Jelly, the belly and the rest of it.

A few weeks ago someone forwarded me a list of some editor’s thoughts about columns — that is, the printed output of columnists, not the big posts that hold buildings up. I was amazed by how many rules the guy had. They should be this, not that. They should say that, not this. They should be about the other thing, not this thing. And so on.

Opinions vary on the quality of my own columnic output, but I did it for 18 years, and I like to think it wasn’t all wasted time. I learned a few things. Here’s the first and, ultimately, only thing I learned: There are no rules. There may be some guidelines. Such as…don’t be boring. You can write about anything from al-Qaeda to spaghetti, but don’t be boring. A newspaper column is, ultimately, a reflection of the person who writes it, period. Here’s another guideline: If you’re an editor hiring a columnist, try to know what you’re getting into. You might be hiring Royko. You might be hiring Dowd. You might be hiring Nall. Choose wisely.

Which is why I confronted this piece with some bafflement this morning. The writer, who was once my main competition in Fort Wayne, seems to be saying it’s a tragedy that he can’t find apple jelly as readily as he once did. In fact, that is what he’s saying:

Time was, you could buy a big jar of apple jelly, a jar that weighed close to 2 pounds, big enough that it would break your toe if you dropped it on your foot, on sale for not much more than a dollar. I used to keep a couple of big jars in the cupboard, just to make sure I never ran out, and whenever I saw apple jelly on sale I always bought a couple of jars just for security.

Not long ago, though, I went into a big-box store that sells groceries and noticed there wasn�t any apple jelly. No big jars, no little jars. None at all.

There was apple butter, but that�s not jelly.


Now, I hesitate to say apple jelly is not a fit subject for a column. Jon Carroll writes at least six columns a year about his damn cats, and I read them. I have learned to trust. People say, “She’d go to the opening of an envelope,” and that’s the way I feel about my favorite columnists. Even when they’re boring, they’re better than the sports section. In the hands of a talented writer, no subject is unworthy of 600 words. Cats, a warm afternoon in June, whatever. Pete Dexter once wrote a column about scratching a dog’s belly, accidently fondling its penis, and tied it all in with Michael Jackson — and goddamnit, it worked beautifully. An editor could make that a test for hiring a columnist: Give me 600 words on apple jelly. If I read it to the end, you’re hired.

Jon Carroll could pull off a column about the apple jelly shortage. He does a certain daffy silliness better than anyone. This writer… alas. Check out this ending:

People today leap at all-fruit preserves such as apricot and peach, and are drawn to expensive jellies such as lingonberry or blueberry preserves or name-brand raspberry preserves. A miniature $3.95 jar of jam made of something they�ve never seen before is what appeals to people today, something that looks good on cheesecake or dribbled on the side of the plate next to quail.

Maybe that�s it. Apple jelly is just too plain Jane these days. It�s just not flashy enough for modern America, and it�s been squeezed out by all the hot new acts, racy newcomers.

That�s too bad.

Yes, that’s too bad.

(I should add this, in sympathy: Everyone has a bad day, a bad week, a bad stretch. Columnists don’t have the luxury of sliding out of the spotlight. So I’m pretty forgiving, most days.)

Perhaps you’re wondering if there’s a punchline to this piece. There is: At my last performance review, the one where I knew I was well and truly screwed, dead-ended and ready to spend more time with my family, the editor doing the review suggested I might try to model my work after apple-jelly man. There’s only one thing you can do when someone tells you this, and dammit, I did it: I slammed the door as I left.

It felt good.

And now here we are. All in all, it feels like a better — albeit much poorer — place. But I don’t want to stir my jelly here.

It was a good day. Clear skies, crisp temperature, a few chores crossed off the to-do list. For some reason, I had an inordinate amount of mail about the Dylan documentary, the ending of which is unspooling now. I’m watching with half my attention. It’s not a revelation, nor is it Scorsese’s apple-jelly work. I’m amazed by what I didn’t know — Maria Muldaur was a playa in the early-’60s folk scene? I liked little things: The footage of Mario Savio, the pictures of Greenwich Village, the old film of Hibbing in the ’50s. Hibbing! Minnesota! Jews lived in the Iron Range? Talk about a diaspora.

And I’m amazed, anew, at the power of these songs. I’m not the world’s biggest Dylan fan. I’m happy with but two albums — “Bringing it All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” I’ll probably add “Blonde on Blonde” to the collection at some point, but those two do for the basics. I listened to both on a long drive to Minnesota last spring, and boy, do they hold up. Now and forever.

OK, bloggage:

You don’t want to go here if you’re at work — it’s technically an adult site, and you don’t want your boss walking up on you. But there’s no nudity, only a few f-bombs and so many laughs I wept my mascara off as I read it. “Chestfro Agonistes,” a story about the erotic possibilities (or disappointments thereof) of waxing one’s chest, did not disappoint.

Still want more fun? OK: Christian mimes.

Thank you and goodnight!

Posted at 9:35 pm in Uncategorized |

25 responses to “Jelly, the belly and the rest of it.”

  1. basset said on September 27, 2005 at 11:05 pm

    “Competition”? No, not at all… the guy at the other paper, yes, competition, no. Going by that one column, his writing appears to be essentially what you’d expect from anyone who looks that much like Stephen King.

    I watched the first half-hour of the Dylan show while bleeding tonight, hooked up to pheresis at the Red Cross and attended by a twentysomething who every now and then would look up at the screen and then at me, immobile in headphones, and smile indulgently. now listen, kiddie, and let me tell you why this man is important…

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  2. alex said on September 27, 2005 at 11:56 pm

    Well, that editor found your replacement in a hurry. You know the one. Just as infernally dull as jelly man, yes, but with an incredible gift for pulling liberal conspiracy theories out of his ass to explain any mundane phenomenon in our everyday lives. You can’t fault him for not having a rich imagination, at the very least. If he’d written the apple jelly story, it probably would have involved environmentalists, flag-burners and Darwinists somehow. Which makes people read to the end, fer sure, ‘cuz their eyes are bugging out in disbelief that this guy has a column.

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  3. brian stouder said on September 28, 2005 at 12:20 am

    To give jelly-man his due,

    1. Nance DID read to the end of the column – so “he’s hired!”; and

    2. His columns are best when he tells the story of some citizen pulled between the gears of local government (or corporate) bureaucracy – like the one the other day about the old lady who wanted an ID card from the BMV.

    I skipped the jelly thing after the second sentence.

    basset – ain’t pheresis great? I got an umbrella after my last donation. When I got to the level where they give you a pen, they were out – so they took a bic and wrote “RED CROSS” on the side and gave it to me! I still have it somewhere, I think

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  4. Dave said on September 28, 2005 at 2:26 am

    Sat and watched Dylan, my 17 year old son walked by and his only comment was, “That guy can’t sing”. But then, I remember when “Rainy Day Women” was being played on the radio on a regular basis and I didn’t quite get it, either. And Scorcese said it, had Dylan not gone electric, we may not have known him as we do. How many of you had heard of someone like Dave Van Ronk? I had but I don’t know his work.

    Don’t like “Blood on the Tracks”?

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  5. danno said on September 28, 2005 at 7:11 am

    My problem with Dylan is his lack of being able to carry even somewhat of a tune. The lyrics are fantastic, but it’s akin to watching Joe Cocker sing or looking at a Monet under a black light. His singing (or lack thereof) is too distracting to notice the wonderful art. I think this is why Kate Bush isn’t so big here too.

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  6. Nance said on September 28, 2005 at 8:14 am

    I like “Blood on the Tracks.” But it’s a one-track album (“Tangled Up in Blue,” natch), whereas the other two are front-to-back faves.

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  7. Dorothy said on September 28, 2005 at 8:17 am

    That Jon Carroll piece about summer in June was positively ethereal. I was transported! Thank you for sharing it Nancy!

    I’m with Danno on Dylan. His words are great, yeah, but it comes in such an awful sounding package. When I hear or see him, all I can visualize is a skit on Saturday Night Live some years ago when someone (Dana Carvey?) made such fun of the way he garbled his words. That, and I think of a priest at a parish I used to belong that tried to use a story about Bob Dylan in his homily once. But he kept pronouncing his name “Die-Lynn”. It drove me to distraction!

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  8. colleen said on September 28, 2005 at 8:48 am

    Alex, are you referring to UberLutheran? Cuz yeah. Yuck.

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  9. Mindy said on September 28, 2005 at 8:53 am

    Haven’t read a word written by the jelly man in ages because I’m not a morning person and have a hard enough time waking up as it is. As for Sieg Heil, the Replacement, just seeing him in Nance’s spot is a sucker punch every time I open the paper. So I avoid that, too. We miss you, Nancy.

    I watched the first installment of the Dylan bio with great difficulty. My husband and I know a guy who used to live, breathe, and bleed Dylan. We had Dylan rammed down our throats many years ago. Seeing Brian meant hearing about Dylan. So we were watching and my husband said, “I’m almost past Brian.” To which I replied, “I”m not.” Wish I could watch without having had those bad experiences.

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  10. alex said on September 28, 2005 at 9:03 am

    Well, I won’t go naming names, Colleen. No sense in burning my bridges at the N-S. I had to take my lumps graciously, you see, when they called me on the carpet during a recent work-for-a-week for free job interview process there�apparently I’d “scooped” them on the story about Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps on my personal web page by reporting what they were remiss in reporting in their otherwise fawning coverage by the other Kevin, who always gets steamrolled anytime he interviews charismatic cult leaders.

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  11. Nance said on September 28, 2005 at 11:01 am

    Not really for free, right, Alex? They DID pay you, correct?

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  12. alex said on September 28, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    No, indeed they did not.

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  13. Nance said on September 28, 2005 at 1:07 pm

    Well, you ought to give Rick a call. Unless you knew going in it would be unpaid, I think it’s pretty s.o.p. to pay people for tryouts that last longer than a day. That’s amazing.

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  14. mary said on September 28, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters? “Forget about your pomp…romping through the swamp…” I remember that guy.

    Apple jelly is just weird. Writing about it is even weirder. Unless one is glazing a lots of tarte tatins, one does not need vats of that insipid stuff. Blueberry preserves are not exotic unless you live an incredibly bland life. Don’t start up with me about preserves. For a few years they were my life. I once faced Leona Helmsley across a desk in a fight about preserves. I lived to tell the tale to my children.

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  15. Nance said on September 28, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    I splurged at the farm market the other day and bought a small jar of Michigan peach preserves. Mmmmmm. That’s all I have to say.

    And I had the same thought about apple jelly. The only time I’ve ever used it is to glaze tarts. Who would put it on a p.b. sandwich if you could afford strawberry preserves? Foolish man.

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  16. brian stouder said on September 28, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    “I once faced Leona Helmsley across a desk in a fight about preserves.”

    To use a phrase I almost never use –

    Mary, you ROCK!

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  17. deb said on September 28, 2005 at 2:33 pm

    aw, mary, c’mon….you have GOT to tell the leona helmsley story. pretty please?

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  18. Dorothy said on September 28, 2005 at 2:49 pm

    I’ll put in my vote too – don’t tease us like that Mary!! Cough up!

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  19. Mindy said on September 28, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    Yes, Mary, we must have details! Spill it!

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  20. mary said on September 28, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    When I lived in NYC I was a sales rep for a fancy food company. I specialized in selling to high end hotels, specifically the portion jars of jams and jellies, and the nice chocolates one gets on one’s pillow.

    Leona liked Tiptree strawberry preserves. She liked “Little Scarlet” to be exact, which is made from tiny strawberries. Little Scarlet, at least then, was not available in the 1.5oz jars. Portion jars were only made in raspberry, orange marmalade, and regular strawberry. Leona wanted Little Scarlet.

    Her food and beverage manager called me and said he would be fired if he didn’t get tiny jars of little scarlet. I said they didn’t exist. He said Mrs. Helmsley insisted on them. I told him I would explain their unavailability myself if he wanted me to. He wanted me to. I made an appointment, and I was invited in to her office (lots of gilt furniture, lots of plastic surgery.) She told me they would no longer use me as vendor if I could not deliver Tiptree Little scarlet in portion jars. I told her there was no such item. She said her pantry manager knew of a source. I told her I would give her the next monthly order free if he could produce one jar of the stuff to show me. She called him in. He said he’d have it by the next day.

    Of course he didn’t produce it, and I came back with Jim McGilloway, who was then the US broker for Tiptree. He gave her some Tiptree swag, told her I was the most reliable source of all things Tiptree, and generally schmoozed her. Her pantry guy got fired for taking kickbacks shortly after that, and I bought my house on the commisssions I made from Helmsley Hotels. Well, I had Hilton, Sheraton, Trusthouse Forte and a few others as well. Better to say jam and chocolates bought my house.

    I used to wander around the hallways of the big hotels in NYC and give the housekeeping people samples of Lindor chocolates. I figured they ate at least a quarter of the ones they carried on the housekeeping carts for turndown service. Best to get them hooked on my chocolates so my orders would be sizable. It worked.

    I miss that job. It was tough and fun.

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  21. alex said on September 28, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    Yes, Mary, do tell!

    And Nance, as I seem to recall, the pay was supposed to come once my pay had been negotiated. We never got to that point, however. Rick called me and told me the higher-ups suddenly discovered they didn’t have any money in the budget to hire me. This, I assumed at the time (and still assume) was code for “we don’t like your web site.”

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  22. brian stouder said on September 28, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    Mary – great story!

    A person just had to laugh when you said “Don’t start up with me about preserves” (a great line, all by itself)

    and then mentioned going toe to toe with the Queen of Mean herself.

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  23. mary said on September 28, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    I have to give Jim McGillaway a lot of credit for not only backing me up, but charming the uncharmable Mrs. Helmsley. He has a lovely Irish accent and a manner to match it. He did tell me going into her office that I would get into trouble one day being so full of “piss and vinegar.”

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  24. Dorothy said on September 28, 2005 at 8:46 pm

    Ah piss and vinegar, one of my MFM’s favorite sayings. Another is “Close only counts in horsehoes and hand grenades.”

    Thanks for sharing Mary. You’re the best at telling such interesting tales.

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  25. basset said on September 28, 2005 at 9:39 pm

    “Blood on the Tracks” is probably the Dylan album I can best relate to, probably because it’s about a relationship falling apart and right when that record came out… never mind. just don’t play “If You See Her, Say Hello” unless you want me to brood for the rest of the night.

    pheresis, yes, it is a good thing. one needle for me, I’m too fidgety for two. have been donating blood for, what, over thirty years now, ever since we used to line up for three or four hours in Alumni Hall at IU trying to raise enough donations to beat Purdue.

    which, of course, we did every time that I know about. NCAA championships, feh… give me something I can actually get involved in.

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