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Aged Out

“I hope I die before I get old.”

– “My Generation”, The Who, © 1965

I’ve thought about this scenario: I’m home alone at age 80-something and I have a stroke or some kind of cardiac event.  I can’t get to a phone and I don’t have one of those Life Alert devices.  As a staunchly independent, childless 50-something with few friends, that thought has crossed my mind on more than a few occasions in recent years.  It became even more glaringly realistic this past January, when I told my mother she needed to take a shower.  I realized she had urinated on her bed; a simple of case having fallen asleep and – given her age, I thought – wasn’t able to make it to the bathroom in time.

“I’ll change the sheets,” I told her, before retreating into the hall.  A moment later I saw she was flailing her right arm and leg.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.  “You need to get up and take a shower.”  But then it became clear.

She’d had a stroke.

It apparently had been a brief event and was already starting to heal by the time she’d arrived at the hospital.  But her left side was mostly paralyzed.  I sat beside her in the emergency room, as she gazed blankly into a flickering light panel, and thought, ‘Now what?’

Years ago, when her mental health started to wane, someone asked why I didn’t place her in a “home.”  “She has a home,” I replied.  “It’s the one she’s in now.”

But the now had changed.  And I was forced to contemplate the unthinkable: putting one of my parents into a “home” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to entail.

I had promised my father that I would do everything to ensure he didn’t pass away in a hospital; ensconced in a strange bed with tubes wrapped around him, as if he was a hostage.  And I was able to help him achieve his desire.

But this situation is different – and far more complicated.  After her hospital stay, I had to place my mother into a rehabilitation center.  I found one nearby and was able to tour the facility a few days before she arrived.  It’s an older building that looked like it hadn’t received a fresh paint job in about four presidential administrations.  On that Friday evening I accompanied her to the place, I felt as if I’d swallowed a tree branch – and it was now stuck.  The center looked even more dismal than when I’d first entered.  And that night, as my mother lay in bed, glancing around the room – her left arm and leg still mostly inert – my heart filled with trepidation.  I couldn’t stay that night, so after more than an hour – assuring her things would be alright and consulting with the amiable staff – I departed.  I almost felt like I’d abandoned my mother into a pit of despair.  And, even worse, I’d violated a solemn vow I’d made to my father more than a decade ago: if he should pass away first, I’d take care of my mother.

Looks, indeed, can be deceiving.  While the rehab center was an aged structure, the staff was incredible.  I did have a good feeling from the start, though, when I first spoke with one of their representatives.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize I’d made a great choice.

I brought my mother home in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation.  The startling number of coronavirus deaths in similar facilities alarmed me.  The center had banned visitors a few days earlier, but I had to get her out of there.  As good as the place had been for her, I didn’t she feel she was safe.  And I knew I could care for her just as well as the rehab center and get her back to some semblance of her former self.  I should know by now that far-reaching plans always look great on paper or in dreams.

After only a week, I had to return her to the rehab center.  Her health had deteriorated in that short period.  But, once back at the facility, she improved.  She’d regained some movement on her left side and was alert.  She still didn’t recall what had happened.

But then, matters became even more complex – and aggravatingly unsettling.  My mother’s lengthy stay at the rehab facility had exhausted her Medicare benefits.  They paid 100% for 21 days, when they lowered the rate to 80%.  My mother – and I – was obliged to pay the remainder.  But she didn’t qualify for a supplemental insurance policy – even through Medicare.  Or the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The requisites for either make the Harvard Law School entrance exam look like a daycare application.

Medicaid was our last option.  Completing the application for that was tantamount to completing one to be a Central Intelligence Agency case officer.  And my mother wasn’t approved.  With her Social Security and two pensions, she earns too much per month; just a “few dollars” too much, the rehab center associate helping navigate the morass informed me.

And what, I inquired privately in my angry cogitations, qualifies as a “few dollars” too much?  I researched a handful of other available and plausible alternatives – enough to fill a tea cup – and could find nothing viable.  Absolutely nothing.  For my mother even to begin to qualify for some semblance of Medicaid coverage to help with her health care expenses, she’d have to cede all of her assets, including this house – the house she and my father worked hard to get and to keep; give it all up to an omnipotent entity that designed the very system to which my parents (and millions of others) annually pay homage and taxes.

And she earns a “few dollars” too much.

By the end of April, the rehab center – the place that had proved life-saving and life-changing – had reached its financial breaking point with us.  They had to let her go.  They had no choice, they told me – and therefore, neither did we.

Fortunately, Medicare does pay for extended hospice care here at the house.  Representatives with the agency I selected have been incredible – even angelic – in their commitment and service.  They’re as concerned with me, also, as my mother.

Still, I seethe at the thought of the financial fiasco in which we’ve now been placed.  We’re in debt to the rehab facility now, as well as to a slew of doctors and the hospital.  My mother is just one of literally millions of Americans in similar straits.  At current rates, the crisis will only deepen nationwide.  The number of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to almost double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million in 2060; rising from 16% to 23%of the population.

A half-century ago, programs like Medicare and Medicaid were designed to assist the elderly and poor with health care needs.  They’re not just altruistic; they’re vital.  As with the Social Security system a generation earlier, Medicare and Medicaid provided necessary safety nets for many Americans.  The nation had matured into a contemporary society where even the most vulnerable of citizens were not left to fend for themselves.

As usual, social conservatives scoffed at the notion.  Just like with the post-World War II GI Bill, they denounced such aspirations as welfare and socialized medicine.  These were the same fools who demanded people swear allegiance to the United States, be willing to sacrifice their lives to the Constitution, abide by established laws, and blindly pay money to ensure a safe democracy for all.  They still do.  Yet, when people earn a “few dollars” too much…they shrug their shoulders and change the subject to American exceptionalism.

My mother began working for an insurance company in downtown Dallas in the fall of 1952 at the age of 19 and retired from an insurance company in February of 2003 at age 70.  With the exception of taking off 15 months for being pregnant with and caring for me – at a time when maternity leave was more of a concept – she worked for half a century.  Fifty years.  And, as her physical and mental health decline from years of just being alive…she earns a “few dollars” too much.

“Age is just mind over matter,” my father once told me.  “If you don’t mind, who gives a shit?!”

People have told me that, for being a good person, I deserve a “big reward.”  And I’ve also told some they deserve a special place in the “Great Beyond” just for being themselves.  As genuine and thoughtful as those words are, does anyone have to wait until life in some other realm to be appreciated for their actions?  Is it truly necessary to wait until we’re dead to receive the respect we’re due in life?

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Worst Quote of the Week – November 22, 2019

“Right now I want you to click on that button, and I want you to honor God with his first fruits offering.  If God doesn’t divinely step in and intervene, I don’t know what you’re going to face – he does.”

Paula White, Donald Trump’s “personal pastor”, in an email asking followers to send her a donation of USD 229, they will get “prophetic instruction” on how to attain victory over their “enemies.”

White claims the $229 fee is “in accordance with 1 Chronicles 22:9, and that it is “a specific seed” because “numbers are important to God.”  Those who can’t manage the $229 for prophetic visions are encouraged to send $31 – the sum of 22 and 9.  Now, isn’t that clever?  But she insists the full $229 is needed to “break any chains.”

To the religiously curious, 1 Chronicles 22:9 reads: “But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side.  His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign.”

I don’t see anything in there about giving money to a man who inspired “The Joker” character and his gal-pal who’s in desperate need of a dye job.

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Worthy Words

Writer-at-work

Last month writer Wil Wheaton received a request from the Huffington Post to publish an essay, “Seven Things I Did to Reboot My Life,” that he’d just published on his own blog. Until his follow-up essay, I wasn’t aware contributors to HP aren’t paid for their work – except in that most traditional of literary reimbursements: exposure. I believe most every freelance writer has encountered the ubiquitous “we-can’t-pay-you-but-you’ll-get-tremendous-exposure” line. It’s supposed to make us feel comfortable, hopeful maybe, that – in lieu of much-needed financial resources – an untold number of readers will see our work and that someone in that vast crowd will be awestruck enough to offer us a paid job that, in turn, will lead to our long-held dream of being a successful (affluent) scribe. But I’m surprised at this revelation, considering HP founder Arianna Huffington is a proud progressive who champions free speech and worker rights.

Wheaton didn’t fall for HP’s offer and declined it faster than a Hollywood celebrity dropping a gluten-filled sandwich. Meaning he politely told them to stick their “exposure” ruse up their ass. I couldn’t stop laughing out loud when I read that. My dog surely thought I’d finally gone over the edge, as he grabbed his rawhide bone and scurried into the den.

Good for you, Wil!

Myths about writers persist. It’s not a profession; it’s more of a hobby. We like to suffer for our art. We’re so desperate for notoriety we’ll give it away whenever we can – like drug addicts needing a fix. As with any tall tale, there’s some measure of truth to it. But most of us writers take our work seriously. It’s more of a calling than a profession; a passion for the written word and a desire to spread our thoughts and ideas in the best way we know how. Yet we also like to get paid for our time and effort.

Writing isn’t like a sneeze; building up quickly, before exploding forth. It takes time and energy. Ideas may pop into our heads during the most unlikely of literary activities – eating, showering, having sex, stalking the last publisher who called your writing crappy – but turning those sparks into full-fledged and long-lasting flames is cumbersome. Some scribes can pound out a story in a matter of weeks, while others take years to write an award-winning tome. Whatever the length of time, it’s not an easy task.

But what is it that makes some people think writers don’t mind working for free? What is it that compels some publishers to believe “exposure” is a sufficient replacement for monetary compensation? But, then again, how much is a single word worth? If a rap singer can spit out a foul-mouthed, yet otherwise incomprehensible “song” and earn millions, why should a freelance writer have to produce 500 words for fifty bucks? I can see the insanity in such questions, but I know too many others just don’t get it.

In 1988 the Writers Guild of America – composed of West and East branches – drove home the importance of writer compensation with a strike that practically brought the U.S. entertainment industry to a halt and almost bankrupted the state of California. The WGA started as the Authors League of America in 1912; an entity devoted to protecting the financial and creative rights of writers. Its first president was Winston Churchill – not the famed British prime minister – but a former member of the New Hampshire State Legislature and a novelist and playwright. President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Copyright Act of 1909 on his last day in office, served as the Guild’s first vice-president.

The ALA’s mission was simple and straightforward: “to protect the rights of all authors, whether engaged in literary, dramatic, artistic, or musical competition, and to advise and assist all such authors.” In 1921, it metamorphosed into the Authors Guild, when playwrights, composers, and lyricists left to form the Dramatists Guild of America. In 1933 the Screenwriters Guild formed in Hollywood.

The 1988 strike wasn’t the WGA’s first, but tellingly, each protest arose in response to cultural and technological changes in the entertainment industry. In 1960 the WGA launched a 21-week strike against film studios seeking compensation for movies shown on television. In 1973 they struck in favor of increased wages and health benefits. The 1981 strike was for cable and home video revenue. And, just three years before the 1988 event, the WGA protested over royalties from videocassette sales. The 1988 strike actually began late the previous year, when movie and TV producers demanded that writers accept sliding-scale payments on residuals from works that are re-broadcast after their original air dates. The producers claimed that syndication prices drop, so writers shouldn’t expect compensation identical to their original payments. The writers didn’t dispute the concept of syndication; the matter concerned the amount. Negotiations commenced, but stalled. And the result was the longest-lasting writers’ strike in U.S. history; costing the entertainment conglomerate roughly $500 million.

The 2007 WGA strike was, as before, a response to emerging technology. This time, it was a digital issue, and, as before, producers tried to utilize the new gadgetry to get around paying writers a decent share. The increased presence of the Internet and other devices, such as I-phones, allowed for greater dissemination of content. Recalling the 1988 mess, movie and TV producers listened two decades later and worked quickly to end the drought.

The angst of writers resounds clearly with other artists. In 1999 two teenagers, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, launched an online company called Napster, where people could download and share songs – for free. Using a then-innovative technology called file-sharing, users simply had to log onto their computers and – for lack of a better term, but calling it what it is – pirate their favorite tunes for personal usage. From a technological perspective, it was ingenious. From an artistic viewpoint, it was flat-out theft. The music industry quickly took notice, and – after much legal wrangling – Napster was forced to shut down in 2002.

The same issue arose again with musical streaming. It exploded into controversy last year when singer Taylor Swift pulled her entire music catalog from Spotify, one of the largest musical streaming companies in the U.S. Spotify and others offer users a desktop application for a nominal fee through which they can download whatever songs they want. The companies earn a hefty profit through ads and other sources. And the artists earn…a few dollars. Literally. Singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash dubbed musical streaming “dressed-up piracy.”

My paternal grandfather was a carpenter. One day, in the 1930s, a local woman called him to help get a window in her house unstuck. He examined the window briefly, before taking a hammer and lightly tapping on either side of the frame, thus dislodging it. When he charged her $10, she balked; asking why she should pay him for “tapping a little bit here and a little bit there.” He promptly told her the fee wasn’t for “tapping a little bit here and a little bit there,” but for knowing to “tap a little bit here and a little bit there.” Knowledge is worth something. So are words.

How much someone’s talents are worth will always be a matter of debate and is often subjective. On an episode of “The People’s Court” a while back, a performance artist sued a student videographer she’d hired to capture one of her stage shows; she wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the final product. Apparently she could only afford one camera, so the young man could only focus on a limited area of the stage; instead of videotaping the entire panorama. He could have brought in an assistant to work another camera, but the artist said her budget wouldn’t allow it. When Judge Marilyn Milian asked why she was so upset, she pointed out she was frustrated with the limited scope of the videotape. There were several people on stage, but the videographer only managed to catch one or two at a time. Milian reminded the plaintiff she’d hired a student videographer, not a professional, and queried why the woman just didn’t pay to have a second camera. Her budget wouldn’t permit it, she reiterated – whereupon she answered her own question. Case dismissed.

Anyone who thinks writers must accept the “exposure” concept at face value should consider this scenario. Imagine you’ve spent the bulk of your professional life in the food service industry. You’ve worked for a variety of outfits – restaurants, hotels, country clubs – before you finally decide you’re tired of slaving over other people’s hot ovens and decide to open your own catering business. You encounter a couple who wants to hire you to cater their daughter’s wedding reception. They want a certain amount and variety of food for a large number of people on a particular day and at a particular time. They then tell you it’s not in their budget to pay you up front for all the food and your time and energy in preparing it and setting it up, but emphasize that with so many people expected to attend the reception, you’ll get great culinary exposure; which means that someone will surely find it so delicious they’ll want to hire you for something else at a later date. Do you think a caterer would go for that? Why should a writer?

Last year I finally decided I needed to hire a professional editor to review my novel manuscript. I selected Leslie Silton, a Los Angeles-based editor who has worked with a variety of writers. After going through my novel, she found a number of minor things that I’d missed; elements that ultimately would have made me look unprofessional. It really does pay to get an outsider to review your work. At no time, however, did I expect Leslie to work for free. I never dreamed of telling her, “Look, I can’t pay you, but I have about 200 followers on my blog, 300 Facebook friends, and 250 Linked In contacts. I intend to publicize my novel on all those sites, and when they see what a great job I did, they’ll also see your name.” I would have gotten a dial tone the second I finished that sentence. As a Bostonian, though, I’m certain Leslie would have provided some colorful verbiage to go with it. If you produce work for one site, just for the “exposure,” what makes you think someone who sees it and – given that they like it – won’t expect you to be satisfied with the same type of “payment”?

In one of my Linked In groups a while back, this very subject came up. A freelance writer mentioned that she was frightened when a client expressed dissatisfaction with her work; therefore, she lowered her fees to avoid any impending damage to her professional reputation. I told her that she shouldn’t have felt bad enough to lower her fees, just because one particular client didn’t like her final output. “Your work is worth something,” I emphasized.

Wheaton offered a logical response to the Huffington Post “exposure” offer: they earn a considerable amount in advertising revenue. More importantly, HP itself is valued at something around $50 million. Too many writers fall for that “exposure” bit – and suffer the blatant disrespect that surreptitiously goes with it.

As writers we’re worth something. And exposure doesn’t quite cover it.

Image: Cullen Communications.

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