Laddie Boy, and bullying for no reason

There was a popular dog food, when I was a kid, called Laddie Boy.   For all I know it’s still around, I’m seldom in that aisle in the supermarket these days.  I think our brilliant dog Patches may have eaten Laddie Boy.  I recall the stink of it when the can was opened — in later years on an electric can opener that sounded like George Harrison’s electric guitar on Revolution (White Album version).  

I had a classmate, for a couple of years, named Fred Ladner.  I liked Fred, we stood at the back of the sized place line in fourth or fifth grade and he was always pleasant.   One day, for reasons– or more likely simple, brutish reflexes — I can’t recall, I menaced Fred in the school yard.   I remember how he recoiled, confused and hurt and I recall the vitriol with which I called him “Laddie Boy” as I glared at his sudden fear.  I may have grabbed his shirt, but I don’t think I even did that.  He didn’t make a move to get away, just stared at me wide-eyed, his sense of my senseless betrayal clear in his wet, scared eyes.   I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know what, if anything, may have precipitated it.   What I remember was his fear and confusion, and that I was the direct cause of it.  

I don’t remember any other incident of myself being a bully in childhood.   I sometimes expressed a bit of malevolence here and there, as any boy sometimes does, like after a friend’s mother drove him and his sister into a concrete stanchion and the guy wore a maroon wool hat, a la Mike Naismith of the Monkees (not sure what color Mike’s wool hat was) all day long in school.  One day somebody snatched the kid’s hat off and we saw that it covered a white circle shaved into the dark curly hair of his head, where he had been probed, or stitched or whatever.   He was very unhappy to be exposed this way and I was in the circle of boys, his friends and classmates, who sadistically kept the hat away from him in a game we used to call Saluji, for some reason.  He desperately tried to get the hat back, only to see it flicked away at the last second by the mercilessly grinning little boy he rushed.

It was a momentary thing, and this kid was probably my best friend at the time, something I quickly forgot about.   I had no recollection of it until, to my surprise, I learned that he was still very bitter about it more than fifty years later, when he brought it up one day with great feeling.  

It is easy enough for me to see these behaviors, and if there were two instances I can recall there were surely more, as me acting out what I experienced at home.  Where my sister was sly, passive aggressive, darkly, sadistically funny, I fought back directly whenever our parents took a verbal swing at me.  My father was, I can see now, often tormented by demons that caused him to act contrary to the way he taught my sister and me to behave, contrary to his ideals and highest beliefs.  He bullied my sister and me, often goaded by my mother’s demand, after a long day at work, as he was trying to rest up a bit before going to his second job,  that he do something about the two disobedient, disrespectful little pricks she had been dealing with all day.

We are aggressive and sometimes irrationally hostile, we smart apes, and, in crowds, we are capable of doing things that are the stuff of nightmares.   We have always been this way.   We don’t always know why we are screaming and pumping our fists into the air as someone we hate is being publicly tortured to death.   It’s a homo sapiens thing.   You don’t see cats and dogs doing this kind of thing.   Pigs raised for slaughter in Auschwitz-like conditions don’t act this way.   Only humans form lynch mobs, send armed men into villages to rape and burn, build vast state-of-the-art machines to kill as many as possible in the shortest amount of time.

As I state the obvious I’m also thinking about what makes a reliable narrator.  Is somebody trying to get to the bottom of his or her pain a reliable narrator?   For example, I wrote hundreds of pages, posted here, in a first draft trying to get to my father’s point of view as he was inflicting terrible damage on his children.  This process caused me to swing wildly at times, in an attempt to vividly describe the damage and also understand it from a bully’s point of view.  

Although he generally bullied us, is that really what my father was at his essence?   Surely there were many other things at work in his nature, more salient features that those who knew him would see him as before “bully”.   Describing my father’s angry glare as “psychotic,” for example, was a wild swing and a clear miss.   In the second draft, should I live long enough to produce it, these missteps will be corrected as I convince the reader, and, more importantly, the publisher, that I knew what I was doing all along when I stumbled through the first draft.   (Tip of the yarmulke to Neil Gaiman who hipped me to this in his Mahster-clahss youTube ad).

I don’t think it requires a Sigmund Freud to convince anyone that the indigestible traumas of our childhoods live on in us many years later.   The pain we can’t understand or process has nowhere to go except various, mostly unconscious, survival strategies: a rigorous daily exercise regime, sarcasm, constant busy-ness, “recreational” drug use, etc.   We make vows to do better, as I have with my attempt to apply an “if I can’t help, I don’t hurt” ahimsa-based approach to my own life.   Knowing that I am as capable as the next little Hitler of cruelty to my fellow creatures, I try to be aware of my hurtful actions as I keep my own interactions with violent or provocative assholes at a minimum.   A neutral straight face shown to a vicious person one encounters by chance, I’ve learned, is usually better than a sneer, a comment, a middle finger raised.  As is getting away from them as smartly as possible.

Still, most of us get to understand so little about what makes us act the way we do. Of course, we’re all masters of justifying it, to ourselves and anyone who might be offended by it.   I realized a few weeks ago, to my great surprise [1], that after writing everything I could think of about my father, in the course of a daily practice over two years, that I am now able to clearly see things from my father’s point of view.   I imagined his voice, informed by the regrets he had while dying and the lifetime of progress he made in the last few days of his life, expressing what he wished we could have talked about when he was alive.  

Talking to his skeleton regularly explained things to me I could never understand before.   I don’t pretend to understand exactly how this happened, but imaging the conversations I know he wished we’d had revealed things I never had a conscious clue about.   I finally understood this perplexing character, in a way I cannot presently understand the little boy who suddenly turned on his friend Laddie Boy and made his eyes grow wide in betrayal and fear.    Very much like my father’s eyes when, one day during a verbal beating he was dishing out, I stood, a skinny fifteen year old, with such violence that the old man in his chair was suddenly afraid.  

 

 

[1]   As I learned, to my great surprise, one day during law school while I was transcribing words of a legal decision into a paper I was writing, that I wasn’t looking at the keys as I typed.  I was amazed to realize that I’d taught myself to touch type, completely unconsciously, simply by typing countless pages during my dreamy creative writing days and as a rat-like law student. 

Lack of Parenting

When your parents are usually your bitter adversaries in a senseless, ongoing war, it is difficult to seek advice from them.  I had a sudden reminder of this when I read this line in an article about Elizabeth Warren, about a proponent of integration who excepted his own children from the school integration policy he fought for.

His story — as the idealistic father who moves his own children out of urban schools — was chronicled in J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “Common Ground.’’

I suddenly recalled my idealistic, liberal, pro-integration parents’ desperation when, during my two years in Junior High School, the local school zoning was changed (to increase racial diversity) and my local High School was no longer nearby highly rated Jamaica High but predominantly black Andrew Jackson High (talk about ironies, naming that school after rabid racist slaveholder and Trump favorite Old Hickory…) located squarely in a black area a few miles from where we lived.   Students could opt out of the rezoning plan by pursuing majors at Jamaica not offered at Jackson, I recall metallurgy was one such major, or by getting into one of the specialized schools that required passing an entrance exam.

I took the exam and passed.  It was my first inkling that I had a distinct talent for doing well on meaningless high-stakes tests [1].   My choice, as winner of this lottery, was between the nerd-filled Bronx High School of Science (where I’d travelled to take the entrance exam, as I recall) or much closer, much cooler, Stuyvesant High School, a school, as I learned much later, with a long reputation as a liberal arts high school.   My sister went there two years later and had the great Frank McCourt, later author of Angela’s Ashes, as her English teacher.  She loved Frank, as most of his students apparently did.

From Stuyvesant, then located in Manhattan’s hippyish East Village, students could walk to Chinatown to eat.   The trip to school was about 45 minutes by bus and subway from where we grew up in Queens.   A good friend of mine to this day went to Stuyvesant and had a fine time there.

Science, by contrast, was more than twice that distance from home.  It was located on a tundra, bitterly frozen in the winter where arctic winds off the reservoir would lacerate you on the long walk from the Grand Concourse.  It was not located near any place anyone would want to go.  Most of my classmates, outside of a few smart misfit friends of mine who happened to live in the Bronx (including the only musical genius I have ever met), were future engineers, computer geeks, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, quants, Nobel prize winners and so forth.   

Because I never had a real discussion about any of this, and had no guidance from my parents, a friend and I basically flipped a coin and chose Science.   As I recall we never thought about the length of the commute, what we were interested in by way of curriculum or any other factor.   To make the deal even more meaningful, we had little contact in High School, after a semester of taking the bus and subway there together I don’t even recall seeing the guy there.

I wound up setting the Bronx High School of Science record for lateness by a student, a growing record of incorrigible tardiness bitterly pointed out to me by a series of red-faced deans of discipline.  I was late to class virtually every morning.   The alternative to lateness was being up by 6:30 or so and out the door not long past 7:15 a.m.    I had few classes there worth my time, little of any interest at all.  The English department handed out vocabulary sheets containing dozens of fancy, unfamiliar words we were required to learn every week.   I applaud this practice, which instilled a lifelong habit of learning the meaning of every unknown word I encounter.   Outside of that, I recall little else academically from my three years of strife there.

One day in High School I ran into a girl I knew from the neighborhood, a cute girl I’d always liked.   She was going to Andrew Jackson and told me it was great.  She wound up graduating at sixteen, because the classes were apparently so easy there that she aced everything and was able to do her three years of high school in a little over two.  I promptly cut school and took the bus with her to Jackson.   I recall spending a very nice day there, meeting her bright, politically active friends, hanging out.  I remember standing on the steps of the school smoking a joint with her and some of her friends as classes went on inside.  I recall not a single menacing black kid hassling any minority white kid, the ultimate fear of liberal parents.

At the highly competitive Bronx Science, my 83 average put me at the bottom of my class.   As I recall I was somewhere in the 800s out of a graduating class of almost 1,000.   The same amount of work (those diligent, angry last minute hours I spent every year cramming for the New York State Regents) would have put me at the top of the class at Jackson, probably put me in line for many a college scholarship.

I write these words with no bitterness, I really regret none of it.  I merely point out that had my parents been capable of real parenting, as opposed to what they actually did, I might have had a chance of thinking through the some of the things I realize now so clearly.  I would have learned to think through a choice and make the best decision for myself, instead of flipping a coin with a friend equally clueless about such things.  The travel time alone should have been a decisive factor in my decision of where to commute to high school.

I’ve had to become my own parents, a process that no doubt set me back quite a few years, and cost me a ton of hard work.   It was good work, and I certainly don’t regret it, in fact, I recommend it for everyone who feels the need for good parenting, but, seriously, man, what the fuck?

 

 

[1] Years later I’d score in the top percentile in the National Teaching Exam.   I also got a perfect score on the exam for Census Supervisor, a test score that was later unaccountably erased along with my application.  I also passed a variety of high school subjects I had not studied by bitterly cramming, often in a day or two, for a series of Regents’ Exams.    I averaged very high scores on these predictable tests of subject matter that could be quickly learned merely by taking a series of past tests.   My scores would rise from an initial 20%, to the 85 or 90% I’d score on the last test I’d take on my sleep-deprived subway ride to school to take the actual exam.

A lesson from the murder of Malcolm X

Adults forget how hard certain things can hit a child.   I had a strong reminder of this last night while watching the excellent and compelling Who Killed Malcolm X? on Netflix.  A tip of the cap and much respect to Abdur-Rahman Muhammad for his long, tireless investigation and the important work he accomplished in the face of discouragement by virtually everyone he knew and met.

In the documentary, a black and white news clip panned past the Allied Chemical Building at the foot of Times Square.   I don’t know what this building is called today, but it’s the one they drop the ball from every New Year’s Eve.   I suddenly had a vivid memory, from around the time I heard the news that Malcolm X had been murdered, making me around nine years old at the time.   My mother, my father, my little sister and I were walking past that building, which had a showcase at street level.   We must have been strolling after seeing a Broadway show, which we did from time to time in those days.

Behind a gigantic glass window was a collection of magazines on display.  The cover of one showed a black and white photo of a pile of naked, emaciated corpses, intimately entangled.   It was essentially the still image of a movie clip that had caused me to sprint out of an auditorium to projectile vomit at the age of eight, or maybe seven and a half.   A child never entirely gets over the shock of the first knowledge they receive of the unimaginable evil humans can be so nonchalant about participating in.  

I will never forget watching the short, stocky man in the cap, impassively wheeling the giant wheelbarrow full of jiggling skin-covered skeletons, tipping the wheelbarrow to direct the skinny corpses down a chute, into an enormous mass grave.   Perhaps because he knew he was being filmed, and could not resist a theatrical gesture (or maybe he’d been directed) he tossed the butt of his cigar in after the cadavers, before turning to pick up his next load.  I’d seen enough, and I left the screening room, running up the aisle, through a crowd of crying teenagers in a room full of cigarette smoke.

Seeing that horrific photo in the window of the Allied Chemical Building I turned to my father.   His response was something to the effect that there are “some very sick people in the world” (that phrase remains).   I don’t know if he was referring to the Nazis, the publisher of the magazine with the horrific picture on its cover, the magazine’s audience or the management of the Allied Chemical Building who had decided to place that nauseating image in its ground floor window for children of all ages to see.  It makes no difference, really, which very sick people he was referring to.

Around this time, in the late afternoon of February 21, 1965, I was sitting on the foot of the bed in my parents’ room, looking for something to watch on TV.   The radio was also on in the room, for some reason, tuned to the news station my father always had on his alarm clock.   I remember the news coming out of the radio.   Malcolm X had been shot in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, shot many times and killed.   Even at my young age I immediately understood the terrible immensity of the moment, I was struck by the sickening thought of how violence can end a righteous debate in favor of the murderous.

My father had long been involved in what is now known as the Civil Rights Movement.   He was a fierce integrationist who’d been screamed at and pelted by angry New York City parents and teachers in the first school where he spoke in support of Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that overturned the long racist doctrine of “Separate But Equal” in racially segregated education.   After the angry reaction to my father’s first speech he was accompanied by police when he went to speak to these agitated PTA groups.   I learned about this only after he died, when my mother told me the story as I was working on his eulogy.  

Malcolm, it turned out, had no police protection on the day of his murder, a week to the day after his home was destroyed by three molotov cocktails thrown through windows in the middle of the night (the press suggested that Malcolm himself had set his home on fire, in some kind of insane publicity stunt — what do you expect from a desperate, hyperbolic, race-baiting rabble rouser? — the mainstream media asked).   The phalanx of cops who arrived after his assassination to wheel Malcolm’s dead body to the emergency room of the hospital across the street had been stationed on the other side of six lanes of Broadway that afternoon, far from the packed ballroom where the killing was done.  Only one of Malcolm’s five killers was apprehended at the scene.  The other four, including the man with the sawed off shotgun whose blasts the coroner ruled had caused Malcolm’s death, never even faced arrest, let alone trial.  Two men who had not even been present during the execution were convicted of Malcolm’s murder and served twenty year sentences as the murder investigation was quickly wrapped up.

My father clearly admired Malcolm X.   There was, as far as I could see, much to admire.  Malcolm spoke clearly and forcefully, and never without wit.  He talked about things nobody was allowed to speak of, calling for long-denied rights every human being should be entitled to from birth in a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Malcolm stressed that waiting another generation or two for incremental change in an inhuman system was not an option. He fearlessly debated everyone who wanted a piece of him.  Malcolm, in the last year of his life, was increasingly willing to work with anyone of good faith to advance the cause of human rights in America and worldwide.  At the time of his assassination he was treated, in many countries, as an ambassador for America’s millions descended from former slaves.

At the same time, during Malcolm’s Nation of Islam years, my father often chuckled recounting Malcolm’s robotic insistence that everything he knew was the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.   I recall chuckling with my father over Malcolm’s dutiful recounting of the true story of how the evil scientist Yakub had, as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught, created the evil White Race and set those devils upon the other races.  The image works as metaphor, not as “science,” though to the faithful this is a distinction without a difference.

The larger point is that black and brown men like Malcolm, like millions of despised children born in the wrong neighborhoods today, are born facing a system of murderous injustice.   It was Malcolm’s articulate struggle to fight effectively for long-denied Human Rights that inspired my father.  By the time Malcolm was murdered by five Black Muslim fanatics, with the active complicity of the New York City Police, J. Edgar Hoover’s reactionary FBI and the rest of them, I was well aware of the impossible, crucial things Malcolm was attempting to do.   I admired him myself.  In the fifty-five years since his murder, and many books later, I admire him no less.

The lessons of his life, and the “necessity” of his killing, live on in anyone ever touched by Malcolm’s powerfully articulated efforts to change an evil system.  The deepest horror to me, in our angry, divided, tribal society where even old, long-cherished friendships are in peril when politics raises its hideous head, is that human beings, capable of kindness, empathy, creating things of transcendent beauty, are unable to unite in our universal desire to live in a better, more fair world.  We may argue angrily about what justice is, but we all know injustice when it is personally thrust into our faces.

We are deliberately divided about the most basic things in our lives.  Living at a time when humans are unable to unite, even  in our desire to continue to live on a habitable planet, I think of Malcolm’s heroic, doomed fight.   Instead of concerted worldwide action toward solutions there is an angry “debate” over whether the unprecedented violence of rapid climate disruption observable by everyone, after every recent “hundred year” natural catastrophe, has anything to do with a century of increasing pollution from burning fossil fuels and cutting down the earth’s forests to graze cows for beef.   The “argument” benefits only those already wealthy and powerful “persons” who profit directly from the destruction of the habitable earth.

We are not doomed to these awful fates, until we are.   The horror of that magazine cover in the window of the Allied Chemical Building is no different to me now than when I was nine, no different than the public execution of Malcolm X, El-Hadj Malik El- Shabazz felt when I first learned of it.   Whatever the intent of some “very sick people,” these horrors should stand for only one thing— people of good will need to stand as one against all such organized hatred and mass deception, everywhere.   That as a rule we don’t is our eternal shame as humans.

Note to a friend who asked yesterday if I’m depressed

With a sense of great hopefulness, I wrote this note to an old friend yesterday:

Since I’ve now spent the entire day behind the keyboard tapping away, literally nine or ten hours, I have a better answer for you than I did last night.   

I’m not depressed as much as in a constant state of having to keep a watchful eye on my constantly provoked rage at the injustices around us (all rage, of course, believes it is righteous and directed at injustice).  This internal battle is exhausting sometimes, and far from ideal, but better than screaming and fighting all the time.  

I’ve noticed that when I set out the reasons for my feelings clearly on a page, it makes me feel a bit better about the issue that torments me.   I feel distinctly not depressed at such times, after I’ve put the issue down with clarity — I feel energized and hopeful sometimes.  

I took a few hours, from the time I woke up, to sit and write this about the maddening health care situation I told you about yesterday, submitting two identical complaints, receiving two completely different outcomes:  CLICKEZ ICI 

I later decided to start tackling the issue more directly, in a way that could be more useful to my fellow citizens, and wrote the attached letter to the NYS attorney general’s office.  (see attached, appended hereto and made part hereof at FN 1)

These actions, putting feelings into simple words, identifying and clarifying an issue, refining my description over the course of the day to make it as clear and readable as I can, this exercise of “fighting back”, improved my mood greatly today.  The impeachment situation being already decided “fuck your ‘fair trial’, you insane partisan faggots, 51-49 suck it!!!!” there was no reason to listen to any of it today.   “If he takes a shit, you must acquit!”, said Dershowitz, in an argument no more demented than any of his others — and no truer words were ever spoken by the stable genius himself.

Anyway, whether it’s delusional or not (since I don’t sell any of my work and virtually nobody ever reads it) it is this daily practice of sitting quietly and writing about the things that vex me most, or things that intrigue me, sometimes, — what you flatteringly referred to as part of me being a knight– (and I’ll take Don Quixote over Donkey Trump-hay any day) and I thank you humbly, and with a chivalric bow, for that– that I believe is keeping me from a complete emotional meltdown (and also enabling me to look squarely at some truly horrible things and historically alarming events without vomiting my guts out).

I’d love to have a JH [her excellent therapist– ed.] to talk to regularly, but lacking someone like that, I accept that I have to be my own best therapist much of the time.  I find I’m always listening carefully, understanding of my motivations and gentle with my flaws and mistakes. That seems to be a pretty good start, anyway.

FN1:

Madam Attorney General:

I am enclosing a copy of the letter I am sending to the two Assistant Attorneys General who oversee your overwhelmed Bureau of Health Care.

The gist of my letter:

The complaint submitted on my behalf by your office, seeking to overturn my termination without notice from an ACA health plan was without force or effect.  The identical complaint, submitted through the new New York State Department of Financial Services on-line consumer complaint process, forced the private health company to immediately reverse the termination and apologize to me for its “mistake”.

It is hard for me to understand how a consumer complaint submitted by the state’s top law enforcement office did not yield the same legal result as one submitted through the Department of Financial Services.   I bring this puzzle to your attention.

Yours sincerely  

 

Bureau Chief, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Landau
Helpline Manager, Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Lawston
Office of the Attorney General

Bureau of Health Care
The Capitol
Albany, NY 12224-0341

Dear Ms. Landau and Ms. Lawston:

I am writing to find out why your helpline workers are unaware of what is apparently the only way in New York State to resolve a complaint about termination without notice of an ACA policy by a health insurance company. The Department of Financial Services’ likely brand new, virtually secret, on-line consumer complaint process expeditiously solved a problem your office was helpless to solve. The complaints I submitted through your office and NYSDFS were virtually identical — one had no effect, the other made a corporation reverse its “legal” and “unappealable” determination.

On January 22, when I called to pay my premiums through June, I was informed by Healthfirst that my insurance had already been canceled due to my failure to pay my January premium by January 10. I was told this was done “within the guidelines” and that my termination for failure to make this payment within the ten-day “grace period” was not appealable except by an internal appeal to their own “financial” department that would make the final determination. They also insisted that notice was not required before termination of health insurance for “late payment”. The outcome of the corporation’s internal appeal process was predictable.

Your office complained to Healthfirst on my behalf, emailed me an official looking verbatim copy of what I’d told the extremely empathetic worker who helped me over the phone. Soon afterwards I got a call back from the Health Care Bureau with the bad news — Healthfirst had not reconsidered its decision to terminate my health insurance. I was advised by your office to contact The New York State of Health Marketplace to reapply for coverage beginning March 1, 2020 [1].

I subsequently found and submitted the on-line DFS complaint, its text virtually identical to the complaint submitted via your bureau. Two business days later I had a call from Healthfirst apologizing for its “mistake”, telling me my insurance was in full force and effect, would cover the expensive January 8th procedure I’d had and allowing me to pay premiums for the next six months over the phone during that call, as I’d tried to do a hellishly stressful week earlier. The rep admitted they’d received my DFS complaint and that’s why she’d been instructed to call me. I have to assume Healthfirst had been in violation of the law.  I also have to assume there is no penalty for the violation and that anyone similarly mistreated, who didn’t find the new DFS consumer complaint form, remains without insurance.

Why is this quick and effective new on-line DFS complaint/enforcement process something your staff is unaware of and therefore unable to inform consumers about?  How can it be that the AG’s complaint form lacks the same force of law?

I assume your office gets many calls on this issue every January, as termination for “late payment” is a common reason health insurance companies have long used to terminate particularly the unprofitable low-cost policies of low income customers. I would guess this old insurance industry chestnut is as common a reason for terminating benefits as the old “pre-existing condition” loophole they used to use.

The ACA has protections during the year against such terminations; I know for a fact that notice is required before terminating a patient’s health insurance for late payment. I assume because Healthfirst quickly changed its iron-clad, guidelines-bound determination that their original irrevocable, “non-appealable” termination had violated the law. The law in question being a complicated, voluminous, health industry co-written law that virtually nobody can scan for a quick (or even painfully slow) answer to this kind of question.

The answer to a relevant and common yes or no question of law (does the ACA allow them to cut off my insurance on January 11th without any notice or appeal?) should be on a fact sheet available to those who answer your help line. Especially since the AG’s small, under-staffed, overworked Health Care Bureau is the sole government mini-agency in the state dedicated to helping NYS state consumers in vexing, sometimes life and death disputes with private health insurance companies.

I hope you will let me know that you’ve informed your staff of what I bring to your attention today. Please feel free to contact me about anything related to this letter. My current mission is to somehow publicize this secret avenue of redress for my fellow citizens screwed, as I was, by the virtually unregulated corporate “persons” who provide health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I fortunately had the skill set and tenacity needed to persevere until I discovered and used the new DFS complaint process. How many thousands of vulnerable NYS citizens thrown off insurance without notice have that chance? When they call your office they should be given a fighting chance to reverse illegal decisions that suddenly and without warning “irrevocably” deprive them of access to affordable health care.

 

 

[1] Dealing with NYSOH conjures only dread for me, based on my experiences with them, including two traumatic three and four month quasi-appeals I had to win before they would correct their own easily verifiable mistakes. Not for nothing, NYSOH is an agency that in my long experience with many state and federal agencies is among the most cumbersome, unresponsive and inept. I understand that the political appointee who runs it, Donna Frescatore, has been promoted for her stellar work at NYSOH and is now also overseeing Medicaid in the state. It’s good to know the right people, I suppose.

Colluding to pretend all is well

We always have the option to pretend that the things that hurt us are not that bad. You can have a heavy history of sour battles with someone, and pretend it all weighs nothing.   The fear is that allowing the feelings that cause the conflict into view and trying to work things out will inevitably lead to more conflict, a fight to the death over who is the bigger asshole — who is to blame for everything.  

To accommodate yourself to this internal dilemma you need to stop caring as much about the person, since if you cared too much it would be painful to sit with somebody who may be compelled, when the moment is right, to stick a finger into your deepest wound.    This “compromise” agreement not to talk about the 600 pound gorilla in the room is a powder keg situation, both parties sitting on the explosive keg smoking cigarettes and acting as if there is no possible harm to any of it.

It is strenuous, wearying work, I find, to pretend that a relationship with someone who can’t help being insensitive, suspicious, antagonistic, untruthful (or worse) is actually fine.    In psychologist Jeanne Safer’s book about sibling conflict, Cain’s Legacy, the author talks about what she calls “sibspeak”, the intimate language siblings speak among themselves, full of code words and often silent agreements not to acknowledge the painful sources of fundamental conflicts.  

Avoidance is common in the secret language many siblings speak to each other, since there are often primal conflicts going back to earliest memories, things that trigger real hurt, fear and anger.  Avoidance produces only caution, I find.   I read the book, which describes numerous troubled sibling relationships,  with interest.   Reading her conclusions, the general principles she sets out,  a series of steps to take for better communication with a sibling, this one jumped out at me.

20200117_144421.jpg

This collusion to keep the dark, fearful, enraging things hidden is a trap.   It requires ignoring strong feelings that are telling you important things. Things like: when somebody tells you angrily that they want to kill you, believe the strength of their feelings.  Things like: after somebody hurts you, an apology — an expression of empathy, remorse and vow to do better–  is necessary before reconciliation and forgiveness can happen.    Things like: if even a small breach of this “agreement” not to talk about  painful things leads to accusations and rage, there is a major problem.

Of course, you can always nonchalantly cross your legs again, after fishing out your lighter, and putting the flame to a new cigarette, being as careful as one can be sitting on a keg full of explosive powder talking about everything else in the world.

Hereditary Trait — war between siblings?

Years ago I had a terrible fight with my sister.   A few days later I was visiting my father’s first cousin Eli, a rough character as capable of tenderness as he was of socking somebody with one of his hard fists.  The old man thoughtfully listened to my description of the fight.  He paused to take it all in, then gave me his advice.

“Look, she’s your sister, I hear what you’re saying about the fight but don’t let the bad feelings linger.   You have to swallow your pride, tell her you’re sorry you two fought, you don’t have to apologize for starting the fight or not starting it, you’re just sorry about the whole thing.   Tell her you want to make up, put it behind you, tell her you love her and you feel terrible and you want it to be over.  Don’t let your pride stand in the way of making up with her.  Do it sooner rather than later when it might be too late.”

I told him it was good advice, and that I appreciated it, but that I was still too hurt and angry to make that move, and then, taking a page from my mother’s book, I told Eli it was a little ironic coming from him, a man who hadn’t spoken to his own sister in over thirty years.   This got the same reaction my mother’s challenging comments always got from Eli.  His face immediately turned magenta and he leaned forward menacingly, ready to attack.

“My sister is a completely different story!   There is no comparison between my sister and your sister!   My sister is a complete bitch!” he yelled in a cry of pain and anger, as acutely stung by the painful falling out they’d had decades earlier as if the unforgivable offense had just happened.

Fast forward three decades.  I get a call from Eli’s daughter.  She and her sister are visiting the cemetery where their parents and mine are buried.  She asked if I’d like to meet them, it’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.   I took the train up to Peekskill and we drove over to the cemetery.   It is a Jewish tradition to take a small stone and place it on the gravestone of the dead person we are visiting.     We gathered our stones and walked among the graves.

At their parents’ grave we put our stones on Eli’s side of the large headstone and then, as I put a stone on their mother Helen’s side, I said “she was a sweet lady.” That was my memory of her — long-suffering, hospitable, kind smile.  I was a boy when Helen died young, but I remember her pretty well.  Neither of her daughters said anything when I said their mother had been a sweet lady.

Afterwards, over lunch, they told a couple of stories involving their mother, as though to set the record straight, letting me know that their mother, in her way, had been as problematic as their emotional, sometimes violently opinionated father.

If your father is tyrannical, as the beloved Eli also was, and your mother always goes along with the tyranny… well, an ally of your enemy is also your enemy.  I know this well from my own childhood.  Helen always seemed sweet to me, she’d smile warmly and bring us good things to eat.   She was quiet and kept herself busy being the perfect hostess during our visits, she laughed easily.  She died of cancer when I was about 11 or 12.   Why wouldn’t a boy remember her as a sweet person?   Particularly if his own parents often attacked him, sometimes quite savagely.

We can think of these childhood observations without attaching value judgments to them, somehow, but it’s not easy, or even always a great idea, I think.   Value judgments are our assessment of what’s the right way to act and what not to do.   Even the doltish Nazi Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant book on his trial in Israel, was able to accurately summarize Immanuel Kant’s view on this, the Categorical Imperative.   When pressed by the judges at his trial he defined it: to act in such a way that you could will your actions to be universal principles.   Would the world be better or worse if everyone acted like I am acting now?

I think of this as another statement of Hillel’s famous summary of morality: what is hateful to you, don’t do to somebody else.   Loving your neighbor as yourself is a difficult golden rule to follow.   Phrasing it the way Hillel did cuts through difficult theory to practical practice.   It’s a simple matter to know what you hate, you hate it instantly, always, it’s like a chemical reaction.  

You can do something hateful to you to somebody else, if you don’t expect that person to treat you any differently in return, but what kind of world would it be?  If everyone treated everyone in this hateful manner we’d have a state of constant war, each against all.  If we all stopped ourselves from doing things to others that we hate done to us, that would be a huge step toward solving problems before the oceans rise to drown all of us not turned into desperate climate refugee/cannibals determined to not to die by water.

But back to my original thought about whether we inherit certain idiosyncrasies regarding siblings (begging, of course, the equally valid question of whether we learn them as children).   Eli didn’t talk to his sister for the last 30 or 40 years of their long lives. He lived to be almost 90, his sister to 103.  I believe their final dispute was related to sharing their father’s modest inheritance, more than 40 years before Eli’s death.    Eli’s daughters have a younger brother I haven’t seen or heard from in years.  When I asked his sisters about him they said he was fine.  I got the feeling that they haven’t talked to him for a long time.

Although I often ascribe this family harshness to the brutal pruning of our family tree back in 1942 and 1943, and the centuries-long culture of persecution my surviving family comes from, I suspect these estrangements between siblings happen in many cultures.  I just read a book about sibling strife by psychologist Jeanne Safer,  Cain’s Legacy.  She states her credo at the start of the book:   “Cain’s Legacy reflects my passionate conviction that it is essential not to gloss over the dark side of life.”   She states my credo as well.  

I have to peer into the darkness until I can see the fucking thing, I can’t stop myself, nor do I want to.   I need to understand what is there.  If it can be fixed, let’s fix it.  If it provides a lesson, let’s take the lesson from it.  If it is too monstrous to survive in the light, we’re better off leaving it there in the dark and both walking away from it.  To pretend it’s not there does not seem to be a life-affirming option.

The common peace-seeking instinct is to move toward the anodyne, the inoffensive, compromise version of conflict that blames nobody.  An explanation that lets everybody off the hook, you dig.  This is the purportedly non-controversial version of sometimes unbearable things we often hear from those who urge us that both sides always have an equal right to their opinion and that we should not judge.  We always judge, it’s part of our nature.  It’s how we survived as a species, as individuals.   It’s what we’ve learned to do from the experience of our lives, to the extent we ever really learn anything.

My father’s brother was younger, sickly as a boy and mom’s favorite.  Where my father was literally whipped in the face by mom, from the time he could stand, his brother was coddled.   Neither one emerged from their childhood without deep emotional scars, although my father’s problems are easier for me to understand now than my uncle’s.  My uncle, to his credit, spent years in psychoanalysis.  His son, my first cousin, would scoff to read the reference to his father’s long exercise in denial, dressed in a suit, lying on a shrink’s couch week after week, gaining so little insight. What did he learn?  When the mood struck, he remained tyrannical in his rage until the end. My father, for his part, had a lifelong scorn for people so weak they needed to whine to a shrink about the demons all of us must battle in our lives.

My uncle, much smaller than my father, often cringed around his brother, like a younger brother who’d often been sucker punched by his older, bigger, stronger antagonist.  One of the few stories my father ever told us about his brutal childhood of grinding poverty was the time he stuffed his little brother’s mouth full of raw chopped meat.   He told us the story more than once, chuckling each time he did.   The brothers had a strained relationship throughout their lives.  One time my father stayed at his brother’s overnight and I asked him over the phone how my uncle was doing.  I wrote his immortal reply on the page I was doodling on:  “let’s just say he remains unchanged.”

Yet, check this out– when my father was dying, he kept asking for his brother.   I picked my uncle up at the airport and the two brothers clung to each other morning to night for the last couple of days of my father’s life.   It was incredibly poignant to my sister and me.  After my father died his brother sat with his dead body (along with my brother-in-law) until members of the Chevre Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) claimed the body to watch over it and prepare it for the funeral.

My paternal grandmother, a savage little woman who died before I was born, used to yell at her sons when she saw them at each other’s throats.   “Seenas Cheenum!” she would shout — baseless enmity!   No reason on earth for these boys, growing up in extreme poverty, one beaten, the other coddled,  to be at each other like that!  I can imagine my grandmother grabbing my father roughly, pulling him away from her beloved younger son.   This kind of thing is detailed in the Old Testament where sibling treachery abetted by mothers and deadly fights between brothers are reported multiple times.  

This tendency for eternal ruthless war between siblings appears to wind up in the blood.  A combination of nature and nurture,  I suppose.  It is seemingly replicated down the generations.   Without insight into it, we remain prisoners of strong feelings we cannot understand or get past.  We pick up a rock and slay, sometimes.  

This unreasoning, murderous side of us lurks in our wounded hearts– there are circumstances that will bring out this rage.  The challenge is never to pick up a rock and slay, or maybe, to learn, without a doubt, that the wisest thing to do is to remove yourself from a situation so emotionally fraught that, under pressure, it will inevitably yield to the impulse to pick up the rock.