1. First Interview
In issue 1 Sy Safransky asks spiritual teacher Ram Dass for his take on the energy crisis then engulfing the country due to the Arab oil embargo. Ram Dass suggests that it is, “like all trauma, an exquisitely designed opportunity to reawaken man.” He adds, “If God were to send somebody to completely reshape our consciousness, it’s Nixon.” (Nixon resigned his presidency eight months later.)
Ram Dass has been featured as an interview subject in The Sun more often than anyone else, appearing five times.
2. First Poems
Three short and economical poems appear in the first issue of The Sun: “energy crisis,” by s. kincaid (twelve lines); “Little Horse Creek Charity,” by Bob Gow (six lines); and “Nirvana,” by Sy Safransky (three words).
3. First Correspondence
The first letter from a reader appears in issue 2. “You’re mighty brave to be starting such an adventure,” it says. But for the most part The Sun received little correspondence in its early days — so little that Sy would sometimes write cranky letters to the editor under various pen names, including “Y.K. Snarfas” (“Safransky” spelled backward), who would lambaste the magazine for its pretentiousness.
4. First Photographs
The first five issues of The Sun are illustrated only with drawings, but issue 6 features two photographs accompanying Hal Richman’s essay “The Politics of Food”: one of a woman preparing a meal and another of pig carcasses hanging in a slaughterhouse. The photographer is Priscilla Rich, who would later marry Sy.
5. First Short Story
It’s sometimes difficult to classify the early contributions to The Sun as “essay,” “article,” or “short story,” but the eighth issue contains a clearly fictional piece about two men smoking a joint in the desert after all the crude oil has run out. It’s by Blue Harary and is titled “No More Sheiks.”
6. First Appearance Of The Face In The Sun’s Logo
The illustration that is now part of our logo appears for the first time on the cover of issue 9, which came out in June 1975. The artist, Tom Cleveland, took inspiration from a face on a tarot card and added a monocle for a whimsical touch. The back cover of the issue features a photo of a tree and a quote by Richard Brautigan: “I wonder whether what we are publishing now is worth cutting down trees to make paper for the stuff.”
7. First Sunbeams
Sy often published quotes in the magazine, but he didn’t organize them under the title “Sunbeams” until issue 31, in October 1977. The first official Sunbeam is by Ram Dass, and it reads in part: “Your problem is you’re afraid to acknowledge your own beauty. You’re too busy holding on to your own unworthiness. You’d rather be a schnook sitting before some great man. That fits in more with who you think you are. Well, enough already. I sit before you and I look and I see your beauty, even if you don’t.”
8. First Readers Write
Sy jokes that, when he started The Sun, the entire magazine was “readers write”: he asked everyone who read it to write something for publication. The now-familiar section dedicated to readers’ submissions was the idea of assistant editor Elizabeth Rose Campbell. Introduced in January 1978, it was originally titled “Us” and described as “a modest effort to provoke conversation among us about questions on which we’re the only authorities.” The first topic was “Pain.”
9. First Issue Without Advertising
With the June 1990 issue Sy took a leap of faith he’d been wanting to make since starting The Sun: he stopped running advertising. Even though the ads that had appeared in the magazine until then had been carefully vetted — no misleading pitches or objectionable products or empty promises — Sy had never been comfortable with their presence. He didn’t want The Sun to survive because advertisers found it to be a good place to sell their wares; he wanted The Sun to survive because readers supported it. And it has, because they do.
10. First Appearance Of Sy Safransky’s Notebook
Almost from the beginning, each issue would start with some words from the editor. Sometimes it was a full-fledged essay, and other times it was just a short message thanking readers for having come to the magazine’s rescue once again or apologizing for the fact that the March issue didn’t get to them until April. This evolved gradually into the page now called “Sy Safransky’s Notebook,” which first appears in January 2000. In that inaugural Notebook Sy laments his sins: “I ate too much and talked too much and played too much with my golden zipper. I didn’t stay in touch with old friends. I didn’t pray every day for the poor. The world was used to this, and signed off on my paperwork with a distracted air, too busy even to notice my confession.”
11. First Dog-Eared Page
In January 2009 The Sun added a new regular feature. The Dog-Eared Page is an excerpt from a work that has deepened and broadened our understanding of the human condition. The first selection is from Man’s Search for Meaning, by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who is also the source of the quote on the Contents page of every issue: “What is to give light must endure burning.”
EIGHT WORDS SY IS LOATH TO PRINT
Every editor has words that make him or her reach automatically for the red pen. These are Sy’s:
7. New Age
8. Anything In French
So if you’re looking for weird New Age things, or fun stuff to make you giggle, or some nice French phrases to impress your friends, you might want to try a different magazine.
1. The Garage
When Sy started The Sun in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he was “between homes,” he says. A friend who ran a halfway house for troubled teens had a spare bed and let Sy stay there for a while. Then he moved into a garage that had no running water or electricity. This wasn’t a problem, as he typed up each issue on a manual typewriter.
2. The Room Above The Bookstore
Wanting a real office — where he could have meetings with writers and store The Sun’s growing collection of unsold back issues — Sy rented a dormer room for twenty-five dollars a month. It was on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill, above the Community Bookstore, a lively gathering place in this quiet Southern college town. He didn’t spend much time in the office, however, because it got unbearably hot in the summer. By the time the weather turned cold, he had moved across the street.
3. The Yellow House
The yellow house at 412 West Rosemary Street wasn’t always yellow. Sy and a group of friends got together to paint it soon after The Sun moved in. He quickly realized that, rather than make the building look better, the glaring yellow only drew attention to how dilapidated it was. After his second divorce, Sy moved in and slept on a thrift-shop sofa. The house served faithfully as the magazine’s office for thirteen years, though the pipes froze and burst a few times, covering the floor with water, and pigeons lived in the attic, their droppings drifting down through the slats of the ceiling. One persistent rat chewed through the lid of the garbage can.
4. The Current Office
In 1989, having outgrown 412 West Rosemary Street, The Sun moved around the corner to a two-story house on North Roberson Street. The building’s previous incarnations include an insurance office, a holistic-health center, and a home for unwed mothers. Thanks to many expansions and renovations, we haven’t outgrown it yet.
SIX READERS WRITE TOPICS WE HAVE UNINTENTIONALLY REPEATED
Though we aim never to use the same Readers Write topic twice, six duplicates have slipped past us in thirty-six years:
2. Living Alone
3. Telling The Truth
FOUR TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGHS
1. The Computer
In 1986 The Sun got a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council that allowed us to solicit subscriptions by mail. The strategy was so successful that Sy was forced to buy a computer to process all the new orders. The Compaq Deskpro cost three thousand dollars and replaced the three-by-five index cards that had stored subscribers’ names and addresses for years. (We now pay an outside company to keep track of orders. It manages 132 million subscriptions, but only seventy-two thousand of them are ours.) At around the same time Sy bought the computer, he was forced to give up his manual Underwood typewriter, because it broke and replacement parts couldn’t be found. Not ready to use a computer to write, he reluctantly switched to an electric typewriter.
2. The Fax Machine
In the early nineties an avid Sun reader who owned a large chain of auto-repair shops wanted to buy subscriptions for all his waiting rooms — several hundred of them. He asked if he could fax the addresses to us. The Sun staff member who took the call told him that might be difficult, because The Sun didn’t have a fax machine. A week later a box arrived in the mail containing a brand-new fax, courtesy of the reader, who then faxed in his order.
3. The Website
The Sun didn’t have an online presence until 1999, when two subscribers who ran a Web-design business offered to build us a website at no charge. We agreed, and for the first time readers could renew their subscriptions and order our anthologies and back issues through the Internet.
4. The Digital Edition
The idea of “going paperless” is anathema to Sy. (He once said, “I’d no sooner abandon print than throw someone I love overboard in a storm-tossed sea.”) But by 2010 even he had to acknowledge that the trend toward reading on-screen wasn’t a fad. He hired The Sun’s digital-media director, David Mahaffey, with the goal of making the magazine available electronically to those who, inexplicably to Sy, wanted to read it that way. Three years later, in April 2013, the digital edition was launched, and we now have nearly 1,500 digital subscribers.
FIVE STATES WITH THE MOST SUN SUBSCRIBERS
2. New York
SIX MEMORABLE MISTAKES
A magazine that honors what it means to be human — and that is, after all, staffed by humans — should be expected to make a few missteps. Here are some of our most notable:
1. “I do eat meat”
When the first issue of The Sun was printed on a photocopier, the original wasn’t positioned properly on the glass, and the last two or three letters of some lines were dropped. In an interview Ram Dass’s statement “I don’t eat meat” appeared as “I do eat meat.”
Sy hand-corrected the line in all two hundred copies.
2. The Upside-Down Pregnant Woman
The cover of our January 1991 issue features a photograph of a pregnant woman’s nude belly taken from above. It’s a beautiful image, but we printed it upside down. It was supposed to be oriented as if the woman herself were taking the picture. We apologized to the photographer, Hella Hammid. She wasn’t upset, but the photograph bothered a couple of our readers, who found the image in poor taste and demeaning to pregnant women.
Seven months later Vanity Fair created a stir with its nude cover photograph of actress Demi Moore, who was seven months pregnant.
3. Mistaken Identity
The April 2004 cover bears a close-up photograph of a young woman wearing a hijab. Her head takes up most of the frame. A note inside the issue identifies the woman as “a young Palestinian girl . . . in a refugee camp north of Amman, Jordan.” Before going to print, we asked the photographer to verify this information, and he did, but he was mistaken. Shortly after the issue came out, we heard from the young woman’s lawyer: she was, in fact, a Lebanese American college student, and the picture had been taken at a demonstration in Washington, D.C. The photographer had mixed up his records.
The threatened lawsuit was settled out of court.
4. The Readers Write Mystery
Elizabeth Rose Campbell, a former assistant editor at The Sun, worked closely with Sy from 1977 to 1982. Over the years they had both a professional and a personal relationship and often discussed metaphysics, including the possible existence of an afterlife.
Elizabeth died of cancer in late 2004. The date of her cremation was set, then rescheduled by the crematorium for December 21: winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, but also a time to celebrate the return of the light. Elizabeth had been a professional astrologer, so it seemed appropriate that her body would return to ashes on an astrologically important date. A mutual friend mentioned to Sy how like Elizabeth it was to “choreograph her postexistence.”
Sy was thinking about Elizabeth as he arrived at the office on the morning of the twenty-first. Even as her body was being cremated, Sun art director Robert Graham told Sy that, by some mysterious slip-up, the words Readers Write didn’t appear on the first page of the section in the new issue. Robert could think of no explanation for how they’d been dropped. It had never happened before and hasn’t happened since.
Readers Write was originally Elizabeth’s idea and is perhaps her most enduring legacy to the magazine.
5. Name not withheld
As tens of thousands of copies of our September 2007 issue were waiting at the printer to be mailed, someone called us on behalf of an inmate whose piece about prison gangs was featured in that month’s Readers Write. (The topic was “Rivals.”) We had sent him the final, edited version of his writing for review weeks earlier, but due to the slow prison mail system, he had only just received it. The call was to alert us that we’d neglected to sign his piece “Name Withheld,” which he’d requested because he feared reprisal from gang leaders.
Because he was on Death Row in a maximum-security prison, we had no quick and easy way to contact the author. We postponed the mailing and tested numerous methods of correcting each copy by hand, all with unsatisfactory results. We debated whether to let the issue go out with the mistake in it, but in the end we made the only ethical choice: to reprint more than seventy thousand issues, this time with the prisoner’s piece correctly attributed to “Name Withheld.”
6. “Unilateral” nuclear disarmament
In our January 2013 issue we published an interview by Leslee Goodman titled “Indefensible: David Krieger on the Continuing Threat of Nuclear Weapons.” During the editing of the interview, one of our editors, attempting to clarify something Krieger had said, inserted the word unilateral into this statement: “The path to security can only be through unilateral nuclear disarmament.” When we sent him the interview for a final review, Krieger asked that unilateral be removed. (In foreign-policy circles, unilateral disarmament is widely seen as infeasible.) We assured him we’d make the change, then regrettably neglected to do so.
When Krieger saw the interview in print, he brought the mistake to our attention. We ran a full-page correction and apology in the next issue, along with a response from Krieger, clarifying his position. We also reprinted the interview separate from the issue, so that Krieger could send it to hundreds of nuclear-disarmament activists and national-security experts to set the record straight. He was gracious and forgiving about the error, a testament to his dedication to peace, even when dealing with sometimes careless editors.
FIVE STATES WITH THE FEWEST SUN SUBSCRIBERS
1. North Dakota
3. South Dakota
The first issue of The Sun was printed so poorly that Sy felt guilty asking people to pay twenty-five cents for it, so he ended up giving most of the copies away. When it came time to sell the second issue, Sy stood on the sidewalk to pitch The Sun to passersby, but he was too shy to approach anyone. He was ready to give up and go home when an acquaintance named Henry came along and, sensing Sy’s predicament, grabbed the magazines and began loudly advertising them. Embarrassed, Sy snatched the magazines back and said he’d take it from there. He now credits Henry with having given him a shove in the right direction.
2. Rick Hawkins
To save on printing costs, The Sun purchased a used printing press for $650 in 1977. A year later the machine needed expensive repairs. With finances at a low point, Sy figured he could sell the press for what he’d paid for it, and he’d have just enough money to keep the magazine going for another month or two. He quickly found a buyer: a reader from Georgia known as “Rick the Printer.” Rick arrived after dark one evening wearing a navy-blue nurse’s cape, pulled his wallet from his pocket, and counted out the bills with great ceremony. He’d brought a rental truck and two friends, who helped him disassemble the press in order to get it out of the building. After their work was done, Rick clamped his hand on Sy’s shoulder and told him to cheer up and get back to work on his magazine.
3. Pete Jones
In 1980 the country was mired in a recession, and Sy, unable to afford a place of his own, was living in the back of The Sun’s office. The magazine had fewer than a thousand subscribers, and there was so little money Sy couldn’t even pay himself his salary of a hundred dollars a week. One morning Pete Jones showed up at the front door to tell Sy how much he enjoyed the magazine, and the two men became friends. Pete was running a small landscaping company and just scraping by himself, but when he learned about The Sun’s precarious financial situation, he offered Sy a job digging holes, planting shrubs, and shoveling manure. Sy took him up on it and used the money to keep himself and The Sun afloat.
4. Ram Dass
By the early seventies Ram Dass had become one of the best-known spiritual teachers in the U.S. His book Be Here Now helped inspire Sy to start The Sun. A year after interviewing Ram Dass for the first issue, Sy wrote to him about his doubts and confusions. Ram Dass wrote back to express compassion, to remind Sy that “suffering is grace,” and to encourage him to keep his heart open. With his note he enclosed a check for a subscription.
In 1980 The Sun was in a dire financial position yet again. Assistant editor Elizabeth Rose Campbell suggested Sy write to Ram Dass to ask for his help raising money, but Sy was reluctant to do it. So Elizabeth wrote to Ram Dass, and he came to town to give a benefit lecture that generated four thousand dollars, a quarter of the magazine’s annual budget at the time. A year later he returned and did a second benefit.
5. Phil Magill
Phil Magill, the property manager for the yellow house The Sun rented, would regularly drop by to chat with Sy and warn him that the place was overdue for a rent increase. Constantly strapped for cash, Sy would respond that Phil should lower the rent.
Phil didn’t lower the rent, but he also never raised it. He once told Sy, “You can’t pay your bills and you’re happy. I can pay my bills and I’m miserable. I don’t know — who’s got the better life?”
6. Lorenzo Milam
In 1985 Lorenzo Milam, the writer, independent-radio provocateur, and disability-rights activist, bankrolled the publication of the first Sun anthology, A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky, Volume I. In addition to coming up with the title, Lorenzo contributed a preface in which he describes reading every back issue in a Tijuana barrio, where he’d gone to heal his broken heart. Two years later he underwrote the publication of the second volume.
7. The North Carolina Arts Council
A grant from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1985 finally allowed The Sun to pay authors: ten dollars for a poem and twenty-five dollars for a short story or essay. The following year a second grant of five thousand dollars spurred a new era of growth for the magazine: the money enabled The Sun to reach new readers through a direct-mail campaign. Subscriptions rose from one thousand to four thousand that year, and to eight thousand the next.
8. Julian Price
When Julian Price called in 1990 and offered to take Sy to lunch, Sy didn’t recognize his name at first, but he later figured out that the caller was a lifetime subscriber and a member of a prominent North Carolina family. Julian arrived in a beat-up old car. He was tall, shy, and humble. Over lunch he told Sy how he had recently returned to North Carolina after many years away and was working with a philanthropic foundation. Thinking the foundation might want to support The Sun, Sy asked Julian how to apply for a grant. Julian told Sy to write down what The Sun needed and what it was for, and he’d offer his advice. After they parted, Sy drew up some possible projects with a price tag for each: five thousand dollars for this, three thousand for that — a total of fifty thousand in all. Sy mailed the information to Julian to ask which project, if any, he thought the foundation might support. When Sy didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, he figured that was that. Then a check from Julian arrived in the mail for fifty thousand dollars. It was the largest single donation the magazine had ever received.
9. Friends Of The Sun
Everyone who sends money in response to our fundraising efforts is an important benefactor, a “Friend of The Sun.” Whether you give five dollars or fifty thousand dollars — as an anonymous donor did in 2010 (thanks, whoever you are!) — please know that we are deeply grateful.