Archives for category: writing

DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN

 

My personal experience with anonymous correspondence is limited to one unhappy event.   Around 1990, several years after I opened my law office, the New Jersey Bar Association alleged that the sign posted on the street in front of my office was improper. In the sign I described myself as “Stuart Sanders, Real Estate Specialist.” To me, this represented the truth, since my practice consisted almost entirely of real estate closings.

The Ethics Committee of the Association viewed the matter differently. They wrote that they had received a letter from a fellow attorney who stated correctly, in their view, the word “Specialist” belongs only to those who earn certificates as “Civil” or “Criminal” trial attorneys. Their letter told me to remove or correct the sign within fifteen days. Outraged, I wrote back, asking rhetorically: “What is more unethical: to represent the true focus of my law practice to the public, or to file an anonymous complaint behind a colleague’s back?”Unknown.jpeg

During the next several days, while I awaited a response that never came, I hardly lived five minutes without wallowing in righteous indignation. I tortured my poor office staff and family with a barrage of braying, along the lines of: “I’ll sue them; I’ll assert my constitutional right to freedom of speech; how can they own a word?”

At night, I experienced more than a few sleepless hours with another question: “Who filed the complaint? How do I get revenge? Do I wish for a painful disease or mere bankruptcy to be visited upon my so-called colleague?”

Gradually, after a week or so, the sting of the situation subsided. I paid a sign company to replace the word “Specialist” with “Closings.” I decided that to argue with the Bar’s Ethics Committee would not be a brilliant career move. And I ceased evaluating every local attorney I dealt with to see if they were “the one.” “Don’t give whoever it is the satisfaction,” I instructed myself.

 

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Two years later, I’d nearly forgotten the incident when an elderly attorney from a neighboring town arrived for a closing. Although I’d met him years before, he wasn’t someone I saw often. He’d certainly never crossed my mind as a suspect when I’d laid awake imagining retribution. His colleagues knew him for two things, namely: alcoholism; and, related to that, having run over and killed a youngster with his town’s fire engine while driving to a July 4th celebration. As town attorney and its fire chief, he’d managed to squelch any personal responsibility for the tragedy, but the legal community knew the inside story.

After offering a wet-fish handshake, he said: “I see you’re not in violation anymore.”

“Hunh?” I said, not certain what he meant.

“Your sign,” he said, his rheumy eyes twinkling with mischief and triumph.

“You fixed it. My letter worked.”                                        images.png

I glared at him. Several verbal responses arose in my mind, all barbed with poison. But, as I considered his entire presence, from his tattered and stained sports jacket, to his erratically shaved jowls, to the vast belly that almost prevented him from reaching the closing table, I found myself unable to deliver one. Apparently, the awful things I’d wished for had occurred to him already. In fact, even worse than I could have dreamed.

“Yes,” I finally said. “And business has never been better.”

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Fast forward twenty years: I’m nearly at the four-year anniversary of starting this blog and have posted 160 stories and essays. Most weeks, I have between 100 and 200 “views” and am often surprised by which posts are popular. Sometimes, the stories I think are best fall like stones in water. And posts I’ve belabored end up being relative successes.  Readers or “followers” need not be concerned that I monitor their individual reading habits. That level of detail is unavailable. But my hosting site does tell me in what country my readers access the blog.

The overwhelming majority of my “reads” take place in the United States. But many also occur in Canada and Costa Rica where I have friends and acquaintances. Occasionally, a dedicated reader travels to Europe or Asia and checks my blog as they go, leaving me with a tantalizing string of countries. When a friend spent several months in and around Vietnam last year I had my first “views” from Cambodia and Laos; during her honeymoon last year, my daughter delivered my first hits from Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

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Last year I posted a story about my father’s unlikely friendship with former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo. It briefly went viral in a minor way when hundreds of readers accessed it over a two-day period. I never learned who they were. Presumably, one person happened upon the story and referred it to friends or co-workers. No one commented, however. How mysterious to not know with whom I’d struck a nerve, and why!

Other times I know exactly who has binged on my blog. There are several friends who do not read every post but, if they know I will be at a social event, might read eight or ten in the day or two before we meet. They discuss aspects of the posts with me in minute detail and often offer insights I hadn’t considered when I wrote. I appreciate their interest.

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In the past two months a tantalizing mystery has arisen with a reader I’ve come to think of as “The Brazilian.” “Reads” have occurred almost daily in Brazil. Usually, there is one, though several times, there have been two or three in a day. I cannot think of anyone I know who is living or traveling in Brazil. This person, whoever he or she is, has been remarkably dedicated. I’m flattered! Yet, they have never left a comment. Maybe they don’t realize they can comment or, perhaps, they prefer to remain anonymous.

Is my Brazil reader a student learning English? Is he or she somehow fascinated by the minutiae of my existence or by my views on current events? I can’t tell which stories they have read. They could be reading the most recent posts or they could be scrolling back several years to find stories of interest.

So now, like an actor breaking character and speaking directly to the audience, I’m herein communicating to my reader in Brazil. You know who you are! How did you become a reader? What are your favorite stories or story-types? How did you alight upon my blog in the first place? Are there subjects you particularly enjoy? Do you have any questions I could answer? My imagination runs wild! In my dreams, I wonder if you are a major movie producer who is just waiting for the right moment to offer me a “deal.”

If you’d rather not respond, that’s fine. One of the enjoyable aspects of writing stories (as opposed to editing and re-writing and occasionally abandoning stories that don’t work), is not knowing how they’ll be received after I push the ”publish” button. The mystery fascinates me. At least, having written this post, the “Brazil” questions are out there, I’m less likely to express puzzlement every day. Compared to some anonymous situations, this one is a pleasure.

 

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RE-READING PHILIP ROTH

Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for “American Pastoral.” It’s at or near the top of any list of Philip Roth’s greatest novels and understandably so. As a detailed and evocative portrait of life in mid-twentieth century America, it’s amazing. Certainly, the novel is inspiring to someone like me, at the lowest end of the authorial food chain, who dabbles in the world of memoir and also tries to evoke “the times.”

When I originally read the book, in 1998, my life involved alternating work and fatherhood immersion. My children were 14, 8 and 6. We also had a crazy dog whose walking needs, despite the kids’ promises to help, generally fell to me. It was a challenge to read a novel more literary than “The Berenstain Bears Go Fishing.” Yet, I found time to plow through “American Pastoral” with a lot of skimming. I failed to retain any details from that “reading” other than it’s set in New Jersey and includes a deadly bombing.

Recently, “American Pastoral” appeared in our home as a selection by my wife’s book group. Blessed with the luxury of time and concentration, I set out to savor every expertly chosen word, every finely crafted paragraph.  Reading Roth, carefully, I pondered the following: “If an eighth grader were to write a series of two-hundred-word sentences, surely he would flunk English composition. But when Philip Roth does it, it’s “Stylish with a capital ‘S’.’”

Is Roth’s sort of Style what is missing from my writing?

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To answer this question, I’ve decided to give it a try? After all, the writer’s mission is to furnish his reader with every opportunity to gain insight, to find kernels of truth that are elusive, to brave the question, the imponderable, the unanswerable reality that so infects the human condition with uncertainty, vexation, puzzlement and even – if the truth be obtainable by mere mortals – to gain a gift from God, if He exists, or She, for that matter, for in relation to man’s ultimate place in the pantheon of beings, what a gift it would be to truly comprehend!

With this in mind, I thought back to my childhood, to every moment that has shaped me, made me who I am, formed my consciousness, my reality, or what I think of as my reality which may or may not be actually thus, since perhaps, my perception of my own existence is wrapped in a time-space continuum no less opaque than the stone walls in the West Philadelphia home where I grew up and yet who could doubt that my own fate formed amidst the hopes and dreams that my parents, too, felt for themselves and for me and for my brothers and sister — whose destiny controls, after all? Who can say? And why? Surely, if I strive to reach an understanding of myself in relation to others and to the surrounding community it will all devolve back to that question, the most human of questions, and yet the most Godly: Who is in charge around here and, more importantly, is there coffee ice cream in the freezer?

Women, of course, have influenced me, from the earliest days when I was doubtless close to my mother, (though I could have been close to my father, but for his need, real AND perceived OR illusory to pursue the American dream in the most obvious way, by working, working, working) and not to forget the formative nature of my elementary school years of near-total obliviousness, to the middle school years of embarrassing silence, to the high school years of embarrassing non-silence – and finally, to choosing a wife, a life partner, or being chosen, perhaps, because that’s possibly what really happened, but maybe not, since one’s destiny to join that of another human being may not be deemed a choice but may be more a matter of mysterious chance, a happenstance of cosmic timing, a blip, whether eventually it proves itself heavenly or hellish, (determined over time and even then subject to the interpretation of each individual involved, and subject to the opinions of society at large, inevitably applying its own shifting standards) that shapes much of the rest of a person’s experience of life, with life, of course, defined perhaps as no more than the short period between birth and death.

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“Live for the moment,” everyone says, yet plan for retirement, that period of reflection, when all the points have been scored, the blanks filled in, the results tabulated, one’s place in the pantheon of human existence finally secured, as we hurtle towards death, a final rest, a complete rest, for no rest could be more absolute. But think about it: only in America could opportunity be gleaned to rise within one generation from immigrant to professional and to give one’s progeny the opportunity, if they choose, to return to wearing torn jeans and working as organic farmers – those who have descended from ancestors reviled on the shtetls of Eastern Europe now reveling in the freedoms of the Middle Atlantic states’ safe harbors of assimilation. But what has been left behind? What has been lost when the very foundation of existence is uprooted, twisted and turned into an unrecognizable visage of yearning, of aspiration, of success and, dare it be admitted, possible eventual incontinence? Oh, America.

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Well, what do you think? Shall I continue as a Rothian? Or would the reader, perhaps, be happier if the next book I reread is by Hemingway?