Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

on being less in the abstract

"In fear every day, every evening,
He calls her aloud from above,
Carefully watched for a reason,
Painstaking devotion and love,
Surrendered to self preservation,
From others who care for themselves.
A blindness that touches perfection,
But hurts just like anything else".--from an old Joy Division song



Sometimes I worry that I live in the abstract. I don't mean some higher, nobler, philosophical construct. I mean a diverse set of little equations, never quite solved, only tangentially real.

Let's take the book on my computer desk. It's a Penguin paperback of Ford Madox Ford's novel "A Man Could Stand Up", printed in an earlier era in a very satisfying
orange and white banded simple cover, with a jaunty penguin on the bottom of the cover. On the back cover a biography of Mr. Hueffer proclaims: "His private life was a tangled and often unhappy affair, but his influence on English literature in his time was immense".

But I see this thin volume of a great novel, and I think only how Half-Priced Books did not have "Some Do Not". You see, "A Man Could Stand Up" is one of the four Tietjens books, one of my very favorite sets of novels. The local paperback chain had vintage copies of books two, three and four, but not the best novel of the quartet, "Some Do Not". I am living in the theory of how I will someday soon go on-line and find a vintage "Some Do Not", and thus complete a collection of a novel I have already read.

At least that plan has a substance, a real world set of future plans. Sometimes I think in the abstract about things I never will do, as if the thinking of them makes things a bit better. Our front page news article covered the local Wilmer-Hutchins school district. Wilmer-Hutchins is a set of communities just south of Dallas, near one of the most impressive wetlands forest in any urban area. Parenthetically, the reason a great wetland forest survives in the anomalous locale of north Texas, where the real estate developer is king, is because the land is completely unsuited for building mini-malls, tract homes or even baseball fields.
It is nature protected by its own uninhabilitability.

Wilmer-Hutchins' school district has had the singular distinction of being one of the worst-managed school districts in Texas for decades now. Improvidence upon improvidence, needless debacle upon shameless neglect, have rendered the school a kind of burn victim for years and years. This year, they had to delay the opening of
school for weeks due to infestations of insects and vermin. A graphic in the local news showed that nobody makes more than 1100 on the SAT, and only five percent of the upper level students even pass the Texas tests you have to pass to go to the next level.

I read a news article like that, and I think to myself "gee, I wonder what I could do". Then I have a personal Walter Mitty moment in which I fantasize stocking libraries, or becoming a teacher at a district where teachers flee, or raising money for a "friends of the school district group". I am so prone to flights of fancy that I then imagine eBay sales I run, and flea market booths I man, to fund this saintly work.

But it all comes to nothing. I then focus on my raisin bran, or, as today, focus on why we are bereft of bran, and reduced to Wheaties.

I am a big fan of the life of the mind. I take endless consolation in reading and in thinking about things. I do not mean to question the life lived with a touch of complexity. I love my fantasies and daydreams. Sometimes it's easy, though, to live in the whorls of the nautilii, and never come out of the shell.

One Thursday a month, a charming paralegal from the local legal aid calls to see if I am still able to come to the Salvation Army to give legal advice to people who need it but cannot really afford it. This month I not only could say "yes", but also
discuss with her that I want to do a bit more than I do.

Volunteering to do legal aid work daunts me, a bit. I always feel a little like a passage in the Lord of the Rings. In that book, in the third volume they call "The Return of the King", there's a part in which a lot of guys quail a bit at the prospect of marching to attack evil Mordor itself. They begin to lose courage. This fellow Aragorn, who really has a good head on his shoulders despite wandering around in woodland kit always cautioning people not to speak out loud about this matter or that, has a great idea.

Aragorn sends the lesser men to challenge a lesser target. You see, some orcs, who are kinda basic folks who don't get no respect, what with their killing and cruelty and such, also have taken a far less impregnable position. Aragorn tells the scared soldiers to go fight over there, and "redeem their manhood" on a lesser task. The soldiers so addressed presumably go and do so, rather than hiding out in a mallorn tree and smoking pipeweed until the army goes past.

I feel that way about legal aid sometimes. I practice commercial litigation, insurance insolvency,and some consumer rights and insurance/ERISA issues. I tend to do little or no family law. I remember one divorce I tried, many years ago, in which the husband, representing himself, assured the Court that the whole problem was that I was sleeping with his wife. Of course, I was not sleeping with his wife, as dating clients, even in my single days, would have been and is unthinkable. I think that the angry and rather abusive husband merely thought it would add dramatic effect to his defense of a contempt motion arising from his failure to pay temporary child support. Although the allegation went down like a lead balloon, I still remember the creeping redness at such a ridiculous charge. Commercial litigation cases rarely spawn such sitcom moments.

So when I try to find things I can volunteer to do, I try to find things compatible with my tolerances and skills. I do not like to handle cases, for example, in which I may be personally threatened by an angry spouse. I sue a felon once in a while, usually for looting an insurance company or similar rapine behavior, and have endured a threat or two in my day. But I tend away from such excitement.

I tend not to enjoy the boiling emotions involved in divorce actions, from both client and adversary. Although there is a tremendous need for attorneys to help the working poor and unable-to-work poor with advice on the tangled situations they, like people of more affluence, sometimes need to unweave, I don't really often feel up to assaulting the particular Mordor of substantial divorce work.

I look instead for lesser battles, that I can fight compatibly with my skill set.
I learned last week that some folks may need pro bono Chapter 7 bankruptcy help.
Chapter 7s require professionalism and care, but I can roughly do debtor work in Chapter 7 cases in my sleep. This may be my new orc-filled lesser target.

Maybe there is a virtue in this, to stop daydreaming of quests of heroic proportions, and instead joust with the toothpicks that are one's own skill set. I do this to some extent in my non-pro-bono practice. The profitability of my practice hinges around representing corporations and state insurance officials in large-ish complex litigation in which I have developed various quite arcane (and hence marketable) skills. But I insist upon having a consumer rights aspect to my practice, because such "real folks" cases are part of how I define myself as a lawyer.

For example, I have found that cases in which people are denied health benefits through their work are a case in which I can do services that are very difficult for clients to otherwise obtain. The federal statute which governs such matters, called ERISA, is needlessly complex, and unduly protective of the health plan sponsors. Personal injury attorneys, who do much of the battling with insurance companies in this world, shy away from such cases.

The reasons are not hard to understand. ERISA insulates health plans and health insurers from claims of bad faith. They therefore deny claims pretty much at will, knowing there is no real downside other than being ordered to pay the claim and perhaps some attorneys' fees. Health plan claims can involve requirements such as "building an administrative record" with the plan, which in effect is the main evidence at the ERISA trial to follow. In many cases, one must prove not only that the insurer was wrong, but also unreasonably wrong. Still, these cases can be handled, if you know this area a bit, and I do, without meaning to brag.

Private attorneys shy away from these cases, as they are just a lot more hassle than other plaintiff claims. But I like to take a few on each year. I've had good success in handling them so far, although, as is the way of such things, I focus less on "great settlements of the past" than on worrying about the one(s) I have going to court right now. It's a small thing, really, doing a few ERISA cases a year. Yet surely it's better than sitting daydreaming about trying the Scopes trial, and never actually doing a damn thing.

I think of myself in high school and college. When asked about careers, I'd say "I am not sure. I just want to help people". Then I spent my college not trying to figure out how or why, but just under-achieving as rabidly as I could and still look at the mirror on alternating mornings. I think of myself in law school, with enough academic success to find any of a number of jobs. Instead, I merely took a well-paid job with legal issues that interested me. It's "white hat" work, thankfully, helping consumers caught up by an insurance company failure to get their policy benefits or their money. But I could have gone and done legal aid in Appalachia, if "helping people" was truly my goal and not my dream.

I don't mean, to digress, to do that screed about how "respresenting corporations is wrong" or "you should only defend the little guy and the white hats". I truly believe in an adversary system, and I will represent the civil accused as readily as the civil accuser. I do work for the big guy and the little guy. As long as I can handle a case ethically, I am happy to do so. Unlike the current fashion, I see corporations as a workable thing, in need of an ethical marketplace, and not as evil incarnate. I never had much sympathy, to further digress, for corporate executives' kids who went to Ivy or near-Ivy schools, and then proclaimed their proletarian credentials, largely by misplaced pontifications about what the proletariat really wished to do and be. Indeed, I blame such pontification in part for the success of the immense backlash that has all but ruined our country's progressive achievements in the last two decades. Intellectually sleeping with leftist dictators is no less reprehensible than funding right-wing ones.

But here I go again, as Mr. Reagan would say. I'm digressing into another theoretical construct, when, really, I could clean out my car, tidy my office, tidy my art room, volunteer more time at legal aid, write and submit poetry, learn a bit of Spanish, play my motley assortment of musical instruments (my eBay frenzy landed me with so many cool things to play, including an omnichord to replace the one I ruined years ago), and reach out more to my friends. I like, for instance, that after a year of thinking of writing folks songs, I just started doing it. I thank LiveJournal in part for that, because reading about Woody Guthrie for a post made me realize that sometimes you just go and do, and the chips fall where they may.

I like to think about all kinds of things. I don't want to lose that. But I want to do more than I do. That should be the refrain of my next folk song.
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