I shouldn't have been surprised by the fact checker's call. Yet another columnist (this one in Arizona) has been accused of making stuff up. And whenever that happens, publications tend to worry they'll be next. So they put their fact checkers on overtime, leading to conversations like this:
"We're doing credibility checks for all our columnists," my caller said. "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you a few questions."
"No problem," I said, feigning confidence. "Go ahead and ask."
"Do you recall that Utah mountain climbing piece you wrote in 1996? The one where your husband Mark gets you lost, you almost get killed, and you crawl down the mountain derriere first?"
"How could I forget?"
"It isn't true, is it?"
"Of course it's true. I still have scars."
"I see," she said, sounding rather disturbed. "What about the columns about the motor boat incident and the river tubing disaster? And the one where Mark leaves you stranded with a flat tire. Surely they're not true too!"
"They all happened just the way I said. Ask my husband -- he'll confirm every word."
"But the one where Mark tries to fix your shower and turns your bathroom into a swimming pool -- surely that one's fiction."
"That column's true too," I answered as calmly as I could. By now I was extremely annoyed ... at my husband.
"And the 1997 column about the third time Mark lost your...?"
"I don't have time for more questions. I have to find a divorce lawyer."
"That's okay. I think I have everything I need," she said. "Our managing editor will be in touch soon."
Sure enough, he called a few days later. "I have bad news," he said. "I hate to do this, but I'm terminating your contract."
"I don't understand," I protested. "My column generates lots of email. Some of it's even good."
"You're right. But we've been checking up on you, and you have serious credibility problems."
"What do you mean?"
"You're supposed to be a humorist, but most of your columns are true."
"It's not my fault I lead such a funny life. Besides, I occasionally exaggerate. And sometimes I out and out lie."
"That's not good enough. I have to let you go."
"But Dave Barry gets to say 'I'm not making this up,' from time to time. Why can't I?"
"Because I know Dave Barry, and you're no Dave Barry."
"Please," I begged. "Give me another chance. I'll do anything you say."
"Will you write a heartfelt letter apologizing to our readers?"
"And from now on I'll need affidavits from your husband vouching for the inaccuracy of your columns."
I hesitated, wondering if Mark would cooperate. Maybe it wasn't too late to pull the plug on that divorce complaint.
"I'll make sure he signs them," I said. "Anything else?"
"One last thing: Promise me that all your future columns will be 100% fact-free."
"You don't have any choice. I have hundreds of would-be columnists begging for your slot."
"At least give me a plus or minus 10% margin of error."
"You've got yourself a deal," he said. "It's nice to have you back."
"It's nice to be back. Thanks!"
"I'll expect a new column in my e-mail box by 5 P.M. tomorrow. Make sure it's funny and it's false."
The line went dead before I could respond. But I'm pleased to say I delivered that column on time. And that I either am -- or am not -- making this up.