Column writing is a lonely endeavor. Unlike news reporting, there are no experts or eyewitnesses to talk to, no photographers to chat up between interviews, no fiery arguments with editors: "You buried the lede, &%$@#!" "Did not, you son of a %&$%@!!" (Newsroom language can get colorful, even among friends.)
Once in a while, there's a precious moment of collaboration with a colleague, friend or family member but, for the most part, it's the writer - alone in a bubble with her thoughts - hammering away on her laptop under a relentless weekly deadline.
That's why feedback is cherished by most columnists. Even the slightest response from a reader reassures us that those 700 words we send into the universe every week aren't valued simply as a way to wrap a piece of scrod or house-train a puppy.
I love getting reaction from readers. I welcome it by e-mail, on the phone and in person. Kind words are welcomed, of course, but I even appreciate those mean, unminced words posted anonymously online like, "All she does is complain about getting old, and it's not even funny!" or "What kind of moron reads this drivel?" (which, if you think about it, is a hilariously ironic comment to leave at the end of a story).
Most weeks, I put my stuff out there and get little in return. That's OK; it's part of the deal. But, sometimes, there are weeks when reader response is especially hilarious, helpful or heart-warming. Such was the case in 2008.
Back in January, when I wrote about the sinus-clearing miracle that is the Neti pot (if you can get past the inherent humor of pouring salt water through your nostrils), I received "thank you's" from a plethora of formerly stuffed-up readers who were breathing better after purchasing a Neti of their own. It immensely was gratifying to know I had helped blow the collective nose of my readership. Some of you still tell me you haven't had sinus problems for months. If only I could remember to use mine every day, I might be having the same good fortune.
When I wrote in April of my frustrations with high prices at the pump, several readers wrote in with great gas-savings ideas, including numerous "get a decent tire gauge" recommendations, and a thinly veiled suggestion to lose weight: "An extra 100 pounds in your vehicle could reduce your MPG by up to 2 percent." (Point taken, anonymous reader!)
When I proposed the bib as the improbable but necessary fashion "must have," I was besieged by feedback from enthusiastic, soup-spilling supporters, including not one, but three owners of adult bib manufacturers. (I'm still waiting for a stylish, full-coverage model in navy pin stripes.)
In August, suffering from a crippling case of social anxiety, I put out a plea for "friends" for my new Facebook page. In a matter of hours, my "friend' count jumped from a couple dozen to 90! Now, I have a grand total of 118 "friends," including nieces and nephews who are mortified that their aunt has viewed their Facebook page, and people whose faces I'm not sure I would recognize in public. But, can anyone have too many friends, especially in these difficult times?
Which leads me to the worst week of the year - if not my life - back in March, when my dad died suddenly from a massive stroke. That week, readers responded in force - as confidantes, counselors or just adult children who had experienced the dreaded but inevitable passage of losing a beloved parent. I wrote that it was a club I never wanted to join, but in numbers, I ultimately found strength.
You shared with me your own stories of grief and loss. You told me how you made it through, and assured me that I, too, would survive the pain. It was an outpouring of sympathy and love that I will never forget. And it reminded me that, as lonely as some jobs can be, we are never really alone.
And so, my friends - Facebook and otherwise - let's keep that in mind as we venture into an unsettling and uncertain 2009. Let's resolve to find strength in numbers and comfort in each other - family, friends and strangers alike.
Because, as I've discovered in the nine months since my father passed, with strength and comfort comes hope for a better day.
And hope can't be had in a bubble.