Wednesday, March 30, 2011

News Fatigue

Is anyone else feeling overwhelmed by the effort to follow world events right now? I generally feel obligated to remain aware of current events, to have some understanding of them, and—at least on a good day—to hold an opinion about them. I confess that the largely peaceful revolution in Egypt, one of the most significant events of our young century, has pretty much slipped off my screen entirely. Libya is front and center right now, with a shifting cast of characters too complex for me to absorb. Gaddafi is clearly a bad guy, a very bad guy. The rebels are the good guys, unless they later prove not to be. The U.S. military played the limited (and highly effective) role promised and then, also as promised, pulled back and turned enforcement of the no-fly zone over to NATO. Which is dominated by the U.S. In a most encouraging sign, the Arab League is supporting this operation. Except when it isn’t. Some argue that the U.S. took too active a role; others insist that we need to “finish the job” by deposing Gaddafi. And all of this is changing hour by hour.

That does not leave much time or energy to focus on what is happening in Yemen, Syria, or the other nations where pro-democracy forces are challenging entrenched power, because I also need to pay attention to what is happening in Japan. And earthquake so powerful that my imagination can barely grasp it, followed by a tsunami of incredible destructive force. Many lives lost, others profoundly disrupted. A Japanese economy that may require years to recover, sending ripples around the globe. Crippled nuclear reactors are leaking radioactivity in a tense drama that has skittish people in the American Midwest popping iodine pills. The future of nuclear energy is being passionately debated, with persuasive arguments being made on both sides of the issue. I will share my opinion if you wish, but it will likely be different tomorrow.

These momentous events have pushed U.S. politics out of the headlines almost entirely, but Washington is rapidly approaching another impasse over the federal budget that this time, some pundits believe, may result in a government shut-down. That did not work out particularly well the last time it happened. And here in Wisconsin, the budget bill Governor Walker signed is now officially a law, unless it isn’t, so some municipalities are enforcing it and some are not. Chaotic and confusing? You bet. Democracy is always a messy affair, but in these divisive, contentious times, we appear to be teetering on the edge of complete dysfunction.

I try to read two newspapers each day and read "The Economist" each week, as well as following events on the web and radio. It is beginning to feel like a full-time job, and not a particularly enjoyable or encouraging one. So I am grateful for the sports section, and the beginning of baseball season. The world may be crumbling around us, but if the Brewers can stay healthy, we have a real shot at the post-season this year. The snow will melt, the crocuses will bloom, and the umpire will bellow “Play Ball!” The substance of hope has been built on far less than this: God is good and all, somehow, will be well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wisdom Born of Tragedy

From time to time I share thoughts from others on this page. This is a portion of an essay that my friend Debra Dean Murphy, Assistant Professor of Religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College, wrote in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“The indiscriminate destruction caused by earthquakes and tsunamis messes with our sense of cosmic justice. It shatters our romantic views of nature and of divinity–the silliness we often succumb to when we credit God with a beautiful sunset or a striking cloud formation. It silences, thankfully, if only for awhile, the bad theology of Everything Happens for a Reason. (That the Japanese are the only people to have suffered a nuclear attack and are now at grave risk for prolonged radiation contamination is a particularly cruel irony that ought to leave us in stunned silence.)

This kind of “natural” devastation also reminds us of how little control we really have in this life, despite our considerable efforts to manage, contain, and forestall the unforeseeable. We know this in personal, intimate ways–a loved one stricken with cancer, say–but we seem so willing to buy into the lie that we can preempt disaster with our cleverness and moral resolve (and a few billion dollars).
A decade of rhetoric about “homeland security” has trained us to think that we can make our country safe from outside attack, that, indeed, we must value and pursue security above all else. Politicians routinely campaign on such ideas, counting on an edgy, fearful electorate to latch on to any promise to keep us from harm–no matter how dubious or contrived.

But life is fragile, peace is always precarious, and the earth itself no respecter of persons or property. One gigantic wave and whole populations are decimated; one seismic shift and time itself is altered.

If there’s a lesson in this most recent tragedy (and it’s generally a bad idea to go looking for one), it’s that humans exist in a complex, interdependent web of relations with each other and with a planet that is sometimes inhospitable to our habitation of it. It was as instructive as it was terrifying to anticipate and track the waves that washed up on the California coast as the tsunami made its inevitable way westward. What happened in Japan didn’t stay in Japan.

Because corporations have written the dominant narrative of our time–that we exist to consume their products and that this is made possible by the easy flow of capital, goods, services, and labor across increasingly permeable borders, we might think that it is free market capitalism which binds us together, making us “one world.” But in fact the earthquake and tsunami have revealed our common humanity and common destiny, reminding us that we have always been linked to our neighbors near and far, and that consumerism won’t save us but acknowledging our mutual dependence and shared vulnerability just might.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Air Travel and High-Tech Luggage

In the coming months, Susan and I hope to have many speaking opportunities based upon our soon-to-be-published book, Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship and Flourishing Communities, which means that we will be living the life of Road Warriors. This is fine if the speaking engagement is in a place close enough to drive to, but air travel will be a part of the picture, and air travel has become increasingly unpleasant and uncertain. For example, we have an upcoming workshop in Quincy, Illinois. If you are flying from Appleton to Quincy, there is but one sequence of three flights that will get you there the same day, which leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong. Even though the sponsoring organization will pay travel costs, I have been hesitant to book the flights, thinking it might be safer, even faster, to drive.

It was pondering this next phase of life that set me to studying our luggage this past weekend. We own three suitcases: Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. Of the bear family, only Baby qualifies as a carry-on, and on smaller planes “carry-on” now means “plane-side check.” Which is why I have tended to use my duffel bag for travel whenever possible: I have never met the overhead bin it could not be stuffed into. Susan also has a duffel bag, which unlike mine is not held together with duct tape. Duffels are great when you need to run from one end of an airport to the other (if you don’t mind having your belongings crash into your hip with each step), but a contemporary carry-on with clever wheels and a handle has virtues of its own. We decided to venture out to see what options we might find in luggage departments.

We quickly found what seemed to be the perfect carry-on for our needs. It was reasonably priced. It appeared to be rugged and featured a clever padded compartment for a laptop that permits easy access for going through airport security. It appeared perfect until we actually opened it: between the framework for the handle and the laptop compartment, there was only enough room left inside for two pairs of underwear and a clean set of socks. Yes, we have reached the point where luggage has become so clever that it no longer works as luggage. We examined a bewildering range of carry-ons, some with as many as eight wheels spinning in various directions. In the end we purchased a duffel bag. I tossed my beloved duct-taped bag into the trash and donated Papa Bear to Goodwill (I cannot imagine ever checking a suitcase again for a trip shorter than a week). Even with our aging bodies, we will be tossing duffel bags over our shoulders for all trips that feature tight schedules.

Overall I believe that technological advancement is a good thing. I also grudgingly admit that air travel works remarkably well most of the time. But if I really need to be someplace the same day and it is less than 500 miles away, tossing the duffels in the back of the car makes a lot of sense. I am willing to buy my own peanuts.