Packing up some loose ends.

First let me crow a little about the college football playoff national championship game. Two weeks ago I predicted that Ohio State would upset Oregon, 35-31, for the first ever Division 1 college championship game decided by a playoff system.

For a long time in the fourth quarter of that game Ohio State led, 35-20, and I had dreams of hitting the score on the head. But Ohio State pulled away (or piled it on) to make the final score 42-20.

Although I missed the exact number of points, I at least got the winner right. And better yet my prediction that the playoff system would soon expand to eight teams seems even more likely given that this year’s game (on cable television) attracted an audience of 34 million viewers, not far behind the average audience of 39 million for the NFL playoff games (on broadcast channels). Time will tell if the college championship game becomes as big a deal as the Super Bowl, as I also predicted.

While I’m on a roll, let me take a chance on the February 1 Super Bowl: New England, 31, Seattle, 21. (Seattle looked terrible in the NFC championship game and did not win it as much as Green Bay lost it.)

Now, a few notes from some much appreciated readers:

When I wrote the December 31 column about new books that showed up under the Christmas tree, I thought that my riff on “how to sharpen pencils” (inspired by a whimsical book with that name by Mark Rees) would be the last word on that subject.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Reader Dick Snedeker, who is also a columnist for our sister newspaper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, brought to my attention a little known piece of Princeton University history:

“Your bit about pencil sharpening brought back some interesting and vivid memories of my early days after graduating when I taught engineering drawing to freshman engineering students at Princeton,” wrote Snedeker, Princeton Class of 1951.

“Up through the 1950s, all freshman engineers had to take two semesters of engineering drawing so they would know how to show their ideas and designs on paper in a manner that others could understand. Since there were no computers or other mechanical devices to help in the process, they had to depend on their own skill with a pencil. And, of course, it had to be a pencil that had been sharpened correctly.

“We used a textbook that was over 700 pages long, and it included over a page on how to sharpen a drawing pencil correctly. This required the use of a special knife and a sandpaper pad. Since the desired result really did contribute to their ability to achieve the desired result in their drawings, most students really tried to make, and keep, their pencils sharp.

“Then sometime around 1960 there was a big change in the engineering curriculum, and, as more automated processes were introduced, one of the first things to go was engineering drawing with a pencil. I was no longer teaching then, but I asked one of my friends on the faculty why some of the changes were necessary. He said he thought it was ridiculous for Princeton to waste time teaching students how to sharpen a pencil. I don’t know if the resulting engineers were any better than the ones of my era, sharp pencils or not. I’m sure some people thought they were.”

From another reader, also a columnist:

The subject line was “your recent column.” The writer was Rick Methot, a man I have never met but a name I recognized as former columnist for the Trentonian (who now writes for the Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Daily News, and for the monthly publication of the New Jersey Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs). I wasn’t sure which column he was referring to, but as I read his comments, I realized it could have been any of them.

Regarding the writing process, Methot quoted the late sportswriter Red Smith, who said “writing is easy, you just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Methot added: “As one who churns out 112 columns a year, or more depending on demand, I can relate. Writing is like working out at the gym . . . you feel better for having done it than anticipating doing it.”

Then Methot offered what I assumed was a little constructive criticism: “Editing yourself takes discipline. I suggest you write your usual column for next week and before submitting same, cut it to 600 words. Just do it — and learn what you can do without and still get your point across.”

As a good columnist is prone to do, Methot took the opportunity of his E-mail to share an anecdote, involving a chance meeting with that legendary sports writer he quoted at the beginning of his message: “Red Smith was on the next barstool at the now defunct Antrim Lodge when we came in from fishing the Beaverkill in Roscoe, New York, a long time ago. It was the closest I’ve been to a Pulitzer Prize. Red (vodka and tonic, no fruit) already had one in his pocket.”

Working on this column I thought about taking up Methot on the challenge of the 600-word limit. But then I decided I might have to delete the anecdote about Red Smith, or the status of pencil sharpening at Princeton.

Not to put too fine a point on it but to paraphrase Mark Twain or Cicero or Winston Churchill, I would cheerfully write a shorter column if only I had the time. And I not only have the loose ends above to pack up, but also a passel of other items to pack for what may or may not be a well deserved vacation. So, 988 words later, I’m heading south for a week or so. Of course, I will try to send a postcard.

Facebook Comments