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.




A Perfect Day

A Perfect Day

Sometimes the writing gods are on duty, and extraordinary conversations overheard fall into my lap without any effort on my part.  I’m not one who sees writing as an “open the vein” sort of exercise in frustration and pain anyway, probably because I have avoided editing, self-editing, or corrective opinion of any kind as I present myself in print.  Those of you familiar with my work (?)  know that I court the spontaneous, serendipitous, shapeless reflection; I woo the slightly goofy muse, and she obliges by the pound.

The which is to say that as I drove to town this morning, I stumbled on a story about a the prospective creation of an energy farm in a neighboring county in Oregon.  Yes, yes, renewable energy, responsible stewardship of the planet, high-minded conservation all well and good, but … the proposed hydro-electric system would plant poles and wires smack in the middle of an Edenic chicken farm overlooking the Lost River.  The owner of the farm, Jon Hobbs takes the well-being of his chickens seriously.  As a treat in the deepest months of winter, Hobbs chucks bales of alfalfa next to the chicken houses for his 3000 plus chicks, understanding that even alfalfa gets old after a while.  As reported on NPR, Hobbs admits, ““The chickens love alfalfa, but if it gets a little stemmy, then they’ll come over and say, ‘You gotta do better than this, Jon.’ They’re very spoiled.”

Hydro political cackling aside, Hobbs, concerned about the effect of incursions into chicken heaven, describes the life of the chicken in terms even I can understand.  “For a chicken the perfect day is the day just like the day before.”

I get it, and it brings me to a sudden and unexpected realization:  I’m with the chickens on this one.  In my impetuous youth (until I turned 50), I hungered for endless variety, spontaneity, unexpected twists and turns, the twistier the better.  Then, as it must to all men, the twists started to come  home to roost, forgive me the cheap humor.  I am not currently indicted, I do not have an attorney on retainer, no bracelet on my ankle.  That’s a good thing.  My kids know I’m a phone call away; my wife can plan her life several weeks in advance. We watch different shows on Monday than we do on Wednesday, and I might experiment with new ways of cooking zucchini (sautéed in olive oil with tomatoes and my carefully guarded blend of herbs and spices), but there’s something like a heady blend of gratitude and acceptance in our relatively consistent lives.  Perfect?  No.  The usual responsible adult stuff (taxes, leaking roof, aging dog) comes along, but these are what are called quality problems.  Lots of gratitude.

So, the day began with chicken wisdom, closely followed by a conversation with a friend about her experience growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region so distinctly itself that it boasts one of the few remaining stop-you-in-the-middle-of-a-sentence accents.  You’ll know a Yooper by his/her/their Yooper English or Yoopanese (look it up if you don’t believe me), and by the words only Yoopers know.  “Ya, dat’s some good swampers, eh?”  My friend was easy to place when she announced that she had lost her “chook” when she “went store”.    Swampers, rubber boots with leather uppers; chooks knitted winter hats.

Not to digress, but words used for the generally knitted, usually woolen hat without brim pretty much indicates where you’re from, i.e. watch cap, ski cap, stocking cap, toboggan, wooly hat, snow hat, beanie, toque, poof ball hat, tossel cap, chook.

Ok, yup, I digress.

So, my friend’s dilemma (no chook) lead to stories about her father, a barber with a sense of style and humor.  Once a year he would offer friends and family a free haircut, sculpt their hair with idiosyncratic care, sending them home with a topknot or bare head with side chops, this back in the 1950’s when uniformity of hair was pretty much demanded of males over the age of thirty.  They came back in a day or two, shaved everything off, and started over in preparation for the next year’s barbering.  Pretty nifty, I replied, only to learn that her dad was even more inventive than I could have possibly imagined.

Those of us who remember the days before credit will remember what a huge deal it was to arrive home with a new car.  Same for this family, and to celebrate, the Yooper barber painted the house the color of the new car, and this back in the days when nobody drove a Vanilla Shake, Tahitian Pearl, or Glacial Glow, essentially white car.  Ambulances were white.  The milk delivery truck.  Mail truck.  We live in a grayscale car universe today, but in 1956, dad might have arrived home with a two-tone red and white car, or a wagon with wood panelling.  Either would have made for a fairly distinctive home decor.

I sat astounded as the story spun out, silently cheering that barber, when it struck me that my days are often exactly like the day before, except for the stories waiting to be told.  There are a bunch of lousy and painful stories out there, of course, and the distress with which many people live is not to be ignored, but there are sustaining and healing stories as well, and not just on mid-afternoon tv.

Traditional stories pull us in with an opening line – “A great while ago, when the world was full of wonders …”, “At a time when men and animals were all the same people and spoke the same language…”, “In a place neither near or far, in a time neither then or now…”.  I spent a few years trying to develop some skill as a storyteller, didn’t get very far, but learned that if I felt the urgency of the opening lines, the story told itself.  The key, as is evident in the lines presented above, is to give the story some space and some time.

My best attempt began in this fashion, “Once in the city of the Sultan, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din a wretched boy was born …”  Pretty good opening and it allowed me all kinds of room to paint pictures, introduce characters, and finally get down to a star-crossed love story with an ironic twist at the end.

I haven’t thought about that story in a while, and it’s brought to mind some others I wouldn’t mind telling again, especially the ones about the selkies and the White Snake.

So, here I am, at the end of a day very much like yesterday, but now brimming with stories.








Hmmmm. Lessons I’ve Learned From Harry Hole

Hmmmm.  Lessons I’ve Learned From Harry Hole

“There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people…mystery writers and serial killers.”

The quotation was penned by Richard Castle, the pen name, perhaps, of Tom Straw, but not scripted by the Richard Castle who is a character on Castle, a show about a mystery writer turned detective.  Ah, murder and fiction, and in this case, fictionalized fiction about murder.  Amusing, diverting, and the rabbit hole into which hours of my life have been poured, but, and here’s the point of this piece, I’ve learned some significant lessons along the way, none of which have to do with poison, hatchets, or woodchippers.

I inherited the habit of bingeing on mysteries from my mother, who simply grabbed the next twenty mystery novels on the library’s shelf, moving alphabetically, row-by-row until the time came to begin harvesting again.  I suppose she must have read other genres; she had worked in publishing with an inspiring editor.  By the time I kept track, however, Eric Ambler still set the carousel in motion, and Rex Stout was always  somewhere near the end.  Her favorites,  Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers ended up in her permanent collection, as did Josephine Tey and Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Mary Stewart crept in near the end, nudging her toward historical fiction if a mystery lived somewhere in its midst.  I suppose I could have done my own shopping at the library, but the titles in her bi-weekly mystery bag – Death on the Nile, The Unpleasantness  at the Bellona Club, The League of Frightened Men, The Man Who Could Not Shudder – irresistible, and so, I developed an appetite that has not been sated.

I have observed that detectives have to appear clever, but the best of them also have a distinctive intelligence that is frequently as disabling in their personal lives as it is necessary in their nabbing of a villain.  Holmes was clearly somewhere on what is known as the spectrum, a savant with little in the way of easy exchange with ordinary humans.  Hercule Poirot was capable of friendship, but as his pal, Captain Arthur Hastings observed, “The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”  Boston Blackie could not quite shake off the habits he had developed as jewel thief, while Dr. Gideon Fell, corpulent master of  “locked room mysteries” drank and ate far more than was good for him.  Mike Hammer was a bit too willing to shoot first and ignore questions altogether, whereas Philo Vance was virtually agoraphobic, rarely leaving his comfortable armchair and the cultivation of his orchids.  It goes without saying that many of the more contemporary sleuths somehow manage to close a case despite fumbling in a thick haze of alcohol and smoke.

I have spent quite a bit of time recently with Jo Nesbo’s detective, Harry Hole, whose name does not command immediate respect when pronounced with an American accent, but whose work is pretty darned impressive.  Hole (Ho-leh as he’s known in Norway) is a mess, I mean a genuinely damaged alcoholic mess, who manages to pull himself together long enough to unwrap mysteries ordinary mortals could not solve.  He’s intelligent, but also intuitive, sensing connections rather than rooting them out.  Hole is not universally admired; he has a few loyal pals on the Oslo police force, but most find him contemptible, and they are not mistaken in expecting a royal dumpster dive from Harry at some point. Nonetheless, Hole is a remarkable mind, a decent man who has, in addition, developed a manner of responding to virtually any situation that I have found extraordinarily helpful.

No matter how provocative, insulting, demeaning, encouraging, ridiculous the statement, Harry almost always responds with a sub vocalized, “Hmmmm”.  It’s genius, really; Harry acknowledges that he’s heard whatever twaddle has been served up without expressing affirmation, dismissal, appreciation, or contempt.  In fact, the more egregiously unfortunate the statement, the more judiciously Harry hmmms.  Let’s not give Harry too much credit for judicious behavior, he is capable of stunning stupidity in his personal life, but even there, he offers a calming hmmm when up against what could be familial Armageddon.

Conversations in my own sphere are equally fraught with menace, especially as I am now teaching through the adult education arm of Southern Oregon University.  My classes invite large numbers of formerly exceedingly well employed and highly intelligent people into sessions in which discussion is encouraged.  Time is short, in the class day and in the life span of my cohort, so opinions, now rock solid after years of contention, are offered as fact.  Opinions differ.  Mine are correct, but I’ll entertain other points of view, responding to each with a well modulated hmmmm.  The method works equally well in my civilian life, particularly as I encounter folks up here whose political compass does not point in the same direction as mine.  I’m right again, but there are some battles I’ll have to take to the ballot box rather than shove a permanent wedge between my house and the electrician who knows where the wires have been crossed.

My other job is with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a repertory theater company with a mission to promote inclusivity, our collective humanity, and social justice.  Patrons arrive with expectations, those expectations may be upended by the decision to cast two women as the leading roles in Oklahoma, and despite my conviction that the performances were stunning and moving, I can still meet strong objections with a well delivered hmmm.

I’m nearing the end, I think, of the Harry Hole novels, unless Nesbo is willing to pick up the burden once again, but I’ve got an appointment with Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s rogue force of nature in an unappreciative LAPD, whose terse rejoinders ( I’m relaxed, Belk.  I call it Zen and the art of not giving a shit.”) are probably not going to serve me well unless I find myself in a holding cell.






It’s a perfect acknowledgment of message received

Why I Don’t Watch Scary Movies … Much

Why I Don’t Watch Scary Movies … Much

In my younger days, I tortured myself by watching what were then considered scary movies, shivering in pre-adolescent agony as monster after monster threatened to do all that it is that monsters are inclined to do when they roam unchecked. Giant apes, giant dinosaurs, giant insects, mummies, creatures created in laboratories, dueling skeletons, invisible men – I could (barely) handle them all.  Bump the terror up a notch and I’d still hang in, but start to get all witchy on me and all bets were off.

Let’s start with Disney’s  Snow White and  the Seven Dwarfs.  The Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, figures out that the huntsman sent out to kill Snow White has tried to pass off a pig’s heart (vivisection not shown in the cartoon version) as Snow White’s.  It’s in a nice box with ribbons, but the Queen’s no patsy.  Visibly disappointed, the Queen descends into her crone-cave to whip up a few quick potions, obviously at ease in thumbing through the evil potion recipe book. Within a storm of gaseous green wind, she transforms from a preening beauty into a toothless hag.  That’s not entirely true; she has one tooth, warts on her great curved nose and exophthalmic eyes bulging in anticipation  of Snow White’s vivisection .

She was a cartoonish witch to be sure, and as a hag not that terrifying.  It was the act of transforming that unhinged me; you think you know who she is, just another cruddy stepmother, then Puff Pop Pow, she’s a witch.  Wait!

I’m not a practicing clinician, but I think it all goes back to the good Mommy/ Mad Mommy, Good Daddy/ Mad Daddy conundrum.  Which Mommy do I get?  The good Mommy who thinks I’m adorable, picks up my sippy cup thirty times in a row without complaint, or the Mad Mommy who slams the sippy cup on the floor and says, “See!  That’s gravity!  See!”, picks it up and slams it down again.  “Oh, look!  It’s down.  Hope the dog doesn’t eat it.” Which Daddy is in the house?   The good Daddy who has a great day at work and comes home with a toy or treat because I’m just so cute, or the Mad Daddy who walks in the house, slips on the cup, throws it against the wall and says, “When does this drooling bag of phlegm learn how to pick up after himself?”, discovers that the sippy has spurted strained beet juice on the wall, and adds, “I think I can find a guy downtown who buys children, no questions asked.”

Nothing on films, books, or stories scared the bezonkers out of me more than the moment of transformation, when someone I’ve seen one way metamorphose into a terrifying, extremely dangerous, implacable, and entirely evil creature.  Starting with Queen Grimhilde, my aversion to witches became increasingly clear, but I continued to wander unsuspecting into the late night Creature Features, not spooked say, by the menace of the bandaged version of the Mummy, but by the living incarnation of Imhotep, played by a wrinkled Boris Karloff, kind of metamorphosed, alive, yet not, bandaged and unwrapped as his incarnations bounced around.

It’s a more complicated story than absolutely necessary, as were most of the horror films released by Universal Studios in the Golden Age of Universal’s horror films.  The main attraction was generally an actor in make-up, usually Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, or Boris Karloff.    The back stories tended not to matter very much once the monsters arrived.   Lugosi kicked off the Universal Monster Money Machine on 1931 with his portrayal of Count Dracula, ostensibly a Transylvanian aristocrat, a role that established his career as a vaguely menacing odd person with an Hungarian accent; both the accent and the oddity limited the range of parts offered. A few months later, Boris Karloff became the first filmed Frankenstein, a part he would reprise in The Bride of Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein, cultivating the broad modulation of his speech in later roles in film and as the narrator of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Chaney, Jr. was the son of the most celebrated makeup artist and horrifying actor of the silent era, Lon Chaney, known as The Man of a Thousand Faces, two of which were the iconic faces of the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Unlike his father, Lon Chaney, Jr. had an open, unremarkable, reasonably friendly face, almost immediately transformed by makeup artists into the ferocious or disfigured.

And so, in 1941, in The Wolf Man, Chaney played the role of Lawrence Talbot, long-lost heir to Talbot Manor and the Talbot fortune.  Chaney returns to Wales, which apparently looks like Transylvania, after having been … somewhere … for eighteen years, during which time he has become a bulky six-foot tall skirt-chasing, grammatically challenged American.  The senior Talbot, Sir John Talbot, played by Claude Rains (French collaborator in Casablanca addressed in the final moments by Humphrey Bogart, “Louie, I think this is the start of beautiful friendship”), a tiny, tidy Englishman (also not Welsh), apparently given to spying on his Welsh village with a telescope powerful enough to read newsprint on Jupiter.  The telescope comes in handy when Lawrence wishes to check out the shop girl he finds irresistible; the foolish girl thought that life in rural Wales brought relative privacy.  As was often the case in the Universal universe, Welsh/Shmelsh, the town was packed with Americans playing local constables and civic leaders, cockney wags tossing off one-liners, and a Gypsy caravan tugging Bela Lugosi (incredible moustache!) and Maria Ouspenskaya into the fog-engulfed Welsh countryside.

OK, Talbot and his shop girl and another young woman trot through the pea soup shroud of fog to ask the Gypsies to read their fortunes.  Lugosi is willing, but when he looks at the palm of the young woman, he sees a pentagram, the iconic mark of the lycanthrope, pretty much assuring us that he, Lugosi, is a werewolf and will inevitably hunt down and eat the young woman, thus complicating the telling of this fortune.  Instead of saying (in an Hungarian accent) “I see myself dragging you through the woods until I am able to tear you into bite-sized morsels”, Lugosi simply says, “Come back tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, at least three characters have found it necessary to recite a pithy poem to Talbot; we have to guess it’s an old Welsh favorite and probably has something to do with where the plot needs to go.

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright”

General fog shrouded violence ensues, during which time, Talbot steps in and is bitten by a wolf, which we are meant to believe is Lugosi, but is more accurately a stuffed wolf puppet.  Talbot kills the puppet with the silver handle of his cane, but the damage has been done; he is now doomed to live out the rest of his days (about a weekend) as a werewolf, which is to say as a man who is transformed into a “wolf” when the moon is full, compelled by his wolfish nature to stalk and kill innocent people in Welsh villages, apparently just for the heck of it, as we never see werewolves actually feed on their prey.  It is Ouspenskaya, Gypsy grieving mother, who breaks the unvarnished news to Talbot.

Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives, becomes a werewolf himself.

There you go.  That explains everything.  Well, it doesn’t explain why a werewolf doesn’t look like a wolf, a transformation that would have been much more terrifying.  I understand that computer graphic imagery was not available and latex and fur can do only so much, but even with a chilling score and plenty of fog, Chaney looked like a sheepdog with a hangover, looking out of matted fur with bloodshot eyes.

All of which is to say that the “transformation” was obvious, expected, and not all that alarming.  My daughter reminds me that the werewolf is a victim; he didn’t intend to be powerless over lupine instincts, and, in fact, spends considerable time and energy trying not to hunt and howl.  Even a man whose is pure in heart, etc.  So, I cut the wolfman some slack.

Which is not to say that all shapeshifters get off that easily.

The general term for those who shift from human to animal or from animal to human is therianthropy (lycanthropy being specific to the wolf shift), the earliest depiction of which is to be found in a drawing apparently scribbled in the Cave of the Tres Freres in 13,000 BC.  So, they’ve been around for a while.  Leaving totemism, shamanism, and the Greek gods aside (“Hey, Leda, ever been with a swan?”), and now over-familiar with werewolves and vampires, the shapeshifters who give me the willies now come from other traditions.  Skin-walkers in Navajo  are so adept at their shifting and the Navajo so careful in speaking of them, that we don’t know a lot, except that they are likely witches and not welcome.

Let’s not think much about the notion that speaking of them (or any therianthrope) might bring one into the house.  Invitations are now and forcefully withdrawn!

There are many, many Celtic spirits and sprites capable of shifting, most of which make amusing reading with anthropological distance.  The exception, for me, however is the selkie, not inherently terrifying, but still, there are so many complications to consider.  One falls in love, marries, notices the mate’s frequent absences, hides in a cave (or whatever) and sees one’s true love slip into a sealskin, turn, and swim away.  What’s a guy or gal to do?  ” Loving means setting free”, but some get nasty, hiding the skin (where? ) or salting it, which strikes me as downright evil.  Selkies and merpeople are closely related if not identical, so they all have the ability to drag an unsuspecting suitor to a watery grave, which is one of the things to which I do not want to be dragged.

Armenian folklore ups the ante with the Nhang, a serpent that moves back and forth, drowns its victims, then drinks their blood.  Over the top, if you ask me.  Admittedly, mixed marriages can be tough, as is evidenced in the Chinese tale, Madame White Snake, a complex story in which a bride’s true identity as a large white snake is revealed, the unprepared husband dies to be brought back to life, a son is born, and many, many challenges come to Madame White Snake and her family.

All slightly shivery and not something to think about in the dark hours, alone in a cabin, but the number one flesh the goose moment for me came in watching what most probably consider a relatively inoffensive, highly atmospheric, Burn Witch Burn, an adaptation of Fritz Lieber’s novel, Conjure Wife.

Witches get me, and the trick in Burn Witch Burn, which is set in the comfy environs of a small university, isn’t simply that the seemingly inoffensive faculty wife is an active conjurer, or that there is at least one other witch in campus,  but that a good witch’s body is hijacked by a bad witch, primarily  because the good witch’s husband doesn’t believe in superstition and magic and has trashed his wife’s nifty magical store of protective juju, leaving them to witchy attacks and possession, and possession is essentially a kind of shapeshifting, so I got the double dose with a possessed witch being manipulated by yet another witch.

I don’t seek out horror films anymore; the world is more than scary enough.  I’ll endure and mostly enjoy a well crafted thriller, and Get Out was so well done that I watched it twice, but houses in which the walls drip blood, and reincarnations of demon children and fang-heavy chomp-fests are off the table.

I awake at times in the hour of the wolf, sleepless, agitated, slip to the window, see a full moon covered with tendrils of fog and cannot help but think:

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright”

By the way, wolf’s bane is also known as monk’s hood or aconite and is the source of the poison used to make deadly the swords featured in Hamlet’s last duel.  Stay away, even in full daylight.







Lounge Lizards, Lotharios, and the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet

Lounge Lizards, Lotharios, and the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet

Cad, boor, lout, oaf, rake, louse, pig, brute, beast. 

The nouns reek of disapproval.  Turn them into adjectives, however, and  Hey Presto sort of ok.  If a guy is caddish, is it the “ish” that pulls back some of the disapprobation?  Boorish, Loutish, Oafish?  Moving into the merely unappetising. 

Lousy?  Nada. Zippo.  Mildly unpleasant at worst.

Piggish, brutal, and beastly still sound pretty bad, but Pig, Brute, and Beast, much worse.  Actually, as I write this, it sound like a law firm.  

I’m interested in the words we choose to use in describing the world about us and increasingly interested as I am made aware of the subtlety and precision with which other languages operate. 

English is a good language; don’t get me wrong.  I like it, use it every day, and it has a lot of words. about a quarter of a million give or take, reckoning that a bunch fall out of usage and new ones pop up like acne in middle school.   Shakespeare is credited with inventing more than a thousand words and phrases, of which “hoist with his own petard” is undoubtedly the niftiest and least used, whereas “heart of gold” and “faint hearted” seem obvious, dare we say inevitable?  Combination words such as “mumblecore” appear with regularity, attaching an action (mumbling) to a group (a core group of actors who speak indistinctly).  New words that describe what we do and feel in terms of the implements we have invented have immediacy now, but who knows how long words such as “googling” and “facebooking” will serve a purpose?  

The least inventive of new words are shortened versions of other words.  In the last two years, Merriam Webster has added the following abbreviated words to its dictionary:  “fave” (favorite),  “Bougie” (bourgeois), “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read), “marg” (a margarita), “adorbs” (adorable), “rando” (random person), and “guac” (guacamole).  So it goes, and so it has probably always gone.  1990 gave us “hoodie”, “fam”, and “props”, 1980 “dis” and “camo”, 1970 added “op-ed”, “techie”, and “za” (za and brew go together like mag and guac).  


Of the 6,912 languages in current use (516 are threatened with extinction as of 2/10/19), the language with the fewest words, Taki Taki, spoken in Suriname, has 340 words.  Now that’s a streamlined language.  Do we need all our hundreds of thousands of words cluttering up our attempts to communicate with clarity?  I’m going with, yes we do, because it seems almost any mangled relationship, small or large, comes down to miscommunication or misinterpretation.  A ridiculously huge number of mangles has brought the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements into the conversation challenging us to find the right words to describe the malefactors we meet.

As it is more than evident that “No” apparently means “Whatever” to a subset of bipeds still preying on women, the various varieties of male slimebag (is that the right word?) provide a window into where language works and where it fall short. 

The far end of the spectrum stakes out territory fairly quickly.  A rapist is a rapist is a rapist – no obfuscation allowed. We can add abuser, violator, assaulter, despoiler – essentially the Cosby/Weinstein level nouns, those who need to be in prison.  It’s the other end that need some linguistic attention, and that is today’s puzzlement.

The title of the piece, Lounge Lizards and Lotharios, refers back to a simpler time, when men were fascinated by women but stopped short of pressing themselves upon them.  The stakes are much higher now, and the qualities once seen with some wry amusement no longer seem relatively benign. 

Lotharios were selfish and manipulative, entirely reprehensible, but just … just within the boundaries of civilized behavior.  They were seducers, enticing women to relationships in which they were taken advantage of.  Jane Austen knew them well;  George Wickham and John Willoughby almost pull Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood into truly disastrous errors of affection.  Without pulling punches, Austen makes it clear that the seducers may suffer a few dings in terms of career, the seduced end up on the street selling matches, or worse.

Ah, the Lounge Lizard, reptilian, perhaps, but essentially a wannabe Lothario.  The “Lizard” frequents the haunts of the rich and foolish in the hope of attracting a flighty heiress or foolish widow.  Lotharios might come in any shape or size (Austen’s were all in great shape), but the Lounge Lizard has to be handsome enough to snare a prospect with no more than a smouldering glance at the hunt club.  

Are there terms that signify what might be termed “interest” without implying harassment?  It’s not easy to find them as lines get crossed pretty quickly.  I’m inclined to use the word “flirt”, although I am aware that the term means something very different for men than it does for women.  If a man flirts, is flirtish, is flirty, the general tone of the term is playful, expressing attraction without threat.  Mostly.  The term generally assumes that flirtation is, if not consensual, at least not entirely unwanted. 

When the term is applied to women, the stakes go up.  Not fair, of course, but a flirting female may be termed a coquette, which is to say, a woman who feigns interest in order to get attention or admiration.  As far as I know, there is no male equivalent of coquette; apparently men get attention and admiration in different sorts of posturing.  Not sure about that one.

Upping the stakes one more notch, female flirts may also be seen as various varieties of tease, someone who is provocative – “look but don’t touch”.  There are so many imbedded and unfortunate attitudes in that definition that we may have now reached the point at which words fail us.  If a man were to say, “look but don’t touch”…?  Would that be provocative?  Would that incite retributive behavior?  No, the scales are definitely out of whack here.

The which leaves me with but one final term to consider, and it is one that I have never personally encountered.  It is clearly not ok to call a girl or woman, boy or man, “a tasty bit of crumpet”.  What’s the impact, however in adding modifiers as in  “the thinking man’s/woman/s crumpet”?  Benedict Cumberbatch is apparently a thinking woman’s crumpet, whereas Helen Mirren is the thinking man’s.  I have to admit complete bafflement here.  Welcome compliment?  Odious objectification?

Your call.  Operators are standing by.








I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I know.  Language is fluid, expansive, inclusive, and mutable.  Uh huh, and yet, an entire, dare I say, class of language appears to have evaporated more quickly than one (see?) might have guessed.

Language is still  fun and full of frolic as the yearly reporting of words absorbed into dictionaries attests, and some of the new are every bit as good as the old.  By good, I mean evocative, surprisingly exact, inescapably the right and only word for a condition which has in the moment come into existence.  Well, I suspect that the word “ghosting” used to describe the circumstance by which a spurned someone is completely cut off arises out of experiences that might have arrived in any age, but, still, good word.  Could we have limped along without “froyo”?  Probably, but the world seems brighter with froyo in it.  “Shade” has long been a perfectly utilitarian noun and verb; we can give a hearty shout out to “shady”, cousin to the Briticism, “dodgy”, and refer to the shading of truth with absolute confidence that we will be understood.

“Throwing shade”, however, is a trickier expression.  Merriam Webster defines throwing shade in this fashion: “to express contempt or disrespect for someone publicly especially by subtle or indirect insults or criticisms”.   It may be that the expression was first spotted in the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. Jennie Livingston’s vibrant picture of Black and Latino drag queens and the last days of ball culture in New York City.  It has certainly moved into the  mainstream since then.

The expression has arrived with full force in the reporting of sports news on those days in which there is no news.  “Were LeBron (James) and (Jim) Boeheim throwing shade?”  “Did LeBron James Throw Shade at Kyrie Irving Again?”  Stay tuned.  Top of the hour.  Around-the-clock LeBron non-stories dripping with shade.  My favorite shade blurb thus far accompanies a picture of Rihanna (Barbadian pop icon/ ambassador) shaking hands with a fan courtside at a Brooklyn Nets basketball game.  “Hands say friends.  Eyes say shade”.

So, huzzah for the relentless swirl of old and new language and for a diversity of manners of speech.  I’ll admit that we Boomers came up with expressions I hope have died and are largely forgotten – “groovy” being the most notably affected pseudo-hip affirmation in modern times.  Ok, “what’s your bag?” was pretty awful, and “bippy”, as in, “you bet your bippy” come very close.  The best of the new survives; the worst, well, can also survive, but that’s not the point.

The point is that lovely, slightly stuffy, language once flourished, primarily in books of a certain genre and on the screen.  This come to mind as yet another tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective premiered last week.  Holmes and Watson, played by comics Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, apparently bumble about with comedic good cheer, adopting the sort of mangled consonant gurgle Americans think of as the delivery used by educated Brits at the turn of the last century.  Their expressions, as one would expect, though amusing, are hardly of the period.  One suspects that Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle’s Watson rarely used the expression, “Mother of Shit”.  If he did, I missed it several times around.  Incongruous and in the trailer perhaps funny, but not really to the epoch born.

Watson might have said in expressing his surprise,”What the deuce is this?”  The devil being frequently called to task for all sorts of unpleasantness.  Watson was, of course, a physician, ostensibly trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and also a military man having served in India and Afghanistan.  Holmes and his brother Mycroft speak with the assurance of lads raised in the comfortable ease of country gentry.  A more elevated manner of speech arrived in the novels written by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, DSO), son of Mortimer Gerald Bredon Wimsey, 15th Duke of Denver and Honoria Lucasta, educated at Eton and Oxford, devoted to criminology, bibliophily, music, and cricket, negotiated the solving of crime with impeccable grace, beautifully dressed by his valet, Bunter.  The following exchange is found in the 1923 publication  of Whose Body.

“That’s your idea, is it, Bunter? Noblesse oblige—for a consideration. I daresay you’re right. Then you’re better off than I am, because I’d have to behave myself to Lady Worthington if I hadn’t a penny. Bunter, if I sacked you here and now, would you tell me what you think of me?”

“No, my lord.”

“You’d have a perfect right to, my Bunter, and if I sacked you on top of drinking the kind of coffee you make, I’d deserve everything you could say of me. You’re a demon for coffee, Bunter—I don’t know how you do it, because I believe it to be witchcraft, and I don’t want to burn eternally.”

Sayers, who was among the first women to be awarded a degree at Oxford, was not an aristo, but she picked up the lingo of the right schools and clubs, as did P.G. Wodehouse as evidenced in this exchanges between his central character, the feckless Bertie Wooster, and his valet, Jeeves in the eponymous, My Man Jeeves.

“Jeeves,” I said that evening. “I’m getting a check suit like that one of Mr. Byng’s.”

“Injudicious, sir,” he said firmly. “It will not become you.”

“What absolute rot! It’s the soundest thing I’ve struck for years.”

“Unsuitable for you, sir.”

Well, the long and the short of it was that the confounded thing came home, and I put it on, and when I caught sight of myself in the glass I nearly swooned. Jeeves was perfectly right. I looked a cross between a music-hall comedian and a cheap bookie. Yet Monty had looked fine in absolutely the same stuff. These things are just Life’s mysteries, and that’s all there is to it.”

It occurs to me that the phrase, “Injudicious  … unsuitable for you, sir” fits almost any situation in which I am at odds with a decision I consider unfortunate.  Bertie and his pals, including the unfortunately named Gussie Fink-Nottle, mix public (private) school slang with odd locutions of their own, as immortalized in Fink-Nottle’s Sodbury Grammar School speech:

“Boys,” said Gussie, “I mean ladies and gentlemen and boys, I will not detain you long, but I propose on this occasion to feel compelled to say a few auspicious words. Ladies – boys and ladies and gentlemen – we have all listened with interest to the remarks of our friend here who forgot to shave this morning – I don’t know his name, but then he didn’t know mine – Fitz-Wattle, I mean, absolutely absurd – which squares things up a bit – and we are all sorry that the Reverend What-ever-he-was-called should be dying of adenoids, but after all, here today, gone tomorrow, and all flesh is as grass, and what not, but that wasn’t what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was this – and I say it confidently – without fear of contradiction – I say, in short, I am happy to be here on this auspicious occasion and I take much pleasure in kindly awarding the prizes, consisting of the handsome books you see laid out on that table. As Shakespeare says, there are sermons in books, stones in the running brooks, or, rather, the other way about,[16] and there you have it in a nutshell.”

Indeed.  All flesh is grass.

To return for a moment to the purpose of this short screed, some phrases have a short half-life, disappearing before being absorbed into the permanent collection of words to be used on a daily basis.  I’ll nominate five right here, right now, and for better or worse pledge to include them in my conversations with the general public this week.  The first of these, and the easiest to fling about is “jolly”, not the Santa and bowl of jelly jolly, but the extremely urgent commanding, “You will jolly well fill my prescription while I stand here”, or the extremely complimentary affirmation, “They serve a jolly good sandwich at Sams Samwhich stand.”  Another affirmation?  “Rather!”  “Did you think Rihanna looked smashing at the Nets game last week?  Rather!”  Rather as a sly adjective is also quite useful.  “I felt rather timid in approaching her.”

Encounter someone of unimpeachable character, dependable, forthright, honest? That paragon is a “brick”.   “He’s been a brick since the indictment came down.”  On the other end of the spectrum, the friend who lets one down has also been beastly to countless others.  “Beastly” brings to mind the more rapacious beasts, not the fuzzy creatures great and small.  Finally, having used the word “spiffy” for decades, I’m resolved to use the more decorous “smart”, more restrained than swanky and less obscure than modish.

Oh, and I’m not going to the picture theater to see Holmes and Watson as the hope of finding a trove of expressions chronologically inaccurate but blooming marvellous is rather unlikely.


152 Days Until Fire Season

152 Days Until Fire Season

I live in Oregon, only a few miles north of the California border.  The local paper of record, The Medford Mail Tribune, arrives with close observation of the daily events that animate Jackson County, from the sudden emergence of hemp production as a primary agricultural enterprise (“2018 – The Year of Hemp”) to the celebration of local teams (“Crater High School, Home of the Comets, 5A State Champions in baseball!”).  Big news at the start of the new year is that motorists may now take dead deer and elk from “grille to grill”, as the paper so tastefully put it.

The paper arrives each day with a large box bordered in red on the front page announcing the number of days left until the start of Fire Season.  I wasn’t expecting that sort of countdown to be part of my daily life here, but then, I hadn’t expected to live next to a hemp field or to cheer the Crater Comets.  We moved to the Rogue Valley from Coastal California, a quiet beach town halfway between Ventura and Santa Barbara.  Our home was adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest.  It’s a large forest; its tendrils stretch from Palmdale in the Antelope Valley to Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County, almost three thousand square miles, almost two million acres.  The forest has a second location in Monterey County, including the Big Sur coast.

When we arrived in 1996, Santa Barbarans still talked about the Painted Cave Fire of 1990, a fire that burned about five thousand acres, a fire blazing at a height of more than seventy feet at its worst, a fire caused by arson during a hot spell in which the temperature had reached 108 degrees.  We knew several families who had lost homes in that fire, most of whom rebuilt in the same  area, in the canyons and passes between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez.  During our time in Santa Barbara County, we saw ten more fires move quickly as Sundowner Winds brought by high pressure to the north preceded the Santa Ana Winds charging from the south.  We had moved to Oregon just before the Thomas Fire, pushed by the Santa Ana winds, swept from Santa Paula in Ventura County to Santa Barbara, torching almost three hundred thousand acres, destroying more than a thousand homes, and bringing about two billion dollars in damage to the area.

Fire is now a way of life in this region.  The causes are many and blame moves at the speed of a Santa Ana blast.  Timothy Egan’s remarkable book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that saved America, published in 2009, documented the Fire of 1910, a fire that destroyed an area of Idaho and Montana the size of the State of Connecticut in a weekend.  It’s a book of large purpose, examining the impact of the fire as well as its causes, and it’s a book I used in 2010 as the central point of focus in a school wide exercise in inquiry as it presented issues of immigration, large-scale exploitation of the western lands, and the emergence of a progressive movement resulting in the establishment of National Parks and the conservation of public land.

It wasn’t a hit.

Although the region had been damaged by eight large fires at that time, the small town in which we lived and taught had escaped danger.  We drove through fire ravaged areas, but we hadn’t faced evacuation and the loss of our own homes.  The Thomas Fire changed all that.  The school’s playing fields were used by firefighters from around the world as the base from which the Thomas Fire was fought.  Before the fire was contained, all students and all teachers had been evacuated.  The book appears more prescient now.

Southern Oregon was devastated last summer by raging fire to the south and north, resulting in a period of about six weeks in which heavy smoke so filled the valley that readings of air quality determined the daily business of the region, essentially devastating towns such as Ashland, dependent on income earned during the summer months.   We’ve come to expect summer after summer of extreme fire events as global warming has altered the landscape and high temperatures accelerate winds carrying fire to the region.

152 Days until Fire Season.  It’s the new reality and one we are only starting to understand.