This Dad Is Really Going to Miss College: A daughter’s graduation from an institution of higher learning is a time for reflection

Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Both of the columnist’s daughters attended the liberal arts school; the younger one graduated last week.
Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Both of the columnist’s daughters attended the liberal arts school; the younger one graduated last week.

May 25, 2016 8:47 p.m. ET

Here’s a question all responsible teenagers should ask themselves when applying to college: Is this school some place where my parents would want to hang out?

Or not, I suppose, depending on the quality of the relationship.

I say this after bidding farewell to Kenyon College in Ohio, the school that both my daughters attended.

Indeed, so much did my wife, Debbie, and I enjoy the institution that we didn’t just attend my younger daughter Gracie’s graduation last week, we also visited two weeks earlier to see her final dance performance.

This was no small time commitment. Each trip required driving approximately 10 hours each way from New York.


Visiting your children in college—for us, it usually meant parents weekend plus one other occasion, typically driving them back or forth from home at the beginning or end of the school year—shouldn’t be confused with helicopter parenting.
Not for a second did we consider buying a second home to be near her.

But there is something to be said for enjoying and understanding their lives in a way you can’t by monitoring their Instagram feeds.

Dropping in isn’t just to make sure they’re not skipping classes or meals but also to amortize the absurd cost of college by participating in the institution’s delights yourself.

Gracie Gardner, Class of 2016, with sister Lucy Gardner, Class of 2011.ENLARGE
Gracie Gardner, Class of 2016, with sister Lucy Gardner, Class of 2011. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Gracie Gardner, Class of 2016, with sister Lucy Gardner, Class of 2011. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Part of the reason we went out two weeks before graduation was to experience the campus absent the tumult of graduation, and to stay at the Kenyon Inn.

The hotel has Adirondack chairs dotting a verdant lawn. And it’s located not just in the center of campus but across the way from the town of Gambier’s “main street, ” which is lined with a market, a deli, a cozy restaurant, a coffee house and the college bookstore.

During family weekends, it’s virtually impossible to get a room at the Kenyon Inn. We’ve been forced to scramble to find lodging elsewhere. On one occasion that meant sharing a barn with dairy cows we could hear grunting through the wall all night.

For graduation, we stayed in a dorm. Which also brought back the indignities of college life. While nobody was blasting heavy metal at 3 a.m., I’d forgotten the discomfort of brushing my teeth next to a stranger.

The only problem with getting attached to our daughters’ school is that parting was almost as hard for us as it was for them. The sadness of having Gracie graduate was accentuated by the fact that there was no logical reason to believe we would return to Kenyon again.

On graduation day, it rained and the ceremony had to be moved into the gleaming, glass-walled Kenyon Athletic Center.

John Green, a Kenyon alum and best-selling author of young adult fiction, delivered a refreshingly frank and funny commencement address. He informed the graduating seniors that adulthood is as dreadful as they imagine: “I mean, have you ever been to a homeowners’ association meeting?”

But it doesn’t really matter what the weather was. Years from now, what you’ll remember are sunny skies; a great professor or two; a sense of novelty that you realize only in retrospect was because you were vulnerable and impressionable, even though you imagined yourself a fully fledged adult; and being part of a tightknit community never to be replicated, no matter how satisfying your life turns out to be.

When we returned home Sunday night, with suddenly no more children in school for the first time in decades, I felt at a momentary loss, much the way I did when I returned from my own college graduation, disoriented and wondering what happens next.

You don’t really need to be overly worried, though. Unlike college, life goes on.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at

Behind the Scenes With ‘Hamilton’ Set Designer David Korins

Ralph Gardner Jr. gets the backstory on how the set design came together for the hit musical
David Korins, set designer for the ‘Hamilton’ musical, at his Manhattan office. PHOTO: AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

May 10, 2016 3:43 p.m. ET
Were I the envious type, I might be envious of set designer David Korins’s Tony nomination for “Hamilton.” Not that I ever showed much aptitude in the theatrical arts, my career reaching its zenith in a minor role in a high school production of “Feiffer’s People.”

Though given the demand for “Hamilton” tickets, I’d probably be more envious of Mr. Korins’s access to them.

“I’m contractually able to get a pair of tickets for every show,” he told me. “I have to pay for them. It has made me quite popular with a whole bunch of people I don’t know.”

But what I most coveted on a visit to his West 30th street studio was a portrait of Pee-wee Herman that hung on his wall. “If Andy Warhol did that it would sell for millions of dollars,” Mr. Korins joked.

To the best of my knowledge, the pop artist didn’t work in jelly beans, the medium employed in this work—the face vanilla beans, the hair chocolate and licorice, Pee-wee’s bow tie red cherry.

A Pee-wee Herman portrait adorns a wall in the office of ‘Hamilton’ set designer David Korins. PHOTO: AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“Paul said, ‘I really want that,’” Mr. Korins remembered, referring to Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s alias. Or is it the other way around? But the set designer held firm. “I said, ‘I’m going to keep this one.’ We spent so much time and effort creating it.”

I’m not sure whether he was referring to the candy portrait or the set he created for the 2011 Broadway production of “The Pee-wee Herman Show.”

Rising to such challenges is something Mr. Korins, 39, has been doing since he graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he majored in theatrical design and interned at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
His Broadway credits, in addition to “Hamilton” and “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” include “Misery,” “Annie,” and “Motown.” He’s also worked with Kanye West, designed “Mariah Carey’s Christmas” at the Beacon Theater, and did the sets for “Grease Live,” the January TV production of the 1971 musical.

In other words, it’s been a good year for David Korins.


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“It was opening night and closing night at the same time,” with all the attendant spontaneity, he said of “Grease.” “I was actually videotaping the golf carts” on their way from the gym to the town square during the number “We Go Together.” “One of the cameras caught me in the rearview mirror.”

Though viewers seeking glitches might have more readily noticed when one of the golf carts jumped the curb and briefly seemed poised to tip over.

If there’s a cardinal rule to set design, Mr. Korins said—besides not contributing to accidents during the performance—it’s that the audience be distracted by the set as little as possible.

“The star of that show is the writing,” the set designer said of “Hamilton.” “I take great pride that nobody is talking about the scenery.”

That’s not entirely true, and not just because of his Tony nod. The awards will be handed out on June 12.


Reading, Writing and Hip Hop May 11, 2016
A Lesson in Cheese May 4, 2016
Lesley Stahl Reports on Grandparenting May 3, 2016
Greater New York Watch May 3, 2016
At the performance I saw, everything, including the scenery, seemed to elicit applause. Though the set, which takes full advantage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre’s bare brick walls and features more scaffolding than even the average New York City sidewalk, took a minimalist approach to the rendering of American history.

“They didn’t really come to me with any idea,” Mr. Korins said of Hamilton’s creators. “There was a script and music, and we started from there.”

The set designer realized there was no way to depict all the locations of Alexander Hamilton’s eventful life. “It’s a story about this group of people who, not necessarily built the country, but built the scaffolding from which the country is built.”

Hence, lots of rough-hewn wood, coarse ropes and a turntable the actors board more often than the crowds on the Coney Island Cyclone—though so smoothly it’s hardly noticeable.

“It’s really two turntables,” Mr. Korins corrected me. “I couldn’t shake the fact that Aaron Burr’s and Alexander Hamilton’s relationship was a cyclical relationship over the course of their entire lives. I came up with the idea and said, ‘I think there are 10 moments to stage this way.’ They just bought it right away.”


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“It’s a huge testament to the design team,” he added.

Among them his own staff that, on the afternoon of my visit, were working on designs for coming productions that looked as intricate as any blueprints for New York City skyscrapers—if skyscrapers were required to dance to music.

However, they were in the service of simplicity. “Part of the job of a designer is to figure out the bare minimum of everything you need,” Mr. Korins said.

Reading, Writing and Hip Hop

A Brooklyn company brings some fun to the classroom
Students at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn participating in a Flocabulary ‘fill in the blank’ exercise. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

May 11, 2016 6:00 a.m. ET
Before you dismiss the idea of teaching third-graders vocabulary through hip hop—as was happening one morning at Brooklyn’s P.S. 58, the Carroll School—you might want to recall your own odyssey learning how to read.

I was reminded of that slough of childhood despond when I recently came across my final report card from first grade. In it, my teacher, the appropriately named Miss Hirt, made it clear to my parents that while I was being promoted to second grade, it was only by the skin of my teeth.

“This book must be read this summer,” she wrote sternly on the inside cover of “New Friends and New Places,” a tome whose prose was so tedious that slogging through it, as my father made me do every afternoon before I was allowed to play, constituted a mild form of torture.

Contrast that to the video “Ice Cream Taster” that the third-graders at the Carroll School were chanting along with. It involved jobs that children might consider aspiring to when they get older, and started with the lyrics “Young lady I don’t want to get you upset but you’re not going to grow up to be a princess.”

Also embedded in the catchy two-minute, 37-second video were vocabulary words such as “sensitive” and “numb.” As in “For my job, I need a sensitive tongue. And even when it gets numb, the job still gets done.”

After the video ended, I issued my own snap quiz to Gavin Ng, 8, asking him to define numb. “It’s when your finger gets really wrinkly it hurts.”
Good enough for me.

“It’s one of the things that gets the students most excited about learning,” Stephanie Cullaj, a third-grade teacher, said of Flocabulary, the Brooklyn-based educational company that creates the videos and lesson plans. “Two students leaving for spring break said they want to take their quiz early.”

Contemplate that. Children eager to take tests.

But does it actually work? Ms. Cullaj believes it does. “You can remember the jingle in a commercial. And the activities associated with it let them be creative. They can take it where they want to take it.”

Flocabulary is the brainchild of Alex Rappaport, a composer and producer, and Blake Harrison, a rapper, who met in 2003 while waiting tables after college at a San Francisco restaurant.

While playing basketball one day, Mr. Harrison shared an idea he’d had since high school. “Somebody should make rap songs with SAT words,” Mr. Rappaport said his friend told him.

A fourth-grade student’s notebook. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
They made a demo and sent it around. “To our surprise we got a call back from SparkNotes,” Mr. Rappaport remembered. “They said, ‘We love this. Make us two more and we’ll pay you $5,000.’ We were shocked people were going to pay us to write these songs we loved.”

Today, Flocabulary is in 20,000 schools from the South Bronx to Alaska and has 47 full-time staffers at its office in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. Mr. Rappaport said that on average students scored 25% higher on state reading tests than those who don’t use it.

The cost to schools is $1,600 a year, which is what the PTA of P.S. 58 pays for it.

“We’ve always believed that it all starts with authentic student engagement,” Mr. Rappaport said. “Music is one of the most powerful learning tools we have. After kindergarten, music all but disappears. There’s no reason it can’t be part of the lesson sequence. You can hear a pin drop in this classroom when the music is playing. Listening is a key part of literacy.”

Jon Coifman, the parent of a P.S. 58 third-grader, said he has been impressed by his son Alex’s enthusiasm: “He asked me on the way to school, ‘When did they get rid of the Whig Party?’ It’s something he picked up on one of the videos.”

In charming ways, the program may be a victim of its own success. When third-grade teachers, and the teacher in a fourth-grade classroom I visited, asked questions about the videos and vocabulary, the problem wasn’t getting children to raise their hands, but to put them down.

One boy wouldn’t take the hint and kept thrusting his hand in the air. “I understand you’re excited, but it’s not cool,” his teacher told him. “I’m not going to ask you again.”

The phrase “I’m not going to ask you again” was the only part of the morning that reminded me of my own academic experience.

A Lesson in Cheese

There’s a difference between mozzarella di Bufala and the conventional type

Raimondo Boggia, chief executive of Obicà LLC, describes the preparation of mozzarella di Bufala at Obicà restaurant in the Flatiron District.ENLARGE
Raimondo Boggia, chief executive of Obicà LLC, describes the preparation of mozzarella di Bufala at Obicà restaurant in the Flatiron District. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It’s not among the questions that keep me up at night. But I have occasionally wondered whether there’s any difference between mozzarella di Bufala—mozzarella made from the milk of the Italian water buffalo—and conventional mozzarella made from cow’s milk. Besides the former’s higher price.

I suspect there is, though that could also be the result of an overactive imagination. To get answers, and as an excuse to sample mozzarella di Bufala, I visited Obicà, a mozzarella bar in the Flatiron District.

If this had been a scientific taste test, I suppose one would have tried the cow’s-milk and Bufala’s-milk mozzarella side-by-side.

Squeezing the mozzarella shows how much water it has. ENLARGE
Squeezing the mozzarella shows how much water it has. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

But you wouldn’t spite someone for forgoing a Hershey Bar (not that I ever have) when presented with a ballotin of Neuhaus chocolates from Belgium.

So I managed quickly to make peace with the mozzarella di Bufala-heavy menu.

“It is different,” insisted Raimondo Boggia, CEO of the Obicà Group. “The main difference is the complexity of the flavor and the taste.”

Mr. Boggia, while Italian, introduced me to a word in English with which I was heretofore unfamiliar, to describe the bulafa experience. It’s “sapid,” which means having a strong, pleasant taste.

“It’s more that kind of minerality,” he explained. “More of a gamy finish. It’s a little more intense than cow’s milk.”

My belief is that cooking food makes you less hungry when you finally get around to eating it. However, writing about it makes you hungrier, because I’m aching for some mozzarella di Bufala right now; preferably served with alternating slices of a perfectly ripe summer beefsteak tomato, then drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with fresh basil.

After slicing the mozzarella, water—a key ingredient—remains on the cutting board.
After slicing the mozzarella, water—a key ingredient—remains on the cutting board.PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“We can discuss between different mozzarella di Bufala,” Mr. Boggia went on, launching into an explanation of the subtle differences in flavor depending on where it’s made within the seven south-central Italian provinces that compose the mozzarella di Bufala Denominazione di origine controllata, the equivalent of a quality-assurance label.

My own reconnaissance discloses that almost as important as its origin is the temperature at which it’s served. I’ve had the occasional good fortune to purchase mozzarella di Bufala in Italy in the morning at a local “latteria,” or diary, and store it unrefrigerated but in the shade at the beach until lunchtime.

By then, the shiny white ball emerging from its paper wrapper and dripping milky water couldn’t be more delicious.

And if mozzarella di Bufala isn’t available, I’m more than comfortable making do with conventional mozzarella. The only configuration that makes no sense is the unsalted variety. Really, why bother?

Mr. Boggia agreed, regarding the serving conditions. “Room temperature—absolutely!”

So it was with more than mild disappointment when a butcher block arrived filled with five variations on the mozzarella di Bufala theme, as well as prosciutto di Parma, succulent-looking heirloom tomatoes, and a cornucopia of condiments—but the cheese unfortunately cool if not cold.

“The Health Department makes us serve the mozzarella at below 40 degrees Fahrenheit,” Mr. Boggia explained apologetically.

I’m all for safeguarding public health. But talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water. Or rather the mozzarella di Bufala with its essential juices.

The CEO said that good customers, aware of this travesty, have learned to work around it. “They call us in advance and say, ‘Can you take out my mozzarella?’” Mr. Boggia confided.

While the experience might well have been sublime at room temperature, it was still pleasantly transporting at cooler readings. We tried it in both large and small balls, braided, smoked, as a ricotta di Bufala, and burrata—mozzarella made with heavy cream.

“We sell even more burrata than mozzarella classica,” Mr. Boggia explained, even though it’s not mozzarella di Bufala. “It’s coming from Puglia and is usually made with cow’s milk.”

For dessert, Obicà’s delicate version of cannoli—a rolled almond wafer filled with ricotta di Bufala cream, honey, candied orange peel and pine nuts—put anything I’ve had in Little Italy to shame.

But I still had one question: Should mozzarella di Bufala be drizzled with just olive oil or also balsamic vinegar?

Lately, I’ve been feeling slightly inauthentic, un-Italian, by forgoing vinegar. I was relieved to hear that Mr. Boggia does, too. “It’s a strong flavor. You tend to taste more the balsamic than the mozzarella.”

Lesley Stahl Reports on Grandparenting

The ‘60 Minutes’ correspondent has a new book, ‘Becoming Grandma’

Lesley Stahl points to a photo in her new book ‘Becoming Grandma.’ENLARGE
Lesley Stahl points to a photo in her new book ‘Becoming Grandma.’ PHOTO: TALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My grandfather, a businessman, used to say that children were the investment and grandchildren the dividend. He meant that with your own children you have to do the heavy lifting, the drudgework, of child-rearing. There is a lot of saying no.

But with your grandchildren, it is all about saying yes. And if they start acting up, that’s not your problem. Just carefully hand them back to their parents with a smile and be on your way.

In her new book, “Becoming Grandma” (Blue Rider Press), Lesley Stahl, the “60 Minutes” correspondent, documents the pleasures of grandparenting. But also the ways the job has changed as baby boomers reaches their golden years.

What particularly resonated with me was some advice the journalist received from her friend, the syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. “She said to me, ‘Keep your mouth shut and your wallet open.’”

I recall my own grandparents as a fount not only of nonjudgmental affection and occasional wisdom but also of really good birthday presents.

Ms. Stahl reporting from the lawn of the White House in 1980.ENLARGE
Ms. Stahl reporting from the lawn of the White House in 1980. PHOTO: CBS PHOTO ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

That is all the more true these days, explained Ms. Stahl, who recently bought her granddaughters, Jordan and Chloe, an electric piano. She said that grandparents today spend multiples of what they did even a decade ago. “It’s the recession. Millennials are not earning that much.”

She went on, “The grandparents can give the gift of sending the children to school, fixing their teeth in addition to buying them gifts. We think of those children as ours.”

The journalist said her joy at becoming a grandparent—she’s married to the journalist and screenwriter Aaron Latham—took her by surprise. “I didn’t have any idea I’d fall off the cliff like this. My daughter rolls her eyes—‘You’re so different. Who are you?’”

Ms. Stahl recalled juggling the demands of motherhood and a high-powered career. “When you’re a mom every minute of the day is managed. You walk around with lists and lists.”

But as a grandparent your grandchild’s grade-point average is no longer a matter of life and death. “You’re a genius because you draw three little squiggles,” Ms. Stahl said of her grandchildren.

Of course, grandparents and their relationship toward their grandchildren are as varied as those between parents and children. I suspect my mother had trouble adjusting to the notion that she no longer called the shots.

It is only now that her grandchildren are grown—they visit, make themselves a drink, and hang out with her—that my mother is reaping the rewards of her relationship with them.

It also sounds as if there was a learning curve for Ms. Stahl, who discovered she no longer had the last word.

“We’re all walking on eggshells,” she explained. “There’s this shift in the balance of power.”

The fear is alienating your children and being denied a relationship with your grandchildren. “There’s this dark side when the grandparent is denied access. You’d be surprised how prevalent that is. When I started doing interviews women would say, ‘I’ve never told anybody. I’m so ashamed. I’ve never seen my grandchild.’ Tears coming down their eyes. ‘I don’t know what I did.’”

Their children’s explanation: “I didn’t want them doing to my children what they did to me.”

Ms. Stahl may be able to relate. Her relationship with her own mother wasn’t the most cuddly. “My mother was a real backstage mom. She was tough on me. She was determined I was going to succeed.”

She addresses their relationship in “Becoming Grandma,” acknowledging that she had her daughter, Taylor, after her mother told her, at age 35, that it was time.

She describes her mother, Dolly, as a more affectionate grandmother than mother. “She treated all three of her grandchildren with equal devotion,” Ms. Stahl writes. “And they loved her back.”

Speaking of herself and other grandparents, Ms. Stahl said: “We’re so different as grandparents. It’s night and day. As a parent you’re molding, grooming, teaching. And then as a grandparent, you find your only job is to love them.”

Wishing her grandchildren lived closer to New York—they’re on the West Coast—hasn’t prevented Ms. Stahl, who lives on the Upper West Side, from participating in their daily development.

“It’s a bummer,” she acknowledged. “However, we live in an age of technology. I can talk to my grandchildren and see them on Skype every single day.”

The Internet of Old Things

It’s a good way to shed light on family antiques

A 1910 children's coloring book, one of several antiques the Internet helped shed light on.
A 1910 children’s coloring book, one of several antiques the Internet helped shed light on. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

You’ve no doubt heard of public television’s “Antiques Road Show.” I’ve come up with a home version of the show. All it takes is access to the Internet, a few tchotchkes lying around the house, and a mildly curious nature.

It’s also preferable if you have acquisitive ancestors and possess a certain degree of avarice yourself. In other words, that you’re interested in what your crap is worth, if anything.

I discovered this rainy-day diversion while rooting around our basement upstate. Though I confess that our house, inherited from my grandparents, who had a peripheral relationship to the antiques business, is more laden with random treasure than the typical homestead.

For example, it’s not unusual to open a drawer and find not one but a hundred cherub heads. I have no idea about their intended purpose. But 40 years after my grandparents passed on I’m still discovering drawers and cabinets filled with strange objects.

And the beauty of technology—as worrisome as it can occasionally be—is that no matter how seemingly obscure your possession, you can probably find information about it online, not to mention its value, with a few keystrokes.

A miniature working pistol from Austria, probably from the 1930s, valued online at $600.ENLARGE
A miniature working pistol from Austria, probably from the 1930s, valued online at $600. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

One of the things I happened across in our basement, in the toy category, was a pencil sharpener in the shape of a globe. I could tell it was old because it identified places such as “The Chinese Empire,” “Congo State,” and “Formosa.”

I almost immediately found the pencil sharpener on Etsy, the accompanying description revealing that it was manufactured in Germany, circa 1914. It had been sold, but a similar one on eBay went for $49.99 last year.

In the same box as the globe were a bunch of children’s books, including “Animals to Paint,” a coloring book from 1910, its lions, giraffes and hippos filled in with watercolors in the haphazard hand of a child. I know the publication date because I unearthed the book in the collection of the Huntington Digital Library.

I have no intention of selling any of this stuff. After I discover its provenance, I print out the information and store it with the object. In case my children or their children care.

The house also boasts more adult, even military, fare. For example, a pair of periscope-looking 10×50 Zeiss binoculars that I recall my father telling me came from a German U-boat and that he must have liberated during World War II.

A pair of Zeiss 10x50 binoculars used by the German military during World War II. ENLARGE
A pair of Zeiss 10×50 binoculars used by the German military during World War II.PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

I sent a couple of photos of the device to Nicholas Brawer, who owns a sporting-antiques store on East 72nd. While not offering a value, Mr. Brawer responded that they were manufactured in the 1930s and were “recommended for use with coastal artillery cannon.”

A smaller, much smaller, piece of hardware discovered in my father’s bedroom was a miniature pistol, not much larger than a quarter and marked “Austria.” It was selling online for almost $600. In the same drawer was a jewel-like oval souvenir box with a picture of a tiny island marked “Helgoland” and inscribed, “Aunt Elizabeth from G.B. Nov. 17th, 1879.

I’d never heard of Helgoland, Elizabeth or G.B. But a brief Internet search revealed that Helgoland is a German Island in the North Sea that was popular with upper-class tourists during the 19th century.

Among the most edifying objects I’ve found in our basement are antique baby photos, one of them marked “William Parmer Fuller 3rd, age of 10 months, March 1889.”

Though he was no relative of mine (beats me how or why they ended up in our cellar), an Internet search of the name revealed that the infant was a member of an illustrious San Francisco family with connections to Stanford University.

A 19th-century souvenir from Helgoland, a German island in the North Sea, and its contents.ENLARGE
A 19th-century souvenir from Helgoland, a German island in the North Sea, and its contents. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

One William Parmer Fuller Jr., Class of 1910 and a future president of its board of trustees, wrote in “Stanford Mosaic,” a 1962 book about the school, “I was suspended twice, expelled once, and ordered out of the editorship of the Daily Palo Alto, and graduated with my class. What more could anyone ask?”

I even tracked down and exchanged emails with family members, including Parmer Fuller, a composer and professor at the University of Southern California, through Mr. Fuller’s 1981 wedding announcement in the New York Times.

His sister Kit Fuller, the family genealogist, informed me that William Parmer Fuller Jr. and William Parmer III were one and the same, and their grandfather.

I’m looking forward to returning the baby pictures to the people who rightfully own them.

A Timely Gut Check

At the American Museum of Natural History, meet your microbiome

Helicobacter pylori, one of the one of the few bacteria that can thrive in the human stomach.
Helicobacter pylori, one of the one of the few bacteria that can thrive in the human stomach. PHOTO: AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Robert DeSalle may have given me the most unusual compliment I’ve ever received. “You’d be a good candidate” as a donor for somebody requiring a fecal transplant, “because your gut microbiome appears to be very healthy and normal,” he said.

Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. Starting with how we alighted on the subject in the first place.

We happened to be sitting in the American Museum of Natural History, near the entrance to “The Secret World Inside You.” It’s an exhibition about the human microbiome: the universe of microbes—bacteria, fungi, viruses—that live in us and on us. The exhibition runs through Aug. 14.

Fecal transplants are performed to replace good bacteria that have been killed or suppressed, usually by antibiotics. That causes bad bacteria to overpopulate the colon, potentially causing fatal diarrhea. Ahead of visiting the show, I had my microbiome analyzed by a company called uBiome. That I am an excellent fecal-donor candidate came as good news.

That’s because an analysis of my microbiome showed it is less diverse than that of 52% of the population. When I shared the results with my daughter Lucy—who, by the way, works at the AMNH—her reaction was “What did you expect?” Or words to that effect.

A 14-foot projection of a pregnant woman's body is part of an interactive table that highlights ways that microbes impact human health at ‘The Secret World Inside You.’ ENLARGE
A 14-foot projection of a pregnant woman’s body is part of an interactive table that highlights ways that microbes impact human health at ‘The Secret World Inside You.’ PHOTO: D. FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

She was commenting on my diet, which favors cupcakes over kale.

“Anything green is good,” acknowledged Dr. DeSalle, a co-curator of the exhibition with Susan Perkins, and a scientist in the museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. “Anything white is not.”

We’d just met, so Dr. DeSalle couldn’t say why, despite my eating habits, my gut remains relatively robust. But I have a theory involving beer, which he confirmed.

I tend to have the occasional bottle. So does he. “Beer is what you call a probiotic,” he explained. “It’s cultivated from a living organism—yeast—but the yeast is dead.”

I’d come to see the show and talk science. Nonetheless, the opportunity to converse with an expert, perhaps not just of genomics but also of fermentation, prompted me to ask the name of his favorite beer.

“I’m really getting into Knee Deep,” he told me, referring to a California craft brewery. He finds it at a place called Alphabet City Beer Co. on Avenue C.

But back to my microbiome. While my diet might not be the healthiest, I’ve always been a big believer in germs—or rather the ability of the human immune system to handle them.

Dr. DeSalle agreed. “The old paradigm of thinking about microbes is they’re a bad thing,” he said. “But the new paradigm is that 99.9% of them don’t make us sick.”

In fact, they’re integral to the proper functioning of our digestive and immune systems. Without them, Dr. DeSalle added, “we’d probably die quickly.”

As vital as they may be, turning organisms that tiny into a museum exhibition must have been a challenge. But the institution seems to have risen to the occasion with exhibits, such as one devoted to athlete’s foot, where in a highly magnified model, rod-shaped bacteria are engaged in battle with green filaments of fungus.

There’s also a live-theater presentation where a museum staffer invites you to contemplate your navel—literally. “Our belly buttons are filled with microbes,” he explained. “We don’t wash out belly buttons. It remains moist; it’s protected.”

Here are some other thoughts Dr. DeSalle shared for the care and maintenance of your microbiome: Kissing, especially frequent French kissing, facilitates the swapping of microbes. Households with dogs have a more varied microbiome than those without.

“Children raised on farms often have less allergies, because they’re exposed to a more variable environment,” Dr. DeSalle said.

I would have thought the best way to bolster your microbiome might be to ride the L train to Brooklyn. But the scientist suggested a walk in the woods instead. Trees and grass and forest animals are littered with microbes.

“You don’t see a lot of that in the city,” he said.

While AMNH scientists are known for their far-flung field trips, Dr. DeSalle sounded not the least abashed that most of his research involves number-crunching on a computer. The study of the microbiome stands on the frontier of science.

Colleagues who study dinosaurs, fish or insects are “finding new variations on a theme,” Dr. DeSalle said. Those studying the microbiome “are finding whole new themes. If you’re an explorer, microbes is where it’s at. It’s not dinosaurs.”

“I walked into Central Park once,” he added, “and collected pond water and found a bunch of new species. We’re trying to name them right now.”

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at

To Be, or Not to Be—a Writer, That Is

Salman Rushdie talks Shakespeare while teaching a class for exceptional high-school writing students

Author Salman Rushdie in October 2015.ENLARGE
Author Salman Rushdie in October 2015. PHOTO: ELOY ALSONSO/REUTERS

As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it might seem that all the questions regarding the Bard and his work have been asked, if not answered.

But here’s one I hadn’t heard before: “Do you think Shakespeare knew he was Shakespeare? Did he know he was that good?”

The question arose during a master class that Salman Rushdie was teaching four exceptional high-school writing students. The two juniors and the two seniors met with the author of “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses” through YoungArts New York, a regional program organized by the National YoungArts Foundation that every year brings together talented students to learn and collaborate with luminaries from the performing and visual arts and literature.

There is no requirement in literature to be nice. Everybody wants to be liked. It’s not always the best way to get where you want to go.

—Salman Rushdie

“My view,” Mr. Rushdie said, “is that it’s impossible to write that good and not know it’s that good. If you don’t know it’s that good, you’re not good enough to write it.”

The hour that the author spent fielding questions from the students wasn’t really about how to write. But about what it takes to be a writer. The room, at Pearl Studios on Broadway, was bare bones. Nothing more than a few chairs around a folding table under bright florescent lights.

But the experience was moving nonetheless, as Mr. Rushdie offered a sense of the price of admission to a career as a writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction.

“There is no requirement in literature to be nice,” he said. “Everybody wants to be liked. It’s not always the best way to get where you want to go.”

That might qualify as understatement coming from a writer who lived under police protection after a fatwa was issued against him in 1989 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran.

But neither that episode nor any other aspects of Mr. Rushdie’s celebrity came up during the meeting a couple of weeks ago.

“Whatever form,” the author continued, “the subject is truth. That’s what it’s about: trying to find a way getting as much truth on the page as you can.”

Mr. Rushdie also gave the teenagers an impromptu literature course—from Ovid and Franz Kafka to Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Joseph Heller. “Most writers I know are also very big readers,” he explained. “There’s a part of writing that comes out of how you see the world. But also whatever writers inspire you.”

At the same time, Mr. Rushdie warned against the perils of “overinfluence.” “There are writers that are very infectious,” he said, citing Hemingway.

And how easy it looks, yet how hard it actually is, to create Hemingway’s distilled prose. “Towards the end of his life, neither could he,” Mr. Rushdie joked.

Writing about “the things you know best” goes only so far, he observed. Sometimes you’re required to go find a story, as Truman Capote did in his nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood.”

Or Joseph Conrad, he said, who “didn’t start writing until he was over 40. He took the precaution of having an interesting life first.”

And while it’s useful to look at lots of different kinds of writing when you’re starting out, “there comes a moment when you’re more sure of yourself.”

For some writers—he mentioned Zadie Smith and Martin Amis—that moment comes earlier than others.

Mr. Rushdie recalled receiving 100 pages of what would become “White Teeth” from Ms. Smith a year after he met her when she was a college student. “I called a friend of mine and said, ‘I suggest you read this tonight and sign this girl up tomorrow morning.’ A week later, there was a six-figure contract. The talent was so huge and so obvious.”

But it took Mr. Rushdie a lot longer to hit his own stride. Indeed, he recalled the moment it happened. He shared his depression at having written three books “two not published.” “Midnight’s Children,” the novel that would catapult him to fame, seemed to heading in the same direction, when he decided to let his main character tell his story in his own voice. The book involves a child born with special powers at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, as India gains its independence.

“This thing came out of me,” he marveled. “It was obviously the best paragraph I’d written in my life because it was not my voice. It was his voice. I’ve always thought of that day as the day I learned how to be a writer. I was doing something I hadn’t understood I could do.”

At 34, a Facebook Elder Statesman

You can thank Soleio Cuervo for the ‘Like’ button

Soleio Cuervo, designer of Facebook's ‘Like’ button, at the company’s New York offices.ENLARGE
Soleio Cuervo, designer of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, at the company’s New York offices. PHOTO: ANDREW LAMBERSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Soleio Cuervo isn’t resentful that Facebook expanded its menu of emotions beyond the “Like” button. Now there are emojis to tell your friends that you’re sad, angry, laughing, surprised, or that you really love something. As opposed to just liking it.

Mr. Cuervo, who went to work for the social-media juggernaut in 2005 as employee No. 30 and one of its first designers, is credited for bringing the world that now ubiquitous “Like” icon.

“Disrespected?” he asked as we sat in Facebook’s offices, on Ninth Street off Broadway. “Not at all. If there’s one thing about Facebook, we’ve never been sentimental about its past.”

“If you don’t evolve yourself,” he added, citing the company’s ethos, “outside forces will evolve you.”

Mr. Cuervo left Facebook in 2011, becoming chief designer at Dropbox, the cloud-storage company. He’s currently an investor and adviser to early-stage tech firms.

He’s also a graduate of New Jersey SEEDS, a Newark-based educational nonprofit that prepares and helps place high-achieving students from low-income families in selective private day schools, boarding schools and colleges.

In 1995, Mr. Cuervo graduated from one of SEEDS’s earliest programs. Last week, he flew in from Los Altos, Calif., where he lives, to address one of the organization’s alumni events about cultivating diversity in tech.

I got the sense that, at 34 years old, he’s treated as something of an elder statesman on his occasional NYC Facebook visits, even though he worked out of the company’s California headquarters.

And while there’s no such thing as a gold-plated lifetime building pass, “I don’t have too much trouble getting into the building,” he stated modestly.

I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Cuervo what he thought of “The Social Network,” the Oscar-winning 2010 movie about Facebook’s origins and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

“When they depicted the 1 million-user party, the office they showed looked something like this,” he said, motioning to the sprawling office outside the glassed-in conference room where we met. (It was filled with appropriately fashion-backward programmers, free snacks and a sign quoting Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”) “It was just a bunch of guys sitting around a table. It felt wrong somebody would own our story.”

He also took issue with the movie’s depiction of Mr. Zuckerberg. “Early Facebook attracted highly competitive personalities,” Mr. Cuervo remembered. “A lot was the culture Zuck created around his drive to win. But it never came from a hostile place.”

Mr. Cuervo, a first-generation American whose family was from Bogotá, Colombia, traces his own success to an amiable fifth-grade bully in Piscataway, N.J., where he grew up. “He said, ‘Dude, you keep getting ‘A’s.’ You should skip a grade.”

That planted the seed, no pun intended, in Mr. Cuervo’s mind that led him to SEEDS, St. Andrews boarding school in Delaware, and Duke University.

“It was like Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts,” he remembered of St. Andrews. “Up to that point I hadn’t been exposed to kids who were highly motivated from accomplished families.”

He said he was no longer “a top student just by showing up.”

Nonetheless, his design talent was quickly recognized by a teacher who was so impressed with the newsletter Mr. Cuervo produced for the boarding school’s indoor soccer league that he enlisted him to work during the summer in St. Andrews’s communications office.

And when he went to Duke in 1999 he quickly made a name for himself designing websites for college rock bands and faculty members. That is when he had another epiphany, realizing that there was code behind the clunky desktop publishing software he was using.

“Why the hell was I monkeying around?” he recalled. “I could just write the code. It’s like discovering there’s an engine in a car. All that work ultimately brought me to San Francisco. It kicked off my career as a developer.”

I use Facebook’s “Like” button sparingly, if at all. Seeing it as shorthand, even a substitute, for communication, rather than the real thing. A dumbing down of culture.

Mr. Cuervo didn’t take the criticism personally, though he politely disagreed, backed up by data. “There was a lot of concern that we’d cannibalize engagement,” he recalled of the period when “Like” was in the testing phase. “The fear was that people were going to stop leaving comments and just click a button.”

What happened instead was the universe of opinion sharing—on everything from cat videos to presidential candidates—we inhabit today.

“Actually, it acted like a social lubricant,” said Mr. Cuervo. “Because we radically lowered the cost of engagement, we increased the likelihood.”

Making the Case in Moot Court

The Columbia Law School students impressed a roomful of observers—and Justice Samuel Alito

Judge José A. Cabranes, Justice Samuel Alito, center, and Judge Cheryl Ann Krause listen to arguments.ENLARGE
Judge José A. Cabranes, Justice Samuel Alito, center, and Judge Cheryl Ann Krause listen to arguments. PHOTO: BRUCE GILBERT/COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL

Columbia University’s moot court competition gave me flashbacks. I recalled my one and only moot court appearance. It occurred in Prof. Murray Dry’s feared constitutional law class at Middlebury College, circa 1974.

I don’t remember the case. I do my grade: An “A” for presentation, a “C” for substance, the latter being the only one that counted.

Needless to say, the four Columbia Law School students who gave final arguments in this year’s Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court Competition—Mr. Stone was a 1898 Columbia Law School graduate and sat on the U.S. Supreme Court for 20 years—were far better prepared than I was.

In fact, having made the finals on April 7 constituted no small triumph. Alexander Ely, Timothy Kim, Logan Gowdey and Aaron Michael Macris, all members of the Class of 2016, were the survivors in a three-round elimination competition that started in the fall semester with 47 students.

But their hardest work lay ahead: appearing before a three-judge panel.

The names of the judges may be familiar: Samuel Alito, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; José A. Cabranes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; and Cheryl Ann Krause, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The case was conceived and written by Sarah Mac Dougall and Sydney Egnasko, both also in the Class of 2016. It involved a fictitious app called myDoc, which allows users to consult physicians. myDoc sued the Earhartington Ethics Commission, also a fictional entity, alleging that requiring disclosure of its grass roots lobbying expenditures was an unconstitutional restraint on free speech under the First Amendment.

While wholly made up, the case addresses an increasingly relevant question: Can states constitutionally require disclosure of so-called “AstroTurf” lobbying, where a company encourages its users to contact their legislators on their own initiative.

The proceedings began with the arrival, in the back of the amphitheater classroom, of the three judges flanked by U.S. Marshals—Justice Alito was walking in the middle—and the shout of “All Rise.”

After the jurists had taken their seats at the front came the call of “Oyez, oyez, the court is now in session.”

My apologies to moot court watchers if I’m getting any of the details wrong. Recording devices were prohibited. One reason why, suggested Prof. Philip Genty, the competition’s faculty director, is to prevent a leak of Justice Alito’s comments. If the comments of a Supreme Court justice were to get out, even in a fictional case, they could be construed in a way that might indicate how the justice “would rule on a similar case in the future.”

Each counsel had 20 minutes to make his presentation. And while there were justifiable nerves, none of the difficult, sometimes off-the-cuff questions asked by the judges—Judge Cabranes later referred to them as “madmen questions” that “came out of nowhere”—seemed to trip up the lawyers-to-be.

Perhaps the most intense moments came in the back-and-forth between the judges and the defense over questions about how broadly the definition of lobbying could be interpreted.

When the arguments ended, the auditorium burst into applause and the judges retired to deliberate.

Alexander Ely received the prize for best oral presentation.
Alexander Ely received the prize for best oral presentation. PHOTO: BRUCE GILBERT/COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL

About 20 minutes later, they returned. Justice Alito praised the students’ performance before getting around to awarding the prize for best oral presentation to Alexander Ely and the prize for best final brief to Aaron Michael Macris. The judges weren’t asked to rule in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant.

Justice Alito praised the students for exceeding “some really good attorneys that appear before our courts.”

By the way, the case was 110 fictional pages long and the judges seemed to have read it thoroughly.

Mr. Ely, who represented myDoc, the plaintiff appellant, attributed his winning performance to having argued both sides of the case earlier in the competition. But he added, “No amount of work can prepare you for some of the questions. It’s difficult to anticipate the hypotheticals.”

A high point? “Having an exchange with a sitting Supreme Court justice while you’re still a law student—I’ll always remember that.”