Monday, June 30, 2014

End Employer-Based Health Insurance Now
Or, when your hobby is lobbying against health care...

We have a major problem in the United States of America, but no one seems to have articulated it very clearly in the wake of the horrifying Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and other corporations who don't want their religious liberty burdened. No, the problem to which I refer is not the fact that people in extremely high positions (such as CEOs and Supreme Court justices) think that corporations have religious liberty to be burdened in the first place, although that is, indeed, a problem. (Perhaps we should examine the blurring of religious/corporate lines in another post. It works both ways: churches are big business, you know.)

The problem to which I do refer is the fact that we (by which I of course mean "we") somehow still think it's a good idea for employers to provide health insurance in the first place. Why, oh why, does anyone still think this is a good idea?

It's not a good idea. Employer-based health insurance is a terrible, awful, no-good idea.

This problem has failed to be clearly articulated in the last several years as the debate has raged on (and on and on) about "Obamacare" and health insurance mandates and single-payer systems and Medicaid expansion. Many, many people have glossed right over that part where employers provide health coverage in the first place. We should immediately and permanently do away with that system.

It has never made any sense to me to begin with. A workplace is a random grouping of people who happen to live in more or less the same area, but not even with entirely the same skill sets/interests. For example, a corporation might employ HR gurus, software engineers, and architects, who have nothing in common. But, they are suddenly a "group" for health insurance purposes. It doesn't make any sense, but almost everyone has been conditioned to think it makes perfect sense.

The exception to that "everyone"? People like me who have made a living for a decade from freelancing, indepenent contracting, pursuing an advanced degree, and working abroad. Those noble pursuits will quickly show you how awful employer-based health care can be for someone trying to eke out a living without being on a corporate payroll. I could spend 50 hours working on writing and editing as a freelancer or independent contractor, but because I wasn't on a company's payroll, I was somehow less entitled to group coverage than someone who worked 35-40 hours in a cubicle. And changing employers, from country to country? Yikes! Arguably, the freelancers and independent contractors of the world (whether those contractors are artists or plumbers, whether they build kitchen cabinets or tutor youngsters learning violin) are working even harder to hustle, collect payments, maintain schedules, get clients, and so forth than "full-time employees," but we are apparently "lesser" when it comes to determining if we are eligible for health care.  We are asked to buy insurance as individuals, without an employer subsidy, and we are charged at least $400-700 per month, sometimes more, for the equivalent coverage of what was an $80 or so pre-tax paycheck deduction when I was a full-time employee of a company that wasn't Myself.

Why not group everyone by zip code (like auto insurance does) or by some combination of age/smoker-non-smoker/exercise status, or heck, by their favorite NFL team (with all the "no preference" also forming a group?

Why don't these ideas make as much sense as deciding the employees of X company are now an insurance group?

This is hugely important because not everyone is employed by a company,  but everyone can have a favorite NFL team (or "no preference"). Sometimes there is an idea that those who are not "employed by a company providing health coverage" are just the deadbeats/unemployed/lazy/illegal aliens/whatever who don't "deserve" health care, an argument we're not even going to waste time refuting, because it doesn't address what I have already pointed out: that it isn't just the "unemployed" who don't have employer health coverage. It is the very hardworking temp employees (I once worked for a YEAR as production assistant paid through a temp agency, before actually being hired as an official employee of the radio program--same desk, same duties, same everything) and the independent contractors and so forth.

There is major resistance to government-provided health coverage, but I don't know why that is any worse or weirder than employer-provided coverage. People change employers during their lifetimes a lot more often than they change citizenship. And wouldn't life be easier for employers as well, not having to deal with employees' health insurance?  Which, by the way, has nothing to do with the work of most companies but necessitates having someone/some department deal with benefits all day? It's like a giant colossal waste. Why not have benefits people working for a benefits company that is just about benefits? Allocated by the NFL-team alignment, or zip code alignment, or favorite color alignment, or type of animal that was your first childhood pet, or whatever!!!!

WHY NOT, people??!  Tell me why not?!?!

And guess what: then this Hobby Lobby religious freedom nonsense would not even be an issue. Religion would have absolutely nothing to do with it...because employers wouldn't be asked to do anything for health care, so they wouldn't have any religious objections.

Or, we could just divide everyone by religion/lack thereof in the first place and have the religious beliefs/non-beliefs be the health coverage groups (instead of the NFL team preferences). Then the health coverage groups would be the Mormons, the Catholics, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Orthodox Jews, etc. and naturally the atheists and agnostics and humanists could also have group coverage.

Anything but this horrible system of employer-based group coverage, please. It is deeply flawed because it does not make insurance available to all, and it apparently causes problems because employers have to grapple with decisions they never should be having to grapple with in the first place (like the religious beliefs of anyone in the corporation, from top to bottom).

The federal marketplace/health exchanges are supposedly helping to solve this problem, although I have had such a hideous time trying to enroll in my Arizona health insurance (for which I qualify, freelance income-wise) that I still can't tell you, months later, if all of my paperwork has been finalized and approved. It's a disaster. (Not  just a federal government web site disaster, states' rights people, but a state-level disaster as well.)

I don't know why anyone thought employer-based health coverage is a good idea, but today's Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision proves once again that it is not. I am more than ready to be assigned to a group that has nothing to do with my employer.

I am more than ready to just cast my lot with the Arizona Cardinals fans, or whoever I elect as "my" team.

Imagine somebody worked super-hard for twenty years, saved money, and at age 45 had enough in savings, investments, and so forth to "retire" and just pursue basket-weaving in the garage? Well, if you weren't in the military for your "career," good luck with that. Not because you need to work for the income, but because you need to work for the health insurance. I'd much rather live in a world that groups us by NFL teams.

But even worse is the situation of the person who weaves beautiful baskets for her or his entire life, procuring the materials, creating them, selling them, and providing a much-needed service to everyone who wants baskets and lives a simple but comfortable life, unconcerned with SUVs or six-bedroom houses or 64-inch high-def television screens...but cannot so much as go to the dentist without spending a couple months' income. This latter situation is the world we live in, thanks to employer-based health insurance.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orange Is the New Blacklist:
What Shouldn't We Watch?

Unless you live under a rock, you've undoubtedly heard some friend/acquaintance/person in the next seat in the doctor's office jabbering on his cell phone breathlessly sing the praises of the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. This is one of pop culture's most highly recommended current binge-watching experiences. I myself haven't got around to it yet, though it's on my list. (Not at the top, so it could be a while.) Apparently the second season has just been released or something because Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir on which the show is based, has been making the rounds over the last couple of weeks. She is all over NPR (Fresh Air, etc.), and she has been featured in the past in major newspapers, prestigious magazines, cable networks, you name it. Her story has been called fascinating, emotional, and unforgettable. By all accounts, the "TV" show (are we just going to keep calling Netflix shows "TV" until we think of a better term? All right, then) is "brilliant."

What has gone unsaid or at least rarely said amid all the "this-could-have-been-you!" breathlessness, is that Piper Kerman went to jail because of a crime. What has gone unasked is the question of how we feel about her profiting now from her criminal acts. This appears to be in stark contrast to the recent kerfuffle over Woody Allen in the wake of his estranged daughter's allegations of abuse, which were followed by much hand wringing about whether to continue watching Woody Allen movies. 

Now, let me say from the outset that I believe Dylan Farrow. Her story rings true to me, and for the purposes of this blog entry, it doesn't matter why, so that's not going to distract us here. (We can take up that issue another day, if y'all like.) What is less clear to me is why I should "boycott" Woody Allen's movies. I should also point out that if I were to boycott the "genius" Woody Allen, I'm not sure it would lead to the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for me that the mere thought of not watching his movies has inspired in others. (*cough* I find Annie Hall overrated. *cough*) But that's not the point either.

The question is: (why) are we obligated to not partake of a criminal's art? 

Clearly, boycotts can be about money. But they are also about larger issues; they are about making a statement, and, it is hoped, eventually a difference in behavior. This has occasionally worked when corporations are doing jerky things, and sometimes it has galvanized an entire movement (see, e.g., Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., NOW, etc.)  The impact comes from, first of all, numbers (there have to be a lot of people who actually participate in the boycott) and, secondly, the common sense of purpose. This is where most social-media-forwarded boycotts these days kind of fail right out of the gate; internet activism is often widespread but generally fragmented (read: all over the place, physically and intellectually). Attempting to "boycott" a heretofore well-regarded film director's future projects is such a poorly constructed set-up that I'm not surprised it didn't totally catch on. 

The even more interesting question, though, is whether a well-organized, less vague, clearly outlined and strategized refusal to ever see, act in, or work for a Woody Allen movie would be any better. For one thing, how does it work, with a boycott of creative endeavors? Do we just stop going to his films in theaters? Can we still rent ones that we have seen before, or watch the copy that's been sitting on our shelves for ten years? (Not my shelf, though.) Is the American Film Institute morally obligated to remove his films from their Top 100 lists? I should say not, seeing as they have Birth of a Nation on there. 

I firmly believe that everyone -- including criminals, alleged criminals, not-yet-caught criminals, and wrongly accused criminals -- should be allowed to creatively express themselves. Not just allowed, but encouraged. I believe that creativity should be a major component of prison life: writing class, crafts, art projects, musical performances, whatever helps people rehabilitate and find themselves. I think it's clear that there's been no lack of "crazy" and tormented artists over the years, whether it's Vincent Van Gogh, or writers such as Dylan Thomas and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the "27 club" of singers who fell prey to substance abuse and/or mental illness and died at age 27 (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, et. al.) Where do you draw the line of behavior that is OK to support in your artist and behavior that isn't? Do you draw that line in a court of law? A few people said that they couldn't give up on Woody Allen because he wasn't criminally convicted of the abuse. Do those people have any earthly idea of how many child abusers -- even officially accused ones - remain blissfully unconvicted for their entire lives?  

What if you found out your office building was designed by an architect who had juvenile drug convictions? Or a DUI on his record? Would you stop listening to your favorite band if one of its members went to jail? What if your favorite painter admitted she was a shoplifter? Does it matter if they served time? Is there a difference between art and "writing" a memoir with a ghost writer? Is it OK to depict Piper Kerman's life in a Netflix series but not give her any of the profits? Is her crime somehow "different" or "better" or "not as bad" because she was this young, pretty, blonde woman who got "caught up" in something? What about all the young, teenaged, often-not-blonde kids who get "caught up" in things and have their lives forever set down a dismal path with an early conviction in the so-called war on drugs? Are we more angry at Woody Allen because he is such a big celebrity? No matter how horrible Woody Allen's actions were, do we feel comfortable saying he shouldn't continue to make his art? Or just that no one should help him do it? 

No, I am not (as my friend asked me) interested in scooping up some of notorious mass murder mastermind Charles Manson's paintings for my art collection. But do I think he should be stopped from making them? Absolutely not. If someone else wants to buy them, do I think that person should be stopped? Well, Manson is a prisoner, and the prisons/legal system have the right to curtail  the commercial acts of the prison population (for obvious reasons).  Once they get out, though, they can evidently profit with impunity and hardly ruffle society's collective feathers, whether they are Jordan Belfort, better known as The Wolf of Wall Street, or Piper Kerman. And buying a book is an obvious, willful act. You might watch a Roman Polanski film and not even know about the actions that sent him into a life of European "exile," but you could hardly waltz into the local book shop and pick up a copy of the infamous OJ Simpson's (If) I Did It and claim ignorance. People seemed to realize that truth when (the not-convicted-of-those-particular-murders) OJ tried to unleash his screed on us. But amid all the dismay with which we speak of sensational memoirs that profit off of "scandal" or victimhood, we don't seem to mind when someone gets out of prison and then tells their story, which is then made into irresistible, award-winning entertainment. Why not? 

I don't profess to have answers to these questions. I find them endlessly fascinating, and I would like to know how  and why we decide whether someone is a pariah or a fascinating interview subject who will now get paid a handsome sum for speaking engagements. 

I will say that I can't imagine any mistake, crime, or egregious act could ever justify telling people to stop creatively expressing themselves, even the worst psychopaths. (Note, for the record, that snuff films and crush films do not count as "creative expression" -- those are actual harmful acts, so it doesn't matter how creative your depiction of them is -- as if! -- because the act itself must still be punished, and that includes all its accomplices, from camera operators to key grips. I can't believe this nonsense about cruelty on film being allowed as free speech or expression has been allowed to persist as long as it has.)  Prison as deterrence or incapacitation is one thing, to keep someone who is potentially harmful away from society. But I don't agree that you can keep them from their artistic, creative selves. 

Monday, June 09, 2014

I Do Know I've Had Mine

On a warm, summer Lafayette, favorite group from Georgia... do I have the makings of a song here, or what? (No?!)  While Brian may thrill to be back in these United States for the sportsing (and sports cat-ting) and the friends and the burgers and beer and the movies and the bachelor parties, I have one thing above all else that makes me happy to be here and that is MY GIRLS (the Indigo ones). 'Cause they just don't tour overseas like they used to. (And they really did used to, back on Epic's dime, touring Europe with R.E.M., and hitting up Australia more than once, and even doing a little Singapore and Malaysia once (which, I die! I remember reading, a decade ago, Amy and Emily's own pre-ubiquitous-social-media-days e-newsletter-type notes about Singapore and its fascinating blend of cultures and all the cool stuff they saw playing those places! and now I've been there! and also, can you IMAGINE if I had been living in Guangzhou and Indigo Girls had a show in Kuala Lumpur?! and I could have flown in for it OH MY GOD!)

OK, but I digress already. The point is, I am in the U.S. and that means I can go to Indigo Girls concerts, and last night I did. And it was a good 'un. 

Let's do the numbers...
Years I've been listening to Indigo Girls: 25 (um, ohmygodwe'reold)
Number of their concerts I've been to: I always lose count. Between 25 and 30.
Number of states in which I've seen them peform: 11 
Number of times the performance was Jesus Christ Superstar featuring Emily as Mary Magdalene and Amy in the Jesus part, along with a cast of other Atlanta area musicians: 1 
Number of people I've dragged persuaded to accompany me to IG concerts: at least 24
Number of times I've hung out by the tour bus to meet the Girls/get an autograph (so lame): 1
Number of times the Sony rep who covered my Borders store took me with her to the in-the-line-of-her-duty pre-show VIP backstage meet-and-greet with contest winners so that I could say hi to Amy and Emily despite my having won no contest at all: 1
Number of times I've dreamed that I meet them backstage again and they remember me/we're friends and I have to wake up and remind myself that isn't really true: at least 3
Number of times I've purchased Rites of Passage on cassette: around 4 because I kept wearing it out listening to "Love Will Come to You" and "Virginia Woolf" and "Nashville" over and over and over
Number of times I've purchased Rites of Passage on CD: 2 because when I had finally moved on to discs I found myself on the road to Austin one day but with \no copy of it in the car!!!! to listen to "Chickenman" and that had to be rectified
Number of times I've heard them play "Nashville" live: still zero.  Such a fail. 

Let's do some firsts: 
First exposure: in 1989, a pen-pal (whose name I don't remember, but who had excellent taste in music) used to tape copies of her music and send them to me, and she sent me a homemade copy of Strange Fire. Don't worry, it was eventually purchased for legit moneymaking real by me, on cassette and CD, maybe even multiple times (see also: Rites of Passage, above)
First time I spent my own money on them: the next year, through Columbia House Record & Tape Club, obvio, whose magazine had this way of making you think every album ever had two or three tracks that should be "known," as if anyone seeing the Nomads Indians Saints listing in the monthly catalogue would be all, Oh, right, the one with "Southland in the Springtime" on it.
First time I saw them in concert: 1994, Mesa Amphitheatre
First time I discovered the altogether overwhelming world of Lifeblood, Indigo Girls fan groups, and the deeply knowledgeable (you might say: obsessed) fan base and received an onslaught of newsletter back issues, videos of interviews, bootleg concert tapes, and random tidbits such that to this day my mom can answer the FAQs How'd they meet? Where'd they get their name? etc.: 1995

So, how was last night's show, you ask? 

Well, it was good. Am I capable of giving an unbiased review of an Indigo Girls show? Actually, I am. What fun would my thirty (or nearly thirty, I really have lost count, there are some venues I've seen them in where I'm like, did I see them there twice or three times?) shows be if I couldn't compare them and rank them and pick out the best ones?  Yesterday's was fun. The Long Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Lafayette, IN (across the river from Purdue--hey, family institution!) is a pretty small venue, maybe the smallest I've seen them in (how many people do Cape Cod Melody Tent and House of Blues hold?)  and it wasn't full. This is something that makes me think back to 1995, actually, when I started delving into Indigo fan world. As someone who lived in Phoenix at that time and had seen them live once and waited eagerly for them to return to Arizona, I was pretty jealous of all these fans in the South who had seen them play dozens of times all over Georgia and the Carolinas and even claimed to have heard them before they were on a major label at Atlanta's Little 5 Points pub...and when I joined the IRC (!) Indigo Girls discussion group and people posted about how they'd seen them in tiny venues with twenty people in the audience and I was sitting waaaay back on the amphitheatre hill in general admission lawn seating, I don't think I even knew if they'd still be performing twenty years later (there was a quote in an interview from one of them about not being able to imagine "still doing this" when they were 30 or 40...ha ha ha ha ha ha, ahhh, youth) let alone could I have ever pictured the backside of the wave that would eventually, inevitably crest and see them go from Epic back to smaller labels and independent releases. Meanwhile, the entire music industry has changed in the last two decades as well. So there's that. 

But where was I? Ah yes, Lafayette. I had no preparation or expectations (i.e., I haven't been following reviews or set lists from this tour posted online) but I did worry that it might be late-album heavy, because I've been a slacker while living abroad about listening religiously to their last couple. However, the concert was actually pretty mid-career heavy, which is greatly to my liking. "Closer to Fine" (encore) was the only early-early song, and there were three from Rites of Passage including "Virginia Woolf" which I just love so much, and by the way that reminds me that also I bought the  Rites of Passage CD for Michael Cunningham--long story--I am the hugest of dorks--OK, what else? the obligatory "Power of Two," "Get Out the Map" and "Shame On You," a totally rocking "Go," both "Leaving" and "Devotion" (in succession, even!), "Yield," "Fill It Up Again," and "Dairy Queen," and one or two tracks from each of the last three albums ("Three County Highway" made me happy; I had been thinking about it on my drive down along the little Indiana highway passing through three or so counties) and "Duane Allman," a song from Amy's solo country album. AND: they're totes doing "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" for a second-encore-song end to the show, which is great because these are band shows and they have the awesome Lyris Hung on violin, so it's perf. 

There was a little dancing. There was a little obnoxious loud-talking from a drunk gal behind us (but only a little. I've had worse drunk Indigo Girls concertmates in the past.) There was fun banter, notably about Meijer (from the opener, Hannah Thomas, who, by the way, can she please totally play me in the movie of my life?) and about Lafayette breakfast places and  about Maleficent. The crowd was a mix of ages (really - I saw gray hair and 'tweens) but overall I will say that it was more thirtysomething and up (like, sometimes two decades up) than college-age. It's interesting to think about how many people discovered Indigo Girls music in high school and college, during the heyday of the alterna/Athens, Georgia/indie college radio/pre-grunge days, when Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman and Melissa Etheridge had mega-hits, when environmentalism was a statement and not a dying plea from a melting Earth (well, it kind of was then, too, but we hadn't seen The Day After Tomorrow yet; we just talked about chlorofluorocarbons), when nobody was paying attention to Afghanistan but in the lobby of an Indigo Girls show among the activist organizations you'd find RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and now we're all, well, not twenty years old anymore. 

Last night I realized how consistently for the last three decades Indigo Girls have been just ahead of the zeitgeist. Goddamn trendsetters, I tell you! Besides the aforementioned RAWA and the fact that Indigo Girls introduced thousands of us to Winona La Duke during the mid-1990s, all the Kids Today probably didn't even know how to read when Shaming of the Sun came out, with "It's All Right" ("You hate me 'cause I'm different/ You hate me 'cause I'm gay / Truth of the matter'll come around one day...") and "Shame on You" ("We've been looking for illegal immigrants / Can we check your car? / I said, 'You know, it's funny, I think we were on the same boat / back in 1694...")  

I also enjoyed remembering how much this music speaks to me, personally. Like, last night I needed to hear "Dairy Queen."  Did I know that I needed to hear "Dairy Queen"? No, I did not. Do I like "Dairy Queen"? Obviously. But did I realize it was the song that was going to equip me psychologically with my life in its current state of transition? No! But the universe did! Or Indigo Girls did! Or something! 

Is my tongue firmly planted in my cheek about all this?  "You know me," Emily sings, "I take everything so seriously..." and I relate, I do, and I always have, but she also sings, "The best thing you've ever done for me/ Is to help me take my life less seriously" (those are two different songs), and even though I spend time in Korea and Thailand and China not listening to my music collection, and feeling removed from so many back-home things, and not seeing them in concert, and being aware that nothing is the same for you in your late thirties as it is in your late teens, it turns out that there's never a bad time to go see an Indigo Girls concert and just remember what I'm all about. It's not something I can explain to everyone, and it's not something I want to share with everyone. In fact, I don't even really talk about how and what I feel when I see them or listen to them. (That's why I write endlessly jabbering blog posts like this about going to the concert instead, that don't actually really say anything.) I once read that psychology studies have shown the music you discover in your early to mid teens is what will most profoundly affect you forever. Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, R.E.M., a few others are in there....and the Girls. My decades-long Indigo Girls music experience is personal and it will always be something that no one can touch. And they have made me alive to my inner self, my artistic self, my truest self, in ways that nothing else does (academics? too impersonal. religion? ha!)  I wouldn't bother explaining it to anyone if I could -- and to think that anyone beyond a very select few that I've attended concerts with (you know who you are) would even dare to think they could try to understand and know what lies in this Indigo Girls fan's heart is just silliness, really. 

But, "enough to hold."
"And the last one sings in meeeeeeeeeee....."

*This concludes a totally self-indulgent blog entry that you don't need to worry if you don't understand; you'd get it if you were meant to.*