Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What I do to actually make money

Reader's Digest is the most keenly fact-checked magazine on Earth. I may have alluded to this previously, but one of my freelance gigs is research for its Canadian edition (affectionately known as CRD).

What usually happens is that the magazine assigns me an article to fact-check, and I have to attribute every phrase of it to multiple sources. Even if it's a quote, I need to find a second source to back that up.

I used to write CRD's "It's a Fact" feature, in which the magazine answers reader mail with questions like "Why do men have nipples?", "Who invented the Tooth Fairy?", and "Why does a stop sign have six sides?" (That's a trick question - stop signs have eight sides. Why? Because the first stop signs were shaped like coffins, which also have eight sides. That one took a lot of digging to unravel.) If you go to the site and click on the sample questions, you'll see an abridged version of one of mine - the sumo wrestler question.

I loved doing those questions, but the editor I work with prefers that I handle more complicated articles, so he took me off that beat. I tend to get the more technical stories, which is fine. I worked on this one, about a trucker in mortal peril. A lot of the stories involve mortal peril. I don't get too many of the fluffy pieces.

I'm finishing up work on another assignment, one on road safety. The article mentions a man whose wife was killed by road debris. Starting with nothing more than a name on a RCMP press release, I had to track this man down. I went through Canada411, two newspapers, two TV stations, two crown counsels, and one church looking for him. He was not an easy man to find. He called me this afternoon - one of the lawyers had left a message for him at an old phone number and word got through.

I'm professional about it, but it's difficult to talk to these people, especially at first. You never know how they are dealing with the tragedy, psychologically. Physically, even the non-fatal incidents often leave injuries that take years to heal. And I'm never one of the first to talk with them. By the time I get to them, they recounted the incident countless times. Until I can gauge where they're at, it's like driving on wet ice - which is literally what they may have done.

So this man - let's call him Joe - calls me today. Joe's wife was killed in a terrible, random accident right in front of him and their three kids three years ago. And I have to talk to him about it. And ask him about the man who drove the other vehicle involved in the accident.

Joe made it easy on me, by being an extraordinarily decent human being. He had nothing but empathy for the other driver, who was equally innocent but blamed himself for Joe's wife's death. It was inspiring.

There is one thing that many of the victims I speak with have in common. They do love to talk. That makes my job easier at first, but it's hard to hang up the phone. I get paid by the hour, so no big deal.

Bonus good (and bad) newslets:

"Sheep's End" is back in the TriggerStreet top ten.

Miguel Ojeda just grounded into a double play to keep Brad Penny on track for a win in Colorado.

We figured out why our dryer was getting wet. The pipe leading to the backyard faucet is split, so when Elvi used the hose outside, water would spurt out and land on and only on the dryer. The bad news is that we have to pay to fix that pipe and that the dryer no longer operates. The problem is not something simple, like the fuses.

Sunday night, our house was egged. We're not sure why. My family is inoffensive, and I haven't provoked anybody in years. It was a concerted effort, with four raw eggs launched at once. Three hit windows, which were easy to clean. One hit the siding on our second floor. We can't clean that off until the pipe in the basement is fixed. The big question is: am I old enough to grouse about neighbourhood hooligans yet?


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