Saturday, February 22, 2020

Diminishing Death

Image result for funeral

We have heard it thousands of times, there are two things you can’t avoid in this life, death and taxes. But despite it’s ever present nature death is becoming an increasingly foreign topic for us, with significant consequences. How have we forced death out of our minds and alienated ourselves and our kids to its existence? Let me count the ways.

1. By ignoring where our food comes from. For most children their first introduction with death is the food on their table. They eventually figure out that the chicken running around the yard is the same one on the table. Historically, not only was this our first introduction as children but it was a constant reminder to us that death is an important part of life. But we have removed ourselves as far as possible from this. Despite our intellectual knowledge that three chickens had to die to get us that 6 pack of boneless, skinless chicken breast, we don’t think twice about it. 

Owning my own chickens and ducks has really changed my views on this. I am surprised when people hear about my animals how many say, “I could never kill animals like that. I just like them already prepared in the grocery store.” This is a little disappointing to me. Not that I am opposed to meat in grocery stores, nor do I deny that professionally slaughtered meat probably has much less waste than when I kill and eat my animals (they can put the extras in dog food and such). But not willing to slaughter an animal, but being willing to eat it, is like a crime boss who doesn’t kill anybody, but hires hitmen to do it. They may feel better about it, but it is the same as if they did it. My personal feeling is, that if you are unwilling to kill an animal, you shouldn’t eat an animal, but I digress. This has ended one of the constant reminders that death is very much part of life.

2. Not seeing the death of grandparents. With increased life spans many of us will be much older when we see our grandparents pass away. But then we will be younger when our great grandparents die. The real reason this has removed us from death is that increasingly the death of great-grandparents and grandparents do not impact us like it did in the past. If we go back 50 years the amount of grandparents in the home was significantly higher. Today they are not only not in our home, they increasingly don’t even live in the same state. Having someone die whom you haven’t seen in a year and who lives 1,000 miles away does not have the impact as the person you live with, talk to and is a part of your daily life.

3. Living longer. With wonderful modern medicine, improved engineering and better safety systems all of us are not only living longer, but untimely deaths are increasingly rare. The further back in time you go the more likely that you would have lost a friend or loved one to typhoid, scarlet fever or the flu, not to mention farm accidents, floods, and fires. In my jr. high and elementary school I can’t think of a single death. I do recall we had a student in our high school die by falling off a motorcycle but I was not very close to him. Many of us won’t have a very close friend die, or at least not very many until we are in our middle ages. And by that time many of our friends are living miles and miles away, and again, the impact is simply not there. Not only that, facing the death of a child or young adult, has much greater impact on our reflection of death and realization of our own mortality.

4. Increased segregation. Segregation is most commonly used when speaking of race or financial class but another way in which we segregate is age. With the breakdown in church attendance most of us get our circle of friends from work, and chosen activities/hobbies. This leads to a friend class that is much more segregated by age. Back when church attendance was higher most churches had members from newborns to those who were about to die in the pew. You visited the widow down the street because you knew her.

Today if your friends come from work there may be some age diversity, but most people retire so you don’t get a large group of older friends. Not only that, we don’t generally get as close to those we meet at work as you might at church. So how do we get our friends? You join a rock climbing group, we meet parents at PTA where our kids go to school or join a pickleball league. These activities are much more age stratified. So what? My friends are my age. Again, this removes the number of encounters we have with death in our youth and middle age. And once we get close to death ourselves the amount of involvement we have in these outside organizations and activities naturally slows down. Therefore, when our peers are dying we are not as connected to them as we were back when we both had the energy to rock climb, or even play pickleball.

5.Increased online friendship. And for many of us we are increasingly finding our friends and connecting online. And when we have a facebook friend die, it does impact us, but not the same way. The truth is we may not even know for a long time after they have passed that they did.

6. Increased cremations with no viewings. This gets at practices that are increasingly common in our society. While there are many reasons why this route is being chosen, financial is the most common. I believe part of the reason is similar to why we want our meat pre packaged by someone else, convenience and ability to dissociate the situation with the actual death. I have noted an increased practice in our society for loved ones to not want to see the body of the person who passed. “I want to remember them how they were.” I can appreciate this, but I think it robs us of the ability to internalize death. One of the first things I realized as I went to viewings was that no matter how good the mortician was, and even when I was there the moment they died, people are different and even look different, after death. There is much to be learned in that.

7. Ending Funerals. In addition to viewings the tradition of funerals is dying (sorry I had to.) People find it increasingly a waste. This is a microcosm of all the things listed above. The family is too spread out. All their friends are out of town, virtual friends or haven’t really contacted them in years. There is the cost and planning to consider. Again, unfortunately one of the reasons is our endless quests to put death behind the curtain, and leave it in the shadows of society and our minds. I can’t tell you how much this saddens me. Funerals are some of my favorite events. I have gotten to know more of life and it’s importance by attending funerals than almost any other meeting. And it forces us to begin to internalize death, its reality and our own mortality.

So, who cares? Why does it matter. Aren’t we better off and more happy with the ever present reality of death not constantly on our mind? While it is true that an over obsession with death would be unhealthy, coming to grips with it, and our own mortality may be one of the most important realizations this life has to offer.

I have no doubt that there is one man who is behind this desire to remove death from our thoughts, Lucifer. He works hard to cover up many realities from our mind, even his existence.

“ And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.” 2 Nephi 28:22

But there are two things he wants to mask even more than his identity: Death and Sin. The reason is clear. These are the two things that we need a savior to overcome. Jacob makes this clear when he says,

O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit. 2 Nephi 9:10

If Satan can stop us from thinking about death and sin, and instead have us focus solely on bills, cars, work, hobbies and personal desires then we will see little need for Christ in our lives. The idea that there is no sin is becoming increasingly pervasive in our society. Or at least the notion that we all get to define what is right and wrong for ourselves. The reason this is such a victory for Satan is obvious, but it is equally important for him that we avoid thinking about death and our own mortality. I don’t think he can get us to assume there is no death but he can stop us from really thinking about it.

Throughout history as men have thought on death, and come to terms with their own mortality it has led them to realize that they cannot overcome it on their own. It has led them to look to and think of someone more powerful than themselves. Dealing with, understanding, and coming to terms with death as it really is often leads to a belief in and better understanding of God. This is something Satan would rather we not do.

What is to be done? I would love to see the return of some of the traditions that will lead us to having a better understanding of death. Bring grandparents back into the home, raise some of our own animals, have ourselves and our children build close relationships with those who are much older than ourselves and again celebrate the lives of those who have passed by holding viewings and funerals. As we do these things we will have very close and real encounters with death. These will be painful and lead to, at times, intense sorrow but as we let them impact us, they can, with time, help us gain understanding. They can give us the realization that we do need someone bigger and more powerful than ourselves. And if we open our hearts in those moments of pain we will find healing, and realization that there is someone who has overcome death for us all, our Savior Jesus Christ. And the healing that we find there will help in every aspect of our lives. It will make both death and our lives more meaningful.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Getting behind the wheel



Chris stood, slightly crouched and motionless waiting for the exact moment when the call would tell him to go from perfectly still into an instant sprint.

“Hike”

Chris took off horizontally across the field behind the line and running back, the quarterback faked a hand off as Chris pushed himself to move even faster than his legs had strength. Chris was the fastest player on the field but he would have to push even his limits for this play to work. At the exact moment he turned a perfect ninety degrees and started heading down the field. The safety caught Chris’s eye and began to close in, Chris juked to the outside and glanced up just in time to see a spiral passing over his head, he leaped grabbed the ball falling forward into the endzone.

The adrenaline rushed through his body as a whistle blew, “Good practice boys. Now hit the showers.” The couch called out as the safety reached down to help Chris up.

“I let you have that one.”

“Yeah right, keep practicing someday you will be able to keep up.” Chris joked back. Sweat dripped from every part of his body, he gave his all, even if it was only a practice. He knew he and the team would have to be better than ever if they were going to stand a chance against the Monarchs in the CIF championship next week.

Football had become Chris’s life. It was the first time that he felt accepted and part of something bigger. People looked up to him and cared about him. He felt more love and compassion from the men who spent their after school time slamming into him at full speed than he had his whole life off the field. His Father had left him at age 7 and his Mother, who only saw too much of his Dad in him often would beat him. Football was his ticket to leave that life behind. This Championship was the beginning of a new life for Chris, one he was convinced would culminate in his ultimate goal, playing on Sunday in the NFL.

Chris gathered his gear after showering and took what little strength he had left and began to walk home. Many of his friends were already driving, but given the make up classes he had to do and other issues at school he hadn’t taken drivers ed yet. He figured next year, his senior year, he could fit it in.

He turned the corner to see a Uhaul outside of his home. “Not again,” he thought.

“Mom, what’s going on?”

“Billy said we could move in with him in Alpine. Isn’t that great?”

“I am not moving in with your new motorbike boyfriend,” Chris yelled.

“Don’t talk back. It’s already been decided and you're coming.”

“Or what Mom?” The days of her being able to take her aggression out on him had passed, and both of them knew it. “Mom, the football championship game is a week away. I am not going to miss it.”

“I know you think that game is important, but this is a big chance for us. I will see if we can work out you coming back for the game.”

“We won’t be back and you know it.”

“Honey, get your stuff packed we’re leaving.”

“You might be, but I’m not,” Chris yelled as he took his pads and helmet and took off running down the street. He could hear his Mom trying to chase him and yell at him to stop, but he just kept on running. He couldn’t believe his Mom would move out right before his big game. He wasn’t sure where he would go, he just wandered the streets. Late that night he decided he better go home, what else could he do. When he arrived the home was deserted, they had left him.

Chris eventually connected with his Grandma. She didn’t live very close but it was close enough that he was able to get to the game. They lost 31-0. He spent the rest of the school year with his Grandma transferring to the school that had beaten him. By the summer things hadn’t worked out with the boyfriend so his mom came back. He had hoped to return to his old school but due to not registering timely and he now being 18, they said he would have to attend night school to complete his degree. That meant no football.

Without football to help motivate, he decided to simply get a job. The soup plantation had every soup and salad option you could think of and for the next six years he worked his way up from dishes, to line cook to cook. Meanwhile his little brother, Adrian continued with school close by. One day after work he went by his home to find his little brother Adrian had gotten a car, a rabbit. They went out together and Adrian asked Chris, “Do you want to learn how to drive?”

“I guess.” They went to a parking lot and Adrian tried to teach his older brother how to drive, but it was a stick and a tough one at that, and he gave up.

“Mom had to show me a bunch of times before I could do it. I’ll teach you later.” His little brother reassured him.

That later day never came but when Adrian graduated and needed a job, Chris his big brother helped land him a job at the Soup Plantation. Chris had been working there for years and couldn’t wait to finally get to move from the back of the house to the front of the house. But when the first opening came up, who got it? Adrian. Chris couldn’t believe they picked his little brother over him, and quite.

A short time later he was hanging out with his Brother-in-law's house. He was busy welding some stuff in the backyard. “What are you working on?” Chris asked.

“It’s a gate for a fence I have to put in tomorrow.”

“You build fences huh?”

“Yup, you want to learn how? I could use another hand on the job.”

“Sure.”

And like that they were a team, building fences all over the San Diego area. Chris loved the work and had so much fun doing it that he hardly felt like he was working at all.

“Chris you know we could get a lot more done if you could drive, to quote jobs, or cover jobs that I couldn’t be at,” His Brother-in-law mentioned one day.

“I guess, but I’ve never driven before.”

“I have that old van. You could buy it from me, like a rent-to-own thing. Just pay me a little each month until you pay it off.”

At over 30 years old Chris decided to do it. He took the van and learned to drive and went to the DMV and got his license. The first thing he needed to do with it was go out and bid a job. It was the day after he got his license and off he went.

The job was quite a drive away and as he drove onto the highway for the first time he nervously and slowly merged and horns blared in standard southern California style. A few miles later he nervously missed the exit, not once but three times, then when he finally found the exit, he got lost in the neighborhood. Three hours after his appointment, he finally pulled over, found a pay phone and called his Brother-in-law and boss. “Hey man, I can’t find this place.”

“Um Chris, I can’t talk right now, call me later.”

He tried several times but eventually went home. That night he finally got a hold of his boss. “What’s up Man?”

“That job, we lost it.”

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t find it.”

“Chris, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I have to let you go.”

A little while later after not being able to pay for the car, Chris lost the van. Shortly after that he got a job at a moving company in Yuma. He worked for a year but when things slowed down at the moving company, not really being comfortable driving, he was the first to be let go. Shortly after that he became homeless. That was 18 years ago, and he has been in Yuma, mostly homeless ever since. “I love the winters here, but the summers aren't the best.” Chris says with a smile.

“My old boss saw me on the corner the other day. I asked him how business was, and he asked if I knew him. You fired me, I told him. Boy did he look shocked.”

Adrian, his younger brother now works for UPS. “He’s been driving for them for many years now. He does really well, but about 10 years ago he stopped taking my calls. I think he feels that he is too far above me to be bothered.”

Chris is a bright and positive person who anyone would feel good around. There were many things that came to mind when I sat and met with Chris but the most prominent for me is the license.

Licenses are an interesting thing. I didn’t get my license until I was 18, because I had to get my Eagle Scout to get it. But, I always knew I would get it. I took it for granted that I would at some point. I had parents who took me driving, not happily, but they did it. And it was such a part of growing up and the culture we live in I assumed everyone got their license.

But as I have met the homeless and worked with many who struggle with employment I am amazed how many do not have, and have never had licenses. This becomes a huge stumbling block for people. Think about how many jobs assume you have a driver's license? How often did your boss, even in early jobs ask you to run an errand? How many jobs involve some sort of delivery?

Not only that, think about how narrow your job search area becomes when you don’t have a car or driver’s license? In my town, it could easily turn a 15 minute commute into one of over an hour on the city bus. Not only that, think about how many times you rely on driver’s license as a form of ID? Where would you be without a drivers license?

It is so interesting to me the different paths of the two brothers, Chris and Adrian. One has been on the streets of Yuma for the past 18 years, one is a full time UPS driver, owns a home and lives a very normal life. One of the key differences in these brothers, was one got a license in high school and one waited until when he was over 30 and then never really got comfortable driving.

We all want to help homelessness, and we all know that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. But only recently has it occurred to me that one of the best things we can do for young men and women to keep them employed and off the streets is ensure they get a drivers license.

I have no doubt that if you are reading this, you probably have a license, and your kids will likely get theirs, but what about the kids around you. Do all your kids friends have a parent who can mentor them and teach them to drive? Do you know a kid who has dropped out before he got through drivers ed? Could you mentor them through the process to get a license? Do you know an adult without a license you could help get one?

One of the shocking stats to me is how many minority youth do not get drivers licenses. A study done in the University of Wisconsin found that in the state 75 percent of white’s had a license by age 18 (a number I found surprisingly low) but way more shocking was less that 35 percent of African Americans and Hispanics of same age had licenses.(1)

I hope this statistic is incorrect, but if it is even close to correct we need to help minorities get licenses. I am not sure how, but it starts with each of us, noticing those who need help, and expanding our circle to include those who need help.

I wonder if there is a kid tonight, wandering the streets, with shoulder pads and a helmet. A kid whose world is falling apart, who thinks his whole future is wrapped up in a football game, he is about to lose 31-0. Maybe I could pick him up, and just go for a drive, have a long talk and then pull into a parking lot and let him have a turn at the wheel.

If someone had done that for Chris, just maybe, he’d still be behind the wheel today.

If you enjoy this please read another one of my other Lessons of Homelessness. (When did you get out?)



Reference

https://dc.uwm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1067&context=eti_pubs, John Pawasarat, 2006, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, The Drivers License Status of Voting Age Population in Wisconsin.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Horrible Husband: A Parable

Image result for couple in infinity pool


Don looked out over the setting sun, as the sound of ocean waves sitting a hundred feet below rhythmically lulled him into the perfect state, not awake, not asleep, pure relaxation. The only thing on his mind came out as he looked over at his beautiful wife snuggled next to him in the infinity pool. “We should have done this years ago.”

She gave a smile, it wasn’t a perfect smile. It was a smile that did convey a happiness to be there but it also carried doubt. “We couldn’t afford it years ago. Frankly, I wonder if we can afford it now.”

“You worry too much honey. This home is perfect for us, and think about all the people we helped when we had it built. Did you talk to that Roy the carpenter? He hadn’t worked in months, it was just what he needed. The countertops came from Utah and gave jobs there, the entry flooring from Washington. This home helped us, and hundreds of others.

“Trust me. I have it under control,” he said, as he turned back to the setting sun, allowing for himself to completely clear his mind.

She too tried to relax, to enjoy it. Don had always been in charge of the finances, and he had always pulled through. She told herself there was no reason to worry, to doubt him. But all this seemed too good to be true. She forced her fears to follow the setting sun.

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“Daddy, daddy get up. Look what the night ferry left us in our sleep.” The kids bounced on the bed, the girl holding a new doll and the boy trying to both jump on his parents while keeping his new drone in the air.

Don smiled as he got up to start a new day. The kids rousing him in the morning used to really irritate him, but since he had rebalanced his life he loved nothing more than to see their exuberance. It was his idea to invent the night ferry who left them little gifts each night, this ensured he would get to see the happy exuberance that only a kid with their simply joys can bring.

“You kids excited to try out the new boat?” Don asked with anxious anticipation for their response. He was not disappointed, cheers filled the air. One person did not cheer.

“I thought you were going to finish that order for work,” his wife noted.

“I can do it later. The open sea air beckons.”

While it is technically true that the vessel they entered a short drive later was a boat, most would have chosen the more descriptive term, “yacht”. The deck was expansive, and the “barracks” as Don liked to call them, had a kitchen, living room, 2 full baths, a master suite and a room for each kid.

The afternoon found the couple again relaxing looking out over a blue expanse. “Honey,” his wife opened the conversation.

“Yes, dear,” followed the ever responsive Don.

“This boat is really nice, but why did we need a new one? I mean the old one seemed to meet our needs.”

“Dear, this was really best for everyone. The guy from the dealership called me, he had a good deal because it had been a slow month for him. Plus the kids are getting older and need their own space.”

“Did he at least give us much money back for the old one.”

“Bill down the street always wanted one, so I gave it to him.”

“You did what?” His wife asked in surprise. “I am glad you are always so generous, but are we really in a position to be giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars to the neighbors.”

“Honey. Don’t worry. Have I ever let you down?”

“No you haven’t. I just don’t understand how we can pay for all this.”

“We will be fine.” Don didn’t like to talk about money, but he could tell his wife was worried, and he didn’t want her to worry. So he decided he better give her some of the details. “I have done some projections and while we may be a little upside down, we should balance in the next four years. And our financial trajectory after that looks really good. Let me worry about the money and I’ll work to give you and the kids the life you all deserve.”

The fact that they were a little upside down, whatever that meant, was not reassuring, but at least it sounded like he had a plan. She did need to know one more thing, “You aren’t doing anything illegal are you?”

Don almost laughed but looking down at his wife he realized she was serious. “No Dear. I am not doing anything illegal.”

She could sense the sincerity and took a deep sigh of relief. Maybe it would all work out.

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The knock came loudly at the door. It was extremely rare that anyone came to the door. The home was on a private 10 acres and the driveway looked more like a road, a road that was only ever driven by the family, and the many amazon drivers delivering daily, life conveniences and joys. Not only that it was pouring rain, it seemed that no one would be out on a night like tonight.

But this was not a delivery service. Two large police man stood in the doorway. “Can I help you?” She asked.

“I’m afraid I have bad news. It’s your husband.”

Their lives had almost been a dream for the last 10 years and she wondered if this would be the moment they all woke up.

The police continued, “It appears he was driving along the coastal road, he must have been in a hurry to get somewhere and in the rain...he skidded.” The policeman paused, it was never easy to give this kind of news. “He was in a terrible accident.”

“Is he alive? Can I see him?”

The faces told the answer before their voices could. “He flew off the road, his car fell down over 100 feet. I’m sorry miss, he didn’t survive.”

Rain poured down but she knew the storm in her life was only beginning.

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“Powell, Yellen, Bernanke and associates,” she read as she entered the upscale office on the 15th floor. She never hoped to take over the finances for the family, but given the circumstances she had little choice. She had tried to piece together information from bills, forms and files that her husband kept, but it was all an elaborate webb that she couldn’t untangle. She began to worry if she would have to sell the home, or if the kids would be unable to go to their private school that had been such a blessing to them.

The one person besides her departed husband that may know the answer was his lawyer. He had regularly worked with Mr. Powell to discuss finances and she hoped today she would get some answers.

“Thanks for coming,” Mr. Powell said as she entered. “I am sorry about your husband, he was a great man.”

“Thank you. And thanks for meeting with me. I was hoping you could help me understand my financial situation, I always left that part to Don.”

The tall lawyer took a big sigh. “I’m afraid it’s not a pretty picture.”

She looked down, held back tears and asked. “How bad is it?”

“Well, your husband in recent years has drastically increased his expenses. And to enjoy it, he seemed to work less and less. This lowered his income substantially. Even before he started doing this he was living beyond his means. His income went down, his expenses went up and the result is he had millions of dollars in debt.”

“Millions?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“But, how? People just kept giving him money?”

“That is one area your husband was masterful at. People seemed to feel he would someday pay them back or make it right. Deserved or not, people trusted your husband.”

The lawyer couldn’t have dealt a more crushing blow. Worse than the money, she realized she was as deceived as much as anyone, she too trusted her husband.

“Did he have insurance?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“What about the cars, the home? Surely I could downsize and pay off the debts.”

“Each of those cars, and the home, you owe far more money on them than they’re worth.”

She had worried about private school for her kids, she now realized she should have been worried about whether or not she would be able to feed them.

She left deflated. She had indeed woken up. There are times whether it’s from dreams or nightmares that we wake and reality begins to reshape. We begin to see and sense what is real and what is not. That moment was coming for her, and one thing was for sure, while this lawyer seemed to grasp some realities he was still in the dream world on one point. Don was not a great man.

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Parables are often best left unexplained and perhaps that is how I should leave this one, but I feel the need to explain this slightly. For those who think Don Amican is Donald Trump you would be somewhat incorrect. Both Don and his wife represent us as American’s. His wife perhaps more day to day Americans and Don those who should know better, politicians and other elite.

The truth is my biggest worry, for our future and my children, is our debt. This debt, 23.2 trillion dollars, is owned, all of it, by you and me, the citizens of this country. The last three presidents, Bush, Obama, Trump have all done the same thing. They have increased expenses and decreased income which has increased debt substantially. Bush lowered taxes (decreased income) significantly, while to pay for war and expansion of medicare he greatly increased expenses. Obama did not decrease taxes significantly, but did for a time decrease payroll taxes and had several bailout and big spending bills. Trump has only continued this. He has given a huge tax break, and expanded government expenses to pay for his pet projects.

Don’t these actions help our economy? Yes, in the short run, but at what and whose expense?

The recent debate related to parental leave for government employees might highlight this more than anything. Congress decided that it was the right thing to do, that is give each federal employee 12 weeks paid leave when they have a birth of a child. The congressional budget office estimates that this will cost $3.3 Billion dollars over the first 5 years. So, they debated in congress if this was wise. Was the debate focused on how we will pay for it? What things we could cut to make this big cost? What taxes we will charge to make up the difference?

No, it was, listen democrats, you want paid parental leave, and Trump wants a space force. Give us $2 billion of imaginary money to do what we want and we will give you $3 billion of imaginary money to do what you want. Who will pay for it? Our kids and grandkids, after we drive this thing off a cliff. Someday we will wake from this dream and realize someone must pay the piper.

No leading presidential candidate is talking about this. They are too busy touting even more spending, a wall, free college education, medicare for all. And indeed with the three top candidates well into their 70’s they will likely not deal with the fallout in their lifetime, since the only thing that seems to be expanding faster than our debt is the length of time we are willing to ignore it.

So when will we wake up? I hope it is in my generation, and not only my kids. Why was the greatest generation, so great? They sacrificed convenience and many their lives to make a better future for those that would come after. I worry more and more we are hoping to live out lives of convenience only to leave the bill and suffering to those that will come after.

If we were willing to pay more taxes and cut government spending to make a more secure future for our nation, than maybe we would deserve the title, and our nation truly could be great again.