Today is National Columnists Day. Really. I'm not just making that up to get you to buy me a beer.
Not that I would turn down such a generous offer.
The National Society of Newspaper Columnists created this day to, let's face it, blow our own horns -- but also to commemorate and salute the legendary Ernie Pyle, the greatest columnist you've never heard of.
I'd certainly never heard of him before I joined the NSNC, being neither a World War II buff, a newspaper geek nor an octogenarian.
Pyle wrote his columns from the front lines, under conditions most of us, particularly the freelance humor writers, will fortunately never have to endure. I grumble if I have to write my column late at night, or on the road, or with a hangover.
Pyle actually got killed doing his job. Aside from genuine foreign correspondents in combat zones, most of us scribes would have to really work at that. The only way that would happen to me, for example, is if I got crushed under a filing cabinet or suffered a stroke while threatening an editor ... who would then handle my obituary.
Do you have any idea how awful it would be to have to come back to haunt a newsroom in the afterlife? You wouldn't even be able to join in the witty banter -- you'd be reduced to impotently pushing over coffee mugs, blowing cold drafts on the night copy desk and making the police scanner even more static-y.
Nobody would even be able to tell you were there.
Most of the time, columnists feel a bit aggrieved and under appreciated. A few are lucky to feel that they are making a difference, improving people's lives, winning humanitarian awards and so on, but the vast majority are hassled about deadlines, pilloried in the Comments and enthusiastically if clumsily insulted via email. And that's when we're not being scolded for not delivering someone's paper on time.
We are famously rumpled, amoral, vain, vulgar and completely uninterested in the truth. But that's a stereotype that, like most stereotypes, is hardly fair. I know several columnists personally who aren't rumpled at all. The iron hasn't gone the way of the typewriter yet!
Columnists have resurfaced in the popular consciousness recently. Tom Hanks is appearing in a Broadway play by the late Nora Ephron about New York tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, who blew the lid off a police corruption scandal, got cripplingly sued for libel and redeemed himself by winning a Pulitzer before dying way too young.
And of course we just lost Roger Ebert, another Pulitzer winner, who definitely has better things to do in the afterlife than lurk in a newsroom burning microwave popcorn. I bet right now he's talking about "Oh, God!" with Gene Siskel, George Burns and ... God.
Putting aside the implication that the only beloved columnist is a dead columnist, I'm wondering if maybe the attention on the profession/craft/magic act will give us the 15 minutes we need to get hip again. (We were hip at some point, right? In the '30s maybe? It would help if we could have our fedoras and flasks back, but then the sportswriters are going to get all mouthy and that's no good.)
The hipsters like anything their grandparents enjoyed -- bowling, ukuleles, a full beard, knitting, bingo -- so columnists are ripe for retro chic. Get ahead of the trend by starting an Ernie Pyle fan club in your neighborhood.
Or just help a columnist enjoy something hip. A nice strong craft ale, maybe. I like Trois Pistoles.
Samantha Bennett, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.