Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Working For Tips

There is presently a lot of heated social conversation about people who traditionally receive tips as part of their pay for work – namely those in the restaurant-bar, hotel, taxi-limousine, beauty service and travel service industries. They legally receive what’s known as a sub-minimum wage (apx. $5.00/hour) from their employers, because their tips, supposedly, bring them up to a living wage. That wasn’t true 30 or 40 years ago and it’s even worse now. That’s because more and more Americans, either out of ignorance or cheapness, are leaving smaller and fewer tips. So the question is: should the sub-minimum wage be increased? Would it surprise you to know that many Americans are saying no?

Tipping is a uniquely American custom, something Americans traveling abroad are delighted to discover and foreigners visiting here often learn to their embarrassment the first time they stiff a waiter or cab driver. There’s an irony here, since it appears that tipping began in the 1600s in England when men drinking in taverns gave money to servers “to insure promptitude” or T.I.P for short.

When the practice started to make its way into American bars and restaurants in the late 1890s, a movement against it rose up. Many Americans felt it was in opposition to the country’s ideals of class equality and would lead to the development of a “servile class” that would be rendered financially dependent on the rich. But the custom persisted – and grew – here, nonetheless.

Over time, tipping somehow went out of favor (in some instances out of legality) in Europe, and indeed created that “servile class” in America – which has never been a classless society, despite our delusions to the contrary. This explains why many Americans resent tipping and/or look down on people who work for tips and/or are ashamed to work in jobs that receive tips.

I was the daughter of a man who spent most of his working life first as a waiter and then as a skycap. He worked for tips. He worked very hard and put up with an assortment of indignities, but still never made enough to support a family, which is why my mother worked in the 1950s when most women were still housewives.

She worked until the 1980s, pouring her considerable intelligence into the bottomless, low-paying well of the pink ghetto, first as a bookkeeper, then as a comptroller, and finally as the manager of the subscription department of an elite specialty business newspaper – where she signed her letters “L. Browne,” lest the high-powered male subscribers suspect she was a woman. And meanwhile, my black father smiled as he allowed white people to rub his head for luck in the hope it would earn him a larger tip.

Since Ronald Reagan (whom I still blame for everything), America has been creating an economy and social mindset guided by millionaire Republican belief that the population is made up of Makers and Takers, an idea that middle class and working class Republicans buy into. That’s why so many people still think that teenagers are the ones working minimum-wage jobs, when the truth is, most teens can’t find jobs because the jobs they used to have are now held by adults trying to make a living and support their families. People working for tips are also doing the same thing.

In case you haven’t noticed, unless you (or you and your partner/spouse, if you have one) are bringing in a six-figure salary, nothing in America is affordable, anywhere – not housing, utilities, food, gas, a night at the movies, nothing – except clothing, house wares, and the smart electronic devices everyone loves so much, all of which are sold cheap because they’re made by indentured and child labor through the American “job creators” who are actually outsourcing those jobs to Third World countries. Welcome to the 21st century. 

It’s time to raise the minimum wage and the sub-minimum wage, federally. And it’s time for Americans who eat in American restaurants, stay in American hotels, ride in American taxis – etc. – to ante up and leave a decent 15-20% tip.  You’re not tipping for extraordinarily wonderful service, you’re tipping because that’s what we do here. It’s the American way.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Big Changes in Medicare

If you have health care coverage through Medicare, don’t forget that between October 15th and December 7th Medicare folks have to decide if we’re going to keep our current plan (different versions of straight Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan, which operates like an HMO or PPO) or opt for a different one. If you decide to keep your plan, you don’t have to do anything. But if you want to change your plan, it has to be done by December 7th - a day that now lives in infamy for this additional reason (in addition to Pearl Harbor, young people).

This year, it’s worth noting that in many instances, what is covered and to what extent it’s covered, has changed more substantially than in previous years. That’s because very extensive budget cuts were made that we’re really going to feel in 2015 and beyond. I have the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Advantage Plan and my co-pays will increase; it seems that some of the medications I take are no longer covered; and there is now a deductible for medications as well as higher prescription costs. I’ve learned this by just quickly glancing at the phone-book-sized package of information I received from BC/BS. I haven’t even had a chance to look at the government’s phone book, “Medicare and You,” but I’m going to have to review them both very carefully and probably make a few phone calls, too.

However, I did come across two articles that nicely summarize what’s going on and can help us plow through this frustrating process: one from Fiscal Times and one in The New York Times, both of which are more than worth a click, so I urge you to click on these links and help yourself understand what’s new, ‘cause it ain’t good news. Note that both articles suggest you also visit the official Medicare site, which is a good idea, as is contacting your current plan (the stuff they send you includes a phone number). And by the way, if you haven’t yet received your “phone book” (you should have gotten it by September 30th), call your plan and request it. Ditto for the government tome.

I supported the Affordable Care Act and I still do. It’s apparently doing some good for millions of Americans who had no health coverage or really bad or quite unaffordable coverage. But I haven’t forgotten that it was constructed from a very big, very sloppy law with far too much input from insurance and pharmaceutical companies. And the hateful, dysfunctional GOP forced Medicare cuts to help pay for it. After all, what else could possibly have been cut and the idea of tax reform that forces rich individuals and corporations to pay more is out of the question!

The plain fact is, all health care coverage in America is bad, primarily because health care in this country is a profit-making business. If you’re on Medicare (or anything else) and are sick or get sick or need major surgery, you’re screwed. Even if you have a Medicare Supplement Plan, you’re screwed. If you don’t have plenty of your own money to supplement your health care plan – whatever it is, including Medicare – you’re screwed. Indeed, having enormous medical bills they can’t possibly pay is now the primary reason that people go bankrupt – by the millions – and that situation is only going to get worse.

So, after you spend a cozy night by the fire with your latest Medicare information materials – and try to resist throwing them into the fire – I strongly suggest you phone or email the offices of your Senators and Congressional Representative and let them know that the Medicare budget cuts are doing you harm. I promise you that a deluge of such communications will not go unnoticed by them. You might want to do this both before and after the November election – in which I urgently hope you plan to participate. 

Wake up and smell the calendar. It’s not the 20th century anymore.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Good News!

For those of you who feel I never have anything positive to say, I’m pleased to announce that I have GOOD NEWS! There is an organization – you may have already heard of it – called Debt Collective (DC). It was started by and for young Americans whose lives are colored straight out of the college gate by crippling levels of student loan debt.

Collectively (as it were), the amount of student debt in America is $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. An appalling figure. And as DC explains, “If you owe the bank thousands of dollars, then the bank owns you. But if you owe the bank millions, then you own the bank.” 

Which is to say, if you try to lessen the burden of your student loan as an individual, one person vs. a massive, uncaring, money-grubbing institution – a balance of power that suits the banks just fine – you’re not likely to get anywhere better than where you are right now: screwed. But if you get together with lots of other folks in the same situation, then you radically change the status quo and ergo the balance of power.

Not since the wholesome, effective, beginning of the American Labor Movement, which fought to get working people the 5-day week, the 8-hour day, improvements in workplace conditions, and the right to bargain collectively (through unions) for better wages and benefits, has such a bold, creative, non-violent yet we-ain’t-playin’ initiative been undertaken in the age-old war between The Little Guy and The System. Yes, this is a big step in the much-needed contemporary Class War I’ve written about previously – but if I had said so at the start, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this.

After its inception, DC broadened its fight against debt to include medical, housing, and credit card debt – debt that threatens millions of Americans in numerous, onerous ways, from losing their homes to having their wages garnished to not having enough money left for basic/essential living expenses (like food and utilities) once they’ve made their monthly debt payments. And as the photo above illustrates (getting back to the horrors of education debt), former students face special punishments even if they’ve been faithfully paying off their debt for years, because, thanks to usury-level interest rates, their debt never ends!

DC describes its mission this way: “What can a Debt Collective Do? – The goal of the Debt Collective is to create a platform by debtors and for debtors for organization, advocacy, and resistance. Organizing collectively offers many possibilities for building power against creditors: As we build membership, we can organize debtors into groups based on region, type of debt, or institution. These groups can bargain with creditors or even develop the power to threaten a debt strike. A debt collective can help create a positive vision for a sustainable economy in which credit would be used to benefit everyone and not to line the pockets of a few.” 

So, if you’re currently carrying more debt than you can handle, whether it be an underwater mortgage, a strangle-hold of credit cards, or a student loan that’s preventing you from creating your future, I strongly encourage you to click on this Debt Collective link and join Debt Collective. I did and I’m glad I did. I feel better and I’m looking forward to hearing from them about what the next steps will be.

To those who have little or no debt and sniff judgmentally at those who do, thinking (or outright saying), “Well, you knowingly incurred these debts, why are you crabbing about having to pay them back?,” let me say the following.

I started to write a detailed explanation about why so much of contemporary indebtedness can’t be dismissed as irresponsible and I had written a lot of it; it was running way too long. I also realized the main thought running through my head was “Fuck you, you don’t get it, go read another blog.” So I’m not going to “justify” anything I’ve written above to those who don’t understand this situation. Fuck you, you don’t get it, go read another blog.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coming Out of the Pain Closet

I add my voice to the chorus of millions worldwide who mourn the loss of Robin Williams, a bright genius light we loved who, unbeknownst to us, spent much of his private time in an overwhelming darkness, a despair so strong that it trumped fame, fortune, and the true love of family and friends. He suffered – oh, man did he suffer – from severe, chronic, clinical Depression.

So it’s unfair and downright ignorant to think he was insane or selfish because he killed himself. He was neither of those things. He also wasn’t “taking the easy way out” of something we don’t know about. His death is a tragedy – not just because he was who he was: a greatly multi-talented man of only 63 – but because he died of a disease that we as a society don’t understand, don’t talk about, and for which there are a variety of often inadequate treatments and no cure.

Which is why I believe that the best way to honor Robin Williams is not with mourning or tributes or film festivals or posthumous awards. Our greatest tribute would be creating greater awareness and understanding of Depression, in the same way that Rock Hudson’s death set America on a path of greater awareness and understanding of AIDS. 

And that must begin with the millions of Americans who cope with this disease Coming Out of the Pain Closet, risking and fighting the stupid stigma attached to it, and talking about it. So here and now I’m going to walk my talk and Come Out. I have Depression. I’ve had it at least since I was a teenager. I’ve been taking different anti-depressants (with varying degrees of success) for decades.

My mother and my maternal grandfather had it. Other relatives on both sides of my family had it. Some of them, like me, spent some time on the psych wards of general hospitals. Some of them attempted suicide. Others, like me, just thought about it. A lot. It destroyed some of their lives.

It sure has fucked up mine. It led to a nervous breakdown in 2003 and my not functioning very well ( ! ) for the past ten years. I wasn’t functioning very well before the nervous breakdown. I had a thriving business as a freelance writer that I ran into the ground because, increasingly, I couldn’t meet deadlines or make it to meetings.

I became a compulsive TV shopper and was one day short of eviction from my apartment because I was shopping away the rent money. Addictive behavior is a common component of Depression. My privacy and independence were imposed upon by a NYC agency called APS – Adult Protective Services. That was how I avoided eviction.

After my breakdown I became a virtual hermit. I didn’t leave the house for months at a time. I didn’t bathe or dress for months at a time. (These two are also common components of Depression.) Thanks to a legal aid-type lawyer I ended up on permanent Social Security Disability in my early 50s – but I was on Welfare for a couple of months waiting for the Disability to kick in. That in itself was a shameful nightmare. Shame is a big element in Depression.

I had a home health care aide for eight years. I became agoraphobic (fear of going outdoors) and only made it to doctor visits because of the aide. I also developed an anxiety disorder, as well as a condition called “hyper vigilance,” which means I’m unhinged by loud, dangerous noises. To this day, if a fire engine screams down the avenue outside my window and at the same time the phone and the intercom from the lobby ring, I cover my head and duck.

I’m much better now than I used to be. But it’s not “over.” Depression still colors and limits my life. Mine became acute in 1995 when my mother died. I held on for my father’s sake (although I was starting to screw up). When he died in 1999, I really began to fall apart. When my aunt, my last surviving blood relative, died in 2001, my tether shortened and tightened. By the end of 2003 I was gone. I got to a point, pretty soon, where I could sort of function at home, but not a lot and not very well.

For a couple of years, I cooked dinner nearly every night for a frail, very elderly friend/neighbor. It helped her and it helped me. I could put on a good face for the occasional others who came here, largely thanks to my aide, but I couldn’t go down to the lobby to get my mail. I spent most of my time sleeping and watching TV. I became concerned about the state of the nation and started this blog. But I did very little else. The occasional writing assignment, however small, stressed me out. Why did all of this happen?

Because Depression is a brain disease – just as Alzheimer’s, autism, and dyslexia are brain diseases. Depression is also a mental illness. It’s not in the same class as schizophrenia, but it is a mental illness. That’s why people who have it are ashamed, and those who don’t, stigmatize it. And they don’t get it. There are different kinds of Depression and different levels of it. Mine was fairly serious and not everything is detailed in what I’ve just described. But I know it was less than Williams' nightmare because I'm still here. Can you imagine the intensity of what he went through?!

My depression was exacerbated by long-term grief and it stays with me, in part, because I’m pretty broke (financially), in debt, and very lonely. All but one of my local friends relocated, died or dumped me. And even some of those who hung in with me didn’t really get what was wrong with me. They thought I had gone from being an active, well-kempt, successful businesswoman to being a sad, lazy, slob because I was giving in to myself and just not trying.

Well, I’m trying now. And it’s a daily bitch. There are still things I can’t do, in part because I also have physical ailments. I still think about suicide a lot. But I don’t want to die, really, I want to get better, I want treatment for this disease that still impacts my life. Maybe now that sweet, sick Robin Williams has paved the way, my hopes will be realized.

Should you be Coming Out of the Pain Closet? Do you now realize that someone you know is in it? Do you understand a little better that it’s not just self-indulgent “feeling sorry for yourself”?

Do you appreciate that people with Depression who can function at all are brave warriors? Did you know that Depression is at epidemic levels in America? Do you realize that 22 returned US service people commit suicide each day – 22 a day! That’s largely because of PTSD, which is a complex brain disease that includes Depression and a whole lot more.

I sure hope you know more, and better, now – or I’ve just spilled my guts to you and all over the Internet for nothing. But no, not for nothing. For Robin. And for the too many like him. May awareness, understanding, and brain science increase really quickly. There are too many suffering in the closet.


Friday, August 01, 2014

“There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here…

…And what it is ain’t exactly clear,” but it’s getting less fuzzy with each passing day. I haven’t written a post in quite a while (sorry about that), partly because I’ve been busy with other things, but mostly because the events of the past three weeks or so have left me uncharacter-istically speechless. I’m angry, confused, sad, and feeling rather hopeless – more so than usual. And as one who chooses not to keep up with today’s exceedingly mediocre pop culture (particularly during the Stupid Summer Film season), it wasn’t until Thursday night’s Sharknado attack that I realized much of the country must feel the same way. A critical level of Mass Ennui, a sense that everything is coming apart at the seams. America is having a nervous breakdown.

For sure, there have been hints coming from my circle (more of a long extended zig-zag line, really) of friends. One is coming undone, losing her sense of personal identity due to the injuries of a super-concussion and a host of huge related stresses. Another is feeling totally empty, pointless, worthless, also no clear sense of self because of PTSD, aging, and depression. Yet another is at the end of her rope from a job she loathes and a year’s worth of aggressive but fruitless job-hunting. Others are feeling generally desperate; still others are keeping frantically busy; most are burdened with pressing responsibilities and an obstacle course of additional problems. We’re all dumbfounded by the state of the nation, world events, and a hazy, unpredictable future. We’re all soldiering on, but most of us are ready to plotz.

Here’s a list (in essentially random order) of the things about which I’ve felt I have nothing new or important to contribute in the ongoing social and media conversations:

1) The inexplicable behavior of a fantastically do-nothing, primarily absent Congress led by a man totally lacking in courage or conviction about anything.
2) The increasing power of a wildly extreme right-wing minority fringe that is swallowing the already-unrealistic, heartless, GOP.
3) The frantic, disjointed, disheartened Democrats who are spread thin across a vast spectrum of urgent issues about which they can do essentially nothing.
4) A smart, even-tempered, President who is being attacked, disrespected, and disregarded at every turn, while he cheerfully attempts to cope with an unprecedented number of domestic and foreign crises with zero cooperation.
5) The plight of traumatized foreign refugee children, as well as the uncertain fate of the “dreamers” – American adults who were brought here illegally as children and may well be expelled from the only country they have ever called home.
6) The global anti-Israel (in many cases anti-Semitic) response to admittedly horrific violence against a rogue government whose stated goal is the utter destruction/obliteration of the Jewish State.
7) Vladimir Putin’s apparent belief that he can re-create the Soviet Union and establish a perception of himself as a great and mighty world leader.
8) Numerous planes falling out of the sky – some by accident, some by attack, all to the mortal detriment of ordinary civilians just trying to get from point A to B.
9) The increasing general madness and particular mayhem against women by Islamic extremists in the Arab world and Africa.
10) The deliberate marginalization of numerous Americans through racism, poverty, misogyny, unwarranted imprisonment, and both corporate and political greed and chicanery.
11) The dangerous consolidation of media, among both delivery systems and content providers/creators.
12) Inflation, Frankenfood, gentrification, unaffordable housing, old-school police brutality, and extreme weather.

All of which is why a cultural phenomenon like Sharknado could grab the country’s attention. It also explains film’s and television’s solid diet of zombies, vampires, werewolves, suddenly powerless super-powered saviors, and an inordinate number of movies by Tyler Perry. When the horrors of reality surpass the terrors of imagination, we’re left with the poorly crafted ridiculous.

And I don’t know what to say about any of this.