One of the things they never warn you about when you get into the editor-of-a-weekly things is how aware you become of time.
Some of it, of course, is expected. Deadlines have to be met, events have to be attended, so there’s always that ticking stopwatch of what the poet called “Time’s winged chariot.” Fair enough, but it actually runs deeper than these immediate interests.
Every week you put together a newspaper. You line things out, load them into a computer, and you, in the whole keeping it organized thing, date your efforts. Well again, no big surprise. We all have jobs where we’re expected to keep organized to some degree or another, and it only follows a newspaper - an ordered pile of words and photos, end of the day - would require this. So I have to date files, no big deal, right? And yes, all that was expected, but still it runs deeper.
Every week (and be patient, I can do this without becoming maudlin) the obituaries come in. Obituaries, called “obits” in the trade, are a surprisingly big draw for newspapers. Online it’s one of our most-viewed categories, and in the paper itself it’s one of those things everybody at least skims. Hog prices? Sports scores? Cops? Robbers? Those get a lot of drive-by, but the obits, pretty much everyone pays some attention to them.
And because it’s going in the newspaper, I read the obits every week. Heck, I place them in the big computer every week. (Where they are then, like everything else you see, placed on pages by diligent people in other offices, who pass it on to people who create printing plates, who hand it to people who put the plates in a press, other people who print from the press, who then hand off the bundles to others who label and sort the papers, who get them to the distribution people, who then put it in your hands every week. It’s a wide-ranging process, but I digress.) Because if it’s going in the paper I read it word-for-word, including obits, make sure everything’s in order and get them loaded in.
Another aside to newspaper production. Most articles have to follow a fairly strict style guide as to how numbers and places are spelled out, that sort of thing. But obits, you don’t worry about that. In an obit beyond an egregious misspelling or something it runs as submitted. It means too much to the people who’ve asked us to print it - it is after all someone they care about - and if that means one of those arcane rules of newspaper presentation is violated, well, so be it.
And I can’t say I feel their loss, but I’m aware of it; and I can’t say I feel their pain, but I’m aware of it. I can say I’m aware that it’s a fairly constant thing, weekly, week by week, hitting the inbox, sometimes the fax machine, sometimes coming through the door, carefully written paper in hand, this sense of lives changing, of time’s effect.
It’s time passing. I had no idea the awareness of it would be so stark or, through obits especially, they being a person’s story with dates, so real. You handle it, interact with it, every week. Road projects and court cases, public votes and private investment, and those obits, always those obit. We live in this teeming, thriving, active place and I work to report on it, but it’s the obit, dated, entered, as the punctuation on each week’s publication, its story.
It’s not just being aware of time’s passing, we all are to some degree of course, but to time’s passing in such human measure. The punctuation is the end of the sentence, certainly, but it’s also what prepares you for the next sentence. Time’s winged chariot sails on.