Taking the plunge
I started writing this column the way I’ve started doing almost everything — on a whim. As a result, I had no idea what I was doing.
In fact, I was so out of it, I referred to what I was writing as “an article,” a gaffe so egregious that then-editor John Penny about apoplexed when he barked his correction at me.
“Ahtical?” he snapped in his classy Long Island accent. “It’s a column, not an ahtical!”
His reprimand did not go unheeded. But in all fairness, why would I have known the difference? Not only had I not studied journalism in college, I’d never even taken a 101 J course.
Sure, I’d read compulsively since childhood — books, magazines, newspapers, anything I could get my hands on. And I’d written a fair bit as well — though only essays, for the most part. Beyond that, I’d been teaching English composition for about 20 years. But none of that prepared me for column writing. So when I began, I gave no thought about what I was doing — just finding a subject and writing it was challenge enough.
To his credit, Penny was great to deal with. For one thing, he told me from the get-go that I could submit stuff as often or as infrequently as I wanted. If I wanted to write once a week, or once a month, or somewhere in between, he was fine with it. To me then, having just written my first column and having no idea if I’d ever write a second one, it was a huge relief.
After I’d written a bunch of columns, and had gotten more comfortable with what I was doing, John gave me an even greater sense of freedom. Or as he put it in his usual subtle manner, by announcing it to the entire newsroom, “When it comes to Seidenstein’s columns, I threw out the AP Style manual.” In retrospect, that was to our mutual advantage.
Still, with all that out of the way, one thing nagged at me. Yeah, sure, I was a writer, but what KIND of writer? I had total freedom with my writing, but total freedom also means total lack of direction. So it was up to me, and me alone, to figure out my role in the J game.
Who, and what, am I?
My column was under the heading of “Local Color,” which still told me nothing. OK, so most of what I’d write about took or takes place in My Home Town. But how, exactly, I’d present it was as vague as a politician’s promise.
My undergrad major was history, and I was blessed to have had excellent teachers. Of course, when I’d write about local haps, I’d cover a bunch of the ones from The Glory Days. So that was writing about history … but I wouldn’t be doing it like an historian.
First, objective historical records here are hard to find. Fires in record depositories have seen to that. Plus even a lot of what passes for history of this area is more poetic license than anything factual. Beyond that, relying on accounts people heard hither, thither and yon can lead to rumors writ large instead truth of any sort. I knew a slew of great stories, and could dig up more, but how much of them was true was anyone’s guess. All of which left me having to accept that I was on my own when it came to validating anything, an iffy job at best.
And not only was I dealing with the accuracy of other people’s memories, but mine were up for grabs as well.
It’s not that my memories are fuzzy — quite the opposite, really. But being brutally honest with myself, even though I might remember something with perfect clarity, I don’t know if it happened like that, since everything is filtered through my perspective. A perfect example is the Dew Drop Morgan-Chuck Pandolph wager on the World Series of 1958. Uncharacteristically, no money was involved. Instead, the loser had to jump in the river from the porch of the Dew Drop Inn. Since Dew was a diehard Yankees fan and they won, Chuck had to take the plunge.
I was there, with probably a couple hundred other peeps, to witness this great occasion of state. What I remembered was Chuck just hopped on the railing and then jumped in the river. But I — in addition to Chuck — was all wet.
I stood MAYBE 4 feet, 10 inches then (in platform heels, if they’d had ’em), and given the size and height of the crowd, I couldn’t see what went on on the porch. Thus my imagined scenario of Chuck on the railing, and the one I’d told for decades, till corrected by my childhood friend Peter MacIntyre.
Peter had also been there, and he had one great advantage over me: He stood probably a foot taller. So while I was looking at people’s collars and haircuts, he was taking in the actual scene itself. And what a scene it was, which, given the theatrical nature of those characters, you’d have expected it would be.
First, Chuck didn’t just jump off the railing. I mean, anyone could do that, right? Nope, in the finest tradition of Blackbeard, Henry Morgan and Long John Silver, a plank was affixed to the railing.
Next, Dew was brandishing a sword, waving it this way and that. Then he started poking it at a pleading Chuck, who kept backing up till he was on the plank. After that, it was more sword poking, more pleading, till finally Chuck leaped into the brineless shallow.
And as if that wasn’t enough …
Chuck always wore a tan poplin overcoat, and that day was no exception. When he got back on land, water pouring off him this way and that, he stuck his hands in his pockets and suddenly a look of shock crossed his face. He stared at his right pocket, as did everyone else. Then, after a pause for effect, he brought out his hand … which was clamped around a good-size fish.
I’d remembered this story clearly, but incorrectly. So does that mean Peter remembered it correctly? For the most part, I’m sure he did. But I doubt he remembered it perfectly, because no one does. But for my column, close enough is good enough. And thus we get to how I define myself as a column writer.
First, let’s say what I’m NOT.
I’m not an historian because I don’t have to support everything with proven facts. Nor am I a reporter because I don’t need an objective point of view. For sure I’m not an political commentator, since I loathe politics and always have since my first contact with them, which was my seventh grade’s class officers elections. I’ll gladly leave political commentary to my friend and colleague George Bryjak, who does a stellar job with that mess.
Finally, while talking and writing about one’s greatest pains, problems, hopes, dreams, wins and losses seems to be the new American pastime, it’s definitely not my style.
So after eliminating all those things, I was left with the realization that what I am, plain and simple, is a storyteller.
Even after I decided I was a storyteller, I found that definition vague. Then I ran across a quote from the great French painter August Renoir. And once I read it, I realized that would be my writing philosophy, if I had such a thing. The quote:
“To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty!
“There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”
Since writing isn’t painting, the word “pretty” isn’t relevant to my column, but pleasant and cheerful are. Beyond that, I’d like to think a bunch of my stuff is amusing. And ultimately, I’d like my columns’ best feature to be that they’re entertaining.
If at the end of the week you read my column and it gives you a chuckle or two, I’d consider it a job well done.
And even though my purpose is to entertain, I’ve no illusions about my skills. Certainly, nothing I write could ever compete with The Big Splash of ’58.