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A Fairy Tale About Umberto

Here is a fairy tale about a man, let’s say an Italian man from Tuscany because Italians are known for cooking. Let’s say this man, we’ll call him Umberto because that’s a good, meaty Italian name, had learned to cook at his mama’s side (or at least eaten the savory tidbits) and had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He had once been a busboy. Busboys are little better than slaves; they get paid but no one really respects them and so, like the grime of morsels left on the plates, Umberto held a piece of shame and anger in his heart. 

Umberto worked hard in his native country, moving on to better jobs and bigger cities. He may even have learned how to cook professionally. Eventually, because he was a young man and therefore had the good looks of youth, and an Italian man and therefore his accent was attractive in foreign countries, he managed to woo a woman. It’s possible that he did love her in the first heat of romance. But that woman had more than looks to tie that nuptial knot. She had money and she believed in Umberto and his dream.

She married him and so he embarked on a new path, a culmination of years of work and being in the restaurant business. He became a restaurateur, not just a cook or a chef and opened his first restaurant. Umberto was now king, reigning over the ingredients of Italian cooking, making an atmosphere fit for kings and queens. Well, if not kings and queens, at least celebrities and many were known to come to the West Coast where the clime suits their complexion and temperament better.

Umberto’s success was great and he opened several more restaurants, all Italian but each with a slightly different flavor. But Umberto forgot his roots and his mother would have rolled in her grave had she heard what he became. It wasn’t that being a bigwig restaurant owner was a bad thing but it was the way he treated people. In public Umberto wined and dined and smiled charmingly at his guests. He helped buy his popularity. In private his darker side came out.

Umberto thought himself very attractive and expected women to swoon and all lowly workers to bow low and be cowed by his mighty business savvy (fueled by his wife’s purse strings). But Umberto forgot that lowly workers observed his overly friendly and touchy way with the restaurant hostess. It wasn’t long before everyone knew that he was having an affair with the woman. But lowly workers who want to keep their jobs keep their noses out of their bosses’ affairs.

Umberto set unrealistic demands on his staff. First was the unwritten rule that all be awed in his aura. In one restaurant there was a small lounge where food was also served, as well as drinks. The two young ladies that worked there were expected to take the orders for the full lounge, make and serve all the drinks, as well as take the food orders and make the salads and serve those. If someone from the restaurant wanted a special drink, then the two waitresses were expected to make those too. Needless to say they were very busy.

Umberto also had a plan. It required exact proportions and measurements for meals. The waitresses were told to put two slices of tomato on each salad. No more. No less. One waitress, as young as the other, felt that a person needed to achieve respect, not pay for it nor have it because of more money. She worked hard and diligently but did not feel cowed by the mighty Umberto. Well one day, she was called by the maitre d and told she was let go because she put too many (or too few) slices of tomato on a salad and some rich thing complained. Umberto set his minion to do the dirty work.

The waitress felt this was very unfair as she was only following instructions and had been polite to the customers, so she went down to talk to the mighty Umberto. All the while that she was in his office talking to him, he would barely look at her or answer her concerns. Finally she blurted in frustration, I think you don’t like me and you can just f**k off.

She left and many waiters who also worked at the restaurant were thrilled that she told him off because they felt the same way but didn’t want to lose their jobs. She also worked at another Umberto restaurant where she was hostess and which claimed to have self-autonomy from Umberto’s rules. However the next day she received a call telling her not to come in. So she went to the restaurant and recorded all the hours she had worked, including all the overtime that they had not paid her. They asked why she was doing this and she replied, Because of Umberto. She took them to labor relations and was paid a year in backpay for overtime.

Another worker, also fired unfairly, had a friend who was a lawyer and took Umberto to small claims court. The young waitress went as a witness but the other worker won because Umberto sent his minion. She felt great joy at this and though for many years entertained thoughts of keying Umberto’s red sports car (you know the type that says you’re over the hill but trying to be sexy to the babes) decided he was too much a bug to warrant her attention.

Well years passed and the young waitress, like many previous Umberto workers, went on to better jobs. Umberto got richer but his temper was like a pot left on to boil. It continued, his pomposity rose higher than a souffle and he divorced his first wife. He married his second, opened more restaurants and a cooking school. He also took some of his roots back to his home country and opened a hotel there.

But one thing never changed, his bad as fish left out for two weeks temper, nor his attitude to staff who he saw as servants in his various castles. Much went unnoticed by the rich or adoring public but once in a while Umberto would blow his top, as he did in his new ski resort restaurant. And once in a while a worker would sue and win to the tune of nearly $100,000 but what’s that to a king? The moral of this fairy tale. The good often go unheard or noticed if they’re menial laborers and the bad are often rich. However, the rich would get way more if they were nice. Oh and watch out for characters with cool Italian names like Umberto.

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Healthcare and Privatization

Obama, like his Democratic predecessor Clinton, is trying to bring in healthcare reform in the US. There have been ferocious campaigns against it with people attacking the nationalized healthcare systems in Canada and Great Britain. Although our (Canada’s) system is not ideal, let’s compare a few things.

I have many many friends in the US. Some of them work for companies or must work for companies with good health plans. They may, even with these health plans, pay for various services and medications on top of the allotted amount. One friend had to drive two hours to a neighboring city to see a doctor who worked for that particular health insurance company. I have another friend, a doctor, who actually couldn’t find work because the insurance company she was with disappeared and the others needed no doctors. She didn’t want or couldn’t afford the overhead of starting her own practice so remained out of work. You never hear of a doctor in Canada who can’t find enough patients.

I have friends where both worked but their health plans only covered their two children. I know a woman who had ovarian cancer and after the surgeries and care owed $30,000 USD. I have a friend who is epileptic, who only by the grace of once being a coast guard, gets her seizure medication covered. I have a friend, a writer and reviewer, who is diabetic, with complications. He told me once, years ago, that he paid over $800 a month in health insurance. He is now in danger of losing his home because of his health issues. I have friends whose jobs don’t have health plans or very limited ones. They sometimes can’t get the simplest of tests done and what is a minor health issue can become life threatening.

The US health system is expensive and limits or ignores those who are of lower income. They get little help or often die because they cannot afford to treat their illnesses and injuries. And any time a person is injured, whether by their own fault or not, and even if they know it, they must sue everyone in sight to cover the costs of the health care. Suddenly no one is responsible for their own common sense and well-being. There are those who will take advantage of the system but many who are genuinely ill and injured must sue so that they can get better. And that drives up the costs of everything. It clogs up the court systems for years to come and we hear of ridiculous cases, such as the one about the guy who sued his yacht insurance because he had given his ex-girlfriend herpes. (I kid you not.)

Canada’s system isn’t perfect. We do have waiting lists for surgeries and MRIs. There are provincial governments like Alberta’s (under Ralph Klein) and BC (under Gordon Campbell) that have been whittling away at our health services, knocking out this and that and letting in privatization. Campbell took away chiropractic, massage and physiotherapy services (which were only covered for a specified number of visits) and decided that podiatrists and optometrists weren’t essential to one’s health. Of course, things like foot or eye problems affect people more as they age and affect seniors, so we know who suffers there.

But when I found out there was a class action suit against a pharmaceutical company for deadly affects of a drug (one I had once been on), I went to my doctor and requested a battery of tests to make sure I didn’t have any problems. My cost–0. Earlier this year I was exhausted. My doctor sent me for thorough blood tests. Again my cost is nothing. I can get X-rays or other tests or should I take ill I will still owe nothing. My friend who spent a year in the hospital, before dying, also owed nothing.

Surgery is free unless it’s cosmetic. What is not covered is dental. Why on earth it was seen to not be essential to health back when medicare was being form, I can only guess at. So people often want jobs that do have medical benefits for dental, eyes, physiotherapy and chiropractic, medicine (some is covered in BC if you have to spend over a certain amount). Not everything is free. And it can be hard to get a doctor because we don’t have enough. Some leave and go to the US to make more money. And yes you could wait a very long time for an elective surgery.

Some people in the US are fighting the medicare proposal. Do you really want to have to mortgage your home to have surgery, take out a loan to have a child, or suffer silently because you can’t afford it? Because the US already has private practices it is highly unlikely that these will go away. It’s unlikely that people will lose their health care benefits through their jobs. But what it does mean is that people will be able to get aid without having to suffer or bankrupt themselves. It does mean improving the overall health of the country.

Yes it could be expensive, and is costly in Canada. Our government needs to try harder at changing the system so that preventative health care is the first step, and that takes education. But it will burden the system less later as a person ages. People need to also take responsibility for their bodies and try to treat them better. Diet is a huge thing and with North America burgeoning with childhood obesity it would be the best way to head off higher costs and overtaxing any medical system.

One thing is for certain, a medicare plan wouldn’t hurt most people and would help them. It’s too bad people are so paranoid about it in the US. It could definitely alleviate a great deal of suffering if not all.

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Health Care: Canada & the US

One great difference between the US and Canada is the litigiousness of the US. Americans seem to sue over a pinprick, a spilled coffee, personal stupidity. I remember a friend who does some sailing sending me an article at one point from one of his sailing magazines.

It was about a man trying to sue his sailboat insurance company because his ex-girlfriend was suing him for giving her genital herpes. His case against his insurance company had been dismissed with the following (paraphrased) statement: Unless the boat veered suddenly and Mr. Jones fell with his open mouth upon his girlfriend’s naked vagina, it is impossible to list this as the insurance company’s fault.

It was hilariously ludicrous that the guy would even try but through the years of talking to my many friends over the border I’ve come to understand some of the litigious nature. It boils down to the difference between our universal medicare program and the “everyone for themselves” system of the US.

True, many companies (most?) offer healthcare benefits in the US because people can’t otherwise afford to have themselves covered, but there are horrendous gaps. I know a couple with two kids who can only insure their children under their work insurance but can’t afford to cover the whole family. I have a friend who is diabetic and, years ago, was paying $800/month for health care insurance. Another friend would have to drive over an hour to a practitioner covered by her insurance plan. And, unbelievable to anyone in Canada where we have a shortage of practitioners, I know a doctor who couldn’t get a job because of how the insurance companies worked. Not to mention all those people with low-paying jobs and no insurance. How do you get it? Join the navy, army or air force.

Still, in Canada, you might wait months to see a specialist, to even get a doctor, for an operation and die in the process. But if you have a baby, break a leg or need emergency surgery, the cost to you is covered. You don’t come out of the hospital and suffer a coronary because you’re in debt for life. It’s not a perfect system and it’s being mismanaged but it’s better than nothing.

How does this relate to the litigious nature of the US? Simple. Any time a person is injured or needs medical treatment they end up paying astronomical medical bills. Weighing the price of a lawyer against the rising medical costs leaves most people with one option: sue to cover the bills.

The US is a much more populated place than Canada. This works better for many businesses; costs for production are similar in both countries but if 10% of the population buys the item, well, that’s a big difference between the two. Could universal medicare work in the US? Since Canadian medicare comes from taxes, I bet it could. But I’m no expert or analyst. However, if one looks at the cost of suing people, of tying up the courts with medical lawsuits vs freeing them up to deal with crime, it might be that it’s cheaper all around to give some modicum of healthcare to everyone.

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