Monday, January 14, 2013

No. 507 – The Fountain of Salmacis

Performer: Genesis
Songwriters: Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford
Original Release: Nursery Cryme
Year: 1971
Definitive Version: Knebworth 78, 1978

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted from yesterday’s post. Today’s is shorter, I promise.

As the weather turned colder in the fall of 1986, it was apparent that my Deerfield experience not only wasn’t going well but also threatening the future I had envisioned as a sportswriter.

No matter what I did, no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I was rewriting everything every day for my Boot Camp instructor, and it reached the point where I completely lost my voice. When you do that as a writer—when you try to write like someone else—you’re finished.

As I mentioned, Intro to Journalism was pass/fail, and I had an inkling that I was in real danger of failing. When I went home at Thanksgiving, my first break since arriving in September, I had to face the unpleasant prospect of telling Dad that I was in danger of flunking out of Northwestern. For someone who graduated Cum Laude from Wabash six months earlier, this was a major humiliation.

I remember it vividly: It was a rainy Friday when I went to Dad’s office in Downtown Columbus to talk, and we went across the street to the late, great Christopher Inn. I told Dad everything, and although I was nervous about how he’d react, he was great. In short, he said I’d figure something out if this didn’t work out. I appreciated it, but I had no idea what that possibly could be.

Aside from the reporting work, I enjoyed my days in Deerfield. After visits with my sources that almost always proved fruitless, I took the opportunity to stop at the Deerbrook Mall (now on its last legs) and knock around a bit. I found a great butcher shop around the corner and would get roast beef sandwiches for lunch. Those were the best part of my day, because after I’d have to drive home and figure out what I would write about—more car burglaries, I suppose.

The suburban beat wasn’t the only part of Intro to Journalism. Aside from reporting, each Medill student had to take copy-editing. It was taught by Buck Ryan, who was a young, immaculate and seemingly hard-assed copy editor at the Tribune. I liked him and his class.

Once during the week, maybe a couple times now that I think about it, we’d break into a lab—it was the same group with whom we started in the fall—where we’d write headlines and design pages. Medill’s education was such that even though newspapers were increasingly using computers, we learned the old-school methods, in case we ended up at a small paper that didn’t have computers. So we learned how to count headlines and size photos via the wheel, count inches on lined pages and use a pica pull—skills that long since have been lost to software.

During lab, which was led by instructors similar to the reporting side, we’d get a schedule of stories and lay them out in logical order, write the headlines, size photos and turn in the page in a certain amount of time.

A funny thing happened: Whereas everything I wrote had to be rewritten—unlike everyone else in my crew—in copy-editing lab, I didn’t have to redo anything, and my grades always seemed to be better than everyone else’s. It was as though the more rigid rules of copy editing suited me better than free-form reporting. I didn’t know how much I could hang my hat on that, but at least I had something.

But as Christmas drew near, I knew Judgment Day was coming—when the staff would decide the fate of the students on the fence. All indications were I was one of those students, and with that, we’ll put an old-school –30– on this report.

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