Catheters for Editors

We used to joke about catheters.

Hook us up so we could sit for our eight-hour shifts without getting up, because getting up was dangerous, because all hell could break loose, and did—often. Because in the middle of quarterly earnings, when the shit was coming fast, when the deadlines were way too tight, when everyone’s faces were strained and grim, the catheter could be the tiny merciful difference between outright peeing ourselves and daring to burn two minutes in the bathroom.

Wishing for catheters was just one of the weirdnesses about being an editor at what was then one of the world’s largest newswire services. Back then, we split the market with our main competitor. At any moment, we or the other company could gain a half percentage lead, and then the sales people would pounce with a bombastic furor while the rest of us rolled our eyes, because sales people are the same no matter where you go.

Only in this world did anyone understand that “xmit” meant “send.” As in, “Send it over the wire.” It also stood in as a handy euphemism for the male orgasm. Only in this world did we read each press release aloud to each other before xmitting (although, I don’t think reading aloud has ever induced an orgasm, but I could be wrong about that). We read them aloud so we could catch anything with our voices that our eyes had somehow missed—misplaced commas, duplicate words, wrong phone numbers.

When I was hired and made it through the three months of side-by-side hand-holding that amounted to my training, I was already figuring out that my job was not only weird, but rare. We were English and Journalism majors, occasionally the more vague and dubious holders of an International Relations degree, working not for The New York Times or the Washington Post or the local business journal, but working in corporate America for corporate America, upon which the stock exchanges and the SEC and the C suites of most large organizations around the world relied to deliver—either by law or because of vanity—corporate America’s most “important” information, and thereby prop up the coffers of America’s most sanctified figures.

Funny thing was, most of us editors were liberals. We didn’t even care about corporate America.

What we shared, instead, was a bizarre and unhealthy love of good grammar. We used the Oxford comma with relish. We knew AP Style inside and out, knew by heart every standalone city and state abbreviation. We could read through tables upon tables of financial information without falling asleep, absorbing every number, dollar sign, and amortized amount across four, eight, twelve columns. We found mistakes in the headlines, in lead sentences and boilerplates, and exclaimed again and again, “Doesn’t anyone even read these things before they give them to us?”

Finding “pubic” when it should have said “public” was a big deal. You could get a lot of kudos for that, by the client and your boss. In fact, your boss could win clients away from the competition over a save like that, increasing yearly profits by double-digit percentage points (in theory). But you? (Meaning me.) The one who caught it? (Me.) Never a raise. Nothing monetary. No share of the wealth. Just kudos, with a back slap and a smile.

“Coding” for us was not HTML, but scanning through a mile-long list of five-letter references that each meant something different. City, state, country, region, Europe, Asia, Africa. Dog lovers, cat lovers, energy, pharmaceuticals, technology, television, sports. Media advisory. Embargo. Hold for approval. Correction.

Correction. Holy hell. Never did you want to find yourself having to do a correction. And never, ever did you want to be doing a correction of a correction, which happened in our office once, reaching legendary status—and not in a good way.

Yes, the catheters could’ve come in handy. Dribbling gallons of digested morning coffee into plastic bags so we could—in addition to editing and coding and calculating time zone differences faster than you can add one plus one—give our fullest, most emptied-bladder attention to client quirks. Such a whimsical term for the mightiest of rat traps. Almost every client had one, some as long and convoluted as a patient’s post-op instructions:

Never change any punctuation. (What?! Even if it’s flat-out wrong??). They prefer not to mention their company name in the headline. (Company name in the headline was our sacred company policy, something you dared not overlook, something for which you had to pull out the boxing gloves and prepare for a fight…except, apparently, in this case). Always include Education and Entertainment trades. (That’s odd: this company is oil and gas). Call Susanna before Noon PT with wire times Mon-Thurs, and Ed with wire times after Noon PT. But if it’s after 5 pm PT, then call Jackie or Ellen and leave a message. Call only Paul on Fridays and over the weekend; call his cell phone first and leave a message, then call his home number. During earnings, all releases are Hold for Approval, even if they say release ASAP. Call Paul to confirm when the release is prepped and Susanna will call back with approval.

And that was just the first paragraph.

But not being able to get up for long stretches of time, being wholly submerged in competing priorities and watching the releases that still needed handling stack up on the screen of your newsroom monitor, knowing that it was only going to get busier as the day wore on—no, that was not even the worst of it.

The worst of it was the OCD. During my seven years as an editor, I could not leave my home without touching all four burners on the stove, checking the knobs to make sure they were all pointing to “Off,” and then touching all four burners again. Sometimes I could do this ritual once. Most of the time I had to do it three or four times before I could leave. At my most entrenched, I was doing the stove burner thing five or six times before I could leave…and regularly dreaming about my job…and plowing through press releases during the day without ever making a mistake, without ever not catching someone else’s mistake.

No one understands this kind of record now. Mistakes are funny, cherished, forgiven by default these days, if noticed at all. Back then, mistakes—whether you actually made them yourself or got caught up in someone else’s—were the equivalent of pressing, without permission, the red button at the White House and having every single leader of the free world burst into your office in apoplexy (although, even that kind of calamity seems to be met with casual shrugs these days).

My OCD on the job was sometimes so debilitating I turned to my supervisor in tears, unable to xmit, as I checked and checked and checked everything again and again and again, terrified that I had missed something, absolutely unable to trust my own eyes, certain of my immediate firing.

We were bleary-eyed, harried, big drinkers after work. We sang karaoke together, ate lunch at the Indian buffet, panicked in unison when something went wrong. We dated each other, broke up with each other, tormented each other. We were a strange and dysfunctional clique, thrown together at the mercy of greater forces and a consistent paycheck.

I briefly worked at headquarters in San Francisco, one of the busiest offices in the company. But it was in Denver where I spent most of my tenure, and schizophrenic in another way: just as crazy during quarterly earnings but absolute crickets when it wasn’t.

That was another weirdness: we could do whatever we wanted (within reason) during down time. I wrote a whole novel. One guy studied for and got his real estate license. Less ambitious activities involved reading the newspaper or a book, doing crossword puzzles, playing “Trivial Pursuit,” running the office football pool, calling into radio shows with answers to the noon quiz, helping the marketing team stuff envelopes, taking a nap. Not acceptable: watching porn.

Down time, however, could turn quickly and without warning into up time—into strap-yourself-in, hold-onto-your-hat, insert-catheter up time. Into up time ruled by instructions.

Everywhere we turned there was a list of lengthy instructions, taped to the alarm clock, taped to wire baskets, taped to bulletin boards, taped to our computers, taped to the server when it needed backing up. Instructions about holidays, vacations, time changes, filing, monitoring clips, transferring our office’s newsroom when we closed at night to the office handling our clients during the graveyard shift, in Cleveland, Seattle, Phoenix, elsewhere. Instructions and rules and procedures were God, and we editors were its lowly subjects, bound to it—to the last letter—by fear and threats.

Instructions and rules and procedures were necessary when money was on the line. Someone else’s money, that is; someone else’s stock.

As a result, there were screaming clients of all varieties: PR agency people, IR agency people, CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, communications departments, admin assistants. Never have I worked on behalf of so many scornful men, so many scathing women, sunny voices going crystal-cold when told something they didn’t want to hear. We were supposed to be nice on the phone, helpful. We were supposed to take their last-minute changes without sounding annoyed. We were supposed to smile and bite our tongues when they called up demanding to know, “Why hasn’t it gone over the wire yet?” and refrain from sneering, “Because you keep calling me with last-minute changes.”

That was in the late 90s and early 2000s. That was when 9/11 happened and the Denver office was shut down for the day because someone thought a Secret Security faction housed in the same building made it a possible target. That was when the tsunami hit in Southeast Asia over Christmas and every release we handled was about donating profits and services to those who were affected, each company clamoring to be the most charitable. That was when “corporate social responsibility” became a thing. That was when people still faxed. That was when I thought having a job that paid me benefits and gave me a decent amount of vacation days was the best I could wish for, that there was surely not much else out there for me, an idealistic Journalism major who had nevertheless not gone after a career at The New York Times. That was when writing—my own writing—was still something of a pipe dream.

When I stopped being an editor, my OCD went away. I realized I had other skills, other aptitudes. I realized a small company had just as many problems as a large one—just different problems. I relaxed a bit. I made new friends, indulged in new flirtations, skirted new break-ups.

I still never made any mistakes.

Well, OK, maybe I made a few. Somewhere. But I don’t think about them.

I get up now. I walk around. I see the world outside my window.

I still remember all the standalone cities, but I don’t touch the burners on my stove anymore.

I no longer think in great detail about the necessity of catheters.

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