Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler
One man's squint at the metaphorical signposts, songbirds, soapboxes, street musicians, and hot dog stands of life. Criticism, lyricism, polemics, performance, and making change…all with mustard.

Royal Thirds

In 1762, just 14 years before his American Colonies declared their independence, England’s George III heard news of Peter III’s accession to the Russian throne. George III declared, “Well, there are now nine of us in Europe, [each] the third of our respective names.”

He was referring to:

  • George III, King of England
    Mustafa III
  • Charles III, King of Spain
  • Augustus III, King of Poland
  • Frederick III, King of Prussia
  • Charles Emanuel III, King of Sardinia
  • Mustapha III, Emperor of the Turks
  • Peter III, Emperor of Russia
  • Francis III, Duke of Modena
  • Frederick III, Duke of Saxe-Gotha

This one-of-a-kind, but meaningless,  coincidence was, and is, unprecedented in European history.

Guns, Evil, and Insanity

After the Newtown tragedy, Connecticut’s Gov. Dan Malloy said, “Evil visited this community today.” But Adam Lanza was not evil. He was insane. Beyond this obvious assertion, I have nothing special or unique to add. But two women do. One is my daughter, Julia Quinn, a wise and caring individual. The other is Liza Long, a Boise-based writer and the mother of a mentally ill teen.

Read More »

North Korean Unicorns: Lost in Translation?

Last week, the official North Korean news agency (KNCA) released a report stating: “Archaeologists of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences have recently reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong, founder of the Koguryo Kingdom (B.C. 277-A.D. 668).” The Western press took this as another in the continuing series of North Korea’s inability to stay in  touch with reality. Example: in 1994, a state-issued news story reported departed leader Kim Jong Il shot 38 under par on the 7,700-yard Pyongyang Golf Course!

Unicorns are real? Once again the world laughs at North Korea.

I am no apologist for their nonsense. But did the press get the unicorn story right? Was it state-sanctioned prevarication or trigger-happy mistranslation? Read More »

Admitting Writers and Artists to Harvard

The following essay is taken without alteration from Harvard Magazine’s current issue. I reprint it without comment because its clarity and persuasiveness require none.

Read and reflect.

*     *     *     *     *

Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, a  preeminent poetry critic, has served on Harvard College’s undergraduate admissions committee. Given contemporary admissions processes and pressures, she recalls “wondering how well T.S. Eliot (who had to do a preparatory year at Milton Academy before he could risk admittance, and whose mother was in consultation with Harvard and Milton officials before deciding what to do with him after he finished high school in St. Louis) would have fared, or Wallace Stevens (admitted as a special student to do only three years’ study), or E.E. Cummings (admittedly, a faculty child).” Accordingly, she proposed that alumni interviewers receive some guidance on how to understand, attract, and evaluate applicants whose creative talents might otherwise be overlooked, and wrote this essay, subsequently posted on Harvard’s Office of Admissions website.


Anyone who has seen application folders knows the talents of our potential undergraduates, as well as the difficulties overcome by many of them. And anyone who teaches our undergraduates, as I have done for over 30 years, knows the delight of encountering them. Each of us has responded warmly to many sorts of undergraduates: I’ve encountered the top Eagle Scout in the country, a violinist who Read More »

A Different Kind of Basketball

Grinnell's Taylor after the game of his life!

Over four years ago I wrote about basketball at little Grinnell College (Iowa, 1500 students). They play a run-and-gun style that’s fun to watch. Two days ago, Grinnell sophomore Jack Taylor lived the dream of every kid who ever tossed the ball up at a backyard hoop. He broke the NCAA record for points in a game: 138! Here’s the Associated Press story.

How did Grinnell’s Jack Taylor wind up with 138 points in a game?

Well, he did miss 56 shots, more than he made. And he didn’t play for four minutes.

Otherwise he would have scored even more.

As it was, Taylor shattered the NCAA scoring record by 25 points Tuesday night in the Pioneers’ 179-104 victory over Faith Baptist Bible in Grinnell, Iowa. Read More »

Dixville Notch: The First Voters

New Hampshire has held the first-in-the-nation presidential primaries since 1920. With the first presidential “beauty contest” in 1952, our citizens have personally met the candidates and by popular ballot have declared their preference for their party’s nominee. Since 1960, Dixville has been the first community in the state and country to cast its handful of votes in national elections. On election eve 100% of the eligible voters gather in the Ballot Room of The BALSAMS. At midnight polls open and a few minutes later promptly close. The results are broadcast around the world.

—Roadside marker text…NH Route 26

It is both a privilege and a responsibility to vote. The few citizens of Dixville Notch, NH, take their franchise seriously and have gained notoriety therefrom. So, this year…will it be…”How goes Dixville Notch, so goes the nation”?

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The Very Model of an Amateur Grammarian

Language changes…

It does, and nothing can stop the erosion and terraforming.

Some, however, stand like King Cnut, striving to hold back the waves.

In this spirit, Brit Tom Freeman has written a brilliant parody of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” that places itself, like King Cnut, on the linguistic seashore as the tide inexorably advances (or declines…depending upon whether you are a descriptivist or prescriptivist.)

The piano plays…

I am the very model of an amateur grammarian
I have a little knowledge and I am authoritarian
But I make no apology for being doctrinarian
We must not plummet to the verbal depths of the barbarian Read More »

Curiosity’s Mars Landing

One of the first images from Mars...the shadow of the Curiosity lander on the Martian soil

What a world we live in!

I just finished watching a live online feed from Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the lander entered the Martian atmosphere and made its miraculous way down from an eight-month journey. It touched down at 10:39 pm PDT.

We now have a multi-ton, mobile scientific laboratory on the surface of Mars.

The obvious excitement at JPL as the spacecraft neared Mars was thrilling to Read More »

Motivating Your Children

(from Jeff Brody via Joe Black)

Posted on the refrigerator.

‘Nuff sed.

Hurray for Boredom!

When I was child, a protestation that I was bored or had nothing to do always got the same response from my father.

“Go bang your head against the wall.”

The absurdity of his suggestion was meant to reflect back to me the absurdity of my complaint. He was really saying, “Think harder, son. There is always something interesting to do.”

And of course, there always was.

As I grew, I no longer needed my father’s head-banging reminder. My internal mantra became, “If you’re bored, you’re boring.”

I took responsibility for my boredom. I came to understand that if I were bored, it was I who was not thinking hard enough.

There is an upside to boredom, explains renown psychologist Dr. Laura Markham, in a blog post entitled, Why Boredom is Good for Your Child:

Dr. Laura Markham

We respond to our kids’ boredom by providing technological entertainment or structured activities.   But that’s actually counter-productive.  Children need to encounter and engage with the raw stuff that life is made of: unstructured time. Read More »