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A Search for Meaning

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"I been thinking," announced my editor as he began to add the stench of a peeled orange to the lunchroom.

"Yeah. Well, you oughta take it easy till you get used to it," I advised with all the compassion I could muster.

"Seriously. Now that we are at war, maybe you should start to make your columns more analytical. More meaningful."

"I'll be happy to make wartime sacrifices as soon as some of my fellow millionaires start makin' 'em," I said as I began to facilitate the descent of a Clark chocolate bar down my windpipe. "Remember those rubber drives during World War II? Maybe Tom Benson would sell tickets to the Himalayan section of the Dome for two bucks and a packet of Ramses Extra Thin."

"Seriously. Do you know Maureen Dowd?"

I was removing all chocolate residue from my body, which was akin to a cat licking its paws. "Yeah, I know her. She's small music wrapped in great applause."

"Seriously. She does columns hinting at the incompetence of our Commander-in-Chief. Now topics like that are meaningful."

"Wrong, citrus breath. They're depressing. Besides, she's already written it to death. Or at least to a grand illness."

"Don't you think the American public deserves to know who's leading it into battle?" my editor insisted.

"If it does, I guess it's just another cost of democracy," I said. "All I know is: I wouldn't want to go into combat thinking that their leader was clever enough to know who's buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, while our leader isn't clever enough to know who's buried in Grant's Tomb."

My editor tried to look thoughtful as he noisily sucked another orange slice dry.

"Well, maybe world events aren't your strong suit," he said finally. "But we should think about ways to make your column more relevant."

"Come again?"

"Relevant. More interactive. I've been reading this report from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and it said nine of 10 editors think the industry's future depends on greater interaction between newspapers and readers."

I was having even more trouble than usual figuring out what this company bell-cow was trying to tell me. As if it were yet another morning after a night of incomplete sleep, a morning when you can't connect what you're seeing with what you're thinking.

"Interaction?" I stuttered, hoping the chocolate would kick in soon. "You mean like groupies? 'Cuz that don't happen to people who write for newspapers. We rank somewhere behind morticians and tungsten miners in that regard."

"Seriously, be serious. I'm talking about soliciting tips from readers or using polls to find out what readers want out of their news coverage."

He had finished his orange and all the peels were just sitting there on the table. I hate it when people just leave their peels out there in the open.

"Look, our audience is moonstruck, you know that," I said, struggling for reasonableness. "They are all laboring under what the man said was the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. They are morbidly illogical."

"As if logic ever gets any more lip service anywhere," sniffed my editor. "Have you failed to notice the incredible popularity of call-in talk shows? Interaction, you jitterbug."

"Exactly my point!" I exclaimed triumphantly. "I saw one on TV a couple of weeks ago. Ted Koppel had on a former CIA director, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and two former Mideast diplomats. And you know who called in? A Zionist, two gun nuts, somebody calling from a penitentiary and a guy who's deeply involved with paintball combat. The interaction was spectacular. It sounded like Trivial Pursuit being played on psycho-active drugs."

My editor was frowning now, a sure sign that he had walked to the end of his Short Attention Span and was peering over into the abyss. I decided to follow up on my advantage.

"And how can you ask me to follow polls? Who are those people? They must be the guy high-carrying the metal clothespole in an electrical storm. One minute, they give George Bush the Dad a 91 percent approval and the next minute he can't beat Gennifer Flowers' boyfriend. Polls don't know any little thing."

"Seriously, maybe you could at least start putting your phone number at the end of your column," he said, pushing back a little from the lunchroom table.

"Jeez, man. I got three grandchildren, and I've only given my phone number to two of them," I said with a real sob in my throat. "You wouldn't really want me to become accessible to all those creditors and potential stalkers, do you?"

"I dunno. Maybe you could at least have an email address," my editor said. "It just seems so ... so ungrateful not to interact."

"Look, all my magazines come in a plain brown wrapper with no return address and I like it like that. And as far as gratitude, remember Stalin said it was a dog's disease."

My editor reached into his cellophane bag and pulled out a grapefruit. He began to peel. "I dunno. Still seems like a mistake."

"Cheer up," I urged. "Remember what that great old William Randolph Hearst once said: "Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Your readers might like it.'"

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