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Disappoinment: Our financial institutions

A few days ago I received a letter from my insurance company. Due to the fact that I had two claims on my house in thirteen years of paying large premiums for auto, house, and life insurance, they have decided to “drop” me. My local agent, who I now realize has little power beyond selling and maintaining my policies, has always been wonderful. He is now only able to challenge the decision made by the underwriters in the regional office, a process that has an unknown outcome.

Of course this is outrageous and probably not particularly logical on the part of the insurance company. If they’ve payed off a few thousand dollars, they’ve gained far more than that from my premiums all these years. That pattern is the basis of the insurance industry: people pay for the unlikely possibility that they will make a claim.

What has caused this? Our economy, which is unstable at best, has created the perception that corporations have to be proactive about saving money. In the predatory world of corporate politics, the first impulse is to demonstrate savings.. It makes no difference that the company is making a profit overall; that would imply that all areas of the company knew what the other areas are doing. Anyone who has worked for a large corporation knows that various departments are siloed, sometimes wasting large amounts of money with no oversight from the company as a whole. If underwriters are told by their boss in one regional office that they have to stem the tide of insurance payouts, they will find a list of customers who fit the bill simply to justify their existence. It’s the way of American business.
WhiteCollarCrime1
So is this blog about disappointment really about insurance? Not quite. A few years ago my credit rating went down 100 points in one day. No, I hadn’t defaulted on a loan. A large, well-known, bank had taken one of my wife’s credit cards and made me the prime card holder. We never held the card in common. It was purely her’s. When I spoke to the bank, I began by speaking to their fraud department. As amazing as it may seem, the fraud department admitted that their actions were fraudulent. However the credit card department was like ice. I was told that a settlement had been made to pay off the balance on the card and “no adjustments” could be made under those circumstances. When I reminded them they had committed fraud which transcended the sanctity of their payment plan, they were unmoved and unconcerned.

So what is this blog about? Disappointment. Disappointment that the “insurance” I have is not insurance. Disappointed that a large bank with a reputation that spans one hundred years is able to blithely break the law and then defend the practice. What we have, with growing frequency, are criminals and criminal activity masquerading as critical financial services.

We can only expect this to continue. Recently I saw a new report describing how banks are now using tricks to add overdraft fees to customer’s accounts. What is most pitiful is that no one seems to be outraged by what are clearly criminal activities. That our service organizations have happily become white collar criminals does nothing to anger us. There contract with us, their customers, has been voided and we have become their prey.

This is the trend in our country. Remember that the last recession was due to irresponsible credit dealings and financial institutions cooking the books. I suppose that the philosophy in the financial industry, after seeing the “successes” of those corporations, must now be “nice guys finish last”.
WhiteCollarCrime2
This isn’t about corporate Americas a whole. These are the people who provide our basic financial foundation. If they start acting flakey or dishonest then our lives become equally shakey. For me, I now have the dilemma of possibly retaining my insurance (if they let me) and then being afraid to make another claim. This means that I essentially could have no insurance. If you consider my experience with that large bank regarding my wife’s credit card, things become a little more dangerous, as my credit rating is destroyed. I can only imagine that there are people who have had their financial status ruined completely by these criminal actions. All of us are vulnerable.
WhiteCollarCrime3

What could change this? I’m afraid it would involve a lot of energy from people who’ve been negatively affected. We would need nothing short of an enormous class action suit would to make a dent in this problem, something that would involve more energy and money than most of us have.

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Suck it up!

“Suck it up”

This oft used phrase is meant to cover a lot guilt and fear. Usually it’s used when someone is afraid of someone else’s fear and suffering. I recently heard a well-known radio host referring to Robin Williams’s suicide. His beef with Robin was that he often felt depressed. His way of dealing with things was to push past the depression and get on with life. As I listened to him I wondered if he understood the nature of clinical depression, something that in severe cases, does not respond well to treatment. For victims of severe depression, life is a rollercoaster with the disease receding and peaking in unpredictable waves.

What convinces me that this particular radio host was expressing his fear is that he had studied medicine years ago. It’s unlikely that he happened to miss discussions of depression and it’s trajectory over time. The implication was that Robin Williams was simply “indulging himself” when the relief he sought was within his grasp, if only he decided to “suck it up”.

not okay

Most people would agree that love is good thing, especially for children. But many feel that any implication that giving love to children is necessary is simply whiny “kumbaya” thinking. The reality then has to be that children can do without nurturing and that the need for love is weakness and nothing more.

For the moment I’m going to make the claim that we are machines. No, I don’t think that is all we are; my point is that the conditions in our life create reactions that are involuntary, especially for children. This has been demonstrated by countless studies of the infamous orphanages in Romania that sprang up after the fall of the Soviet Union. Without fail children, who were not nurtured and held as infants and as toddlers, exhibited what is called failure to thrive. The aftermath usually involves some level of depression, mental illness, stunted physical development, dysfunctional relationships, and a laundry list of physical and mental issues.

PTSD

It should be easy to accept that infants and toddlers do not make decisions as to their own development based on their “weakness”. Certainly it’s irrational to think that toddlers are capable of causing developmental problems in their own bodies. Despite this, the “suck it up” philosophy dominates our thinking. Here, in the land of rags to riches, how can anyone not have the resources to be physically, mentally, and financially fit?

Are there people who wear their tragedies on their sleeves and use them to manipulate others? Certainly there are. But there are countless numbers of people who may become one of the legions of people who need pills to make it through the day, something that is not lost on their children who learn that life is a maze of horrors that need to be navigated with care. We have a prison population that has doubled since the 80’s, generating another high dollar industry that, like the pharmaceutical industry, perpetuates itself. We run the risk of developing an economy based on dysfunction.

More to the point, we have people in our midst who are not going to engage in the pursuit of happiness without help. For many people, there is no “suck it up” available. If you take into account the fact that many damaged people become abusers or the fact that children raised by dysfunctional parents become dysfunctional themselves, we have a plague that spreads like ripples on a pond.

Like it or not, there are people on the earth who are damaged beyond the point that a pat on the back and an “atta boy” is going to make a difference. Attempts to understand these people and work to prevent them from feeling like pariahs would go a long way toward improving their lives and the state of our society.

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Book, fiction, Thriller

“The Railroad” and The Hero’s Journey

3d3

Most of us go from one day to another, seeing only what’s in front of our faces. It’s the way our society functions. We grow up being told that we need to find a career, find a mate, and then everything will be in place for our happiness.

But there is a current running in us that goes against the grain of our ordinary existence. You can find it in eastern philosophy, American films like “The Matrix”, in the writings of scholars like Joseph Campbell. It lives in all of us and, especially in middle class America; we suppress it with a will that renders it comatose. With some exceptions, our parents never told us to “follow your dreams” or “take risks” or “explore the meaning of reality”. If we who ignore that little voice in our ear asking us to find “more”, formed a brotherhood of sorts, most of us, and that includes your author, would be members.

matrix pill

In the Matrix, Neo chooses the “right” pill, the pill that will allow him to achieve his destiny. Had he taken the wrong pill, he would have been left to an existence that is comprised only of sleep and dreaming. The message here is that what we see as reality is just the opposite: illusion.

For some of us, at one point in our lives, we are not given the choice of whether we experience something that transforms us radically. In my novel, “The Railroad”, the main character, Mike Dobbs, is trapped in the subway, two blocks from the World Trade Center as the towers collapse. In writing this part of the book, I had wondered if I was being a vampire, sucking the blood out of a tragedy that affected the entire world. In the end I decided that it was not that at all, that I had a reason to present this tragedy as a transforming experience.

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On September 11, 2001 I found myself in a north bound number four train. The train lurched to a stop north of the Wall Street station, practically knocking me and my fellow passengers off our feet. And that’s where it stayed for half an hour until we backed up into the Wall Street station, allowing us to climb the stairs to the street. My experiences are the experiences of the protagonist in my book. Mike Dobbs also gets trapped in the subway and experiences most of what I did.

World Trade Center incident. Subway in dust-filled Wall Street station is evacuated.   Original Filename: 64j0v00m.jpgvia Flatbed Web

World Trade Center incident. Subway in dust-filled Wall Street station is evacuated.

That experience gave life to the book and, by extension, Mike Dobbs. For both of us, this experience left deep scars. And with that type of pain comes transformation. At its core, this transformation manifests itself in question and doubt. Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to my city? How safe am I? Could this happen again? Is there any foundation to my existence that is solid?

That final question really speaks to the most damaging part of being in a tragedy of that magnitude. Security is based on consistency and a sense of place. Once that is taken away, it’s very hard to ever again think of the life in the same way. Like a child who has been abandoned by his parents, victims of tragedy feel, at least for a time, like nothing will ever be okay again.

For Mike Dobbs, his experience scars him deeply. Before his experience in the subway, Mike is a self-centered, high-powered Wall Street executive, about to reap the rewards of years of hard work in the form of a major promotion to an officer spot. Mike lives in his own universe, caring little for other people’s welfare and living off the rush of high stakes business.

When he loses his sense of invulnerability, fueled by his success in business and his wealth, Mike loses his zest for the life he had. He runs to his less than beautiful weekend house, dubbed chez Moosehead after the enormous Moose head left by the former owner. To his surprise this superstar finds that he can’t spend any time by himself. For those who are faithful to the idea of transformation through pain, this is where it begins. For Mike Dobbs, whose life was rooted in self-aggrandizement and adulation, being alone is a kind of hell.

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Living in his hell, Mike hits bottom. He drinks excessively and drags himself through each day. While he doesn’t realize it, hitting his bottom opens him up to a whole new world, a world where all of his assumptions about his life become meaningless.

That is until he takes in Eileen Benoit and her daughter, Megan. Like Mike, their lives have been destroyed; in their case by Eileen’s abusive husband. Relegated to life as a fugitive, Eileen is forced to run to save her daughter from sexual abuse from her father. At first Mike is disgusted that, in the midst of his depression and misery, he’s been saddled with two females that are more damaged than he is.

And this is where the transformation begins. Mike, who has spent years thinking only of himself, is forced to think about a tragedy worse than his; back when he was big deal on “The Street”, Eileen and Megan Benoit would have been “damaged goods” and completely beneath his notice.

What I share with Mike is a similar transformation. Long before 911 I had decided to move to Tennessee to marry a woman I fell in love with. While she and her children were not plagued by the same awful circumstances as Eileen and Megan, I also took on responsibilities that I never would have considered when I lived in New York.

trial by fire

While our “positive thinking” and “self-help” culture teaches us otherwise, I believe that true transformation comes through trial by fire. It’s easy to be safe and decide to take the “wrong pill”. However, like “Neo” in the Matrix or “Luke Skywalker” from the Star Wars franchise, the only path to what might be their destiny is through trial by fire.

I hope you share my story of Mike Dobbs journey: “The Railroad” on Amazon.

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The Novel, “The Railroad”: What is the Railroad?

The novel, “The Railroad”. What is the “The Railroad”?

Tomorrow, June 1st, is the release date of the second edition of my Novel “The Railroad”. Of course it was my wife that pointed out to me that the name of the book suggests many things, most of which don’t describe the book. While the subject of child abuse is part of the fabric of the story, I tried to highlight the question: what can be done to protect children from child abuse? The answer, for many parents is, “not much”.

While there have been many cases where pedophiles have been prosecuted and convicted, the legal system has historically been a crap shoot for desperate parents trying to keep their children from being brutalized. The effects of child abuse is a subject for another blog. But, certainly, it is harmful enough, long term, that protecting your child from its effects is something that will drive parents to do legally questionable things.

Let’s stop for a second. I have heard far too many people who are not interested in discussing child abuse, almost as though mentioning it is annoying and in bad taste on your part. Recent history is full of stories of women and some men, becoming fugitives and living half a life to protect their children.  But that is the tip of the iceberg because most cases of child abuse are not reported. And so we have an epidemic.

I will go out on a limb and say that America is a nation that tolerates insanity and behavior that flies in the face of our basic ethics and the constitution. Along those lines I’ll explain that the title “The Railroad” refers to the current underground railroad that takes in victims of abuse and their parents and moves them from place to place to keep them out of the hands of the legal system and, far more importantly, out of the hands of abusive parents. The idea of an underground railroad began in the 19th century, when abolitionists ferried slaves up north to freedom. This demonstrates that there is a hallowed American tradition of people of conscience challenging the law when other Americans have drunk the Kool-Aid and engaged in what history eventually judges to be aberrational and patently insane behavior.

The coverage of the new underground railroad is oddly  spotty over the years. In 1988 the New York Times published an article about the growing number of “railroad” movements. The most famous of the modern abolitionists was Faye Yeager who began a railroad organization when her husband was given custody of her child in the midst of accusation of abuse. Several years later her husband was convicted of abusing three children and became a fugitive. In the article, various people, including lawyers, made it clear that the legal system had failed children in many cases, mostly because we are unable to accept the possibility that parents can beat and rape their own children.

More recently, organizations like Child help act as a testament that abuse is still an awful problem, stating that approximately 3 million reports of child abuse are made yearly and that a report of child abuse is made every ten seconds. That fact that there is a multi-state non-governmental organization such as Child help is a testament to the longevity of the problem.

Many lawyers and politicians have advised against going underground for desperate parents, most of whom are women, basically because it worsens an already tangled problem. Yet the basic problem, the abuse of children, still exists and is the problem that needs to be solved. For many parents, going underground is the only alternative.

Lest you think that this is a personal, family problem, google child abuse and the prison population. One surprising facts is that numerous studies have been done linking the propensity to commit crimes to abuse as a child. This is purely common sense but it does suggest that by ignoring child abuse we are putting a gun to our own heads; the prison population has doubled since 1985.

Between child abuse, domestic abuse, and the new scourge of human trafficking, it seems like our society might be rotting from the inside. And, perhaps worst of all, we have turned our backs on everything that makes this country a shining light in the world, the promise of justice and freedom.

As an earlier “railroader” pointed out in the New York Times article, published in 1988, “there is no north”. For abused children there is no safe place if the legal system fails them. If you had a choice between staying quiet or running to spare your child from physical and sexual abuse, what would you do?

I hope you will share my story and read, “The Railroad”, available tomorrow, June 1st on Amazon.

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Book, fiction

The Railroad-2nd Edition on Amazon

    Ebook_Cover_HR1 (10)
    On June 1 the second edition of my book, “The Railroad”, will be released on Amazon, re-edited and reformatted. The book is very personal but it also touches on issues that affect all of us.
    wtc

    The book was inspired by a personal experience on the day of what is probably the greatest disaster in U.S. history. Of course I’m talking about 9/11. It’s still strange for me to see myself in an epic disaster but that just proves that these things can happen to any one of us.

    I spent a half an hour in the subway, underground, less two blocks from the World Trade Center as the twin towers were collapsing. Oddly, I didn’t know what was happening, only that the train had come to a screeching halt, so violently that it knocked me off my feet. There was no noise, only occasional meaningless announcements from the conductor.

    I was in the car with approximately thirty other people. It was like standing in a pressure cooker as we waited for whatever the transit authority could come up with in the way of rescue. Needless to say the expectations weren’t high. In the end they came through, doing something that no subway train had every done, backing up into Wall Street Station.

    World Trade Center incident. Subway in dust-filled Wall Street station is evacuated.   Original Filename: 64j0v00m.jpgvia Flatbed Web

    World Trade Center incident. Subway in dust-filled Wall Street station is evacuated. Original Filename: 64j0v00m.jpgvia Flatbed Web

    “The Railroad” begins with this incident setting the stage for the rest of the story. In the book, the protagonist, Mike Dobbs, is in the subway in my place. Unlike me, the effect on his life is devastating and he cashes in his high powered Wall Street life style for a dingy weekend house in upstate New York. Depressed and angry, Dobbs starts to waste away, drinking and watching television. That is until he meets Eileen Benoit and her daughter, Megan. Both are running from an abusive father and husband, Mike Benoit and they find refuge in Mike’s run down house.
    9_11missing

    I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how a real, horrifying event became linked to child abuse in my mind. Writing is an odd thing; the mind makes connections that don’t necessarily follow an obvious path. But after years of reflection, I’m reminded of the worst part of 9/11: the aftermath. Depression was rampant. The parks were filled with victim’s children and spouses, creating small shrines to their lost family members. Candles were everywhere, forming rivers of wax that would pool at the curbs. Every available piece of space on walls, street lamps, and doorways were filled with handbills asking the awful question, “Have you seen this person?”. Each handbill showed a smiling face of someone who was most likely dead. Despite this, the message was that each victim’s family was looking for their loved one, “last seen on the 102nd floor of tower two”.
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    While many people fared far worse than I did, courting dysfunction ranging from full on clinical depression to  PTSD, I also was consistently anxious and immobile. For me and many other New Yorkers, the world had crashed in; the very fabric of our lives was ripped apart. Though most of us were still living reasonably pleasant middle class and upper middle class lives, just below the façade of normalcy lived a feeling of utter hopelessness. It was there in everyone’s eyes and in whispered conversation on the subway or in restaurants.

    For the characters in “The Railroad”, hope is something that is a memory. For Eileen Benoit the roof has fallen in. She is a fugitive, living off the charity of others. Her greatest hope is a shadowy organization that moves fugitive mothers and daughters between safe houses. The lack of hope, the shaky foundations is a metaphor for my experience on 9/11. And like my experience on 9/11, Mike Dobbs and Eileen are forced to transform in ways they never imagined.

    I hope you will share my tale of hope and transformation, “The Railroad”, available on Amazon on June 1st.
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Biological paternity-the appendix of the legal system

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Recently I’ve been snowed in. While I work from home I have the dubious pleasure of seeing the parade of afternoon shows. There are the “judge” shows that feature a different judge who tries small claims cases ranging from unpaid rent to sales of faulty merchandise. Giving the devil his due, I have to admit that some of the judges are reasonable and manage to interject some moral lessons into their decisions.

Then there are shows like Maury or Jerry Springer. Those take a questionable format and drive it deeper into the ground. While the judge shows do a slight disservice to our legal system, Maury and Jerry Springer are intentional trash. That said, I certainly have taken the opportunity to watch both shows; they are very entertaining.

The defacto king of afternoon television fare is the paternity shows:  “Maury” and “Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court. “You are the father” has become a phrase as popular as “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Why is paternity popular? Let’s be honest: it’s not that truth is revealed and closure provided. The reason is that paternity is sordid and juicy and it helps keep the ratings up.

During my snow week I got to see Lauren Lake’s Paternity court. Judge Lake, after a particularly tear-filled announcement of paternity, seeing a “united family” hugging each other stated: “The truth brings families together. That’s what we do on paternity court”.

It all sounds quite pious. What is interesting is the fact that, before during and after the proceedings, there is often at least one male who states that he wouldn’t care if he really is the biological father: these are his kids. Which leads to the conclusion that someone’s fitness for “paternity” has more to do with a desire to be father much more than it has to do with genetics.

What is the meaning of biological paternity. Certainly it is a point of law, determining child support payments. But bringing paternity to the level of truth and all that it implies is, in my mind, primitive. It is rumoured that a Queen giving birth was attended by ladies of her court to verify her maternity. Ancient Jewish law took this s step further by stating that a baby’s “Jewishness” is determined by the mother, since paternity, pre-dna, was almost impossible to prove.

All this has to do with legalities, inheritance and order of succession in a royal family. It has nothing to do with the most important aspect of family which is the persistent connection of family members. A father is the man who is “present”, offering an example to follow and support for his children. This consistent involvement in a child’s life helps him define a set of values, a trajectory in life, and provides a set of tools to raise children once he is grown. Although the model of the biological father being the actual father is still part of our cultural ideal, the truth is increasingly different. If this is the case, perhaps it is time to change our focus for “bio-dad” to Dad.

Emhpasis on biology forces us to work in the realm of the material, a knee jerk connection to a past that was driven by interests in property and inheritance. At this point, it’s a lot like the appendix, meaningless except in cases of people who are evading child-support. In many cases, on paternity shows, the father or non-father’s paternity does nothing to change his behavior. Their interest in being in their children’s lives is the same whether the connection is biological or not.

The real problem with an emphasis of biological paternity is that it de-values the very real connection between members of families of choice. This isn’t a pitch for the new age blended families that result from divorce. It’s a pitch for sincere connections between adults and children. It’s the lack of those connections that makes life more difficult and often, more empty.

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The Dozens: Obama and schoolyard bravado

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The Dozens: Obama and schoolyard bravado

When I was a kid there was a phenomenon in the schoolyard called “the dozens” and, as far as I know, it still exists today. Coming from New York City I had a few opportunities to play it, though I was never any good.  It a children’s game where two contestants insult each other with the insults increasing in nastiness. The goal of the game is to get the other guy to give up, unable to top the last insult that his opponent has lobbed at him. Or, in the worst case scenario, because one of the pair gets angry due to a particularly clever insult and loses his edge.

Truth is not important in The Dozens. The reason that the game never gets ugly or violent is because neither party is required to tell the truth and no is expected to take the insults seriously. As children become adults they retain the talent of putting each other down to control a situation and often learn to depend on it. The difference is that it is no longer a game. Sadly it starts to be used when the stakes are higher and people want to defend their questionable point of view or their questionable actions. There’s no more real truth to it than there was in playing the dozens. And, like the dozens, the goal is make your opponent loose his cool, as if pissing someone off is the same thing as having the truth on your side.

The best example of this barely adequate verbal technique is the proliferating court shows where plaintiff or defendant often resort to character assassination to bolster their case.  A landlord who is suing someone for back rent might be attacked by the plaintiff who claims that the landlord is a pothead or the landlord is promiscuous.

When the President of the United States uses the same technique, we know that we’re in trouble. Recently our President tried to take the focus off of what can only be described as terrorists by mentioning a random historical fact about Christians of the distant past. Or should I say a minority of Christians from an era which is cloaked in mystery and the mists of time.

What is most disturbing is that the President seems to consider Christians as his “dozens” opponent, telling them that they shouldn’t “get on their high horse” because they carry the taint of a piece of history that is not fully understood. I am not a politician but I would expect that, under the circumstances, he would engage in bridge building, even if his ideas don’t fit in with mainstream views. If we are talking about the murder of Christians and Muslims perpetrated by extremists within the last few decades,  why does the discussion of Christians even come up. What does a Baptist in the south or a Catholic in the Northeast have to do with the imminent danger of terrorism here and abroad? The only moral reaction to savage murders is to think only of ways of stopping it. The fact that he would try to deflect our horror over the activities of ISIS with irrelevant facts shows that he doesn’t have the strength of his convictions.

What ISIS is, is a group of terrorists who kill anyone who doesn’t agree with their agenda. If, as the President portrays them, the crusaders were murderers. then he should condemn ISIS for the same reason. Murder is not specific to any religion. It is the most fundamental crime in any society and can’t be tolerated. What makes Obama’s remarks worse is that ISIS and other extremist groups have killed thousands of Muslims as well. What is his justification for defending any of these murderers?

I am Jewish. Among Jews there is a phrase: “Never Again”. Most of you can guess that this refers to the Holocaust. Yet any Jew who takes faith in God seriously knows that this phrase applies to everyone. There are many who wish to separate people, a group that may unfortunately include our President. If you truly believe that we are all God’s children then “Never Again” applies to everyone who does no harm to anyone else.

I’m not sure of President Obama’s reasons for saying such incredibly ass backward things but, for the first time, I am wondering what his goals are. There is a standard for the highest office in the country and he has begun to fall short.

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