Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Shyster: One more try

I've started a little writing project. This is the seventh installment. Here's Part 1Here's Part 2Here's Part 3Here's Part 4Here's Part 5 and Here's Part 6.

In hindsight I would have crashed and burned at the document review law firm no matter what had happened, but at the time it seemed pretty clear that Bull had done me in.

It was March 2003 and I was called into the managing partner’s office.  He never mentioned the baseball writing – and I’m rather doubtful that he even knew about it – but he told me that I was obviously distracted and no longer productive. He said he wasn't firing me as such, but it was clear that I had no future there. They’d give me a more than reasonable amount of time to find something and they’d tell anyone who asked that I was leaving on my own accord.  It was all very polite.

And really, given the good job market at the time, it wasn’t all that stressful.  I knew that with my experience – not so much to where a potential employer needed to decide if I was partnership material immediately but not so little that I’d need to be trained – I could find another job fairly easily. And within two weeks I did.  At a firm across the street.

The interview was a breeze.  Three years earlier while working at the fixer firm I had represented the hiring partner and his wife, handling some ugliness with a home contractor. It was a favor to my old boss who was the hiring partner’s golf buddy.  While that was going on the hiring partner -- the man who was considering whether or not to give me a job -- had been arrested for soliciting a prostitute in a grocery store parking lot at 9AM on a Tuesday morning and the wife had cried on my shoulder about it.  That I hadn’t blabbed about that all over town probably sealed the deal for me.  The hiring partner knew he could trust me.  And unlike the last place, the hiring partner worked for a firm where fixers were still highly valued. I got the job.

I took a month off before I started work there and took a cross-country road trip. While on that trip I found out that my wife was pregnant with our daughter. That obviously changed the game for me. It changed the trip too from one of aimlessness to one of self-discovery. By the time I got back I thought I had found some contentment and new resolve to make my legal career work.  And I worked at it for a while. A pretty good while, actually.

Motivated by fatherhood and the knowledge that this was my last shot to make something of myself as a lawyer, I worked hard. I shut down my baseball column at Bull. I worked long hours and worked difficult cases. I mentored law students and young lawyers and did my best to be reliable if not indispensable to the partners and the clients. I billed a ton of hours and settled in for what I thought would be a decade or two of keeping my head down and defining what middle age would look like.

But something happened as I delved back into the fixer work. Rather than experience a voyeuristic thrill from the foibles and scandals of my often noteworthy clients and their often newsworthy cases, I began to feel something else. Dread. Loathing. For my cases, my clients and eventually for myself. Maybe it was just because I was older or maybe fatherhood had changed me, but I couldn't just sit back and laugh and mock like I had before. Bad people were doing bad things, quite often my job was to either defend or facilitate that, and I started to develop a pretty major problem with it.

Not that this led to some principled stand. I never made one. Instead, I internalized my discontent and dealt with it in other, less-than-healthy ways.  There are a million stories about this period in my life that I may tell one day -- maybe here -- but the upshot is that I began drinking more and began going out with coworkers too much, many of whom felt much the same way I did about our jobs and our place in the world. I'd unconsciously slow down work on cases I hated and overcompensate on cases I found acceptable. Which, however noble I wanted to pretend it was, was me not doing what I was paid to do.

All of this came to a head at the end of 2006. I had spent most of that year and the year before helping defend an embezzlement and public corruption case which was fairly big news here in Ohio.  I threw myself into it with abandon. I got close -- maybe too close -- to my client.  I lived it and breathed it.  At the end of it all I wasn't sure who was right and who was wrong and whether my client deserved all that time in jail he got even though, in all honesty, the evidence required that he go there.  Despite all of that I still think to this very day that the people who led the mobs after my client were every bit as misguided and potentially corrupt as my client was himself.  Though I myself never crossed any lines, I still feel like I suffered a complete loss of ethical and moral gravity as a result of the experience.

My client went to jail in November. Despite this outcome I received considerable praise from my firm about how hard I worked (i.e. how many hours I billed) and how dedicated I was (i.e. how many hours I billed).  I was told that if I had one more good year I'd make partner.  Despite this, I was basically numb through the end of March.

One Saturday in April of 2007 I decided that I needed something positive in my life. I needed to get back that feeling that I had five years previously when, on occasion, I wrote about baseball and, on occasion, someone said that they liked it and that it was good.  I sat down at my computer and opened up a Blogspot blog about legal issues that I had erratically maintained. It was called Shyster.

I deleted the legal posts, changed its name to Shysterball and put up a post about baseball. A few days later I put up another.  I thought it would great if a handful of people read it.  Anything else would be gravy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Shyster: Bull

I've started a little writing project. This is the sixth installment. Here's Part 1Here's Part 2Here's Part 3Here's Part 4 and Here's Part 5.

Late in 2001 my friend shot me a column a notable national sports writer had put together.  The point: Barry Bonds was about to break Mark McGwire’s single season home run record and the writer was not at all pleased with it. The Roger Maris card was played. A lot of nostalgia and "back in my day" was thrown on top and it ended up being something of a half-baked column. My friend ended the email with “good point, huh?”

I disagreed with the notion.  While I drifted fairly far from baseball through the 1990s, in the previous three years I had become reacquainted and actually once again obsessed with the game via my exposure to Bill James, ESPN’s Rob Neyer and the sabermetric world.  While no analyst myself, I shot back a sabermetrically-informed and profanity-laced tirade to my friend in which I outlined all of the reasons why the writer was wrong.  I went on about how you can compare the olden days to modern times and put the accomplishments of each in context. About how you could separate the wheat from the chaff and, dear lord, you could not simply say things were better when you were a boy, because brother, they were demonstrably not.

My friend forwarded my rant to a friend of his who was launching a webzine, called "Bull Magazine." That guy asked me if I could clean up that rant for publication.  I did so.  And then I wrote some more.  By the spring of 2002 I had a weekly column up that started to gain a bit of notice.

I don’t know what kind of traffic the place did, but my little bits began to get linked by some of the websites I frequented while trying to kill time between document review jags.  Places like Baseball Think Factory (then known as Baseball Primer) chief among them.  The twin highlights of my run at “Bull” were receiving emails from Neyer and from Keith Law, who had just been plucked from Baseball Prospectus to help run the Toronto Blue Jays.  They seemed to like my stuff.  It made my year.  And it almost – almost – caused me to come to terms with the fact that I was finally, after all of these years, doing something that I wanted to be doing, even if it was then only a hobby.

But before I could do that, reality intruded.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Shyster: Fixer

I've started a little writing project. This is the fifth installment. Here's Part 1Here's Part 2Here's Part 3 and Here's Part 4.

The early years of my legal career were superficially successful.  I had parlayed my middling grades at a slightly above-average law school into a job at a litigation boutique of decent local renown.  The work was fairly top-end as far as these things go, and I was more or less well thought-of.  After a time, however, I came to be thought of as more savvy than traditionally talented, and a pattern began in which I was trusted with sensitive and even personal matters more than I was trusted with complicated and sophisticated legal assignments.

While colleagues handled the class action lawsuit, I handled the sexual harassment case involving the senior partner’s fraternity brother.  While they defended the corporation, I defended the son of that corporation’s CEO from charges arising out a weekend bar fight.  This didn’t much bother me as I am a voyeur at heart, and I found the often sordid underlying facts of my cases far more interesting than the underlying facts of real litigation.  I took the fact that I was tasked with these matters as a sign that I was well-liked and was considered trustworthy.  Every law firm has a fixer, and I was well on my way to becoming just that.

For a time I reveled in my clients’ greed, avarice, frailty, absurdity and loathsomeness, viewing it all as great theater and job security.  I bought a house and filled it with nice furniture, top shelf liquor and cutting edge electronics and didn’t think twice about it.  I traveled and ate well and bought expensive suits.  When the dotcom boom created a ridiculous chain reaction in escalating legal salaries across the country, I jumped from my litigation boutique to a larger shop for money that was downright silly.  And I convinced myself that I deserved every penny of it.

I continued my old work habits at the new firm – about 60% fixer work and 40% real lawyering – but that proved unsustainable.  The same big business dynamics which had led to crazy salary escalation in a two-horse Midwestern town had also led to a mindset among management that the salacious, incestuous and petty legal/political problems of a two-horse Midwestern town were not the sort of thing upon which a valuable legal practice was based.  When a new matter ripe for my fixing talents came my way, it was not enough for me to say that the client was the wastrel younger brother of the bank president who would be very grateful if I got his sibling out of a jam.  No, I had to fight the business development committee to take the matter on and God help me if I couldn’t swear that it would lead to $100,000 in billable hours for fiscal 2001.

This dynamic led to some unpleasantness in the form of real legal work.  As in, reviewing warehouses full of documents in some far-flung suburban office park to the tune of $300 an hour.   It was soul-killing stuff for an easily-bored guy with a short attention span like me and it led me to look elsewhere for fulfillment.

By complete happenstance that fulfillment was found -- at least for a short period -- in my long-abandoned dream of writing about sports.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Shyster: Not-so-great Expectations

For those just checking in, I've started a little writing project. This is the third installment. Here's Part 1Here's Part 2, Here's Part 3.

Neither my SAT scores nor my college fund were good enough for the Ivy League.  I applied to and was accepted to Ohio State and began my studies there with no particular plan.  I never once visited the journalism school or even gave it a second thought.  I took the classes that interested me – political theory, English and anthropology – with no care whatsoever about what kind of job I’d have some day.

I got good grades.  I toyed with the notion of going to grad school and becoming, oh, I don’t know, a political science professor?  A primatologist?  To the extent writing entered the picture it was because I fancied myself a novelist of some sort.  Of course that was a ridiculous exercise in image shopping and nothing more.  I was convinced that if I could carry on like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer or Hunter S. Thompson it would somehow will me into being a writer, but I never really gave much thought to actually writing anything beyond the papers that got me those good grades.  All of which led me to the same place it leads most people with my particular blend of talent, disposition and lack of ambition:  law school.  Training ground for those who love mahogany furniture, top shelf liquor and cutting edge electronics.

I drifted in college, but I simply went to sleep once I hit law school.  I would make it to class, but I studied far less than most students.  Probably because law school, like high school, is a place where peer pressure reigns supreme and I was fairly immune to law school peer pressure.  I got married the summer before I enrolled at George Washington and I lived in Virginia, not the District, and as a result I didn’t do much socializing or anxiety sharing with the 1L crowd.

I’d go to class until about 3PM most days, bum around DuPont Circle until my wife and her friends got off work and then have a drink or two.  Afterwards we’d get back to our apartment for a late dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed.  I treated law school as a job with very low expectations.  I was bright enough to get Bs without studying.  Knowing that the ultimate plan was to get back to some mid-sized firm in Ohio rather than compete for jobs at the white shoe law firms in New York and Washington, the grades didn’t really matter to me.

I had a job lined up by Christmas of my 2L year.  It was so … easy.  And then I really went to sleep. For the better part of a decade.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shyster: When I grow up

For those just checking in, I've started a little writing project. This is the third installment. Here's Part 1, Here's Part 2.

When I was a teenager I truly wanted to be a sportswriter.

The first time I ever thought I could write about baseball for a living was in the spring of 1988.  My dad had met a sports reporter for the Parkersburg Sentinel and told him that his 14 year-old kid knew a lot about baseball.  The reporter, seeking an angle for a preseason article, asked me to write up my predictions for the coming season to compare to his own.

I spent a ton of time on mine, predicting not only the outcome of the pennant races, but postseason awards, random statistical events, and everything else I could think of.  I typed it all out on the Speedscript word processor of my Commodore 64 – it was 15 single-spaced pages – and presented it to him.  He had about a page and a half of handwritten notes with off-the-wall predictions like “Sam Horn will hit 50 Homers!”  He ended up not writing the piece, but I kept the predictions.  It was only Parkersburg, West Virginia and for all I know that guy was more frustrated political writer than he was sports reporter, but my predictions were better – and better-written – than the pro's were.  After that I knew I could be a baseball writer if I set my mind to it.

And for a while I did.  Rather than just perusing Sports Illustrated I’d study it.  I got baseball books by the armful from the library.  I’d watch ballgames with the sound off, pretending I was in the press box constructing game stories of my own.  I stopped merely following my own rooting interests and did my best to understand what was going on with every team in the game.  Late in the summer of 1988 I went on a family vacation to New York.  While there I made my dad take me all the way up to 116th Street so I could have my picture taken in front of the Columbia School of Journalism, believing full well that if I did so I’d somehow find my way back there again someday.

And then I lost my way.

As I progressed through high school, girls, music, theater, drink and drugs started to overtake baseball and writing on my to-do list.  None of these vices -- if they were vices -- derailed me personally, even as they crowded out my journalistic ambitions.  Indeed, dwarfing all but the girls were late 1980s dreams of material possession and status which did more damage to me than any drug could ever hope to do.

I recall a strange creative writing teacher my senior year who ambushed us all with a writing project that doubled as an exercise in psychological analysis.  We were given different starting sentences each day from which we were to craft a story.  I took my narrative in an intentionally sardonic direction, never pretending to take it seriously.  For a week I wrote of human excess and despair, infusing it all with as black a humor as I could muster.

When the story was finished the teacher read portions of it to the class and used the teaching/psychological aide which had launched the exercise to tell me that my future held a well-appointed urban home filled with mahogany furniture, cutting edge electronics and top shelf liquor, but the absence of love and warmth.

And I thought that sounded sublime.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Shyster: How Did I Get Here?

I spent eleven years defending crooked politicians and embezzlers.  Amoral and sometimes immoral corporations.  The idle rich and – worst of all – the spoiled children of the idle rich.  My unhappiness with my clients was only exceeded by just how unpleasant it was to do battle with the lawyers on the other side of the table.  And as all of that played out my anxieties about making partner and providing for a growing family were ever-present.

I needed an outlet of some kind, and the closest one was at the bar around the corner from the office where I would spent late afternoons and early evenings with my similarly disaffected colleagues, engaged in a reality-obfuscating revelry.  I was drinking a lot, probably too much, and there is no question that it was the highlight of my day for a few years.

In the office I was miserable.  A procrastinator by nature, I’d tend to put off work until the deadlines started to loom.  During the down time I’d ask myself how I got here.

In late 2006 I was 33-years-old.  I had been practicing law since I was 25, having taken no breaks between college and law school.  I had a two-year-old daughter, a one-year-old son, a wife who had quit her job to raise them, a mortgage and all of the other trappings of the early 21st Century burgher lifestyle.  At no time, however, had I consciously planned any of it.

Things just sort of happened while I wasn’t paying attention.  Law school?  Seems like the thing to do.  Marriage?  Well, it is about time.  Babies?  How nice!  A house in the suburbs?  Seems sensible.  A BMW?  Allow me my one indulgence.  All of it was pleasant enough.  None of it was the result of a plan, let alone a dream.

But I had a dream once. Years before. What had happened to it? Where did it go?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shyster -- Introduction

I’m often asked how I got a job writing about baseball for a living.  How I managed to turn a legal career and life in an office tower to blogging in my pajamas.  The people who ask me that do so in the same way that they might ask a magician how he guessed the card they picked.  As if there were some simple trick to it all that, were I so moved, I’d be willing to divulge.

I don’t have an answer for them.  There was a lot of luck involved. Some of that luck was the residue of design.  It wasn’t good design.  Indeed, looking back I’m struck by how reckless I was to make many of the decisions I made while crossing over from the real working world to however you’d describe the world in which I’m more or less paid to argue with people on the Internet all day.

I write a daily recap of the previous night’s events in baseball called “And That Happened.”  It doesn’t seek to explain all that much.  It merely sets forth what occurred and tries its best to place those events into some kind of understandable context.  That’s the best I can do with my career path as well.

I'm going to spend some time over the coming weeks writing down a bit about how I got where I am in life. A lot of it about my legal career and a lot of it about how I came to be a writer. Someone may find it interesting. But even if they don't, I feel the need to do it for myself. As the last few entries suggest, my life sort of blew up recently.  I'm dealing with that pretty well all things considered, but I have been worried that all of this chaos will push all which came before out of my brain for good as I begin a new chapter -- hell, a new volume -- of my life.  As a result, I kind of want to get that old stuff down before it slides out forever. For posterity, if nothing else. A demarcation between my old life and my new one.

Maybe this will work. Maybe it won't. We'll see.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Surprisingly, people don't suck

Extremes aren't my thing.  Stay the course. Steady as she goes. Peaceful equanimity. That's the stuff of my day-to-day, year-to-year existence.  Let the other people have the drama. Humm-baby was Roger Craig's motto. Works for me too.

Life has conspired with chaos to make such a philosophy inoperative lately. That's OK. It happens. I'm fortunate that is hasn't happened to me more than it has before now. We all get a turn on on this roller coaster. Buy the ticket, take the ride.  It's merely been my turn.

But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion.  At the exact moment when I figured that the abyss and I would stare at each other for a while and agree to sink into one another, a bunch of people decided that they wouldn't tolerate me doing that. Indeed, my long-held belief that people are, at best, self-interested and more often than not fairly awful has been seriously tested by several great people who have been fantastic to me lately.

Fantastic in different ways.

Some of them have taken it upon themselves to nurse me back to mental health, as though I were a patient in a mental ICU ward.  I appreciate them so much for they obviously care so much. And while the reality is that my emotional paralysis only lasted a few moments and I don't really need that kind of attention anymore, it has been heartening to see how much they care.  Those people understand my past and appreciate the gravity of recent events in ways that no one else could.

In contrast, there have been some people who have made it their mission to make me understand that my future is bright and that I need to be thrust into it now. Yesterday! Move on, lad, because that's where your promise lies!  I am thankful for them too. Because, even if I'm not quite ready for that, I appreciate their optimism and I know on some level that I'll be there soon.  Those folks represent everything I want to be and know I will be some day.

But at the moment, the present seems most important to me. In the midst of all of this drama, humm-baby normalcy has been really hard to come by. And I've pounced on any chance I've had to get some of it.

My kids provide it in spades and I thank the cosmos for them. There's nothing that keeps a person from disappearing into their own navel or their own ego like a couple of rugrats who only want you in the here and now. I worry about them so much these days, but they are actually my center of gravity and have been a greater source of strength to me than I've been to them. I won't tell them that now because it's no good to lay that kind of weight on them, but one day they'll understand just how important they've been for me.

But it hasn't been just them.  There are a couple of people, and they know who they are, who have helped to make me feel human lately.  People with whom I can just chat and bullshit and let the world wash over me the way I used to let it wash over me.  Who don't see me as damaged goods or as some repository of hope and future bliss. They've been indispensable because they have made it clear that's it's OK to not have any answers or plans. That right now -- for whatever it is -- is important and valuable too.

To them and everyone, I want to say thank you. And to say that, despite the fact that you've forced me to have to consider a new personal philosophy that doesn't involve human beings being total scum -- and understanding that new personal philosophies require a lot of work --  I'm grateful for you being in and around my life.

We have no idea where we're going in this life. We rarely know how to get there.  All that we can really hope for is some good companionship along the way. And I got it, baby. I got it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What we pretend to be

There were times in my legal career when I insisted that I played a role whenever I went into court. It didn't happen all of the time, but there were times when I'd yell, rant, rave and bring any other unpleasant tactic or rhetoric to bear as long as it advanced my cause.

I believed it was fake. That I was doing those things in a calculated manner in order to bring about my desired outcome. But I came to realize that it didn't matter what I thought I was doing. To the people in that courtroom, I wasn't acting like an ass. I was an ass. My intentions were irrelevant. It was what I did that defined me.

It's no accident that I lost my enthusiasm for the law around the time of this realization.  I could no longer pretend that as long as I could come up with a justification for what I was doing that what I did was justifiable. Because it simply wasn't true.

There is not a "real" you or me underneath it all. We are what we do. We are how we treat others. It's OK to fail, because people fail. It's OK to fall short of our objectives because that happens too. And sometimes we simply don't have any choice at all and are forced to engage in the least odious of several odious options.

But it's not OK to create fictions about who and what we are or to hide behind our amorphously described better intentions when we willingly do wrong. There is no such thing as doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It's just the wrong thing.

As the man once said: we are what we pretend to be so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Say what you mean. Behave how you'd like to be treated. Understand that you are not your only audience and rarely your most important one.  It seems so simple. Yet so many people seem to have such a hard time with it.