The University of Maine

The University of Maine

The University of Maine – Orono, Maine

I’m going out on a limb here. U Maine may be the only public university I know in which students are boisterous in expressing their  gratitude for the opportunity their state has afforded them. They are also open in recognizing that U. Maine is not an Ivy League sure ticket to Wall Street, but they appreciate the care with which their professors teach them, for a campus they consider lovely, and for a variety of programs that entirely meet their needs. One real measure of a university’s ability to deliver on its promises is in the attrition rate; good schools keep their kids and few leave the University of Maine. Dollar for dollar, Maine may be among the best “buys’ ‘ in the Northeast.The university is a bargain for in-state residents and not a bad deal for out-of-staters as well. Facilities are considered excellent; a remarkable number of students describe their dormitories as very comfortable, and a truly remarkable number rave about the food, although many advise shopping carefully for the meal plan that suits a student best.

Those who love Maine cite four distinctive qualities that make Maine a great choice: Supportive faculty eager to help in every way, great variety of activities, pride in Black Bear sports, and a friendly and active college town

Located about sixty miles inland and about a hundred miles from the Canadian border, Maine is the northernmost of the universities and colleges reviewed in this edition. The University is set in Orono, a city of about ten thousand, and is the largest in Maine’s system of universities (about 8,600 undergraduate students/11,500 undergraduate and graduate) and the state’s flagship university. Maine was founded in 1862 by the same act of Congress that established most of what were called “land-grant” colleges (only Cornell and MIT are non-public land-grant institutions). Maine’s campus is actually on an island between the Penobscot and Stillwater rivers. The campus was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect who framed Central Park in New York, the grounds of the White House, and the elegantly crafted landscapes in which the nation’s grandest estates have been placed. The most striking aspect of the campus, other than its lovely setting, is the University of Maine Mall (not a shopping center!), which extends from the library to the field house.  

Although the temperature in Orono at mid-winter is only about three degrees lower than that in Worcester or Springfield, Massachusetts, Maine has a “north country” feel that has something to do with its extensive programs in forestry and sustainability, and an awful lot to do with the success of Maine’s “Black Bear” championship ice hockey team. The Black Bears are strong in a number of sports and are the state’s only Division I athletic program, but the fever pitch in the Alfond Arena when Maine takes the ice against archrival New Hampshire warms even the coldest of Maine winters. The Bears have twice won the national championship in hockey and regularly send players on to the NHL.

Maybe it’s the beauty of the campus, or the quality of food provided by the dining service, or the relatively small size of classes and the variety of excellent programs of study, or the excitement of big-time sports, or the quiet comfort of the town, or well maintained dormitories, or distance from the rattle of big cities – for whatever reason or reasons, students at the University of Maine are HAPPY.  

Students use words such as “welcoming”, “friendly”, “accepting”, “generous” in describing their community, and it’s clear that there is a strong sense of community in this not-very-large state university. Athletes, actors, dancers, scientists, environmentalists, fraternity/sorority, physically disabled, people of color – all seem to have a place on a campus that students call, “open to diversity”. An uncommon number of student-written accounts describe their university as responsive, supportive, and working hard to meet the needs of its students. Most instruction is provided by professors who are well liked by students who find them informative and helpful. The curriculum is wide and deep; specialized programs in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture are distinctive, as are the several strong programs in psychology and neuroscience, but highly regarded programs are also offered throughout the academic divisions (Maine Business School, the Honors College, the College of Education and Human Development, the College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the aforementioned College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture), 

Engineering and the Natural Sciences/Forestry/Agriculture get a lot of attention, but there are several other programs that are noteworthy and highly regarded. Among them is a new program called New Media, which, as its title suggests, offers extensive exposure to the quickly changing media landscape.  Courses in digital narrative and documentary are accompanied by courses in what is called, ” Time-based sequence” in digital arts. The program is interdisciplinary and at the cutting edge of digital arts and journalism. I hear equally good things about the Music program, which includes performance majors and is under the umbrella of a growing School of Performing Arts, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Other programs of note include an Athletic Training program in the College of Education and Human Development, Civil and Chemical Engineering, (actually ALL of the Engineering programs), and a rigorous Honors College, which depends upon core programs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Natural Sciences. Honors students meet the General Education requirements in courses that are offered in small groups made up of Honors students. One of the requirements of the Honors College is the completion of an Honors thesis.

The university carries out a formal program training those who offer support in residential life, indicating that the Residence Advisors have been taken seriously and that quality of residential life is a priority.  Aside from the warm welcome in the first year for new or transferring students, new students also find that they have free admission to all of Maine’s Division One athletic events (Go, Bears!) and are given two free tickets each semester to concerts and performances on campus.

Outside of the classroom, Maine offers significant opportunities for recreation and activity, the most notable of which, given the university’s location, is the program known as Maine Bound.  Women Rock – rock climbing for women, Biking and Bouldering, Katahdin Knife Edge Traverse, Surf Southern Maine, Sea Kayaking – all bring students into the wilderness, but a lot of activity can be found on campus in the Indoor Rock Climbing facility and the Ropes Challenge Course.  Fitness programs are offered in the New Balance Student Recreation Center and Intramural sports abound, including indoor softball, floor hockey, and the Black Bear Attack Adventure race, which almost certainly does not involve fleeing from a black bear.

Student clubs and organizations are equally well subscribed and include all of the expected options in music, drama, journalism, political activity, and celebration of culture.  At last count, Maine hosted more than two hundred different clubs, so I am forced to highlight only a small portion of the array.

Sports?  Fencing, crew, cricket, rugby, triathlon, Alpine skiing, wrestling, ultimate frisbee.], capoeira, equestrian, figure skating, trap and skeet, yoga.

Cultural and Service?  Best Buddies, South Asian Association of Maine, Helping Honduras, Iranian Social Hub, Hillel,  Muslin Students Association, Deaf Culture Club,  Autism Training Student Organization.

Other?  Gamers, Black Bear Robotics, Home Brewing Club, Hip Hop and Swing Dance clubs. Strap on your apiary gear – Black Bear Beekeepers are looking for you!

My favorites, however, are found in the Animal and Veterinary Sciences division:  UMADCOWS – caring for the dairy herd, the Maine Animal Club, several equestrian clubs and competitive teams, and the Standardbred Drill Team.

Fraternities and sororities have their place at Maine, and Greek life seems healthy and positive.  A strong Residential Life staff organizes a variety of living options, including theme based housing for new students, should they feel more comfortable in one of eight residential communities organized around Great Books, Technology, or Global Crossroads among others.  The seventeen residential halls on campus are described by students as comfortable and welcoming.

There are two distinctive traditions at Maine that deserve at least a cursory description.  In the first place, the crowd at any athletic event might cheer, “Go, Blue” in order to root the team to victory, but the true mascot is a black bear.  Originally, Maine’s mascot was an elephant (Go Figure!), but the arrival of a black bear cub on the sidelines of a football game apparently made the crowd go “bananas”, so today, “Bananas the Bear” is the university’s totemic animal.  Once a famous song across the country, the “Maine Stein Song” is now sung at most events and often when the Bears score.

Most varsity teams at Maine play in Division I in three separate conferences.  The football team is a member of the America East Conference, which includes U. Massachusetts, U. New Hampshire, U. Vermont, SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, Bryant University, U. of Maryland Baltimore County, U Mass Lowell, and New Jersey Institute of Technology. The very successful hockey team plays in the Hockey East Association.  The association currently includes the universities of Notre Dame, Vermont, New Hampshire, Boston College, and Boston University.

2022 ADMISSIONS STATISTICS

The University of Maine received approximately 15,000 applicants, from which 14400 were admitted in order to enroll a first year class of 2025. The acceptance rate in recent years has ranged from 85% to 96%.

Scores reported for the 25th-75th percentile ranged from 540-650 on the Evidence Based Reading and Writing subtest of the SAT and from 520-630 on the Math. ACT scores for the same group have ranged from 22-30. College of the Atlantic’s enrolled student population is approximately 50% female and 50% male. 

The majority of applicants are from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Approximately 82% are White/Non-Hispanic.

College of the Atlantic

College of the Atlantic

College of the Atlantic – Bar Harbor, Maine

Maine is celebrated for its rocky coastline, fisheries and lobster traps, and ruggedly stunning islands, one of which, Mount Desert Island, has famously welcomed families of enormous wealth and power. Much of Acadia National Park on the island was donated by John D. Rockefeller whose elaborate summer home is among those built by J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the Astors. The town of Bar Harbor and communities of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor, located on Mount Desert, have long been a refuge for the most prominent families from the steamy confines of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. In what might have seemed a curious impulse, Mount Desert is also the home of College of the Atlantic, a remarkable educational innovation, unique in its mission and uncommon in its ambition.

COA was founded in 1969, one of the last of the wave of experimental colleges that swept the end of the decade and one that has remained true to the vision of its founders. Today, almost four hundred students live and study on a thirty-seven acre campus overlooking Frenchman’s Bay; they are all engaged in the study of Human Ecology, the college’s only major. Well, that’s not entirely true, or at least not completely true. COA describes itself as a liberal arts college in which all students design their own major examining a range of areas of study, from Molecular Biology, Climate Change and Energy, Farming and Food Sytems to Literature and Writing, Mind, Meaning, and Consciousness, Gender and Identity Studies and a dozen other areas. The college identifies the 100 or so entering students, prospective majors in Human Ecology – “Currently seeking 100 points of view”. 

This is one instance in which you might actually get the best of both worlds.

Imagine a college that takes ecology seriously – I mean REALLY seriously. 

“Maine has between 4,000 and 6,200 islands depending on who’s doing the counting.” Students get their feet wet (hah) through the college’s Islands Program

The extraordinary setting and natural resources make the college a living laboratory and a superior learning environment for those who think it is great to work in Acadia or take an hour-and-a-half boat ride to Duck Island, one of the college’s research stations, a twelve acre preserve protecting the largest breeding ground of Leach’s Storm Petrels and Black Guillemots. If marine mammals are your preference, you can scoot twenty-five miles to Mount Desert Rock which offers a window into the world of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. If you don’t know the difference between dolphins and porpoises, you probably need to enroll right away. Any description of resources available to students at COA has to include the world-class biological research facility, the Jackson Laboratory, one of the leading areas of research in Geonomics, Mammalian Genetics, Cancer Research, and Neurological and Sensory Research. Recently, the college added a wilderness outpost in Northern Maine. North Woods Ways is a traditional skills wilderness winter academic base camp. Other less academic adventures include the Bar Island Swim.

So, to make the picture a bit more complex, COA is a small (350 students) college located in a fabled Maine holiday destination next to one of the nation’s most powerful research facilities. My own impression of the COA experience leads me to describe the college as an intensive professional school with considerable interest in the liberal arts. 

All students take the core course in human ecology and must also take at least one course in history, a writing course, a quantitative reasoning course,and meet distribution requirements.. The requirements for a degree from COA also include community service, a writing portfolio, an internship, a final human ecology essay, and a final project.

Without majors, the distribution requirements in the college are separated into three areas of inquiry: Art and Design, Environmental Science, and Human Studies. Thus, even in this environmentally super-charged college, a student can develop concentration in Arts and Design, Field Ecology and Conservation Biology, Ecological Policy and Planning, International Studies, Literature and Writing, Sustainable Business, and Sustainable Food Systems. 

The courses generally included in the Environmental Sciences are as one might expect, both comprehensive and marine sensitive: Organic Chemistry raises its formidable head, but so does Edible Botany; Introduction to Statistics and Research Design is offered in the same quadrant as the Art and Science of Fermented Foods.

Concentration in Arts and Design might introduce a student to a Visual Seminar in Photographic Syntax as well as a course in The History of Rock. Some courses are clearly conceptually based (The Reality Effect: Art and Truth in the 19th century) while others have a hands-on approach (Four Dimensional Studio Art). 

Human Studies is concerned with the social sciences, of course, but the range of courses proceeds from Gender, Politics, and Science in Fairy Tales from the World to Philosophy at the Movies.

Chances are that students interested in the College of the Atlantic have self-identified as ecologically active; few arrive without having sustained interested in marine environments. The school is small and somewhat remote; Mount Desert is stunningly beautiful but about an hour from Bangor and about four hours from Boston … if you have a car. As a result, the description of student life is probably more significant than it might be in examining other, more conventional, opportunities.

It goes without saying that environmental activism is an important part of the experience at COA. The regular trips to field stations like the frequent monitoring of projects begun as part of the curriculum or as part of internships takes planning and considerable time. 

The payoff? Night skies at the Duck Island station are spectacular, and apparently, the view of the sunrise from the station’s lighthouse is pretty remarkable as well. A Lunch break at Mount Desert Island includes a parade of whales breaching nearby. Yes, the environmental stuff is a huge part of life at COA, but so is recreation in the outdoors. The college’s outdoor program offers a fleet of canoes and kayaks as well as Rhodes 19 and Sonic 23 sailboats. Camping equipment is checked out daily, with lots of COA trips into the mountains and rivers of Maine. Wintertime? Still time for exploration and camping. 

The college maintains several distinctive programs and facilities that are animated and directed by students throughout the year. In addition to classrooms, labs, and library, COA operates The Osprey, a research vessel and floating classroom. The George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History, once the headquarters of the Acadia National Park is now curated by students who design and prepare every exhibit. Beech Hill Farm is a working, sustainable, organic farm, also operated students, faculty, and farm managers. The college also operates the Peggy Rockefeller Farm, more than one hundred acres of pasture on Mount Desert Island. All electricity used on the farm is generated by solar panels, and the entire property is in the Northeast Creek watershed. On campus, the college maintains a garden, a greenhouse, a herbarium, and an arboretum. 

Regular college fun? OK, slightly modified but definitely present. The residences (NOT dorms) are wonderfully diverse and rich in character. Collaborative living is at the heart of the COA residential experience, and, while there are Residential Advisors in each facility, the expectation is that all residents will be mindful of the needs of others. The closest thing to conventional dormitory is Blair/Tyson, essentially a group of connected townhouses with group kitchens and cedar sided ski-lodge exterior. About twenty students live in Seafox, an authentic and authentically quirky New England seaside farmhouse. This is the largest of the residences with a porch that looks out on the sea; Seafox is also designated as a substance-free dorm. Six students live in Cottage, a converted gatehouse, which, in addition to comfy intimacy offers the residence closest to the Bus Stop. The first building constructed as part of the college, Peach House, holds eight students and is also designated as a substance-free residence. Also substance-free is David House, a small carriage house welcoming five students. The newest housing on campus is the Davis “Village”, a complex of biomass pellet heated, solar powered, toilet composting small houses, separate from but adjacent to Seafox and the Deering Commons. The village is also designated as substance-free.

Students edit two publications throughout the year – Off the Wall, a student newspaper, and Edge of Eden, a literary journal. Open Mic nights take place in the great hall of the Turrets mansion, and a major cultural/social/musical/theatrical event of the year is “Fandango”, a talent show that raises money for charity while allowing students to perform a surprising variety of talents, from the choral presentation of Finnish folk songs to an authentic Maori dance. Fandango also allows international students to carry some aspect of their culture into the program. Roughly twenty percent of the student body comes from outside the United States.

Unconventional in its focus, serious in its commitment to changing the world as well as its students, the College of the Atlantic is unique. It is not for everyone, but if a star-spangled night sky, breaching whales, organic food, and cozy collaboration appeal to you, there is nothing more invigorating than the experience COA promises and delivers.

2022 ADMISSIONS STATISTICS

College of the Atlantic received approximately 525 applicants, from which 337 were admitted in order to enroll a first year class of 100. The acceptance rate in frecent years has ranged from 58% to 61%.

Scores reported for 25th-75th percentile ranged from 630-740 on the Evidence Based Reading and Writing subtest of the SAT and from 580-660 on the Math. ACT scores for the same group have ranged from 27-32. College of the Atlantic’s enrolled student population is approximately 70% female and 30% male. 

The majority of applicants are from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pensylvania. Approximately 64% are White/Non-Hispanic.

The College of Wooster – First College Profiled in the 4th edition of America’s Best Kept College Secrets

The College of Wooster – First College Profiled in the 4th edition of America’s Best Kept College Secrets

Best Kept College Secrets – 2022

The College of Wooster – Wooster, Ohio

The Motley Fool, a highly regarded financial and investment firm, named The College of Wooster among “The top 5 schools with the smartest professors”. Every small college boasts an estimable faculty, loads of Ph.D.s, accolades and prizes; this powerhouse investment consulting firm (no fools, they!) puts The College of Wooster in the mix with Stanford and the University of Chicago. How has this impressive college remained among the best kept secrets  in college admissions?

The College of Wooster is one of the most attractive of the  “undiscovered” gems. Those in the know have long understood that this small college, set in a small town south of Cleveland and east of Akron, is a rarity. Not only is Wooster one of Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives, a charter member of the Great Lakes College Association, and an active champion of international education, its traditional association with its Presbyterian founders allows it to proudly boast one of the few collegiate bagpipe bands, replete with highland dancers.  Once known as “The Presbyterian Steamrollers,” the unaffiliated Wooster teams are now the “Fighting Scots,” and they fight effectively in the North Coast Athletic Conference.

There is no way to truly communicate the warmth, loyalty, and good-hearted spirit on this campus; Wooster’s students feel at home from the very start and spend their four years making others feel as if they too have a place at Wooster.  

Like Davidson, Macalester, and Centre, Wooster was established by the Presbyterian Church, and like those colleges, that founding impetus had much to do with the direction and purpose of the college from the very start.  In 1870, much had yet to be worked out in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Wooster’s founding president was clear in stating the mission of this college:

“The sameness of our origin as men and women carries with it our original and essential equality. Had our national life been the true expression of our national creed, slavery would have been forever impossible. Caste, in whatever name, strikes at the soul of our humanity and liberty.”

In the same fashion, Wooster was established as a coeducational college from the start, clear in its expectation that it would hold women to the same level of expectation that it did men.

Although the college is no longer a Presbyterian college, one legacy of that affiliation is very much a part of the Wooster experience today – an uncommon commitment to a strong international presence on campus. Wooster reaches out into the world with a number of service and educational programs and has long enrolled a higher proportion of international students than most colleges of its type.

Missionaries left Wooster and traveled the globe, establishing strong ties with institutions and individuals.  The Wooster in India program, for example, was founded in 1930.  At that time, Wooster became connected with a sister school, Ewing College in Allahabad, India.  Today, Wooster enrolls students from more than thirty nations, having developed programs that have welcomed international students as few colleges have done.  Babcock Hall is a residence in which international students live in a cross-cultural living environment with students native to the United States.  Luce Residential Hall offers six separate foreign language living centers in Russian, Chinese, French, German, Spanish, and Classics

In addition, Wooster offers instruction in seven foreign languages and promotes study abroad in sixty countries.  As a side note, those travelers sent artifacts as well as students; the college has owned an Egyptian mummy since 1885 when it was donated by an alumnus who had purchased four in Egypt for the price of eight dollars each. 

In addition to nationally reputed programs in the sciences, especially Chemistry, Wooster is known for its Independent Study Program, through which all students work one-on-one with an advisor in completing an independent project.  This notion of a capstone academic experience has been copied by other colleges, but few have as successfully sustained a college-wide independent study program as Wooster has. Upon the successful completion of the Independent Project, students are awarded the coveted Tootsie Roll – yes, the chocolate candy.  Look for the Tootsie Roll on the college’s website; it stands for a job well done.

Other traditions help Wooster separate itself from the pack of Ohio colleges, none more stirring than the corps of bagpipers who appear at a number of the college’s most significant events.  Pipers lead the marching band onto the football field, and pipers lead the procession at graduation.

Few colleges have a solitary bagpiper; Wooster has a minimum of five who appear in kilts as do the one hundred and seventy members of the Fighting Scot Marching Band.  Pipers are attracted to Wooster, of course, but enticed as well by the Scottish Arts Scholarship that identifies and supports talented musicians.  

These aren’t the only musicians or performers at Wooster.  The Ohio Light Opera Company is the resident professional company of the College of Wooster, for example, and in continuous rehearsal and performance throughout the year.  In addition to the expected performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas, the company also produces musical theater, such as Camelot or Guys and Dolls.  Wooster has long offered a strong program in Theater and now enrolls students in a major in Theater and Dance. 

Two of the most significant traditions at Wooster involve the archway of Kauke Hall, at the center of the handsome campus.  Freshman march through the archway on their way to their first convocation and are led back through the arch by the aforementioned pipers on graduation day. The entire student body rises to the challenge when snow falls heavily as tradition has it that classes will be canceled if the entire archway can be completely packed with snow.  “Packing the Arch” is one of the moments that creates a bond of friendship in shared labor.

There are fraternities and sororities at Wooster, but they play a less prominent role than at many similar colleges, in part because they are not nationally affiliated.  Most social activity revolves around the residences, and most Wooster students have friendships that extend beyond fraternity or residence halls.  Wooster is simultaneously an active academic community, a workshop in international understanding, an impressive athletic power in the region, and a very comfortable social setting for varieties of students of every type.  Some fraternities and sororities live in sections of dormitories; some students join the College of Wooster Pipe Band, some belong to the Light Opera Company, some begin life work in theater.  This is a healthy and happy campus, filled with motivated and effective students.

One hallmark of school spirit at Wooster is the very high proportion of students who play intercollegiate varsity sports; almost half of the men at Wooster have played at least one sport.  The Fighting Scots excel in a number of sports for men and women, but the tradition of victory in basketball is particularly compelling.  Wooster has shared the North Coast Athletic Conference championship in basketball with only one other college during the course of the last decade.  The Wooster/Wittenberg rivalry in basketball is heated, and the games between these two teams always fill the stands.  These are the only two teams in the NCAC that have won more than fifteen hundred games, and they are the two teams that set the standard for the league.  Baseball, lacrosse, track and field, swimming and diving- all are good and well supported.

The other fifty percent of Wooster’s students jump into club and intramural sports, of which the cricket club, ice hockey club, equestrian club, cheerleaders, dance team, ultimate frisbee club, and WOODS (Wooster’s Outdoors Club) are most active.

Who ends up at Wooster?

The admissions process here is eminently sensitive and humane. Counselors and consultants appreciate the care with which applications are considered and the degree to which the college extends itself to ambitious students whose academic journey is still in process.  

2022 ADMISSIONS STATISTICS

In recent years, Wooster has received approximately 6,611 applications from which approximately 4,000 were accepted in order to enroll a first year class of 600.  The acceptance rate in the past few years has ranged from 59% to 62%.

Scores reported for the middle 50% of enrolled first year students have ranged from 620 to 720 on the Evidence Based subtest of the SAT and from 600 to 710 on the Math subtest.  ACT Composite scores for the same group have ranged from 25-34 English and 24-30 Math..

Approximately 52% of incoming students hail from Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, with New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois providing another 16%.  Wooster’s enrolled student population is approximately 46% male and 54 % female.  Approximately 61% of enrolled students are White/Non-Hispanic.

If You Go Out In The Woods Today …

If You Go Out In The Woods Today …

OK, writing about bears in our town of Simsbury, Connecticut is like writing about snow on Mount Rainier. Rainier gets about 59 feet of snow a year; we have a bear encounter of one kind or another virtually every morning. Big deal. 

Does a foot of snowfall more or less matter to Mt. Rainier? Apparently, as someone is keeping tabs closely enough to report that the average for Rainier is about 640 inches annually, although in the boom winter, 1988-1989, the final tally was 1,035 inches. That’s a hefty 86 feet of snow and pretty hard to ignore. Can Washingtonians in the region describe snow with a particularity that baffles outsiders? Well, could you spot the difference between dendrite, needles, columns, plate, graupel, diamond dust, and rime icing?

Simsbury is about 11 miles north of Hartford, the state capital, home to commuters, retired folks, students at two prominent independent boarding schools, the international Skating Center (Sasha Cohen, Shizuka Arakawa, Osan Baiul, Michelle Kwan, Ekaterina Gordeeva, and Alexi Yagudin and tons of Olympic hopefuls), two pretty satisfactory bagel shops, Le Banh Patisserie, and the headquarters of the Ensign-Bickford Aerospace and Defense Company. Le Banh produces world class confections, and Ensign-Bickford produces Primacord, preeminent detonating cord, used by NASA in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and, yes, the sound you hear is the weekly test of explosives.

We’ve got the usual suburban amenities (Starbucks, tennis clubs, golf courses, paddle tennis, pickleball, rowing) but only one chain restaurant (Jersey Mike’s). We’ve got three boutique grocery stores within ten minutes of the center of town and a number of excellent restaurants. The town’s library is fabulous, the Farmington River is available for rafting and tubing, and the Simsbury Land Trust preserves more than 1500 acres of wooded land.

Those acres adjoin the peculiarly wooded neighborhoods in Simsbury, Canton, and New Hartford. I’ve had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting the usual complement of woodland creatures plus beavers, porcupines, fisher cats (not cats), weasels, minks, coyotes, bobcats, and bears.

About the bears.

Male black bears bears (boars) tip the scales at 250 – 600 pounds; females (sows) can weigh up to 350 pounds. Our bears are active throughout the day and evening; they are omnivorous with a remarkably keen sense of smell and hearing. Ours do not hibernate, but they slow down during the winter months, “denning” without eating, defecating, or urinating. Most find napping spots under fallen trees or in bushes, but some comfort-driven bears end up under porches or decks or in sheds. Think about that for a minute.

Males look for mates in the late spring and early summer, wandering around recklessly, ignoring humans attempting to shoo them away, and occasionally appearing tipsy, weaving and staggering. Connecticut has a lot of bears; the tally this spring identified about 1000, with the greatest concentration in … oh, yeah … West Hartford and Simsbury. Between the two towns we have roughly 140 bears moving around, more than 70 traipsing through our neighborhood every day. Are we surprised that Greenwich has but one bear? We think not. Very exclusive.

I belong to a fairly popular facebook group entitled, Simsbury Bears Unite, misnamed to some degree in that bears are not posting and reading, and there’s nothing united in the members’ attitude about bears. I belong to the “they’re not big raccoons, I wish they wouldn’t get into my garage,, Holy Shit! A mother and four cubs just looked in our patio window, and they are magnificent and endlessly interesting creatures living alongside us” portion of the bear watching population. Some think they are oversized Beanie Babies and some want them hunted down and destroyed. I have to confess that my pleasure in experiencing bear encounters depends almost entirely on the size, posture, and position of the bear encountered. Back when we planned this relocation to Connecticut we did our homework about snow and flood, but neglected to ask about the possibility of meeting a bear in the driveway as I walked to get the mail. We’ve learned a lot quickly as spring brought bear cubs and hungry bears into our lives. I was cautious in putting out the recycling and garbage, but one of the bears is seemingly so accustomed to the routine that he’s called “Tuesday” in our neighborhood and is quick enough to claw open an ordinary garbage can in the ten minutes between our putting it out and the truck’s arrival. We saw three mothers with cubs fairly regularly, usually at a distance, but occasionally in the yard. We did what we ought to have done from the start – got the military grade bear-proof garbage bin and made sure the garage door was never left open. Our area is perhaps the most thickly protected for moms with cavorting cubs, but the real meal ticket is close to the center of town, condos and apartments with provocative dumpsters. As the cubs grew, they needed less cover and wanted more chow, so they headed south, for the most part.

For the most part.

My wife and I walk our dogs on a familiar road that winds through our neighborhood. Houses are set a good distance from the road, and each is separated by several acres of untouched forested land. In the spring, those woods were alive with our ursine pals, but as conditions have changed, their appearances are mostly confined to the trash days. 

We thought.

Approaching a long stretch of empty road a few weeks ago, both dogs froze then barked. We assumed these were standard postures primarily taken to impress squirrels, but a sudden blur of black surprised a squeaking “Bear!” out of me as I pulled our deaf dog away from the edge of the woods. A mother we know quite well was taking a shortcut across the road with four cubs, none of which paid any attention at all to her. It took a moment to realize that if we continued in the direction we had begun, we’d effectively walk between mom and carousing cubs. We stood for a moment, thinking that we might seem unthreatening , but the large bear looked me in the eye, chuffed a low growl and began to move deliberately in our direction.

It was the directness of her gaze that momentarily liquified me, but then our party discretely shuffled away, assuring any bears in the region that we had NO interest in taking the conversation to the next level. Mom turned and cuffed a cub down from a tree as we changed direction and gratefully walked home at a good clip.

I just took a short break from writing this piece to roll our bear-proof trash bin to the end of the driveway. Tomorrow morning we’ll see Tuesday examining the morning’s array of bins, Wally loping across a manicured lawn in order to splash into a swimming pool, and Victoria and the cubs looking longingly at our garage doors.

I did remember to shut the garage doors, didn’t I? 

Still America’s Pastime

Still America’s Pastime

I like Michael Wilbon’s measured good humor in responding to what are meant to be inflammatory subjects. Here’s his take on the introduction of American football in Europe:

Italy doesn’t need American football. For what? I’ve been. Wine, women, song, shopping, unbelievable vistas and landscapes… You need Titans vs. Panthers? Uh, no.

Fair enough, and a response that leaves room for rebuttal or affirmation. Yesterday, however, in responding to a curious incident in which Astros’ slugger, Yordan Alvarez, stayed at the plate after having been struck out, hitting the next pitch into an easy infield out, Wilbon waxed hyperbolic. How does it happen that no one on the field, in the stands, in the dugout noticed that Alvarez took an extra pitch? 

To summarize the Wilbon argument:

Baseball is so boring that nobody gives a rat’s patootie about following the pitch count. 

How far has baseball fallen in popularity? In a recent poll, baseball was named a favorite sport by 11% of sports fans, barely nudging out soccer and “something else”, which seemed to include esports and competitive gaming. 

Wilbon is not alone in his criticism of the sport. Traditionalists may long for the abolition of the designated hitter, now in place in both leagues, but most critics fix on other more pressing issues. Twins Hines in an article in “Bleacher Report” identified the need for a replay system, unguaranteed contracts, and a salary cap. The fourth issue for Hines is stadium food. Apparently there are hot dog buns pulled from moldy bags. 

It has been suggested that baseball’s fan base is aging out; as my generation moves on to the big diamond in the sky, attachment to baseball, they suggest, will go the way of fondness for Gidget, Bosco, and the Monster Mash.

Baseball, America’s national pastime, is a dying sport. The kids of this generation find it boring; its fanbase is dwindling with each passing season and networks like ESPN have begun to focus their coverage almost exclusively on other sports. 

Ryan Cole, Copy Editor of the “Yorktown Sentry Online”, the paper of record published by Yorktown (Virginia) High School, identifies several issues facing baseball in an article published in March of 2021. Actually, Cole suggests that the number of issues is “infinite”, a judgment that leaves little room for easy improvement. 

Meanwhile, here in August, 2022, a baseball season filled with compelling stories, a copy of Baseball Digest’s 80th Anniversary Issue landed in my mailbox. The magazine celebrated the players who had made its eight decades memorable, recognizing 80 remarkable athletes, from Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, and Stan Musial to the brightest of contemporary stars. Each generation brought to mind the magic of the game when played at the highest level. Mantle, Koufax, Clemente, Mays, Suzuki, Griffey, Jeter – 80 players whose play was frequently breathtaking.

As I read the magazine, Juan Soto had just won the Home Run Derby, and, at the age of 23 landed the biggest (and probably most entirely well deserved) contract in the history of the sport, tracking as he does a career most closely related to Ted Williams’, Shohei (Shotime) Ohtani had hit 21 home runs and had an e.r.a of 2.8, and Aaron Judge was on pace to hit 67 home runs this season. The conversation about the best players in the game includes talented young players and steady veterans: Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, Fernando Tatis, Vlad Guerrero, Jr, Jacob deGrom, Nolan Arenado, Jose Ramirez, Max Scherzer, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper – some of whom had been recognized by Baseball Digest, and some whose legends have not yet matured.

Will the Dodgers meet the Yankees in October/November?

Will the Padres reconstitute themselves as the most dangerous emerging franchise?

If the average attendance at a Marlins home game is roughly seven to ten thousand, where did the extra 20,000 come from when Ohtani pitched in Miami?

Yes, the games are too long, and yes, the shift is an ugly defensive maneuver, and, yes, the specialization of pitchers inning-by-inning is annoying, and yes, replays are long overdue, and yes, some uniform choices are more than unfortunate, and, yes, it will be awkward to have the same team in Los Vegas and Oakland, but baseball is still a game that George Will called “Heaven’s gift to mortals”, and a game uniquely appropriate to the length and pace of summer days and nights.

This week the Cubs and Reds will play on the Field of Dreams in Iowa. The teams will walk through the storied corn stalks to take their place in the field and at bat. The Reds won their first game in 1869, thumping the Great Western Team of Cincinnati 45-9. The Cubs, then known as the Chicago White Stockings, first took the field in 1876, winning the National League’s first 11 championships. By any other name (White Stockings, Colts, Orphans) the Cubs have faced the Reds since 1880. 

The Field of Dreams. See you there, Wilbon.

“I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty”

“I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty”

Let’s pretend that someone is reading this post, in which case the question I pose is this:

Are you familiar with a peevish annoyance that operates only occasionally, or intermittently, out of mind for most of one’s lifetime, but when it hits, ay caramba, it supercharges the capacity for petulant obsession?

If no, read on to witness the perpetual folly of a man easily distracted. If yes, enjoy the momentary pang of displeasure that arrives with recognition of weakness of mind and character.

Chose your own adventure.

Here goes-

“… Yes, and I ain’t sayin you ain’t pretty

All I’m saying’s I’m not ready

For any person, place or thing

To try to pull the reins in on me.”

This deathless response to an uninvited suitor made popular by the group known as the “Stone Poneys”, lead vocal by a young Linda Ronstadt, just wronks the heck out of me, over and over again. The gripe is enhanced by my admiration for its author, Michael Nesmith. Yes, he was a Monkee, and that is a phrase I will likely not write again in this lifetime. I’ll get back to Nesmith, but even without knowing that the author of this drivel is an accomplished writer and producer, the lyrics themselves scream purposeful, deliberate illiteracy. The “any person place or thing” is an apallingly cute replacement for the word, “noun”. “Noun” is good, a good word, and not terribly tough to insert in that line. To beat this locution to death, Mike, you knew what a noun is; was your  intention to appeal to an unwashed mass of fiercely independent people who are grammar impaired, just schooled enough to know what you were talking about but unable to come up with the term? Were you sidling up to the unwashed tough guys smoking in the playground, pretending you finished sixth grade and then got distracted? 

And then … “I ain’t sayin”.

Well, once again, Mike, you stepped in a mess of your own making. “…I ain’t saying” followed by “All I’m saying’s” …”. Which is it? “Ain’t saying ” or “I’m saying”?  I ain’t or I am?

As you will recall, The Monkees were much too busy singing to put anybody down.

Me? Apparently not that busy.

Now, I ain’t sayin’ nobody should use the word “ain’t” when singing. I’ve heard professors of English recite You Aren’t Anything But A Hound Dog, and it is painful. Elvis Presley was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi; he can toss ain’ts around like confetti.

Nesmith’s mother was a typist who invented Liquid Paper, now known as White Out, originally as Mistake Out, which she sold to Gillette for 48 million dollars. A quick search reveals the enduring viability of the substance, once highly prized by teens keen on altering their diving licenses so as to purchase adult beverages. 48 MILLION dollars! That ain’t hay!

Nesmith died last year, leaving behind an impressive legacy in music, tv, and film. Michael Nesmith and The Second National Bank is considered a pioneer in country-rock music, his early experimental video work for Nickelodeon, Pop Clips, became the MTV network, and his production credits include Repo Man and Tapeheads, and what am gnawing on? 

You ain’t pretty.

Linda Ronstadt isn’t from Tupelo either. One of her grandfathers was an esteemed pioneer in Arizona, the other the inventor of the flexible rubber ice cube tray, another unexpectedly lucrative innovation, which brought him millions. Ronstadt’s career includes her popularity as the most successful concert rock chick, several highly regarded performances in Broadway musicals, the lead soprano role in The Pirates of Penzance, several critically acclaimed albums of jazz and standards produced with Nelson Riddle which reanimated the American Songbook, the “Trio” recordings with Dolly Paron and Emmy Lous Harris, and Cancions de mi Padre. Her voice was magical, and what do I hear over and over? 

“You ain’t pretty’”

The discerning reader will wonder what it is about these phrases that sets me off again and again other than the conscious dumbing down of lyrics. Surely there is trauma somewhere, they intuit, hidden in this mealy mouthed critique of popular culture. “Feh” I say, and “Rubbish”. I may have used “ain’t” freely at home in my first formative years in a country public school, but that had nothing to do with my being sent away to boarding school as I bid my ninth year a fond farewell. I had learned to spit too, through my teeth, with accuracy and distance, which I’m sure was a far more disturbing habit. In but a few years I had discarded my rustic skills and learned to move into polite society ain’t free and rarely spitting.

So, no grist for the mill there.

Have you read …?

Have you read …?

I believe in love at first sight, sense of humor in dogs, and the rare experience of finding a true book friend. Maybe not so rare, as I have met three or four people whose reading world mapped roughly the same region as mine and whose impulse it was to bring an author or book into the conversation within the first five minutes of our acquaintance. Such folks do exist, often in the least likely setting. Consider my agitated fictional friend Holden Caulfield, self-proclaimed illiterate, who got a huge kick out of a novel such as Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and wished authors like Ring Lardner were close friends so that he could call them on the phone when he felt like it. I’m pretty certain that Holden’s creator, professionally reclusive J.D. Salinger, would not have answered a phone call from a wanna-be-book-friend, but it’s the impulse that counts.

An absolutist would argue that there are two kinds of people in the world – those for whom books must be gushed about and recommended and those for whom many other interests compete for brain space. Let’s leave that observation behind; we’ve got enough absolutism and division for one century. The point is, when you meet a book friend, you KNOW.

Of course, engaging with an ambitious reader can be exhausting. So many books, so little time. And, over the years, some peculiarities of preference become more clear, challenging the befriended to open a book they would not otherwise have chosen. Some books are opened and read to the end; others lie gathering dust on a bedside table. Still, no harm in gushing.

I have met only a few prominent authors along the way, and though I’m inclined to think that none would welcome a phone call, I am grateful to have heard their voices. I met Louise Erdrich once; I’ve never made a phone call although I admire her greatly and have been tempted to walk into her Minneapolis bookshop, Birchbark Books, on the off chance that she might drop in. Erdrich and Michael Dorris spoke at a workshop I attended in 1991, before I had read their work. I was thrown off a bit by the workshop leader, an Episcopal priest, who introduced them as American Indian parents of a troubled son. Dorris had just written The Broken Cord, a description of the challenges he and Erdrich faced in raising a son born with fetal alcohol syndrome. It would turn out that Dorris and Erdrich had a number of other significant challenges. Their storied marriage and literary collaboration ended in divorce; Dorris took his own life in 1997. Erdrich has become one of the authors whose books fill my shelves. In the years since Dorris’ death, she wrote Love Medicine, one of the novels I gush about, and another eighteen novels, short fiction, poetry, and children’s books – 29 books in all, including her most recent, The Sentence.

That’s where today’s musing really begins. I’ve read all but two of her novels, loved some entirely, loved some less. She captivates me in those moments when she, the author, the narrator, and the otherworldly mingle for a moment, when collective voices and soul flash brightly then retreat to ordinary time and space. Reviewers have described Erdrich as a writer who “flirts” with magical realism, an assessment I find inadequate. Her narrative style has also been called fragmented, unrealistic, and particular to her Ojibwe heritage. Again, inadequate. The legacy of colonialism and subversion of Native identity informs all of her work, of course, but it is Erdrich’s use of language that is of greatest interest this morning as I put down The Sentence every few pages to wonder at what I have read.

The novel’s narrator (for all but one instructive passage) is a woman sent to prison whose life and mind in confinement are saved by the gift of a dictionary, the best choice, the narrator reminds us, of an object to grab before stepping onto a desert island. She is transfixed by words, most notably the word “sentence”, a word that describes her term of incarceration and also the tightly defined and utterly pliable agency of language, usually containing subject and predicate (but not always) and which conveys a statement, question, exclamation, or command. The examples that intoxicate her in her confinement are, “Open the door.” and “Go”.

The novel is a ghost story of sorts in which both varieties of sentence have their place. Erdrich has happily welcomed the supernatural into her narrative, explaining that the tissue which separates us from the other is thin at times, permeable. The narrator herself in one moment of crisis is described as more porous than others. The novel operates within the decomposition of life during the Covid plague years and describes life in translation of Native people trying to claim their identity and the mess and muddle that is love, but it’s on my mind today because it is also fearlessly about words, the incantatory power of words, and, to return to the subject at hand, books.

The central character works in a bookstore, Erdrich’s bookstore in Minneapolis. Louise Erdrich shows up from time to time in the novel, offering thoughtful counsel at a distance from the narrator’s story. I now know much more about the business of running a bookstore, if it can be called a business. Erdrich’s account of the marginal viability of her store convinces me that independent bookstores are spiritual soup kitchens, hanging on because readers need sustenance and unheralded books need to be read. Our narrator is a born-again reader whose dedication to the store and to books includes the curating of reading lists. At the end of the novel, we find a comprehensive list by category, but throughout the narrative, characters and authors bounce into each other on a daily basis. I kept a list of books as I read, checking frequently to see if my library had them on the shelves (rarely) or if the various E-libraries could beam me the book for a few weeks. The clients of this real/fictional bookstore are grateful for the recommendations the narrator passes along, but they and the other employees of the store binge so quickly that they seem needy rather than reflective. The massing of titles, however, allows the endorsement of underappreciated authors.

I appreciate the treasure hunt now begun, but I miss the insistent energy of conversation with my human book friends. If we’ve both read a book, there are juicy particulars to savor; if recommending a book, I have to find the middle ground between dissipating some of the book’s magic and simply tossing a title in the air. We each have particular shelves that stand outside shared interests. I read mysteries and slipstream fiction, for example, gushing about Amy Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but have a pretty steadfast allergy to books about naval warfare with the exception of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series. How did I happen to pick up Beat to Quarters? Ernest Hemingway (not a personal book friend) recommended Forester to every literate person he knew. That was a club I wanted  to join. So, thanks, Ernest.

Stephen Colbert used the term, “Quarantinewhile”, to introduce events taking place in the last two years. Quarantinewhile I have had to rely on the enthusiasms of authors I admire rather than the spontaneous conversation with book friends. Some authors are generous in expressing enthusiasm for other authors; some admit that they don’t read. Without particularly plumping for the slipstream genre, it has to be said that authors of that not-yet universally celebrated inclination celebrate each other at the drop of a hat. The greatest recent influence recently, however, has come in reading George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Writing, reading, and life … yup …for me,  that’s what friends are for. In the hope of finding another book friend or two, I’ll end with a provocation: 

In addition to a dictionary, what five books would you grab before being shipwrecked on a desert island?


February is almost spring, right?

February is almost spring, right?

Groundhogs throughout the frozen north have done their duty. Some have promised an escape from winter in six weeks, others threaten ice and snow for another month and a half. You say potato, etc. Death, taxes, and unshakable prognostication by rodents remain inescapable. February slides resolutely by; the chocolate-fueled love-fest that is Valentine’s Day is only a few hours away. 

It’s almost baseball.

The Cactus League Spring Training Season opens on the 28th of February as the Angels face the Brewers on the American Family Fields of Phoenix. Once simply known as Maryvale, the Brewer’s park and the training facility are owned and operated by suburban Maryvale’s Park and Recreation Department. It’s easy to find; take a right off Indian School Road after passing Fry’s Food and Drug, just past the entrance to Maryvale High School on 51st Avenue. I’ve been told that the park can hold up to 7000 fans, and that may be true, although seats are rarely filled, perhaps because a third of the fans are lined up in front of the Klements Bratwurst stand.

Maryvale has long been my favorite park; there are no bad seats and the dimensions are pleasing. The left field fence is 350 feet from home plate, the right field fence 340 feet, and center 400 feet. I’ll get back to baseball in a moment, but I should add that Brewer fans are an uncommonly midwestern and outgoing tribe, relishing the sun, beer, brats, and their beloved Brewers. A few sport Seattle Pilots caps, honoring the club that became the Brewers in moving to Milwaukee, but Milwaukee Brewer fandom abounds although the Brewers record from 1969 to the present is under .500 (.483) and they remain one of the few teams without a World Series victory in their history.  Things have slightly picked up recently; the Brewers have won their divisional title twice in the last four years and edged a wild card berth twice,bowing out of the postseason  with losses to the Dodgers, Braves, and Nats.

There are many reasons one might wish to be in Maryvale on February 28th aside from the brats, beer, and the famous racing sausages (Italian, Polish, Brat, Chorizo, and Hot Dog). The Brewers’ Willy Adams is one of the exquisitely talented generation of shortstops playing baseball this season, and Christian Yelich, the NL MVP in 2018, may be one of the best bets to win the Triple Crown. 

Turning to the Angels, however, HOLY GUACAMOLE!!!!

With apologies to William Wordsworth, “Bliss it is in that dawn to be alive” as Mike Trout and Shohei Otani appear on the same team, on the same field, at the same time. It’s not bad to be around as Mookie Betts comes into his own as well, but that’s another story.

Trout is Roy Hobbs, Ernie Banks, a sober Mickey Mantle, and Santa Claus. He literally showed up with presents for a family whose house had burned down. He returns every year to his high school in Millville, New Jersey to visit the baseball team and gives one player a jersey bearing the number he wore in high school. Oh, and he’s always a top contender for the MVP award, winning three times and barely missing with four second place tallies. Considered the best player in baseball since he entered the league in 2012, Trout suits up, shows up, and plays hard. He has been clocked at 6.5 seconds in the 60 yard dash, and he is fearless. To watch Mike Trout play baseball is to be reminded of what genius in cleats looks like.

Otani, on the other hand, a dominating pitcher and powerful hitter has been called a unicorn.

Feh!

Otani is a manticore – a human with body of a lion, the wings of a dragon, and the tail of a scorpion, six foot four, 210 pounds, throws right, bats left, MLB ERA of 3.53 with a won-loss record of 13-5, 221 strikeouts, 93 home runs, and 247 runs batted in. In the “just-not-fair” category, he is also the fastest man in baseball in sprinting to first base.

Look, the Angels are probably not going to contend for a playoff spot this season; a good year would bring them above the .500 mark. But, as Zeno of Citium might have said, “I don’t care”. 

Watch Mike Trout while you can. Don’t miss an Otani start. Watch Connor McDavid even though the Oilers won’t win the Stanley Cup. Spend an hour with Bradley Beale even if the Wizards make a fan self-digest. Ditto Chris Paul. Imagine NOT seeing Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Ken Griffey, Jr, Tony Gwynn. Imagine never seeing Barry Sanders’ 47 yard TD run aganst the Dallas Cowboys.

February 28th, the American Family Fields, Maryvale, just past the middle school playground, the smell of brats in the air, this season’s Angels taking infield practice, this season’s Brewers tossing long balls, the crack of batted balls, the slap of a sizzling rope from third to first hitting the mitt, a throw down to second base, the umpire brushing home plate.

It’s almost baseball.

30% Chance of light dusting by morning

30% Chance of light dusting by morning

I wake to an impressive, unexpected snowfall and my thoughts turn to the team of weatherfolk on our local television station, WFSB, serving Hartford and New Haven. Although our paths in the real world have not crossed, I can tell they truly are a team; their hail-fellow-well-met lively patter is clearly unrehearsed and sincere. They take their work seriously, though; they have maps.

We are newly arrived in Connecticut, and (how to put this gently?) don’t give a rip about the upcoming tilt between the Bacon Wildcats (Colchester) and the Woodstock Centaurs (Woodstock), except to wonder, of course, how the Centaurs came to be a school mascot. We DO care about the weather, and it is in the pursuit of timely information that we tune in each evening at six, suffering through taped debates of wastewater issues in Bristol in order to glean some slight sense of what is about to happen to our roof and yard.

It has been my contention for some time that we might as well buy a used Magic Eight Ball, slosh it around, and ask if rain or snow is likely. I’ve done my research; the clouded Eight Ball screen offers 20 possible responses, 10 of which are positive, five uncertain, and five negative. Not too shabby. To be fair, the predictive authority of weather teams everywhere is at least as helpful as that offered by economists and on-line dating sites.

That said, snow is on the ground, and that’s that. Except that it isn’t. The next twenty hours of keenly observant reporting from the WFSB weather team will document the distribution of that snowfall, flake-by-flake. We’ll see snow plows, hats decorated with reindeer, and slick highways glistening with snow melt or gritty with freshly spread sand. Since the team didn’t see this one coming (or if they did,  chose not to share their vision with those of us tuned in at six), tonight’s broadcast will explain why the sky fell and how likely it is to fall again.

Lest you think my meteorological nattering is directed at the entire universe of weather reporters, I hasten to correct the record.

We lived in Alabama for five years (I know) where DOPPLER RADAR reports were constant and absolutely necessary. You want weather? Live anywhere south of Indiana. The day after we arrived in Connecticut a major snowfall covered the Farmington Valley; the week before we landed in Huntsville, a tornado tore the roof off the neighborhood school. Yes, there are tornadoes elsewhere, including Connecticut, where an earlier and misbegotten turn of events brought us to the Northwest Corner only days before a tornado took out an entire forest, but heightened awareness of the possibility of months of chaos in Tornado Alley is another thing altogether. Red sky in the morning may be a sailor’s warning in New England; green sky at noon was more than enough warning for us.

We did spend more time above ground than in our comfy sheltered basement, but all we needed was the slightest suggestion of a pending whirlwind to scurry down below. So, there we were, cookies and crayons at hand, prepared to wait out whatever tumult the gods had in mind, watching the local news team report from ground zero.

Hmmm. When I say local news team I mean the lowest ranking, newly hired, youngest “reporter” whose mission it was to stand in the face of gale force wind and driving rain in order to share their estimation of the pain brought by stinging pellets of hail, sleet, and pavement. Some voices were more authentic than others. An on-camera voice from the midst of a cloud of something white and green shouted obscenities obscured by flotsam but impressive nonetheless. 

A savvy tyro simply refused to get out of the news van. “Not going out. Not going out.” Sensible and really all I needed to know. 

Today, here in Connecticut, we’re just back from a pleasant walk inside our snow globe, hanging up our scarves and mittens and about ready to bust out the soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ll give the Eyewitness News team a chance to explain how they meant to say several inches and plowed driveways rather than light dusting and open roads, but no hard feelings. 

Who doesn’t love surprises?

 Reply hazy. Try again. 

“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

I’d like to report that meetings of the faculty in schools such as those in which I worked are universally compelling, but if they are, and they are only rarely, it arrives as a debate about dress code devolves into character assasination, accusations of perfidy, and the sudden extinction of life-long friendships. There have been, however, a few moments in which the level of discourse has risen to memorable heights. I was a young teacher, unaware that it would be decades before another inspired comment would rock me to the core, when a colleague, a somewhat crusty Ivy educated country gentleman, pitched (and I use the word with some satisfaction) the following preface to remarks on grading, or bus etiquette, or trays missing from the dining hall,or a topic of equally grave concern:

“This is just a tentative fungo into a field of surmise …” he began.

Let the word “surmise” linger in your imagination for a bit as I wander into reflection on the purpose of hitting fungos.

I sit on a crisp winter’s day, glistening mounds of snow heaped along the side of the driveway, trees standing naked before me, thinking about baseball, as one does in early February in the week before pitchers and catchers are expected to report to training camp. The configuration of the next season is in question, but spring training will begin, and a coach somewhere will lift a fungo bat and loft a high fly ball to an outfielder straining to follow the arc of the ball in the harsh Arizona (or Florida) sun. Designed solely for the purpose of lofting baseballs, the fungo bat is of little use in any other aspect of the game. It’s longer and lighter than other bats, often made of ash. Here’s where some muddle may intrude; as a verb, fungo is the act of hitting a ball high in the air. Then too, the balls in flight are themselves called fungoes. 

In the early years of our marriage, my wife was puzzled one mid-evening as we drove by illuminated baseball fields in the Illinois heartland watching men and boys practice and play baseball as the long day cooled.

 “I’d like to pull over and shag some fungoes,” I said with conviction.

“Huh,” she advised.

John Toffey, the English teacher whose phrase resounds through the years, found the perfect metaphor in identifying a lightly held opinion tossed into a speculative conversation – a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

I share the phrase now, in my personal mid-evening as my days cool, in order to remind myself of the elegant language of baseball. It is in the heat of a match that tennis players may shout, Love All, a heartening sentiment but not in this context. Golf has given us, Play it as it lays, a useful shorthand for playing by the rules and a sporty riff on Lao Tsu’s observation “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Football’s gritty aphorism, Winning Isn’t everything; It’s the only thing, attributed to UCLA coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders and occasionally to Packer’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi, is a puzzling construction in that “everything” and “only thing” are not separated by much in terms of intensity, and yet there is a clear escalation by the end of the phrase. Other configurations might raise similar questions, as in “Survival isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well yes, in that as a state of being it is absolute, and no, because we might hope there is more to life than merely staying alive. 

I remember John Toffey’s locution with gratitude; it is one of the phrases I most enjoy trotting out on the rare occasions in which surmise is at hand. Today’s challenge is in coming up with other baseball related terminology that can be put to use in more general conversation. There are a plethora of genuinely startling terms in the lexicon of baseball, many more than are found in other enterprises. I can’t explain why invention is more pronounced in baseball, but I present but a few of the terms any fan would recognize from the crack of the bat:

Chin music – a pitch that is high and inside also known as High Cheese and High Cheddar

Can of Corn – an easy pop fly

Pop Fly – a high batted ball that does not leave the infield

Rhubarb – a scrap, quarrel, or fight between players teams, coaches and umpires

Texas Leaguer – a ball that drops between the infield and the outfield

Worm Burner – a sharply hit ground ball

The Hot Corner – third base

Pickle – a runner caught between two fielders in a rundown

Banjo Hitter – a hitter that put together a string of blooped hits 

In the Hole – the batter after the batter on deck

Eephus – a lobbed pitch that wobbles

Cricket, the sport that may have spawned baseball, has its arcane observations. Without any knowledge of the game, we’ve seen enough movies and read enough books to know that a bit of a sticky wicket is not a good thing. Don’t go looking for help with the phrase as the word “wicket” has several uses in the terminology of the sport. Let’s agree that in this instance, the wicket is an area of the field (pitch) that with overuse or heavy rain can get gummy just as situations in life can occasionally gum up.

All of that said, metaphors have to eclipse the particular in order to express the otherwise inexpressible, thus the tentative fungo. An obvious description already in use is fielder’s choice, in baseball pithy shorthand for a play in which a fielder makes a play to a base other than first, allowing the batter to arrive at first safely. For one locked in romance, however, such as Archie, the exuberant comic book lothario who plays the field, smitten by both Betty and Veronica, a fielder’s choice means being forced to pick one over the other with clear expectation of loss no matter which play is made.

Coming in with spikes high describes the aggressive and possibly injurious slide of a runner intent on stealing a base. Ty Cobb, perhaps the meanest son-of-a-gun (an oddity of biology?) to play the game, likely sharpened his spikes before each game, perhaps to improve traction, perhaps to intimidate the second baseman waiting to be speared, perhaps to spear a second baseman. Similarly, an aggressive and perhaps preemptive verbal start to a difference of opinion might intend traction, intimidation, or injury. “I may be coming in with my spikes too high,” might be a way to indicate an awareness of the distress a sharpened comment can cause. Suggesting that a solution is obvious, a can of corn, however, can be provocative as we are often in a pickle, caught in a rundown, caught off base, rather than seeing the inescapable solution to an issue.

I’m free of faculty meetings these days, so I won’t have a chance to accuse a colleague of throwing high cheddar, high cheese, playing chin music, no, I’m just offering a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

Thanks, John.