After just two Talk Newspaper columns I'm already surprised. That's a good thing. I promised an ongoing conversation, and every good conversation has surprises. I just don't happen to like this first one very much.

I had to pick a starting point for the conversation, a place that everyone could recognize as Square One on the way to building a civic climate that would serve us better than what we have. I figured I could start with some shoulda-learned-in-Kindergarten values: respectful listening, trying on the other guy's shoes, a communications Golden Rule where we're open to others as we'd want others to be open to us, basic Kumbaya stuff.

I put them forward not so much as moral, but rather practical values; many of us follow them not to be better people or rack up karma points, but because, as we seem to prove again and again and again, the other ways don't work. Unless all those morons out there who don't agree with you plan to pull up stakes and leave &

and I'm not seeing the moving vans line up &

you either have to gear up for a Hundred Years War or figure out how to get along. Make sense? I imagined it would for almost everyone.

My imagination may be off. Sure, I knew there are some who don't buy these values. There's Rush Limbaugh, for one, who offered this tantrum when the supposedly flexible, consensus-seeking John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination for President:

"The lesson is liberals are to be defeated. You cannot walk across the aisle with them. You cannot reach across the aisle. At some point, the people you cozy up to are going to turn on you. They are snakes ... I don't understand why it's so hard for the people on the Republican Party side to understand who the enemy is and who they're dealing with."

Oh. Okay, so Rush isn't with us. That wasn't the surprise. I figured we could probably stumble along without him.

Then this past week a friend happened to mention over coffee that he was unhappy about the Ashland City Council's recent internal team-building venture. Because of the cost? I asked, ready to have that conversation for the twentieth time. No, he said, not at all. He told me he'd been advocating an issue to his favorite city councilor, someone whose forceful zeal he'd always admired. The councilor told my friend that before moving forward, it was important to check out the feelings and concerns of other councilors. "I don't want that," my friend told me. "I want my councilor to fight for me like before, not to go soft on me."

This wasn't Rush talking. It was a thoughtful, highly principled older man who listens fairly well and was probably standing up for progressive causes before I could stand up in my crib. There was a pause in the conversation before I asked if he was completely serious. He was. "These are big problems we're facing," he said, "and we have to move on them."

Indeed. But what kind of motion do we seem to get when Councilors can barely sit in the same room together?

So I'm starting to wonder about the Square One I picked. My assumption was that we've been around the track enough that almost everyone would agree that invoking villains hasn't worked &

that the only resulting victories are shallow and short-lived &

and won't work in the future. Was I wrong? Is that notion more like Square Three or Four? If so, where is Square One? That's not a rhetorical question. We either find it or learn to live with the quality level of civic life and politics that we've been getting.

I can't do that. Can you?

Your Two Cents Readers' contributions to Talk Newspaper

My suggestion that "snarky" comments sometimes take a toll on civic life without giving anything back &

a snarky reference, I guess to snarky comments &

drew a couple of challenges. One was a poem that read in part:

"Consider the small snarky comment

How petty, how priggish, how vile

I spit on the small snarky comment

Save the one that lights up my smile.

Stop everyone making the comment

That curdles my fine sense of right

Allow only the talent to comment

If you have to be snarky, be bright."

The other defense of snark (a brand new word &

you read it here first) said, "Here's a snarky comment I quite liked the library has a notice on its bulletin board, asking for library volunteers. Some patron stuck onto it a post-it that read, 'No thank you, I'd rather volunteer for General Motors.' As a snarky slam at the LSSI situation, I found that comment to be the soul of wit. (As for showing understanding of people who find satisfaction in giving the library much-needed help, I found the comment tacky and elitist)."

Okay. We have to laugh, too.

is the author of Forest Blood, As If We Were Grownups () and the forthcoming novel Unafraid.