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December 12, 2019

11/16/2019 7:30:00 AM
860 million words and a hiccup

Heather Schaefer
Associate Editor

I lost count of the number of times my name was mentioned during Monday's Rhinelander City Council meeting. It might have been a dozen, give or take.

I can't say that I was surprised to hear my name or any of the other words directed at this newspaper. Late last month, I wrote an editorial ("The last word or your last words" Oct. 31) addressing the deep divide in this community over the direction of city government. As I mentioned in that piece, I expected that my words would be met with scorn and derision from some quarters. Thus, it was hardly shocking to hear my name thrown around the City Council chambers. It was, however, a new experience to hear complete strangers imply that they know, with apparent 100 percent certainty, how I feel about the behavior of various members of the council, not to mention why I made certain decisions related to the coverage of the Oct. 28 City Council meeting.

Who knew there were so many clairvoyants attending City Council meetings these days. It seems there may be a direct correlation between mind-reading and Facebook as those who spend their time on social media seem to have an exceptional ability to look into the souls of others.

Of course, I knew my decision to describe, but not directly quote, alderperson Dawn Rog's derogatory comment, directed toward a woman who had accused her of using a social media application during the Oct. 28 council meeting, would be controversial.

Should we have handled that story a different way? That's a very fair question, one I suspect I will be pondering for a very long time to come.

As my desk is not equipped with a reset button, I have to live with the decision I made and hope I don't have to make a similar call in the future. That said, for anyone who needs to see it in writing, I will unequivocally state that this newspaper in no way condones what Ms. Rog said and I certainly do not condone what was said. It was appalling, as was the spectacle before and after the words were uttered.

I could offer a long, wordy explanation as to why I chose to describe the comment rather than quote Rog directly, but it boils down to one key fact. Rog clearly implied the person she directed the remark toward had been in jail and, after some investigation, we learned that was absolutely not the case. Put simply, I didn't want to use the word jail in reference to this woman when she has never been in jail. Sometimes people misunderstand what they read and I didn't want to risk any confusion on this point. Thus, it seemed more prudent to describe the offensive comment rather than quote it directly.

The story also pointed readers to the audio recording of the meeting, in case anyone was interested in hearing the exact words.

Of course, criticism of me as an editor/reporter is absolutely fair game. Go ahead and let loose. However, if the goal is to intimidate, you're wasting your breath. You can say my name 10,000 times, treat it as if it's a profane word, I will not stop asking questions.

Oddly enough, the experience of sitting at the media table Monday night, listening as all sorts of words were hurled about, prompted a question that has stayed with me all week. How many words does the average human speak before they get to their very last one?

Naturally, I had to consult Google where I learned it has been estimated the average person speaks about 7,000 words per day and in the neighborhood of 860 million in a lifetime.

That might seem like a lot of yammering, but what words are we choosing to say and what words are we not saying? How many of the 7,000 words you say every day have four letters and start with F or an S? How many times do the words "I love you" or "I'm sorry" come out of your mouth? Do you say "I was wrong" more or less often than you unleash a colorful phrase to tell someone off?

I'm not sure why anyone would want to use any of their daily 7,000 words to utter my name at a government meeting but, if some are so inclined, I have no problem with it. Along the same lines, I also want to say that I appreciate every person who reached out to me to share their reactions to the Oct. 31 editorial. I received a number of thoughtful emails and phone calls, all of which convinced me that I made the right decision in publishing that piece.

On the subject of words, there's another one that's been on my mind this week - hiccup. My sister chose the word "hiccup" to describe her experience at a doctor's office on Tuesday. As part of a pre-op checkup, required before she undergoes an outpatient surgical procedure later this month, she had two small masses near her rib cage examined via ultrasound.

I knew about the surgery but I didn't know anything about these masses. I only found out about them on Tuesday evening - after it had been determined that they are benign - when she told me that her pre-op check went well with only one little "hiccup."

I know why my sister choose to use a mild word like "hiccup" to describe what could have been a very serious situation. It's because she's very aware of how quickly I tend to become alarmed over anything related to her health.

Having defied remarkable odds in surviving Stage 4 ovarian cancer, she's spent the better part of the past 25-odd years trying to reassure me, and others in our family, that she's OK.

I was 18 when she was diagnosed and, having graduated from high school at the end of the first semester, took on the role of her primary hospital companion while our parents were at work. I don't think about those days very often but, at the same time, they're never far from my mind. I'm sure it's no coincidence that memories of the oncology ward often come to the fore when I could use a dose of perspective and that certainly was the case this week. After my sister finished her "hiccup" story, a calmness came over me. It was like a hand was squeezing my shoulder urging me to pay attention.

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