CLICHE FRIDAY …

Cliches. They’re a dime a dozen (see what I did there?).

And there is no place steeped in cliches more than the Christian faith.

I’ve been around the Church all my life. And I’ve heard phrases that made no sense to me whatsoever, millions of times. In fact, faith itself often doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m just being honest.

I have no idea what it means to “let go and let God.” I’ve never felt Jesus “touch” me and I’ve never heard the voice of God …that I know of. I never feel any “invisible arms” around me. I am routinely given more than I can bear (even though the bible is adamant that this won’t happen). Putting my “trust” in Jesus has often felt like giving up and watching TV when I should be doing something.

And honestly (and this is going to get some people upset, I know) I always had a difficult time with the whole idea of a “personal relationship with God.” See, all the personal relationships I ever had required a two-way conversation. In my dealings with God, I would talk and talk and talk …and nobody ever talked back. I would listen. But it was pretty much just silence.

People told me that God spoke through the Bible, so I would get my answers by referencing a 66-book study guide. Basically, you take your question to a pastor or priest or youth leader or someone in power, and they would then give you riddles to research and coordinates triangulate. And THAT was how God spoke back to you. NO fun!

I mean, don’t get us wrong, God can do anything. He is bound by nothing. He is all powerful, all knowing, all present and all understanding. But he can’t seem to manifest himself in our dimension or talk to us in our own language. It’s a minor glitch. Help him out, would ya?

It wasn’t just the cliches. There were also some contradictions that bothered me about faith. Still do, in fact. We were always taught that material possessions and physical beauty meant nothing and were temporal, superficial pursuits. We were to find our reward in more spiritual things. But then, when you get to heaven, it’s NOTHING BUT material things! Streets of gold, walls of jasper, gates of pearl. Everybody gets a ridiculous mansion and a beautiful, new body that never ages. I gotta tell ya …heaven sounds a lot like Beverly Hills.

A lot of the hymns I was raised singing seemed to sound a lot like union grievances and tenant complains. “Some glad morning when then this life is over I’ll fly away. To a land on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.” In other words, “this place sucks. It sucks so bad I can’t wait till I die! I can’t believe I’m stuck here. I not only want to get out of here, I want to freaking FLY out of here!

I love I’ll Fly Away. But it sure didn’t bolster my love for the earth.

All of our cliches are based on what we choose to believe. Plain and simple. But what if we found out that something we believed deeply …was not true? Admitting you’re wrong about something as important as spiritual faith is almost impossible to do.

I used to listen to family members, in the 70s, debate the right or wrongness of hair length. I’m not even kidding. These were people who had studied scripture for decades, actually wasting precious time and breath contemplating the length and style of someone’s hair. Even at 7 or 8-years old I was dumbfounded by this and could not wrap my brain around why God would care about such things.

As it turns out …he doesn’t. And my 7 or 8-year-old way of looking at it was actually the correct way. Who knew you had to approach all of this as a little child? Anyway …

As I age, I think more and more that what we are going to find on the other side of our lives might end up being vastly different than what we think it’s going to be or what we were taught it was going to be. And I have a strange feeling it won’t be anything as boring and mundane as the cliches we’ve developed or the rules we’ve set up to strengthen those cliches. At least I hope not.

And what of the here and now? Well, for my part, I decided a long time ago to stop living by cliches. I don’t understand them anyway. How on earth could I build my life around them? I think we have to find the heart of it in our own way. For some it IS about those cliches. And I respect that, if that’s what moves you and helps you make sense of it all.

For me, the whole ball of wax comes down to Good Friday. A voluntary sacrifice; a revolution of unconditional love; a willingness to lay down one’s life for those who despise him, is the essence of the whole thing. It is argued that the resurrection is the most important part of the Easter story. I get it. Cinematically, we HAVE to have that ending. And if that part of the story doesn’t happen …well …all this is a lie, isn’t it?

And so this coming Sunday Christian preachers from coast to coast will load both barrels (see, I did it again) with cliches we’ve heard for centuries, and scatter them into the congregation. This will incite big, triumphant song singing, involuntary hand raising and inexplicable tears of joy. Our guy won! He did it! He’s not just a defeated loser. He is a winner! We are winners!

But as these celebrations take place, I often wonder if the cliche of being the ultimate winner is really what Easter is about. If Christianity is about winning, Tom Brady is a better Christian than Detrich Bonhoeffer.

Easter is a sacred day for so many. What it means to us is probably more what we need it to mean than anything else.

For me personally, it’s more about sacrifice than triumph. It’s more about the willingness to endure Good Friday than it is the foregone conclusion of Sunday. It’s about going against your basic survival instincts to show love to someone else.

Maybe that’s the voice I was waiting to hear all those years. Maybe that’s how God gets into our dimension and speaks our language. Maybe that’s how all of this transcends the cliches and becomes …well …divine.

Enjoy the cliches this weekend. There are sure to be plenty of them spoken from pulpits all over the nation.

If you find yourself bored, waiting on the sermon to be over, just remember …this too shall pass.

R

THE NAM AND THE NOW …

We were putting dog tags in a sack and betting money. Five of us. I didn’t recognize any of the faces but somehow I knew them all very well. What was the bet? See who would survive running over a certain bridge …the only way out. It was surrounded by enemy gun positions and we knew we wouldn’t all make it. But we’d become so crass in our disregard for human life that we’d resorted to betting on our own survival. At the end of the run, somehow, I ended up with the bag and the money. But now I was alone and in enemy territory. THAT revelation frightened me so much that it shook me out of my nightmare and back to a bus bunk in Mets, West Virginia. I was fifteen …

These Vietnam nightmares recurred with me all through my high school years. I don’t know why. But it sent me on this strange quest to learn about that era and that war. I read a bunch of books about the conflict and watched some pretty bad movies (not counting the Deer Hunter – THAT one was haunting.) Then, in 1986, Platoon came out. And it was the first time I’d seen, on the big screen, something close to what I’d been dreaming about for years. Then Full Metal Jacket came out. Then Hamburger Hill. Then an onslaught of depictions that allowed us as a nation to finally talk about that war and face some things we’d been avoiding for years.

I’m old enough to remember watching Vietnam on the evening news.

I remember hearing prayer requests at church for young men, who might be getting their “number called.” We prayed for my cousin’s number to never come up. And it didn’t. I suppose that’s an answer to prayer. My own father had flat feet, children and was a minister. I suppose those things kept him stateside. To this day he occasionally regrets not volunteering to go as a chaplain.

I work with veterans, now. I’m part of a program that does songwriting therapy with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) patients. One of the things I can tell you from my own experience is that the current generation of veterans is as fine a group of people as this country has ever produced. They’re not uneducated hayseeds who had no other options, as some would have us believe. The men and women I’ve worked with all knew exactly what they were signing up for and did it with pride and purpose. They all legitimately wanted to help. My own brother volunteered six months before he would’ve aged out. And he did it because he wanted to serve. We have a lot of good people in this country. And we’ve asked an awful lot of them.

PTSD is a serious issue that we’re just now getting a handle on as humans. In my opinion, it’s the next existential conversation to be had among the human race. If you’ve been through any trauma, you probably have it on some level. Many special needs parents have it. I’m pretty sure my wife and I have it. Car accident victims can have it. Police officers definitely deal with it. And of course, combat veterans are at the front lines of this perplexing disorder (no pun intended). Music (in particular, songwriting) seems to soothe the rough edges a little. It helps put certain things associated with the trauma in a “place.” I’m very honored to be a part of this.

But of all the vets I work with, the ones who seem to have the most unanswered questions and unresolved issues are the Vietnam vets. These men not only faced horrors on the battlefield but then came home to ridicule and protest and anger directed toward them. I’ve heard stories of them being spit on in airports, having entire restaurants get up and leave en masse, upon them being seated, and even violence directed at them.

These guys didn’t get parades or people clapping for them spontaneously in public. Many of them were drafted, but they showed up and did what their country asked of them. They put their lives on the line. And they were greeted by their nation with disgust and disregard. And of the ones I work with, THAT is as much a part of their PTSD as the bullets they dodged in God forsaken jungles.

We will be debating Vietnam for decades to come. Why were we there? What was accomplished? My own view is that all wars are reactions to previous wars. And Korea and Vietnam were attempts to head off having to fight another world war in one century. We are STILL on the 38th parallel in South Korea …and we SHOULD be. The South Koreans are glad we’re there and we’re probably the only thing keeping them from being overrun by that fat little piece of crap to their north. When we pulled out of Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered one million people. ONE. MILLION.

Had that war not become a political football I wonder how many people would be alive today.

And now we watch as children are being suffocated with chemical weapons, in Syria. No one seems to be asking where Syria got these weapons. I would like to know. But I’ll bet they came from Iraq. Just a hunch. In true American tradition, instead of protesting Saddam Hussain back then, we protested ourselves.

It was reported that Saddam Hussain watched the protests on CNN and thought the world was on his side. Shame on us for sending such a mixed signal on the world stage, simply because we didn’t like a presidential policy. The truth is the emboldening of that despot might’ve cost innocent lives.

Being an American requires that you work through and come to terms with certain things. If you were born in this country, you have to make peace with the fact that you were born into more privilege than 99% of the rest of the world (99% of all the people in the history of the planet, for that matter). That’s an awesome responsibility. You also have to make a daily decision: do you have the stomach for war or do you have the stomach for global atrocity. Because without American intervention, there are going to be a lot of babies being slaughtered at the hands of third world dictators. There always have been.

Some leaders are content to allow that. Some are not. I have a feeling our own current president is about to have to make a decision in regards to Syria and that region. We cannot simply re-locate the entire country of Syria to Montana or somewhere. It won’t work. If you lead in the world, you either become the world’s police or the world’s fire department …or the world’s paramedics. We’re about to have to decide which one we’re going to be …again.

What I know about American soldiers is that they have a moral compass. None of them sign up to kill women and children and blow things up indiscriminantly. All of the ones I’ve worked with wanted to do a job that preserved freedom and helped the world. It didn’t always work out that way. War is an inexact science and NO ONE gets out of one unscathed. But American soldiers don’t volunteer for service so they can rape and pillage and destroy for fun.

For my part, I believe in the American soldier more than I believe in the people who give them orders. And our Vietnam vets slogged through the worst of this country’s history. Because when they got home they had to slog through an America that was so holier-than-thou and certain of its properly placed indignation. But all it caused was more physiological trauma for men who didn’t deserve it.

If we’re headed for another military conflict I hope we take a minute before we protest and rage and spit and curse …just because we can’t stand a certain president.

Loving the troops but hating the mission isn’t quite that simple.

R

CRUTCHES …

I don’t have a rider. All I ever ask for is water and some fruit or nuts or whatever. The whole concept of demanding something in a green room still feels weird to me after all these years of performing. Whatever’s there is there. Whatever isn’t, isn’t. I take what I need …then I go do my freaking job. And I don’t complain about anything. Because even on my WORST night, my job is easy and cushy and almost not a job at all.

Even when I was a “rock star” I didn’t have a rider. And I never bothered people too much back stage. One runner, at the House Of Blues in Chicago, once told me (in tears) that I was the nicest artist she’d ever met. This was only because I said “thank you” to her when she handed me a water bottle. I was appalled at how she said most artists treated her.

I say none of this to tout myself as any sort of a nice person. I’m actually not all that nice. But I come from a family so full of deep, spiritual characters, that I always see them watching me in any situation I’m in. And acting like some kinda hifalutin so-and-so would make them all want to stand in line and slap some sense into me. I feel their eyes on me everywhere I go …from high rises in New York City to sound stages in Los Angeles, California, my family will not allow me to act like something I’m not.

One of the most sharply drawn characters of my life was my Aunt Jewel Kelly. My earliest memory of her is rock-strong hands gripping ivory crutch handles. Somewhere in my childhood vault is a wood burning stove and the smell of hickory smoke. It’s cold outside but warm in a small house filled with gravy and biscuits and chicken and dumplings and green beans and sweet iced tea. And I can hear those braces squeak. She’s sitting down in her chair and hoisting her legs around and bending the braces into sitting position. She lays the crutches to the side. And she’s finally able to rest.

I always watched closely while she did this painstaking ritual. Everyone else at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner was sitting down and raising up in one fluid motion, at will. But I would watch, from the kids’ table, my Aunt Jewel work and toil and struggle to achieve this simple, human thing. And in my 6 or 7 or 8-year-old mind I would try to extrapolate how many times a day she might have to perform this act …just to live normally.

My Aunt Jewel was a super hero to me. Those hands – gripping those crutch handles – were burned into my memory at such a young age.

The stories of how it all started were spoken of in hushed tones around dinner tables. Polio at 4. In an iron lung for a year. Unable to go to school because of stairs and restrooms and such. And yet she volunteered at the VA where she fell in love with a wounded vet and married him. Then she bore two sons. And then she raised them …and she raised them well. My cousins, Ricky and Mark, were both valedictorian of each of their high school classes. The breakfasts, lunches and dinners they ate and the clothes they wore and the schedules they kept were always prepared by a woman on crutches.

Whenever I stayed with her, she was up before me and had a big, country breakfast on the table before I could get my eyes adjusted.

I remember, as a child, watching her drag herself across a hardwood floor on a rug, while she polished it. Again, I was transfixed. And I couldn’t comprehend her strength. I still can’t.

My Aunt Jewel was from a generation of people who wouldn’t understand “safe spaces” or time off for dealing with an election result they didn’t agree with. They were from a time when consequences were a little more dire than getting your feelings hurt. Those people didn’t have time to wring their hands over who they thought might be the next Hitler …because they were dealing with the REAL one.

They didn’t recycle because they were trying to save the planet. They did it because they realized it’s just stupid to waste something that still has use. They didn’t worry about climate change …they worried about weather. Because they weren’t sitting around a granite bar, sipping Merlot, pontificating over the ill effects of carbon emissions. They were actually GROWING beans and carrots and potatoes and corn. And they needed rainfall and sunlight.

My Aunt Jewel was one of the best of that generation. Whenever I’ve wanted to give up or feel sorry for myself, I hear those braces squeaking and I see those hands gripping those crutches. And I pick myself up and say to myself, “what’s wrong with you? Stand up. YOU can stand up.” And of all the family members in my memory who simply will not allow me to huddle in a corner and suck my thumb, Aunt Jewel stands at the front of them all.

I played an abstract version of Amazing Grace for my Aunt Jewel, once. She wanted to hear me play something. It was full of all the new, cool chords I knew. I thought it was awesome and avante guard. When I finished, she just looked at me and said, “baby …that’s not Amazing Grace.” In that moment I realized just how childish it is to try to be cool. Being cool only matters to people who care about cool. And anyone who cares about cool …isn’t actually cool at all. REAL people want to hear Amazing Grace. Just play it and sing it. It’s pretty great EXACTLY the way it is. My aunt Jewel taught me that.

There’s an old schoolhouse/church house on the property where my Aunt Jewel lived. I never really knew it as anything functional. For me, it was always that old, crumbling white building. But it represents a time when people sat in one room and learned how to read and write, together. Everything about that time wasn’t good. But the spirit of refusing to be a victim of something lives in little buildings like that. And that’s what I always saw in my aunt.

She had a special affection for my daughter with Angelman Syndrome. And I think she recognized in her, a fellow traveller who would have to overcome enormous challenges to fit into a normal life on earth. They liked to stare at each other. I prefer to think of it as my daughter gaining strength from her. One super hero transferring her power to another one.

Aunt Jewel asked me to smuggle Taco Bell in to her once, while she was in the hospital, in Nashville. And I did it gladly. I remember her telling me, “this is delicious.”

She only said that …BECAUSE. IT. IS!!! And people from her generation don’t lie about something as true and right as the perfection of Taco Bell. It’s now one of my fondest memories of her.

My aunt Jewel left this mortal plane and sailed into the great mystery last night. In my version of things, she is walking with fresh legs and listening to Chopin play Amazing Grace the way it’s supposed to be played …and having a taco or two. And there is no nonsense allowed in her sphere. And there are no braces squeaking, anywhere. And her hands aren’t gripping crutches.

Because where she is …nobody needs them.

R

THE SHACK …

It is said that harmony was illegal. That’s the essence of the iconic, Gregorian chant.

Pope Gregory the first was compiling music in a time that had some presumptions about harmony and tri-tones and how all those sound waves related to God. Apparently, certain collisions of forced air produced either goodness …or evil. Who knew?

Some people in those days would’ve never approved of the harmony I was raised singing, in church. Finding the third and the fifth and singing along would be tantamount to sorcery or witchcraft in that world.

Centuries later, I sat in a Sunday School class and listened to someone tell me about the evils of rock-and-roll drums and guitars (two things I still love, by the way). Someone actually taught a class (I was forced to sit through, in high school) on something called “the masturbation beat.” If you’re rolling your eyes right now, so was I.

I hate to break it to everyone, but when you’re in high school …any beat is the masturbation beat. But I digress …

Every generation of the faithful has new pieces of artistic expression they consider to be “heresy.” And it makes me wonder why art and faith always seem to be so at odds.

Christian movie making is a relatively new phenomenon. And it’s trying to find its way. And like every other art form before it, it’s getting the once-over from the spiritual score keepers.

I’ve been reading posts about “why you should NOT go see The Shack” and I’ve been thinking to myself, “are we still doing this? Really???”

I honestly thought we were beyond all this nonsense. But apparently not.

I suppose there are some who feel the need to censor for everyone else, in the name of holiness. Only this time, instead of harmony or a backbeat, we’re censoring allegory and metaphor. Those things are a little trickier and nuanced than a four-on-the-floor kick pattern or a Marshal stack turned up to eleven. But they are in the current crosshairs.

A friend and I sat in Brad Cummings’ home about three years ago, while he was in the throes of making The Shack. He regaled us with stories about how hard it had been to get the film made, how many directors, producers and writers it had gone through and how many stars had signed on then backed out …then signed on again. He was pulling his hair out at the process. And he just wanted to tell the story as purely as he possibly could. But he knew, even then, he was going to ruffle feathers somewhere, no matter how it was done.

Film is such a collaborative thing. It’s amazing to me any film ever gets made in the first place. And films that are trying to represent faith on the screen usually end up being one dimensional, artless and predicable. Because, among people of faith, there is often so much fear in portraying wonder. Orthodoxy is always standing there like a beat cop, scolding, “you can’t say it or show it that way. Here are three scriptures that will tell you why.”

Well, orthodoxy told some people 1500 years ago they couldn’t sing harmony. It told ME I shouldn’t listen to the Rolling Stones or Prince. No thanks, orthodoxy. Jesus turned water into wine …not wine into purified, reverse osmosis water.

I’ve never read The Shack and I don’t intend on seeing it. But not because I’m trying to guard my precious, fragile faith. It’s just not on my list of things to read or see. But I do know this …

The Shack got made for the same reason 50 Shades of Gray got made. Because the book sold millions and millions of copies. And NOBODY in Hollywood is going to overlook that. Those are guaranteed eye balls. That’s money in the bank.

But what happens to films like The Shack without the popularity? Actually …I kinda know.

The film based on my book has been making the rounds for its 6th year, now. And I can tell you without hesitation that if my story included a scene where the Regie and Yolanda characters joined hands in prayer and rededicated themselves to Christ in a broken down little-old country church somewhere, THEN went on to become one of America’s foremost praise and worship leader couples, at one of America’s largest churches …there are 43 millionaires in Texas who would’ve funded it already. And it would be considered “a great testimony.”

If there were a prominent gay character in my film, who challenged the orthodoxy of American faith, there are 43 millionaires in Hollywood who would’ve funded it already. And it would be a 17 part mini-series on ABC …re-aired on Bravo in an unprecedented deal.

If it were some sort of conservative manifesto, there are 43 millionaires (who would remain anonymous) who would’ve funded it in secret.

If it were an indictment of the American healthcare system PRE Obamacare, and basically allowed HIM to be the hero of the film …thus torpedoing the current, pending legislation …Harvey Weinstein would’ve personally life-flighted my family to Mount Olympus to strike a deal.

The problem is none of that is true. It’s just a redemptive love story that is essentially a miracle. And it takes place in some epic places and through some epic events. And God is in it …if you’re looking for him. But there is no ulterior motive other than telling a great story. And these days …that’s not enough.

I say, if you want to go see The Shack …go see it. I know some of the people who made it and they’re just human beings. That’s all. And if you do see it, take from it what you want and leave the rest. Or take nothing from it at all.

But know that it is still okay for the film to exist.

As I age, I am less and less interested in the hard, cold facts about God. I am more and more interested in the wonder of life and love.

I say sing harmony. Play loud guitars. Listen to sick beats. Watch movies that challenge your beliefs.

I bet you’ll be okay.

R

HEALTHCARE IDEAS FROM A SONGWRITER …

I wrote a philosophical piece last week on health care. Here are some details:

To understand the repeal of the ACA, you have to remember what healthcare delivery was like BEFORE it. Americans have a difficult time remembering yesterday …much less five years ago.

The first thing you have to put in perspective is that INSURANCE isn’t the same thing as health CARE. Insurance is there for catastrophic things. But we have been using insurance as the payer of all things medical in this country. To me, that’s our first mistake. We NEED to pay something for care. Otherwise, it starts losing it’s value.

I like mini clinics. I think they are a great innovation in medicine. They’re generally inexpensive, quick and easy for things like a cold or the flu or a strep test or some weird bump or bruise that isn’t going away. These guys aren’t going to diagnose a brain tumor. And they’re not there for that. But they are a pretty darn good first line of defense for basic stuff. And you can usually walk out of there for less than a hundred bucks …about the price of nice dinner out. To me, that’s worth it. And it keeps big, monolithic 3rd payers out of the process.

I was on a flight with a dental supply salesman, once. He was already drunk at 10 in the morning and dropping all kinds of secrets (to anyone who would listen) about the world of medical and dental. He asserted that dentists have figured it out by getting OUT of the insurance game and accepting cash only. He said they’re making WAY more money than their general practitioner doctor counter parts. And if doctors were smart they would stop taking ALL insurance completely.

Pretty soon after that, MY doctor stopped taking insurance altogether. He is now VERY expensive and we don’t always spring for his services. But that leads me back to those clinics. If there’s something only he can deal with, we pay the money. Otherwise, we make good use of walk in clinics. And so far …it has worked.

Then, you get into insurance …

Monthly payments to ANYONE are revenue streams …nothing more. And they are bought and sold on the open market. Gym memberships, car loans, online subscriptions …they are all revenue streams that are bought and sold. This is what has happened with health insurance. And the only mechanism to keep them honest is to make them compete fiercely for those streams. They must get creative with their products and get their companies lean and skinny. Because once they become public utilities, propped up by the government, they will have NO incentive to innovate or evolve.

The basic gist of health insurance used to be this: you could buy an individual insurance plan on the open market (IN YOUR STATE ONLY). But it probably had lots of loopholes in it. The best healthcare plans (meaning INSURANCE plans) came through group insurance plans provided through employers. Those plans were better because insurance companies could dilute their costs with high numbers of people paying in.

THAT’S why one of the main keys to getting insurance rates to drop is to open their potential business to bigger pools of people i.e. erasing state lines in the sale of health insurance.

I would like to see a few simple things happen:

1. Purchase health INSURANCE anywhere in the country.

Opening the pools of insurance plans up to the pools of potential buyers cannot be understated. It would start a conversation inside states about being attractive to those product providers, probably lowering state taxes and regulations. This one move alone could market correct several other industries. Without THIS, all the other moves are almost a moot point.

2. If there’s going to be a mandate, let it be on anyone who wants to get in the health insurance business.

NOT on individuals or other types of business. The mandate should say that you have to keep a certain percentage of your actuaries as high risk patients (say 5 to 7%). And FOR that you will receive a dollar-for-dollar tax break for all payouts in those pools.

I told this to Bob Corker once. He loved it but said he would never be able to get it passed (this was 2009). Because it would look like a tax break on the rich. Sure enough …as I scroll through social media, any tax cut on anyone looks suspect to a certain group of people.

3. ALL health care costs should be COMPLETELY tax deductible.

Not a percentage …but dollar-for-dollar. If I had been able to offset my IRS bill with my medical bills early in my daughter’s life, things would’ve been dramatically better for my family. Offsetting taxes with medical bills might mean less revenue into the government. But it’s basically taking the place of a government subsidy. The biggest difference is YOU’RE in control and no bureaucracy is required to process the taking in of taxes and turning them into subsidy money. That saves money.

4. Tax breaks for doctors who do pro-bono work.

Make it worth someone’s time to volunteer their services. If doctors could offset THEIR tax bills with pro-bono work (again, DOLLAR-FOR-DOLLAR) it might be worth it to my doctor to do a month of free well-visits a year. And again, the only thing the government has to do is …NOT COLLECT MONEY.

5. Keep S-CHIP programs and Medicaid solid. But funded mostly through the states.

My children are both considered “at risk” and are on S-CHIP programs provided by our state. That wasn’t always the case and it’s one of the good by-products of the ACA.

Someone like my daughter is always going to be a wild card when it comes to writing an insurance policy. My daughter cannot speak, bathe herself, feed herself or take care of herself in any way. She is a danger to herself and others. I do believe the state has a responsibility to people like her. It has a responsibility to Veterans. And it has a responsibility to the aged.

It DOES NOT have a responsibility to people like me. I do. And if my daughter can be cared for (at least in part) by the collective, my wife, son and I can take care of ourselves. I think that’s how it should work.

But once you introduce a (seemingly) free solution to someone, you can never take it back.

My belief is that eventually we will have single-payer healthcare in the United States of America. Because it will seem easy and sensible to everyone. And the government will have complicated it to the point of just throwing up their hands and saying, “Screw it. Let’s just throw the money in a pot and give everybody a card.”

But always remember that single PAYER also means single BUYER. That means some calm, bureaucratic, disaffected board will eventually make a well-informed budget decision on how many mammograms a woman needs in a 5-year span. And even if a certain woman has circumstances that transcend those guidelines, she will have no other choices in where she can go get that much needed mammogram.

In a free market system, she might go broke but she’ll be alive. In a state-run bureaucratic system, she won’t go broke for the care she needs. Because the amount of care she gets will be pre-determined …even if it kills her. These are the trade-offs you make when you turn all of your health care over to some monolithic machine.

My fear of a single payer system is that choices will go away, innovation will wane, the best and brightest will go into other more lucrative fields, scientific research (something my daughter desperately needs to stay robust) will taper off and decisions will be made that benefit the monolith, rather than the individual. Those things all happen NOW with insurance companies. But insurance companies don’t have the final say …not like the government will. This is why we need more competition …so we can say, “screw you, insurance company A. Insurance company B will do what we need for less money.”

THAT is the only way we retain ANY control over the price of anything …including healthcare. By being able to walk away from it to a different option.

Whatever healthcare system we build must include the individual having a voice and a say in their own care …through the coercion and power of their dollar. Otherwise, we might as well go ahead give it all over to the government now. And let them start telling us how long we’re allowed to live.

R

Bandaids …

October 1st, 2014.

I know this day well because it was the first day of enrollment for the ACA (I don’t call it Obamacare because that’s not its name …anyway). The perky, young lady on the other end of the phone (yes, PHONE because no one could access the website) was sorry that the system was down (on the first day) and she couldn’t help me. But she told me to send a written inquiry as to what plan I was interested in, and I would be sent all the information I needed, in the mail …in 10-12 business days. GUARANTEED!

I literally stared at the phone. Then I said (direct quote), “you DO realize it’s not 1983. Right?”

She laughed nervously.

“So, let me get this straight,” I huffed, “I can hang up this call and book airline tickets to Brazil, have food delivered – hell, have a CAR delivered – to my house, map my way across any continent, transfer money, send music or books, take a picture, film a movie or start a company …ALL on my phone. But the government – that has just spent four years and six hundred million dollars to build a WEB SITE – can’t send me written information (simple text) in any other form but the US postal service?!”

There was silence on the other end. Finally, she said, “yessir …b …but I could kind of go over the three basic plans with you.”

I said, “I would LOVE to hear them. Please …go on.”

She introduced me to the Platinum, Gold and Bronze packages. When she got to the Bronze, she said, “I think this will be the most popular and probably perfect for your family. It’s not a big monthly payment. Now …you DO have to cover 40% of the medical costs out of pocket. But, it’s a great plan.”

I butted in, “Wait …you’re saying that if I go to the hospital, 40% of the bill is MY responsibility?”

“Yessir,” she answered, sheepishly. She could feel my snark rise up.

I waded in, “Young lady, do you realize I can make a 40% cash deal with any hospital in the country? I don’t need a ‘bronze’ healthcare plan to do that. I can literally go to their billing department and tell them I’ll pay cash if they’ll do the procedure for 40% of the original quote. And they’ll do it …almost every time. So what will I be getting for the other 60% I pay in to your plan?”

She, again, had no answer. But re-assured me that there was a perfect plan for me and if I could afford THIS, then THIS would drop off HERE and if I couldn’t afford THAT then THIS would kick in THERE, and so on and so forth. Then she reiterated that all my questions would be answered …in 10-12 business days.

And THAT was my introduction to the Affordable Care Act.

This is how the government manages things.

In fairness, however, my family was right in the crosshairs of the way healthcare had been delivered BEFORE the ACA was passed. And it was a big contributor in bankrupting us (second only to the IRS and the music business …don’t get me started). So I know first hand that there were cracks in the system that absolutely needed to be addressed. I lived it. And I was FOR reform. But I would’ve taken reform in the opposite direction.

Years earlier, when I knew absolutely nothing about healthcare and my daughter (with special needs) was losing her coverage due to a loophole in our policy, I asked the Tennessee insurance commissioner why I couldn’t buy coverage in a different state. He literally laughed at me. I didn’t understand. I said, “dude, I can buy car insurance all over the map. This all seems like state run monopolies to me.”

He got more serious and said, “you’re a very perceptive young man.” That didn’t make me feel better.

For the next seven years my daughter got dropped from and picked up again by seven different insurance companies …that were ALL named Blue Cross Blue Shield. I have literally filed paper work into the same insurance company on the day AFTER she was dropped by THAT company …only to have her re-instated …by THAT company …the next day. It was a stupid shell game.

But at least that didn’t happen with the ACA …if you count having it happen THREE times not happening.

You’d think maybe I’d be a drum beater for single payer, government run healthcare. Get rid of all this greed and corporatism messing with our health. Well …not so fast.

The only business in American history that has been completely managed and controlled by the federal government is mine …SONGWRITING. Songwriter royalty rates have been set BY the government since 1909 (pretty much the beginning of the profession). And while other aspects of the music business have started later and catapulted faster, songwriting has been a steady drip of trying to keep up with technology and constantly trying to get paid a decent rate for the work done.

You see, the government has basically established a MAXIMUM wage for us all these years. And now, the rates they’ve set for us don’t apply to anything. Because the market has left the governing bodies, taking care of us …in the dust. The government, while initially trying to protect us from being ripped off, has driven us into near extinction. It is always well intentioned. But it doesn’t realize it’s inadvertently standing on your throat until you’re turning blue and have lost most of your brain function. And that gets me back to healthcare …

We need to define some terms in this country. Is healthcare a RIGHT? Well, I suppose in an existential way it is. You have the right to life – and that includes the care of your health. But nutrition is a part of health care too and you’re not allowed to just take food from a business …even if you’re starving.

Proper sleep is part of health care. But you have to pay market value for mattresses.

And even if you’re bleeding, you can’t go into a Wal Greens and just take bandaids.

If healthcare is a right, then bandaids are a right. Aren’t they? But wait …you have to pay for them. And they are remarkably affordable and accessible. How can that be? Could it be that the market did that? All on its own? Without some politician deciding how much people SHOULD pay for a bandaid?

I wonder …

I haven’t read this new iteration of how healthcare will be delivered. But I hope it gets me closer to my doctor and further away from the government. Because the larger a bureaucracy, the more cumbersome and unwieldy it becomes. And while technology and the private sector are inventing the self-setting broken leg through the iPhone, government will still be filling out paper work in triplicate …on a typewriter.

I don’t know what our new healthcare delivery system will be. I just hope I don’t have to have it mailed to me …in 10-12 business days.

R

THE WRECKING BALL …

Would you have known if you were living through the American Revolution? A lot of people didn’t. There were plenty of colonial farmers who simply tended their crops for a few years and then woke up one morning to realize that the world had changed while they were growing corn.

They probably had opinions on people like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. I’ll bet there were those who thought those guys were all overrated and fool hearty. And if you told them that “those guys” would be revered and quoted for centuries to come, would’ve probably replied, “Seriously? Thomas Jefferson? That HACK?!?! I went to middle school with him.”

People often don’t recognize what’s happening around them …while it’s happening.

I was in a slick, pop band in the early 90’s. We were concentrated on precision and tightness …clever lyrics …soaring melodies. We were all cute and smiley. JUST what the world wanted …right? Let me answer that question with one word: NIRVANA.

While we were practicing and preening, the exact OPPOSITE of what we were was about to take the world by storm. Not one of us had greasy hair or wore flannel shirts. I think history speaks for itself.

For better or worse, we are currently in the middle of a new American revolution. And a lot of people don’t see it.

During the pressing days of the 2016 election, I had a heated exchange with someone very close to me, whom I respect and love very much. I was railing against Donald Trump (I NEVER supported his candidacy). This person listened to me and my well-crafted arguments, then smiled and said, “I don’t care. I will never vote for another politician for the rest of my life.”

That was the first moment I got a small glimpse into what was actually going on.

People are protesting and losing their grip on reality and gaining weight (this was an actual Barbara Streisand tweet) over the Donald Trump presidency, that is only a month and a half in. I have never in my life lived through this much sustained turmoil for this long. And I lived through the Nixon and Carter presidencies!

I keep reserving judgement and examining further before I jump to conclusions.

Why did PRESIDENT Trump tweet about being wire tapped? His position gives him access to ALL of that information. He could get to the bottom of it in about 20 minutes. And he would never have to leave his desk. Why is he putting it out for the world to read? What is going on here?

There are a couple of options. He might be legitimately, mentally challenged. Just so you know …I don’t rule that out. But then again, he has run an eight-figure global enterprise for three decades. You simply cannot ignore that. Success on his scale is a factor. It just is.

The other option is that he didn’t go to Washington for any other reason than to sledge hammer its very foundations.

When we see George W Bush and Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton hugging and yukking it up, I kinda think to myself, “why do they like each other? Didn’t they both call each other’s camps ‘threats’ to America or something? Was all that just for show?”

Who knows? I’m the first to acknowledge that the political class is human too. And they probably punch in like Sam and Ralph in the old Merry Melodies cartoons; friends on the elevator …fierce enemies on the clock.

But Trump is busting up that foundation. He’s literally calling EVERYONE out …including his own Attorney General. Jeff Sessions represents the weak, flimsy legacy of modern Republicans: admitting to something he didn’t do, in order to “appear” on the up-and-up. If I were Trump I would fire him.

The facts are this: the Russians successfully phished a DNC email. That’s it. Then they took the information they got, public. How that influenced an election is anybody’s guess.

Jeff Sessions was a US senator who talked to an Ambassador. That’s his freaking job. Why he is recusing himself from anything is beyond me. And I think Trump is asking the same thing.

But instead of dealing with all this internally and quietly, Trump is going to Twitter. Why not let the really good speech he gave last week just settle? Why not just let everyone catch their breath and rest easy for a minute? I mean, that’s what I would do.

But then again, I was in the wrong band at the wrong time.

Trump is throwing bombs at the whole thing …MAINLY the press. He’s a jackhammer on the foundations of where we’ve been standing for decades. If you still think this is about Republicans and Democrats, you have simply GOT to catch up. This is not Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin or Mao. This is something we’ve never seen. This is you or me …as a teenager …suddenly becoming the leader of the free world. And instead of accepting the job and becoming part of the “program,” we refuse the money and keep talking to our friends about how screwed up the whole thing is.

That’s what I think is happening with the Trump presidency. I think he’s blowing the whistle on the whole ball of wax.

How long can he keep this up? Well …I’m not sure how long we can live in a state of societal inflammation. He may not last his entire four years. People HAVE to find some terra firma at some point. I mean, can we count on you to at least pardon a turkey and let us enjoy Thanksgiving without controversy, Mr President? I’m not asking for much, here.

Ironically, the grievances I personally have with the government at the moment might be better served by someone like him. His lack of allegiance to any special interest groups give my community (the songwriting community) a rare opportunity for the profound change we’ve needed for years.

But the country needs some calm and quiet. Moms and dads need a complete soccer game without breaking news that affects the world. If you’re listening Mr Trump, give us a breather …just for a week or so.

On the other hand, this might have been a long time coming. Throw out what you know about presidents and how they’re supposed to act.

I’m not comparing Donald Trump to Thomas Jefferson. But there is a new game being played here. And if you’re waiting on a “statesman” to show up and make you feel better …you’re not in it.

 

R

PREACH …

As we continue to hurl insults and political mud at each other. And as we make snap judgements on what our opponents’ motivations are, my mind goes back to a Sunday morning …

We had small televisions and three channels when I was a kid. Sunday mornings were always filled with the worst programming of the week. Overly dramatic TV preachers and amateur church programs peppered the airwaves.

I don’t know why we always kept it on in the background, while getting ready for church …but we did.

I was eating cereal and zoning out on the couch (I was probably around fourteen or so). Jimmy Swaggart was wafting through the air, railing against whore mongers and sexual deviants. As a fourteen-year-old boy, I was silently checking all the boxes in my head (“me, me, me …and me. I am going to hell!)

Suddenly, my mother came walking through the room. And without missing a beat, she quipped, “THAT man has a problem.” This was serious scoop! I needed more info. So, I put down the cereal bowl and inquired further, “what do you mean, mom? What problem?”

She stopped, turned around and taught me a lesson (in one power-packed sentence) I have never forgotten. “When someone preaches about something too much, they’re preaching to THEMSELVES.”

Mom always had a way of bottom-lining it.

Years later, my mother’s intuition was proven correct. And Mr Swaggart was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that this was his main vice. And all those times I thought he was railing against my raging hormones, he was actually railing against his own “issues.” Moms know stuff.

Throughout my life, I have silently watched people. As a writer, it’s the biggest part of my job. For me to find any human truth I have to be an observer of humanity. And I have to make those observations without judgement.

But my mother’s keen sense of psychology has proven to be true over and over again. When I hear someone assign motivations to someone else, my curiosity always piques. Mainly because I’ve found that rule of thumb to be true for me as well.

I’ve written about mercy all of my adult life. And I’ve found that it’s probably because I have such a hard time showing it. And that I SO need it …all the time.

I’m obsessed with writing about unconditional love. I’m pretty sure that obsession is me working through the complication of having been a child performer …where love is almost always attached to performance.

And I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I have been placed in the special needs community because of my life-long elitism. I NOW preach about everyone being equal in their gifts …because there was a time when I didn’t really believe that.

For me, the list goes on and on. I have NO right to judge anyone. But they leave clues. We all do …

If you talk about race ALL THE TIME, you might find that you, yourself have a problem with it. If your soap box is social justice, you might just find that you’re masking some guilt in that regard. If you’re constantly calling people “idiots” and “stupid” it’s probably a defense mechanism for hiding your own feelings of intellectual inadequacy.

I’m fascinated by conspiracy theories because I’m not really interested in conspiring against anyone or anything. But I’ve been the subject of huge, elaborate conspiracy theories; theories that threatened huge, international companies. NONE of them were ever true. But whenever I read them I instantly wondered if the people coming up with them weren’t simply telling on themselves about how THEY might operate …given the chance. I guess you could say, conspiracy theories are most likely formed by people most prone to be a part of one.

The biggest and most damning “tell” of all is when people assign motivations of greed to rich people. “He’s doing it so he can make more money” is the standard line, when judging a rich person. Usually, that greed is something the person doing the judging is wrestling with, themselves. Some rich people are greedy. Some are not. Some poor people are greedy. Some are not.

Assigning the motivation …let’s us know YOURS.

Human nature is what it is. We all run from danger because we are programmed toward self-interest and survival. We buy sale items because we want to save money …hence surviving another day. We move to better neighborhoods so our children will be safe. Again …self-interest and survival. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all get that. But the assignment of dark motivation is often a window into someone’s own dark point of view.

My dad used to say, “when someone tells you who they are …believe them the first time.” And you can learn a lot about who someone is just by listening to what riles them up or what makes them raise their voice …or what makes them post IN ALL CAPS. Chances are that very thing is lurking deep down in their own soul.

Jimmy Swaggart taught me that in a sermon …he didn’t even know he was preaching.

R

GOVERNMENT CHEESE …

Most political arguments can actually be broken down into two categories: those who want government fixes for everything, and those who want organic, private fixes.

A lot of people believe that if the government isn’t doing something, it isn’t getting done.

The minute the government tries to shut down a program, there are those who wail and fret and think something is getting taken away from them. I always think something better might be on the verge of getting created in its place …by the private sector. And it’ll probably be something more affordable and efficient; cooler and more creative in design.

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

The government has never made a piano. And yet pianos get made. I play one every day. The government tries to fund art (which has always been weird to me). But it has never funded a Bruce Springsteen record. Yet Born To Run got made. Amazing.

The government didn’t design or build the smart phone. And yet it continues to change the world.

The government DID build the American interstate (and I love it). But it did NOT build the gas stations, hotels and restaurants along the routes from New York to LA. You can get in your car and drive the length of the country and never worry about not having enough places to sleep, eat or get gas. Why? Because humans, left unfettered, will find answers. The government should keep everyone safe and do what private companies can’t do for the greater good. But the free market has an ingenious way of taking care of a lot of things …if we let it.

Governments – even great ones (which I believe ours IS) – are passionless, bureaucratic machines. They have no inherent incentive to do the right thing or the wrong thing. There is no good or bad in government. There just IS. For this reason, I get nervous when I hear people trying to make government aspirational. I prefer it pragmatic and slow …and the last resort. Why? Well …

I work in a trade (the songwriting trade) that is becoming extinct. Of the three ways songwriters get paid, two of them are completely and totally regulated and controlled by the government. And the regulations and rates have NOT gotten close to the general vicinity of keeping up with technology and how people currently consume music.

The one place the government DOES NOT oversee our rates is the one place we absolutely compete dollar-for-dollar with all other aspects of the business. In THIS area, the MARKET has deemed songwriters as equals. And it’s about the last place where we can still earn a decent living. That place is in licenses for film and TV.

That’s why you hear artists and records (you never thought you’d hear) selling soap and grills and cars and banks. Rock stars used to be precious about “not selling out.” But watch one full week of network television and you’ll hear actual master recordings from everyone from the Rolling Stones to James Brown pitching you a product. Give any hot, pop song a year …and it will be a major TV commercial. Why? Because from a copyright perspective, advertising is the Alamo for getting paid for a song.

Trust me …if and when I can do it …I will, too. One day you’ll hear Time Of My Life selling lovely, beach vacations or spiffy, assisted-living centers. It will be sappy and pathetic …and I won’t be sorry! I’ve got kids to feed!

As a songwriter, I live and breathe with the government in my business every second of every hour of every day. I can multiply anything by 9.1 cents. Why? That’s how much the “mechanical” royalty rate is for a song. Every time someone buys a record, each song on that record earns 9.1 cents. Same with digital singles. But these rates apply to a price-per-unit sold.

The mechanical rate was started as a protection for songwriters, back in 1909. You see, player pianos were all the rage. People were buying rolls of sheet music to play on those fancy, new contraptions. And someone needed to step in and create a uniform pay structure for those sweet, lovable songwriters. Thanks, government. Women couldn’t vote then, either …just an FYI. And antibiotics were only a few decades away. But I digress …

That rate – for player piano rolls – was then arbitrarily used for the sale of vinyl recordings …then 8-tracks …then cassettes …then CDs …then mp3s. And it would only go up when some songwriter would show up before congress and yell and scream until congress, in their austere magnanimity, agreed to to raise the rate (thank you, Hoyt Axton).

Now …nobody buys one unit of music anymore. They buy it in bulk. It’s called streaming. But the government, according to its own laws, is stuck in the last decade …which means I, (as a songwriter) have to be stuck there as well. But my family isn’t. My mortgage isn’t. My car payments aren’t. Hey, don’t sweat it, congress. You only control my entire existence.

At no point has anyone in government ever said, “Hey …maybe we’re valuing the wrong things when it comes to the sale of music and the use of music technology? Maybe the people who write songs should be the billionaires and the people who invent Google should have THEIR rates strictly governed AND CAPPED by US.”

Which one leaves you humming a tune? Again, I digress …

When I was a teenager my dad brought home some government surplus cheese. They were giving it away someplace he happened to be. It was actually pretty good cheese. And we made all kinds of sandwiches with it.

I still don’t know why the government had cheese or why it was giving it away. But it was a thing for a while. A lot of people would go get free cheese as long as they were handing it out. And why wouldn’t they? Free cheese.

But the truth is we didn’t really need the government involved in the getting and giving of cheese. That’s just not what the government is supposed to be doing.

As I write this, I have five different kinds of cheese in my home (six, if you count my songs).

I’m a smoked gouda man. My wife likes sharp cheddar and my daughter is a mozzarella stick girl. My son likes some fancy, high-brow coastal something or other. And we keep a shredded blend on hand for omelets and chili and such.

I’m sure there are governing bodies that monitor and regulate the creation, packaging and transport of cheese. But there is no governing body PROVIDING it or telling one sector of the cheese industry what it can charge for this or that. The market decides all those things. And it does a pretty damn good job. Instead of one standard, block cheese, all kinds of delicious, creative cheeses get made and consumed. And we’re all happy about it. Because everybody loves cheese! And they should …because cheese is awesome!

Cheese seems to be better when cheese MAKERS are free …than it is when CHEESE is free.

The government doesn’t need to be in the music business anymore than it needs to be in the cheese business. The biggest favor congress could do songwriters, at this moment in history, is to pass a two-line law that simply says, “you guys go figure it out …we’ll enforce the contracts.”

We might not do a better job of managing our rates and careers than the government has done. But I’ll guarantee you we won’t do a worse job.

We make pretty damn good cheese. And if we’re going to keep making it, the government either needs to keep up …or get out of the way.

 

R