global: shaking the dust off a vapor existence

the best way to know the world is to know your backyard

The most dangerous ride in America is not a roller coaster. It's a tame journey through the globe, where members of each country sing a peppy tune while prancing around in clich̩, stereotypical clothing. It's a ride that celebrates diversity Рso long as diversity means singing the same American song in English. It's a ride that denies war and hunger and poverty and genocide while sending the subtle message that Utopia is possible if we can all sing the same American tune. It's a flat world after all.

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I post the following to my blog:
According to Feedburner, I consistently have about twenty Canadian readers.  To whoever is up in the beautiful icy wasteland, thanks for reading. (It's about eighteen degrees Celsius here.  If you want to know why we never switched to metric, it's that word.  It took Americans years to figure out how to spell Fahrenheit and Celsius is just too hard to spell for a nation hooked on phonics)

So, Happy Belated Boxing Day.  I deliberately posted it that way for the sake of alliteration.  I'm still trying to get a sense of what the holiday is about. Sadly, it has nothing to do with beating each other with puffy gloves.  That's more of a dysfunctional Christmas concept found in America than a British holiday celebrated in Canada.

According to Wikipedia it's a day for the gentry to have cold cuts and give servants the day off.  It's sort-of the opposite of the American Boss's Day, I suppose (the most crooked and despised of all Hallmark Holidays).  What I couldn't figure out is if shops and restaurants are open.  If so, wouldn't that defeat the initial intention of giving the working class a day off after Christmas? So hooray for cold cuts and Canada and Captain Canuck!

I'm intrigued by Boxing Day because, on some level, I have a very myopic It's a Small World mentality regarding the Canadians. I grew up thinking of Canada as an extension of the United States. I thought, for example, that Captain Canuck was simply Captain America with a more pleasant disposition and access to free health care. I thought I understood Canadians because of the dad on Growing Pains and I thought I knew Africa through seeing Sally Struthers cry in front of naked children. I thought I knew the Russians from watching Boris and Natasha chase after a moose.

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It's my third year of teaching and I have a student who is an immigrant from the Sudan. Despite the fact that they left for human rights reasons, he gets angry when someone uses the term refugee, because “it tells people to pity me. I don't want pity. I want an education.”

“You know how we are raising money for mosquito nets.”

“Yeah, did you want to talk to me about that?”

“I know that everyone wants to help, but I'm scared that people only think of Africa is bad. There's lots of good stuff, too. When we did cards for soldiers, it felt like we were serving them and thanking them. 
When we raise money for nets, it feels like we're just Americans trying to fix all of Africa's problems.”

For all the talk of a Flat World and being level and equal, it seems that even within the area of service, we have moments when we fall into an It's a Small World mindset. We become unintentional imperialists, trying to fix the world while we miss our own Misfit Island.

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A man with an unrefined voice and a slightly hick accent stands before the crowd and offers his thoughts on the universe.  How did this ever go viral?  How did he ever attract these outcasts?  Where are the three points? Where are the fill-in-the-blank answers?  A stone's throw away, a few religious folk scoff at his dangerous exposition of Scripture.  A Roman guard attempts an easy escape into the fantasy world of battle victories, but the narrative gets fuzzy and he wonders about the son he hasn't seen in a few years.  Farmers think of crops and sheep and worry about their ability to pay taxes and tithes and still manage it all in a bad economy.

So, this former construction worker tells the crowd not to worry about food and clothing. "Look at the lilies.  They're not mustering up strength to grow.  They're not following a program of buck-up and try harder and following these ten steps to success.  Look again, guys, aren't they beautiful?  Not even Solomon's temple can compete with this. And the birds . . . "

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I read that passage while standing barefoot on the cold earth. I've only heard it preached inside, under tract lighting and amplified sound and within the drywall fortress of an air-conditioned sanctuary.  I understand the need for sermons, but I'm not sure that the greatest sermon needs a sermon to explain it. I've never once seen a church member stand up and leave and take serious the command to consider the lilies and the birds.

I read it and re-read it and then Micah tells me, “Look daddy, that bird has boobs.” I glance over to the garden and watch the creature puffs its red chest out as we study it from a distance.

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A day later, I'm in a classroom.  There are no lilies or birds or windows to allow even a single ray of sunlight.  The humming of computers provides a vaguely electric white noise that soothes the class as I begin to pose a question.  True silence is too loud, but an electronic hum is like a warm blanket in a tech-addicted Flat World.

We talk about digital identity and students write blog entries about their own metaphor.  One boy compares it to the Emperor's New Clothes.  A few use the Matrix as a motif.  Most choose the concept of an Avatar and the way that we create a pretend reality Online.  "Second life might be losing popularity, but I feel like I'm living a second life when I get home.  I start worrying about who commented on my wall and how many friends I have and if anyone replied to my tweets. Sometimes I want to walk away from it all. I know people all over the world, but I don't know them.” I'm tempted to ask her to consider the lilies and look at the birds, but I'm not immune to what she describes.

Far too often, I search for quantifiable proof that I matter within the trans-geographic world.  I count my subscribers and my blog followers and I look to see if anyone gave me a thumbs up on Facebook. I'd prefer a fist bump, but they don't offer it. Often I can feel an edgy anxiety about how I look in my ones and zeros.

So that's why I stand barefoot in the backyard as often as I do.  I'm not recommending it to everyone (perhaps I am more neurotic than others), but I need a world of real tweets and wild flowers and dirt so that I can remember that the world is still round.

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About six months ago, they razed an older McDonald's near our neighborhood.  In Phoenix, the term “old” can be applied to any plastic wonderland built over a decade ago.  A few weeks later, they posted a sign reading “Coming Soon: McDonald's.”

The new McDonald's is deliberately urban and post-modern in its facade, with the use of chrome and the inclusion of certain natural elements, the balance of simplicity with unusual angles and form for the sake of form. It's essentially a standing paradox and perhaps its even built with a wink, recognizing the pastiche and kitsch nature of creating something f aux postmodern for the ultimate goal of selling something so unapologetically corporate that the corporate executives won't recognize it's an inside joke.

Still, it has me thinking about education reform.  It seems to me that there is a real movement to raze the current educational system and create something 21st century.  At McDonald's, I can access global information via flat-screen TV In a twenty-first century school, I can access a flat world through global information on a flat screen.  At the postmodern McDonald's, I have a new aesthetic that feels trendy.  In a twenty-first century school, I get oodles of iCandy with pretty icons and cute names. I can boast about globalization and send my kids to webinars and let them pretend that it's one big cozy village where we all sing It's a Small World.

So, the menu isn't much different.  The factory food remains.  The workers still receive a sub-par wage. The system is still broken and the McWorld continues to dominate.  It just looks progressive, because the chrome hasn't lost its luster yet. 

If you want a new model for the twenty-first century, there's a hamburger joint around the corner.  The ingredients are fresh, the scene is local, but the people are cosmopolitan. It's the only place I know of that has Cholula and Tapatio sauce at each table and you can add it to a hamburger while listening to Elvis. The experience becomes more global than first imagined. It doesn't look postmodern, but it embodies the best of true postmodernism - a reconnection with community, a recovery of what we lost, a sense of connection with the local ecology.

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In learning about globalization, I attempted a project connect my students to students across the country. I wanted to prove that they could discover the “flatness” by working asynchronously with students in another time zone. Eventually students would move toward a global project. Our first attempt fizzled as we hit the reality of an overly aggressive web filter. Realizing that technology does not exist in a social vacuum, I rethink the whole concept.

Doyle once told me, “If you know the world and do not know your own backyard you know nothing. If you know the world and do not know your own backyard you can colonize without thought. If you know the world and do not know your own backyard you can be colonized without resistance. We are spending a lot of energy teaching our children about the world without teaching them a thing about their backyard.”

So, I switch it up. This time students have to create a plan on how our area of town might want to redefine itself. We share metaphors of how globalization changed the town. “It's like they took all the jobs, pulled out the water supply and we aren't sure if we can be uprooted without dying,” a student responds. Another student talks about how we are a shell of a suburb and the ocean currents brought in people from around the world stuck adopting new shells. “That's us. My family. We're living in a place that was once designed for others.” Students interview neighbors who tell stories of corporations that moved away. We read excerpts from The World Is Flat and Globalization and Its Discontents, but it is only within the local that they are able to recognize the global trends.

Afterward, students engage in a short problem-based learning activity with students in another city. We share our own expertise on globalization based upon what our towns experience. It works only because the students are humble enough to recognize the unique nature of their local ecology and so they avoid huge generalizations of the Flat World Society. They are able to see both the unity and the diversity without having to sing It's a Small World.

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It's the Fourth of July and Micah wants to look at the moon. It's been ages since I looked at it, I mean really looked at the moon. I stare for awhile, but the beauty isn't up there. It's in his face, lit by the lunar rays (or the solar rays reflected off the moon or whatever it is that makes him look so innocent). It's in the feel of the grass under my feet and the leftover smell of barbecue and the warmth of a Phoenix summer, where it never does cool down. It's the kind of moment when it feels easier to believe in God. I can stare into the cosmos and there is a sense that he's present, not just out there, but right here, standing on the grass with Micah and me.

Micah clings to me when he hears fire crackers (because what's more American than blowing stuff up in the name of patriotism?) and it's a rare moment when I feel strong and it's a rare moment that I remember the feel of grass under my feet and the sound of fireworks as a child. It's in this moment that I feel a connection to my dad and to the yard we planted together.

So, as I stand under the moonlight, there's a part of me that wants to thank Micah for what he's helping me to recapture. It's mysterious and intangible, but for lack of a better phrase, thanks for helping me to recover the sense of the grass beneath my feet.

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