Articles About Rachel

MSN Money,

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Parents are spending tens of thousands on advisers to shape their kids’ game plans

Even valedictorians are finding it hard to land spots at the nation’s most-selective colleges, so “Ben” wasn’t about to take chances. Over the past four years, the New Jersey father of two has spent about $30,000 for guidance from Michele Hernandez, a Lake Oswego, Ore. college counselor who charges up to $36,000 per student for advice on everything from what courses to take to how to spend summers.

“We have regular kids who are pretty bright and nice and do a lot of activities,” says Ben, who, like many interviewed for this article, requested anonymity. “We were looking to give our kids whatever advantages we could.” Both sons were accepted by their first-choice schools: small, private colleges that admit about 25% of applicants.

Despite the soaring cost of college, a growing number of families are paying as much as a year’s tuition, room, and board on independent consultants such as Hernandez. They seek advice not just on completing applications but also on the raw material that goes into them — courses and extracurricular activities. That means bringing these advisers on board as early as eighth or ninth grade.

Although college admissions officers take a dim view of these unregulated advisers, the Independent Educational Consultants Assn., a nonprofit in Fairfax, Va., estimates that some 22% of the freshmen at private, four-year colleges this year have used them.

Some advisers say they’re turning away potential clients. Hernandez began offering four-day “application boot camps” for about $8,000 last summer to accommodate overflow from her practice, which currently numbers 60 clients. “We’re very selective about the students we work with,” says Victoria Hsiao, a partner at IvySuccess in Garden City, N.Y., which charges up to $28,500. The firm has about 100 clients right now and has served about 1,000 since opening nine years ago.

The guides say their goal is simply to find a good match for each student. But with the nation’s most-selective colleges receiving record numbers of applications, they say they must also help their clients stand out. High school students “often don’t know what’s typical and what’s interesting about themselves,” says Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University who charges up to $200 an hour. “I try to figure out what it is about them that’s going to get an admissions officer to fall in love.”

What you get depends on how close your child is to attending college. When a client signs on just before senior year, the focus is generally on the application process. Most counselors do not make calls to admissions officers on clients’ behalf. But they urge students to express a strong interest themselves by, for example, contacting professors whose research is of interest and attending lectures. To prepare her 200-odd clients for interviews, Katherine Cohen, founder of New York’s IvyWise, which charges up to $30,000, videotapes practice sessions for those who need it. Advisers help students compile activity resumés and athletic videos to send to coaches. They also help brainstorm essay ideas and edit drafts. The goal: to get students to write in a compelling way about a revealing experience or aspect of their personalities. A Princeton University student from a Western state says Hernandez urged him to explore “what home means to me and how heading east will never change the Western part of me.” Students whose parents hire consultants earlier receive guidance on much more. Some counselors say they steer students to unusual activities. IvySuccess encouraged a girl intent on Massachusetts Institute of Technology to enroll in beauty pageants, an activity that’s not typical of the school’s applicant pool. She was accepted. Counselors also help students think of ways to demonstrate a serious commitment to their interests. Cohen, whose agency advises on admissions from preschool through grad school, suggests submitting history papers to The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school authors. She has introduced clients interested in internships to contacts in film, art, publishing, and on Wall Street. “To get into a top school, you have to show that you’re different and that you’ve done some amazing things,” Hernandez says, repeating a theory that most counselors espouse. Advisers say they are also seeing demand from students with learning disabilities. “Anna” relied on Cohen in her final three years at a private school in California to help her choose a challenging mix of courses that left time for theater: Anna’s credits include an off-Broadway play. Working partly at Cohen’s offices the summer before senior year, she polished off her applications ahead of deadline. “I don’t work well under pressure,” says Anna, who plans to major in theater and music at Brown University. Are the services worth it? Most advisers claim a high success rate in getting students into first-choice schools, but it’s impossible to verify their data. Anyone can set up shop —such counselors’ ranks have doubled, to about 3,000, in the past five years — because the field is unregulated, and practitioners aren’t required to have experience in college admissions or high school counseling. College admissions officers say such advice makes sense only for students at high schools that lack adequate guidance counseling. Some applicants “end up with a whiff of packaging that undercuts their candidacy,” says Bruce Poch, Pomona College’s dean of admissions. Many officials also worry that students are learning to put success above everything else. They point to Cohen client and Harvard University student Kaavya Viswanathan, who admitted plagiarizing portions of her novel about a high school student’s obsessive pursuit of Harvard. Cohen had introduced Viswanathan to a literary agent. “I have a fear that this [sort of counseling] is undermining people’s sincerity,” says Tom Parker, dean of admissions at Amherst College. Parents claim they get their money’s worth. Sometimes, they say, a third party can motivate kids in ways a parent cannot. For example, Hernandez nixed one of Ben’s son’s summer camp plans. “She said: ‘You’ve got to broaden your horizons,”‘ Ben recalls. The teen enrolled in a physics program at a university instead. “You never know whether you really need a counselor,” he says. “All you know is you gave it your best shot.

Rachel Toor, Running Times Magazine

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Senior Writer

As featured in Running Times Magazine

Rachel Toor didn’t start running until she was 30 years old; before then, while on vacation with friends she would lounge around in a black bikini reading 19th century novels and eating Oreos while everyone else went for a run. Now she considers anything shorter than a half marathon not worth the bother of lacing up running shoes; you could call it the zeal of the convert or just plain obsessive. She’d rather run a 50K on the trails than a road 5K. In fact, she rarely runs road races, except as a marathon pace team leader. She has won a handful of tiny, boutique trail marathons in beautiful places: North Carolina, California, Montana, and the Himalayas.

Having tried on and doffed a couple of careers (scholarly publishing and college admissions) Rachel is now finishing a graduate degree at the University of Montana, where she currently teaches writing. She is the author of four books her most recent, The Pig and I, has been translated into French and Russian. (It might be better in French.) Rachel writes for Chronicle of Higher Education (a national weekly for academics and other eggheads), still has a running column in her former hometown paper (Durham Herald-Sun), and her work has appeared in other running publications, Glamour, Reader’s Digest, and Happen, the online magazine for She is now, inevitably, working on a novel.

Rachel grew up in upstate New York and graduated from Yale, where she learned how to talk about books she hadn’t read and only ran when she was late for class. Her mother, a designer, made a website for her: Rachel is tethered to her internet connection and loves receiving email from RT readers.

They want to sell your kid, CNN Money

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…to Harvard or Stanford or wherever you think he should go. And it will cost you only $45,000.

By Penelope Wang, Money Magazine senior writer
September 19, 2007

(Money Magazine) — To improve her chances of getting into a good college, Caitlin Pickavance, a 17-year-old high school senior from Danville, Calif., has been working with a private college coach since her freshman year (cost: $800).

She gets tutored in math ($1,400), takes an ACT prep class ($900) and participates in afterschool enrichment activities ($1,350). Then there’s the good-will mission to Belize she went on last spring ($1,375) and the classes she took this summer at the University of Salamanca in Spain ($7,000) in hopes of further buffing her résumé.

Total spent to date: $12,825.

“It’s not about the money,” says her mom Cathy, who had to tap Caitlin’s 529 account to pay for her study abroad. “The stress is, oh my gosh, will my child get into the college she wants?”

Welcome to the admissions arms race. In an era when fewer than one out of five applicants are accepted by top schools and media hype about the crazy competitiveness of getting into college has whipped families into a frenzy, parents face a difficult question: What price are you willing to pay to boost the chances that your child is the one who gets in?

The answer lately seems to be, whatever it takes. To give their kids an edge over the competition, families are shelling out thousands for costly college prep services, from private SAT tutors and college advisers to enrichment trips to exotic locales (trek through Tibet, anyone?).

Add it all up and you could easily spend the cost of a year of college just getting your child into college.

Are all these high-priced extras really necessary? Well, there’s no denying the fact that it’s tougher than ever to get into elite colleges. After all, there are more high school seniors competing for the same spaces – some 3.2 million last year, up 28% over the past 10 years.

But what’s really fueling the madness is what you might call the admissions industrial complex. This loose assortment of interests, ranging from one-person consulting outfits to test prep giants to the colleges themselves, stands to benefit by convincing you that your child’s future depends on going to a brand-name school.

“College admissions has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry,” says Lloyd Thacker, head of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group that seeks to reform the admissions process. “And it preys on the anxiety of parents and kids.”

Worst of all, this angst is unnecessary. Truth is, there’s a large element of randomness in the admissions process at elite colleges (unless you’re planning to donate a building).

Moreover, research shows that your child will do fine in life as long as she has a fulfilling college experience — and that doesn’t require a brand-name degree.

Here’s what you need to know about how the admissions industrial complex works, the behind-the-scenes players who wield influence over the admissions process and the best way to target your college prep dollars.

The parent traps

The marketing barrage typically begins early in your child’s high school career. Solicitations from college counselors and other handlers start flooding your mailbox, and you have to evaluate what they’re selling and whether it works.

Test prep and tutoring
Forget the old days (that is, your day) when hiring help to prepare for standardized tests meant paying a couple of hundred dollars for an SAT review class that you took with a bunch of other kids.

Today the $2.3 billion test prep industry, dominated by Kaplan and Princeton Review, offers a bewildering array of services at different prices. There’s online review ($99 and up), big classes (typically $1,000) and small groups ($1,500), as well as one-on-one tutoring (20 or so sessions for $2,700 to $8,000, depending on the tutor’s experience).

There are also a growing number of local companies that cater to upper-middle-class and wealthy families who are willing to pay even more.

Consider Advantage Testing, a tutoring and test prep firm with offices in New York City, Houston and 12 other areas. Rates range from $80 to $165 for a typical 50-minute session, but top tutors charge $500 or more. To hire company founder Arun Alagappan, a former lawyer, you pay attorney-like fees of $685 a session. But he is booked two years in advance.

The fees might be worth it if the tutoring actually delivered results. There’s no way to know for sure, however. Although the prep companies say that coaching increases scores by about 100 or more points (for the old two-part SAT), there is little independent research to back up their claims.

In any case, a chunk of the purported increase may be attributed to what’s known as the practice effect — studies show that scores increase 30 points on average between a student’s junior and senior years as repeat test takers become more familiar with the kinds of questions asked.

And while some kids do rack up much higher scores after tutoring, others like Lianna Bishop, now 21 and a senior at Marquette University, don’t go up a point. And while some kids do rack up much higher scores after tutoring, others like Lianna Bishop, now 21 and a senior at Marquette University, don’t go up a point.

“The course cost us $600,” says her mother Jo Ann. “After that we thought, this is not what we should be spending our money on.”

Private college counseling
Wouldn’t it be great if someone could tell you exactly what to do to get your kid into Yale? Enter the private college consultant, whose ranks have doubled to 3,000 in just the past three years or so, reports the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va.

For a typical fee of $1,500 to $3,300 for a year or two of guidance, these coaches will assist you in drawing up a list of colleges, advise on the application process and even help choose which high school courses to take.

Just how qualified they are for the task varies: Although many are former admissions officers or high school counselors, increasingly parents whose only experience is shepherding their own kids into top schools are hanging out shingles as well.

Then there are the superstar counselors, such as Katherine Cohen of Ivywise in New York City or Michele Hernandez of Hernandez College Consulting in Weybridge, Vt. They charge up to $40,000 for several years of guidance.

For this deluxe service, Cohen will videotape mock college interviews to help students polish their social skills. Hernandez draws up reading lists for students as early as eighth grade. Both claim that the overwhelming majority of their clients get into their first-choice colleges.

For students who don’t get adequate college counseling at school – and that’s the case at many public high schools – a good private consultant can be helpful. But given the low acceptance rates at top schools, there’s no guarantee that even the most expert coaching will help your kid go Ivy.

The records of superstar consultants look impressive in part because they often take on only the students who are most likely be admitted to elite colleges. And hiring a consultant may even backfire, since admissions officials can often spot kids who are packaged.

Says Tom Parker, admissions dean at Amherst College: “When a kid who hasn’t done any community service for 17 years suddenly becomes beyond Gandhi-like, you know something’s going on.”

Summer enrichment classes
An eye-catching, wallet-draining exotic travel program or summer session at an Ivy League college can seem like a great way to make your kid stand out on a college application. Certainly the strategy has become more popular as the sell has gotten that much harder.

Just consider the range of choices: At Harvard’s summer program, your child can attend seminars on the Holocaust or Bob Dylan ($8,000). Through Lifeworks, she can do community service and environmental work in the Galapagos Islands ($5,000). And the group Where There Be Dragons will arrange for treks through Tibet or study of rural development in Guatemala ($6,000 to $7,000).

All of these can be terrific experiences. But a teen tour won’t move your kid to top of the admissions pile. “We know about these programs,” says William Fitzsimmons, admissions dean at Harvard. “A kid in eighth grade goes off on an exotic experience that eventually becomes the subject of an essay — we see a lot of that.”

Which undercuts the rationale for the expenditure — separating your child from the pack.

The good news is that a bright kid who lives a normal life can still get into a good school. Josh Rosenthal, now 20, spent summers during high school at a small family-run camp in Huntingdon, Pa., where he biked and did community service work with disabled children — just because he enjoyed it.

“I really didn’t think about putting my summers on my college applications,” he says, though he did end up including them. Josh applied early to Emory University and got in.

Behind the scenes

Colleges help stir up the admissions frenzy, hoping to appear more selective. They commonly game the ranking systems in two ways:

Enrollment management
Using predictive modeling software, enrollment managers try to figure out how likely it is that particular students will enroll based on demographic factors, academic records, projected majors, financial aid required and even how often they call or e-mail the school.

These techniques help colleges boost their yield — the number of accepted students who actually enroll.

But what’s good for the college isn’t necessarily good for your child. A student who isn’t expected to enroll may be rejected, despite being more qualified than others, to avoid bringing down the school’s yield numbers.

“I had a top student interested in science wait-listed by a liberal arts college, even though it was less selective,” says Jon Reider, a college counselor at San Francisco University High School. “When I asked why, the enrollment manager told me, ‘Our models predicted he wouldn’t come. Boys who like science don’t go to our school.’ He ended up at Skidmore.”

Marketing and recruiting
As early as sophomore year of high school, the deluge of college brochures, postcards and other mailings begins — about 200 in all, on average.

Taking a cue from credit-card issuers, some schools even send top students prefilled fast-track applications, known as “snap apps,” which imply, but don’t promise, acceptance. To further boost their appeal, schools are spending on everything from website upgrades to podcasts to recruiting trips by admissions officers.

All told, college marketing expenditures are growing at a 5% to 10% annual rate, hitting nearly $1.5 billion last year.

Granted, a struggling liberal arts college may need a splashy marketing campaign to boost enrollment. And even well-known schools must spend heavily on recruiting to attract the best students possible.

But there’s a hidden agenda in these recruitment drives – they lead to a higher rate of rejections. “The college’s goal is to boost application numbers so they can lower their admit rate,” says Rachel Toor, a former Duke admissions officer and author of Admissions Confidential.

The lower the acceptance rate, of course, the higher the college ranking. That, in turn, will attract even more applicants, which only increases your child’s chances of being rejected.

Your plan of attack

So what should you be doing to ramp down the stress and the spending yet still ensure that your child gets the best education? Try these strategies:

Pick the schooling, not the school

The crazy competition for freshman slots is actually confined to about 150 schools — in particular the top 50 in the “U.S. News & World Report” college rankings.

But there are more than 2,200 four-year institutions in the country, which accept 70% of applicants on average. Many parents steer their kids toward elite schools thinking that a brand-name B.A. confers a crucial advantage.

But if the student is bright, she’ll do just as well as an Ivy grad later in life even with a degree from a less selective college. That was the finding of a 1999 Princeton study that looked at the outcomes of students who’d been accepted at an Ivy or similar college but chose to attend a less selective school. But if the student is bright, she’ll do just as well as an Ivy grad later in life even with a degree from a less selective college. That was the finding of a 1999 Princeton study that looked at the outcomes of students who’d been accepted at an Ivy or similar college but chose to attend a less selective school.

That doesn’t mean you should discourage your child from aiming for an elite school. But be realistic – deluged by applicants, admissions officers have a tough time making meaningful distinctions among them. At the top colleges, says Toor, “you could take the entire admitted class, wipe it out and admit the next group of candidates, and you wouldn’t see much difference.”

If you look beyond the Ivies, moreover, you will see that there are many schools, especially small liberal arts colleges, where your child can receive an education that rivals or even surpasses the Ivy League.

“At the Ivies you may be taught by a teaching assistant, while at a small college you can become friends with the professor,” says former college counselor Loren Pope, author of “Colleges That Change Lives.”

These schools are also where you’ll find some of the most innovative offerings. Says Bruce Hammond, co-author of The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College: “The less well known colleges have led the way in developing programs such as study abroad, great internships and opportunities for doing advanced research that you wouldn’t find at an Ivy.”

Target your spending Instead of throwing money at any service that promises to ease your kid’s path to Dream U., figure out the specific kind of help he needs most, then look for reasonably priced options. If your child lacks expert college guidance, a private consultant can make sense, but you may need only one or two sessions to help draw up a list of suitable colleges, vet essay topics and create a calendar that sets out a work-flow plan.

For test prep, look for free review classes through your school or consider a group class instead of pricier one-on-one tutoring.

This low-cost approach worked for Rose Cao, 18, from San Diego. “We had advisers and free SAT classes,” says Cao, who applied to 15 schools. “We couldn’t afford the kind of guidance that others had, so I had to prepare the essays on my own.”

She was accepted by 12 colleges and is now a freshman at Harvard.

Be strategic in applying
By doing a bit of research, you and your child can come up with a list of colleges that he or she would be happy to attend, including safety schools where your kid’s grades and test scores are above average, match schools that are a natural fit, and reach schools where the odds of acceptance are lower.

But if your child has a first choice that might be considered a safety school, he should let the admissions office know – that way he won’t be rejected by the school simply to prevent yield numbers from falling.

Follow your student’s lead
The best strategy of all, says Cigus Vanni, college counselor at Cherry Hill High School West in New Jersey and a former Swarthmore admissions officer, is to support your child’s interests by investing in activities that help her explore them — whether that’s studying oceanography or making films.

“Colleges look for kids who have demonstrated a passion for learning and achieving that feels authentic,” says Vanni. “And that’s what’s going to carry your kids through life after graduation.”

In the end, where they go to college won’t determine how far they’ll go.

Additional Reporting by Asa Fitch and Ingrid Tharasook news online

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Rachel Toor explores life and love with pets and the opposite sex

By MEA ANDREWS of the Missoulian, February 15, 2005

Rachel Toor pokes fun at herself and jokes about never getting another date in her life.

But she doesn’t kid around about the animals she has known and loved.

First came Barkus, a shepherd-collie mix who became, in her childhood mind, a sister. Then came the 1980s and Farrah Fawcett hairstyles, and a mouse named Prudence.

Other beloved pets followed, including Hester the rat, named after Hawthorne’s stigmatized woman; a Vietnamese potbellied pig named Emma, whom she co-parented with an ex-boyfriend; horses; a semi-feral cat named Sam; and Stevie, “a Sicilian, and therefore, by definition, miniature” donkey.

But her best friend, her most wonderful animal, was Hannah, a pointy dog with big ears who came into her life during a drone of a relationship and stayed with her for years of growth, change, disappointment and adventure.

“She is my heart, my soul, the most stable and steadying influence I have known the last seventeen years,” Toor writes in “The Pig and I,” her new memoir. “Hannah is not–has never been–a pet.”

Toor jokes about her future as date material because of the subtitle of “The Pig and I: Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal and So Hard to Live with a Man.”

“Really, I love men!” she says in protest. “Really, I do.”

And she does. “The Pig and I” follows Toor falling in and out of love with an eclectic string of men and how those human relationships intersected with the animals of her life, from childhood through college and careers, into her 40s. It is a funny and touching tribute to them all, and a warm introduction to a high-achieving woman who tackles her life with confidence and insight.

All of the animals fit nicely into her life. Some of the men were wrong from the start; others lasted a long while and shaped the person she is today.

Two men in particular–Michael and Jonathan–are among her most cherished human friends, members of a group called the “REBs,” to whom her novel is dedicated. REBs is short for Fraternal Brotherhood of Rachel’s Ex-Boyfriends, and at least one REB will be at her signing this week at Fact & Fiction bookstore.

“I was joking with my agent that after this book comes out I’m never going to get another date. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” said Toor last week in her Missoula apartment.

“She turns to me and says, ‘Rachel. It’s true.’ ”

Ah well, sighs Toor. It’s the price of honesty.

“Writing this book sucked in a lot of ways,” she said. “It was hard–very hard… You don’t really want to have to think of your life in this way, you don’t really want to have to think about making the same mistakes over and over again, and then having to dissect them,” she said. “It’s ugly.”

“One of the things that I really learned, and I knew this but hadn’t articulated it, is that the love we feel for our animals is very profound, and in many ways as rich–different, but rich–as we get from humans,” she said.

“Lots of people feel that way about their animals.”

Toor writes for Running Times magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and is a private consultant helping students around the country apply for and get into top colleges and universities.

She is also a marathon runner with shelves of medals, a former admissions counselor at Duke University, author of the 2001 “Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process,” and a cum laude graduate of Yale University.

She calls herself a “geek” because she loves intellectual discussions and people.

After years working in a national publishing house as a midwife for other writers and their work, she now is concentrating on her own writing. She said she chose Missoula because of its excellent writing program, beautiful scenery and fraternity of serious runners.

Having beloved pets and boyfriends at the same time is not an “either, or” proposition, Toor said. They complement and enrich each other.

“Sometimes you get from an animal something that you are lacking in your own life, and sometimes animals can bring you closer together” with your human partner, she said.

“You have to accept the animals for who and what they are. If they occasionally pee in the house, that’s because they’re an animal and it is OK. But if a man leaves the toilet seat up, you want to kill him.

“For me, I realized it would be a good thing to give the same kind of tolerance I feel toward animals to my partners.”

“The Pig and I” isn’t a trashy tell-all book. Its a classy tell-all book by a literary writer. Toor sizes up herself and her own shortcomings with as much honesty and she does the men in her life.

And her observations about animals will ring true to any pet lover.

The final chapter of the “The Pig and I” pays tribute to Hannah as an old dog, deaf and foggy-visioned, nearing the end of her life as Toor heads toward Missoula and her new graduate program.

Hannah has since died. “The Pig and I” has pictures of all of Toor’s pets, and seeing Hannah in such health is still hard.

“I can’t look at them. In a little while, I’ll be glad to have all that,” she said. “Right now, it’s still too hard.”

“Now, not only am I single, but I’m alone,” said Toor. “I come home and there’s nobody to talk to. It’s the first time in my adult life I’ve been without a pet… I find myself lusting after dogs in the park.”

“Maybe I’ll get another rat,” she muses, only half kidding.

Bottom line, she said, is that “You get your love where you find it.”

“Families are made, as well as being born into. I have this great, rich life, with friends and ex-boyfriends and animals.

“If I don’t ever get another date – if I end up not being partnered – I think that’s really OK.

“What I’ve also learned is that, with the REBs, I really chose well. Even if a romantic relationship doesn’t end up working, you can transform it into a wonderful friendship.”

Reporter Mea Andrews can be reached at 523-5246 or at

Los Angeles Times,

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February 14, 2005

Shall I compare thee to my dog? The Pig and I Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal and So Hard to Live With a Man
Rachel Toor
Hudson Street Press: 246 pp. $22.95

By Rebecca Eckler, Special to The Times

Rachel TOOR likes to joke that animals disappoint you by dying, men by living. Happily, this joke-turned-memoir makes an entertaining, moving read for your Valentine’s Day.

Amusingly titled “The Pig and I: Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal and So Hard to Live With a Man,” Toor’s book describes her devotion to four-legged friends–dogs, cats, a mouse, a rat, horses, a donkey and, obviously, a pig–over the course of her ups and downs in romance.

No man in Toor’s life–there have been many–could, or will, it seems, ever capture her heart as much as an animal’s has. Ever. (She looks more forward to seeing a stray cat than her boyfriends.)

A self-admitted control freak, which led to the demise of many human relationships, Toor writes of men, “Believe me, it’s easier to train a pig.”

Heading off to college, it was hardest to leave Barkus, her dog. So she “borrowed” dogs, shamelessly dating one man to have some canine contact with his pet (in fact, she uses men often for this reason).

Toor is obviously a very intelligent woman (she’s a college admissions counselor and a former editor with a publishing house) who is less intelligent when it comes to men. But her how-could-I-possibly-date-a-guy-not-as-smart-as-me? shtick can be grating.

Still, when she compares men to animals, it’s hard not to appreciate her views. “He paid attention and he wanted to please,” she writes of one man (or was that a dog?).

Toor also understands the agony of being alone:

“He didn’t call…. Maybe the phone was broken. All night I checked it, making sure there was a dial tone.

“Then I hated myself for being a woman who checked a perfectly functioning phone for a dial tone. But still I checked, just in case.”

The first time Toor gets dumped, she asks a friend, “Why didn’t he want me?” We get chills. We’ve been there.

One can’t help but like the author, especially when she writes lovingly of one pet, a mouse: “When I looked at her, into her ruby red eyes, touched her impossibly soft white fur, stroked her transparent earsmy heart felt full to eruption.” And when one of her pets dies, we share her devastation: “Hannah [her dog] is not–has never been –a pet….She is my heart, my soul… I wonder how I will go on without her.”

What kind of woman, you may wonder, wants a pet mouse, rat or a pig? Obviously, Toor is quirky. But pets have also helped to open her eyes to the successes and failures of her relationships with humans. “Over time my connection to Hannah had deepened as she opened up to share her life with me. My connection to Patrick seemed ever more tenuous,” she writes of loving her dog and wanting a divorce from her husband.

Halfway through the memoir, Toor gets a pig–what her title has promised us all along–which she “co-parents” with her ex-boyfriend, who remains her best friend (everything about this sentence is strange). Toor sees herself in this little pig, named Emma; she recognizes her own lack of tolerance, her bullheadedness, her unconcern for others: “Emma was a selfish, demanding, noisy little pig. Just like me.”

Even if you are not an animal lover (what is wrong with you that you’re not?), this book will be of interest. Most people, after all, are interested in relationships. Especially today. And though Toor has fallen in and out of love with humans, she has never fallen out of love with an animal.

One ends “The Pig and I” rooting for her, hoping that Toor will one day find a man who means as much to her as one of her animals. But maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about her–no matter how a cat falls, she always lands on her feet, right?

Rebecca Eckler writes for the National Post and is the author of “Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-to-Be.”

Celebrate V-Day together or alone,

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By Jane Ganahl
Sunday, February 13, 2005
San Francisco Chronicle

Happenings, musings and other Valentine’s Day flotsam and jetsam:

If you’re in a couple, you’ll most certainly be thinking about that all- important gift purchase. But for those who find themselves date-free on Feb. 14, a Yahoo Personals survey found that Valentine’s Day is not all about waiting for Cupid to strike with chocolates and flowers. More than one-third of respondents (35 percent) plan to treat themselves to something special on Tuesday. It’s for them that this list is intended. Read on, rock on, celebrate the lack of romantic conflict in your life:

The Bay Area’s very own homegrown movement, Quirkyalone, will be holding parties and such for like-minded souls ( (Are you a quirkyalone? Note the Web site’s definition: “We are the puzzle pieces who seldom fit with other puzzle pieces. Romantics, idealists, eccentrics, we inhabit singledom as our natural resting state.”) At 7 tonight, at Pegasus Books’ Shattuck Avenue site in Berkeley, and at 7:30 p.m. V-Day at Modern Times Bookstore in the Mission. Readings, toasts, confabbing.

Gifted comedian Scott Capurro will be doing a show titled “Scott Capurro’s Throbbing Arrow” — presumably one sent off by Cupid — at Cafe du Nord Monday night. Perfect if you’re feeling black and snarky about love. 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. (415) 861-5016. Tickets are $13. 21 and up. (

On the other hand, if you want to be inspired by musings on love, go to the Commonwealth Club for an appearance by hot author Andrew Sean Greer, who will be in conversation with Good Lit series director Barbara Lane. “Questioning the Nature of Love, Time and Humanity,” will certainly use as fodder Greer’s luminous book “The Confessions of Max Tivoli.” As Max says near the end of the novel, “It is a brave and stupid thing, a beautiful thing, to waste one’s life for love.” Brave and beautiful? Always. Stupid? Sometimes. Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., second floor, San Francisco; 5:45 p.m. reception, 6:30 p.m. program. Free for members, $18 for nonmembers. (

Human love may come and go, but, oh, the love we have for our critters! And what better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than to mingle with other animal lovers? The Omni San Francisco Hotel is hosting single pet owners and their dogs in the Valentine’s Day Yappy Hour. Complimentary wine, cheese and Cloud Star Minty Madness Buddy Biscuits will be served. Fifty percent of the $10 admission fee will be donated to PAWS San Francisco, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping people with HIV/AIDS and other disabling illnesses together with their companion animals. From 6 to 8 p.m. at the Omni San Francisco Hotel, 500 California St. at Montgomery (

On the same score, how about a fun V-day read? I recommend “The Pig and I: Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal, and So Hard to Live With a Man,” by Rachel Toor. Any woman who’s ever loved a pet (or 10) will love Toor’s beautifully written memoir chronicling her love affairs with a series of unusual pets (a mouse, a rat, an ass, a pig, a dog, etc.) — sometimes at the expense of her boyfriends.

For a good laugh, I also love “2gether 4ever: Notes of a Junior High School Heartthrob,” by the Bay Area’s own Dene Larson. It’s a collection of actual love notes from the junior high years of Larson, who was apparently a player in the making in his preteen years. The book is divided into chapters that include “I Like You, Do You Like Me?” “Will You Go With Me?” “Make-Out City” and “We’re Breaking Up” If only real life were still this simple.

If you’ve also been devastated by a bustup, try reading “I Used to Miss Him … But My Aim is Improving: Not Your Ordinary Breakup Survival Guide,” by Alison James. If nothing else, this hilarious first-person testimonial will make you laugh, which is, as they say, halfway to feeling cured.

And a new magazine is hitting newsstands that is all about love and relationships. Tango (, a good-looking, glossy publication, promises both fun and edge, with articles ranging from “Sex and the Single Closet,” which limns how people’s closets both reflect and perpetuate their love lives, to features on the relative wholesomeness of S&M in a loving relationship.

More than anything, if you’re blue about being partner-free, indulge yourself if you can! A trip to a local spa or a night out with friends might be just the ticket. And look at it this way: There will be no arguments over flowers versus jewelry.

The Times-Picayune

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Animal magnetism

New Orlean, LA – Saturday, February 12, 2005

We love our pets without condition or hesitation, and we put up with their bad behavior with patience and restraint. So why aren’t we so noble in our human relationships? Good question, experts say, and one that many of us would do well to strive to answer.

By Chris Bynum Staff writer

Pam Houston loved an Irish wolfhound named Dante who left this life on three legs Feb. 8, 2003. But it was his leaving that taught Houston to stay.

“I had lost people in my life before, either through death or men leaving. But before Dante, I had always tried to protect myself from those losses by pulling back when things looked bad,” said Houston.

“My challenge with Dante was to see if I could hang in there. What I learned–and what Dante was here to teach me–was that if you can give yourself over that way to the fullest, that even when you do lose, you don’t lose completely.”

Dante’s life and his battle with cancer inspired a novel, “Sight Hound” (Norton, $23.95), that is just one of several books unleashed just in time for Valentine’s Day that reveal what our relationships with our pets can teach us about human love.

For example, the usual trepidation about romantic entanglements–fear of commitment and fear of loss–are not unlike the emotional obstacles pet owners confront and conquer without a second thought.

“The one thing I have learned through the love and the death of dogs is that it doesn’t make me not want to do it again,” said Mary Ann Murphy, who with her husband, Paul, mourned the loss of their 14-year-old shepherd mix Plunkett several years ago. He was their “first dog together” and had moved with the couple from Tampa, Fla., to New Orleans to Indonesia and back to New Orleans (where he died a year later). The Murphys now share their home with four dogs.

“It doesn’t make me want to turn love off so I won’t get hurt,” Murphy said.

In love and life and in loss, human beings often control their emotions with denial or repression. But this is a filter animals do not have.

“They have emotions,” said scientist Temple Grandin, author of “Animals in Translation,” but “their emotions are simpler, not complex.”

Animals, she said, “can be happy, fearful, aggressive or sad.” Because humans have a “gigantic frontal cortex, they can filter emotions.”

The resulting conflicting feelings make it difficult for humans to relate to each other with the same openness that they afford their pets.

“I have a dog that I adore who is the brat from hell, but why am I more critical of the human in my life?” says Sheila West, a local massage therapist. “I mean, my boyfriend is not going to chew up my shoe, but he’s going to drive me crazy leaving his socks on the floor.”

Rachel Toor can relate. Picking up your dog’s poop is OK, but “if a man leaves the toilet seat up, it’s an act of aggression. The bathroom becomes a battleground,” says Toor, the author of “The Pig and I: Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal and So Hard to Live With a Man” (Hudson Street Press, $22.95).

Why the double standard?

“We accept who our pets are,” she said by phone from her home in Montana. “They don’t wake up and change their dreams and desires overnight.”

Animals provide “constancy” and “forgiveness” — and in so doing, they can also, if you pay attention, offer lessons in loving each other, she said.

For example, a white rat — the only animal she could sneak into her college dorm at Yale — taught Toor to look beyond a mate’s behavior to the emotion behind it. The rat consistently bit Toor’s hand when she fed her. She contemplated getting rid of the ungrateful rodent, but soon realized that the aggression toward her hand was a desire to play and to interact with the only other living being in the room.

“I was shocked by my own ignorance, by my inability to recognize her for who and what she was–playful, curious and engaged,” Toor said. It was a revelation that she would later apply to the men in her life.

A pig named Emma provided Toor with an even more brutally honest discovery.

Emma was a pet she “co-parented” with an ex-boyfriend who remained a friend.

“In the pig, I saw myself. Emma was selfish and had no moral center. She would do anything she could get away with,” Toor said. “I began to see the way I pushed the limits of what lovers would accept. Emma had no tolerance for things she was herself continually guilty of. What was good for Emma was all that counted.

“We were both smart, manipulative, ambitious, strong and completely oblivious to the feelings of others.”

What made the medicine even harder to swallow was that Toor’s initial complaint about her boyfriend was that “he was a pig” in the housekeeping sense.

“I couldn’t accept that in him, but in Emma, it was adorable… until I saw the piggishness in me,” she said.

Deborah Choate, owner of the local pet boutique The Pampered Pug, says she often hears stories of people like Toor whose pets provided a kind of cheap–but effective –therapy.

“When people are learning things about themselves, it’s easier to have self-revelations through their animals than have someone else point out a shortcoming,” Choate said.

For other pet owners, such as Lee Gaffney, the New Orleans president of the Visiting Pet Program, animals can provide inspiration with the painful self-discovery.

“Not so long ago, my husband and I had a cocker-beagle mix we named Magoo,” Gaffney recalled. “At age 2, she earned her certification as a therapy dog. For the next five years, we visited the same nursing home twice each month, making friends, touching hearts and having our own hearts touched.”

One morning, however, Gaffney realized that Magoo had gone totally blind overnight. Many medical tests later, she and her husband were told there was no cure.

One morning, however, Gaffney realized that Magoo had gone totally blind overnight. Many medical tests later, she and her husband were told there was no cure.

Magoo regained her confidence and was able to navigate her world on her own, returning to the nursing home and her favorite dog duty.

“I loved her even more for turning herself over to me and letting me help her,” Gaffney said. “That 30-pound ball of fur taught me it’s OK to turn to those you love.”

Losing her beloved Dante taught Houston a similar lesson — that letting go, rather than holding on for the dear life as we know it, is a way of letting love in.

“Dante is still with me, sort of up and there and to the left,” Houston writes in “Sight Hound.” “I’ll never hear that big tail thwacking again, never feel his big grey chest roll toward me in sleep, but what I have instead is everything he taught me, like how without loss, life isn’t worth a hill of beans. And without love, life is nothing more than a series of losses.”

As for the cat-lovers out there, never mind that the dogs get the credit for the warm and fuzzy feelings. Houston says that even though she’s a dog person, she knows that felines have wisdom to impart to lovers as well.

“Once you get the loving thing down,” she said, “I would think cats can teach you about boundaries.”

Pam Houston, author of “Sight Hound,” will read excerpts and sign books April 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St.
For information, call 895-2266