Sweet, Sick Home Alabama

Alabama[1]Alabama, Alabama! How beautiful and baneful; how promising and poor; how stout and strong, yet sick and wrong!

Thirty-ninth in education? Yes, tragically so … and I weep. Or, perhaps, the seventh least educated state in our country.

Forty-third in health and medical care? Yes, tragically so … and I weep.

Forty-seventh in poverty? Yes, tragically so … and I weep. Sweet home Alabama ranks only 42nd in per capita income… Is this, too, the case? Yes.

Is it any wonder?

Rounding out the best states for the wealthy is Alabama, one of several Southern states that are overwhelmingly friendly to high earners. The wealthiest 1 percent pay just 3.8 percent of their income in taxes, while the poorest taxpayers shell out 10.2 percent. The middle class isn’t far behind, with 9.4 percent paid in taxes on average.

Third in divorce rates? Yes, tragically so … and I weep. Ah! But the second most religious state in the nation, as well! And this … this nauseates me!

Forty-sixth in eco-friendliness? Yes, tragically so … I weep.

And to make up for its budget shortfall? Alabama legislators have decided to slash $156 million from Medicaid, (which does not include federal matching funds.)

Both legislators and officials say the cut could mean the end of the Medicaid program in Alabama. It would not only hurt some 1 million Alabamians who qualify for the program, but force the closings of rural hospitals and devastate nursing homes and pediatric practices.

Yes, tragically so … I weep.

When, oh when will we learn? There are other states faring well enough — much healthier, vibrant, stronger, more robust — why does the grand maiden of the South continue to close her eyes and ears … to shut off all sense and sensibility to what is good, progressive, workable, beneficial in the long-run? Why do so many have to hurt, have to endure pain and suffering throughout this state, when solutions have been on the table for years upon years? Ah, but there are those with fat wallets not especially keen on financial diets!

So short-sighted, so tragically short-sighted … and stubborn and arrogant, too. Other states might do well to learn an invaluable lesson from what will surely, finally be the “Decline and Fall of Alabama.”

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Priorities, Priorities

Just today many of us learned the sad ~ dare we say, angering ~ news that the U. S. Senate is recommending $1.7 billion in education cuts. Wow! Meanwhile, military spending is projected to hit right at $598.5 billion for fiscal year 2015. Not to be too terribly political here, because my readers know how I loathe being political (LOL), but does this not seem just a tad bit skewed? I mean, in trying to get spending under control, kind of like swatting a fly when you have a thousand cockroaches running around the house?

And this along with the considerations I mentioned in a previous blog article:

In 2013, there were 45.3 million people in poverty. For the third consecutive year, the number of people in poverty at the national level was not statistically different from the previous year’s estimate…

And importantly:

Many families in America’s struggling lower-middle class – defined to include those with income between 100 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or between roughly $15,000 and $60,000, depending on family size and composition – live in economically precarious situations. Though not officially poor, these families experience limited economic security; one major setback in income could push them into poverty…

Nearly one in five American working-age families with children lives in poverty, officially defined as being below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Approximately 30 percent of families have incomes that place them between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL. Federal poverty thresholds vary by family size and composition, meaning that families with the same income, but with different household compositions, can be in different positions relative to the FPL… These families’ proximity to the poverty line means that any unanticipated downturns in income could push them into poverty. For this reason, we could reasonably consider these families to be the struggling lower-middle class.

discretionary_spending_pie,_2015_enacted[1]Some other interesting factoids to add might be that “according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, there are 2,228,424 prisoners in the United States. That is enough to make the United States first in that category. The second highest number of prisoners is in China, at 1,701,344.” And yet “according to Pearson, the United States has a ‘cognitive skills and educational attainment’ score of 0.39, which makes the United States rank fourteenth out of forty countries ranked in that category.” Any connection? Likely so… But I’m not an expert sociologist, criminologist, or cultural analyst … still less an accomplished political scientist. So … what do I know? Well, as an average, ordinary, everyday kind of guy, I know we seem to have our priorities “upside-down, inside-out.”

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Touché! More poignantly, perhaps, is an old Tibetan proverb, which teaches, “A child without education is like a bird without wings.” Again, touché! There must be something to all of this, after all; so too, the Hebrew proverb comes to mind, to wit: “Train up a child in the way s/he should go, and when they are older they will not depart therefrom.” Continually slashing education expenditures, lowering the academic quality of education that is provided, and the astronomical number of men and women in U. S. prisons… Is there some connection here? Yes, methinks so, and all the while we spend well over 50% of our national budget on military and para-military equipment, operations, personnel, research and development, foreign engagements and/or defense, etc. And please do not imagine I am anti-military! I come from a family of military personnel, who have or are proudly serving our country in uniform. And I heartily support the brave women and men of the Armed Forces of this country, in which I am truly thankful to live. However … it’s still priorities, priorities! And we have ours screwed up right now!

https://www.change.org/p/raise-the-federal-poverty-level-fpl?recruiter=47928834&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&sharecordion_display=pm_email_cards

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The Art of Appreciation

It was part of the core curriculum, so I had to take the course, but not something to which I really looked forward. However, not half-way through the semester I found myself anticipating each Music Appreciation class in joyful expectation of learning something new and, as I then realized, truly beneficial. Point in fact, my professor was bequeathing cultural and artistic treasure to anyone willing to receive that boon… Not everyone was willing, though, and really succeeded in turning the blessing into little more than “pearls for swine.”

Learning about polyphony, Gregorian chants, instrumental experimentation during the Baroque period (and, by the way, “baroque” comes from the Italian word “barocco” which means bizarre), sonatas and so much more certainly did not make me an accomplished musician ~ and, in fact, a musician I am not ~ but it did stretch my mind and broaden my horizons intellectually and aesthetically, as well as spiritually. More broadly, the experience also served to teach me something about appreciation or, if you will, appreciating appreciation.

I am, perhaps, loathe to quote Voltaire, but he expressed my sentiments precisely when he said, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” Another slightly different version of the same statement is that “by appreciation, we make excellence in others our own property.” Too true; too true! And precisely why the art of appreciation is so fundamentally important and why, conversely, the absence of genuine, qualitative appreciation is so detrimental, both individually and corporately.

Of course, appreciation means “thankfulness” and “gratitude,” but the kind of appreciation with which we are here concerned means, “recognition of the worth, quality or importance of something,” perhaps most specifically in the “awareness or artistic values” with attendant “understanding and enjoyment.” Consequently, those who lack appreciation in this sense are often called “boors, louts, boobs, vulgarians,” and rightly so one should think. Creatures such as this are ill-mannered and insensitive, lacking a “discerning palate” in every sense of the term.

Now one might ask, “Who’s to say what constitutes beautiful art, majestic music, awe-inspiring scenery, well-written and inspiring literature” and so on and so forth? My reply to this would be to simply point out the fact that we cannot even really discuss the question, at least reasonably and with any hope of getting anywhere, completely apart from what I am calling the art of appreciation. In other words, how could we even hope to answer the question if there is simply no “recognition of worth and quality with understanding?” We cannot. Period.

More than this, however, apart from the cultivated art of appreciation we cannot really hope to apprehend the sacred beauty and value of the world around us, from the powerful celestial scenes painted across the canvas of night to the wondrous worlds we can see only with the aid of microscopes. We cannot discern the worth and importance of truly great men and women, as opposed to boobs and louts, and so can never make “what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” And this, tragically, is an impoverished life, to be sure!

For my part as a father, cultivating the art of appreciation in my children is fundamentally important. I want them to truly “see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep … the perfection of beauty and the wondrous works of God.” I want them to stand in awe of the genuinely divine creativity of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, of Tolstoy and Andrei Rublev, of Mozart and Beethoven … and I could go on and on: Sun Tzu and Confucius, Plato and Aristotle, the Great Wall and the Pyramids, Herodotus and Tacitus and the Mona Lisa.

I want my children to appreciate the fact that, while we may enjoy watching The Lord of the Rings movies, it is far better to read the triology; that while there is nothing inherently wrong with an artificial Christmas tree, there is nevertheless an uncaptured beauty you find only in the living creation of the evergreen; that even though some-such “happy thoughts of God” may serve quite well for a pick-me-up, it takes some spiritual depth to write something really worth taking to heart and remembering.

 “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be held in awe above all gods… who does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number.” And you can only apprehend those great and marvelous wonders in and throughout creation, including humanity, when you have learned the art of appreciation. Too, it is only when you have so cultivated the art of appreciation that you really live a life worth appreciating … in both senses of the word!