Tom Verlaine

It seems like every week of 2023 brings news of the passing of some rock music icon. This week we learned of the death of Tom Verlaine. Verlaine was the guitarist and motivating force of the ’70s band Television, which produced one of the greatest rock albums in history: the urgent, brooding, melodic, magnificent Marquee Moon.

I first learned of the album from the pages of Rolling Stone. In those days, I regularly read that magazine because it seemed important to try to stay abreast of what was going on in the music world and learn about new albums that I might want to add to my collection. I had never heard of Television or Tom Verlaine, but the Rolling Stone review of Marquee Moon was a positive one, and I had some money in my pocket–this was in pre-credit card days–so I went down to one of the OSU campus record stores and promptly bought it, took it back to my apartment, and put it on the turntable.

About an hour later, singularly struck by what I had just heard, I listened to the album all over again. The lyrics were weird and funny, and made every song worth a very careful listen (a personal favorite that still makes me laugh to this day, from the song Friction: “If I ever catch .(pause) that ventriloquist, I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist”) and the music was fantastic. The songs frequently built to a crescendo, like you were listening to a guitar-heavy, rock version of a Rossini overturn or Ravel’s Bolero. From that day forward, it was a favorite. When I got home from classes and was trying to decide what to listen to, I turned to Marquee Moon again and again.

It’s hard to describe Television’s music on Marquee Moon. Some of the obituaries for Tom Verlaine say it was an “art punk” band like Blondie or the Talking Heads, but I always thought Television’s music was unique, and not so easily captured. The rough-edge vocals definitely had a punkish sound, to be sure, but the band’s musical abilities were far above what you would expect from a punk band. Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing had a lot to do with that. It was ever-changing in sound, but always beautiful, with a beat, and soaring, and sinuous. The epic song Marquee Moon, stretching to more than 10 minutes in length, most of which is devoted to Verlaine’s guitar leading an extended instrumental interlude in which the whole band is totally tight and focused, is one of those mood-altering songs where you just say an inner “Wow!” when it is finally, regrettably over.

This morning I decided to to remember Tom Verlaine by listening to Marquee Moon again, and it is as if I am 20 and listening to the album before heading to a 9 a.m. class. To quote a lyric from the Television song Guiding Light: “I woke up . . . and it’s yesterday.” Thank you, Tom Verlaine and your Television bandmates, for creating something that can have that kind of lasting impact.

Taking A Class With Dr. King

Dr.. Martin Luther King is known to us as a teacher whose relentless advocacy and aspirational vision of a better, fairer America helped to power the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. What many do not know is that he was a teacher in fact–for one class. In 1962, Dr. King returned to his alma mater, Morehouse College, and taught a class called Seminar in Social Philosophy. The records of that class, and the recollections of the students who were fortunate to take it, provide a glimpse at another facet of this iconic historical figure and the ideas that motivated him and his work.

You can see Dr. King’s handwritten syllabus of readings for the course, and an exam that was given in the course, here. From looking at the reading list, it’s obvious that this was one of those college courses that would challenge a student to the limit: the readings encompassed a broad range of philosophical writings, from Plato and Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, from Hobbes and Locke to Kant, from Rousseau and Hegel to John Stuart Mill–with a little Machiavelli thrown in for good measure. In the exam, students had to answer five of seven questions that required them to actually think about how the philosophical constructs they learned could be compared and applied. One of the seven questions, for example, asked students to “Appraise the Student Movement in its practice of law-breaking in light of Aquinas’ Doctrine of Law.”

Ten years ago CNN published a story about the eight men and women who took this class with Dr. King–one of whom was Julian Bond. You can read about them, and their interesting recollections about the course that met once weekly for that semester in 1962, here. Not surprisingly, the students were influenced and motivated by that class, One student, Barbara Adams, shared this recollection:

“It was a hard class in the sense that there was a lot of reading and understanding great thinkers. It was relaxed in that it was more like a conversation rather than a lecture. It was hard in that we had to come to grips with nonviolence as more than just a political tactic. He wanted us to understand it was a way of living and bringing about change.”

She added this point about how the students viewed Dr. King at that time:

“We didn’t really know we were in the midst of a man who in the future would be considered great. We knew he was a man with a vision, sure, but he seemed so ordinary and so down to earth and he was so easy to talk to, even more than some of my other professors. I mean we respected and admired him, but we never dreamed that he would become a Nobel Prize winner or that he would become a martyr. He was not a puffed-up man.”

Imagine having the opportunity to discuss philosophy with Dr. Martin Luther King and a few other highly motivated students who had done the heavy reading, had thought about the tough issues, and were passionate about the subject and its relevance to an ongoing social movement that would change America forever. Imagine being spurred to learn and think about how the developing philosophy of the Civil Rights movement fit into the grand sweep of different philosophies that had been articulated in the past. This must have been a college course for the ages.

The story of the Morehouse College Seminar in Social Philosophy also shows that Dr. King didn’t shy away from challenging others, whether it was in the pulpit, in the classroom, or on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And it also shows why college students shouldn’t always try to take the easy route. Sometimes, the toughest classes have the greatest reward. It’s something worth thinking about as we commemorate Martin Luther King Day.

Jeff Beck

I was very saddened to learn that Jeff Beck died suddenly earlier this week, apparently after contracting bacterial meningitis. He was only 78, which means he was a still a veritable spring chicken in comparison to other rock stars who are still performing and recording into their 80s. His death is a huge loss for the music world and for those of us who loved and endlessly listened to his albums and his music over the decades.

Jeff Beck first came to prominence as a guitarist with the Yardbirds–the legendary rock guitarist incubator band that also was the launching group for Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He went on to form the Jeff Beck Group, which featured Rod Stewart as a vocalist, and produced some great music–but he first really hit my musical radar screen in the mid-70s, with the classic album Blow by Blow, the cover of which is pictured above. Released in 1975, just as I was finishing high school, Blow by Blow was a kind of jazz/fusion instrumental album (except for Beck’s use of the voice box, a device he pioneered, so you could kind of hear his voice in his recording of the Beatles’ song She’s A Woman). I loved every song on the album–especially Freeway Jam and Constipated Duck–and played the crap out of the record as I moved on to college.

Blow by Blow was followed by Wired and Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live, and I bought both of those albums and loved them, too, with Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and Blue Wind being particular favorites. All of those Jeff Beck albums were standard selections on the music playlist at my college apartments. As I listened to those albums, over and over, I came to particularly appreciate how he could get an awesome variety of different sounds out of his guitar, and his ability to move seamlessly from jazz to blues to move your feet tunes. His talents were obvious and immense, but you also had to give a nod of appreciation to his creativity and his willingness to experiment, rather than just playing the same kind of music for the rest of his career. That flair for experimentation continued with Beck’s later albums. He was a kind of restless, adventurous musical spirit who couldn’t sit still and had to try new things. His space-rock/psychedelic song Space for the Papa, on his 1999 album Who Else?, is a good example of how Beck’s taste for musical exploration continued.

It’s tough when someone who had an impact on your musical tastes, and whose talents have been a part your life and given you countless hours of listening pleasure, dies too young. I suspect that, before he was stricken, Jeff Beck was thinking about new musical vistas to explore and new risks to take, and now we unfortunately won’t get the chance to hear what he would have produced. I hope his family is comforted in this time of devastating loss by the certain knowledge that his many fans won’t ever forget Jeff Beck. His legacy lives on in his catalog of creative genius and the still-fresh and wonderful music that people like me will listen to and enjoy for years to come.

Meat Loaf

I was very sorry to read of the death of Meat Loaf (the stage name of Marvin Lee Aday) last week. He was an accomplished actor–most memorably, for me at least, as Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Robert Paulson, aka “Bob,” in Fight Club–and a great singer and rocker who sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.

Of course, one of those albums was Bat Out Of Hell, which burst onto the scene when I was in college. The album was a collaboration between Meat Loaf and composer Jim Steinman, and it was an immediate sensation that quickly entered the rotation of albums played on the stereo system in my college apartment. It was not a standard rock album of that era and didn’t really fall easily into any established category, and it was filled with great songs like Bat Out Of Hell and Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad and You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth. The real killer track, though, was Paradise By The Dashboard Light–the hilarious recollection of an older married couple about their night, long ago, when they went parking by the lake as high schoolers. The song had a great, urgent beat, and it featured a fiery singing duel between Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley. They both sang the hell out of it, and even crappy singers like me sang along. The song was so good that I promptly went out and bought Ellen Foley’s debut album, and it was great, too.

My college friends and I weren’t alone in our love of the Bat Out Of Hell. The album has sold more than 50 million copies and remains one of the ten top selling albums of all time. And, I suspect, Paradise By The Dashboard Light has found resonance with each new generation that has heard its timeless tale of love and lust.

Rest in peace, Meat Loaf, and thank you for your stellar contribution to my college music playlist. College wouldn’t have been the same without you.

The Science Of “Hangover Cures”

Here’s some useful information to keep in mind as we head into the weekend: according to a study published in the journal Addiction, researchers have concluded that that there is no convincing scientific evidence that hangover cures actually work— so plan your activities accordingly.

Everyone who has ever overindulged, or knows someone who did, has heard of one purported “hangover cure” or another. One of my college friends swore that chewing and then swallowing multiple dry Excedrin tablets, without water, was a sure-fire remedy; another touted the consumption of a platter of french fries covered with rich brown gravy to soak up and counteract the evil alcoholic juices still working in the stomach. Other claimed remedies of my college days involved concoctions made with raw eggs, hot sauce, and other random ingredients that you would never consume if you weren’t desperately dealing with a pounding headache, cotton mouth, sour stomach, and generally impaired senses caused by your foolish activities of the night before. And, of course, some inveterate partiers simply turned to the hair of the dog that bit them.

Scientists, being scientists, recognize that hangovers aren’t pleasant. The lead author of the study, Dr. Emmert Roberts, says, with admirable, clinical understatement: “Hangover symptoms can cause significant distress and affect people’s employment and academic performance.” So the researchers looked at studies of items like clove extract, red ginseng, Korean pear juice, artichoke extract, prickly pear, and other claimed hangover cures. They found that the studies either didn’t show statistically significant improvements in hangover symptoms or, if they did show such results, involved various kinds of methodological limitations or imprecise measurements. And the results of the studies haven’t been independently replicated, either.

But take heart! Scientists recognize that hangovers suck, and that remedies deserve more careful and rigorous study. Until that happens, though, Dr. Roberts offers this advice: “For now, the surest way of preventing hangover symptoms is to abstain from alcohol or drink in moderation.” And if you just can’t follow his advice this weekend, be sure to drink lots of water and have a bottle of Excedrin and some french fries and gravy on hand, just in case.

The Ceaseless Quest For Rankings

If you want some tangible evidence of how rankings have affected the activities of colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education, you need look no farther than Philadelphia, Pennsylvania– where a federal court jury recently convicted Moshe Porat, the long-time dean of the Temple University Richard J. Fox School of Business and Management, of mail and wire fraud in connection with a scheme to boost that school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking.

According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s office for Eastern Pennsylvania, Porat, who served as the dean of the business management school from 1996 to 2018, was convicted after the jury found that he had “conspired and schemed to deceive the school’s applicants, students, and donors into believing that the school offered top-ranked business degree programs, so that they would pay tuition and make donations to Temple.” The statement explains that Porat and two other conspirators “agreed to provide false information to U.S. News about the number of Fox’s [on-line MBA (“OMBA”) and part-time MBA (“PMBA”)] students who had taken the Graduate Management Admission Test (“GMAT”); the average work experience of Fox’s PMBA students; and the percentage of Fox students who were enrolled part-time, all because it was believed that better numbers for these metrics would result in better rankings for the programs.”

The scheme to goose the school’s rankings evidently worked, too. The U.S. Attorney statement explains: “Relying on the false information it had received from Fox, U.S. News ranked Fox’s OMBA program Number One in the country four years in a row (2015 – 2018). U.S. News also moved Fox’s PMBA program up its rankings from No. 53 in 2014 to No. 20 in 2015, to No. 16 in 2016, and to No. 7 in 2017.” Porat then touted the rankings in “marketing materials directed at potential Fox students and donors,” and “[e]nrollment in Fox’s OMBA and PMBA programs grew dramatically in a few short years, which led to millions of dollars a year in increased tuition revenues.”

The “rankings” established by publications like U.S. News and World Report have had a profound–and in my view, negative–impact on the world of higher education. Parents and students use them to help in making application decisions, and schools reorient their admissions standards and processes and make other important decisions in an endless quest to better their rankings. The notion that you can boil down the whole college experience, or a law school education, to a ranking based on metrics is absurd on its face, but the rankings give schools something to boast about, or goals to achieve. Never mind the distorting and pernicious effect the zeal for higher rankings might have on a school’s educational mission–or the fact that the rankings have become such a dominant force that they caused one school administrator to apparently engaged in fraudulent conduct.

We’re past the point where our kids are making school decisions, but this incident really makes you wonder how meaningful those rankings really are.

Commander Cody, R.I.P.

One of the many bad things about getting older is seeing the familiar figures of your youth fall by the wayside. It happened again this week, with the passing of George Frayne IV—better known as “Commander Cody,” the leader of the great, undefinable, genre-crossing group Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

Everyone’s high school and college years has a unique soundtrack, because music always seemed to be playing during that time period and was such an important part of the whole experience. Commander Cody was definitely part of my soundtrack. I’m pretty sure the first Commander Cody song I heard was Hot Rod Lincoln, when it hit the charts during high school. What a great record! No song was better calculated to appeal to the car-crazy sensibilities of high school boys, and the Commander’s high-speed rendition and deadpan, gravel-voiced delivery of the lyrics put the song right up there with Radar Love as one of the great highway driving songs of that era.

In college, the Commander’s music was always on our turntable, and songs like Lost in the Ozone, Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette, and Rock That Boogie were staples that were played so often they remain permanently ingrained on my brain cells. Lost in the Ozone became a kind of catchphrase with my college roommate, and if something strange happened you could bet we would respond by crooning a few bars of that song’s refrain.

How do you adequately thank someone who helped to make your college years what they were? You can’t, of course, but I will say thank you anyway, and just wish the Commander a speedy, ozone-free journey to whatever comes next.

Project Hail Mary

Over the weekend I finished reading Project Hail Mary, the latest book by author Andy Weir. Actually, saying I read the book really doesn’t capture the process; you might say instead that I devoured it. Weir also wrote The Martian, and if you enjoyed that book (or even just the enjoyable Matt Damon movie version of that story, although I thought the book was better), I’m pretty sure that you’ll also enjoy Project Hail Mary.

The plot of the book grabs your attention from the very first page. The main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up from an enforced multi-year coma that has left him mentally sluggish and forgetful about pretty much everything. As he slowly regains his memory, he realizes that he is on a spacecraft and was part of a three-person crew that has been sent to a faraway star system. Unfortunately, his two crewmates didn’t survive the prolonged coma, and he is alone except for his robot caretaker. As his memories gradually return, he not only realizes things about himself, he also recalls that the purpose of the mission was to try to save the Earth by figuring out a way to eliminate the threat of astrophages–tiny organisms that are consuming the Sun’s energy and threatening to convert the Earth into a frozen waste that humans and other creatures cannot survive. His crew was sent on a one-way suicide mission to the Tau Ceti system because that star–alone among the stars in our solar system’s neighborhood–isn’t showing signs of its output being affected by astrophages.

I won’t spoil the book for those who might wish to read it; obviously, I thought it was well worth the read. I do want to say two general things about the book, however. First, the book–like The Martian–makes me wish I had paid more attention to science and math courses in high school, and actually taken some more math and science classes in college. In both books, Weir’s characters routinely use their scientific knowledge, and their deftness with math, to solve imponderable problems and develop practical solutions to fend off one potential disaster after another. If school boards are looking to incentivize kids to take more math and science courses, assigning the kids to read The Martian and Project Hail Mary would be a good first step.

Second, and despite the fact that the plot of the book has the Earth and the human species teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to the astrophages ravaging the Sun, the book presents a fundamentally optimistic view. The nations of Earth manage to come together to address the astrophage blight, and Ryland Grace, like Mark Watney in The Martian, also takes a positive, cheerful approach to his impossible situation and the immense challenges he encounters. As he remembers more and more about how he got to where he is, works to overcome every challenge thrown his way, and maintains his sense of humor in the face of unimaginable circumstances, it’s hard not to come to like the guy.

It was a pleasure to read a book that projected such optimism about the future, and human beings. It was a special treat to read the book right now, when positive news and cause for optimism can sometimes be hard to find.

Tie Died

Yesterday the Bus-Riding Conservative (who hasn’t been riding the bus much these days since the office has been closed) sent around a picture of himself wearing a mask and a suit and tie.  He was donning his lawyer garb and mask to attend an important meeting, and he looked like a dashing corporate raider or somebody getting ready to rob a high-end country club — after cocktails, of course.

title-image-1But the BRC made a somewhat shocking confession in conjunction with sending his photo.  He admitted that it actually felt good to put on a tie after enduring a long, tieless period.

I’m surprised that the BRC’s astonishing statement didn’t produce thunderbolts from on high or breathless news reports that hell had frozen over, because it is likely the first time in the history of western civilization that a man has said that it felt good to put on a scrap of colored cloth that is specifically designed to cinch down on your windpipe and your sagging neck wattles and serves no functional purpose whatsoever, other than to become stained by splashes of food during power lunches.

The BRC’s mind-boggling confession got me to thinking, and I realized two things.  First, I don’t miss wearing a tie in the slightest, although I will certainly put one back on, as part of the lawyer’s uniform, when things get back to some semblance of normalcy.  And second, this has undoubtedly been the longest I’ve gone without wearing a tie in decades.  This coming week will mark my three-month anniversary in the untied category.  That hasn’t happened since at least law school — which ended, incidentally, during Ronald Reagan’s first term — and maybe since college, back in the Carter Administration.  And even in college, we periodically had parties following a Blue Brothers theme where the costume required attendees to put on a hat, tie, and sunglasses.  We may be going all the way back to high school.

I’ve written before about what parts of the new, coronavirus world will continue, and what parts will end when a vaccine is invented or “herd immunity” is achieved.  Even before COVID-19 struck, there was a strong push against standard business attire — including tie — and in favor of general “business casual” requirements, in which the tie went the way of the Dodo.  It will be interesting to see whether we’ve seen the last gasp of the necktie in the business world, and it turns out to be one of the many victims of the coronavirus.

If it is, there won’t be many male mourners — other than the BRC, of course.

Demise Of The Inner Long-Haired Kid

My last haircut was on February 24. The calendar tells me that means I’ve had a three-month, state-enforced hiatus from barbering. Even with three months of unimpeded hair growth, though, my hair now is still much, much shorter than it was in high school or college — which tells you something about how short I have been getting it cut these days, and how long it used to be during the ‘70s.

It makes me wonder about my teenage self, and how in the world that person could possibly have put up with long hair. I’ve discovered I really don’t like the feeling of hair brushing against my ears, or on the back of my neck. In fact, right now my whole head feels like I’m wearing a kind of clammy coonskin cap. It’s not a pleasant feeling — but I don’t remember having those kinds of reactions during my my shaggy early years. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true.

And now I think longer hair is a pain for other reasons. I’ve had to break out my comb again to part it and try to arrange it on my head. You can’t just towel it dry — and I’m not going to start using a blow dryer, either. This reality makes me think that I spent a lot more time in front of the mirror in those days, fiddling around with things I just don’t have the patience or inclination to do these days.  Back then I obviously had a lot more time on my hands than I do now. 

I get my hair cut on Tuesday, and I’m looking forward to it, masks and all. In fact, this whole experience makes me wonder how much my current self and my 20-year-old self would really have in common — beyond liking the same music and reruns of Star Trek.

John Prine And Roommate Music

I was very sorry to read of the death this week of John Prine, one of the great songwriters of his generation, from complications of the coronavirus.  At the same time, thinking about John Prine, and how I first heard his music, took me back to some happy memories.  I think John Prine probably would have liked that.

John Prine on campus of Georgia State College - November 12, 1975I first heard John Prine’s music in college.  My college roommate was a huge fan of John Prine, and in our apartment John Prine songs were an inevitable part of the playlist.  Sam StoneIllegal Smile, and Please Don’t Bury Me in the Cold, Cold Ground (which is probably not the actual title of the song, but is how I remember it) and a bunch of other great songs with great lyrics were all in the rotation.  John Prine was a good example of how actually going to college (as opposed to attending virtual school, which is what people are now forecasting might be the future) had the effect of broadening the cultural horizons of college students in those days in the long ago ’70s.

My roommate and I each had an extensive record collection, featuring both albums and 45s, and they fit together almost perfectly, with virtually no overlap — well, except for the Beatles, because everyone had the Beatles albums.  He had a lot of John Prine, Creedence, and every Lynyrd Skynyrd album, as well as some great 45s from the ’60s, and I had a lot of Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, jazz, and classical stuff.  We played it all, and quickly came to enjoy and appreciate each other’s music.  When the college days moved behind us, I still listened to all of it, and even now, 40 years later, still think automatically of John Prine lyrics that suit the situation.

And the real acid test is:  what songs of an artist do you sing in the shower?  For me, that’s John Prine’s Bad Boy:

I been a bad boy
I been long gone
I been out there
I never phone home
I never gave you not one little clue where I’d been
I’ve been a bad boy again

I got a way of
Fallin’ in love
With angels that don’t shove
You into thinkin’ that you are committing a sin
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

I must have walked ’round
In a real fog
I was your best friend
Now I’m a real dog
I never thought that now
Would ever catch up with then
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy
I sung a wrong song
I took a left turn
I stayed too long
As you were thinkin’ that I wasn’t
Just like all other men
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

RIP, John Prine — and thanks to my college roommate for allowing me to make your acquaintance and enjoy your music.

At The College Of Musical Knowledge

When it comes to rock music, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on its history and principal performers.  I lived through most of the history of that particular musical genre, was immersed in it when I was in high school and college, and read about my favorite artists and the early days of rock ‘n roll, the British invasion, and psychedelia.  I can pretty easily identify songs that fell into subgenres like doo-wop, bubblegum, acid rock, and disco and can identify obscure songs and artists.  And even though I don’t listen to current rock music much these days, I still carry around that history.

2014-ryan-stees-featureWith classical music, that’s not true.  I didn’t pick it up because it was the prevailing musical form in my formative years; instead, the apogee of the classical period happened decades or even centuries before I was born.  I’ve listened to it over the years, but my knowledge really is narrow and about an inch deep.  I’ve watched Amadeus, listened to a kid’s tape we had when the boys were little called Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and am generally familiar with at least some of the creations of some of classical music’s biggest names, like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.  I know that I really like baroque music.  But . . . that’s about it.  I still confuse Schubert and Schumann.

For a fan of the music, my knowledge is pretty dismal.  It’s embarrassing.

Recently I’ve decided that I’m not just going to accept my state of blissful classical music ignorance, and am going to try to broaden my horizons by discovering some new composers, learning about distinguishing between the different classical musical periods, and trying to understand the whole composing process and how orchestration works.  I’m not going to try to learn how to read music — we’re talking baby steps here — but I’m hoping to end up with a better appreciation for the music that I listen to most frequently these days.

Thanks to the great Idagio app that I’ve written about before, I’ve already discovered a few previously unknown composers whose music I really like, and learned some interesting things about process.  This year I’ll be reporting from time to time on what I’m getting out of my enrollment in the College of Musical Knowledge.  Fortunately, there’s no curriculum, and there won’t be any midterms.  I’ll just be auditing the classes.

From The Pre-Hugging Period

Tomorrow night I’m having dinner with my college roommate, who’s coming to town for work.  We’ve known each other since, like, 1976, and it will be good to see him and catch up on things.

hapa-handshake-300x300-1But as I was walking home last night, I was thinking:  how do I greet him when we first see each other?

You see, our friendship dates back to the pre-hugging period.  In those days, men simply didn’t give a friendly hug as a hello.  I don’t think I ever saw my grandfathers or my father hug anyone, male or female, and I don’t remember any my high school or college friends going the hugging route, either.  It was also before the dawn of the “bro bump,” the combination move that occurs where the two men greeting each other shake hands and collide shoulder to shoulder at the same time, or the half hug, where the greeters stand shoulder to shoulder and put an arm around each other’s shoulder, without going for the full hug.

In those days, there were three potential forms of male greeting — manly nod, manly handshake, and manly handshake coupled with manly backslap, in roughly that order of ascending friendliness.  The only deviation from the norm in the stilted ’70s came if you encountered a fellow college student and gave the revolutionary hippie handshake, pictured with this post, where your thumb was somehow pointing upward.  The revolutionary/hip handshake fell out of fashion as quickly as ’70s hairstyles and leisure suits, however, and even if I wanted to give it in greeting I couldn’t because I don’t remember how to do it.

Acceptable forms of greeting are pretty confusing these days because there are so many options, and you don’t want to chose the wrong one and be left hanging.  I guess I’ll go with the regular, firm handshake that was my grandfathers’ and father’s preferred form of greeting.  It may be boring and old-fashioned, but it’s at least stood the test of time.

Crossing The “Critical Edition” Barrier

For a 2019 New Year’s resolution, of sorts, I vowed to try to read at least one book that is more challenging than my normal fare.  In furtherance of that goal, I went to the library and picked up Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, in the Penguin Classics edition.  That means the book comes with a lengthy introduction, an appendix, and lots of footnotes — all of which make the book seem more mentally demanding than, say, your standard sci fi fiction.

img_8056Admittedly, presenting a Charles Dickens novel as some kind of awesome intellectual gauntlet is a bit dodgy.  After all, Dickens was easily the most popular writer of his day, read avidly in both England and America, and David Copperfield was one of his most popular books.  Dickens made huge amounts of money through his writings and his literary tours, where he would read aloud from his works to large live audiences.  Some sources contend that, during his heyday, 1 in 10 Britons who could read read Dickens’ books — which is pretty astonishing, if true.

But here’s the thing:  those readers of the past didn’t read David Copperfield in the form of a Norton Critical Edition, or a Penguin Classics volume, knowing that the book is generally considered to be one of the Greatest Novels of All Time.  Anyone who has taken a British Literature or Comparative Literature course in college knows about the “critical editions,” which expect the reader to carefully digest every sentence, pick up nuances and associate them with historical and cultural figures of the time, analyze the plot and the characteristics of the characters, and correctly interpret the text for underlying messages.  Even now, decades after the final exam in my last literature course, my heart quailed at the prospect of tackling an esteemed writing presented in the “critical edition” format.

I skipped the lengthy introduction to David Copperfield and went straight to the book itself.  The first sentence reads:  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Of course, being a “critical edition,” there’s got to be a footnote in there somewhere.  Sure enough, “hero” is footnoted.  When, out of curiosity, I went back to the back of the book to read the footnote, it said this:  “hero:  Carlyle discussed the hero as “the man of letters” in On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841).  See Introduction.”

Really?  I’m supposed to interrupt the flow of the book in the very first sentence to read that?  Who gives a flying fig what “Carlyle” has to say?  The footnote was almost a parody of academic overkill — which is really why so many of us hated “critical editions” in the first place.

So, with David Copperfield, I’m going to try to break through the “critical edition” barrier.  Footnotes be damned!  I’m going to read David Copperfield like those adoring Britons did, like any other book, without worrying about introductions or critical context or the comments of Carlyle.  Who knows?  Maybe underneath all of the academic posturing and overlays of intellectualism, there’s actually an interesting story in there somewhere.

The Coming College Collapse

Some pretty alarming predictions are being made about American institutions of higher education these days.  Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, predicts that half of all colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.  That’s upping the ante on a prediction Christensen and Michael Horn made in the New York Times in 2013:  that the bottom 25 percent of every tier of colleges and universities will close or merge out of existence in the next 10 to 15 years.

Abandoned HospitalWhy the dire forecasts?  Because colleges have been struggling for a while now, their business models aren’t sustainable, and demographics and economics indicate that things are going to get worse very soon.

Here’s an interesting point made in the first article linked above:  “Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Indeed, the average tuition discount rate was a whopping 49.9% for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2017–18, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That means that students are paying roughly only half of what colleges and universities say they charge. A tuition discount rate above 35% puts a college in a danger zone, particularly when it is heavily dependent on tuition. Many institutions have discount rates far above that now.”

The fact that the average tuition discount rate is nearly 50 percent indicates that it’s high times if you’re somebody whose child is getting ready to go to college.  College tuitions may be like hospital prices lists for different procedures — that is, they are quoted amounts that almost no one really pays — but an average discount of 50 percent is staggering.  Clearly it’s a buyer’s market out there, and buyer’s markets are bad news for sellers, who get caught in price wars that do nothing except cut into their bottom line.  And, in the case of colleges and universities, the fight for students not only involves cutting tuition, but also building new, high-end dormitories, workout facilities, student centers, and other facilities that might appeal to high school kids who are trying to decide where to spend the next four years.

Statistics also show that about 25 percent of private colleges are operating at deficits, and that expenses have exceeded revenues at public colleges over the past three years.  And demographics aren’t helping, either:  the number of American 18-year-olds who are going to college is declining, and the decline is supposed to get worse within a few years.  Combine fewer applicants with tuition price wars and high fixed costs to pay expenses like tenured faculty salaries and building maintenance costs and you start to see the obvious challenges.  Throw in the possibility that some kids who have grown up sitting in front of their computers might decide to opt instead for the on-line learning options that are making increasing inroads, and the picture becomes even bleaker.

Often, predictions turn out to be wrong, of course, but there is no doubt that these are tough times for American institutions of higher education.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you hear that your alma mater is closing its doors.