How we force you to lose hope

Government, increasingly the mechanism by which wealthy corporations, and individuals, make sure their profits are robust and their schemes unhindered by things like regulation,  accountability or prosecution, has learned tremendous customer relations lessons from their canny corporate cousins.   We have come to expect as little protection from our government as from the makers of very expensive toxically produced shit.  Right wing extremists have exploited, and whenever in power exacerbated, this disaffection with our own democratic government, now seen by so many as the enemy instead of the protector of our liberties.  Such forces find it easy to crush problem consumers/citizens.

Check out this example of the fiendishly simple means by which hope for correction of even the simplest error by an institution is snuffed out, routinely, for people without power who appeal to the institutions available for relief from mistreatment.

I got snotty treatment from a Post Office supervisor.  All he had to say is “whoa, that’s a mistake, that letter should have gone to the office it’s addressed to, not to the return address it was sent from.  We’ll fix it, it will be where you sent it in two or three days.”   Not even a ‘sorry’ needed.  “Sorry” is a word that our winner society has made the exclusive domain of weak losers who have no choice but to apologize.

Instead of a reasonable response to a postal error you get, giving him the benefit of the doubt, dismissal from a tired, testy civil servant who doesn’t like the tone of the disgruntled customer.  It’s not his fault that the customer waited on line to be jerked around for an excruciating five minutes by an extremely dull, monosyllabic postal clerk before being passed on to him.   It’s not his fault the letter was returned to the customer without explanation, instead of going to the clearly printed address on the properly stamped business mailer.   None of this is his fault, yet he is taking the full heat for a postal system that sometimes simply just fucks up.   Doesn’t like the way this dick of a customer is making demands, relentless, unsatisfied with the explanation of machine error and his noncommittal shrugs.    Fine.  “No guarantee it will get there this time either, SIR, (the s-word) we’ll just have to hope for the best.”

The customer goes home angry, and finds a federal agency to complain to.   The person he speaks to there seems to be very concerned with the story of the poor treatment the customer has received.    He should not have been handed a complaint number that does not allow a complaint to be made, particularly after the brusque treatment of a customer who had every right to complain.   Especially since there was no explanation given for the illogical return of the letter, except machine error, “shit happens,” and no guarantee given that it won’t be returned to him again.  Not to mention the sly “fuck you” of the fake complaint number.

She promises the customer an investigation, gives him the case number and tells him a report will be emailed to him in 2-4 business days at which time he’ll be able to follow up, if necessary, including emailing photos of the canceled, improperly returned envelope.

Sure enough, two business days later, this email arrives:

Updated information regarding your recent inquiry (Case ID:137194142) (KMM50585860V79654L0KM)

Dear Elliott Widaen,  [got the tricky last name right, but misspelled the first name, one L, one T]

This message is to let you know that we have received your inquiry at the Post Office. 

After we review and investigate the information you have provided, we will contact you and work with you until the case is resolved. 

Thank you for letting us know about this issue.  We look forward to serving you. 


Your United States Postal Service

D. McNeil
Consumer Affairs
(212) 330-3667

PS: Please do not reply to this message as this email address is not monitored for responses.  Your privacy is important to us.  If you would like additional information on our privacy policy, please visit

Ten minutes later, a US Postal Service bot sends this update:

In order to better serve you, your recently submitted inquiry was forwarded to an office that is better suited to address your needs. It is being investigated and you can expect a reply within 2 to 4 business days.

Which office?   Where is this office?   Who?  What?  Why?   Mysteries to be answered within 2 to 4 business days, if all goes well.  

The following day the original envelope with the rent check to the landlord, being sent a twenty minute truck ride from the post office it was returned to, arrives back in the customer’s mail box.  The issue very much not resolved.

You figure, for fifty cents I can put this small business envelope into a standard sized envelope, address it by hand, put a stamp on it and mail it from another part of town. Maybe the postal workers there will not have all been lobotomized, or addled on opioids, or drunk, or willfully assholic, or whatever the problem is when such a simple, routine task is not done properly.  A fifty cent stamp and done.

But for somebody like me, raised by an angry asshole, sensitized to that asshole reflex to testily shift blame to the person mistreated — hard to bite the bullet and do the easy thing.   On to another post office, in another borough (have to go there for something else tomorrow anyway), where everyone has been very nice so far, and humbly make what should be a relatively easy to make case that I have not received the service I paid for.    I’d like them to put it in another envelope, with explicit instructions to deliver it to the address it is addressed to and not, mischievously or imbecilically, to the return address.

This reflex to get some kind of just result is also part of how they break you like a fucking twig.    I don’t know exactly what to do about this reflex, but some part of me believes that once it is neutralized, in enough of us, the Klan will be marching down the main street of every town again, making America great again, like they did when my father was born, in 1924, at the height of their national power, 4.5 million proud members strong.


Short version

Wrote this as part of a futile letter I am working on, an exercise in trying to digest something that is indigestible, addressed to the chef and server of the unpalatable dish.  I don’t know if it has any interest, but it’s a much quicker telling of the encounter laid out in the previous post, and I will most likely delete it from the letter I wrote it in:


I wrote this letter right after an encounter at my local post office. The encounter illustrates a personality type, all too common, that gives no quarter in defending why they are right and you, whatever the facts, are actually the asshole.

My rent check, in the landlord’s mailer, was returned to me, the stamp cancelled and no other explanation. Went to the post office to have it delivered.  The monkeylike clerk wordlessly studied it for a long time before telling me I needed to talk to the supervisor. The supervisor also studied the envelope for a moment.

“Must not have read the address,” he said, pointing to the address printed on the business envelope. “Machines, we use machines, sometimes they make mistakes.” I asked him to expedite delivery of the check, since it was now a week late. He told me he couldn’t expedite anything, only “overstamp” it and put it back into regular mail, unless I wanted to pay for overnight delivery.  He apparently thought I was being a dick, because he’d already admitted a machine had made a mistake, that it was nobody’s fault, and yet I was still demanding something from him. “Haven’t you ever made a mistake?” he asked me.

At this point, the guy who should have simply said “this shouldn’t have happened, I’m sorry for the hassle. I’ll hand cancel this, put it on the truck and make sure it gets delivered tomorrow, the address is only five miles from here” was staring at me like I’d just taken a piss at his window.  He slid a paper with a number he said was for complaints through the window, told me his name. He refused to give me a receipt or any proof I’d re-mailed my returned envelope to my landlord. Told me he could only give me a receipt if I paid for it.

The number on the form turned out not to have an option for “complaints” and the waiting time was 40 to 50 minutes to speak to a human. I have no idea if this dickhead gave me his actual name, whether he put my letter in the bin to be sorted and delivered or into the garbage bin. How would I know how much of a vicious psycho this guy potentially is, particularly after I finally told him to fuck himself after he told me he could only give me a receipt if I paid him? He’d certainly showed me a nice snappy catalogue of politely sociopathic traits.

With a stranger who is an asshole, this is standard behavior: never sympathize, or admit any wrongdoing, give a reason that sounds reasonable enough, deny any obligation to fix the mistake, put the complaining consumer on the spot by blaming him for being a hypocrite, and a complainer, tell him to fuck off, politely, give him a fake number to file his fake complaint and make up a name for yourself.

A loved one who does this is in a different category, no?  Do you want the lesson your kids get to take with them in life to be that trust is a delicate, transactional illusion, that to live you have to learn to tell yourself, and others, any lie that makes it possible to conceal shame and manipulation?


Two or Three Approaches to Dealing with Vexation

When dealing with a problem we can assemble all available information, analyze it as best we can and honestly discuss all options for solving the problem.   We can select only the information we agree to put on the table and talk about that, a more limited approach.   We can agree not to talk about controversial or embarrassing subjects and agree that the problem is not something we will ever solve.   I’ve always been in favor of the first approach, though it is no longer generally accepted as the way to solve problems.  The second and third ways are much more common.  These approaches apply to solving problems in our civic and personal lives.

As a citizenry we no longer expect disclosure from the powers that rule us, we expect spin.   We are not given access to all of the pertinent facts, we are given a few facts in the context that will cause us to hopefully buy those facts, as presented.   There is a fundamental divide in how people approach the things that vex us: we can yell at the television or we can read, analyze, discuss and write.  

For those who yell at the television I will say this: at least you’re paying attention. 

There is a divide between the open and closed approaches, a vast, deep chasm.  There is no bridging this gap, sad to say.   The advocates of a closed approach have their compelling reasons: often involving something embarrassing, shameful, illegal or otherwise painful that must be concealed.  The advocates of transparency can be said to be unaware that all the rules of human society have changed– we live in an endless, brutal global war against violent extremists and the expectations we had before Terror are no longer reasonable. Transparency is a luxury people up against Terror can no longer afford.  

This same divergence in approach applies in personal life.  Some things are just too threatening to put on the table.  So we agree not to discuss them.  It doesn’t mean the things are no longer threatening.  It means they are safely taken off the table as things we may talk about.   It depresses the hell out of me, sometimes, that information people need to make intelligent decisions about their lives is withheld from them, by deliberate policy, by an unshakable decision.   But on I march, as though the hell wasn’t depressed out of me.

Letter to Alvin Bragg (draft one)

Alvin Bragg, we learned recently, is the New York State Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice.   This is the person, I discovered, thanks to a friend who alertly picked up a news release during a press conference with the Attorney General,  to whom my October 2017 letter to the A.G.  should have been addressed.   I’ve been writing “Alvin Bragg” periodically in my notebook, going back a few months, intending to write a futile cover letter to him.  Figured I’d give it a shot here, on a slow day.  I’ll have to strike just the right tone.

Dear Mr. Executive Deputy Attorney General:

(if that is your fucking name)

Enclosed please find my correspondence with your office.   I naively sent the Attorney General a letter recommending actions the state should take to protect the rights of low income health insurance consumers.   Mr. Schneiderman never saw that letter, a letter that should have been addressed to you, I learned from the organizational tree in one of the A.G.’s press releases.

My letter details some of the systemic abuses of the private insurance health system, and the lack of any state oversight available to consumers, outside of a desk in your office, and proposes actions that your office could advocate for.  It was not a consumer complaint seeking redress of a particular grievance, though it was treated as one by your office.    

Enclosed are the two responses I had from your office’s Health Care Bureau.   Neither one is responsive to the letter I wrote, except that the second one attempts to be helpful by suggesting I’m a consumer, like many, who is unaware of the powers of the Health Care Bureau in the A.G.’s office.

My October letter, and this one, fall into the category of “in a more just world letters like this wouldn’t have to be written at all”.  My letter to the A.G. was in part a cry of anguish from somebody with a limited income stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire with limited options for getting treatment for an eventually fatal disease.   The PPACA, as anyone who is subject to it quickly learns, is a very flawed solution to the vast institutional problem of providing affordable health care to millions while preserving the profits of private insurance companies and private health care providers.    

I am well aware that people with a limited income have only so much right to be heard on even the most vexing institutional injustices: like the three to six month lag between a medical procedure and Explanation of Benefits,  with the inevitable multiple bills and collection notices that accrue in that time frame.  Or that past EOBs, even with the assistance of a diligent attorney from the Community Service Society, and all required legal documents signed, were never provided at all by the insurance company.  “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike from begging, sleeping under bridges and stealing a loaf of bread.”

Ah, listen, Alvin, I don’t know what I really hope to accomplish with this note to you.  What outcome am I hoping for?  A paragraph apologizing for the poor response from your overworked consumer help desk, sympathizing with the situation I describe in my letter, assuring me that the activist A.G. of New York is doing everything in his power to address some of the institutional vexations set out in my long letter.  Strength to your arm, friend, dictating that paragraph to your secretary.

My best to you and your staff,

Extractive vs. Regenerative Economic Models

Few of us question the status quo on essential matters that seem beyond question in a free society, like the necessity for constant war, eternal poverty, other plagues of human misery like desperate addiction and mass incarceration.   One reason is that we don’t have the language to ask these questions intelligently, even if we know something is sickeningly wrong with the way business as usual is conducted.  If you come across the right term, as I did recently from an activist — “extractive economic model,” and consider it against her alternative, “regenerative economic model,” you have the beginning of your question.  Spoiler alert, the irrefutable answer to this well-framed question, if you are not very, very wealthy and have some means to influence people, is “oh shut the fuck up, you fucking loser fuck.”  Nonetheless…

The great fortunes of some of our greatest families are founded on wealth they had workers extract from the ground.   This model for ‘creating wealth’ continues unabated to this day, with the tireless extractors of wildly lucrative fossil fuels still raking in vast fortunes every year.  In fact, with the new corporate tax break, Exxon and their ilk will keep many additional billions in the coming years for their essential contribution to the bustling world economy.  Same for the Koch boys and the industrious geniuses who invented the invasive, highly toxic hydrofracking procedure to extract safe, clean, lucrative, natural gas from deep within the earth. 

Back in the days when America was great, and people of means could own other human beings, the economy of the South was based on non-food cash crops, cotton and tobacco, that required massive manpower to harvest and which also depleted the soil.  Plant any single crop long enough in the same place and you end up destroying the soil.   That’s why crop rotation has been around for thousands of years.  That was one reason the Planters (that’s what the slave-driving motherfuckers were called) were so keen to add new slave territories to our great nation, they had destroyed the soil of the south growing the same two highly profitable monocultures every year.  

It’s just the way we do business here.   There are externalities attached to most enterprises that create vast wealth.  The death of the Amazon jungle, the lungs of the planet, is considered (by winners) a small price to pay if it allows McDonald’s to continue selling healthy three dollar meals to poor people, and reaping massive worldwide profits.  We live in an extractive economy, extract what you need, as cheaply as possible, to ensure maximum profit, and sorry about any lifeless ecosystems we leave behind.  Read the fine print, also, you can’t sue us in court but we can hire an arbitrator together to tell you you have no rights a wealthy corporation is bound to respect.  In the worse case scenario, like in the battle between big oil and local activists in Nigeria, you can just hang a few of the local leaders and the rest of the protesters will go away.

But this is all just bellyaching.  Until, perhaps, you have the alternative model to present: the regenerative economic model.   Regenerative grows back, extractive removes with no thought or hope of replacing anything. Regenerative is the essence of sustainability, Extractive depletes unto extinction.  Regeneration supports living creatures, extraction eventually kills them all.  

“OK, fine, Mr. Idealist, a sustainable economy is better than an earth-raping one, but where is the money in your precious regeneration?   Extraction has a long proven history of profit going back to the Conquistadors who forced natives to mine and give up their gold.   In fact, it goes back way further, to when great conquerers just extracted what they wanted from loser cultures who went whimpering under the sword.”  

No argument there.

“So, sir, with all due respect– why don’t you fucking shut the fuck up you fucking loser fuck?”  

I couldn’t say, sir.  I suppose it is not in my nature. 

The Smartest Man in the Room

My old friend Andy was a very clever fellow.   Only he, Antonin Scalia and James Woods, for example, ever scored perfect 1600s on their Scholastic Aptitude Test.   He clearly had a facility for math and abstraction, demonstrated by his perfect 800 in Math, but his verbal skills were, clearly, equally well-developed.  He spoke well, wrote well, was a highly critical reader.  This was partly because much of what he read he could probably have written better. 

We used to joke about his red ginsu, the razor sharp one he used to parse, slice and vivisect paragraphs.  I don’t know that all of his corrections were for the best, although I know he felt unshakably certain about every one of them.  His occasional howls at the way a line was written were a giveaway, I always thought.   From time to time they’d lock him up in a ward somewhere until he calmed down, so there is also that.

The smartest man in the room, someone who takes the sketchy title seriously, is rarely impressed by other people’s cleverness, it seems to me.   If he is impressed, he keeps it to himself.   It’s as if he’s sure the clever remark is something he could have easily delivered better, he was simply thinking of more important things at the time.  I find myself mulling this over this on a frigid day, this cold trait of some very smart people I have known.    

I once knew a very bright professional writer, a former journalist.  He was a good storyteller and a true literary craftsman,  He also turned out to be loathe to compliment, or even comment on, writing that was not currently for sale.  He had a pragmatic orientation, for one thing.  Writing for oneself was just that, and no further commentary was necessary.  Writing for pay was a job, a craft, work, every sentence open to debate and revision by the buyer.  It was two different worlds to him, I surmise, presenting an idea for publication versus masturbating at length (or even succinctly) in the privacy of one’s own notebook. 

To increase the odds of having a piece published the writer must proceed pragmatically.   What subject will the publication want written about?  What kind of prose does the publication usually publish, what is their editorial point of view, what style do they prefer?  How much of the personal is acceptable in a personal piece and how much of the private is expected to be suggested with discretion?  What tone do they buy?   How many words? 

You take these factors into consideration, and the taste of the person who buys the pieces, if you are able to find out, and craft your piece accordingly.  All of this is sensible to keep in mind while writing for pay.   Follow these steps while writing as well as you can and you increase your chances of selling the piece.

Here’s a harder part.   Suppose someone sends you chapters of an ambitious manuscript of a book he’s trying to write, a personal biographical project you have discussed with him at length.   It is unlike most straightforward memoirs you’ve read.   It would be hard to put it into a marketing slot, or imagine what shelf to put it on in a bookstore, if it did become a book.   It’s a kind of creative nonfiction, a reimagining of a difficult life, a sometimes poignant wrestling match between anger and acceptance, set against huge historical backdrops.  Some of it is, admittedly, moving, and it takes an occasional nice leap from apparent reality to pure conjecture, but in the end, what the fuck is it?   Best to say nothing.

The writer’s ex-wife will later angrily defend the writer’s continued silence on the several chapters of the ms. he was sent.   According to her, he was unable, or unwilling, to write that way, with the creative leaps and the wildly reimagined confrontations, the deeply personal stuff.  He simply wasn’t built that way, not in his writing, not in his personal life.   It was unfair, she said, to judge him harshly because he was not able to write that way.  Unfair to bring up that he’d expressed interest and offered feedback on the pages and then never sent any feedback.   “What do you fucking expect him to fucking say about something he himself couldn’t do, you fucking self-absorbed fuck?” she added, a bit gratuitously, I thought.   

Eventually, when the subject was gingerly raised and discussed between the writer and the would-be writer, the published author told the unpublished one that he had been raised, by a supremely successful grandfather, to always compete.   This was as close to a plausible explanation as the unpublished writer would ever get from the pro.   

I get to wondering about this, a man who no longer keeps a journal, outside of the words that find themselves here.  Maybe I delude myself, judgmental bastard that I also am, that I always try to nurture the creative efforts of people I encounter.   Somebody sends me a beautiful photo, I send back “beautiful”.   It takes a few seconds and it feels right.   Perhaps it means nothing to the other person, is like a single “like” on fucking Facebook. 

Maybe I’m largely the same way as these paragons I describe above, oblivious about the many times I don’t even send “well-done” when a virtual tear runs down my virtual cheek after reading something that moves me.  I mean, unless the writer is a needy, vain, weak person, why do they need me to tell them that what they wrote made an impression on me, right?

When I write now I scrutinize every sentence and the whole before I hit “publish”.   I’ve polished my style by this exercise of preparing these pages to be read by a stranger in Malaysia, or Saudi Arabia or, today, Slovakia.  I picture anyone in the world reading my words, and picturing this reader, I strive to make what I am saying as clear as possible.   

I read this top to bottom, numerous times, as I write, flashing my own ginsu over any word that casts a shadow over the clarity of its neighbors.   Writing clearly is a kind favor to the reader, and to ourselves.   We write to be understood, to express thoughts coherently, to make our feelings felt by others, to connect.   We strive to write without a thought for who is the smartest baboon in the room.  At least I think we do, though, it also must be noted, I am clearly not the smartest baboon in the room.

An untenable life

I persist here almost every day, frequently encouraged by the previously adversarial voice of my dead father’s skeleton.  I write these pieces in spite of many sensible reasons not to spend so much of my time this way.   I’m often cheered by my appetite to set the words down, get my thoughts out clearly, express sometimes difficult feelings, in spite of the almost universal silence that greets this unpaid work.  Still, it is an untenable life.

I console myself: I write because I’m compelled to write, because it helps me, and may help someone else.   I assure myself that I’ll eventually sell some of this writing to support myself, however slightly, going forward.   I am better about not being pissed sitting in the middle of the almost universal silence that hisses around even my best efforts here, I remind myself.  Some days, like today, for example, it feels like an untenable life I am living.  A random page ripped senselessly out of Ecclesiastes.

My idiopathic life-threatening disease is as vague and slow-unfolding as my life itself.  Norton Juster had a character in The Phantom Tollbooth who reminds me of myself in regard to my writing life.   “Worlds tallest midget” said the sign, and a man of average height opened the door.  Around the corner was the “World’s smallest giant”, same guy.   If I wrote half as well as I do, but had twice the ambition, twice the marketing and branding skills, I’d probably be able to make a living.   If I wrote a third as well, and had ten times the marketing and branding smarts, and the unquenchable drive, I’d be a wealthy man by now.   But who am I fucking kidding?  My life is untenable.  

Look, all of our lives are untenable in the end.   Fuck– look at this guy, his lungs just went kaput.   She could have lived to be a hundred, if not for that drunk driver.    Nobody knows how this one died, put “WTF?” for cause of death.   In those last moments, given the chance to take stock of one’s life, how many take consolation in the many good business deals they made?  I have no idea, having almost never made a good business deal.

It seems to me that, except in the case of monsters, those last moments are probably spent thinking about love, shining forth from the world we are about to lose.  The thought of being loved could be a comfort, or it could be unbearable, smothering, I suppose.   That was one reason my father sent his family away right before he died.  How do you die with a small audience of people desperate not to lose you looking on?   The nurses told me afterwards that many men do this, send wives and children away before they breathe their last.  

It’s not the thought of my eventual death that bothers me now, it’s thoughts of my untenable life, a life I must continue to live today.   You can be a moral person, strive to be kind, and mild, to listen, to be responsive, use a gentle phrase to turn aside wrath.   With that orientation to the world, if you have a metrocard with a ride left on it, you can get on a bus, and probably you will be one of the nicest kids on the bus.

Years ago, as I was caring for my dying mother long distance with long daily phone calls, a literary agent was blown away by a long, convoluted story that spilled out when I arrived, soaked and dehydrated, at a party.  “If you can write that down just the way you told it, I can sell it!” she assured me with great confidence.  It was an exciting assurance.  At the time I had no clue how to write it down just the way I’d told it.  I sent her what I thought was my best effort and she responded that I was a very nice guy and that she’d like to take me to lunch at the Harvard Club, where she took her professional clients.   I never called her to arrange that lunch, nice fucking guy that I am.    

These days, having the time, patience and solitude to concentrate, I have a pretty good idea how to go about writing it all down.  Little idea how to organize it, or even review, say, the 1,200 pages of a first draft, but a much better sense that I am hitting the target pretty consistently when I sit down to write.  Nonetheless, the life I am currently waking up to is untenable. Today it is about 2,000 pounds of untenable.  

Wrestling with my themes every day, I’ve developed muscles that most people I know, people much more muscled and capable than I am in most other ways, are not aware they even have.   Today this rippling musculature mocks me, feels like an even shittier consolation prize than it does most other days.   I turn the goddamn thing I am looking at five different ways before setting it in final form.   There are subtle details that must be lit just so.  Impossible to show these things, unless you take pains to set them at the right angle, against the right backdrop, light them correctly.  Leave out a step and you might as well piss in the ocean from a high cliff.

“Schmuck,” I can hear the voice, “instead of writing about what a good writer you are, why don’t you write a great letter to a top literary agent and see what you can get them to do for you and your untenable life?  Nobody gives a rat’s toned and sculpted cuisse for your self-regarding opinions about your fucking untenable life.   Live a tenable life or die — your choice, bitch.”

Leonardo, looking for a patron, once wrote a remarkable letter to some rich guy, maybe the King of France (see letter to the Duke of Milan).  He boldly set out a highly improbable list of many things, in a dozen disparate fields, he could do for this rich guy.  The rich guy was impressed, gave the prototypical Renaissance man a lifetime stipend to live in a villa and conduct his life of contemplation, exploration and the pursuit of knowledge and excellence.   It may have been some other rich guy who eventually gave him the lifetime stipend, his letter may have had no greater effect than being a wonderful example of self-confidence and seeming hyperbole that is actually, possibly, understatement. 

“Yes, that’s what you do, write that understated, hyperbolic letter and send it to everyone you can find who might be an advocate in getting you some rich people’s money.  The people you know can’t help you, and, more to the point, cannot stand to hear about your untenable, if also highly fortunate, life.  You want silence?  You’ve got it now.”  

I’m all ears.