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Simon Sobo Writing

A collection of opinion pieces and chapters from his novels

“You seem to be the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls, who love to glorify your most flagrant unworthiness in print or praise your vast possessions worshippingly; or sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings, as if your millions gave them dignity.”

Mark Twain 1869

Wait there’s more:

Poor Vanderbilt! How I pity you: and this is honest. You are an old man, and ought to have some rest, and yet you have to struggle, and deny yourself, and rob yourself of restful sleep and peace of mind, because you need money so badly. I always feel for a man who is so poverty ridden as you… It isn’t what a man has that constitutes wealth. No–it is to be satisfied with what one has; that is wealth. As long as one sorely needs a certain additional amount, that man isn’t rich. Seventy times seventy millions can’t make him rich, as long as his poor heart is breaking for more. I am just about rich enough to buy the least valuable horse in your stable, perhaps, but I cannot sincerely and honestly take an oath that I need any more now. And so I am rich. But you, you have got  seventy millions and you need five hundred millions, and are really suffering for it. Your poverty is something appalling. I tell you truly that I do not believe I could live twenty-four hours with the awful weight of four hundred and thirty millions of abject want crushing down upon me. I should die under it. My soul is so wrought upon by your helpless pauperism that if you came to me now, I would freely put ten cents in your tin cup, if you carry one, and say, “God pity you, poor unfortunate.”

A little background.  Some historians consider the 3 most famous people of the 19th century to be Twain, Vanderbilt, and Edison.  In any case Vanderbilt was constantly in the news.  First because he loved to be in the paper, but more importantly, as a poor boy who made good he was the people’s choice.  He was one of them.  Here is what Vanderbilt says in the novel:

What a crock of shit.  What’s with this guy?  He is more involved with me than I am.  What else has he written about me?”

 “I think that’s it.”

  “Mark my words.  He cares about money a lot.  I mean a lot. Or, he wouldn’t care so much about me.”

  “Well you are in the paper all the time.  It’s hard not to react.”

“Yeah but he’s not calling me a show off.”

Vanderbilt sends a wad of phlegm and spit accurately into the spittoon.

  “One day, this Mark Twain guy is going to go broke.  People who love money, but won’t admit it, that’s what happens.  They don’t think clearly about what they’re doing.  There are more people not worrying who make fucked up money decisions just because they make believe they don’t care. 

I said I am crazy when it comes to money.  But, I’m not the only one.  I see people all the time like Twain, acting better than other people and all that.  Snobs about it. You just know it’s a big lie.  Sonia has a cousin like that.  He made the craziest decisions.  You couldn’t get him to talk about it, like it is not dinnertime talk.  But some of the things he did.  He’s a lot crazier than me.    He couldn’t  be sensible making decisions because it drove him too nuts.  Tellin’ yah. Twain is going to make crazy money decisions.”

   “You can’t know that.”

   “Mark my words.”

Clearly Twain was protesting too much.  Fact is, our Huck Finn, man of the people, lived a genteel, dandified existence in Hartford, with many servants.  He made all kinds of desperate financial decisions which brought about his ruin.  So if Vanderbilt had still been around he would have had the last laugh.


Commodore Kindle Link



December 22, 2017
by Simon Sobo

Looking back at Berkeley, Chapter 8 from Recollections of a Troubled Soul of the 60’s

    Chapter 8

Looking Back at Berkeley



Mark is shopping on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. It has a large parking lot, which means he can drive there. The hippy revolution has not reached Shattuck yet. It looks like the downtown main street of any small city in America circa 1940’s or 50’s. Not far from the supermarket is a Walgreen’s, a Lane Bryant, and a tall men’s shop. In spite of Marks’ political leanings, he can’t forego Twinkies and Devil Dogs, traif to those religiously opposed to supermarket food, but a comfortable reminder of home. In recent years, despite the tension, bordering on animosity between him and his father, home is still a good thing in his heart.
While Mark looks like a bum by the standards of Great Neck he showers every day and carefully brushes his teeth so that they remain pearly white. His hair is longish and scruffy. He cuts it himself with a hair-thinning scissor. He has a blonde mustache, and most days, a two-day growth. But by comparison, his unkempt appearance is hugely different from the Telegraph Avenue regulars. His Levis are worn thin and soiled, but not filthy. His wrinkled tee shirt is Tide detergent clean. He puts on a fresh one daily after a shower. Though successful in conveying he is not from the North Shore of Long Island, he cannot hide the features he shares with CC, his handsomeness, which gets him looks even in Berkeley.
At the supermarket he picks up chopped meat, hot dogs, spaghetti, Heinz ketchup, Gulden’s mustard, Best Food mayonnaise (Hellman’s California brand), and all the accouterments he is used to at home. Although at restaurants he douses his salad in oil and vinegar, in his apartment he still prefers his wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with Russian dressing, a poor man’s simple combination of ketchup and mayonnaise in no particular ratio.

He has always been an adventurous eater. Like many college towns, Berkeley has a huge assortment of cheap, good, ethnic restaurants. Mexican, Indian, Indonesian, Spanish, Szechuan and Cantonese, Italian, Thai, Brazilian. He’s tried all of them. Fortunately he has an iron stomach. Not just for the restaurant food, without knowing what the ingredients are, a whiff of street food and he is an eager customer, afterwards licking his fingers to extract every last bit of flavor.

After putting his groceries away, Mark takes to the streets. One of the great things about his psychiatric medical internship at Herrick Hospital is that he is done with exams. He has a lot of on-call hours but no exams. From 7th grade through medical school, a period of 13 years, most of his life, the freedom he now has was not part of his experience. When he would try to have fun, contingencies snuck up and grabbed his attention, imminent exams and midterms, not to mention finals, a day of reckoning, vaguely posted in the future, which was never fully absent from his mind. Now vast amount of free time are his. He can kill an afternoon, an evening, a weekend, hour upon hour, waste them completely and no harm is done.
Unfortunately, the years of hard work have taken their toll. Despite the reality of his new freedom, he’s still a prisoner. All along he tried hard for it not to possess him. Not wanting to present himself like most premeds, as a grind, he had always put on a decent show. He tried to give the impression that he didn’t study all that much. He envied the easy style of English majors, usually offbeat preppies. He was more than willing to copy their persona. There was a certain conceit to presenting himself that way. With his terrific grades, emphasizing how little he studied implied he must be very smart. Plus, playing down his studying served as an excuse if he did poorly on an exam.

But now, in different circumstances, nothing has changed. How he presents himself is one thing. Where it counts is another. His premed uptight identity still controls his soul. In theory, in reality, he is free to do as he pleases. But the truth prevails. In college, he may have reasonably succeeded in giving the impression that taking it easy, having a leisurely afternoon, was more important than wasting it on biochemistry equations. But it was bullshit. Even then, he wasn’t able to fool himself. His spirit was owned by forces beyond his control. Sticky, like summer sweat, guilt has been his constant companion. Still is. He may have tried, he may have insisted to himself, that he relax, but without noticing exactly when it happened, or how, he had so ably turned off the mindless child in him, that it was now gone.

The image he cultivated in college was an act. He was no different than the other pre meds, perpetually on the edge of panic, certain that one disastrous exam could ruin his life forever. He just was careful not to show it. Among the grinds, worried that they might not get grades in the 90’s, all–nighters were the norm before an exam. He worried the night before as much as they did, but he didn’t see the pointof staying up all night. He knew the material. Yes, a professor could ask a trick question on an exam. His son of a bitch chemistry professor, Dr. Reed was known for that. But staying up all night wouldn’t help with Dr. Reed’s sadism. Actually, the other premeds knew the material plenty well, as well as he did, but they imagined doom so often that sleeping wasn’t a choice for them. Occasionally Mark feared they might be on to something. They understood their situation and automatically did what was necessary. They didn’t care about their nerd reputation on campus. It was irrelevant.
Certainly, being admitted to medical school was every bit as important to Mark as it was to them. The desperation they didn’t bother to hide, defined his existence every bit as much as it did theirs. The proof was his dreams, one vivid nightmare in particular which has remained with him:

An hour before an exam. He has run out of time to try to understand the material, which, so far, he hasn’t been able to get down. He’s frantic. Then suddenly, he’s no longer racing to get it down. The anxiety is still there but it’s like he is in slow motion.
He’s lost. He looks around. He doesn’t know where he is. More importantly, he doesn’t know how he will get to where he needs to be, the classroom, where the exam will be administered.
Then he sees doors, a lot of doors. Which one is it? Then the room where he needs to be is before him. The doors are gone. He sees his empty desk.
Things seem to be racing more than ever. It’s now seconds before he will open the exam booklet. There is no greater feeling of helplessness than that moment. The closest comparison is the time he almost drowned. He had gotten good at snorkeling, or so he thought. His confidence allowed him to go far from the shore without a life jacket. He breathed in a bunch of water in his snorkel. Tried to blow it out, but couldn’t get back the rhythm. He was far deeper than he had ever been. He tried floating on his back. Still couldn’t get air. Then tried a gentle breast stroke. The waves kept coming. He kept breathing in water Still no air. His arms were getting tired. For a moment he thought this was it. He overcame his embarrassment, feebly screamed “Help.” That saved his life.

Staring at the exam, it is as if he is awake. His brain is frantically tearing through solutions trying to think of what he can do. He comes up with nothing. There is no way out.

He felt enormous relief when he woke. He has escaped. It was only a dream. As a small child his mother used to tell him that. But now as then, he can’t immediately snap out of the hell he was in. It takes him time before he feels safe, until his emotions catch up with the reality that the dream was only a dream, his mind playing tricks on him. Fully awake, relief replacing fear, it’s still as if he’d been roughed up
It shouldn’t be like that. School’s done. Exams are forever in the past. He can’t think of any danger facing him and that is true even when he tries to picture something. He gets a blank. Yet again and again the dream returns. It makes no sense. He was a top student, 5th in his class. He’s been accepted at top places for his residency. He should be on top of the world. His vaunted Permanent Record, the one his high school principal held over him and his family, the key to his future, has been safely put in the past. The California sunshine is his to enjoy.
Why can’t he soak it up, absorb the warm rays, bathe in their tenderness? Why does it feel prickly? Why does taking it easy still elude him? The California natives simply wake up, eat their Wheaties and they are in that groove, relaxed. Why is the idea of California, the best he can do?

His shrink explained it to him a hundred times. He has to learn to live now, Stop expecting rewards to eventually appear. Stop going nuts, trying to make that happen. All it does is bring on the exams in his dreams. Over and over. Now, Now, Now. The answer lies not in the future. It’s now.

“Easily said,” Mark thought to himself in silence, as his shrink continued.
“Be careful, or you may live your whole life waiting for your future to become real. Especially the reward part. Stop expecting to get to your rewards. Give them up, then you don’t have to face exams. You’re already there
Now, now, now- not what is to come. Say it twelve times!”
“Now, now, now–“
“Wait. I didn’t mean now.”
“Then when?”
“When is when.”
“For that, my parents pay you a zillion dollars an hour?
“When is whenever you think about this.”

Until he was 12 or 13, Mark enjoyed himself without effort, without thinking about enjoying himself. When he did, it was simply on to the next thing and enjoying that. Or not enjoying himself but either way, immersed. Swimming in the stream of life. Where did that stream go? Why can’t he have it back?
His guilt. His guilt. Guilt about what? It shouldn’t be there but it is. He has not sinned today and the day before. And the day before that. He is perpetually busy proclaiming or proving his innocence to himself. His beliefs are pure, noble. Why does innocence elude him? He can’t put his finger on it.
Jewish guilt?

Probably not. For centuries Christians believed God had this huge book where he kept track of good deeds and sins. He must have had billions of books, one for every person. Or did God have an incredible memory? Catholics knew they were being watched. They felt the same way as Jews. So it is definitely not specifically a Jewish malady.
Perhaps his guilt explains why he is so passionate about causes on the left. His compassion for those having a hard time is automatic, as is his anger at those who can be blamed, those partying who seem to have no conscience as they enjoy themselves. Except, he often disagrees with politicos about who is to be blamed, the generalizations they make, the lies they so easily slip into to justify their rhetoric. He has never understood the faithful, whether it was the complacent conservative people at the club in Great Neck, or now, left wingers who buy into the nonsense they are fed. Anger is only satisfying when it is righteous, and truthful.

But on the other hand, truth is an insignificant detail. His politics provide an outlet which he needs, at least pointing in a direction where something can be done to eliminate unfairness. Perhaps there are so many leftist Jews because they share his psychology. His guilt is the same as theirs.

None of this rings true. Catholics have just as much guilt. Or do they? They can go to confession and have a total brain cleansing. Jews don’t have that luxury. Their remedy doesn’t work. He used to fast on Yom Kippur. It didn’t do a thing. It had absolutely no effect on his guilt. And he was hungry as hell. “Never again.” he promised himself.
He has torn through D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, quoted them to anyone who would listen. Logically, Zen is the answer. It’s what he needs, relearning how to lose himself in the moment. In Berkeley, as in the Village, Zen seems to be on everyone’s mind, so it must not be just him.

What was expected of them, the cherished answers of America in the 50’s. Everyone is pouncing on “stereotypes.” Trying to be free of them Zen eliminates expectations. There is just now.
Except Zen is harder to do than understanding its purpose. The moment can’t be occupied by deciding to live in it. It takes training.
But training isn’t an option. As enamored as Mark is by the prospect of diving into, and remaining in the moment, he’s never given a moment’s thought to how he could bring it about. Going off to Japan and studying in a Zen monastery is out of the question, totally inconceivable. It has not even been part of his fantasies. Life, as he had planned, waits for him. What is he going to do? Not go on to his residency, not become a psychiatrist? Living in the moment is the answer to the puzzle, to the pervasive angst that he lives in. But chucking his life, and taking off for Kyoto has never crossed his mind. Diving into the paradise of ordinary life, Paradise Now, as a Broadway show is proclaiming, will have to wait. Besides it’s nothing more than a slogan. He has to take what he can get. Cherish, like jewels, his epiphanies, believe for that moment, that his realizations will wash over the rest of his life.
If only wisdom didn’t dissipate so quickly. It’s an illusion. The celebration that he has arrived, solved the mystery of his existence, finally has the understanding he needs. It’s there. It’s real. But as wonderful as that moment of recognition is, as hopeful as it makes him, as much as he believes that he has finally arrived, the euphoria that a great discovery brings him rarely lasts more than a day. Sometimes it lasts 5 or 10 minutes. And increasingly less.

That’s the best he can do, the closest he comes to loving the moment. Well it isn’t just insight. His awe when Tom Seaver is having an awesome day on the mound gives far more pleasure than Mark’s intellectual gymnastics. His Olympian effort, has never gotten him close to that.

Mark has reached campus. Left, right, straight ahead, passion is everywhere, villains identified. In the united anger of activists, frustrations have been pooled, refined, become pure. Joining them is very appealing to him. It entitles him to let loose against evil forces wherever they may be. Being angry like that brings innocence to yourself and allowable hatred to emerge, focused on the enemy.

Mark can and has joined them when suffering is palpable. But the usual happens. He is turned off when politicos make generalization that he knows are untrue. Yes, if he can feel the pain of others he can join the shouting of student activists with his own mighty complaint. More often, however, they are furious and he isn’t.
While driving by he has seen the suffering in Oakland, poor black people, decrepit 50 year-old men looking much older, sitting on milk crates drowning their misery in booze. Unsupervised kids trying to defeat the misery all around them, taking charge by getting into trouble. He’s seen it. It’s all real. He feels for them, and tries to understand. Still he locks his car doors when driving through rough neighborhoods.

True leftist fury hasn’t sunk in. Growing up in Great Neck, and busy at school, how could it? When he was going to law school at night, his father had climbed tenement stairways in Harlem, collecting unpaid bills for a furniture store owner, a neighbor in Kew Gardens Hills. His father sometimes talked about what he saw in the apartments. He had no reason to exaggerate. Mark’s convinced the injustice is not fictional and something must be done. But what?

There are too many politicos with an ax to grind. especially in Berkeley. Whether they are right or wrong, his instinct is to hold back, to doubt what they claim. He no longer challenges them. He doesn’t have the courage. They so easily accuse skeptics of being disguised right wingers, or claim it reveals that he is cold hearted to black people. Which is not true. He wishes that he could join in with their anger, feel cleansed by their passion, obliterate in everyone else’s mind, any possibility that he is not 120% pro black people, Not to mention his own mind. He wishes he could be truly left wing. But he can’t do what he can’t do. Whether they can is a different issue, but certainly they must have doubts, or they wouldn’t be so easily nasty.
A hundred feet away, a crowd of students has gathered. From time to time they let out a cheer. He goes over to see what’s going on. One by one, students are taking out their draft cards, lighting their Bic lighters, and throwing the flaming card into the air. One of the students throws his burning card down on the sidewalk and stomps on it. That gets an even bigger cheer. In succession, several of the students go the stomping route. Without a moment’s thought he joins the group nearest to him. He has to borrow someone’s lighter to do it, but the deed is done quickly.

Then someone produces an American flag and puts his Bic lighter to it. At first it stubbornly resists the flame. The lighter keeps going out. But the student is persistent and finally he has a strong flame. Once again the crowd has become one large group. The burning flag has a higher priority than the draft cards. There are cheers, swoons even. Not Mark. He silently watches the flag burn.

It makes him sad. He recalls, as a little boy, helping his father put the flag up on July 4th. He remembers the look on his father’s face, not too dissimilar to the look on his grandmother’s face when she bencht licht, when she lit the Friday night candles–a sacred moment of respect and appreciation. Marks’ grandparents said it often enough. How lucky they were to be in America.
He’s heard it so often that it seems inane. People in Berkeley are not wrong. Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Still he can’t rid himself of his belief that America is great.
Moving forward into his career has an almost sacred absoluteness, but that is utilitarian. His politics should bring him to a higher level than being a work horse with no higher beliefs. He has no rituals that he practices, no sacred beliefs that he is sure of. He wishes he did.

As he walks on Telegraph Avenue aback to his apartment his thoughts continue. Burning the flag isn’t sitting right. Okay Kennedy and Johnson made a mistake about Viet Nam. But burning the flag?

He decides burning his draft card was an empty gesture. As he turns the corner on Dwight Way it worries him. Was he seen?
In medical school he arranged the teach-ins against the war. He called the speakers. He chartered the buses to bring demonstrators to Washington for the Pentagon march. Attended by something like 800 people, Mark made the introduction to Ben Spock, the fatherly pediatricians that a generation of mothers revered. He had come out against the war and was speaking at meetings like the one he arranged. It went extremely well.

Spock had a remarkable persona. Marcus Welby, Father Knows Best. Robert Young’s innocent, wise smile. Mark had once read a description of George Washington. There was something about him that almost everyone recognized. He wasn’t the smartest or richest guy, but he had an aura, that allowed him to shine in whatever room he was in. It was never forced. He seemed comfortable and natural. It wasn’t. He had worked on his public presentation over many years. As a boy he laboriously copied the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation and followed them to a T.

There was a bit of a maverick in Spock, friendly complicity being among the naughty boys but the kindness in his eyes, fatherly kindness is the main impression he conveys. One look at him and your instincts told you he was the real thing, his raison d’etre is to take care of everyone. So his antiwar fervor means a lot more than a bunch of snotty bohemians sounding off. He resembles the person Mark sometimes wishes for himself in the future. You wouldn’t for a moment think Dr. Spock had a secret trove of Playboys. His firm, and now his righteous angry voice, somehow seemed gentle and properly concerned about what matters. Human beings. Suffering.

After welcoming the audience at Einstein, before Mark introduced Spock, he had an announcement. He asked the hundreds of doctors present to see him after the talk, if they were willing to do “sympathetic” draft exams. Meaning they would help potential draftees to get a 4F, be medically disqualified from fighting in the war.

Afterwards, he wanted to kick himself for his stupidity. What if the FBI were there? What if they took down his name? Although he was chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he had steadfastly avoided SHO, the Student Health Organization, whose members he assumed were in touch with very radical organizations, the Weathermen, people like that. Most members of SHO were in their first and second year at Einstein. In contrast to Mark, they had been in college when campus activists had been radicalized, when most universities had classroom take-overs, sit-ins, when, all of a sudden, students were calling the shots, radical students. Mark had not seen that first hand, only seen it on the TV. He didn’t want to be a part of it
Mark isn’t a radical. Upon learning that he was on the libre-virgo cusp, Nancy, who he was crazy in love with for 4 weeks in ‘63, announced that the explanation for what he thought of as being truthful and balanced (although admittedly to an extreme) was that he was born between September 19 and the 25th. He was a libre. Nancy didn’t last long for precisely that reason. She was an air head.

But she got it right. Mark wasn’t a radical. Some people were proud to present themselves as radicals. Not him. He was positioned at the edge, in between. Some card carrying, actual communists, lab workers at the medical school, had originally chosen him to be the chairman of MCHR. He assumed they recognized his sincerity. They asked him to arrange for the teach ins. They knew all the phone numbers he needed to contact speakers.

His anger at LBJ over Viet Nam was complete. But he had done nothing about it, so when he was asked to head MCHR, he was pleased to be able to act. It was his chance to be a hero, a role that had been his obsession when he played baseball, but had essentially disappeared. Until now there hadn’t been a vehicle.
As a senior in medical school he had plenty of time. Having been given the position, he was obsessed with doing a great job as Chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. He started a lead poisoning project, another program that tutored kids in the ghetto, and a health careers program, Bronx Bio Careers.
The health career program was unusually successful. He got 70 people from the medical community to be counselors, 4 kids each. Together they could choose from 300 programs, volunteer meetings with people in the medical community at work. The kids could talk to physical therapists, inhalation therapists, lab technicians, to X ray technicians, to doctors and nurses about what their career was like and how they got there. The emphasis was on seeing them in action.

It could be dramatic. One group followed an operating room nurse into the operating room, while they were doing a gall bladder. Another time a surgeon brought them in to see an appendectomy. The operating room visits were good for a front page second section New York Times story with a big headline and picture. Doors were wide open for Mark and his program even before the Times story, but after that there were no barriers. Mark had gotten the NYC school system to allow the kids in his program to take time off from school. They provided buses to bring them to the medical school. He had gotten the Commissioner of Hospitals to provide free meals for them at Jacobi Hospital when they came. When he called any city commissioners in Lindsay’s administration, he saw them that day. When he dialed Aspira, the head of the program called back immediately. He seemed to be the real thing, a student activist who could get things done.
He didn’t give himself credit for being a capable administrator. He felt compelled to do something as the chairman of MCHR, so people wouldn’t think he was enjoying the prestige without earning it. But as for the doors open to him, everyone wanted to be part of Bronx Bio Careers. Even Republicans. The plan cost zero. No one got paid, no one asked for a thing. They just wanted to give. And during that year, for some reason, his ego was gone, his motivation uncomplicated. He truly wanted to give.

So Mark was anything but a radical. He was very proud of everything he had started and seen through. There were very few exams during his senior year at medical school. So why not? But now, in Berkeley, he didn’t know why he strove so hard to be a good person. He knew part of the reason he cared deeply about being a good person. He wanted to disprove his own suspicion that he was all talk, no action. It was all part of a piece.

He took pride that he did a lot of charitable things privately, proving to himself that his desire to perform good deeds wasn’t only driven by his need for the limelight. As a child, when he had a powerful belief in God (or, at least, a desire (meaning a willingness to believe) he was inspired by one of Rabbi Kirshblum’s sermons. Giving charity was most pure when nothing was expected in return, when no one knew about it (other than God).

So, he wasn’t a radical. At the time he didn’t know that the guys who offered him the MCHR chairmanship were actual communists, but that wouldn’t have mattered. He was flattered they thought of him. Only much later did it occur to him that his good looks and bohemian but still all American persona made him useful to them. Since he wasn’t a radical, being chosen by card carrying members of the party seemed irrelevant. He was proud that he kept his objectivity.

All of his heroes had exclusively become committed left wing intellectuals, but there were a lot of people on the left that he couldn’t stand. How easy it had been when he first became political, believing that people on the left cared about the unfortunate, and those on the right didn’t. The good guys and the bad guys. It was as simple as that. He wanted his basic goodness to be known–certainly by the FBI. Because, at this point he vaguely believed that the FBI now kept his Permanent Record. So for them to get it right was important. Rebellious, but basically harmless. If they made a notation in his record like that he would be relieved.

But what if his draft card burning that afternoon was taken too seriously. As for his comments about draft exams at the Spock talk, before 800 people. it was 8 months ago. Nothing ever came of it, or he would have heard about it by now. Or would he?

That night as he lies in bed, Mark debates the flag burning. Back and forth– he is for it, then against it. For it, against it. He wonders if his uncertainty, his consistently moderate positions, which he considers the only way an honest person can resist the exaggerations and lies on either side of a controversy– he wonders if that moderation is in reality, a veil for cowardice. He decides it’s true. He is a chicken. Why else would he think so much about how the FBI viewed him. In his calculated self image, that negated his many years of good deeds.
He’s a phony. His positions are all an act to curry favor with…with…He can’t identify who would be impressed by the serious way he pursues objectivity. Most people aren’t that way at all. They want you to side with them. And that is it. So, it is not them he is trying to impress, not most people. He decides the person he wants to curry favor with is himself. The standard that rule him is-he half mutters it:


He’s immediately embarrassed that he has sunk so low. Talked to himself out loud. That’s what the psychotic patients at Bronx State do.

Okay he isn’t a phony. In the end his internal standards matter, which means he is “self directed,” a good quality according to many articles he has read on self esteem. But why does he feel that he’s always putting on an act. Well he is, but so is everyone else. Or maybe it isn’t an act. By force of habit they keep their true beliefs to themselves, say what others expect them to say. It started out as a necessity to get along with their parents. It eventually became the price of belonging with other people. They want nothing to do with the kind of thinking Mark does. Nor does Mark understand why he instinctively rebels against group think. But he does and did even before it was group think.

As a treat his uncle and Aunt took him to Asbury Park, or so they told him. His aunt giggled every time she told the story. He kept repeating “This isn’t Raspberry Park. This isn’t Raspberry Park.” That perception meant more than the rides and even the ice cream he was offered. The Truth.

Once, one of the few times he was successfully connecting to his father, his father called what he does what everyone calls it, “studying your belly button.” Charitably, on one of the few occasions that he defended his father in his mind, he accepted that his father meant well. His father was simply giving good advice. “Move on.” But it wasn’t that simple. Mark can still hear the accusing tone in which his father spoke. His father is not wrong. He overvalues the importance of his thoughts, what he finds in his belly button. His vanity elevates its importance.

Still, his father meant to mock him. To humiliate him? Probably not. But he clearly was indicating to Mark that he is better than him.
Why? For what reason? So he can score with Mom? She wasn’t there when he said it. He wanted to score with me. Why? Why does he want to win that much? Why does he have to win.
Finally, Mark is able to be easier on himself with a generalization that’s true. Guys need to win. They may deny it, try to be better than that, but it’s what their life is about. Victory. Getting over defeat. They root for the Mets, the Jets, the Giants, the Yankees, with far more passion, far more deeply than they let on. They make believe their interest in sports goes no further than entertainment. But that is a lie. Mark mourned for a week, more than a week when Da Bums, the Dodgers were defeated in1952 and 53. Like the whole season had been wasted. All those triumphs, all those nail biters for naught. Mark’s response, like other Dodger fans was “Wait ‘til next year”, but even when he said it, his proclamation of faith in the future, he only half believed next year would be different.

The damn’ Yankees-five straight championships. Jay rubbed it in every October. It was ridiculous, the pride he took in the pinstripes maintaining their throne. Anybody could pick the best team and stick with them. What kind of fan is that? What kind of satisfaction can you get from loyalty to those who are characterized as the pinstripes? It’s like rooting for the Rockefellers. Good people sided with those who needed it, underdogs.

Nothing can compare to the Dodgers victory in 1955. Da Bums put an end to Yankee pinstripes, put an end to their tyranny. Certain moments still glow in Mark’s memory, Sandy Amoros’ catch in left field The way he spun around, and threw to first base to get a double play. Johnny Padres! Johnny Padres!

Jay and the other Yankee fans can’t come close to the joy of Dodger fans when they finally won. Joy? The most the Yankee fans are capable of is the satisfaction of having their expectations confirmed. How much fun is that?

But maybe they don’t have to get excited? They are perfectly comfortable with the security that accompanies those who side with winners, satisfied with their complacency. It doesn’t have to be earned. It is just there. Jay has always been like that, ass kissing the teachers he needed, paling up to the powerful. He’s probably doing the same thing with his boss now. It’s his M.O.

Mark never stoops that low. Why else is he in Berkeley? It’s a natural alliance, the desire to rebel and the glorification of underdogs. Putting the People on the throne. Even if it’s impossible. That’s what it’s all about– beating the pinstripes. That’s why Jay is where he is, happily commuting from Forest Hills.
The only real question is why his bosses don’t see Jay as an ass kisser?
Or is he? All those political fights Mark has had with his father– Jay always sided with his father. Because he controls the goodies? It’s cowardly, taking the easy way. But is it really that? Is he ass kissing?

Jay likes their father. He respects him. Right or wrong he’s on his side. Is it ass kissing when you want to do what your boss expects, when he knows you are on his side, when he thinks of you as his trusted lieutenant, when you actually are, when you respect and like your boss?

But what if your boss were to lose his power, what if he is on his way down. Would you stick with him? It’s not a question Jay would ask himself. The rules of the game are you respect your master because he is the master. Not if he isn’t. Suddenly, he realizes that a fantasy he has always had, is based on the difference between Jay and himself. He will be close to his father, when he is sick, when he is dying. Unlike Jay, despite the frequent battles he’s had with his father, he’s the one who really cares. Which means he loves his father more than Jay. Because he will be there when his father is down.

Suddenly a saying from Muhammad Ali pops up in his mind: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
He opens his eyes, looks up at the ceiling, smiles.

If only he could do that. His father continued to call Ali, Cassius Clay. He was angry that he changed his name, angry he wouldn’t go to Viet Nam. Ali was so unfazed by all the criticism.
Just before his consciousness disappears into sleep, another Ali quote seizes his mind.

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

Mark’s convinced Ali’s right. Whenever he’s gone in that direction he’s come to that conclusion. The problem is he hasn’t always gone in that direction. His mind, his conclusions are fickle. He wonders if it is his courage.

He finally decides that he is in favor of burning the flag. It puts him on the side of the fearless, which is what he needs in order to turn off his mind.






November 27, 2017
by Simon Sobo

Recollections of a Troubled Soul of the 60’s: Dora explains to CC what Judaism is all about

Chapter 22

Dora Educates CC

Mr. Gordon has his coat on near the door of Jay’s apartment.  Jay kisses Dora and their baby after he puts on his coat.  They are rushing to get out of the apartment.  Jay shouts to his father.

“Do you have the tickets?”

Mr. Gordon pulls out the two tickets and waves them.

Dora fusses over Jay.  “Don’t forget your gloves. It gets cold there.  I made you sandwiches.”   She looks at Ira, as well. “Don’t throw them out this time.”

Jay smiles guiltily.  So does his father.

“We like the hot dogs there.”

“The sandwiches are brisket.”

Although doubtful they both try to give the impression that they will eat Dora’s sandwiches.

Jay takes his gloves out of his coat pocket and shows them to Dora.  She stares at her father–in law.  Guilty as charged, he waits to be sentenced.


“I don’t need gloves.”

She returns from the bedroom with wool mittens.

“Oh, if you’d told me.  Blue mittens. Turquoise blue! I would have asked for them.” Ira tells her.

“Aquamarine.  I knitted them for Jay as a Hanukkah present.  He refuses to wear them.”

Ira puts them on and claps his hands like a happy nerd.

“Okay.  I get the point,” Dora tells him.

“You married a good woman, Jay. You remind me of my mother.  She made mittens.”

“She was a nag?”

He puts his hand under Dora’s chin and lifts it.  “A Yidisha Moma . . . twenty-six hours a day.  She cared.”

She steps away.

“Dad, Did you wear your lucky socks?” Jay says, lifting his pants, to reveal his own wild striped socks.

“That’s good enough for both of you,” Dora tells them.

Mr. Gordon lifts his pants.  His socks are even wilder.  Kangaroos eating lightening, and lighting up.

“The question is–is it good enough for the Jets?”

“God likes striped socks,” Dora tells them

“And kangaroo lightening socks,” Mr. Gordon adds.

“Well, there you have it,” Dora says.

They walk down the long seventh-floor hall.  As Ira pushes on the elevator button, Dora shouts to them, “Go Jets.  Go Namath.”

“Go Maynard,” Ira shouts.  “Namath’s nothing without him to catch the ball.”

She stays at the door watching them as they enter the elevator.  The two buddies shout in unison “Go Maynard.”

At Shea Stadium, as predicted, Namath throws a perfect pass to Maynard, who runs it in for a touchdown.  The stadium crowd goes wild.   Jay and Mr. Gordon slap each other’s hands repeatedly.


While breast-feeding her son, Dora is watching the game on TV.  The first half has ended, with the Jets leading 16–7.

Dora puts her sleeping son in his crib.  She goes to the phone and dials CC’s phone in her dorm.  She’s told CC isn’t there, but then a woman named Sheila comes to the phone.   CC has trusted her enough to give her Jeremy’s number. Dora dials it.  In the bedroom Jeremy answers He hands the phone to CC.

The sound of the TV can be heard in the background.  “Are you watching the game? The Jets are beating Buffalo sixteen to seven.

CC signals Jeremy to give her privacy.  He goes to the kitchen.

“I haven’t been following the Jets.  They don’t get them up here.”

“But today’s game is probably on.  Buffalo.  You know Buffalo beat them the first time they played, their only victory   They’re one and seven.

“So that means the Jets aren’t that good?”

“Are you kidding?  That loss was an anomaly. This year there’s going to be another Super Bowl, the third one, the NFL champs playing the AFC champs. Jay’s very happy. With Namath, the Jets might go all the way. It will give the AFC respectability.”

“First they have to get into the play-offs.  Jay’s always an optimist.”

“So is your Dad.  He’s excited.”

There is a pause which is a beat too long.

“Was that your friend who answered the phone?  What’s going on with you?  We haven’t had a good talk in a while.”

“Well . . .”

“Tell me.”

Then after a long delay, CC says, “You can’t tell Mom or Dad what I tell you.  Promise me.” She doesn’t know why she is asking this of Dora.  They already know about Jeremy.  Perhaps it is to protect her parents from Dora’s judgment.

“Okay, I promise.”

“The guy who answered, Jeremy, he’s one of my teachers.  I’ve been staying at his house.” She hurriedly blurts it out.  “He’s married, with a kid.  His wife is in the hospital.”

Dora responds coolly, “How did that happen?”

“I don’t know, but it did. . . . Don’t tell Jay.”

“How old is his child?”

“He’s a toddler.”

“He’s going to leave his wife?”

“He loves her. He’s told me he will never leave her.”

“So what is it, then?  Sex?”

“It’s love, well it was. No. It still is.” Her voice is unconvincing.

“I’m sure you know what I think.”

“I do.”

“So why did you tell me?”

CC doesn’t answer.

“I blame Mark. . . . He’s filled your head with all this garbage.  He’s always turning morality upside down . No right and no wrong.  Like it’s up for discussion. Meaning anything is okay.  CC, what you’ve got going with this guy is not okay.”

“His name is Jeremy.”

“Jeremy,” Dora repeats, as if named he now exists.

“He’s a lot like Mark.  He’s been arguing that ending the war, saving the planet, helping black people are far more important than the rights and wrongs we were raised on. He thinks those are nonsense.”

“It’s not just Mark,” Dora adds. “More and more people are talking like that.  I don’t know what’s going on.  Jay told me his therapist is always getting on him about his guilt, like it’s the main cause of his problems.”


“He tells Jay he is rigid—which is a joke. That is what I respect about him.  I think therapists making fun of guilt are trying to destroy Judaism.”

“That’s a little extreme. Most of them are Jewish.

“But it’s true.  Everyone wants to put an end to Judaism. Remember Robin Schaff?  She was a year ahead of me in school.”

“Yeah,” CC replies.  “She’s very spiritual. Always has been. She’s off somewhere from this everyday world.  She’s communicating with God.”

“She was always that way.  You know she came from a kosher home. But religious?  How can you be religious and write songs for Shiva and Krishna and Vishnu?”

“Why not? If they’re beautiful songs, something you could sing to God, reach out to Him . . . maybe please Him. Why isn’t that religious?”

“What you are asking is, do I think Robin has God on her mind when she sings to Shiva or Vishnu?  The answer is no. Her songs are not just for Krishna, or Vishnu.  There are a dozen different . . . I don’t know what they call them.”

“Gods. Indian gods,” CC says.

“What’s screwy is that’s exactly what Jews believed before Judaism began, before God spoke to Abraham. The Sh’ma is repeated in every service. ‘Sh’ ma Yisra’ eil . . . Adonai eloheinu . . . It’s the most serious proclamation in the service. It’s sang with reverence. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.’

“One!” Who is Robin praying to? Twelve different deities, fifteen?  Believing there is one God is the cornerstone of Judaism.   ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might . . .’ Judaism is really very straightforward.

“Perhaps. But she thinks of herself as spiritual. Always has been. It’s the first thing that comes to mind  when you think of Robin.”

“Perhaps,” Dora agrees. “Except I don’t think she believes in God.”

“Then who are Vishnu, Krishna, all the gods she prays to?”

“While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the newly freed Jews started to worship the Egyptians idols.  All kinds of gods. Some of them got into orgiastic rituals.  Naked, drugged orgies. Blessed by the gods!  They were enchanted by exciting food.  Finding pleasure here, there, everywhere. Like people today, grabbing at what life offers.  But especially pleasure. Getting as much pleasure as they could, while they could. . . . Do you remember the rest of the story?”

CC does.  “When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and saw their behavior, he smashed the Ten Commandments to smithereens.”

“Right.  He had been in the presence of God, given his ten most holy rules to guide us.  These prohibitions were the most holy communication possible.  His gift to us.  It was the exact opposite of what people believe today.  Not live for today. Not have a nice day. The essence of our relationship with God is following his commandments.   So you can imagine Moses’ shock when he found out the newly freed Jews were whooping it up, performing Egyptian rituals for the their gods.

“Robin’s far from stupid.  She graduated from Stanford Phi Beta Kappa, but I don’t know if the thought crosses her mind that she is not having a dialogue with God, not embracing Him.  She is defying the central dictum of our five-thousand-year relationship with God.  Who we are as Jews. Let me say it again We cry out in the synagogue. ‘Sh’ma Yisra’eil. God is one!’”

“And then some,” CC rhymes facetiously.

“What do you mean?”

“Forget it,” CC mumbles regretfully.  After a moment of silence, CC’s voice again becomes as serious as Dora expects.

“I hear what you are saying but when I think of Robin I  always think of her as spiritual, godly.”

“I know she is serious about it but what is so godly?”

“Her belief in tolerance.  Not judging people.  Accepting them for who they are.”

“You mean that anything goes?”

“No, but––”

“So Moses should not have smashed the Ten Commandments?”

“He should have smashed the Ten Commandments and joined the party.”

“Seriously.”  Dora chides CC affectionately before continuing,

“I don’t know if it crosses Robin’s mind. Not only is she stomping on the most holy Jewish belief, that God is one. on it.” Her voice rises, almost as if she is at the pulpit.

“Tolerance? . . . Tolerance?” Dora repeats. “It’s nuts. Everything is not okay? Whatever floats your boat. That is not what God tells us.”

“I don’t know…” CC answers.

“It’s a repudiation of everything a practicing Jew believes. Forgiveness   perhaps, being able to ignore other people’s sins, and accept other things about them. Praying for forgiveness for your own sins.  But worshipping tolerance? It means every word we hold sacred is wrong, every prohibition we hold holy, all of it.  It’s sympathy for the devil dressed up as love and understanding.

God orders us to do what He has asked and not to do what He’s forbidden.  Claiming that all the rules are nonsense—it means the Torah is a book of stories, nothing else.  God didn’t talk to us.  And if He did, He was wrong about what He told us was wrong. Claiming that anything is okay. You don’t think that is an attack on Judaism?”

Dora hesitates, then continues. “And on Catholicism. On all religions. It’s not just people like Robin. Your brother Mark is as bad as she is.  Coming from a different place–he’s not selling people on his spirituality, but his left wing politics. Marx saw religion as the opium of the masses. To him all religions were bullshit. They’re a trick used to make people satisfied with the shitty world capitalism creates. And let me tell you, the soviets took him very seriously. They Soviet Union closed down all synagogues and churches in Russia.  They rdid the same thing in every country they conquered. No religion.  It had to go underground. All because Marx called it opium.”

“Mark isn’t a Communist. I can’t imagine he would want synagogues closed.”

“I hope not., but listening to him go on Pesach I don’t know.

“I’m sure he isn’t a communist. He takes orders from no one.”

“Fine. But his ridicule is identical.  He thinks Judaism is a joke.”

“He has nothing to do with Communists. He thinks the world as it is sucks and should be destroyed.”

“Which is what the communists believed.  They didn’t just ridicule religion.  They ridiculed every part of bourgeoise society. More than that they wanted to smash it, like Mark told you happened at that demonstration he went to.  The first window smashed belonged to the Bank of America.”

“You remembered that I told you that?”

“To me it was an important detail.”

“I’m sure there are actual communists in Berkeley trying to move things their way but Mark isn’t one of them.  Besides there is still something to what Mark has been saying. It would be a better world if everyone embraced no religion or a different religion than what they were taught to believe.  Sometimes I think he’s right. . . . Jewish guilt can get ridiculous.”

“You mean like Jay?” Dora answers

“I wasn’t thinking of Jay but yes Mr. Sanders always makes fun of my guilt.  He thinks it’s ruining my life. He’s not wrong. All that guilt.  For what?”

“Which is my point.” Dora answers.  Therapists are directly attacking Judaism, not just Judaism, Catholics’ guilt—they feast on ridiculing it.”

“But that is not what they are trying to do, at least not Mark.”

“Right.  Mark’s behavior at the Seder was a form of prayer.”

“Not prayer, but pointing out bullshit.”

“Therapists are so slippery.  They would never admit that they want to do away with religion…CC step back for a minute! Think about what they are pushing. Guilt isn’t an enemy.  It isn’t a neurotic bad habit. Yes it makes life more complicated and uncomfortable.  But that is how it should be. Getting rid of it isn’t the path to happiness.  Leading a righteous life is.  That’s the essence of Judaism. You can’t call all of it bullshit and make a show of how spiritual you are.

“But Robin is spiritual. You meet her and that’s your first thought. She’s spiritual.”

“Oh we are back there?   Robin’s selling Hallmark-card religion.  Your soul can’t get to a higher place as easily she makes it seem. Great she writes music that sounds like it is directed to God, or should I say gods. But it is nonsense. Catholics only reach a state of grace when they’ve confessed to transgressions they may have kept secret for years, that they were too ashamed to tell anyone. That is what it is all about–– coming to terms with your guilt.  Same for Jews. When we fast on Yom Kippur and promise to try harder to be a better person we are making a promise to God.  It’s the real thing. We aren’t seeking to have a good day.  We’re hoping to have our innocence returned.  Asking for a clean slate. Praying for it.  Fasting for it. Having the weight of our sins removed, be forgiven by the only one who can do it.  By God.”

Singing about peace and love and jingling a bell can’t get you there. Or assuming a perfect yoga position. And most importantly, you can’t do what Mark does. You can’t make guilt disappear by making fun of it, thinking of it as stupid.

Jesus, Jay’s therapist pisses me off. Jay would come home from a therapy session and tell me crazy things his shrink said, probably just like yours.”

“Like what?”

“Like how everyone has a god within them.  They just have to learn how to go there. Stuff like that. It’s nonsense.”

“Jay’s therapist said that?  Really? That’s how Jeremy talks.”

“And a thousand other people like him.  You can’t be your own God, no matter how many chants you perform… I’ve seen people go there with Yoga. Get glassy- eyed, have this beatific smile.  They look like they’re on heroin.  It’s the easy way to a state of grace. It may feel the same but—’’

CC lashes out. “Mark thinks you are the least liberated person we know.  Your kosher home—how you force Jay to not eat lobster.”


“Lobster was Jay’s favorite food.”

“Poor Jay.”

“Jay can’t drive his car on Saturday.  Even to go to the supermarket. He can’t turn on the light. All this mumbo jumbo—he can’t use a stapler, lick an envelope on Saturday. Sins, sins everywhere.  Tell me that’s spiritual liberation.”

“Who’s talking about liberation?”  Dora answers.

“What is it, then?”

“Devotion.  Knowing what God allows and what’s okay has guided us for centuries. Practically forever. Knowing and observing what is allowed and not allowed. For a thousand years guilt has been woven into how we conduct ourselves. It’s at the core of Judaism. It never occurred to anyone that how we are supposed to live could be anything other than what God allows.  You never thought God was watching you? Judging you?”

“I guess so.  Well maybe when I was ten, when I was doing something wrong  But now . . .”

“So you think there is no one there now.”

“I suppose.” `

“So you are no longer a Jew.  Our religion  is based on this very simple, sane idea.  For thousands of years very few people thought it was untrue.  God is watching us, expecting us to follow what He’s told us to do. It’s all in the Torah.  That’s the whole story.  That’s the core of Judaism.”

“To me it’s lox and bagels.”

“I’m serious.”

“Gefilte fish?”

Dora is smiling but is intent on not being sidetracked.

“That’s why in the synagogue the Torah has a crown on it.  That’s why we kiss it as they walk it through the congregation. God’s dos and don’ts.  Written down. His commandments! He watches every last thing we do. It is impossible to hide from him.  Making sure we obey is how we are supposed to live.”

“You’re big on the whole Jews using our brains a lot– that we are smarter than other people

“I don’t know if we are smarter, have a higher IQ,  but thinking a lot about things––”

“How do you think it started?  For centuries, the most serious scholars studied the Torah inside out, trying to glean every hint God gave us about what he expected.  The Talmud, the Mishnah, feverish debate trying to figure the Torah out. This hippie idea that God is this nice guy saying “Oh well” to everything.  That is totally wrong.  He wants to be taken seriously.  He’s made these rules and it’s our job to follow them.”

CC imitates God’s voice. “Thou shall not eat bacon and eggs. . . . Sounds like God is not a very spiritual guy.”

“You’re exactly right,” Dora says.  “He’s not interested in being spiritual, whatever that means.”

“It means peace and love and understanding.”

“That sounds so great, but guess what?  God is not a hippie.  He has rules and He’s given them to us. His demands are what keeps us on the right path.”

Dora continues: “Yes it is about using our brains.  In the shtetl, the smartest student would be rewarded with a wife from the richest family so that he could study all his life.  There was no Ford Foundation. Understanding God’s will was the most meaningful way people could use their minds. Not just staying out of trouble. Understanding his rules, interpreting new ones and obeying them was considered the sweetest way use our brains.  But never mind all that.  Along come the sixties—let’s cut to the chase.  You don’t need the Mishnah or the Talmud to rule on what you are doing.  Adultery.  It’s one of the Ten Commandments.”

“You really think there is a God?”

“He’s right there, watching me. And you.”

“But that’s so creepy.”

“Creepy or not, He’s there.”

“You really believe that?”

“Me and billions of people, for thousands of years.”

And what is God like?” CC asks.

“Most religious Jews believe he’s fair.  If you go along with His commandments, He’s on your side.”

“Religious Jews never get cancer?  They never die young?”

“They do.  There’s a lot we can’t understand, but who am I to question Him? Dora Gordon at 39 Yellowstone Boulevard, Forest Hills, Queens?”

“It’s more than that. This God you worship can get pissed.  He killed everyone on earth, all except Noah’s family. He’s definitely not a live and let live God.”

“You are catching on.”

“Well, that’s not much of a God to me.”

“Why? Because by Sesame Street standards he doesn’t measure up?  I swear, sometimes I listen to the Left’s sacred beliefs and all I hear is a child. La-la nursery school beliefs. I don’t know what God’s like. No one does. But He’s not Mr. Rogers. Or Santa Klaus.  A God-fearing person doesn’t question God’s character.  I mean, who are we? Us judging Him? We are forbidden to give Him a name, to make a graven image of Him. We are little nothings compared to God.  Ants scurrying around.”

“But that’s the point.  God-fearing? What kind of God is one you have to fear?”

“He is who he is, whether you like that or not.”

“So, who is he?”

“I once said that to my father. You know what he said? ‘You’re fifteen.  You haven’t earned the right to say what God should be like?’  He was right then. He still is, and I’m twenty-six.  All I know is that without Him, I’m alone, lost. With Him, I have his rules to guide me but more than that. I share in His glory. And there is much glory all around us. On Shabis I rest like he rested. We’re together.”

“On Yellowstone Boulevard?”

“Everywhere.  Every day the sun rises. ‘יֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר Yo e mer, eloheinu, Yehi or, va-yehi or.’”      Dora recites the passage from Genesis.

 “Let there be light,” and there was light.  
And God saw the light and that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness.  
And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.

“Night and day, sunrise and sunset were among His first miracles.  I see His glory every morning when I open my eyes. You never feel that?”

“No,” CC replies. “Sometimes in the synagogue, when I hear the choir sing.  When I sing ‘Sh’ma Yisra’eil. God is one!’ You’re right.  That means something to me. I don’t know why, but the reverent way everyone sings that. I feel like I am part of it, together with everyone one else singing it.”

“Good.  You should feel part of it. That was Abraham, the first Jew’s proclamation.”

CC takes a deep, deep breath, for the moment realizing that what she just said is true. She never thought of it the way Dora is presenting it to her, but when she sings the Sh’ma she cherishes it. It comes from her heart.

But immediately afterward, Dora’s words make her unsure.

“God’s allowing you to experience His presence.”

“But what if it all is a sham? What if what I am really getting off on is the passion of the congregation as they proclaim the Shema? Not God. I might have been just as thrilled by a chorus in an opera. What if the holiness of that music is a trick to talk you into fearing God.  Not holiness– fearing God is their real purpose.”

“Give me a break.” Dora’s voice rises. “That cover on Time magazine! In huge letters: ‘IS GOD DEAD?’”

Dora continues: “Your world is so pure? Creating these men gods.   John Lennon?  We need to be in awe of something other than the Beatles.  It’s the way we are built. To experience it.  Life is too empty, too disappointing without God  He’s right there. And it is not just Jews. Remember when  I went to Cantor Koussevitsky’s house ?”


He played Mozart, told me how he reached for Him with his requiem.  When he played me the music I could feel it. I think he did reach him.”

Dora is feeling inspired as she continues. “When people entered God’s cathedrals. Behold!  Their eyes lifted them into the sky, for that moment, heaven seemed so close.” Dora repeats, “We need to be in awe. Without it, what is there? Life is so pale.”

After letting that sink in, Dora says, “If God is dead, what do we have to replace him? Where do we direct our awe?  Worshipping the Beatles? Celebrities have become our gods.    Without a real God, we are left to worship the famous. Which, when you think about it, is pathetic. John Lennon, Paul McCartney.  they are just people.  Great. They can sing,  they create a line or two of terrific lyrics. But they’re people, like you and me. Just as lost. Get rid of God and that’s what you are left with. If you gotta have awe I’d rather save it for God.”

CC doesn’t respond at first, but then she contritely answers her. “I agree with most of what you are saying.   I agree.”

Dora can’t help herself.  Like CC and Mark, she wants to pound it home further. “I listen to these leftist leaders.  Where are they leading students? Away from Judaism?  Away from God? To where?”

There is a long pause.

“To equality,” CC replies.

Dora sneers. “To Marx’s state of grace?”

“You don’t think equality is important?”

“Sure Everyone should have equal opportunity? Absolutely, but there should be a reward for extra effort, for trying harder and doing better.  Otherwise, you can sit around and do nothing and demand that you get what everyone else has—”

“You should teach at my school. Some students would listen.”

“I don’t think anyone would listen.”

CC knows Dora’s right.  The school used to encourage students to practice their religion.

“When I was a freshman, we had these convocations.  They began with a prayer. Everyone was respectful.”

“Do they still have them?”

“They’ve dropped them, along with having to wear a jacket and tie for dinner.”

“How come?”

“Students were complaining.”

“You mean the colleges want to be hip.”

“I think they recognized that they were old fogeyish.”

“How did the students get their teachers to agree, by occupying their offices?  Colleges aren’t God-fearing.  They’re student-fearing.”

CC says nothing.  She agrees.

“CC, what is nice about you is that you are a student, still trying to figure things out. Some of these activists, with their ‘Don’t trust anyone over thirty.’  They really think they have all the answers.”

“You don’t think they see a lot of what’s wrong?”

“Sure. We all know there is a lot wrong. And some of their complaints are justified. But thinking that way fools them into thinking what they have in mind is better. They’re going to make a perfect world.  They are so sure.  CC, the answer is Judaism. . . . You were bat-mitzvahed, right?”


“You are no longer a child. You are an adult  held accountable.  . . . . By God!”

Dora again gives CC a moment to think it over, then continues.

“Adultery doesn’t have a question mark next to it. It doesn’t require a complicated interpretation from the Talmud. There is no maybe. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.”

“There’s no wiggle room in your world, is there? . . . About anything?”

“There is.  I have questions about plenty of things, but not about the Ten Commandments.”

“So to you, I am just a sinner.”

“No.  You’re CC. My family. We’ll be together all our lives. But you’re grasping at straws.  I know everyone wants to have someone, but . . .” She pauses, then continues, her sermon. “You have no reason to be desperate.”  Her voice reverberates as if Dora wants to be heard in the heavens above and everywhere below, seared into the heart of every believer.  .

“You’re having an affair with a married man.  He’s the father of a young child!”

CC remains absolutely silent, more frozen by indecision than feeling contrite.

Jeremy sticks his head in the door.

She covers the mouthpiece of the phone, then whispers loudly enough for him to hear.          “My sister-in-law.” CC waves for him to leave.

Dora says, “I know that sounds judgmental, but you know what? It is.  That’s how it should be.  I don’t know how this whole thing started about not being judgmental. It began with therapists. Now it’s everyone. Accepting anything and everything you do.  Doing your own thing has become the sacred commandment of our times.”  Like an orator, she waits for the rhythm to carry her forward. “Says who?”

Then she is silent.

“No. I agree.  Sometimes I think my father should just slap Mark across the face.  Or better. My mother.”

“What about you?”

CC doesn’t answer. The conversation has gone further than she expected.

CC, I love you, but you are lost.”

CC remains quiet.

“Are you there?”

“I’m listening.”

“You know Jay was exactly the same.”

“Why the same?”

“Because he had no connection to God.  He was observant, but things he did had no meaning. Your parents are the same.  They go to the synagogue on the High Holy Days as expected. They bow  when the prayer book says to bow, join the rest of the congregation when the prayer book directs everyone to chant in unison, listen to the rabbi when the siddur says it’s his turn.   They are reverent when it is expected and I guess try real hard to be good Jews, but that is as far as it goes.  It has no meaning. Jay didn’t really believe in God.  Nor do your parents.”

“So what is wrong about that?”

Jay  had begun to feel he was weird for taking it all so seriously. That is so strange. He doesn’t have to apologize for being the way he is. . . . God has given him a reason why he should not break free.”  Dora hesitates. “I probably sound like a Bible-thumper.”

CC doesn’t answer immediately, but then she says, “Maybe, but  I know it’s coming from a good place.”

“It is. It’s what I believe . . . deeply. CC, when we first met, we promised that we would tell each other what we really thought.  You told me about Jeremy because you wanted to know what I thought—didn’t you?  If I was okay with it, then it wasn’t so bad.”

CC says, “I didn’t think about it, but­—”

“I love you, CC.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be so hard on you.  Ignoring the Ten Commandments is very bad.  Sin is sin.  God doesn’t like when we do bad things. . . . Wait. The second half is starting.”

Dora makes the sound of a loud kiss.  “I love you.  Stay away from Jeremy.  He’s poison. God wants more from you.”

With an apologetic voice, CC reminds Dora that Jeremy is in the other room.

“Just understand one thing.  It’s not for me.  If you break up with him, it won’t be for me.  It’s what God expects.”

““I’ll think about it.  Just promise me you’ll say nothing to Jay. Or Mom and Dad.”

“I said I wouldn’t.”

Again she wonders why she is asking this.  They already know.

Dora hangs up and goes back to the TV.  The Jets come running onto the field.

In the stadium, to the sound of a huge roar from their fans, Jay and Ira again slap hands as the Jets return to the playing field.  Jay moves his pants up and down, comically, flashing his socks. They bump asses.  Then they slap hands again.

Hearing that CC is off the phone, Jeremy reenters the bedroom.


June 27, 2017
by Simon Sobo

Summary of Commodore

1876. Cornelius Vanderbilt lies close to death in his New York townhouse. Outside, a carnival-like atmosphere of reporters, those who made him a household name, gather to wait for the end. Cantankerous old Vanderbilt is not done yet. He’s not ready to die. He allows a journalist, Michael Burch, inside. He’s worried about his legacy. He intends to make sure his story is told properly, the way it should be told. How a dirt-poor farm kid from Staten Island grows up to be first among America’s tycoons: admired by the public, consulted by Presidents, and feared by anyone who screwed him.

Burch and Vanderbilt go at it. Vanderbilt has more than an earful to dish out, unending amounts of piss and vinegar ready to be spewed. Also spit.  He is anything but easy, but the story is there.

Age 11. Vanderbilt quit school in the 5th grade , partly in defiance  of his beloved teacher, who regarded him as an opportunity to let out his animosity on a deserved  victim.  He was like his older brother. He didn’t do his homework and quit school young.  Both were groomed by Cornelius Sr., an illiterate man who was full of get rich schemes.  He always went for the easy way.   Little wonder that the Vanderbilts were assigned little status  in the community.  Poverty generation after generation. And their own fault.   Even after he rose to great heights, Cornelius couldn’t spell the simplest words. Burch is genuinely curious, amazed really.   How did this kid end up the richest man in the world?

The story is huge, not quite Christ like, where in the retelling  a common man becomes God, more like regular guy becomes king. Even then the regular guy is not from a Dickens story, where virtue and hard work are duly rewarded.  Vanderbilt is a ferocious competitor, a cursing, Pete Rose of a man.  Pete Rose got more hits than anyone who has ever played baseball. Legitimately. Yet he is banned from Baseball’s Hall of Fame by a committee that won’t forgive him for gambling on his team.  Didn’t matter that he never bet against his team.   He broke one of their sacred rules.  Pete Rose and Vanderbilt were kindred spirits.   Both did whatever had to be done. Both refused to lose. They  didn’t understand the word `no’. Vanderbilt  found a way. It wasn’t always zippity clean, but it aways was legal.

The Commodore was born in 1793, when New York and America were still young, at a noisy time of dire and ordinary poverty when, despite the lofty rhetoric we now memorialize, in bad times people starved to death, and most, barely got by.  No one could possibly imagine the meteoric trajectory that would materialize, not only for Cornelius Vanderbilt , but for America.

He started with a small sailboat at 16, taking passengers across the bay from Staten Island to Manhattan. At night he delivered freight. It didn’t occur to that boy that one day he might rule the financial universe.  His business plan during the fist year was inspired.  It was resolute. He was determined to pay back his mother’s loan for his boat after one year. He paid her 10 times over, just like he bragged he would.

He was very good at what he did, or if not, he made himself very good.  At 16 his focus was on being able to provide what his mother needed. When effort and determination were necessary it could be assumed.  If guile and ingenuity were required?  Also no problem.  That came to him naturally.

As a shrewd  business man he preferred being thought of as stupid.  (Not in his personal life, but that’s a different story.) His crudeness was an advantageous façade. The stupider others thought he was, the easier to outsmart them.  In the classroom he may have been a dolt, but elsewhere… He designed the engine for the fastest ship in the world.  During the insane Gold Rush years, it was Vanderbilt who dreamt up and delivered the fastest route to California.  Everyone else had frenzied travelers, rushing to get rich, climb the mountains of  Panama, passing bandits and barrooms.  Vanderbilt went through Nicaragua.  His early wealth came from that little project.  And so it went. He worked without vacation for 60 years, got into fist fights well into his 50’s.  In his 70’s, when others his age were settling into a comfortable rocking chair, he changed from ships to railroads without  a bump.  It never occurred to him  to quit.  He  followed the same business principle that  energized him from the beginning.  He loved making money.  He went where it led him.

Vanderbilt’s  story should appropriately end inside Grand Central Station.   Not even commuters hurrying along, can pass through Grand Central’s main concourse without experiencing the presence of a powerful architectural will.  The eyes are swept upward.  Our vision soars, uncontained.  The station’s vastness captures even the reluctant soul. In that sense the station most resembles a cathedral.  It was finished three years after the Brooklyn Bridge, four years after the Suez Canal, during  an era, when everywhere, men were building huge monuments to modern capability, the trans continental railroad, the  Eiffel Tower, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty. It was a time celebrating the greatness of man, a time when can-do people believed their triumphs were just beginning.

The God fearing  were offended.   To them the spirit of the age was hubris.   We were creating Towers of Babel. Perhaps now,  Grand Central Station might be spared that charge.  Or maybe not.  It wasn’t a museum for the worship of awesome man made treasures, but it was a wonder, the towering portal to what was, in its day, the Empire State. Grand Central Station was far more Vanderbilt than his other wild fantasy.

He wanted to build a giant statue in Central Park, where he, the largest employer of men in the nation, with more money than the U.S. Treasury, where he and a giant likeness of George Washington would tower over  Central Park.  Make no mistake, he was truly the king of his era.   Lesser men, generals and statesmen often were memorialized with  statues in the park.  But still, although George Washington may have been his idol from childhood on,  and many at the time,  might have agreed with  Commodore assessment of his importance, future generation would have found his pomposity laughable. Fortunately he was talked out of that project.

Grand Central Station is exactly right.  It is a place where millions upon millions  of travelers rush through, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. It is a passageway, not an end point.

Vanderbilt was the Steve Jobs, the Jeff Bezos, the Warren Buffet of his day, forever creating and reinventing projects, invariably contesting the way others did things. The public was ga-ga about him, so much so that, in an envious fit, Mark Twain lost control. He took a shot at him, ridiculing the public’s ape like fascination.  Twain couldn’t have been further off.    He presented Vanderbilt as a forever hungry man, for whom nothing would ever be enough.  He didn’t understand that’s what the public liked about him. He arose from them, and remained one of them. Hungry.  They liked the spectacular projects going up everywhere.  It excited them.  It was a different  age. Not microchips,   huge undertakings captured the public’s wonder.  Even now, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, Grand Central Station, the Brooklyn Bridge bring millions from far and wide to gaze at  what men can do. Despite his spitting and cussing, his crabbiness and bitterness,  Commodore infuses the reader with his powerful spirit.  But they will also be present when Vanderbilt experiences his biggest failure, when he does what every man must do, lose.   He dies.


Commodore at Amazon

August 4, 2016
by Simon Sobo

A Plea to Black Moderates (including Oprah)

After Ferguson two New York City policeman were assassinated, then the five at Dallas and three in Baton Rouge. As could be expected from the President, and throughout the black community, the reaction has been both shock and sympathy for the fallen officers and their families. They are calling for love, not hate, reconciliation not violence, reactions that should be expected of them and the only hope that can see us through.


But no matter how heartfelt their reaction has been, we can expect little improvement in the hostility towards policemen expressed by Black Lives Matter protesters and others’ fury about unarmed black men being shot by the police. What can make a great deal of difference is for moderates to straighten the misinformation that animates a good deal of the hostility.


From the very beginning of the narrative that the police have been shooting innocent black men, the media has played up racism as the motive. Starting with Ferguson, a shooting that the Grand Jury took the unusual step of making their deliberations public. This was followed by Obama’s Justice Department which independently went over the evidence. There was no question that the policeman involved was legitimately defending himself. There was gunpowder on Michael Brown’s hands from trying to grab the officer’s gun. He did not have his hands up. He was charging the officer. These facts were available to any reporter who did a minimum of research. (And I mean a minimum) Yet Ferguson is cited again and again and again by the media as an example of the police targeting innocent black men.


Following Ferguson, Philadelphia’s black police chief asked the Justice Department to study the problem there.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least prevalent among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that the shootings, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25. In black middle class neighborhoods no one was shot by the police.


Why has the media not presented the facts about Ferguson? Why has there not been more awareness of the Philadelphia study? Most of us who watch the news know how often they amp up happenings, to capture the most viewers. This is true of hurricane coverage as much as racially charged incidents, but there is another factor operating here. The media has been afraid to appear racist by not going along with the Black Lives Matter perspective. Another explanation is possible. They feast on extremist sentiment. It brings viewers. They also consider gotcha, pursuit of the truth, their most noble undertaking, not to mention that it turns them into society’s policemen, for nasty men and women a delicious display of their power.


I assume fear motivates someone like Oprah or former Mayor Dinkins of New York and I should add President Obama. They have a legitimate perspective. They fought hard to get to where they are and part of that fight has been to shut up. They don’t want to appear to be on white people’s side in these controversies. It could be seen as a betrayal. It isn’t just them. When the Justice Department’s findings totally exonerated the white policeman in Ferguson, it released this information together with a with a condemnation of the Ferguson Police Department for their racist policies. The media focused on that, not the innocence of the policeman


Even after the two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting in Ferguson that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  He did not mention that Officer Wilson had never used his gun before. The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”


Again. There isn’t uncertainty! Obama likes to present himself as a hero of sorts, Oprah is thought of as a wise woman. Clearly they don’t deserve kudos for courage. I am making a plea to them and all black leaders. Before any more policemen are killed it is not enough to whisper platitudes. Your reluctance to speak loudly is understandable but too much is at stake here for you to hold back. There is so much that can be said to help heal the wounds created by polarization. Why won’t you bring into the narrative the fact that during the Civil war 360,000 white men from the north lost their lives trying to free black slaves? There is a lot to be said without appearing to be an apologist. The point of this article is people like Oprah and President Obama would not be apologists. They are trusted to not only say what they truly believe, but also to rise above most other people sentiments.

Wow, could that be something. Courage from one leader, with the support of the other is possible. It could save lives. Or are they, like everyone, so afraid of our media that they allow its mean righteousness to go completely unchallenged? Oprah and President Obama have the opportunity to truly earn the respect their persona has given them.

It doesn’t even have to be now. There will be many Fergusons, many times when people have been driven to hysteria by lies. Sometimes truth has a way of getting though.The way people trust you, it’s possible you can do it.

If not now, perhaps the next time. Whenever it happens it won’t be too late. Especially you Barack. They’ve already given you the Nobel Peace Prize. You have little to lose.




Commodore: Chapters 1 and 2

February 28, 2016 by Simon Sobo | 0 comments

Chapter 1


Staten Island 1802

For the last twenty days, the weather has been overcast. It’s April yet the gray dark winter sky seems like it will never give way. Not an hour of sunshine to warm the face. Not a single warm afternoon so that the body can lose its chill.

6AM:   Trailing behind his father Cornelius Vanderbilt, nine-year-old (Cornelius) “Cornele” makes his way across the potato fields. Deep mud from the melting snow sucks at the boy’s boots, making it difficult to climb the incline. Old Cornelius is irritated by the slowdown. He’s had to stop his wheelbarrow several times so that his son could catch up.

Gloomy weather like this would sour the mood of any farmer, let alone Cornelius. The freezing drizzle is also rotten luck for Cornele. He and his father would have taken shelter from rain, but his father insists, cold as it is, a drizzle is not enough reason to leave the fields. 

Making things worse, the farm borders New York’s Upper Bay.  A storm may be coming.   High, mean waves are crashing into the shore, sending sprays of icy saltwater into the air.  This joins the freezing drizzle, as gusts of wind sweep the moisture a hundred yards into the farm.

Cornele’s damp wool coat provides little protection. The wind finds its way beneath it, injecting icy chills that cut right through him.   More meat on him would help prevent the chill from seeping into his chest. Every few moments a sharp frozen, aching sensation reaches his bones, especially his knees.

Old Cornelius started this morning as he does every morning, wanting to call it quits.  After the rooster startled him from his dream, he pulled his quilt tighter, kept his eyes closed, and- if only for a few moments longer, fought to stay asleep.

No luck. As the dream dissipated, it left him all nerves, which increased the longer he lay there.

Now, an hour later, angry energy propels him forward. He parks his wheelbarrow carefully, facing up the hill, so that it won’t fall, reaches for his pick ax, lifts it over his head, and swings it wildly into the mud, trying to free a large rock from the soil. He is a man at war, hurling his fury at the enemy, which is everywhere. Cornele stands nearby ready to help his father, but he is aggravating him more than he is helping him.

When they first went outside, Cornele played with the frosty air. He blew out a thin stream as far as it would go and waved his hand through it as if it were smoke. He tried to make rings. His father looked at him like he wanted like to kill him. As usual Cornele doesn’t seem capable of standing still.

“When you work, you work. No bullshit,” he lectures.

Cornele’s heard it a hundred times, heard the anger as his father said it.   Only lately it’s moved beyond aggravation to a fury firing out of his eyes.

Cornele repeatedly tightens his ungloved fingers into fists, trying to prevent them from freezing.   His knees move in and out rhythmically as if he has to pee. From time to time, his shivering escalates into a tremor, which culminates in a quivering little boy moan. He tried to pass this off as a playful sound the first time, but hearing it a second time further pisses off Old Cornelius. He’s convinced his son is exaggerating how cold he is.   He wants Cornele concentrating on what they’re doing, not on what he is feeling.

“The Princess and the pea. Your mother is raising a princess.”

“I ain’t no princess.”

His father is undeterred. He is intent on showing Cornele his mighty swing. The boy has an unobstructed view. Each time Cornelius’ smashes his tool into the earth, it sends mud flying everywhere. He’s practically covered Cornele’s coat and face.   A fleck of mud hits Cornele just below his eye. He flinches. Old Cornelius stares at him defiantly.

“Who told you to stand there?”

Cornele moves two steps backwards. He stares like a deer caught in the headlights.

  His father scowls “Are you waiting for me to say something?”

Cornele’s eyes begin to water.

“Don’t you cry boy. Damn’ princess with her pea,” he repeats. “How’d I ever get a son like this.”

Cornele’s first tear finally slides down his cheek, and then many more. Old Cornelius has seen enough. He will not stand out here with a crying son. He throws down his pick, and storms away in the direction of the house. He shouts, “It’s your Ma’s fault. Made you a cry baby.”

Watching his father march off, Cornele wipes his eyes with his arms. He’s determined not to let the tears continue.

He lifts the pick lying on the ground and swings it solidly into the earth. Old Cornelius hears him and does an about face. He returns and roughly grabs the pick-ax away from Cornele.

  “Your Ma’d kill me…” he mumbles loud enough to be heard.

His father takes a mighty swing. The huge rock comes loose. “See what I mean?” is written on his face. Happy to have another opportunity, Cornele drops to the side of the rock. He digs his fingers into the cold mud surrounding it, and pulls the huge rock completely free. His father brings over the wheelbarrow. His face turns bright red as he lifts the huge rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow tray. Huffing and puffing he drops it in. This tips the wheelbarrow over.

“God damn’ it,” Cornelius yells. The steam is coming out of every pore. When he manages to get a modicum of control over himself he places the wheelbarrow at a better angle.

“Come here and hold this steady.”

Cornele does as he is told. He holds it tightly, trying to steady it. While doing so, he shifts his feet back and forth still trying to keep warm, which is what bothered his father in the first place.

“Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he scowls. He grabs the wheelbarrow tray and shoves it a bit, “Like this! Get it straight.”

With Herculean effort, cursing all the way, Old Cornelius again lifts the rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow and drops it in. The wheelbarrow falls over.

Furiously, he shouts loud enough to be heard in hell, “Hold it damn’ you.”

Cornele pulls the wheelbarrow up, positions it, stiffens his body, and tightens his grip. His father again lifts the rock and drops it down. Using all of his strength, Cornele manages to keep it upright.

“So when you want to, you can do it,” his father observes sarcastically, but as he wheels the rock away, there is a trace of affection for Cornele’s contribution.

Old Cornelius will add it to the other rocks, which form a wall cutting across the field. Each rock represents a separate battle. As has become his habit, he glances at the largest one every time he brings a new addition. On nicer days it serves as a trophy, but usually it is too hot, or too cold, too wet too dry—the biggest rock, all of the rocks, remind him of just how badly he’s been cursed by God.                                                                                                        

“Fuck you Jesus. You son of a whore. Stuck me on this piece of shit land. Fucking rocks everywhere.”

With his father gone, Cornele takes the pick and throws himself at another rock. He is able to get it loosened. He gets on his knees and once again moves the mud away with his hands. Happily he anticipates his father’s admiration when he returns.

Old Cornelius’ reaction is completely the opposite. He grabs the tool.   “You are a fuckin’ idiot. I took the pick away once. I told ya. Ma‘ll blame me if you hurt yourself.”

Still intent on showing his son how it’s done, his ferocious swing further placates his rage. His steady stream of cursing, thousand and thousands of times before, has never been enough to get the job done. He can’t shout as powerfully as he needs to. The vehemence of his pick ax swing, attacking the earth, momentarily makes him feel right.

The rock is not loosening.

“Mother fucker. You mother fucker.”

A boulder under the rock isn’t allowing him to get at the dirt underneath. He slams the pick into the earth a fourth time but it has no effect.

For Old Cornelius it always comes down to the same thing, futility. Why bother? You can’t win. He throws the pick ax on the ground.

One son sick and the other useless. Too many mouths to feed. Daughters not sons. There is nothing else to say or do other than quit. He heads for the house muttering all the way, bitter that Cornele has failed him. He had counted on the future when a strong son would ease his toils.

 “Thinks he’s a prince. Nothing. You hear me Cornele,” he shouts. You’re going to be nothing.” A moment later he adds, “Can’t even hold a wheelbarrow. The world out there ain’t gonna wipe your ass like your Ma.”

When his father is far enough away, Cornele lifts the pick-ax and starts swinging.   In the distance, his father turns around. Hands on his hips, he watches his son with the nastiest scowl yet. As he turns back to the house, he kicks a shovel that had been left in his path. He shouts at Cornele.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the shovel there? How many times? Almost tripped on it.”

He picks up the shovel, swings it in Cornele’s direction, and then lets go. It falls far short of its target. Cornele is unfazed. His father has grabbed him roughly many times, but never actually beat him.

   Fussing and cursing, Old Cornelius heads for the house again.

“Nothing! You hear me Cornele. You’re gonna be nothing.”

Phoebe watches him through the window as he returns   She is not happy. She opens the door, stares him up and down.

“Another short day?”

“The weather.”

“So why’d you drag Cornele out there? You already have one sick son. Jacob’s coughing started on a day like this.”

  He doesn’t answer. She isn’t finished.

You managed to come back. Where is   Cornele?”      

Noticing his blue lips, her tone softens.

“There’s hot tea on the stove.”

She’s no fool. He’s regularly disappointed her, but with all his shortcomings, the family could not last 10 minutes without him.   It isn’t easy to chop out their survival against nature’s malevolence. She wouldn’t want to be out there on a nasty day like this.

She shouts for Cornele to come in.   Her voice sounds like it is coming from heaven.   His arms had gotten heavy. He will soon be warm by the fire and sipping tea.

With this in mind he has new energy. He stares at the rock that has been his nemesis, rust colored and smooth. He swings a mighty blow. No luck.   It isn’t budging. He loosens some dirt and takes another swing. Still nothing happens. The next swing does the trick. He is about to lift it when it begins to pour.

He fixes the location of the rock in his mind so he can return tomorrow. Slowed by the mud, he runs towards the house. Hail is bouncing off the ground. That makes him smile. He doesn’t get to see hail very often.


It is dinnertime. Cornele’s mother, Phoebe Hand Vanderbilt, and her eldest daughter Mary, are bringing food to the large kitchen table. Phoebe is pregnant. She has a strong face, a straight mouth a little drawn down in the corners, but green eyes that glitter humorously from under thick brows. There is shrewdness in her face, determination, kindliness. But not right now. Jacob, her eldest boy, is coughing the worst yet, hacking away from deep within his chest.

  “Damn’ it. Cover your mouth.” Old Cornelius shouts at him.

  Phoebe brings Jacob a kitchen rag. He hacks away once or twice more, but then coughs more gently before stopping. They settle down. She looks around the table.

“What’s with you Cornele? Why the sad face?”

He glances at his father surreptitiously, before looking down at his plate. Old Cornelius is chewing his food looking as innocent as a priest giving a sermon, making eye contact with no one.   He can keep it up for only so long when she stares him down. She catches his eye for a fraction of a second. That’s enough for him to momentarily lose his composure.

  The portions are meager. There is not enough food for the seven of them. After cleaning their plates, they look longingly at the little that remains. Phoebe takes the meat off her plate and puts it on Jacob’s plate.

  “Here, eat this.”

  The other children stare at the meat.

  “Not hungry,” he replies in a sickly way.


  “Can’t. I’m nauseous.”

  Old Cornelius and Phoebe exchange a worried glance.

  Phoebe puts the meat on Cornele’s plate.

  “You take it.”

  Charlotte reacts immediately,

  “He always gets everything.”

  “Men’s work requires more meat.”

  “And what do we get? Sugar and spice?”

  “Keep it up and you’ll get the back of my hand.”

Cornele quickly devours the piece of meat. Phoebe pours milk about a third of the way up in each of the children’s glasses.

  Charlotte is not finished complaining.

  “Can I at least have more milk?”

  Phoebe pours the last of it into her glass. Charlotte continues to look expectantly.  

  “There isn’t any more.”

  “I’m hungry.”

  “Talk to your father about that.”

           She still hasn’t let up on his decision to sell Betsy, one of their two cows, for one of   his schemes. As usual, that money brought back nothing. Late at night, in bed, she’s told him a thousand times. She doesn’t mind the booze. It’s the gambling. Just because he loses it over a few months, rather then in one night, it’s the same. He’s gonna land them in the poor house yet. Now with Elsa, their other cow, not producing well…

     Jacob starts to cough again. Old Cornelius stands up and puts on his hat.

    “Where you going?” Phoebe asks him.


     Without looking back, he closes the door behind him.

  No need for Phoebe to say anything. Old Cornelius storming out is a regular occurrence. She returns from the oven with a plate of steaming biscuits.

“One each.”

  The weather has cleared. The clouds left behind by the storm have made for a magnificent sunset. A schooner, its sails haloed in orange fills their front window.   Almost to touch the color Phoebe goes to the window. She wants to get a better look.

  “Come to the window.”

     Charlotte hardly glances. She knows what’s coming. She’s heard stories about her grandfather a thousand times too many.

   “Like the boat my father had. Some days I’d stand by the shore. Waiting…”

Cornele can’t take his eyes off the boat. In contrast to Charlotte, every time his mother talks about her father he enters into her memory like in a dream. It brings him to a better place. Like songs that sometimes play in his head, his pleasure multiplies each time the story gets repeated.

  The ship’s deep foghorn fills the airways.

  “I could hear him before I could see him. As soon as he entered the harbor, he’d sound the horn extra long for me.”

  The foghorn again sounds its deep extended bass.

“Still sends a thrill through me… It’s why I fell in love with this house… You can hear the ships’ horns, watch the ships come back from the sea.”

  She runs her fingers through Cornele’s hair, as she stares at the boat.

  “He was tall and strong like you…”

  She sees he is uncomfortable.

  “Go keep your father company.”

  Cornele hesitates.

  “He likes your company when he goes walking.”

  Cornele is still hesitant.

  “Believe me. He does. He told me. He used to like it when Jacob could go out with him.”

  She hands him his hat. Cornele takes it and reluctantly puts on his coat.

  Phoebe is pleased. She feels a little guilty for driving Cornelius from the dinner table. This will help. Cornele needs time together with his father when they’re not working. He can be a different person on his walks.

  “Here take this biscuit to your father.” She breaks off another half for him.

  “Preparing for a comment from Charlotte, she goes on the offensive.

“You can each have another half a biscuit.

Cornele catches up to his father. He is deep in a dark mood. They walk slowly, quietly along the shoreline, Cornele kicking pebbles along the way. It is now well into the sunset, the bay slowly changing from orange to red. They stare out over the water as small waves fold into the shore. The sound lures them into silence. It quiets Cornelius’ anger.

Cornele throws a pebble into the water.   A thin ping can be heard as it breaks the surface. Lit by the sunset, circles of color slowly expand from the pebble, becoming less intense, and then disappear.

Cornele measures his father’s mood cautiously. He is still uncertain what will come next. His father throws a pebble. It is again followed by a circle of color.

Cornele lets down his guard a bit. His father takes out a flask and gulps down a swallow of whiskey.

Cornele’s apprehension returns. Could be the beginning of trouble. Then suddenly, another schooner appears, slowly passing them on its way to docking in Manhattan. Ordinarily, Old Cornelius lacks the patience to nurture Cornele’s curiosity. He might begin with an educational purpose, but it too often turns into a lecture.   Interesting details fade, invariably replaced by a lesson aimed at his moral education. This soon becomes scolding, sometimes for things Cornele didn’t do. His father will acknowledge this, but he says its good for Cornele to listen anyway and learn. Old Cornelius can’t help himself. There is so much that needs fixing. There is so much anger in him at the injustice in the world.

   The one exception is ships. Like Phoebe he has a thing for ships. He points: “What is that called?”

  “The bow.”


“The jib sail.”

  The ship’s flag comes into view.

  “What country?”

  “Spain. That’s the Castilla.”

  Sure enough, soon is seen, written boldly, La Castilla adorning the bow.

  “See I told you.”

  “Your Ma says you can name every boat that comes into the harbor.”

“I can.”

“That’s how you use your time? Watching the boats?”

  “They go all over the world.”

  Old Cornelius says nothing but it is clear he is unimpressed.

   “Your Ma also tells me you like to wear your grandfather’s captain hat.”

  Cornele remains silent.

  “You’re too old to play baby games like that.”

  Another ship comes into view.

  Cornele calls out excitedly.

  “That one’s Dutch. It’s Dutch like us.

“Don’t you let your mother tell you any different. The English stole New York from us.” Frustrated, angry, determined he continues, “It should be New Amsterdam.”

  Cornele’s apprehension grows as the anger grows in his father’s voice.

  “Telling ya. I would sell Betsy again. Your Ma don’t understand. Ya can’t get anywhere working with your hands.   No future in it.”

  He looks at Cornele, not sure what he understands. Cornele is, in fact, not listening. He’s planning his escape route, should the drinking continue.

                                                        Chapter 2

                                                                 Late December 1876, a lifetime later.

Cornelius Vanderbilt is sitting on the side of his bed using a cane to support himself. A doctor has just completed his examination. Eighty-four, thin and pale, he groans in pain as he attempts to stand up. Yet, sick as he is, he still radiates authority.   His groans are as much shouting back at the pain as feeling it. When he feels irritation in his throat his raucously loud coughs take over the room.

Below his bedroom window, a mob of reporters has overflowed into the street at the front of his Manhattan townhouse. A newsboy can be heard outside calling out the tidings:

“Commodore Vanderbilt dying. Richest man in America very ill.”

Making it to a standing position, Vanderbilt heads towards the window. An extern, dressed in white, tries to help him, but he is waved away contemptuously.

The doctor begins to stir but thinks better of it.

Outside, someone is shouting “Commodore” over and over.

Vanderbilt mumbles to himself as he moves toward the window. He rubs away the frost with his pajama sleeve and looks out at the reporters.

“Twice as many as yesterday. They’re ready to suck on my bones the minute I die.”

An organ grinder, with a leashed monkey sitting on his shoulder, cranks out a tune.

“A fucking carnival under my window.”

One of the reporters catches a glimpse of Vanderbilt and points. The result is a new round of shoving and pushing as each tries to secure a better position. Everyone’s shouting.


“Mr. Vanderbilt!”

Vanderbilt leaves the window.

The doorbell rings, a series of gongs.

“Pendleton. Get the door,” he shouts to the butler, as he makes his way to the second floor landing overlooking the entrance.

“Who is it?”

“A reporter,” Pendleton shouts back, “Mr. Michael Burch.”

Burch leans forward and looks up at the landing.

Vanderbilt moves into full view and straightens up.   Like a bear rising on its back legs, he appears doubly menacing.

“I ain’t dying you mother fucker.”

Calmly, Burch shouts up to him, “Sir, it’s Michael Burch.”

He waits for a response, but there isn’t any.

“Michael Burch. You asked me to come here… You liked my story about you in last week’s Sentinel…Said you wanted to tell me the rest…that ring any bells?”

“I read that article.” Vanderbilt shouts to him in a raspy voice. “I don’t remember asking you to come here.”

“Our readers want to know everything they can about you.”

“Sure they do. Especially, how I got my money. Probably think I have a secret which I’ll take to the grave.”

“Well, do you?”

“Just one. I tripped over a chest of diamonds and gold on Treasure Island when I was twelve. Been living off it ever since.”

“You’re a lucky man.”

“I wanted it enough. That’s how I done it.”

“Can’t be that simple.   You started with nothing.”

“Actually it is that simple. It ain’t the stuff you guys write about. I know it’s hard coming up with news.   Still! Ya ever get tired of bullshit?”

“We’re not all like that. Make you a deal. You tell the story straight and I’ll report it that way. Let our readers decide.”

“Decide what?”

“How you did it. That’s what people want to know.”

“There’s nothing unusual about it.”

“Nothing? You were better at making money then anyone that’s ever lived. People want to know about things like that.”

“I’m sure they do.”

“They’re looking for ideas. What’s wrong with that?”

“I ain’t no ‘how to’ person.”

“I’m sure you aren’t. But something made you succeed. It wasn’t just luck.”

“There was plenty of luck.”

“Not the way you kept multiplying your money. You did it for 70 years.”

Normally, flattery would turn Vanderbilt off, but since he’s become ill, he’s been more vulnerable to compliments.

“People want to figure out how come, what drove you on like that?”

“I’m trying to sort that out myself.”

“There’s a lot of stories floating around, not all of them nice.”

“Not all of it was nice. But none of it was crooked.”

“They say you could outsmart anyone.”

“That’s because everyone thought they were smarter than me. Dumber they think you are, the better you’ll do.”

“See that’s what people are looking for, advice. You have some more like that?”

“No. Only other thing is ya gotta be quick. Act before someone else gets the idea.”

“So you are cagey.”

“You want to call it cagey, go ahead.”

“Well what is it?”

“Who the fuck knows. I just do what I do.”

Vanderbilt starts to cough. He clears his chest and gathers his phlegm, forces the gunk out of his throat. He lets the phlegm

fly towards the spittoon. He hits his mark.

“Getting sick brings out new talents,” he says triumphantly.

“Do you see things differently since you got sick like this?”


“Like what?”

“That I may be dying got me thinking about a lot of things. ”

“Is that on your mind a lot?” Burch asks with some genuineness.

“You really give a shit?”

Burch squirms a bit, which Vanderbilt ignores.

“Some days, it feels like I’m dying. Other days…I feel like a million bucks.   Like today.”

“You know the Herald is printing a daily report on your health. Been running it for the last month.”

“I know. The countdown. You can tell your editor I ain’t dying any time soon.”

Burch isn’t sure what Vanderbilt believes. His physical deterioration is striking, especially his pallor. Burch saw him at a function a year ago. It’s as if the person before him is someone else, taking measured steps, frail like a ghost.

“Since you are feeling good, how about an interview?”

“Truth is when I read your article I thought about doing an interview with you.

Give you this. Most reporters make up stories to fill in what they don’t know.   In your article you didn’t do that. What you wrote about me last week was true. Every bit of it.”

“I do my best.”

“I respect that.” Vanderbilt observes Burch as he absorbs the compliment. He continues.

“I need that. I want to set things straight. Never understood people my age writing memoirs. Now I do. I want the last word.”

“I can help you do that. People trust what I write.”

Vanderbilt seems perplexed.

“Is something wrong?”

“Sounds like I invited you, doesn’t it?”


“I really don’t remember doing that. Don’t remember it at all. I’m forgetting a lot of things lately. ”

“I was definitely told to come here.”

Thinking further: “Was probably my son, Bill. You got sons?”

Burch holds up two fingers, “Eight and ten.”

“Wait ‘til they get older and become pricks like Bill…”

“You really didn’t ask me to come?”

Vanderbilt isn’t listening.

“I’m sure it was Bill. The fuck has taken over. Convinced the doctors I’m senile. That’s put him in charge.”

He clears some more phlegm from his throat.

“Probably I’m not all there. But all that means is I’m not paying attention to what’s going on around here…Who wants to? I’m stuck with this body that ain’t worth shit. And the fact is, my memories are a thousand times more interesting than the people around me now.”

He takes several labored breaths, than continues. “I keep mentioning people my son’s never heard of. So what? He thinks my talking so much about the past is proof I’m a goner. The doctor agrees it’s a sign of senility. What they don’t get is, these people in the past happen to be the people I spent my life with.”

He hesitates to catch his breath.

“They mean something to me. I’m sorting things out with them. Finishing things up between us.”

“That matters to you?”

Vanderbilt doesn’t answer.

The extern, a tall young man, has followed him to the landing.

“Sir, I think you have to get back to bed.”

He grabs Vanderbilt’s arm trying to force him back to the bedroom. Over matched, Vanderbilt’s hand tightens on his walking stick as the extern begins to pull in earnest. He

cracks the extern on his head, a sharp glancing blow, and pulls his arm free.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” he spits out. “Who the fuck da ya think you are?”

The extern retreats.   Vanderbilt waits for him to leave the landing, which he does. He returns to the bedroom, leaving the door open.

“Shut that door!”

The intern ignores him. Vanderbilt returns his attention to Burch.

“Believe me, the people I’m thinking about are god damn’ more important than the assholes around here. Including Bill when he pokes his head in.”

He looks toward the bedroom.

“Put that down,” he shouts at the extern. He leaves the landing to retake possession of a urinal from the extern. He grabs it out of his hands. The extern gives him a patronizing glance, the same he gives to all the old biddies that he sees.

With Vanderbilt busy, Burch questions Pendleton, “Is he okay?”

“His mind’s sharp as a bell. Remembers everything. What’s changed is now he tells people things he used to keep private. Doesn’t care anymore.”

“Anything else?”

“The last 7 or 8 years the second Mrs. Vanderbilt had made him into a gentleman.”

Pendleton’s pride swells as he speaks.

“Should have seen him at 80, dapper, erect posture; he looked 60. They made quite a couple…Up until this illness. Now he’s more like he was before he married her, yelling and cursing as bad as he ever did.”

Having defeated the extern Vanderbilt returns invigorated. He shouts down to Burch.

“You can bring your ass up here. Except you gotta do one thing first. Tell your buddies to clear out. I want ‘em off my sidewalk.”

“Sir. The sidewalks are public property.”

“Fuck you Pendleton. Who asked you?”

Vanderbilt waits to catch his breath.

Outside someone shouts. “Burch got in!”

“Try it”

There is a knock on the door.

“Burch?” Vanderbilt yells down at him.

“Get rid of ‘em. And get them off my sidewalk.”

“Sir, most of them are not my friends out there.”

“I don’t give a shit. Next thing – they’re gonna invade this place.”

Two more knocks, this time louder, more insistent.

“Pendleton. Get that door and slam it in the man’s face. And none of your bullshit manners. See if you can catch one of his fingers or his nose.”

“Yes sir!”

“Then send someone to the precinct. Talk to Donahue.”

Shouting like he’d like to slap him on the ass, “Pronto!”

Pendleton mutters to Burch:

“He’s the same man.”

“One other thing, Pendleton. After you send someone to talk to Donahue, I want you to get my revolver from the gun case, walk to the back of the house and blow your brains out. And don’t make a mess!”

Pendleton winks at Burch.

“As you wish, great one.”

He adds cheerfully,“ Burch. You can have my story.”

Burch goes to a mirror, nervously slicks down his hair, straightens his tie, and then rushes up the stairs. The doctor, looking bedraggled, passes him on his way down. The doctor shakes his head in frustration. He has a sympathetic look of “you’re next.”

January 10, 2016
by Simon Sobo

Ending Insurance Companies Control of Mental Health Care


My retirement from psychiatry has allowed independence from fears that caused temperance in my opinions about issues, which all along deserved a passionate campaign for change. This is an article about the stranglehold that insurance companies have had on health care, particularly mental health care, for more than 20 years. First a description of what can only be described as atrocities that I personally witnessed.

I got a call from a social worker at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. The following day they were discharging a female patient, a second grade teacher from New Milford with three children. The social worker begged me to see her the day she was discharged. I agreed to do so. The patient appeared in my waiting room as scheduled. The only problem was that she was so afraid of me that she would not come into my office. To no avail I tried everything I could think of to convince her that she would be safe. Only when my next patient appeared in the waiting room did she agree to enter my office. There were only 5 minutes left in her session, but in that time she told me that she had ruined her life, and all was hopeless. As best I could, I tried to reassure her, but it was obvious that nothing I said was having an impact. We made an appointment for the next day, which she did not keep. I called. Her husband answered. She had blown her brains out the evening before.

This was early on in the HMO era when I didn’t immediately understand the desperation in the social worker’s voice. She clearly knew that the decision to discharge this patient was completely insane.

I was called to the New Milford Hospital ER to see a young woman, holding a baby, who was experiencing her first psychotic break. She was convinced that a spying device had been put in her baby’s vagina. She kept checking her baby’s vagina hoping to find it. Oxford (an insurance company in the Northeast) would not approve hospitalization. They said she was not a danger to herself or others. They wanted her treated at Danbury’s Day Hospital. At the time there was no public transportation between New Milford and Danbury, but even if there was, this woman was not sane enough to commute there every day. I insisted on speaking to a supervisor at Oxford, then to his supervisor. They wouldn’t budge in their decision. The next day I was summoned by administration in New Milford Hospital. Oxford had called them to complain about my rudeness. I confess that I was guilty as charged. As Chief of Psychiatry there I was expected to set an example. This incident also happened early in the HMO era, a time when hospitals were worried about remaining in the insurance company’s network. Early on doctors were also worried about being labeled as a provider who gave unnecessary care. Certain insurance companies let it be known that they were keeping tabs.

I was seeing a woman in her 40’s for psychotherapy who had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. The gods were not favoring her. She had also had a heart attack. Her grown son was drinking too much and her daughter had had an affair, which led to the end of her daughter’s marriage. This woman’s husband was tired of listening to his wife’s troubles. After 10 sessions her insurance company, PHS, decided she had enough psychotherapy. I went through their chain of command appealing the decision. Finally I got to talk to the head of their psychiatric division, Dr. Robert Dailey from Bridgeport Hospital. He told me this woman did not need psychotherapy. She needed hospice. Astonished, I argued that she was not a terminal patient. She was still working and struggling to keep her family afloat. He would hear nothing of it. Case closed.

The situations cited above came from my direct experience. I could describe ten others.   Most psychiatrists have similar stories to tell. Indeed, this article was originally prepared for Psychiatric Times. They felt it was unsuitable because it was old news. As one reviewer put it “everyone has their own horror stories no different than these.” All across America, when it started, it was if a plague had descended on the field of psychiatry. Except this plague had been paid for by our patients, or else it was a benefit bestowed by their employers.

Mistreatment was not confined to mental health care. Patients unfortunate enough to have M.S., or those who had had a stroke, were learning that after initial treatments, they could no longer have physical therapy, the one way they could do battle with the calamity that had befallen them.

Dr. Linda Peeno was the medical director at three different insurance companies, including, Humana. When she came to the conclusion that the first company was unethical she moved on to the next and finally the third before concluding the problem was industry wide. Her conscience was bothering her. She felt directly responsible for the death of several people. This is not why she went into medicine. Although she liked the hours provided by a job at an insurance company, she could not continue. The opposite. She felt she had to reveal to the public what was happening. With a secure job as an professor of ethics at a local university taking on the insurance companies became her life’s work. She has written extensively and well about the problems she observed. Writing for U.S News and World Report in 2002 she described a typical scenario at her job:

“The staff of our medical department had attached questions as the letter passed through its maze to me, the HMO doctor at the end of the decision-making line. If something has to do with medical necessity, I am the final word. Our nurses could make denials if something was a benefit decision. Cosmetic surgery, for example, would be excluded in the certificate of coverage. The number of notes on the letter signals that this request falls in the gray area between outright necessity and clear-cut exclusion–the danger zone for the patient.

The decision is now mine, and I feel the pressure to find a way to say no. If I cannot pronounce it medically unnecessary, then I have to find a different way to interpret our medical guidelines or the contract language in order to deny the request.

A bright-blue square catches my attention. It is from a particularly cost-conscious staffer and contains a handwritten warning to me: “Approve this, and it will be your last!” It is common practice to use removable stickies. After we have finished passing any document around, we can remove all the comments. Official records will reflect only the final decisions and not the process by which we made them.”

From that same article:

“A doctor had called to tell me that his patient was almost 80, lived alone, and could not handle the preparations he would need to make for bowel surgery. Besides, we had already told the doctor that the surgery would have to be done in a hospital over 60 miles away from the man’s home. There was one in his town but they weren’t affiliated with the company. The local hospital had not yet learned to buckle under.

Without the pre-op admission the night before surgery, this frail man would have to drive himself to the hospital almost in the middle of the night, after hours of laxatives and withholding of fluids. When I approved the request, I got a call from my physician supervisor, angrily telling me that we did not pay for creature comforts. I told him I had already done it, but in the future…”

Linda Peeno testified before a Congressional subcommittee on Health and the Environment on May 30, 1996. Her testimony, and many thought provoking articles by her, can be found on the internet. Showtime produced a film Damaged Care that tells her story. She had accomplished a lot. Except about what mattered. Despite her Congressional testimony, her well placed articles, and the Showtime movie, very little changed.

In 2001 I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a lawsuit against an insurance company written in what I thought was a disparaging tone. I understood the sentiment behind the reporter’s attitude. Lawsuits have gotten out of hand. There are far too many of them that are built on lies and exaggerations. In our litigious society, small mistakes, which we all can make, can be exaggerated into a million dollar payoff. The result? Enormous energies directed to covering your ass, which means the multiplication of professionals adept at that noble aspiration. Lawyers and their enforcing bureaucrats get to tell workers what they can and cannot do, which means programed rigidity from the top, the last thing needed in a service based economy.

The suit that the reporter was dissing was not frivolous. I knew the person who was suing. He had lost his 16 year-old son because his insurance company determined that his son must leave Danbury Hospital. It was clear to his father and everyone that knew the boy, that he was  in grave danger and could not be discharged until his condition improved. The boy’s suicide attempt was for real. It was sheer luck that the pipe he put his rope over broke. My patient knew his son still wanted to die and if let out of the hospital he would finish the job. He reasoned with the doctor, he pleaded with him.  He begged.

I called the reporter Milo Geyelin and we spoke for 3 ½ hours. I gave him the details of how what had happened in this case was happening everywhere. Necessary care was being rejected as unnecessary. Several months later he called me. He had written, the lead story in the Wall Street Journal of May 8th 2001. a story about HMO’s control of mental health. That story was particularly focused on Magellan,  the largest mental health managed care company. It was gobbling up all its competitors, particularly less profitable, but more ethical HMOs.  By the journalistic standards of the day Geyelin’s duty was to be “balanced”.  He allowed Magellan to respond. The gist of their defense was mistakes happen, but they were being corrected.

I thought the article allowed Magellan to come across as sincere, as trying their best. From direct experience I knew they were not trying their best, anything but, when it came to siding with their patient’s best interests.  They perceived those who had become seriously ill as a plague on the company, understandable from the insurance companies point of view.   But from the patient’s point of view, insurance companies were a curse, one that had to be combatted along with the illness.

His story didn’t stop there. Magellan sold contracts to large insurance companies (as a mental health carve out, a company that specializes in managing psychiatric care). They contracted to produce providers that would take care of any insured patient in need of care.

They didn’t deliver what they had promised.  In many parts of the country they had no providers available at all. Many on their list of psychiatrists had once been providers but they had long ago given up on Magellan after submitted insurance claim forms were repeatedly “lost.” It required a lot of energy to get paid, and it just wasn’t worth it.

Magellan had their patients in a no lose situation for them. They allowed their patients to only see providers in their network and there were practically no providers available.  That didn’t bother them at all.  Moreover, if, by luck, a patient found a provider, treatment had to wait until the insurance company approved of it. This could take weeks. And too frequently there was no reply at all. They accused the provider of not sending in their form, (usually a lie) or they accused the doctor of filling the form out incorrectly. Probably true given the confusing directions and triviality of the form.

I can attest that it was impossible to reach the insurance company to try to straighten things out. Not only did they choreograph a long musical, “your call is important to us” wait, if you did get through, the people handling the calls were minimum wagers with no authority , little intelligence, and zero energy to climb the mountain of rules, the operational chaos that awaited them should they choose to truly help the caller with his problem.  They were trained to deal with forms. They knew their list of approved symptoms, as designated by DSM IV.  Anything that didn’t fit on that form was like Chinese to them.

It should be noted that, the form had very little room for the doctor to individualize his case, explain things as he saw it. It didn’t really matter. If he were to try, he would be passed right over.  There wouldn’t be a call back even if he had made his case. Clerks have very little tolerance for outliers.

Essentially the process was a scam. Totally legal but a scam nonetheless.  Entirely within the law  medical care was being shaped by purveyors with criminal motives and intent. Patients, who had lost it, forced to finally acknowledge that they needed help, were out of luck if they tried to get that help. They had to meet criteria that were sacrosanct, prepared by experts, hired for the purpose of making sure their patients didn’t cash in on their policies

The amazing part of the story is how Magellan had come out of nowhere, and overnight they were everywhere. It was formed out of the ruins of a failing company Charter Behavioral Health systems. At their height they were a Wall Street darling, a chain of 90 psychiatric hospitals from which they were making industrial profits. In the end Charter was investigated by the Justice Department for Medicare Fraud.  As they closed up shop, selling off their hospitals provided the capital to allow them to quickly become a huge player in managed care.

The irony is striking. One of the very companies that had, on a massive scale, overcharged for care, billed for care never given, with very little difficulty became in charge of what care would be allowed or disallowed. Businessmen to the core, they stuck to first principles. They followed where the money had gone. The denial of care business was now more profitable than the delivery of care. Of all people, they were now deciding what was, and what was not, “necessary” care. The fox was  guarding the chicken house. Every dollar they saved by denying care was money that went into  their pockets..

Managed care companies do not compete in the quality of work they deliver.  The only thing that matters is numbers. Particularly in the 90’s CEO’s were moving from rubber companies to cupcake bakers, to oil drilling companies, with little knowledge needed about the products of the companies they were leading.   As long as every quarter they could deliver the right numbers,  their job security was golden. Magellan was confident that the money they made from selling off the hospital chain would be multiplied by their new business. The sale of ninety hospitals leaves you with a lot of capital, the muscle required to buy up  competitors.

Numbers can also work against managed care companies. For example, an audit of American Biodyne which contracted for 14 million dollars to provide mental health services for Ohio state employees for 2 years found that the firm had actually spent $2.1 million on treatment claims in 1991 and $2.6 million in 1992. The rest of the $14 million went to American Biodyne.

The need to keep medical costs down was the original impetus for HMOs.  This is a real issue. America’s 3 trillion dollar health care costs were, and still are, wildly out of control.   We spend far more than any other country and the results are far from obvious. There is waste and unnecessary procedures anywhere you look.

The problem I am addressing is the decision to put for profit HMOs in charge of cutting costs. Taking care away from ill patients and putting these savings in to the pockets of an HMO amounted to legally stealing care from those least able to defend themselves. It was breathtaking in its audacity.

The head of Oxford, a relatively small company, was paid 28 million dollars a year, the majority of it pinched from sick patients. US Healthcare’s CEO, a former pharmacist, earned 900 million dollars when he sold his cost cutting company to Aetna. His daughter and other family members also got millions not to mention the 25 million dollar jet Aetna gave to him. Inside Edition featured him in an expose on the lifestyles of wealthy HMO executives.

US Health Care executives were put in charge of the company. Changing their name back to Aetna was easy. It took years for Aetna to extricate themselves from the chaos US Health Care had wrought

The Wall Street Journal in 2006 ran an expose, “Health Care Gold Mines.” It was reported that William McGuire, CEO of one of the larger health insurance companies, United Health Care, had unrealized gains on stock options worth 1.8 billion dollars. He had been given the right to “time” his stock option grants. His timing was so extraordinary that questions have been raised that he backdated his purchases. His associates call him “brilliant.” Very brilliant. The Wall Street Journal’s analysts concluded that if the options were granted to him blindly, the chance of his guessing as well as he did, was 1 in 200 million.

Not only have congressional committees long ago had the unscrupulous practices of insurance practices revealed to them.   Newspaper and national magazines have made reports about it, again and again in exposes. Yet the issue has no legs. Nothing changes.

Frankly, at first glance, the quiet on this issue is a mystery. Politicians, and columnists have so often carried on about abortion rights, or gay marriage, or some other higher cause that these issue have become de rigueur in the politically correct playbook. Yet neither abortion nor gay marriage materially affects a great many people’s lives. Health insurance practices do. Why is there silence from media pundits and politicians who love any exposure they can get?The strange thing is that what’s going on in the health insurance industry is no Enron. It isn’t a secret. If not personally abused, most people know people who have gotten screwed by their health insurance company. They have heard stories from colleagues or family members, anguished stories if the illness has been severe. People have come to expect that somehow they will be done in by the small print in their policies.

The absence of a public outcry, the failure of news stories and Congressional hearings to halt the HMOs was one of the reasons I wrote a  novel After Lisa. I had written articles for years with suggestions about how I thought psychiatric care could be improved.  This was, I felt, the most important way my writing could make a difference.  If enough of the public could identify with the Russells, the protagonists in my story, there might be a possibility of change.  After Lisa is based on the story of the case I contacted the Wall Street Journal reporter about. I was seeing a father who had lost his 12 year-old daughter to cancer. His 16 year-old son tried to hang himself. He was hospitalized at Danbury Hospital.

From day one they had started discharge planning. In those days insurance companies had a little trick they pulled. They pressured doctors to get their patient to “contract for safety,” have the patient put in writing a promise that they would not commit suicide. Once this was signed out the patient would go.

AS I noted this boy’s father was convinced his son’s attempt was completely serious. He was desperate.  One of his friends, a social welfare worker said to legally abandon his son. That way they couldn’t discharge him. The hospital answered that his son would be sent to a shelter. I will cut to the chase. The day he was discharged his son successfully hung himself. With two children gone my patient’s opening words to me, when I first met him, was “I am a dead man.”

My hope was, and still is, that my novel, or better, a movie based on the story, might translate the issues enough to arouse the public. When I started I thought discussing the  book on Oprah would bring forth thousands of people with their own story to tell. But, my fear is that even if the best result occurred, with the long history of public exposure about this issue, it too will have no effect.

December 14, 2014 60 Minutes ran a story Denied. It was well done, detailing what other stories like it have done, dead patients the result of insurance company indifference. Has the  60 Minute expose had an  impact? It’s been three months.  The usual silence on this issue continues.  There is no reason to think it will be different than all of the exposes that preceded it.

There is one angle that could have an enormous impact.  What was not covered by their story, or the others documenting insurance company malfeasance, is the fact that insurance companies have no fear of making bad calls (e.g forcing a patient out of the hospital who soon after kills himself).  The embarrassment is minimal (no news story) and the legal consequence nil. The parents and spouses of those who have lost a love one cannot sue an insurance company.   Federal ERISA law forbids it.

This issue has a history. In June of 2001 (see June 21st 2001 Congressional record) the Senate debated and passed the McCain Kennedy Bill, a health care “bill of rights,” that would have allowed lawsuits against HMOs. The vote was 59-36. Changes were made on this bill in the House and then the bill mysteriously disappeared from the political landscape!

Subsequently, several states passed legislation allowing suits against insurance companies. But, on June 23, 2004, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided that while congress could pass legislation allowing lawsuits against health insurance companies by injured family members, states could not do so.   There are suggestions that the unusual 9-0 vote was an indication that this issue was too important, the pressure was too great for the justices to allow controversy.

Nevertheless, the success of insurance company lobbying to not only defeat this bill, but successfully end all discussion of lawsuits is a mystery that I do not fully understand. After all, the media and politicians have vigorously gone after other powerful industries, Banks, Wall Street and Oil companies. Despite their power they have not been as successful at keeping a lid on their controversies.

Because 60 Minutes has not responded to my repeated attempts to reach them about the ERISA law, I am including the phone number of the executive director, Kevin Tedesco, 212-975-2329 in the hope that one of the readers of this article will have better luck. Or perhaps call volume will have an impact. If this were to happen, if 60 Minutes were to take up the issue of the ERISA law’s prohibition of law suits, and if this led to the law being changed, so that insurance companies had to live in fear of being sued, it would change mental health care for generations to come.

But I am not sanguine about the prospects. The issues are in fact complex.  Ultimately the real issue, the debate that has to take place is how we, as a nation, are going to restrict health care to keep costs under control. Managed care companies have been hired to do the dirty work. They are not simply dirty. They are filthy. Powerful forces are lined up to keep things as they are. For instance, when the the Erisa Law was up for discussion in Congress the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  lobbied along with other powerful groups   to not allow the ERISA law to be changed. I assume they are still working hard to keep this issue submerged.

When the Democrats stuck their nose into regulating health care, so health care costs could be reduced, the Republicans rightly identified the “Death Panels” they were looking to set up. The Republican solution was HSAs, high deductible medical plans. This has been partially adopted in ObamaCare. Faced with  four or five thousand dollar deductibles smart middle class shoppers have delayed seeing their doctors and their expensive procedures.

But ultimately we have to bring  the issue front and center. What should and should not be covered?   HMOs have been a disgusting solution. We can do better.


October 23, 2015
by Simon Sobo

Is “Natural” a Good Quality When It Comes to Medications


An excerpt from Chapter 5 of After Lisa addressing this question :

{Looking down at the playground from her 5th floor  73rd Street window, watching  little Maria on the swings, enables Deborah  to stay calm.  They have just returned from the hospital where the outlook looks grim for her 12 year-old daughter Lisa. She is speaking to Michael her husband}

“Joanne’s cousin had a lymphoma. Everyone said nothing could be done. She took shark cartilage. They’ve used it in China for thousands of years. Joanne’s said it cured her.”

Michael’s face tightens. Joanne cuts Deborah’s hair so they get to talk at length. Joanne’s place now has an acupuncturist and a Yoga instructor. There is talk of a spa. She sells facial creams containing herbs. Deborah claims the creams work wonders. Still worse from Michael’s point of view, Joanne is mellow and soft spoken with a smile,  an aura that hints at an understanding of the secrets of the universe. She truly believes what she believes. In style and tone she is the very opposite of Michael. He has looked over some of the brochures that Deborah’s brought home. They are nonsense.

Unfortunately, Deborah’s friend Laura is also into organic foods, and on the face of it, she doesn’t seem very crazy. No ax to grind.  Deborah has several other acquaintances who are in the same camp. Health food is no longer a cult, like Macrobiotics was in the 60’s. There are too many mainstream true believers. On the talk shows that Deborah watches similar information is repeated again and again by celebrity after celebrity, all with confidence that they know what they are talking about.   

Healthy foods, unprocessed food; at first pass that kind of makes sense. But the amount of misinformation being broadcast in the mainstream drives him nuts. Michael’s mother had her chicken soup as a remedy for sniffles, and honey and lemon juice for a cough. She knew, however, that these were bubameinsas that she got from her mother, and her mother got from her mother.  She knew that her children should drink plenty of milk, and eat their vegetables. She also knew that she didn’t know very much about scientific subjects. Nothing in fact. She didn’t adopt an I am a dodo persona. Not a hint of Lucy or Gracy Allen. She expected to be taken seriously but in science it would have been apt to be classified as stupid. His mother didn’t know how to change the channel on the TV nor did she care to learn.

“You want Lisa to take shark cartilage?”

“Michael, It’s natural.”.

Michael erupts when he hears that word. He has gone over this subject in his mind again and again. Every time he reads or hears someone refer to “natural” as validation of a product, he comes up with a thousand counter arguments, which he marshals as what should be the end of the debate. It never is.   This is the perfect opportunity to unleash his full battery of thoughts..

“Deborah I love nature … I love the Grand Canyon. I love that river we go to upstate, untouched by people. I mean that place in the mountains, clouds lit up by the sunset, watching the lightening from there, the trees turning into a painting in the fall. You know I love it.  But that doesn’t mean that everything natural is safe or good especially when it comes to medicines.”

“There is a balance in nature. Michael . We are always screwing it up. Throwing its equilibriums into chaos when we mess with it.”

“ Fine but those equilibrium are not sacred. You know Manhattan was full of swamps. Living there in the summer meant being in a smelly, clammy, damp, rotting environment. It was like living inside  dirty underwear. Yellow Fever could hit anytime. Washington DC was even worse. Guess what? They drained the swamps. They stood up to defenders of the wetlands. Fine some birds may have been displaced. Some may have died when they lost their swamps. Except we have New York City and Washington D.C.”

“ Yeah we have concrete paved over nature.”

“We have two vibrant centers of human activity. I’ll take that over a swamp…Nature is just what it is. it is good, it is bad and it can be very bad.

“Bubonic plague is natural. So is smallpox. That killed 300 million people.


“They mine asbestos. It is a natural product buried under the earth. Poisonous mushrooms, mosquitos carrying malaria…”

“I get the point.” That doesn’t stop him

“Fungal diseases killing roses; black spot, aphids, mites. Nature’s gifts to us.”

He hesitates before speaking with gusto.

“Roses represent a victory over nature. Same for the Polio vaccine.”

At this point Deborah is irritated. Which he interprets as she does not yet see the truth of his argument. His voice get louder. He reads her irritation  as skepticism which makes him pile on still more examples for his argument

Cholesterol plaques building up in your arteries. That’s natural. Once again people have defied nature. Lipitor is a nasty chemical, according to Joanne’s brochure. It’s synthetic, it’s disturbing the balance in your body, that’s a no-no according to her booklet.

Yes it gives some side effects, yes it changes some of your body’s equilibriums. It is an unnatural chemical that just happens to have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This artificial chemical is a miracle as great as anything nature serves up.

When I was growing up, three of my friends’ dads died in their 40’s of a heart attack. Ever notice that just isn’t happening any more. Lipitor.

Foods without preservatives are natural. Nature’s true purpose, spoiled food once killed tens of thousands of people before they added those unnatural processed chemicals, the preservative that Joanne’s brochures carry on about.”

Okay Michael, Okay, Okay. This is just what I need, you ranting and raving. You’re like a bull dog.”

 “You don’t want to hear it? Don’t get me started with that kind of bullshit. Natural.” He unsuccessfully hunts for one of the brochures she brought home. He finds it, but before he can open it, and read some silly quotes that he’s underlined, Deborah cuts him off

    “It’s not just the brochures. I’ve read articles, a lot of articles. Plenty of people believe in natural foods..”

    “ I don’t care if 99% of people buy into it. Debbie. You’re not stupid. Use your brain instead of going along with everyone. What they are saying simply doesn’t make sense. What counts is whether something makes sense. Natural has nothing to do with it.

“You’re so narrow minded. If it’s not Western…”

 “Deborah, think about what they’re saying. My mother would have never claimed she knew more than doctors, She knew her chicken soup worked and that was the end of it.

  He doesn’t like the look on her face.

  “Oh right. My mother’s not liberated?”

“You said it. I didn’t”

“Thank God she isn’t.  Let me tell you. My mother had a good mind. Still does. She can sort out bullshit better than either one of us. She doesn’t buy into this women know better than men

“Okay. Your mother’s not an idiot.”

“You’re not either but you are too taken by what other people say. I know Joanne is cool, and the people on Oprah are cool but they know shit about health and medical treatment. They’re like you, all liberal artsy in college. Science was for nerds. Those brochures you bring home? If you had ever taken a science course and taken it seriously, a course in anything, you would have read the first paragraph in that brochure and thrown it away.”

She raises her voice louder than him, “Can we stop? Michael we were talking about Lisa. Not politics. This is about Lisa. I know you need to talk about stuff you think about, but-“

It silences him. She is right. He’s gotten carried away once again. Lately more than ever. The room is quiet for the first time since they got home.

Remorsefully he takes her hand. “You want to give her shark cartilage, give her shark cartilage. But that’s it. It’s not going to replace real treatment.”

February 12, 2015
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

About my book: The Fear of Death

                                         The Fear of Death  

An argument  with Freud, and a reconsideration of his  ideas.  This book is an attempt to   introduce the obvious into psychoanalytic theory, that the fear of death plays a seminal role in our psychology.   Freud had a powerful  fear of death.  Yet he dismissed its importance in his theories about our motivations.  This despite the fact that  it was, by far, his most pressing neurotic symptom.   It was the lurking monster in his most frightening and famous dream, the Dora dream. He looks into his patient Dora’s throat and discovers a horrifying lesion that he had missed. Like the Pharoah questioning Joseph, he has to understand what that dream means.

It takes hold of him, drives him to work on what  will become “The Interpretation of Dreams.”   The extent to which Freud had no choice  about this undertaking can best be appreciated  from his  letter to Wilhelm Fleiss.  He describes a process of working   “to which every effort of thought has to be given and which gradually absorbs all other capacities and the ability to receive impressions– a sort of neoplastic substance that enters into one’s humanity and then replaces it.  With me it is even more so.  Work and earning  are identical with me–so that I have become wholly carcinoma…my existence from now on is that of a neoplasm.” (Jones 1953)

A strange image describing one’s work, work that was later to be  recognized as inspired.    Eventually, what his dream meant became clear.  The location of the lesion in the back of Dora’s throat was to be the exact spot that Freud’s throat cancer developed many years later. Had he felt a tickle there from his cigar smoking and then dreamt about it?  Apparently. He had looked into the mouth of death.  The cancer eventually killed him.

“The Interpretation of Dreams” is usually considered the birth of psychoanalysis.  Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” He  brilliantly wrestled with what he found there,  asked many of the right questions. He  came up with many right answers.  But if his search for clarity about  dreams, and the working of the unconscious,  was induced by the Dora dream, what influence did it have on the body of his work ? He correctly discovered that in their dreams, unencumbered by the  deliberate mind  that occupies our daytime consciousness, his patients’ unsatisfied sexual cravings push to be fulfilled.  The evidence was everywhere.  But what about their fear of death? Certainly, many people are awakened by a dream in which they are about to die. There is much to learn from these dreams.  Appreciating the reality of death, makes life more meaningful.  It makes one’s relationships, one’s work, one’s discoveries all the more valuable.

Or trivial.  But whatever one’s reaction, it is not possible to understand a person through their  dreams without considering their relationship to their death.  How could someone  describing their work as a cancer, with an openly admitted  powerful fear of death, ignore this aspect of the dream’s meaning and dismiss the fear of death as a major part of our psychology.

I have no answer, but clearly, he was wrong. It is not hard to find the fear of death constantly addressed in men’s thinking.  It is usually transformed, put in a  positive perspective. The best example is religion; to get rid of the fear of death, the Aztec’s practiced human sacrifice to appease the angry Gods.  The Christians offered Christ to a more benevolent Jehovah. It is the road not taken by Abraham with his son, Isaac.

Century after century, Christians worried about their future after death.    Transformed by religious doctrine, they were tormented  with the dark possibilities awaiting them when they died. They were pious (or resolved to follow that path) in order to assure a  place in heaven.   But that wasn’t easy.  Few men are entirely innocent.  Especially in the past they were terrified  that their moments of giving into temptation might land them in hell.  

Even those quietly pious had their moments.  Immortality is the cornerstone of Christianity, its most powerful ideal.  Hundreds of millions of Bibles have been read, studied and  held dear. (in contrast to this book which makes no promises)   Christ promised his believers would live forever. What else has to be said to the fearful flock?

 Today we see a revival of that passion.  Isis members have been willing to  fight ferociously and fearlessly,  offer themselves for suicide missions, with the belief they will achieve the opposite result of their fear. They are guaranteed a heaven that is  quintessentially the opposite of a revered Muslim life.  Life as they have known it has centered on strictly imposed  sexual suppression.  It drives them crazy.  Makes them turn on those who have given in.  Yes they stone adulterers, but their own path is not a bed of roses.   Young men, trying to defy their powerful hormonal push,  pray several times a day to keep themselves under control.

How difference it is in Allah’s dynasty, where they will receive their reward.   Not one, not two, 72 virgins await them in heaven after they die.  It beats the promises of Jesus where heaven has never been adequately imagined.  Angels playing harps?   I suppose that means, paradise consists of innocence completely restored.  Essentially asexual composure awaits the virtuous  Is this the best reward Christ can offer?

 Modern Western secular consciousness is quite different.  Since the existence of God is dubious,  happiness  in this life is all we have.  So that is what we pursue.   The fear of death is resolved very differently.  Virtuous behavior is redefined (exercise, weight loss, lower cholesterol, and the most virtuous of all,  “organic” food).  This belief system is transformative  in religion’s usual ways.    Fantastic beliefs are bought and believed,  logic and evidence tossed away.

That is not a problem.  Whatever bargaining, compromising, and self deception is required, when it comes to religion, the mind is up to the task. Faith and spirituality invariably trump common sense.  Or any and all evidence. Information about nutrition and exercise,  has run in a thousand different directions,  with an astounding number of  easily tested ideas promulgated and  going unchallenged.   

 As might be expected, when it comes to religion, people can  go over board.  In its modern incarnation some people become fanatical about the organic purity of their food.  They become “glaat” kosher.  Many become sanctimonious, outraged by the lack of healthy eating by others. Or they are angry that corporate agribusiness is poisoning them. The inventory they do of their soul would not be recognizable by the conventionally religious  Their virtues and vices are measured  by whether or not they gave in to temptation and ate that slice of pizza, or whether they forgoed their morning workout.

Whatever language we use, the fear of death insinuates itself into our consciousness, demanding solutions.   Unfortunately, this book doesn’t offer a  solution to the basic problem.  As Woody Allen put it  “I don’t want to be immortal because of my work.  I want to be immortal by living forever.”


P.S.   Readers seeking great wisdom, (or any wisdom at all) about how to cope with death or dying should look elsewhere.  This book is specifically concerned with developmental psychoanalytic theory.  Twenty-five years ago that was  my passion.  I spent five years writing this book.  It is an interesting primer for those wanting to dive into Freud’s and my thinking about a host of subjects too varied to easily summarize.  I hope it has my usual passion to lay bare mysteries that are unnecessarily ineffable.  I once believed that truth is unmistakably helpful and important,  a virtue of the highest order. I have had no choice.  It is what I must do for reasons unknown to me.  Now I only half believe it is crucial.  Kindness is more important.

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

After Lisa: Chapter 1

Based on a true story

Chapter 1

October 1999

New York City

Glittering crystal chandeliers brightly illuminate the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom as the sound of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz sweeps through the room. Sipping cocktails, guests lightly applaud the MacDonalds as they glide around the center of the ballroom, the floor to themselves. Several dance partners stand at the edge, gathering courage to challenge the MacDonalds for the spotlight. At the tables, gossip is cheerfully exchanged, as, here too, they check on the MacDonalds from time to time. Standing off not far from the bar, spicy singles in their 20’s flirt, their eyes searching through the crowd for the opportunity to find a still better partner.

Strauss has been a great choice for tonight. Retro worked. It’s made the evening grand, not what the guests expected when they received their invitations.

Very high up in the vaulted ceiling, a sniper has positioned himself. He looks through his high-powered rifle, moving through the room, one table at a time.   While the women have spent weeks preparing for tonight; putting the perfect shoes, hair, and make-up together with the right dress, they didn’t expect to be examined through a rifle’s telescopic lens. At the head table, the assassin’s sight focuses on one after another of the guests.  He lingers on a matronly lady covered with serious jewelry, but tonight his goal is narrow. He settles on the MacDonalds as they return to the table. Mrs. Martin MacDonald is a stunning blonde in her thirties. The assassin’s only interest is her dance partner, Martin MacDonald, a silver-haired man with a jutting chin, and a physique chiseled at his club.  Killing MacDonald is the whole purpose of the evening.          

The rifleman is perfectly positioned in a utility room above the ballroom.  Perched as high as he is, behind the glare of the chandeliers, his protruding telescopic rifle is a speck in the filigreed façade. Unnoticed, he will be able to proceed at a leisurely pace, carefully aiming without drawing the slightest attention.  His escape plan should also go smoothly.   He is dressed in a nicely tailored tuxedo. The sniper is confident that after he’s killed Macdonald his dapper appearance will allow him to easily disappear among the guests. He was born with good looks. He enjoys using them.

Joe Tolley, from Channel 2 News, gently clears his throat into the microphone.  People eyes are drawn to the now lit up dais. This part of the evening is the reason they are here.  Everyone returns to their seats.  Tolley clowns a bit, gets some nice laughs.

“Our speaker tonight needs no introduction.  He is a man of our age, a captain of our decade…

Applause. Tolley has prepared well. Leaving little to chance, in front of the mirror he practiced the casual smile he is now presenting during the extended applause. As it dies down he continues.

“Martin MacDonald is the personification of who we are and have become.”


This brings a smile to MacDonald. As he gets up from his chair, he bends forward over the table, and, whispering an imitation of Tolley’s voice, he captures his lisp perfectly.  The men seated nearby find this funny.  Not the women.  They draw back from MacDonald’s meanness, an effect that MacDonald seems to regularly elicit from the fairer sex.

MacDonald winks at his wife. She returns an encouraging smile, which he doesn’t notice. He long ago stopped seeing her. Jauntily he dashes for the stage.   Skipping up the steps he is soon at the lectern.  With his reading glasses low on his nose, patterned after an image of John Adams he saw on TV, he shuffles his papers, looks over the audience from far left to right.

MacDonald is hot. Buoyed by increasing opportunities, at this point materializing daily, he, more than anyone, knows exactly what he has done to create his good fortune. He is proud of it. He looks upward, to his Sicilian grandfather in heaven. He wouldn’t be here today without him.

He smiles broadly at the audience, feeling among friends.  They are completely captured. Who wouldn’t want in on MacDonald’s phenomenal profits?  Who wouldn’t want the wife he has, beneath the glittering chandeliers at the Plaza.

Business Week ran a feature on MacDonald in its May issue. His story is quintessential 90’s. A startup in his garage, an office consisting of a file cabinet, desk, and telephone. MacDonald answered the phone himself.  He did the filing.  Later, as the business grew, he sweated through payrolls, wondering where he would find the money for his 12 employees.  Today he’s unfazed by billion dollar figures. The one caveat? He went into the health insurance business knowing nothing about health insurance. Like so many of the new wave of CEOs his expertise is with numbers. As long as they work he remains the golden boy.

For CEO wannabes in the audience MacDonald offers magic.  For actual CEOs he offers lessons in how to hit the bottom line out of the ballpark.  He’s someone to study closely, figure out whether he’s doing what he claims to be doing.  In not very long they will be expected to replicate Cambridge Health’s profit. If they don’t they’ll soon be gone, replaced by a CEO who will get the right numbers. Anticipating platitudes they don’t expect to learn much tonight. But just in case, Martin MacDonald has their total attention

It’s been 25 years since his graduation from Macalester College, in St. Paul Minnesota. He’s never lost his boy wonder quality. Probably it was the football.  Being a second team All-American linebacker did a lot to shore up his identity. Thrown into the lion pit, he emerged a lion. He has kept the momentum going. He takes great pleasure smashing an adversary in his teeth. It has served him well. Winning is the only acceptable result in his encounters. When the need to fight his adversaries temporarily abates, he has fun. He is a wiz with numbers. There is special satisfaction when the numbers are large. Lately they have been huge.

Growing up he was hugely influenced by his mother’s scrappy Sicilian father and her two brothers, who lived nearby.  A Sicilian style wouldn’t ordinarily work in the insurance industry.  But MacDonald is also Scottish. On the face of it he seems an all American regular guy, a team player, a boy scout, very unlike his ruffian uncles, an insurance man through and through.   Only savvy.

He saw his father, Robert MacDonald, only during the summer, but those summers  powerfully influenced his persona. His father’s cheerful Scotch veneer is what others knew him by and respected.  MacDonald’s adulation of his father made it possible to effortlessly emulate him. It also spiritually connected him to his father’s Scottish clan, one with a long tradition of money cleverness invariably bestowed on the eldest son. So his take no prisoners uncles from Sicily were well camouflaged.

He adjusts the mike, taps it with his finger a few times. Then, with a strong voice he begins.

“My thanks to the American Insurance Association.  I am honored that you are having me here to tell you what you already know.  We need to stick together.  Stand as one.  Be strong. We share the same mission, to put a stop to runaway medical spending, to deliver health care at a reasonable cost.”

Happily, the audience applauds.

Ever so slowly the rifleman scopes MacDonald between his eyes. A voice from inside him urges.


He can’t trust that voice, a hard lesson learned again and again when he made the mistake of trusting his impulses.

The sight is fogging up. He pulls his rifle back into the utility room, and wipes off the condensed vapor with his thumb. All the while he keeps an eye on MacDonald. (an unobserved target can disappear.)  He double-checks that everything else is in order.  Nervously his tightly gloved index finger rubs over the filed off serial number. That was item one in his plan. An identifier that had to be removed. He pulls at the ends of his thin leather gloves to tighten them still further.   He cocks the trigger mechanism: cutting through the utility room’s silence, the sound of precision steel snapping into place with a bit of an echo. He repeats this a second time with military efficiency.  He takes a cartridge case from his pocket and loads.

Soon enough he again has MacDonald’s forehead perfectly centered.  Carefully, calmly–he can almost feel the bullet drilling in to the spot, into MacDonald’s skull. He can imagine the sweetness of that moment

There is a noise somewhere down the hall.  The sniper freezes. He listens carefully for it to repeat. He soon recognizes the scratching of a busy mouse.

“Stay with this,” he commands himself. He must follow a series of steps that have been practiced so often, that when his eyes and trigger-finger have the target in sight, what follows is automatic.   His finger tightens slowly.  Slowly.   He is almost there.

MacDonald’s wit is knocking the audience out. Laughter, cheers, happy shouts interrupt his talk. This has seduced MacDonald into letting it all out. The rhythm of a revivalist preacher rings out in the ballroom.

“Our fight is the good fight, our goal necessary…”

The audience’s enthusiasm pisses off the rifleman.   That stops him.

During training they drilled it in. “Don’t act unless you’re emotionless.”     Focus requires brain silence.   The mind must disappear as the momentum of the plan closes in on the target.   Anger is the natural emotion before and during a kill, but not for a professional. It undoes your skill.

He learned the hard way. In his first battle he got excited, terrified and furious at an adversary who had killed Arnie, his friend standing 3 feet away from him. He shot wildly, like he had never learned a thing.   Fortunately, cool as a cucumber, one of his buddies shot the man dead.

It was the closest he came to getting killed. He had no trouble picturing himself as rotting flesh six feet under. That image subsequently, kept him completely professional.

Twenty-six years ago, at army sharpshooter school, the basic method of training was simple and absolute.   Every step was repeated again and again, again, and again until nothing else is possible other than the next step.   The final decision to kill doesn’t reside with the sniper. It is muscle memory.

That’s not happening now.  The opposite. Normally obstacles to a plan, which inevitably arise, are quickly absorbed as interesting new wrinkles to be patiently overcome. Instead, unexpected events, like the sound of the mouse, rattle him. His concentration is shot. In the army, the sergeant sometimes fed the men greenies, amphetamines to improve their concentration. Given their level of stress it helped them even more than kids with ADHD.

His chin tight, “Focus,” he says to himself in a nasty whisper.

He began so determined.  Righteous anger can move mountains.  Or drive you crazy until you act. For months, unanswerable questions had wormed their way through his mind and exhausted him. First grief, then blame, endlessly assigning it to one person after another including himself.

Then that dissipated. His anguish completely disappeared once the specifics of his plan to kill MacDonald were thought out in detail. Setting it up took over. He went from inactivity, practically in a coma, to energy harnessed by having a purpose.

Getting things done their way. The army had taught him how to stay organized. Concentrate all efforts on the first step before going on to the next.  He needed a well-camouflaged spot with complete vision of the target. As soon as he learned MacDonald was going to speak in the Plaza ballroom, he went through twelve utility rooms located in the ceiling before finding the perfect one. The next thing on his check list-finding a MacMillan Tac 50 rifle was easier than he expected. The Tac is extremely accurate and able to be broken down into a compact form. Fortunately, Marty, his pal at work knew exactly where to find one. It took only an hour and a half to find the guy. And contrary to the image he had, based on Hollywood versions of gun salesmen, the guy who sold it to him was a character, an educated friendly enough black man with a wicked sense of humor. Next he had to find the right size satchel. The first one that he bought was too small so he had to return it and try out another size.

No problem. The view of the dais was so perfect, like a gift from God, it energized all the other steps. Everything fell into place. It may have taken two times on one of the items, or ten. Didn’t matter. It got done.

His smile returned.   At last justice would be done.

Except it isn’t happening tonight.

In truth, even in the army it got more complicated. At the beginning of his sniper training he had no difficulty pulling the trigger.  He carried out three missions successfully without a second thought. He killed whom he was assigned to kill and took pride in his accomplishment.

His fourth assignment brought that to an end. He noticed his target’s red hair.   That did it.  His precision, so easily summoned a moment before, deserted him.   There was no flow. His trigger-finger and eye were no longer one.

It wasn’t a morality thing, at least not that he was aware of. He had no specific thoughts about right and wrong. He knew it was right to kill this particular bad guy, with or without his red hair. There were no thoughts at all. But the red hair kept coming into his mind.

A therapist taught him how to shut that off. But it didn’t matter.   He’d still miss his target again and again.

When the time came he didn’t reenlist. His sergeant more or less made clear that was to be his plan.

Once again the gunman pulls the rifle back into the utility room.  We get a better look at him.  He’s sweating.  His face is alive with emotion.   As opposed to our initial impression, he is anything but a professional.

“Take your time,” he commands himself. That does nothing. Drifting thoughts grab his attention, one after another, without rhyme or reason.

He had imagined the exact instant in detail.    MacDonald, just after he’s made a clever observation, bathed in adulation, a split second before the applause erupts, the audience smiling, congratulating themselves for being there.


Blood is the perfect punctuation.

A single shot.



It will put them on notice.  Someone’s watching.  Someone

sees what you’re doing.

MacDonald ends his talk. Like a politician at a convention he waves to the audience.

As he returns to his table, the rifleman’s frantic.

He still has a good shot. Now!

He doesn’t pull the trigger.

The rifleman soon makes peace with the new facts. His fantasy about the precise moment of MacDonald’s death was self-indulgent. The joy of catching him at a glorious moment in front of the audience isn’t all that important. Reaching for a French fry, wiping off the ketchup from his lips, blowing his nose, trying to catch the eye of one of the attractive women at his table-any moment will be okay. Shot and killed is the main point. If the deed gets done, the meaning will be clear.   Dead is dead.

This last thought enables the rifleman to cool off. MacDonald will remain in target range for at least an hour. Later will be fine.

Michael wipes the sweat off his forehead. He’s hot and clammy, his shirt and underwear are sticking to him.  He takes off his tuxedo jacket, sits himself on the floor against a huge cable roll stored in the room. Trying to regain his composure, he closes his eyes and inhales deeply, filling his chest with air.

No luck.  His clammy shirt is bothering him. He can’t seem to catch his breath. His mind is still all over the place. Doubts. More doubts. He closes his eyes, drifts through his memories…