Iraq has been called the worst foreign policy mistake in American history, and Ricks' book does nothing to rebut that assertion. In fact, his history of this debacle, revealing the short-sighted assumptions and the failures to face reality, adds support to that accusation.
I've read that Ricks' follow-up book, "The Gamble," is kinder toward the Bush administration. "The Gamble" reports on Bush's decision to order a "surge" in troop strength in 2007 — a reversal of the 2003 doctrine to use minimal manpower — which succeeded in dramatically improving security in Iraq and making possible national elections and, it is hoped, the withdrawal of American troops. If "The Gamble" is as thorough, revealing, interesting and well-written as "Fiasco," it also will be worth a read.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Unemployment has psychological impact

The Sunday headline reads: "Long-time jobless fight rejection, fear, despair." Tell me about it.

Even four months into a new job, I still feel the impact of a year without a job. Early on, I had confided that I considered changes in a job to which I had devoted almost half my life to be a test of character, and I swore that I would not be bitter. But that's easier said than done, especially as the weeks dragged into months and all of the job applications and hopeful contacts turned up nothing. And for the jobless of a certain age (say, 50 or older), discrimination is tangible but unprovable.

There were times when I felt grateful for the many words of commiseration and encouragement I received, but there were also times of deep despair when my frustration got the better of me. There were days when my mood ranged from homicidal to suicidal, but, fortunately, those days were few and never led to any rash action.

But the point of Sunday's story is well taken: Unemployment is more than a financial predicament; it's a mental health issue. Despair is a cloak that is easy to slip into. Frustration comes often. Discouragement is always lurking at the door. Self-esteem sinks like a lead weight. Confidence crumbles. Only the support of family and friends allowed me to bear the disappointment and disillusionment. Others have a harder time than I. In a nation that has lost 7 million jobs, many have been out of work longer than the year I endured. Jobs will come back slowly, but self-esteem and self-confidence will be even slower to recover. It's not just the money.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sears falls into economic abyss

The news out Thursday that Sears would close its Wilson Mall store is staggering, especially coming on the heels of last week's announcement that Home Depot was closing its new store in Wilson. (I would post a link here to the Wilson Times article, but the newspaper's online pay wall prohibits that.) That's two stores and scores of jobs about to vanish.

The 2008-09 economic downturn has been hard on businesses everywhere. I'm guessing (I haven't seen numbers reported) that dozens of businesses in Wilson have gone belly-up in the past couple of years. I can think of a half dozen or so without straining my memory. Each business failure marks the end of a dream and the quashing of an opportunity. The failure of Sears and Home Depot are different because they are parts of large and strong national corporations.

Home Depot seemed stillborn from the time it demolished the old Kmart building in Gateway Plaza until it gave up on the location. Competing with more established Lowe's just a few hundred yards away, Home Depot never seemed to get off the ground. The few times I visited the store, customers were scarce, and the selection seemed more limited than at Lowe's.

When Sears announced it would add onto the then-Parkwood Mall, the prospects seemed promising. The mall needed an upgrade, but Sears would bring in more traffic and help smaller shops there. But the Hull-Storey purchase of the mall and the departure of Belk for the new Heritage Crossing shopping center marked the downward spiral of the mall. Although Hull-Storey scored with a new cinema complex and an interior refurbishing, the stores the new owners brought in never matched the ones that left. Steve and Barry's took over the old Belk space but never generated much traffic. Moving K&W Cafeteria to an outside location reduced traffic inside the mall. Retailers who filled the spaces seemed to target cut-rate buyers rather than the sophisticated. City Hall at the Mall seemed like a good idea, but even that space looks under-utilized. Instead of mall customers, the complex was attracting Penney's customers and Sears customers, and too few of the latter. City Council obediently and enthusiastically weakened the city's sign ordinance to allow the mall to install humongous digital signs in two locations. While the mall deteriorates, the city is left with the two execrable eyesores and the precedent they set.

Sears' inventory of appliances, hardware, tools and gardening supplies, along with clothes and shoes, provided convenient, efficient shopping, but too many Wilson shoppers apparently have migrated to Heritage Crossing or other locations. For the first time, Wilson might be without a Sears location. For many years before the mall location opened, Sears operated a catalog store here, where customers could order products shown in the then-ubiquitous Sears catalog. Online shopping has made catalog stores obsolete, so this city will likely be without a Sears outlet.

The closings of Sears and Home Depot are another crushing blow to the face of an already bludgeoned local economy. Empty storefronts are multiplying, along with job losses. The shocks and aftershocks from this economic earthquake are leaving retail rubble that will be a long time in rebuilding.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Online commerce has miraculous selections

Modern consumers' dependence upon the Internet was emphasized to me recently when I broke the carafe to our coffee maker. I had picked up the carafe when I bumped it against the kitchen counter, leaving a small hole that left the glass carafe worthless.

Twenty years ago, or even more recently, I would have gone back to the store where my wife had bought the coffee maker and asked whether it carried replacement carafes, but it wouldn't. It might carry a few generic, one-size-fits-all carafes for the most popular models. Ours was not the most popular model, but we loved its features and it made good coffee. We bought our coffee maker on a clearance sale, and the store might not even carry the brand any more. With few alternatives, I would be left with a worthless coffee maker that worked perfectly except for the lack of a carafe to hold the coffee.

Thanks to the Internet, however, I Googled the name brand of the coffee maker and quickly found an online store that sold the exact replacement carafe I needed, and the price was in line with the generic replacement carafes that wouldn't fit our brand. The shipping was as much as the carafe itself but still worth it. I placed the order online and had the new carafe — a perfect fit — within three-to-five business days.

This would not be possible without online commerce. You can lament the toll online stores have taken on neighborhood businesses (but I doubt that they are as detrimental to locally owned shops as big-box discount stores), but it's hard to argue with the convenience and nearly miraculous selection available.

My wife and I are not big-time Internet shoppers, but when you need a specific, rare item, online commerce makes products available you never would have found only a few years ago, and that's a good thing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Snowy days and dangerous thrills

I'm well past the days when a thin layer of snow was cause for ecstatic celebration, though the memories of those days are clear in my mind. Snow was such a rarity that we would rush from the house, bundled in caps and gloves and coats and galoshes, to mash snowballs into shape and to see our very own footprints in a field of pure, perfect white. Traipsing through the woods at the back of my parents' property, I would find a wonderland of white icing on pine and sweetgum boughs and a creek anchored with ice. A piece of cardboard or a board would serve as a sled (snow was too rare to justify the investment in a real sled), but taking a running start and sliding on our feet across a sheet of ice was as exciting as any Winter Olympics event.

This week, I've recalled those childhood days, which lasted into my college years, when dorm-mates would "do figure-eights" with their Volkswagen beetles in icy, empty parking lots. Some of those activities, particularly those involving automobiles or walking on a frozen creek, are, in reflection, too dangerous. What I've seen this week — a repeat from previous years when snow covered the streets near my house — really frightened me. Grown men driving four-wheelers towed children behind them through the snowy streets. A rope tied to the sled or snow disc or inner tube and hitched to the off-road vehicle seemed to thrill the children piled on the towed object, but I cringed each time I saw one go past. No one stopped them; no one questioned the use of unlicensed off-road vehicles on city streets.

All it would take, I realized, would be a passing motorist going into a skid on the ice and plowing into the unprotected children. Or that snow disc could swing wide at a corner and crash into a street-side tree or utility pole. This thrill ride was a tragedy waiting for the right circumstances. Before the echo of their laughter absorbed into the soft snow, those kids could be seriously injured or worse. And snow would never be fun again.