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TRADITION HOLDS that Hernando DeSoto's lovely daughter, Sara, was the inspiration for the name of Florida's Gulf Coast city of Sarasota. I'm not sure whether that's true, but the location is undeniably lovely, even if thunderstorms do pelt the coast almost every day this time of year.

It was the site of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists convention, held on Longboat Key. Our hotel was right on the water, and although the view was beautiful, we were cautioned against going into the Gulf of Mexico due to a plethora of sting rays.The only way to avoid them, said the convention chairman wryly, "is to do a very fast shuffle, as if you were on the way to your editor's office to request money to attend this convention." One of our number went in anyway, and she was nabbed by the offending creature. Her toe quickly swelled, and she suffered excruciating pain for several hours.

So I stayed mostly indoors chatting with peers, trading war stories, listening to experts - and occasionally jumping into the hot tub.

Our president, Bill Tammeus from Kansas City, announced that in his continuing membership drive he had invited Dan Quayle, who recently started writing a weekly column, to join the society. His reply was "I assume I will join."

Sam Riley, a journalism professor from Virginia Tech, announced his astounding discovery that there is not a journalism school in the country that offers a course on the art of column writing.

The major address was given following the annual banquet by Molly Ivins, the Texas firebrand. One of her books asks the question, "Can She Say That?" Since many of her remarks danced around the borders of propriety, that question turned out to be prophetic.

There were a few things worth mentioning, though - such as her three rules for column writing - "Don't put lies in the newspaper, don't write about how hard it is to write columns - and I can't remember the third."

Her secret, she said, is that she reads "lots and lots, and if something really makes me laugh or really makes me mad - I've got a good column."

She said many people really don't have a "sense of place - and a good columnist gives that to people. I think that newspaper columnists provide something that is badly missing, which is a sense of community."

She has finally reached the age, she said, when she feels like sitting around and complaining about the younger generation - "and it's just as much fun as I thought it would be."

I still can't believe there was no dessert.

During the last afternoon, we visited the mansion and museums of John Ringling, probably the biggest name in circus history.

His lush home on the water is fascinating, and the circus museum - with its artifacts, including glittering costumes, plumed headpieces, sequined leotards, spangled jackets, old circus wagons - and pictures and biographies of Tom Thumb and Emmett Kelly - was terrific.

As befits all columnists anywhere, we were not universally well-received, even by a fellow columnist in the neighboring town of Bretenden.

In his column, he criticized us for failing to put any money into the local economy - and wondered with tongue-in-cheek "what would happen to the world with so many columnists away from their work at once."

While proving we are not indispensable, we were energized just the same.