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Idling Away the Hours Sitting Really Close to the Fire

November 13, 1994|DANA PARSONS

The clock on my computer is reading 18:49. Make that 18:50.

That means it's 6:50 p.m. on Friday, and a Sunday column that was due an hour ago is not done. Not only is it not done, the subject for it has not yet been thought of. It's a condition we in the business call "writer's block." If it persists, it becomes known as "grounds for firing."

It's not that I haven't tried to think of something. I've considered topics from politics to sports to the natural sciences to "strange coincidences." Nor am I limiting myself to a particular writing style--I'm prepared to go with anything from trenchant analysis to sharply barbed humor to maudlin slop. If I could sketch, I'd try that.

And yet, nothing. Column ideas that sound promising one second are consigned to oblivion the next. In a world now judged to be at least 8 billion years old, I'm unable to think of anything that ever happened about which to write.

To make matters worse, the clock on the computer screen can't be removed, which means that I have to continually stare at it as ideas go down the drain. Each passing minute mocks my ineptitude. 18:59 and counting. I wish there were a fuse connected to it so when it hit 19:00 I would vaporize into a time traveler and be 13 and back in Omaha playing baseball in the alley.

The office is virtually empty, because the other staffers have completed their assigned duties on time. Hooray for them, the little do-gooders. I wish them a nice weekend, but you can't imagine how hollow that sentiment is.

I've been telling my boss all afternoon that I have no ideas, but all he did was shift his weight and look down at his shoes. That's how I know he wishes he were somewhere else. He thinks this is a game I play with him, that I'm crying wolf. He thinks I enjoy acting for hours like I have no ideas, only to spring one on him at the last minute in a twisted attempt to gain favor. How little the man knows of me.

Around dinner time, I humbled myself and begged him for help. OK, he said, how about a column on how the government could save money by selling Alaska. I shifted my weight and looked down at my shoes. We branched out from there to a possible column identifying a number of states that could be sold, along with the reasons why and potential costs savings. That killed about 10 minutes, and then I went and had some barbecued chicken and macaroni in the cafeteria.

The clock now reads 19:21. I just polished off my third Coke in the last 90 minutes. Now, in addition to not having any ideas, I'm extremely jumpy.

19:23. I decided to visit our library, hoping that one of the dozens of reference books would trigger an idea. Sometimes that's all it takes, a tiny spark to set off the slightly damp kindling that constitutes my brain matter.

I glanced at some of the titles:

"100 Years of Public Education in Orange County."

"Plants and Animals of the Santa Ana River in Orange County."

"The New Oxford Companion to Music. Vol. 1 A-J."

"The New Oxford Companion to Music. Vol. 2 K-Z."

My eye caught a book titled "American Nicknames." I opened to a page at random and came upon this passage: "Hard-headed Pete, Headstrong Pete or Hardkopping Piet, Old Silver Leg or Old Silver Nails, The One-Legged Governor and Wooden Leg are sobriquets which have been applied to Peter Stuyvesant."

19:52 and still a blank. In desperation, I fell back on the oldest columnist trick in the book: Interesting Things That Have Happened to Me in My Life.

19:53. That subject exhausted, I began leafing through things in my office. Surely, in four years of sitting back here in this Godforsaken hostage cell, I had accumulated something that could be grist for a column--a scrap of paper, a note with smudged lettering, a mysterious yellowing document, a secret correspondence from an anonymous source. . . .

Sadly, more dead ends. At best, I could only produce a rubber band and stapler, some hand lotion, dental floss, a 1994-95 Mighty Ducks official yearbook, a large number of paper clips neatly arranged on my desktop and the owner's manual for my automatic garage door opener, which I had misplaced months ago.

Temporarily brightened by finding the manual, I smiled for the first time all day.

20:40. My boss just went home. He stopped by to ask how things were going, and I replied, "Really good."

Relieved, he asked what I finally settled on, but I didn't have the heart to tell him I hadn't settled on anything.

After all, why not let him enjoy his weekend?

Why make him fire me on a Friday night?

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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