It used to be easy to write a year-end column. The subject, the theme, the material … it was all there waiting for me in a great big fat file folder that I'd slowly filled with clips of my mistakes through the year.
The only thing I had to do was just write 'em up. I didn't even have to come up with a new headline; it was the same one year after year: Where I went wrong.
You can't beat a headline like that. Readers are natural critics, and what critic can ignore a phrase like that over some know-it-all pundit's piece?
Especially if said know-it-all is always criticizing others. It was surely my best-read column all year.
Of course some years were better than others. One absent-minded day I'd quoted one of the great all-time summations of history, politics, baseball and the human condition in general ("One never knows, do one?") and attributed it to the immortal Fats Domino.
Uhhh . . . OH!
I'd got my Fatses wrong. It was Fats Waller who'd said that, not Domino. Great balls of fire! I was in a whole heap of trouble. It was back when e-mail was still young, and my computer screen was filled the next morning with messages from polite folks, and some not so polite, who were more than happy to set me straight. With the verbal equivalent of a two-by-four. OOO-wee, that hurt.
Once that column went out on the wire, I must've heard from every jazz buff, swing aficionado, rhythm-'n'-blues fan, rock-'n'-roll critic, amateur musicologist and disc jockey from Eugene, Ore., to Mount Airy, N.C.
This new medium of correspondence called e-mail, I realized, (a) was here to stay, and (b) was going to be all over me. A columnist wouldn't be able to get away with anything any more.
But at least that slip-of-mind gave me an excuse to go into the difference between the two Fatses in my year-end column. I ain't misbehavin', I explained. I was just confused as usual.
It as an educational experience. After that screw-up, I would know from the start that poor Dan Rather and squirming CBS would never get away with peddling their dubious "scandal" and even more dubious document about George W. Bush's missing some drills with the Texas Air National Guard. Not in this in Age of the Blogger.
But this year I confidently reached for my Where I Went Wrong folder, and there it wasn't.
Huh? Not only were there no clips in it, there was no folder. I hadn't even had occasion to start one.
Had I become infallible this year, or just lucky? Or had my standards fallen so low that I didn't even notice my mistakes any more?
None of the above. It didn't take me long to figure out why this year was different from all other years. The answer came to me in a flash, and in two words: Sarah Prickett.
This has been our new copy editor's first full year on our editorial and op-ed pages, and by now she's saved us from ourselves so many times, she ought to get lifeguard points. But, dadblame it, Miss Prickett, this time you've gone too far! You've cost me a perfectly good year-end column.
What was I going to do now write a whole new, original one? (Columnists are notoriously lazy. We'd rather quote others, or even our own mistakes, than have to express an original thought.)
It's a truism in the newspaper business that there are plenty of good writers out there but a good editor is hard to find. Because copy editing the real kind that doesn't stop with correcting spelling and grammar requires more than just a technical knowledge of the language, which is rare enough. The good copy editor has got to be literate in the broader sense that is, have what used to be called a liberal education.
Of course that was before education was reduced to training and the student taught only what is "relevant," that is, transient. There is much to be said for an irrelevant education one that doesn't go out of style because it was never in. Does anyone study the classics any more? If so, what an advantage they must have!
The first indication Sarah Prickett was made for this job was her previous one as an editor of the Flannery O'Connor Review at Georgia College and State University. And she's lived up to her billing. Scarcely a workday goes by without her catching something on the page and saving our necks. And this is only her day job; at night she teaches, of course, English composition.
Here's my first New Year's Resolution; Hire more Sarah Pricketts!
But in a television-drenched, non-literate, word-deaf age, where do you find them?