First Lines

Adapted from something I wrote in Yale’s “Daily Themes” class. (Great class, by the way!)

The prompt:

Write twelve possible first lines to twelve different stories (fictional, non-fictional, or some combination of both). For a real challenge, let those lines start to feel like they hold together by juxtaposition. See the work of David Markson for a model.

These aren’t good sentences, but I wrote them hoping they could become first lines for first drafts of good stories.

I haven’t written those stories yet, but if you’d like me to write one, let me know and I will do that, just for you.*

  1. Our god is cruel and jealous, and we wish we had a better one.
  2. Today my Anti-Procrastination Friend saw me on Facebook and…
  3. We know that our island is an experiment, run by someone we don’t understand.
  4. The main character of this story was hit by a car just after you finished this sentence.
  5. “This has been my favorite funeral of the year.”
  6. Gambling is for suckers, he thought, and pushed the button again.
  7. There he was, waving his sign like a madman and shouting the true heights of various mountains.
  8. This is my history of the world, factual and proportionate, slave to neither narrative nor…
  9. We abandoned the Earth in our ships, but we left the Amish behind.
  10. You might think that even a very intelligent cloud could never kill a person, but…
  11. According to the actuary table, one of us was dead by now.
  12. They were looking for souls all along!
  13. “This week, life was just one long fire alarm.”
  14. She’d learned to run on water, but that wouldn’t save her when she came back to shore.
  15. You do not fuck with Liz when she’s delivering a pizza.

*With the exception of #9, because the Amish deserve an entire novel. And #8, because it’s the friggin’ history of the world.


(To see all 60+ prompts from Daily Themes, click here.)

Introducing: Yale Effective Altruists

Update: This post is out-of-date. YEA now has its own website, where updates will be posted on various things we do. The website is also out-of-date, but to a lesser extent.


I’m starting a club!

The name of the club is “Yale Effective Altruists”, or “YEA”. It exists for three big reasons:

  1. To help college students use their time to make other people’s lives better in a manner as effective as possible.
  2. To introduce more college students to the ideas and methods of the “effective altruism” (EA) movement.
  3. To help the wider EA movement complete more projects and put more ideas into practice, for the good of humanity.


Members of YEA will:

  • Meet to discuss the current state of the world, and realistic ways we might improve it
  • Plan and develop projects that might improve the world (more on that later)
  • Talk to cool people who like improving the world, some of whom might be famous
  • Learn how to persuade people (useful in general) and get expert advice on choosing classes, careers, and more

There will be one recommended meeting each week (30 minutes or less), plus a variety of projects to work on and talks to attend if you’d like to be more involved. We’ll also hang out together (for more, see “good parties” below).

If you’re already curious, you can sign up to learn more!

(I’ll also give you the link at the end of this post.)

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How My First Name Got Me Into Yale. Maybe.

If you’re reading this because of the title: Hooray, it worked!
Anyway, click-bait aside, I’m starting this post half-convinced that first-letter-of-name discrimination is a real issue that deserves attention.
In the following investigation, I will attempt to uncover whether names that start with the letter “A” are more common at Yale than they ought to be. This isn’t as ridiculous a premise as it sounds–thanks to the “implicit egotism” effect, our names can have a surprising impact on where we end up in life. (Though these results are still highly contentious.)
I won’t give away the result here, but you can skip to the bottom of the page for my conclusion.


Two years ago, I began to notice that there are a lot of “A” names at Yale. I’d count the names in any room where I knew most of them (ignoring my own), and the average was about one in eight.
There are 26 letters, so this seems excessive. On the other hand, three of those letters are Q, X, and Z. Plus, a lot of parents might pick the first name in the baby book just to get it over with, like mine did. 
(Just kidding, Mom and Dad! I think.)

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Long Day’s Journey Into Cambridge

(A short story, written for YDN Weekend. Will only make sense to people who were at Yale in 2013, I’m afraid.)


I woke up and began to panic. It wasn’t far from New Haven to Boston, and I’d fallen asleep after a long night spent polishing my piece for the Harvard-Yale issue of WEEKEND. The train was empty, and I knew I’d missed my stop.

If only life had been that simple.

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Profiles in Conversion

The miracle workers at the New Journal compressed my 5400-word rough draft into 2800 words of tight prose:

I really like the final edit, but since about 6000 words wound up in one draft or another and were cut before the end, I’d like to throw in some footnotes/addenda/scraps from my reporting notebook. Ordered according to the relevant spot in the piece:

1) When I was eight years old, an eight-year-old friend of mine had me declare my faith in Christ in his basement. I was told this would save me from Hell, so I was glad to comply. I later learned that Jews don’t believe in Hell. Damn!

2) In the course of having an evangelical best friend, I attended his church a few times. It was a lively church. Lots of singing and dancing, which was confusing, because the rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth never danced. At one point, after the service, I compared the pastor to a kangaroo. This led, five seconds later, to a knock-down, drag-out fight with the pastor’s kid. My friend never took me back to church with him.

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Back to School, Part II

A few days ago, I wandered Old Campus, where a thousand freshmen were in the process of moving in. Together with the rest of the Yale Record, I passed several hundred copies of our “traditional Freshman Issue” into the hands and under the doors of the class of 2017.

(I feared their parents might open the magazine and faint from shock, but at Yale, you can get away with nearly anything if you call it “traditional”, from dirty jokes to the preferential admission of legacies.)

The joy in the air as we walked among the new students was one of the most intoxicating sensations I’ve ever felt, though I’m a teetotaler and don’t partake of marijuana, so my range of experience is limited.

It brought to mind the air around a rock concert. One thousand people, most of whom are about to have a supremely happy experience–but this experience will last four years, rather than four hours. The tension of that pent-up force is addictive. If I’m in New Haven after I graduate, I may stop by for future move-in days just to bask in it.

Tonight, having spoken separately with at least eight people I respect and admire over the past two days, I collapsed into our brand-new futon (courtesy of Rubber Match, the best store in this city). A smile hit my face and stuck.

I’m a junior now–an old man–but I’ve got two pent-up years left in me, and whenever I’m tired over the next nine months, whenever I have a problem set that won’t die or an article due yesterday, I will remember those pent-up years, and they will be my battery.

Like a nuclear reactor, the college years to come provide energy by slowly fissioning, until one is left standing in one’s cap and gown with nothing but one’s diploma and highly unstable waste material. Some people feel sickened by this byproduct of bygone days, by the knowledge that their undergraduate years have passed and will not return. I fear that I, too, will suffer greatly for a little while come 2015.

But later, I will find an excuse to be on Old Campus again as the freshmen arrive, and I will plant the remnants of my gone-away years. Anything I can’t carry, in my suitcase or my mind–down, into the soil.

Much of what we do here is radioactive. Running clubs, organizing events, celebrating old traditions, imagining new ceremonies that will in time become tradition–all of it leaves behind a trace of who we were, for these four years, and echoes within the walls and courtyards in ways we never imagined.

But rather than decay, these remnants give life to Yale. This university is nothing but a collection of pretty buildings without the sum of the histories of its students, and the pent-up joy of its freshmen is made possible by what we’ve left for them to find.

Today, we’ve come back to school. Soon, we’ll leave forever, but who we were will remain etched in the halls and stones and fields.

It’s a new year. What are you going to carve?

Sex and Relationships at Yale, Pt. II

First, a series of disclaimers:

Relationships are great, but not necessarily the best thing for everyone, especially busy college students who will soon be leaving for another city. And it is very difficult to determine who is going to be a “good breakup” before you’ve been dating them for a while. And it is nearly impossible to have a “good relationship” in college that ends in a breakup any person could consider “good”, unless by “good” we mean “good compared to being submerged in a bathtub full of tarantulas”. And some people just aren’t into the whole romance thing.

And I should really have put this at the end of my last self-important sociological treatise rather than at the beginning of this post. You live, you learn.


Anyway, some updates on the post before this one:

TIME jumped the college-hookup bandwagon after the Times (or is that shorthand only for the Times of London?), with a well-reasoned response written by a recent college graduate.

And she agreed with me! Then again, had she not agreed with me, would I have told you her response was “well-reasoned”? Perhaps not! Media bias is hard.

Anyway: There’s less hooking up going on than we might expect, a sizable minority of college students don’t have sex at all, nobody talks to men for these articles (plus, gay sex goes unmentioned–too controversial?), and the Ivy League enrolls a tiny, tiny fraction of this nation’s undergraduates. Dockterman is careful not to state any major non-statistical conclusions, which makes sense, because most of the “problems” inherent in “hook-up culture” are currently being dealt with. Condoms are free at Yale. The HPV vaccine exists. STD rates in the United States are holding steady or perhaps decreasing, depending on the disease.

Away from the physical side of college sex, I’d be curious to see whether rates of romance-related emotional turmoil are higher in my generation than my parents’. But this is the kind of data that doesn’t exist in a place I can easily find it, and any upward trend would be difficult to separate from the overall rise in depression among every American age group over the last few decades. (I have friends who might call both depression and hook-up culture symptoms of a sick society, but that’s a matter for another post, or a book, or a lifetime of writing that slowly comes to resemble an endless game of rhetorical wallball–good fun, but the wall never moves.)

In the wake of Part One, a few friends contacted me with comments on my long-winded rant about how relationships are great and love is totally within our grasp, if we just reach out and touch someone, etc. Thank you, friends! I will not name-check you for now, because I don’t know how you all feel about publicity, but the best part of writing things other people read is when other people talk to you about those things and wind up teaching you something.

In addition to inspiring the disclaimer that kicked off this post, one woman made the extraordinarily interesting observation that all the fuss about sex and romance leaves out an equally important variety of relationship–friendship. Best friends, she said, are rare, and most friendships form out of convenience and swiftly disappear when we grow apart or graduate.

“I had a friendship breakup this year, which totally sucked. I couldn’t treat it like a relationship breakup and talk about it, which made it suck more. And I have friends who are aromantic.” (Link is mine.)

When I think about it, I realize that I’ve seen friends as devastated at losing friends as I can imagine them being devastated by any breakup. Yale has counseling resources for problems of this kind, but socially, it’s much easier for a boy/girl to win the sympathy of male/female friends and acquaintances after any kind of romantic incident than after a “friend breakup”, which is enough of an underrecognized phenomenon that I felt an instinctive need to put quotation marks around the phrase. (Media bias is hard!)

In any case, the asexual-rights movement is interesting and worth reading about. And I would love to read a long, trendy Times (of New York) piece on friend-hookup culture in the Ivies. “She said she’d definitely see me around after we met for lunch that one time! But now she doesn’t even answer my texts!”

Sex and Relationships at Yale

Warning: The title of this piece is officially my first attempt at search-engine bait. I might actually catch one this time. But I’ll have to kill it quickly, before it chews off its own leg trying to escape. Anyway…


Now that I have your attention, I’m going to talk about sex. And relationships. Mostly relationships. You see, the New York Times decided to investigate, thoroughly and at great length, the sex lives of female students at the University of Pennsylvania.

They did their homework. 60 interviews, with as diverse a slice of the female student body as possible, is nothing to sneeze at. I believe that the quotes they used were more or less representative of the responses received. I believe that the sourcing of Susan Patton made sense and was helpful in putting that whole Princeton debacle in context.

Most of all, I believe that the shapely bare leg in the cover photo will certainly lead to more clicks. I’ll keep that strategy in my notes.

A shapely bear leg. I’m sorry.

I don’t have the time or inclination to comment on the entire piece. There are issues of sexual violence and the nature of college pre-professional life and whether it’s a good idea to marry in college at all that have been explored elsewhere to an extent well beyond what I could hope to achieve in this post.

But I did spend last night talking over the article with a good friend from Yale, and another good friend from the University of Delaware, and hearing their thoughts on hooking up — or not — in college got my gears turning, and a graduate from the time before Yale had women asked my opinion, so I wrote him a letter, which has been adapted below. Take it as one student’s opinion, based on two years of firsthand experience and a collection of secondhand and thirdhand stories.

Note: Strong opinions ahead. Please don’t get angry if you disagree, unless getting angry will make you feel better, in which case, go ahead. You can yell at me if you want, but I’d also love to hear the reasons you think I’m wrong. My mind is open.

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