THE WAGES OF WEAKNESS I

19 11 2009

PRELUDE

I’m 61. I’m White. I live in a city in the Southern US that sprawls for many miles. Its structure has been shaped by and for the car. Recently I choose to give up driving because I’ve always had a phobia for it, which has gotten worse every year, to the point that the last few times I drove I had severe anxiety attacks, and came home totally exhausted from the experience. I also have a history of depression, which put me on Social Security Disability for three years a while ago. I now have a job that comes with a very good health plan, one that is known to practitioners throughout this city because so many people here have it.

Now that I’m not driving, I’m very assiduous in finding ways to work around that detriment. I do most of my shopping on the Internet. For my frequent trips to health professionals, I’ve found a fine organization that gives ride to the afflicted.

STORY #1

Several months ago I set out to develop a relationship with a small pharmacy located about 3 miles from the downtown of this city, where I live. The listing of that pharmacy in the Yellow Pages said “We deliver.”, and that’s why I chose to use it. I had several conversations on the phone with a pharmacist there. I filled out two sets of forms he mailed me. My downtown address appeared prominently on both. I received no questions or comments from the pharmacist on any of the information I supplied. I then went happily on with my life, figuring I had the prescriptions problem well provided for.

Several weeks after that, I came home with three new prescriptions from my doctor, which he had also faxed to that drugstore. I called them the next day to place an order. The pharmacist informed me, out of the blue, “We do not deliver to downtown.” Nothing I said would change his mind, even though either he or his partner had received my earlier telephone calls and the forms I’d filled out, both of which had contained my downtown address — which, again, is located less than 3 miles from their place of business.

I wondered angrily for a while why this sudden reversal had occurred. I decided that I will never know. But I wonder: Could it have anything to do with the fact that the downtown of this city is known to be a place where many Black people live?

STORY #2

Over the last few weeks I made a couple of calls to a local audiologist, asking to make an appointment to get my broken hearing aid fixed and get an updated hearing test. I explained that I would have to get a ride there, since I did not drive. I mentioned that fact in both calls.

I showed up today and the audiologist fixed my broken hearing aid by cleaning it out. The whole interaction took no more than 10 minutes. The audiologist’s  manner was abrupt and dismissive. She then informed me that she did not have a time to give me a hearing test, and I would have to come back another day.

I was very disappointed because I knew I couldn’t come back, due to the difficulty of arranging a ride and the fact that the hearing test was just a precautionary thing. It wasn’t essential.

Then I sat in their waiting room awaiting my ride home for half an hour. I didn’t see any new customers come in. I started to wonder why I had been denied the hearing test, and complained to the audiologist’s receptionist. She said that she had put me down for a hearing test, and had no idea why the audiologist wouldn’t give me one.

I left, bemused.

Why this dismissal? As in Story #1, a health provider had denied his or her services to someone who needed them and was in a position to pay full price for them. Could the reason for that have anything to do, in this case, with the fact that during my talk with the audiologist I mentioned that I had received my 2 pairs of hearing aids free from the State Vocational Rehabilitation Office over the past 9 years? (That happened while I was coming off Disability status and returning to work.)

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

This is the redstate American South. I grew up here. It has a history of the most vicious, heartless racism, amounting to American apartheid. I remember things being said in my home about Blacks that, even as a child, I found vicious and cruel. In my middle-size town in the 1960s, Blacks lived in an enclave of their own, and no interaction occurred between them and Whites that I could see, except those strictly necessary for business (which did NOT include their being allowed to hold any good, white-collar jobs).

Though much has changed here since then on the surface, such a fundamental cultural wellspring as that old racial hatred does not go away in a single generation. Does it still flow here as strongly as ever, but now all unspoken, and does it explain the mystery of Story #1, and, indirectly, of Story #2?

This is Ultra Right Wing home base. The radio-host pygmies on local AM station WJBO strive daily to stand as squarely in Rush Limbaugh’s huge shadow as they possibly can. Folks who call into the shows of those mini-Rushes love to hear the hosts’ vituperation, and from time to time make it clear that they, too, take it as given that all recipients of social programs are cheats, thieves, and/or layabouts.

This drumbeat of propaganda is endless and unrelenting. The generalized fury of the local AM talk radio listeners is so thick it’s almost palpable. It has an emotional intensity way beyond what I think can be motivated by mere disdain for the awfulness of liberalism alone. But the power of xenophobia, now…THAT is strong enough to do the job!

I’ve come to believe that the triumph of extreme right wing sentiment in the South arises from continuing hatred of Black people, an unusual number of whom live in poverty here in the South, and so are the the main recipients of those hotly-condemned social programs. Hate the program and consider it worthless = scorn its beneficiaries.

By being stridently Right, folks down here have found a way to be racist covertly.

Did I, a White man, then, get unceremoniously shown the door today due to merely being associated in someone’s mind for a moment with the hated minority group? Did the audiologist simply show me her dislike for a presumptive cheat/thief/layabout?

Or am I just being paranoid?

Even if I am, as we’ve all heard many times before:

“Just because I’m paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me!”





GETTING LUCKY

29 05 2009

(No, not that way!)

I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in a family that always had minimal cash flow, and never had more than $1000 in the bank. My mom and dad owned a series of classic “ma and pa”  stores. (You know, the old precursors to 7-11 where the people who served you were the actual owners of the store?) Our living quarters were usually attached to the store. Both store and living area were usually poorly made. In fact, two of the places where we lived and worked had been constructed personally by the original owners — classic jackleg carpenters, I presume, judging from the strange floor plans and crazy walls. Needless to say, none of those places were pretty.

Jump ahead about 30 years.

It was 1997 and I had just turned 50 and actually had a bit of money in hand due to having practiced law for a while in a small way.  I was not married and didn’t expect to be, and it came to me that, to provide for my future, the best way to use my limited fund of capital, while I had it, was to find a way to live in it for life! So I went looking for a small house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I’ve lived since 1981.

I looked at some real dumps! Then one day I saw in the real estate section of the newspaper a dark little picture of a modest gingerbread-fronted house in downtown Baton Rouge. For other reasons too detailed to go into here, I had earlier studied downtown and come to love it, so I bought the house and fixed it up. It’s something you find a lot of in South Louisiana — a “shotgun house”. I.e., all the rooms are in a row, so if you stood in the front door you could fire a shotgun from the front of the house all the way to the back without hitting an intervening wall.  Such houses were where poor people often ended up. Nevertheless, this particular house was well-made and had a charm for me that even now I can’t define. As I later learned, it had been built in 1927.

I still live in that house 12 years later. My house is  tiny, only about 675 square feet. It’s a one-person house! I still love it as much as I ever did, and I still don’t know why.

Despite being rather cramped, it is my opinion that I have ended up in a very nice situation indeed. Essentially, I live in a unique downtown neighborhood that has the look of a traditional tree-canopied small southern town. The streets are narrow and have so little traffic that even the littleist neighborhood kids routinely ride their bikes  in the middle of them. The houses are clapboard, pier-and-beam construction — not a ranch-style house in the bunch! Instead there are lots of bungalows, and other wooden house styles* that you would instantly recognize if you saw them. Most are standard Southern styles from before 1950, so familiar from my early childhood that they are  like the faces of old friends to me. The neighborhood even has a name — Beauregard Town*. It was originally laid out back in the 1806, for goodness sake! Mine is the only shotgun house in it.

This pretty, small Southern town is in turn situated in the center of what I consider to be a howling wilderness of standard, traffic-ridden American urban sprawl. The Baton Rouge metropolitan area has a population of over 700,000. Yet this little town-within-a-city I inhabit is not much bigger than tiny Overton, Texas, where I was born and spent my early childhood.

This place is so restful, and so insulated from the surrounding car-dominated city, that it makes my lifelong dislike of driving bearable. It also, incidentally, makes me happy every morning when the weather’s nice and I sit on my front porch and listen to the birds singing and look out at the neat clapboard houses of my neighbors nestled among the trees.

And sometimes even say “Hi” to my neighbors as they walk by!

Beauregard Town was gentrified in the early 2000s, so all the decaying houses were fixed up, but it was not so gentrified as to drive out all the long-time Black residents, or to bring in snooty people who are actually rich. The houses are just too small for them. It remains a mixed area where the two races get along.

On top of all this, the place where I work is within walking distance!

I love this place. Everyone gets a few really lucky breaks in his life. Finding this house was one of mine.

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*See Beauregard Town Wikipedia entry:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beauregard_Town

And here you can see some photos I took of downtown Baton Rouge:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/plinytheyounger/sets/72157608814957159/





IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT SWEDEN?

4 01 2009

LLLLLLLLLLLLLL

Some time ago I had the good fortune to meet on the Internet an actual citizen of Sweden. Since the place has always fascinated me (Thank you, Ingmar Bergman!), I peppered him with questions about it. I mainly asked about its social welfare protections.

Here are his answers. I am presenting them verbatim, with just a bit of  boldfacing of Swedish terms, etc., for clarity of presentation:

A SWEDE TELLS ALL

“I got a bit paralyzed with all your listings, but decided to “start somewhere’”. Such a comparison I also find interesting, here in Sweden we have a general bad impression about the social system in US, can be interesting to find out how much of that is prejudice….

MEDICAL

Medical aid in Sweden, is not free, but we pay mostly a symbolic sum of money. For instance an operation to remove the appendix (not personal experience, asked a friend) costs nothing at all for the operation, but we will have to pay a little sum when you come in, and a little sum for the room you take up after operation and food. Even a poor person in Sweden would have no problem Getting through that, around 70 – 100 dollars if you don’t need to spend more then 2 days in the hospital, my friend says.

If you need medical aid for a long time we have högkostnadsskydd (attempted translation: ‘high cost protection’). If your medical aid costs more then about $120 dollars, that’s all you would need to pay, the state pays anything above that. This is for the year. Next year its another $120 etc. This includes medicine, if in need of large amounts over a year.

SOCIAL SAFETY NET

When a person loses his job we have something called A-kassa (not sure how to translate, A-cash or A-fund, the “A” stands for the Swedish word for unemployed anyway, so “U-fund” perhaps then in English). You have to have been working steadily and paid the ‘A-kassa’ for 1 year to get it.

What you get: 80 percent of your wages (but with a roof a little less then 100 dollars a day), after 201 days you get 70 percent. After 300 days you only get “A-kassa” if you have a child or children aged less then 18.

[That’s almost a year of high-level unemployment payments, folks, over a year and a half if you have kids! – Nightman1]

If you were paying into “A-kass”’ less then a year, you still get a base amount of MAX 45 dollars a day. Of course you have to consider what things costs before valuing the amount. Having high taxes here in Sweden [Yes, folks, your editor reports the bad as well as the good! – Nightman1] means everything costs more. One LITER of milk is a little more then one dollar, a loaf of bread is 2.8 dollars etc. Gasoline costs so much more that a visiting American would get nightmares (or so I have heard) 😉

After that its welfare. I’m not to sure about the rules here, but in principle you have to do things to get it, enroll in some kind of educating program, search for job, go through medical examination. We do not have food stamps (Don’t know how that works in USA, but if you have to go to a shop and use food stamps, that seems to me immoral. Why should someone have to “advertise” their problems and poverty??), but we get one sum of money each month from welfare that should cover the costs, and the rent is added on top of that basic sum of money.

If you are long term sick, we have försäkringskassan (social insurance office), which gives you the same amount of money as if you were old and on pension. There is no problem to survive on that, and its clearly more then welfare. It easily covers all basic needs and still have enough to buy things that are secondary to survival.
We also have bostadsbidrag (housing allowance). If you fulfill the required demands to get it, it pays most of your rent, and you get more or less depending on your rent. There is a roof, when you pass the roof (too expensive apartment) you do not lose it, but you get only aid up to the roof level, as if.

WORK, EDUCATION, AMENITIES

Your new questions:

1) In Sweden we have by law 5 weeks 100% paid vacation every year, I don’t know how it is in other countries in Europe [Nightman’s Note: I believe every major European country has such a law. I know France and Germany do—both providing 6 weeks’ vacation, I believe.]

2) Higher education is free in the sense that you don’t pay the university or higher schools any money, but you still need a loan to cover food, rent and books. Some take part time jobs while studying. If you are the poorest of the poor you still can take a ‘study loan’, no problem. To my experience you can in some cases even get the whole education for free (including rent, food, books) while being on welfare, but I don’t know how or why, so that’s a vague footnote.

3) We have homeless people here in Sweden but I am not sure why, cause we have a proper social security structure that shouldn’t allow it. Maybe people who gets involved with drugs? No idea…
I have a friend who has been on welfare for more then 10 years, I don’t know to be honest if they can have welfare indefinitely, but what should we do, let them live on the streets? I think that is beyond Swedish mentality. He has been forced into some “educational” programs from time to time. Long ago he also had some stray jobs… To be on welfare is a stressful and depressing situation also in Sweden.

4) English is a natural second language to many here in Sweden and I love English. I Have cultivated my elementary school English by reading hundreds of books by now, and when I write down thoughts I mostly use English.
Thanks for the compliment!

(I think I forgot to mention one thing in the last PM, here in Sweden people cannot get fired just like that, we have strong unions. To kick someone they will need a really good reason. This also goes for hiring people, they can’t just hire anyone they want, anyway they want. Everyone is supposed to have a chance on the available job.)

Cheers!”

AND NOW, BACK TO OUR SPONSOR!

Thank you daSpinoza!

As one born in poverty, who has spent much of his life “one paycheck from homelessness”, and who has chronic health problems, I would love to have lived under the Swedish regime.

And, no, folks, Sweden is not a Socialist dictatorship. It’s a functioning democracy. It’s also economically successful. (Check it out. Wikipedia is your friend.)

My commentary on the above appears below.

THIS AMERICAN’S ANALYSIS

In Sweden:

For me, the most striking aspects of the Swedish way of life are:

Essentially free health care for all people!

Generous payments PLUS housing allowances for the long-term sick and disabled;

Generous unemployment compensation lasting about a year;

Protection against arbitrary dismissal from a job (Here the usual statement of the common-law rule  on employment is that an employee may be fired “for any reason or no reason.”),

A STATUTORY right to those wonderful long vacations;

FREE higher education; and

Generous welfare — again, PLUS a housing allowance, so you don’t have to find yourself and your children “entitled to welfare but homeless”, as so frequently happens in the USofA (because welfare payments are often too low to cover rent here.)

In addition, I’ve read of other countries in Europe providing a statutory right to at least 8 months of PAID maternity leave, and state-subsidized good-quality day care for when mom has at last to go back to work. They probably have those in Sweden too and my informant forgot to mention them because he’s not a parent.

Versus Here:

In the USA, by contrast, in the way of help for the unemployed we only have, for all people, food stamps and a maximum of 6 months or less of LOW unemployment compensation, depending on the state you’re in. (And these days the wretched employers often challenge the payment of the unemployment and win, on the basis that the employee was actually fired for good cause.)

And food stamps are a joke. I was on Social Security disability for 5 years, and even for a certifiedly disabled person like me there was only $650 per month disability payments plus — get this! — $125 month in food stamps. That food stamp figure was the MAXIMUM entitlement for a single person. If your income was more than my paltry $650 per month they would reduce the food stamps pro rata.

Oh yes, the food stamp entitlements had not been increased for many years–ten or twelve, I think — despite inflation –, until President Obama had them increased as part of his stimulus package.

Beyond those things, in the USA there is nothing for needy adults but welfare, and welfare is only for custodial parents of minor children. And it is time-limited to a maximum that varies from state to state but I believe amounts in most states to 5 years of welfare in your whole lifetime. Don’t be a broke adult without kids in the USofA, folks! If you become one, you’re headed for the streets!

Further, though we have Medicaid for some of the poor, it is again only for the certifiedly disabled and for parents of children, in most states. Beyond that, Medicaid is actually of little value, because it pays so little to doctors that many of them won’t take Medicaid patients at all.

I know all of the above facts about our “safety net” from direct, personal experience. I got through my disability period without becoming homeless only because I owned my home outright. (I had once made a good salary and saved most of it and then bought a modest house.)


__________________________________________________________________________________________

UPDATE 5-02-09.

For a look at life in another Scandinavian country, Finland, click here:

http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0501/p09s02-coop.html

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UPDATE 6-10-10

PARENTAL LEAVE IN SWEDEN

SEE WHAT YOU’RE MISSING!

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/world/europe/10iht-sweden.html?scp=2&sq=Sweden&st=cse





UNFLATTENED IN BATON ROUGE

27 07 2008

The Uses of Snobbery

I plead guilty to being an intellectual snob. It comes from having been a poor outcast fat kid in the backwards backwoods of Texas long ago. I had to cling to SOMETHING to have value in my own eyes, and I chose the contents of books. The ability to read “hard” books and to become lost in them was the only thing I had going for me.

Compared to those contents, as illuminated by my imagination, the squalid surroundings and dimwit country culture of my small-town Texas childhood became dismissible. It was like being thrown into prison and coping with the noise and danger and ugliness and cruelty and excess macho nonsense of the other prisoners by dreaming about your life when finally released. Seen through the mist of those dreams, it was all dismissible, hence bearable.

There is lots in American culture now, 40 years later, that remains unchanged (after a brief abortive flirtation of the USA with being civilized that occurred in the 1960s). If you actually live within the soup of media-business-religion-sports that constitutes all the “culture” that the USA has, then you will slowly be de-brained. I understand that this lowest-common-denominator culture is the natural product of a country made up of persons of so many ethnic and national backgrounds that, other than a burning desire to make as much money as humanly possible, they have historically had very little in common. But I don’t have to join the de-brained brigade just because I was born here.

After a lifetime of being regularly fed drivel, I now watch no TV, read no magazines (celebrity, so-called “news”, or otherwise), consume only carefully-selected contemporary movies, go to no theme parks, read no best sellers, and listen to no radio but NPR.

But I still actually live in the American South. People here are friendly and polite in their personal lives and daily contacts. And this state I now live in is unique among Southern states in having a strong minority population (the Cajuns) with a distinctive culture that influences many aspects of life here. But the public reality that reigns in this place and time is still highly driven by the larger mass of US media ideas and images that flood in upon us daily, and by a good deal of local self-deluding nonsense about the glorious Old South. The result needs continually to be dismissed if one is not simply to despair for one’s country. I can’t turn on the main local AM radio station without hearing a local Homer or Jethro imitating Rush in order to book his own transient local fame. (The usual chorus of drawling dittoheads always obligingly call in to agree.) This city, Baton Rouge, has a paroxysm every time the LSU Tigers play a football game and doesn’t notice much else that happens publicly. In politics it is cruel, in art is is limited to country and rap and phony Cajun music, in public thought it is limited to a slavish love of business and business persons, and a widespread desire to try to guess what they might want before they want it, so they won’t get in a huff and take their many dollars to some even more accommodating Southern state.

Oh yes, the folks did stir from their torpor recently to get incensed when the state legislators voted themselves big raises—raising themselves from tiny salaries originally based on the fact that theirs was once a part time job to middle-class level salaries. Smart people I knew joined the brigade of the incensed. I didn’t point out to them that if you pay people with power peanuts you give them tremendous incentives to take bribes.

It would have been pointless, and gotten a lot of folks mad at me.

The USA has a history of driving its artists and intellectuals into exile. In the 1920s through the 1940s it seemed as if most such folks were to be found in Paris. Now they have found a precarious home in academe. For those of us who are unacademicized, there is only the internal exile of dismissiveness. One gets ones information through the Internet, and lets the drivel go.