Matamoros, Mexico: Washington, D.C.:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Funding Knowledge

Why can't the U.S. get its act together? Sure, it's a bit of a hyperbolic statement, but I think we really have quite a few things we need to work on.

Now, I'm no economist, and I truly despise anything having to do with math, numbers, and money whatsoever. (Any guesses as to which career track I'll probably never work within in the Foreign Service?) But last weekend I read a short column by Zachary Karabell in the Jan. 10th issue of Time that made me wish the U.S. economy would wake up and smell the garbage out there.

Ironically, the Karabell has a rather positive view of the economy, one which I believe is probably quite deserved. The media does tend to blow things everything out of proportion these days, which then causes this general panic amongst the population, for example, to worry, Oh my GOD. Glenn Beck says our country is becoming a communist/socialist/fascist/everything-bad-you-can-imagine nation and that we're going to collapse like the Roman Empire did. What EVER should we do?! Save us, Glenn!!!!!, when, in reality, if people would just open their eyes and care to look around for a few minutes, they might find that things are going to be just fine. And I think that's what Karabell does in his column.

Moving past that nationwide groupthink, the author closes up his piece with two brilliant paragraphs that ring quite true:
But it's also important to note that this bout of self-flagellation is taking place against a different global backdrop, one that sees countries from China to Brazil blazing their own trails while the U.S. seemingly plods along. It's been shown that people assess themselves in relative terms, by how much they have compared with their neighbors more than by how much they have. Today, Americans have a surfeit, but relative to the world as a whole, the slice is shrinking.
Those new economic powerhouses are spending, too, but in smarter ways. They're pouring money into education and infrastructure. That in turn has led to increased personal consumption born of the fruits of those efforts. The contrast with the U.S., which struggles with political gridlock that makes it difficult to pass similar measures, is striking. That, more than the balance on our credit cards, should fuel legitimate American pessimism. [TIME]
I think he's got it dead on, here. Why does the U.S. spend such an embarrassingly small amount of money on education? When will we wake up and realize that education is perhaps the most important part of a well-functioning society, yet we're essentially tossing chump change at schools and hoping they make do? In my opinion, education is the key to solving most of our country's problems.

Instead of throwing untold quantities of cash at a problem, why don't we instead throw money at schools to train up young people who can fix the problem themselves with better knowledge, technology, and experience? Our nation might very well be experiencing a veritable brain drain, but not because the educated are abandoning the U.S. (as they've been doing in Africa for decades, for example). No, instead, we're causing our own brain drain because we're giving up on education.

So how do we fix the problem? Pshh, don't ask me. I have no idea, because that isn't my particular field. But I do have a few guesses: find, train, and pay higher quality teachers higher quality salaries, to start with. Give schools more money to invest in technology, the arts, and physical activities (because what good are smart people if they die early due to poor health/fitness?). Stop teaching for standardized tests and start teaching for students to learn something they are going to retain and apply. Why is the average median salary for teachers in some states as low as $27-30k (let's not focus too much on cost of living at this point)? Why do people view a profession in teaching to be less valuable or less respectable than that of a lawyer or doctor? Doesn't everyone hate lawyers, anyway?

I suppose this turned into more of a rant than a reflection on Karabell's piece, but it does raise some important questions. To all of my teacher friends out there: keep up the good work. Your jobs are important, and we should value you more than we do right now.

Until next time...peace.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Elegant Revolutionary

Saturday afternoons are a beautiful thing, aren't they?

This will probably be my last calm, relaxing weekend before I head off to post next month. As such, I've decided to take it easy, think about things, catch up on reading, reconnect with old friends, and, of course, do laundry.

I've been a subscriber to TIME magazine for somewhere close to a year now. When I was in college, I was usually able to work through the weekly issues quickly enough that I had finished one by the time the next one arrived. Since I've arrived in The District, though, the issues seem to be piling up faster than I can finish them. So today, I decided to read an issue from two weeks ago that captured my attention as soon as I saw the cover. *At this point, I should probably direct you to the disclaimer found at the bottom of my blog.

I'll admit that, before reading this article, I had known some general information about Aung San Suu Kyi and her peaceful resistance efforts against the Burmese government. I knew she had been imprisoned a few times, and that she spent quite a few years under house arrest. I knew she had been released from said house arrest in November of last year. And I knew that she almost always has flowers in her hair.

But after reading this cover story, I am much more interested in what she's trying to do for the people of Burma. For far too long, an estimated 56 million Burmese people have been living in poverty conditions that they did not bring upon themselves. Their government is entirely driven by a bunch of fat cat military generals whose sole purpose appears to be to keep the people oppressed and impoverished so they can continue to squander the nation's meager wealth.
Roughly 40% of the national budget is spent on the army, while just around 1% each is reserved for health and education. The new capital in Naypyidaw, which means "abode of the kings," was built with billions of dollars, even as nearly a third of Burmese live below the poverty line. For farmers, a hand-to-mouth existence is made worse by routine land seizures and orders to work without pay for the military. Even in Rangoon, power outages are as common as junta informants; both leave the populace in the dark. [TIME]
This makes me sick, really. I'll admit: I don't know what percentage of our national budget is spent on the military versus health and education, but I'd venture a guess to say we have a much better ratio than the Burmese do. I really dislike it when one group of people oppresses another group of people for their own personal benefit, especially when the group being oppressed has little means of fighting back. And that, to me, is where Suu Kyi comes in.

It's ironic that I used the word 'fighting' in that last paragraph. To be honest, fighting is the last thing that Suu Kyi would want. Her entire method is about non-violent resistance. I haven't read many quotes of hers, but I imagine she would say things like, "I don't believe in violence. I don't believe it accomplishes anything. Instead, I will peacefully resist these oppressors until the goal has been reached. However long it may take... however long I must wait. Even if it doesn't come in my lifetime." And you know what? I'm very much in agreement with her. She is an incredibly elegant example to the world of how to be an engaged citizen of a country, even at age 65. She never intended to be this unifying figure of revolution in her country. But I think that, long after she's dead and gone, historians and the Burmese people will remember her for completely revolutionizing their country for the better, without ever having caused an all-too-common outbreak of violence (from her side, at least. The Burmese government has used violence to oppress its people for years.)

There was one other portion of the article that made me stop and think. One paragraph described what life was like for Suu Kyi while under house arrest for roughly 15 of the past 21 years:
For so much of her recent life, Suu Kyi has been sequestered from normal human contact; noble ideas and fine words have kept her company. While under house arrest, she obsessively read books ranging from biographies to spy thrillers. "People think that I had nothing to do [while in detention]," she says. "But I spent five or six hours listening to the radio every day. If you're under house arrest and you miss one item, there's no one there to tell you about it, so I listened very carefully." Even her taste in classical music speaks to her sense of discipline and composure. Mozart, she says, makes her happy, which is all well and good. But she prefers Bach. "He makes me calm," she says. "I need calm in my life." [TIME]
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine all of the things you would have missed if you had been under house arrest, especially in a country like Burma? The article mentions the first time she ever used a cellphone was on the day of her release, November 13, 2010. While that's entirely perplexing on its own, it causes me to think about all of the other technological, societal, and even worldwide advances and occurrences in the last 15 years. There have been major, catastrophically destructive natural disasters. There have been technological developments that are almost innumerable, including shrinking a computer from its former gargantuan sizes to the current 9in. iPad. There have been major milestones like wars, peace accords, the death of Mother Teresa and the election of the first black United States President. It's all truly mind-blowing, really.

But it also makes me wonder about what must have been a beautiful simplicity in her life. Other than the stress of being confined for so long, I can't imagine that she would have lived a very stressful life there at home. No societal pressures to wear the right clothes, drive the right car, or make enough money. I kind of wish my life had that kind of simplicity in it. Don't get me wrong - I love my life thus far. But I really need to create more opportunities for rest, breathing, and enjoying that life to the fullest.

And I suppose maybe that's what I'm doing with this beautiful Saturday afternoon of reflection and relaxation.

Here's hoping that, one day, she will accomplish her life's mission. It makes me contemplate my own life and ask myself, what is my life's mission? What is my driving passion, that one thing that I would be willing to sit in house arrest for years with only a radio, books, and limited human contact?

What about you? What's your passion...and what are you doing about it?

Until next time...peace.

As a completely random post-script, the following music was deeply enjoyed as I wrote this entry: The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, and Mandi Mapes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

T-Minus 30 Days

The clock is ticking. I leave for post in less than thirty days. I've still got quite a bit left to do, but I am SO ready to go.

Here's just a quick snippet of my upcoming to-do list:
  • Write and send introduction letters to principal officer, DCM, and Ambassador.
  • Clarify my possible visa situation as a result of being reassigned.
  • Verify that my new assignment doesn't require any vaccinations I didn't already get.
  • Find, get a loan for, and buy a new-used vehicle (Xterras, anyone?).
    • Get insurance for said vehicle.
  • Schedule and prepare for my packout.
  • Consider whether or not to buy furnishings here and ship them or just buy them in Brownsville, TX.
  • Change mailing addresses for all of my regular subscriptions.
  • Finish applying for my SENTRI pass.
  • Take and pass the Spanish exam, hopefully receiving a 3/3 or better.
  • Complete Crash/Bang (heck YES!)
  • Make a will.
  • File my taxes, if possible.
I'm sure there are some things that have already slipped my mind, but I'll use this list as a starter.

And the great thing is that I'm a huge fan of lists and checking things off. This bureaucratic job I have is great for that.

Until next time... peace.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Friends in town

There are currently five people staying in my one bedroom apartment.

Since a little before New Year's, I've had one friend staying with me while his school is on an extended winter break. It's great to have someone to hang out with after a long day of speaking Spanish at work.

But this weekend, I picked up three more friends who came in to town to see me before I leave for Mexico. I'm an extrovert by nature, so having this many people here at once is awesome for me. Today we hit up all the normal touristic sights in DC - the monuments, memorials, and White House. Good stuff.

Tonight we've got dinner (sushi?) and a movie, followed tomorrow by more tourism at the Smithsonians.

Friends are a great thing, and are not to be undervalued or underestimated.

Until next time... peace.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

How Quickly Things Change

On October 8th, at my A-100's Flag Day, I was assigned to a two-year Consular tour in Monterrey, Mexico.

On December 22nd, I arrived at work with an email from my Career Development Officer in my inbox. "Good morning, Andrew. I hope you're doing well. Something has come up that we need to discuss. Please call me at ###-###-#### as soon as possible. Thanks."