Archive for Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Writing column helps descent into idleness

February 27, 2008

"The time has come," the Walrus said,

"to talk of many things:

"Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

"Of cabbages and kings."

I guess you can think of this as the sound of the other shoe dropping.

Not too long ago, in an attempt to explain why I didn't sign my editorials, I wrote a piece in which I tried to make a distinction between the institutional opinion of the newspaper and the more personal, intimate view of a column.

Well, here goes.

My thought in starting this endeavor, now that I have served my allotted span and left the ranks of the gainfully employed, was to keep my hand in, so to speak, and make the time to write a weekly column about, about - about what?

Well, perhaps not so random as anything that comes to mind. A column should, ideally, relate one's everyday experiences in a way that manages somehow to make a statement about life. Not about the meaning of life, really that's a topic more suited to a religious or philosophical tome than a newspaper but at least an observation about its outer dimensions.

I undertake this business of writing a weekly column with a certain amount of anxiety. It's every reporter's dream, and yet the prospect can be somewhat chilling once you're actually faced with it. This probably was best expressed by the late Bill Vaughan, the Kansas City Star's humor columnist who died in 1977. I won't use quotation marks because I can't remember his exact words, but basically it was that writing a column is like being married to a nymphomaniac. It seems great at first, but before long you begin to wonder how long you'll be able to continue to perform.

That quote, incidentally, has also been attributed, in a slightly different variation, to Lewis Grizzard, the late humor columnist for the Atlanta Constitution. Erma Bombeck also mentioned it.

And then there was a survey, reported in the pages of the newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher in 2006, that said 17 percent of newspaper columnists likened their job to sex. Researcher J. Michael Robertson of the University of San Francisco went on to explain that this wasn't necessarily a positive attribute; some of the columnists felt "like they're married to a nymphomaniac," he said, because they have to start working on another column as soon as they finish with the previous one. Another view was that it left them "sweaty, exhausted and slightly nauseous."

But I digress. Suffice it to say that the subject matter for my descent into idleness will be "the human condition" in other words, what seems to stand out, from one week to the next. Sometimes it might have something to do with national politics, or world affairs. Most of the time, though, it will be concerned with events closer to home, either about events in our community or even my troubled, on-again, off-again relations with the family cat.

That variety of topic partly explains my choice of the phrase, "Cabbages and Kings," for the title. Fans of Lewis Carroll will recognize that snippet from Tweedledee's recitation of "The Walrus and the Carpenter," a tale of the selfsame twosome's predations on a flock of unsuspecting oysters in "Through the Looking-Glass."

Think of it as a meal, or as one course of a meal. Just as a meal shouldn't be all meat or all vegetables, so a column shouldn't be all about one thing, it seems to me. You know what they say about variety. And there I'll close, sparing the reader yet one more cliche.


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