Zen and the Art of Rejection

Zen and the Art of Rejection

Well, it rained a bit this afternoon, the air grew thicker by the second, the complexity of contemporary existence pushed me into the dark midnight of the soul, so, what the hell? 

I did it again. 

Never one to learn from yesterday’s brutal assessment of my value as a human, I submitted a revision of my college guide to a publisher and 30 pages of my most recent novel to an agent. Over the years the methods by which writers present their work has changed, but like death and taxes, the outcome arrives with grim certainty:

“Thank you for sending your submission our way, but we have to pass on your project / it’s not the right fit for us / we’re not right for your work / we cannot use it at this time / this is but one reader’s opinion, but this submission doesn’t work for me” and so on.

At least the responses come quickly; many agents and publishers now maintain a site on which a decision is entered within a few days of a submission or query sent by email. I’m registered as a supplicant and invited to check the site to see how intrigued the editor/agent is by my work. 

Spoiler alert: Persistently not intrigued at all.

In earlier years the process was considerably more complicated and expensive. I typed (badly) several hundred pages, some number of which were then jammed in a package with a self-addressed, stamped envelope so that the unwanted submission could be returned to me. I rarely had a copy as typing with carbon paper was a tricky business. One of my plays, A Night of Terror, laughingly presented as a musical, now exists only as mimeographed copies of the script given to actors when the play was performed. Messy and almost illegible. I did not keep score in those days, but my guess is that the average time between submission and the return of my unread manuscript was about eight weeks.

Now I and millions of others can zip an entire manuscript to the ends of the earth and can expect a response of some sort within a week or two. I’m not waxing hyperbolic in suggesting that millions of unpublished authors are out there hoping to find a place on America’s bookshelves. Before the artist’s retreat known as the pandemic arrived, more than a million projects were handled each year by the self-publishing juggernaut at Amazon. Who knows how many lightly edited great works could be rushed to my home with a single keystroke. Formerly known as Create Space and now as Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s software has made self publishing child’s play, easy and inexpensive. 

There is some comfort in knowing that as my books are published on demand, which is to say when I or any of the other four readers buy my book, only a single copy is printed. I won’t find discounted copies of my books in a cardboard bin in the grocery store; no dusty copies languish on remainder tables.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

I’m rarely stumped in pursuing instant research on any subject, but estimating the number of magazines and websites offering advice to aspiring writers is problematic. I tried every search I could imagine and was presented with more than seven billion references to particular magazines and information hubs, none offering any guess at how many rabbit holes writers can access in print or online. 

I’ve been knocking on publishing doors for years but still look for help in placing at least one of my babies up for adoption somewhere. Letters seeking representation by an agent are known as queries, and one could hop among innumerable articles offering advice on how to craft a query. I looked at a few, again before contacting yet another agent identified as one accepting clients. Great advice to be had, but, Nah, I stuck to my jocular conversational gambit and let the chips fall where they may. Self deprecation is my stock in trade; why not approach an agent in the same key?

Here’s the “pitch”:

The odds of this book reaching any reader, any eyes but my own are stunningly low. My earlier confection, Afterwards, has yet to sell a copy. That’s not entirely true; I placed a copy on the local authors’ shelf in our independent bookstore and bought it some weeks later, expecting the few bucks owed us local authors when one of our books rockets off the shelf. I’m still waiting for the check.  It’s been two years. My expectation is that this volume will join the others in languid security floating in the nether world of publication on demand.

Why you might ask, if in some moment of addled confusion you picked up this book thinking it a prescient piece of social criticism, why do I write if not to be read?

Thanks for asking. Fair question. The easy answer is that I wake in the morning with ideas I want to write about. Even if no one reads a word. A more reflective answer is that it fills each day with purpose, exercises my mind, and generally amuses me.

 I also sing in the car with no expectation of being heard,  pretend I hear the roar of the crowd as I loft a jump shot at the netless hoop in the park’s playground,  talk to my dogs with a French accent, and offer jokes to my children with the presumption that the response will be muted. I enjoy writing almost as much as I enjoy the French accent with the dogs.

Even as I write this piece, I discover that some goblin has been trotting through the pages I just sent to the agent, moving sections of sentences willy nilly. That’s what we professional writers call a death wish. 

Yikes and Ah Well and time to check the rejection machine once again.

Step Right Up…

Step Right Up…

Ladies and Gentleman, I PAY to face the Learned League, some 20,000 of my closest friends, competing daily in providing answers to grotesquely difficult questions posed by a relentlessly erudite quizmeister whose nom-de-jou is Thorsten A. Integrity. Like the Football Association Premier League Limited, The Learned League practices relegation; those who shine move up from one “rundle” to the next while those whose sheen has faded moved to the next lower “rundle” in order to find competition appropriate to their ability.

The first season, the “Rookie Season”, is free. Once hooked, the aspiring contestant pays an annual fee in order to be reminded on a daily basis that their very small window on the world is very small indeed. I’m not sure how Thorsten A. Integrity generates questions as some are reasonably within the competence of ordinary humans while others are chock-a-block with questions so ornate that it takes several readings just to figure out what’s being asked.

Burying the lead as is my wont, I’m actually going somewhere else, but having introduced the League, I feel compelled to offer a random selection of questions to illustrate the point not yet made and to moderate my feelings of inadequacy this afternoon as I face relegation for the first time.

Here are three not-uncommonly-obscure questions from the previous week’s array:

  1. FOOD/DRINK – A certain cutting implement, which usually has handles on each end and is rocked back and forth to chop and mince items such as herbs, cheeses, and meats, gets its name from its crescent-like shape. What is that Italian name?
  2.  SCIENCE – There are six distinctly named phase changes of matter: freezing (liquid to solid), melting (solid to liquid), condensation (gas to liquid), vaporization (liquid to gas), deposition (gas to solid), and what sixth, which is solid to gas?
  3.  LANGUAGE – The Khoisan language families are distinctive among languages of the world for their extensive use of certain consonants that linguists—and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)—describe using what word?

I see hands raised and eager onlookers shouting out the answers. You win if you came up with MEZZALUNA, SUBLIMATION , and CLICK.

I came up with nothing, although had I not rushed through the questions, I might have attached the crescent-like shape to the moon and then translated to luna, then figure half a luna, but I didn’t.

Against all odds, I have good days from time to time, enough to have pushed me up into a danged smart rundle where I am pulped like a ripe orange.  I do not fear relegation as water and puzzlers find their own true level, but it occurs to me that as one of those called, “The bulge in the python”, a baby boomer, I could devise questions that might challenge and amuse others of my generation. The usual sets of questions are neither puzzling nor evocative as everyone recognizes the original Mouskateers, Howdy Doody’s nemesis, and the Cisco Kid’s horse. My forceful but inaccurate hunt-and-peck typing a moment ago mistakenly produced the Costco Kid then the Crisco Kid, both heroes who deserve to be fleshed out, but that’s a pleasant diversion for another day.

Following the Learned League’s format, I present six questions which only those with a keen sense of recent (?) history will be able to answer. Thorsten A. Integrity asks me to swear that I have not cheated as I enter my answers. In this case, however, use whatever it takes to see if you can glom on to these blurred reflections of a decade now way back in the rear view mirror.

  1. A 1995 semi-factual biopic presented John Turturro as gangster Sam Giancana, boyfriend of one of a trio of singers. Influenced by the Andrews Sisters, this trio appeared frequently on programs hosted by Milton Berle, Perry Como, and Andy Williams. We sincerely hope you can come up with the name of any one of these three singers.
  2. Speaking of gangsters, this bodyguard worked for Mickey Cohen and the Cohen crime family. Frank Sinatra asked Cohen to keep this lothario away from Ava Gardner, but Cohen reportedly rebuffed Sinatra, reminding him that he never,”…got between men and their broads.” He was in an abusive relationship with Lana Turner, whose daughter stabbed him to death. What was the name of this love magnet?
  3. After World War II, the Swanson brothers expanded their line of frozen dinners, giving their products a distinctive and entirely appropriate brand name.  What was the name of Swanson’s brand?
  4. In 1956, the first television show to be hosted by an African-American was broadcast by NBC. A musician and actor, this talented performer was only 45 when he died, but is featured on a Grammy winning recording produced 26 years after his death.
  5. “That’s the $64,000.00 question!” The reference to the tv game show indicated an answer worth a lot of money. Taking inflation into account, the top prize of $64,000.00 is the equivalent of 640,000 today, a hefty prize from 1955 to 1958. The second big winner was a female psychologist and an expert of boxing. She went on to appear more than 90 times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson offering advice and accounts of current social mores.
  6. What frequently televised sport presented Dick Hutton, Buddy Rogers, Enrique Torrez, and Eduard Carpentier?

*Answers presented at the end of the article.

Hey there, Hi there, Ho there, are you as welcome as can be?

There is a peculiar satisfaction in dredging shards of memory from the recesses of the mind. Those of us who were devastated by the recent death of Alex Trebek may have a tough time coming up with answers in the form of questions for a while, but when (if) we return to Jeopardy, there will be answers outside of our experience and expertise. I’m ok on The Bible, for example, but World Geography and current Pop Stars are big trouble. In the same fashion, those of you not enjoying your seventh decade will find many of these questions annoyingly obscure.

Next time I’ll put up fragments of advertising jungles to see how many out there can complete the pitch. Examples?

1.“Who was the first to conquer space? It’s incontrovertible. The first to conquer living space is __________”

2.“________, the gals’ll all pursue ya. They love to run their fingers through your ____”

3.“Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks, tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox, love _______s, …”

4.“Ask any mermaid you happen to see ___?”

5.“Mommy puts it in my drink for extra energy.  ______ gives me iron and sunshine vitamin D.”

6.“Charlie says, Love my ____________.  Charlie says, Really rings my bell.”

And a bonus question!

“My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dog’s better ‘cause he gets _________.”

Answers:

  1. Any of the McGuire Sisters – Christine, Dorothy, or Phyllis
  2. Johnny Stompanato
  3. TV Dinners
  4. Nat King Cole
  5. Dr. Joyce Brothers
  6. Professional Wrestling

Jingles:

1.Castro Convertibles

2.Brylcreem

3.Armour Hot Dogs

4.Chicken of the Sea Tuna

5.Bosco

6.Good and Plenty

BONUS Ken-L Ration dog food

Box-By-Box

Box-By-Box

I’d like to report that I have been fully present and entirely mindful throughout the course of a lifetime, that my progress is a journey well mapped with boundaries clearly defined and the best route given traffic and construction followed assiduously, turn by turn . At this late stage, however, let’s toss out the map idea and move instead to a kaleidoscope; it’s colorful, slightly jagged at the edges, lacking definition, and, honestly, not that much fun to look at for more than a few moments.

This retro-fragmented vision pulses more quickly this week as we follow through on our decision to pack up and move one more time. Leaving aside the existential paralysis that accompanies any major decision, I’m in the box-by-box stage of assessing what goes and what goes away, a process that calls into question every purchase I’ve made over the last half-century. The pain is not in letting things go; I’m ready to pare down and simplify. The issue is WHERE things go.

I’ve uncovered some junk and broken things. Heave ho and another trip to the landfill. No looking back. On the other hand, I’m also looking at the accumulated detritus of my life, some of which has value, I’m now convinced, only to me. I’ve moved two crates of my kids’ pre-school art work across the country, stored them in three subsequent moves, and now understand that the archives have to be thinned with steely resolve; only the finest work is to be curated and passed on to the adult children. Similarly, of the thousands of action figures only those still retaining heads and most body parts go into the box to be passed to the next generation. Why I find ten headless Barbies is a question I choose to leave unattended. American Girl dolls – saved. Faded Care Bear? The first sweep was brutal but I find myself able to function quite nicely without the tuxedos I never wore. Did I donate the books I did not read in my college career? I did, and Huzinga’s Homo Ludens, a book I’ve intended to finish for a half-century, is no longer sitting in mute accusation on my shelves. My hope, of course, is that it will go to a good home after the library’s used book sale, but I’ve resigned myself to the possibility that it may end up as confetti, and that’s ok. Really.

This cut is more challenging and with each decision I am confronted by information about myself that arrives unbidden and unwelcome. Ann Lamott reminded us that the seemingly impossible task of counting innumerable birds takes place bird by bird. I might be able to manage birds, but there are no decisions to be made as they fly by. 

One level of attachment might appear to be purely sentimental. My kitchen cupboards were filled with bowls, pans, mismatched flatware, tiny silver plated salt shakers, and small ornate spears that are intended to be used in separating the meat of the walnut from its shell. It all came from my childhood home, and for a moment I felt I was recycling both my childhood and memories of my mother as I packed the spears in bags and took them to the Hospice Boutique where I knew all things silver plated are melted down for cash. 

Today’s paralysis includes three objects that combine sentimentality with unresolved emotional puzzles. At first glance (which is where I should have stopped), easy decisions. I’m looking at an unopened gift wrapped box that has been shelved for seven years, an object defying categorization that came from my former mother-in-law’s home in Michigan, and a cardboard box filled to the brim with copies of comic books about Archie Andrews, his pal, Jughead, and the various denizens of Riverdale.

The unopened box is a gift from a student who has now finished her career at Yale and has returned to Seoul where she was active in raising funds for victims of tuberculosis in North Korea. I don’t know what’s in the box. It’s beautifully wrapped. The card thanking me for kindness to her at Cate is still attached. Why have I not opened the package? It’s a tricky question, but I think I still feel attached to the many students I have loved in a long career of teaching. They’ve gone out into the wider world and made their way with varying degrees of success. Some are in touch; some are not. I remember them as they were, of course, chuckling as I read a message from a scamp I particularly admired from my days at Berkshire School. I guess he’s in his late fifties at this point, but to me is still the crafty seventeen year old finding loopholes in every rule and every crack in the school’s facade.  

The package is exceptionally well wrapped; the paper is still vibrant; it reminds me of a William Morris textile. Gorgeous. I don’t fear opening the box and finding a gift I don’t need or appreciate; it’s not that. In addition to the gratitude I feel to her and the others I one knew, there’s something about an unopened gift that carries me back to a time of wonder. As a boy, I was frantic in my anticipation of Christmas. That state of mind in which all things were possible has pretty much escaped me now. As an adolescent, the melancholy that followed Christmas was profound. Looking back at myself, I understand my habit of rewrapping the gifts I had been given so that I could open them again even as I recognize the folly of trying to recapture the delicious mystery they had represented only days earlier.

There’s probably more to be discovered in thinking about this gift, but for now, I’m just going to pad it with packing paper and take it with me to the next chapter.

I did enough research to find a name for the object sitting on the kitchen table. It’s a vintage  200-count suited poker chip set in a wooden carousel, protected by a leather cover. I have no idea how many chips or cards have survived the many moves from a small town in Michigan; it’s looking scruffy at this point, still taped shut from its first move. I’d use the term “shabby”, but that’s the word that describes my behavior in the years when that carousel first came into my possession. I don’t much like the person I was in those years, especially as I think of the generosity with which my former wife’s family welcomed me. My mother-in-law was an imperfect person as are we all, but she was funny, and vulnerable, and loyal, and kind. This poker set was hers; we played cards in her dining room, a safe place for me to be silly and at ease. She was a remarkable grandmother and is an important part of my eldest son’s childhood. 

I walked away from that family, embarrassed and awkward, self-conscious and fearful. I regret much of what I was in those years, and particularly regret not thanking her. I did not step up in her last years, and I did not say goodbye.

So, that poker set reminds me of the good and the bad. I’d like to move out of complication, but the past is complicated and it is my past. I’ll ask my son if he wants the poker set. If he does, I’ll pass it on with gratitude; if he doesn’t, I’ll wrap it up in packing paper and add it to the growing pile of boxes in the garage. Still grateful.

Now, Archie. It’s worth examining why it should be more difficult for me to discard a Betty and Veronica Christmas Digest than an oversized Plastic Man retrospective or one of the many adventures of Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos. I’ve written elsewhere about my distress at the fictive death of Archie Andrews, an example of how quickly the very fabric of the universe can be ripped apart. I get it; time lumbers on. 

What is at stake in pitching a series of comic books that are frivolous at best and idiotic at their worst?

Once again, it is more complicated than I had imagined. I was a lumpy kid with no redeeming qualities that I could identify, stuck in a story that did not seem to have much to do with me. I dove into books, and magazines, and comics. The books fed some part of my imagination and gave me an appreciation of language. The magazines, The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, and Reader’s Digest, seemed to promise entry into a wider world as an adult, although I understood I was not likely to appear on a jolly Norman Rockwell canvas. Most of the comics took me to alternate universes where cities such as Metropolis and Gotham were protected by superfolk; I thought superpowers were pretty nifty but knew they weren’t coming my way.

Riverdale, like Oz, seemed just around the corner, slightly more likely to have a place for someone like me. Oz could be a pretty terrifying place, with wicked witches and Princess Mombi’s collection of interchangeable heads. Riverdale was a sanctuary. Archie made a mess of things, but it never mattered very much. He had friends who stood by him and rivals who never brought rack and ruin. Betty and Veronica were two sides of the same coin, one salt of the earth, the other pampered debutante, both competing for the affection of freckled, goofy, feckless Archie Andrews. Nobody flunked out of Riverdale High; everybody made the varsity teams. The Malt shop was always open, and parents stayed pretty much out of the way, with the exception of Veronica’s father whose vast wealth allowed some stretch in terms of plot. 

I never saw myself as Archie Andrews, but I was pretty sure I could hang out with his gang. Theirs was a world suffused with acceptance and humor. The holiday editions were particularly restorative as snow fell softly, gifts were tied up in bows, and all misunderstandings resolved themselves before Santa arrived. I continued to buy those digests, assuring myself that they were for my kids who would love Archie as much as I had. Maybe they did, but I was the one who picked them up off the couch and put them in boxes to be savored again and again.

They sit in a cardboard packing box this morning. I’d like to pass them on to kids who would enjoy them, but thrift stores don’t take comics, and I can’t stand thinking of them in a landfill. They don’t take much space; my granddaughter might find them amusing. I seem to have reached the decision I’ve made with every move.

They’re coming with me.

Words, words, words

Words, words, words

I’m stuck. 

I’m not going to wallow in the now ordinary stuckness of life as I stare at the maw of the apocalypse; who doesn’t expect fire, flood, and loss of cable?

No, I sit today with six, count ‘em SIX, unfinished, unwilling, ungrateful projects eating my soul and shaking their figurative accusing fists as I open each in turn and walk away. Words, literally fail me, and with that statement I reel from the messes I’ve already made to an entirely new project, an attempt to find words that roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Some are imported,  some uncovered right here at home, and a few are inventions at the end that have to do with facing the jaws of the voracious beast.

Maybe words can help.

Several years ago I enjoyed writing a piece celebrating words which exist in Japan but have not arrived on our shores. The two that I’ve adopted in my everyday life are “Monoaware”, the pathos of things –  the awareness of the impermanence of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing, and “Wabi-sabi” –  a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay.

Loved the growth, and here comes the decay.

These are not the only linguistic gifts that have reached us from distant shores. A quick jaunt through European lexicons provides a snapshot of attitudes which I believe we share but have thus far not been able to put into our own words. 

“Sang-Froid” comes immediately to mind. Literally translated as cold blood, the expression identifies poise, competence and composure under pressure. Our use of ‘cold blooded ‘as in cold blooded killer, on the other hand, describes someone who may be competent, but is reptilian without compassion; cold blooded is ruthless, heartless, callous. Hot blooded, on the other hand, does not suggest compassion. James Bond has sang-froid, but at least in the Ian Fleming iteration (00 Misogynist) Bond is also hot blooded. Go figure.

An increasingly useful German expression, “Schadenfreude”, allows the guilty pleasure of enjoying someone else’s misfortune. The term literally means harm joy, a pretty nifty clarification but clumsy in the moment as this rough translation will illustrate.

Why are you smiling as the shark attacks your employer?

I am enjoying harm joy as he many times of me fun made.

I guess we should include the various iterations of “it is what it is”, formerly a fairly innocuous truism, now freighted with partisan animosity. More gently reassuring? “Que Sera Sera”? “What will be will be” – Fatalistic but musical. In Polish the analog would be (please excuse absence of proper accent) “Co ma wiseiec nie utonie”, clumsily translated as “What is to hang won’t drown”.  See, if you’re meant to be hanged, you’re not going out by drowning. That’s pretty dark, whereas the Turkish “Kismet” doesn’t necessarily mean doom; Kismet might simply be circumstance, i.e.a more romantic expression of, “it is what it is.

I need to look in my own backyard for the right words or expressions to kick my intentions into action, but, no surprise, it’s time for a digression, in this case very loosely attached to how words move around and one in particular that I used in the last paragraph. I’ve written elsewhere about “swim, swam, I have swum” and “drink, drank, I have drunk”, but ducked out on “hung” and “hanged”. Inquiring minds may not want to know, but in case the grammar police are hounding you, I came up with a little ditty when teaching kids that seemed to have some impact – “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, but Santa was hanged with both feet in the air”. Just as my many witticisms about eating pandas fell flat (Panda Express?), so my hanging Santa kicks vividly but unhappily in the memory of depressed generations of students.

Ah well, off we go.

There are all sorts of regional or contrived locutions that are cute enough to use once or twice, but which cloy when frequently repeated. I’ll put “cattywampus” in that category, and “higgledy-piggledy”, and “osculate”. Why “willy-nilly” should have less cloy than “higgledy-piggledy” I can’t say, but try using each in ordinary conversation and see how you feel.

No comfort or resolution in higgledy-piggedly.

I’m interested in words than have some juice, a lingering kick to them. Contemporary columnists raging against the times for example have identified public figures as mendacious, craven, pusillanimous, recreant poltroons, and I agree, but where’s the impact in calling a cowardly self-serving politician a poltroon? Seems sort of bloodless.

I also need a slightly more elevated term for the state of mind we’ve experienced in the last few years. “Zeitgeist” works as a short form term for the prevailing tone of the times, but it is essentially neutral. The Germans, of course, introspects that they are, also  give us “Weltschmerz”, a word that describes a profound and abiding sadness about the state of the world in the moment, melancholy weariness. The “Schmertz” in the expression conveys a state beyond cerebral ennui; “schmertz” is pain.

Do we not have a folksy analog for weltschmerz? Are we incapable of speaking for ourselves?

Welcome to the maw.

I blush in presenting this term, but it has been used in national broadcast journalism, so I’m taking a chance in describing the zeitgeist in our vernacular as a “shit show”. The ball of terminally tangled yarn that is our public life has so many corrosive threads that we lose track and focus in trying to express exactly what it is that has brought us world pain. Can I point to a strand or two? Sure, but as soon as I describe Covid denial, I am inevitably pulled into strident avowal of a flat earth and condemnation of blood sucking pederasts in Hollywood. 

Tom Hanks? Really?

Day by day I find a new episode of the “shit show” and sink more deeply into schmertz.

There is an expression more graphic and obscene that describes the same condition with considerable force, a phrase I will loosely translate as copulation in a clump, clutch, bundle, or bunch. 

Delicate readers may find my new coinage a more acceptable substitute in times of frustration. 

How ‘bout we call the days of our current lives “Soul Trauma”? We could go with “Soul Rupture” or “Spirit Dismemberment”, but trauma suggests an injury so profound that the victim is beyond pain though not lifeless. Soul or spirit however, can take considerable punishment; after all, we can’t even point to the exact spot where it resides. Whatever it is or isn’t, spirit apparently latches on to other spirits, not simply one, a soulmate, but many, soulmates. In German they would be Seelendeverwandten, in Spanish Alma Gemelas, in French Ames Soeurs. 

I’m perking up a bit as I write thinking about “alma”, a word so rich in meaning that it can denote kindness, nourishment, feeding of the soul, and lifting of spirit. A friend of mine cared for his partner in her last days. He described their life as “walking each other home”. It helps right now to think of myself as just walking home in your company with kindness. 

That’s enough for right now. I’ll get back to work.

Sequestration … Been There

Sequestration … Been There

Sequestration

For a few shining moments the world was bright and new, masks came off, and the cobwebs in the car were swept aside. 

Ah, well. Back to sequestration, a term that can mean voluntary withdrawal from the company of humans or banishment. Our current version is slightly less onerous than the virtual quarantine many of us observed during the first waves of pandemic, back when we were washing cereal boxes and stocking up on rice, beans, and toilet paper. We’ve tasted freedom, we are vaccinated, and there’s plenty of toilet paper.

But this wave is nasty and caution propels, well, the cautious into voluntary separation again. 

We’re not alone, of course. Jurors on high profile trials are told to bring books, games, and a full deck of cards. A sequestered jury is unplugged and held incommunicado for extended periods of time. During the O.J. Simpson trial, presiding judge, Lance Ito, decided things were getting wonky, and hey, presto, the jury was sequestered for 265 days.

That’s sequestration somewhere between exile and banishment but with snacks. 

I first encountered the word as an eleven year old stuck in a boarding school. Those relatively few of us whose behavior was considered beyond the pale earned “sequestration”, a relatively short stay in what passed for the school’s pokey located in the basement of a new dormitory. I suppose the kindest analogy would be “time out”; the most descriptive would be short term incarceration. My transgressions have faded from memory, but I’m sure I earned my spot in the cage, more substantial than a mesh fencing closet, closer to a chain link basement suite.

Those of us who failed to meet the firmly held standards of behavior, in and outside of the classroom, became familiar with terminology such as sequestration probably not found in most 4th or 5th grade classrooms. For example, poor performance in course work was graded in the commonly accepted fashion, but in addition a frustrated  teacher could add a “blackball” to the week’s report. As one whose weekly report was studded with blackballs, there was no figure or ground; I had no idea what I’d done or left undone to earn my blackballs, but I came to expect I would not be getting  through a week blackball free during my career there.

So much for the life academic. Repairing to the dining hall, we sat at assigned seats with faculty at the head of our table. Breakfast was fine, lunch manageable, but the dinner menu featured items this eleven year old could not handle. The meal was supervised by adults as well, adults who splashed the nightly slop on each plate without pausing to make sure the plate would be welcomed. Apparently the school had maintained a crackerjack root cellar throughout the last decade as a primary source of inexpensive fodder for the boarding students. I’m sure quasi-potato dishes were served from time to time, but the primary accompaniments to fish sticks or liver were boiled turnips, rutabaga, and beets. Occasionally, as I remember it, we were presented with a medley of roots including all three of the major boiled substances.

It is only as I sit here in the afterglow of very late middle age (75 is the new 70) that it occurs to me that lunch was palatable because it was served to the day students who might carry the turnip reports back to parents paying through the nose for a tony private school education. They got Latin and French as did we who boarded, but they were educated without the restorative power of rutabaga.

I mention this dining experience because, once again, the desserts that came my way were just but not sweet. A contemporary description of turnips raves,” Turnips can be swapped into nearly any recipe in place of potatoes. Try making turnip fries, coleslaw, stir-fry or salad”. 

Oh, they tried, almost on a daily basis.

And, as the patient reader will have guessed, some of us saw the menu as a perfect gag fest and stonily refused to attack the turnip slaw even when threatened with the last of the unique responses to unacceptable behavior. I did not do more time in the jug in sequestration, but was banished to a table at the far end of the dining hall, where I was to sit in darkness until I had polished off the mashed turnip souffle. The walk of shame from the jolly banter of our assigned table to the bleak isolated table was known as “Sitting with Sir Henfry the Unworthy.”

Did my behavior or attitude change as a result of blackballs, sequestration, and a visit with Sir Henfry? 

Not a whit. 

Have I grown fond of turnips?

Equally whitless.

What I have come to admire, however, are distinctive euphemisms. Compared to the school’s catchy distractors, contemporary euphemisms such as “downsizing”, “passing away”, and “family planning” are downright snoozers. Words, words, words as Hamlet put it, much better food for thought than rutabaga hash.

Overheard … again?

Overheard … again?

So, I’m sitting in a pre-operation cubicle as a designated driver and pre-operation emotional support cheerleader, aware of the bustle outside our curtained cave and mildly distracted by the booming exchange between patient and pal in an adjoining cubicle when a sentence fragment hit me with the same impact as, “Not the last dead thing I kept in my freezer,” or “We all smell the same when we’re dead,” overheard conversations that provided me with a wealth of material and more than enough room for extravagant conjecture.

I’ll type it out in monotonic plain text and then dive into today’s treatise on the subject and on the premise that English differs from the Chinese languages, Thai, Igbo, Yaouba, Punjabu, Zulu, and Navaho in that it is not a tonal language. 

Hah!

Try to imitate a Valley Girl without using run-on sentences, nasal resonance, breathy vocal fry, and high rising termination, also known as “uptalk”.

Back to that subject as we examine this awkwardly overheard fragment.

“Well, his mother was murdered…”

I’ll begin by guessing that I have had fewer than one conversation about freezing corpses, body farms, or murder in any setting; those sorts of exchanges  just haven’t come up as I stir the sugar into my coffee. There are any number of graphic and unmentionable subjects that I have heard in my daily life, on film, and on social media. I’m not at my conversational best when a friend describes the process by which his septum was repaired, but would not fall into hyper-alert concentration were I to overhear that kind of description. There’s something about conversational comfort with grave subjects that raises questions I am too polite to pursue.

I’ll never know what was kept in the freezer, and imagination runs wild. The sound of a gurney scraping a doorway obliterated the rest of the conversation so that I am left with a world of imagined scenarios, most of which I probably picked up on The Sopranos.

Here’s where tonal emphasis comes in. Let’s begin with “Well…”

I don’t know when “Well” became the common first response to almost any question; I no longer know what the word means when used as the kickoff of an observation.. Listen to any interview. The interrogator lobs a softball question to a guest, knowing that the responder is fully able to handle complexity but hoping to keep it simple for the legion of distracted listeners who haven’t read the book or seen the studies.

I’m prepared to bet that 90% of respondents begin with “Well”. 

It’s a heck of a word, one of the very few that can be an adverb (The interviewer is well known), an adjective (I had been ill, but now I‘m well), a noun (Yet another penny was tossed in the well”, and an interjection (Well, well, well what has the cat dragged in), and a verb (The tears welled from her eyes as she remembered watching The Notebook).

Well and good, as some would say, but what does the word mean in this context?

“Well, his mother was murdered…”?

Does it suggest a need for balance? Yes, the person in question has behaved shamefully, but … his mother was murdered?  Does it convey a patronizing conviction that this guy is a jerk, and we know that because his mother was murdered? Is it a place keeper, allowing the respondent to come up with something, anything, to separate this guy from any number of other guys whose mothers were not murdered?

Dunno.  Let’s move on.

Intonation is hardly in play now as “his” can be a possessive or a defining particular, but “mother” demands some verbal acuity. 

“…his MOTHER was murdered” lets the listener know just how abominable and uncommon this event truly is. Not just the delivery guy or the plumber, but his MOTHER.

 “…his Mother? was murdered” indicates some confusion as to which relative was actually pushed under a bus or whatever. Sorry, Sopranos again. Might have been his dad? Maybe the nanny? Can’t quite remember. 

Finally, “his mother (long pause) was murdered” suggests a personal connection with the victim not simply an accounting of fact. “I need a minute. I’m not over it yet.”

It takes but a moment to realize that “was murdered” might be a matter of fact or an explanation depending upon intonation. In robotic delivery – “hismotherwasmurdered” – gets the info out of the way. No need to linger here. As an explanatory aid it offers an excuse: “Yes, Tom did dance naked on the copying machine, but his mother WAS murdered.”

Rounding third now, “murdered”.

“Hey, Bob. What happened to Tom’s mother? 

“She was MURDERED!!!!!” Sound of the clang, the cash register, the phone alarm, whatever, on any episode of Law and Order – Dun Dun! 

“She was murdered?” Two possible deliveries. “Wait, what?” or “I know she was alive once, but murdered?”

“She was murdered,” delivered with flat affect. “That’s what the world has come to. That’s what to expect if you have expensive shoes.”

Look, I understand that murder is a bad way to go out, and I would be sorry that his mother was murdered had I ANY context in which to place the fragment. Perhaps one ought not toss observations of that gravity in a crowded surgical unit where cloth curtains divide one patient from the next? My work here is with language. 

One of my favorite diversions is the “What I said … What I should have said” constructions that illustrate how far off course any rejoinder can be. Barring any other overheard confessions, that could be the subject of the next rhapsody. Stay tuned.

The Disney Version: Fooled Me

The Disney Version: Fooled Me

Reasoned civility is suggested in these troubled times, but decisions affecting millions of lives continue to boggle the mind. More and more again. How much outrage do I have left? How high can my blood pressure go? How much muck could a muck raker muck if a muckraker could rake muck? I’m trying to stay away from provocation, but the universe keeps dropping incendiary objects in my lap, and if that isn’t a troubling image, I don’t know what is.

Now, even now as I seek mindful unattachment, a story arrives with implications that are simply too hefty to leave unattended.Apparently the bold lie is nothing new in the American story.  I thought I knew something about betrayal. What a fool! What a patsy! But the truth will out and duplicity must be revealed for the perfidy it is.

Here goes.

Speaking of a partisan issue that will not be shared in this screed, my wife suggested that an unmentioned unfortunate propensity in human beings was analogous to that of lemmings, willfully seeking extinction by following each other over the edge of a cliff. She’s not wrong about the human analog, but the allusion to lemmings reminded me that I’d heard someone suggest that lemmings do not, in fact, leap to their death. My memory was that the story grew from a misunderstood segment of one of the nature films pumped out by the Disney studios in the 1950’s.

I remembered the film, one of the many in the True Life Adventure series, some of which remain highly regarded. In fact, as I stumbled upon a description of the series, three in the series won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. Two of the three probably deserved to be highly regarded – The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. Both left me with greater appreciation of the world around me, and both inspired something like a rudimentary sensitivity to environmental issues. The third, however, White Wilderness, was a fraud.

98% of the film presented a highly edited but essentially accurate picture of a wilderness most of us would never see. Climate change has guaranteed that the film remains one of the few opportunities to see the Arctic as it was, so much of the film has value. Later, nosy purists discovered that one of the most entertaining sequences, that of a polar bear cub sliding down an Arctic ice mountain, was actually filmed in a studio in Calgary. Disappointing, perhaps, but bottom line, as it were, the bear was an actual bear, and it actually slid. The image had sustained appeal, however, and perhaps was among the inspirations for the brilliant advertising campaign designed for Coca Cola by my friend, Ken Stewart. Polar bear cubs have been sliding down holiday setting since 1993 and I, for one, never tire of bear cubs, or Clydesdale horses, for that matter. There is not time enough today to address the bizarre rumor that the bears have been pulled from the shelves because they were “too white”. Let’s leave that one alone and return to the Lemmings.

By now you’ve jumped to the obvious observation that the mass extinction of lemmings was staged. It was, and I thought that was the extent of the polar lie, but, no, mes amis, it gets much darker.

Let’s start with the notion that contrary to every instinct in nature, an entire species decides to just give it all up, take the leap, and leave all worries behind. Unlikely at best, and problematical. Let’s say that lemmings do just as the Disney team alleges. Ok, where does the next generation of lemmings come from? Do they keep a spare set somewhere on ice? Is there a lottery? Do only male lemmings over the age of procreative power gather annually for the rite of final passage?

Then too, does virtual extinction happen at the same time of year in the same location? How does it happen that a camera crew is on hand just as the lemmings get the itch?

Well, clearly the lemming myth is piffle, and I have to wonder why it has had such staying power as an urban or polar legend? I bought it until I didn’t… because pictures don’t lie. I saw the critters in the air. I saw the heaps of extinguished lemmings. Man, what more did I need to tuck that reality away in the box of things not to be questioned?

Naturalists among us already know that the lemmings don’t even naturally exist where the scene was filmed. Want dark? In order to film in Alberta, a province without a coast, the Disney team had to import lemmings, buying the little cuties from Inuit children in Manitoba who gladly scooped them up for sale. Want darker? You can get lemmings to move, but if you want the off-the-cliff shot, you have to throw them over the edge, which is exactly what some sure-fingered Disney minions did. 

Do lemmings move in large groups? They do, and some do not survive immersion in cold water if they have to ford a river. I’m pretty sure, however, that “goodbye cruel world” is not their anthem as they scurry in search of food and shelter.

I’m grateful to my wife for using a phrase that pushed me into digging up some dirt on the Disney version. Some stories take on a life of their own, it seems, even when they are most unlikely to be true. Good to be reminded, and good to take a moment to honor the fuzzy little rodents, uprooted from their adopted Manitoban home, and flung from a cliff in Alberta.

Unruly Customer Behavior?

Unruly Customer Behavior?

Once able to wake, hear the birds, smell the flowers, pet the dogs,  I now wake, open the computer and scan the headlines shouting from the five news sources I continue to support.  Am I driven by fear or hope?  That’s a question I choose not to entertain, but I am occasionally surprised – by a story and by my reaction.

Today’s Boston Globe featured this headline :

“F-bombs, tantrums in front of children, making staff cry: Mass. restaurant owners describe unruly customer behavior.”

The article describes damage done to humans working in restaurants on Cape Cod, behavior that should be described as boorish, churlish, and downright dangerous.  The article describes restaurant owners trying to deal with pent up demand and shortage of labor, but finding that underpaid and over-abused staff have been treated with such ugly anger that trauma counseling may be as necessary as a jump in salary in order to keep working folks behind the counter.

The first observation I make in scrolling headlines today is that I jumped to the assumption that the story was about yet another of the former President’s outbursts in response to an inquiry into his business ventures, predatory behavior, or another case of perceived  lese majeste.  I almost skipped what I assumed was a familiar story, but I had just enough sensibility left to pick up the reference to unruly customers.

It’s an interesting example of a brain battered by scene after scene of deplorable behavior over a period of five years.  I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in recognizing that the geophysical climate may not be the only climate ravaged in our time. What might have been considered unacceptable behavior is in some quadrants, the norm.

The second observation is that the very sharp folks at the Globe did not feel the need to identify the literal elephant in the room.  

Pent up demand?

There is often pent up demand after a major upheaval or disaster; I may have missed the temper tantrums after the pandemic of 1918 to 1920, after the dust bowl, after World War Two, after Tornadoes, and hurricanes, and floods.  Did rationing of food and gasoline cause ordinary citizens to toss off F-bombs  at gas station attendants?

Nope.  What we have here is evidence of a cultural shift we saw coming but relegated to the arena of partisan politics.  Starting with “Lock Her Up,” what we used to call dialogue has become hyperbolic anger at forces some believe to be operating undercover. The cumulative effect of gaslighting at the start of the former president’s candidacy has simultaneously stimulated outrage and affirmed violent response to perceived insult or injury. In addition, the now familiar strain of Q-stained libertarianism which was the public face of the White House has seeped into everyday encounters.

Civil: It’s interesting and terrifying to see an essential word vaporise in one generation. Civility is a word used to describe behavior that is not simply polite or courteous but operational in showing regard for another person or another person’s ideas. Civility is a necessary attribute of civilization and the expedient that allows people to live next to each other. As far as I know, there have been louts, bullies, and yahoos around every corner for quite some time, but the culture, as a whole, found their behavior uncivil. 

The transition from “Lock Her Up” to the insurrection in January depended on an accretion of uncorrected incivility, in that instance, particularly dangerously contrived, delusive, manipulated sedition. On Cape Cod in July, incivility looks like swearing at a teenager whose orders for  ice cream cones have slowed their delivery. A customer telling a waitress that he hopes she will be hit by a car leaving work is not simply discourteous; that is not pent up demand.

Did the author of the article intend my interpretation of the events recorded? Maybe, but I expect that we’ve become so accustomed to living with ugly that we can no longer see the forest or the trees. This is an alarming article. Tip the person who serves you dinner; thank the person who hands you an ice cream cone. That’s all we have left – kindness, regard, civility.

Whose Flag?

Whose Flag?

It’s Complicated

The Patriot Front, a group of about two hundred white supremacists, marched through Philadelphia on the fourth of July weekend. Like the Klansmen they so admire, they wore white face coverings and carried American flags. In January insurrectionists determined to capture the Capitol and reverse the outcome of the Presidential election carried American flags, some of which were used to bludgeon the White House and District police.  American flags surrounded the noose and gallows intended for use in Vice President Pence’s last public appearance. Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and MAGA Civil War insurrectionists carried American flags.

That’s my flag.

Both political parties have traditionally wrapped themselves in stars and stripes, but over the past five years, the flag has become a particular symbol of support for principles and personalities I find dangerous and offensive. The flag, like the national anthem and patriotic holidays, has become so politically weaponized that those of us who do not subscribe to Trumpian rhetoric hesitated in flying our flag on the 4th.  The statement we intended to make was a celebration of our history and the struggle to secure democracy, but  those who walked or drove by our lawns are trapped in symbolic shorthand; in flying the flag, we worried, did they see support for the nation or for the insurrection?

It’s complicated.

I’m a veteran. I pay my share of taxes and give to charities. I worked as a Teamster in a steel slitting factory to earn enough to go to college. I was a teacher for forty five years. My wife and I raised three genuinely good children, now young adults.  They pay their taxes too. I love baseball, football, and corny movies. I am grateful for all those who risked their health to protect ours.  

I’ve voted in every election since 1968, not always for the same party, but always for the person I thought the best able to secure the democracy I believe in. If you had to give me a political label, I’d say I’m a progressive Democrat, an aging fan of the New Deal, of little guys getting a fair shake, of a country that believes in opening doors and feeding children.

As a child my brother and I helped my grandfather raise the American flag every morning. I marched in Memorial Day parades and placed American flags on the graves of those who had given their lives in service to the nation. I choke up when an American athlete receives a gold medal as our anthem plays and our flag waves.

That’s my flag.

It’s complicated.

I believe it’s my right and my duty to love and protect the nation’s founding principles and its flag. There’s too much at stake to let my lawn, empty of flags on the 4th of July, stand as evidence of my timidity in displaying my brand of patriotism, so I bought two emblems this July, both the same size, both standing together on my lawn – the American flag and a large Black Lives Matter sign. My support for that movement is not the only statement I need to make, but the statement I chose to make on the 4th of July as white masked bullies march through Philadelphia carrying my flag.  

For today, it’s not that complicated.

Covid 19, Jailed Celebrities, No Fans In The Stands – College Admissions Looks The Same

Covid 19, Jailed Celebrities, No Fans In The Stands – College Admissions Looks The Same

I wrote a book some years back, America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a guide to colleges that get overlooked in the annual rat race in college admissions. The book never got much traction, but I revised it every few years, adding another twenty or twenty-five colleges and universities to the list with each new edition. My hope was to provide high school seniors and their parents with excellent options beyond the relatively small group of colleges attracting the greatest number of applications. I had been a college counselor at several ambitious private schools and had seen the desperation with which families threw themselves at the Ivies, Stanford, Chicago, Georgetown, Williams, Pomona, Duke, Middlebury, and a few others. 

The most competitive of the bunch statistically don’t accept anyone. 

Before I trot out the acceptance rates, however, please understand that the rate of acceptance for ordinary superior students is even lower when legacies, athletes, donors, and special talents take up space in the freshman class. 

Without correction for considerations other than grades, scores, and character, the statistics regarding the most competitive admissions contests should be overwhelming, or at least I thought as much when I wrote my guide.

In the last admissions cycle, Harvard accepted 3.4% of applicants, Columbia 3.7%, Princeton and MIT 4%, Duke 4.3%, Yale 4.6%, Stanford 5.2%, Brown 5.4%, Penn 5.7%, and Dartmouth 6.2%. The next batch (Cal Tech, Vanderbilt, U. Chicago, Pomona, Swarthmore, Williams, Amherst, Johns Hopkins, Colby, Bowdoin, Annapolis, Northwestern, Rice, and Tulane accepted fewer than 10% of applicants.

Once again, a bit of context: The total number of applicants for the Class of 2025 at Harvard was 57,435.  Stanford only saw 44,000 applicants. A total of about 2,000 were admitted to Harvard; roughly 1700 to Stanford.  I thought the other 55,435 who didn’t get into Harvard might want to know about options other than Princeton, Stanford, Pomona, and Dartmouth.

But, I forget that there is some cachet in applying to Harvard.  Until the acceptances are posted, every applicant is equally unaccepted.

How much do special talents such as athletic ability affect admissions?  It depends, a bit, on what sport they play and in which Division they play that sport.  

Division One athletes are given considerable attention in major sports, by which, of course, I mean men’s sports, by which, of course, I mean football, to some degree basketball, and for a few ice hockey. We’ll get to Stanford’s admissions profile in a moment, but just to establish the place of athletics in one of the nation’s most esteemed universities, consider this: At least one Stanford team has won a national championship for the last 44 years. Stanford athletes have won 270 Olympic medals of which 139 were gold medals, putting Stanford the 9th all-time gold medal magnet, ahead of Canada, Japan, The Netherlands, and South Korea. 

There are some sports that are virtually regional.  Water Polo, for example, is a major sport in the PAC 12.  Ice hockey is a major sport for the colleges that play ice hockey. Williams, a perennially strong Division III school has about 23 hockey players suited up for game day, with another 20 who practice and might come off the bench. Of the 23, one is a graduate of a public high school, Duluth East, Duluth, Minnesota. Two are graduates of Shattuck St. Mary’s, the boarding school in Minnesota that produced 85 graduates drafted by the NHL, including Sydney Crosby, Zack Parise, Jonathan Toews, and Derek Steppan. Williams attracts athletes, but one former Director of Admission confided that some of the ice men were what he called a “Deep Stretch”. 

The recent and highly publicized college admission scandal uncovered the back doors, side doors, and trap doors, primarily with regard to faked athletic resumes, and the scale of the corruption at the athletic offices was startling, but really, nothing should surprise anyone who has had an eye on college admissions for the last fifty years. 

The only significant difference between the tumult of college admissions this year and every admissions season since the establishment of the first American university in 1693 (College of William and Mary) is that Division I coaches were paid to add applicants with no appreciable skill in water polo or crew or soccer or tennis or sailing (sailing?) to the list of recruited athletes at Yale, Stanford, Texas, USC, UCLA, Wake Forest, and Georgetown.  Some of the manipulation was unremarkable;  a name appeared on a list of students to be given a place as requested by a coach.  Other schemes were bizarre, including the photoshopping of applicants’ faces on the torsos of real athletes.  Yeah, and I have a picture of myself stepping out of the Saturn V on the surface of the moon.  That ploy just seems sadly embarrassing.  To be clear, the recruitment of athletes to Division I athletic programs has long been problematic, witness the FBI’s current and vigorous investigation of NCAA basketball.  The celebrity admission scandal breaks new ground in that coaches may have been (have been) paying recruits for generations, but applicants have not been paying coaches.

Well, not directly.

Creepy celebrity malefactions include buying or manufacturing diagnoses of particular sorts of disabilities that demanded special, and thus vulnerable, testing and the even creepier hiring of stand-in test takers to wallop an SAT or SAT score notably more impressive than the testing of the actual applicant would have been.  Test proctors were bought off, test sites may have been compromised, faked applications were certainly purchased and presented.

I’m just a simple consumer of popular culture, but photos of William Singer, founder and president of The Edge College and Career Network ought to have tipped folks off from the start.  Seriously, in every shot the slime shines from every pore.  Ok, maybe it’s just the haircut, but, come on, folks, this guy’s a bookie, a fixer, or a not-very-slick con man.  His appearance aside, the enterprise he established looked a lot like a number of entirely legit consulting services offering parents and students assistance in negotiating the college admissions process.

I was a college counselor for most of my career in secondary schools, advised thousands of students, occasionally worked as a consultant to families that did not have access to the sorts of counseling opportunities my schools provided.  I loved that work and have remained an observer of college admissions. I considered college counselling a privileged opportunity in that I met students, usually in their junior year, just as the school, colleges, parents, and the universe came at them with what were essentially impossible tasks.  All they had to do, aside from take on demanding course work, prepare for SATs ACTs, AP tests, and rigorous coursework, was to imagine themselves five years in the future, assess the sorts of qualities that reflected their capacity for intensive work in whatever hypothetical futurescape they imagined, touch the truest elements in their character, write with originality and unforced brilliance about themselves (in a page or less) conveying an appealing blend of modesty and self-assurance.

All of this, of course, directed in an application to colleges that appeared on sweatshirts of the coolest kids, that had a name parents and grandparents immediately recognized, staffed by counselors reading essays by the hundreds.

Simply put, the instructions were clear:  Give a compelling and comprehensive account of yourself, (in a page or less), address it to a nameless, faceless panel of judges who hold your future (and your family’s standing in the community) in their paws, and prepare to sit with increasing anxiety until decisions come your way in March or April, at which time, you will have something like three weeks to decide which of the remaining options are likely to match your sense of future self.

I worked in academically ambitious private schools which hired me to give individual attention to each of the students in my care.  I had the time to work through many of these challenges with students, to make sure that their applications were completed on time and sent to an appropriate range of colleges so that, in March or April, they actually had some good options to consider.  Most high school counselors do not have the resources that I did.

Every single kid I worked with started way ahead of the curve.

The statistic that is NEVER published, however, has to do with the relationship between what are known as “impact donors” and preferred admission.  The most prestigious colleges and universities are prestigious because they have trotted out highly successful and financially advantaged graduates for generations.  Without regard to a huge gift given in expectation of special consideration in admission, alumni have tossed fortunes into the coffers of a privileged few institutions of highest repute.

How much dough do these colleges have in the kitty?

Harvard – thirty-six BILLION dollars in endowment funds, Yale – twentyseven BILLION, Stanford – twenty-four BILLION, Princeton – twenty-three BILLION.  There’s a big drop-off after these megaliths as MIT, Penn, Michigan, and Northwestern are only in the teens.

Even by those standards a relatively modest endowment, such as Duke’s – seven billion, or Notre Dame’s – nine billion, is still sitting relatively pretty when it comes to day-to-day expenses.  I’m no expert at donating millions, but the rule of thumb I heard back in my college admissions days was that, in order for an otherwise less than equally qualified candidate to rise above the ordinary preference of a legacy application, we had to be talking “New Building Donor”.  That’s a lot of donation; by comparison, “ordinary” largesse seems mildly affordable, to some I’m sure.  Yale is remarkably up front about the endowment gifting procedure, allowing prospective donors to size up their gift before selling stock.

For example, currently donors may support financial aid for students in Yale College or the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by creating an endowed fund with a minimum gift of $100,000. A named visiting professorship in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or athletic coach’s position may be endowed with a gift of $1,500,000, an existing professorship with a gift of $3,000,000, or an incremental professorship, dean’s, or director’s position with a gift of $6,000,000.

Pretty heady stuff, this endowing a coach’s salary with a gift of a million five, but still waaaaay short of New Building impact.  I’ve had two New Building applicants in my forty years of counseling, each of which was admitted to programs ordinarily ignoring candidates with their academic profile.  In each case, some notably more prepared students were not admitted; they got it.  One later transferred and sent me an email with a picture of a new building named after her former classmate’s father.

So, nothing really new as the rich get richer and continue to find advantage on almost every playing field.

Honest conversation about college admission has to begin with the bottom line:  It isn’t about the applicant; it’s about what the college needs.  Snappy New England college takes care of alumni, brings about twenty percent of the class in as recruited athletes, wants very much to bring diversity to a rural campus, has to keep the male/female balance close to 50/50, and guarantees a stable admissions season by taking roughly forty percent of applicants by Early Decision.

Oh, and a new building or two is always welcome.