Words, words, words

Words, words, words

I’m stuck. 

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

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

Maybe words can help.

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

Loved the growth, and here comes the decay.

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

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

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

Why are you smiling as the shark attacks your employer?

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

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

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

Ah well, off we go.

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

No comfort or resolution in higgledy-piggedly.

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

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

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

Welcome to the maw.

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

Tom Hanks? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sequestration … Been There

Sequestration … Been There


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, they tried, almost on a daily basis.

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

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

Not a whit. 

Have I grown fond of turnips?

Equally whitless.

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

Overheard … again?

Overheard … again?

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

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


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

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

“Well, his mother was murdered…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, his mother was murdered…”?

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

Dunno.  Let’s move on.

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

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

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

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

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

Rounding third now, “murdered”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disney Version: Fooled Me

The Disney Version: Fooled Me

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

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

Here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unruly Customer Behavior?

Unruly Customer Behavior?

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

Today’s Boston Globe featured this headline :

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

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

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

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

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

Pent up demand?

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

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

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

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

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

Whose Flag?

Whose Flag?

It’s Complicated

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

That’s my flag.

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

It’s complicated.

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

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

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

That’s my flag.

It’s complicated.

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

For today, it’s not that complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, not directly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much dough do these colleges have in the kitty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Wife Lost Her Memory … For A While

My Wife Lost Her Memory … For A While

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

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

“Did you drive”

“I did.”

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

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

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

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

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

“Where’s my ring?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

“Your memory seems to be impaired.”

Laughter. “No kidding.”

“Where is my ring”

“You took it off before we came.”

“Is there metal in my scrunchie?”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Don’t they want to test me?”

“You had a CT scan.”

“No, when?”

“When we first arrived.”

“Did you drive?”

“I did.”

“Is this the hospital?”


“Did you drive?”

And so on.

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

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

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

“How did they get my urine?”

“You walked to the bathroom with a nurse.”

“How did they get my urine?”

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

“What day is it?”


An hour earlier she could not have answered that question.

“What month is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“At the hospital.”

“What month is it?”  

Mary looked at me.

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

“Maybe June?”

Again not possible an hour earlier.

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

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

Hope.  Guarding against hope.

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

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

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

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

“Wait until we get there.”  Hope.

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

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

“Where’s my ring?”

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

I must have worried about getting an MRI.”

“You took off your earrings too.”

“I wasn’t wearing earrings.”


“I hope I made you drive.”

“You did.”

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

“You asked for the more sophisticated hospital.”

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

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

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

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

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

Hibernation – Good News/Bad News

Hibernation – Good News/Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, really.  What do we say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Close Personal Friend Recommends …

A Close Personal Friend Recommends …

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t get that far.  

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

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