The MORONIC Essay Page

These essays were required as part of my application to get into either the Journalism Program at Columbia University or into the Health/Science/Environment Reporting concentration within the program.

Choose your sleeping aid:

Deadline Drivel

For this essay I was to: "Tell us about yourself. You should include information on you immediate family, significant events in your life, etc. You may also want to write about what interests you, bores you, and moves you."

Maybe not long, but definitely a winding road

This essay was to answer the question: "What led to your interest in journalism? What experience, if any, do you have in journalism? What do you hope to gain through your work in the Graduate School of Journalism?"

Science Dreams

To get into the Health, Science and Environment Reporting concentration, we had to submit an essay telling why we were interested in it. This was all I had to offer.

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Oh, great. I'm supposed to talk about myself. And to keep it up for about a thousand words. There was a time where it would have been easy, but not very illuminating. It's not that I find myself uninteresting. I just find many other things more interesting. However, you asked for it, so here I go...

I am an only child. I grew up in a typically dysfunctional family in a typically dysfunctional city in a typically dysfunctional state, i.e., Shreveport, La. When I grew up society had typical ideas of what people should do, when they should do it, how they should do it, and whom they should do it with.

One thing my parents shouldn't have done was get married. My parents met, married, and produced me in the U.S. Air Force. The snag was, my father was white, my mother Chinese. I understand that back in those days Louisiana had laws to protect good white blood from being contaminated by any of that goddamn chink (or any other colored) stuff. When my dad moved us to Louisiana after his discharge we got phone calls advising us to move back out. We stayed. And that law that protected good white blood didn't count for much, either. It seems it was superseded by some damn rights and privileges clause in, what was it? Oh, yeah, the U.S. Constitution.

If only good, God-fearing white people could have been around to write THAT, we could have avoided a lot of trouble. Yea, praise the Lord and lynch them...

It was a real blast growing up during the Vietnam era. I don't look oriental, so people didn't think twice about trashing chinks, gooks, slant-eyes, etc., in my presence. But what was I to say? I still don't know. I just kept my mouth shut, tried to keep my peace, and bottled my anger up inside.

I suppose you didn't notice...

I went to high school in the late 1970s. The local school district fought hard to keep the female students in skirts, and to keep the male students clean-shaven and close-cropped. If I remember correctly, it took several well-publicized protests and a court order to obtain our release from such concerns for our welfare. Welcome to Sportsman's Paradise, my friends.

Eventually I broke free of the surly bonds of, well, not earth (but I couldn't resist the reference), and found out what it was like to trap myself in a dead-end, self-destructive existence. I didn't OD in Denver or do anything like that to write a hit country song about, but I did eventually crash and burn, and arise much stronger from the ashes.

And now that I've tantalized you with a potentially lurid story, I'll slam the door in your face. Tough. If you want to hear more, you'll have to get to know me better.


I just read that the U.S. Senate fell three votes shy of approving a constitutional amendment to protect the U.S. flag. If such an amendment ever does pass, I guess we would have to use an uppercase "F" in flag, or else risk frivolous persecution. I'm glad our leaders comprehend what the Bill of Rights is all about. I rest easy knowing that the U.S. Government takes its citizen's civil rights as seriously as the government, say, in Beijing.


George Allen was elected governor of Virginia about a year before I moved to North Jersey. His primary qualification for office was that his dad was a great coach of the Washington Redskins. George, Jr., an alleged historian, proclaimed himself a new Jeffersonian, then promptly forbade state workers from communicating directly with the press. All further contact with journalists was to be handled through public relations officers, who were, coincidentally, Allen appointees. But I'm sure there was no litmus test applied. All of this was undertaken to ensure consistency and accuracy in the information reaching the public. And I'm sure all this was in the public's best interest (at least the public would feel that way -- how the hell would they know any different?).


When I returned to graduate school in 1989 I more or less lived for science. All my time was devoted to developing as a scientist. I had little time for anything else, including my wife and dog.

Food poisoning changed all that. I hurt so bad I could barely move. The only thing I could do was to read. And I read Jurassic Park, which my brother-in-law lent me, in just over one day. As I read, the scales were knocked from my eyes and then I began to see. Life was too damn short! If there were things I wanted to do, I had better DO them!

I know, Jurassic Park is not the pinnacle of modern fiction. Neither is any book by Louis L'Amour. Or Tom Clancy. But those guys are GREAT storytellers! For most of my life I had been a literary snob, always going for the highbrow stuff (but never finishing it, like Crime and Punishment). After the food poisoning I accepted that it was just as important, maybe more so, for literature to be enjoyable than to be, well, dense. I can barely stomach The Name of the Rose, and Gravity's Rainbow might as well have been sucked into a black hole.

Don't get me wrong, though. I don't plan to rush out and buy any Danielle Steele any time soon. I do occasionally read Faulkner, Hemingway, London, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Kafka, Dostoyevsky (and I finish him these days), Conrad, Chandler, Hammett, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Cervantes, Voltaire, and Tolstoy (I'm almost finished with War and Peace!). But I also like to check out Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, Clarence Mulford (the creator of Hopalong Cassidy), Ian Fleming, Ross MacDonald, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Cyril Kornbluth. I do a decent job of devouring historical works as well.

So much to read...


My dog is spoiled. He doesn't seem to mind.

Frankly, I don't either.


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My father began working on a journalism degree in 1970. He often took me to the university when he worked on the school newspaper, the Almagest. I was entranced by what I saw, especially in the frantic day or two before deadline.

In 1973 he started working on the local morning daily, The Shreveport Times. My mom and I frequently visited. The three-story-tall presses were monstrous, imposing. And I'll never forget the noise of the linotypes.

I have a spiritual experience every time I see one of those old machines.


My dad pursued his degree during the height of the Watergate era. In my teen-age years, when my dad was on the City Desk, we had a local "Watergate." Our "Public Safety" commissioner, George D'Artois, tried to pay for campaign ads with city funds. The ad executive, Jim Leslie, told The Times, but paid for his honesty with a fatal shotgun blast in the back. The paper received several bomb threats, reporters and editors were threatened, and I was told not to ride my bicycle through the neighborhood at night. Well, that was JUST TOO MUCH! But it was exciting...


I went to college to become a scientist. In 1985, after my first attempt at a Masters degree fell apart, and a three-week stint as editor of a weekly newspaper, Gerry Robichaux, the Sports Editor at The Times, hired me as office help. The desk man, John Leydon, didn't like to see me bored, so he got me started editing copy and writing headlines. Later, I began to cover events. I loved the work. I loved it so much I quit medical school for it, only to get laid off by a new sports editor six months later in August 1987.


In 1991 I started working as a stringer for The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va. I had begun a Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia and needed the money. Formerly I hid behind AP style, but I began to take chances and improve as a writer. Oh, and how I still loved the work! The adrenaline rush of getting back to the newsroom after a 50-mile drive and banging out a damned good story in 30 to 45 minutes, of dictating off the top of my head after the laptop died with 15 minutes to go before deadline, and of dealing with the community even when it didn't like what I or one of my colleagues wrote, is powerful.


Being stubborn, I've had a difficult time accepting the fact that I'm much happier working as a journalist than in the Ivory Tower of science. I was close to acceptance in 1987, but circumstances intervened. I dutifully returned to the tower, but the newsroom keeps calling.

I realize I have a gift, the ability to communicate with the public on scientific and environmental issues. The Columbia Journalism program will enhance my skills, enable me to achieve my best as a journalist.

It is time to answer the newsroom's call.


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I can't remember when I became interested in science. Maybe when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I certainly remember where I was, with my parents at Perry's Motel in Hot Springs, Ark. We watched it happen on a small black and white TV in a darkened room. I could probably find the room if I went there today.

Maybe it was before the landing. I don't remember much of my childhood, but I do remember Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I recall the concern everyone felt when Apollo 13 nearly blew apart on its way to the moon, and the joy and relief we felt when Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert safely arrived back on earth.

Of course, I'll never forget Alan Shepard's tee shot, either.

The astronauts were my heros. But as I learned more about science, I found out about other heros. Like Ernest Shackleton, who lost his ship, the Endurance, but none of his men, to crushing Antarctic ice. Or Louis Pasteur as he developed vaccines against anthrax and rabies. There was also the Leakey family, searching for the origins of humanity while Jane Goodall studied our cousins, the chimpanzees.

As I grew up, I became addicted to nature programs. Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler seem hokey now, but I never missed Wild Kingdom. Life changed dramatically, however, when cable TV made its way to north Louisiana where I grew up. I thought I had seen a lot before, but now there was Nature, Nova, Carl Sagan and James Burke.

Thanks to these programs, and the influence of college teachers like John Hall, Laurence Hardy and Steve Lynch, I decided to become a scientist myself, eventually pursuing biogeography because I wanted to find out why plants and animals occur in some places and not others. I've more or less followed this path for the past 17 years, training for an ordinary career in the Ivory Tower.

It once seemed like enough, but I have changed. I once wanted to become one of those heros I idolized in my youth, but now I'm quite happy just learning things I didn't know before. Also, the rarefied, isolated atmosphere of academia no longer appeals to me. Hiding in a lab for days on end seems like serving time in jail. Sharing what I've learned only with my fellow scientists is as challenging as trying to convert those already faithful.

I'd rather take my mission to the uninitiated. To renounce the not-so-splendid isolation of the tenure track, to step out of the tower and into the light. And maybe, like the heros, teachers and communicators who influenced me in my youth, to inspire someone else to take up the call.


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