Jim Bishop: More than a 1,000 later, columns still standing

Column by Jim Bishop
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“Twenty years now . . . where’d they go?
Twenty years . . . I don’t know . . .”
– Bob Seger, “Like a Rock” (1986)

How did it all come to pass so quickly?

Feb. 20, 2010, marked my 20th anniversary of churning out a weekly column treatise that magically occupies a set space in the “Saturday” newsmagazine of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record.

More than a thousand column clippings have accumulated, stashed in a large Tupperware container at home, with some of the earlier newsprint discourses starting to yellow and fade (sorta like me). Some day I will likely commit them to the dark recesses of the archives of the Menno Simons Historical Library, sharing space with the musings of the patriarchs of the noble university where I have labored nearly 39 years.

Looking back, it’s no surprise that my inaugural column, reprinted here, lamented the sorry state of today’s popular music (20 years ago), and my strong feelings in this area haven’t abated. But, I never expected a second column to follow and gravitate into a weekly conversation.

I’ve often thought, given today’s technology, that a software program would be available by now to enter a column topic or theme and moments later finished copy magically appears on the terminal screen in my journalistic style, thus giving fresh import to the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

My biggest fan over the years has been . . . (drum roll) . . . my dear mom, Ann Bishop. She departed this world at age 88 for a far better place late December this past year, but her inspiration and spirit of encouragement continue to assuage that unrelenting weekly deadline.

At the same time, this merciless deadline has proven a valuable discipline that in turn energizes and complements my “regular” labors in the educational arena. One of the trickiest tricks of composing this weekly discourse continues to be a concerted effort to steer clear of using this medium as a platform to promote my workplace, Eastern Mennonite University. I believe I’ve largely succeeded, except for those few times where a person from EMU has been featured or certain references made because they “fit” with the subject matter.

Many times, reflecting on, processing and writing about a tough issue – such as suicide, the death of a parent, a personal setback or life-threatening illness – has been cathartic and liberating.

I think my best work has arisen from human interest and profile-type pieces that require extra time and effort to go “on site” and do interviews or research. It’s difficult to do more pieces in this vein because of other work demands as well as my weekly radio programs. I’ve also avoided certain themes and issues that I have strong feelings about because people connect me with EMU and assume that I’m speaking for the institution even though I try to separate these two roles. Perhaps I’ll feel freer to expound on certain topics if I’m still holding forth in retirement – which isn’t that far off.

Over these two decades one of the biggest changes is not so much how I turn ideas and opinions into columns as the means for doing so. At the outset, I was still committing words to paper on a trusty IBM Selectric II typewriter, which soon gave way to generating words via IBM DisplayWrite software to a printer connected to my stand-alone computer terminal. Every week, I would hand-deliver the hard copy to my editor at the DN-R, who in turn would re-keyboard the copy.

Next came the floppy disc, which didn’t necessarily save a lot of time or labor, as the paper’s computer system wasn’t fully compatible with mine. I’d still make a weekly trip to the newsroom, where typos and formatting problems frequently emerged

Things greatly improved once we were connected electronically, and I send my literary masterpieces as Word document attachments. This arrangement also gave more flexibility in cutting copy (a frequent request from ye editor) and making last-minute changes or corrections.

I’ve sought to follow this modus operandi while committing words first to paper and now to an electronic screen: While I can’t write about everything lightly, I will attempt to write brightly, civilly and candidly, making myself vulnerable in the process. Failure to do so increases the likelihood of failure to communicate.

Secondly, in exercising my craft, I do want to be taken seriously, even though I don’t take myself too seriously.

I continue to feel humbled and undeserving of the considerable affirmation received regularly from readers but am so thankful for the support I’ve felt from so many sources. When disagreements surface, the criticism has been constructive and helpful

I regret that I’m simply not able, given my other regular commitments, to respond personally to every email or letter (yes, I do get handwritten in the mail) but be assured, each is appreciated.

Someone defined “diplomacy” as “the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ while searching for a rock.”

In my jottings, some times I feel like a rock, taking aim at the commonplace, at everyday life, occasionally venturing into unexplored territory – sometimes hitting, sometimes missing the mark. I’ve not deliberately tried to injure anyone as I hurl thoughts, phrases and projectiles on a host of topics and themes.

I often pause in the midst of this semantic exercise and ask, “Who do I think I am? What gives me the right or authority to hold forth in this medium week after week on a plethora of subjects, some of which I lack sufficient facts or understanding of to even tackle.”

But then, I tell myself that I sense a calling to pursue this venture, this sacred trust, feeling blessed to have such an opportunity and outlet for these many years.

I am grateful for those times when told, “Thank you . . . you ‘spoke’ to me, you’re positive and encouraging, you made me laugh, made me think, you were right on target.”

I can scarcely ask for more than this. Thank you, my friends, as I press on toward the mark.

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