Monday, July 25, 2011

Problems in Perspective

Whenever I have a little bad luck, I try to remind myself of 2 key things: first, I am an incredibly lucky man; second, my problems are pretty tiny compared to the extent of human problems on our amazing, warming planet. My luck goes way back to my birth, which was the result of a pregnancy that was not only unplanned, but incredibly unlikely. (This is not the place to share the full story, but let's just say that it's pretty serendipitously weird that my biological parents ever had sex with each other. I believe much more than alcohol must have been involved.) So when I get a little bad luck--like two cases of nasty poison ivy in one summer--I think, well, I shouldn't complain. After all, I'm lucky to be here.

If that doesn't work, I think about what a self-pitying schlemiel I would be to feel bad about my poison ivy, when so many people around the world are struggling to make sense of their lives amidst devastating losses or unthinkable hardships. How can an itchy leg compare to losing your teenage son or daughter at the hands of some fascist with a bomb, a gun, and a 1,500 page manifesto of hate?

(I've only had the privilege of knowing one Norwegian person--Maghnild Reiso. She was a student at an  international language school where I worked in Boston, from 2003-2004. She had dreadlocks; she was a foot taller than me; she was awesome.)

Or I can reflect on what enormous problems the planet is facing. The climate change crisis can make even the debt ceiling crisis seem pretty trivial. Heard an interesting interview with Heidi Cullen on NPR today, about her new book, The Weather of the Future. This was a reminder that heat waves like the current one are likely to become the "new normal" in the decades to come--along with all sorts of other forms of extreme weather.

So yeah--I guess I'll just apply some Caladryl, suck it up, and march on.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Raise the Roof

This week, while my ENG 230 students wrestle with Melville's short fiction ("Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby") and my ENG 231 students tango with Hemingway ("The Killers") and Fitzgerald ("Benjamin Button"), my ENG 100 students are writing comparative analytic essays about mainstream news sources. I find that understanding the news--especially political news--can be as baffling to first-year college students as Melville's moral ambiguity, Hemingway's minimalism, or Fitzgerald's magical realism can be for second-year students.

To open up discussion on one of the most important issues of the moment--the raising of the national debt ceiling and the plan to reduce the national deficit--I assigned a couple short readings from ABC News and MSNBC that claim to give "the basics" behind the debate in clear language. We'll see how clear and informative those articles were tonight.

From my own perspective, I am more than a little appalled that Congress has let America come so close to a potential default on our financial obligations. Such a default is virtually unprecedented, and many economists, although unsure exactly what the consequences will be, agree that nothing good can come of it. Some think a default could potentially trigger another global recession, perhaps one even more severe than 2008. We are, right now, struggling as a nation to make ends meet as our economy recovers painfully slowly from the last economic crisis. How could we be so foolish to risk another, even greater crisis, when we have not come close to fully recovering from the last?

Although I personally agree with Obama's plan to raise the debt ceiling immediately and to reduce the deficit with a combination of spending cuts and tax reform, I think minimally the Congress should, without delay, pass what most rational people agree on: raising the debt ceiling and cutting government spending. This will help us meet our short-term obligations, and it will begin to reduce the deficit in the long run. I think the Democrats are right that more tax revenue from super-wealthy individuals and corporations are fair and responsible, but if Republican representatives won't pass them, then that's their right. They won their elections last fall. What is nobody's right--from either party--is to allow a default to happen. That would be catastrophically irresponsible.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jose Antonio Vargas

Last semester I had my students in Comp I read Jose Antonio Vargas's profile of Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook) from The New Yorker. I thought the article was fascinating and well-written, and I hoped my students would appreciate both learning about the man who changed the way they socialize and the quality of Vargas's writing.

During my current Summer term Comp I class, I am teaching Vargas once again. This time, however, my students and I will be discussing his recent, very personal, narrative essay, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," published a couple weeks ago in the New York Times. I found this essay to be incredibly moving, smart, and well-written. In publishing this piece, Vargas effectively came out of "the closet" as an undocumented immigrant, and opened himself up to a number of potentially unattractive legal consequences (arrest, detention, deportation--who knows?). He knowingly took this risk not only for personal reasons--he discusses in the article the psychological effects of living and practicing routine deception--but also out of a sense of justice and political activism. He is hoping to draw attention to the issue of immigration reform.

Twice in the article, Vargas mentions a proposed piece of legislation called the "DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) ACT." This modest law, first introduced in 2001, seeks to grant permanent residency and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors and complete a high school diploma. The bill was reintroduced into the U.S. Senate this year, but as far as I know, it has not moved forward.

My own thoughts on immigration reform are pretty out there. Philosophically, I don't really think nation-states should have the power to arbitrarily deport or deny entry to non-criminals. People should have greater freedom to seek opportunities wherever they are, so long as they are respectful of the communities in which they live and work. Laws designed to specifically and arbitrarily keep people out, I feel, are unethical.

Looking forward to this evening's class discussion. Hoping there will be a spirited conversation, if not debate.