Disconnected ConnectivityNot very long ago, the first question visitors to Haiti would ask was either, “Why are so many houses unfinished?” or, “How do people raise their children in these circumstances?” Both of these questions were based on what they saw out the window on the way to the school from the airport, observing the vast number of rough concrete structures which do always seem to be “in progress” or noticing how hard the women were working in the hot, dirty streets selling baskets of diverse somethings, cooking over hot coals, or hand-washing clothes. Today, the first question I am asked is more likely, “Will my cell work here?” Due to the recent increase in connectivity brought to this region by two very aggressive telecom companies, even those who have the most modest of equipment can connect. So, almost regrettably, I answer, “Yes.” Even the poorest nation in the hemisphere is not immune to ubiquitous connectivity. Since the towers have sprung up, I have observed how virtual reality, even here, can trump the physical world at times. Visitors’ eyes, which were once glued on the new world they had been cast into from the moment the plane landed, have migrated back to the sacred gateways of technology. The rebar-topped houses and hardworking women go past for awhile unnoticed while the electronically advantaged and possibly dependent connect up. Rides from the airport these days are often a lot quieter; the silence only interrupted by the tapping of screens and clicking of buttons. Recently, I suggested to a group of medical professionals whom I had the pleasure of assisting in their relief efforts around Port au Prince that they take advantage of the chance to submerge themselves completely in the grace of immediate service and give up the iPhones and Blackberrys along with the dreaded insurance forms they had happily left at home. By their response, one would have thought that I had suggested to a toddler going to his or her first sleepover without his or her teddy bear. Over the years, I have watched as people from a broadening age group use the newest technology to send photos home almost as quickly as they took them to seemingly ever ready panels of friended experts to get feedback. The isolated, window-gazing self-reflection of the past seems a bit old-fashioned and confining compared to posting one’s experience for the world to see instantaneously, especially when it takes less time to upload pictures and receive text feedback than to form one’s own thoughts. These experiences have in no way caused me to doubt or to lessen my immense appreciation for the visitors to Haiti whom I have had the privilege to of movinge about Port au Prince as they voluntarily do much needed work. But, they have prompted me to question: has technology seduced us into outsourcing our personal reflection. In other words, have we become obsolete to ourselves as the primary examiner of our own lives?The popularity of Facebook, YouTube, and the success of electronics specifically designed to allow us to instantly publish our experiences for public review would suggest that we have indeed moved the office for internal reflection outside of ourselves into virtual space. In choosing to become our own paparazzi, we alleviate the need to understand ourselves and what we are experiencing. We can consult a thousand friends in a parsec and save ourselves the trouble. Thanks to the wonders of digital cameras, we can also look back at a moment almost as fast as it happens. We do not have to absorb things in real time. We can shoot and think later. The hairs on my neck prickle when I am with someone who snaps a photo and then immediately passes it around for others to see. Oddly, it seems that the object or person in the photo, although still before us, has disappeared, lost importance. Maybe those who resist having their pictures taken for fear of having their soul stolen have a point. In the process of pursuing electronic connectivity, I fear we have become our own intruder, leaving behind the moment and self-reflection as cadavers . I have to wonder if Socrates, had he foreseen the advent of Facebook, digital cameras, and the iPhone, would have warned us that life is still unexamined if we leave it others to do it for us or store it for later evaluation. Alas, limited by his times, just as we all are, Socrates was not able to foretell the risk of disconnection resulting from getting a signal.
I loathed cement long before the earthquake toppled Port au Prince’s buildings and sent them spilling into the streets on January 12th. The tumbled piles of concrete and steel have only served to heighten my disdain for the gray powder. The failure of so many structures to withstand the quake has replaced my once forced respect with open contempt. With a thousand piles of rubble lying about, there is simply even less to like about cement than before.
The expression of any opinion invites misinterpretation and ridicule, especially the utterance of an opinion that goes against a well intentioned crowd. So, I am well aware that I am risking exposing myself to a world of criticism by suggesting that “the more the merrier” is not necessarily true about disaster relief. After all, how can one criticize the outpouring of compassion in response to a major national disaster such as Haiti’s January 12th earthquake? Certainly, a country as economically poor as Haiti needs all the help it can get. Or does it?
There is the language of elections, of war and, of sports. There are terms peculiar to the economy and to fashion. Natural disasters also have their own vocabulary of key words—words that can teleport us into the reality they represent by causing images to involuntarily explode in our minds.
Thanks to “Der Spiegel” and the “Wall Street Journal,” the world now knows that one of the nation’s top bankers is behind this missionary. I hope that makes Mr. Obama think twice before he rolls the phrase ‘fat cat banker’ off his tongue again. But, the fact is that there are also a polyglot teacher, a Ph.D. plant biologist, a creative fifth grade teacher, a well known landscape architect, a Silicon Valley chip designer, an amazing engineer and single mother and two amazing parents behind this missionary. I am from a family of eight children, not two.
I left Haiti on Monday, January 11th and returned on Friday a hundred years later.On Tuesday, January 12th, Haiti’s landscape changed forever. In moments, thousands of buildings became impenetrable tombs. Sidewalks became makeshift coroners’ slabs. With their history shaken out of them, crumbled national landmarks became monuments to fragility. Worse, friends became memories. The quake took less than a minute to rack up its toll. Its huge destructive impact was quickly covered by the international media, making Haiti as household a word as tsunami or twin towers. Quickly, the world saw the damage on TV in images. The quake was given a magnitude, not a proper name as are the usual natural threats to the island. But before I heard the report of the size of the quake, I heard its magnitude in my friend’s voice on the phone. “I do not know how I am holding it together,” he uttered as he ferried wounded to the hospitals which were overcrowded just half of an hour after the shock. I tried to imagine what could make my friend, with whom I had experienced the fall of Haiti’s government, almost lose it. Prepared, I thought, for the worst, I worked around the logistical barriers to get back into Haiti. Thanks to God and a push from the Chinese Embassy in the Dominican Republic—disaster makes odd bedfellows—I made it back on Friday night to where I felt terrible for ever having left. The guilt and regret for leaving would soon be hugged out of me by my friend who had done far more than hold it together. Before meeting my friend who had offered to pick me up, I had to guide a group of new friends I had gathered up at the airport in the Dominican Republic through the shuttered passage way out of Haiti’s international airport. I was stopped at the last point by an armed gentleman from the U.S. Military. He asked, “Did you come through those doors?” I realized by his question that the airport was less secure than it would soon be. I answered instinctively, “Maybe.”My first night back at our school in Haiti was all about reunions. Keenly aware that I was with people who had experienced something that would make me a stranger to them for awhile, I attempted to learn by osmosis what they had experienced by surviving a 7.0 earthquake. It was dark and words failed, so I settled for touching shoulders and grasping hands. Speaking seemed oddly out of place. It was important to just feel through them what they felt. In the morning, it was time to see first-hand the destruction in Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s capital, even four days later, was still beyond imagining. Corpses remained in unnatural places. The air carried their presence, even of those hidden in the rubble. I decided I would not go there again unprepared. Though I have preached it, I never thought I would see concretely what it looks like when the living are forced to actually let the dead bury the dead. Reassembled, our community of students, U.S. volunteers, Haitian staff and neighbors are moving slowly beyond what continues to be an incomprehensible event. The hardest step for many has been moving back inside. Even though we have a stack of expert opinions supporting the evaluation that our buildings are fine, our students preferred to sleep outside until rain made that impossible. Who could blame them; life had taught him that buildings can just fall down. Days since the quake consumed largely with sourcing and preparing food have given way to teaching and cleaning up the campus. Hoping that our spirit will catch-up with our body, we are acting more normal than we are feeling. Hopefully, the ruse works. But, it is not easy to fool yourself with evidence literally piled all around. There is no doubt that this is a singularly hard time in Haiti. For inspiration, I think about the fact that Haiti has survived all types of disasters, natural and man-made. I pick out old faces in the crowds and say to myself, “Imagine what he or she has survived.” It is a hard time, but not the end of time.
Mark Twain claimed, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Robert Green Ingersoll likewise proffered, “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.” While I disagree with Ingersoll’s well known pessimistic views on religion and try to resist falling in with Twain’s overly taciturn approach to life, I, too, have become to believe that institutional education is indeed overrated. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I went to a top university after spending three years in a private boarding school. On the other hand, I recently disrupted my four children’s wonderful education at our local public schools to take them on mission to Haiti where I run, you guessed it, a school for academically gifted kids from the poorest neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere. Without this school, these children would have little or no chance of formal education. So, I may be a bit intellectually schizophrenic. But, I am being honest when I say that everything I have learned from these polar opposite approaches to life leads me to believe that formal education is given far too much importance. There is nothing wrong with a good academic education. But, unfortunately, its overemphasis has resulted in the downplaying of several other factors important to our mental, physical and spiritual development, such as cultural interaction, faith development, service to others, mentoring relationships, and practical work experience. These all contribute to our overall formation—something much larger and ultimately more important than mere education. Many educators will claim that their educational program contain these elements. However, ask for a greater emphasis to be given to community service or work-study over the traditional subjects, especially in the case of intellectually gifted students, and most educators will reflexively respond, “Oh no, we cannot cut Calculus class.” There are several alternative programs, but generally traditional academics continue to be the strong focus of schooling. The system’s dependence on test results is proof of this and of how narrowly we provide and evaluate education in our schools. Top students come out of high school with a year’s worth of college-level classes under their belts, but less and less have real work experience. The percentage of teens holding jobs has declined from 60% in the eighties to nearly 40% now. The biggest decline has been among teenagers for whom work is elective. It appears that middle class parents have changed their tune from “Get a job” to “Get A’s.” Even summers have been taken over more and more by academic and sport camps. Certainly, teens are active enough. However, they are involved in hours and hours of activities constructed specifically for them. This tailored world of extracurricular activities does not replace what we learn from having a job. In fact, it obscures it. The world is not really our oyster, it’s a workplace. Nothing teaches that life lesson earlier or better than a part-time job. My teenage skeptic doubts Twain—and me. Offered the opportunity to pursue self-education in Haiti, not unlike the path taken by Benjamin Franklin and other great self-educated American heroes, he retorts, “I need structure.” To be honest, I am not getting a lot support from friends and family on this one either. Where are the leaders of the countercultural generation when you need them? I suppose they are too busy revamping healthcare to meet their aging medical needs to lend me a hand. I am not kidding here; Ira Magaziner, for one, was an inventive educator before cricks in his bones led him to join Hillary for the first push on healthcare reform. He is not the only turncoat. Before you plan a rescue intervention, let me point out that my son, who aspires possibly to be an architect, has access to tutors and an internship with the top architecture firm in Haiti. I continue to argue that this trumps structure. Still, he is concerned that he will miss something by not following the normal path through high school. Who can blame him? He is looking at life from sixteen going forward, not forty-five looking back. It is only now that I realize I learned more from working as a busboy and cold chef then I did in much of my years in school. I am not advocating for putting an end to formal education. I just think the improvements we are currently looking for in our youth through our educational institutions could be more effectively and economically achieved outside the classroom. More emphasis on work and service might bring the maturity, leadership and decision skills we really need, especially in the work place. We have put both a lot of support and pressure on the traditional educational system—maybe, it’s time to look beyond schooling for answers.
Zero is the most recent number from the Iraq War. New Year’s headlines reported round the world that December marked the first month that no US troops died in combat in Iraq since the conflict began in 2003. Although there were three non-combat related deaths reported, December was still the least deadly month in years. Likewise, 2009 saw the smallest total number of service personnel killed in a twelve month period in Iraq since the beginning of the war and less than half the number killed in 2008. Articles on the subject contained guarded statements on the possibility that December was a good omen, maybe even an indication that overall violence was slowing and things were improving. Other experts suggest that the lack of deaths of US service personnel in December is more a function of change in US military activity than real progress. What is clear is that war is not reducible to one statistic, especially not this war. There are many numbers to consider. The number that is most important to those families in the US who have already been directly impacted by this war is 4,370—the number of men and women as of January 4th that have been confirmed to have died serving our country in Iraq. The number 4,371 will be the most important number to the family of the next soldier who falls in battle. The organization Iraq Body Count, which reports civilian deaths in Iraq on its website, says that on December 30th forty-four individuals were killed in incidents ranging from car bombing to hand grenades. The IBC, which relies on several sources to tabulate the civilian death toll, reports that around 100,000 non-combatant civilians have died in Iraq since 2003. More hopeful, senior US Military leadership point out that the number of insurgent attacks has decreased from as many as 200 per day two years ago to 15 per day currently. But, for the citizens of Iraq, fifteen is the important number, not the notable decline in incidents. Washington seized the moment of respite in military casualties to announce quietly that the name of General Odierno’s command, who leads the US force in Iraq, had changed from Multinational Force-Iraq to US Force-Iraq. Behind the change in title is the fact that the once 28 country multi-national force has reduced to ostensibly to one: The US. US forces have also reduced from 170,000 to just over 110,000. Interesting enough, it is the drawdown number that has captured more headlines of late. Not surprisingly, US family members coming home is more important news than the breakup of the coalition family over there. The latter is somewhat old-hat as well. The human cost is always going to be the most important statistic of War, but the dollars, albeit a secondary factor, cannot be ignored when there are many other needs at home and in the world. The Iraq war is estimated to have cost already over $715 billion dollars. That makes the per capita war cost roughly $2,300 to date. As a point of reference, the feared national debt comes out to about $40,000 per person. Remember when we were shocked by the prospect of spending a $100 billion dollars on a war in a year? That was before bailouts, government loan guarantees and healthcare reform cost calculations made trillion a household word. In sports, the box score might not matter as much as the final score, but in war, every stat counts. No single number says it all. Still, zero is still a very welcome number to those who have spouses, children, siblings or relatives in the Iraq. Responsible troop withdrawal from Iraq is also welcome as long as it leaves a country and world at greater peace.
For starters, our beloved politicians in Washington should consider cooperating more. Here is a thought to help them get in the right mood. Ask not what you can do for your party; ask what you can do for your country. It is time to stop the end fighting and bickering. It is time to leave the lifeless poles and head to the center where most of America lives. It is time to cooperate and lead the country in one direction—a positive one. Forget crossing the aisle at the eleventh hour merely to exchange gifts at the expense of efficient government and the taxpayer. What we need now is true, honest cooperation. A household faced with serious debt needs all its members cooperating to bring down spending and increase revenue. At every level of government, the focus needs to be increased productivity [GNP] and cost trimming [Deficit Reduction]. We need all legislators focusing on making this nation great again, not reelection or satisfying special interests. To this end, let’s hope Mr. Obama keeps cooperation on his New Year’s list, specifically in the form of a Bipartisan Deficit Commission.
I like movies a lot. I like them so much that when we were barely making it in Chicago, I would walk to work to save on bus fare so I could afford to go to the cinema on the weekend. In fact, I’d rather watch a movie than get much needed sleep or eat a really good dinner. But, I would still rather have my teeth drilled without Novocaine than see Avatar again. James Cameron blew nearly half a billion dollars to make this FernGully-meets-Rambo debacle. In the process, he also managed to rip off Disney’s Pocahontas and Burnett’s Secret Garden as well. Don’t be misled by these comparisons. The movie has none of the heart, punch, depth or importance of these four films—it just steals from them so blatantly that it has to be mentioned. [For a clever take on this, go to http://movieblips.dailyradar.com/video/avatar-fern-gully-trailer-mash-up/.]
While we may be living in a post-racial era, we are evidently not beyond profession bashing as evidenced by President Obama’s less than flattering description of bankers on Wall Street. Mr. Obama not only called the group a bunch of “fat cats;” he drew a target on their backs by saying, “You guys are drawing down $10, $20 million bonuses after America went through the worst economic year that it's gone through in -- in decades, and you guys caused the problem.” I appreciate the personal touch of the use of you rather than they, but that does not hide the fact that the President of the United States singled out a group of people on national TV as the problem. Fortunately, he stopped short of suggesting a final solution.
What follows is an attack on late-term abortion, not those hurt in its practice. The proper response to the men and women who have fearfully, ignorantly or mistakenly chosen to procure an abortion of any type is compassion and support, not public condemnation. Be assured, the ire of these words is directed only at the sin, in which we all participate to a certain degree on account of its social nature, not at those who have unfortunately succumbed to it. Abortion is always wrong, but we must keep in mind that it leaves more victims than the unborn in its wake. As in every case of our moral failings, we must hate the sin, not the sinner. That said; I was appalled to read in the New York Times [12/4/09] that a colleague of Dr. Tiller, the Kansas abortion doctor who was shot to death last May, has agreed to provide late-term abortions at his clinic. Feeling called to take up Dr. Tiller’s bloody mantle, Dr. Carhart told NYT reporter Monica Davey, “There is a need and I feel deeply about it.” The need to which Dr. Carhart is referring is to remove a child from the womb late in his or her gestation period, namely beyond the point that a child may be able to survive outside of the womb if he or she were delivered prematurely.
Transportation for $1000This is the longest Interstate highway in the country. What is I-90? That is correctTransportation for $1,000.This famous World War II general’s name is given to the nearly 47,000 mile system known as the Interstate Highway System. Who is General Dwight D. Eisenhower?That is correct. Despite our familiarity with the nation’s highways, few of us could make money on Jeopardy in this category. Sure, we know the jokes about I-5, the highway OJ introduced to non-Californians, being a parking lot and the never ending road construction around major cities like Atlanta. However, for the most part, we just enter and exit our great highways without giving a thought to the truly amazing network of roads that connect us as a nation. It is a resource we often take for granted. Born in 1964, I am thankfully too young to remember the family trips to upstate New York from our small town in southeastern Ohio before we were connected directly to the interstate system. My dad tells me that it seemed to take as long to get to the highway using a series of winding state routes as it did to complete the rest of the trip north once on the highway. My dad knows a lot of pre-interstate stories since he is old enough to have helped his family buy their first family car. The emergence of the nation’s highway system did more than shorten the trip to grandma’s house. These roads directly contributed to and helped shape the nation’s socio-economic development for the better half of the last century. Right up until the internet and hyper-globalization hit, no infrastructure change had been more influential in determining the geographic distribution of the domestic economy and the location of population centers than the elaborate Interstate Highway System that crisscrosses and connects our nation. With such good roads, it is not surprising that the US has the highest per capita car ratio in the world—nearly one per person—which is 40% higher than Europe. On average, we drive eight times more miles than we fly. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that we have sufficient, quality roads to get from place to place. In fact, car travel is so convenient and enjoyable in this country that it has become part of our national psyche. GPS may have replaced the Triptik, but the Road Trip continues to be an American pastime for all ages. Since 1950, we have also been spreading out, moving farther and farther from the main cities. Undoubtedly, the construction of the multi-lane beltways has invited this migration from urban to suburban living. The Brady Bunch would have never settled on the outskirts of town without a highway for Mike to get to work. Some may view this type of suburban growth as energy wasting, anti-environment sprawl; however, overcrowded cities are not necessarily more energy efficient or any easier on the environment. And, they are certainly not good for humans. Having fought the traffic for more than a dozen years in Port au Prince, which has grown from a quarter million people to three million in twenty-fives years with only one main road added during that time, I can vouch for that. Haiti is not alone in this problem. Countries that lack sufficient roads typically have people-choked, overcrowded cities, rather than evenly distributed populations. The economies of these countries are typically centralized in the mega-cities. This causes people to abandon the countryside and continue to flood the already overburdened, bulging cities. We are fortunate to have a network of roads that allow for the more even distribution of people and economic activity in this country. President Obama has pushed re-investment in the Interstate highways as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. To date, $20 billion of the earmarked $26.6 billion has been committed. Not bad, but there is no need to hesitate on the remainder—and maybe even more should be put forward in the future. History has proven that the initial investment in our roads urged by Ike has paid off handsomely. Besides paying down the debt and increasing the affordability of alternative energy sources, roads are probably the next best use of our cherished tax dollars. Immediate jobs and long-term infrastructure improvements are a powerful one-two punch. And just for the record, I-90 is only 121 miles longer than I-80.
Monday marked the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those over thirty are likely to remember the highly televised event. Those a bit older may even remember President Reagan’s famous plea, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” President Reagan spoke these words just two years before a frenzied crowd of ad hoc demolitionists carried away the Wall in chunks as souvenirs on November 9th, 1989. Oh, how we hated walls then.For those, like myself, who know the Vietnam War only as history and not as a current event, the Fall of the Wall stands out as the first memorable political event of our generation. I can still see the footage of people sitting on top of the Wall and breaking it down. The networks played it over and over. I remember one specific version that had Ronald Reagan’s sonorous voice repeating in the background. In the euphoria of the aftermath, the movie-actor-turned-president became an instant video star—his prescient quote taking on the quality of a rap refrain. It was a wonder every wall in America was not torn down in effigy.Unfortunately, a Frostian appreciation of fences quickly replaced our zeal for bringing down barriers. Hardly a year after the Berlin Wall fell, we began constructing a barrier fence along our southern border. Nearly twenty years and five billion dollars later, this fence is over three hundred miles long and growing. The new wall, which political nuances call “a fence” in attempt to soften the implications, will certainly dwarf its predecessor in historical importance given its greater length and the potential for a negative impact. Current congressional plans call for an expansion of the fence to a length of 700 miles at a cost estimated to be three million dollars per mile. Yet there is very little proof that the existing fence has been effective in stemming undocumented immigration or prohibiting the smuggling of drugs. It certainly has not made Mexico a better neighbor. Conversely, NAFTA, an alternative to building barriers, undoubtedly has. Wouldn’t it be nice to see an unbiased comparison of the economic impact of the two policies rather than the usual anecdotal saber rattling?The Border Fence is presented as increased security. But, I would ask, is it security from? When it comes to our southern neighbors, the only thing we have to fear is habanero peppers. We have far more to lose by risking alienating our southern partner than we have to gain. Mexico provides nearly fifteen percent of our oil and seventy percent of our fresh vegetables. We have an active export trade with Mexico, reaching nearly $150 billion in 2007. What if the fence encourages Mexico to look more to China, a country hungry for oil, food and exports? We also have something to offer Mexico: law and order. No wall will be high enough to protect our border towns from the mounting violence that is occurring just over the border and often spilling across it. We need to increase our commitment to working with Mexico to solve the drug trafficking and related violence, not try to wall it out. Further isolation will only lead to increased crime. The fence will likely protect fleeing criminals more than it protects us. Pope John Paul II, who, along with Ronald Reagan, is credited with bringing Soviet Communism to an end, also challenged all of us in the Western Hemisphere to work together to more fully realize the oneness of America. Walls would suggest we are more interested in destructive xenophobia than productive unity in our hemisphere. Monroe’s wall does not cut across Arizona to Texas. It encompasses the whole of America. Why are we making such an effort to construct a picket fence for the backyard when we have vast pastures to protect?Time will prove that the only real difference between the new wall and the old one is that the one was constructed to keep people in, the other to keep them out. Nevertheless, the impact will be the same. People on one side of the wall will remain poorer than those on the other until the wall comes down. In the meantime, economic drives will insure that undocumented immigration and the drug traffic continue unabated. Only the good will be deterred by the fence, the bad will find the holes or make them and, you can be sure, they will charge those simply seeking a better life dearly to pass through them.In the end, the Border Fence will be torn down in disgrace just like the Berlin Wall. Until then, it will serve as the new monument to human ignorance, fear and intolerance. It is important to note that the same president who called for the Wall to fall also granted sweeping amnesty to keep one from going up.
More than a decade and a half before Mr. McGuire uttered the word plastics to the directionless Ben Braddock in The Graduate, my dad was getting his PhD in polymer science. He followed that with thirty plus years perfecting plastic for Du Pont—a successful career that paid for all eight of his children's educations. I even joined him for a summer at the plant, as a recipe mixer for test batches of new compounds. In the style of full disclosure, I have to admit I am from a plastics family. Since my teen years, I have refused to wear Dacron/cotton blends, but I was and still am a user.However, today it is getting harder and harder to stay on the fix. There is no doubt that plastics have made our lives better, even saved it in some cases. One of the plastics my dad helped develop is the inner-layer in the windshield that holds a shattered pieces of glass together during an accident. This innovation has lessened frontal impact fatalities for decades. There are also important surgical procedures that require plastic parts and other every day applications, like PVC piping, that have contributed positively to our lives. However, the sea of waste created by the overuse and improper disposal of plastics is enough to make a person want to quit cold turkeySince plastic doesn't sink, the phrase “sea of waste” is more than a metaphor. Carelessly discarded plastics travel down streams into rivers and out to sea constantly. There they congregate in massive groups in the slow moving currents of the Pacific. Reports claim that one of these massive floating plastic dumps covers an area twice the size of the United States. Roadside litter is heart-wrenching enough. Imagine what a hellish sight a floating continent of plastic waste would be.In the United States, we use about 50 million tons of plastics a year. Although recycling has increased over the past two decades, still less than ten percent of shopping bags and only about twenty-five percent of beverage bottles are recycled. We may feel cleansed of our sins when we take our trash to the waste station and separate it into the coded bins, but this makes restitution for a minute number of our consumption sins. Most of our plastics (and consumption sins) are still being covered over in landfills.While plastic consumption is controversial mainly due to its environmental impact, there are many global economic issues we ought to consider as well every time we hoist a bottle of water to our lips. About eight percent of world-wide petroleum production is used to make plastics. Derivatives from natural gas are also used in the production of plastic. Plastic water bottle production in the US alone requires 1.5 million barrels of oil annually. We may very well be quenching one thirst while contributing to another.I cannot remember being overly thirsty as a child, yet I am sure that in those days the only water available in a bottle was Perrier. I don’t remember our moms chasing after us with little green bottles to keep us hydrated at the playground either. As a young adult, I do remember when Evian was introduced along with spandex at the gym. Unfortunately, both caught on. [By the way, Evian still spells naïve backwards and a little bag in the pants can hide a lot.]Today, we are consuming bottled water like its, well, water. However, in terms of environmental and economic costs, a bottle of water is not just water—it is bottled water. We have shunned tap water at a fraction of a penny a gallon to pay 99 cents for sixteen ounces of water that nevertheless came out of some kind of tap. How else could they have gotten it from the spring into the bottle? Even with that ironic image and all the campaigns against it, bottled water consumption has quadrupled over the past twenty years.Obviously, the aspects of plastic consumption we have the most influence over as individuals are beverage bottles and shopping bags. It is time to step up our self-discipline. We can tote water to fields in five gallon Igloo jugs. What fun is it to dump a bottle of water on the coach anyway? We can take a cloth shopping bag to the grocery store. And when we forget our eco-friendly bag, we can juggle our seven items all the way to the car as true penance for all the plastics we continue to consume. The new word, Ben, is avoidance.
If we were in our 500s, the term America would mean something wholly different to us. It would conjure up thoughts of the entire New World—not just one large country within it. It may be time to return to this broader, hemispheric perspective. Weakened by this latest economic crash, we may need to consider strengthening our partnerships in our own neighborhood to ensure the great American experiment continues. Otherwise, we may end up sold to the Chinese like a dilapidated theme park with Chavistas to run the rides. How is it that our region broke into such divided parts in the first place? Unequal success is more to blame than language and culture barriers. British colonies had stronger governmental structures in place than the colonies of France, Spain and Portugal. Even though the Thirteen Colonies were younger than many South American and Caribbean colonies, they had better developed local governments at the time they won their independence. Subsequently, our government has operated continuously from day one, never experiencing a complete meltdown. Unfortunately, the reverse has been the norm in the region. The uneven starts and experiments with alternatives to democracy were the first factors to divide the hemisphere.
My first experience with homesickness occurred during my high school years on my trips back to Culver Military Academy each semester. For dramatic purposes, I wish I could claim to have been sent away to military school by my parents against my will. The truth is, I asked to go. My parents had to make quite an exception to send their last child to an expensive boarding school after raising seven others through local parochial schools and public high schools. So, I have to admit, my first experience with homesickness was self-induced—but it was still intense. A couple of times, I made the trek back to school from Marietta, Ohio to Culver, Indiana by bus. Even though these trips took several hours, the feeling of missing home, oddly, did not hit until the bus arrived. After the first time, I was prepared. I made sure I had a good book to read the first night back. I would get into bed and read myself asleep. By morning, the old routine of morning ranks and breakfast would dispel the feeling of homesickness.
The youngest of eight, I was quick witted before I was mature enough to know better than to say whatever satirical or ironic thought that came to mind. Being clever with words was a survival skill in a big family. It took me a long time to learn that every well-turned phrase does not merit utterance. I learned this lesson the hard way—not so much from embarrassment as from the realization that words arranged just right can do a lot of harm. Some things are just too uncivil to say.
At any moment, we can see something so intense and clear that we absorb it without really viewing it in the usual sense. We do not take in what we see by scanning the details from left to right. Instead, the image just burns itself wholesale into our optic memory like a snapshot. These snapshots are identified by four qualities. They often return spontaneously. They stay with us for a very long time, sometimes for a lifetime. When we take one in, we catch ourselves saying, "Did I just see that?" Above all, they remind us that no matter how long we live, we will never be able to say that we have seen it all.