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Barack Obama is expected to make deficit reduction a key theme in this week’s State of the Union address. This will come on the heels of a year of unprecedented government spending in which the federal government’s deficit reached a record $1.4 trillion.

While doing some reading for a course I’m taking on the international political economy, I came across some historical figures on the U.S. national debt that jumped out at me:

At the end of 1981, the U.S. was a net world creditor to the tune of $141 billion. By the end of 1987, the U.S. was the world’s biggest debtor nation – with debt totaling $400 billion.

Seeking more context for this, I went to the Concord Coalition website (Concord Coalition is a non-partisan organization that promotes fiscal responsibility and debt reduction) and found this graph

This graph shows that after a World War II spike, American debt decreased and remained relatively flat until 1980 when it ballooned. The only period it decreased after 1980 was during the last years of the Clinton presidency. Shortly after 2000, George Bush’s tax cuts and corresponding spending increases on defense put an end to this downward trend.

It is true that President Obama presided over a year of unprecedented government spending, resulting in record increases in the deficit. But, it is also true that it was Dick Cheney who asserted that, “Deficits don’t matter.”

It seems clear, then, that deficits were produced in a bipartisan way, and must be dealt with in the same manner. Reasonable people from both parties should show some honesty and maturity and come together around practical solutions.

Unfortunately, I have little faith that this will happen. Instead, the poisonous effect of the mid-term election year will probably lead Republicans to do everything they can to paint Democrats, particularly President Obama, as big spending deficit producers, while acknowledging no shared responsibility for the situation. In response, Democrats will be understandably motivated to spend energy looking backwards to challenge the Republican myth, thus reducing the space available to work across party lines to solve the problem.

As usual, it will be a year of posturing, blaming, and credit-seeking. And in the midst, public polarization will deepen and real problems will grow.

I could be wrong. I hope so. Let’s wait and see.

I write from O’Hare airport, Terminal 2, Gate E12. It’s 1:30pm CST and in a few minutes I begin my journey back ‘home’ to Galway, Ireland via Atlanta, Georgia. CNN is blaring from plasma screens to my left and right. Straight ahead mammoth planes mosey in and out of their parking spots flanked by buzzing trucks carrying luggage and saran-wrapped chicken or pasta. The sight reminds me of watching the gulls race circles around the slow swans in Galway Bay.

I’ve spent a lot of time in airports over the past nine days…From Dublin to Atlanta to Tampa Bay to Cincinnati to Chicago to Atlanta to Dublin. So much time sitting at gates and overpriced coffee shops waiting to be shot 35,000 feet in the air can make a person crazy. It must feel something like sitting in an interrogation room waiting for the detective, or taking a breather during a time-out before going out to shoot the last-second free throw.

And so, to pass the time, I listen….

Waiting in line for coffee in Dublin an older gentleman chatted me up for a few minutes about his frustrations at the inefficiencies he saw. Why not put full pots of coffee out, so people who just want plain coffee don’t have to wait for the server to fill the cup for them? Why don’t they put the little sleeves that keep you from burning your hand on a to-go cup out, so the server doesn’t have to waste time putting them on for you? If he was in charge, boy, he’d do things differently.

Waiting in Tampa Bay I watched two boys around 8-10 years old meet each other and pass 30 minutes talking about a Wii game they both love. After one of the boy’s Dad came to retrieve him for their flight, the boy’s parting words to his newfound friend were, “I’ll see you on the internet.” In this age of Skype and G-chat video, his use of the word see was perhaps apt.

Waiting in Chicago I eavesdropped on two guys responding to a panel discussion on the federal stimulus bill blaring on CNN. I wish I could have written faster to capture it all. Here’s a snippet:

“I love CNN. Great joke channel. Comedy News Network…They’re all after one world government and one world socialism. I’m thinking I need to get some guns. And a lot of them.” Seriously…direct quote.

His more reasonable conversation partner responded with, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. At least we didn’t go off the deep end. But, I’d say the spending is a bit out of control. I just wish they’d include $20,000 or so in it for me. Then I’d be able to pay my mortgage down a little, trade in for a new car, all that stuff they’ve got programs for.”

When I get tired of listening, I read. Reading is like listening, I suppose, but with more control.

On this trip, I read a Newsweek. The cover story is a case for gay marriage written by Ted Olson – a well known conservative lawyer that represented George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election dispute. Olson has decided that, based on his conservative principles, it’s no longer just for the state to prevent loving, committed, gay couples from marrying, if they so desire. We let ex sex-offenders, adulterers, even murders, marry – but not loving, law-abiding homosexual couples. Leave it to churches to make their own theological determinations, and keep the state out of it, says Olson. This is a challenging argument, especially from someone within the conservative movement.

Then on to the Chicago Tribune. The front page story is about how the Chicago Public School Board presidents have spent thousands of public dollars on superfluous personal expenses. Ironically, the Rock River Times I threw in my carry-on to read has a cover story about Rockford School Board leaders spending $20,000 for a short trip to Chicago.

In his book After Virtue, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre imagines what society would be like if people stopped cultivating internal virtues of ethical behavior and acted solely in the self-interest that modern society holds so dear. Reading about corruption in the Tribune and the Rock River Times makes one seem as if we’ve already arrived in MacIntyre’s afterlife. But I know such cynicism is not exactly fair. Virtue is all around us…it usually just doesn’t make the deadlines. Stories about human goodness don’t sell newspapers.

Someday, when historians look back on our time in search of an illustration to summarize our civilization, they’ll probably look to the airport. It’s all here. The complexity and uniformity of the air travel regime reveals globalization at its most advanced. The architecture is more Mies van der Rohe than Daniel Burnham – built for efficiency, and convenience (unlike the monument style Union rail stations they replaced). Vendors at every corner satiate our consumerist obsessions. Security checks and sniffing German Shepards capture the conundrum of enjoying both freedom and security. People of myriad ethnicities walking the same halls show our increasing cosmopolitanism, even while we usually travel with those who look like us. The bells and whistles provided to ‘frequent flyers’, ‘platinum club members’, and ‘silver-elite customers’ exemplify the enduring separations of social class, as do the scores of empty seats at gate waiting areas that could be filled by those who cannot afford to visit the airport in the first place.

And quiet people with laptops, sitting anonymously at their gate, post their random reflections on an internet blog for millions of people to read.

Or, in my case, perhaps more like two or three…

Want to be inspired? Check out this trailer for a documentary on women-owned craft businesses. It focuses on two groups, one of which is Uganda Crafts. It’s a beautiful piece and really gets the ethos of Uganda Crafts down in just a couple minutes. Additionally, many of my Ugandan friends and co-workers can be seen throughout the piece. AND a couple of my basket designs make the cut too! 🙂

The filmmakers were planning to go on to Haiti to learn about and film some similar work being done there. These types of businesses are more important than ever after the tragic events of last week’s earthquake. Please consider checking out their site and donating to help them capture the story of women’s businesses in Haiti.

Enjoy the film!

charming adolescent swan

I love birds, but I’ve never been much of a bird photographer – they’re pretty hard to capture. I had a bit of luck the other day, and managed to get these two photos of some of my winged friends.

a flurry of wings as seagulls, ducks, and swans are fed by a local Galway resident.

This was our motto throughout Ellen’s visit to Ireland. Thinking of getting another pint of Bulmer’s at the pub? Go ahead – you only live once. Should we go to Blarney castle despite the snow and the fact that the roads are nearly impassable? Probably, since you only live once. Chat with some intoxicated guys (who all seem to be named Paddy) about politics on your way home at night? Well, you only live once.

We were so lucky to have Ellen visit us for 2 whole weeks, while we were on break and feeling relaxed after a nice Christmas. We tried to take advantage of the time off from work to explore, but came up against an old enemy when trying to make plans: the weather. It’s been a while since the weather has prevented us from doing much – after all, Uganda is pretty much perfect all year long, and we visited the midwest in its prime over the summer. And although I didn’t think the weather was really that bad, Ireland was definitely not prepared for it. So we took advantage of as much as we could, and when we were doubtful about whether or not to go ahead with a plan, we asked ourselves the question: “How many times do you live?” The answer: just once. And we had a blast. Exhibits A and B:

Blarney Castle, beautiful in the snow!

a lovely view of Dublin from the top of the Guinness Brewery.

Ellen really made some tracks around Ireland during her two weeks. We spent a couple of days in Dublin, mostly sliding around on the icy sidewalks and thinking about our next cup of tea. We also visited Christchurch cathedral, the Dublin Writer’s museum, a couple of cute pubs, and paid a visit to Muireann and Liam. We had the pleasure of being accompanied by Michael and his friend Jackie, who was also visiting him.

After Dublin, we took a quick trip to Cork and got to spend time with another Mitchell scholar, Jon, and explore the pleasant city. We also made a (very quick!) trip to Blarney Castle, which was breathtaking in the snow… but also VERY cold. Ellen later took day trips to the Cliffs of Moher and to Sligo.

And how can we forget our time in Galway? We did some great ‘traditional’ Irish stuff with Ellen – traditional music at the Crane Bar, dancing at Monroe’s Tavern, walking along the Promenade, and meandering through town.

All in all, it was a fantastic two weeks, and so great to have Ellen here with us. Since we lived together until I moved to Uganda, it was just like old times. Having friends like Ellen come through has reminded me and Jon how lucky we are to have such incredible people in our lives. And it has given us the opportunity to get outside of our normal Galway routine and live a little more. We are blessed indeed.

we'll miss you Ellen!

I was told a couple months back that we would be “really lucky to see snow in Galway.”

Turns out we are the luckiest of them all!  The first appearance of snow was at Christmas, and we’ve been gifted more snow this week.  Unfortunately, this was the weekend we planned to rent a car and explore the isle with our dear friend Ellen, who is visiting.

Ireland, it turns out, is woefully unprepared for the weather we’re having.  For a Minnesota girl, the panicked response to an inch of snow is sometimes funny, and sometimes annoying.  It is icy, but shutting down ALL bus service in Dublin, for this?

icy grafton street

My favorite example of the reaction to this “arctic weather” is this map, which we found while looking for information about road conditions.


Needless to say, we canceled our rental car reservation!

I stumbled upon a Garrison Keillor column while reading today’s Irish Times at the campus gym. The piece is classic Keillor – insightful run-on sentences about basic human behavior. In this one, he’s people-watching while aboard a cruise ship during a recent winter vacation. This passage gave me joy, and I thought it worth sharing:

“Its the village life that’s wonderful, the pleasure of people-watching and eavesdropping, which the automobile has cheated us of, the camaraderie of card games. Remember that? Back in my leisurely 20s I sat around for hours with my Republican in-laws and played Gin Rummy and Five and then I fell in among earnest Democrats who preferred to sit and argue. Cards belonged to the Elks Lodge and the Ladies Circle and my generation didn’t go in for that. Decades passed and nobody shuffled. And suddenly, walking into a salon full of card players, I remember how much fun it was, the gentle teasing and the small talk. “Go ahead, amaze me,” an old lady says to her grandson as she slaps down trump. He folds his hands. Everyone laughs.”

During my two years living abroad, Keillor has popped up unexpectedly on a few occasions. Last year I stumbled upon a used copy of a collection of short stories entitled “Leaving Home” in a small DVD shop just outside the main gate of Makerere University in Kampala. I bought it just for the novelty and it quickly became an invaluable tool for entering into the mindset of that place I leave and yet love – home.

Garrison Keillor is an exponent of the American midwest that I take pride in. He combines humility and plain-spokenness with a genuine respect for intellect and wit. He both believes in the common man and believes that we can, and should, strive to be more than common. He romanticizes the loss of small-town life that had simpler technology and deeper relationships while at the same time encouraging his readers and listeners to embrace the future and engage those who look and sound different because, after all, they too might have something interesting and important to say.

I look forward to my next unexpected encounter with Mr. Keillor. Perhaps it will take place a bit closer to Lake Wobegon…


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