Opinion » Bill Cope

Emergency Column

Think of the following words as styrofoam peanuts

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First, let me tell you what you would have been reading here this week, had not somebody over in the BW sales department sold the big-ass ad you see on this same page. See, I usually decide what I'm going to write about 10 days or so before it ends up in the paper, and 10 days ago, I'd just finished reading a National Geographic article on the plight of mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when I watched a nature show about the decline of lions throughout Africa. In an alarmingly short stretch of time, the number of lions have plunged from 100,000 or so to about 30,000, due largely to being crowded out of their habitat by people. It's depressing to think there are only 30,000 lions left on a continent the size of Africa, is it not? Yes, it is. And as I said, this came on the heels of finding out from the NG article that there are only 720 mountain gorillas left in the wild. To make matters worse, those surviving mountain gorillas have the misfortune to be living in arguably the most savage area on Earth, smack dab in between the AK-47s of several rebel insurgency factions and corrupt militaries, dirt-poor Congolese who are cutting down Africa's remaining jungle to make charcoal out of it and people who are so desperate, they will eat anything—including gorillas—and let me tell you ... it's a mess. Then, for the icing on this depressing cake, the U.S. Census Bureau had just released a report projecting that by 2012, the world's population (of people) would hit the 7 billion mark.

No, I take that back. Within a day or two of all the rest, a letter showed up on the Statesman's editorial page from a local man who, in essence, insisted there was no animal worth protecting if it means not drilling for oil, anywhere and everywhere. That was the real icing on the cake.

So, by Sunday night, 10 days ago, my subject for today's column had been decided. It was like God had laid a bunch of loosely related items out on a table before me and whispered in my ear, "Ya' know, Bill ... somebody oughta be making one thing out of all this." (Attention: I did not say God speaks to me. I only said it was like that, so don't go to calling me messianic or something. It was merely a simile to make a point.)

I spent parts of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and a little bit of Thursday working on that column. There was nothing unusual about how much time it took to write it. As much as I admire real journalists who can knock out a report on something that happened at 11 o'clock on a Wednesday night so fast it will be in Thursday morning's paper, that's not what I do. Opinions just don't spring wholly formed from my brow, and even if they did, it takes time to figure out a unique and interesting way to express them. Plus, not only do I have to figure out how to effectively communicate what I think, but I have to do it in the same amount of space I did it in last week's column, and the week before that, and every other week.

By mid-Thursday morning (my deadline is normally Friday, but as last Friday was the Fourth, I got done early), I had whittled what I'd written down to fit my allotted space, and I was cautiously satisfied enough with it that I was ready to hand it over to BW. I say "cautiously" because even when I'm not passionate about what I'm writing, I try my best to make it look like I am. I consider it my job. And even though the preservation of wildlife is the one issue I am most passionate about, it's never easy to put that passion down on paper so that readers will sympathize. It's not enough to say, "Golly balls, am I passionate about wildlife!" There has to be something else, something that will resonate. Something that will pluck the reader's strings, know what I mean? And whenever I'm trying to pluck readers' strings, I can never know beforehand whether I've pulled it off or not. I put together a progression of images, add a few similes or snide remarks for flavor, schmaltz the language up to just short of pukey, throw in a fact or two, and when I'm done, I can only hope it works. When I'm completely satisfied, it's like I feel I couldn't have added or cut or changed one word in the end result. (Now, that may be a tad messianic, but that's how I feel. So there.)

By noon Thursday, the piece was in the hands of BW's staff. By Thursday afternoon, there was a message on my machine from Leila (BW's art director) informing me that, because of an unusually large ad (the big-ass one you see below), I couldn't have my normally allotted space this week, and my column would have to be trimmed. Radically. I, like the mountain gorilla, was being crowded out of my habitat.

As you probably know, selling ad space is how newspapers make their money. I understand that. No newspaper could survive on what readers pay for it, and that's especially true of the free ones. So I wasn't about to throw a diva fit and declare, "No, I absolutely will not cut my creation down another word. You might as well ask Da Vinci to paint Mona just from the chin up."

On the other hand, I was (cautiously) satisfied that I had said what I'd set out to say, and could not cut anywhere near as much as Leila needed to have cut without bleeding the piece of all its resonating juice.

On Saturday morning, after stewing about it for a day, I decided to throw another, brand new, filler column together as quickly as possible, and save the old one for next week when (hopefully) I won't have to share the page with such a big-ass ad. And that is what you've just read, a hastily written hodge-podge that has no real purpose other than to fill in the space around an advertisement. It doesn't matter how this ends, because I wasn't really saying anything important anyway. If need be, the BW people can snip it off wherever best serves

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