Sunday, November 21, 2010

Words Remembered

Words in a newspaper are transitory things. They are, almost without exception, little noted nor long remembered.

The words are read at the breakfast table or at odd moments during the day, after which the paper is gathered up and put in the wastebasket or given new life as birdcage carpeting.

The words penned by those of us in the press box occasionally enjoy a longer life. Proud parents sometimes clip our articles from the paper and stick them in a scrapbook, from which they will emerge several decades hence when the former teenage athlete tries to stave off geezerdom by reliving the past. That those words survive, it should be noted, has nothing to do with our abilities and everything to do with our good fortune to have been assigned to cover the game in which the geezer-to-be rushed for 175 yards and four touchdowns.

There are times, though, when the words in a newspaper jump from the page into a less-than-stellar mind and refuse to leave. For instance, seven years ago, in November 2003, I was the Star Beacon’s girls basketball beat writer and busily talking to coaches, gathering information and writing preview stories on the upcoming season. One day late in the month, perhaps the Friday after Thanksgiving, all those stories appeared and the day’s paper was awash in my byline.

Reading the paper with my name in bold print scattered throughout, was like stopping in at the ego station and saying, “Fill it up, Mac.” Well, it was until later in the day when I read Gene Collier’s column on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Web site. His topic was Lisa Guerrero, who was the sideline reporter on Monday Night Football and the subject of some criticism at the time because she said dumb things now and then.

Collier’s take on the matter was, Guerrero’s male counterparts occasionally said dumb things, too. He offered several quotes as evidence, including Joe Theisman’s observation: “You got to score to put points on the board in this league.” But Guerrero had the advantage, Collier said, of being more pleasant to look at.

The words from Collier’s column that have haunted me lo these many years are: “As Coach Cowher loves to say, ‘there’s a fine line in this business’ between occasional insight and incessant vacuous yammering.” I read those words and was suddenly aware that having 19 or 20 bylines in a single edition of the paper might be construed as incessant. As far as vacuous yammering, perhaps I slipped into that mode once or twice, but that was all. Or so I told myself.

For a long time afterward, I worried day and night over which side of the fine line I came down on. Only in recent years, after going from staff writer to freelance writer, have I been able to find peace. After all, I reasoned, I don’t write enough these days to be incessant, and the latest research has shown that small doses of vacuous yammering pose no danger to the otherwise healthy reader.

With the dark cloud of incessant, vacuous yammering lifted, I was able to go out with my head held high again. But that ended Sunday as I read the Plain Dealer, which included a story by the Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut, that began thusly: “If anyone had a excuse for wanting to vanish in January 2009, it was George W. Bush, his approval ratings in the 30s, his hair graying, his legacy of two long wars and a fractious tenure wiped away by the election of a charismatic young president promising to fix all the messes left behind.”

Graying hair? Low approval ratings, two wars and a fractious tenure, I can understand. But graying hair? All that time I spent struggling with my propensity for incessant, vacuous yammering, and now Kornblut tells me about the shame that is my hair.

I want to vanish.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, November 12, 2010.

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