Other Writing

Ode to Dirt

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From Runner’s World

Because trail running is as close to church-going as I can get. Because you do not stand still to behold the sublime, but move through it, limbs hailing and exulting all there is in the world and whatever lies beyond. Because dirt is elemental.

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Assaying the Essay

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Featured in Duke University Alumni Magazine

By Rachel Toor

Students apply themselves to the art of standing out in the admissions process, writing as if their futures depended on it

College admissions is an art, not a science. As application numbers go up and the applicant pool gets stronger, as grades and rigorous curriculum choices and standardized testing scores all are going through the roof, the “subjective” parts of the application become increasingly important. We look not only for students who are involved in their communities, but also for those who have made an impact. We look not only for well-rounded students, but also for well-lopsided applicants who have demonstrated real prowess, potential, and focus in a particular area.

This year, the admissions staff at Duke read 14,580 “personal statements.” Although we use six criteria to evaluate applicants, it is surprising how similar many of our hopefuls look. They’ve all taken hard classes and done well. Standardized testing is all in pretty much the same ballpark. Teachers all say they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even extracurriculars look pretty similar: captain of three varsity sports, president of student government, accomplished musician, and so forth. So, the personal statement becomes a way of making the applicant a person, explaining to us in a few double-spaced pages who these students are and why we would want to invite them to join our community.

As in every profession, admissions has its own jargon, its own conventions. We tend to think in shorthand and in categories. There’s a certain inevitability when you ask seventeen-year-olds to write on “a matter of importance” that you will get many similar topics and essays. We understand this commonality of experience and understand, too, how heartfelt and tentative these attempts are, especially given how much our applicants think is riding on their work. They’re trying to impress us; they think they should tell us what they think we want to hear. They try to sound smart and sophisticated and profound. Sometimes they succeed. Mostly, they are truly and painfully and wonderfully honest.

In terms of subject matter, there are a number of common genres. The catalogue of achievements. The meaningful activity. The community-service essay. The horrible tragedy, the death or illness of a friend, relative, stranger, or dog. The “me” essay, where they find some way to talk about themselves; these are often the best. Even though we lump these together, we try never to forget that for each applicant, the personal statement is personal–and about something intensely important. We resist cynicism even in the face of incredible similarity because we know how powerful these experiences are.

As far as we’re concerned, any topic for the essay is fair game. It’s not so much what they write about, but how they write. The writing doesn’t have to be perfect, though some of these applicants are amazing writers. There are often spelling errors, typos, and, sometimes, the last line of their application essay to Duke does read, “and that’s why I really want to go to Stanford.” One applicant this year said she wanted to go to a private school like Duke, not one of the “big state pubic institutions.” We notice these things, but we’re really in the business of content, of looking for substance over style (though we do, of course, appreciate good style).

Can a good essay get an average student into a school like Duke? No, not really. In fact, many of our admitted students write fairly average essays. It’s just one of the criteria we use in our evaluations. But when we read a good essay, we share it with our colleagues. We tell our friends about it. We get excited about the prospect of having the person, who shared his or her life, insight, or humor with us, come to Duke. College is fundamentally about getting to know other people and oneself. While we all learned a lot in our college courses and from our professors, college students ultimately learn from other students, in the dorms, in the dining halls, during late-night study breaks in the library. What a good essay can do is let us get to know a person whom we think other students would enjoy getting to know.

There’s no such as the perfect college admissions essay, no formula for writing one’s way into college, no winning topic. These are just some of our favorites.

What Pets Can Review About The People You Date

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Happen magazine, Tuesday, March 2009

How people treat their pets reveals a mother load of info about how they’ll treat you. Here, one avid pet-owner deciphers some of the key signals.

by Rachel Toor

I’ve dated lots of guys: Men with pets and without, men who adored by pets and men who merely put up with them. And what I’ve learned through the years is that how an individual responds to animals tells you a lot about how he’ll relate to you in a romantic relationship. Want some proof? Here are a few common scenarios of how people interact with their furry friends–and what that indicates for their love life.

Your date’s a disciplinarian.

No one should put up with a pet that misbehaves non-stop, but anyone who’s too strict should set off alarm bells. If a person is constantly yelling at a big, clumsy, slobbery dog for being a bit, clumsy, slobbery dog, what could that possibly mean for you the day you rub your date the wrong way? Once, when I walked into one guy’s apartment and was greeted joyfully by his dog Ranger, the moment was ruined when the owner started barking Stop, stop, stop. “Ranger isn’t supposed to make any noise in the house,” he explained as Ranger slunk away. Then he wagged his finger at me–the nerve!–as if I’d started it. That was the end of that.

Pets chow down at the dinner table.

If your dinner conversation is constantly interrupted by Bubba’s big blond head popping up from under the table to get the lion’s share of the appetizers, your date may have some boundary issues. (I also guarantee you’ll be sleeping with fur.) In short, your sweetie may be unable to say no. At first blush, that may sounds nice–drop enough hints about that Valentine’s Day gift you want and it’s yours, right?–but let’s not forget that these people tend to say yes to everyone and everything. Think you’ll get any decent alone-time if your sweetie’s spread so thin?

Your own pet makes them jealous.

Dates who are threatened by the time and attention you spend with an animal will likely be even more jealous of other things in your life-friends, relatives, work. If he’s always trying to horn in on your quality time with kitty, he’s most likely overly needy and just plain not secure enough to be good relationship material. It’s not like you’re hanging out with an ex-boyfriend or working late nights at the office with some hot coworker, it’s a cat–what is he so afraid of?

He baby-talks his pet snake.

You don’t really need me to comment on this, do you?

They use their own pet as a proxy.

If your date says, “Well, I would like to go to the Cape for the weekend but Tiffany, my Rottweiler, hates the beach,” you could have a passive-aggressive type on your hands. By hiding behind the perceived needs and desires of a dog, your date gets to avoid telling you what they want to do (or not do). Sorry, confrontation is a necessary component of every relationship, and you’ll go nuts trying to read their mind all the time.

Their pet is overly accessorized.

Pets with fancy leashes, sweaters, booties indicate that their owner is either rich (no complaints here), or harboring a deep sense of inferiority that they believe can be overcome with just the right studded collar. Trust me, their materialism and obsession with status will eventually get turned on you, too.

They don’t like animals.

Forget about them. That’s clearly an evil person.

But, if you find a guy who makes a joke if your pet pig pees on their Oriental carpet; who brings treats for your pooch and chocolate for you; who can play rough or gentle with them depending on the mood; who is kind and caring and responsible – well, then, send him my way.

Rachel Toor recently moved to Missoula, Montana, and is looking for a cowboy with an extra horse. She is the author of The Pig and I: Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal, and So Hard to Live with a Man.



F5 A Tale of Devastation and Survival During the 20th Century’s Most Violent Tornado Season (LA Times book review)

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Rachel Toor
July 22, 2007

F5 Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century

Mark Levine

Hyperion/Miramax Books: 308 pp., $25.95

WHEN the wind begins to switch — the house to pitch and the hinges start to unhitch, what happens next in the Technicolor world of real life is, generally, not rich. If you have the misfortune to be bonked on the head and swept into the funnel of a tornado, your house will likely not leave Kansas intact and end up in Munchkinland atop a wicked witch. But, like Dorothy — and all epic heroes — your task ahead will be to get back home.

If disaster is about the disturbance of home — a disequilibrium of the place, person or thing that makes you feel safe — then tornadoes are the “archetypal American disaster,” Mark Levine writes in his new book, “F5,” about the tornado outbreak of April 3 and 4, 1974, when 148 twisters clawed through 13 states, covering more than 2,500 miles from Michigan to Mississippi, killing 330 people and injuring more than 5,400. Property damage was estimated in excess of $600 million. Tornadoes, born of thunderstorms, strike somewhere in the United States about 100,000 times each year, Levine writes.

Part of their fascination is that they are so personal. They trace a thin line, “the finger of God,” demolishing your home but leaving your neighbor’s untouched, creating a path of destruction that seems both unpredictable and filled with intent. The book’s title refers to the Fujita wind-intensity scale, which organizes tornadoes from F0s (strong enough to break branches off trees) to the rare F5s, which generate winds of 260 to 320 mph — enough to lift a house off its foundation.

Disaster, Levine reminds us, is always local. And the best way to understand it, he says, is to view it up close, to see how it changes the lives of those who continue to dwell in disorder after their plight is no longer news. In “F5,” the poet and teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop focuses on the people of northern Alabama’s Limestone County.

The book begins with a short chapter in breathless italics: Two young lovers, a high school football star and his willowy girlfriend, in a car on a country road. We know something is going to happen. It isn’t going to be good. We get inside the head of 15-year-old Felicia Golden, who sets us up for a true story that reads like a thriller. Levine’s cast of characters is long and unwieldy: a Vietnam vet living at home with his parents; an affable barroom brawler turned hair dresser and Civil Defense director, who is given to saying, “I’m dumb as grits”; an African American preacher and manager of a local union; a sheriff who gets paid by the arrest; and a coroner who also is a bank manager.

We follow their stories minute-by-minute as the storm hits. These are good, ordinary folk who survive an extraordinary event. But while Levine treats them gingerly and with compassion, they sound like talking heads in a documentary. The information is important, but we do not feel compelled to watch.

When writing about nature it makes sense to use the passive voice. Things happen. It’s hard to attribute agency, unless you do it on a grand scale (deity) or a chaotic physical scale (the “butterfly effect” of nonlinear dynamics, which posits that the flapping of tiny wings can trigger a tornado). But it’s tempting to personify, to impute intent. Poets, novelists and playwrights have long used weather to create a mood. Dark and stormy nights do not auger well. Happy endings are often in lambent light.

Levine, by contrast, attempts to make a surprising — and topsy-turvy — argument about the meaning of the tornado outbreak of 1974: “Only rarely does nature step forward and assert itself with true ferocity. At such moments, the stories of history and of nature seem to overlap — however briefly, however irrationally. Nature captures the spirit of its times, and does so with a clarity that eludes the daily news.” Indeed the 16-hour period in the spring of 1974 was an odd and turbulent historical moment. Levine’s diagnosis: “A certain collective mood disorder had set in.”

The symptoms: On April 3, 1974, just as the first Watergate indictments were being handed down, President Nixon was found to have underpaid his taxes by more than $430,000. Heiress Patty Hearst, kidnapped for two months, appeared on a videotape announcing her name as “Tania” and her allegiance to her captors.

Young men were coming home from Vietnam, people were waiting in long lines for gas, and the crime rate soared. Tragically for some baseball fans, Hank Aaron was poised, in the first game of the season, to tie Babe Ruth’s home run record. Popular culture captures the spirit of the times and at this time disaster films packed movie theaters — giant swarms of bees, earthquakes and towering infernos.

But art follows nature; depictions of catastrophe do not create it. History is what happens after calamity strikes. “A venerable strain of magical thinking sees natural disaster as an expression of — or retribution for — human failings,” Levine writes. “Events related by nothing more than substantial coincidence are nonetheless related. Timing is everything.”

What, then, is the logic of a tornado outbreak at a time when streaking was the most talked-about topic of the day? When Terry Jack’s maudlin “Seasons in the Sun” topped the hit list and nostalgic TV shows like “Happy Days” and “The Waltons” brought families together in front of the electronic hearth? What is the relation? Levine’s argument seems almost Biblical: Sinners and non-sinners alike were being punished by the finger of an angry god.

Apart from the problem inherent in linking natural disaster to social malaise, the book also shows a lack of passion in translating natural phenomena. The best local history opens a window into larger issues, teaches us about things beyond our ken. The best disaster books explicate things we fear but don’t understand. “F5” does not make us into mini-meteorologists. The unpacking of the science of weather is cursory, unsatisfying and bereft of poetry.

Here’s Levine’s explanation of how tornadoes are created: “Some meteorologists believe that the rear flank downdraft, originating in the middle-to-lower reaches of the storm and making a furious descent, cuts into the mesocyclone on its way down, becoming wrapped around the mesocyclone’s rotating updraft.”

The intent, however, is clear: “Out of a collection of their stories,” Levine writes, “some of them contradictory, some mythologizing, some told only with great reluctance — a world can seem to emerge.” The people of Limestone County tend toward churchliness and are mostly accepting of their lot and lives, even though we see close up the horrors they endured. But the asides on his idiosyncratic view of history and causality seem to obscure more than illuminate, and take something away from the rich individual stories he is trying to tell.

Nature loves equilibrium. Storms are a way to put things electromagnetically right in the physical world, not a countervailing force to an off-kilter social, cultural and political environment. This sepia-toned book lacks the vibrancy of those that manage to make disaster come alive, to help us understand how things happen, and to showcase what it means to survive amid the rubble.