Corporate profits are at a 70 year high

As Robert Reich explains in testimony to the Senate’s budget committee the other day, corporations, enjoying the highest profits in seventy years, are raising prices and making windfall profits as the economy recovers from the pandemic. These giant legally created persons are using using those fortuitous profits to buy back shares and drive up their stock prices at the expense of consumers, who groan under inflation.

Of course, blaming Biden and the “tax-and-spend Democrats” for Biden Inflation (worldwide, what a dick he is!) increases their chances for a president Pompeo or Mnuchin or Kushner or Carlson, and even higher profits when all government regulation is finally abolished, along with all income tax (for the wealthiest). It all goes to prove, if proof is kept strictly independent from the facts, that fairly taxing the rich means the destruction of all of us.

Advice for Screwed NYS health care consumers

There is a new consumer complaint process for victims of unappealable health insurance company “mistakes” in NYS that is easy, fast and efficient.  It can reverse unappealable termination of your health insurance within two business days.   Here is a link to that on-line complaint form that virtually nobody in New York State knows about:  CONSUMER COMPLAINT.

The only readily available help for someone in NYS who buys insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act  (which can only be purchased at the ineptly run New York State of Health Marketplace) and looks on-line for help is the NYS Attorney General’s Consumer Health Bureau.   I reached out to them when I had my health insurance abruptly terminated without notice last week.  The woman I spoke to was very kind.   She sadly got back to me to a couple of days later to tell me that the company that had screwed me had responded to their query and had not changed its mind.

New York State’s Commissioner of Insurance position was abolished in 2011 along with the Department of Insurance.   The regulation of insurance companies in New York State was assumed by the newly reorganized Department of Financial Services which also oversees banking, finance and commerce.  Makes sense, no?  As of a few years ago this agency had no ability to help consumer victims of insurance company fraud or abuse.  It only took complaints against consumers who the insurance companies accused of fraud.  Makes sense.

When the Attorney General’s consumer health bureau gave me the sad news that there was nothing further I could do to get my insurance for 2020 back, until March 1, at the earliest, if I acted quickly, I continued my online research and round of phone calls.  I eventually found a new online consumer complaint form at the NYSDFS website.   That form is here:

Within two business days I had a call from the insurance company, Healthfirst, informing me that my insurance was in full force and effect.  They apologized for their “mistake” and acknowledged that the DFS complaint had caused them to “escalate” the appeal process they’d previously told me didn’t exist.  Cool, now I can reschedule the appointment for ongoing treatments with the cardiologist that I had to cancel for today.

I emailed to let the kind woman at the AG’s office know that, after only a week of indescribable stress and aggravation, my complaint had been quickly resolved by the DFS complaint process.   She wrote back to tell me she was happy for me and asked if I wouldn’t mind helping a consumer who’d been screwed as I had been, could she give the distraught woman my email address?  I opted to write to the screwed citizen instead.   Here is what I advised her (and anyone else in NYS sodomized by an unaccountable, constantly feeding artificial “person” of eternal life):

I was given your email address by the overwhelmed woman at the AG’s help desk, who asked if I’d be willing to help you.   I am a private citizen who was recently screwed by my health insurance company.   Not sure why the woman at the AG’s help desk couldn’t help you, and I’ll be writing to the assistant AG in charge of the sympathetic but unhelpful help desk (will not mention any names, the woman I spoke to was perfectly nice and really tried to help), but here is my advice.
I can’t go into the details of how you were screwed, believe me I know how many ways the virtually unregulated private insurance companies — and the accursed NY State of Health “Marketplace” — have to screw us.    I’m sure thousands are similarly abused.   Here are my recommendations:
1) contact the NYS Department of Financial Services today.  They are the agency that oversees health insurance in NY State.   Their NYC phone number is 212-331-6266 * (I don’t know what county you live in).  They are open til 8 pm today.   Wherever you live:  Go to their website and submit your complaint today.  You can do it on-line.  
If your complaint is complicated, write it out before you work on the on-line form, since you have only 30 minutes to complete the complaint once you start.  Cut and paste the complaint you’ve already written, if you think it will take a long time to put your concerns in order.
Keep it brief and to the point.  I was cut off health insurance for 2020 without notice when I called to pay my premium last week.  The AG’s Health Bureau Help Desk called Healthfirst and was told my termination was done properly and in compliance with the “guidelines” and that nothing more could be done.   Within 2 business days of filing my complaint at NYSDFS I had my insurance restored, Healthfirst told me it had been a “mistake” and they were sorry.   I’m sure they were very sorry… corporations always say they are, when they are caught and there is no consequence to them for apologizing.
2) If the NYSOH Marketplace screwed you (as they have screwed me twice in the last few years) file a formal appeal over the phone (this cumbersome process will take about 3-4 months for a determination that will likely be in your favor).  I’d recommend also writing directly to the unaccountable political appointee who runs it.  Include a copy of your NYSDFS complaint.    Here is her contact information (as best I can determine it, she keeps a very low profile):
Donna Frescatore
Executive Director, New York State of Health Marketplace
New York State Department of Health
Coming Tower
Empire State Plaza
Albany NY 12237
I subsequently learned that Ms. Frescatore, the incompetent political appointee who ran NYSOH so badly for years has since been promoted to a grander title and office, as of January 2019.  I’m told by people at the AG’s office that she is also still Executive Director of the NYSOH, a highly secretive post.  Here is her new title and address:  
Donna Frescatore 
Deputy Commissioner and Medicaid Director 
New York State Department of Health 
One Commerce Plaza 
Albany, NY 12110
and this (though you’ll likely find it completely useless)
We are victimized in a state with virtually no protections for health care “consumers” who are screwed.  Log on to the NYSDFS website and file an on-line complaint, that’s your best first stop, and hopefully your last.  
Best of luck to you, be direct, give ’em hell, and don’t take this abuse lying down!  Many of us are similarly screwed, take courage from the new help now available at the Department of Financial Services.
* This is actually the telephone number for the New York City Human Resources Administration, Public Engagement Unit.   I’m told the NYSDFS 800 number is as useless as it was the last time I entered their administrative cul du sac several years ago.

Avoiding Climate Disaster

Woke up to the wrenching news that city workers, arriving early outside Sekhnet’s home, were well into the process of cutting down a healthy 60 year-old tree that shades the house.   Sekhnet ran out, spoke to the guys busily taking the old tree apart, and saved the tree, or at least the trunk and half of its top.   Turns out, when the workers called in to confirm, that they were cutting down the wrong tree.   Sekhnet got emotional as she told the workers about the day, when she was a young child, she stood next to her father as he put a tire around the base of the seedling to protect it.  One of the guys gave her a hug.   

The planet is losing trees, the lungs of the earth, at an alarming rate.   Much of the Amazon rainforest is currently on fire as the would-be dictator of Brazil, a true fascist, talks about selling off the entire rainforest to the highest bidders.   What does he give a shit?   He’s as smart as Trump, as tough, as much of a winner.

An old friend of mine got so worked up about this mindless destruction of the earth that she went back to school and got a doctorate in how to do her part to save the planet.    She learned about a process of sequestering carbon in the soil that, if practiced globally, would do a significant amount of good.   It would prevent about 13% of the carbon that is currently being released into the atmosphere from leaving the ground.  It turns out that “modern” agricultural practices release massive amounts of CO2 into the air.    Carbon in the form of CO2 is one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for warming the planet.   The catastrophic effects of this warming can already been seen many times every year and the best case scenario gives earthlings twelve years to get CO2 emissions down to zero.   If not, we’re toast, leaving a dystopian horror story to the next generation.

Severe drought leads to massive suffering as crops fail and people become parched and hungry (see, for example, what started the Syrian civil war).   Floods and landslides displace poor people at an alarming rate.   Wildfires are raging in places where there were never fires.   We have earthquakes in areas that never had them (thank you, hydrofracking) and tornadoes in places that never saw them before.  Killer storms that dump oceans of water rage regularly.  Once enough polar ice melts (and it’s going fast) the sea level rise will create new disasters.   Populous regions will become uninhabitable.   Tens or hundreds of millions of climate refugees are no joke.  There will be widespread chaos, starvation and cannibalism.  The US military, armed with data amassed by government scientists, has long been warning about the destabilizing effect of millions of desperate, starving, homeless people on the verge of becoming cannibals, looking for a place to live. 

Armed with her doctorate, my friend is doing her part to prevent this approaching nightmare.   She’s working on a proposal to get food corporations (starting with one that’s already preaching sustainably sourced food) to incentivize farmers to follow a two step carbon sequestration process.   Two tweaks to our current agricultural methods would prevent many tons of C02 and other greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere.   This carbon remains in the soil if farmers plant without tilling the soil and plant cover crops in between cash crops.   Turning over the earth, it turns out, releases tons of carbon into the air.   Having a cover crop on the land actually captures carbon from the air.    The best science shows these practices would reduce atmospheric CO2 by 13%.    If humans stopped refining and burning fossil fuels today, that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 75%.   As one scientist pointed out, hair on fire “it’s all hands on deck!”

I tried to do my little part yesterday by helping her tweak the proposal she’s been improving for weeks now.   We spoke for a long time, and I thought of two main points that needed to be emphasized.   One was to put forward the scope of the problem at the top, to kindle a little wildfire of urgency under the proposal reader’s ass.   The other was to emphasize the bottom line — of all the ways to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, this is by far the cheapest, as well as the simplest.   Check it out.  

The increase of carbon in our atmosphere is warming the planet and already causing massive climate disruption: floods, droughts, wildfires, deadly storms, widespread extinctions.  Modifying our agricultural practices can remove a significant percentage of atmospheric carbon, help us mitigate these increasingly common disasters and avoid climate catastrophe.

The monetary cost of implementing no-till and cover crop agricultural practices to sequester carbon is minute compared to other methods.  The price to remove one ton of carbon from the atmosphere has fallen by 300%  since 2011, to an avg. $150/per ton (ballpark figures, she’ll calculate more precise numbers), the price for removing one ton of atmospheric carbon by this method of carbon sequestration is about $13, less than a tenth of that.    More importantly, it is sustainable, the carbon sequestration is ongoing once these changes are implemented.

I urged her to eliminate the “only 13%” language, because a 13% reduction is significant.  If you got a 13% return on any investment you’d be happy.  If you improved your test score by 13%, same thing.   If a .250 hitter improved his batting average by 13% he’d be hitting a very respectable .283.     All hands on deck.   All hands on deck!

one of a handful of questionable marketing decisions I made while CEO

Having no background in marketing, fundraising or, to be frank, business, I set up an idealistic nonprofit several years back.   To my amazement, the idea I was testing, that elementary school children, given the tools and maximum autonomy, could make their own animation while happily working as a functioning workshop, worked.  

That said, I did not always make the best marketing and branding decisions while I ran the mostly unfunded program.   While I like my drawing of the head with the pink hat (which I superimposed over a seven year-old’s drawing of a less interesting head), I don’t know…


photo 2.JPG

The Excitable Optimism of Sekhnet

From time to time Sekhnet, who meets countless people during the course of her work gathering news for a national network, reports a fascinating conversation she had that relates to my life and plans.  She brings me a business card, or contact info written on a scrap of paper and urges me to call them.   Often things come to grief, since I am not always quick to make these potential contacts.   That most have so far been in vain is no excuse for my glass-half-empty pessimism.    

She heard a bright and funny man give a fantastic talk on becoming pitch perfect at sales meetings, during interviews of any and all kinds.  He pointed out that people have one chance to make a good first impression and clinch the deal, and that there are a hundred ways to blow it.  Read his book, aptly titled “Pitch Perfect” and you can weed out many of these ways, have a crisp phrase ready, delivered in the same winning style you see before you today, saying exactly enough to make your point crisply, and not one phrase more.  

Being pitch perfect is the difference between getting a major donation, or any kind of big yes, and getting that gassy baby smile and limp handshake at the end of a meeting too long by crucial moments.  The man’s talk and style were both excellent, she enjoyed it and found it valuable.  She bought his book, which I read cover to cover.  It was excellent.  

I took the next step and contacted his office to make an appointment for the four hour personalized master class.   It was, not surprisingly, $4,000.  I explained that I represented a small, money-strapped non-profit and was cheerfully told the tiny non-profit rate was $3,600.   My silence was met by an offer to do the half course, more than 60% as good as the full one, for only $2,000, certainly our budget could manage that.  

Well, I thought, the $2,00o, a quarter of our operating fund, could go for that or for two new animation set-ups.  I thanked her, even as a bit of bile was coming up in the back of my throat.

Sometimes helpful people, hearing my idea for the child-run interactive animation workshop, have suggested I pitch the idea on Shark Tank to get funding.   Shark Tank is a show where business owners try to strike deals to get funding from a group of wealthy sharks who evaluate the ideas looking for monster profits.

Experience has taught me the difference between what I was trying to sell and something an angel investor in the Shark Tank would salivate over. In Shark Tank the family that invented the fantastically lucrative Squatty Potty was looking for millions to take their product, a short plastic foot stool that made passing stools as easy and pleasant as operating a soft serve machine, to the next level, international super sales.   The investors were looking for a credible sign that every million they put in would have a good chance of turning into ten million for them.  It is straightforward.    

If the idea is to transform a boring public school classroom into a fun ninety minute imagination-fueled, problem-solving, peer-teaching playground where kids have the final say on every aspect of the product they are producing, a short bit of stop-motion animation, a process that leaves them collaborative, energized and engaged in learning and teaching, no angel investor worth his dorsal fin will so much as stop circling to sniff that particular patch of water for blood.  

“Sounds like a great idea, you got funding?  What’s your marketing budget?”   These are the first two questions anyone bright and practical asks when I finish my brief answer to “so, what have you been up to since last year?”  

“You have to find fellow idealists,” Sekhnet has always told me.  

I was referred to a non-profit called, signed up.  Was invited to a mixer at a bar.   Went and met the people who worked for  They explained all the benefits of being a member.  I joined.  I haven’t had an email from them, or anyone else on the site, in years.  

I had an email from two guys who founded a nice outfit to introduce non-conformists with big society-improving ideas, a mutual help organization for idealistic types.  They would match people up according to their skills, interests and needs.  The first rule, when you met, was to listen to the other person’s idea and needs first and think about how you could help.  In the end, their emails stopped coming too.  It was a great idea, but I guess they didn’t have funding or an adequate marketing budget or business plan.

Having lunch with the sister of an old friend the subject of the nonprofit came up.  She thought it was a great project and then told me about a woman she’d recently met, a dynamic older woman, who was on the inside of Mayor Di Blasio’s Department of Education.  She was a great lady, and good friends with this woman’s good friend.  She shepherded many great new programs through the Education Department’s doors, knew how to get them funded and contracted as pilot programs, that was her speciality.  She was, literally the perfect person for me to meet.  In fact, we’d meet for Dim Sum, with the mutual friend, and I could run the idea by her at an informal meeting, that would be best.  

That offer turned into the old can-do idealist’s phone number being texted to me, followed by a series of supportive follow-up texts asking if I’d contacted her yet.  Presumably I was supposed to set up the informal Dim Sum meeting where the no pressure chat could unfold.  I called her a couple of times, introduced myself in short, hopefully well-pitched voice mails, I texted her this and then  this.   We never met for Dim Sum, nor did I ever hear back from her.  

It reminded me of the introduction I’d had a year earlier to the director of a large arts non-profit, with a twenty million dollar annual budget.  I was told this woman, a good friend of a close friend of mine, would love my idea and her well-funded organization could definitely help.  If our mutual friend had been present at the meeting, things might have gone better, the well-funded nonprofit could definitely have helped.  As it turned out, I was chided for my defeatist attitude before the meeting, felt dread on the way to the meeting, and the results afterwards were the opposite of helpful.    

Sekhnet remains undaunted.  Her mechanic’s daughter, it turns out, by pure whimsical chance, works at a nonprofit that features creative programs for public school children in Queens.  This friendly young woman was very excited about the student-run animation workshop, gave Sekhnet her card.  Sekhnet has learned about such things, knows that I’m currently concentrating on a book about the life and times of a man nobody’s ever heard of, and told the young idealist that it might be a while, but that I would get in touch with her.  

The same goes for the twenty-one year old idealist she spoke to in the computer department at Costco the other day.   He works at Costco and is completing a business degree at Baruch.  He and his brother love stop-motion, are idealists, think a student-run animation workshop for young kids sounds amazing and want to help.  Plus, he’s getting the business education to help with funding and marketing.  Win-win-win.  He was cautioned that it may take a while to hear from me.  

Thanksgiving I hear Sekhnet piping at me from across the room, calling me by my Christian name, if I was a Christian.  I never know what the deal is when I hear her urgently piping “Eliot!”   She’s talking with a smiling, friendly woman who it turns out works for Simon and Schuster.   She works in HR, hiring and firing like a demon, but she has found her home in publishing, after years in electronic media, and loves being around book people. She reads like a fiend since she’s been working there.  Sekhnet informs her I’ve written a book, I get a big smile.  

“It’s a manuscript, a first draft, around 700 pages.  It’s like wrestling with an anaconda at the moment, but I’m really enjoying it,” I say to the big smile.  

“I love book people,” she tells me, with that beautiful smile.  

I describe the idea that gets me out of bed every day, excited to write: a three-dimensional portrait of a great idealist who was also a monster, and how he rose from dire poverty to live the American Dream, a historian passionately involved in the historical events of his lifetime.  A dreamer and a destroyer of dreams.

I tell her that one day, as I was writing about his painful childhood, the skeleton of my father sat up in his grave to bitterly dispute something I’d just written.  I’d dismissed it at the time, went with it, had the chat, figured I could cut it later.  Then found him popping up again and again and now much of the ms. is an ongoing dialogue with the opinionated skeleton, a talk I look forward to every day.  

The smile continued as she told me it sounded cool, and that this kind of soul-searching memoir is currently a very hot genre and that if I find the right agent things could go well with this idea.  She then told us of a website where you can do a detailed search, by genre , of agents, and that no publisher will accept anything unless submitted by an agent.  Sekhnet jotted down the name of the website where I could find the highly specialized agent I will need to find.

I then told her everything I knew and felt about Jim Dale’s deightful audiobook performance of the marvelous Harry Potter books.  I promised her that she would love it, based on everything she’d told us about the books she liked best, then smiled, curtsied to Sekhnet, and went to have another muffin.  

Irv Chimes In

“OK, so at this point you’ve written, let’s see, at last count, 91,180 words for this planned Book of Irv.  You’ve started another website to begin sorting through that mountain of words, which interested readers, so to speak, can find here  (along with a handful of nice photos of me) and… what?  Do you really, and I say this in all seriousness, do you really expect anyone to give even the rumblings of a shit about the life of your brilliant, bitter, complicated, charming, malicious father, no matter how engagingly you set it out?”  The skeleton looked idly off to the side as he said this, having no eyes to make contact with in any case.  

“You know, it’s an act of almost hilarious hubris, for a man with your long proven track record of non-participation in society, to think that suddenly you’ll be able to sell your idea of an engaging and soul-troubling book to a reputable publisher, be paid a few thousand dollars to complete it, with the help of an insightful and generous editor, see it published, well-reviewed, tour the disappearing bookstores and elitist universities promoting it, talk to Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate, and, somehow, get to carry on my work, whatever the hell that was.  Your own well-chosen words, Elie, from the other site:    

It is my foolish intention to carry on my father’s work by writing a book to move the hearts and minds of its readers and help to launch the non-profit of my dreams, a collaborative student-run workshop for the children of the doomed.  

“Not exactly approved by the marketing department, and we’ll get back to the ‘children of the doomed’ line in a little while. Presumably, this book will also serve to fully explain why you devoted the last five years of your life to dreaming up, fine-tuning and conducting this now dormant student-run animation workshop for public school  kids in poor neighborhoods.  After describing, in maniacal detail, how your father instilled this difficult mission deep in your heart.”

Well, yes.  I’d make sure to inform Terry Gross’s people of that larger motivation.  I’d have to write an epilogue or something covering that, so she could ask me about it.  

“You do recognize how mad and unlikely of success this plan of yours is, don’t you?” he asked with skeletal stoicism, even as he flashed his now eternal grin.  

“You know, I recognize that you can write, you could always write.  It used to torture your sister, being compared to you, because you did whatever you wanted in school with seemingly no effort, while she had to work like a dog. In fact, in all my years teaching, I don’t think I ever had a student who put in as little effort as you consistently did, outside of the many kids I had to fail.  And that’s saying a lot.”

Back up a second, dad.  We talked about this the last night of your life, my sister feeling compared to me and how hard she had to work and all that.  In fact, you used the same cliche then: work like a dog.  Let’s clear up the record here:  you agree that my sister also writes very well.  

“Oh, absolutely, she’s extremely bright and articulates her thoughts crisply, no doubt about it.  I’m just saying.  It’s one thing to have that ability, quite another, as you’ve noticed with your few attempts to close sales on your talents and ideas here and there, that selling is a completely different exercise than clearly setting out a complicated truth, moving someone’s heart or letting your creative spirit soar freely.”  

Mmmm.  Maybe better to just talk about the fucking children of the doomed, at this point, than to linger over the daunting challenges I’ll be facing as soon as I start trying to flog this book in the marketplace of screaming, idiotic ideas vying for clicks.  

“We’ll get to the children of the damned in a moment, but I have a suggestion for you first.   Those two irrelevant (to my story) pieces you linked to in that long post yesterday about the talent for malice– the ones about your former friend Andy with the mental health issues — why not stitch them together with a little living connective tissue and send them off to some place like The Sun?  There’s a dramatic arc to that as a story, much of it already told, this mentally ill eternally needy little brother mooching off you for decades, manipulating you with much of the same psychological set up as your dear old dad– the relentlessly dark wit, the fierce self-hating intelligence– and how, in the end, the only way to resolve things with him was with brutality.”

“Interesting story, I think, and it’s almost ready to stand on its own, would take little work for you to shape it into a nice piece.  And maybe you could make a couple of grand selling it to a place like that, get your foot in the door, even at this late date.”

“Same with some of the chapters you’ve written for this book about me.  How many books have you read with that long catalog in the beginning crediting where the individual chapters were originally published?  That would be the way to get started, I would think, not that I’m any kind of expert on these matters.”

I vow to you now that I will order a copy of the Writers’ Market, like I’ve been planning to do for months.  Before this day is over.

“OK, that’s a start.  I won’t mention how many times you’ve inked that phrase into your little notebooks since February, with that optimistic little eternally unchecked check box next to it.  Look, I know your life is a bit of a challenge but look at it this way: you’re trying to do something important with your life, put your talents to their fullest social use, and most people must be content to work at jobs they hate if they pay enough– and those are the luckier ones.  The masses of people work in shit jobs they hate and don’t get paid nearly enough to do.  There’s something to be said for being the kind of idealistic idiot you stubbornly continue to be, plus, you have the funds, for the moment, anyway, to go for a life of integrity as hard as you can.”

You wear me out, old man, as you always did.  I’m going to open another window in this browser and order the Writers’ Market.  Then I’ll come back and we’ll say a few words about the children of the doomed, the children of the damned, and also, a few about the children of the goddamned.

Write the Book

So what is this book?  

It is more than one book, actually.

The subject of each has been dictated by the world, each book is needed to demonstrate my point.  These are entwined but distinct points that need to be separated out.  Let me try to disentangle and prioritize them, make them less abstract, seem less the ravings of a madman.

Book One —  to convince the reader of the obvious: how important careful listening, participating and empathetic feedback are in learning.   Make the case for why I care about these things so deeply, why others should too.

This is a fraught book, perhaps more than the others.  It is a do or die attempt to sell, more than my name or skills, a big idea I’ve already invented the machine to demonstrate and have put into  practice dozens of times in classrooms in New York City. 

The world has largely moved away from these quaint values of care and appreciation, at least on a mass level.  If I’d make a business out of helping kids learn these old-time, hand-made type skills, I have to tell the story in a way that will engage and excite.  I need to find the way to inspire a creative and caring sector of a world that values, far above everything else it also espouses, competition and the metrics of who is wining and who sucks.  

Until I find the way to tell this story compellingly enough to get it funded, or finally give it up as a bad job and find something else to do, I continue to lose the only competition everyone readily understands.   Quicksand, my friends, in which I swim in extreme slow motion.

Book one, the detailed and compelling case for, (or whatever you want to call it) an interactive workshop where public school kids’ imaginations run the show as they work together to master the interlocking skills needed to produce original stop-motion animation.  This is clearly the hardest of the three books to write.

There are two easier ones that come to mind– the easiest would lay out the devilish details, fleshed out by memory and imagination where the world has wiped away all trace, of the destruction of the roots and trunk of my family tree by centuries-deep hatred that finally had the technology to carry out its ultimate goal– killing every last one of the fuckers, everyone like me.  

This had happened before, has happened many times since, has tangled roots and a million implications.  It has haunted me since I learned of it as a boy, applies over and over as we read the news today.   Who gives a shit about this story? Probably a few middle class people here and there.  It is a story that will mostly have to wait, it would appear, or show up as a long article in some journal somewhere, along with my research into the unfathomably sad, sick history of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

The third book is the tip of the iceberg, really, the iceberg itself being the preceding book.  Or, picture, instead of the iceberg,  the fruit of the destroyed tree, if you prefer another cliché.  To understand how somebody of great intelligence, humor and charm can act like a cornered rat, lash out viciously at loved ones, you need to picture the exact circumstances that put the rat into his dreaded corner.   This would be the most interesting of the three, perhaps, and require the least by way of imagination.

But let me tell you a little story that might be the best way to set the stage for the first book, the story of my most tangible real-world quest.

In a region of Italy ravaged by World War Two, in a village called Reggio Emilia, the first thing the parents built, when peace finally returned, was a school.  This school was built in a charred landscape, for children who had known only war.  The parents wanted a better world for their children and their first priority was imbuing these poor devils with a love of life, a deep appreciation of the wonder of creativity and every hope for a beautiful future.

To that end they made the school beautiful, had the children plant and tend a garden to make the blackened earth blossom.  When the plants in the garden were cared for, green leaves magically sprouted and their fruits ripened in the sun. These delicious ingredients were harvested and lovingly cooked.  Kids and their teachers prepared and ate the things the earth produced, the things they had brought forth from the earth. 

Colors, flavors, scents, everything that could excite the senses of young kids was brought into play.  The childrens’ excitement  guided the things they studied.  Adults carefully listening to the children nurtured their creativity, childish intellectual curiosity and everything else that makes students into life long learners.

I was told of this program by a friend who’d encountered it in San Francisco.  It reminded her, she said, of my program, since it placed adults listening to children’s ideas and discoveries in the forefront of education.   She believed it was now a worldwide movement, that there was probably a Reggio Emilia school or two in New York City.  

I was delighted to find a couple in New York City. You will not be surprised to learn who the children in these Reggio Emilia schools are– they are children whose parents can afford the $35,000 a year tuition for their kindergartner.

Below is what Reggio Emilia says about itself (see ruptured appendix 1).   Here is what a writer for a major magazine has observed– a fairly obvious point about which children need this humanistic approach to education the most.

Which completely ignores the question of how these creatively engaged kids do on the life or death standardized tests designed by testing corporations to measure learning and guides us back into the crippling cul de sac that I must somehow leap out of if I am to proceed, if my long-stalled program is to go forward.  In a world of limited resources, whose children will get the rare, difficult, precious thing and whose children will get the predictable, easier, more crippling one?

If you will excuse me now, I have to go bash fucking City Hall in the face and get back to practicing so I can find my way to Carnegie Hall.

More tomorrow, when I must somehow avoid writing anything in this vein, or this vein.


ruptured appendix 1

At the heart of this system is the powerful image of the child. Reggio educators do not see children as empty vessels that require filling with facts. Rather they see children as full of potential, competent and capable of building their own theories.

Children have the right to be … active participants in the organization of their identities, abilities, and autonomy.. .  “better citizens of the world”… (this system) also credits children, and each individual child, with an extraordinary wealth of inborn abilities and potential, strength and creativity.  Irreversible suffering and impoverishment of the child is caused when this fact is not acknowledged [my emphasis– ed].

Each day and every moment, we, the teachers, follow the directions of the children and adapt ourselves, always observing, documenting, listening and interpreting their goals, theories and strategies so we can gain insight into their thinking, always ready to make changes and support the children in their discoveries.

“Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”  Chinese Proverb






Generativity vs. Stagnation, again

There is no shortage of irony here.  

I am striving to bring interactive creativity and fun into places where these things are spoken of highly but rarely practiced; myself, creative, yes, but not having much fun.  

The program I’ve already implemented is capable of injecting some encouraging news into the depressing discussion of American education, the non-discussion of real participatory democracy; I am a marginal participant not actively discussing the issue with anyone who cares.  

The program is therapeutic, I saw haggard women with chronic disease transformed into laughing girls at the end of our sessions; it gratified me, but, burdened with logistics, I was not laughing with them.  

I’ve solved dozens of logistical and psychological problems so far, though some very large, possibly insoluble, ones remain.  With the best of intentions, as I try to maintain my focus on promoting this inclusive, participatory program, I have somehow become a kind of hanging judge.  

Nuance has become harder for me to discern; holding multiple truths in mind, and choosing the one that casts the best light– not always possible.  I listen to the prosecutor making his relentless case, nod my unsmiling head.  Fine, I think, give the guy the chair, let the Court of Appeals worry about it, there are many worse tragedies happening everywhere.  Bang the gavel, next case.  

I’m not always able to refrain from doing what was so hateful to me watching my father do it:  reducing a person to the sum of his faults.  We are flawed, all of us, and gracefully accepting the flaws of others is an important part of being a decent person.  Whipping a fucking goat?   Really?  I take pride in not being the sort of person who inflicts harm, particularly on those with limitations.  Lately I couldn’t rest until I’d given a particular animal a hard kick in the ribs.  The thing was perhaps less than perfectly thoughtful, or even characteristically oblivious, but in either case, why the need to kick it? 

The seventh stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is called Generativity vs. Stagnation.  Being productive, successful and involved in the world during the middle and later stages of adulthood versus being isolated and removed from the world, dogged by feelings of failure and hopelessness.  The eighth and final stage, Integrity vs. Despair, takes place at the end of life, looking back, when one feels satisfied at a life well and authentically lived or is bitter and full of regrets.  

I embarked on a project of encouraging expression, using free play as an educational strategy.   I undertook this ambitious project knowing nothing about how to plan and build a business, how to run an HR department, how to secure funding to hire professionals needed for several live or die jobs.   I have no connections or friends who can fill these gaps.

The program is a success, as far as implementing it in five minutes anywhere, as far as how easily it does what it purports to do.   The student-run workshop vindicated my best hopes for how it would work.  The creativity and competencies of young kids, and ailing adult women, for that matter, exceeded my expectations.   Yet, not having a network of people in a position to participate productively… so far enforced stagnation.  

Those who don’t understand what I am striving for, or who take no interest in it, who now quite sensibly avoid the subject, I can’t help thinking of as partial jerks, even as I know I have only a passing interest in all the details of their working lives.   I was surprised and touched when a hard-working friend took a few moments to enquire about the progress of my program a couple of months ago.  I told him the program itself, curriculum and all, works smoothly and wonderfully wherever we’ve done it, and that now I am focused on packaging, promoting and selling it.  

I described my initial hope– that kids would work together to produce original animation in a workshop setup where adults would set things in motion and step back as children learn and teach each other.   This big taste of autonomy fosters students’ confidence, brings out peer-mentoring and leadership skills.  It has happened quickly every place we’ve done the workshop, about a hundred times so far.  

Now that the program itself works smoothly, I told my friend, I am wrestling with the crucial tasks of packaging and promoting it.  I told him I’m optimistic that someone in di Blasio’s administration would be quite interested in the presentation that I have recently put together, that is just about ready to roll.

He told me he now understands the important goals I set for the program, the workshop’s many great applications.  He said he was impressed by how well thought out it was, acknowledged the tremendous amount of work I’d done and the ingeniously simple design of the program.  He wished me success, strength to my arm and told me he agreed that di Blasio’s people would be very interested in a program capable of producing a cadre of peer-teachers entering Middle School.  

This reaction was as wonderful as it was rare.  We have but one measure of success in our society and until friends read about the program in a NY Times piece, or hear a well-crafted moment about it on NPR, it is a dream I am dreaming alone as I sleep my fitful sleep.

One more note in the polyphony of my imperfect sleep: my attempts to avoid bitterness in old age seem ironic to me much of the time these days.  These attempts are hampered by the difficulty of living by words I have written on pages many times with various calligraphy pens, words I must inscribe in my heart as I find ways to become more actively and productively involved in the world:  cultivate mindful empathy.  Everybody we encounter is fighting a hard battle against killer odds.  Just because somebody almost never keeps their word, for example, is no reason to write off the rest of their virtues.  

Now, if you will excuse me, there are some kittens in the garden I have to go be sarcastic to.