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Selected Essays

Finishing Kick: Speed Goggles

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Why fast men make the heart beat quicker

By Rachel Toor
As featured in the March 2007 issue of Running Times Magazine

There was a time in my hapless dating life when I told friends I was looking for a man who was STYF: Smarter, Taller, Younger, and Faster.

It didn’t seem too demanding a list. But like many such lists, it was reductive and stupid and not so helpful. Smartness is a tricky category. I like to learn new things, and tend to hang around people from whom I can glean knowledge. I need to be with someone whose mind zigs and zags in ways that enchant me, whether by listening to him talk about Penrose tiles or by watching him pack a moving truck. Likewise, I want someone who wants me because he likes the sounds my sentences make on those rare occasions when they sing. A man smart in exactly the right ways is hard to find, even though, according to some quick-to-email Running Times readers, there are invertebrates smarter than me.

Taller isn’t a tall order: I’m 5-foot-3. But like one of those yappy little dogs with a big dog personality, in my own eyes, I stand at least six feet. Some gentlemen prefer blondes; I go for tall men. There’s no accounting for taste and I won’t make excuses for mine.

Younger — well, that gets easier by the minute. By the time this is published, I’ll be 45. Practically older than dirt. Younger men are used to seeing strong women in positions of power. Show me a fellow who can articulate why he hates everything Hillary Clinton stands for, but would never think to call her “opinionated” and that’s a guy I’d like to date. When I get fired up about something, when my passions give voice to ideas, I don’t want to hear that tired TV line, “Why don’t you tell us what you really think?” You might as well pat me on the head and coo, “Settle down there, little lady.” Younger men tend not to say stupid shit like that.

Finally, I’m a runner. Not only that, I’m a snob, if being a snob means that I value excellence. This past summer I basked in reflected glory by hanging out with Nate, a D-III runner, who won every trail race he went to. Nate was describing a girl he was interested in. I asked what compelled him about her. “She’s really fast,” he said, in as close to hushed reverence as a college boy can get. Anything else? Fast was enough, it seems. He explained: Speed Goggles. I’ve been around enough college students to know about Beer Goggles — those late-night accoutrements that transform friends and strangers into hookup partners. I’d never heard about Speed Goggles, but as soon as Nate said it, I knew I wore them too.

How many times have I met a guy who offered nothing in terms of mate potential, only to hear his PRs and think, My, you’re rather attractive. I find out that someone who seemed stupid, old, and short can still run a 2:30 marathon? Come on over, big boy. You broke four minutes when you were in college? You’re cute. Some will say you’re only as good as your last race. I don’t agree. I’ll never run a 2:30 marathon or a 3:59 mile. I am attracted to people who can or did.

Being fast is more than about being fast; it’s about commitment to an activity I value. I’ve heard that Frank Conroy, the late director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, used to tell incoming students that writers needed two things: talent and character. The latter, he said, was harder to come by. There are plenty of runners with innate ability. But to be fast — to be excellent — requires something more. It requires commitment. I’m enough of a feminist not to need a man to take care of me, but enough of a girl to swoon at displays of power and accomplishment. Perhaps that’s just human: We worship sports stars whose personal behavior and other attributes are often less than human. When I meet someone who does what I do, but better — much better — I tend to be impressed and will often, perhaps unfortunately, overlook less savory qualities like, say, defects of character.

I’m always interested in how people talk about their PRs. When I worked in college admissions at Duke, I read an application from a kid who’d run a 4:18 mile. Ren Provey’s essay was about how he acquired his nickname, “2:10 Ren.” A soccer player who got roped into running, Ren ran 2:10 in the 800 as a freshman. When I got to know him, he told me that he chose to write about his debut 800 rather than his mile time because, well, he was embarrassed. The combination of speed and modesty is winning. Frank Shorter apparently said that everyone ran 4:30 in high school. That tells you something about Frank Shorter, not about “everyone.” (Frank Shorter is, however, pretty hot.)

I know lots of great and handsome men who slog through marathons at a slow and steady pace. It’s not that I wouldn’t go out with them, but when I see the cadaverous guys striding out before the gun goes off, my heart begins to race. It’s possible that Khalid Khannouchi, Don Kardong and Ian Torrence are not attractive men. I wouldn’t know. They look darned good to me. Once I met a guy I wouldn’t have talked to in a bar. Then I found out he was trying to break 2:30 at the St. George Marathon. What first seemed like skeletal geekiness was transformed into, well, you know. Speed Goggles.

I’ve been divorced a long time, and have gone on a lot of dates. I’ve given up on trying to find a STYF man; he’s proved as elusive as an ivory-billed woodpecker. Plus, I’ve come to accept that I’m not everyone’s cup of decaf skim chai: I don’t cook and I’m kind of mean. At this point I’d settle for an interesting running partner who pushes me to keep up and never calls me “opinionated”; someone who teaches me new things and knows the value of a semicolon. If that’s still too much to ask, maybe what I really need is a dog.

Reunited, and It Feels So…What?

By | Selected Essays, The Chronicle of Higher Education | No Comments

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, July 2, 2004

In the fall of 1980, multicolored leg warmers pulled over Chic jeans, long Farrah Fawcett hair blow-dried into wings, I had sauntered onto the campus of a fancy New England college. It could have been any one of a number of ivy-encumbered, self-satisfied universities; it just happened to be the one that admitted me. I arrived to the strains of the Clash, the Ramones, and Blondie blasting from leaded-glass windows cranked wide. I came trailing a faint scent of Windsong, along with a top-note of bravado and insecurity.

I had left my rural public high school, a place where football players were gods, to go to a college where the big men on campus sang in a cappella groups. My world opened and expanded in ways that would have shocked —and thrilled—my high-school self. Talking about the vagaries of Gnosticism would have been unthinkable with the kids in my 12th-grade homeroom; less than a year later I was in a late-night dorm huddle, discussing with glee the “ineluctable modality of the visible” and sharing a collective fantasy of turning Paradise Lost into a Saturday-morning cartoon. To be in a place where you recognize others of your ilk is a gift.

In college you have a chance to log long hours getting to know your friends. At no other time are you so intimately involved in the lives of the people you meet: you live, work, play, eat, drink, and sleep together. Without the responsibilities and obligations that come later in adult life, you have the capital to invest in friendship. Your friends’ stories become your stories; in the act of telling you get to know each other and yourself.

At the end of the spring term, however, our conversations were invariably interrupted by intruders. We watched as they tromped around campus in their business suits, plastic wine glasses in hand, chomping on cigars. They wanted to come into our rooms—their rooms, they said—and commented on how much the place had changed. They seemed vaguely pathetic, inelegantly throwing Frisbees on our lawns, showing up to eat pizza and swig beer at our off-campus haunts.

Twenty years later I looked around at men in business suits, plastic glasses in hand, chomping on cigars, and I adjusted my name tag and took another sip of wine. I hadn’t been back before. I had decided to come to this reunion because a few of my closest friends were going to be there. Walking around freshly manicured grounds, the campus felt both strange and eerily familiar. Same thing for talking with my classmates.

Psychiatrist friends have pointed out that while people can change, personalities rarely do. What surprised me most was that even after 20 years, I still sort of knew the people I’d been to school with. We had all changed and had all remained recognizably the same. What people did for work was not surprising: There was a preponderance of doctors, lawyers, bankers. We had graduated, after all, in the middle of the decade of greed; most of the kids I knew went straight from undergrad life to either professional schools or high-paying careers.

Now people were giving back. Without financial aid I wouldn’t have been able to attend this fancy place. Now, two decades later, I received financial aid to attend its reunion. All I had to do was ask, and then tell how much I could afford. When I thanked the woman at alumni affairs who made the arrangements, she told me to thank my classmates. It was their doing. There was a big push to get as many people as possible to come back.

How come? Why are reunions important? What purpose do they serve?

As I skimmed through the packet of materials, I wondered: How do you manufacture nostalgia? The alumni office put together a roster of classes, tours, and events designed to show us the finest, most memorable aspects of our old place. Beloved professors who taught back in the day were dusted off to lecture again. Opting to stay in the dorms brought with it a quaint reminder of bureaucracy long forgotten: You could request a particular roommate but could not be assured of getting your first choice. And, of course, the big draw: the promise of turning back the clock.

As a result, when we got to the campus, it really did feel like our place. Housing and registration were handled by current students, smiling, friendly, tolerant. No one told us where to go or what to do. No one from the administration made more than a token appearance. We were the grown-ups now.

While there were many things I had loved about my experience in college, it had never felt like my place. It had been as much a relief to leave as it had been an affirmation to be admitted. In college, while I was happy to drink and dance with the hale-fellows, I believed that we had little to say to each other. That sentiment was no doubt as much about me as about where I was, and with whom. When I made plans to return, a prodigal daughter, with no fancy job title, little money, and an unconventional lifestyle, I looked forward to seeing some of those other liminal people with whom I’d had late-night conversations —the scientists, the future academics, the artists, the insane—and finding out how they had made their ways through the real world.

When I glanced around at the reunion, they were nowhere to be found. What I saw was a bunch of smart, thoughtful, successful, highly cultured, and, for the most part, professional people. When I noted that there seemed to be very little posturing, a fellow who had been to every reunion said: “That because it’s 20. At 5, everything was still pretty much the same. At 10, people were all about their careers. At 15, everyone whipped out the photos of the kids. Now, we’re all more comfortable with who and what we are.”

It was indeed a comfortable group. A survey of the class revealed that (of those who responded) 79 percent had given money to the school. A mere 7 percent had been divorced. We were all, indeed, who we were. My financially aided, divorced self slunk along the periphery and got another glass of wine. It can’t be, I reasoned, that there aren’t more people like me. It can’t be that everyone else who graduated in 1984 is married, kidded, and rich.

It can’t be that everyone else knows all the words to the alma mater, a song that ends by pledging allegiance to God, country, and our school. It felt that way, though, at the reunion. Those who never fit the mold, I know, are not likely to age into it. Those people do not tend to attend reunions.

Is it because they don’t care, don’t feel a sense of belonging? Or because they are afraid of being judged by once-intimidating peers? That they’ve kept in touch anyway with the friends they had? They don’t want to spend the money? They’ve lost too much hair and gained too much weight? Or is it that their lives are full and rich and varied and that college was only a steppingstone to better things? That they are looking forward rather than back?

Creating a sense of nostalgia for a place where people spent a little bit of time a long time ago seems a good way to get them to open their hearts and wallets. I couldn’t figure out how explicit and strong the link was between the alumni and development functions of the reunion, or of the university, but I’ve been around enough campus blocks to know that it wasn’t trivial. Our reunion was a success: $4-million raised.

Having been back, will I be more likely to give money? Will I learn the words to the alma mater and sing it, hand on heart, white handkerchief waving? Unlikely. While at college I yearned to feel connected, to be a part of something larger, something that involved more than bricks and mortarboards. I never managed it. Now, two decades later, I felt a familiar ambivalence. Those bright college years are so influential, so much a part of who we become, that revisiting them brings up a host of conflicting, tumultuous emotions. Going back stirs the pot. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe in the complacency of daily life, it’s important to remember who you were before you were so much yourself.

It’s easier to return to the past when you are happy with the present.

Now, finally, I was able to navigate through this pale palette (most of us were white, wealthy, and drunk with the haze of memory). I walked around, as Wallace Stevens had it, an ordinary evening in New Haven, and thought about an old professor, recently accused in lurid prose by a classmate who claimed he had plopped his “boneless hand” on her fleshy thigh. Whatever. Sure, he was interpersonally icky, but from him I’d learned to love Stevens. Lines of poetry ran through my head as I wandered among vaulted arches and pointy towers:

I was the world in which I walked,
and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but
from myself;
And there I found myself more
truly and more strange
.

The Thinking Athlete’s Sport

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History, strategy, and camaraderie at the Ride and Tie World Championships

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the April 2004 issue of Running Times Magazine

Think of it as a two-person relay with a horse as the baton. Think of it as what would happen if you married the Boston Marathon to the Kentucky Derby and brought them to Outward Bound for the honeymoon. Think of it as the most energetically efficient way to cover 30 to 40 miles of rough terrain. If you think about it long enough, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll decide it’s absolute lunacy, or you’ll ask where you can sign up.

More than 30 years ago, San Francisco–based Levi’s Jeans was looking for a sporting event to sponsor. Bud Johns, Levi’s public relations guy, came up with the idea for a ride and tie race. Ride and tie was a mode of transportation used in the Old West, but has roots that can be traced back to England, when two people needed to cover ground but had only one horse between them. Henry Fielding, in his 18th-century novel, Joseph Andrews, mentions it as a mode of travel in much use by our “prudent ancestors.”

Johns found that the combination of the Western heritage of the company, the desire to do something new and different, and an unusual way to advertise the rough-hewn durability of their jeans made it an attractive option. For the first few years of the sport, prize money at the World Championship was doubled if the winning team was wearing Levi’s jeans.

The start of a ride and tie race is barely controlled chaos. You have three-member teams: two people and a horse. Often the team members are dressed in matching running clothes; the horse sports a big, colorful number on his rump and sometimes ribbons or other decorative elements to help his riders distinguish him from all the other mounts. In the mid-80s there would be 200 teams—600 critters, two- and four-legged—waiting in a meadow for the start of the race.

Although the number of participants in the championship race has dwindled in recent years—this year’s World Championship has just over 30 teams, an all-time low—it doesn’t feel small. Added to the event are 13 teams doing a short course—just a 12-mile loop—and another couple of dozen endurance (horse only) riders, also doing a short—25-mile—course. Out on the trail are 30 riders who’ve been out for a while already in their 50-mile endurance race.

Everyone is excited at the start. Runners are high-tailing it to the porta-potties, and horses lift their tails to take care of business. Some horses are rearing up, raring to get started.

The black hat goes down (shooting off a gun would wreak havoc among the already hyped-up Arabian steeds), and they’re off. One person starts out running, the other riding. Typically, the partner on the galloping horse goes farther faster. After a mile or so, the rider gets off, ties the horse to a tree, and continues down the trail on foot. The runner catches up to the tied horse, climbs on, and they set off to find the third member of the team. Once reunited, the humans can either switch, or have the riding member continue a ways before tying. If they switch, they’re likely to do a “flying exchange,” where the rider bails off on the right (wrong) side of the horse just as the runner is mounting from the left (the correct) side. It’s a sight to behold.

This year’s 32-mile World Championship is taking place high above Lake Tahoe, near Truckee, CA. The course is on fire trails, dirt roads, and single track; the elevation ranges from 6,500 to 8,400 feet. It promises to be a tough race. There are, as usual, a number of tough teams entered.

Mary Tiscornia, the only person to compete in all 33 World Championships, has partnered with Tom Johnson, who, in younger, faster days, had the course record at the Western States 100M. They are a favorite not only to take the Man/Woman category, but look good to win overall. In the Man/Man division, Skip Lightfoot, an excellent rider with a stable of strong horses, has teamed with speedy Mark Richtman who, until this year’s race, had won more championships than anyone.

In the Woman/Woman category the favorites are two Southern Californians, Rufus Schneider and Anne Langstaff. Langstaff is well-known in the ultra community for her big win at the Badwater 135M, her strong showing in numerous other races, and her job as an exotic dancer. Schneider called Langstaff and told her about the sport a year ago. Since then, the ultrarunner put her trail racing on hold, bought a horse, and has been training for this race.

And then there’s the veteran team that has never won, but has often come close (they finished second by 17 seconds the previous year). In 1981, within the space of two weeks, Jim Howard won the San Francisco Marathon, the Western States 100M, and the World Championship Levi’s Ride and Tie. In the same year, his friend and former Sacramento State teammate Dennis Rinde finished seventh at the Boston Marathon, clocking in at 2:13. That time was not a fluke: Rinde has run two 2:12s, four 2:13s, and two 2:14s. Back in the day, these guys had some serious running chops. Older now, but still strong, smart runners and athletic riders, they are serious contenders.

The course is three separate, sometimes overlapping, loops, each marked with a different color ribbon, each coming back to the start, where a team of veterinarians will check the horses before they are allowed to continue on the course. Teams must exchange a minimum of six times. When and where they do—most teams exchange more like 20 to 30 times over the course of the race—is what makes this, in the words of long-time competitor and Duke emeritus professor of biology Peter Klopfer, the “thinking athlete’s sport.” Strategy is key—reckoning the relative speed and strength of each human partner and the horse, and figuring out how to garner the advantage, is what this is all about.

Observers often wonder if the sport is hard on the horses. Head vet, Jim Steere, is quick to point out that this kind of sprinting and stopping closely mimics a horse’s experience as a prey animal in the wild. Indeed, anyone who has competed in a ride and tie has no doubt that the horses think this is darned fun. When the riding partner ties the horse to a tree, the horse watches as he runs off. Then he turns his head to look for you, the runner coming to claim him. You see your horse waiting for you and call to him. He nickers in response. As you are untying him, he’s ready to go, wanting to gallop off to look for your other partner.

In order to do well, you need a little help from your friends. One of the hardest parts of ride and tie strategy is getting the timing of the vet checks right. One person rides in and runs out while the other person comes in on foot. You need to be able to hand the horse off to your crew. They cool him, calm him, feed and water him. They make sure that he is ready—pulse and respiration rates down to the mandated maximum—for the second partner to show him to the vets before the team is deemed eligible to continue. A good horse is a sine qua non; a good crew makes for an easier race.

People here refer to themselves as the “ride and tie family.” That’s because it’s a close-knit, though ever-evolving, group. There are also a number of actual families who come and take part. The Ruprecht clan boasts three generations of ride and tiers. Eleven-year-old Sarah Howard is crewing for a number of family teams: her mom, Elaine Ruprecht, and her uncle, Tom Gey, multi-time winners of the Man/Woman division; her aunt, Carol Ruprecht, and grandfather, Ted; and of course, her dad, Jim Howard, and his partner Dennis Rinde. Sarah has been riding since before she could walk. Freckled, with long red hair, Sarah has already run a six-minute mile. I’ve called dibs on her as a partner in a couple of years.

For now, I’m lucky to have Running Times’ editorial director, Candace Karu, as my crew. Candace is my friend. I know that even if I scream at her during the race, she will still love me tomorrow. However, it wasn’t until two days before the event that I met my human and equine partners. My running partner, Michael Whelan, is exactly my height, which makes it easy to share a saddle (teams with big height disparities are either uncomfortable or use double stirrups). He’s run 44 marathons and was, for six years, a jockey in his native Ireland. Irish Mike heard about ride and tie six months ago and knew he’d found his sport.

We found each other through the organization’s website (www.rideandtie.org). We have leased our horse from Cliff, a long-time ride and tier who often brings rent-a-horses to races. Our boy is named Slick. He isn’t. He is dull, dirty, and seems, when we take him out for a test ride, a little dopey. He has an inefficient, not to mention uncomfortable, trot. He competed in a 50-mile endurance ride the week before and has a 100 miler coming up the following week. Slick works hard for his living.

Mike and I don’t have any plans to race hard, we just want to have fun. After the black hat goes down, fun is scarce. Our horse is no longer dopey. Hyped up, revved up, Slick is a jerk. For the first trade-off of the race, teams are allowed a “hand tie.” Because the horses are so excited at the start, and because, let’s face it, when you’re a herd animal it’s hard to stand still as your friends go charging by, crew members are allowed to hold the animals while they wait for the trailing runner. Slick manages to throw stoic Candace to the ground (knocking a chip off her shoulder bone) and gets his reins tangled up over his head. For the first few exchanges it’s almost impossible to mount the whirling dervish. When he’s tied to a tree, he pulls back so hard that getting the quick-release knot untied takes what seems like hours

During the course of the race, however, as we get to know each other, our boy settles down. By the last loop, I simply toss the tie rope over a branch, not even bothering to tie it. Slick stands quietly, waiting for Irish Mike. From behind me as I run, I hear hoofbeats and a brogue; Mike is telling Slick to “go get Rachel,” and he does.

We surprise ourselves by finishing in fifth place overall, winning the Man/Woman division. It didn’t hurt us that during the race Tiscornia missed a turn and ended up on the 50-mile endurance course loop. Her partner, Tom Johnson, ran the last part of the course solo. Not known for graciousness either on the trail or in victory, Johnson claimed that it was hard to see the markings when you were going fast. The team of Schneider and Langstaff also went off course. Even if they hadn’t, it’s likely that the old pros, Howard and Rinde, would have won anyway. They covered the 32-mile course in 3:37:01, beating the second place team, Lightfoot and Richtman, by 40 minutes.

After the race, the team of veterinarians cull out the top-10 horses and go over their levels of hydration, metabolism, and muscle tone to see which got through the race in the best shape. That’s where the real glory is. It means that you have trained your horse well and have raced him smart and safe. It’s the equine partner who has to run every step; in this reaction, the horse is the limiting reagent. The award for “Best Conditioned” doesn’t always go to the horse who finishes first, but this year, it does. Howard and Rinde’s partner, Magic Sirocco, proved not only the fastest, but also the fittest.

At the end of the race, you’re tired, sore, and dirty. You may be delighted or disappointed with your performance. You feel gratitude to your partner, your horse, and your crew. And then you start talking about next year’s World Championship.

For more information on the sport of Ride & Tie, visit their website at www.rideandtie.org.

The Childe’s Tale

By | Selected Essays, The Chronicle of Higher Education | No Comments

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, April 19, 2002

Having lived nearly all my life with at least one foot somewhere near a university, I am an enthusiastic imbiber of academic novels. From A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch to David Lodge and James Hynes, I soak up these genre books, where the characters are recognizably drawn, at least as types. I know what to expect. Star professors and working-stiff teachers; deans and chairs and adjuncts; trailing spouses and partners-in-affairs.

But something hit me recently: Rarely are there any children. The real-life characters who live real academic lives often do have children, after all. But rugrats who pop up in academic novels are usually just props. Imagine a Wide Sargasso Sea or The Wind Done Gone version of one of these books. The same story, from an academic brat’s point of view.

Children of academics have a funny relationship to the academy and even, perhaps, to the world. They grow up with the trappings of social class — access to Culture, appreciation of the Arts, a broad and humanistic outlook — without, for the most part, the money, prestige, and real-world power that children of other professional parents often have. Where those parents go to work surrounded by reasonably like-minded colleagues, children of academics have peers whose backgrounds, lives, and, let’s face it, values, are quite different.

I am the child of an academic. Not a high-powered fancy scholar; no, my father taught in the English department of a large state university, just a regular-army kind of academic, a foot soldier in the battles of academe. I grew up in the halcyon days before the so-called culture wars, in an earlier time when there was, in academic communities, an air of tolerance and progressive values often at odds with the climate of the town.

The 1970s households of most of my friends, also children of academics, were similar to mine. Built-in bookshelves were de rigueur; the daily paper was The New York Times, even though New York City was hundreds of miles, physical and psychic, away. Sometimes The New York Review of Books made an appearance. (The Wall Street Journal usually did not.) Walls were adorned with art brought home from overseas sabbaticals. Kitchens invariably smelled of something other than casseroles cooked with cream-of-mushroom soup: Korean wontons, perhaps, or veal cordon bleu. And the dinner table was a locus of discussion for the expression, if not necessarily the free exchange, of ideas. Our houses were often the sites of high-school parties, because our parents tended to be tolerant of sex or drugs or, at least, rock ‘n’ roll. (They may have been less forgiving of white bread, religious fundamentalism, and patriotic gore.)

There was zero tolerance for not taking academic work seriously. Asking for parental help on a homework assignment was complicated. On the one hand, it was a way of making a connection and courting familial brownie points. On the other, you couldn’t expect to receive a direct answer to a simple question, which was frequently used as a springboard for a seminar. Some of our parents, it seemed, couldn’t separate parenting from teaching. The response to a proud offering was typically along the lines of, “It’s a good start.” The finished piece often incorporated the ideas and, hard for a kid to recognize, the biases of the resident academic.

We grew up ingesting the work world of our parents, whether it was talking about Freud as if he were a member of the family or asking the dog to sit en francais. We were comfortable conversing with grown-ups, because grown-ups expected us to be able to converse. Or, at least, to listen. By listening, we achieved a level of passive knowledge about subjects and ideas beyond the ken of what was expected of our peers and, especially, by our teachers. Precociousness was an obvious byproduct.

And then there were the values issues. We may have been exposed to endless conversations about PBS miniseries, but rarely heard talk about money (except that it was tight). We may have been embarrassed by purchasing our clothes at discount stores, but when it came to buying a piano, we got the best. Playing sports was not applauded; practicing the violin was. There was a general disdain for business, a snubbing of those with the gift of gab (once out of the academic element, our parents had little readily accessible small talk), and an impatience with salespeople (we relied on Consumer Reports). Of course, there was a concomitant — if abstract — respect for the laboring classes. Many of our fathers, indeed, tried their hands at carpentry, building additions to the remote and ramshackle second homes that were our summer destinations.

The friends whose parents were doctors, lawyers, or businesspeople tended to buy nicer clothes. Their cars didn’t always have foreign names. When they went on vacation, it was to Disneyland, or maybe Hilton Head. The children of academics tended not to be taken on tourist trips. “Tourist trap” was the sobriquet for places that sold souvenirs. It was difficult for us to experience Americana without a sense of irony. Leisure time was not cultivated.

All of that made us stand out. In my hometown, we rubbed shoulders in school with the children of farmers and factory workers, as well as doctors and lawyers. Some of our friends’ fathers wore overalls, some wore suits to work. Mothers got their hair “done.” We saw those families on TV; we did not see our own. Jews in my town tended to be affiliated with the college. Ditto for single-parent families. When it came time for us to go to college, many of us applied to fancy private schools instead of the state universities in the system that employed our parents.

But there’s something more fundamental, I think, that set us apart. Early on in James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, the protagonist describes being told by his undergraduate mentor to go to graduate school: Scholarship, he’s promised, is a meritocracy. Some of my school buddies, the sons of shoe repairers, the daughters of workers in a typewriter factory, were replete with a ball-busting work ethic. For their part, the offspring of the upper middle class were confident that their lives would follow the comfortable path already trodden by their parents. We, however, held to a quaint notion of meritocracy that permeated the zeitgeist of the children of academics. This we accepted without irony.

I am not sure that it served us well. We may have looked like arrogant underachievers when compared with our hard-working, working-class peers. We may have been led to believe that being smart was enough — and certainly morally superior to being rich. Busy work was something we would not brook; talent and intelligence were believed to trump dedication and diligence, and money, every time. We were bored by high school, superciliously suspecting that our parents were smarter than our teachers. Believing life was a meritocracy, we were in for a big surprise.

I find that now, as a grown-up, I am drawn to fellow children of academics. Many of us are hanging around the fringes of universities. Some have followed our parents into the professoriate, others have gone into quasiacademic endeavors like scholarly publishing. Some write, pace Martin Amis and David Auburn. There are, of course, those who fled and high-tailed it straight for the Peace Corps or Vista, but many have, eventually, made their way back to toil in the mind fields.

I sometimes think that our most-entrenched characteristic is our discomfort with trying to fit into the fluid, if still defined, American class system. Like most children, we have some perspective on our parents. We know we’re not working class (even if we do manual labor), yet we’re not comfortable with being middle class. Never having learned to value money, we don’t usually pursue it rigorously. If, somehow, we are financially successful, we are apologetic about it.

Perhaps my experience, and that of my peers, is no longer representative. I look at the children of current faculty members. Some are pierced and tattooed, clad in Goth black and doing well in school. Some I see working at the local bagel shop, having opted out of college. Those who really want to rebel against their parents are going into banking. Perhaps being the child of an academic no longer sets one apart to the same degree. Perhaps the culture at large has adopted some of the values of the academy — the gap between academic fetishes like ethnic food and sensible sandals and the rest of the world has closed, at least. The strange and esoteric stuff sought out by professorial types has filtered both down and up the stratifications of the American class system. Perhaps.

The rugrat perspective on dinnertime discussions of postcolonial discourse, the economic development of Latin America, or the matriarchal behavior of prosimian primates would probably not make for a great novel of ideas, which is what, of course, academic novels must be. But those shadowy characters, those small plot props, those pilgrims of the academic landscape — my hunch is that they, too, have a tale to tell, distinct, varied, and perhaps a little odd: “And he began to speak, with right good cheer, His tale anon.”