Monthly Archives: March 2016

How to Choose your College

Two Trees Los Banos copy

Having just returned from a couple of recruitment events on behalf of the University of California, Santa Barbara, I am full of the delight of talking with bright motivated candidates for admission to the fall quarter. But I am also mindful of errors in education I have seen, and made myself, and I have a couple of ideas to offer about how a young person, with a handful of congratulatory admissions in hand, might think about where to go for four years of challenge, before responding to those delicious offers.

First of all, remember that it doesn’t make that much difference which one you attend. The university name isn’t going to bring you glory, not as an undergraduate. (As a graduate student where you go becomes far more important.) It depends on how you attend. Are you getting a degree to check a box in your projected career or are you off on a voyage of discovery and adventure? Don’t miss the long view because the ivy blinded you.

You want a community, a place that you feel will help you grow as a person and a scholar. Go see the possibilities, smell the air, see if folk are friendly. Ask about competition in the classroom, in research, in politics and popularity. You can actually find a campus that’s just like high school, alas. A place where everyone postures to seem more blasé and sophisticated than everyone else, surprised at nothing, assuming that means some kind of win. In my estimation, that is not what college is supposed to be about. Or you can find institutions that don’t look to give the student a broad experience, that narrow down the choices to a safe unchallenging world view with nice walls firm on their foundations. I object to that too.

Undergraduate experience is personal, it matters that the fit is right. If you love a cut-throat atmosphere and it makes you thrive, go for it. If you would rather spend less time watching your back and more time pushing the boundaries of science or art or writing to create the future we all can share, go somewhere that has an emphasis on the fact that we can work together to thrust back the forces of ignorance. If you are driven, excited about possibilities, we’ll all meet up at the end.

A lot goes in to that sense of a good fit, because after all, a college or university should make you uncomfortable. It should make you stretch, far beyond your comfort zone. You should experience failure there, as well as triumph. You should go hungry for fresh thoughts and ideas, concepts and explorations. You go to be challenged in your assumptions, in your conclusions, in your accumulated wisdom. You go to college or university to find out what you don’t know, and all the questions that no one has answers to,  material that unsettles and roils the mind. To plant a field, you need to harrow it first, and that’s a big part of what college needs to do with you. So when you look remember that you want a diverse student body who do not all believe the same things. You want this diversity in faculty and staff as well, an institution that allows these disparate ideas to be heard, and you want to listen to all the voices, even though they may upset and anger you. An education will teach you about things you might prefer to ignore or deny, but that is the point. You should never have to believe everything you hear or are taught, but you do need to know what those things are. I have never seen ignorance protect a single soul from anything. Not in the plowed field, nor in a musty library, nor yet in the streets of the city.

Don’t go to college to look good. Don’t aim low. Go willing to look foolish, to ask dumb questions– because at the end of the day you may have a graying professor scratching her head and saying–“I never thought about it that way before– you just opened a real can of worms.” Go to class–yeah, many big classes don’t take attendance so you can skip lectures. Many kids do. But if you do, you will be like the fellow who goes in to an expensive restaurant and pays for the meal, but walks out without eating it. Such a person is by any measure a fool.

I hope you don’t have to work while in college. Work will expect you to give it your all. Trouble is, so will the university. It is like being married to two people at the same time and trying to uphold the needs of two households, children included. Daycare, parent conferences, doctor’s appointments, quarrels, peace-making, holidays that conflict. It is brutal trying to make both things succeed as each deserves. Better if you can pick the less expensive school if that might allow you to do the learning with a whole soul. An education isn’t a trivial entertainment, it’s hard work, done right, and why would you want to waste your time doing it less than the right?

Go to office hours– there’s no one more desperate for company than the lonely professor waiting in his or her or their office waiting for office hours to be over. Ask professors what they’re working on. All of them have research projects ongoing, and those projects are things they love. You may not yet know, looking at colleges now, that half, or even more, of what professors do isn’t  focused on teaching, nor should it be. They are daily fighting on the frontiers of knowledge and understanding through their research, and that struggle is where the power of their teaching gains its edge to cut deep. Maybe you’ll catch this enthusiasm– the greatest gift of all. But if that doesn’t happen, when it comes time that you need a recommendation for your future job or graduate school, those professors with whom you sat and talked will actually remember who you were, out of the sea of faces in lecture, and be able to write an insightful recommendation because you bothered to go and meet them face to face, and let them know who you really are. Too many times a professor is faced with a young person saying “I need a recommendation for med school and I just loved your class. I got an ‘A’ in it.” The professor looks at the stranger’s face and lamely says, “Well, let me see. Can you tell me something about yourself…?”

And here’s one more thought. When you arrive on your campus, remember that no one knows you. Yes, that’s intimidating, but it also means that this is one of those magical opportunities to rewrite your script. If the first thing you do is a face plant in the flower bed with everyone watching, you’re free to spring up with a laugh because no one at this new school knows you’re not the funniest, friendliest, kindest, happiest soul in the world. You can choose to be that person you always wished to become. Leave all accidents of pretension behind, (haven’t we all memories like that which make us cringe,) forget arrogance, and be inviting, be generous. Open your doors to the finest in others, too, and pick companions, fellow musketeers who make you learn and grow and try harder, because the prize isn’t the degree, but the self you make in these years, that self which is the only company you are guaranteed for life. Create your highest self, allow yourself some of the wonderful things you never felt you could express before.

Bon voyage, friends.


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the other word for manure

So we have at last seen some rain here in Southern California. Not nearly enough, still it has been so dry for so many years that I am simply welcoming every raindrop and have decided to ‘commit manure‘. I have an arrangement with the neighboring horse stables that I’ve just revived, where they kindly bring over wheelbarrows full of stable sweepings and I spread and turn them into the soil of my main beds.

Here I hope to grow string beans and snow peas, limas, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and all kinds of crucifers from broccoli to cabbage. These are vegetables we will eat, never requiring long-distance transport or refrigeration much less plastic wrappings. Ah, so you note I am missing some leafy greens from this list? Well, the escarole and arugula have naturalized in the orchard so I don’t need to plant them in rows. So too the leeks, garlic, and also my swiss chard, which raises great sheaves of leaves wherever it has decided to locate under the apples and orange trees.

Yes, I too have heard arguments about how one should not rototill, but I do. It keeps the soil from compacting, which given its clay rich nature is a decided benefit. It also helps bury the manure so it decays more rapidly and contributes its nitrogen to my harvest instead of becoming a greenhouse emission. Yes, I have heard arguments that chicken manure and horse are not beneficial. Tell that to my garden. Tell that to my freezer crammed with the wealth of past years, my bags of dried fruit, and my jars of jams and pickled peppers.

For my personal preference, I’d love some well-aged steer manure from a neighboring farm. I think of bovine as superior. Problem is, there isn’t such a farm nearby. So how about chicken manure? Very prone to burn plants, (the white part is concentrated uric acid) so you must be careful, but we grew our own vegetables in Nigeria on chicken manure a little aged in water, and grew splendid good vegetables with it. A tad smelly, perhaps. Pig is the most odoriferous, and I admit I don’t like to use it. But if you have concerns about odors, what could be more homey in its pong than horse? It isn’t as beneficial as some of these others, but it will do. Plus, I’m happy  to give my neighbors a break on their manure disposal fees.

Well-mixed manure has three things going for it, one is that I’m not putting petrochemical products on my yard and supporting the use of a non-renewable resource by industry. Two, I’m using something that is otherwise a waste product. Three,  by turning the manure into my garden I’m not only adding organics partially decomposed by digestion to my soil, but I am also decreasing the release of gases that will contribute to global warming. (We need to talk about the down side of composting one of these days.) Yes, I do have to use some supplements, and I occasionally test my soil chemistry, but that’s nothing compared to what I must do to keep my dratted swimming pool chemically balanced.*

The other word for manure? Fertilizer.


*we didn’t put the pool in, previous owners did. I dream on occasion of turning it into a fish pond.


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On Locke in the Bathroom, Bacon and Giants

I have for much of my life only vaguely been aware of Francis Bacon. His works gain reference in the movie Amazing Grace when Toby the butler tells his master “I don’t just dust your books…” and there’s an Abba song I heard in a store recently that I insist sounds like they are making some comment on Francis Bacon (my daughter says it’s my ears.)

But common culture has its points, and pricked by my ignorance I picked up an elderly volume of Francis Bacon’s essays and placed it in the bathroom bookbin, where almost anything can obtain at least a cursory perusal. It joined a miscellany of magazines, a 1960’s paperback on Goethe by Ancelet-Hustache, that charming gentle book In the Company of Mushrooms by Elio Schaechter, Fish’s How to Write a Sentence (tedious,) Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (provocative,) Millard’s The River of Doubt (fraught, fascinating,) and The Remedy by Thomas Goetz, a tale of Robert Koch, Conan Doyle and the quest to treat tuberculosis (un-engaging somehow but I shall try again). Usually I have at least one Stephen King in there, but I just checked and there isn’t. I used to have Locke’s Two Treatises on Government but I seem to have moved him somewhere, maybe to the studio. That’s a risk of bathroom books– when you become engaged you take them away with you, and then you can’t find them.

I must digress for a moment, I obtained a neat little copy of The Federalist Papers last year, and for an excellent read in this year of political change I can hardly recommend browsing in it too highly. Readable, entertaining. All these works– Locke, Bacon and the Federalist Papers are as clarifying as those ‘gets the red out’ eye-drops, when you are looking at the nature of governance.

But let’s get back to Francis Bacon, which is where I started. Try this excerpt, and by the way remember as you read it that Bacon was born in 1561 and died in 1626.

“It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man at all as Plutarch, than that they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat his children as soon as they were born; as the poets speak of Saturn.”

Further he notes that philosophy, laws, the regard for opinion that can all bring a man to at least an outward moral virtue, can be utterly derailed by superstition–

“…superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men. Therefore atheism did never perturb states; for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no further: and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time of Augustus Cæsar) were civil times. But superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile, that ravisheth all the spheres of government. The master of superstition is the people; and in all superstition wise men follow fools; and arguments are fitted to practice, in a reversed order.”

Again, in a slight digression, there has been much discussion of whether Francis Bacon was himself an atheist, or was his argument focused here on an argument that the whims of superstitious thought did not belong in governance or muddying the social contract. You can look this up for yourself, though I believe the answer is clear that he was profoundly religious and therefore anxious about the misuse of religion in public life and governance.


I look at the news, the abounding sound-bites and sensationalist quotations and I cannot help but wonder, how much are we fitted to our times? If we indeed build our understanding and knowledge, upon the shoulders of giants1, as Newton said in his letter of 1676, why do we in every generation persist in hopping down and insisting the view is better from the gutter? We could do worse than to go back to Locke-ing ourselves in the bathroom and chewing over some Bacon.


1.) Standing on the shoulders of giants (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”


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Chapter Eighteen link

Onwards ride the enemy, right to the gates and into the City of the Wall.

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Filed under A Stranger's Blood, blog, free novel, writing

Seventeen has gone up

So for those of you following the story, the seventeenth chapter has been posted on

and you can have your next bit of reading.

In the meantime I have to speak of the young cats. Every so often the Little Watson will spring out from hiding by the corner of our bed, bounding forward on two legs with his front paws outspread, wagging his round head at me. It’s utterly charming, though I am not entirely certain what he means by it. Then he drops and dashes, and oft as not tags me on my ankles before flirting away.

3 cats and a toy.JPG

As for Holmes? He comes and drapes himself over my arm or my lap when I am sitting at the computer and makes conversational mews that are both plaintive and multi-syllabic. He is one of the clumsiest cats I have ever met, a clown in silky black and white with eyes undecided between amber and green. Not really hazel because it seems that the colors are patchy, not truly mixed. He adores Kitsune– think of a besotted fan. He tries to lie on Kit, smooch with Kit, sit next to Kit, lean on Kit…and Kitsune? He will play upon occasion but quickly feels he has done enough, or even too much and takes his leave with his young follower chasing after him.

I caught grousing Daft Wee Willie lying on the couch with Watson today– when he saw me enter his orange face acquired an alarmed expression as though he felt his position untenable. His paws were actually touching the kitten…WWW cat snoozing.JPG

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