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.
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!