Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Some Notes to Self

Rereading yesterday's post -- to which I made slight changes throughout the day -- I'm thinking I should have cut the second graf and the first line of the third graf. Probably the more direct the sexual reference from a person of a certain age -- particularly if the sexual reference is a joke that lands with a bit of thud -- the creepier it gets for anyone who isn't of a certain age. I could unpack this idea further, but you get what I'm saying. What questions for real columnists does this "second thinking" suggest, given the fact I've come to this conclusion a jour late and 5.3 francs short?

(Toujours means "always" means "all days," I suddenly understand! The Age of Discovery is not dead. And I know the franc is an obsolete currency.)

I think it's a gestation question leading to a birthing question. Are most ideas hurried onto the page, or is it more common to get an idea and "write in the head" for a while before going to the keyboard? How long the interval between getting the idea and actually touching the keys? (Ray Bradbury is irritating me with his carping about Michael Moore "hijacking" the title of his book and his movie. But he was the first writer I heard say that he didn't know what he thought about anything until he sat down and began to write. )

How many columns are partially worked out in the computer and then returned to, gradually polished, expanded and cut back? How many columns are in the bank against the day the well is dry or the waters are poisoned? Are these columns like the stories we banked in my magazine days, a kind of security blanket that was almost never used? Even when the columnist goes directly from idea to keyboard, how much time is spent editing? Is it always the same amount of time? Does the columnist, knowing so well how many column inches will fill the space allotted, instinctively aim at that length, the idea being that we compress as we write rather than engaging in the rather more frustrating process of writing too much and then trimming? Maybe, this process is not frustrating for some columnists! There is a satisfaction, isn't there, in knowing that whatever the quality of the column, it's better than it would have been if the columnist had not conducted his/her own little Judgment of Paris, choosing among great beauty and selecting only the very best -- or the very pretty goodest.

What outstanding questions. And the basic one is: How often do you rise on a bright morning and look at your work sprawled out in print and go, "Uh-oh."

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Will You Still Need Me? Will You Still Feed Me? (Will You Still Lead Me?)

My breakup with the AARP has left me at loose ends. It's not like the AARP had local chapters and group events or distributed a booklet of mixed drink recipes for seniors -- which is kind of a shame since once you've tried a Gene Autry, which is equal parts viagra and nitroglycerine dissolved in vodka with just a spritz of prune juice, there's no going back.

(What's a Gene Autry? I innocently ask. You know, the guy who wrote Back in the Saddle Again. Long pause while I savor the silence.)

Now, speaking of dead, saddlewise or not, the great thing about the AARP was that you knew that to get ahead you just had to hang around. It was like a George Burns joke. Join the AARP? Everyone I know is dying to get out of it.

(Long pause, during which the silence becomes a little embarrassing.)

Old jokes are like old friends. It's not a matter of appeal, it's more admiration for their mindless stamina. But back on point -- and I do have one if I can only remember where I put it -- you recall when the AARP, so feckless and inconsequential I had always assumed, wrapped itself around the Bush drug bill, a work of legislative art that managed to provide the least possible benefit at the greatest possible cost. People fumbled for their AARP cards, looked at them for a long moment and tore them up. That's what my wife and I did, as well as rejecting any mail from the AARP, hoping that they had to pay return postage. At least, we hoped we were creating a few minimum wage jobs in the mail room at world AARP headquarters.

Cut off from the AARP -- and cut off from the flood of AARP junk mail -- I suddenly found I had time to kill on weekends, as well as at those odd moments during the workday when I was not thinking through some subtle point of high philosophical thought or cleaning out the lint trap on the dryer.

Revelation! I realized I need to learn to putter. I needed to master the art of aimless unproductive activity that someday SOMEDAY-- when the university catches on that it's either buy me out or suddenly wake up to reports that I haven't met my classes in two weeks and that there's a bad smell in the corridor -- I will need to employ.

I think there are two approaches to puttering. One would be to undertake large activities -- mowing the lawn, painting the shed -- and then to wander away leaving the job half done, creating the big eyesores that result in the neighbors screaming and my turning my hearing aid off and the dogs loose.

Second approach is working at infinitely small tasks to completion, like digging through the compost heap and segregating the earthworms by length.

There is, of course, puttering in the grand scale on the model of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, i.e., climbing on the lawn tractor, plowing through the flower bed in a spirit of sweet indifference and chancing into a game of chicken with the most hated man in the neighborhood on his own lawn tractor, driving him into the ditch and tipping him over. How the other neighbors would applaud that, though perhaps his lawn tractor already had two flat tires, bad brakes and faulty steering, and I was merely in the vicinity of the accident rather than the cause of it.

Puttering -- the art of knowing that anything worth doing is worth doing with glacial incompetence!

And I will definitely engage in intellectual puttering, too. I will adopt a flashy nickname -- The Geez! -- and write curmudgeonly letters to newspaper and magazine copy editors pointing out typos, dropped commas and any and all errors that a person with a life would not take the time to notice or the malice to point out. For instance, in today's Chronicle:

Footage from Associated Press Television News showed blood inside a slightly damaged Humvee and a flak vest laying in the road.

Wrong. Flak vests lie, as do various politicians whose names will come to mind if I only close my eyes and concentrate and stop thinking about the blood.

Bonus Picture of Reagan on his Lawn Tractor

Monday, June 28, 2004

Who's on First, What's In the Barrel...

... and someone's in the shower with Dinah playing on the old banjo.

Faithful readers will remember my recent stumble across a reference in a Ray Ratto sports column to someone being "in the barrel," a clear reference to a rather coarse joke inappropriate for reproduction in a family newspaper. I said Ratto's veiled reference illustrated several things about column writing, the most interesting of which is the fact columnists may choose to talk in code to their readers, dropping in comments the deeper significance of which some readers get and some readers don't. The trick, I suppose, is pleasing the insiders without puzzling the outsiders. I e-polled 25 friends and associates, learning that only three of them knew the joke and got the reference. About half of those who responded understood that being "in the barrel" was a bad thing, so no meaning was lost, only nuance.

And today in the Chronicle we get yet another such example of rhetorical shorthand. In a largely favorable review of the Bill Clinton autobiography, David Kipen writes:

Democrats' reaction to this book will almost certainly run to something along the lines of, "Come back, we forgive you, have another intern -- have two! -- just for God's sake step out of the shower and tell us it was all a dream."

Now, I wonder how many readers will get this reference? The general sense is clear -- we wish Clinton was still president. But how many readers thought: In the shower? Like the shower after a sports event? Or did he and Monica Lewinsky do something in the shower? Or is that a metaphor for cleansing himself of the stain of that episode? or could it be about gardening? I like gardening. I bet it's about gardening, cleaning up after a fierce battle with thrips and aphids.

It's just journalism, after all, so people are reading fast with low expectations. (Those interested in the close reading of canonical texts please step aside so that others may pass.) But, I say with utter confidence, here's the link to what Kippen really has in mind.

The Long Nightmare is Over

An appropriate reference in a semi-serious review of a semi-serious book? I think so, though God knows what the children think.

And here's a bonus link, creating a multimedia moment.

Which shower was it? Even the experts disagree.

Kipen's response: "you're right about trying to 'please the insiders without puzzling the outsiders.' i'd be curious to know what ratio between them another of your e-polls would show in this case. sheepishly, i have to admit that i was making a high-toned allusion to the tv show 'dallas.'" (What a classy guy! Whoever said the day Pat Holt left was the day the music died?!! -- Eds.)

Friday, June 25, 2004

Interview with the "Columnist" -- A Longueur

Q: I just want to begin by congratulating you on the first four weeks of your “column.” I’ve enjoyed it. It’s very brave what you’re doing, just very … brave.
A: That means a great deal coming from you, who are, after all, are my audience. I mean you. Literally. You’re it.
Q: I am only a fraction …
A: The fraction is one-third. You. My wife. Greg Pabst. But if you calculate it in terms of page views and site visits – the frequency, the time spent – if it weren’t for you ...
Q: But that’s not what we are here to talk about. When you and I were in grad school…
A: Remember it well. Time was. Time is. Time will be. But mostly, now at our age, time was.
Q: Joyce?
A: Probably. Borrowed, altered by the imprecision of memory, which saves us from plagiarism, that and our tin ear.
Q: As I was saying, when we were in grad school, the New Criticism was losing its vogue – had long since lost it most places -- but we were caught in its last quantum of twilight, and that meant we were trained to devote ourselves to close and worshipful reading of canonical texts, line by line and image by image and so on. We knew all about the Intentional Fallacy – don’t trust what the writer thinks it meant. Still, it wasn’t Deconstruction…
A: You know what Deconstruction means, then?
Q: Oh, not really, though I get the impression deconstructionists seem to be about talking through the text as if the writer didn’t quite exist, particularly if he was a he and a privileged member of the excrescent classes and if it was pretty clear that better he never had existed…it’s more than that, I know. Anyway, WE believed in the literary canon. We were certainly more respectful of the writer as having some position, some proprietary interest in the text. We would certainly have been glad to have a close reading of a text by its maker, our right to question that reading always in our back pocket, of course …
A: Not to insult you, my audience, but this is a LITTLE dry.

(Q. is you and A. is you and I am you, too. Am I the only one of us who has noticed this is getting a little weird? -- Eds.)

Q: … my point is that I’d like you to do a close reading of the first paragraph of your preceding post. It’s an idea I have, getting columnists to do line by line readings of -- shall we say? -- “signature columns.” I’m thinking to some extent writers intend what to do and then do it, particularly when they see it as craft. If this approach seems a little simple minded, well I do recall your saying you would be content if this great project ended up producing a neat little 110-page book on how to write a column, right?
A: You want me to …?
Q: Tell me what you had in mind, if you can remember. And if you don’t remember, tell me what you think it might mean or what someone who stumbled on it might think it meant….
A: You want me to blow some brightly colored smoke out of the orifice of my choice? In graduate school we certainly did believe in the canonical text, in the greatness of the literature of nuance and ambiguity, all seven layers worth. You ask me to dignify the dross of popular culture by….
Q: You can’t even say “the dross of popular culture” with a straight face. Your whole point – and if anyone knows what your point is, I do -- is that there’s craft in column writing, and craft is art on the wrong side of the door. It’s all about which genres have been anointed. Sort of.
A: I thought you were here to interview me?
Q: You’re a journalist. In an interview, you give to get. I welcome your disagreement.
(long silence)

A: It will make you happy for me to tell you what I think I was thinking as I was writing the first paragraph of my last post? Even if I start, uh, riffing?
Q: Yeah. The magic of this approach is that there are so many columnists in this country of more or less the same level of competence, though of differing levels of fame. So if you ask enough of them questions – and one question is will you or will you not tiptoe with me through the tulips of your prose? – you will get…
A: Something. Or nothing. But why should a poor qualitative researcher be held to a higher standard than someone in the hard sciences? Sometimes what you find is nothing.
Q: So take your first paragraph apart and see what you find.
A: Okay.

I don’t suppose it’s possible to read me for more than a New York nanosecond without leaping to the conclusion that I am an intellectual of considerable gelidity, a frosty pinch-faced digital Nabokov whose vocabulary is polysyllabic and whose dreams are polychromatic and not infrequently iambic if I’m dreaming about trains going into tunnels.

A: First thing is not what this paragraph contains but that it exists at all. I have committed to posting three times a week to get a feel for what it’s like when you have to write when you don’t necessarily have anything to say. Or when you don’t feel like writing. Or when you don’t feel like investing the intensity required to develop something … thoughtful. Earlier this week the wisdom of this approach – and I do mean wisdom and I do mean that sometimes I walk up to my reflection in the mirror and ask for my own autograph …
Q: Just give me a piece of paper…
A: … the wisdom of this approach was confirmed. I was just out of bed, a little groggy, thinking, “You have to write for 45 minutes and that’s all the time you have because you have some real work to do.”
And then very quickly in a bit of a jumble I thought: it’sdraftdayNBAasomanykidsindraftalsoforeignkidswarriorsdraftpopesbaby.
Walking up the stairs I decided to try to write a funny column on that topic. It wouldn't take much effort because it wouldn't be "felt" or closely reasoned. And I thought of giving a player the actual name Popesbaby. Since that’s fairly outrageous, I thought that that joke would have to be the punch line for whatever I did. I’ve read many comic sports columns over the year that attempt to satirize some aspect of basketball and football drafts by creating fictional draft choices with comic names and long comic histories. Most of these columns, of course, are pretty mechanical. The wit drowns in the inept execution. As I have said earlier, the writer has an idea that he has to stretch to cover the allotted space, and frequently the comic names and the comic details come across as forced. The idea can be sustained – one thinks of a Robert Benchley parody of program notes for an opera – but most writers don’t have the skill to maintain the level. So, in a couple of minutes while I’m making coffee, I write in my head. I come up with a basic list of potential draftees, each more ridiculous than the one before. It’s short. It’s pretty much what you read earlier this week. But I know – if I may use so emphatic a word – that if I try to pump up each of my satiric examples, giving them names and histories, the joke will collapse. Let me put it another way. I understand the point at which I will lose respect for my own joke.

Now, here’s my point. As I begin writing: 1) I know where I am going, toward a final joke based on the name Lech Popesbaby, one comic reward of which is the first name, which I hope will bring to my reader’s mind Lech Walesa, the former Polish leader, a reference that shows I’m smart and flatters the reader; 2) I have decided not to extrude the basic joke – names of backgrounds and the phony possible draftees – into too thin a substance; 3) therefore, I must pad in the beginning if I am going to fill my 600-word space.

My first sentence could have been: “Tomorrow is the NBA draft, and every year teams are drafting younger players.” Dave Barry, who is a clever writer, often has short flat sentences setting up his jokes. He writes with a deceptive simplicity. Now that I think of it, I could have padded with short sentences. Let’s look at that first paragraph again. Am I actually rejecting the notion I am an intellectual by travestying the idea? Or am I indirectly making the claim, wanting to have it two ways – laugh at big-word guys while being a big-word guy? Mentioning Nabokov is a giveaway. It shows I’m trolling for admiration. I spent five minutes trying to think of a writer whom the intellectuals love, who seems to write at one or two removes from humankind. I don’t know if Nabokov is actually a good choice. Selecting him shows I haven’t read contemporary fiction for 30 years! The point is that I stopped and thought and worried about what name should be used. I came up with the concept and struggled to find the concrete item, the real thing from the real world that would support the idea.

Then, let’s look at “polysyllabic.” It’s a natural choice. I am being polysyllabic. The rhymes, internal and otherwise, give me “polychromatic.” Dream is natural progression – from waking to dreaming. The “Rule of Three” has kicked in. When you have a list, particularly if you are trying to be funny, three items is the ideal number. The rule applies in quite a variety of situations. I tell my students that in a short news story with a few quotes at the end, if you have three good quotes from three different sources, the reader will assume you have additional sources. But if you only have one or two quotes, the reader more likely thinks you only talked to one or two people. So, though I don’t progress from waking to dreaming to some other state, I do add a third “–ic” word, which I get by free associating until “iambic” pops into mind. Since it does not seem to have a necessary association with polysyllabic and polychromatic, I decide to add an explanation for why it should sometimes characterize my dreams. My first phrase was “when I sleep with the window open.” It’s the first variable that comes to mind. The connection makes no sense – to me – but when we juxtapose incongruities, we can always mutter “surrealism” and keep moving.

But when I reread the piece before posting, I think about the iambic rhythm – duhDUH duhDUH duhDUH – and that makes me think (and it does; no pink smoke is issuing forth) of the sound of a train going over the weld points of track. My dad worked for the railroad, and we rode the trains a lot. Just as we rock in our beds after a day at the beach, so sometimes at night lying in bed the kinesthetic memory of train riding when I was a child comes back to me. And as this memory comes back to me – since I already have Nabokov on the brain and since I vaguely know that Nabokov had Freud issues, and who knows for what other buried psychological reason – I think of trains going into tunnels, which image to those my age and older who were educated in a certain way at a certain period of time will always be a kind of sexual imagery, in film and in dreams! Also, the up-down, up-down of the iambic line works, too.

All this I thought and more as I created that first paragraph. It doesn’t mean it’s smart. It doesn’t mean it’s good. It just means that writing the piece was a kind of play, and it was fun to do it. I think, with patience, I might find some real columnists who might share their thoughts about their work in the same way. Would it be a useful exercise? Dunno. But it would be …
Q: Fun.
A: And as for Time Now and Time Will Be, if it ain’t fun, include me out.

Bonus link
Bruno Knows the Rule of Three

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

And on the Seventh Day God Created ESPN, Opened a Beer, Turned on the Tube and Rested

I don’t suppose it’s possible to read me for more than a New York nanosecond without leaping to the conclusion that I am an intellectual of considerable gelidity, a frosty pinch-faced digital Nabokov whose vocabulary is polysyllabic and whose dreams are polychromatic and not infrequently iambic if I’m dreaming about trains going into tunnels.

Well, yes and no. Though Brain Fever is my middle name (sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not), as a deep thinker I am a James Joyce kind of guy, who thinks when they started putting days of the week on women’s underwear leaving Bloomsday out of the rotation was a big mistake. (Fact is my wife is so accustomed to doing Molly Bloom’s monologue that she says she could do it in her sleep – sub-fact is she says that’s when she prefers to do if you know what I mean, and I think that you do.)

So peel that manifestation of incredulity off your physiognomy when I tell you that I am something of a sports fan and have some thoughts – incisive, barbed, oaky with hints of caramel – on what the Golden State Warriors should do in the NBA draft when it takes place tomorrow. Those who know nothing else know that the league is going young, with kids just out of high school not uncommon (he said with knowing understatement in the manner of Beowulf and other Old English classics) at the top of the draft in recent years.

And I foresee it going younger! That 14-year-old in Compton: Warrior eyes are on you, sir. Those hulking 11-year-old Siamese twins in Stateline Nevada. If certain appellate decisions come down the way I think they will, enabling both of them to play as a single entity, there’s your sixth man out there on the floor rather than repining on the pine!

Look closely, Warriors, at those Satanists about to cut a deal with the Devil in regard to jump-starting the jump-shooting prowess of their six-year-old son. (Ignore those other Satanists with the nine-year-old. Satan is good, but you have to get on the playground early.)

Naturally, Warriors have an eye on the remainder shelf at some of the top in vitro clinics. And if you are really interested in drafting for potential, Warriors might consider trading for the last two picks in the second round so they can get rights to Mia Hamm’s ovaries and Nomar Garciaparra’s gonads for the next year. (They lawyered this one. If you lock up just one set of reproductive organs, you end up with rights issues, and the kid ends up playing for the Frankfort School.)

Sometimes, it’s not just thinking outside the box, it’s thinking outside the dimension. The Warriors are considering drafting Lech Popesbaby, since (and I’m quoting now from the press release), “Out there in some parallel dimension the Pope forsook the church, stayed in Poland, got married, sired a six-nine power forward who, unlike the typical European, likes to go inside, mix it up and impose more pain than the Via Dolorosa. And if you recall that TV series “Sliders” about the people who kept moving from universe to universe, well, next time the Warriors start to slide in the standings, who’s to say where we will stop?”

Thus, we come to 535 words, illustrating how a columnist wakes up with a lame one-note idea in his head and pushes it until it fills his space, though in this case I came up short so I have to pad, and what better padding than the explanation for the act as it happens, like Julia Child saying, “Now we whisk in the egg whites…,” 599, 600.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Shut Up, He Explained

Michael Kinsley, who has come in from the blogosphere for reasons known only to his banker and his social secretary to work as Editorial and Opinion Editor at the LA Times, says he spiked his first editorial because his conscience and then his colleagues told him not to run it.

Yes, it's true. I wrote the editorial then killed it myself. It was an attempt at ironic reflection on the Hollywood decapitation. My editorial page colleagues convinced me it was inappropriate as an editorial. I agonized quite a bit, although looking back the next day, it was a clear case of "what on earth was I thinking?"

A thought of my own: I wonder if Kinsley, gripped with uncertainty, did choose to circulate his column (about a decapitation? ugh!) among colleagues and boss? Or did someone spot it and red flag it, once it was in the newspaper's computer system and began to move through the standard editing process? As the cognoscenti know, blogs are an unedited medium unless stipulated otherwise and newspapers are an edited medium unless stipulated otherwise. The typical bit of newspaper copy, including columns and editorials, is whacked at by layers of editors and copy editors, and then -- once it's "pasted up" (I am a semi old-timer) and ready to go as the moment for the presses to roll approaches -- those staffers who are supposed to, and those who aren't, continue to look at a story. The eyes of the newsroom are upon it. Such scrutiny is built into newspapering, and it's built out of blogging. The newspaper writer has the burden and the benefit of knowing he/she will be second-guessed before whatever she/he writes -- even an opinion piece -- is in print. Probably this constrains the writer. I know it did me. But occasionally it can free the writer; that is, you think, "What the hell! If this is too coarse, too foolish, too damaging to my and the paper's reputation, someone will tell me." (And, of course, there's the practice of putting something in every story that you calculate the editor will take out because that's what editors like to do.)

To recapitulate: If I read that a blogger chose not to post something because he had second thoughts and thus showed the piece to others who confirmed his reservations, I would believe it. But when I hear the same thing from a newspaper editorial writer, I reserve judgment. Maybe someone grabbed the back of his swim trunks as he raced, mad with hubris, toward the diving board at the deep end of the pool.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Better To Die On My Feet Than To Live "In the Barrel"

Today let’s think about wireless computer access and spontaneity and their influence on Dr. Strangethink, or How I Am Learning to Love the Life of Publish or Perish.

Shall we begin by defining terms? No woman was ever seduced by defining terms, which is why an unabridged dictionary will never be a pillow book but….

I believe I was defining terms. When I was doing my dissertation on Lord Byron, I came across “sprezzatura,” a lovely Italian word that more or less means a style of doing something casually, even carelessly, as if you did not care about the outcome, as if you were an amateur at play, not a professional at hard labor. This approach to life is common among a certain kind of aristocrat who works very hard but does not wish to seen as working very hard. I would not carry the comparison too far, but there’s something of sprezzatura in the attitude of the working journalist, since most journalists are generalists and skeptics (and more than a few are cynics). It is what I would call feigned indifference captured in the lines from Lord Byron’s Don Juan, “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘t is that I may not weep.”

For journalists, it can be a pose and/or a psychological defense, and it’s not universal -- plenty of journalists are at the other extreme, just so damn grim about the weight of the world and glad to display the sweat and strain of bearing it, though it’s not their job to bear it, only to ask the right questions of those who do.

Either approach works. It’s the product that matters, not the attitude in which it’s done, if the attitude does not leach into the work.

Not to give myself airs, but I liked that part of being a journalist that involved playing at being a journalist. I liked sitting in bars and talking to other journalists about the things we knew that never made it into print for reasons of law or corporate timidity. We shrugged and we moved on. That was what I took from the journalistic Oversoul. Don’t seem to take anything too seriously, and one way not to seem to take things too seriously is actually not to take them too seriously. (Yeats again: How do we tell the dancer from the dance when the dancer can’t tell himself from the dance after he has chosen to dance it?) When I crawled up the wall into the academy, some of this attitude persisted, and it is not a useful attitude for a scholar.

Beavering away at triviality is a rather ungenerous way of describing scholarship -- but what can you expect coming from someone who once had an article rejected by a scholarly journal because “this writer seems to be laboring under the misapprehension he should be entertaining.” The world and its progress need some hundreds of thousands of very bright people lavishing their time on the impenetrably obscure or the glaringly obvious. Most of the time I understand that for natural selection to work, it must have much to work upon. I understand that no one can say which experiment on matter, or only on idea, will be the one that changes the paradigm; thus, we must let a hundred flowers bud though only one may blossom. I believe in scholarship, particularly when it’s produced at a place like USF where our primary job is teaching, and the undergraduates we teach are intellectually unformed, and the intellectual stimulation of our research (whatever else it does) keeps us from burning out and dying in the classroom. (You think someone from your university may stumble on your blog! Admit it! You are AFRAID. – Eds.)

Having qualified my point until it’s a handful of dust on the floor, I will now say: I have had a hard time finding an area of inquiry into which I can whole-heartedly invest hours and days and months, which investment of time is such an expression of longing. Part of me wants to be seen as knocking the scholarship out casually and off-handedly. And all of me does not want to have been seen spending the time and the passion and producing crap.

Sigh. But there’s good news tonight. I now have a wireless card in my laptop and a router connected to my cable modem so, as I sit in my Corbu lounge sipping my morning coffee, my laptop sits beside me, and it is ON. When I get an idea that involves a quick email, it is so easy. How odd it is that the effort differential between reaching for the laptop and getting out of the lounge, going upstairs, turning on the big computer and writing and emailing is just enough to make me believe that the email I sent out a hour or two ago might never have been written because the getting up and trudging forth and so on and so on would have lacked…


Here’s that off-hand email.

Dear Fantasy baseball pals and assorted friends:

I will probably live to regret this, given the fact this league is fueled by irony and insult -- though my relationship with my friends is a little more sincere -- but I have a serious question. I am doing an article on newspaper column writing, and one aspect of that is the degree to which columnists understand their audience and thus do not have to spell everything out. Ten minutes ago I read Ray Ratto's Chron column for today (Sunday) in which he wrote this about ex-Lakers coach Phil Jackson: "after more than a decade in the barrel..." referring to his time in LA. Here's the question: Are you familiar with the "in the barrel" joke he's referring to? I am -- and I am surveying you to see how many of you do. It's not scientific, but I am a social scientist and can get away with anything. You are now what is called a convenience sample.

Thanking you, I am,

J.Michael Robertson
Crack Cottage

Bonus link to definition of:


Friday, June 18, 2004

Put On Your Special Glasses. This Blog is Now Three-Dimensional.

By which I mean I have a couple of readers who are MAKING COMMENTS, and the intersection of those comments and this "column" is not unlike encountering the Rothkos at MOMA and the Turners at the Tate. And I mean that in a nice way.

May the Tour de Force Be With You

I wrote yesterday about Perlman's boast that he, as journalist, could take pride in writing faster than those who wrote better and better than those who wrote faster. Today in Tim Goodman's TV column in the Chronicle. We see, perhaps, a manifestation of that kind of bravado:

In the following paragraphs, this column will run at break-neck speed toward a pommel horse, hit it at full stride, vault into the air, deconstruct a terrible Stephen King movie starring Rob Lowe, rotate counterclockwise, compare the vampires in that movie to rapacious television executives, and stick the dismount while telling the sad story of Jordan Levin, entertainment president of the WB, who just got his head handed to him -- all without twisting an ankle.

Either that, or fall down and blow out a knee trying.

That's the idea. We are making haste and if we are making waste, then let's see you do it! It also could reflect the columnist's sense of being limited by his alloted space -- so much bad television and so little time, though I must mention Goodman's own particular strength or affliction, you take your pick: He loves his own bumptious voice -- he rants, proclaims, ducks in and out of exposition -- and sometimes you do wish he could better distinguish between his own navel and that TV set on the other side of the room. He really does have a subject matter, and you do wish he paid more attention to it.

But then look at Molly Ivins, who back in the day struck so nice a balance between her sense of fun and her sense of outrage. Seems to me that today she feels the urgency of what she has to say so fiercely she rarely has the patience to say it in a diverting, entertaining way. I suppose she thinks it's self indulgent and even cold-hearted to be as sly and inferential as she is capable of being in this, the Dark Night of the Fool King. She's not the columnist she was.

I concede there are so many neocon lies which one wishes to swat like Gandalf going protoMedieval on some troll's ass. But good golly, Miss Molly. "Just the facts" is so Faux Cold War, so Jack Webb. ( Don't forget she's fallen among pundits. Pundits wear cotton underwear and drink mineral water. -- Eds.)

I also concede that maybe I'm just feeling residual resentment about how thoroughly Ms. Ivins blew me off when I tried to interview her when I was undergoing the death of a thousand footnotes during my tenure quest.

All politics is local. All writing is personal.

Here's the Goodman link.

Goodman Flips

Thursday, June 17, 2004

One for Susan Stamberg, and One Just for the Road

Let's see. What might a "personality" columnist do, approaching deadline and lacking the mental energy to accept a writing challenge, either in storytelling or in exposition?

He might choose to write about something that: a) reveals a little something about himself -- but not too much, really, because this is a long road we are on and we are dull with little to self-disclose; b) soothes the values of his readers -- or of those whom he would like to make his readers; c) allows him to use the word "whom" with great finesse and accuracy, enabling him to "pimp slap" those who would degrade our fine language; d) allows him to use the word "pimp slap," because he's all at once sick of this mental image of himself at the keyboard typing with his wittle pinkies extended, as if he's drinking tea; e) gives him motivation for looking up "pimp slap" on the Net, at which point he is sickened by its connotation -- but this is column writing cum blogging, and on deadline there's no going back!

For doesn't everything even remotely connected with newspapering come back to S.J. Perlman's boast about writing faster than anyone who writes better and better than anyone who writes faster?

Cue the simple but revelatory story:

As a big NPR fan, I am naturally fond of Bob Edwards, who was Morning Edition host for so many years. What did I like? The voice and the unhurried delivery and what I think were personal vignettes, though who really paid attention? I liked him. I was balancing my interest in what he was saying with my amazement at the audacity of the Audi passing me on the right. I wasn't cramming for an exam. I was multi-tasking.

Then NPR bounced him because they wanted to skew younger and hard-newsier, as if you couldn't already get enough on-scene, breaking-news reporting on other stations. I understand their fear that during big important national or international disasters you would jump to some AM news station and then forget to switch back to NPR for the insights and good judgment. But if NPR just turns into another "Here's our reporter at the scene duplicating all the other reporters at the scene" fact factory, why would I be listening to it in the first place? NPR is an oasis of moderate, middle-of-the-road news commentary in which the mouths talk slower and smarter.

This has all been chewed over already in the last two months. No breaking news in this space today. We’re doing commentary. But during those two months my wife pledged $60 to KQED, one of our local NPR stations. The vaguely indignant but mostly imploring letter saying Where Is It? fell into my hands.

So: I wrote a check for $30 to KQED and I wrote a second check for $30 to Bob Edwards and sent it to him at Morning Edition's D.C. address with a KQED envelope and a note suggesting he could either sign the back of the check and send it to KQED or cash it and buy himself a couple boutique Scotches at a D.C. newspaper bar.

I don't know which I'd prefer, his forwarding the check -- which I bet he will do since he doesn't strike me as a man who favors the bitter gesture -- or cashing it for his own pleasure.

I like to think of him as a newsman with a taste for feature-style journalism. And I tell you this from my own experience. There was never a newsman with a taste for feature-style journalism who did not enjoy a couple of free drinks, since doesn’t their "freeness" peel away at least one layer from that onion of guilt with which afternoon drinkers (and that was once an alternative definition of journalist) I am told are not altogether unfamiliar?

(Convoluted but elegant conclusion. Hint of personal problem to be disclosed over time. Good job! – Eds.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Safire Watch: Nixon in Purgatory

One of Safire's clever little tropes is conversing with Nixon in Purgatory. It's funny, and it takes the edge off Safire's partisanship. It also allows him to be conversational, and Safire's conversational quality takes the edge off his lunatic mendacity, which tends to crop up rather more often than one might like.

But doesn't he always say Nixon is in purgatory for imposing wage and price controls? That's such a lovely way of (among other things) teasing those of us still frothing over Nixon's own lunatic mendacity and then veering away. It's stable irony: Point is that the price controls were the worst thing Nixon did.

But Safire usually explains Nixon's current address. Interesting omission. Here's the link.

Nixon in Purgatory

Yadda Yadda Yadda

There has to be a term from fine old Greek rhetoric texts describing the “technique” (self-abnegation by using quote marks? don’t’ fawn! – eds.) that I used in yesterday’s post. I am referring to that moment near the end when I threw in the reference to Homer after quoting the last part of Keats’ sonnet “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer” without having first mentioned the poet or the title. Keats’ poem used to be widely taught. It seemed condescending to make one of those parenthetical remarks I sometimes lay on my students: “The American Civil War – that would be the one between 1861 and 1865…” I chose to assume my readers (my many readers, the men graying at the temples, wounded by life but brave withal; the women lithe, reclining, carnal and even wanton, yet alive with intelligence) would get the reference without any help from me.

I let it flutter to the ground like a handkerchief. I walked away.

People quite rightly praise the interactivity between writer and reader that the Internet can provide. But all writing is interactive in the sense that the writer is trusting the reader to interpret the scratches on paper – the better the writer, the greater the sense reader and writer are engaging in mutual creation -- and one kind of interpreting of the scratches is getting the cultural references, the partial quotes, the shorthand references, of knowing the landscape already. I am convinced that a talent some columnists have is to write in such a way that many many readers understand them while allowing individual readers to feel that they are one of the few who understand the columnist’s vocabulary, his difficult sentences, his offhand, almost hidden, references to places and things. (Getting the columnist’s irony may be the most important manifestation of this.)

So the Yadda Yadda of my headline, which is a reference to the Seinfeld episode in which George’s girlfriend keeps using the phrase to sum up her various naughtinesses – her shoplifting, her screwing around on George. Of course, the Seinfeld joke is that George doesn’t really get what his girlfriend means, though he can’t admit it. He is not filling in the blanks. He is not a satisfactory audience.

But another idea occurs as I contemplate the Power of Yadda. I have been throwing in my little parenthetical editorial comments as a joke, as Mickey Kaus does in Kausfiles.(Look for better example. We hate Kaus as much as Kaus hates Kerry, and for that reason – eds.) Kaus has explained that he does this for the irony, for the humor because the point is that in blogland there are no editors. That’s the supposition, anyway, and it’s certainly true of millions and millions of blogs. (Kaus also does it as a way of puncturing his pomposity, of second-guessing himself, of creating a voice, yadda, yadda, yadda.)

Back on message: I have no editor. Newspaper columnists certainly do have editors, and if I had written my previous post for a newspaper, a smart copy editor – a smart young copy editor -- might have suggested that she/he very strongly doubts that anyone this side of drooling and complaining about bowel regularity would recognize Keats' poem, much less remember its name, much less give a damn. Columnists do get edited, for good AND for ill. I did a dozen or so interviews with newspaper columnists several years ago, when I first began to crabwalk toward this project. The better I knew the columnists, the more willing they were to discuss not the advantages of the smart editor – which advantages they were willing to concede – but the woe of having a tin-eared news-driven editor who did not understand that all column writing is a matter of voice, of at least some eccentricity and difficulty. Apparently, they were lumbered with news side copy editors who just didn’t get it. You don’t change words. You don’t invert sentence order. You don’t keep saying THE READER ISN’T GOING TO GET THIS WHEN THE COLUMNIST IS THE ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS WHO HIS GODDAMN READERS ARE.

One hopes.

When it comes to art or even craft, there is the dancer and there is the dance, and yadda yadda yadda. (I am, of course, referring to the famous line from Yeats’ poem “Among School Children,” which says, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” You knew that, and I knew that you knew. Let’s get together for drinks.)

So I have a passel o’ good questions for my columnists: 1) Do you consciously use (classy classical Greek rhetoric term TK [to come], which means deliberately omitting information you assume your reader will fill in and thus be engaged) in your columns? Why? 2) You can be too elliptical, too indirect, would you not concede? To what degree do your editors help you in finding that tipping point at which indirection becomes obscurity? And while we are on the subject, how often do your editors do your writing real lasting harm?

A semi-prominent columnist once told me that he lied to his copy editors, telling them that in no circumstances was his column to be changed in any way without his permission because that was the deal he had cut with the editor in chief. He said sometimes howling errors of fact crept into his column as a result.

But overall, he said, he came out well ahead.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Ah, the Post in Progress

I'll develop this later: Commonality of experience influences how we experience things. We read a newspaper columnist and, depending on the newspaper, we know more or less who else is reading herm or might be reading herm (a him/her coinage; neat! -- eds). But reading a blog is different, at least at first, because you don't know who's sharing the experience. The value has not been "vetted," as it were. A column has a stamp of approval on it. A blog does not, at least initially. But then the popular ones perform reader surveys, and, if you read several blogs, you see how many other bloggers link to your "discovered" blog. Also, the blog probably has a site meter (though I've learned you can start the meter at 1,000,000, if you like). Most telling, the number of comments and the quality of comments reveal the blog's audience in ways most newspaper columns' readers are not revealed. But there can be a radiant moment when you first stumble upon a blog -- as opposed to linking to it from a familar site -- when you feel:

like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Two nice points: 1) it wasn't Cortez, but blogworld got more errors than Reagan had senior moments, so it plays; 2) some several non-Europeans had noticed the ocean already but plenty of people had read Homer first, too -- and since I write exclusively for English majors I don't need to explain why I'm suddenly talking about Homer.

Back on message: It is exciting when you encounter something that doesn't seem weighed and chopped, cooked and predigested by someone else. It's twice fresh. No one has prepared you for it. You round a digital corner, and there it is.

Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" Let us go and make our visit

Am I an English major or what?

Monday, June 14, 2004

"You stand at the blackboard, daddy .... A cleft in your chin instead of your foot"

Call it synchronicity and serendipity if you have a strong vocabulary and a spell checker. Call it coincidence and good luck if you don't.

But don't call it late for dinner.

Within mere days of my using Adair Lara as an example of a columnist who shared -- or seemed to share -- personal intimacies adding up to personal pain, and who kept it up in print for years and years, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Lara piece in the Sunday Chron on her own bad daddy, the scabbed wound she picked at in so many columns. In the essay, Lara makes clear why that particular self revelation worked for her. Her dad sat in the desert to which he had fled and wrote with no one to hear except, perhaps, one daughter.

We were looking in the same direction. Like my dad, I was word struck, afflicted with the rage to scribble.... I shared my dad's bookishness, romaticism, the idea that writing is not as important as life, but more important.

One way or another, a writer needs a writer's past -- it's simpler, isn't it, if the work is inevitable and not a matter of choice. But Lara's friends and family said who's this guy you're writing about?

I didn't listen, to (my sister),or the facts, or dad himself. I wanted a father. And not just any father: a poet. A prophet. A renegade. That's how I portrayed him in column I wrote for 12 years. When my mother read it, she didn't recognize the man who left her alone with seven kids and never sent money home, the man who'd destroyed her dream of family life.

Lara concludes:

Was he the alcoholic and abandoning father, or was he the brilliant self-taught carpenter, the man who died with a wallet full of library cards?
Which is true? Maybe both, maybe only one, maybe something else entirely. It's my childhood, my father. I get to choose.

And so I have yet another idea about how disclosure works in columns. Lara took her father and made him something useful, and if I recall correctly, that insight was always there in her columns. Here's the pain and here's the gain that goes with it, and the slope of the column is plusplus, and life is worth living and what does not destroy us makes us strong...except Lara may have been living the cliche, but she did not write the cliche. And, anyway, as Leslie Fielder once wrote (I think) every plot can be boiled down to a cliche.

One writes a column caught in a web of influences -- audience/frequency/continuity. Columnists who disclose, or seem to disclose, anything personal and painful but who always come out ahead keep going going going but are never gone.

Here's a link to Lara's Sunday piece.

The father you choose: Denial or deification?

Adair Lara is, of course, gone actually. She lost her column-writing job a year or more ago, and now she is a staff writer, buried in the Chronicle's "soft" pages, and I go months at a time without stumbling across her byline. (Which pains me. When I was with the Chronicle, my work was also buried in the "soft" pages. I didn't get how little the "serious" people cared.) But thinking about her career, I find more more more questions to ask. Why did she lose her column? She can write a nice sentence. She can shape 600 words. I am trying to think like a top manager: Let's imagine she has X number of faithful readers. But let's imagine management coming to the conclusion that if you subtract Lara from the paper, you don't lost that X number of readers because research shows those readers will return to the paper for other things. You replace her with Annie Nakao, an "ethnic" columnist who will write about the Bay Area's nonwhite residents. Maybe these columns will be labored and obvious because this will be column-writing as beat, not column writing as personal exploration. Maybe only Y number of readers will be attracted to this column, but maybe they will be new readers, readers who would otherwise drop their cut rate trial subscriptions. The equation is X +Y, not X-Y. Since a newspaper contains a finite amount of space, you can't have both Lara and Nakao -- or so the managers reason. Maybe that was the basis for dropping her. It's possible that the less popular can be the more profitable when readerships for "soft" features overlap.

Another possiblility: Here's an opposite reading. Let's imagine the editor or publisher as auteur, someone who has an aesthetic view of his newspaper. Ignoring any and all implications for circulation, he doesn't like a certain kind of columnist because she/he offends his Platonic ideal of what a newspaper should be. Maybe it was a purely personal decision. Or maybe the reason lay somewhere between. A top editor didn't like Lara's column and concluded he could find something that would fit his notion of a "true" newspaper -- and would attract more readers in the bargain. These are questions with general application because when I talk about a columnist's audience, I must not forget that colleagues and supervisors are also an audience, and their opinions matter, too. I think I'll poke around a little and see if I can answer these questions. For who would decline to talk to a scholar, trusting that any remarks would be lost in the obscurity of the refereed article in the scholarly journal!!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Blog Made Me Do It

My intention was to write column-length pieces three times a week, just as one would in a newspaper, but it turns out I'm posting more often than that -- I just can't resist these little anti-Reagan throwaways. That's the nature of the blog. It's not that you write when you want -- any insomniac can do that. Blogs are the facile writer's crack pipe: You publish when you want and at just the length you want. As it turns out, I have acquired a reader other than my wife, a friend from work who made a casual comment that enabled me to impose my URL on him. He liked my 25-word Reagan "tribute" and sent the URL to a friend of his who responded that it was too bad there wasn't a column under the catchy title and the two-sentence lead.

Ah, grasshopper, there's the point. Columnists (I conclude)come up with fragments that may -- or may not -- grow into 600 words. Obviously you can take any idea and torture it out to 600 words, and the two key words in the first compound of this compound sentence are "obvious" and "torture." It seemed to me that for the last quarter century of his career Art Buchwald was trying to pump up his premises to achieve column length. Art Hoppe did the same thing, too, at the Chronicle. Jon Carroll is a better columnist than Buchwald or Hoppe for at least two reasons. When he pads, he pads elegantly; there is pleasure in the voice at work. And (my point) he acknowledges that some ideas burst with pumping up. And what bursts, shrivels. He is willing to stop his main idea at 500 words and append some other joke or comment. I suspect he'll go on DatebookBackLeft forever -- though that's not necessarily a prediction his quality won't fade. Buchwald and Hoppe went on long past their prime. It seems to me that once a columnist gets a certain momentum, a certain popularity, a corporate inertia takes over and he/she is kept in the rotation right up to the edge of death. That was true of McCabe, Delaplane, Hoppe and Caen at the Chron. (Let's invent a category: Near Dead White Men Still Walking.)

This is a question for editors: Why do columnists survive past their shelf life?

These miscellaneous thoughts arise because of Jon Carroll's column in today's Chron, a classic from 1987, in which he writes about column writing. Here it is.

About Being a Columnist

These are the gems I am looking for as I peruse the great world of column writing! The columnist is self-conscious, aware of his audience. Unfortunately, I've discovered that if you ask a columnist to point you toward such columns, she/he can't or won't. In his classic column Carroll complains about readers who can't remember what a particular column they liked was about. So, too, columnists -- grinding, grinding, grinding -- tend (I think) to empty their minds of the memory of specific columns. (Didn't Hemingway say something about journalism ruining real writers because of the brain fatigue from all the forgetting a journalist must engage in?) Anyway, I am delighted to find a nice bit of columnist-on-the-couch dropped, hot as a biscuit, in my lap. Carroll notes several things, including the "meltdown" that occurs in the minds of newspaper readers: Who wrote what? They aren't sure!! And -- thus back to the kernel from which this little essay burgeoned -- he notes that sometimes you run out of idea before you run out of space. But when that happens in blogging, you just sto

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Why not more talk about Reagan's carcass?

That's what it is, after all. Look at the definition:

The dead body of an animal, especially one slaughtered for food.

The body of a human.

Remains from which the substance or character is gone: the carcass of a once glorious empire.

A framework or basic structure: the carcass of a burned-out building.

This is poetry, baby. Look and learn.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

One-Tree Forest II

Multi-part columns are rare, very rare – at least, columns that are explicitly multi-part, the first of the series ending with “To be continued” and the next with a Super Bowl suffix. The reasons for this are self-evident, which means I should be able to spend a great deal of time talking on this topic with columnists, since – like the finest courtroom lawyers – I certainly don’t want to ask any questions for which I lack predetermined answers. (Editor’s note: I know you're being ironic here, but do you think your readers, [if you ever get any] will by this point in your “column” cycle know you well enough to get it? I’ve known you, well, forever, and I don’t get you half the time.)

As I was saying before Dr. Jekyll intervened, a newspaper column is written to stand by itself (I am convinced, your honor). It must at least appear that if you have never read this particular columnist before today’s column, today's column still stands on its on, to the degree that any of these little Fortune Cookies of Journalism may be said to stand on their own...

It is now time for me to exert some discipline. Because a column is short, you can be pretty discursive – state an idea; wander away; come stumbling back – and still have happy readers, since most of us can get our minds around 600 words. But I think I am abusing that privilege. Let's get down to it: I want to add something to my last post. But as a “columnist” – even if I write a 1200-word post in one great gush of inspiration – I am struggling to break the idea up and make it seem to be two discrete columns. Oh, never mind.

Last post I talked about how columnists use family members as continuing characters, and that technique should probably be part of a larger category called Personal Disclosure – I, columnist, am taking off the journalist’s mask of non-self and revealing the fallible and struggling individual beneath. Here I am, real as can be. Thus a conversation ripens into a relationship, the columnist becoming someone with whom we can empathize and identify. (One day’s column: good. Columns read over time: better.) But because of the frequency problem, the columnist is engaged in a carefully modulated disclosure, since the columnist-reader relationship is, by definition, a long one, and thus the disclosures are often a series of small-scale observations and experiences from everyday life. Let us borrow a term from the world of the venture capitalist: There’s a “burn rate” for personal disclosure. You can use your life up, as it were. And that’s why the San Francisco Chronicle essayist Jean Gonick, who writes weekly as Ms. Gonick, is (I predict) an essayist and not a columnist.

Brain tumors, failed high school teaching, semi-crazed care giving to semi-senile parents, drug-addicted old boyfriends – all these she describes in an intense, painful, long-winded narrative that (I predict, phrase repeated for emphasis) I can’t see the wonderfully talented Ms. Gonick keeping up indefinitely. She is ransacking her life, profligate and self-wounding, and I don’t see how she can possibly maintain either the intensity or the volume. You can’t suffer and share open-endedly. At some point she turns these weekly essays into another book, I’d guess, and moves on.

Columnists don’t move on.

I recall Susan Parker, who intermittently writes for the Chronicle. At the center of her columns was her quadriplegic husband, and that's grim autobiography for readers to live with. She had a crew, as it were: two men who were employed full time as her husband’s helpers and a sassy neighbor lady filled with rather more folk wisdom than simple probability allowed – and who died not all that long after joining the cast. Susan Parker couldn't keep it up -- or wasn't allowed to, which IS the same thing. I recall Adair Lara, late of the Chron, and her emotionally starved and starving desert rat dad, but he was a character balanced in her columns by a bland but supportive husband... I'm way over budget. This long and winding road goes on forever, and I shall return to Adair Lara at my leisure. (Look up Walt Whitman quote on stretching, being lazy, taking time, etc. Another Dead White Man, sure, but a TOP Dead White Man.)

So, Ms. Gonick: Unless you start writing about flower gardens, household pets or trips to the store -- the tone lightening, the narrative arc subsiding – my Magic Eight Ball says, “Wonderful stuff. Not a column.”

Update: And here, through the magic of the Internet, that Whitman quote is. Perfect credo for a columnist, what?

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as
Good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Friday, June 04, 2004

One-Tree Forest

That is to say, as my wife points out, I do have an audience, and she is that audience, and that is certainly audience enough, given the fact she is supportive but not indulgent, having quite a number of “better things” to do than read my “column.” That said, she walks away with a fine undulation of the hips.

And so she introduces a fine new strain of thought, something more than a hearty dose of P. G. Wodehouse’s Buck-U-Uppo. (Editor’s note: Your literary references are not only to Dead White Men but also, almost freaking always, to unfashionably obscure and forgotten Dead White Men. This is not how we creep like a virus into the zeitgeist, little mister.)

Seizing on her comment – which went a good deal further, suggesting if I got additional readers and they made rude noises that I would just get my feelings hurt -- I will now writhe my way out the hole I dug for myself in my last “column.” Wife-mentioning as a way to solve a column’s internal problem reflects another habit of a certain kind of columnist, and that is using the Up Close and Personal to – well, let’s make a list: 1) personalize the scene/the frame/the landscape of the column, thus justifying its casual tone; 2) limit the column's intellectual scope, casting it as domestic dialogue, that most basic of works in progress, conversation between intimates, and so making clear the column ain’t no exercise in profundity, stated or implied.

That last point is particularly suggestive, and I am impressed with myself at thinking it up here seated in my bathrobe drinking coffee one spontaneous regular guy SOB. At some point, of course, I need to go quantitative on this project and read all of the several thousand columns that even now reside on my hard drive. I will read them for many strands and themes, and one will be the degree to which introducing friends and family as ongoing characters reflects… whatever. The fundamental “whatever” is obvious. The columnist of everyday life – who says this is what I think about the microcosm – is obviously different from the columnist of big ideas, the typical Op-Ed syndicated writer who tells us what to think about the macrocosm, the mighty realm of culture and politics. One of my tasks in this project is never to shrink from the obvious, and it’s obvious (I think) that the Paul Krugman’s and Bill Safire’s seldom engage in banter with their Significant Others in their columns. Even if the political columnist’s significant other flows with wisdom like a great water and all his/her ideas come floating down that stream, acknowledging that fact takes up space and diminishes authority – it pulls the prophet down from the soap box.

I think it does…. I’ll ask my wife. Gnawing at the back of my mind is the possibility that Molly Ivins has some trumped-up generic progressive Texan truth speaker in some of her columns…. Still, my bet is that the obvious is true: The big thinkers, the pundits, write expository essays, and the little thinkers give us domestic scenes.

Let me think globally and write locally. Jon Carroll, of the San Francisco Chronicle, writes about his wife Tracy. In print, she frequently deflates his pomposities and excesses, and one of the characteristics – one of the engaging characteristics -- of the personal newspaper columnists (I think) is/often is/may be the fallibility of the columnist. It’s a shtick, a rhetorical device. The perfection of marriage does not survive the friction of everyday life, right?? What are our personal columnists but exemplars of happy imperfection?

Now, to what degree do our pundits admit imperfection? Well, sometimes they do, and how that topic deserves, oh, manyhundredsofwords of its own. I recall that Ellen Goodman used to do a year-end column listing her most egregious errors from the preceding year, and Safire will sometimes do columns in which he makes outrageously over-the-top predictions that he acknowledges almost certainly won’t happen, suggesting its his duty as a pundit to extend the frontiers of argument beyond reason. And, you know, in spite of being so very wrong about so many things, Safire is quite engaging.

That’s an item for my checklist: See if Bill Safire will have a nice long talk with me about how he manages to so slyly serve the forces of absolute evil, or George Bush, whichever comes first. I wonder if he ever mentions his wife?

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

"All You Zombies"

There once was a science fiction writer named Robert Heinlein who wrote for teenaged boys with a hard-boiled faux toughery that made me think when I was a teenaged boy that he was onto something. (I didn’t read science fiction writers who wrote as if they were "on something" until later.) And nothing he wrote was more disturbing than his short story “All You Zombies.”

Through time travel and non-elective surgery, the hero manages to be both his own mother and his own father, a state that has to serve as a neat objective correlative for more than one solipsistic teenager who cannot quite figure out how Those People! Had Me?!? It’s an alienation that makes you kind of … lonely.

And thus the story ends:

I know where I came from - but where did all you zombies come from? I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I do not take. I did once - and you all went away. So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light. You aren't really there at all. There isn't anybody but me - Jane - here alone in the dark.

And so, only TWO DAYS into this thought experiment in which I play at newspaper column writing, I am staring into the void (just to maintain the zombie theme) of The Unread. That is to say, if a newspaper column is a personal essay distorted by the grinding together of those two great tectonic plates, Frequency and Audience, not having an audience really really unbalances what I am trying to do. (Editor’s note: Lose the mid-sentence capitalizations. Tom Wolfe has been there; Alexander Pope has done that.)

Devoid of readers though I am -- and likely to remain so, existing as I do as a pale mote on the fringe of the great Milky Way of bloggery -- the last two days my mind has seethed with ideas. Columnists hate the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The question is not where do you get ‘em but how do you deal with all the ideas you have. And you deal with all the ideas you have by thinking of audience. Here’s my starting point for the lovely long conversations I am planning on having with columnists. Since a newspaper is a mosaic consisting of a variety of elements appealing to a variety of readers, a columnist knows that she/he need not appeal to every reader. Columnists have their own audiences, some larger, some smaller, but each (we assume) sufficient to keep the columnist employed, the columnist serving either as a way of selling newspapers to those who wouldn’t buy the paper otherwise, or possibly as a way of winning esteem from those who would buy the paper in any event but might not choose to admire the paper. (Case in point: San Francisco Chronicle daring to be dull these last 20 years, so people would “respect” it.)

This is common sense. Not everyone reads everything. Many questions flow from this fragmentation. Dear Columnist: How clearly do you understand your audience? How did you “discover” your audience? (I am very much of the opinion that some columnists are anointed with the words, “Just keep doing what you’re doing” and so they blunder into success.) How do you communicate with your audience, and how do your adjust your column to the wishes of that audience? To what degree does your sense of having a continuing audience allow you to assume that your readers know something about “you,” allowing you to talk about places and people and ideas previously discussed? To what degree does your sense of audience allow you to write above – or below? – the newspaper’s statistical monstrosity, The Representative Reader? And to what degree does the fixity of your audience limit you. Back in my San Francisco Chronicle days, I was told that occasionally one of Steve Rubenstein’s weekly columns would be returned to him with the words “Not a Steve Rubenstein column!” scrawled on it by some editorial commissar.

Oh the intricate questions this gives rise to… But I have gone beyond 600 words, one of my self-imposed limits, so now I must go back and cut. Here’s my point crisply said: I don’t HAVE an audience. What deformations will result from that?