Last month, I helped my parents move from their home of 37 years. They left for a wise and simple reason: It had become too much for them to maintain. Yet my last few visits to the emptying house were hard; we were parting with four decades of reference points for memories major and mundane. Still, the day my folks resettled, new memories were waiting to be born.

Back at my own house, there's a back-yard pond. Alas, it no longer holds water. Try as I might, I can't patch the leak; I am inept, and water finds a way. But each spring, when the level is not too high and not yet too low, a pair of ducks flaps in to feed. This year they graced us with their presence every day for a month.

Established things change. Things that ought to work don't -- in life and in the community. New experiences, different and not necessarily bad, await.

I'm aware that I risk irrelevance in trotting out quaint anecdotes to a world full of real loss and upheaval and oppression. I also know that the silver-lining argument is as old as the sky.

We shouldn't stand by passively when good things threaten to go away. And if needed things are broken ... by all means, complain. These are requisite parts of progress.

But the good news is that the trite is true: The sun will come out tomorrow. And if not then, the day after that.

That's what I keep telling myself.

DAVID BANKS, Assistant Commentary Editor

Hope to me smells like carrot cake just out of the oven, simmering beef stew and other comfort food readied for delivery in the spacious kitchen of the Minneapolis nonprofit Open Arms.

I've been a volunteer driver for more than a year, stuffing three hay-bale-sized containers of food into my Volkswagen for weekly delivery to an Anoka County family. Open Arms provides ready-to-heat meals and groceries to those struggling with serious illnesses such as cancer or AIDS.

My pickups are on Wednesdays after a deadline-driven day at work. Walking into the airy new building on Bloomington Avenue always lifts my spirits.

The radio's tuned to upbeat music. The volunteers are laughing and having a good time as they bake and stir. Around the atrium are the names of the private donors who made it possible for Open Arms to build its new headquarters and help even more people.

The building's vibe is vibrant and very Minnesotan. We have a long history in this state of coming together for the common good -- usually with a hotdish in hand. Open Arms volunteers are just putting a modern twist on that.

No wonder the nonprofit feels like an oasis to someone in the news business, with its a relentless diet of tragedy, mayhem and vicious politics. Each day brings a steady and wearying stream of reminders that it's easier to tear something down instead of building it up.

Wednesdays at Open Arms are a welcome reminder that there are still "builders" out there in force working mightily to tilt the balance for the better.


At most graduations, I get a little misty-eyed. The ceremonies, filled with excited young faces and potential, help balance the negative news about education. (Budget cuts and achievement gaps can dampen the spirits.)

As a journalist, I realize that the difficult, bad-news stories must be brought to light to inform and encourage action to solve problems. But it's also important to focus on school success as inspiration to expand that success to more students.

That's why each year the cap-and-gown season gives me hope; it provides an opportunity to celebrate what's right with education. Especially encouraging are stories of beating the odds: The public and charter school teachers who do a great job educating the most disadvantaged kids. Former gang members and teen moms who do what it takes to finish high school. Immigrant kids from war-torn nations who overcome incredible obstacles to learn English and excel educationally. Young people who care for siblings and ailing parents and keep up with their studies. The local grandmother who takes in young people after school and on weekends to give them a safe place to learn life lessons and do their homework.

Those kinds of daily, in-the-trenches efforts provide the path for children to eventually walk across a graduation stage. And when they do, they give us hope for the future.


Several decades ago, during the last, decrepit years of the Soviet Union, I played host for some months to a young man from Moscow. He was scouting out the prospects of navigating -- not to say circumventing -- America's immigration system and bringing his family to the United States.

Oleg's plan worked; he lives in a northern suburb today. I also gained something invaluable from our time rooming together. Through his eyes I saw concretely, sometimes startlingly, my outrageous good fortune in being an American.

Whenever the failings of my country get me down (pretty often lately), I remember:

Oleg was dumbfounded by the ever-present courtroom dramas in American TV shows and movies. It baffled him that Americans found trials suspenseful, almost as if they had something to do with a search for truth. In the experience of a Soviet citizen, he explained, nothing was more depressingly predictable than the outcome of a trial. Every trial was a show trial (just the kind of legal system, one gathers, that demonizers of Casey Anthony's jury would prefer).

One day I took Oleg to the weekly newspaper I edited at the time. He had worked for a paper in Moscow, and he looked around our little newsroom carefully. "So," he said at last, "you have no one at all here to help keep the secrets?" By this he meant a government censor. "And no equipment to keep track of how many photocopies people make?" Back home, this was done to prevent dissidents from manufacturing subversive literature.

Day after day little revelations surfaced. Something as simple as a somber TV news report about the mounting crisis of "stress" among Twin Cities teenagers would set Oleg to giggling uncontrollably.

Shortly before the end of that first reconnaissance visit, Oleg asked if I would lend him my camera and take him around to photograph remarkable sights he wanted to show folks back in Moscow. I foolishly imagined skylines, lakes, Minnehaha Falls.

Oleg wanted pictures from stores. We started at the toy store, then took a dozen shots of a supermarket's meat counter. But most important was the dog food aisle.

He assured me no one would believe him if he didn't have a picture of that.


'May you live in interesting times."

That so-called ancient curse has never seemed timelier: It doesn't get much more interesting than the "Arab Spring," which has turned into a long hot summer -- even in Egypt, where Cairo's chaos has yet to ebb despite the demise of its repressive ruler, Hosni Mubarak.

Of course it's well beyond chaotic in countries like Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, where autocrats automatically turned to what's worked in the past -- killing their own citizens.

It may seem hard to find any good news in such tumult.

And yet I'm optimistic that the world is witnessing the most fundamental freedom movement since the Iron Curtain fell.

Toppled along with dictators is the incorrect inconsistency too often applied to the Arab world: That the Mideast isn't ready for freedom, and that the rough regional neighborhood needs strongmen to police it.

Instead, the Arab Spring has proven once again, and once and for all, that the aspiration for freedom is universal, and that dictatorships are anathema to these aspirations.

And it's also provided Arab youth with an alternative to the nihilistic extremism that to some seemed the only way to channel their rage.

As an editorial writer often focusing on foreign policy, I've been struck by how struck international experts themselves are by the events. This makes it hard for them, and for me, to predict outcomes.

What comes next may not be good: Social media, a key tool of the social revolutions, may ensnare as many protesters as it organizes. And brute force may yet turn the spring into winter, as it is doing in Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere.

But despite these setbacks, the fact that all of these regimes are on the defensive suggests something fundamental has happened, and it's forever changed the narrative not only in the Mideast, but in the West as well. And that is good news.


'It was hot on Guadalcanal, too,'' my late father often said, making it clear to his family that whining would not be tolerated. It was an especially effective message from a Marine who fought in the Pacific theater during World War II and lost his younger brother there.

Whatever seemed like the most pressing issue in our lives at the time melted away, and the complaining stopped -- at least within earshot of the old man.

A sense of perspective is always important, but it's particularly helpful today. These are boom times for those who enjoy wallowing in despair about crumbling roads, cash-strapped schools, debt-ridden government, ineffective politicians and corrupt moral standards. The Vikings' prospects don't look very good, either, and what's wrong with Joe Mauer?

In newspaper offices, where a higher-than-average level of cynicism is accepted as part of the job, it's easy to lose sight of what's working. When things go wrong, it's often newsworthy, and the list of things going wrong these days is long. So we wallow, too, and each morning we package that despair and leave it at your front door. If that's not enough, check our website for updates. And thanks for reading.

So please accept this as a plea for perspective from an old newspaper guy who too often forgets his father's words. If you and your family are healthy, celebrate your good fortune. If you have a job, treasure it. And remember: It was a much hotter on Guadalcanal.


As someone once laid off from a job, I feel tremendous compassion for state employees who were thrown out of work by the government shutdown. Losing a job is horrible. Losing it because politicians won't work together is maddening.

The trouble with layoffs is you never know how long they will last. The sudden loss of income produces more anxiety than most people can imagine.

What gives me hope for the state workers is the layoffs are temporary, their benefits remain intact and they may be back on the state's payrolls soon. Their absence makes me all the more appreciative of their service. They won't recover the funds lost, and it's a shame that they're paying the price for the political folly.

That said, I'm grateful for the governor's unwillingness to add to the financial burden of the middle class to protect the tax status of millionaires. I'm hopeful that in the next election voters will recognize the need to oust politicians who put extremist ideology above what's good for the state.

Hang in there, workers.


The turmoil we've been engaged in has been coming for a long time. We didn't start overpromising, overspending, overborrowing or undertaxing (or all of the above) just yesterday. This political food fight is the inevitable result of at least two generations of mismanagement.

There were times of apparent prosperity, brought on by one bubble or another, when we could lull ourselves into complacency. And there were times of Hair On Fire crises that caused us to collectively shout "off with their heads." But both delusions masked a steady, inexorable descent that brings us to this moment of political crisis.

To their enduring credit, Republicans have recently forced our state and our nation to address the issue with great seriousness. If Democrats could have gotten their way, we would nibble at the edges --cut a little here, tax a little over there. That's off the table now. We are going to really and truly have a debate about the role of government.

Will government pay for Grandma's new hip and Grandpa's $90,000 life-extending (briefly) pharmaceuticals? Will we keep pouring money into the failure factories that we call inner-city schools so that the adults involved don't have to change? Can we just get the rich to pay a little more so that we can keep pretending that it's all sustainable, at least until I am gone? And, though we talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, the real issue is wages, wages, wages. How long can wages stay flat while profits go up, up, up?

So I am happy because I know our leaders will be confronting these big issues. They will treat these issues, and us, with the respect rightfully accorded adult citizens. And finally, because they are now focused, they will speak the truth. Won't they?


I'll put Minnesota's Greatest Generation of statesfolk up against any other's for their "unretiring" efforts to improve this state. It was reassuring -- but, knowing them, not surprising -- to see former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson attempting to break through the state budget impasse and end this month's shutdown.

There's plenty of inspiration in former Gov. Al Quie's work to shore up judicial impartiality, former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger's push for smarter health care reform, and former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer's advocacy for ranked choice voting.

But for a dose of hope for the future, you can't beat the smarts and spunk I find among policy fellows at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and students at the MAPL program (master's in advocacy and political leadership) at University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Take Thad Hellman, a 35-year-old Target Corp. financial team leader whose family legacy of elective office in Michigan inspired him to give the HHH policy fellows program a try. What he learned there about effective public leadership changed his pessimism about politics into enthusiasm. "It was amazing to see how productive things can be when you have people with diverse viewpoints coming together in one place and really trying to understand each other," he said.

Hellman said he's now "definitely considering" running for office someday -- but as a political independent who sees merit in both parties' positions, he isn't sure which party would give him a chance. One of them should.