Does a Writer Need Hope?

We all have our hobbies. I can’t resist a good criminal trial.

I’ve followed, for example, the Bernie Madoff case from the get-go. Now, nearly fifty years in the making, we’re up to sentencing of the convicted mastermind of the most sweeping Ponzi scheme in history, Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court presiding.  Defense counsel Ira Sorkin’s last pitch for his client probably looked something like this:

Okay, judge, he’s something else, this guy, a mind like no other. All the superlatives are in this case: the biggest, longest, most massive, most sweeping, most stunning.

But a 150 year sentence? A 71 year old man? How about 12? His projected life is 13 years. How about hope that the last year of his life might be spent in the sun? Would you deny a man hope, your honor?

Whatever Sorkin’s exact words, his plea failed.  No hope for Madoff. Judge Chin gave him life.

What would life be like without hope? What would happen to your writing?

Nothing good, says my vote, as it’s the possibilities that drive the process. It’s the wishful thinking. It’s the idea of something terrific coming from your own labor. No hope, and the thing dies.

150 years vs. 12.

Hope vs. no hope.

I’m very glad that Judge Chin, not me, was assigned to weigh it up and arrive at a sentence. But, when it comes to a writing life, that is something I could decide, or at least this is where I draw the line: go to work with hope that your labor may bear fruit, or go get coffee instead and contemplate your more promising options.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Bernie Madoff portrait by Yan Pei-Ming at the San Francisco Art Institute, photographed by Steve Rhodes; youngster’s expression by Lolita 8.

What a Writer can learn from Eliot Spitzer

1.

I’ve been following Eliot Spitzer’s career since his New York State attorney general days, followed by his tenure as the 54th governor of New York, and then, straight through a noisy scandal, involving a woman, of course, which caused him to step down citing “private failings.” He dropped from the public eye for a while, scant mention of him in any of my news feeds, and then, voila, up he pops again, looking fit and well-dressed, and with his own round table talk show on CNN.

The highs, the lows, the redemptions! How can you not love the can-do, do-tell of a certain kind of New Yorker who falls from grace and emerges the better for it, even dapper?

But Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer made an ungainly couple. It seemed that Eliot (if I may presume that familiarity), though reborn a newsman, was still a lawyer, still a prosecutor, still a panting, salivating wolf on the hunt. And not soon enough, as she certainly suffered, the co-host Kathleen Parker disappeared, never mind her Pulitzer, and come 8:00 p.m., EDT,  In the Arena appeared as noiselessly as a page turned. The new show, especially compared to the old format, is taut, lean, hard-hitting, and informative.

That’s the first lesson from Eliot Spitzer: a good idea evolves. If something’s not working, figure out what’s clunky and make it better. First, Eliot himself is reborn, and next, the format of the show. It’s his show now. And we carry on.  

2.

As a lawyer, I never had a case with him, which I regret, as I certainly would have learned. But what made him good in that profession (as reputation has it), is what makes him good in his new incarnation: his urgent, uncompromising need to know. Eliot Spitzer has a very healthy, wholly irrepressible curiosity. He wants answers. He wants facts and has a nose for the odd one. He leans in, interrupts, probes, and parses words to get at a more precise meaning. Let’s drill down he says, a statement, not a question.

That’s the second lesson from Eliot Spitzer: drill down. Shine a light in the darkest corners, and your story sharpens.

3.

Meanwhile, time passes, not much, and the show shifts again. This time Eliot shares the table, off and on, with two junior associates, one male, one female, both perky, and picked no doubt to counterbalance his wolfish, incisors-bared intensity. Will they last, these little chickens, still damp behind the ears? What will come next? We’ll see.

That’s the third lesson from Eliot: you’re never done. There’s always more you can do to sharpen something. Test and learn. And move on with the sure knowledge that you’re getting better and better, closer and closer to what you hope to achieve.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Eliot Spitzer, thumbs up – dealbreaker.com; Eliot Spitzer, portrait – progressivevalues.blogspot.com.

The Iconic Image

We don’t pick the images in our lives that stand out. These things just happen.

Take pancakes, for example. Twice, the image of a pancake has come to stand for something much more.

The first time was when a law partner called me into his office, closed the door. I was expecting a boatload of work. But, instead, he just wanted to congratulate me on a fellowship I had received to attend graduate law school in New York.

He, too, had studied in New York. Now, he was in a Detroit practice, buried with responsibility, and a family man, besides. But back then, anything was possible, he said. No limit on one’s career, and as for one’s life? Why, he and this girl would dance all night and end up in some pancake place at 5:00 in the morning . . .

The other time pancakes reappeared as a sign of something essential was in Amsterdam. It was early, and looking for breakfast, my family and I happened on a place just opened. The owner moved comfortably at his duties, brewing coffee, pressing the juice. He cracked eggs, stirred the batter. No rush. The shop was new, he said. He used to do something else, something financial, but this was much more civilized. No better way to greet the day’s possibilities, he said, than a hot crepe and the leisure to eat it in peace.

Photo credit: Loleia, sxc.

A Small Shift Forward

There’s this diner I’ve been frequenting for years, a brisk, tidy little place on the west side of Manhattan, run by a Polish family. Not long ago, I stopped in for breakfast and found it as always: the same man who greeted, saw us to a table, the same waitresses, the bus boys. The menu was unvaried. The food was just the same.

But this time, something had changed, something new added: the lady who came around now and checked on every table.

I saw her from afar: a vision in yellow, smiling, asking, Everything okay? She had her system—musical voice, eye contact, first with the woman, then the man, keep it short, move on.

When she got to us, she sparkled—the gold sequins on her sweater doubling her sunshine. When she made eye contact, I saw that hers were impossible to miss, dark and flashing and outlined in a brightly painted aqua like coral from the sea. Red lipstick: she beamed. You enjoying? she asked.

Yes, indeed, we answered as she must have heard over and over, and by the time she finished her route, a new set of patrons had arrived.

From our end, the restaurant-goers, we appreciated her attention: not too much, not too little. And from the restaurant’s end of things, there she was, a sunny ambassador spreading cheer while double checking patron satisfaction.

It was a great improvement and such a little thing. I sipped my juice and pondered the mechanics of this transformation: just a small shift forward, and look now how the restaurant shines.

Photo credits: eggs – Ilco, sxc; juice – Ivan Freaner, sxc

The Plentitude of Soul

I have a friend I hear from intermittently: a Spaniard, seventy-something, a former Jesuit priest living now in Chile. His priestly version of the world is far more orderly and peaceful than my own and comes across in broken-English. His emails generally cheer and entertain, but a recent message confused me: If I were to write a blog, he said, it’d be on the plentitude of the soul.

The plentitude of the soul?

A few weeks later, I left for New York to celebrate an anniversary, which included a reunion with some old lawyer friends from a time when I practiced in the city. We had gone separate ways but remained in touch, especially around the death of one of their sons—just 19, just beginning, and from unexplained medical difficulties. It had been decades since some of us had seen each other, and I was eager for the evening to arrive.

Our rendezvous was at a rooftop bar at the fashionable Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, appealing for its urban, upscale feel, completely unlike the old standby hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant we’d find ourselves in later; bring your own beer.

We met our friends in the lobby, hugged hard, rode the elevator together, and stepped out into the summer heat. The place, less beautiful than I imagined, didn’t matter anymore. The bar fell away, the noise, the silly stuff, the stink of cigar. The inattentive waitresses, the lightly-poured, vastly-overpriced drinks, the humidity curling my hair—none of it mattered.

I looked long into their faces and imagine that they scrutinized mine. What mattered were the stories. When you lose a son, you laugh again, but not really, he said. And she: You go out, you do things, but it never leaves you. But here they were five years later, seemingly of sound mind and body, at least from the look of them, and with some constructed purpose to their days. I was impressed at this fortitude, this courage. All things considered, it was a relief to find them so well.

In that moment, humbled by the uncertainties of life, grateful to have this time of true connection with people I value, I realized that this was the plentitude of soul of which my Spaniard spoke.

Write it, he said, and I wondered how a person could ever tell it right.

Photo credit: Yarik Mishin, sxc