Where are we now?Where has America gone?Where are we now?Is this the swan song?Where have the morals gone?Taught from above?Where are the morals now?Where are truth and love?Where are the Christians now?Since lies are King?Where are the Christians now?Does money mean everything?Where are the brains now?That death and ignorance reign?Where are the brains now?They took the chump train.They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way. When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly. Kept our distance.
After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.
“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.
Uh. This is why I love her. No one else stands up to me this way.
So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee. Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.
Hank and AJ.
Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape. The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget. Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.
The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.
Fast forward thirty years.
My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives. We asked about the Fergusons.
“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said. “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”
These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville. He’s married and has a son in high school.
A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.
Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes. That was the firstof our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons. Since then I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.
But it’s not about me. I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.
Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates. I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry. Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.
Harold’s old prison name was Thumper. Why? If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell. One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.
Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.
Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history. Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.
While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.
“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said. “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”
“Because Thumper no longer exists. “
Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.
Then he told me what they do: a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines. And the final plank?
Lifers pool their limited resources to help others.
They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids. Clothed and fed the homeless. Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school. Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.
Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.
I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.
One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer— we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.
Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers. And that’s ugly.
To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive. Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:
I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.
We may be free, but do we cherish it?
Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that. There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.
We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:
We all can lift ourselves. By simply lifting others.
While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.
My son and his fiancé asked us over for a tasty mid-morning outdoor breakfast –– her parents were visiting on their way to Texas –– so we enjoyed smoked bacon, mixed fresh fruit, and recently-gathered eggs next to a large lavender bush. A monster.
Which reminded me of an ancient National Geographic special I’d seen thirty-some years ago, featuring an African pygmy village built around a giant marijuana bush.
The men either stood before the patch red-eyed swaying back and forth between bong hits, intermittently tending to plants, or sat in the community shed eating grasshoppers –– they popped the heads off first –– between bong hits.
All the physical labor and child care fell upon the women (imagine that) while the village population dwindled in the same downward trajectory as sperm health.
The military drove the Pygmies out of the Congo’s national parks in 1991 –– indigenous lands since time immemorial –– so now they’re clinging to the fringe of those parks, hiding small pot fields here and there, selling weed illegally, and barely eking out a living while constantly dodging “authorities”.
This week’s local paper reported that although opioid prescriptions are down thirty-percent, the death rate holds firm. Folks simply switch over to street heroin or fentanyl and die just the same.
The global village is now built around the Big Pharma Bush
Although recently discovered to be a significant part of human culture since 500 BC, weed carries health risks that cannot be ignored as injecting smoke into your lungs is always risky.
Positive effects are legion, but the only canary-in-the-coal-mine on current public display is Willie Nelson, who recently said that weed saved his life and kept him vital, avoiding the alcohol/tobacco-reaper that gathered so many of his Outlaw buddies.
However, if marijuana separates the user from family duties, job responsibilities, friends, or personal growth, then those negatives must be confronted.
Which is true of all drugs and obsessions.
Big Pharma, however, is about to gobble up the fledgling legal marijuana industry –– the same way corporations have gobbled up agriculture –– and dominate a legal market valued at nearly five billion.
Similarities between the pygmy pot-bush and Big Pharma’s Mega Bush abound. Blazed Americans –– minds awhirl on opioid-alcohol mixes –– stare at television screens (ironically showing other people exercising for outrageous amounts of money ) while blowing themselves up on refined sugars, alcohol, and processed food.
Simultaneously, their befuddled brains absorb self-prescribed “news” squirting from CNN or FOX, twisted fabrications of the truth sharing the same genetic code: keep the gullible gulping.
And like weed-soaked pygmy sperm, American spunk is losing its pop as birth rates plummet to forty-year lows.
At the same time white male suicide is off the chart: 69.6% of the total. Reports link this atrocity to increasing numbers of women graduating from college, superseding their male counterparts in the workplace, and subsequently earning higher wages and filling essential jobs while leading corporations in higher numbers.
As a male teacher comfortable with strong women in leadership roles – my favorite principal, and her evil opposite – were both female, teaching me that people are people. You take them one at a time.
Big Pharma owns innumerable super branches reaching out to dangle dozens of pills –– including sleep-aids –– in front of the eyes of the overworked and weary. A popular small business owner in our region has trouble shutting of his mind at night, so his doctor prescribed Ambien.
A month or so later his wife found him in the garage sitting in the driver’s seat of his running truck –– at 2:30 AM with the garage door closed –– loading a pistol with live ammo.
“I was asleep the whole time” he told me.
Like any fast-growing yard-dominating plant, the real work goes on underground, evil spreading in all directions unseen by the human eye, trillion dollar roots which won’t perish with legalization.
Chopping down the bush is a pipe (stuffed-with-weed) dream. Ain’t going to happen.
A capitalistic nation is never going to abandon tons of tantalizing cash held high in the hands of its citizens, even addict-citizens seeking rehabilitation. When this much money is involved, death rates will increase into a dark future.
Packing up the truck and moving sober Clampets away from The Big Pharma Bush may appear to be prima-facie practical, but in reality, it’s a world-wide-phenomenon, pills waiting for all Clampets in both Beverly and Beijing — the only escape being internal, self-generated discipline.
We see people all around us avoiding unnecessary medicines, pills, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals thrust at them every commercial break, people who exercise regularly, eat right, stay hydrated, and live vigorously through their 80’s and early 90’s. As I typed the first draft of this piece a 101-year-old runner made national news.
However, a sad majority live in a global village built around the Big Pharma Bush. Seven-in-ten Americans swallow over-prescribed prescription drugs on a daily basis. That soma-drenched brave new world predicted by Aldous Huxley arrived as expected with only a few self-discipled-sweat-soaked naturals remaining unscathed.
And waiting for the majority of macho American males to summon enough inner strength to reach as high as an …
Benjamin Franklin had his faults — ask most conspiracy theorists — and it was a known fact that he admired young women.
But when it comes to having a clear vision on accruing wealth, Poor Richard nailed it:
There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means -- either will do -- the result in the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest.
If you are idle or sick or poor, however hard it may be to diminish your wants, it will be harder to augment your means.
If you are active and prosperous or young and in good health, it may be easier for you to augment your means than to diminish your wants.
But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.
-- Benjamin Franklin, statesman, author, and inventor (1706-1790)
First, Franklin starts the “American myth” that happiness is tied to the pursuit of property. We have more stuff therefore we win begins here. But it is true that we decide our own financial fates, and Americans differ widely on their pursuit of savings.
The advertising industry raises its ugly head in paragraph three, making stuff a “need” in the hearts of North Americans and fanning the fire of want. Ironically, one of Franklin’s many nicknames was The Patron Saint of Advertising, which he mastered early on.
Apply the last paragraph to your life and its ongoing change of circumstances and good things will happen. The Millionaire Next Door hit home with many who’ve since reaped the benefits of Franklin’s (and Stanley’s) advice. There are now more than twice as many millionaire households than there were in 1996, and 10.1 million US households now report a million dollars worth of assets.
Here’s how to apply Franklin’s commonsense rules to runaway government spending.
We have to ask ourselves, do we need to police the globe? Has doing so improved world peace? Or has it fired up the military-industrial complex to thrive in a Brave New World of Endless War?
It’s obvious that our military wants exceed our taxpaying grasp, especially with new cuts about to favor billionaires and corporations. But does the average American really want to police the globe?
Since endless wars come at such a high cost, shouldn’t we fall back, assess the hot spots, employ better technology — in terms of rooting out evil, not nuking the earth into oblivion — and emasculate the bad guys with focused strikes?
I’m all for rooting out the bad guys, both foreign and domestic. But instead of spending on R&D for pinpoint technology, we’re filling our docks with billion dollar warships and our airfields with million dollar airplanes to fight conventional wars that no longer exist.
On the Other Hand
Here’s how we relate to a few other countries when it comes to saving cash:
What’s made America uniquely bad at saving? Perhaps America’s mix of wealth and diversity, the very staple of the American identity, is the culprit of its spending habits. In 2008, several researchers studied the stereotype that minorities spend more than whites on “visible goods”—like clothes, shoes, jewelry, watches, salons, health clubs, and car parts. They discovered that, even after controlling for income, minorities save less than whites and spend more on such conspicuous consumption goods. But the story wasn’t just about race. White people in poor U.S. states spent more of their income on visible goods than whites in higher income states.
The Atlantic, 2016
Let’s look at that again: ” White people in poor U.S. states spent more of their income on visible goods than whites in higher income states.”
The sitting president, however, is all about lifting up the elite at the expense of the rabble.
The Orange Tweeter, exhibiting bouts of sociopathy mixed with narcissism, seems incapable of focusing on any issue longer than a nano-second, and his sinking popularity now represents roughly 31% of the electorate.
Draw your own conclusions on what percent of this group falls into the “rabble” category (those still smarting from the deplorable slap), and what percent of Trump supporters are billionaires wanting to rake in more loot in the short term.
My personal guess is that moderate Republicans hoping to work across the aisle to solve the many pressing issues of the day would be a minority within that 31%.
Just a guess.
Yet the nation continues to treat world and domestic affairs like a football game — we win, you lose — without considering the simple fact that we’re actually all on the same team.
Yes, we can nuke any nation on earth into oblivion. Then the fallout blows over on us.
Yes, we have conventionally bombed nations into near-oblivion, but then they thrive after we go home, though most of the cash ends up in the hands of the upper-class.
You can’t enjoy small government and big military simultaneously.
But Trump voters aren’t interested in logic. The rabble still believes they’ll grow fat on the scraps tossed down from the elite’s tall table of big tax cuts and military-industrial-complex stock-and-bond windfalls.
They’re throwing commonsense to the wind, these lower-middle-class lovers of commonsense.
Our current health care mess is more a political debacle than a substantial challenge to the intellect when it comes to solvency.
We can do better by providing excellent health care to allAmericans while lowering the overall cost, though it may slightly burden the wealthy and middle-class folks in order to reach the prize of truly affordable health care for all.
In the 90’s I taught at a local community college and one of my students – who was abused as a child and neither fully-supported nor fully-educated – struggled her entire life with health issues, racking up hundreds of thousands of tax-payer-swallowed medical bills over the course of her too-short life.
Multiply this situation by millions – many citizens are now hooked on opiates – and one can see how this particular demographic could force a single-payer Medicare expansion into near-future reality.
While I was researching this article, it was obvious that
the “facts” coming from sites linked – in one way or another – to private insurance companies were quite different from those emanating from neutral sources.
The insurance-linked information sites apprised the cost at $32 trillion while the neutral sites announced it would actually lower costs. The truth often lies at the midpoint, a hefty sum indeed. But our current direction, and the soon-to-be-announced Obamacare Lite are simply untenable.
Limiting Congressional health-care benefits to their own
plan for the rest of us would be a start. But don’t expect a sitting Congressman to write that bill. And now Republicans are replicating the major mistake Obama committed in his first term, which was to push a secret backroom inviable bill into law while briefly holding the majority and babbling they’d better pass it first so “you can see what’s in it” later.
Fast forward to today and it turns out that the ACA is actually a step above what the current Trumpcare plan offers the truly needy, a plan that boils down to “the rich get richer”.
An alternate path – leading away from the debacle of Obamacare/ Trumpcare – is fairly simple and workable: expand Medicare using a single payer plan while dropping Medicaid altogether.
“So what is single-payer health care? Essentially it involves expanding the present Medicare system to cover everyone and eliminating private insurance (with the claimed accompanying savings of hundreds of billions of dollars).
"Additional features would include the absence of means testing, no concern for pre-existing conditions, the restoration of independent doctors and hospitals who negotiate with Medicare and would be chosen freely by consumers and one public agency processing and paying bills.
“Because it would be unneeded with this system in place, the present Medicaid program for the indigent and its associated administrative costs would be eliminated. Proponents suggest that costs could be contained and quality maintained through more efficient review by the single insurer. Costs would be financed through a progressive income tax.”
Sounds good, aye? Well, unless you’re a millionaire and break in to a cold sweat at the clause “costs would be financed through a progressive income tax”.
Like me, you’re probably reading between the lines here.When “eliminating private insurance” pops out, one’s mind – if the slightest bit of pragmatism is embedded there – questions the odds of cash actually drying up in the UnitedHealth, Kaiser, Humana, Aetna, and Cigna Rivers.
“In the 2012 election cycle, the insurance industry contributed a record $58.7 million to federal parties and candidates as well as outside spending groups. Of the nearly $55 million that went to parties and candidates, 68 percent went to Republicans, who have long been the recipients of most of this category's giving.”
Admittedly, private insurance companies may suffer at first with a single-payer plan, but people with cash would buy supplemental insurance beyond Medicare basics and sustain the industry; jobs would shift to government positions aimed at administrating the new system and would therefore mitigate unemployment.
With the GOP in power, we’ll likely get Obamacare Light if they can scrape up the Senate votes, which fattens the coffers of the already-wealthy while neglecting the truly needy.
However, the worm may turn in 2018, and if a new Congress actually functions, we’ll be able to bring down costs and increase quality with a single-payer Medicare expansion while simultaneously closing the income gap.
Logically, one should abstain from indulging in news the first thing in the morning.
Soaking up death, stabbings, arson, child neglect, fracking, meth-lab explosions, sex slavery, environmental disasters, racist cops, neglected infrastructure, enduring slave wages, endless CEO profit raking, idiotic politicians blubbering pie-in-the-sky promises with no intention of following through … mixing all those nauseous facts with prodigious amounts of caffeine … well.
That can’t be good for the psyche.
But the routine never varies.
Out of bed, slurp coffee, devour news, cautiously turn to the obituaries, brace for the blow.
A recent law-school grad with a long history of academic success, a loving family, and a promising future. Twenty-seven-years-old. Here’s a brief paraphrase from the obit:
God protected him many times when his parents were unable. His earthly life ended unexpectedly but his everlasting life has begun.
We’ve watched the font-size of our local print paper decrescendo for thirty years to the point where it’s barely readable.
After all, they have our subscription money, and we’ve read the news on our iPhones and internet feeds, old print news takes up valuable paper and ink, so we’ll minimalize it, shrink it with a pissant font, and look for other revenue streams.
To balance the loss of readership and revenue to online outlets, our local newspaper doubled the size of its obituary text, colorized large head shots of the recently-deceased, and unknowing created a daily parade of local folk now leaving eternal digitized images.
If you plan ahead, love to scribble, and can afford to throw even more cash at a local newspaper publisher, up goes your twin column half page manifesto, a.k.a. bird-cage lining.
Obituaries sell local papers. Furthermore, the family of the deceased wanting to run an obituary is billed up to $600— approximately five times an annual subscription price — to purchase the publication of their loved one’s death notice.
And newsprint corporations will continue to milk grieving readers until obituaries naturally migrate whole herd onto the “everlasting” cloud — which is subject to evaporation any second of any day.
So we slurp coffee, wipe crust from our eyes, and suffer the dark parade of endless young-people obituaries — two or three “mysterious passings” per week — digitized head shots projecting health, vitality, and promise … while the shocking dissconnect of truth and image confounds the thoughtful reader.
Cancer victims either declare outright the nature of their earthly battle, or direct donations toward eradicating the scourge, which indicates the cause of their passing.
But prescription or illegal opioid drug deaths — cloaked in self-painted societal shame — lie hidden between the lines of the family-or-funeral-home-produced death notice.
We’re talking perhaps 2-3 opioid-connected deaths per-week in a region supporting a newspaper circulation of 43,000.
National statistics suggest nearly fifty-two Americans perish every day from prescription opioid overdoses — eighty per day if you figure in heroin— so two-or-three deaths a week in such a tiny demographic seems outrageous.
Heroin deaths are linked to the pill trade because recently skyrocketing street-prices of prescription opioids allow cheap heroin to flourish across the land, hitting rural states and Appalachia especially hard due to decades of high unemployment and a culture slow to raise education standards, though the epidemic appears to cross all lines, racial, religious, geographic, and socio-economic.
Many of our locals succumb to fentanyl, fifty times more potent than typical street heroin. They go to a party, try a little, forget how much they’ve taken, dab a little more, and before the dawn appears …. the sun sets on their precious lives.
Opioid availability first soared (in recent history) after 26 states and D.C. legalized weed in some form and jerked market out from under Mexico, who made up the loss by dumping cheap heroin and opioid-laden chemicals on an already addicted North America poised to dull the pain with ever increasing amounts of opioids, a class of drugs that has debilitated us since the Civil War.
One family, six months ago, actually came clean in the second paragraph of their boy’s obituary, saying that the deceased fell victim to prescription drugs after losing his father two years prior. The son couldn’t bear the loss.
That’s the only self-admission I’d seen in thirty years of obituary reading, though I must confess that for twenty-eight years I only skimmed obits for astounding stories of WWII vets who’d conquered the world and returned home to build new lives.
The truth remains: we all wear a mask.
This concept came home to me thirty years ago when I taught Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veilto a class of honors English students in a suburban Chicago high school.
A small village church must deal with their minister, Mr. Hooper, who takes a notion to don a black veil covering his upper face — much like a widow would wear at an old-fashioned funeral. Everything goes south when he chooses to leave it on.
He becomes a better minister after this decision, ironically, and though his fiancé breaks off their engagement, she watches his entire life and comes to be with him on his death bed, where he admits all of us wear a mask. Upon his death, Mr. Hooper is buried with the veil in place.
Let’s look into the mirror.
When we’re at Sunday school, we wear the Sunday school face. Job interviews conjure a competent strong obedient flexible yes-sir face. Thursday night dollar-draft-beer Raccoon Club meetings at the local sports bar requires a special façade.
And since random acts of unprovoked violence occur in this crazy world — say the unexpected death of a child through accident or SIDs — well, that means perhaps even God wears a mask.
No one is immune from the natural instinct to project a happy face while masking reality through omission.
Facebook is simply a party-line on steroids, a party line with enough bandwidth so a billion users may share photos, text, videos, music, and fake news.
For whatever psychological reason, the vast majority of us prefer to keep the laundry in the closet and to project the shiniest image of ourselves and our loved ones, clean photo-shopped textually-tweaked images of success and prosperity.
Let’s face it, we’re all the billboard producers of our archived lives, turned digital and pulsing across the electronic social universe — Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, et al. — social media entwined through massive servers grown muscular through carrying an ever-increasing crescendo of porn to the sex-starved masses. Thirst begets thirst.
Irony. Cleanliness afforded by dirt.
As a result, we can now Photoshop and video-edit our pimples and purple lives while projecting sanitized, filtered, smiling, I’m so happy, self-assured-selfies, eternal masks frozen in digital clouds of memories, gigabytes juggled in “perpetuity” for dollars a month.
Even when people freak out, breech social barriers, and reveal their dark sides on social media, it’s often ignored until the post mortems roll in.
When an individual’s mask slips down, the tribe doesn’t WANT to look, or doesn’t want to acknowledge some of us actually DIDlook and failed to respond.
Which brings us back to the Double-O-Demons.
Jellybeaners is a topical novel about opiates and obituaries, and the fact that shame drives many of our decisions.
And until we supplant shame with grace and help people recover from addiction through counseling, financial incentives, and work opportunities, well.