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.

My Wife Lost Her Memory … For A While

My Wife Lost Her Memory … For A While

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

“”You’re here because you don’t know why you’re here.”

“Did you drive”

“I did.”

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

On Wednesday afternoon my wife, Mary,  woke from a nap unable to keep a memory for more than twenty seconds. 

I had asked her about an upcoming visit from her sister; she was puzzled, verging on angry, as she had no memory of that visit. After wrestling with that issue to no conclusion, I asked if she remembered calling her sister about the visit. Again, what the hell was I talking about?  I then asked if she remembered going out for lunch. Nothing. Did she remember the Memorial Day picnic with friends? Nothing. Blank. 

I’d seen movies and read case studies like Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, but nothing had prepared me for an exchange with my wife, who was absolutely herself, sharp, funny, logical and at the same time unaware of anything beyond the most immediate conversation.

She quickly agreed to a trip to the Emergency Room, confessing that she felt somewhat muddled, perhaps half way between sleep and full consciousness. She repeated that observation throughout the trip to the hospital. Caught in a loop. On the other hand, when I said we were on our way, she immediately asked me to go to the more sophisticated of our local hospitals. When she had dressed, even as her condition was increasingly obvious, she took off her ring, apparently anticipating an MRI.

“Where’s my ring?”

That question joined the pronouncement of demi-sleep and hope for the better hospital. She couldn’t summon the name of the hospital she preferred, but recognized it when I identified it.

We were hustled into an examination space at the more sophisticated hospital’s Emergency Room and as I finished the paperwork, she was wheeled off for a CT scan. Mary was unruffled by the flurry of activity, frequently laughing at the absurdity of her inability to connect with the present moment. I was terrified that cancer might have returned and metastasized to her brain.

The scan was clear. A chest x-ray was clear. No answers forthcoming.

She was admitted to the hospital, but no rooms were available, so she was hooked up with wires and an IV port and left on a bed in a supply room at the back of the ER. We spent the next five hours repeating the same conversation again and again.

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

“Your memory seems to be impaired.”

Laughter. “No kidding.”

“Where is my ring”

“You took it off before we came.”

“Is there metal in my scrunchie?”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Don’t they want to test me?”

“You had a CT scan.”

“No, when?”

“When we first arrived.”

“Did you drive?”

“I did.”

“Is this the hospital?”


“Did you drive?”

And so on.

She was in a great mood. Joking with doctors and nurses. Telling a doctor she wouldn’t remember him the next time he came by. Telling another doctor she might remember his name because it was the same as an artist she admired. Forgetting that the doctors had stopped in.  Announcing that she used to be an EMT.  Apologizing then telling me that when she had a concussion as a girl, she apologized over and over.  Announcing she used to be an EMT.  Apologizing.

She was in every way herself, aware that her memory was compromised, but not anxious, simply perplexed. Amused. Smart.

A nurse checked her vitals and told us that her tests had revealed a urinary tract infection.

“How did they get my urine?”

“You walked to the bathroom with a nurse.”

“How did they get my urine?”

About five hours into our stay, a third neurologist stepped in to question Mary. I’d noticed what I thought was a slight improvement in that she referred to events and conversations with more fluency. The doctor took her through the stroke protocol again (“show me your teeth.”) and was quick to see that she had no symptoms.  

“What day is it?”


An hour earlier she could not have answered that question.

“What month is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“At the hospital.”

“What month is it?”  

Mary looked at me.

“Don’t look at him,” the doctor joked.  “His memory is fine.”

“Maybe June?”

Again not possible an hour earlier.

“We gave you an antibiotic about an hour ago.  There is a possibility the urinary tract infection is the issue. If we don’t see improvement, we’ll move to the MRI.”

The conversation with the doctor lasted about ten minutes, and I thought Mary might have been slightly more responsive than she had been when we arrived.

Hope.  Guarding against hope.

I left Mary at the hospital and returned home to take care of our two dogs.  Didn’t sleep much.  In a stunning turn of events, I woke the dogs rather than their waking me and spent some time feeding and exercising them before leaving for the hospital again.

I have a friend whose advice about worrying has always been, “Why don’t we wait until we get there?”  Great advice, but it’s not easy to keep from projecting a dark future. On the drive to the hospital I wept imagining Mary unable to do what she has loved doing.  She trains dogs, and owners, explaining dog language and gestures, helping owners connect with their dogs.  Many of her clients have found training for dog agility competition, a wonderful pastime and a great way to bring joy to their dogs while they become more skilled in handling their pets.  Mary’s always been a teacher, no matter what the situation might be, and she has a particular gift in her ability to understand how each student learns, adapting her instruction to each distinctive challenge.

I couldn’t imagine how she could do what she loved without memory.

I also couldn’t imagine not having our conversations.  I know a lot about where her feelings are, and she understands me in a way that allows me to share myself as I cannot with anyone else.

“Wait until we get there.”  Hope.

When I walked into the ER very early the next morning, Mary was back.  

There were a few glitches, very much like those of a person coming out of deep slumber, but she was able to remember everything I told her about the previous day, and able to remember which clients were due to arrive for training and how to make contact with each of them.

“Where’s my ring?”

“You took it off before we left the house.”

I must have worried about getting an MRI.”

“You took off your earrings too.”

“I wasn’t wearing earrings.”


“I hope I made you drive.”

“You did.”

“I’m glad we came to this hospital instead of the others.”

“You asked for the more sophisticated hospital.”

“I couldn’t remember the name, but I knew I wanted to be here.”  She looked around.  “This reminds me of the room the doctors on Gray’s Anatomy use for a quickie between operations.”

Mary is still taking the antibiotic.  She’s exhausted and physically a bit wobbly, but she is entirely herself with a memory now restored to minutes before we had the conversation that convinced me that something was wrong.  It happens that I had been teaching a course in which we spent some time talking about brain activity.  I’d made the point that we can put electrodes in a region of the brain and observe activity, but we don’t know how we fall asleep, why we sleep, why we dream, what sleep actually does.  I’d said that almost all of what we guess about the brain we guess because something has gone wrong; a man mistakes his wife for a hat.

It turns out that among women over the age of sixty, urinary tract infection and dehydration can bring on short term memory loss.  I say ,”over sixty”; articles describing the phenomenon use terms such as “senior” or “elderly”.  Mary is over sixty but not to my mind elderly.  Of course, I’m ten years older than she is, so my perspective could be skewed.  The good news is … well, there is a ton of good news, the most obvious being that although she had amnesia, Mary is not suffering from dementia.  It could have been much worse; I have discovered that in some cases, a person can hallucinate or become angrily paranoid.

Oh, and modern medicine cannot explain why the urinary tract infection affects the brain. The immune system system is compromised, they say.  Ok, but urinary tract to brain? 

Mine is not to wonder why but to simply be grateful that two tablets a day have returned Mary to me and to the many people who consider themselves lucky to know her.

Hibernation – Good News/Bad News

Hibernation – Good News/Bad News

Here we are in the first stages of post-covid overtures to normality and feeling a bit Rip Van Winkleish. Seriously.  Do any of us actually have a firm grasp of time spent away from the world?  It’s been a long hibernation.

Ask any bear; hibernation is full of good news and bad.  

The good news about hibernation is isolation from all the pesky issues that trouble us in our waking lives.  Remember that guy we ran into every morning at the coffee shop?  You know, the guy that shared the ending of novels and films at full volume?  How about the woman who works in the office next to ours?  We have seen her every day for fifteen years as we wait for the elevator to arrive.  We know a lot about her and her family.  We are almost friends, but we’re not sure if her name is Prudence or Priscilla, and it is much too late to ask.  Great movies are about to be released.  We don’t have to spend a hunk of change to sit in front of the sisters who smell like cabbage discussing their mother’s crusty skin issues while a baby squirms and yowls in the  lap directly behind us.  Unlike our friends the bears, we might not have lost the extra ten or twenty pounds in hibernation.  In fact, we’ve been loosening the drawstring on the old pajamas as we checked in on Zoom, and nobody knows or cares. Haven’t paid a dime for gym membership and don’t feel guilty. Watched the entire 327 episodes of Supernatural and don’t feel guilty. Haven’t cleaned the house since March, 2020 and don’t feel guilty.

One piece of bad news about hibernation is that we were immersed in a thousand enterprises that in the past we had no time to investigate or feel concern about. Had we spent 20 hours a day doom scrolling before Covid? Did we have a TikTok account or even know how to access TikTok? Could we have named the 32 species of orchids that went extinct last year? Would we have known that Kanye West’s bid for the presidency was endorsed by Elon Musk or that West gave Kim Kardashian a hologram of her dead father?

More bad news about hibernation comes around now, as we’re thinking about dropping the mask and watching the high school band march in the 4th of July parade.  When, exactly IS the 4th of July?  Time stopped, or got flattened sometime in the last year.  Has it been a year?  We did Christmas, right?  Right?  

And, bottom line, we’re about to enter the company of humans we haven’t seen since … whenever that was.  Do we shake hands?  Hug?  Tug at our forelock?  All the social cues we had spent a lifetime acquiring are in question.  How close is too close?  Do we need to see a vaccination card before breaking the six foot bubble?  And then, what do we say?  

I mean, really.  What do we say?

Long time no see?  Whatcha been up to?  How ‘bout those Mets?

Politics?  Off the table.  Who knows who has subscribed to what core set of improbable beliefs having to do with demon spawn in yogurt.  Health?  Also tricky.  In the best of times a health inventory makes for sluggish conversation.  In these troubled times, who knows what sorts of  medical events have transpired.  Finance?  Uh, no.  

I travel in several circles, some of which are ordinary, reasonably clever people, interesting in their own right but not much given to reading widely..  Seems to me I’m on pretty safe ground asking what they’ve been watching on Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or in my case, Acorn. The doors open wide and quickly.  During the past year (or whatever), some strong emotions have been attached to our virtual life on the couch.  Tiger King?  NXIVM?  Woody Allen?  How do we feel about Teenage Bounty Hunters being cancelled by Netflix?  Betrayed, right?

The reading folks I once knew, whenever that was, are likely to have taken on the authors they had always intended to read.  I’m reading a lot of Japanese novels in translation, but I remember reading pals talking about the Russians, or Rushdie, or Kafka, or Proust.  We’ll see, won’t we.

And, should all else fail, who hasn’t watched at least one season of the British Baking Show?  That ought to keep the conversational wheels turning for a while.

Then, shaking hands, or not, hugging, or not, we hustle home to watch Mare of Easttown or All Creatures Great and Small, or Survivor, and breathe a long sigh of relief in having found our way back to our solitary cave and a pair of forgiving pajama bottoms.

A Close Personal Friend Recommends …

A Close Personal Friend Recommends …

My daughter is alternately amused and netlled by my unquestioning eagerness to pursue whatever book, film, vacation, or adventure I find touted in the New York Times.  I speak with enthusiasm as if the Times had called me directly and with sweet concern for my well being curated a lifetime of experience just for me;I refer to the paper as I might to a neighbor or book club friend.  It’s personal.

There have been some notable treasures, of course, along the way, and a few very minor disappointments, but for the most part, the Times opens doors I had not thought to approach.  And yet, that legacy of good will and trust is hanging on by a thread this morning as I recoil from a novel that came highly regarded and I would have said, recommended.  

To be fair, I responded to one of the frequent “Books Update”, a list of books currently under discussion, rather than having read a review of the novel.  In the past it’s worked out well;  I’ve simply noted a title, opened my account at the local library, and jumped on the waiting list for the next hot copy.  Some have been my sort of book, others not so much.  I’ve taken a chance over the years and find that the Times (my friend) is running with about an 80% hot stuff rate.  Winners in the last year include The Aosawa Murders, The Beauty in Breaking, A Children’s Bible, Hidden Valley Road, How Much Of These Hills Is Gold, Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, Sisters, and the unexpectedly fabulous Nothing To See Here.  So-so or just not my cup of tea that week were other highly regarded books such as The Biggest Bluff, Blacktop Wasteland, Deacon King Kong, and The Glass Kingdom.  Nothing lost.  No harm, no foul. 

Fairness having been invoked, I ought to note that there are many books that were closed to me at one point in my life and richly enjoyed later.  Then too, I’m a writer without an agent, self publishing books that languish in the nether depths of Amazon’s vanity collection.  A book may have the resentment hurdle to clear, particularly if the genre is new or the portrayal of characters challenging.  That said, I’ve come to admire books that present characters who would drive me to madness were I to encounter them in real life.  Nick Cave’s Bunny Munro, for example, may be the most loathsome person I’ve encountered in print, but I couldn’t put the book down.

Had I read Joshua Ferris’ review of The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver, I suspect I would have cancelled my hold on the book at the library.  Ferris is amused by and sympathetic to unlikeable characters, citing Cormac McCarthy’s unrelenting portrayal of unredeemed characters as a refreshing antidote to a happy happy resolution for characters who have been misunderstood or mistreated.  By the end of the review, having lauded Shriver’s refusal to yield to the pity paradigm, however, he does acknowledge the book’s resolution left him thinking, “Who cares?” 

I didn’t get that far.  

I have a tall pile of books and who knows how many years to read them.  I’ll give a new book thirty minutes to reel me in.  If I’m eager to read the next page, I’ll generally stick with it all the way to the end.  I’m relatively easy to please, but a strong beginning goes a long way.  An author makes a choice in opening their world to us, in introducing a novel’s protagonists, for example,  I give Shriver points for chutzpah; her  characters presented on the first page are Remington and Serenata Alabaster.  Remington Alabaster.  Serenata Alabaster.  What am I to do with names such as those?  Bold choice by Shriverl, but “look-at-me” writing runs the risk of sliding into precious posturing, which in this case darkens as the Alabaster’s relationship is short on affection. Serenata’s reflexive contempt for Remington in particular wears thin.  Remington’s disregard for Sereneta’s feelings is almost as off-putting.

Shriver’s published fifteen novels, all of which have been well received; she’ll survive any quibble I might have about her latest. My greater concern is in repairing the pipeline so that the Jackson County Library and I are teaming up for a strong summer of reading.  The key, I think, is in finding a balance between the “sure things’ ‘ and the “strap on your seat belt” experiments that offer great reward or immediate disappointment.  I’ll keep reading the Mann Booker long list and following my favorite authors, but at the moment I’m sitting with Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, a compilation of forty new fairy tales by authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Shelly Jackson, Neil Gaimon, and a host of others, Murakami’s IQ 84,and Moby Dick.  The Times didn’t have to recommend Melville or Murakami, but virtually every other choice this summer will come from the pages of the New York Times, who you will remember, is a particular friend of mine.

We All Smell The Same When We’re Dead

We All Smell The Same When We’re Dead

I’m an introvert and should remember that I’ll start to numb out somewhere in the first minutes of the second hour, but I forget just how forcefully I hit that wall even in the most pleasant social gathering,  I have no idea where my wife lands along the personality continuum, but she stays on the phone for more than 30 seconds per call, enjoys lengthy conversations with folks she has just met, and clearly has much more staying power at holiday picnics than I do.  I admire her social skill and wish I didn’t lose energy in the company of people I genuinely like and whose lives interest me.

Take yesterday, for instance.  We were invited to a lovely luncheon with interesting people in a comfortable setting.  I quite enjoyed the first hour.  I hadn’t realized how quiet I had become until a latecomer entered into the conversation.  Earlier in the afternoon I would have been fascinated by much of what she said and might have joined the discussion, but as she spoke I realized my mind had left the building.

I think the conversation had somehow slid into a comparison of the effectiveness of dogs versus pigs in hunting truffles.  I like the word truffle so had almost come to the surface.  I was on the way out again when the latecomer began to describe her experience of working with her dog in search and rescue.  It turned out that having mastered the complexities of searching and rescuing, her dog had gone on to become a certified cadaver dog.

I know!

She and her Flat-Coated retriever, Morgan, were off the next weekend for their first workshop with actual cadavers.  Apparently, donors had made their former bodies available for exercises such as these, and dog and owner were keen to get at the real thing.  She had my attention now.  Had I not lost the power of expression I would have asked many questions about the body farm they would be visiting and the logistical complications which might arrive with such a search.  I am pleased to report that someone did ask about the difficulty in finding articles of clothing or other personal possessions that would allow the dog to track.  My question exactly, or rather, one of my questions.  

Apparently, it doesn’t matter.  With a chuckle, the trainer advised us that a cadaver is a cadaver is a cadaver.  Her delivery did not falter as she passed on this tidy fun fact:

“We all smell the same when we’re dead.”

I am prone to the occasional existential crisis. To be completely transparent, that occasional crisis is actually quite regular.  I had just finished leading a six week virtual conversation on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was up on Hinduism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, and the practical and portable version of Zen Buddhism as it evolved in this country.  Dharma, Karma, the search for one’s Buddha nature were on my mind, but I was not prepared to take man’s search for meaning to the olfactory level. In other company, in another setting, I might have blurted out, “Whoah!  I’m looking forward to the transmigration of the soul,but I am not entirely happy to learn that for a while I may just be meat!”  Or something along those lines.  

Happily, however, I was distracted by more pedestrian thoughts, the first of which, I regret to say, had to do with how we smell as we’re walking around in our present state of being alive.  I moved past the questions about where our smells go after … you know … to a quick cataloging of people I know well and their respective odors.  I have encountered some distinctive bouquets along the way, but the more I thought about it, the more aware I became of my preconscious information about people and their emanations which must be part of the vocabulary in the interior language of dogs.

I use the term “preconscious” because although there is considerable scientific evidence to support the theory that scent is an important part of the attraction we feel toward particular people, it’s not something we’re aware of and certainly not the stuff of valentines.  It’s not a secret, exactly, but it’s a bit awkward to admit that you’ve found a life partner based, to some degree, on a quality that we hardly recognize and one that we can’t change.  Yes, we can mask the musk, splash on Dior’s “Hypnotic Poison Perfume”, spray on “Pheromone for Men”, bathe, stay away from garlic, onions, cumin and curry, but the base scent is ours and ours alone.  

Until we shuffle off this mortal coil.

In what may seem a digression, I have had to admit that although I love to write and knock off hundreds of words every day to stay in shape, my powers of invention are limited.  The thought of writing a daily column for a newspaper, for example, instantly reduces me to torpor; I simply have a limited number of ideas.  

Where do I find grist for the mill?  I’d be completely out of luck were it not for overheard conversions.  My faithful readers will remember “Not the First Dead Thing I Kept in the Freezer – Overheard at the Coffee Shop”.  Gold.  Pure gold.  What a gift it is to take a line like that and allow the questions to flood in. 

I’m not done with “We all smell the same when we’re dead”.  There are some profundities to explore and odd observations to make.  Smell Dating, for example, which I hadn’t known was a thing.  

It is.  

And more of this anon.