Fifty Words

Posted 2014.04.11 by Ran
Categories: Stories, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

Inspired by Mewhinney (and her artistic progeny), and triggered by this week’s Daily Post Challenge, submitted below is my modest lunch break effort at the curiously challenging task of writing a fifty-word story.

From Wikimedia

Treefrogs chirping above me, I skulk down the hill in the moonlight. My companion hisses in its cage, a possum extracted from my basement. Crouched on the riverbank, I release it. A moment’s hesitation, a final malevolent glare, and then the dignified scurry. The rustle recedes, followed by welcome solitude.

The old screensaver prank

Posted 2014.03.12 by Ran
Categories: Stories

Tags: , , , , , , ,

[This is the tenth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

In tenth grade, I took an art course called Visual Arts 2. The class had only six or at most eight students in it. For the most part, the students were all pretty talented, and our teacher – Ms. Poole – offered us a great deal of latitude about how we chose to tackle the various challenges she posed for us. While I was no sculptor or painter, I could draw a bit, and I also served as the class DJ. The studio was down in the basement of the school, and Ms. Poole had a turntable hooked up to speakers, and I would bring in records we would listen to while we worked. Usually Ms. Poole would circulate around the room, checking in on us and offering suggestions and encouragement. At other times, she would retreat to her office and putter on her cutting edge Apple Macintosh Plus. It was a brand new machine, and the school did not have too many of them, but she was dating the math teacher who also served as the computer guy, and thus on her desk sat this Mac.

As it was new, and computers were new, I mean no criticism of Ms. Poole to say she knew very little about how to use the Mac at the time, and since the computer guy was also her boyfriend at the time (they later married), she had extra reason to run for help quickly when she was stumped by something the machine did or didn’t to. While Macs were new to all of us, the kids in her class had been using various Apple II and TRS-80 machines for long enough that we snickered at how quickly Ms. Poole would run for help.

macplusMacs back then, with their 9″ black & white CRT screens, usually ran some sort of screensaver to prevent “burn in.” Screensavers these days are elaborate, Technicolor programs built into the OS and run more for aesthetic purposes, but back when a Mac shipped with one megabyte of RAM, screensavers were purely functional add-ons. My school used a control panel that waited until a certain idle time had passed, and then turned the screen to black. No flying toasters, no animated clocks, just black. If one opened the settings panel for the program, one saw nothing but a text field where the desired idle time could be typed in, and an okay button. The delay was measured in seconds, and the default was three minutes, so the field started out with a 180 in it. At some point, I realized that there was no minimum, and that the program would accept a delay of zero. Thus when one typed, for example, ok, the machine would be dark, then as you typed o, the screen would light up, an o would appear, and then the screen would go dark. Then the k would prompt the screen again, the k would appear, and dark again. If you moved the mouse continuously, you could get the screen to stay on, too.

Armed with this knowledge, an idea dawned on me and I headed to art and waited for the right moment. One day while Ms. Poole was getting more coffee, I changed her screensaver delay to zero and returned to my seat. Ms. Poole returned, checked on us, and sat down at her desk. All of us chewed on our lips and stared at the floor as murmurs of confusion gave way to annoyed grumbling from around the corner as Ms. Poole confronted her screen’s desire to be solidly black. After a minute at most, she announced she was off to get the computer guy, and hustled down the hall. This was my cue to change the delay back to 180, which I did quickly before resuming my work. Sure enough, a few minutes later we heard Ms. Poole and the computer fellow coming down the hall, and she marched him into her office, pointed at the wayward Mac, gestured grandly, and said “Watch!” She tapped the space bar, the screen flicked on, and then of course it stayed on. The computer guy looked at the Mac, looked at the art teacher, looked at the Mac, and finally offered a cautious, “It’s working now.” Ms. Poole looked flustered and made some comment about machines always working when the repairmen are around, and apologized for dragging him down on a fool’s errand. The whole time, all of the students in the other room were struggling to stifle any fugitive guffaws.

In the coming months, I think I managed to pull this little stunt a half-dozen times, always being careful to have the timing seem random enough so the connection between the Mac and the VA2 class was not clear. Each time, our undeserving art teacher would scowl at her computer, vow not to seek help, give up, and summon the computer guy. And every time, once he arrived, the Mac was fine. I know this is a dumb waste of time to inflict on someone, but at fifteen it seemed mighty funny, and I guess I have some fifteen year old in me still, as I still laugh thinking about the look on her face when the machine would behave for her boyfriend having refused to behave for her. No lessons or morals to today’s story, just the petty pleasure of a proper prank from the dark ages of personal computing.

Storytelling songwriters

Posted 2014.03.06 by Ran
Categories: Music, Stories

Tags: , , , ,

Freshman year in college, my wonderful parents generously equipped me with a terrific Macintosh SE/30, which I used daily for five years. It was very speedy, which gave it a long life, but when it was new, it had an unexpected drawback – it played games too fast. I had a copy of Tetris, which I played a lot, and the machine’s speed meant the Tetris played in my room was faster than any Tetris on campus. Not by a lot, but by enough that when I played on other machines, I felt like I was experiencing what would now be called “bullet time,” which made rotating and placing the pieces quite easy and, conversely, when other players would challenge me on my home turf, my Mac would always leave them gasping, as they were not accustomed to its frantic pace. For that little slice of time, in that small venue, I was the best Tetris player around, and it was a fun feeling, albeit not a marketable skill.

Another skill I am fond of is the speed with which I can recognize music. I cannot play music, or compose it, but I sure can place a tune from the smallest sliver of it. (Coincidentally, this too is another unmarketable skill – lucky me!) Still, it is fun to have at least a hint of a musical talent, as I have always loved music, and music has always meant a great deal to me. When I stumbled across the current WordPress Writing Challenge (a thing I didn’t know existed until recently), my first thought was to dismiss it, as I found the suggestion of writing about three images a little contrived for my tastes. I returned to the idea later when I realized that the three images might not have to be pictures per se but instead any trio of evocative images. Rather than rummage through family pictures, or assign meanings to other peoples’ pictures, I thought I would assemble three images conjured by other writers, in this case lyricists. I love music and its ability to lodge deep in one’s consciousness. I love how songs trigger associations unbidden when they come on. And I love the craft of how some writers pack so much thought, meaning, and significance into the modest package of a song. I do not aspire to write songs, but I do admire those who do it with a deft touch. I have written about music elsewhere on this blog (here and here), so let me try to pick some new things, although I am sticking with musicians who I have had the chance to see in person.

• • • • • • •

DavidWilcox-e1355750872305I just included David Wilcox in my last post, so I debated about including him here. I decided I could not not include him. I know of very few writers who so consistently craft an interesting story into their music. My first thought was Farthest Shore, about what is ephemeral and what is permanent – a lovely song, but not quite the sort of imagery I am trying to corral for this collection. So I turn instead to Eye of the Hurricane, which you can watch and hear him perform here. In various interviews, Wilcox has explained this song is about addiction, but like so much good art, it is malleable enough to take on a range of complexions, reflecting you back at you. Wilcox’s best hook in the song comes in these words:

Hope is gone and she confessed,
“When you lay your dream to rest,
you can get what’s second best
but it’s hard to get enough.”

It’s not easy to put big, deep thoughts into cheerful little ditties, and any writer would be hard pressed to distill so much wisdom and loss into one brief thought as that.

• • • • • • •

shindellMoving on, I turn next to Richard Shindell. Similar to Wilcox in age and style, he has a darker, more brooding sensibility, and can paint a very bleak portrait of the world when he chooses to do so. I learned about Shindell from the 1998 record Cry, Cry, Cry, released by a band of the same name made up of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell. If all you did was buy that album for its cover of James Keelaghan‘s Cold Missouri Waters, then you would find that money well spent. For today’s collection, I am sticking with singers performing their own compositions, and my first thought was A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress, which is a powerful song full of dangerous ambiguity and resolve and resignation. Yet for today’s assemblage, I am going to lean instead on Shindell’s Wisteria, which you can watch here. If you would like cleaner audio, you can listen to it here, via Last.fm’s Spotify embedding. This song relies on negative space, as a lot of key things are left unsaid. Pining for the past in the absence of another is a common trope, but the contraction at the end of the opening word Let’s suggest he is melancholy for a shared past, which then makes the listener ask a series of pointed questions about what trajectory he and his partner find themselves on. By imbueing the spaces of the house with so much meaning that is unknown and unfelt by the current occupants, he reminds us of how we ourselves are unknowingly surrounded by the past. In this song the payload is carried in chorus, and runs as follows:

The vine of my memory
Is blooming around those eaves
But it’s true it’s a chore to tame wisteria.

I am certain when Shindell mentions taming the wisteria, he is talking about maintaining appearances beyond yardwork, and all the heartache that implies. While it is a sterile thing to talk about the efficiency of writing, I think Shindell manages to condense a tremendous amount of emotional energy into this song in very few words, like a painter suggesting forests with the lightest smidge of his brush.

• • • • • • •

Susan WernerMy original plan for the third writer was turn to Patty Griffin’s Long Ride Home. I remembered that I had already written about this song back in 2007, and I have not seen her perform, so alas Patty does not get the nod. (But go listen to that song anyway – you will be glad you did.) I next considered Paul Simon, as he is a master craftsman. I touched once on his song Hearts and Bones here, and I had his song Darling Lorraine in mind, but so many people have discussed his songwriting talents that seemed like a copout, so I turn instead to a singer who has never known his fame, but will always stand out in my mind as one of the purest talents I have ever seen – Susan Werner. I cannot even count how many times I have seen Susan play, and I once even had a cup of coffee with her, trying the whole time not to appear too giddy. While I don’t know what her career goals have been, I suspect she would have enjoyed more popular acclaim than she has found, and it is a shame to me she has not. Her voice is ethereal, she has a lovely sense of humor and stage presence, she is very attractive, and a wonderful musician. Why she is not more widely known is a mystery to me, but the advantage is that she still plays small enough venues to connect with the room in  a way larger spaces do not permit. Thinking about her music, even though many of her songs have an irreverent side to them, I have chosen a tougher one called Barbed Wire Boys (which you can watch here). It’s an homage to the Midwestern farmers among whom she grew up. I had admired it when I listened to it on her album, but it was in a dingy room in King of Prussia where I heard her sing it in person, and the song took on a whole new dimension. It touches on topics that could easily be schmaltzy or trite, and handles them with care and gentleness, conveying respect and affection for the old-fashioned way in which these men lived their lives. It is a wonderful song, with a snippet here for flavor:

Tough as the busted thumbnails on the weathered hands,
They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands.
And they never complained, no they never made noise,
And they never left home, these barbed wire boys.

• • • • • • •

As an aside, a whole post on music and I have not mentioned either Cat Stevens or the Cowboy Junkies – that may be a record for me. There is no larger point to this collection – simply my fondness for these three musicians and my admiration for their craft. So much awful music spills out into the world over the radio and Youtube and Pandora these days, and clearly a lot of it sells well. What a pleasure then to know there are writers like Wilcox, Shindell, and Werner who can take lessons and episodes from the world around them, rinse them of the unessentials, and clarify them down to the truth underneath. Sometimes when I am confronting writer’s block, it is the long, long gulf between my words and this sort of purity that slows me down, but that sure doesn’t stop me from enjoying it when I find it.

Better lucky than smart

Posted 2014.02.13 by Ran
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,

Thalia

Years ago, I had the pleasure of having a group of friends with whom I took a wonderful writing class. At the time, we spoke about every aspect of writing we could think of, and given how personal a discipline writing is for so many writers, the class brought us together in powerful ways, forging a number of friendships I still lean on more than twenty years later. One aspect of writing we talked about was the age old idea of a muse. At the time, my writing took the form of history papers and newspaper articles, so I discounted the idea of a muse, as necessity served that role for me. Fast forward more than two decades, and I see the appeal of a muse far more vividly now. My writing these days tends to be emails, cover memos, and if I am lucky a few paragraphs that might finagle their unattributed way into the Congressional record, but none of it is at all personal, and very little of it is remotely compelling. It is a different kind of necessity, but necessity all the same that brings my fingers to the keyboard. Thus I was caught off guard when one of my dearest writing class friends (and a stellar writer in her own right) tagged me with a writing assignment today. I will leave it to deeper muse musers than myself to determine if my friend is in fact a muse herself or instead a proxy for one, but all of a sudden I find myself confronted by a Daily Post challenge to write about Valentine’s.

One approach to this topic would be simply to take stock of the awkwardness of middle and high school Valentine’s Days and shudder. I think of my senior year in high school, and the two Valentines I attempted to navigate, and there is even more to shudder over. Both of the objects of my affection then were ill chosen, and the fact that I decided the way to handle that was to juggle two – good grief. It will shock no one reading this to learn that that arrangement ended badly. Moving into the first year of college, I spent Valentine’s playing Tetris with my would be Valentine, as I could not fathom how to escape the dreaded friend zone (a term that did not exist then). Sophomore year I took leave of my senses and sent a dozen roses to a woman I barely knew, but rather than see any romance in this grand gesture, she fled in horror. Swing and a miss. Junior year I reveled in a happy Valentine, gloriously ignorant of the whitewater that lay ahead of me. I cannot begin to recall where in our on-again-off-again yo-yo of idiocy she and I found ourselves for Valentines a year later, and the year after that we were still mired in the same cage match relationship. My learning curve can be embarrassingly flat sometimes.

Sometimes though, there is truth to the saying “it’s better to be lucky than smart,” so permit me to wax rhapsodic about my sublime Valentine of nineteen years. A friend of mine had mentioned a new colleague of his to me, a pretty young teacher new in town. As they were both in my hometown, and I was living in D.C. at the time, I regret to say my first response was to suggest my friend ask her out. When I met her a few weeks later, she recalled immediately how we had met glancingly in college, as I had roomed with a high school beau of hers. Since it is bad form to pay attention to your roommate’s ex, I also regret to say I had not focused on her as I should have when we first met. It only took a brief conversation with her for me to pull my friend aside and take back my suggestion he ask her out. She and I saw each other several times over that fall and winter, but both of us were disentangling ourselves from prior long-distance connections, so those impediments and the more than a hundred miles between us complicated my sense of how best to proceed. Still, we exchanged letters and phone calls, and I found more reasons to spend weekends back in my old stomping grounds. I wish I could say that this led to a lovely, if unoriginal, first Valentine’s day spent idling over a candlelit dinner, proffering heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and reading sonnets. Instead, the enduring memory of that day is a spectacularly expensive long-distance call (yes, I am that old) that meandered comfortably for many hours late into the night. cake cuttingWhile it was not even an exchange of sweet nothings, our talk ranged easily over a lot of conversational terrain, and it set the stage for our first proper date ten days later, a date that started our courtship that led to our engagement just nine months later. We have shared numerous lovely Valentine’s Days since then, but the unexpected pleasure of chatting late into the night (a worknight, no less) with a dazzling new friend will always stick with me, as it is a rare treat for Cupid to fire so many arrows in such a short span of time. I am sure my description does not do this justice, but you will simply have to take my word for it. Since then, I have been continually amazed at, and blessed by, her loving kindness, her deep well of patience, her tireless will, and a thoughtfulness that shines on me and my children every single day.

I know as I write that last part that she will not see herself in that list, which reminds of a wonderful song, which was itself passed on to me by a friend from the same writing class I mentioned at the start. (It is written and performed by David Wilcox, although it features an ending portion by Bach. If you do not know Wilcox, you will be glad you took the time to learn more about his music. Start with Eye of the Hurricane.) I think it is a fitting reminder of the power of love – and of a love affair – to grow, bind together, enrich, endure, tolerate, overcome, renew, and sustain.


So now, to answer the challenge posed by my muse, you have a sense of my Valentine’s story. Poor ol’ St. Valentine’s Day sometimes gets a bum rap, as it is lashed to the complicated topic of love. We should not be surprised a day devoted to romantic love is fraught and prone to failure. Figuring out romance is complicated, and ultimately requires actual love. My magnificent Valentine and I slog through a lot of unromantic moments these days, as three wonderful children and life’s various commitments do not offer many occasions for candlelit dinners, proffered chocolates, and sonnet reading. I certainly wish I was better able to offer her more Hallmark moments and less time spent chasing after our surly children and shoveling out the house. She deserves more moonlit garden strolls and impromptu weekends in Paris. Looking back over the range of Valentines I have experienced, as much as my toes curl in embarrassment over the dumb ways I spent so many Valentines years ago, I would not change a single one of them for fear of not ending up right where I am today. I wish for you the same conclusion to your Valentine’s story.

Happy 2014

Posted 2014.01.03 by Ran
Categories: Uncategorized

I suppose I must start with the obligatory apology for the long pause since the last post. Life gets very full, and the run up to Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas and the many events that surround that, swallowed up the last two months.

If I were somehow smarter about just writing some funny, small snippet and posting that here, perhaps that would be better than the long pauses. Yet I find that mildly amusing, throwaway observations are so much better suited to chit-chat with my friends on Facebook and they do not seem to fit here.

I do have five or six draft posts I have been kicking around, and I plan to dust a few off and post them here going forward into the new year. I enjoyed the last few months of writing more frequently here, and a kind number of you have been very encouraging about asking for more, so I will try to serve up some more regular offerings. A number of other things are frustrating me mightily in the day-to-day, and I find it hard to set them aside and focus here. Some writers clearly turn to writing as an escape, as therapy, or as procrastination, but of late I have found it easier to write when other things seemed nailed down, and they just do not at the moment.

If anyone ever cared to offer any thematic suggestions, I have been known to take suggestions, so feel free to speak up.

Best wishes to you all for a healthy, safe, happy, and fulfilling 2014.

Wasn’t there twenty years ago

Posted 2013.11.04 by Ran
Categories: Stories

Tags: ,

[This is the ninth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

I am fortunate to have grown up knowing three of my grandparents well, with them all living close by. I spent a lot of time with them growing up, and am very grateful both to have known them and for the glimpse this has given me into my parents’ upbringing. My father’s father was a terrific gentlemen, old-fashioned in the best of ways, and a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. Other than loving to wallop me in Parcheesi, he was always gentle and generous and patient.

stop

When I was fifteen, I was with my grandfather one afternoon, driving around town on errands. I remember my age because I was nearing the time when I would receive my driver’s license, and I paid very careful attention to everyone’s driving as I was preparing for the day when I would be behind the wheel. As we drove down a street this day, approaching an intersection I pass several times a week now, I could sense my grandfather was not slowing for the stop sign, and sure enough we drove right through it. He was a careful, cautious, law-abiding man, and this astonished me, so I blurted out, “What about that stop sign?” Without missing a beat, his even-toned reply came back: “It wasn’t there twenty years ago.”

At the time, his answer made no sense to me at all. On the surface, it made no difference how long the sign had been there. Beyond that, the idea of twenty years was beyond my ability to imagine, and so I could not fathom the idea he expressed. Now that I am old enough for my children to have decided I am old and boring, I have an adequate sense of time to grasp what he was saying that day. I even know of certain intersections in town where the stop signs are of a recent enough vintage that I must make a very deliberate effort to stop, as those signs have not taken their places in my mental map yet. I suspect they will not do so for almost another twenty years.

• • • • • • •

Age is a tricky thing. Very few moments trigger in me the thought “I am aging”, although a few will spark a fleeting “I have aged.” I watch my children grow like some time-lapse on the internet, with the oldest now taller than his mother and the youngest uncomfortably learning about being an individual, and I think about how little time has passed since they were babes-in-arms, innocent and ignorant of the big world. Before I know it we will be tackling high school, driving, college, and who knows what next. As a kid, I imagined that one day I would feel grown up inside, admittedly with no clear sense of what I meant by that or how I anticipated that to feel. My grandmother (married to the driver mentioned above for more than fifty years) said to me about twenty years ago that on the inside, she still felt sixteen. I knew as she said it she meant it, I knew she was not teasing, and I knew she had all her wits and this was a heartfelt observation, but like that missed stop sign, I could not make heads or tails of what she was trying to tell me. Now as I look ahead and as I glance behind, I know what she means about feeling the same inside. There is comfort to that, of being yourself in a way that endures through age and time, but it is also unsettling to realize that there may be no moment when feeling like a grown up settles over you, despite having a lovely wife, a comfortable house, wonderful children, an approximate career, and many other props associated with adulthood.

• • • • • • •

On occasion, I try to offer my kids some advice that builds on a longer perspective than their tender years permit, and I almost always feel like I cannot express what I am trying to in a way that might be helpful to them. My question to you then is how do you convey the passage of significant time or the perspective of maturity to someone young? Have you even tried? Did they hear you?

College admissions, part three

Posted 2013.10.21 by Ran
Categories: Stories

Tags: ,

[This is the eighth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

When I started writing about college admissions, I did not think the topic would spawn three separate posts. If you have heard too much about this sliver of life, then let me assure you this is the last one I contemplate writing for the foreseeable future, so you will soon be safe. I learned via Facebook that my college counselor read my last two posts, so here is a hello to him if he make his way here a third time. I promise to leave your profession alone soon enough, Don.

I ended my last post with the promise (threat?) of one further story about college admissions, and that is what this is, on its surface. Like so many stories in life, this is also a vignette about perception and historiography, and a reminder of the differences between hearing and listening.

• • • • • • •

One of the many schools I visited as a prospective student was Haverford College, in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Founded by Quakers in 1833, this school of about twelve hundred students provided me with a wonderful tour (no sparkling sidewalks here) and a very positive interview that both contributed to a great deal of interest on my part. It would be too strong to say I had my heart set on Haverford, but I was genuinely excited about the school, I admired its character, and I loved the campus. It very closely fit the picture I had in my head of what college should look like and, more importantly, feel like.

My interview was conducted with a gentleman named Dana Swan. If you google this man today, the first thing you learn is that he passed away in June 2008, and that he was a highly regarded football and lacrosse coach. By all accounts he was a wonderful coach, but I met him seven years into his career as a wonderful Associate Director of Admissions, a position he filled for twenty years. When I spoke with admissions people at various colleges, I made an effort always to sound positive about the school I was visiting, but I also made a real effort never to feign more enthusiasm than I really felt. Since I was deeply impressed with Haverford the day I visited, I suspect I gushed on the topic while speaking with Mr. Swan, and I have no idea how much he believed me when I expressed how much I had liked the school, the students, the campus, and the whole environment while I was there. I guess I made my point, as Mr. Swan spent the last ten minutes of the interview telling me how much he liked my record and my comments during the interview. While I cannot vouch for the exact words he used, I know the closing sentiment was along the lines of “I am sure there’s a place for you here at Haverford.” If you had asked me that day if he had promised me a spot, I would have said no, but I am certain in retrospect that he was substantially more encouraging than any other college representative I ever spoke with before or afterwards, excepting a few deep safety schools.

• • • • • • •

mysteryIt will not surprise you, discerning reader, to learn that when the college letters came out that spring, a thin envelope arrived from Haverford telling me how they wished me every success in my future endeavors, but that in their efforts to craft the perfect class of incoming students, they had seen fit not to extend me an offer of admission. I was terribly surprised by this, and it took the wind out of my sails for a spell. Fortunately my story has a happy ending, as several other schools sent me thick envelopes, including the wonderful school where I wound up, and spent four very happy years. Thus I relate this story with no regret or rancor, as I am confident that the endless, mercurial, and arbitrary college admissions process actually matched me to a great place.

Having said all that, I did nurse a dull, lukewarm grudge towards Mr. Swan for a time after the rejection. He had been so encouraging, so welcoming, and so assuring that I had permitted myself to imagine myself as a student at his school, and I was offended at how he could have offered such hope to a kid so adrift in the college search mælstrom. Still, I would never have remembered his name were it not for one additional development.

• • • • • • •

During my Sophomore year, I lived in a mouldering pit on the edge of campus called Park Place (any wizards out there eager to guess the name of the neighboring dump?). My three roommates and I had enjoyed such a sumptuous room Freshman year that our lottery number did not secure us any place to live, and we managed to sneak off of the waiting list and into this room just a week or two before the start of school. It was fine for what it was, and let me assure you it had all sorts of stories waiting to be told about it (remote control pranks, crazed Freshman co-eds clambering at the windows, pet fungi, the appearance of future spouses, and the mystery neighbor among them). One of my roommates was a fellow known to us all as Lurch, and I very much enjoyed his company. Easy going, contemplative, full of warmth and humor, and not a mean bone in his body. He introduced me that year to Daniel Lanois‘s magnificent album Acadie, and we would sit in the common room early in the year and listen to music and chat and ignore our work as Sophomores are prone to doing.

One afternoon while we were working our way through Acadie, The Caution Horses, and Rust Never Sleeps, Lurch and I meandered onto the topic of college admissions. He and I were both enjoying our time at college, and so we could address the topic without any anguish. Still it was interesting to compare notes about how he had navigated the process that brought him to that moment. We talked about various schools and visits, and about where we had applied and that led us to talk about other places we had considered attending. Soon we realized we had both been interested in Haverford, and we laughed to think about an alternate universe where he and I might be hanging out in Pennsylvania, listening to music, and discussing our former thoughts about Connecticut schools. Then Lurch mentioned how he had met with a kind, enthusiastic gentleman at Haverford who had raved about his chances and all but promised him admission, and he recalled how disappointed he had been when his letter had arrived in all its thinness. So I asked him if he’d spoken to Mr. Swan since then, and Lurch looked at me funny, and I related how I had had a nearly identical experience as him.

• • • • • • •

Please believe me when I say I am not telling this story to criticize Mr. Swan. I only met him that one time, and his long tenure in his position speaks volumes to the care and credibility he brought to his work. I am sure when he spoke with me and with Lurch that he chose his words carefully, that he offered encouragements carefully calibrated to our records, and that he meant every word he said. While I will not presume to speak for Lurch, for my part I am confident he spoke a sequence of words which promised nothing and obligated him and his school to nothing. I am also sure that the college admissions process for me was so bleak, so endless, and so fraught with failure and oblivion that when one of the very few kind people I met in the process offered warmth and support that I latched onto it and magnified it all out of proportion. I suspect admissions is like so many jobs where one deals with people in bulk, and it is difficult for most people to treat masses of humanity as individuals, to meet with them in an interview where formulaic replies must surely be the norm, and still manage to hear enough of the actual person inside to reply to that kid with such immediacy that they know right away that their words and ideas had really been heard. The sadness is that while I was listening to his words, I was hearing them through a filter of hope and anxiety that apparently stripped them of their qualifiers and left me with a memory of assurance. Learning always to listen accurately to what I am hearing is a skill I am still attempting to master.

[One final aside - one thousand internets to the first person to explain the illustration above and its relevance to this rambling account.]


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