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D: None of the Above

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

I have no doubt “Alice,” which is not her real name, is a dedicated dancer. I haven’t seen her perform, I haven’t read reviews of a show or even seen a sparkling résumé with copious awards. I also have no way, just by looking at her, of recognizing whether her movements are so refined and controlled that she clearly expresses the majesty of music through movement.

How do I know about her talent? A recent family acquaintance, Alice is a senior in high school who is applying to college. When I asked about her essay, she generously shared it. As a condition for reading her work and writing about it, I agreed to allow her to remain anonymous.

The college application process forces young adults to distill their lives onto the lines of a page. They have the unenviable task of sifting through experiences, memories, hopes and aspirations as they try to figure out what to include and what to exclude.

The latter is perhaps more challenging. Most of us could tell stories about our lives, mentioning the day of the week, the time of year, the names of other people on a trip to New Zealand or the food we ate that day. Those details could be relevant if they indicate something specific about the writer, or they could provide a dense fog through which a reader struggles to find a truth, passion or personal meaning.

Tempting as it might have been for Alice to mention her dancing success or memorable performances, she excluded those details.

Alice honed in on a sensory experience linked to her practices, performances and passion for dance: the smell of her shoes. Indeed, the first line of her essay draws the reader into her world immediately, suggesting that she’s worried about the foul aroma of her shoes spreading through her car.

Beginning an essay with a sensory experience generates an immediately relatable experience, even among those of us who have never stood under hot lights on stage and contorted our bodies in carefully choreographed productions. Readers, whether they are admissions officers, high school teachers or contest judges, have all had moments when they worry a smell can give us away. It doesn’t have to be an unpleasant scent, as we may have cooked a surprise dinner for our partner and don’t want that person to know about it until mealtime.

Alice goes on to describe how the smell reflects the hard work, pain and beauty connected with her dancing. We all have seen the bright light moments when people perform, whether they’re dancing ballet, catching a ball on a Major League Baseball field or sharing a poem they’ve written.

These moments and concerns in between the performances occur more frequently and capture more about Alice’s inner thoughts and drive. The smell becomes an unpleasant but hard-earned badge of honor.

Alice goes on to describe how these shoes mirror her participation in a pursuit that requires her to reach a level of perfection she suggests the body doesn’t achieve naturally. She adds an awareness of the individual nature of the performance, coupled with the fact that she’s never alone, surrounded by others whose feet have the same smell.

Through descriptions like these, Alice is revealing fine details of what she’s doing, the by-product of the effort she exerts and the shared sense of purpose she has with her fellow dancers.

College essays require a mental perspiration akin to that which affected Alice’s shoes. Through those efforts, however, writers not only reveal more about themselves, but they also create lasting impressions for readers searching for evidence of commitment and passion.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

As we marinate in the warmth of the holidays, we have a chance to spend time with friends and family.

We’ve chosen most of our friends ourselves. OK, maybe that’s not exactly true, as we inherit friends from our parents when we’re young: “Oh, why don’t you play with Timmy, who is the son of my best friend whom I met when I was your age”; and from our children when we’re older: “Hey, dad, can you hang out with Allisa’s parents while we wander through Great Adventure theme park.”

Despite the somewhat limited pool of people from which to choose our friends, we often pick those people who share similar values, a sense of humor or a tolerance for politicians.

We don’t have the same luxury with our families. We have nutty family members who say and do all kinds of things that make us cringe, that cause us to laugh long after the events are over or who simply make us scratch our heads.

We often think it’s the other family members who are the oddballs but, in truth, we’re all pretty strange.

Long before people voted each other off shows or islands in situations that seemed completely contrived in reality TV shows, family members confronted the awkward moments when they saw each other, year after year, at holidays, birthdays, special occasions and, perhaps, uncomfortable or less-than-ideal moments.

Families provide us with opportunities to test ourselves and our theories without worrying about losing a job, losing a friend or losing our minds. We can challenge ourselves and our families with ideas percolating in our heads, but that may not be exactly what we believe.

Our families receive the best and the worst of our impulses, as we step forward to help each other, but also encourage independent growth and development.

As older members of families, we hope to lead not only by our words but by our examples. Failing that, however, we hope that our spouses, children, parents and siblings can see us for the range of our contributions to the family, and not just for that ignominious moment that we’d just as soon forget.

Families offer reality checks on the myths we create for ourselves. “No, Dan, you didn’t win that horseback-riding ribbon because you had such a great ride. You fell off the horse and the judges felt sorry for you when you landed in horse manure. Good try, though.”

These moments when families hold up mirrors to us can help ground us, keeping us from becoming too proud or mighty. On the other side, however, when we’re feeling down, families can serve as the perfect counterweight, suggesting that we have succeeded in more difficult circumstances and that they are certain of a positive outcome, even if we harbor significant doubts.

Movies about families often run the gamut of emotions, from slapstick, to comical, to serious and even bruising, as rivalries that run amok can become the origin of dysfunction even when we step away from these familial contacts.

Certainly, therapists often start and end with the family dynamic, drawing an understanding of habits we may not know we have until we look back at the lives and roles that brought us to this point.

At their best, families can inspire and encourage, while suggesting that we can and should believe in ourselves while we pursue our goals. Ultimately, families who demonstrate unconditional love and support, even if they do laugh at us periodically, set the kind of example that makes the accomplishments of the next generation possible. Here’s to everything we give, get and laugh about from the people we call family.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Old school. It’s a phrase that suggests someone, like yours truly, does something one way, even if there might be an easier, more efficient or modern alternative method for doing things.

Take reading a book. My teenage children think nothing of doing their assigned reading for classes on electronic devices.

That just doesn’t work for me. For me, reading has
always been a multisensory experience. I enjoy finishing a page and flipping to the next one, anticipating the next set of words even as I know how many pages are left in the book by the size of the stack to the left and right.

When I was young, I used to figure out the exact middle of a book. I had an understated celebration when I reached the midpoint, even though the prologue, or introduction, often tilted the balance slightly.

Of course, I could do the same thing with an electronic version of a book.

And yet it’s just not the same for me. I also liked to see the names of the people who read the book in school before me. These students had perused the same pages, found the same shocking revelations and associated with the characters as they moved through the same year in their lives.

When I reread a chapter, searched for symbols or literary devices, I could recall exactly where on a page I might have seen something.

In an e-book, every page is the same. None of the pages is slightly darker, has a bent corner where someone might have stopped, or has a slightly larger “e” or a word that’s printed above the others on a line. The virtual pages are indistinct from each other, except for the specific words on the page or the chapter numbers.

I suppose people like me are why a store like Barnes & Noble can still exist, despite the ease and low cost of uploading books. And, yes, I understand when I travel how much lighter my suitcase would be if I uploaded 100 books without lugging the weight of the paper. I also understand that e-books are more environmentally friendly. Once a paper book is produced, however, it no longer requires constant battery recharging.

Passing along books read by earlier generations connects us to our parents and grandparents. We can imagine them holding the book at a distance as their eyes started to change, falling asleep with the book in their laps, or sitting on the couch until late at night, eager to finish a book before going to bed. We can also picture them throwing a book that frustrated them across the room or out the window.

Among the many Titanic stories that sticks out for me is the tale of Harry Elkins Widener, a 27-year-old book collector who boarded the ill-fated ship with his mother and father in Cherbourg, France. Legend has it that he died with a rare 1598 book, “Essays” by Francis Bacon, that he had bought in London. Harry and his father died aboard the ship, while their mother survived the sinking. After her son perished, she donated $2 million — an enormous sum in 1912 — to Harvard to construct a
library which is still on the main campus.

While I’m sure it’s possible to pick a random section of an e-book, I have grabbed books from a shelf and leafed to a random page, trying to figure out where in the story I have landed.

I am delighted to hold children’s books, including many of the Dr. Seuss collection. Also, I remember my children searched each page of “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown for the mouse. There’s probably a mouse in the virtual version and touching it may even make the mouse grow, scurry across the virtual page or offer lessons about rhyming couplets.

Still, for my reading pleasure, I’m old school: Hand me a book and I’ll carry around a friend.

Photo by Alex Petroski 2018

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

It’s time for the media to look elsewhere. The lowest hanging fruit has been extensively covered. Washington journalists and, indeed, state and community journalists have a responsibility to cover the entire landscape. Everything doesn’t run through one office, one branch of the federal government or one person.

It’s time to highlight human interest stories. Flawed though it may be in parts, the movie “Instant Family,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne makes people laugh. However, it also addresses a significant issue about foster children “in the system.” No, I didn’t run out to adopt a foster child as the final credits were rolling, but I heard some personal details that were as moving to me as they were to the people in the movie.

We the press should run off and cover the local versions of Karen, played by Octavia Spencer, and Sharon, acted by Tig Notaro, who work tirelessly at an adoption agency. Spencer is a remarkable combination of serious and slapstick, offering the kind of range typically only reserved for a main character. She draws the audience, and the other characters, to her, offering perspectives on fostering children and adoption that aren’t often discussed.

Undoubtedly, on Long Island, in New York and in the United States, people like Karen and Sharon give children hope and seek to connect parents looking to adopt with children, while maintaining level heads through the high-stakes process.

Every year, papers print out lists of high school graduates, sometimes including the names of colleges these newly minted graduates plan to attend. These students, many of whom have spent their lives in one place, are preparing to take their next steps on literal and figurative terrain they haven’t yet covered, except perhaps to pay a quick visit to a college.

Maybe, in addition to listing all the high school graduates, we should interview several college graduates 10 years after they graduated from high school, asking them what they learned, what mistakes they made and what paths they took to get them from their youthful hope to their current state.

And, yes, there are local and national politicians who have become subsumed in the Washington wave. Some of them also have worthy ideas such as our local state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) with his work on the environment. We owe it to ourselves to hear them, to give them a platform and to give our readers a chance to
respond to their visions and ideas.

In an era when people voted in impressive numbers in the recent midterm elections, we need to know what everyone in Albany or Washington is doing. Voting is just the start. We should keep tabs on them, encourage them to follow through on their campaign promises, and lend our support when they turn to their constituents for help.

We should also hear more from police chiefs, who can offer insights into what it’s like on the front lines of the drug crisis. Many of these people are working feverishly to prevent family tragedies that resonate for years, hoping to redirect people away from self-destructive paths.

Every day, incredible people with tales of trials and tribulations live among us, pursuing their goals while trying to ensure that they follow their moral and civil compasses.

In this incredible country, merely being famous or even powerful isn’t enough of a reason to write about what we like or don’t like about someone everyone sees every day. We need to shine the spotlight in the corners of rooms, not waiting for YouTube, reality TV or a heroic sports moment to catapult someone to public attention. Some people deserve that attention because they typically remain in the shadows, supporting others, saying the right things when there isn’t a camera in sight, and inspiring others to believe in themselves.

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