Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Misc, Various

Financial situation: I am an employed member of American society. I work hard when I can get jobs in my field, and when none are available, I temp. It's not glamorous but it's work and I'm glad to have it. Unfortunately, on the wages I earn I could afford either rent or insurance premiums, but not both. Needless to say, I don't live in a tent.

So. As one of the 47 million Americans who are uninsured or insufficiently-insured, I feel that current events affect me rather a lot. Far more, indeed, than the gun-waving fanatics at town hall meetings or the wealthy lobbyists and "news" anchors who sent them there.

Let's look at me, as a demographic, for a moment. I'm 24, single, and not a parent. I hold a BA in a liberal art and am embarking, in just over a month, upon an MA. I'm a skilled carpenter and rigger and have a good work ethic. I type 90 words per minute and have been described as an ideal employee by my temp agency for having the simple sellable skill of courtesy. (Indeed, shouting at Sallie Mae representatives was not easy for me.) I actively pursue regular employment and speak and write in English.

Am I what you envision when you think of the 47 million Americans scraping by without access to health care?

For the past four years I have found myself working very hard for next to nothing in internships and assistantships around the country in order to make connections in a field that is rapidly collapsing upon itself because it costs more to produce than patrons are willing to pay.

In 2008 I earned just enough money to not qualify for Medicaid but far too little to afford private insurance, even when I itemized my student loan repayments and living expenses. Guess where that left me. (one moment while I find my Hiker's Guide to Shit Creek and a highlighter)

Interestingly, I do have some medical concerns that I would absolutely love to have addressed, but most if not all of them would not be covered by a basic health plan at the best of times. A chunk of my retina has detached and is freewheeling around the vitreous fluid in one of my eyes. My teeth, which have always chipped when I so much as eat yoghurt, are in a bad state and one of the lower incisors may need to be completely replaced. My face is a raging bacterial infection that is not only immune to benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid but is made red, scaly, and painful by even small amounts of either.

Are any of these concerns life-threatening? Probably not. But even if my vital organs are in pretty good nick, I still need some work. Yes, technically I can survive blind in one eye and missing a few teeth, but if I can avoid these problems I'd prefer it--particularly in the job field that I seek. I'd be hard-pressed to find someone who makes a comfortable wage in a white-collar environment who got into their job with gaping holes in their smile, a face that's downright icky, and severely compromised vision. There are probably people out there who've managed it, but even if company policy prohibits it, interviewers take things like appearance into consideration. While broken teeth don't actually indicate personal dental neglect and acne isn't a real sign of poor hygiene, appearances mean quite a lot when it comes to gaining employment. I keep my clothes clean and rarely carry an offensive odor, but due to genuine medical issues that I can't afford to correct, I look like a slob. Would you hire me?

The thing that really baffles me about people's aversion from socialized (or social-lite) health care is the fact that so many of these people would, if asked, concede that they're being rooked by their (shudder) premiums and they know it. (the word Premium grosses me out, not unlike the word Moist) Yes, we the people know that insurance is by its very definition an act of extortion that we buy into in order to feel safe. "I'm paying you to help me out in the event that I get sick, because on some subconscious level I believe that if I give enough money to the right people I won't get sick, I won't get hurt, I'll get in to Heaven, and I'll be happy and safe." I'm accepting your money under the condition that you don't get sick, because when it comes down to it I have no more idea as to what lies after death than you do, even movie stars get hit by cars, and absolutely nothing buys happiness." We all know that taking out an insurance policy is gambling and selling insurance requires fraud, but decent, intelligent people do both.

And if it wasn't for the profit side of insurance, it really would be an entity purely established for the greater good. Everyone pays into the pot so that in the eventuality that someone does get hurt or sick, there's money available to fix them. Insurance Is socialism. Or is on paper. In the US it's more of a Ponzi scheme, and those who are most likely to need it don't get it because that would force the companies to actually use the money they've worked so hard to collect.

I and others have explained this concept to many Americans and found the principle dashed against the wall, not through intelligent rebuttals, but with the simple phrase "I've got mine, I don't care about you." Many people seem to believe that when they pay their insurance premium they're just paying the company for the right to have them pay out, apparently from their assholes, in the event that they need medical attention. The idea that they're using money from other people's premiums, in addition to their own, doesn't quite dawn upon them. So a more accurate phrase to describe their state of insurance is "I've got yours and mine, but I don't care about you." And who are the yous? Millions of people who are just as likely to get H1N1, drive off a bridge, doze off while making toast, drink themselves jaundiced, and develop diabetes as oneself. The people who can't afford health insurance under the current plan are typically, if anything, more likely to take care of themselves simply because they know there's no safety net. (That doesn't mean we don't need it, don't want it, or are too good for it. We're just forced to be somewhat more aware when we're crossing the street by the crippling fear of even more debt.) We're mostly employed, 'cos otherwise we'd probably qualify for Medicaid and wouldn't be in this bind.

A question I have, for any reader who may stumble across this--are you really happy with your insuranace? I've heard on the news that millions upon millions of Americans like their insurance the way it is, but I have never actually met one of these people. Everyone I know has been alarmed to find that their premium has been hiked out of their affordable range after they've gotten hurt, or has been rejected for necessary surgery because their doctor improperly filed a form, or has found that, because their company switches insurers every six months, they've had to start from scratch with new doctors every time their kid's reflux disorder has flared up. Not once have I heard out of anyone's mouth that they are at all happy with the service they've received. "well of course, if they're talking about it it means they're unhappy with it--that's not an accurate representation." Yeah, but I know a lot of people, and a lot of them complain about it. This isn't a peer-reviewed study. So please. Let me know if you are happy with what you have.

I'm willing to pay into a system that I can afford. I am unable and unwilling to pay into a system that punishes me for going at it alone, that pockets 20 cents of every dollar I throw in, and that knowingly rejects people from the pool who might use it. These are the same people who rejected homeowners' insurance claims after Katrina because the roof blew off after the water level rose to the second story, not before. The people who wouldn't pay for an arborist to safely remove a dead tree but instead waited until it fell and smashed the roof to tell us that they weren't going to pay for the damage because their records showed we knowingly had a dead tree near the house. For-profit insurance does not reward good companies, it allows all companies to be shitheads. And they are. Remove the profitability, remove the shareholders, remove the greed and the sticky-fingered hold on policyholders' cash and you get affordable insurers who are willing to do their jobs. You're paying them to responsibly dole out everyone's collective funds to people who need it, and while they do that to an extent, they charge you far more than they will ever put into that pot.

That profit margin is the difference between me affording to join and my application being rejected due to insufficient funds. I take the risk--a risk that, in the event that something horrible does happen to me, will hurt you in the long run if I wind up being hospitalized. I can't afford hospital bills. No one can. So I'm going to take out a loan to pay the hospital, and when I lose my home (and thereby my job and my ability to get another one) because I can't afford the interest, i'm going to default. No matter how much the collection agency harasses me and hurts my feelings, it would take a thousand years for me to pay them back. which hurts the economy, and your bank with it. Ooh fun, higher interest rates for everyone! Because I got excluded for being poor. Is it fair to you, as someone who can afford it? No. Would you rather I just get a cheap lethal injection if I survive a nasty train accident with eight broken bones? Many Americans would say yes.

American insurance is the only industry I know of in which the point is to pay a lot for absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Happened Next?

August 16, 2009: Receive confirmation email from British Consulate, politely telling me it will take 5-10 days to process, thank you for your patience. Convince myself I'm a terror suspect. Have dream I'm denied entry because I was deported once in 1854.

August 23, 2009: Buy two sets of plane tickets, one for Sep 1 to go to Mom's, one for Sep 15 to head to London--include time cushion just to be on safe side. Start packing to go home.

August 24, 2009: Receive e-mail from Consulate confirming issue of visa. Do a happy dance around my office.

August 25, 2009, 8:15am: Receive robophone call from UPS informing me that package will be delivered today, if no one is there to sign for it the delivery person will leave you a message. Sigh, knowing I'll have to go pick up document from UPS after work, hope it'll be open late.

August 25, 2009, 9:30am: Mom calls from South Carolina, opens package at me, describes my SHINY NEW VISA. Why it went to her house the world may never know. Apparently the new visas have your photo on them and lots of shiny squiggly business to prevent fraud. Excited to see it in a few days.

August 25, 2009, 1:00pm EST (6:00pmGMT) Ben leaves work to visit house we're interested in renting. Cross fingers and hope it's not so far out of our price range that we can't make it work.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sometimes a lawnmower is just a lawnmower

I find people who use brand names to refer to generic products, such as Hoover instead of vacuum cleaner or Crosby in place of cable clip, annoying. I don't really know why, but I'd imagine it is in some way related to my hatred for all forms of advertising. I'd much rather not have specific manufacturers referred to as though they are the primary or best example of a particular type of product. Kleenex is not the best brand of facial tissue, but when you ask your neighbor to pick up a box of them at the grocery store while they're out, you can bet that they will bring back a box of the established brand. Even if by "Kleenex" you meant Puffs.

Interestingly, I've had this low-level loathing as long as I can rememeber. I distinctly recall feeling it during a vocabulary lesson in the second grade. On Mondays Mrs. Popp would get one of those giant lined sheets of paper and clip it to the chalkboard with industrial-strength magnets and ask us to come up with at least 20 words at least 5 letters long that started with the same letter. The trick was we would have to come up with words who's second letters were all different--if we already had "apple" on the board, "aperture" would be rejected. We would try, most weeks, to get through most of the alphabet. When we came across letter pairings that didn't really work in English, for example xk, cd, sr, or mf, we would stop and talk about it (and usually giggle and try to pronounce the impossible syllables.) The week I recall so vividly was O week. We got to OX, and I knew it. The best word was Oxygen. I knew what it was, I knew how to spell it, and I even knew that through some sort of voodoo trees made it. I held a lungful of the stuff and waved my hand around like a lunatic trying to get my teacher's attention--partly because I thought it was a good word, but mostly because I wanted to remind her of how smart I was (just like I did every vocabulary day).

But alas. She picked Laura, who's hand was also in the air and who's reputation for being an imbecile was well known. Her suggestion for the vocabulary board? "Oxycute."

For readers who may not remember early-90's American tv ads, "Oxycute 'em" was (and may still be, I don't know) the catch phrase for Oxy astringent pads' marketing campaign, and a reminder that you should use their product to help clear up acne.

Mrs. Popp looked befuddled. "I'm sorry, I don't think that's a word."

"No, Oxycute. Like on TV. It means "get rid of zits." replied Laura. The heavy, already-pubescent 9 year old had a smattering of them near her temples to go along with her kids' shampoo-immune hair grease. Had I been older than 7 at the time I might have understood and sympathized that she was a clear victim of poverty in the American South. Like all of us she drank hormone-laced milk which screwed up her pituitary gland, but she also carried junk food lunches--chips, candy, coca-cola, cookies and string cheese--every day, a trend that at the time didn't send up as many red flags in teachers' minds as it should have. Her health and maturity were not being attended to, most of her words and phrases came from TV, she was kind-of dirty, she packed her own lunch of absolute garbage--she was a neglected child. Now I feel bad for her upbringing and hope she's doing something with her life that she feels proud of. At the time I thought she was stupid.

My mouth shot off, before I could stop it. "That's a nonsense word from a commercial. It's not real." Her glance was daggers, but quite a few of the other children laughed.

Mrs. Popp tried to salvage what she could of the situation. "I don't know the term, I'm sorry, but you said it means 'to get rid of zits'? Like, pimples?" We all laughed again at the word 'pimple.'

"Yeah, y'know, like Oxy pads." retorted Laura, determined to save face if she could.

"I think that's a proper noun." said Mrs. Popp, not unkindly. "Remember, our vocabulary words can be people, places, and things, but not specific people, places, and things. Anyone else?" My arm flew into the air again. The god-like second grade teacher's eyes appraised me briefly. "No, Kristen, you spoke out of turn. Who else?"

I was appalled. My perfect word was rejected because I was too much of an arrogant little shit to keep from hurting the dirty girl's feelings. I hated Laura. I hated Oxy acne-control products. I vowed I would never buy them, even if I got pimples worse than Laura's. (As it stands, I never have bought Oxy products, and my skin is far worse than Laura's, so I guess I stuck to my guns.)

After a lot of hints and effort on Mrs. Popp's part Vincent finally came up with "oxen" and it was entered onto the big word list in neat second-grade teacher handwriting. I tried to point out that "oxen" was shorter than 5 letters, but she addressed my claim without acknowledging my raised hand. "I know it's not 5 letters, but there's not that many words that start with OX so I think it's fine. In any case, it'll make the quiz on Friday a little easier! Is that what you three were going to say?" I lowered my hand, along with the other pedants, and nodded, defeated.

To this day brand names and marketing-generated words make me uncomfortable. I despise hearing product-specific words in conversation or the workplace. It cheapens conversation to hear trademarked words ("Hey, are you heading to Walgreens?") where generic ones ("I'm going to whatever drugstore I can find.") would suffice. It even puts me off my ease to refer to products and places by their market name, even if they're precisely what I'm buying or where I'm going. I could never work in fast food. ("Medium black coffee, please." "Do you mean a Grande Americano?" "No, I mean a medium black coffee. See the big metal thing with the brown liquid dripping out of it? That.") Like the way "Rockefeller Center Observation Deck" has the hip name, "Top of the Rock." I think that sounds marketing-y. I've been up there twice in a month (damn foreigners) and still think it sounds too stupid to say aloud. (I also strove tirelessly but to no avail to convince a friend that the tv program title "30 Rock" refers to the thirtieth floor, not the entire building, so no, we did not visit it.) Thankfully I rarely enter establishments that ask whether I'd like to "Super Size" my purchase, and I haven't purchased a McAnything since I was about 5. (It really does annoy food chain employees when you refuse to order anything by name. "Can I get your two-layered hamburger, please?" "My what?" "The one with two slabs of meat interspersed among three pieces of bread." "A Double Whopper?" "I guess that works too." Eventually I got so frustrated with the process that I gave up fast food, and a few years later, meat.) I just think, unless you've invented an entirely new product, or discovered an entirely new species, giving something a new name is tacky. It sounds stupid. I feel awkward when I say it, and I get annoyed and embarrassed when people correct me with their corporate-endorsed term. ("Can I take your order?" "Yes, can I get your mango-pineapple please?" "Which one--the Mango A-Go-Go or the Mango Mantra?" "" damn people humiliate you with stupid words and charge an arm and a leg? I won't be going back.)

On a related note, I hate the word "nugget."

the process so far, cont'd

August 3, 2009: Call Sallie Mae, beg for express mailing. Can it be overnighted? Customer Service rep says yes, if you have a FedEx account. Ask if it can be mailed to a local FedEx office. Am told no. Tell rep this is ludicrous, as I'm a student and an independent entity and cannot be expected to have, or have access to a FedEx account like some sort of corporation. At this time, am told that Request has been processed but no letter has been written. Rep says she will send an e-mail to encourage speed on letter writing, but I should allow 3 business days for request to be processed. Point out that 3 days have come and gone. She corrects herself, says "I mean allow 3 to 6 days, then 7-10 days for processing."
-Call temp agent, ask if temp agency has FedEx account. As temp agency's primary product is, in fact, people, who don't particularly like being FedExed, her answer is a sad no. Also tells me not to ask if I can use my primary worksite's account, as the agency considers that tacky.

August 5, 2009: Call Sallie Mae, ask if letter has been written. Am told by different rep that yes, not only has it been written, but it has been processed and shipped and should be in your hands by tomorrow (Thursday), Friday at the latest. Moreover, it was written on the 29th of July. Have doubts, but thank rep.

August 6, 2009: Nothing in mailbox. Friend arrives from China and I decide to have a good time and try not to freak out.

August 7, 2009: Nothing in mailbox.

August 8-9: Weekend. Aug 10: visit DC, get nice and sunburnt.

August 11, 2009, 9:00am: Call Sallie Mae in morning, demand letter. Rep says letter was written August 6, was shipped August 10, and should have been in my hands yesterday. Inform rep that I was told letter was written before August 4, and was to be delivered by the 6th. Ask just why the hell company policy is to lie to me to get me off the phone. Ask where letter is being mailed, as I clearly don't have it. Rep lists off my mother's address in South Carolina. Begin shouting and swearing at rep, as at no point has my mother's address been listed as my correspondance address, do you idiots even read your applicants' information, you should know that. Demand another copy be overnighted to my home at Sallie Mae's expense. Rep corrects himself and says "oh, no, it was sent to your current address, should arrive in 7-10 days." Shout that this is unacceptable. Rep connects me to manager, who asks if I can receive it as an email or fax. Eyes turn purple and nearby phone book begins to smoulder. Tell rep I was specifically told two weeks ago that email and fax were not options. Rep apologises and says she'll email it today, and will call to tell me when it's done. Ask why it can't be sent now, she says she has to find the document first, but it will be in your hands before 5. Thank her, head to diner where friend from China eats first American-style pancakes.

August 11, 2009, 4:30pm: stop into internet cafe to find milkshake for friend, decide to check email while there. No letter. Call Sallie Mae, spend 15 minutes on hold before getting base-level rep. Demand previous supervisor; rep has never heard of said person. Demand another supervisor. Wait on hold for 20 minutes. Get another base-level rep, declare I require document in next 15 minutes, rep opts to connect to supervisor, wait 15 minutes, redundant hold music begins to make me twitch. Get supervisor, demand immediate emailing of letter, supervisor says the letters are written and sent by a separate company and they've all gone home for the day since it's after 5. Inform her that that is irrelevant, as the letter has already been written and must surely be connected to my account in some way. Supervisor says letter has not been written and must be individually constructed by a high-ranking member of separate company. Nearby computer explodes at a touch from my hand. Supervisor apologises profusely and has asked assistant of high-ranking letter writer to write e-mail requesting letter for tomorrow morning. Demand from supervisor recourse to compensation when Sallie Mae's incompetence prevents me from getting visa and starting school on time. Inquire as to what policy is in place to ensure that I'm not completely fucked by their flat mismanagement of this situation from the word go. Supervisor informs me that "this is the first time the British Consulate has required this sort of thing, so it's all new, and you're the first person to have had a problem with it, so we don't have a policy regarding that." Inform her that I believe that statement is flat horse-shit, and explain that after two months of fielding her company's lies I've had enough. If the letter isn't in my hands by 8:00 tomorrow morning I will be reneging on my loan agreements, and if you still want to charge me fees for your disservice you can discuss that with my lawyer. She apologetically reiterates the company's mantra that due to the high volume of letters that need to go out she will try to have it by tomorrow, but allow for Thursday at the latest. State that this is unacceptable, I am done with Thursday at the latest, it needs to be here now, it was late three weeks ago, Godammit what is wrong with you people, if it's not here tomorrow morning expect a call from my lawyer. Supervisor apologises, begs for patience, I hang up and burst into tears. Head to Coney Island to have mohitos with my sister and scream at the ocean.

August 12, 2009, 9:35 am: E-mail with password-protected .doc file arrives in inbox.

August 12, 2009, 10:30am: Print off document at Kinko's, take whole application and passport to post office. $13.50 later it is express mailed 10 blocks to the Consulate's office, here's your tracking number. Skin loses redness, find that fire-starting ability is suddenly absent. Have a beer, visit top of Empire State building.

August 13, 2009, 10:00am: Check mail tracking. Application was signed for at the consulate half an hour ago. Sleep soundly for 6 hours.

August 13, 2009, 4:00pm: continue worrying.