Mark Patinkin

A very special Lucky Seven

This offering is a very special one for me, in several different ways. In this “Lucky Seven” effort I am quite pleased to bring you an interview with Mark Patinkin, a columnist that writes for The Providence Journal.

Of the two big reasons that this particular article means a great deal to me, the first is simply that Mark is… for lack of a better description… the writer I wanted to be, and probably still hope some day to approach. I’m not saying that from the concept of working as a columnist for a newspaper (although if anyone does like my writing and would like to talk… yes, I’m listening). Instead, I admire the way he has, throughout his career, been able to present a true-life scenario in his writing. Writers such as Dave Barry are fantastically creative and possess tremendous talent. But life isn’t always funny. Mark’s ability to blend humor with tragedy, carefree with genuine depth, is something special. He connects with his audience in a way that is far too rare these days. While so many offer yet another example of “let me tell you why I’m an expert” advice, Mark offers columns that make you feel like you’re sitting in his living room enjoying an incredible conversation.

The second major reason is my grandmother. About twenty-years ago I was preparing to head off, out of state, to attend college. Nana and I had a discussion about how we would stay in touch. Every week, she sent me an envelope. Inside were special treasures… neatly cut out of the pages of the daily paper… seven days of Calvin and Hobbes and the columns of Mark Patinkin.

Mark joined the staff of The Providence Journal in 1976. A few years later, he was given the official title of columnist, and he has been entertaining and informing readers ever since with an insightful column.

His efforts have been syndicated, and have appeared in print and on-line editions across the country. He is blessed with a quick wit and a sharp insight into the real world. A recent column (“Sign me up for gray pride”) is a beautiful example of this. He hit upon a humorous subject… gray hair. He utilized modern touchstones… Taylor Hicks is involved. And he played off of wording that really nailed some national discussions that are taking place in hushed voices and serious tones across the country right now… using “gray pride” as the rallying cry. (You can use this link for the web site of The Providence Journal. As they often update their pages and archives, the best method for finding Mark’s stuff is to head to the home page and use his name in a search on the site. You may need to spread out your visits, as The Providence Journal is currently using paid subscriptions for those visiting several pages over a short period of time.)

Mark has regularly touched upon some of the most timely and touching stories, often with international, national and local implications. He has provided material on famine in Africa. He has written columns focusing on religion-based situations in many countries. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And he has also teamed up with Rhode Island legend Don Bousquet.

Twenty-five years ago, two editions of The Providence Journal were delivered around the region each day. It was the evening edition that arrived at our front door. Comics… sports… a Patinkin column. That’s what I always looked for. Things have changed over the years. The internet has arrived. The paper only releases one print edition each day. Here, it is a privilege to bring you the results of a few questions Mark was kind enough to answer.

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If I went around to some Rhode Islanders, that didn’t actually know the truth, they would tell me you’re a native. From your columns to The Rhode Island Dictionary, you’ve become one of our own. Umm… not to ruin the surprise for those that don’t know, but you’re from… gasp… Chicago. How does it feel to have been re-located and accepted as part of the local landscape (so to speak), especially since to my knowledge you’ve now spent most of your life in Rhode Island?

I’ve found Rhode Island to be one of the most welcoming places I’ve ever been to. It may sound a bit corny, but I really do think it’s part of the state’s founding legacy of tolerance. I’ve now spent most of my life here, but am fully aware it takes a few generations to be considered an official Rhode Islander.

I believe you joined The Providence Journal in 1976, officially becoming a regular columnist a few years later. That means we’re at the thirtieth anniversary. I know… not I think, I know… The Providence Journal is one of the best papers in the country. The writing is solid in all areas, and the sports section is as good as any you can find. Did you ever expect to reach three decades of writing for the paper? And, how does it feel to be a part of this particular paper as your home-publication?

Like a lot of young journalists, I figured I’d be here for a few years and then move on, but I’ve grown to love both the state and the paper. They’ve been good enough to give me the freedom of a column, and I’ve long felt the goal in a career is to have the flexibility to do the work you want at a place you respect; and I’ve been lucky to have found that.

Sticking with that basic idea for one more… how have things changed over the years? Obviously the internet and an on-line edition of the paper is one area. The disappearance of separate morning and evening editions is another. But for you personally, have there been many differences in how you approach your writing, how it is published, and the audience you reach?

Yes, I did start on typewriters and now write on computers, but writing is writing. And the challenges newspapers face are now complex and difficult, from the internet to cable TV. But again, writing is writing. I write the same way, which is that the ideas should come more from my gut than my head; meaning I am as likely to write about how my sons are borderline imbeciles as about Iraq.

You’ve done something in your career that I don’t believe many people are capable of, especially writers. You have not only managed to tackle subjects and styles that offer a tremendous diversity in content and theme, but you’ve done that while maintaining, if not increasing, your credibility and your audience while presenting such material. I admit it… when I was younger the humorous observations and funny articles were the ones I loved. Because of that attachment I had to your work, I read other material you presented… which included observations from around the world. In particular I can recall articles about Israel and religious violence. And there have been plenty of stories from right down the street as well… home grown tales of inspiration. Are you trying to achieve a balance with the content you offer? Something along the good and the bad and the we’re all in this together? Or, does one allow you the ability to present the other?

I’ve long thought the best columns should be a mix of subjects and styles. You can be a great political satirist, but if 3 columns a week are political satire, that gets old. Some people ask why I focus on lighter material when there are so many serious issues. My hope is that people drawn to the lighter stuff will also occasionally be there to read the more serious columns. But I don’t strive for that mix for that reason. It’s just that I think a column is supposed to truly reflect the columnist’s voice and sensibilities, and like most people, the things I focus on in life range from family matters to light matters to weighty matters, and I suppose the column I write reflects that.

Books… definitely want to mention the books. The latest one you’ve had released is Up and Running. (Soon to be available in paperback… check it out.) Other books have included The Silent WarAn African Journey and collections with Don Bousquet. Those of us familiar with your writing over the years also know that whether humorous (the Rhode Island-themed books) or serious, these are important subjects to you. Tell us a bit about how you approach writing a book-length effort… the material and how it matters to you.

Most journalists “look” for book ideas because, well, we like the idea of writing books, and also like the idea of fantasizing about a best-seller. But unless you have the words “Harry'” and “Potter” in your title, it’s unlikely you’re going to make much money off a book. If you spent the same amount of hours at a job where you say, “Do you want fries with that” you’d often make more money. As far as Up and Running, I wasn't looking for a book, just a column about a little boy who lost two legs but now plays ice hockey. The story, though, was so compelling, I kept interviewing the parents, then the doctors, then others until it grew into a book. I am indeed thinking about other books now, but don’t plan to quit my day job.

Ok… here’s a question that I think proves it’s a small world and that there are connections in anything if you look hard enough for them. In 1976, Mandy Patinkin (who I believe is related to you), played the role of Mark in the play The Shadow Box. If my information is correct, that play went on to be a Pulitzer-winning production. You’ve been nominated for a Pulitzer. Coincidence? (Alright… as I read that again… it probably is just me reaching way too hard to find a connection. It probably is just a coincidence.)

Mandy, a great guy, is my first cousin, and got far more talent than I did, and has achieved, with reason, far, far, far more prominence. But I get to say I’m related to him and live off that. When my wife hears me sing in the shower, she is convinced I couldn’t possibly be related to Mandy.

I want to finish this up with a bit of what’s next, but I’d like to do that by offering two questions (bringing us to eight… hopefully you’ll understand). First, these days I don’t need the evening edition of the paper to tell me the important events of the day that have occurred since I saw the morning edition. I can head over to my computer and find out the instant the winning run was scored in the ball game. And yet, something has definitely been lost from those days when the arrival of the paper meant an evening of reading the comics, cutting out articles for school assignments, and learning what was happening down the street and in neighboring towns. Is the world really that much smaller now? And is it all change for the better?

Well, I do miss the age of evening newspapers. I worry, too, about the future of newspapers. It’s not just the competition from the internet and cable news. It’s that people once only had to deal with one monthly phone bill and one newspaper bill for their communications budget. Now it’s two land lines, three cell phones, digital cable, high speed internet, three AOL accounts, annual virus protection, texting packages, music downloads... suddenly, the communications budget of the average family is thousands a year instead of hundreds, so newspapers are often dropped for financial reasons. So far, there’s no good model for people being widely willing to pay for newspapers online. So it’s a tough challenge. But it’s also the golden age of free expression with the media having to adjust to a more open market of ideas and competitors. That will be good for society. But I won’t lie – I miss the good old day.

And second, what can we expect to see from you in the near future? Are there any projects you’d like us to know about… or any efforts that you’d like us to be aware of?

I’m thinking of a novel about the angst of a 50-something married man. This could be a fast way to waste a year, given how few new novels from new authors are successful. Maybe I’ll put the words Harry and Potter in the title.

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I want to offer a special thank you to Mark Patinkin for participating in this “Lucky Seven” offering.

Mark is a regular columnist for The Providence Journal. You may have to register with the site to access his articles, but you’ll be happy you did. The Providence Journal is one of the best papers in the country. Below are direct links to his books at (you can also search for other sources of his published material) and the home page of The Providence Journal...

Mark Patinkin at

The Providence Journal


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