Inner Dialogue, Pandemic installment #1

I used to have frequent conversations with the skeleton of my long-dead father.  I did this for about two years, almost every day, sitting at the computer, taking dictation to the steady beat of my tapping fingers, thumb adding off-beats on the space bar.  Once in a while I read one of these chats, often out of curiosity after I see someone has clicked on one (as somebody did yesterday) and realize I miss talking to my witty lifelong enemy, now that he is dead and full of self-knowledge and empathy.

“Who are you talking to, motherfucker?”  

You’re a droll one, doll-face.  You know goddamned well who I’m talking to.  I’m having what you might call an inner dialogue, something that becomes necessary from time to time to straighten out my unruly thoughts, if you know what I’m saying.  

“Talking to yourself…”    

I’m going to ignore these interruptions.   The nagging, niggling voice of the reflexive interrupter is not something to be interrupted by, if you seek clarity of any kind.  

“If you say so, Chief.”  

You can be 100% correct in your analysis, based on specific past experience and outside knowledge, your overall analysis can be dead on, and you can still, in an individual case, be wrong.  For example, you can be dealing with an inhuman bureaucracy, bent on saving money by cutting the eligibility of anyone it can, in a system brutally skewed toward protecting the privileges of the privileged; that bureaucracy can have twice or more arbitrarily fucked you, in excruciating detail, for reasons they later reverse — and in “the instant case”, as we are taught to say by law professors,  you may have simply been fucked by your own inaction or error, the inhuman bureaucracy in that particular case virtually, or at least legally, blameless.

“Seriously, man, who are you talking to?”

That is a disgusting and fake question.  You have a sickening smell.   You’re a disgraceful excuse for an interrupter!  

“Apologies, SIR!”  

As you were.  Now men, it is very important, and I say this to you as a role model and the steward of your morality, that you not be confused by these competing truths.   Both things can be true at the same time, even if one is more true at the moment than the other.  Do not doubt your essential analytical skills because you find yourself mistaken in one instance.   Yes, the enemy is brutal and sneaky.   Yes, sometimes you fall asleep at your post with your hand on your dick, mouth open, vulnerable to even the kindest, most considerate attack.  

“Sir, yes Sir!”

The exploitation of your vulnerability, even if done by the enemy in the most considerate possible way AT THAT TIME, does not mean that at any other time your ruthless enemy will not revert to character, not revert to the supremely inconsiderate beast it also is.  

Your faith in your fact-based analysis, men, should be as clear to you as a glass of pure water.  Be the water, not the glass.

“Bruce Lee, Jeet Kun Do, the Way of the Intercepting Fist.”  

Just so.

You can live on a low income, by choice, and not really be entitled to call yourself low-income, though why you would want to do that  is another question entirely.  You can be protected by someone who loves you, who has the means to protect you financially from the worst, and still be vulnerable to the same institutional cruelties that routinely kill many other people in your situation.   

Be self-effacing at your own risk, men.  Remember, the boy who cries “poison gas!” in a coal mine filled with odorless gas will still be killed by the poison gas he can’t smell.

It’s may be easy to view someone you feel has not worked as hard as you, at least not for pay, as a whiner complaining about the brand new rope being used to hang him.  

To consider me a pampered stuck pig screaming in pain from a self-inflicted wound I imagine is another of the thousand cuts freely given to anybody who speaks up, or stays silent, howling at unbearable, over-amped length, tediously advertising myself as the most learned and righteous of victims, giving pompous, imagined voice to the other, voiceless, real victims, is to paint only a corner of the larger picture.  I am also, potentially, with the right marinade and glaze, and slow-cooked to a turn, a very tasty rack of ribs.

“Sir, yes SIR!  Oh, yum! SIR!”




The Boy Who Cried “Poison Gas in the Coal Mine!”

Things are bad right now, we all know it.  If it was only this relentless pathogen we were up against, we’d be up against it.   Of course, it’s much worse than that.  The inhabitable earth, our natural world, is also in immediate and irreparable jeopardy, as demagogic strong men around the world ignore the approaching catastrophe, appealing to unifying ethnic and racial hatreds instead.

My mother, when I was a hyperbolic young boy (I got that poetic trait from her) used to warn me about being The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  She told me the story of the scaredy-cat shepherd boy who would yell “WOLF!” whenever he was scared.  The men from the village would come running with axes.  After a while the village just started ignoring his cries and, of course, one night, real wolves came and ate him and all of the sheep.

Then there is Kurt Vonnegut’s “canary in the coal mine,” a bird that (in human form) can also cry wolf, I suppose.    Vonnegut said that artistic types, being more attuned to and easily distracted by odd smells than most people, were society’s canaries in the coal mine. Miners used to carry these small birds into the mine shafts in cages.   The birds have tiny lungs, which would quickly fill with any odorless poisonous gas the miners might have accidentally tapped into.   When the canary fell off its perch, dead, it was time for the miners to quickly get out of the mine.   Writers and sensitive types, according to Vonnegut, serve this same warning purpose for society at large.

I felt like one of these tiny-lunged bastards the last few days, not that I am a writer or a sensitive type, officially.   If I hadn’t had the call from the doctor, I’d have never learned my health insurance had been cancelled weeks earlier.   Apparently no law requires more than… nothing.   Once my immediate problem (no health insurance during a pandemic) was solved, I found I could breathe again.  I now only need to hold my breath until May 1, assuming no other hidden hassle lies in wait for me.

AND I AM ONE OF THE VERY LUCKY ONES.  I know this very well.   My feet never touch the ground, I am carried gently from place to place and set down carefully on soft, clean pillows.   I am loved and cared for, like a beloved pet.   I realize this and am very thankful for it.   I don’t know why I keep thinking about the millions and millions who are perpetually doomed to unthinkably grim fates.  

What about those millions of Americans who lost jobs recently — along with employer-based health insurance —  with no chance for affordable health insurance during a public health emergency?   Some, with savings,  can rely on the expensive, aptly named COBRA, but, seriously, your best hope for comfort, while unemployed in America during a world-wide plague, is COBRA?

The chaotic federal administration’s bungled response to this massive public health crisis illustrates the need for strong laws to protect programs that protect lives.   The human right to health care, for example, because it’s a human right, should be guaranteed by the government of the richest nation in human history to all of its citizens, so that none need fear death due to insufficient income.   And so forth.  

Instead, taking this crisis in the sense of the Chinese ideogram that also, famously (and probably falsely) means “opportunity,” long-sought radical right-wing programs that benefit the very wealthiest and most unprincipled are jammed through the moment the time is right — while we are all in terror for our lives.  No need for the EPA regulations, fuck Nixon and the Commie horse he rode in on! Protecting the “environment” like a bunch of tree hugging pansies!  Drop dead, job killers!   And so on, and so on, and scooby-dooby-doo-yeah.

Being summarily thrown off health insurance, particularly during a plague, is objectively terrifying and infuriating.  It should not happen to anyone.   Odd to say, my overheated, anguished screams of the last few days, before I heeded sensible advice and checked the website of the public agency that provides my health insurance, are as alien to me now as the last chirp of countless dead canaries who, having served, are forgotten, as all flesh must eventually be.   I feel a bit abashed to have been the canary boy who cried “DEATH!!!” during the plague when it was his own easily fixable error (even if he got no reminder to fix it) that tried to come back and kill him.  What a cry baby!


retracting DFS complaint number CSB-2020-01351366

As I emailed the New York State Department of Financial Services earlier today:
I have been unable (last night and so far today) to log into the DFS portal where I submitted this complaint yesterday.   I was told to email your agency here.
I withdraw complaint CSB-2020-01351366.  Healthfirst had nothing to do with this termination of my ACA health insurance.   They might have informed me of the impending loss of my insurance, which they knew of for three weeks before it was terminated, although they likely had no legal duty to do so and every business reason not to.   My complaint should not go to Healthfirst.
My insurance was terminated by the NYSOH, for my own oversight, which remained uncorrected for lack of effective notice of the mistake by NYSOH.  I have since been able to correct this oversight and my insurance will be restored effective 5/1/20.  
Please terminate this complaint.  

Education and Clarity of Language might not help you

Yesterday’s attempt at an Op Ed for the Grey Lady ended with this now deleted paragraph about the seeming impossibility of getting my improperly terminated health insurance back during a raging plague.  Observe the plangent notes of heroic  self-pity:

So I am left to accept my punishment and practice mindfulness.  I sit here lowering my blood pressure, and my heart rate, by thinking of the miracle of communication — how I can sit and convey these deeply fearful things to a stranger, merely by arranging the words properly on a page.  I hope someone will remember I did this when they are lowering my body into a mass grave.   My murdered ancestors would want no less for me.

Admittedly, useless — DELETE! — though I do still greatly appreciate the miracle of written communication, as far as it goes sometimes.  Nothing like writing the situation out clearly when you are in great trouble or danger.

Today I wrote this concise complaint to the NYS Department of Financial Services, the NYS agency that regulates all insurance, financial houses, hedge funds, banks, etc. in New York State,  My latest attempt to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut (though their on-line consumer complaint form immediately fixed a similar insurance termination without notice problem back in January):

I was informed Friday afternoon, when I called my insurer after being told by a doctor that my insurance came up “inactive,” that my Healthfirst health insurance, prepaid through June, had been cancelled, effective March 31 by the New York State of Health Marketplace. According to Healthfirst, no reason for this termination was given by NYSOH.

NYSOH, I was told, had sent Healthfirst notice of their intent to terminate my ACA insurance on March 11.  Neither Healthfirst nor NYSOH provided me any notice of this termination, not prior to the effective date nor since.

I am instructed to call NYSOH, an overwhelmed and unresponsive agency on a good day, where one hears this recording:

New York State of Health is experiencing high call volume.  Because of the public health emergency we are extending the due date for people who are expected to renew before April 15.   You will receive another notice of the new due date before any changes will be made to your coverage.   You do not need to take any action at this time.  

Also, because of a new federal law, no person who currently has Medicaid coverage will lose their coverage during this emergency.  If you are enrolled in Medicaid and get a notice from New York State of Health telling you that your coverage will end after March 18, 2020, you can disregard this notice.  You will have no gap in coverage.  If you have Medicaid you do not need to report any changes to your account except a permanent address change.

I have to assume that termination of prepaid health insurance without notice violates some NYS law, administrative rule or something, in addition to the due process protection of the US Constitution and the PPACA.  One searches for New York’s legal answer to this question in Titles 10 (Health) and 11 (Insurance) of the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations  in vain, there is no chapter on point. 

(I was wisely advised to follow my hunch and delete this line:  I am still waiting (since early February) to hear back from your office for a citation to the text of the controlling law.)

Can you help me get my improperly terminated insurance back during this worldwide plague? I’d be eternally grateful.

Alternatively, can you direct me to the nearest rolling donut?

You Have the Right Not To Be Angry

If you are not wealthy in this country, you have a very limited right to express anger publicly.   Anger, like health care, is a privilege in America, not a right.

A wealthy person who feels aggrieved may hire a team of lawyers to legally bludgeon the person who inflicted the injury.   An angry wealthy person may take out a full-page ad in the newspaper of record, calling for vengeance against someone he hates.   Our current president did this, as a private citizen, when he purchased a full-page of the New York Times to call for the death of five boys locked up for, and eventually exonerated of, a heinous crime.    Anger is all the rage among the rich and powerful.  It is a luxury not permitted to the weak.

I was told in no uncertain terms in January, mistakenly it turns out, that my Affordable Care Act health insurance had been properly terminated without notice, for my failure to do something I had no notice of.   I’d been told by the insurance company that everything I needed to do to have 2020 health coverage had been done.  Then they informed me I had no health insurance because I’d failed to pay a “binder” during a once-a-year ten day grace period that nobody told me about.  The invoice made no mention of a do-or-die grace period.

I had no warning, no chance to fix what they told me was fatally broken in our contract.   This lack of a heads-up struck me as fundamentally unfair, as it probably is, except in a world where superhuman corporate “persons” rule over regular puny earthling persons who proceed at our own peril.

I was angry about this, even after the multiple complaints I submitted resulted in the reversal of this irreversible decision.   Within a very short time I had my insurance restored;  in fact, I had a call from the insurance company apologizing and telling me that my insurance had never actually been terminated.   I rescheduled a canceled cardiologist appointment and had an expensive treatment paid for by the insurance company, at about 30% of the uninsured sticker price, with only my co-pay required from me.

Still, I was irked about the lack of accountability for a health insurance company that had made me suffer agonizing anxiety as I exerted myself mightily to find the hidden legal remedy (hint: NYS Department of Financial Services).  I am pretty sure that the “mistaken” termination had been unlawful, this seems clear by how quickly the final determination against me was changed.  

To my dismay, nobody I spoke to in the city, state or federal bureaucracy could tell me what that violated law was, not its name, its existence, what exact patient protections it contained.  I wanted to see the text of the law, to read the precise patient protections my health insurance provider had ignored, to such unfair and frightening effect.  It is apparently not the right of a powerless citizen to have this kind of information.

I began lashing out in letters and emails, and on the phone.  A Resolution Specialist from Healthfirst called and promised me a written apology and a record of the many calls I’d had with the insurance company, which would allow me to trace exactly what had been done to me and how it had been corrected.   I wanted a roadmap of how the unknowable law had been violated.  I feel a strong need to inform others in my situation of their rights and legal remedies.   None of what I was promised by Healthfirst was delivered.  

I became increasingly unsettled, as my case was repeatedly “escalated” and never resolved.  I included some inflammatory remarks in letters and phone calls and asked pointed questions about some very obvious things.  

For example: due process is guaranteed in our constitution.  It is fundamental to a free society that people have the right to some kind of hearing, some process, before they can be deprived of something they legally own.  In my case, I’d re-enrolled for coverage in time and subsequently paid for my health insurance through June.  How was it legal to void our contract without notice to the consumer?

As if in answer to this question, I was informed on Good Friday, during this pandemic (not a very good Friday for me) that my insurance had been terminated again, without so much as an email to inform me of this sobering fact, and without any reason given, effective March 31, 2020.

I learned this when I had a call from a doctor I was scheduled to see (over the phone) on Wednesday telling me my insurance came back “inactive.”  When I called Healthfirst to snarlingly enquire, the rep confirmed that they had been instructed to terminate my insurance by the New York State of Health Marketplace, the state’s sole purveyor of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health insurance policies.

In the absence of law, those with the power to do so can freely oppress those who are powerless.   If you have no power, you must not be angry about this.  Anger is so bad for your health, your immune system, all of your relationships!

I was told the New York State of Health contacted Healthfirst on March 11, instructing the private corporation to terminate its contract with the patient.  No reason was given.   Any day between March 11 and March 25 would have been an ideal time for either or these entities to inform the patient of the jeopardy he was about to face (no health insurance during a worldwide plague) and the need for immediate action on his part to prevent the loss of the insurance he’d already paid for.  

There was no email, phone call or letter — none from Healthfirst, none from the so-called New York State of Health.   Healthfirst sent me a notice that my ongoing cardiac treatment had been approved through July, an invoice showing that my premiums were paid through June, and numerous instant email reminders that I’d not taken the voluntary customer satisfaction survey after each call.   Not a peep about the insurance cancelled ten days before I found out about it when a doctor’s office alerted me to it.

Had the doctor’s office not called, I’d still be blissfully unaware that my health insurance has been quietly null and void for thirteen days and counting.  Seems there should have been some legal process due before a patient is deprived of healthcare during a pandemic, no?

The well-paid CEO of Healthfirst would be perfectly within her rights to be furious at me, after being subjected to provocative lines like these, no matter how otherwise accurate they might be:

A corporate “person” is an appetitive psychopath, without conscience or remorse, driven to devour and only constrained by the rare regulation in place to restrain the gnawing impulse to maximize profits, a corporation’s only legal imperative.

The removal of health insurance during a plague is arguably an excessive punishment for an impolitic expression of something that is well-known: private health insurance corporations have every incentive to cull from their rolls older, low-income patients who cost them far more in medical care than they pay in premiums.   That’s just good business sense, however else one might feel about it.  

Why the New York State of Health intervened a month ago, as I was told by Healthfirst the other day, with no reason given, to terminate the ACA insurance of a customer who had re-enrolled and completed his end of the contract with a private insurance company is a question I will not be able to get an answer to any time soon.   During this terrible plague, everyone is overwhelmed, many mistakes are made, lines for help are very long and it is best to stay calm, even when provoked to great fear and anger.  Particularly if you are powerless in a state ruled by the bottom line.

That said, it would be a wonderful thing for citizens to actually be allowed to know the laws that protect them from arbitrary and capricious decisions with terrifying consequences.  It’s kind of maddening that we are not, if I might be so bold.


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.


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.