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Andy Borowitz humorist, New Yorker and New York Times contributor Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it's rarely so funny and absorbing as these classic middle columns from The Wall Street Journal. For A-hed addicts everywhere, this book is an unalloyed treat.
Editor and Publisher Magazine "The Wall Street Journal doesn't usually seem synonymous with humor" but this book "proves it too has a funny bone."
1. Phone Hex
It was a first date, and Lee Cruz was necking in the car. In midtussle, she jostled the cell phone in her purse and, without realizing it, she triggered speed-dial No. 2, which rang up her ex-boyfriend.
He answered and listened in. For 22 minutes.
One thing she says struck her eavesdropping ex as especially memorable: "No, no," she told the new beau. "You're a married man."
Introducing yet another unforeseen hazard of the Information Age - the SEND or TALK button on your wireless phone. On many portable phones, hitting SEND will automatically redial the last number you called or someone on your speed-dial list. So it takes just the tiniest slip of the finger to broadcast the audio track of your life to someone you know who wasn't supposed to hear it.
"He didn't have to sit there and listen to it," moans Ms. Cruz.
But they almost always do sit there and listen.
"Of course I want to hear this," says Andrea Carla Michaels, owner of Acme Naming, a San Francisco product- and company-naming firm.
A few years back, Ms. Michaels was treated to a half-hour answering-machinerecording of her boyfriend at the time, Matt Palmer. Mr. Palmer, who had inadvertently pressed SEND on his cell, was discussing women with four male friends after a night of drinking at the Comet Club.
She could have erased the tape once she realized what was going on. But why on earth would she do that?
Ms. Michaels was 37 years old; Mr. Palmer was 27. Would Mr. Palmer's friends make fun of the age gap? "I'm much more in the camp of wanting to know the worst than not wanting to know something," she says. "There's nothing I don't want to know."
In the end, Ms. Michaels herself was unmentioned in the taped conversation. But the next day she called Mr. Palmer and played back a few choice bits.
Mr. Palmer, who now runs MP8 International, an Internet telephony sales and marketing firm in Ketchum, Idaho, considers himself lucky. "It could have been a lot more incriminating than it was," he says.
Few cell-phone nightmare scenarios come close to what Wendy Harrington inflicted on herself last summer. She had been fending off a particularly persistent suitor for weeks, but when he invited her for an island weekend, she accepted, on the condition that her roommate come along, too.
En route on the ferry, Ms. Harrington called her host from her cell phone and left a message giving him her arrival time. Then, as her phone sat in her purse, she apparently hit the SEND button just as her roommate was prodding her to explain why she wasn't attracted to the guy. Ms. Harrington mentioned a few positives. But the 20-minute deconstruction soon turned brutally frank, touching on his habit of practicing his golf swing without a club and the two women's general disinclination to like men who wear cologne and say "shucks." Pouring on the salt, they discussed intimate details of Ms. Harrington's previous relationship with someone she describes as the "kinky doctor."
"I could not imagine a more emasculating conversation," she says. Only as they prepared to step ashore did she realize her phone had been engaged to her host's voice mail all the while.
"I hit END, feel a wave of dread - the kind that seems really bad at first and then just keeps getting worse," she recalls, speaking on condition that her suitor, the island and her hometown not be named. "My stomach is now churning with the knowledge that I might really hurt this nice man who has shown me nothing but adoration."
The poor fellow met the two women near the dock, and his uncomplicated smile suggested that he had yet to listen to the message. The three then headed for a restaurant, and he checked his voice mail. "Wendy, it sounds like you called me from the boat," she remembers his saying. "It sounds like you're having a great time."
She dreaded the denouement, but he stayed on the phone only briefly and said he would get back to the message later.
That set the tone for the rest of the weekend. He received several other phone messages, always skipping over hers to listen to the new ones. They went waterskiing. They ate in restaurants. "The whole weekend his phone is terrifying me," she says.
Finally Sunday arrived, and the women left for home. It was only then, apparently, that her message got through to her gracious host. "We never talked again," Ms. Harrington says. One lesson she learned from the harrowing experience: Lock the keypad on your phone when you put it down.
But the more that wireless phones proliferate, the greater the chances of embarrassing faux pas. Not long ago, Ed Salvato, senior editor of PlanetOut.com Travel, a gay Internet travel site based in West Hollywood, Calif., and some friends were in a car having a very graphic conversation about the sexual adventures some men they knew had at a desert resort.
A half-hour later, Mr. Salvato's mother phoned him. That wouldn't be unusual, except that Mr. Salvato's cell phone was new, and, while he had his parents' number programmed into speed dial, they didn't have his number. They did, however, have a new Caller ID device, and the two technologies colluded against Mr. Salvato. He had unwittingly dialed his parents, who overheard smatterings of the conversation and, after disconnecting, called back the number on Caller ID.
"Did you hear what we said?" Mr. Salvato asked his mother, alarmed. She just claimed to have overheard some "joshing."
"She had 'mother's ears' on," he says with relief.
Some telephonic mishaps aren't about sex. Robbie Herzig was deep into a job interview in Denver when a friend called. Ms. Herzig thought she was sending the call to voice mail, but instead accidentally answered it. The friend overheard her detailed pitch for more stock options and a bigger salary.
Ms. Herzig got the job, and now does strategic planning at ClientLogic, which provides marketing and other services for e-commerce companies. But she has never told her boss about the cell-phone incident.
"I work for a technology company," she explains. "You don't want to admit that you can't work technology."
- MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS, May 2000
Excerpted from Floating Off the Page by Ken Wells Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|Chapter 1||The Way We Are Now|
|2||"Nothing Personal. We Sue All Our Friends."||10|
|3||Men Will Be Boys ...||14|
|4||... And Some Boys Will Stay That Way||18|
|5||Not Your Mother's Cemetery||22|
|6||Why the Girl Scouts Sing the Blues||26|
|7||Pity the Toad||30|
|8||Ruff! Ruff! Ruffage! Here, Rover, Have a Nice Bean Sprout!||34|
|10||The Deeper Meaning of Mail||42|
|11||Luck Among the Ruins||47|
|12||The Art of the Perfectly Awful||53|
|13||Roasted Porcupine and Basil, With a Hint of Tire Mark||58|
|14||Domes of Resistance||61|
|15||The Agonies of Miss Ag||64|
|16||And the Winner for Placing the Most Bras Is ...||69|
|17||Men in Brown||72|
|20||Rise Up, Ye Sleeveless Men!||82|
|21||Men Are from Hardware Stores, Women Are From ...||86|
|Chapter 3||Things You Might Not Know|
|22||The Fat Man Cometh||91|
|23||Prisons, Guns and Knickers||97|
|24||But Will the Klingons Understand Deuteronomy?||100|
|25||The Steak Tender, the Soup Positively Rodentine||104|
|26||The Sky, Sometimes, Is Actually Falling||108|
|27||The Offal Truth||112|
|28||Carrots, No Schtick||115|
|29||Your Orthodontist and Ewe||119|
|Chapter 4||Men at Work|
|30||The Waning Days of Mr. Coke||123|
|31||Fishing with His Nose||128|
|32||Blowing Up on the Job||132|
|33||"Bear Hunting Is Hard on Wives"||136|
|34||Charles Atlas, Grandpa||140|
|35||One Writer's Novel Problem||144|
|36||The Longest Replay||149|
|37||The Bean of His Existence||153|
|38||Y2K Alert! (But It's 1980)||157|
|39||Claim That Tune!||162|
|40||This Cup Must Not Be Runneth Over||167|
|Chapter 6||What We Wrote Home About|
|41||A Navy and Its Demons (and Dragons)||171|
|42||A Fence Without End||175|
|43||The Last Word||179|
|44||Touring God's Country||183|
|45||Smoke Got in Their Eyes||185|
|46||Yes, We Have No Bananas||188|
|47||Of Counterculture, Counter Cultures and Pig Rights||193|
|48||A Night Among the Snipers||197|
|49||Things Are Hopping in New York||201|
|50||The Struggles of Otter 76||203|
|Chapter 7||Play's the Thing|
|52||Golfing in the Spring: One Hole, Par 70||215|
|53||Having a Fling or Two||219|
|54||Why Tiger Is Glad He's Not Japanese||223|
|55||Not Your Father's Buick||226|
|Chapter 8||Notions and Controversies|
|58||China, in Stride||237|
|59||No, This Isn't How They Invented Chicken Tenders||241|
|60||Why the Future Isn't Coming Up Roses||244|
|Chapter 9||Scribes, Describing|
|61||Traveling Cheap, but Not Sleazy||249|
|62||In Praise of Small Words||254|
|63||Z-less in Zanzibar||256|
|64||Being Hip in Cairo||259|
|65||Check Out That New Model--Uh, I Don't Mean the Car||263|
|67||Play It Again, Ma'am||272|
|Index of Contributors||281|
"A-hed" — Named because it is shaped roughly like a capital A, it is The Wall Street Journal's internal designation for a one-column, three-line, 18-point Caslon Italic headline, with an indented one-column, three-line, 12-point Scotch Roman deck, framed in a box formed by a quarter-point rule, and anchored on each side by dingbats. Alternatively, the feature story that sits under that headline in the "middle column" of the Journal's front page. When executed properly, with solid reporting, wit and fine writing, it is so light and engaging that it seems to float off the page.
What, you may ask, are feuding nudists, dueling translators of the Bible into Klingon, and the makers of high-quality prison underwear doing on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?
They have shared the umbrella of the "A-hed" and become part of its lore.
When the first A-hed appeared on Page One of this newspaper on Dec. 17, 1941, the kernel of a great idea had clearly been planted. World War II had been under way for ten days and the nation, according to the short piece that didn't carry a byline, was caught with a peculiar shortage for those suddenly patriotic times — American flags.
For its time, that story amounted to a flight of sheer whimsy. The Journal back then was known exclusively for its single-minded coverage of business. That valuable piece of journalistic real estate known as the "middle column" was not yet fixed in its offerings; it had taken various styles of headlines and was given over to numerous matters core to the paper's purpose — commodities charts, stock trends, business briefs. But the paper, already more than a half-century old, was in the throes of major change, and that first A-hed was a glimpse of its broader future.
Of course, the Journal is still predominantly and preeminently a business publication, but regular readers of our pages know that the modern paper, here and globally, energetically covers politics, social issues, societal trends and, in its Friday Weekend section, travel, leisure, arts and even sports. And five days a week, on its front page, the Journal delivers up an A-hed whose chief purpose is analogous to an aperitif or fine dessert — it sweetens and pleases the palate of readers ready to tackle (or take a break from) stories about bonds, microchips and commodities futures. Not that an A-hed can't be serious; in its early days it usually was, and it still sparingly is — witness, herein, former Journal staffer Charlie McCoy's moving tale about the efforts to save an oil-smeared sea otter during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, or Joshua Harris Prager's story on the personal trials of former major-league baseball player Bill Buckner long after his game-turning error in the 1986 World Series.
The credit for inventing the A-hed concept surely goes to Bernard "Barney" Kilgore, father of the modern Wall Street Journal, and Bill Kerby, the Journal's first Page One editor. Mr. Kilgore, a mild-mannered Midwesterner, joined the paper right out of DePauw University and became its managing editor in 1941 at the age of 30. More clearly than anyone before, he saw the Journal's future as a truly national newspaper, one that would keep itself rooted in Wall Street but, on its front page, deliver the wider world in a voice that tempered the urgency of a metropolitan newspaper with the analysis and stylish writing of a good magazine. His famous declaration — "Don't write banking stories for bankers. Write for the banks' customers" — cut the Journal loose from its stiff, almost technical writing style. He created a rewrite and editing staff for Page One and put Mr. Kerby in charge of it. Whole new forms were invented — What's News, which delivered world, national and business news in punchy capsules; the Column 1 "leder," whose aim was and is to illuminate matters of social, cultural or political importance, or to demystify events in the news; and, not least, the A-hed.
Year after year, the middle column, according to Wall Street Journal readership surveys, continues to be among the paper's best-read features. It has been emulated by countless U.S. newspapers and some magazines; journalism professors across the nation routinely clip it and give it to students with the admonition: "If you wish to write well, learn to write like this." In 1971, a Fortune magazine feature on the Journal helped to cement the A-hed's place as an icon of contemporary journalism by describing it as a story often so engaging and light "as almost to float off the page" (hence the title of this book).
If Mr. Kilgore, who died in 1967, helped invent the A-hed, it's also true that the form was still very much a work in progress into the 1960s. On many days, the A-hed resembled that very first one — a short business story with a quirk. (One example: a piece on how World War II was very good for the greeting-card industry.) Alternatively, it was often a news feature. When the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in September 1959, his travels and doings occupied the A-hed spot for five days running — an occurrence entwined with a bit of Barney Kilgore lore. Or, as Fred Taylor, a Journal managing editor who was aboard then, recalls: "The late, great Barney Kilgore was gadget happy and had just got one of the first car phones. So the reporters trailing Khrushchev used Barney's car, calling in their stories on the wonderful phone to the extent they ran down the car battery and got stuck somewhere in Iowa."
The success of the A-hed owes as much to the quality of ideas as it does to good writing, and the idea factory itself owes much to Journal culture. Page One has always been famously picky about A-hed ideas, yet famously egalitarian about who comes up with them. It is still very much a decentralized art. Any reporter at the paper can pitch and write an A-hed for Page One, as can (and have) news assistants and interns (with proper guidance and editing, of course). Once an idea is accepted, the paper gives the lucky scribe what most metro newspapers would consider a languid amount of time to report and write a story that is usually under 1,500 words in length. True, many A-heds are done in a day or two, but it isn't uncommon for A-heds to take a week to report and a week to write — even longer. Consider that when Journal staffer Carrie Dolan alighted in the San Francisco bureau as a fresh-faced college graduate in 1982, she soon found herself in conference with Ken Slocum, the taciturn Texan who was bureau chief at the time. A clever features man, Mr. Slocum had a Texan's bias against what he considered fancy, overpriced, big-city hotels. He inexplicably shoved a note across the desk to Ms. Dolan that mused that it was probably possible for a person to travel across country for the price of a single night in the more expensive hotels in the Journal's headquarters city of New York.
Carrie was starting to wonder what that had to do with her when Ken drawled: "So Carrie, you better get goin'" — and then broke into a chorus of the Willie Nelson song "On the Road Again."
And off she went, in an account that appears in this book, driving for a week coast-to-coast in a cheap rental car, trying to prove Mr. Slocum's theory in the A-hed column.
Ms. Dolan's story shows what comes of a quirky set piece, well executed. The A-hed's history is also filled with stories of opportunity — reporters in exotic, remote, even dangerous locations putting their well-honed features eyes to the ground around them and coming up with gems. Barry Newman, unquestionably the current dean of Journal A-hed writers, was banging about the Australian Outback in the spring of 1978 when he realized that the Aussies had built a barbed-wire fence longer than the Great Wall of China to separate sheep-eating dingoes (wild dogs) from the nation's wool crop. It was certainly an A-hed but there was a small hurdle: A New York editor, who could not envision the splendor of such a fence from so far away, cabled Mr. Newman to say that such a story probably wasn't worth spending more than $200 on. So Mr. Newman rented exactly $200 of air time from a local pilot with a small plane and got the color he needed from above.
Tony Horwitz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper in 1995 for his coverage of workplace issues, recalls covering the conflict in Serbia and realizing that there were probably A-heds even in that madness. So one night, at considerable risk, he crawled up a hill above Sarajevo and into a Serbian sniper's pit where he spent time with Serbian gunmen discussing Isaac Bashevis Singer stories while the Serbs sporadically sprayed sniper fire on Croats below. (Mr. Horwitz, now a full-time author on leave from The New Yorker, got his story; it was impossible to tell whether the Serbs got any of their targets.)
Adventure, pathos, humor, irony — this is the stuff of storytelling and the elixir of storytellers. If The Wall Street Journal were a house, the A-hed would surely be our front porch — a place where stories are spun out with a kind of spare exuberance, for an audience of clever listeners.
So pull up a chair and enjoy!
Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Posted February 23, 2012