The College Essay

Smartacus is off to a good start. Where will it all lead?

And now a little midnight jolt, a COVID quake, to add to your anxiety.

It’s the end of the world all over again. Every day. Gets old, doesn’t it?

I detect a second wave of psychic funk, a low-grade depression. Like sheep, we need other sheep. I miss the bumping of shoulders, the pats on the back, the occasional pinch from an overserved Chardonnay Mom.

I miss bars…boy, do I miss bars – the clinking of glasses, the bar staff in crisp white shirts. The piano ping of ice cubes into heavy glasses. Running into people you haven’t seen. A TV in the corner with Boise State playing Wyoming. The bartender slicing limes.

Bars will be back. I’m not saying when. By Christmas? By Thanksgiving? Don’t pin me down on the year.

“Gimme a whiskey, and don’t be stingy,” I’ll say, quoting Garbo. Her voice was huskier than mine, but you get the gist. “And a ginger ale on the side.”

Breathe deep the gathering gloom, as the Moody Blues suggested. Yet know, day by day, everything is getting incrementally better. We have eggs. There are, like, 50 kinds of toilet paper now. Baseball. Rejoice in that.

Rejoice too in my daughter Rapunzel’s carrot cupcakes, with cream cheese frosting (recipe here).

One friend suggested pairing the carrot cupcakes with a nice inky Zin, to help clear your throat of smoke.

Or you could just call in a chimney sweep. It’s your money… your throat.

For maintaining mental health, weekly visits to the ocean are still a good idea, if you’re into mental health, which many of us are.

For a while, I was making a point of weekly beach visits, then I got sidetracked by duty and obligation. Sort of the same thing – duty and obligation — but when you use two similar words like that, you underline your point.

“It’s more emphatic,” an editor once explained, though I don’t think he needed the word “more,” since emphatic implies more.

That’s really the only writing tip I know, that double-word thingy, though I like quoting O Henry, who said about short stories: “Rule One: Write stories that please yourself. Rule Two: There is no Rule Two.”

So there you have it, the secrets behind my lack of success.

He’d probably do well at Princeton, meet some pale, terse coed from Connecticut, have to endure some Plath and some pretty odd ideas on colonization.

My son Smartacus has been pounding out versions of his college entrance essay. His first draft was 1,600 words. Evidently, he has lived a very long and interesting life.

I offered to look at it, make suggestions, but he would have none of that.

“You’re a busy guy,” he said, which is only half true. So he showed it to his brother-in-law, Finn, a marketing whiz, who undoubtedly made some very good suggestions.

Each day, Smartacus and I talk about where he might land for college next fall. Several universities are in hot pursuit, as you might expect for a guy who pens 1,600 words when all he needed was 700 or so.

“Get out the sword,” I told him. “Edit out the adverbs and the dependent clauses.”

Remove, I told him, all the prepositional phrases, because they can usually be wrestled into adjectives. Cut, cut, cut till all you have left are a noun and a couple of verbs, maybe a coordinate conjunction; a couple of semi-colons would be good.

Some irony would be nice. Not too much, not to where it comes off as cynicism. You shouldn’t be cynical till you’re at least 19.

If you write yourself into a corner, just quote the Moody Blues.

“Cold-hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight…”

Be sure to be innocent and humble. You’re 17, so you’d be forgiven for being a little sly. They might even like that. The better the school, the more they will appreciate that you’re a little sly.

O Henry has his rules. I have mine.

“Rule One: Punch them in the gut,” I told him. “Rule Two: Tickle them till they laugh.”

Smartacus will probably punch his way into Princeton, and then I’m so screwed. Princeton is now a million dollars a semester, a pretty fair price when you consider all you get.

F. Scott Fitzgerald went there, as did my buddy Mazin, and they both seem pretty bright. I didn’t know them before Princeton, so how can you measure the impact? But Princeton certainly didn’t ruin them.

Or maybe, in Fitzgerald’s case, it kind of did.

Yet, how ironic would it be for my son to write his way into Princeton? Here he is, one day scratching himself all over (attention admission’s rep: He’s uncommonly itchy. Might have aphids).

On a typical day, he spends a lot of time scratching himself in the ribs, up under his t-shirt, and trying to figure out where he left his flip-flops and asking could he maybe use the car. Then the next day he’s getting an acceptance letter from Princeton?


He’d do well there, no doubt, meet some pale, terse coed from Connecticut, have to endure some Plath and some pretty odd ideas on colonization.

But then how many books and screenplays would I have to write to afford his tuition? I’d be like that girl in “Rite of Spring” who dancers herself to death. I’d be a cautionary figure from Stravinsky, spinning, typing, revising. Ugh.

Worst of all, I’d have to hone my writing — sharpen the edges, draw a little blood.

In the end, I’d be left with a noun and a couple of verbs, maybe a coordinate conjunction; a couple of semi-colons would be good…

And irony. Just everywhere, irony.

Want to hang out? I’ll be on Zoom Oct. 1, for a Happy Hour fundraiser to benefit small businesses in my area. Come share a cocktail and catch up on the hiking club, the Gin & Tonic Society, the new book and much more. Everyone invited. Info, click here. Thanks!

21 thoughts on “The College Essay

  1. I hope you never lose your irony that doesn’t devolve into cynicism. There’s already enough of that everywhere. Loved this column for too many reasons to count, not the least of which is your quoting a Moody Blues song I obsessed about in high school and haven’t thought about since. Thanks, Chris… I suddenly feel 16 again!

  2. You can ‘go ahead’ and get started…it happened ‘back in’ April…the putt breaks left ‘to right’… Apparently ‘more emphatic’ is the way to go these days. Susie and I go to Zuma every Thursday. Plenty of room, great life guards [for when I take the kids during the summer] and free parking if you’re old and have a pass. A 30 minute run, a nice lunch, the Moody Blues on the iPod [told you I was old], a Chris Erskine book and cool water to wash the week away. Nothing like it!

      1. I’m so far away from the cup that most of my putts break four times. Been to Sunset at ‘Zuma West.’ Don’t know about Neptune’s Net? Do you recommend?

  3. “Rule One: Punch them in the gut,” I told him. “Rule Two: Tickle them till they laugh.” You, Chris, achieve this in every essay.

    1. If he got into Princeton, my other job would be keeping him there. (Psssst, he’ll never get into Princeton– only 2 years of a language, only 3 years of math. It would be a horrible fit for him if he did)

  4. Let’s hope Smartacus does not fall far from the tree !! And hope you win the lottery!!!( well you already won, with your winning family !!!😏🤗😊❤😎

  5. The lines from the poem “Late Lament”, written by Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge, are spoken by keyboardist Mike Pinder. “Nights in White Satin” is one of my favorite ’70s songs.

  6. Obviously you think Colorado State is too difficult a school for Smartacuss to gain admission. Please don’t give up. There is no need to settle for a lesser school. (I almost wrote “far lesser” – then I remembered your editor).
    CSU ‘71

  7. Chris, you can thank me when your student loan bill of $400,000 arrives. I recommended Princeton a couple months ago. Have Smartacus take the ‘23 and me’ dna test. He’ll get a free ride if he’s got some Native American dna. Ya never know. Cheers

  8. My daughter is pounding out her college essay over here as well. I also offered to look it over but got most of my rules from Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday mornings (“conjunction junction what’s your function? I got “and” “but” and “or.” They’ll get you pretty far.”) So I told her about your Two Rules. Thank you. To combat corona funk I suggest taking White Fang for long walks, eating carrot cupcakes and inviting yourself to the beach house. And keep writing. It helps keep the rest of us sane! Cheers!

  9. Chris ‘
    You and I shared a huge gin and T years ago , but I was sent to fight !

    FiremanBob says hi!

  10. Great writing primer for Smartacus! How can a 17 year old possibly listen to his Dad? Even though you are a goldmine of info. He’ll appreciate you more when he moves away from home, I betcha.

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