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:

HALLOWEEN PARTY

715 Pine Lane

8:00 P.M. — WEAR COSTUMES

ALL ANIMALS INVITED

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 MadelynRosenberg.com, follow her on Facebook at Madelyn Rosenberg Books, and on Twitter @MadRosenberg.

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 Chris.Molanphy.com, 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” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BS7M5LUais

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 Paul-Shapiro.com. Buy his new book Clean Meat out January 2 on Amazon or at CleanMeat.com

New York Times columnist Dan Barry’s 1978 profile of a college dorm janitor

Dan Barry

Dan Barry

Perhaps Dan Barry is the best person to describe his own career exploits, from an excerpt of the commencement address he delivered at his alma mater St. Bonaventure University just weeks ago:

“I’ve been a newspaper journalist for 35 years and I have written thousands of stories. Small town crimes and big city massacres. Political campaigns for Town Council and for the United States Senate. Saints and mobsters. Burlesque queens and circus elephants. The powerful and the powerless. I have met the coroner from The Wizard of Oz.  I have witnessed a man’s execution. I saw New Orleans underwater after Hurricane Katrina. I spent an entire year writing about what happened to the city of my birth after an attack on a sunny Tuesday morning in September. In some ways, I’m still writing about that.”

Dan Barry is truly one of the great storytellers of our time, best known as the columnist for the regular New York Times feature “This Land,” which tells the tales of ordinary people with unique stories or meaningful lives in the hidden corners of America. It’s always a refreshing break to read that in a newspaper often noted for its coverage of the most powerful, from presidents to popes to dictators. Among Barry’s best writings include:

  • The tale of Mamie Lang Kirkland, the elderly black woman who finally returned to her home state a full century after her family left while fleeing a lynch mob.
  • The offbeat story of activists in Keene, New Hampshire who were paying literally all the parking meters in the town to “save you from the king’s tariff.”
  • The sad life of Jesse Webster, who since 1996 has served life in prison without parole for a completely nonviolent offense.
  • Dan Barry's 1908-style baseball column in the NYT print edition. Click for a larger view.

    Dan Barry’s 1908-style baseball column in the NYT print edition. Click for a larger view. (It should surprise nobody that the Cubs lost.)

    His column last October covering a Chicago Cubs vs. New York Mets baseball game as though it was 1908, featuring old-fashioned terminology (a single becomes a “one-bagger” and the Mets become “the Metropolitans”), a century-old font in the newspaper print edition, and grainy black-and-white photographs.

  • Another baseball-related story,  his book “Bottom of the 33rd” about the longest baseball game of all time in 1981. Barry alternates chapters describing the game inning-by-inning and tracking down the (often tragic) lives of the minor-league players in the subsequent three decades. I read the whole thing, all 33 innings of it, and I’d highly recommend even if you don’t love baseball. As proof, I don’t love baseball!
  • Barry’s new book, released just last month, is “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,” the true story of several dozen intellectually disabled men who were kept in servitude for more than 30 years in a small Iowa town without anybody knowing before gaining their freedom.

The piece Barry submitted for A Step in the Write Direction is a short column he wrote for his college publication the Bonaventure Convex in December 1978, about a janitor at a university dorm building who had more to his life than met the eye. The piece shows early glimpses of the “aura of mystique” writing style that Barry uses so often today, in particular phrases like “some people still say…” Below is Barry writing about what he remembers about writing the piece, followed by a photo of the piece as it appeared in the print edition you can read, followed by the original text copied and pasted. (A note for younger readers: Sophia Loren, who is mentioned more than once in the column and featured in the photo accompanying the piece, was an Oscar-winning actress from the ’50s and ’60s.)

Check out Dan Barry at his official website DanBarryOnline.com, follow him on Twitter at @DanBarryNYT, on Facebook at DanBarry.Author.

The story of Tony Oni — whose real name was Tony Villani — had a deep impact on me. I was a student at St. Bonaventure University, trying to imagine a life as a journalist who told the stories of others, including the vulnerable. And here, every morning, came Tony to my dormitory to pick up the beer cups and other debris of a bunch of relatively privileged young men from Syracuse and Buffalo and Long Island. Some ridiculed him for his intellectual disability, even as he cleaned their mess.
To check out the rumor that he was Sophia Loren’s cousin, I visited Tony in his squalid apartment in a dodgy part of town. He said he had a photo; it turned out to be a movie poster on his wall. But I kept digging, and ultimately found a photo of the two of them in an old campus newspaper.
I’m indebted to Tony Villani. I learned about the chasm that existed between the non-disabled and disabled worlds — that still exists, as I recently discovered in researching and writing “The Boys in the Bunkhouse.” I learned about not giving up in digging for facts. And I learned the rush from snatching a true story from out of the clouds of myth and rumor.

Toni Oni, The Spirit of Devereux - Dan Barry - The Bonaventure Convex, December 1978

Toni Oni, The Spirit of Devereux

By Dan Barry

When that freshman first lugs his suitcase up those stairs in Devereux, he can sense the tradition of the oldest dorm on the St. Bonaventure campus. It has a special air about it, one of pride and madness. The teachers refer to Dev as the “Zoo.”

As the upperclassmen arrive a few days later, they fill the freshman in on the history of his new home. Yes, Lanier lived here, and there’s where the Great Water War of ‘76 took place, and up on Fifth Dev two guys said a black mass and a priest held an exorcism.

But the only story that the upperclassmen tell with a special tone of reverence and mystery is the one about Toni-Oni, the janitor. He’s Sophia Loren’s cousin, the upperclassmen say.

As the years pass, that freshman (now an upperclassman) sees Toni-Oni almost any time of the day, dragging two plastic trash bags down the Dev halls, his eyes down in search of empty beer cans and scraps of paper. In his baggy blue uniform and black shoes, he perpetually cleans up after the students, never complaining, never scolding. Only smiling. He always smiles and says, “Hiya.”

Some people say his name is Antonio Villani and he lives across from Burger King in town. Others who know better say his name is Toni-Oni and he lives in Devereux tradition. After all, the upperclassmen say, he’s Sophia Loren’s cousin.

Time Magazine humor columnist Joel Stein’s first college piece was so weak “they made me submit a second sample”

Time Magazine humor columnist Joel Stein, present day and with his mullet in 1990. (Photo on left:

Time Magazine humor columnist Joel Stein, present day and with his mullet in 1990.
(Photo on left: Ron Bennington Interviews.)

Not sure which one is Joel Stein.

Not sure which one is Joel Stein.

Every year Joel Stein parodiesTime Magazine’s annual “100 Most Influential People” issue. This year he had the 100 most influential animals. Previous years included:

That’s what you’ll read in the back pages of Time Magazine which feature the weekly irreverent humor column “The Awesome Column,” written since 1998 by comedy writer Joel Stein.

Asked for an early example of his writing, Stein submitted the first humor column he ever wrote for his college newspaper, the Stanford Daily. Wanting to join the newspaper’s opinion staff at the beginning of his sophomore year in 1990,  he submitted a column titled “Fruit flies and memories,” which may be more relevant than ever during the year of the mosquito-borne Zika Virus. The column is copied below in text form, along with a photo showing how it appeared in the print edition. (His author bio also contained a very dated reference to the at-the-time-recent unification of East and West Germany.) Remembering his first piece, Stein writes:

It sucked. I was copying Dave Barry. I was the only person where they made me submit a second sample because that one was so weak, but someone thought there was something there.

Follow him on Twitter @TheJoelStein where he has just shy of one million followers as of this posting. Stein can be found at his official website TheJoelStein.com, his Time Magazine column archive is here, and and like him on Facebook here. One particularly funny and accurate tweet of his: “The only way to assure an email gets read is to send a second one titled ‘Ignore last email.'”

 Here’s his original October 5, 1990 humor column “Fruit flies and memories.” Hopefully you can get past the late-’80s style mullet haircut in his author photo.
Click on the image or open it in a new tab to enlarge.

Click on the image or open it in a new tab to enlarge.

Fruit flies and memories

The fruit fly quarantine was over. The signs which had previously warned the public (and successfully convinced small pesky mosquitoes not to fly within restricted areas) were now covered with “Eradicated — We Thank You” notices. Sometime over the summer, the Stanford community had scoped the area and destroyed the entire fruit fly population, boldly proclaiming their accomplishment with notices declaring that no fly would dare return.

As I drove up toward the Stanford campus this fall, eagerly searching for a familiar face, I was instead immediately confronted with this startling information. My first reaction was a gut one: “By God,” I thought, “what a wonderful, powerful institution this Stanford University is.” But as I drove on toward my new sophomore home in Sterling Quadrangle, I had plenty of time to consider the deeper implications of the complete extermination of the local fruit fly community. The question that was raised appeared to me in this form:

  1. In recent months, the Stanford community has worked together to accomplish the eradication of certain agricultural problems. In a short, two-page paper, describe several similar personal accomplishments of your summer and/or Stanford career.

I quickly began to form an outline of my summer experiences on the front cover of the great big blue book in my mind.

  1. bought a few CDs
  2. rented a bunch of movies
  3. read a couple of books
  4. met a girl named Bubbles

But, as I tried to flesh out my outline, I was forced to own up to the fact that none of my summer experiences could even compare to the fruit fly thing. What I needed was a contribution to the community at large, an accomplishment of some kind, some sort of a Raid can I could place on that bathroom shelf we affectionately call Life.

“Forget the summer,” I blurted (mentally) as the car rounded past the Stanford Hospital, “I’m sure I did something last year.” But alas, my search was to no avail. I hadn’t done any of the things I promised I would accomplish during my frosh year. I hadn’t done any volunteering for the local community. I hadn’t gotten straight A’s. I hadn’t even gotten A’s tickets. I hadn’t made a habit of flossing everyday. And worst of all, no one had yet told me I had become a more multicultural person.

By the time I turned onto Santa Theresa Street, I had come to two conclusions. First of all, Sterling Quad is really far. Second, I decided that this year was going to be different. I was going to do all those things I promised to do. I pulled the floss out of the glove compartment and concentrated hard on all the things that lay ahead of me. I was a sophomore, dammit; I should be kissing up to professors, applying for internships and running various (or is it sundry?) student organizations. I was a sophomore and, if nothing else, I was going to use more parentheses this year (they’re so collegiate).

It’s been a week since I first drove up to the Governor’s Corner parking lot, and I’m now forced to ask myself what I have accomplished. Let’s see…. I joined the Price Club and bought a gallon of Clinically Proven Anti-Plaque Pre-Brushing Dental Rinse (seven dollars — what a bargain!). I got my oil changed. I finally found out where the GreatWorks lectures had been held. And I even helped someone build a loft.

Well, I guess I haven’t exactly lived up to the Stanford student I feel that I was supposed to be — nor the one that was described in Approaching Stanford. But I did meet some nice people and take some interesting classes. And most of all, I had a good time.

Who cares if I didn’t end a pestilence? I’ll leave that for the big organizations. For now, I’m content to just enjoy myself, make some new friends, learn a few things, and strengthen my tooth enamel. Screw the fruit.

Joel Stein would like to know which flag Germany is using, and if he can have the other one. His column will appear every Friday.

11-time Sportswriter of the Year Rick Reilly’s first big sports article about a local marathon included an interview with the governor

Rick Reilly photo

Rick Reilly, 11-time NSSA National Sportswriter of the Year

If you’re a huge sports fan, then longtime Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine columnist Rick Reilly is probably your favorite sportswriter. But if you’re not a sports fan, please keep reading this… because Rick Reilly would still probably be your favorite sportswriter.

See, Reilly rarely writes about game scores and recaps. He mostly writes about the people behind the games.

Rick Reilly's cover story last month. In this photo, just like in politics, the Green Party is on the left. (Photo: Walter Iooss Jr. for SI)

Rick Reilly’s cover story last month. In this photo, just like in politics, the Green Party is on the left. (Photo: Walter Iooss Jr. for SI)

Take his recent Sports Illustrated cover story about the Golden State Warriors, the basketball team which just set the record last week for most wins in a regular season. Almost any other writer would have structured the article around  superstar and Most Valuable Player award winner Steph Curry. Instead, Reilly structured the article around 15-year-old Sofia Petrafesa, afflicted with a bone cancer that shows up only 200 times a year in the U.S., a girl whose only dream is to see the Warriors play.

As another example, take Reilly’s 1999 column “Funny You Should Ask” which many people (including myself) consider to be his best piece. It’s kind of about sports, but mostly it’s about life itself, as in this beautifully eloquent paragraph:

I don’t think the meaning of life is gnashing our bicuspids over what comes after death but tasting all the tiny moments that come before it. We’re here to be the coach when Wendell, the one whose glasses always fog up, finally makes the only perfect backdoor pass all season. We’re here to be there when our kid has three goals and an assist. And especially when he doesn’t.

The cover depicts Reilly competing in the competition known as "ferret legging," which actually exists.

Reilly competing in the competition called”ferret legging,” which apparently actually exists.

Plus Reilly wrote one of the funniest books of the past few years — “Sports from Hell: My Search for the World’s Most Outrageous Competition.” In it, he goes around the world competing in everything from Chess Boxing to the World Sauna Championship to the Three-Mile Golf Hole.  And those are some of the less ridiculous contests.

Reilly is one of the best sportswriters but would probably be one of the worst horoscope writers. Here’s a quote from his 2011 University of Colorado-Boulder journalism school commencement speech:

“We’ll be fine. You guys should hang onto those diplomas. They’re like collectors’ items. It’s like ‘Donald Trump for President’ bumper stickers or polar bears. You’ll never see them again.”

So which early piece of writing did Reilly choose to feature here?  A Colorado native, Reilly, while still a sophomore in college, started writing sports on the side for the local Boulder Daily Camera newspaper . His first piece in May 1979 was about the local marathon, which even included a short interview with then-Governor of Colorado who was at the race. The article is copied below in text form at the end of this post, with a photo of the print edition version included as well.

As Reilly lamented when re-reading the piece for the first time in decades a few weeks ago, “It wasn’t much, was it?” To be perfectly honest… no, it wasn’t. Yet perhaps that just underscores the point: the best writers aren’t made, they’re developed.

Here’s how Reilly describes the experience in his own words:

The Boulder High School Owl, my first newspaper was called. “Hoo’s Hoo at BHS” I think was one of my columns. Yes, it was.

The Owl was HUGE for me because that was the first time I could actually write for somebody else. As opposed to my terrifyingly-detailed “newspaper” accounts of me and my 10-year-old friends’ exploits in Home Run Derby every day and what we did at “night” — I dated Joey Heatherton, I remember, and drove a Rolls-Royce.

Also, through the Owl, I competed in the state high school journalism contest, where I won first place in sportswriting. They gave you a list of random facts about some game, all mixed up, some important and some not, and you had to bang out a game story in six paragraphs and 15 minutes. Somehow, I think I got the word “obstetrician” into it.

Anyway, the judge was the assistant sports editor at the Boulder (CO) Daily Camera. The problem was he judged the contest anonymously. That is, nobody’s names or towns were on the entries. So he didn’t know who he’d picked. When I won, I tried desperately to find him and ask for a job, but he was gone.

BUT… I was a teller at the local bank that summer after my senior year and who do I end up “telling” next to but the guy’s WIFE.

I begged her for a month to tell him I was the kid who won the contest and would they need any help? And finally she did and he immediately called me and gave me a JOB, which I worked at 40 hours a week while going to CU [University of Colorado at Boulder].

And, anyway, that’s how I got my break.

And now, here is — in both photo and text form — Reilly’s 1979 article about a Colorado marathon. (Reilly can be found at his official website RickReillyOnline.com, and follow him on Twitter @ReillyRick. Read and watch his ESPN articles and videos here, and read his 10 best Sports Illustrated feature articles through the years here.)

Rick Reilly - Boulder Daily Camera - Barksdale Beats Heat for Marathon Win - 5.7.1979

Click the photo or open it in a new tab for a larger version.

Barksdale Beats Heat for Marathon Win

By RICK REILLY

Camera Sports Writer

DENVER – Boulderites Hank Barksdale and Bernie Allen are giving Colorado marathon runners the business.

The business is a wholesale running gear company — International Sports, operated out of Boulder by Allen and assisted by Barksdale. The company deals in professional equipment for the serious runner. The other business the two are involved in is actually running marathons. Allen won the first annual Boulder Memorial Hospital Life and Health Marathon earlier this year, and Barksdale claimed the United Bank of Denver Mile-High Marathon Sunday.

The red-haired Barksdale, who turns 25 today, beat the searing mid-morning sun, the altitude, and 1,657 other runners to win the title and cross the finish line at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver in 2 hours, 33 minutes and 39 seconds.

“I never pushed it,” an exhausted Barksdale said afterwards. “It was so hot out there that after a while, I realized that running with a kick was going to be ridiculous. I just decided to keep up a steady pace. The heat took at least five minutes off my time. So did the altitude.”

Barksdale took the lead at about the 20-mile point on the scenic Denver course and was never behind after that. Second place went to Longmont’s 18-year-old Perry Evoniuk, who ran 2:35:47.

The women’s winner was Bette Popper, a Littleton native and a member of the Rocky Mountain Road Runners, co-hosts of the event. She finished in 3:13:30, unofficially.

Claiming second behind Popper was Boulder’s Beth Schlichter, a physical therapist at Boulder Memorial Hospital. Schlichter finished in three hours and 15 minutes, also an unofficial time after a computer breakdown prevented accurate timing.

A crowd of about two thousand people roared as Barksdale made the turn onto 17th street off of Glenarm and headed into the last yards of the gruelling 26-mile, 385-yard course. When he arrived, a swarm of television cameras and reporters greeted him, along with Gov. Richard Lamm, who placed an Athens-like Olympic wreath around his head.

Lamm had already run his own 13-mile race earlier in the day, but remained at the race site for a few hours afterwards.

“This is such a joy,” he said. “I envy these people [finishing the race]. But you don’t have to go 26 miles to enjoy running. You should be able to run around the block and still have fun.

“I just ran 5 or 6 miles a day, but I keep thinking it would be a good goal to try and run one of these things. I have so much fun now, though, I would hate for it to become a chore. There are already so many chores in life.”

Women’s champ Popper was greeted with the same type of enthusiasm as she neared the finish.

“I have the best fan club in the world,” said Popper. “This is wonderful. The course was beautiful. I ran badly, but it was good enough to win, I guess.”

Businessman Allen, a native of England, dropped out of the race near the 20th mile but Barksdale, the man they call “Hammerin’ Hank,” hung on to win his first marathon ever.

The slender Barksdale didn’t enter last month’s Boulder event because he was training for the Boston Marathon (where he finished 190th). He says he will probably run in the New York Marathon.

Barksdale defeated former CU track star Mike Peterson, one of the favorites of the race, who withdrew after 24 miles because of blisters.

Last year’s winner, Skip Houk, from Reno, Nevada, finished fifth. Houk ran a 2:30:53 on a cold, snowy day in 1978.

“The heat made all the difference,” Houk said. “It was bad for me. Even before the halfway mark, I could feel it. It was a lot easier to run last year.”

Third-place finishers were Roger Gerard, 35, of Arvada and Martha McKeal, also 35, of Colorado Springs.

Though the breakdown made complete results unavailable, Boulder also had one of the best efforts by a young runner Sunday. Twelve-year-old Jay Roper finished the 26-plus-mile race in 3:56.

10 million+ selling children’s author Dan Gutman wrote a 1976 quiz on whether you were cool

 

Dan Gutman juggling

Dan Gutman, shown here presumably doing research for his baseball book “Shoeless Joe and Me.”

When I asked Dan Gutman for some biographical information, his answer started with this: “Dan Gutman was born in a log cabin in Illinois and used to write by candlelight with a piece of chalk on a shovel. Oh, wait a minute. That was Abraham Lincoln. Actually, Dan Gutman grew up in New Jersey.”

How popular is Dan Gutman? Let’s put it this way: just this week his children’s book series “My Weird School” sold its 10 millionth copy! How can you not want to buy the collection of 50 books with titles like “Miss Daisy is Crazy!” “Dr. Nicholas is Ridiculous!” and “Mr. Harrison is Embarrisin’!” Millions of others have devoured his other children’s book modern classics like “Johnny Hangtime” about a kid Hollywood stuntman and “The Million Dollar Shot” about a kid who gets the opportunity to win seven figures by scoring a half-court shot at the NBA Finals.

My personal favorite is “The Kid Who Ran For President” which is about exactly what you would think. One line that I frequently quote to this day: title character Judson Moon is asked during a presidential debate where he stands on endangered species. He replies, “If they were endangered, I wouldn’t stand on them.”

Gutman was destined for greatness ever since his first book, a now-discredited-for-decades 1986 manual “I Didn’t Know You Could Do THAT With A Computer,” which is currently selling for 48 cents on Amazon. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

He can be found at his website DanGutman.com, on Facebook here, on Twitter @DanGutmanBooks, on Instagram also @DanGutmanBooks, and his Amazon author page here.

bee_gees_album

Then again, back in 1976, “cool” people looked like this.

The excerpt he submitted is of the first thing he ever published: a quiz for his college newspaper about whether or not you were cool. I’ll let Dan tell the rest with his explanation, followed by the piece, which you can read by clicking on the photo below (showing how it originally looked in the school newspaper) or reading the copied text. If you’re wondering, I scored a +13, or “semi-cool.”

The first thing I ever published was this silly quiz about how to tell whether or not you were cool.  It appeared in the Rutgers University newspaper, The Targum.

I didn’t work on the paper, and I was not studying writing.  In fact, I was a psychology major and never took a writing class in my life.  But this idea came to me and writing always came naturally to me, so I decided to write it down and submit it to the paper.  I was amazed that they printed it.  Even more amazing was what happened the next day.  I walked around campus and just about everybody was reading and talking about this article.  What a rush!

I think that was the beginning of my career as a writer.  I gave graduate school a try, but soon I decided to quit psychology, move to New York City (where all the starving writers go) and become a starving writer.  I struggled for a long time until I found my strength–writing fiction for kids.  I can already see my style of writing in this piece–simple, conversational, concise, and borderline stupid.  To this day, I still get off on seeing people reading the silly words I wrote.

I would have come out on the UNcool end of the spectrum.

Dan Gutman - How cool are you - Rutgers Targum, 1976

Page 4, The Rutgers Daily Targum, Thursday, September 23, 1976

How cool are you?

By DAN GUTMAN

Now that we are all settled in and the new school year is well under way, it is important that we brush up on the basic skills that take up the majority of our valuable time. Mainly, being cool.

Face it, on the college campus being cool is just as important as the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, and shelter. Now how cool are you? A massive study is taking place in California (where all massive studies take place) to answer this very question. It is reproduced here. To determine just how cool you really are, simply check the items below that are applicable, add up your “cool” points, and subtract your “uncool” points. Be honest.

“Cool” Points

+1 My major is Art, Music, or Philosophy

+3 I am a vegetarian or ecology freak

+1 I have mononucleosis

+2 I went to Colorado over intersession

+1 I own a Picasso or a Magritte print

+2 I am unconcerned with material things

+2 I meditate

+2 I watch Star Trek, Monty Python, or All My Children

+3 I read Tolkien, Vonnegut, Rolling Stone, and The Voice

+5 I don’t believe in a god anymore

+3 I have at least one homosexual friend

+1 I play guitar

+2 I play guitar well

+3 I play barre chords

+4 I took off a semester to – “get my head together”

+1 I am usually depressed

+3 I write poetry when I’m depressed

+2 I ride a bike to class

+1 I took the legs off my dressers

+4 I put my head in a copy machine to Xerox my face

+3 I go to class high

+2 I talk to plants

+1 I can catch a frisbee between my legs

+4 I am a Mary Hartman freak

+2 I am into classical music

+3 I am into jazz music

+3 I often say “into”

+2 I often have dilated pupils

+2 I am left handed

+4 I am ambidextrous

+3 I see a psychiatrist

+1 I know how many presidents were assassinated in Chile last year

+4 I am a grad student with a beard, attache case, wire rims, and a styrofoam cup of coffee

+2 I steal things from the Commons

+3 I belong to any minority group

+6 I take no notes, buy no books, attend no classes, and I aced out last semester

“Uncool” Points

-4 I am a throat

-3 I saw the Carpenters in concert

-1 I eat pizza with a knife and fork

-2 I bring a tape recorder to lectures

-3 I wear sandals and socks

-4 I wear shoes and shorts

-5 I wear sneakers, black socks, and shorts

-6 I wear shoes, white socks, and shorts

-4 I carry a calculator on my belt loop

-6 I am a Young Republican

-5 I am a white person who tries to act black

-5 I am a black person who tries to act white

-6 I am a J.A.P.

-5 I am in R.O.T.C.

-6 I own a John Denver album

-2 My pants are way too short on me

-2 I admire Ronny Howard

-3 I attend Livingston College (Living Stoned)

-2 I attend Douglass College

Well, how did you do? A score of -5 equal nurd, 0 equal derf, +5 equal blah, +10 equal semi-cool, +15 equal cool, and if you scored +20 or better, you are super-cool.

Dan Gutman is a Senior Psychology Major at Rutgers College.

Prolific young adult fantasy author Michael Grant wrote a short story in 1962 about moving to France

Michael Grant

Michael Grant

Michael Grant is one of the biggest authors of fantasy teen novels and children’s books around, having written over 150 books. What, you couldn’t manage 160?

He and his wife Katherine — then publishing under the J.K. Rowling-style name K.A. Applegate — co-wrote the Animorphs fantasy series, about a group of five teens who use their secret ability of transforming into animals to battle an evil invading alien life force, which was even made into a television show on Nickelodeon. (Video of the pilot episode here.)  As most kids who grew up in the ’90s like myself can attest, “Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco, and Ax” ranked just behind “Harry, Ron, and Hermione” on the list of favorite ’90s fantasy book heroes.

Some of Grant’s other best known series include the Gone series featuring the books Gone, HungerLiesPlagueFear, and Light. It’s a six-part saga about a town where everybody over age 15 vanishes, and presumably the oldies radio stations start playing songs from five years before. Grant also wrote The Magnificent 12, a four-part series that can best be described by the description on the series website: “Only one thing stands between her and the destruction of the human race—a team of twelve twelve-year-olds. So humanity is basically out of luck. It’s clearly hopeless.”

But he wasn’t always penning fantasy and science fiction, as our entry today showcases. Then known as Michael Reynolds, at age seven in 1962 he wrote a short story on the typewriter. (Kids who may be reading this because they’re a fan of his, a typewriter was basically a really old-fashioned computer that couldn’t do anything except type.) Entitled “My Last Four Months,” the story chronicled the preparations for his family’s move to France, inspired by his real life living in both the U.S. and France while being raised in a military family. A picture of the original typewritten version is below in this post, followed by the story in text form.

Michael Grant, middle row, left, with glasses, in school in France

Michael Grant in France at around the time he wrote the story, fourth one in the middle row, wearing the glasses.

Grant had this to say about his original piece as well as advice for young readers who want to become writers or authors:

Interesting. Not sure my style has changed that much.

Here’s my advice for aspiring writers:  Writing is a job, and it’s work. If you don’t want to work, if you just want to call yourself a writer, do something else.  This is a job for people who work at it.  That said, if you have talent, and if you acquire the basic skills, and if you’re willing to work hard, and if you’ll also learn about the business, and if you will stand back up every time you get knocked down, you can succeed in writing.  And then?  Best job on earth, people. I work three or four hours a day, sitting in a bathrobe on my deck, and I make more than the President of the United States.  I know: it’s insane!  But first came the hard stuff.  Don’t forget all that.

Follow him on Twitter @MichaelGrantBks, like him on Facebook at TheRealMichaelGrant, and check out his website with the “The Donald” style name TheMichaelGrant.com. Now for the story:

Michael Grant - My Last Four Months - 3.3.1962

completely original excepting last 2 words.

the author’s second work

March 3, 1962

MY LAST FOUR MONTHS

One day, on the way home from school my mom told me that she got fired. But she seemed perfectly calm and happy, for only one reason: because she was happy. Because a drunkard, her boss, had fired her.

Me, half scared out of my wits, started thinking of all kinds of weird things to get money. The next morning I got a letter from my dad who had been stationed in France. We always thought that the Army was going to send money to go over to France, but in the letter it said that we were going to have to do it on our own because there was a ban that no dependents could go overseas until they paid for it with their own money. This just added up to more trouble. No job, no money. No money, no trip.

So, this put us in quite a spot. The first place we went to was our Grandma’s to try to borrow some money from them. They said they’d give us as much money as we needed, but that we’d have to pay it back when we got back to the States.

Now, we got the money, but there was still something else that we had to do. And that thing was the passports. So, one day I had to tell my teacher I would be out until about 12 noon. So, we went to the passport station and got a passport. Ten days later we received the passport. But when I saw the passport it didn’t look like it was worth 850 dollars. The cover wasn’t even genuine leather.

Now there was one more thing I had to do. Shots! So next day we went to the health center and I hated shots. When we got in my mom had to give me a good tranquilizer pill. But then we found out that the health center couldn’t give us those shots. And besides, my shots already covered enough time so it was a big waste of time.

Then I went over to my Grandma Marcus’s. As soon as I got over there I went straight to Channel 2 on the television. I came in on this war picture, but of course, there came a time when my mom had to drag me away from the television and into the car.

Then came my last day at school. At the end of school they gave me a book and a good-bye party.

And then, we had another goodbye party. That day just happened to be the day that I wrote this story. We had everything you could think of eating.

This looks like the end of this book because this is the first and last day of me writing this book. The only thing else that I can tell you is that we’re going on the plane in two more days. This is going to be the end of this book because there’s no more to tell. Bon Voyage!

Michael Reynolds

Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a haiku about life in eighth grade English class

In honor of Gene Weingarten's haiku in today's post, here's a haiku for this photo caption: Gene Weingarten sits Staring contemplatively At the camera

In honor of Gene Weingarten’s haiku in today’s post, here’s a haiku for this photo caption:
Gene Weingarten sits
Doing his best impression
Of Rollie Fingers

If you’ve only won one Pulitzer Prize in your life, you might want to skip this post because it may hurt your ego.

Gene Weingarten is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his work at the Washington Post, where he now writes the weekly humor column “Below the Beltway.” Recipient of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award, Weingarten is one of America’s most acclaimed columnists of the past few decades. His book “Fiddler in the Subway” compiles his best writings through the decades… and is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Five of his best include:

  • “The Great Zucchini,” a profile of DC’s most popular children’s magician who hides a dark and secret past.
  • “None of the Above,” a profile of Ted Pruz, a normal guy and swing-state undecided voter chosen at random in the weeks before the 2004 election, a piece which ends up revealing great insights into the voters who decide the leader of the free world.
  • “Fatal Distraction,” a sobering look at loving and well-meaning parents who accidentally leave their children in locked cars with the windows closed. One of the saddest articles ever, but should be required reading for all new parents.
  • “The Armpit of America,” where Weingarten spends a week or so living in Battle Mountain, Nevada, which had been named as “the worst town in America.”
  • “Pearls Before Breakfast,” a 2007 article in which Weingarten set up a social experiment. World-renowned classical violinist Joshua Bell played anonymously as a street performer in a Washington D.C. metro station to see whether people would pay attention when he was not in prestigious concert halls and everybody was hurriedly on their way to work. My favorite excerpt:
    • “There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Weingarten is currently at work on his next book, all about the date December 28, 1986. What happened on that day, you ask? Nothing in particular — he selected the month, day, and year from random out of a hat. His author page can be found here and followed him on Twitter @GeneWeingarten.

Now here is his submission, featuring an early piece of his which is not only the shortest one the website has published so far, but also the shortest likely to be published even if this website continues for decades! Gene will take it from here:

When I was in eighth grade English class, the teacher introduced us to haiku.  I suspect that all eighth graders are introduced to haiku: It is easy to understand, and deceptively simple to do.  (It is hard to do with skill, but that is irrelevant, in eighth grade.)

We were assigned to write one overnight and bring it in the next day, to be graded.

I spent some time on this.  I was a morbid little guy.   What I came up with was:

As death draws nearer

Like an eagle hunting prey

Life becomes dearer.

I was pretty proud of this poem.   I guarantee you it kicked the crap out of all the other kids’ poems.   The teacher graded me harshly, and held it up as an example of what not to do.  Why?  Because I had rhymed it.   Haiku is not supposed to rhyme.

To this day, I hate haiku, and all un-rhymed poetry, and fucking rules.

Bestselling author AJ Jacobs’s short story at age 10 “The Gerbil Caper”

 AJ Jacobs picture from LinkedIn

AJ Jacobs is a New York Times bestselling author and editor at large for Esquire Magazine, but perhaps a more accurate job description would be that he does whatever the heck he wants and writes about it for millions of readers. Most known for his “stunt journalism,” his most notable experiences have included:

His next book slated for 2016 publication is called It’s All Relative about his attempt to construct the world’s largest family tree. Using an online tool called WikiTree, over the last several years he’s proven familial connections to more than 7.1 million people. (Including me — AJ and I are 29 degrees of separation apart, through a common ancestor born 1605 in Norway named Anneke Jans. Seriously.)

AJ has graciously agreed to provide the first-ever contribution to A Step In The Write Direction, with a short story he wrote at age 10 titled The Gerbil Caper.  The tale centers on an engineer assigned to design a super fast engine for the world famous auto racer AJ Destroyer. Despite the project’s three billion dollar budget, the engineer Charles Goodham comes up with a better idea: using his daughter’s pet gerbils to run fast inside the car’s wheels. But will it work?

Here is what AJ wrote about his story from back then:

When I found this story in my mom’s attic a year ago, it was a surprise. I had no memory of writing it. I had no memory of the plot, in which race car driver puts super-strong gerbils inside his car tires, and the gerbils run so fast he wins the big race.

Reading it made me wish I could go back and give the 10-year-old A.J. some feedback. For instance: Your story sucks ass.

I’d probably be a little more nuanced with my younger self. Let’s start with the good news.

  • The penmanship is awesome. I wish I could write that neatly now.
  • The story has a lot of dialogue, which keeps it moving at a nice pace.
  • The bulleted list in the middle is a nice touch. Always good to break up the format, I think. (As you can see, I still enjoy the bulleted list.)
  • There’s some good dramatic tension as we wait to see if the gerbil car will be ready in time for the race.

The not-as-good news:

  • The first line is about the weather “It was a gloomy day,” which is never a good strategy, as the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest shows us every year. You lost me right there.
  • The prose gets quite purple. “The alarm clock ticket in its usual menacing way.” (And even then, did alarm clocks still tick? I think I had a digital alarm clock.)
  • The main character Mr. Goodham is kind of a dick. He yells at his daughter, he repeatedly calls his partner “stupid.” He shows a stubborn lack of emotional growth. He learns no lessons. He’s a dick start to finish. The race car driver is also a jerk – he wins by intentionally causing his opponents to crash into each other.
  • The character names are a little on the nose. A.J. Destroyer. Dave Rubbish.
  • There is no discussion of the profound consequences of discovering super-strong gerbils. This is a massive breakthrough. Why doesn’t it occur to Goodham to bring it to the attention of scientists and the NIH? Maybe develop drugs to stop muscular deterioration and slow down aging. Instead, just wants to win his little car race.

But again, nice work with the handwriting. You should have kept that up.

Below is a PDF scanned version of AJ’s original handwritten story from 1978, which you can read by clicking on the title below, or below that you can read the text:

 

The Gerbil Caper

A.J. Jacobs

Oct. 30, 1978

            It was a gloomy day, Charles Goodham was walking home after failing to invent a superfast motor. The world-famous auto racer, A.J. Destroyer, has asked the Brile Motor company to make him a race car. In exchange he agreed to give the company 3 billion dollars. Charles Goodham has been assigned to design a motor within a week of the race; Tomorrow it would be 8 days till the race.

He reached his house and entered, he was soon in bed, tired. But he couldn’t get to sleep. The alarm clock ticked in its usual menacing way. Time went by quickly. Still Mr. Goodham couldn’t get to sleep. His thoughts were on the motor when a crash sounded in Jenny’s (his daughter’s) room. Mr. Goodham jerked up as Jenny half flew, half ran to her father.

“Th- th- the ger-ge- I- I- I-, th- they–”

“I can’t understand a word you are saying!” said Mr. Goodham impatiently, for it was 3:00 A.M.

Jenny paused for a minute, “Y- you know th- the gerbils I got today at- at that tiny little shop owned by that crazy little man?”

“Yes, go on,” said Mr. Goodham in a dull tone.

“Well, they just broke through the wall of the cage, and then they picked up my bookshelf and threw it across the room. They are weird! My gerbils are superstrong!”

The next morning Mr. Goodham was arguing with his boss, “But I tell you boss, my daughter has superstrong gerbils!”

“So, what of it,” yelled his boss.

“Well, maybe we could think of something to use them for. They are kind of an important discovery,” said Mr. Goodham timidly.

“Do you want your million dollar raise,” asked his boss in a menacing tone.

“Yes,” was the small reply.

“Then get to work! And invent a superfast motor for Mr. Destroyer!!” he actually screamed. “You’re already late and after that you can fool around with hamsters.”

“No, gerbils,” said Mr. Goodham.

Shut up!!” Mr. Goodham’s boss was obviously very nervous about the race and about the fact that the motor wasn’t built yet.

The days went by quickly. Mr. Goodham had not made the motor yet and his boss was threatening to fire him.

“You’ve got yourself in big trouble, Goodham,” it was Mr. Goodham’s partner, Dave Rubbish. Mr. Goodham called him ‘Stupid.’

“Be quiet,” said Mr. Goodham. He glanced into the corner of the room. A mouse scurried into the hole. “Oh, God! I forgot all about the gerbils. Lucky that mouse reminded me… Now, what can I do with gerbils that are superstrong? Hmmmm.” Mr. Goodham was dissolved in thought.

Dave Rubbish broke in, “The only thing that gerbils do is eat, and run in a little exercise wheel and make it go around. Anyway, why are we talking about ger–”

“That’s it! That’s it! Run, wheel, make it go, wow! You’re a genius, Rubbish! Stupid Rubbish is a real genius!”

“Huh, wha–”

“Listen, Stupid. You said that gerbils run in wheels and make them go. So we put gerbils in the wheels of a car and make the car go!”

“But, Mr. Goodham, gerbils aren’t big enough to make a car go!” ‘Stupid’ seemed almost proud of his observation.

“Look, I’ve got that all figured out. My daughter’s got superstrong gerbils, so they can run in the wheel and make the race car move at 120 m.p.h.!”

“Wow, neato, cool!”

“Shut up, and go tell Steve the manufacturer to make a car like this.” Mr. Goodham made a list:

 

  1. Light frame
  2. Hollow wheels so my daughter’s superstrong gerbils can run inside
  3. Button which gives food to the gerbils so Mr. Destroyer doesn’t have to make pit stops to feed them.
  4. Steering wheel
  5. Brakes
  6. No engine. Not needed because the gerbils make the car go. ‘Stupid’ ran out forgetting the list.

 

He was back in 30 seconds. “Where’s the list! Where’s the list!” Mr. Goodham handed him the list and ‘Stupid’ was off again.

When he was back Mr. Goodham questioned him, “How long did Steve say it would take him to make the car?”

“Soon,” answered ‘Stupid.’

“How soon?”

“Very soon.”

“What day?!” Mr. Goodham yelled.

“I think he said something about Sunday, at noon,” answered ‘Stupid.’

“Oh, no! The race starts at 11:45!” cried Mr. Goodham as he dialed Steve’s phone number. “Hello, Steve. This is Mr. Goodham. I just wanted to make sure you couldn’t get the car in by 11:45 on Sunday.”

“I get it in as soon as I can,” replied Steve and hung up. Never was a talkative guy, thought Mr. Goodham.

It was soon Sunday morning. Everyone was excited. Banners were up everywhere.

Mr. Destoryer and a man in a suit were walking towards Mr. Goodham and his boss.

“Hello,” said Mr. Destoryer, “this is Mr. Willow, my lawyer.”

“Now, Mr. Destroyer,” explained Mr. Goodham. “The car is a real winner!”

“How does it run?” asked Destroyer.

“Superstrong gerbils run inside the wheel. No pit stops needed. Just press a button and that gives them food!” exclaimed Mr. Goodham.

“Mr. Willow,” asked Mr. Destroyer, “give them the details.”

The lawyer started up, “Well, first of all if Mr. Destroyer gets the car after the race has started and he has that your car company will be sued 10 million dollars. Also if–”

“Now, now,” interrupted Mr. Goodham’s boss. “I know that if Goodham says this car is good, it’s good. Right, Goodham,” he said allowing Mr. Goodham.

“And now,” the announcer started and everyone fell silent, “before the race begins, I’d like to introduce to you the contestants…. Al Munster who drives a red Porsche. Fred Schirk who drives the lavender Pontiac. Mortimer Lazi, who drives the…”

“Get me my car and I’ll be happy!” yelled A.J. Destroyer.

“It’s gonna come,” assured Mr. Goodham.

“And to begin the race we have Robert Pumpkin singing our national anthem.” Robert Pumpkin was on the fourth line when there was a flash and some smoke rose from one of the cars. “It seems we have had some difficulty with Mortimer Lazi’s motor and he will not be able to race,” said the announcer.

“Hey, I wasn’t finished!” yelled Robert Pumpkin and he continued.

“And 10 seconds till the race. 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… and they’re off!” yelled the announcer. The cars zoomed by.

“Where’s my car!” yelled A.J. Destroyer.

“Where’s his car?” repeated his lawyer.

“It’s coming!” yelled Mr. Goodham’s boss. The cars zoomed around again. 5 minutes passed by when finally a short car pulled up alongside them.

“Is this it?” asked A.J. Destroyer.

“Yip,” answered Mr. Goodham. “Remember, no pit stops needed. Just press this button every 50 laps.”

A.J. started up. He was way behind every other car. The car in first place was trying to lap him. Luckily A.J. was a good driver. He wouldn’t let him by. This made the first place driver very tense. The first place driver put on a burst of speed and crashed against A.J.’s rear. This didn’t bother A.J. for he didn’t have a motor to blow up.

On about the 50th lap the first car still hadn’t lapped him. Then the second place driver started to gain on the first place driver who was still trying to lap A.J. A.J. made a short stop. The second place car skidded and crashed into the first place car. They both got out and shook their fists at A.J. A.J. pushed the button that fed the gerbils and took off. All of the cars were running low on gas and made a pit stop. This was when A.J. took the lead.

It was the final stretch. A.J. was in the lead. He had no worries because he had an easy win. A fan jumped out on the track. A.J. screeched out of the way and skidded over the finish line. The gerbils had won for A.J. and Mr. Goodham would get a million dollar raise!


AJ and his wife Julie have three sons, 11-year-old Jasper and twin 9-year-olds Lucas and Zane. You can find more AJ at his official website AJJacobs.com, on Facebook with over 165 thousand followers at AJJacobs, and on Twitter at @AJJacobs.