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Pre-existing Condition Part II. Fear and Loathing in the Nation’s Capitol

Merging your company with another can be a nightmare. And I was living one.

Sure, on paper it made sense. After downsizing our office to put us back in the black, it was easier to reclaim our standing in the marketplace through acquisition than trusting a slow, incremental-growth strategy. But, a merger-gone-wrong had been what started our troubles in the beginning, so I had little enthusiasm for another. I advocated for going it alone.

But it wasn’t my company and there were few other jobs out in the marketplace, so I acquiesced to our New York patrons and chose to make it work. My office was folded into a new firm, which was to operate as a separate stand-alone company. Given that our newly acquired partners were on an earn-out, I would no longer be in charge.

It wasn’t the best of circumstances but I had lived through worse. I made only one stipulation; due to my experience with another small, independent company, I insisted that the folks in our office have the option to keep their retirement and health insurance with the parent company in New York. They agreed and with the stroke of pen, I had a new boss and worked for a new company. We packed up our desks, moved into their space and began the process of integrating our business.

To make a long story short, it didn’t work. We had different business models, different management styles and different approaches to the marketplace. And, as happens in these types of cases, the internal politics grew uglier as the situation deteriorated.

Unfortunately, I was the guy caught in the middle. The management of the new venture treated me as an outsider – potentially, even a spy for the parent company – while the folks in New York were suspicious of my up-front opposition and worried about my commitment to the project. It was a no-win situation.

It didn’t take me long to realize just how vulnerable I was. I was a convenient foil for everyone to blame as the merger struggled forward. It was like I had the word “scapegoat” stamped on my forehead. One misstep and I was out of a job.

And I could not afford to lose it. I had a wife, three kids, a dog and a mortgage. I had to work. In truth, I wanted the merger to succeed. It had to succeed.

Then I found out I had Rheumatoid Arthritis.

I had gone out for a run around the block with my oldest son to work off some of my extra weight. As a former athlete, I was shocked when I couldn’t keep up with him. I pushed it, trying to chase him down, but nothing I could do would close the gap. I came home stunned. My son was only ten years old.

Other problems surfaced. After my ninety-minute, morning commute into town, I had trouble getting out of my car and walking to the elevator. On a business trip, I couldn’t lift my suit bag out of the trunk of my car. I thought I had slipped a disk. That summer, I couldn’t push myself out of a beach chair. It was as if I had turned ninety over night.

For those who don’t know it, RA is a horrible, painful, autoimmune disease that slowly disfigures and cripples those it afflicts. RA sends the immune system into overdrive until it attacks and destroys the joints of the body itself. There is no cure.

I found a doctor who told me what was wrong and was given the standard treatment for the disease: a regular dose of methotrexate (a cancer drug) and an anti-inflammatory in an effort to slow the progress of the disease.

It didn’t work. My body ignored the benefits of most of the drugs they gave me (and we ran through a number). My doctor said I should contact a patient group and perhaps get some counseling. My body felt like it was rusting. My movements started to slow. I had trouble with simple things like turning a doorknob, climbing the stairs and even walking across a room.

I was thirty-eight, felt ninety and was scared out of my mind. How much longer would I be able to work? How would I pay for my kids’ education? How would I pay the mortgage, the medical bills, our day-to-day expenses?

But, for the moment, I couldn’t focus on the bigger questions.  I had more immediate concerns.  I had to keep this job. I knew what a pre-existing condition meant and was suddenly stuck with the knowledge I would always have one.

I chose to keep the illness a secret.  I refused to tell anyone at work. I didn’t dare trust them. It would be too easy to isolate me – leave me out of new business meetings, or take away my direct reports – all in the name of being “compassionate about my suffering.”

It wasn’t being paranoid. It was being realistic. I couldn’t afford a gap in coverage. If I lost my job I would be uninsurable unless I found an employer large enough to wave the restriction – and one magnanimous enough ignore the implications of my disease.

I was stuck. So, I suffered in silence, steeled myself against the pain every time I shook someone’s hand or opened a heavy door. I made an art out of “sauntering” to disguise the slowness of my walk.

As to the merger, I had to find a way to de-escalate my vulnerability. There is an old business saying, “Keep your head down and let the elephants fight.” It became my mantra for the next two years. I took myself out of the role of middleman by suggesting that the folks in New York deal directly with our new partners. I kept away from the firm politics, kept my clients happy and kept the business coming in.

It took two years, but my luck finally turned. The five-year earn out was up and the folks in New York had come to see the merger for what it was. They jettisoned the acquisition of their own accord and asked me to retake the lead of the Washington office.

I had outlived the merger. And because I had kept my health insurance with the parent company, I did not have to reapply for coverage after the acquisition failed.

I was also fortunate that new medicines were discovered to treat and manage RA. Wonderful drugs like Enbrel and Humira gave me a new lease on life. I was like the Tin Man after Dorothy applied the oil. It was a miracle of modern medicine, albeit an expensive one as it cost an additional $1,500/month. But compared to a wheel chair it was not much of a choice at all.

I worked for the same company for twenty-five years. Now, there are several reasons for such loyalty. I was challenged often and made pretty steady progress up the corporate ladder (the above situation excepted). I liked the people I worked with and trusted their skills. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being afraid of losing my insurance. As long as I was employed where I was employed, I’d be safe.

Many years after the merger, I left the company and struck out on my own with a couple of clients. I was able to skirt the pre-existing condition issue by keeping my company’s insurance through COBRA. And due to a change in the law under the Clinton Administration, I was able to keep my COBRA past its one-year limitation – as long as I agreed to pay both the company’s share of the bill and mine. It was incredibly expensive, but with a family still dependent on me, it was the only option I had.

After nearly a quarter century with a pre-existing condition hanging over my head, the issue became moot under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I finally was able to purchase insurance in the open market. It was a huge relief – a stunning relief.   Free at last!

When I let go of my COBRA-created insurance plan, I received a notice advising me that that once the plan ended, it was gone; I wouldn’t be able to get it back. But, I was confident that Congress wouldn’t take back a program they had extended to all Americans, especially, since it is so much like the benefit they receive under their federal employee health insurance.

Now, of course, I’m beginning to have some doubts. Will I be able to continue my coverage if Congress and the President repeal the ACA as promised?  It hasn’t gone unnoticed that I have to “reapply” for my insurance every year in the open market.

They have vowed to replace ACA with a better plan. The question I have is, “Better for whom?” Believe me. It’s not a paranoid question; it’s a realistic one.

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A Confluence of Talent, Tall Fish Stories, and Renaissance Men

There was a play (and later a movie) by Bernard Slade called “Same Time, Next Year” about a love affair that happens only on one weekend out of the year for twenty-five years. This book is like that movie, except that instead of an extramarital tryst, this read is a love-affair with fly-fishing, the outdoors and the camaraderie of old friends. 51+Yut7ww9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_One weekend out of the year is reserved for these seven graduates from Dartmouth College, who fly fish in the pristine New Hampshire woods of the Dartmouth Grant. At times very funny, sad, and deadly serious, the book is a tribute to their secret identities as outdoorsman and renaissance men. It is a wonderful blend of tall stories, personal growth, poetry, music, some surprisingly good painting and their secrets of fly fishing brook trout.

Although the chapters are written by different members of the group, they are edited well and woven together into a consistent narrative. They invite you to join them on their journies, leaving behind their homes and families to drive into the remote woods of New Hampshire, shedding their alter egos as they head north. Once among the “luxuries” of the Grant, they crack open a beer (or three) and renew their friendships and love for wading thigh deep in rippling water. It’s a joy to be taken with them.

Here is a short excerpt:

“We heard the problem before we saw it.  It was the roar of water – lots of it – falling fast.  As the canoe rounded a bend, the river narrowed before us into a gauntlet of drops over ledges, alternating with huge standing waves.  It was the kind of chute you would never ride down on purpose, but we both realized with a sinking feeling that it was too late to reach the banks.  We were already committed.  Guy shouted, “Down the middle!” and that seemed like the best and only idea.  There was no room to maneuver, and if we turned sideways things would get ugly fast.

“So we plunged into the raging chute, both of us paddling madly to keep the canoe headed straight.  I braced a knee under the bow, which was a good move because the first drop almost threw me out.  Time slowed down the way it does in moments of crisis and it seemed for a while that all would be well.  We were keeping the canoe aimed ahead, and it fell straight across a series of steep drops.  I caught alternating glimpses of standing waves and of the sky as we bucked up and down, but we were keeping the canoe upright.  As we emerged into a pool at the bottom of the falls a few seconds later I felt relieved and proud.

“But those sentiments were premature.”

You can buy your copy of  The Confluence at: http://www.amazon.com/Confluence-Fly-fishing-Friendship-Dartmouth-College/dp/1942155123/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461884787&sr=1-1&keywords=the+confluence

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Do you have a minute?

I met Joe Kolman when I was in seventh grade. He was the track coach at Briarcliff Mimagesanor High School and he came out to watch the new crop of middle schoolers running around the field during gym class. I posted a particularly good time that day and he stepped up to introduce himself and invited me to consider cross-country and track. I declined, of course, thinking track was for losers. I played baseball.

Coach Kolman was also a history teacher who had gone to Dartmouth. A small, thin man, with short, black curly hair, he had a five o’clock shadow that seemed perpetually in place. During the turbulent sixties, he was one of the few teachers who could connect with the students.

“Do you have a minute?” he would ask in the hallway as if we had somewhere else to go. Sometimes he just had a question; at others he’d suggest participation in a school club or activity or ask our opinion about the news of the day. He appeared awkward at first, but I quickly realized he was just someone who chose his words with care. In a group, he often hesitated out of a concern that others should have an opportunity to say their piece. He was always polite, always soft-spoken.

I never had him for history, but those who did loved his course. He was known for motivating students to think and speak for themselves and encouraging them to consider other points of view – he often assigned homework that challenged students to argue the opposite side of an issue they supported.

I forgot our initial conversation until my junior year when I failed to make the varsity baseball team. This wasn’t much of a surprise, by then. I couldn’t hit. I couldn’t throw. In fact, I’m stunned they let me hang around as long as they did. With nothing left to do for the spring term, Steve Pagnotta and I went out for track.

We had a small team. One shot putter, a few sprinters, a few long distance runners. I ran the 220 and the 440 sprints. We did poorly in just about every meet because we couldn’t fill out all the events.

Pags and I lobbied the rest of the football team – at least those not otherwise engaged – to join the team for our senior year. Suddenly, Coach Kolman’s track team ballooned with competitors (that’s an overstatement – we ballooned with bodies. None of us yet had learned how to be competitive). We had a full weight team – including discus. We had long jumpers, triple jumpers, pole vaulters – you name it. He was very happy.

We still struggled competitively. We had good athletes, but were such a small school that we lacked depth and it showed during the competitions. I remember one county meet where I had to run the 220, the 440 and the 440 relay back-to-back-to back. After competing in the first two events, I made it about 400 of the 440 meters relay before the bear jumped on my back. I struggled to hand-off the baton and collapsed by the side of the track. I was so tired I couldn’t get up after the meet. I just lay there until Coach Kolman realized I wasn’t on the bus and came back to find me.

After that, I switched one event to high jump (which if you’ve ever seen me play basketball is rather amusing). Surprisingly, however, I could jump my height at five eleven.

Once, we had a meet against Irvington and as the afternoon unfolded, we were tied in points. The entire meet would be decided by the high jump, which usually was the last event of the day. I had made a mistake early on by warming up with the lower jumps. When the Irvington jumper and I both made 5’ 11,” he had fewer attempts. If we tied, I would lose. I had to jump a level higher than him to win.

We had three chances to try for 6’. By then, the entire roster of both teams had gathered around the high jump pit. Everyone knew what was on the line. The kid from Irvington missed the first jump. So did I. We retraced our steps and tried again. He missed the second jump. So did I. They reset the bar for the third and final attempt. He missed. So, it all came down to my final jump. If I made it, we would win the meet. If I missed –

“You can do it, ” a voice called from the crowd. Inside my head I remember thinking, “No, I can’t. I’ve never cleared six feet.”

Suddenly, Joe Kolman was there with his clipboard in hand. “Do you have a minute?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I just recalculated the score and realized that we’ve already won the meet. You don’t have to make the jump. We’ve got this, but it would be great to see you clear that bar.” He patted me on the shoulder and left me to the jump.

Relieved, I took a deep breath and let it out. I squared my shoulders, took my three long strides and jumped for all I was worth. My right foot leapt high over my head and I lay back and rolled, trying to keep my body as flat as possible. I cleared the height with room to spare and kicked my back leg out to avoid the bar. The crowd erupted as I fell into the mat. By the time I climbed out, I was mobbed.

“What a jump!”

“Unbelievable!”

That’s when I realized that Coach Kolman had lied. I looked over at him from the crush of bodies and he just shrugged, an impish smile stealing across on his face.

Coach Kolman died on December 26th of last year. I learned about it on a FaceBook page devoted to his memory by some 200 of his students. Some I knew, Barney Rush, Jack Connell, Lise Glazier, Rich Mandelbaum but most were strangers to me from his a forty-year career at Briarcliff Manor High School.

At first, I didn’t recognize him from some of their descriptions or even the photographs they posted. He was an older man, no longer thin. His hair was white and longer than I had remembered. He wore glasses.

The more I read, however, the more I realized their memories of him were my memories. And it was clear that his life’s work centered on teaching the youth of Briarcliff Manor to love history and to understand its relevance to events taking place today. But much of what we learned wasn’t in books. He taught us to be careful with our words, thoughtful of other points of view, and competitive in our life’s endeavors.

He was a very, very, good man.

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English 5

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“Welcome to English 5.”  A small sardonic smile lit Professor Ermarth’s face, suggesting a deeper meaning than her words conveyed.  In the innocence of my youth, however, I ignored any instinct to run, took my seat in Sanborn House, and flipped open my college-lined, spiral notebook.

Every student at Dartmouth was required to take English 5, preferably in the first year of study.  And having a profound fear of writing, I figured I would stress less if I took the course fall term and got the requirement out of the way.  It was the first class I attended and seemed pretty tame until Professor Ermarth closed her book at the end of class. “Your first assignment, due Monday, is to write a five page paper on the first four chapters of Paradise Lost.”

Have you ever read Paradise Lost?  Not an easy thing to decipher, much less about which to write. Turns out, we had to write one paper each week.  The good news was, that if we didn’t like the grade we received, we had the option to rewrite the paper – as many times as we’d desired.  The only grade that would count would be the last version submitted.

Although anxious about the volume of writing, this sounded feasible to my seventeen-year old, virgin ears.  I spent the next few days deciphering the first four chapters of Paradise Lost, wrote my paper and called home to tell my folks that all was well.

And it was, until I got back the graded paper.  It was covered in ink.  Every sentence was edited – several times.  “Wrong word choice.” “This makes no sense.” “You already said this.”

I got a “D+” – not the way I planned to start my college career.

After a few bouts of despair, I took solace from the fact that others had received similar grades. I also knew I could rewrite the paper to receive a new grade. I already had another paper due, however, and from Ermarth’s comments on the first paper, it was clear the second paper wouldn’t fare much better than its predecessor.  I had to redraft my second paper as well as the first – and in those days we had to type everything on a typewriter that had no self-correcting features (we used liquid paper to cover our mistakes).  I put in a few late nights to catch up.

I got a “C-” on the rewrite and no grade on the second paper.

“What’s on the pages seems much ado about a small point, namely that the form of the work is a device to involve the reader.  This is true of any work in any language, and so in effect you say nothing in saying this.  The language isn’t bad, considering how hard it is to write well without an argument to develop…much of your argument here is merely assertion, which of course is no argument at all.”

Ermarth had given us the opportunity to suggest our grade.  I had given myself a B-.

“Your evaluation seems optimistic.”

I called home in a panic.  I was in over my head.  Even after my Dad’s pep-talk – “They wouldn’t have let you in if they didn’t think you could do the work.” – I wasn’t so sure.

I went back to writing, now with a new third paper and two re-writes behind it.  I began to think the professor was sadistic – until I realized that she had to grade every paper we submitted.  Okay, so I figured, maybe sadomasochistic.

I got to the point where I was writing or re-writing (and typing) a paper each night.  And I, who never had gotten a “C” in my life, was relieved to get a “C+” on any of my first drafts.

I rewrote the Lost paper five times (for an A-/B+, thank you).  I rewrote one on Camus’s The Fall four times (never choose an existentialist subject with an English professor) and was relieved to get away with a gracious C+.

Needless to say, English 5 did nothing to help my fear of writing. After ten weeks of sweating through paper after paper, I ended the term with an exhausting B+.  It was the last English class I took at Dartmouth. As you can imagine, I now consider this an enormous personal loss.  Dartmouth had some of the finest English professors (including Ermarth) on the planet.  More risk averse than I am today, I was foolish and cowardly to pass them by.

I still have a fear of writing, although it is less pronounced than it was during my freshman year at college.  I could not have imagined then, during those early autumn walks to class in Sanborn House, that I would wind up a writer. But, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have had my suspicions.  There are only four files from my days at Dartmouth still in my writing desk.  Ermarth’s edits of my English 5 papers is one of them.

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The Legend of Shane the Piper

I exchanged books with Rick Spier last week and received a copy of his “novel memoir” The Legend of Shane the Piper and his second book O’Sullivan’s Odyssey.

Shane

I sat down with Legend and found I couldn’t put it down.  That’s not to say it is an easy read.  It’s not.  It’s a tough story that chronicles Rick’s abandonment by his parents, his life with abusive foster parents, and his subsequent abuse of alcohol at Dartmouth College.

I think it was doubly hard for me as I knew Rick in college – but didn’t know of the anguish and pain he suffered at the hands of all three.

Forced into acting as a surrogate for a violent foster father, Rick performs well as an athlete in high school, even though he has no real love for sports.  His athleticism helps him attract the attention of the Dartmouth football program and Rick finds himself in college and “free” to define himself for the first time.   He walks off the football field and into the arms of Dartmouth’s Animal House culture of the late 1970’s where drinking was glorified and students were often bullied into chugging one beer after another until they were drunk.  Not a great environment for someone struggling to find himself.  Rick embraces the culture, but is never sure that the culture embraces him.  Although he finds a way to maintain his grades and graduate, his demons are never far from him and he carries his alcoholism well into adulthood.

This too, is no easy ride.  His foster father murders his foster mother and commits suicide, his wife nearly dies of an ectopic pregnancy, and his older daughter was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome.  “In sum,” Rick writes, “it was another donkey-ride-through-Hell that destroyed my marriage and family and left me pretty much destroyed as a human being.” Like I said, it’s a tough read.

Legend seems to be Rick’s way of exorcising his many demons so that he can now live his life the way he chooses – sober and as a writer.  Using his Dartmouth experience as a backdrop, he ping pongs his way across the years vomiting his abused life on the table for all to see – chunks and all.  Dartmouth suffers greatly in this role, playing the single-minded, and shallow role of a fraternity haven.  It is much more than that, but Rick either chooses to not tell that part of the story or never saw it through the haze of the abuse he suffered.  That he loves the school is evident; the why, however, is not.

In some ways, I felt the memoir was meant for me to read.  It clearly is a confession of sorts – it screams, this is who I really am! – and its focus on our alma mater is so specific to time and place that it feels like a shared memory.  He even bookends the story with visits to his 25th and 30th reunions.

I, for one, am happy and relieved that through hard work and the help of his second wife, he is at last sober and finding happiness.  Rick is a compelling writer and I look forward to reading O’Sullivan’s Odyssey.

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