It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea …

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea …

A good friend is heading back to our college for his fiftieth reunion, and, in a misguided attempt to gather stories which might animate  conversation around the beer tent, asked me to recall one of the more unlikely decisions I reached somewhere in the middle of my sophomore or junior year.  As might be inferred by the uncertainty with which I date this classic tale, many of my decisions were far more regrettable than unlikely, and in the spirit of bonhomie, I figured this one was probably not going to cause my children to divorce me.  After all, they have a pretty good grasp of my decision-making skills.

So, whenever this took place, I had established a thriving enterprise, selling my typing “skills” for cash back in the days in which my stereo, camera, and guitar had all been pawned; I had probably been over generous in supporting charities or may have sent funds to a child in Uzbekistan. In any case, I could type reasonably well and was willing to work at any hour with short notice.  Clients lined up, usually around ten thirty in the evening. Did I make mistakes? Sure, but I had a jug of White Out and perfection was rarely demanded. Just get the thing done, they’d say, shoving a yellow legal pad or wad of lined paper under my door.

In the year in question, I had  contracted with a the captain of the football team, a behemoth who may have had but one eye,  to transcribe his handwritten essay on “The Mating Habits of the Bering Seal”. The singularity of eye is not central to the story, but the more I think about who I was dealing with, the more unlikely my decision seems in hindsight.   To be fair,there were so many errors of judgment made before I even got my paws on the paper; Bering Seals? Delivering the paper into my hands?

I started the job sometime after the general hubbub died down, and the fraternity lounge had emptied.  The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson had ended, and I had the peace and quiet I needed to give the task my complete attention.  The first two pages were a snap, done quickly. Somewhere in the middle of the third, right after the description of the flora and fauna of the Pribilof Islands and its unique position as seal rookery (“The Galapagos of the North”), somewhere after the endless factoids about Callorhinus ursinus ( their fur contains approximately 46,500 hairs per centimeter.  The male weighs in at about 600 pounds, the svelte female a trim 160 pounds), that fancy kicked in.

How, I wondered did that sleek female entice the bull from the sea?  What configurations of fur and fin could allow, much less enhance, their romance?  To be clear, these were speculations outside the range of the author’s intent, but the hour was late, brain cells were dying, the avalanche of facts allowed no clear narrative, and besides, Prof Burns was unlikely to read beyond the first two pages and the last.  I had a slew of Pribilof Island facts to dish out at the end, and I just could not go on without allowing myself a slight diversion from the text.

And so, rhapsody began.

“The aroused female bathes in the pounding surf, tendrils of foam cover her tingling whiskers.  She slides to a flat rock near the water’s edge, knowing that the bull of her choice will surface momentarily.  She curls one flipper behind what would have been her ear had she been a Sea Lion, waving slowly in time with ocean’s tidal roar.  Her tail, ordinarily flat against the stone is raised and tilted. It too moves with measured allure. She allows a husky bark to welcome the bull as his massive head breaks the surface.  The bark of the Bering Seal can alert to danger or signal distress, but deep in the heaving bosom of this female, the cry was clearly, “Come to me, take me, make me your slave!”

Or something pretty close to that.

Paper delivered, payment rendered, happy days.

Prof. Burns, however, was apparently unaware of the skim-the-paper convention, finding my superbly crafted prose a detriment to the student’s work.  My memory of those days is hazy at best, so I can’t tell you why I am alive. I probably retyped the dreadful thing and sent an apology to Burns. I hope that was the resolution of the ugly affair.

The open market, is a cruel mistress; it was this essay that ended my career as a round-the-clock typist.  Word traveled quickly when the professor read the offending paragraph to the Animal Biology class, failing to credit the author, but suggesting that some typists were not to be trusted with Bering Seals.

What has taunted me over the decades is the knowledge that I could knock out seal porn by  the carload, but could never find a voice as an author of Romance novels, the market that never shrinks, the only sort of publishing with the exception of the Young Adult novel, still in demand.  I’ve tried, simply substituting the name Ramona for the seal, but it gets tangled somewhere between the foam and the tilted tail. The mind boggles. Or, more unfortunately, my mind boggles.

Should a market for Romance humor emerge,I might have a shot, but until I am contracted to write Fifty Shades of Seal Fur, my best work is behind me.

If We Have To Have A Strongman …

If We Have To Have A Strongman …

Loyal readers will recall that I once spent an evening with Arnold Schwarzenegger during which I measured the span of his neck, chest, and biceps.  I took his word with regard to thighs, calves, and glutes.  The which is to say, I know my behemoths.  Arnold (I touched his chest; I get to call him by his first name) is an impressive specimen, and,  as this piece has to do with things political, that reasonably respected former governor of the fifth largest economy in the world currently stands alone as a verified hunka hunka man muscle with political acumen.  That, by the way, is not a sentence I expected to find its way into my collected works.

Even at his most robotic, Schwarzenegger was an engaging actor, far more personable than the earlier icons of beefcakery, capable of charming and apparently effortless self-deprecatory humor.  That’s an important quality in a person of impressive size who could crush me like a grape; a sense of humor allows those of us who live in mortal bodies the chance to meet a man-mountain with respect rather than terror.

Now that the various enterprises of life have become permeable, as celebrities have become politicians and politicians have become criminals, in the post Reagan, and assuming a post Trump era, the demand for candidates with star power is certain to remain constant.  Does Tom Hanks have presidential gravitas?  Sure, and what a decent president he would be, bringing calming intelligence to the job, and he’s so darned nice.  On the other hand, while I don’t have the slightest urge to come at Tom Hanks , there are certainly those who would, as he is both reasonable and kind.  Celebrity is one thing; general physical enormity something entirely better it seems in an age of tribal animosity.

We are a nation divided, a world in tatters.  We once believed that what the world needs now is love, sweet love …  sadly, not in times such as these.  What the world needs, apparently, are testosterone addled, chest thumping troglodytes, from Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.  Enthusiasm for a Michelle Obama presidency or an Oprah Winfrey presidency may still roil among wishful thinkers, but in order to bind up the ravages of partisan sniping, the only real solution, survey says, is the election of a gigantic, powerful, charismatic celebrity.  Yes, certainly, I am hoping for a person of color, but one so formidable that even those with the lynching itch roll over and beg for mercy.

Thus, consider Dwayne Douglas Johnson, born in Hayward, California in 1972, former professional football player, the two-time Intercontinental Wrestling Champion, Royal Rumble match winner, six feet five inches and two hundred and sixty pounds of artfully contained dynamite, among the most successful actors in Hollywood, benefactor of a foundation working with terminally ill children.  His films bring in billions of dollars annually, he’s been a Polynesian god in a Disney feature (Moana), reanimated G.I. Joe and Baywatch, and has worked with Kevin Hart in more than one movie, demonstrating his ability to put up with sustained and often incongruous chatter.

We’ve seen large men play cute, if the Hulk Hogan persona in Santa Muscles or Mr. Nanny can be described as cute, but Johnson has actually displayed palpable vulnerability in two roles, the second as Dr. Smolder Bravestone, archeologist/explorer in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, arguably the best adaptation of  a board game in years.  Without getting into the fine points of the Jumanji universe, Bravestone is the avatar of a nerdy, panphobic, anxiety ridden, teen dweeb, whose character remains operative even as he is transformed into a spectacularly athletic man mountain.  I don’t know Dwayne Johnson; he may simply be a pretty good actor, but unlike many action actors, he is capable of expressing believable  hesitancy, modesty, and decency.  And, of course, he kicks butt as well.

The opus I want to highlight, however, may be Johnson’s least appreciated role, that of Derek Thompson, hockey goon, reckless enforcer, thrust into an unexpected persona as a result of his craven act of betrayal; needing cash he not only steals a dollar from his girlfriend’s six-year old daughter, but crushes her belief in the Tooth Fairy.  Talk about vulnerability!  Johnson begins the film Tooth Fairy as an uncomplicated jerk, contemptible and crass, only capable of transformation by transformation, as he is yanked to the tooth fairies’ headquarters, given wings, and turned loose on children who deserve better service.  Johnson is a lousy tooth fairy, commendably bad, but he sticks with the job even when forced to go to the black market for tooth compensation supplies.  Ok, a bit saccharine to that point, but the inner jerk reappears; he is angry and unkind all over again.  The mechanisms by which he is restored to warm humanity are clumsy.  I’m not suggesting this is must-see filmfare; I’ll just tempt the prospective viewer by noting that Julie Andrews plays the CEO of tooth fairies and leave it at that.

The point is that Johnson is willing to be unlikable in order to serve a higher purpose.  He could play the familiar doofy dad, clueless but well-intentioned, as Schwarzenegger did to great effect in Jingle All The Way, but instead allows us to see a darker challenge.  To be clear, Tooth Fairy is a less satisfying film than Jingle All The Way, if only because it lacks the presence of genius comedian Phil Hartman as the smarmy neighbor lusting after Schwarzenegger’s wife, an enterprise no sane person would contemplate.

Comparison of filmic characters aside, Johnson is a multi-ethnic (Black Nova Scotian Samoan), highly intelligent, eminently successful, engaging man of principle who has remained consistently humane while avoiding partisan posturing.  He is, essentially, a man for all seasons, and, if the times seem to call for assertive hyper-masculinity, President Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson is a far better choice than we might deserve.







Some college applicants are more equal than others … this is news?

Some college applicants are more equal than others … this is news?

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, now preparing the fourth edition of my quirky college guide, America’s Best Kept College Secrets: An Affectionate Guide to Outstanding Colleges and Universities.  

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.

Then, to return to the subject at hand, while all of my students were smart and worked hard, some came from families that had the ability to pay tuition in full; about 50% did not.  It’s an oversimplification to note that full pay applicants are at an advantage in the admissions process, but, at the risk of oversimplification, a student not belonging to one of the special categories particularly sought by the institution, when all other qualities are equal, is less likely to be admitted than an entirely similar student whose family can cough up the full cost of attending.  Without naming names, a prominent liberal arts college in New England admits about fifteen percent of roughly eight thousand applicants.  Of the admitted group, about forty-eight percent will enroll.  Of those who enroll, about forty percent will pay the entire seventy-three thousand dollars a year.  Equally noteworthy – almost twenty percent will pay nothing.

I don’t know how the percentage of full pay applicants admitted compares to the percentage of recruited athletes admitted, or first generation college students admitted, or Native Americans admitted, but I can report that roughly fifty percent of enrolled students are students of color, and at the same time, the percentage of “legacy” students admitted is easily twice that of non-legacy students.

To be fair, children of graduates of this institution are likely to have been advantaged in a number of ways.  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 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 profiled above 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.

So, take some comfort, achingly hopeful junior or senior – Four years from now, you’ll be living the life that has come to you, happily spending your last weeks in your dormitory, no matter whose name is on the building.