Tim Sample: Stories I Never Told You

Contempt prior to investigation

Tue, 10/29/2013 - 8:00am

One spring afternoon a couple of years back, I was returning from a visit to Florida when I decided to make a pit stop in Northern Virginia prior to hitting the Washington D.C. Beltway at rush hour.

Experience has taught me that a full gas tank and an empty bladder are prudent precautions when attempting to traverse this particular bumper-to-bumper, turn-signal-free-level of commuter hell.

Some of you will recall from previous rants on the subject, my strong preference (compulsion, after all, is such an ugly word) for using my cell phone only when the vehicle I’m piloting is stationary and safely parked.

So, after topping up the tank, I retrieved a few voicemail messages, one of which was from an editor, who’d recently taken the helm of my “hometown newspaper” back in Maine. He was calling to offer me a weekly column in that very same publication.

At the time our national economy was just beginning the agonizing transition from “glacial” to “sluggish,” so you’d think that a job offer, any job offer, would have gotten my full attention. Yet halfway through the message my eyes glazed over and my mind began a slow drift toward, “Here we go again.”

To be fair, my enthusiastic correspondent had no way of knowing that, over the years, I’d successfully rebuffed a half dozen similar pitches from other well-meaning newspaper editors. I’d simply heard the pitch often enough to know that I wasn’t the least bit interested, period, end of story.

Not that I had ever actually written a newspaper column you understand. Nope, not even one just to see what the experience might be like. Why bother trying when I already “knew” I wasn’t interested.

My “reasoning” if you could even call it that, went something like this:

I can’t take the pressure of a weekly deadline.

There’s no money in it.

Who can argue with such logic? Hmm, that would be a good question, if it were not for the fact that in this instance nobody was arguing with me. It’s true. I’m embarrassed to report that the entire hypothetical question and answer session took place strictly within the confines of my own fevered cranium.

My perspective (or lack of it) stands as a classic example of that marvelously human shortcoming first identified by 18th century Christian apologist and philosopher William Paley as “contempt prior to investigation.”

According to Paley, “There is a principal which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principal is contempt prior to investigation.”

Although the highfalutin’ language has long since fallen out of fashion, example’s of the truth behind Paley’s dictum are certainly plentiful here in the 21st century, only nowadays we’ve boiled it down to a simple two-line mantra: “My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Fortunately, my natural “contempt prior to investigation” is often tempered by at least a modicum of etiquette. So I returned the editor’s call and made a reasonable effort at keeping an open mind.

Just as he was getting to the part of the pitch where he wanted me to write a thousand words a week for 52 weeks, a little buzzer began to sound in some dusty math challenged corner of my brain.

I interrupted him;

Me: “How many words altogether?”

Editor: “That would be roughly 50,000 words over the next 12 months.”

Fifty thousand words? Where had I heard that number before? Oh, right! For the past year or two, I’d been struggling to put together a 50,000-word book manuscript. My goal was to produce a lighthearted “memoir” of sorts.

I even had what I figured was a pretty good title, “Stories I Never Told You.”

At it turned out, the title was fine. The manuscript itself, on the other hand, was pretty awful. Turgid, overwrought and self-conscious, it was anything but “light hearted.”

Then it hit me. Maybe by writing a column a week for an entire year I could finally put together that elusive manuscript.

So I took the job and now, about halfway into my second year as a “columnist” I’m pleased to report that I’m enjoying the enterprise far more than I ever could have imagined.

Last week I entered final negotiations with a publisher for a book based on my columns. Just as soon as I’ve hammered out the last few words in this one, I’ll hit the “send” button, thereby meeting my 75th consecutive weekly deadline!

If I’d only known how good that feels, I’d have started doing it a long time ago.