Barking mad — American life at the end of 2017

barking madI had some structural work done on my house last week—several men beneath my kitchen floor made scary noises for a day or two, while upstairs the dogs went barking mad.

They heard strange men’s voices, but they couldn’t figure out where those voices were coming from. They ran from the front to the back of the house, looking out the windows. Not a creature was stirring, not even a squirrel. But the noise—it was definitely real, definitely a threat. So: WOOF! WOOF! They ran in circles in the kitchen, barking at the air until a friend mercifully took them to her house.

I know how they feel.

Barking mad. Aren’t we all?

A threat you can’t put your finger on? A sense of real danger with little tangible public evidence? So many possible sources of danger you can’t keep track of them all? (And that’s probably a blessing, because if you could it would surely drive you crazy.)

Welcome to the United States of America in the first almost-full year of the current presidency.

California’s burning—but, hey, North Korea could nuke it tomorrow. Losing net neutrality could make it impossible for me to do business online—but, hey, the tax bill signed yesterday ensures that the entire economy will implode. Party at the protest or on the breadline—your choice.

Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to be one bright light at the end of the endless tunnel we’re slogging through. But he could get fired any day now. My guess is Christmas Eve for maximal Scrooge-factor and minimal news coverage. And then it’s goodbye turkey dinner and hello protest march. God bless us, every one.

Stock up on the comfortable shoes and warm outdoor clothing, folks. And don’t let them make you feel crazy. Stay barking mad.


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What makes a great lede great?

You want pressure? Try to write a lede for a piece about writing a great lede.

My resident critic swats away every phrase I think of. It’s like Federer vs. Nadal in my head, like Navratilova vs. Graf at the 1985 U.S. Open (still the best tennis match I’ve ever seen). Steffi seemed on the cusp of beating the then-best player the women’s game had ever seen. And Martina’s superhuman ability threatened to become merely human. I remember screaming at the television, almost with each point.

Ah…nothing like a good digression to take the pressure off. Okay, ledes.

I found this lede in an article by Chris Smith on VanityFair.com:

"Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan"—a great lede

The lede paragraph is supposed to summarize the key points of the article. But is this piece really about Robert Mueller’s melanin? Or his work schedule?

No, it’s about Robert Mueller’s inexhaustible pursuit of Donald Trump. But I love the laid-back opening; it mirrors Mueller’s image. Cool. Indefatiguable. The exact opposite of the central figure he’s investigating.

Break the rules to make a great lede

“Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan.” It’s not a classic lede—it breaks the all the rules of a lede for a news story—and that’s exactly what makes it a great lede.

It pulls you up short. Say what? It’s like walking past a person in a business suit wearing a gorilla head. You can’t help but notice the incongruity. You want to know why it’s there. And so you keep reading.

In a newspaper article, the lede paragraph needs to sum up the story for readers who don’t have time to keep reading. But in a profile or a magazine article, the lede needs to capture the readers’ attention and draw them deeper into the story. We may think about Robert Mueller’s work, but who thinks about his skin? It’s an incongruous detail.

Now, incongruity is great, but only in small doses. You don’t want to become the writer who starts every piece from an odd angle. Or an outright digression (see above).

Well, I didn’t actually begin with the digression, did I? That might alienate the reader. You start reading an article about the best tennis matches of all time and you end up with an instructional piece about ledes. Tennis fans would be pissed off and the writers—well, they might have skipped this post altogether. And see what you would have missed?


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