March 2011 Issue

And please do send in questions! Lotsa lotsa questions. It makes my job easier if I have lots of questions.

Onward. Recently, Frank Rich, in his last column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine before leaving for New York magazine, recounted a simile that William Safire used to explain what it felt like to write a regular newspaper column:

“Safire … was fond of likening column writing to standing under a windmill: No sooner did you feel relief that you had ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down.”

After writing the newspaper column behind this website three times a week without a break since 1994, I can say that I’ve never seen a better metaphor for the relentless tyranny of a regular deadline. Producing a column essentially every two days means that I am frequently writing paragraphs in my head when I’m walking the dogs, and the relief I feel when I finish a column is like getting home from work at midnight and realizing that you have to be back there at 6 am.

Don’t worry, I’m not working up to announcing that I’m stopping. I can’t imagine not doing this. And writing this stuff used to be a lot more strenuous; when I first took over the column completely after my father died in 1994 (we had been collaborating for a few years at that point), I was suddenly faced with writing six columns per week, a schedule that had been set when my father was writing it for the old Bell Syndicate in the 1950s.  That quota had always struck me as a bit nuts when we were sharing the work, but I definitely wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own. So I bit the bullet and told the papers that carried the column that I’d be halving the product. It turned out that nobody was running all six columns anyway, so they really didn’t care.

My relief didn’t last long. Somehow I drifted into writing another, completely separate, weekly column for the New York Daily News, and then yet a third weekly feature for the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger. I was also working four days per week for a large Manhattan law firm. Hey, I drank a lot of coffee. We lived on the Upper West Side at the time, where the byzantine alternate-side parking rules meant that you had to spend at least an hour a couple of times every week sitting in your double-parked car while they swept the streets (if, that is, you wanted a parking space south of the Bronx for the next three days). So I’d grab a gallon of coffee and a legal pad and go sit in the car writing my columns longhand while garbage trucks and taxicabs crawled by inches away. It was actually weirdly restful.

When we first moved to East Possum, Ohio, I thought I’d have plenty of time to write other things, and I did manage to produce three more books in the first few years. Living in a house built in the 1860s on several acres of land, however, turned out to be nearly a full-time job in itself, much of which seemed to involve heavy lifting and obstreperous machinery. But even then I could often do two or three columns in a single day with no problem.

That changed in 2006 when, after at least twenty years of intermittent but gradually worsening symptoms, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. I’m still walking around, albeit often with a cane, but I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t affected my work. There are days I can’t see the screen very clearly, for instance. I make far more typos. And I write much more slowly. But as these things go, I rate myself as very lucky.

Unfortunately, the decline in my personal health has been mirrored by the collapse of the newspaper business, and I have lost several of my most remunerative print outlets as they sank beneath seas of red ink. Sic transit big chunks of my income. The publishing world is in similar straits, and, as I noted a while back, this stupid disease has put paid to my backup career, pole-dancing at the Denny’s up by the interstate.

The bottom line to all this is that reader subscriptions and contributions have become increasingly important to our survival over the past three or four years. So please consider subscribing.

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