Why Openness About Mental Illness is Worth The Effort And Discomfort

Last week I was having a bad day — nothing tragic, just adult life's vicissitudes — when I got an email from a complete stranger that knocked me on my ass.

I'll call this guy John. John recently survived a brush with suicidal depression and anxiety. John's story is both terrifying and inspiring because he faced that depression without a job, without medical insurance, and (until he reached out for help) without a support network, and came out on the other end. John took a leap of hope, sought help from a loved one, got treatment, and got through the crisis. Is he happy all the time? I doubt it. Who is? But he's managing the illness successfully and living his life.

John thanked me for writing openly about my experiences with severe depression and anxiety and how they have changed my life. He expressed a sentiment that I also experienced as a powerful deterrent to getting help: the fear that medication, or hospitalization, and therapy somehow mark you as other and lead to the end of your plans and ambitions forever. It's not true. It helps, John said, to see other people who have fought mental illness, taken the plunge into serious treatment, and come out the other side continuing to pursue their careers and families and lives. John thanked me for writing, and said I made a difference for him and helped him imagine recovery as a possibility. I'm going to remember that on my worst days, when I'm down on myself.

People who have fought mental illness — people who are still struggling with it, every day — can change people's lives by offering hope.

Depression and anxiety are doubly pernicious. They don't just rob you of your ability to process life's challenges. They rob you of the ability to imagine things getting better — they rob you of hope. When well-meaning people try to help, they often address the wrong problem. "Your relationship will work out if you just talk," or "I'm sure your boss doesn't actually hate you," or "things will look up and you'll find another job" may all be true, and may all be good advice. But they don't address the heart of mental illness. A depressed or anxious person isn't just burdened with life's routine problems. They're burdened with being unable to think about them without sheer misery, and being unable to conceive of an end to that misery continuing, endlessly, in response to one problem after another. Solving the problems, one by one, doesn't solve the misery.

The hope you can offer to someone who is depressed or anxious isn't your problems will all go away. They won't. That's ridiculous (though certainly it's much easier to solve or avoid problems when you're not debilitated). The hope you can offer is this: you will be able to face life's challenges without fear and misery. The hope isn't that your life will be perfect. The hope is that after a day facing problems you'll still be able to experience happiness and contentment. The hope is that you'll feel "normal" again.

You can make a difference. You can be open about how you've fought depression and anxiety. You can talk about how you felt hopelessness. You can talk about how you reached the point where you got help. You can describe how you had doubts about the point of getting help, too. You can talk about how getting help has changed your life — even if the process hasn't been smooth. You can convey to people out there that they aren't alone, that other people have felt the way they feel, that there is life and love and fun and success and normality following treatment for serious mental illness, and that it's achievable. You can spit in the face of the social stigma against mental illness and its treatment. You can defy the trolls and assholes who will mock you and use your openness against you — because what's their opinion worth, anyway? You can show that it's possible to get better even if you're broken, flawed, afraid. You can show that a setback isn't the end of the road to getting better. You can help them understand there's no magic instant cure, that recovery can be a lifelong process.

Your — you personally, not the collective you — can make a difference. It might be your story that connects with someone, that helps them imagine getting better. It might be someone in your social circle who is suffering and doesn't know anyone else talking about these issues. It could be your take on this process that tips the balance towards treatment for someone you've never met or heard of. Your story counts. Tell it.

Here are just a few who have made a difference — to others, and to me — through their openness about depression and anxiety, with links to what they've said. You're not famous like them, you say? Good. That means you're more relatable and your story may resonate more with folks. It will be embarrassing (though it shouldn't be) and awkward (at first, at least) and some loser will probably take a cheap shot at you, but it's worth it. Try it. And please join me in thanking and admiring these people for their openness:

David Weigel
Allie Brosh
Jenny Lawson
Wil Wheaton
Buzz Aldrin
Kristen Bell

A Rare Federal Indictment For Online Threats Against Game Industry

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California has sought and obtained an indictment against a young man named Stephen Cebula for sending online threats to Blizzard Entertainment, the freakishly successful powerhouse behind the Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo games as well as many others. The case is notable because it's so rare: there's so much threatening behavior online, and so little of it is addressed by the criminal justice system.

Stephen Cebula seems overtly disturbed. The search warrant for his home and subsequent criminal complaint tell a tale of him engaging in bigoted trash talk with other players on the Blizzard game "Heroes of the Storm," ranging from racial epithets to comments like "I will kill your family bitch" and fantasies about raping a child at Disneyland. Blizzard suspended Cebula's ability to communicate with other players. Cebula — perhaps tutored in law and political theory on Reddit, or by Milo Yiannopoulos — saw this as an outrageous violation of his freedom. He used his Facebook account "tedbundyismygod1" to send two threatening messages to Blizzard:

Careful blizzard … I live in California and your headquarters is here in California …. You keep silencing me in Heroes of the STorm and I may or may not pay you a visit with an AK47 amongst some other "fun" tools.

You keep silencing people in heroes of the storm and someone who may live in California might be inclined to "cause a disturbance" at your headquarters in California with an AK47 and a few other "opportunistic tools" …. It would be a shame to piss off the wrong person. Do you not agree blizzard?

Thus Cebula stood up for all the depraved manchildren of the internet who believe they have a moral right to squat on other people's property and yell "nigger" at passers-by.

Anyway, Blizzard reported the threats to the FBI. Since it was mega-corporation Blizzard calling — and not any one of the hundreds or thousands of Americans without lawyers and IT departments and security teams who get such threats every day — the FBI investigated, and quickly found Cebulba through his Blizzard account information at IP address. They discovered records of a 2015 incident in which he surrendered to Sheriff's deputies after making threats to kill someone at a park and to kill his sister, overweight people, and "various others that did not meet his specific views." He was committed for a 72-hour period then. The affidavit also suggests that he was in the system as a juvenile for threats.

The affidavit in support of the criminal complaint linked above — which is a brief addendum to the search warrant affidavit — notes that the FBI found Cebula at home, Mirandized him, and questioned him. Cebula admitted, among other things, that he intended to scare the people at Blizzard he had threatened and that he had looked things up like Blizzard's location in order to make his threats more credible. He also talked about his fantasies of violent assaults on children and of sexual assault of his five-year-old niece who lives in his home.

After his first appearance, Cebula was detained without bail based on the court's finding that he's a flight risk and a risk to others and bail conditions can't manage those risks. The court particularly took into account his suicidal and homicidal ideation. He's represented by the Federal Public Defender, who will likely do a good job for him. They already launched a creative and aggressive, if futile, attack on the indictment on the grounds that Cebula and Blizzard were both in California and thus the threats did not involve interstate commerce as required by the federal threat statute.

Cebula is charged with making threats under Title 18, United States Code, section 875. That's the same statute that was at issue in the Supreme Court's Elonis decision last year. Elonis concerned the intent the government must prove to convict someone under Section 875. Everyone agrees that a threat — to be outside the protection of the First Amendment — must be objectively threatening. That is, the government must be able to prove that a reasonable person would take it as a genuine expression of intent to do harm. The remaining question is whether the defendant must intend for the statement to be taken as a real threat — that is, whether there is also a subjective test. The Supreme Court didn't fully resolve this, suggesting that the government must prove at least that the threatener was reckless as to the impact of his or her threats, but not deciding whether there must be specific intent to threaten. In the meantime, most federal prosecutors are proceeding on the assumption that they must prove subjective intent.

Both subjective and objective intent can be more challenging to prove in the context of the internet, where insincere trash talk is so common. Here the prosecution has the benefit of Cebula's statements to the FBI admitting the elements of the offense by admitting that he intended to scare people at Blizzard. That statement makes even an insanity defense very difficult, because it suggests he understood the nature and quality of his acts and the impact they would have on people.

This is an ugly case. It's ugly because it's about untreated mental illness. It's ugly because for every corporation like Blizzard that gets federal law enforcement attention in an incredibly rare threats prosecution, thousands of individuals without such power and influence live in fear of Cebula's moral and intellectual ilk. It's ugly because I guarantee you that Cebula has fans. That's what online culture is like.

Edited to add: Naturally most media covering this reports that he's facing "up to five years in federal prison," which is indeed the statutory maximum. As I often discuss, the statutory maximum has very little relation to the actual probable sentence. The recommended range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines — which will be the starting point for the judge, who may go above or below — is likely about 10-16 months before any credit for a guilty plea.

John Hinckley, Jr. and the Rule of Law

Today the airwaves are ablaze with news that John Hinckley, Jr. — would-be assassin of President Reagan — will be released from a mental institution to live with his elderly mother. United States District Judge Paul L. Friedman's order permitting this release comes more than 35 years after Hinckley's bloody assault, which wounded President Reagan, gravely and permanently disabled his press secretary James Brady, and injured a police officer and a secret service agent.

People are outraged. Why wouldn't they be? Assassinations have cast a grim pall over American history. President Reagan was well-liked and is nearly revered in retrospect. The assassination attempt was a formative event in the memory of many people my age. How, people ask, can you shoot four people, one of them a President, and ever see the light of day again? If any act requires permanent confinement, isn't it this one?

The answer should comfort us, not terrify us: the rule of law applies to everyone, even the notorious. (Edited to add: or, at least, it ought to.)

Hinckley was not convicted of the attempted murder of President Reagan — a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Criminal defense lawyers will tell you that it is exceptionally difficult to convince a jury to reach such a verdict. In (another) era of great anxiety of crime, in a case involving a popular President, the odds were weighed even more heavily against Hinckley. If you think that it's outrageous that someone who tries to kill the President could use the insanity defense, bear in mind that the defense has its roots in cases of mentally ill people attempting assassinations. Nevertheless, public outrage led to nationwide narrowing of the defense, notwithstanding the fact that it was rarely used and even more rarely successful.

Now, after 35 years of confinement (with gradually increasing exceptions) in a mental institution, the court has found that Hinckley is suitable for release under the provisions of the relevant laws governing patients committed to institutions after such verdicts:

(e) . . . . The court shall weigh the evidence and, if the court finds that such person has recovered his sanity and will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others, the court shall order such person unconditionally released from further confinement in said hospital.

It was not a casual decision. Judge Friedman's order is 103 pages long, and builds on a history of other long orders. The order meticulously reviews the testimony at an evidentiary hearing, the unanimous conclusions of multiple doctors (including the government's own experts) regarding Hinckley's mental state and lack of dangerousness, and the history of his gradually increasing liberties granted by the hospital and the court. In addition, the court sets rather rigorous limitations on Hinckley's freedom, considerably in excess of what one would normally see for a convict released on parole or supervised release — for instance, the court limits Hinckley's access to the internet and ability to communicate with the public to head off the sort of attention-seeking and grandiosity that was part of his delusional structure (see page 99-100 of the order).

Perhaps you find Hinckley's release outrageous. If so, ask yourself why. Is the outrageous part that there's a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity? Is the outrageous part that a jury found it applied, in a case where everyone agreed that Hinckley was crazy, and only disagreed about whether he was responsible? Is the outrageous part that such people can be released after 35 years under strict conditions if doctors agree they are in remission and not dangerous? Is the outrageous part that a judge found that the facts here warranted such a release? Or is the outrageous part that some crimes are so notorious that you think they should be outside the rules, outside the rule of law?

Is John Hinckley, Jr. dangerous to society? Doctors don't think so after 35 years, and he's successfully completed many outside visits and excursions to date. Is it dangerous to have a legal norm that the gravely mentally ill who commit violence may eventually be released? I doubt 35 years of forced treatment and confinement is the sort of lenity that leads anyone to violence. What about exceptions to the rule of law? If we ignore the rules and evidence because a particular person is sufficiently notorious, because of our gut, how dangerous is that?

Reverence For The Blue

Wednesday was Big Government night at the Republican National Convention, with speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of public employees. Scott Walker said that government lawyers should not just be respected — they should be revered. Newt Gingrich called for zero tolerance for people who call for the death of IRS employees. Vice-Presidential nominee Mike Pence asked delegates to let EPA regulators and VA administrators know that we will always stand with them.

Well, no. That would be ridiculous. Not even the Democrats indulge in such hagiography of all public employees.

Republicans said those things about one subset of government employees — police officers. So no worries. The party of limited government isn't demanding reverence of all government — just the armed parts.

Flag-waving about cops works on multiple levels. On one level it's symbolic and emotive — it's America, apple pie, baseball, and mom, all wrapped into an idealized view of cops.

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But the words work on another level too. They carry messages about the relationship between the citizen and the state, as embodied by its armed officers: armed officers of the state are, by definition, heroes. Armed officers of the state are, by definition, trustworthy and right. It's wrong to question them. They need and deserve special protection.

We already get that from television and movies and other parts of the culture. It's only natural that we get it from our politicians as well. Law and order rhetoric has two parts — you're in danger and I'll protect you. Lionizing cops is part of the I'll protect you phase. It signifies "I support cops, cops are part of my tribe, and together we will keep you safe." At least, it says that for some values of "you."

The Republicans — as they have historically — have deftly manipulated fear about lawlessness and disorder. On the home front, we fear lawlessness and disorder in the form of tragic and despicable ambush murders of police officers in multiple locations. Each represents a world ended, a family destroyed, a grotesque act of hatred. More importantly for politicians, each represents the particular kind of lawlessness we fear.

As a nation, we're rather selective about what kind of lawlessness terrifies us.

What is more terrifying: criminals engaging in a particular type of wanton violence more often than usual, or armed agents of the state breaking it with impunity? The answer to that question might depend on whether you're likely to be the victim of one or the other. In America, maniacs murder cops. And in America, cops shoot unarmed caretakers with their hands in the air as they try to protect autistic patients. They beat surrendered suspects. They perjure themselves. They execute citizens. They manipulate the system to protect cronies. They rape the vulnerable.

Not all cops, of course. We stand behind the law-abiding cops, some politicians claim. But the fact is the American justice system demonstrably stands behind cops even when they're proven liars and lawbreakers, and the system's standard of proof for cops — and the public's — is much different than the standard of proof the rest of us face. The rhetoric of cop-worship is the foundation of that special treatment.

Somehow, as a nation, we're not terrified of this trend of state lawbreaking as we are of other types. At least, most of us aren't. In fact, many of us are miffed when someone brings it up.

That's culture — a culture that already reveres cops, just like Scott Walker says we should. Our reverence is unreflective and mostly unquestioning. Our reverence is shorthand for bundles of other attitudes, some of them about race and class and other ugly things. Our reverence ought to trouble us, and should have no place at the convention of a party that's supposed to stand for conservatism. Reverence for the government is not conservative.

Lawsplainer: Are Milo's Faked Tweets Defamatory?

I'm not going to address the broad subject of Twitter banning the needy, cynical huckster Milo Yiannopoulos. It's been done, you know what I'd say, and I don't have much to add.

I'll address just one small piece of the story. Before he was banned, Yiannopoulos retweeted bigoted tweets fabricated to look like Leslie Jones had uttered them. The tweets were fake, and Yiannopoulos knew they were fake.

Was it defamatory for Yiannopoulos to circulate the faked tweets falsely attributing bigoted statements to Jones?

The answer: probably not, given Yiannopoulos' reputation.

Only false statements of fact can be defamatory. Satire, ridicule, and insults cannot. The faked tweets were intended as trolling and — to use the term extraordinarily generously — "satire", not as a factual claim that Jones had uttered the words. Could some people look at the fake tweets and assume they were real and that Jones actually said those things? Yes. But courts give very broad protection to satire, and protect it even when some people take it seriously. In determining whether a challenged statement should be taken as satire/ridicule/insult/hyperbole or as a statement of fact, courts look at how a reasonable audience familiar with the speaker and the context would take it. In other words, the relevant question is whether the speaker's target audience, informed about the circumstances surrounding the statement, would take the statement as an assertion of fact. I wrote about this in 2013 when I described a D.C. Circuit opinion rejecting a WorldNetDaily lawsuit against Esquire. Esquire's satire of Joseph Farah and Jerome Corsi was protected people readers familiar with Esquire would recognize their story as a parody, not as a news story. Similarly, readers familiar with Popehat would recognize that my accusing Farah and Corsi of sexual molestation of walruses was satire serving as an example of the doctrine, even if someone unfamiliar with Popehat or the case might take it seriously.

Here, a reasonable audience familiar with the context (Yiannopoulos trolling and attacking someone for clicks and attention, and playing to his hooting bigoted admirers) and with the speaker (Yiannopoulos as a hack troll, known for hyperbole and insult, whose followers often fake tweets as a means of ridicule) would likely not take the fake tweets as real, particularly when he fairly quickly followed up with a mock-surprised "you mean those aren't real?" wink to his fans.

I'm not saying that no court could find otherwise. I'm saying that's the most likely result, and probably the correct one under the law.

Remember: nobody needs free speech rights to protect admirable speech by people we like. It's designed to protect despised speech by people we hate. Yiannopoulos deserves contempt for monetizing bigotry, and his fans are loathsome, but his speech is protected.

Cynicism And Taking Clients Seriously

Let me tell you a story about taking clients seriously.

Years ago I had a young client who got into a summer program at Big Prestigious University, or BPU. The Client didn't go to BPU — he went to a community college, but was accepted by an on-campus summer program at BPU.

Client got arrested for having a gun and a bag of serious drugs in his dorm room at BPU. He was turned in by his roommate, a full-time BPU student, who found the gun and the drugs. Having a gun on any sort of campus is a very serious crime in California, and the DA was in the middle of a safe-schools kick, and Client was looking at hard time and a bad record.

Client swore to me the gun and drugs found in his dorm-room dresser weren't his. He said that someone — perhaps his roommate? — must have planted them. Sure, I thought. A BPU student acquired a gun and hard drugs and decided to use them to frame some rando — a rando who was, perhaps, not completely unfamiliar with drug culture. That makes perfect sense. Nothing in the evidence the DA turned over suggested any motive for the roommate to do any such thing. I was deeply skeptical, and planning for a very grim set of choices.

But Client's family had money, so I hired an investigator and had the investigator look into the roommate. Would I have found a way to acquire public money for an investigator if the Client hadn't had money? Good question.

Guess what the investigator found?

Turns out the roommate was fresh back at BPU after a stint in state prison. Roommate went to state prison because he had been stealing stuff — laptops, phones, and so forth — from classmates at BPU. When roommate was caught, he attempted to pin the thefts on friends, and when that failed blamed mental illness. He was currently on probation, and was having some trouble with his probation officer — and might be trying to curry favor.

No, BPU didn't warn Client that he was rooming with a recently released felon with a record of falsely implicating others in crimes and a pattern of blaming mental illness for his conduct against fellow students.

By the way, the same mid-sized DA's office that was prosecuting Client had recently prosecuted the roommate — and had withheld any information about the roommate's recent criminal activity, as had BPU in my discussions with them.

I subpoenaed roommate to the preliminary hearing and told the DA I was going to interrogate him. The roommate appeared, looking terrified. General counsel for BPU appeared, looking concerned. The judge looked angry — she felt it was my responsibility to arrange for a criminal defense attorney for the roommate if I knew that my questioning might trigger a Fifth Amendment assertion. Interesting theory, judge.

The DA had a long talk with a supervisor, and a long talk with the roommate, and came back to me with a deal: drop the gun charge and accept deferred entry of judgment on the drug charge. If Client completed probation successfully, the case would be dismissed, with no conviction. Notwithstanding how much Client and I wanted to put roommate on the stand and eviscerate him, or force him to take the Fifth and tank the DA's case, it was impossible to turn down the deal — the risks were too high. Client took the deal, completed probation successfully, and as far as I know has run into no problems since.

I would be lying if I said that I believed the client when he told me the gun and the drugs. But, thank God, I took him seriously — that is to say, I followed up on what he had to say with the resources available to me.

Just as prosecutors are captured by the system and its culture, so are defense attorneys. It is currently fashionable for defense attorneys to say "clients lie" and "most clients are guilty." I wouldn't agree with either proposition. Everybody lies; I don't think clients lie more than anyone else in terrifying and stressful circumstances. Humans tend to remember a version of events that puts them in the best light, something we normally regard as a mere venal sin. It's just that criminal defense scenarios require a level of precision and accuracy that most human interactions don't.

Being an effective and responsible criminal defense attorney doesn't require believing everything a client says, exactly. The policy could be better described as "trust, but verify." The key isn't to build a defense on the premise that everything the client says is perfectly accurate. The key is to take what the client says seriously and follow up on it, rather than dismissing them out of hand. If you don't, you're not defending the client — you're defending your stereotype of the client.

China, Part Two

I expected Tiananmen Square to be flooded with nationalist iconography. Unless selfie sticks are the new symbol of the People's Republic of China, it wasn't. The square was flooded with tourists — most of them Chinese — taking pictures of themselves, and taking pictures of each other, and taking pictures of each other taking pictures of themselves, and only occasionally taking pictures of the visage of Mao on the Tiananmen Gate. The most visible flags were the miniature ones a few of the Chinese tourists brandished. These were not treated with any great reverence; I saw an elderly woman swat her husband with one.

Mao's presence was most powerfully felt through the long line to view his body at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall — "longer than the line for the Matterhorn," as my son put it. Our guide — a thirtyish man of impeccable English and clear affinity for Western culture — said that Mao's resting place is a very popular destination for the Chinese. His parents' generation view Mao "like a god," he said solemnly, while his view Mao as a great leader and national father. Many rural Chinese come to pay their respects to him, like a pilgrimage. Elaina — whose timing and sense of protocol will make her a diplomat in the fourth Trump administration — chose this moment to whip out her guidebook and aggressively display a picture of Mao's body to the group, visibly discomfiting our guide. It's like that, living with her.

I did see a young man wearing the red-starred hat of the People's Liberation Army. But he was wearing it with a Converse t-shirt, so any communist message was somewhat diminished. It occurred to me that we're likely to interpret national symbols worn by other people more seriously than we interpret our own. When someone wears an American flag t-shirt, you don't assume that he's a strong supporter of free speech or due process, or that he supported the Gulf War, or that he has particular views about the War on Terror. It's a cultural symbol as well as a national one. We don't assume that the twerps wearing Che t-shirts on American college campuses support jailing homosexuals or executing dissidents without trail — excepting the twerps at Oberlin, maybe. But we seem to assume that people in other countries wear symbols out of a specific and deliberate support for the policies associated with them. It's not necessarily so.

If nationalist symbols were relatively restrained, signs of the security state were everywhere. The immense square had posts every 50 yards or so, and those posts are covered in cameras.

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Their likely purpose isn't to ferret out terrorism, but to allow an instant response to unlawful demonstrations — which is to say, demonstrations.

The square had more fenced-off areas and more soldiers than I remember from 2007. Our guide, too, admitted it had changed — as a boy he flew kites there with his parents, something that wouldn't happen now. But despite the omnipresent cameras, it wasn't a grim place. The tourists were more excited than reverent. A Chinese toddler in split pants rode his grandfather's shoulders, shrieking with laughter, little hands scrabbling at the craggy face for purchase. Stylish girls took selfies in front of soldiers, and frivolously-haired boys ogled the girls. I had heard that the soldiers don't like their pictures being taken, but this was not in evidence. Frankly I found it difficult to be too intimidated by them; they were so uniformly skinny, like a pre-super-serum Steve Rogers. Even the cops were skinny, which is simply unsettling to an American used to meatier law enforcement. The rest of China, though, was well on its way towards American proportions — I was often not the largest guy in the room, and big bellies, bared to the heat by hiked-up t-shirts in that unselfconscious Chinese way, were common.

Next we walked to the adjacent Forbidden City, traditional home of the emperor. The City is gigantic, a feat by any measure, but there's a sameness to it — one huge plaza after another, one large traditional rectangular building after another, all in nearly identical style: plain red walls and incredibly intricate roofs and rooflines.

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The colorful rooflines helped conceal the omnipresent cameras:

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The most interesting part of the City was probably the realpolitik reflected in its design — 180 acres in service of one dude and his crew and his stuff. The front buildings are devoted to the operation of the vast state; the rear buildings (including an area closed off to everyone but the emperor, women, and eunuchs) were for living. Our guides — perhaps because "politically correct" means something serious and potentially deadline in China, not just linguistic squeamishness — were not discomfited in explaining eunuchs to the nine-to-twelve-year-old-girls in our group. They explained the riot of symbolism spread around the place. There are dragons facing in, to remind the emperor not to spend too much time away, and to return to help lead the state, and dragons facing out, to remind emperors to get out once in a while and not forget the people. Apparently this was an issue; at least one emperor didn't leave the grounds for 20 years. Maybe stop sending in concubines? Just thinking out loud here.

Next up, hutongs and Chinese housing policy.

China, Part One

Blue. That was my first impression of the landscape as our plane made its approach to the improbably gigantic Bejing Capital International Airport, which shortly before the 2008 Olympics turned a bucolic suburb into one of the busiest places in the world. Blue roofs. You don't see a lot of blue roofs in America, but there, splashed across the countryside, they were — baby, cerulean, baboon-ass, and every other shade you can imagine. They caught the eye from factories and warehouses and shacks and from the clusters of apartment towers, identical and symmetrical and eerily neat, islands in a sea of green. I've seen a half-dozen explanations online — that they categorize industrial buildings, that they hint at a resurgence of faith, that they are remnants of central-planned design, and so forth. I've yet to find anything authoritative; maybe some clever reader knows.

Green — that was the next thing. Flying into Los Angeles I'm used to a concrete-colored Gibsonesque sprawl farther than I can see, but Beijing — for all of its 13 million people — is still surrounded by vast swaths of green, the exurbs dotting it instead of dominating it.

Clean came next. We were last in Beijing in 2007, when we picked up our daughter Elaina. Then the city was struggling to prepare for the 2008 Olympics, and ramshackle scaffolding and heaps of construction equipment were everywhere. It was not memorably clean. But 2016 Beijing — at least the parts we've seen so far — is unsettlingly clean, Disney-clean, clean in a way that invites dark speculation into how such cleanliness is maintained. It's difficult to spot trash. I don't know if this is a result of a vast infrastructure devoted to picking it up, or cultural distaste for dropping it, or both. Even the cars seemed clean and neat. I couldn't put my finger on what seemed off about the roads until I realized how few old or beat-up or filthy cars seemed to be on Beijing's main streets. There were hardly any beaters to be seen.

The buildings that were encrusted with scaffolding in 2007 are now long-built or repaired. Certainly Beijing still has rows of boxy apartment buildings, identically grim, and its fair share of brutalist concrete. But it also has pleasant modern-looking apartment blocks and shining new office buildings with juts and curves and swoops and whimsical skybridges. Ancient and modern and beautiful and ugly rub shoulders. For all the stereotypes about communist architecture I saw very little as dystopian as FBI headquarters or downtown LA's criminal courthouse.

Speaking of communism and dystopian government, it wasn't much in evidence, at least in the parts of Beijing we've seen so far. We saw numerous Russian flags along the highway from the airport, raised to salute a visiting Vladimir Putin, but the Chinese flag wasn't omnipresent. To the contrary, it was rarer by an order of magnitude than the American flag in a typical American city. Nor did I see overt propaganda of the sort that still lingered in 2007 — the closest was a huge sign with the English translation CONGRATULATIONS TO POSTAL SERVICE ON SUCCESSFUL INTRODUCTION OF NEW INVESTORS, which is somewhat less than communist in content. Armed soldiers ("Look, they have machine guns," said my mother-in-law. "Those aren't . . . never mind.") guarded some edifices along the main boulevard, but unobtrusively. People wandered about and started at their phones and ate and drank and lived like they do anywhere else. The most prominent sign that we were someplace politically different was the fact that we had to use a VPN to visit Facebook or Twitter.

And the traffic! In 2007, the fabled Beijing traffic lived up to every stereotype. Cars hurled themselves like berserkers at our tour bus's fenders, and weaved about like a chase in a Michael Bay movie. Now? Well, I would hesitate to drive myself, but it was comparatively placid, not much worse than someplace like Boston. I saw a family serenely bike between the lanes, parents masked and baby sandwiched impassively between them.

In short, what seemed most alien about Beijing was how it failed to live up to expectations or stereotypes. It seemed thoroughly westernized, with only glimpses of its former life — a trio of old men fishing in the river as SUVs whizzed across a bridge over their heads, a glimpse of hutongs, an occasional conical hat. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the city this week, and to visiting other cities over the next two weeks to see how they compare.

Today, Sunday, was our first full day. It was hot, and the air quality was quickly searing my lungs, producing an ache that reminded me of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and early 80s. So we visited the aquarium at the zoo, which was indoors and sufficiently diverting for the kids, and for me.

Let's play "fish or garage metal band?"

Let's play "fish or garage metal band?"

This sign brought to you by the Society for Having Absolutely No Idea How Kids Work

This sign brought to you by the Society for Having Absolutely No Idea How Kids Work

Honestly I can't keep up with all the HBO shows these days

Honestly I can't keep up with all the HBO shows these days

Later I took my son Evan and daughter Elaina to the hotel pool. Nominally Elaina — who has completed four years in a Mandarin immersion program — is our translator. Practically she's mostly waiting, quivering in anticipation, to translate Thrice-Peppered Squid Taint In Mungbean Oil as "sweet and sour chicken." I quickly discovered she did not know the word for "towel" and was disinclined to get there through description. Nor was it a word that the hotel believed pool employees needed to know in English. I was left to wander from pool attendant to pool attendant, patomiming. We do not have whatever it is you wish to rub or wrap yourself with, American, their expressions said in a very courteous and non-judgmental way. I found the towels eventually, and returned to the pool to soak away the travel and the heat, clad in the required black bathing cap, which makes me look like a condemned manatee.

More to come.

Get The Popehat T-Shirt

Do you want to virtue signal that you believe in liberty, are prone to making abrupt taint-related invitations, and may possibly erupt into an angry rant about some obscure point of law at any moment? Now you don't have to say a word! The first Popehat t-shirt is available at Cotton Bureau — one design for now, men and women, all sizes, three colors.

This is a test run. If there's interest, we'll be offering more designs. Requests and suggestions for designs are welcome (you can always email me at ken at popehat dot com).

We're not getting any money off of this initial run. I don't plan on using T-shirts as a revenue generator — right now our single ad and Amazon Associates (remember to order from Amazon using the link to your right!) generate enough revenue to cover hosting and such. If we do ever set prices to make a profit, that profit will be going to an announced charity.

Have fun!