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Style Conversational Week 1413: Our new not-so-big top -- the Clowning Achievement trophy

The Style Invitational Empress on the Invite’s first-prize swag from the past 28 years.

The Style Invitational's new first-prize trophy, the Clowning Achievement, replaces the Lose Cannon.
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First prize in Week 1 of The Style Invitational was a Timex watch.

The March 7, 1993, Sunday Style section of The Washington Post — a section drastically reimagined by brand-new editor Gene Weingarten — featured on its front page an essay titled “Noted With Disdain,” the first of what would become weekly “Noted With” pieces. It was by Gene himself, expressing said disdain for the undignified Ironman Triathlon watch, “thick as a brick and handsome as a hernia,” that the new President Clinton wore even to meetings at the United Nations.

On Page F2 of that same Sunday Style section, an anonymously written contest asked readers for a new name for the Washington Redskins. “The first-prize winner gets an elegant Timex ‘Ironman Triathlon’ digital watch, valued at $39.”

The 1990s were rich days for the newspaper industry; papers nationwide showed huge profits year after year, and the Sunday Post boasted a circulation of 1.2 million. Weren’t no big thing at all to give away a $40 watch one week, and an elaborate magician’s apparatus on another, and send your expense form off to accounting.

The sometimes-bought, sometimes-donated prizes were awarded to winners throughout the Czar’s reign. But when the Empress deposed him in December 2003, she decided (possibly with contestants’ input) that the grand-prize winner of The Style Invitational should receive an award that conveyed: “I won a prize.” Even if it were a stupid prize. (The second-place people could get the gag gift, for which there was now no budget.) And so on Week 536, an anonymous Empress introduced herself as the new monarch, and the Inker as the first-prize trophy. Described as “mixed-media sculpture crafted of genuine bronzoid-looking AlabastriteTM and genuine paper paper bag,” it was actually half a pair of flimsy 7-inch-tall bookends in the image of “The Thinker,” the iconic (a.k.a. cliched) Rodin bronze, topped with what was supposed to look like a paper bag covering his head in embarrassment.

Except for a nasty habit of breaking into pieces in transit, being breathed on, etc., the Inker was a lovely prize. About once a year I’d order 25 pairs of the bookends, each time finding some novelty-decor vendor offering the best price at the time (I think they were $10 to $12 a pair). Then one evening in 2012, when I was down to just a couple of Inkers, the Alabastrite bookends were simply nowhere to be found; outlet after outlet was suddenly out of stock. Evidently the sole factory in China or Thailand had decided it had Thought enough.

I had to scramble. After two days of wild Googling, I found my replacement: a spring-necked bobblehead of the Lincoln Memorial statue. Nice Washington angle, irreverence toward an American quasi-saint (but not tasteless, really), silly. I called and asked how many they had. They’re not being made anymore, I was told. I ordered the rest of the stock: 15 Abes. But even I — a renowned fount of pessimism — thought that The Style Invitational probably wouldn’t fold four months hence.

The happy ending was that just a couple of days later, Mr. Bobblehead called me and offered to commission a new run from the factory in China — if I’d buy 200 of them at once (he’d buy the remaining 50 to complete the factory’s minimum order). $12 apiece.

I went to my editor at the time, Lynn Medford — who was a true fan of The Style Invitational. I explained that I wanted to buy four years of prizes at once. These were not golden days for the newspaper industry. These were the worst days. Circulation was half what it was in the 1990s. The classified advertising that had sustained a big part of the paper’s budget had virtually vanished (hey, Craigslist). I and hundreds of colleagues had already taken early retirement from our full-time jobs at The Post in several waves of buyouts; I was (and still am) doing the contest technically as a freelancer. Who could say what The Post would be running four years down the road? Or one year?

What the heck, Lynn said. Go for it.

The Inkin’ Memorial actually lasted us five years, since such chronic winners as Chris Doyle, Brendan Beary, Gary Crockett and several others declined to amass whole mantelsful of them. And then it was 2017.

I don’t remember how I saw it so serendipitously, but right around then, I happened to see a tweet dating back to the 2016 campaign. Trump posted, verbatim, in July about the former secretary of state: “Hillary Clinton should not be given national security briefings in that she is a lose cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement & insticts.” Ding!

The Lose Cannon was our first homemade trophy: The cannons were three-inch-long brass pencil sharpeners that I got from a school supply house, made classy-looking by the handsome hand-turned cherrywood bases graciously made by Loser and carpentry hobbyist Larry Gray. Larry even drove a big box of bases all the way down from northern Maryland to the Empress’s palace, Mount Vermin, and he and Royal Consort Mark Holt spent hours working out the best way to assemble the trophies. (The RC took over construction duties after that.)

This past summer, I was finally running low on the bases, but Larry told me that he had another box of them prepared. This time, Mark and I made the day trip to visit Larry’s lovely farmlet in remote Union Bridge, Md., social-distancing ourselves under a huge shade tree. Larry gave us the bases, but made an excellent point: After that man is out of office, do we really want to keep referencing him?

And so I stopped ordering cannons and held my breath, like the rest of the country, till Nov. 3. And in the meantime I consulted the Crowd in the form of the Style Invitational Devotees Facebook group, asking for suggestions for an inexpensive trophy (Lynn Medford has retired) that would fit on one of Larry’s 3-by-5-inch bases. This time, Super Duper Loser Kevin Dopart suggested perhaps a dunce cap, or a jester’s hat, with the title “Clowning Achievement.” I didn’t find a good hat, but I did happen to find one lot of 100 little disembodied, glummish clown heads — they looked so Loserly! And the RC made little dowel sections to attach them to the base (I vetoed his head-on-pike suggestion).

And so today, we award the first Clowning Achievement to Frank Osen — in his 27th Invite win. Though Frank long ago asked for no more swag deliveries, please, I hope that he’s keeping at least one of each iteration of the Style Invitational trophy. And it’s for an instant classic of an entry from Week 1408: the dropped-letter song title “MAGAritaville,” complete with a parody verse:

“Don’t know the reasons

We chose this Four Seasons —

Since when have they had a horse manure aisle?

But I can’t be moody

’Cause my name is Rudy

And I also came here to sell you a pile.”

One more thing: These 100 “retired” clown heads were the last ones in stock at this craft store. If I can’t find another set of same-size heads (or something else to match the Clowning Achievement slogan), this trophy will be over in just two years. What does the Loser Community think about limiting each individual recidivist winner to, say, two (three? one?) Clowners?

Meanwhile, Week 1408 produced many dozen inkworthy truncated song titles; my “shortlist” ran seven pages. I finally cut the list off at 38 entries (several of them containing parody verses), but do remember that we’ll soon be having our annual retrospective contests in which you can reenter your favorite ink-robbed entries. This might be a good source.

What Doug Dug: Ace Copy Editor Doug Norwood — still basking in the glow of love for his “Lame Duck Pardons Turkey” headline across the Style front last week — also voted for Frank’s “MAGAritaville,” and also singled out two from the honorable mentions, both by Duncan Stevens: “Twit and Shout” — code names for Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle — and “I Feel P(r)etty,” sung by Mr. You’re Fired: “It’s delicious how vicious I feel!'

Could any year be verse? Let’s try the new ones of 2020

For the third year running, we’re asking for light verse featuring one or more of the 30-some terms supplied us by Merriam-Webster as some of the newly added words (and newer meanings of old words) to for 2020.

While there’s nothing wrong with using two or even more words on the list in a single poem, the contest is not a challenge to see how many terms you can force into a few lines. As always, I’m looking for readable, witty verse (“perfect” rhymes and clear meter are a big plus in light verse, although there are always exceptions) that makes some sort of point, observation or punchline by the end.

For guidance and inspiration, here are links to the excellent inking entries from the past two years, plus the Lose Cannon winners right here:

Week 1350, 2019

Week 1297, 2018


I sent a letter to my love, admiring from afar,

Returned! A hand-writ note above it said, “TL;DR.”

Though some might think she’s blown me off, still I prefer to dream,

My love’s response, in code (don’t scoff!) means: “True Love — Diane Rehm.” (Mark Raffman)


This escape room’s the worst, everybody agrees;

We feel trapped, with a lingering sense of unease

That we’ll never get out of here, try as we may —

We get sullen or spiteful, our nerves start to fray

Till at last we’re released, overjoyed to survive …

And we come every weekday, 8:30 to 5. (Brendan Beary)

JefCon 30: It’s the latest ‘You’re Invited’ podcast

Be sure to catch Mike Gips’s latest interview with an Invite figure. This time it’s a half-hour with Hall of Famer Jeff Contompasis, who exults in his persona of Ultra-Invite-Nerd, delving into odd bits of Loser arcana and telling about his patented Vitey-Sense about which contest will be coming up next. Most fascinating fact for me: Jeff got no ink for eight years until he changed his approach. (It was more than “Remember to hit Send” or “Money Order to Empress”). JefCon now has almost 800 blots. Listen to it and the six previous episodes (I went first) at or by looking for “You’re Invited” on Apple Podcasts or Pandora.