Let me get this straight, Elie

“Let me get this straight, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father.   We’ve been chatting regularly the last couple of years, the skeleton and I.  A long overdue conversation, you might say.   My father’s skeleton has been resting in his dirt bed now for more than twelve years.  He finally has time for contemplation, to consider the things he wished he’d said and done while he was walking among us.

“Yes, yes,” said the skeleton.  “But I want to try to understand something specific here, Elie, while you natter on in your blahg about every random gargoyle of injustice you encounter– and, it goes without saying, the less income you have the more stinking injustice will be thrust into your face to deal with.   I want to know what you actually expect to accomplish by telling the story of my life.  Your plan involves the telling of this story… and then?”  The skeleton raised an open hand and turned it palm up.  

“OK, you write this definitive, historically accurate, politically informed story, themes as urgent today as they were in 1932, and you manage to do a second draft you’re pretty happy with.  It’s now a fairly snappy read, a story someone would be interested in reading.   It pulls together all kinds of interesting historical moments, personal and national, illuminates them from cool angles, fits them into an ongoing puzzle of human irrationality and hope.  It works in the difficult question of how a person can truly forgive an abuser and learn to live a better way.  A good read, thoughtful, measured, thought–provoking.   Done and done, you could say.  Then, all you have to do is find an agent and then a publisher so you can both get paid.  

“But let’s assume your primary aim was to write the complex story of your complicated father as clearly as possible, to understand the relationship and set the issues out calmly, for yourself and anyone else, with no regard for the commercial success or failure of the manuscript.  If so, you would appear to be almost done with this project and we’d have to call it largely successful, in the manner of Bear Bryant’s moral victory– which he disparagingly, and accurately, compared to kissing your sister.  But I’m trying to put my finger on what exactly you aim to do with this Book of Irv, what your real hopes are for this thing you’ve been working on, systematically now, for the last two years.”  

Sell it to the highest bidder, obviously.  

“Well, you say that, but that has always been a distant after-thought for you, getting paid by the high bidder, or by any bidder at all, for that matter.  How much of writing this manuscript was motivated by a need to get some corporate princeling to pay you for your time tapping out little lines of carefully marshaled words several hours every day?   I’m trying to understand what, exactly, it is you hope to get out of finishing this book.  What role a need for recognition as a writer plays in your motivation.  How you think the success of this book might change your life.”

Part of my motivation, seriously, is to say “fuck you, Hitler.”   I reclaim your life, and your unknown life stands in for a brutally culled generation, a tiny handful left from a huge family on both sides, thanks to Mr. Fucking Hitler.  The rabid madman published an unreadable doorstop of a screed called Mein Kampf, after becoming well-known for a failed authoritarian coup he defended stirringly at his public trial, and lived off the royalties of that giant piece of dreck for a decade.  Until he actually took power and started carrying out the insane proposals he ranted about in the book.   

“Whoa, Elie, ‘fuck Hitler?’   That’s really the best you can come up with?   Buy this book because, fuck Hitler, yo?” the skeleton did a stiff armed Seig Heil and then let his skinny arm go limp.

Part of it, yeah.  Testifying.  Kill my whole family, you insane asshole, but since you didn’t manage to kill my parents, or me, I get the final last word.   You know one big reason why our family was so insane?  Every relative left behind where we come from was killed by mobs, factions whipped to murderous frenzy by that master of marketing and self-promotion, Germany’s savior, the charismatic psychopath Mr. Hitler.   There are white douchebags right now buying copies of Mein Kampf, hanging pictures of that foaming-at-the-mouth Alsatian bitch in their dens, next to the mounted heads of animals they’ve killed. 

“Seriously, Elie,” said the skeleton.  “I take your point, but still.  Hitler’s the best you can do?  You’re going to dedicate the book to mom and Hitler?” 

Hah, funny you should say that.  The thought did cross my mind, though I realized at once it would be problematic. 

“Obviously,” said the skeleton.  “But your little Hitler pivot doesn’t distract me from trying to get the honest answer to my actual question.   We’re not on some network talk show where you can get away with that kind of shit.  We have all the time in the world, all the time left in your world, anyway.  I want to know how important getting this ms. into print, and being paid for it, is to you.   

“You know, we can dance around and around– and I can go for days, now that I’m but a skeleton– or you can honestly weigh how important getting paid is to you, how pressing the need to be recognized for honing your ability to write about what moves you.”   

Both things are important to me.  I’ve been paid a couple of times for writing, $250 a pop.  It felt great.  Once the words are published they are something everyone in our consumer society can understand.  Send the link to the mangled prose, worked over by the same ham-fisted hack who gives the thumbs up or thumbs down on paying you, and every friend you send it to will write back with a happy ‘atta boy!’   Write something equally moving, send it to the same group of friends, and the reaction is a kind of chagrined silence.  The question hanging in the air is: what the fuck?  Get paid for this work and send me the link, I’ll be happy to see it, but this…. I don’t have any way to talk about this if it’s just a page from your diary…   

“That’s the world, Elie,” said the skeleton.  “Until a paid critic for a well-respected journal writes appreciatively about your important work, how is anyone to know how good or important it really is?  You can bitch about a materialistic, shallow, clueless consumer society where all creativity must be commodified before it can be grasped, a culture best conjured by the images in a zombie movie– or you can sell that bitching.  Are you serious about selling your bitching, sir?”

Serious as Hitler, dad. 

“How important is the conversation you will have with strangers, once the book is out in the public?” 

Clearly, also very important.   Strangers are ultimately who I am writing for.  My friends will be happy for me, a few will even read the book cover to cover.  But the real audience for this book is people who never heard of Irv Widaen.   As far as they go, he’s a fictional front man for the telling of a story much bigger than the conflicts of his individual life.   The larger conversation, that’s really what I am excited about.   

“Clearly,” said the skeleton.  “So excited you’d engage in a two year chat with a dead man, for lack of a more suitable interlocutor.”   

One small step better than talking to the wall, I think you’ll agree. 

“You’ll get no argument from me, Elie.  How important is your fantasy of talking to Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate about the book?”   

Fairly important, I guess.  For multiple reasons.  Leaving aside the marketing angle, and getting to speak directly to their demographic, I think they are both excellent interviewers and I’d enjoy talking to them.   Beyond that, they don’t talk to just anybody.  Sometimes you’ll hear an interview that seems to contradict that, but in general, they are asking nuanced, intelligent questions about things that people have written, sung, acted out.   Would you not have looked forward to a chance to talk to somebody like that? 

“Oh, absolutely,” said the skeleton, beginning to slump back into his grave. 

Well, there you go, dad.  Anyway, let me catch you later, you seem to be slouching toward a well-deserved nap. 

“My reward,” said the skeleton, settling back into the dark earth of his grave.


A Giant Rat (from Plato’s cave)

Recently I rode my bike down the beautiful path from the northern end of Manhattan, along the Hudson River, to Sekhnetville, about 13 miles south.  I really must post some photos from these trips, it’s a very photogenic ride.  You can see how beautiful the island was before wealth-crazed developers began heedlessly exploiting virtually every inch of it.   


 The ride on the bike path becomes magical around sunset when the sky and the river are constantly changing color.


As I’m now older, 61, and aware of certain health concerns, I tend to take a couple of breaks along the way.  I generally find myself resting just past the sewage treatment plant the city built in Harlem decades back.   In the plaza in front of Fairway I get off the bike, sit on a bench, have some water, a snack, rest a few minutes, watch the river flow.   


The other night, as I was about to get on my bike to continue on a particularly beautiful section of the path, I saw a giant black rat racing toward me.  It was impossibly huge, this rat, and coming straight at me as I began to stand, hands on the handlebars of my bike.  The mutant rat was illuminated by the headlights of a car.  When the car turned, and the light shifted, I saw in that instant that the immense black rat was actually a tiny, terrified mouse, scrambling for cover about ten feet away and to my left.  What I had seen was its monstrous shadow, created by the headlights of the car.   

Reminded me of Plato’s allegory about the cave.  


A Little History


                                                                                                              (photo credit)

As we learn, words matter very much.   What we call something frames the conversation and removes certain aspects completely from the discussion. Most of us recognize that there is a more truthful description of an actual incident and a less truthful one.  Those who would manipulate public opinion seize the selected description that serves them best.   We can see this daily in the asinine pronouncements of President Pantload and the often convoluted defense of these remarks by his loyalists.   It is an old ploy: call the thing something else and we are no longer talking about the thing that concerns you the most.

Look at the thirty-four words on this marker about an event that took place on April 13, 1873, Easter Sunday that year.  A beautiful example of this.

Context:  this incident took place less than a decade after the end of the Civil War, a war that grew out of a peculiar form of commerce, institutionalized racism and a region’s military defense of chattel slavery based on that racism and commerce.   It is an American war that continues to rage, as a glance around today will confirm.  

The side that lost America’s bloodiest war was forced by the winners to ratify constitutional amendments that would give full citizenship to a race that had until a few years earlier been mostly enslaved.   The former Confederate states were not happy about being forced to do this, but they were compelled to sign so they could get Federal funds to restore the destroyed infrastructure of the South.

After the election of 1872 local whites were enraged that former slaves were again attempting to vote and, worse, were intent on trying to enforce the results of an election their candidate had won.   An armed garrison of blacks guarded the courthouse at the county seat of Grant Parish, to ensure that their candidate was sworn into office.  Local whites, heavily armed, most on horseback, with at least one cannon, besieged the former slaves guarding the voting box.   After the surviving outnumbered blacks surrendered they were taken prisoner.   Dozens of these unarmed prisoners were summarily executed by the mob over the next few hours.

Riot or massacre?  You decide.

Note that three white men were killed.   In a riot.  Then 150 blacks were killed, probably while running amok.  “You know how those people are…” is presumed here, I can almost hear the demur, lowered voice, almost apologetic.  

The passive voice “were slain” is another great touch.  You know, shit happens in a riot.  It is so much more tasteful than “were butchered” or “shot point blank by members of a mob who also tortured many before killing them”.

Then the historical marker concludes, like an incompetent president doubling down, with the punchline, of sorts.

“This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

It is amazing in its bluntness and accuracy, to cite only two ways it is amazing.  Once local mobs could kill blacks with impunity there was no way the former slaves could hope to enjoy the rights of citizenship.   It was probably the Supreme Court decision on the case a few years later, freeing all the white perpetrators/victims of the riot, that marked the end of so-called carpetbag rule, and the compromise that settled the 1876 presidential election, and removed federal troops, that led to the end of enforcement of the new federal laws in the South, the return of “home rule”, but that is a trifle. 

The carpetbaggers were unscrupulous northerners who came down to plunder the helpless south after the war.  There were a bunch of them, no doubt, and some enriched themselves in the manner of ticks gorging on the blood of a noble animal too weakened to resist.  But the “carpetbag misrule” on that plaque refers to the efforts of the Federal government to enforce the constitutional amendments preventing slavery, extending full citizenship and the vote to former slaves.   This “misrule”, enforced with troops and often called “bayonet rule”, included making the former Confederacy do everything it had gone to long and bloody war to prevent:  treat its blacks as equal citizens.  “Misrule” because it is so unfair for the victor of a war to impose its will on those who lost, no matter who fired the first shots.

The fucking issue is still being bitterly fought.  The racism behind it is deeply baked into our society.   Calling it by another name?   Just more of the same.

Bravo, by the way, to the creators of that historical marker.  Making America great again.

Edited letter to the A.G.

Dear Mr. Attorney General:

I am appealing to you for assistance, on behalf of many thousands of New Yorkers caught in a sometimes life-threatening situation regarding their healthcare.  As described more fully below, citizens of our state have no government agency that intervenes in cases where patients are mistreated by the corporations we buy health insurance from.   This is true even in cases of apparent fraud.  

I urge you to propose legislation to correct this grave oversight.  The need for state regulation of health insurance grows ever more acute in light of the current federal administration’s determination to gut all regulation.

I’ve followed your career and admire the principled and proactive steps your office has taken against the powerful perpetrators of various frauds.  Leaving politics aside, as one must in a letter like this, it is gratifying to see someone in office holding powerful entities responsible for their bad acts.  Your office is well-suited to fix what I believe is a healthcare emergency affecting the lives of countless New Yorkers who purchase private health insurance, particularly older citizens and those living just above the “poverty line.”

As frustrating as my healthcare-related ordeals have been, a 61 year-old currently trying to get treatment for kidney disease and skin cancer, I have the benefits of fluency in English, computer literacy, legal skills.  It is hard to imagine the life-shortening stress that is inflicted on the elderly and other vulnerable New Yorkers unable to get so much as a hearing for often unappealable denials of health care.

It has been a challenge to put the many healthcare-related issues I’ve been forced to navigate into a streamlined letter.  I’ve attempted to keep this letter short and dispassionate.  To that end I provide some of the devilish details in a series of attachments.  I have confirmed many times that my experience as a consumer who buys health insurance on the New York State of Health Marketplace (“NYSOH”) is representative of the experiences of countless others.  

Attachment # 1 is a detailed description of the “consumer help” cul du sac that desperate NYS residents can spend a few hours in, looking in vain for help with health insurance-related troubles.  Anyone in your office can retrace the useless steps.  Creating a healthcare ombudsman position would be a good first step here.    

Corporate “persons” are without conscience and motivated only by a zeal for profit.  When left unregulated, it is no surprise such “persons” act as they see fit.  In the case of health insurance companies, they are free, for example, to repeatedly refer patients to “in-network” doctors who are not actually in-network.  They are also relatively unrestrained when refusing to provide services, under a variety of corporate rationales, in spite of what the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) may have to say about it.   There is no penalty for these common business practices and they are well aware of it.  Regulations to address these things, with an enforcement arm, would be a good start.  (see #2)

Those mandated by the PPACA to purchase health insurance from the New York State of Health Marketplace may find themselves with a host of new problems during the short holiday season window for purchasing insurance. A consumer advocate or ombudsperson on site at NYSOH would greatly aid in resolving problems, including simple mathematical errors, that presently can only be addressed by a lengthy appeals process.  (See  #3)

Billing irregularities, including improper bills, which are to be expected in a law as complicated as the PPACA, are probably the most common form of immediate stress most of us are regularly subjected to.   The rep at your office’s consumer help desk offered help with billing problems, problems I suspect are legion.   I offer a short overview of the larger problem and one recent snapshot as #4.

Thank you for your time.  I am available to amplify anything written here and to testify anywhere you may require.

Yours sincerely,


From attachment 4:  

The PPACA, whose primary drafter, Liz Fowler, went back to work in the health industry after her legislative work was done, apparently contains no provision that the cost of a medical service must be divulged to the patient before the medical service is performed.  

The doctor’s office or hospital cannot tell you the fee until the insurance company sends them a statement.  The insurance company cannot predict the fee until they get the provider’s bill.  The insurance company then eventually sends the patient an Explanation of Benefits, (“EOB”), detailing all charges, payments made and the patient’s responsibility for whatever part of the negotiated rate insurance has not paid.

My kidney biopsy, for example, may cost the patient anywhere between zero and many thousands of dollars.  Simply no way to determine the cost prior to delivery of the service, under current law.  I had the procedure on May 26, I got the most recent EOB related to the procedure on September 28.  In the intervening four months, I got many bills from the hospital.

Though there is probably nothing your office can do about this particular practice, I offer it as an illustration of the scope of the challenges facing New York healthcare consumers.  I provide the following (obviously minus preamble, dear reader)  as a snapshot of the general billing madness under our current regulatory scheme.   I compare it to eating at a restaurant with no prices on the menu, and being sent a bill for the meal weeks later.  Except, of course, that it is not a meal at a restaurant, it is often a matter of life or death.


An excellent historical analysis

An organization, seeking to foster a real conversation about our history of violent racism, lynching in particular, had the funding (from Google) to shoot me a compelling video ad on youtube that led me to explore their website. From their report:

When the era of racial terror and widespread lynching ended in the mid-twentieth century, it left behind a nation and an American South fundamentally altered by decades of systematic community-based violence against black Americans. The effects of the lynching era echoed through the latter half of the twentieth century. African Americans continued to face violent intimidation when they transgressed social boundaries or asserted their civil rights, and the criminal justice system continued to target people of color and victimize African Americans. These legacies have yet to be confronted.

The organization is called The Equal Justice Initiative.  Their project is of crucial importance, in a country being made great again by people who deny our ongoing bloody history, and climate disruption, our 2500% higher rate of mass killing by gun than any other nation and many other horrors that are denied at our peril.   The website is very well done.  The historical section I read is clearly and beautifully written.  

When I was in law school, twenty years ago, a case called U.S. v. Cruikshank was mentioned in a one sentence footnote in the casebook for Constitutional Law.   As I began researching what happened to enforcement of the amendments intended to outlaw slavery, guarantee full citizenship to former slaves and give black men the right to vote, I stumbled on more details about the little known case.   After reading the lower court decisions, and the Supreme Court’s final word, I came to understand that Cruikshank, as much as the aptly named Slaughterhouse cases (which gave a miserly reading of the rights of federal citizenship that would be our law for almost a century), was actually the death knell for the new rights of citizenship for black people in America.

When an organized, torch carrying crowd marched and chanted recently in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting the proposed removal of a monument to the slaveholders’ armed rebellion against the U.S.A., the stink of an undiscussed history hung over that procession.  There was the occasional shot of a screaming chap wearing a swastika, a chant about Jews, delivered by the marchers without love or irony, and also those carrying and wearing the symbols of those who enslaved and terrorized blacks.  There was a near century, after the Civil War, of often public lynching that extended to twenty states, walking with these angry white men.

Most people, on many sides, many sides, have a revulsion for the symbols of racist regimes of the past, however little they might actually know about these notorious regimes.  These symbols stand for a time when violent hatred ruled the day.  That’s kind of the point of bringing these potent symbols to a rally.  They are used to rub people’s faces in an easily recognizable worst case scenario for a minority, when the violent racists of the day ruled and the government smiled on the murderers.  

Cruikshank was one of the leaders of a mob of angry whites, defeated Confederates, who swarmed into Colfax Louisiana on Easter Sunday 1873. They came heavily armed, on horseback, with at least one cannon.  The whites were there to see that Negros did not get the final word on the vote, that no Negro take power over any white. They attacked the black Civil War veterans who were guarding the courthouse, defending the county seat of newly renamed Grant Parish after a bitterly contested election won, on black votes, by Republican advocates of black rights.    

It was a slaughter, pure and simple.  As many as fifty black men were killed hours after surrendering.   The whites, who had overwhelming numbers, killed every black they came across, left their corpses rotting on the field on the day Jesus was resurrected and rose up to heaven.  The failed federal prosecution of the perpetrators of what Eric Foner called the worst instance of racial violence of the Reconstruction era   would, more than a century later, become a one sentence footnote in the Constitutional Law casebook. [1]

The federal prosecution over Cruikshank and his comrades was ruled unconstitutional by The Supreme Court.  It said, amid pages of legal analysis that drily took the indictments apart point by point, that the Constitution protected former slaves only from government action– not from the actions of a private mob.   It left enforcement of such crimes up to each individual state to deal with as they saw fit.   The case quietly closed down all federal prosecution of outfits like the Ku Klux Klan.  

The decision was a stinking piece of legalistic cavil, like other racially driven decisions over the years, but you can’t appeal that decision anywhere, of course, even if the Court is demonstrably sympathetic to the former enemies of the U.S.   The ruling in Cruikshank led to all the defendants walking, triumphant as that iconic grinning Southern sheriff with his Red Man chewing tobacco pouch almost a century later, into a long period of unrestrained, often deadly, brutality against former slaves.

Here is a historical marker, put up by the state of Louisiana in 1950, photographed by Billy Hathorn (photo credit here). 


At the end of the twentieth century only an enterprising law student with an overriding interest in history could find out anything more about the case, about the then largely unknown Colfax massacre, about any of this shit.  As we march along in the twenty-first century, this is the kind of history we need to be learning from together. This website is an excellent tool for learning.

As the director of the Equal Justice Initiative writes:  

We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.

True dat, as my father would say.


[1]  how’s this for a footnote?  

Opposition among white Democrats to suffrage for blacks resulted in 1,081 political murders from April to November 1868. Almost all of the victims were black, and some of the whites who were killed were Republicans.


Burying the lede

The eagle eyed (or more accurately eagle eared) Sekhnet had a good comment on the letter to the A.G.   I need a more dramatic, attention grabbing opening sentence.   One must not bury the lede.   Can’t make a sale without a good pitch, and a good windup is essential to ze nasty break on zat strikeout pitch.

The present draft begins with this bland statement (note passive voice use, it’s not like it was written by me, he said):

I am writing to give you an on-the-ground view of the stressful health care situation for hundreds of thousands of us in New York State.

Admittedly, not much there to grab you.

My more fiery, overwrought first draft, months back, opened:

I am writing to alert you to a massive consumer protection failure in New York State, regarding denials of purchased health care, and to urge your office to investigate this unchecked fraud.

There might be something there… but not enough.

I am writing to alert you to the scope of the healthcare crisis for tens of thousands of New Yorkers…  

Sekhnet dictates (with some on the fly revisions):

I am appealing to you for assistance on behalf of many thousands of New Yorkers placed in an untenable position regarding their healthcare.   

This also needs to get worked in early on, I suppose:

As frustrating as my medical insurance ordeals have been, I have the benefits of fluency in English, computer literacy, legal skills.  I cannot imagine the life-shortening stress that is inflicted on the elderly and other vulnerable New Yorkers unable to get so much as a hearing for often unappealable denials of health care.

On the other hand, since this is the holiest day of my great-grandfather’s religion, and a fasting day, at that,  I’d better wrap this up and get ready to bring these fruits I’ve been slicing and the other things we’ve been preparing up to our gathering to break the fast.   Once it gets dark.  That first drink of orange juice never tastes better.