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Editor's Note: July 

click to enlarge Brian Mahoney
  • Brian Mahoney


While we’re in the throes of putting Chronogram together each month—in particular, that last frantic week when all the pieces of this 140-page puzzle must be made to fit together, come hell or high water—I often find myself talking like a shop foreman. And while what is called “colorful language” by those possessed of genteel manners is certainly part of it, the phrases I’m referring to have more to do with the factory floor than with sex and excretion. (NB: I do not wish to imply that factory workers be lumped in with sailors as expert vulgarians. Having neither worked in the maritime industry nor on an assembly line, I am unaware of the general tone and tenor of the conversation that dominates those professions. It is conceivable that these callings have been unfairly maligned lo these many years, and that deckhands and machinists speak with the courtesy, rectitude, and fullness of thought associated with characters in the later novels of Henry James.)

My point: The power of metaphor.

Given as I am to diversions, there comes a point in each magazine cycle when I must knuckle down and start finalizing the pages. This is when the factory metaphors appear, seemingly as a form of self-discipline. I exchange my ponderous tweed jacket for a no-nonsense leather apron. I can be heard asking David, the art director, “Can you ratchet that down?” or “We need to tighten the screws on that,” referring to a text layout as if we were mounting a plate of steel on the hull of the Queen Mary. Sometimes I’ll send an article back to a writer for a slight “retooling,” or with suggestions as to how it might be “rebuilt.” I’m also concerned with making sure the production process is moving along swiftly and effectively, sending articles “down the line” for layout after the preliminary editing is complete.

Fair enough, right? A little assembly line lingo to grease the skids of the media industry. No one will ever confuse our office with a ball bearing plant, no matter how much I refer to Chronogram as the widget we reinvent and reconstruct each month.

Widgets, ratchets, screw tightenings, and other industrial phrasings only take you so far, however. There’s a reason that institutions like schools, sports franchises, and even manufacturing companies resist factory comparisons. There’s a rigidity and finality to the factory metaphor—the widget has been invented and will forever be stamped out in the same way—that denies two of our best human qualities: creativity and adaptability in the face of change. I was brought up short by this recently when I chanced on a passage by the poet John Ciardi about the impossibility of fixing a worthwhile idea in place. “A good question is never answered,” writes Ciardi. “It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to be bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of an idea.”

I’m trading in my leather apron for gardening gloves. Goodbye to Chronogram the widget. Hello to Chronogram the garden, the orchard, the ever-evolving landscape.


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