Barbara Neustadt is spunky, which is why she agreed to allow her friend Marge to fix her up with a gentleman at a bridge party. When the date fizzled in an amusing way, Neustadt, 69, was driven by that same spunkiness to spend a day writing a 100-word summation of her date and widowhood.
Judy Wexler, 15, is a passionate cross-country runner whose meets are all on Saturday. An observant Jew, she was conflicted about attending those contests on the Sabbath. Last year, as a Bethesda high school freshman, Wexler sat down at her computer to compose 100 words about how she dealt with her emotional decision.
Both women were prompted to eloquence by an inviting feature that runs across the bottom front of The Washington Post's Sunday's Style section. It is titled "Life is Short/Autobiography as Haiku." Every week the photos of two readers appear with their distillations of an emotion or a key moment.
The tightly written topics run from heartbreaking to humorous. They are written by people of all ages, races and professions. A homeless man's musings on his life, a housewife's loneliness after being deserted by her husband, and the small triumphs of a teacher of mentally disabled kids have all appeared. So have the reflections of the wife of an African government minister who was killed in a coup. She wrote about receiving his death certificate, which read: "Cause of death: Heart stopped beating."
The blurbs are as popular as they are powerful. Since shortly after the first set of haiku ran on Nov. 12, 2000, submissions and feedback have run high.
"I have nothing but anecdotal evidence, but I think it is one of the best-read items in our Sunday section," says Marcia Davis, the editor who has final approval over which haiku are published.
"When people share something about their lives, the rest of us - voyeuristically, maybe - find that fascinating. They also don't have the filter of a reporter in between the person who experienced it and the reader. This gives them an authenticity and genuineness that people respond to."
Put another way by Neustadt: "Oh, everybody, all my friends, read them. They are simple, human and you can get a feel about somebody right away."
Freelance photographer Rebecca D'Angelo, who takes most of the "Life is Short" portraits, is amazed at how many people tell her they read the pieces religiously. She says she tries to capture the writer in a mood that matches his or her paragraph.
For example, when D'Angelo saw the statue of a male figure near where she met Neustadt, she wanted to include it in the photo because of the woman's thoughts on men and widowhood:
"Into my world of hundreds of widows walks a single man. After much plotting and finagling, my friend Marge arranged for us to be bridge partners. On the way home from this contrived event, he tells me of his week: Thursday, his neighbor fixed him up with a widow; Friday his sister fixed him up with another widow; and here we are on Saturday night. 'You know,' he says, 'I think I will print up a list of my specifications for a woman and send it around.' I guess chopped liver isn't on that list."
"Life is Short" was honchoed by Tom Shroder, the Sunday Style editor until becoming managing editor of the Post magazine last summer.
Shroder noticed hundreds of submissions not used in a special Millenium issue for which the newspaper asked readers to submit biographies of 100 words or less. He says he loved "the compression in those pieces; there was a certain kind of poetry to them." Sifting through a pile of discards, he saw many that were not biographies as much as they were "moments."
"It struck me that they were sort of like haiku (a Japanese form of three unrhymed lines of three, five and seven syllables, respectively), vivid micro-images of something that speak to something larger."
After discussions with Gene Robinson, Style's assistant managing editor, Shroder published a few. "There was an instantly huge response. People got what we were trying to do," he recalls.
Although Shroder describes this as "a dream response," he says the paper didn't actually have "civic journalism" in mind. "I'm a true believer that every human being has an incredible, moving story in their lives and that people's view of their world from inside their skins can be incredibly important. I also think it's important to do something worthwhile in a very small space."
"Life is Short" fits right into the Sunday Style section, Robinson says. Unlike any other section of the paper on any other day, it contains more features that interact with readers. These include Carolyn Hax's advice column and the Style Invitational.
Mary Lischer, Robinson's assistant, has "first-read" duties. She says most of the submissions come at the proscribed length - with some people even numbering the words to prove it. The haiku are edited or tweaked only with the author's permission.
She figures she gets the most - about 45 a day - through e-mail and finds it impossible to estimate how many more come by fax or U.S. mail. She often opens bundles of 20 to 30 from teachers who have assigned it as a class writing project.
They often come in themes - the death of parents, new mothers, survivors of divorce, empty nesters, pet stories, but Lischer's guideline is to pick fresh emotions and "ones that touch a cord in me that I think might be universal." She immediately discards very angry or very creepy submissions.
The Post pays $100 to each person whose work is published, but few people are interested only in the money. Robinson likes the idea of paying the participants but worries that his budget may someday not permit it.
Lischer loves to imagine the writers, especially if theirs was a melancholy story, going out to dinner with the money. "It kind of breaks your heart to read these things," says Lischer. "People really pour their souls out in them."
Gemperlein is a former staff writer for the San Jose Mercury News and The Philadelphia Inquirer.