NEWS & OPINION THE (CIVIL) SOCIETY COLUMN
15% off Amber
Puns and fun with the National Society of Newspaper Columnists BY JESSICA LEIGH LEBOS
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AS IMPROBABLE as it feels that I’ve been a columnist for exactly half my life, it’s even more dubious that I’ve managed to get this far without any professional development whatsoever. The only way I know how to churn out these word salads week after week, year after year is by tossing around a combination of rich subject matter, a thesaurus and buckets of caffeine around my head until my fingers fill up the word count. This inexact strategy can always use some seasoning, and I was hoping to crib from qualified experts at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual conference, held this year in Manchester, New Hampshire. Upon arrival, I hit Elm Street to do the first thing I do in every city: Stake out the scene by picking up the local weekly free paper, which is recognizable by its square tabloid format and how it’s always stacked next to the men’s bathroom. Manchester’s artsy alt-weekly is the Hippo, a perfect name to represent its large animal-inthe-room juxtaposition with the town’s historic conservative daily, The New Hampshire Union Leader. If that rings a mental bell, it might be because Manchester is ground zero for the presidential primaries, and every four years the city turns into a major circus, er, circuit, for politicians and pundits, the Union Leader often breaking stories first. In between elections, Manchester is a thriving, post-industrial tech town with a picturesque granite cliff, a hundred and one restaurants (give or take) and a mile-long, gloriously restored millyard along the Merrimack River. Mostly, though, my view was the inside of the Radisson, where I was so excited to have my very own hotel room that I promptly used all the bath towels and kept the TV blaring at all hours. (Why is Forrest Gump always on, with its constant sweeping mossy oak shots of Chippewa Square? I just can’t quit you, Savannah, even for a weekend.) The conference started Friday morning with an intro from NSNC president Lisa Smith Molinari and massive vats
of covfefe, I mean, coffee. My badge bore a special green ribbon that said “First Time Attendee,” which I feared was an invitation to the cool kids to flush my head in the toilet while chanting Dave Barry-isms. Fortunately, the extent of my hazing was trying to keep up with lightning fast puns from Stamford Advocate humorist Jerry Zezima and University of Connecticut feminist theory professor Gina Barreca, author of If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? Guffawing over a discussion about the travel ban appeal devolved very quickly into volleying around tennis terms (“It’s in your court now!” “That’s a back-handed compliment.” “I ‘love’ the way this conversation is going!”), I thought gleefully, Oh my, these are my people. And they were, literally—I ran smack into Beth Ashley and Dick Spotswood of Northern California’s Marin Independent Journal, whose work I had admired and been inspired by during my first columnist gig 20 years ago at the nearby Pacific Sun. (Free weeklies are apparently my career specialty, earning me sympathetic clucks by those still tossing word salads far past retirement age.) Beth, who is 92 and still files her “Since You Asked” column every week, was there with husband Rowland Fellows, 93 and sporting a thin silver ponytail. The childhood sweethearts made the New York Times wedding pages when they married in 2009 after more than 70 years apart— how’s that for narrative arc? Founded 40 years ago by a few lonely columnists looking to share war stories, the NSNC (pronounced “Eness-en-CEE” after the third cup of coffee or second glass of wine) hosts its conference in a different city every year and attracts a formidable line-up of special guests willing to speak of their time in the trenches. USA Today editor Jill Lawrence and the Boston Globe’s James Pindell sat on the political panel, and Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher Amy Newark invited ideas for the ubiquitous feel-good book series, for which I could not think of a single submission that didn’t involve swearing. Pulitzer Prize finalist Derrick Jackson softened his talk about the crucial imperative of informed opinion writing in these times with anecdotes about his passion project, documenting endangered puffins to the coast of Maine. And no big deal, Saturday evening’s keynote speaker and NSCS