POINTS OF COLOR
November 22, 2015
“I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was one of this country’s greatest leaders. He began his political career in 1834, when he was elected to the Illinois state legislature. Simultaneously, he earned his law degree and was in practice for a number of years –interrupted by a single term in the U.S. House (1847-1849). His next political foray was a decade later, in 1858, when he sought the Illinois Senate seat held by Stephen Douglas (and, in the process of running for the office, engaged his opponent in seven spirited and historically significant debates.) He took Douglas’ Senate seat, and Linoln’s winning streak continued when he gained the Republican nomination for President in 1860; upon his victory in that contest, he became the United States’ 16th President. Immediately, Lincoln was forced to become a crisis leader and it was in this role that he rose to his exalted status in American history. Lincoln’s inauguration was on March 4, 1861 and the Civil War began on April 12th. Lincoln demonstrated extraordinary wisdom in setting as his primary goal the preservation of the Union. Some of his speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address, have achieved immortality; they are cherished and looked upon with awe by each new generation.
“…that we here highly resolve that these dead [the Union and Confederate soldiers who perished in the titanic battle at Gettysburg] shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation also became one of those rare documents which help to define a nation. Lincoln’s decision not to punish the South is viewed as a key element in the evolution of American democracy. So Lincoln was as brilliant as he was tall (six feet, four inches); and he was a very special human being who was in the right place at the right time. A grateful nation demonstrated its love and respect for the man by building a world-renowned memorial for him in Washington. Lincoln’s luck ran out in 1865 when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
In a few days, on November 26th, the nation will pause for Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year. The reasons for my positive feelings center on the holiday’s social and culinary rituals. The holiday’s sole raison d’etre is to gather with friends and family and to feast. Both of these activities are quite pleasing to me. Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel periods of the year as families seek to return to their roots, as if they were spawning salmon. I did not begin to participate whole-heartedly in Thanksgiving until my early 20s. Growing up in my mother’s post-divorce home the holiday just added more stress to a very neurotic, anxious, and un-social woman. My mother was completely atypical in that she disliked domesticity and was not especially high functioning in terms of either mothering or cooking. So when I was very young, about six or seven, my mother, sister, and I, and sometimes my maiden Aunt Doris, would gather on Thanksgiving for one of my mother’s inept attempts at cooking. The main course, roast chicken, was frequently underdone with a soggy skin and no flavor. The mashed potatoes had the consistence and taste of spackle. The vegetables were canned and overcooked. When my sister deserted my mom’s home for that of her future husband and in-laws, it meant one fewer at the Thanksgiving table. Eventually, as I remember, in my mid-teens there was no longer any pretense about celebrating the holiday. It was only a decade later, when I had established a network of close friends, that participating in Thanksgiving became important to me. Each friend would cook a dish to be shared, and my new “family” would be pleased to be together, sharing affection, stories, and food and drink. After I married for a second time and had two daughters, Thanksgiving became really serious, as the holiday was ineviably celebrated at my wife’s cousin’s home which was packed with her relatives. It was a big deal and everyone began cooking for it days in advance. I was usually tasked to create a desert that remained a favorite year after year: a marvellous sour-cream chocolate cake with mocha-cream frosting. Now that my daughters are adults, I am separated from my wife, and am living hundreds of miles from New York City. I have come full circle: once again, Thanksgiving is merely another day. (Needless to say, I have not made any close friends where I live now.) I wish all who read this a very warm wish for a joyous and scrumptious holiday.
There is a Dickensian and mean quality to men and women working full-timeand still having their annual incomes fall below the poverty line. A worker earning the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 full-time, earns $13,195 in one year pre-tax; add taxes and other deductions and his or her net drops to $11,216–below the classification for single-person poverty of $11,770. Even if there are programs to ameliorate the impact of taxes, the minimum wage is stingy, rigid, punitive, and unchanging. The current rate was instituted in 2009; cumulative inflation since then has been 10.9%, so an item that cost $10 six years ago, today is $11.09. On November 10th, in cities across the nation, minimum-wage workers at fast-food restaurants demonstrated for a Federal minimum wage of $15 per hour. Nationally, the number of full-time single workers below the poverty line is 4,258,000. The poverty line for a family of four is $24,250. According to data from the Social Security Administration, nearly 49 million workers are either below, at, or just barely above the poverty line (assuming two full-time workers in the family). Given a total work force of 157 million, these figures mean that 31% of America’s labor force is at or close to suffering in poverty. Another way of viewing the data is the percentage of households by income. The total number in the U.S. is 122,459,000; households with total income under $30,000 per year number 36,943,000–or 30% of the total. The U.S. poverty rate is now at 14.8% (2014), close to its recent peak of 15.1% (1993); the lowest figure was 11.3% (2000). Especially moving is the number of poverty-stricken children: 16 million. In closing, as we approach the annual orgy of Christmas shopping, remember that not everyone is participating: the census recently estimated that approximately 50% of all Americans “have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.”
Not! At least everything’s not hunky-dory in the U.S. of A. In the 2015 World Happiness Report, America doesn’t even make it into the Top 10! We’re ranked Number 15. In fact, according to another study, from 2010 to 2014, Americans became increasisngly unhappy. And this isn’t just touchy-feely Pollyanna fluff. In a paper released in early November, what emerged was that among middle-aged white males with low educational attainment–i.e., no college degree–death rates spiked between 1999 and 2013. Illness was also found to have increased in this cohort; causes of death included drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. Angus Eaton–the 2015 Nobel Laureate in Economics and a faculty member at Princeton University–co-authored the paper, and commented: “Half a million people are dead who should not be dead. [That’s] about 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with HIV-AIDS.” This study has identified a new problem and further research is required. However, the data does seem in accord with other information. The New York Times reported in 2013 that one out of four women in their 40s and 50s is now prescribed anti-depressant medication. After falling for many years, recently the suicide rate in the United States has risen to a near-record level (as of 2013) and now, taking one’s own life is the tenth most common cause of death in the U.S. The highest suicide rate is among those 45 to 64. Thus you have almost a perfect storm in which 71% of respondents to one survey are “very dissatisfied” with the nation’s path; median household income in 2015 is 2.9% lower than it was pre-Great Recession in 2007; more than 50% are unhappy in their jobs; the U.S. divorce rate is the highest in the world–as is the rate of imprisonment; the U.S. leads the world in the abuse of opium-related drugs; and suicide, especially among the country’s middle aged, is shockingly high.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), the artist, filmmaker, and cultural phenomenon, is attributed to have said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” For Dale Evans (1912-2001) her 15 minutes extended into film-star celebrity from 1944 to 1957. During those years, she was known as the “Queen of the West,” as she appeared in 28 films and a popular television show with Roy Rodgers, the “King of the Cowboys.” She and Rodgers were married in 1947, and Evans wrote “Happy Trails to You,” the couple’s theme song which closed each television episode. The reason I bring up Roy and Dale is that she once said something which I think accurately characterizes the wonderful time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when people are urged to love rather than hate, to feel empathy and altruism rather than alienation and self-interest, to be better rather than worse. “Chrismas, my child,” the Queen commented, “is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas.” Although the upcoming holidays–Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa–have become orgies of materialism, for many it’s the idealization of how people should act toward one another that takes center stage. Sharing that conception explains why I decided to create special note cards celebrating “The Season of Love.” The cards feature one of my original artworks. If you would like to send these cards to your family, friends and loved ones, they are available, in packages of five, at my shop on Etsy.com.
The Points of Color blog by Ken Handel appears weekly. Please send comments/suggestions to WordsandAbstracts@gmail.com. To subscribe, please send the message, “Please send Points of Color to my e-mail [__Please Insert Your E-mail Here_________________________] whenever it is distributed.” Send to WordsandAbstracts@gmail.com.