Genma Speaks

Entrepreneur/ Writer/ Radio-Host

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Sharecropper's Healthcare Plan

My grandfather never held political office but he was born for the political arena. He knew the issues before the issues became stories. The summer of ’75 was my introduction to political campaigns, thanks to my grandfather who I affectionately called “Daddy”.

My grandfather was asked that year to work on an ambitious gubernatorial campaign that would include Blacks and Whites working together. This campaign would focus on the “The working man’s friend”. The lack of job security was one issue that united Mississippians. “Everyone needs a job,” was impressed upon my grandfather. The promise of bringing manufacturing jobs to a state that had relied heavily on agriculture caught my grandfather’s attention. Daddy was a lover of politics, but reserved a fair amount of skepticism for anyone in political office. One of his favorite sayings was “They all lie and will eat their young to get elected.” But Daddy seemed enthusiastic about this particular campaign. I was nine years old working beside my grandfather, the master of political campaigns.

Daddy learned every candidate inside and out and taught his grandchildren everything about grass root campaigning. Pick a candidate and Daddy could tell you about his childhood, his personal life, his military service, his political view points and most importantly, the issues. Daddy was not entrenched in party affiliations but believed financial independence for families was more important than a letter by the politician’s name. Lack of job readiness and the skyrocketing unemployment could not be ignored. “Stick to the issues,” my grandfather told us over and over as we knocked on doors and shared with everyone their vote was important. “Don’t debate fear and hate,” he would add. Fear? Hate? Wait a minute. Why was he mentioning fear and hate when he wanted us to help register voters, give out campaign cards and hang posters on electric poles along Hwy 61? I dared not pose my questions out loud…no one questioned my grandfather.

We hit the counties that were heavily agricultural. Not cities or small towns but the countryside where soybeans and cotton fields grew as far as the eye can see and little shanty houses were dotted every few acres. That is where I encountered the fear of the unknown that was meshed with hatred of learning the truth. Knocking on doors was an education of a lifetime. One encounter will always remain with me.

I knocked on the door of a sharecropper’s home. I was prepared with my best repertoire with a smile. An elderly woman answered the door looking at me like I was an alien from another world as I extended my hand to shake hers. I stood straight and tall in my campaign t-shirt with ribbons tied on my ponytails. I had a lunch box which I used to keep my campaign fliers, voter lists and property information. I shared about jobs and employment as if I was saying my Easter speech at church.

Her response to my banter was unexpected. She spoke with hostility as she informed me her land would not be taken from her. ‘They’ were not going to remove her from her home. “This is my land,” she repeated sternly as she pointed to no place in particular and no one was going to take it. I glanced out at the acres of crops planted up to the steps and looked back at her, announcing innocently, “This is not your land you, you pick cotton for Mr. Jones. Daddy wants to help you get a job so you can buy your own house.” (Mr. Jones, the owner of the land, lived in the big yellow house at the end of the dirt road that we could see from the front porch.)

At that moment, the Mississippi River dried up that day. A nine year old was telling an elder that she didn’t know what she was talking about and shattering her belief that she owned the land that she toiled for decades. Watching her expression change, I knew I was in trouble with her and my granddaddy.

Our beliefs, accurate or inaccurate, can help us survive challenging circumstances.The woman's world view was consistent with what most sharecroppers believed. Although they lived and worked on land that many would never own, many believed that the landowner would one day give it to them because they were told this by the owner, who in turn, benefited from them believing the lie. I handed her a property list from my lunch box that listed the landowner; it also stated he was a registered voter. She was not listed as a registered voter. She asked, “Where did you get this from little girl?” I said proudly, “Daddy. He got it from the court house.” Beaming, I told her to go to the court house and ask for the records from the clerk. My mother, who taught me about records and deeds, worked in the tax assessor’s office assisting homeowner’s file their homestead exemptions.

The woman grew pale and seemed to age as she told me she was going to tell my folks that I had sassed her. She sat down abruptly on a bench and as she continued to mumble it was her land. I did not know if I had educated her or killed her. I decided if I am going to get a whipping, I better make sure I told everything. I proceeded to tell her how much land Mr. Jones owned throughout the county. My words were backed up by the property list. But she continued to say she owned the land as if she was trying to convince herself. I remember another saying of my grandfather’s “Never argue with a fool, they will either win the argument or kill you.” Sensing her despair and frustration, I backed off the porch and wished her a good day as I skipped off to catch up with my cousins who were waiting. Hearing the bench move, my skipping was replaced by running. Fear for my safety made me run faster. The more things change the more things remain the same.

How many understand the issues that have polarized communities around the nation with fear of what ifs and misinformation? The town hall meetings shown on cable news are as confusing as the language being used to describe the events. The media has focused on the drama rather than the real issues.

Have you read the bill, HR 3200? Not the talking points given to industry insiders, pundits or politicians’ stomp speeches, but the actual bill itself. I have been reading the bill for the last month. I have not made it to page 500 of 1,081 pages document. I called my insurance agent to get his input about a particular passage and he was taken aback. I am self employed. My deductible is $10K and all visits are paid out of pocket until that deductible is met. This summer, I paid thousands of dollars in medical payments for my child who had taken ill suddenly. My monthly premiums are $398.00. I have never filed a medical claim in fifteen years. The doctors’ invoices are paid by me and the insurance company premiums are paid whether I work or not. The more I write, the more I feel like the sharecropper. I am working to pay for nothing.

I contacted my primary care physician to discuss a few issues about my healthcare plans for the future. I was asked to set an appointment. The consultation was going to be considered an office visit. I would need to pay $125. (Note to self, find a new doctor this week.)

As life intersects with today’s political scene, the sharecropper’s despair and frustration desribes how many feel about healthcare. We are faced with “choices” that many do not understand, will not be able to buy and will never be able to vote on. We cannot be like the sharecroppers who never received the benefits from being landowners because they did not know the truth about the property they labored on and did not own, we cannot accept what we are told. We must ask questions and educate ourselves about the issues. Talking points and massive hysteria will never stand up to honest scrutiny. Fear only breeds contempt and contempt will leave us with empty promises, political rhetoric and DC’s business-as-usual-culture.

We, the people, will never have the health care provided to our politicians under the golden dome. We elected them to serve us, all of us, but often politicians serve themselves first. Remember what Daddy said. “They eat their young.” HR 3200 has become an off shoot to issues that politicians will not speak truth to power. They are more concerned about maintaining their office than giving us real answers.

I have shared my thoughts about the bill with every sitting U.S. Representatives from the state of Tennessee and the White House. Have you shared yours? I urge everyone to read the bill for themselves, ask questions of insurance agents and doctors as well as your elected officials. I would like to hear more discussion around insurance reform which drives the health care bus but that's me. Let’s not accept the sharecropper’s stake in the reform debate. Instead let's hold our politicians accountable for the premiums our tax dollars pay for their insurance plans.

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Did you say that?

“Ma they are talking about YOU because you talked about ME!” My oldest son called to tell me I had made the news. Not about my recent award for business but about my article I wrote about my favorite subject, my children. He was laughing but I could hear the concern in his voice. “Not everyone will like what I write,” I reassured him. I reminded him of some his poems that I am still trying to figure out.

We chatted about Twitter, my post that got a few folks up in arms, and we discussed what others say I said. We ended the conversation laughing about another incident from his childhood that he knows will make the paper one day. “Ma, you are crazy, got to run”. I held the phone for a second thanking God that I am at a place in life when hearing my son call me crazy was a not a sign of disrespect. It reminded me of my relationship with my mother. It took us much longer to find that peacefulness. My mother has written for years about her life as an educator raising her family in the middle of nowhere with a well known political father. I remember saying to her, “Mom, you said that?” Now, my children are expressing the same words to me.

I realized I had become my mother when she came for a visit several months ago. She was looking at copies of INspired Living and thumbing through the Tennessee Tribune. Throughout the issues were stories of friends, business encounters, and stories about life. My mother, author of several books, ran a newspaper for years and publishes a small community paper now. She brought her paper with her for me to read. “It gives me something to do,” she said. My blogging started years ago to help work through some challenging issues that knocked me off my feet. It was a joy to turn on the computer and write a few words. My book shelf was brimming over with self-help books that did not make sense or help.

My stories, at that time, were about what was driving me insane, work-life balance and trying to raise children that seemed hell bent on raising themselves. Trying to figure out how to be superwoman, supermom, and a business owner was mind numbing and unobtainable. I could not do it all and my failures were up front and center. Admitting I did not have it all together was the first step to moving forward. Sharing with others how not to fall for the myth that we can do it all lead to several writing assignments that were therapeutic.

Parental Wisdom’s publisher asked me to give advice for an online column with millions of readers and soon others followed. My volunteer work with the Oasis Center also became part of my storylines. Volunteering helped me to see I was not alone. My concern about my children and how to balance our life as I managed family values with the harshness of the real world was complicated. I realized young people were experiencing life that collided at the intersection of perception and reality. What I experienced as a child in rural Mississippi was not the experiences of teens from Brentwood to Hendersonville and every place in between. My children were bright and street smart but also naïve. Television gives us glimpses of the world but it can also distort our vision as well. I vowed to not look at life through rose color lens.

I am closer to me children because of our hiccups and mishaps over the last several years. But they are still young people who need guidance. As they are starting and finishing college, I am learning not to smother them but a momma bear will always be a bear. They have given me many sleepless nights but they have also given me many years of joy as well. My stories may not be your story and that is okay. My parents taught me part of enjoying life is to experience people. Especially, people not like you. Everyone has a story. It is what makes us unique and wonderfully made. I encourage everyone to take time to hear from others who are different. It will enrich our lives and help us see our community from diverse perspectives as we get to know our neighbors and learn from the knowledge of others.

My children are my sources of strength, inspiration and motivation for me. My family experiences makes me certified ‘crazy’. But that craziness has produced a determination to live life to the fullest and to help make our community a better place for everyone. As I mature and season with life, I have learned that if you are not being talked about you…then you are not doing anything.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Have I said Thank You?

After my fright with hurricane Alexis four years ago, my focus has been her. She can distracted me easily since that time, but I mean well. We are better, but my life changed a lot and for that I am grateful. That trying moment is a constant reminder that no one said parenting was going to be easy and never be embarrassed to ask for help. My parents had a coalition of aunts, uncles and grandparents to help raise me. I remind myself of that often.

In my day to day business world, I have recruited individuals with the heart to help. While raising my kids, my coalition of friends help me keep my business on the right track. One of those friends is Jennifer Milele. Jennifer is a servant leader with a heart of gold. She works over time to be the best she can be in her business, JLyn Dsignz. She is also responsible for graphics for the column I write for Mrs. Perry and The Tennessee Tribune.

Last week, she shared her day was going to be a hectic one. The kind of day we have all experienced being a mother, business owner, civic leader, and net-worker. Her to-do list was longer than her body and she was short on time. As she was sharing her endless list with me, I heard myself talking. How many times have I had more tasks than time? I did not ask if she needed help, I chimed in and took a few errands off her plate. She would have done the same thing for me.

Have I said thank you, Jennifer?

Jennifer, thank you for working long hours making me look my best. I forgot to say thank you when she made last minute changes at 2:00 in the morning for me to make an 8:00 a.m. presentation. I have forgotten to say thank you in my rush to get your work to press more times than I care to mention. You are the best and no one is as patience as you. Thank you for all you. No one can talk politics(smack), graphics, and motherhood like you.

For those of us that have gems like Jennifer in our lives, stop and say thank you. With our lives being as busy as we make them, I am sure there is someone we may have forgotten to say two enduring words that can brightens some one's day.

Jennifer, dinner for two is on me this week! Thank you.

photo: taken at Belk's for community awareness of Homebased businesses

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mr. Officer

Have you ever been stopped by a cop for a reason that made absolutely no sense? Everyone has a story. I have learned by trial and error that my attitude often determines the outcome of the situation. When my sons were becoming older teens who wanted to drive, my fear of an attitude with a police officer was overwhelming. National headlines have given credence to the pain of mothers who have lost sons as a result of routine traffic stops that lead to death, especially for young black men.

Whether we like it or not, an officer is in charge when one is stopped. The questions, the tone, and the information that is written in the police report are orchestrated by the officer. What I have tried to instill in my sons is to keep the conversation respectable but short. It is “yes sir” or “no sir” at all times, regardless of what others may think.
Keep your hands on the steering wheel and your body relaxed to help the officer remain unruffled, I would plead. No jerky movements, I have counseled. Your body language and tone of voice is being scrutinized by an officer with a badge and gun. By staying calm, you can keep the interaction limited. Paying attention to your mom’s instructions can add years to your life.
Ages ago in a small town in Mississippi, my grandparents imparted the same words to me.

My sons are part of the Millennial Generation. Their curiosity can be mistaken for defiance. A question like, “What did I do?” can land them handcuffed in the back of a squad car if they are dealing with an officer, who has no patience for young people questioning them. Questioning a cop can be perceived as disrespectful and unacceptable. The more questions peppered at an officer can extend your time with him/her. That extension of time can lead to; unfair treatment, embarrassment, humiliation or in many cases “accidental” death.

I warned my eldest, on many occasions, that driving around with friends could attract a cop’s attention who may assume he was participating in gang activities. Of course, my kids believed these tirades were illogical and I was being overprotective. For some folks, you have to show them the light.

To put my words into application, I once asked a recent graduate from the police academy to help my eldest son understand that my worries were valid. He assured me he would teach him an unforgettable lesson. Several evenings later, my unsuspecting man-child was stopped by the graduate and was asked a slew of unimportant questions.
Where are you going tonight? Is this your car? Why are you out so late? What do your parents do?
The list was endless. The barrage of inquiries was intended to irritate and distract. As my son started to lose his composure and show his annoyance, the officer became more “aggressive” my son said later.

Consequently, he ended up on the hood of his SUV faced down and was told to address the officer as “Mr. Officer, sir”. After being given a fictional ticket and the fright of his life, he came home shaking with rage. As he tried to explain his terrorizing encounter he experienced, I continued the interrogation by asking about his actions that provoked the officer. I could hear the disbelief in his voice as he tried to repeat the sequence of events. I was not interested in the cop’s behavior but his responses to the cop. I saw the white hot anger on his face. I remind him that his exasperation was what others experienced daily.
You are lucky to be alive and you should never forget tonight, I told him.
The next day, his dad shared the same sentiments,
Son, you may be right but anytime you have a run in with a cop, YOU have to remain in control. He has a gun and a badge. You have to live to tell what happened.

Some criticized me for the extreme measure I took to teach that lesson. But when I see the disproportionate number of traffic stops that turned deadly for young black men, I am glad he was stopped by a trusted friend. I advocate mandatory cop interaction classes for all drivers. Tasers have replaced guns as weapons of choice by officers who have used them on everyone from teens to 70 year old ladies. Recent news coverage show tasers can have deadly outcomes as well.

When asked to discuss "Gates Gates" on a national radio show last month, I declined. My frank thinking would not have fit into the national conversation about the Harvard Professor’s arrest. Was it racism at play? To me, the real story was the inconsistency in the 911 recording and the police report. Focusing on Gates’ education or his statue in life had nothing to do with the arrest. Common sense from driving down Hwy 61 in Mississippi and Andrew Jackson Blvd. in Hermitage, TN has trained me to keep the conversation with an officer to a minimum. If I am treated unfairly by an officer, then my influence and contacts would be used to seek justice in a court of law. It is better to walk away alive with a bruised ego, than to end up in jail or worse…in a morgue.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It Takes a Village

I am the perfect imperfect mom. My kids are everything I want to be in life and everything I want to change about me. I try to celebrate their uniqueness by keeping them engaged and involved in our community.

Raising my oldest, Franz, was as taxing as my youngest. I actually earned my stripes with him. He was too smart for his own good and no matter where we put him, his inquisitive nature got him trouble. He was not a bad kid and never did anything to hurt others; he just got into trouble…often.

When he attended school at MLK, Dr. Saffell-Smith was the principal. I introduced myself to her at the first parent-teacher conference and told her he was going to be a handful. Any advice she had to give, I was willing to listen. I am not a parent to complain about a teacher’s authority and I have always supported anyone who cultivates leadership and growth in my children. Dr. Saffell-Smith’s patience was put to test within the first month of school. A call about his rambunctious behavior was the beginning of my relationship with Dr. Saffell-Smith.

Dr. Saffell-Smith and I talked weekly. She never let him get away with anything. She was the first to bring up the word mentor with me. While I was frustrated and yelling, she remained calm and encouraging. She never gave up even when I wanted too. She introduced David Bullock to our family. At that time, David worked for FANUC Robotics. They had similar spirits and complimented each other well. Under David's watchful eye, my son started networking and working for himself. David gave him small projects to complete that would earn him income. Earning his own money at an early age was the key to helping him value being independent later.

My kid, who gave me migraines and sleepless nights, graduated with honors from MLK in 2004. He chose his college (TSU), he worked out his scholarship offers and took the lessons he learned from his schools, his principles, his mentor and family with him. The good, the bad and the ugly were all part of building his character. He navigated his college education by building a support network among his professors and peers. His sophomore year, he joined the track team and promised me he would not allow track to distract him from his studies.

The decision to run track while studying sports medicine was not my choice for him but he was “grown” and what could I say. The conversations about school and post graduate studies were peppered with track meets. I was afraid he was being diverted from his education. We came to an impasse his senior year when I was informed he was not going to march in May. He said he had a track meet. The words I uttered that day can never be taken back. He told me later, he had already hung up his cell and never heard me. Thank God.

He marched August 8, 2008. He was number one in his school and carried the flag. My tears flowed freely as I shouted his name. I acknowledge, his four years of college was around the time of his sibling’s crazy phase. Franz graduation’s helped me to realize that a mother never stops wanting the best for her children. He started grad school the following month. He was also hired as the assistant strength coach. Looking at his schedule, I mentioned school/ work balance. He hurriedly told me he can manage both. Not only was he independent but he was determined.

This summer, I turned my attention to my youngest son and his laid back attitude about life. He was feeling my wrath. While I was dealing with his younger brother, Franz went to Colorado with Coach for three weeks. He mentioned a training event but no other details were given.

When he returned home, he looked as if he found his calling in life. He was a trainer and guide for the Paralympics for Team USA. He worked with blind runners for two weeks at the U.S. Olympics facilities in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Did I ask about school and work? No. I have learned; he knows what he is doing. It truly takes a village…two more to go. Now don’t go anywhere, I need you.


Monday, August 3, 2009

The Real Spidey Movie

My customers come from all genres and are as eclectic as my jewelry box. Many have been with me through my career changes. One of my favorite groups of customers are those in the film industry. When I transformed from diva to pest control operator, I brought my clients from that business with me. I also market my pest control services to the production companies and theater groups.

Tennessee is a mecca for production companies. Generous tax incentives given to lure Hollywood to the Volunteer state and Tennessee’s right to work status causes companies to flock here in droves. Because of the state‘s climate, pest control issues can plague a set while filming a film, commercial, video or producing a play. Recently, I got a call from one of my favorite casting directors about a pest control issue that threaten the future of a film project. Never one to miss an opportunity to network and audition, I was out the door as soon as I hung up.

Following an hour drive to Smith County, I arrived to see a crew looking anxious and rattled. I was ushered to the production office as if I was Nicole Kidman and the star of my own show. There I was greeted with hugs by the executive producer, production manager, the director and a host of staff. Feeling the anxiety, I asked what could possibly have everyone so uptight. I was informed by the AD that the rented home, which was the backdrop of the storyline, was vacant except for the brown recluse spiders.

Geez. God must be angry with me, I thought. Why not fires ants, cave crickets, funky Mexican beetles, even a snake...but not that nightmare with legs- the brown recluse spider. My acting skills kicked in big time because I was cool as a cumber outwardly, but I could feel the pressure on my chest. Brown recluse spiders, with a production company, were a tall order. I did not want the film company’s budget on my shoulders. I asked Anna, the accountant and long time customer, to give me the production cost per day for filming and the schedule for scene sequences. She jotted a few figures on a note pad that made my jaw drop. With that in mind, I told them I would need to be paid in cash and needed to see the home before I committed to the job.

The AD and I walked up the long drive way to the rustic two-story home. I asked how they got into this situation without talking to HPC beforehand. Oftentimes, we would service a home or stage days prior to the shoot date. He said the location scout knew the home owners. I gave him a "fire the scout look" and he nodded silently. As we got closer, he reminded me of the number of referrals he had sent me over the years and stressed how much he needed me.

Entering the home, I realized why it was chosen for the scenes. The view was beautiful and the empty, spacious rooms were perfect for filming. We moved up the steps quietly. Reaching the top of the steps, I suddenly felt as if I had entered a house of horrors. Spiders were everywhere and suddenly I became conscious of my exposed arms. I returned to my truck to get a Tylek suit, which is a white head to toe coverall. I could sense the fear from the crew as they watched silently. As I was zipping up my suit, I felt the eyes of the camera operators looking as if they were third graders watching “Saw”. I jokingly told them that the suit was my secret weapon to dropping twenty pounds before hitting the red carpets. My joke was not acknowledged. No one laughed. The air was thick with tension. This group of people was knowledgeable about brown recluse spiders.

We returned to the house. Spiders and insects from every genus lurked in the rooms. In light fixtures, on the walls, in cracks, and along the baseboards--bugs had invaded the house along with a profusion of brown recluse spiders. I could not hide my dismay. The look on the AD’s face could not be produced by any bloodcurdling movie. And the sweat on his forehead had nothing to do with the heat. After being upstairs for only short while, a few spiders were on my suit.

We made our way outside and out of view of the crew. We carefully peeled off my suit and double checked for spiders on our clothing. Then we had a brutally frank conversation. The job was not my dilemma but adequate time to complete the work thoroughly would be the challenge. Several days would be needed to work and filming was scheduled to start the next day. I told him he had a huge problem on his hand. Working on a set with a brown recluse infestation, would produce unscripted screams and frightening consequences. If I committed to doing the job, I was not willing to make any guarantees. The staff would want to hear from ME about their safety and I was not going to withhold information from the crew, which were made up of long time customers and friends. Their confidence in me was too valuable to lose. He was in a serious jam and we both knew it. Once we exhausted the number of “what ifs” and risks involved, we took back all talking points to the waiting staff and the crew.

My message to everyone was worthy of an Oscar. I explained the possibilities and what was impossible under the circumstances. I needed to reschedule commercial clients to accommodate the Smith County job. HPC was not made up of miracle workers but we would do the job, without promises, if we were given more time. We agreed to start that day and I made a phone call to an elderly couple in Wilson County who owned a home with a similar majestic view. She contracted to allow them to film outdoor scenes while we worked to rid the house of the fear-provoking spiders.

We started working at 2:00 pm and did not stop until 8:00. The next two days, we worked from 6am to 9pm with an hour break. The home was unfit for filming or living. Spiders were in every imaginable corner of the house. The attic was the mother of all lairs. Vacuuming removed many spiders but the more we vacuumed the more the bugs kept coming. We cracked and creviced the entire home with environmental insecticide sprays, dusts, and aerosols. HPC is one of the few companies that will not laden a home or office with sticky boards and hand over an invoice. We use the old fashion method of seek and destroy. It is very time consuming and tedious work. Did I mention an outside wall was covered in ivy? And not to leave out the creep chimney that had a throbbing web in it that looked like a glob with hairy legs. This was not the largest brown recluse job we have ever undertaken by any means but the turnaround time made this job complex. We are known for our public awareness ads educating families about the dangers of brown recluse. The ads are placed in program guides of Little League sports teams. Knowledge is power and informed moms and dads give us customers who are concerned about the family’s welfare. Rarely do we deal with price shopping landlords or government entities.

Brown recluse spiders thrive in homes and offices. They breed inside walls, in boxes, basements, attics and other out of the way places. This vacant home was the perfect environment for spiders that have no natural enemies. Left untreated, a bite from this spider can cause serious damage to living tissue within hours. Necrosis, death of the flesh, is extremely painful. The venom from the spider is lethal to the muscle. The dead tissue must be surgically remove often leaving scars that are disfiguring and gruesome looking. I have seen bites that have left individuals in the ICU. A wound can take months to heal and sometimes reopen years after a bite.

When we finished the job, the crew returned to film but asked us to remain on the set. I was the pest control guru complete with a trailer and phone in movie land. Talk about the role of a lifetime. The crew was gracious and thankful. I got my ‘star’ in the production manager’s rolodex. I received a call from Tennessee’s film commission office asking me to submit my info to the state’s website. For you non-Hollywood folks (via Tennessee), that’s big. This horrific story ends with happy customers and my kid’s tuition getting paid.

To my former agent who told me I was a fool to start a pest control company, watch the credits baby-my name will be on the big screen after all!
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