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How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

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I’m in a mood today where I am feeling angry about the rich getting richer. I’m not poor, so I can stand it and live on. But it makes me wonder why it is that some wealthy people (like Bruce Springsteen) and some middle-class people (like me) feel for the poor and wish for more evening out of income and opportunities, whereas others just get greedy.

I encounter this profiteering greed mostly through the arena of healthcare. I don’t have high-brow tastes—I don’t spend a lot of money on cars, or clothes, or jewelry, or furs (god forbid), or expensive vacations, or fancy wine, or recreational drugs, or makeovers, or the many other vanities that I’m not even aware of. I spend money on my health. I’ve been doing a lot of that especially over the past five years, as I’ve encountered several issues with my health.

To me, most of the time, it doesn’t seem as though it’s the physicians who are greedy. They may make a better living than I do, but they mostly seem still fundamentally upper middle-class in spite of (or because of) their BMWs in the parking lot.

But the corporate entities with which I deal make me crazy. Recent examples:

* Today I was told by Florida Hospital that I have to pre-pay more than $400 for a colonoscopy scheduled for next week. (It’s my first ever, and is enough to dread by itself.) My insurer told me that, no, a routine preventive procedure is covered at 100%. We (together) called the hospital back and were told that they charge for a diagnostic rather than routine procedure, even though the latter is what the doctor ordered. “Just in case,” the drone said, “they find something wrong.” So they are charging in advance for a service that I may or may not need and that the doctor didn’t order. How can that be?

Ultimately, of course, they will refund my money. But it will be in their coffers for six to eight weeks or more.

* I mentioned on Monday that my insulin pump company holds me hostage. Every time a pump goes bad, they send me an emergency loaner. But if I don’t buy my next permanent pump from them, they will charge me $3600 for 90 days’ use of the loaner. The pump itself is barely worth that much, as they send old, reconditioned ones.

They also constantly try to force me to sign up for automatic supplies deliveries and billing. But diabetes is not a condition where you take one pill every day for a stable dosage. No, use of insulin varies, and so use of supplies varies. I don’t want to get a new order until I need one. The customer service has become so problematic, however, that it now often takes more than a month between when I order supplies and when they arrive. Several times I have run completely out of supplies and had to call for an emergency overnight order. How can it be that I can get a book or a pair of shoes or some obscure piece of computer gear in two days, but it takes a month or more for vital, life-sustaining medical supplies?

* A few years ago, I was told by a dentist at Greenberg Dental that I needed a crown and perhaps a root canal. Both of these are procedures that my dental insurance was supposed to cover completely. But suddenly Greenberg told me that only their general dentists were in the insurance plan, whereas that those who do the root canals were not. So, I was forced to either pay for the root canal myself or find another dentist who would do it and then send me back to Greenberg for the crown, leaving several days in between when I’d have to walk around with a hole in my tooth. I did the latter, and it was then that Greenberg started adding on charges to the crown. First, they said it was a lab charge, but when I called my insurance, I was told no such charge was allowed. It took several days for Greenberg to back down. “We bill them this way all the time,” I was told. “People always pay it.” Not me. Eventually they took the false charge off the bill, but then they added another. This went back and forth while I had a hole in my tooth. Finally, I settled on a $30 overcharge for an item that had never been listed on any of the earlier estimates. It became clear to me that there was collusion between the health insurance company and Greenberg.

These stories are boring. Sorry. They accumulate and accumulate in my life. Even though they are boring, they make me angrier and angrier every time I encounter such practices.

Our health care system is just fucked up, plain and simple.

Even if you believe that profit is the best incentive for good medical care (I don’t but even if you do), the problem is that you can never talk to anyone who makes decisions. You get customer service representatives who spout platitudes, who tell you “that’s our policy” or “that’s just the way it is.” There is never anything they can do to change it. And there is never any use appealing to a sense of right and wrong or a sense of decency.

These people are paid to insulate the people at the top who are reaping all the financial benefit of these predatory and unethical practices. Every time I think of them, I think of Michael Moore. Michael Moore has his flaws, but, by god, he was right to go for the executives in Roger and Me and in Sicko. But notice that he could get at far fewer of them by the time of Sicko. (Roger and Me was released in 1989 and Sicko in 2007.) The wealthy protect themselves from the rest of us so effectively nowadays that there’s seemingly little we can ever do to affect their unconscionable greed.

And healthcare is just not like other, non-vital services and goods. Shopping is impossible or at least very inconvenient, if not dangerous.

I will encourage my gastroenterologist to establish a relationship with a testing center that has more responsible and fair billing practices, and to move his tests away from Florida Hospital. I will raise hell on the phone with the corporate shills at the front line of “customer service” just on the off-chance that, like politicians’ offices, they keep track of “customer reactions.”

It doesn’t seem like enough. I languish today in my inability to change the practices of an industry that affects my life all too much.

You can watch Sicko in its entirety here if you haven’t seen it already: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/sicko/.

But at least watch the trailer to remind yourself that things have not improved since Moore made Sicko. In fact, the profiteering continues to rise, and the healthcare industry continues to use unethical practices that make it look less profitable than it is.

How do people get so corrupt? Why do our laws no longer protect us, the people, but only the powers that be? We live in dangerous, dangerous times.

Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep

February is Black History Month, and it has me contemplating the meaning and importance of history. History is a story that is re-written over and over again, sometimes to include previously ignored or missed information, sometimes to deceive and cover over shameful events. It’s important for history to celebrate milestones and accomplishments of individuals and cultures, but it is also important for it to record and examine shameful aspects of the past.

Recently, Tea Party representatives in my native state of Tennessee held a news conference demanding that legislators have removed from public school textbooks references to slavery, and especially to the fact that many of the “founding fathers” owned slaves. Texas has already passed legislation that would require textbooks to emphasize a right-wing agenda. And Arizona began destruction of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program based on a new law that prohibits any academic endeavors that—all in one breath—“promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

In other words, white oppression may not be mentioned, discussed, acknowledged, or challenged. Next, those loonies who claim the Holocaust never happened will be getting all references to it removed from the world of education. And then who will they come for? No more Take Back the Night rallies? No more St. Paddy’s Day parades? These new laws are attempting to ensure that no story but that of the rich, powerful, and dominant is heard.

There’s also a move on here in Florida to exclude all state university and community college employees from holding office in the state legislature. (These positions pay around $30 K a year, so most who hold them have other employment elsewhere, not that most faculty members would have the time to do both.) The sponsor of this legislation claims educators have an inherent conflict of interest, though there is already a policy to ameliorate any supposed conflict of interest, albeit it doesn’t seem to be working too well. (At the same time, the elements of the state legislature are seeking to privatize prisons and other public functions, a move that would personally enrich a number of them.)

The people behind these legal maneuvers are people who understand fully the power of education, but who wish to use it, at best, as a public relations forum and, at worst, as a brainwashing technique. All the while, they claim that those who have worked so hard to open history to the realities of millions of lives that were for so long ignored are the ones doing the bad deeds. But ethnic studies programs do not preclude the celebration of white achievement. And slavery can be contextualized as a historical phenomenon that does not diminish the other achievements of the early white leaders of the U.S. Erasing reality does just the opposite, but Tea Partiers and other manipulators of history don’t care about that. All they care about is hiding realities that embarrass them and hiding the many accomplishments of groups of people they wish to discriminate against. It is clear that the agenda here is to stop people from examining history honestly and from multiple viewpoints, and to exclude from the political arena any groups that tend to disagree with them.

I really do believe that the devil is loose, and that many good people will find themselves on the chain gangs once again, metaphorically and perhaps literally. These Tea Party types are driving us back toward the evil aspects of the past, not forward into a better, more egalitarian future. That many of them conceive of themselves as righteous Christians is horrifying.

So, I have chosen to share today the old African-American spiritual tune “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep.” Although it’s a song wherein Jesus instructs Mary not to cry, this is not equivalent to the positivity movement’s denial of feeling or enforcement of cheerfulness. This is a promise of revenge and justice indicating that the evil will eventually drown no matter how powerful they are now.

This song originated in that dark past when rebellion against slavery and white oppression had to be encoded to be shared at all. It has become a shared anthem for many people, black and white (and Native American, as one source notes that 38 Dakota Indians sang it on the way to their execution by hanging in 1862). I hadn’t thought about this song for a long time until last fall when Bruce and I met up with my old high school friend Ruth and her husband, who played a beautiful old-timey version for us. There are many versions available on the web, but I chose to feature the oldest and least fancy of those I could find—to remind me that, yes, all “messages” have an effect, but that some messages are more honest than others. One version of this song contains the lines “When I get to heaven goin’a sing and shout/Ain’t nobody there goin’a turn me out.” There are some places where Tea Partiers can’t recreate history or exclude people.

These are some other great versions with a variety of styles and instrumentation. You could listen to none of them, or one an hour today or one a day for a week. Or just come back and listen to one when you need to remember that change-ups are always in the offing, that “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.”

Pete Seeger

Aretha Franklin

Bruce Springsteen

Inez Andrews

Mike Farris

Silver Hollers with Natalie Merchant

Huntsville Police Department Blue Notes 5

Hard Times


It’s Labor Day, and it’s hard not to think about the economic hard times we are living through now. Although I am a lucky person with a relatively secure and decently paid job, even I live with the evidence of decline—the house across the street that has been vacant for three years, the colleague whose husband lost his job, our continually eroding health and retirement benefits in the State of Florida, the old guy who bicycles by every now and then looking for yard work, the empty storefronts even in fancy Winter Park, the massive numbers of now-homeless pets that have been abandoned by families in distress.

My new mantra is that some people lived through the Fall of the Roman Empire, too. For some reason, that thought calms me, though I’m not sure it should.

So, today I bring you a selection of songs about hard times and hard work. (For some of us, it’s a holiday, so maybe there’s time to listen to more than one.) I’ve tried to select only first-person songs that are about the personal experience of economic difficulty and hard labor, as opposed to the many more that are about the poor who are “them.” As the span of dates on these songs indicates, of course, there are hard times all the time, depending on who you are. It’s just that now we are returning to a pre-Civil Rights pervasive poverty for more people, and the rich are getting richer.

Bing Crosby, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1931)

Woody Guthrie, “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” (1944)

Nina Simone, “Pirate Jenny” (1964)

Bob Marley, “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” (1974) (see above)

Bruce Springsteen, “Factory” (1978)

Simply Red, “Money’s Too Tight to Mention” (1985)

Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1988)

Ani DiFranco, “Coming Up” (1992)

Michael Franti & Spearhead, “Crime to Be Broke in America” (1994)

Cam’ron, “I Hate My Job” (2009)

Script, “For the First Time” (2010)

Andy Grammer, “Keep Your Head Up” (2011)

My favorites, I will admit, are the protest songs, the ones like Marley’s and DiFranco’s that call for revolution—“A hungry mob is an angry mob” and “whoever’s in charge up there had better take the elevator down and put more than change in our cup, or else we are coming up.” Even though Marley’s song encourages listeners to take comfort in dancing, there’s the implication that poverty should not be tolerated. On the other hand, two of the more popular recent hard-times songs, “For the First Time” by Script and “Keep Your Head Up” by Andy Grammer, seem more sanguine, more insistent that poverty isn’t all bad.

Some of these newer pop songs feel a bit to me like pacifiers—little anthems for hard-hit folks to sing along to and feel better, feel encouraged, feel hopeful. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, studies show that domestic violence has increased significantly since the onset of the recession, and so it might be a good thing for men who listen to this kind of music—who may be struggling with issues of anger and resentment, who may be tempted to raise a hand to a family member in frustration—to hear a song that encourages them to pull together with their loved ones. On the other hand, these songs also assert that poverty is not important, that it can be overcome, that struggling people should address it with personal gratitude and forbearance.

They’re also just a little hard to believe, what with those beautifully veneered teeth, stripper types showing up in videos, and happy tunes. There are tougher recent songs out there, like Cam’ron’s “I Hate My Job.” He’s just not played as much on pop radio. Go figure.

Anyway, happy day off, to those who have the day off.

* * *

The selection process was hard. There are some good articles and lists about this subject, past and present:

Poem Hunter Songs About Poverty

Social Justice Song Index

10 Best Songs About Poverty

Top 10 Songs About Working Hard for the Money

Telecaster Songs for Recession

Washington Post, “The Recession Becomes a Topic in Popular Music”

Guardian, “Beyonce’s New Single Spells Economic Doom”

Telegraph, “Recession Means Depressing Music”

A contrary opinion from American Public Radio Marketplace, “Pop Music Misses Recession”

Another, different opinion from the Idolator, “Can We All Stop Saying that Pop Music Reflects the Economy, Please?”

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