New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz got a B+ for his eighth grade paper about becoming a professional puzzlemaker

Image: Wikimedia user Legoktm. Available for republication under Creative Commons.

Not many puzzle editors are recognizable enough to voice cameo as themselves on The Simpsons. Yet in the 2008 episode “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words,” Will Shortz did just that.

The New York Times crossword puzzle editor since 1993 and NPR puzzlemaster on Weekend Edition Sunday since 1987, Shortz is unquestionably America’s most famous current creator and editor of crosswords, puzzles, and other brainteasers.

On a personal level, ever since the quarantine year of 2020 when I began regularly attempting the NYT Sunday crossword on a weekly basis, Shortz has had a hand in providing me (at minimum) hundreds of hours of enjoyment. By the time it will all be said and done, he’ll probably have given me thousands of hours of enjoyment.

Turns out he had this all planned out from the start.

Will Shortz’s animated avatar, from his 2008 voice cameo appearance on Fox’s ‘The Simpsons.’

As a 13-year-old in January 1966, Shortz completed a class assignment to write a short essay about becoming an adult. Signing his name with the now-unrecognizable “William Shortz,” he wrote of his desire to become a professional puzzlemaker someday.

Shortz tells A Step in the Write Direction:

In the 8th grade, when asked to write a paper about becoming an adult, I inscribed about 200 words on the subject “Puzzles as a Profession.” I’d already decided by age 13 that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.

The teacher gave me a B+. In retrospect, that might sound funny considering that I’ve gone on to a successful career in puzzles. However, in the teacher’s defense, the assignment had been to write about becoming an adult, not what career we wanted. So for a competent essay that didn’t quite follow the assignment, I’d say a B+ was about right.

Copied below is both an image and a transcribed version of Shortz’s 1966 school paper. Note the teacher’s comments along the left-hand margin in red pen: “I thought you would connect this to the topic: becoming an adult. Obviously, you did not understand me.”

Puzzles as a Profession

I have always liked puzzles and I have planned to write a book of puzzles. I have read about people that make puzzles and it sounds like an interesting profession. People that make them would have plenty of leisure time.

I have made many types of word-puzzles and brainteasers. I have also made crossword puzzles and other types already invented. I own three brain-teaser books, eight crossword puzzle books, and three puzzle magazines.

In Newsweek, there was an article about Dmitri Alfred Borgmann, a man that makes and works many kinds of puzzles. For instance, he makes anagram, pangrams, palindromes, word squares, crossword puzzles, crostics, and many other kinds. He has many references: dictionaries in many different languages, encyclopedias, books full of names, and others. He makes a substantial income and, I suppose, has a lot of fun.

An article in Time Magazine tells about a man in Illinois that has a race, using puzzles as clues. First prize last year was an eighty-nine cent treasure chest full of pennies and plastic chips.

For starting a profession of making puzzles, you wouldn’t need much money. All you would need is paper, pencils, clipboard, maybe a desk, a dictionary, encyclopedias, and an odd assortment of other things.

Making puzzles is a great life from my point of view — easy life, fun, and leisurely.

Find the daily New York Times crossword which Shortz edits here, and Shortz’s weekly Sunday “verbal puzzles” on NPR here

Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist Dave Barry wrote a 1972 local newspaper article about John Wayne

Dave Barry

Photo credit: Daniel Portnoy

When Dave Barry won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, he became one of the only humor writers to ever win the award. (For context, this year’s prize went to Kansas City Star columnist Melinda Henneberger for a series of columns about a police detective accused of sexual violence.)

Through the years, I’ve read at least a hundred of Barry’s humor columns and at least half a dozen of his books. I quote two one-liners of his in particular on a regular basis.

As a professional journalist, at least once a month in a conversation with a colleague or an editor, I find reason to quote Barry’s written line: “The standard practice in the writing industry is to pay authors by the word. Let me repeat that statement again for emphasis: The standard practice in the industry is to pay authors by the word.”

And in conversations about music, particularly if the discussion ventures into modern music, I also find occasion at least once or twice a year to quote his line: “Taste in music is subjective. It’s possible that you like Electronic Dance Music, in which case you are wrong.”

Yet he got his start in 1971 not as a humor columnist but as an actual serious journalist, for West Chester, Pennsylvania’s Daily Local News. His 1972 article featured below wasn’t a “humor” piece exactly — it’s a legitimate news article, albeit about the relatively lighthearted subject of the entertainment industry. There are several “almost jokes,” though. Like when he quotes somebody and then adds the aside, “Honest, that’s what he said.”

Or when he quotes another person saying “Don’t stop” in all caps to reflect their tone of voice: “DON’T STOP.” Using all-caps for an entire phrase, or even for an entire sentence, became a Dave Barry trademark over the subsequent decades. Example: “And what is the Scientific Community doing about these problems? THEY’RE CLONING SHEEP. Great! Just what we need! Sheep that look MORE ALIKE than they already do!”

Barry tells me about his 1972 article:

I remember that assignment well: It was the first time a newspaper sent me somewhere to cover a story, so it was a big deal to me. The editor of the Daily Local News, Bill Dean, encouraged me to have fun with it, which made sense, as it was really more of a publicity stunt than actual news. I remember going around New York with this comical collection of movie-premiere people and thinking, “I’m getting paid for this!” Which is still how I feel about my career.

Below are two images showing the original print edition version of the article, followed by a transcribed version.

Check out his official website, his Miami Herald humor columns here, and his Twitter account @RayAdverb. (That’s an anagram of “Dave Barry.”)

Most of all, I’d also particularly recommend the final chapter of his otherwise-comedic book Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog. An unexpected turn in his life prompted a surprisingly emotional and poignant closing chapter. (No, don’t worry, his dog doesn’t die.)



[West Chester, Pa., Daily Local News, Monday, January 17, 1972]

John Wayne lives for the kids


(Of the Local News staff)

John Wayne is for real.

I got to see him over the weekend, along with Archie Kohr of Exton. Archie won a chance to go to New York and see the premiere of Wayne’s latest movie, The Cowboys, in a contest run by the Local News and other newspapers and radio and TV stations all around the country.

Warner Brothers, who sponsored the contest, also offered to send Archie’s mother, Mrs. Ronald C. Kohr, and a reporter along.

So Friday evening I arrived at the Drake Hotel — a posh place on Park Avenue — and found out what big-time movie promotion is like.

It is insane.

It Will Identify You

As they checked in, contest winners and members of the press were issued itineraries and big yellow buttons that said “The Cowboys.”

“Wear your button at all times,” the Warner Brothers man said. “It will identify you.”

I wondered what it would identify me as. It’s hard to feel sophisticated in New York when you’re wearing a big yellow button that says “The Cowboys.”

11-Minute Dinner

The first item on the agenda was a dinner in the hotel dining room. It took about 11 minutes. As we sat down and started to get acquainted (“So I told him we got 43 percent of the teen market in North Carolina”) a Warner Brothers man took the microphone and said:

“Kids, we don’t want to disturb your meal but we’re going to give you all special cowboy jackets. Wear them. They will identify you.”

Mayhem ensued.

Kids were running around trying to trade a size 12 for a size 16 and vice versa. The Warner Brothers man was clinging to the box of jackets saying, “It’s not nice to grab. Exchange among yourselves. DON’T GRAB.”

Nothing was scheduled for after dinner Friday night, so everybody started making plans to see New York City.

Saturday morning breakfast was at 7:30. More mayhem. This time it was hats.

“Kids,” the Warner Brothers man said. “I don’t want to disturb your breakfast but you’re all gonna get a cowboy hat. Wear it. It will identify you.”

A little after nine, the buses took us over to Radio City Music Hall for the premiere of The Cowboys.

I was actually looking forward to seeing the music hall again, because the last time I’d been there I was 8 and my father had taken me to see my Uncle Jay, who played the tuba in the orchestra that comes out of the floor.

Standing In Line

Standing in line to get into the hall, people talked about what they’d done the night before in the Big City.

I stood next to a guy who told me he was a disc jockey in Nashville, Tenn. I asked him what kind of show he did.

“Seven to 10,” he said. “Swingers and flingers, pussycats and tomcats.”

Honest, that’s what he said.

Finally, they let us into the hall. There was a delay while they took movies of several hundred newspaper boys (who had also won a chance to see the emovie) waving at a Warner Brothers camera.

And then the premiere of The Cowboys began.

Good and Bad

If you like John Wayne, you’ll love The Cowboys.

Basically, it’s about John Wayne and a bunch of little kids he has to hire to herd his cattle because all the men are off looking for gold. John Wayne and the kids are the Good Guys.

The Bad Guys are a bunch of unshaven rustlers led by a particularly nasty (and long-haired) fellow who likes to beat up on little boys and shoot people in the back.

The movie is full of classic John Wayne lines like, “Next one of you pulls a knife in this outfit, you’re gonna learn better at the buckle end of my belt.”

There is a lot of killing in the movie, but it has a happy ending because all of the Bad Guys get shot and there are a few Good Guys left at the end. The leader of the Bad Guys dies a satisfyingly horrible death.

Wayne Gets Killed

One surprising thing, though — John Wayne gets killed about two-thirds of the way through the picture. That sort of stunned the audience. As he took his last heroic breaths, the lady behind me whispered:

“I never seen him get killed before.”

After the movie ended (to wild applause and cheers from the packed house) John Wayne himself came out on the stage. His presence was a bit hard to believe, since (1) we had just seen him get killed and (2) he was wearing business clothes instead of his cowboy suit.

Wayne gave a 10-minute speech, which began with what one of his writers probably thought was humor. John Wayne is a great cowboy, but a lousy stand-up comedian.

The speech became more serious. In fact, it began to sound like a sermon, with numerous references to “the man upstairs.” Wayne talked about God, Mother, and the Flag, and said he was in favor of all three.

After the John Wayne speech came the famous Radio City stage show. The theme was “Cowboys and Indians.”

Ask Questions

After the show we got to go to a luncheon and press conference with John Wayne in the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of the RCA building. Wayne sat with the director and some of the other actors at the head table, and they answered questions from the audience.

Most of the questions were fairly innocuous (“How do you make that blood come out of your arm when you get shot?”). There were, however, a few tense moments.

An older, long-haired boy got up and, jabbing a forefinger towards Wayne, accused him of preaching good in his speech and doing something evil (i.e. killing people) in the movie.

The audience, embarrassed, looked angrily at the young man. Wayne said he thought everybody who did wrong should get punished. The audience clapped and whistled, relieved that their hero had won out.

A little while later, the long-haired youth’s companion made an unintelligible statement to the effect that John Wayne was destroying the morals of America’s youth.

“You run your ranch and I’ll run mine,” said John Wayne.

The crowd went wild.

Archie Kohr of Exton asked Wayne what his favorite breed of cattle was. Wayne said he raised Herefords. Archie Kohr is no fool; his father raises Herefords, too.

After the press conference, Wayne left for Chicago, where he’ll be doing the whole thing all over again with another group of kids.

We all got up to go back to our hotel rooms.

It’s not every day you see a Living Legend.

‘Neighbors’ Screenwriter Andrew Jay Cohen analyzed ‘Pulp Fiction’ for high school newspaper in 1994

Odds are you’ve seen an R-rated comedy written by Andrew Jay Cohen. His most famous movies include 2014’s Neighbors starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron (which earned $150 million domestically), 2016’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates starring Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza, 2016’s sequel Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and 2017’s The House starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.

Cohen’s love of film was evident even as a teenager, when in 1994 he wrote a column for his high school’s arts-themed publication analyzing the then-new Pulp Fiction. Some passages analyzing the characters’ motivations and psychologies still hold up as penetrating and insightful. “He goes to the bathroom three times in the film, so he is literally in touch with his bodily needs” — not so much.

Cohen even included a Pulp Fiction reference in this scene from Neighbors, when a character begins quoting Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic Biblical soliloquy, mistakenly claiming it was from the movie Jackie Brown before Seth Rogen’s character quickly corrects him. Fair warning that there are probably at least a dozen Not Safe For Work moments in this 2.5-minute clip alone. (And in the trailers linked to in the opening paragraph. And in the rest of this post.)

Below is Cohen’s intro explaining what he remembers about writing that 1994 article back in high school, followed by an image of Cohen’s original piece (which can be viewed full screen by right-clicking the image and selecting ‘open image in new tab’), followed by a transcribed version.

Follow him on Twitter @AndrewJayCohen and on Instagram also @AndrewJayCohen.

Ooof. Going down memory lane like this is like skipping through a garden of rose-bushes: yeah, it’s a gosh darn hoot and who doesn’t love prancing and dancing but gat dang do those thorns hurt and do you have antiseptic and maybe a few Band-Aids? Anyway, point is, the ol’ ego took a couple hits on this journey. But let me try to put into words what I’m thinking as I re-read this early piece of writing and film criticism or whatever:

First off, this thing is a CENTERFOLD? The article is from the high-school movies and music paper The Cutting Edge, which I was an editor of (humblebrag / conflict of interest), and my article was too long and instead of cutting the piece down, I just reformatted it and made a freaking centerfold spread like OHHH YEAH LOOK AT THIS FILM ANALYSIS, spread out over two pages, HOT AND SEXY ESSAY-WRITING.

I can’t tell if this article was an act of pride, laziness, or a mixture of both, but man, reading this again is kind of embarrassing. There are some classic other pieces in this Cutting Edge issue — Mike Lamb’s sick 4.5 star review of Blowout Comb or Todd Katzberg’s classic takedown of Bon Jovi’s Cross Road, which somehow ended up being a 3-star celebration of “when you could listen to these tapes in public.”

Anyway this Pulp Fiction thing. Here’s my thoughts. The movie changed my life. I saw it four times in the theater. I think I got more out of it each time I saw it. I was (and still am) in complete awe and admiration of Quentin Tarantino as a writer and director, who remade the idea of what a movie could be for me, before I went to college and took courses on film history and theory and international cinema — but it felt like these were coded inside this movie too somehow?

I just couldn’t believe how many connections there were inside Pulp Fiction, how even as disjointed it appeared, how much care and logic and effort — and not just Tarantino-esque but written and directed by fucking Quentin Tarantino himself — with inspired dialogue and action and redemption and revenge and all those classic Tarantino tropes laid out like a masterpiece but under the guise of a cheap tawdry paperback. I really wanted to celebrate the movie publicly and share my joy with my fellow classmates.

I guess? Some people in high school used to say “You think too much.” Maybe. But in high school I at least tried to make thinking too much… sexy? Centerfold! Haaa. What a dick. “Check out my brain, Ladies. Wanna take this thing for a spin? Behold the vooooocaaaaaaaab in this esssssaaaaaayyyyyy…”

I guess here’s my high school love affair with one of the best movies of all time, up there with my other favorites, Rashomon and Trading Places. Love you Tarantino!

Slightly ashamed (but only slightly),

Andrew Jay Cohen

And here’s the actual article. To refresh your memory before reading, Jules Winnfield is the hitman character played by Samuel L. Jackson, Vincent Vega is the partner in crime portrayed by John Travolta, and Mia Wallace is the gang leader’s wife played by Uma Thurman. Spoilers follow, if you haven’t seen the film before.

Pulp Fiction: Analysis – Speech and Symbolism

Andrew Cohen

December 1994

A common gripe about Pulp Fiction concerns its extensive dialogues and pop culture references. Some find them boring and unnecessary; some find them meaningless but still funny. But, as much as it hurts to acknowledge, they prove important in understanding the film, particularly the philosophical differences between Jules and Vincent, two hit men working for Marsellus Wallace, their crime boss. The two men face different challenges: Jules wants to quit being a hit man, and Vincent has to take out Marsellus’ wife without touching her. Their seemingly trivial conversations aid in Jules’s and Vincent’s characterization and the random references work as symbols, lending reason for their differing fates.

Conversations and symbolism add insight into their respective dilemmas. One of the most important dialogues in the film, surprisingly, is Jules and Vincent’s conversation in the Hawthorne Diner about pork, which shows Jules’s principled nature. Jules says he does not eat pork: “A pig is a filthy animal. I don’t eat filthy animals.” He does not care how good pig may taste. He says, “Sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know cause I’d never eat the filthy motherfuckers.” To Jules, the principle overrides the desire; if something is filthy, it is filthy, no matter how good it tastes. He might as well be talking about his job as a hit man. He realizes it is a filthy job, even if it has its rewards.

Tarantino uses the stolen briefcase that Jules and Vincent have to deliver to Marsellus on two levels: on one level as a device to keep the viewer interested, on another as a symbol for Jules’s dilemma. The briefcase contains “the tyranny of evil men.” The combination of the case is “666,” and everyone looks inside the case with a sense of awe. Vincent opens it, and Jules asks him, “We happy?” Vincent replies, “Yeah, we happy” and shakes his head in amazement. Pumpkin, who attempts to rob a restaurant with his girlfriend, Honey Bunny, says, “It’s beautiful.” They see the power of evil, the rewards of a life of crime (money, drugs, etc.), and they smile. For them, the tyranny of evil men is the secret of happiness. Furthermore, when opened, the case emits a gold glow and a low humming sound, suggesting a seductive power. The glow resembles the one Tarantino uses when he shows Jules and Vincent killing Brett, an amateur crook who steals the briefcase: the shot dissolves quickly from Jules into the glow, then into Vincent and into the glow again, and finally back into Jules. After all, before he shoots Brett, Jules says, “You will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee,” showing the power he feels when executing someone.

At the diner, however, Jules does not identify with the briefcase. He tells Vincent that he is going to deliver the case and tell Marsellus that he is done being a hit man. Pumpkin asks him what is in the briefcase, and he responds, “My boss’ dirty laundry.” Pumpkin tells him that doing his boss’ laundry “sounds like a shitty job,” and Jules responds, “I was just thinking the same thing.” Despite its benefits, a job as a gangster conflicts with his morality. Pumpkin then asks him for it, and he says he cannot give it to him because “it’s not mine to give.” Then he recites Ezekiel 25:17, the passage he always recites before he kills someone: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children” and so on. He finally understands the passage, he tells Pumpkin. It means, “You’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying… real hard to be the shepherd.” It’s his boss’ dirty laundry, not his. He must give it to Marsellus to cleanse himself.

Indeed, Tarantino believes that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are the weak, too. After Jules stops them from robbing the diner, Honey Bunny cries, “I have to go pee. I want to go home.” With a gun to his face, Pumpkin says in a monotone, “Still cool, Honey Bunny” and “I love you, too, Honey Bunny,” without the enthusiasm with which he said the lines before. Tarantino no longer uses their pet names to suggest their love-on-the-run evil. Instead, he ridicules Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, the weak who try to be evil, in the same way he ridicules Brett and his friends, who cannot stop stuttering or shaking when they have a gun pointed at them. By comparison, when Pumpkin points a gun at Jules, he says coolly, “I hate to shatter your ego, but this isn’t the first time I’ve had a gun pointed at my face.” The case is a symbol of his evil, as is his wallet, which says “Bad Mother Fucker.” Jules does not allow Pumpkin or Honey Bunny to have either. Instead, he gives Pumpkin all his money “so I don’t have to kill you” and says, “I just bought your life.” The last image of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny is pathetic: arm in arm, they walk out of the restaurant with their precious bag of wallets. Tarantino makes a point in the failure of Brett, Brett’s friends, Pumpkin, and Honey Bunny: fake crooks cannot pull off real crimes.

Conversation and symbolism also reveal that Vincent usually follows his id over his ego. In the conversation about pork, he reveals he does not care whether a dog is filthy. He says to Jules, “bacon tastes good; pork chops taste good.” Indeed, Vincent is an indulgent character. His face is bloated, and he is overweight, as we see when he takes his shirt off. Travolta gained weight for the part, so we know that Tarantino thought his plumpness necessary. He goes to the bathroom three times in the film, so he is literally in touch with his bodily needs. And he does heroin. He even asks his dealer if he can “shoot up right now,” at the dealer’s house, as if he cannot wait. His actions when he is driving high — his eyes are squinting, his head is grooving to the music, and he smirks softly to himself — show his feeling of satisfaction.

So when Marsellus asks him to take his wife, Mia, on a date, he gives Vincent an enormous challenge: he cannot give in to his desires. Vincent himself calls his task a “moral test of one’s self.” Jules and Vincent’s apparently idle discussion of foot massages reveals Vincent’s understanding and appreciation of sensuality, which may help or hinder his ability to restrain himself, by either scaring him or turning him on. Whereas Jules does not see why Marsellus would try to kill Tony Rocky Horror for giving his wife a foot massage, Vincent does. Vincent says, “There’s a sensuous thing going on” in a massage, and of all the foot massages he has given, “every one of them meant something.” Tony Rocky Horror should have “known better.” Unlike Jules, Vincent understands the unstated sexual connections people feel with each other.

Later we see how Vincent must avoid a similar sexual connection with Mia Wallace. Thanks to Tarantino, we see Mia instantly as an object of desire. Her house, for instance, is a phallic paradise. The first shot we see of her face is an extreme close up of her lips almost touching a microphone. Then we see her hand moving a joystick that controls a camera. And scattered around the house are long, thick candles. Indeed, when she does come downstairs, the camera does not follow her body or her face; it follows her feet. Later, when she walks into the bathroom at Jack Rabbit Slim’s diner, she walks by a drawing of a speedy red race car. And after she overdoses on Vincent’s heroin and Vincent must give her a shot of adrenaline, we see another phallic symbol: the syringe. Liquid drops from the end, then Vincent shoots its contents straight into her heart. Talk about unstated sexual connections! — no wonder, after the night is over, Vincent blows her a kiss before he walks away.

However, his avoidance of contact with Mia Wallace, which may or may not have happened had she not overdosed, is one of the only times we see him restrain himself without aid from others. He is absorbed in his life, and his inability to see wrong in it leads to his death. When one of Brett’s friends shoots at him and Jules but misses, Jules sees the episode as “diving intervention”; Vincent sees it as something that “happens all the time.” While he is on the toilet twice in the film, he reads a book called Modesty Blaise. On the cover is a picture of a woman and a gun, so one can assume that he is reading a pulp fiction novel. Tarantino’s point is that Vincent is sitting on his ass, immersed in his pulp fiction world. He meets his fate when he goes to kill Butch, a boxer who wins a fight he is supposed to lose for Marsellus. He goes to the bathroom at Butch’s house, and when he walks out of the bathroom with his book in hand, Butch shoots him. His indulgences — the book, the bathroom, the life — kill him.

Evidently trivial dialogue and pop culture references are essential to understanding Jules’s and Vincent’s character as well as Tarantino’s message. Jules’s principles save him, and Vincent’s desires kill him. Tarantino asserts that popular culture is not wasted culture. Other artists, like Nathanael West, used pop culture to make some strong symbols in their works. Surprisingly enough, there is profundity in that which everyone knows. After all, no one trivializes Biblical references, and what could be more pop culture than the most popular book of all time?

In fifth grade, children’s author Madelyn Rosenberg wrote a short story ‘How the Raccoon Got His Mask’

Rosenberg in fifth grade, the year she wrote the short story.





Madelyn Rosenberg has written books for children of all ages.

For middle school readers, she’s co-written two books with fellow children’s author Wendy Wan-Long Shang about a 12-year-old half-Jewish / half-Asian protagonist in the 1980s, a boy and a girl: David in This Is Just a Test and Lauren in Not Your All-American Girl.

For high school-aged readers, she co-wrote the supernatural romance Dream Boy with Mary Crockett. For picture books and elementary school readers, she wrote Cyclops of Central Park and Nanny X.

In fifth grade, she wrote a short story titled How the Raccoon Got His Mask. Below is Rosenberg’s story as she originally wrote it, including her cover with every word shaded a different color, as well as a typed version that’s slightly easier to read. But first, this intro from Rosenberg, where she recalls her fifth grade teacher, the original writing assignment, and the nascent career idea that the project sparked.

In fifth grade my teacher, Mrs. Sinha, asked us to write what I guess would amount to an origin story for the animal of our choice. How the Porcupine Got Her Quills, for instance. Or How the Skunk Got His Stink. I decided to tell the story of How the Raccoon Got HIs Mask. If I were telling it today, the mask would cover his nose and mouth. But this was the late 1970s and anthropomorphic animals had other concerns.

I liked fifth grade. I liked the teacher. And I loved the assignment. Mrs. Sinha stapled the pages together and I had a book. I don’t recall the writing of it as much as I recall my parents’ reaction when I brought it home. “You should write children’s books when you grow up,” they said. When I made a map of Virginia out of salt dough, no one told me I should become a sculptor. When I hung with my chin over the pull-up bar for 55 seconds, no one told me I should become an athlete. Or maybe they did and I just can’t remember. Maybe I received encouragement for every project, and their words about the book stuck because I allowed them to stick. Anyway, they never left my mind.

I became a journalist, and still in the back of my mind I heard, “You should write children’s books.” “Remember that story? About the raccoon?” My mother kept the book in the side table in the living room until I became an adult and had my own desk in which to keep it. The plot (raccoon wears mask to Halloween party, bobs for apples, mask shrinks) showed some promise, I think. The raccoon’s name (Randy) was a little less imaginative. But I stand by that story. And I did actually go on to write children’s books, the mantra “you could be” in my mind, piercing through the rejections that would come.

When I visit schools and the students ask about the first book I published, I still pull out that one, the first book that felt real, the first book of mine that other people read. I show my illustrations as part of my slide show, because I want them to know what kitchens looked like in the 1970s. But I also show them because I want them to know that what they are dreaming about at that particular moment? That could become their future.


How the Racc🦝on Got His Mask

Written + Illustrated by: Madelyn Rosenberg


Once on a crisp October night, Randy, a ring-tailed raccoon started on his evening walk toward Crayfish Pond. Randy scampered down the sandy banks of the pond, washed his paws, and settled down for a feast of crayfish, his favorite food. On his way home, Randy decided to check on his blackberry bush to see if the blackberries were ripe yet. Suddenly, it began to rain. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed. Randy took out his May-apple umbrella. Then, he saw a piece of paper fluttering in the wind. Randy picked it up. The paper read:


715 Pine Lane



Randy folded the paper and put it in his pocket. Then he went home, took out a thorn (which was used for a thumb tack) and hung it up inside his tree. Randy pulled down his blanket and went to bed.

He awoke bright and early the next morning and scurried down to the General Store. The store was run by a bird named Bernie. “What can I do for you today, Randy?” he chirped in his squeaky little voice. “I’m looking for a costume,” Randy answered. Randy tried on costume after costume but none of them seemed to fit him. Finally, Bernie suggested, “Why don’t you just wear a mask?” This seemed like a good idea, so Randy chose a nice black mask. Bernie rang up the price with his beak and put it in a bag. Randy picked it up and hurried home with his purchase.

Finally, the night of the party arrived. Animals from all over the forest were heading towards 715 Pine Lane. Randy put on his mask and followed the procession of animals to the party. When he got there, the party was already in full swing. Randy decided to go bobbing for apples. When he put his face under water to try and get hold of an apple, his mask got smaller and smaller.

Now Randy never realized his mask was shrinking so it came as a surprise to him when it came time to take off your mask to show who was who that his mask was stuck. When Randy found out he tried to think of a way to get the mask off his head. Finally, he thought of an idea. He went into the kitchen where a porcupine was preparing some refreshments. Randy strode towards the stove where a big pot of butter, that was going to be put on some popcorn, was simmering. Randy had read in a book that butter and grease would remove things that were stuck, so Randy stuck his head in the burning hot butter.

Yow! Randy jumped so high that he hit his head on the ceiling. “You ought to know better than to stick your head in a pot of hot butter,” the porcupine scolded. Feeling foolish, Randy went back to the room the party was in. He asked his friend, a monkey, if he would help him pull his mask off. The monkey tried to pull it off, but he couldn’t, so the monkey asked his friend to help, who asked his friend, and so on. Soon, all the animals at the party were all trying to pull Randy’s mask off. When none of them succeeded, a snake that had been sitting in the corner uncoiled its long body and slithered up to Randy. “Would you like me to get the mask off?” he hissed with an evil look in his bright red eyes. Randy cautiously backed away (and so did many other animals) and told the snake “No,” for Randy was thinking how much snakes like raccoons for supper. So Randy’s mask never came off, and he was stuck with it — and that’s how the raccoon got his mask.

Check her out at, follow her on Facebook at Madelyn Rosenberg Books, and on Twitter @MadRosenberg.

Former Hartford Courant opinion editor Carolyn Lumsden’s first-ever interview was legendary artist Christo in 1978

When Carolyn Lumsden got her first-ever journalism article pitch accepted, an interview with the writer Christo, there was one catch. “The problem was, I hadn’t done any such interview,” Lumsden says. “I’d never met Christo.”

Carolyn Lumsden. Photo: The Hartford Courant.

A 26-year veteran of Connecticut’s largest newspaper opinion section, Lumsden has won not one but two Sigma Delta Chi Awards in Editorial Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.

In 2017, her four-part editorial series “Crumbling Foundations” spotlighted tens of thousands of Connecticut homes made with pyrrhotite, a little-known material that causes foundations to easily deteriorate. In 1995, her three-part editorial series “Justice in the Dark” helped convince the state to reform the confidentiality laws for trials involving juveniles.

But before that job, before her job as a reporter for the Associated Press, Lumsden’s first-ever journalism interview — her first ever — was with Christo. The experimental artist, who died in May 2020, spent decades attempting among the most audacious and largest-scale art projects in memory, including 1995’s wrapping of the entire German Reichstag building in fabric and 2005’s installation of thousands of bright orange gates in New York City’s Central Park.


2005’s “The Gates” exhibit in New York City. Credit: Wikimedia user Delaywaves.

Here’s what she remembers about landing that first interview, and how it set her on the decades-long journalism path she eventually pursued to great success.

The artist Christo was my first interview ever.

It was the spring of 1978. I had a lowly job in New York City. Tired of that and desperate to get my name in print, I called Soho Weekly News, a chic paper in lower Manhattan. [The publication existed from 1973 to 1982.] An editor there said yes, he would look at my interview with Christo.

The problem was, I hadn’t done any such interview. I’d never met Christo.

I then called Christo. It was easy to find phone numbers in those days. I told him that Soho Weekly News wanted a story on him. He said OK.

A few days later, a thin, shaggy-haired Christo opened the door to his loft. He looked and sounded like an intense professor. His loft was hung with photographs of his mammoth projects: Wrapped Coast in Australia, Valley Curtain in Colorado, and Running Fence in California.

Of course, there was a large mysterious package in the living room. Christo called it Wrapped Canvases.

I offered him the expensive bottle of wine I could barely afford. He ignored it. He set to work, dictating ideas and opinions.

“We live in the most political, social, economic century of human history,” he lectured. “I think that any art that is less than political, less than social, less than economic, is certainly less than contemporary art.” And so it went for an hour.

He talked about clashes over his projects, including one dustup involving wrapping walkways in Kansas City. “We have so many problems in trying to get the permits! … Some people around the community think that doing the project will create a fantastic traffic jam … And that the park will become the place of marijuana smokers and drunkards. And who will collect the garbage?”

The projects usually ended up making people happy and giving them great memories.

After an hour, [Christo’s wife and artistic collaborator] Jeanne-Claude came home. She also had shaggy hair, but she looked more like a fashionable art curator, and she praised my gift of wine. It was a moment of triumph.

The story ran in April 1978. When Christo died earlier this year, I went looking for the article online and found that the Whitney Museum of American Art had excerpted it for the exhibition catalog called “Surveying the Seventies.”

I’m grateful to Christo for taking me seriously and giving me such a wonderful first-ever interview.

Here’s an excerpt from the actual article:

I think we live in the most political, social, economic century of human history. It is unprecedented… I think that any art that is less than political, less than social, less than economic, is certainly less than contemporary art. We cannot stop that concern, we cannot stop that dimension of art…

Of course, all the activity created the momentum of the project [Running Fence]. Without that, the project would not have had its impact. The project created forces for and against. All my projects have that same character because they are built outside of the art system. The art system is anything from the National Endowment for the Arts to the private galleries to the museum collector who dictates what is avant-garde and contemporary art. Because the project was put outside of that system, it was in subversive relation to the structure of perception of what is art, what is permitted. That is the source of energy of the project.

From Carolyn Lumsden, “Christo: ‘I Am a Political Artist,'” Soho Weekly News, April 6, 1978, p. 20.

Follow her on Twitter @CarolynLumsden. And do yourself a favor and read the series of editorials and op-eds she spearheaded in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting.

On a personal note, Carolyn repaid the favor that the Soho Weekly News first paid her, by greenlighting my own first-ever “real” journalism experience outside of my high school newspaper, with my 2010 op-ed about competing in a hot dog eating contest:

“Testing Limits at Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest” was published in the Hartford Courant, on June 9, 2010. Click the above image for a larger view.

Before he was a major pop music analyst and critic, Chris Molanphy reported on an Irish folk music radio show

“We must have that banjo,” Ernest Shackleton commanded his 1914 Antarctic expedition’s crew, forced to abandon ship and cross the frozen continent on foot. “It is vital mental medicine.” If music is vital mental medicine, then today Chris Molanphy ranks among the topic’s most vital writers.

He may not write for GQ, but this suit looks like he models for them.

Though he’s appeared in such prestigious publications as Rolling Stone and Billboard, he’s most known for his writings in Slate. Every time a new song reaches the top spot on the chart, Molanphy writes an installment of his regular Slate series “Why Is This Song No. 1?” analyzing which factors — social, cultural, even political — contributed to the song’s ascendance. He’s now penned dozens of these articles, every single one a fascinating and educational read even if you hate the actual song. Even if you haven’t liked any new music since 1974, you’ll find Molanphy’s contemporary analyses fascinating nonetheless.

On a personal note, he was also gracious enough to include me on a June installment of his podcast Hit Parade, in which we took turns trying to stump each other with music trivia. And he did stump me! On one question, at least. Listen to the episode here or by searching on your favorite podcast app under the title “Music Trivia: The MTV and Alt-Rock Edition.” (Listen to the whole thing, but my appearance starts about nine minutes in.)

But decades before he was writing about the highest-selling music, Molanphy was writing about some of the lowest-selling music.

As a freshman at Yale in the fall of 1989, Molanphy contributed his first-ever piece for the college newspaper, the Yale Daily News. It was about music, alright, but quite the opposite of the genres he would come to specialize in during his subsequent career. An image of the article is below, along with a transcription.

Check out his website, follow him on Twitter @ChrisMolanphy, and check out all his Slate articles and podcasts — including his regular article series “Why Is This Song No. 1?” and monthly podcast “Hit Parade” — here.

[Yale Daily News: 11/8/1989]

Traditional Irish Folk Music Show Wishes Top O’ the Mornin’ to Yale

By Christopher Molanphy

Contributing Reporter

Students who tune in to WYBC on Sunday mornings expecting to hear the station’s usual mix of modern and classical music may be surprised to hear Sean Canning playing traditional Irish folk songs.

Canning has been the disc jockey of his own “Sounds of Ireland” program on Sunday mornings since 1975. The show was featured on various radio stations in and around New Haven until June, 1987, when he began broadcasting on WYBC.

He joined the Yale station after his former station cancelled his program due to a format change.

Asked why he chose to come to Yale, Canning said, “It was available… and they gave me the time I needed — time to blend in, as well as the Sunday morning slot I wanted.”

“Sounds of Ireland” is a 9 to 11 a.m. broadcast of strictly Irish music, sung mostly in English. “We play very few Gaelic songs,” Canning said. “We try to keep it universal, so everybody can enjoy it.”

Canning attributed his popularity to a faithful legion of listeners who tunes in every week for his unusual yet simple program. “For many people, it’s a tradition,” says Canning. “It’s their Sunday morning.”

Even though the station is owned by Yale students, Canning’s primary audience remains the sizable Irish-American population in New Haven and the surrounding suburbs.

Canning’s audience ranges in age, he said. “We have a lot of old people. We also have young people who have to listen because their parents do… and then [the young people] continue listening. They tell me, ‘We grew up listening to your program. It brings back memories.'”

The disc jockey’s listening base goes beyond the New Haven area. He has received feedback from listeners as far away as Trumbull, New London, and Middlefield.

John O’Donovan, a friend of Canning’s and frequent listener, said Canning’s publicity about Irish-American groups in New Haven draws Yale students to Irish-American cultural events.

“He tries to relate events to the Yale community,” he said. “Sometimes, students will come to our musical programs, which they wouldn’t know about without Sean’s program.”

As of this year, there is no organization for Irish-American students here at Yale. Clan na Gael, a group founded by Brendan Crowe ’89 two years ago, failed to meet the registration deadline this year and subsequently folded.

As pleased as he is with WYBC’s generosity, Canning also is proud of what he has given back to the station: a wider audience, and revenue in the form of increased advertising.

“I hope to stay there and continue to bring in money and some publicity,” he said. “YBC is a station with great potential, and I hope I can help it realize that potential.”

Canning is optimistic about the potential of his fellow Irish in any community. “They are all over the state,” he said, “and they blend in well in any community… They come into [a community] and they work like hell. They’re not afraid to take another step.”

Canning himself is personally involved in the community’s activities. He is the president of the local chapter of the Pioneers of the Sacred Heart, an organization founded in 18th-century Ireland to “atone for the sins of drunkenness,” he said. The group in New Haven is celebrating its 31st anniversary this year.

Humane Society VP of Policy and ‘Clean Meat’ author Paul Shapiro wrote about animals at age 9

Shapiro with a chicken, presumably rehearsing these scenes from “The Room” —

Although he wouldn’t become a vegetarian until age 13, Paul Shapiro loved animals at least several years before that, penning a short story at age 9 about a lost dalmatian titled Where’s Spot?

Now serving as Vice President of Policy Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States, Shapiro’s first book comes out this week: January 2, 2018. It’s titled Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, about new technology that allows meat to be grown in a lab by multiplying only a few cells of an animal — without any slaughter or death involved. Shapiro predicts the practice could become the industry standard at your local supermarket and restaurant within a few decades.

Here’s what Shapiro says about his short story at age 9, followed by the story itself:

My thoughts on Where’s Spot?

I’m not sure what the pub date on this literary masterpiece is, but my mom thinks I was perhaps nine when I penned it, meaning around 1986. Interestingly, it’s actually not penned at all, but rather typed, meaning I was a nerd with some type of primitive word processor of the day. It appears that I forgot to type the title and byline, meaning I had to scrawl them onto the page post-printing in cursive, which at least is far better than my cursive today.

Soooo, maybe “masterpiece” may be a bit much for Where’s Spot? After all, a grammatical error in the very first sentence may not have been the best way to impress my teacher. I should’ve thought about asking my mom — a former editor — to proofread it, but instead I put the apostrophe in “Simpsons” before the ‘s’. SMH. [Scratching My Head.]

It doesn’t get much better from there. Exhibit A: “Spot was a Dalmation with many spots.” Even ignoring my misspelling of Dalmatian, I wasn’t exactly painting the most vivid picture for the reader.

I don’t want to give away the ending of the gripping mystery, but it’s not much of a page-turner. Well, it’s literally not much of a page turner in that it’s just barely more than one page. But if you can’t make it all the way to the end, at least rest easy knowing that the question in the title of the novella is indeed answered. Spot is found.

For what it’s worth, given that I now work full-time in the animal welfare field, it does seem at least somewhat interesting that even at such a young age I was writing a story involving a missing animal in need of help from the local animal shelter. Perhaps if my parents had known this would be my career they could’ve saved a lot of money on education in topics unrelated to my profession. For one, writing lessons would’ve been useful.

Enjoy the story! 

Here’s the original short story alongside a transcribed text — spelling and punctuation errors intact.

Where’s Spot?
by Paul Shapiro

It was a Sunday morning at the Simpson’s [sic]. Scott was playing with Spot, the family dog. Spot was a Dalmation [sic] with many spots. Spot was in the right neighborhood at the right time.. He had all the best dog friends in the world. There was Bess, Ron, and Blinky.

One day all the dogs were out playing together. Spot saw a huge pile of soot and decided to jump in and so did the others. They played in the soot for hours. In fact Spot was so black that you couldn’t reconize [sic] him.

Mr. and Mrs. Simpson called everyone about Spot to ask them if they’d seen him. Bess, Ron, and Blinky were reconized [sic] by their owners immediately. After Mr. and Mrs. Simpson got back from the animal shelter they asked Scott if anyone called. Scott replied like this: Nobody called but a black dog stopped by and tried to get into Spot’s bed but I made him leave because I knew we couldn’t get a new dog. Mr. and Mrs. Simpson ran over to Spot’s bed and saw that it was full of soot. Immediately they realized that Spot must have come home full of soot and not have been recognized [correct spelling that time] by Scott.

Now the mystery of what had happened to Spot was almost solved. The only question was where had he gone after Scott made him leave. Since Spot was no where [sic] to be found in the neighborhood, the Simpson’s decided to check the animal shelter again. When they got to the shelter there was still no Dalmation [sic] in sight. However, there were a whole lot of black dogs that were about the size of Spot. After getting permission from the people who ran the animal shelter, they started to give each of the black dogs who were Spot’s size

[At this point the 3-page story skips page 2, which has apparently been lost to history. We resume our tale in mid-sentence with the few lines on page 3.]

by strangers. The third dog, however, didn’t mind at all. In fact, he licked the Simpsons, who were not surprised after that to discover that the black dog was really Spot.

Follow him on Twitter @PaulHShapiro or visit his website Buy his new book Clean Meat out January 2 on Amazon or at

Kara Swisher’s first tech article was about pay phones in 1980


Kara Swisher, tech reporter for Recode Media with more than 1M Twitter followers

Not many people have interviewed both President Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian. But most people aren’t Kara Swisher, executive editor of Re/code, the huge website covering all things tech.

A profile article called Swisher “Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist,” with 1.2 million Twitter followers.

Swisher enrolled at Georgetown University in fall 1980, hoping to work for the CIA. She hadn’t even written for her high school newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey, instead only serving as an editor for the yearbook.

Yet she started writing for the Georgetown Hoya, winning a journalism award her freshman year which was usually intended for seniors.

The very first tech journalism piece Swisher ever wrote was on October 3, 1980 about pay phones — and featured a typo in the opening sentence. (Kids, pay phones were devices on street corners where you had to put money in to call someone.)

Here’s Swisher’s exclusive intro, followed by the actual 1980 article:

Here is what I recall: Absolutely nothing about writing this piece. I have written so many articles over the years, I am afraid that it is impossible to recall any of these. In fact, it speaks to the change in journalism — it is such a fast-paced media world now that we are subject to a news cycle that is both immediate and incomprehensible at times. As you might imagine, this is both good and bad. 

Phone Co. Cracks Down on Cheaters

by Kara Swisher

HOYA Staff Writer

[Georgetown Hoya: October 3, 1980]

The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Compnay [sic], the utility that services all public and private phones on the Georgetown campus, says it will attempt to “crack down” on fraudulent calls from campus areas, particularly zeroing in on the fraudulent use of public pay phones.

Allen R. Coale, security manager at C&P, says, “College campuses hold the dubious distinction of ranking as the most identifiable source of toll fraud in metropolitan Washington.”

Over the past six months, toll frauds have increased one-hundred and two percent, and the projected bill for 1980 is $115,000. Faced with these costs, C&P will be using newer and more sophisticated means of catching offenders. Coale explained, “Given C&P’s responsibility to our customers who pay for phone service, we have no choice but to go after persons deliberately giving false or unauthorized billing information to an operator. Toll fraud is like shoplifting, and if we let it get too high, we must keep it within limits. Some people think of the phone company like the government, but we are out to make money, and if us someone is stealing from us we must take whatever measures necessary to stop them.”

The means with which C&P will attempt to thwart the frauds are varied. According to Coale, the local phone affiliate is as advanced electronically as any section of the nationwide Bell System. Ultra-sophisticated equipment in conjunction with the operator will alert the phone company to “suspicious calls,” and the culprit will now be dealing with machines rather than just human beings. New procedures in verification on credit card calls and third party billing will be utilized with operators and computers checking pay phone calls more often, rather than the “on the spot” methods being used right now. The phone company will also be arresting and subjecting the offender to civil and criminal penalties.

C&P maintains that telephone frauders leave clear trails, such as the number called. The company claimed that it will even go as far as coming right to the phone to catch the offender in the act. A number of students from surrounding universities have been apprehended in this manner.

The Bell System’s attitude towards this situation is reflected in Coale’s comments. “Unfortunately,” Coale said, “we can no longer afford the luxury of letting college students off with just a warning. If the matter continues even after these methods, we have no other choice but to discontinue use of the pay phones. We have done this on other college campuses for three to four weeks, and have found that students understand the real advantage of a pay phone system.

“Those phones represent a partnership between the college and the phone company. We rent the pay phone space from you at the university. If the phone is being used for fraud, there’s not much point in the phone being there. You lose out as well as we do.”

Sums up Coale, “We’ve tried the soft touch, because the students are in a delicate situation, both academically and career wise. But because of these abuses, we can no longer do this. Arrests will be made. We are giving fair warning. The risk is now yours.”

Thanks to Georgetown University Archivist Lynn Conway for locating this article deep in the archives.

Follow Swisher on Twitter @KaraSwisher where she has 1.2 million followers and counting. Visit her Re/code author page here where you can read all her articles and listen to episodes of her podcast Recode Decode.

Politico editor-in-chief John Harris wrote a political article in college about an alum who became Defense Secretary

John Harris, Politico editor-in-chief. Photo source: Politico.

John Harris, Politico editor-in-chief. Photo source: Politico.

Decades before he ran one of America’s top political journalism newspapers and websites, John Harris wrote a political article for his Minnesota college newspaper in which he interviewed an alum who became one of the key figures in the Vietnam War.

Harris has done more than almost anybody else in the past 10 years to shake up journalism for the better. Previously a longtime reporter for the Washington Post, in 2007 he co-founded Politico, the upstart political journalism newspaper and website which quickly became one of the most important in the country. Today as their editor-in-chief, he oversees a publication with millions of readers whose morning newsletter Politico Playbook drives the agenda in Washington. Just the other week, Politico arguably caused President Trump’s Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder to withdraw his name from consideration, after they exclusively published a video of Puzder’s ex-wife detailing alleged abuse. (Perhaps that’s partially why Politico was banned from the White House press briefing room last week, along with the New York Times, CNNLos Angeles Times, and BBC.)

Everybody should read Harris’s September article “Why Journalism” about why he believes the field is still bright and its best days are ahead, even as the press these days is so often attacked, maligned, and distrusted. Also check out Harris’s interview last week with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the governor of America’s largest swing state.

On a personal note, I’d also like to express gratitude to Mr. Harris for taking the time to speak with me one-on-one for a solid half hour during my 2015 Politico internship. At many institutions, those atop of the hierarchy won’t even make eye contact with those at the bottom.

Harris’s Politico author page with all his articles is here, and you can follow him on Twitter @HarrisPolitico here.

Here, Harris explains the backstory behind his March 1982 college newspaper article titled “Melvin Laird’s best defense.” The article itself is at the bottom.

I remember vividly the reporting circumstances around this piece—written 33 years ago, during my junior year in college—but definitely did not remember much about the actual text of the story.

I was that year editor of the Carletonian, the campus newspaper at Carleton College. I was always interested in politics—an interest that preceded my interest in journalism—so it was natural that I agitated to publish pieces that could connect the campus in Northfield, Minnesota with people who had done interesting things in Washington or other parts of the political world. At that time, only a decade past the traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Melvin Laird was still a well-known figure. (He died last year at age 94). He was a Carleton alumnus from 1944 who had gone on to be a well-regarded GOP congressman from Wisconsin and, more controversially, President Nixon’s Secretary of Defense during the closing years of Vietnam.

Importantly, from a Carleton perspective, he had gone from being a loyal alum to someone who was rather aggrieved with the institution. He felt he had been ostracized and even smeared by student activists and some faculty during Vietnam, and the college leadership had not done enough to stand up for him personally or the cause of open debate generally. Specifically, he believed that an offer to come explain himself and administration policy on campus had been rudely snubbed. That assertion was disputed by some, but he was clearly sincere in his belief that it happened.

So, the interview in his Washington office started out a bit warily—he seemed to be sizing me up to see whether I had some axe to grind. I didn’t. Though the events were actually fairly recent—closer in time than, say, 9/11 is us to now—to a 20-year-old they seemed like a distant era. Laird was very close to many reporters, so I think once he decided I wasn’t baring fangs he got kind of a kick out of talking with me. I’m sure if a transcript existed it would show him running circles around me and my questions.

On to the writing… What I worried about when I went to read the piece turned out to be true. It strikes me as clumsy and pretentious. In fairness to myself, pretentious isn’t the worst thing you can say about a young writer. Probably most ambitious journalists start out as pretentious: We see work we admire and so we think to ourselves, “I want to try that.” We are not aware at the time how painfully obvious that trying and pretending is, at least to observant readers. In this case, even the conception of the piece was derivative. I had read a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Fox Butterfield about how as the Vietnam War receded in time and emotions on campuses cooled there was a reappraisal taking place in the academy: People were more willing to examine the Vietnam debate from multiple perspectives, including that of U.S. policymakers, and less prone to view it simply in good vs. evil terms. By trying to present the Laird story in that context—wanting to seem like I was deeply exploring an important intellectual movement—I let the story get muddied. The essence of the article should have been much more straightforward: What actually happened between Carleton and Laird in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and what did he and other relevant characters have to say now? This essence is lost in florid language and murky presentation.

Oh, well. Even as I cringe a little upon reading the story I’m certainly not embarrassed by it. I remember getting some praise from people who thought it was interesting. I think tackling the subject matter and trying to present it in a sophisticated way showed ambition, which is what I admire and look for now in young journalists. So I suppose I’ll give myself a B+ for the piece, and hope I am not accused of grade inflation.

Here is Harris’s March 1982 piece in full — click the photo for the full PDF of the article:



Sesame Street writer Annie Evans won a poetry contest in sixth grade with a dark poem about a hunted wolf

Annie EvansAnnie Evans has perhaps the coolest job description in the world: writer for the television show that raised everybody, Sesame Street. Since 1993, she has written for the U.S. show and “Sesame Street Live!” as well as for international versions of the show in countries ranging from Mexico to South Africa to China to Bangladesh. She’s also an accomplished playwright and author, with several books and plays to her name. Here’s a clip she wrote for Sesame Street as a parody of Mad Men, which is funny whether you’ve seen the original or not, but does contains a few references for fans of the show:

You’ll also absolutely fall in love with this clip of Annie and her husband, fellow Sesame Street writer Marty Robinson, getting engaged on the show’s set in front of all the staff and crew — a ceremony officiated in part by Oscar the Grouch:

But Annie didn’t always write with such a happy tone. In sixth grade, she won a poetry contest with much more sinister and morbid language. First here’s her explanation of the context and backstory, followed by the text of the poem pasted at bottom.

Won the Suffolk County poetry contest in 1974. Typed it from memory since I had to memorize it way back when at the awards ceremony! I was so scared it stuck!

Wolves is the title. The contest wasn’t just for kids, it was for all Suffolk County, NY (on eastern Long Island.) I remember the second place winner was a teacher. The tone of the poem is definitely dark. I was very serious back then about animal welfare (wanted to be a vet.) I didn’t really discover my funny side until I started to write plays and perform in musical comedy. I have a dark side still (don’t we all?) but I feel comedy is more effective a tool for teaching kids on TV. I just finished a play — a comedy about infertility. So it has a dark edge to it, but my point is to make it funny, since life is. If you aren’t laughing right now at the state of things, you’re weeping.

You can find Annie on her website and on Facebook here.  (I also appreciate Annie being the first woman to contribute on this website after launching with nine consecutive men!) And now, here’s her poem from 1974:

Slipping through a moonless night.
Stalking up to a silent prey.
Squatting down to make that deadly bite.
A wolf makes its last and final kill.
A fluttering noise shatters the silence.
Fright is passed through the woods.
Bullets shoot through the air with great violence.
And in the end a wolf lay dead in the snow.
Why did this have to happen?
Man just taking a life like this?
So another legend is confirmed.
All enemies must die
Is man’s horrible wish.
Annie Evans
Sixth grade