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I’m trying real hard not to become a xenophobe. The president is helping. It’s difficult to develop an unhealthy fear of things foreign when things domestic are scaring the bejeezus out of you. So I guess I should be grateful to the present administration for that. And to past administrations. One of the drawbacks of being a centrist is that you’re pretty much surrounded by things that convince you the world is going to hell in a handbasket. So I spend a lot of time griping about “the present administration.” In the immortal words of Gerry Rafferty, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” Still, I can feel my grip on one-worldness slipping away. It’s becoming harder and harder for me to cling to the article of faith that the “Small World” ride is an accurate representation of the world. The wooden midgets beside my boat at Disneyland all seem to be the same, but the ones collecting euros and suicide bombs in other parts of the world just may be . . . well . . . different than you and me. I don’t mean to make a competition out of mental instability. There’s really nothing to be gained by trying to decide whether our American human cannonballs are crazier than the Norwegian officials who arranged hunting furloughs for lifers in Greenland. But I am concerned that more and more I seem to be deluged by things done by crazy foreigners and forwarded to me by less-crazy locals. The latest is from MSNBC.
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According to MSNBC, “The city of Rome has banned goldfish bowls, which animal rights activists say are cruel, and has made regular dog walks mandatory in the Italian capital.” I’m sorry, but intros like that make me expect not so much a news story as a punch line. I find myself listening for a rim shot. It’s hard for me to take stories like this seriously. ON THE SIDEWALKS OF ROME Apparently the Romans have concluded that since they have no hurricanes, weapons of mass destruction, or Supreme Court fiascos, they’re in danger of losing traction as a major player on the world scene. I mean, Vercingetorix is dead, their Olympics were 45 years ago, and you can only do the Pope/chimney/smoke thing so many times. Yeah, I know they’re long on ruins, but so’s Baghdad, and the tourists aren’t exactly beating down the door there, either. So the city council decided to “go in another direction.” (I don’t know that the council actually used this phrase, but it’s become very popular amongst organizations doing crazy stuff for no good reason, so I thought they might like to avail themselves of it.) Following the lead of the northern Italian city of Turin, Rome has required that all dog owners “regularly exercise their dogs.” Can you imagine what a nightmare that will be to prosecute? Just what constitutes “regular” exercise? My wife has a regular exercise schedule set for five times a week. My regular haircut appointment comes around monthly. I sit in my regular seat at Angels games 20 times a year. “Regular” is a word that doesn’t merely invite lawsuits, but prostrates itself in sackcloth and ashes and fairly begs for them. The lawyers for the city of Turin saw this problem and advised the members of the Torino council, when they passed their dog-walking law, that it had to be more specific. Unfortunately, the lawyers appear not to have advised the Torino council that the law had to be sane. Their law imposes a 500 euro fine (that’s $598) if dog owners don’t walk their dogs at least three times a day! Three times a day! Seven days a week! Six hundred dollars per violation! Do the math � Fido’s got a gun to your head. “Walk me now or walk to work tomorrow, ’cause you’re gonna have to hock the car to pay the fines.” I’m sorry, folks. I love dogs. I really do. I think the existence of dogs is one of the better arguments for the existence of God. This is the first time in my life I’ve gone more than a couple of years without a dog, and it’s only because my yard is about the size of second base. But I’ve never owned a dog I would walk three times a day. Think about it. Up at six, walk the dog. Go to work. Come home, walk the dog. Eat, watch “The News Hour,” walk the dog, go to bed. You’d eventually die with great-looking legs, a happy dog, and no heirs. I’m surprised the Chinese haven’t thought about this. Forget about limiting offspring; just give every citizen a dog and make thrice-daily dog walking mandatory. Malthus would be greatly reassured. I dunno. I’m not sure I’d want to be a dog in Italy these days. According to animal-rights groups, “around 150,000 pet dogs . . . are abandoned in Italy every year.” If they enforce these laws in Turin and Rome, that number’s gonna go way up. Italian dogs are gonna be more endangered than snail darters. A SCHOOL OF DEAD FISH The fish thing, on the other hand, is clearly a good idea. Banning goldfish bowls is something my mother would have voted for 50 years ago. Every year our school would hold a carnival. The carnivals always had themes and names and special decorations, but they should have all been called the Festival of the Furshlugginer Fish. We kids would empty our piggy banks of nickels and dimes to buy chances in various ring-toss, beanbag-toss, and ball-toss contests in which, if we were skillful enough (or completely unskillful, but lucky enough to be there on the last day when they were desperate to move fish), we could win a goldfish. I can’t for the life of me remember why we wanted the goldfish. They were inedible, untalented, inarticulate, and boring. But at least they didn’t have to be walked three times a day, and I can remember being desperate to win one. One year I won five, and my mother threatened to resign from the PTA. The result of all these fish-winning contests was a veritable bonanza for the local pet shop, which not only wrote off the fish donation to the school, but sold our parents the bowls, fish food, gravel, garnish, and little plastic castles we all thought necessary to make the fish a part of our families. It never mattered. The fish invariably lasted about as long as the Harriet Miers nomination, but I’m sure it was good for the economy and the school budgets. We had new dodgeballs every year. But now Roman scientists have determined that “round bowls caused fish to go blind.” (I assume they were Roman scientists, since Reuters indicates Rome is the only place on the whole bloody planet to identify fishbowls as an ocular problem.) I’m not sure how this works, but it kinda makes sense to me. THROUGH THE FISHEYE I mean, think about it. You know how a fisheye lens distorts images? Now multiply that by the distortive effect of a round fishbowl. Now imagine how a cat’s face must look when viewed through those two prisms. If hysterical blindness didn’t result from that, it would only be because the fish wasn’t paying attention. I think the Italians are onto something here, but I have to counsel caution since I’ve been lied to before about what causes blindness. Besides, I’m not exactly sure how you’d go about testing for fish blindness. You can’t use an eye chart, because as soon as you put it in the water, it would get all soggy and the letters would run. Suffice it to say, I never saw one of my fish bump into the side of the bowl, and they seemed to find their food OK, so we may want to wait for replication of the Roman studies before we hand our fishbowls over to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Nonetheless, I’m concerned that all us kids may have been using dodgeballs purchased with blood money. I mean, who wants to whack Ricky Roleter with a dodgeball if the cost is large-scale fish blindness? I’m concerned that our tiny little moral compasses may not have been attuned to the pole of Carassius auratus. And I applaud the Romans for raising my consciousness. Maybe I should just accept this as an example of what a legislative body can do if it gets past partisan infighting. Maybe overcoming petty interests of party and faction enables you not only to deal sensibly with fossil fuels, global warming, potholes, and trash collection, but to find time for debate over dog walking and fish myopia. Maybe I should wonder why my own city council hasn’t taken steps to protect Pluto and Nemo. Or maybe I should just wonder if xenophobia hasn’t gotten a bad rap.

William W. Bedsworth is an associate justice at the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, Calif. This article previously appeared in The Recorder, an ALM publication in San Francisco.

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