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Well, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom in our nation’s capital.

Students on spring break are sprawled out across the Mall, fleeing nervous chaperones and feeling their tired textbooks come alive.

And thanks to Friday’s melodramatic budget compromise, the parade went on. Giant flower petal floats and local marching bands cascaded down Constitution Avenue yesterday under the seasoned direction of Grand Marshall Atticus Shaffer, age 12.

The 3,000 cherry trees we celebrate this week were a gift from Japan in 1912; next year they turn 100. I wonder what these trees would say on their centennial birthday, if they could. First they might thank God they weren’t part of the initial batch of seedlings sent from Japan in 1910 which arrived diseased and quickly died off. They might also reflect on the stages in the relationship they symbolize – those warring young adult years, the internment in middle age, and the earth shattering tidal waves of recent weeks. Relationships between nations – like those between people – have their ups and downs…their hours of greed and their hours of need.

So too with political parties, it seems. For a fleeting moment this week the waters calmed and the liberals and the conservatives jumped in the boat at the same time. Ironically, the conditions for compromise were improved by the fact that more folks acted like themselves. The liberals aren’t busy triangulating and the conservatives aren’t going on about how compassionate they are. Instead, both sides seem content to mix a little pragmatism with the purity they openly profess.

Like the cherry blossoms, however, the sentiment will quickly fade. On Monday we will turn our sights to new fights…the debt ceiling, entitlements, education policy, Afghanistan troop levels, what comes next in Libya…all in the context of a budding presidential campaign. Say hello to the next two years.

Cynicism ought not overwhelm us, however. After all, it is spring – the season of creative construction, of new life and possibility.

And boy, could we use it. This recession, which has left 8.6% of our fellow citizens looking for work, came on the back of a generation defined by the phenomenon economists call ‘creative destruction’,  which in real life means the decline of the middle class. While capital flees to cheaper and more efficient pastures in this age of globalization, further enriching those at the top and giving rise to an emerging global middle class, the American dream dries out like a raisin in the sun.

Consider some of these fun facts:

  • The richest 1% of Americans now control 24% of the nation’s wealth. In 1915, at the height of the Guilded Age before the income tax existed, that figure was 18%.
  • From 1980 to 2005 80% of the total increase in wealth went to the richest 1% while wage growth for low and middle earners actually declined.  Check out this graph from the U.S. census bureau on income inequality trends from 1948 to 2000:


  • Warren Buffet, the world’s 3rd richest person figured in 2007 that he paid about 17.7% of his income in taxes, while his receptionist paid about 30%.
  • And General Electric managed to pay no taxes on the $5.1 billion it made in the United States in 2010. In fact, GE claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion last year.
  • By the way, in 1965 CEOs made about 24 times more than the average worker. In 2005 it was 262 times more.
  • Contrary to our beliefs about ourselves, Americans have a lower chance of moving out of their parents income bracket that do people in Denmark, Sweden, Germany or Canada. The worry that the United States is becoming more like Europe seems valid…not the Europe of today, however, but old Europe…that land of landed aristocracy that our ancestors crossed an ocean to flee.

And the spring looks increasing more like fall for our nation’s children:

  • American children are twice as likely to live in poverty than adults. So much for that ‘unfettered start and fair chance’ that Honest Able called for.
  • American students rank 17th in the word in science achievement and 25th in math.
  • But, at least our pets are living well. 1/2 of our dogs and cats are now overweight or obese, and spending on pets has risen at a rate of 6% during the recession. Just don’t tell that to the 1.5 million homeless kids living in America. Sometimes I do tremble for my country when I recall that God is just.

The political question of the age will be how we respond to this generational decline by promoting the general welfare, as our Constitution demands, in ways that are affordable, sustainable, and responsive to the competitive global economy that we created. After the Great Depression, new institutions were erected to do this job for an industrial economy. But those wineskins are aged and bloated and need to be updated before the only option left is to simply stop pouring wine.

The debate on the issue will be led by Midwesterners – Barack Obama of Illinois on the left and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin  on the right, perhaps with an assist from Mitch Daniels of Indiana who I predict will win the Republican nomination if he chooses to run.

Fortunately, Midwesterners know how to lead the country through the critical issues of the time. During their legendary Senate and Presidential debates,  Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas of Illinois facilitated the national discussion on slavery. Admittedly, these debates eventually gave way to the Civil War, which began 150 years ago this month. Here’s hoping its not déjà vu all over again.

And so, we celebrate the arrival of spring – that season of possibility and creative construction, when both plants and people start to stand upright in the sunlight after huddling through the long, cold, lonely winter.

Its about time. It seems like years since it’s been here.

“One day at lunch last month, some Depaul House residents began teasing another guy who off-handedly admitted that he had cried about something.  In response to their ribbing, he refused to backtrack.  “I cry every night,” he declared.

“Why?” someone asked.

“Because I am alone,” he answered.

Excerpt from a newsletter written by the Executive Director of a national homelessness organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

____________________________

Loneliness does not traditionally top our lists of the most pressing social problems (especially in an economic crisis), but maybe it should.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century British philosopher whose ideas about individual liberty, social contracts, and state sovereignty undergird modern political thought, called for a civil society for the explicit purpose of making life less, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Of course, we’ve long known that isolation is deeply damaging to the human being. For centuries, parents have disciplined deviant children with time-outs, and judges have condemned criminals to solitary confinement. But, neuroscientists are learning new things about the effect loneliness can have on human health and well-being.

For example, John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, finds that sustained loneliness increases our risks of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, sleep dysfunction, and depression. (By 2020, depression will be the 2nd most common health problem in the world. Global suicide rates have also risen steadily since 1950, especially for men.) In the centuries since Hobbes wrote, human beings have certainly grown more connected. Ironically, though, we still often feel alone.

Loneliness cannot, like some other matters of public concern, be addressed by legislative fiat. No law can guarantee every person the opportunity to be indiscrete with close friends. Surely, providing law and order and basic rights and capabilities can help expand human dignity and increase the odds of human connection. But the public servant cannot also be the social engineer.

Somehow, we must also take on increased responsibility for visiting each other when we find ourselves imprisoned behind bars, behind closed doors, or in the light of day. Since loneliness, in my experience, is an indiscriminate and universal attacker, it stands to reason that such visits would yield a high rate of return. The more we invest, it would seem, the more likely it will be that when our tree falls in the woods, as surely it will, someone will be around to confirm that our cries do indeed make a sound.

I have a theory about what may transpire over the next few weeks with respect to the federal budget. Since I haven’t seen anyone else write it, I figured I’d take a stab at it.

As usual, the media is focused on the daily political blood and gore that sells newspapers. I suppose it is true that an individual tree – with its gnarled roots and rough bark – is always more interesting to look at than the whole forest – a bland sea of green.

There is a consensus in Washington that the time is now for a bipartisan deal on the current budget and long-term deficits. Both parties see the basic elements of a deal, and see doing it now, prior to the announcement of Republican presidential candidates this spring, as being advantageous.

For President Obama, a deal allows him to say he did what he always said he would do – pull together a broad-based coalition to take on the big issues of the day, however unpleasant. Doing it now, however, is imperative for him. A deal will unleash fury within his base, and he will need a year-and-a-half to re-energize it before 2012.

For John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders, a deal now has a double-effect: 1) It shows that Republicans are indeed willing to work with Democrats when they see that its reasonable to do so 2) It tees up the 2012 presidential race by creating a narrative that they’ve got the President on the ropes and that this deal, while important, doesn’t go nearly far enough. To do what is really necessary, they will assert, will require a Republican in the White House.

All know somehow that the deal must happen immediately, before any Republican presidential hopefuls announce candidacies. Once this happens, the President will be forced to weigh his actions in the context of potential opponents, and Republicans in Congress will be divided on who they are supporting and what these candidates want out of Congress to help their campaigns (compromise with a Democratic President likely not being high on the list).

The behavior of everyone here in recent weeks, I think, supports this view.

  1. If President Obama didn’t actually want a deal, but wanted instead to only be seen having tried, he would have included in his budget a big bold “Obama Plan” for reigning in entitlement spending as many have chided him for failing to do. But, he knows this was a trap. Had he done so, there would have been two immediate effects: 1) His base would have been in revolt. 2) Republicans would have said, no matter what the plan was, that it didn’t go far enough and, thus, they couldn’t support it. The result would have been a loss of support on the left and a lack of support on the right. Having been seen trying, the President could then have reverted back to a more conventional Democratic budget, similar to the one he did put out, but with a significantly weaker hand. Instead, by avoiding the question, Obama led everyone to beg the question on entitlements and has given the Senate the opportunity to take credit for providing the answer. As Harry Truman once said, anything is possible when you’re not preoccupied with who gets the credit. (As an aside, the President’s weighing in on the Wisconsin budget crisis lends more evidence to the fact that he is preparing to cut a deal. Generating headlines in the days before a major compromise about how he is getting the backs of labor and rallying midwest progressives doesn’t hurt his cause among the faithful.)
  2. If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell didn’t actually want a deal, they would have tried to keep a tight reign on their caucus, as they did over the past two years, in order to pass a Republican budget that was at least somewhat attractive to deficit hawk Democrats in the Senate. Doing so would have put pressure on the President to veto a reasonable sounding budget that had support both in the House, but also in the Senate. Instead, however, John Boehner opened the floodgates, allowing his House to pass a far-right budget that even cuts George H.W. Bush’s coveted National Corporation for Community Service and left Bob Gates pleading for funds to complete post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Iraq, lest we repeat our mistakes from the 1980s in Afghanistan (see last 5 minutes of Charlie Wilson’s War). Taking this latter approach had 3 outcomes for Boehner and McConnell: 1) It enabled John Boehner to be seen as living up to the budget-cutting mandate placed upon the Congress by the November Elections 2) It provided a huge freshmen class (87 total) of legislators with little experience significant practice in writing bills and working through Parliamentary procedure 3) It guaranteed a Presidential veto and tee’d up a bipartisan effort in the Senate that would split the difference between the House Budget and the President’s…something Boehner probably prefers in his heart-of-hearts.

This week the Congress is in recess. Legislators’ goal while they’re home will be to trump the virtues of their respective budget (President’s version or House version), and on denigrating the others’ (Republicans will say the President’s plan fails to cut enough spending and kicks the entitlement can down the road; Democrats will say far-right Republicans have taken a hatchet to the budget and, with little foresight or strategy, have cut things that are vitally important and have little to do with long-term deficits).

All the while Senators will begin to emerge from the shadows, working to appear as elder statesmen coming to save the republic from the brink and forge a high-minded compromise. This process was initiated Sunday by Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin on Meet the Press and will increase throughout the week. We will see more of names like Mark Warner, Saxby Chambliss, Judd Gregg, etc..

Then, in the first part of March, for a fleeting moment, everyone might just jump in the boat at the same time. A compromise that simplifies the tax code while expanding revenues, shores up social security by perhaps phasing in an increased retirement age, and makes some adjustments to Medicare and Medicaid might just pass the Senate and earn begrudging support from the House and the President. In return, the drastic cuts House Republicans proposed to education, border security, and foreign aid for FY 2011 and 2012 will be removed. The President will present himself as coming reluctantly to the deal, as a reasonable compromiser still disappointed that so little is being done for the poor. Republicans, likewise, will appear reluctant, taking every possible chance to say the deal doesn’t go far enough, but since a Democrat is in the White House, what choice do they have? To work, it will have to happen quickly, almost before everyone realizes what is happening. If left in the light of day too long, the zealous will start paddling their own J-Strokes, the boat will start going in circles, and everyone will end up wet.

The day afterwards, Republicans will begin saying that now the real work begins. Just think what could have been accomplished if we had the White House too, they will suggest. Democrats will express disappointment with the President and pressure him to return to his progressive base, fighting for advances in education and infrastructure and unleashing fury against the concentration of wealth among the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class. Eagerly, he will take up this call. A few weeks later, Republican presidential hopefuls will begin to announce, and for the next year-and-a-half every Congressional vote will become fodder for 2012 campaign ads. Both parties will feel good about the terms of this debate and will be eager to engage in the long war.

Along the way reporters will have dramatized each battle and written human-interest pieces on the heroes and the villains. But nobody will have taken the time to tell the whole story of how the successful compromise came to be. And, when the hour for jumping together comes around again sometime downstream, we will look at the boat as if for the first time.

Or, I could just be wrong.

In America, we’re pretty darn good at starting new things. But, we’re not always so hot at transitioning from one thing to another.

Our kids struggle with them (more kids fail 9th grade than any other grade because of the difficult transition to high school). Our young adults struggle with them (I speak from experience here – and apparently I’m not alone). And, our older adults struggle with them (know anyone who’s had a mid-life crisis?)

In foreign policy, our capacity to deal with transitions is woefully inadequate. Our war-fighting expertise is unparalleled, but our learning curve for supporting post-conflict reconstruction and democratic transitions is still high. We do have an “Office of Transition Initiatives” within the U.S. Agency for International Development, but its 2010 budget was $55 million. The budget for a new fleet of Marine Ones (the president’s helicopter) was $6.1 billion when the Pentagon authorized it in 2005. Of course, we are not alone in this. 30% of peace agreements signed around the world in the last few decades have been broken within five years. It turns out, transitions are just hard.

But, I think the age favors those who succeed in transitions. Change, as they say, is the only constant. Today the idea that we move through life, or that governments or organizations move through projects, in predictable, manageable stages is obsolete.

Everything around us, including us, is in flux. The Department of Labor tells us that the average adult today will change jobs ten times between the age of 18-39. The events unfolding in Egypt are testament to transitions in the global order. Technology is transitioning faster than we can consume it.

Succeeding in this world of transitions will necessitate that we adjust the way we educate our children, the way we organize our institutions, and the way we address problems at home and abroad. Our ability to support Egypt in its historic transition will be just one test among many.

Transitions may not be our strong suit now, but I’m confident. After all, were pretty good at starting new things.

As I watch events unfold in Egypt, I can’t help but think of Uganda. At the surface, the parallels between Presidents Mubarak and Museveni are plain to see. Both are war heroes that brought stability to much of their country. Both forged strong ties with the West and leveraged this support to consolidate their own power domestically. Both have remained in power for 25+ years. And, for some reason, both made the decision to circle their wagons around their own survival rather than prepare their country for peaceful democratic transition.

It is puzzling to me why so many leaders decide not to take the high road. I am less familiar with the Egyptian case, but I know that President Museveni could still cement a positive legacy for himself in the eyes of mankind by stepping down and putting all his energy into leading his country through a peaceful and democratic transition. But, instead, he insists on forcing his countrymen to choose between his corrupt stability or the uncertainty of populist revolt. Why not ride off into the sunset and become a Cincinnatus or Washington? He could live well; books would be written about him; he’d probably win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, the reason for Mubarak and Museveni’s calculation probably lies in an under-appreciation for what is being asked of them. In the United States, we look fondly upon George Washington’s virtuous decision to step down from power. But, we often fail to appreciate that this decision was made without the fear that a democratic transition would result in fundamental social change in the country. Slavery and marginalization of native peoples ensured that any transition of power would occur within a limited pluralism. In other words, there was no risk that the country would go from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood or from Ankole to Acholi. Thus, by bracketing the voices of a large swath of the populace, there was less at stake for the United States in building the institution of democratic transition.

I wonder, if African slaves and native peoples had the vote in Washington’s time, would things have been the same? Would Washington really have stepped down so honorably if a free and fair election risked bringing to power an entirely different social group prepared to take the country in a drastically different direction? An even more interesting question is, would the elites around Washington – Addams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, etc. – have allowed Washington to step down? Or would they, like the elites around Mubarak and Museveni, have encouraged him to hold on to power and cultivate aid from donor countries to decrease dependency on local voice? Perhaps some of them would have worried privately that a Native American president might replace private property rights with communal tenure, or an African American president would implement a land-reform agenda to break-up enormous plantations. These founders, in turn, might have to flee back to Britain, or in exile to France or Spain. Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions, but it is interesting to consider them.

The American democratic experiment has been conducted gradually, incorporating new variables over time. We created democratic institutions while controlling for slavery; we industrialized while controlling for harsh labor practices and gender inequity; we promoted global democracy while propping up dictators from time to time.

The United States is a force for good and the world’s most successful democracy. But, the road to this point was long and full of litter.

The truth about the American experience ought not give the autocrats of the world an excuse for their spinelessness. But it ought to give us pause. As we ask nation-builders across the world to democratize in one, two, or even three generations, we should make it clear that we aren’t asking them to catch up to or emulate us, but to do that which we weren’t able to do ourselves.

Since World War II, our politics has fundamentally revolved around two traditions of thought. Last week Paul Krugman summarized this well in his column, A Tale of Two Moralities. The first holds that it is immoral for a wealthy capitalist society to allow its citizens to go without the minimum necessities of a human life: food, shelter, basic health care, and a decent education. Where this minimum threshold of welfare does not exist, the state must provide. The second morality believes that it is wrong for a government to seize a person’s wages or to define the terms of his/her behavior, which the individual alone ought to manage as a free and autonomous chooser of ends.

For Krugman, these two positions stand at fundamental odds. Common welfare and negative freedom are opposite poles. The New Deal is oil and the Reagan Revolution is water. Thus, our only choice is to prevent violence from entering the public sphere, and to fight ferociously within the law. “By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully,” Krugman writes, “but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are.”

These two perspectives, oriented around philosophical welfarism and liberterianism, have their roots in European political thought. They are continental ideas retrieved and reconstructed for the American experience.

During the past two years President Obama has worked within this familiar dichotomy. He has been a man of the left – an heir to the New Deal and the Great Society, with health care reform marking his original contribution.

One  way to interpret his current activities is that he is attempting, however, to bring a third morality fully back into the American debate after a century of neglect – a tradition of political thought that is uniquely American and that Obama feels more natural within, but that he could not rely on practically in the face of an economic crisis or politically with a 60-vote majority in the Senate demanding legislative victories. This observation has already been made my many people, most recently James Kloppenberg in his Reading Obama.

Beginning in post-Civil War America, a variety of thinkers developed pragmatism based on their skepticism of those who seemed certain that God and right was on their side. These folks – John Dewey, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes – sought humility in place of hubris and saw experimentation, democratic dialogue, and common sense as the keys to building a more perfect union. For these pragmatists, no fallible human being can alone answer the question, ‘how ought we to live together’? and no nation derives its greatness from some eternal divine favor. We all see through a glass darkly and need constant debate, continual experimentation, and simple hard work to become better as individuals and greater as a society.

Thus, in politics, these pragmatists did not begin with a vision of the good society and the ideal role of government (big or small), as we have come to expect of our politicians. Rather, they argued for enduring ideals of process – dialogue, fairness, education, hard work, and hope – and with the never-ending goal of elevating the human condition through innovation and collaborative effort. All methods of progressing on this goal were open to consideration and ruled out, through debate, by their inability to survive critical scrutiny or their failure to perform in practice. Questions of ‘big government’ and ‘limited government’ were secondary…the primary question was how to define the human condition and what actions could be reasonably taken to elevate it. Answers to these questions could result in proposals to add, and proposals to subtract.

In practice, political pragmatism can look, and be, weak, indecisive, and self-serving. Thus the reason it is often a dirty word in daily usage. Nonetheless, it is based on stronger intellectual foundations than the expedient willingness to compromise.

Perhaps the first pragmatic president, although he would not have known the word, was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln believed that humans were superior among animals in their ability “to improve their workmanship through discoveries and inventions.” And, he remains our only President to hold a U.S patent – for a method of helping riverboats float freely over shallow water. He thought deeply of religion but sought constant flexibility in his faith, once declaring that he would never officially join any church until its only demand was to love God as he saw fit, and love his neighbor as himself. This, despite the fact that he could quote whole chapters of Christian scripture from memory.

And, in politics, as a Whig and later as an anti-slavery Republican, he eschewed neat political categories. He grew government dramatically, but in the service of a Civil War that expanded individual human freedom for blacks and retracted tyrannical government in the secession states. He argued vigorously for a national bank, protective trade tarrifs, and government funding for ‘internal improvements’ and public schools – but all with the goal of empowering the common man to improve his lot in a rapidly transforming world. He argued against President Polk’s invasion of Mexico, not out of pacifism, but on the reasoned argument that the evidence for the war was scant and that public funds would be best used elsewhere.

And, in a Message to Congress on July 4, 1861 – already in the midst of his first term – Lincoln declared his philosophy of government in the clearest terms he had to-date. “The leading object of government,” Lincoln said, “is to elevate the condition of men. To lift artificial weights from all shoulders. To clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all. To afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

This is a progressive, pragmatic vision. It asserts the government’s role in improving people’s lives…in making justice real. But it is also a vision of individual agency and empowerment – not of a perfectly elegant just society operated by select elites. Its objective is to promote the general welfare, as our Constitution demands, not provide for it.

It seems to me there have always been 2 President Obamas. One the heir to New Deal liberalism and  the other a modern Lincoln liberal of sorts, genuinely excited to build a new progressive era that works to elevate the condition of all men and women, and recalibrates government activities around the question of whether or not they serve this objective.

The 2nd Obama will dominate the remainder of this 1st term and will be articulated more fully than it has been to-date on Tuesday in his State of the Union address. He will call for adjustments to New Deal entitlements to accommodate the baby boom; additional public investments in education, infrastructure, and technology that empower individuals; revision of the tax code to both challenge the alarming trend of concentrated wealth among the super-wealthy and to lift artificial weights on the small business owner and the middle-income earner; military spending cuts to splinter the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower feared; a fairer immigration policy that embraces diversity and hard work; public-private coordination to spur energy innovation and fracture the oil oligopoly; and increased engagement of the citizenry within local communities to solve problems where we can, independent of government activity.

It will be an agenda of promotion, not provision. And, it will seem, to the observer, that Obama has compromised…that he is ‘triangulating’ between more government and less without a fixed operating principle, perhaps with two eyes on 2012. But, whether or not the effort succeeds or is at all laudable, it will be grounded in a consistent and originally American school of thought.

In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Tucson, the national discussion has quickly turned to one of civility. Did the words of conservative activists encourage this troubled boy to commit acts of murder? Or, is such an inference misguided and even insulting? Many are calling on the president to turn the tragedy into an opportunity to talk about the importance of a civil tone in our vitriolic politics.

This seems like the wrong approach to me.

The President, and others in a position to be heard, ought to resist calls to “use” this moment as an opportunity to do anything but lift up the stories of those who lost, or nearly lost, their lives last Saturday.

Consider Judge John Roll, a chief federal judge appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1991 that died in the shooting spree. Roll is described by his colleagues as having been humble, fair, and kind, and was working to bring more resources to his state to help with a severe case back-log in the months before his death.

9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the only girl on her Little League baseball team and a newly elected member of her student council, also died.

Daniel Hernandez, a 20 year-old intern on his 5th day on the job, operated on instinct to stop Congresswoman Giffords’ bleeding with his bare hands, and provided comfort to her until emergency responders arrived.

And there’s Congresswoman Giffords, currently fighting for her life, who continued to host open forums at easily accessible locations like supermarkets, even after she had received death threats and had her office window shattered by vandals.

The stories of these individuals is what ought to dominate our news cycle in coming days/weeks, not a process-oriented discussion about how to have a discussion.

By focusing on these stories, the President can summon much more than civility – he can summon inspiration. In the lives affected by the Tucson shooting, we find evidence of the American spirit we so badly need right now: Young people like Christina committed to education and leadership; Older professionals like Judge Roll still going above-and-beyond the call of duty, instead of having one foot out the door; Citizens showing up on a weekend to listen, to chastise, and to meet one another.

People do not become civil because they’re told its the right thing to do. They do so because they are inspired to come together around a common purpose, and a common vision. Civility, at root, is simply a necessary means for achieving our desired end as a people – to form a more perfect union. It is the grease necessary to turn the wheels. It is not the end in itself.

Instead of a singular focus on ‘civility’, let us figure out how to take from these hallowed dead and wounded an increased measure of devotion to being stronger students, nicer neighbors, harder workers, and better citizens.

That nine year-old, Christina Taylor Green, was born on September 11, 2001. Her short decade on Earth was one marked by terrorism, war, political division, and economic uncertainty. In this new year – this new decade – let us be here dedicated to her unfinished work and, together, build a nation that can thrive in the 21st century.

If we build it, civility will come.

Day 3

I’m not a huge New Year’s Resolution maker.  As a teenager, I used to make a big deal out of each new year.  I’d write a reflective entry about the prior year, and document my hopes and predictions for the coming year.  I’d also make a long list of vague resolutions.  And I would forget about them all by the next week.

I’ve found that I’m better with implementing small new actions in my life.  For instance, when I was in high school, I kept a journal where I wrote about where I saw divinity each day.   This journal was inspired by Matthew 25: seeing divinity in the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.  The journal was centered on the idea that every human is valuable, and that even the tiniest creations are worth noticing.  I wrote in this journal every single day for about three years – remarkably more sustainable and meaningful to me than any New Year’s Resolution ever has been.

In the same spirit of adding a small practice to my daily life, I’ve decided to do 365 days of photography in 2011.  I have noticed in the past that I become much more conscious of and connected to my surroundings when I carry my camera.  What does the light look like in this place, and at this time of day?  What details surround me?  Where are there surprising patterns?  Who else is sharing this space with me?  How can I capture these many things?  With all of my traveling during the past couple years, I’ve had the opportunity to take lots of pictures of some truly incredible sights.  But I want my photography to be an artistic outlet, not just snapshots.  I want to get better with the technical aspects of photography, and more creative and gutsy with my subjects.

So, 2011: 365 will hopefully push my photography to new levels.  And, I suspect, it will give me the chance to reflect more consistently on the places and faces in my daily life.

Currently, I’m just hosting the project on my Flickr account (do visit!).  I may at some point bring the project to this blog, or maybe not.  And, I’m sure there will be more than an occassional dud published.  But that’s ok!  I’m excited to see where this project leads me in the new year.

In addition to reading and relaxing post-thesis submission, I’ve been messing around a bit more with my photos and flickr account.  I just revisited this recent photo, from our quick trip to the Art Deco District in Miami Beach, and I’m sort of in love with the colors.  Enjoy!

the Leslie Hotel, Miami Beach

Since we left Ireland, my life has been sort of a big, beautiful blur.

Leaving Ireland was, as expected, nearly impossible to do.  Saying goodbye to our idyllic lives by the sea and our lovely group of Irish friends was really, really sad.  We tried our best to keep our chins up and to enjoy every last second – all the while working on our theses and packing up another year of our lives.  We did take some time to check a couple of things off of our list, including spending an afternoon at the historic Tigh Neachtain pub with friends.

A perfect June afternoon at Tigh Neachtain

After a teary goodbye at the Galway train station, we were off … on our way to our whirlwind tour of America.

First stop: My hometown of Mahtomedi, Minnesota.  We made it just in time for my dear friend Hilary’s wedding, and spent the week both working on schoolwork as well as catching up with family and friends.

We had a lovely time with family, and loved seeing Grandma M and her newest quilts.

Next: Rockford, Illinois.  This time, Jon’s family and friends (and don’t forget those pesky theses).  We crammed a lot of quality time in with parents, grandparents, and our adorable little nephew.

Ryne's got a golf club in his hand - he LOVES to play golf!

Next stop: Chicago, Illinois, for a very quick hello & goodbye to our dear friends Becca and Sam. As luck would have it, we’re finally in the US  just as they’re on their way to South Africa for a year.  Good thing we have that wonderful kind of friendship that you can just pick right up where you left off.

Becca & Sam, Lauren & Jon reunion

Next? Naples, Florida, and then the Everglades, and Miami, Florida.  Jon and I were so excited to visit my mom’s new home in beautiful Florida.  Moving to a warmer climate has been one of my mom’s lifelong dreams, and it’s been so much fun for me to see her in her element in Florida.  Unfortunately, we STILL (!) had thesis work while we were visiting the tropics, but at least we could escape our punishing academic work by going to the beach.

Miami beach.

Well, we’re not done quite yet.  Next, we spent a week in Washington, D.C. We got to attend an annual Mitchell Scholar party and officially started the job search by doing informational interviews.  In between, we visited with friends and worked on theses.  And then… after many months and a final all-night session, I FINISHED MY THESIS!  It’s officially printed and turned in.  I am just waiting to hear back whether or not I’ll pass! 🙂

(I neglected to take a single photo in DC… not like me, but my mind was very much elsewhere).

Right now, Jon and I are sadly separate.  He is in Rockford, putting the finishing touches on his thesis and spending more time with family, and I am back in Florida with my mom.  The big news here is that she just got an adorable puppy: Mabel, a teeny tiny Italian Greyhound.

Me & Mabel

Although the last couple of weeks have been spent solely in the US, we’ve seen so much it seems like we must have left the country a couple times.  We’ve had moments of quintessential Americana, like catching a Saint’s Baseball game with my dad, watching a small-town fireworks display with Jon’s dad, and walking along the Washington DC monuments at night.  We’ve also seen the diversity of American life: I talked with my friend Tena about her Somali students in Minneapolis, visited a wedding shop in search of a traditional Korean dress with my sister in Chicago, and enjoyed Brazilian food in Miami for Jon’s birthday.

Overall, it’s been a beautiful blur of a couple of weeks.  We’re still not quite sure what’s happening next in our lives – where we’ll be “settling down” or what jobs we’ll have, but we’ll be sure to keep you posted.  Until then, you can be sure that we’ll be savoring our downtime in the good ole USA.

welcome…

Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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