Headlines, toothpicks share commonalities

Wow, what a misleading headline. I was obsessed with putting something up as a placeholder before I actually knew what I would be writing about with this column, so I just plunked something up there. In theory, I’d go back and change it once I figure out what I’ll be writing. But in practice, deadline will loom and I will have forgotten about it, so you, the reader, will be put in the middle, struggling to figure out what the heck you missed. When, in fact, I was the one who missed something.

Here’s a dirty little secret about headlines: the process isn’t at all scientific. Copy editors simply make them up, often without fully reading the copy beneath, which explains a lot of the disconnectedness. I’ve learned to supply copy editors with suggested headlines because in a real pinch, they sometimes actually resort to using the words of the person who wrote the story. That’s just the way it goes.

Headlines are a place where copy editors (or anyone higher up on the publication’s feeding chain) can publicly spank writers by saddling us with something cheesy. People assume we write all our own headlines. And that assumption would be wrong. “Hey,” I feel like shouting, “If I want to look stupid in print, I am perfectly capable of achieving it on my own – without your help.” And I often do. But that doesn’t stop them from flipping me the occasional bird via crappy headline construction.

Many times, the chief concern with headlines is coming up with an action-oriented sentence in the desired font size that fits the space. For instance, Different Drum traditionally wears a two-column wide, 24-point font headline. If my suggested headline is slightly longer than that opening, the editor can italicize it into fitting: the equivalent of sucking in your gut to fasten a slightly tight pair of slacks. Anything bigger and you’ve got a problem that requires thought and word substitution. Unpopular with an approaching deadline.

Now that I’ve revealed a highly confidential trade secret, I probably should start fearing for my life. We can’t have readers knowing the way such matters are really settled behind the scenes. So I’ll switch topics. Now we’re gonna talk toothpick.

When has it become socially acceptable to pick one’s teeth publicly? To me, it’s the dental equivalent of baseball pitchers adjusting their junk on the mound. Yes, I know it’s necessary at times, but I’d rather not witness it. And I especially hate watching diners who pick their teeth at the table. Eewww!

I was traumatized during my early years by my grandparents’ friend, Floyd. He’s long gone, but Floyd toothpick-induced trauma remains. Floyd was a know-it-all who began most sentences with “See,” which indicated he thought himself in the know about everything and if you came over to his side immediately, no one would get hurt. Conversationally, he addressed all females, from girls to grannies, as “sister.”

A perpetual, chewed-to-death toothpick bobbing from his mouth, he’d always admonish me with a, “See, sister, that’s just the way it goes.” My childhood Floyd encounters left me feeling dumb and disrespected, with a flat, sucked-on-toothpick taste in my mouth.

Driving down the highway the other day, I experienced a different sort of bad taste: a popcorn hull lodged between two rear teeth that had bugged me for two days and for the first 25 miles of the trip. In the absence of dental floss, I got creative. Rejecting the too thick corner of a business card and a too thin Post-It note, I settled on the “just right” edge of my allergy pill blister pack. Ahhhhhh! The feeling of satisfaction from dislodging the dental debris was immediate and immense.

“What are you gonna do with that?” my son wanted to know. Good question. He suggested swallowing the popcorn hull because that’s what I’d intended to do in the first place. But two days later, it sounded disgusting. So I wiped it onto a fast food napkin and shoved that into my pocket. Odds were, I’d forget to remove it before laundering the pants.

“Eewww,” grimaced my son.

“See, brother,” I said, “that’s just the way it goes.”


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