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River Rocks #5: “The Chair,” “The Weakness in Me,” and Ripsnorter

I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.

River Rocks #5


Famed writer Maria Popova mentioned that she read a “miraculously beautiful book, [which she] discovered through a passing mention by [fellow writer Cheryl Strayed].” If you’re curious, the book Maria was talking about was Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. Abbey’s book aside, the salient point here is that even Maria at times receives and follows a guiding vector which leads to pleasantly unexpected places and experiences.

And that’s really the main point of the River Rocks effort. If you find yourself looking for a way to cull options in this world of seemingly unlimited selection in all things media, River Rocks might be for you. Every installment features a tidbit each from the vast universes of literature and music. In most issues there is also a researched word, term or expression you may not have heard before. Who knows? Maybe one of these rocks on the bottom of the endless media river is of interest to you…if you pick it up and give it a look you just never know where it might lead.

This week’s literature pick is a streaming series created and broadcast by Netflix. It’s called The Chair. I also have a song from Joan Armatrading, another favorite artist I discovered in college. Finally, the word for this edition is less obscure than usual, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun or useful.

Literature: “The Chair,” on Netflix


I found The Chair because a good friend of mine mentioned it to me toward the end of this past summer when we were out on our weekly bike ride. I generally have my TV time in the early mornings before breakfast (but after coffee) so after he told me about the show it was super easy for me to get into the series right away since it streams on Netflix.

In short: The Chair kicks open the doors to the hallowed halls of academe, giving a comical (and, sadly, an all-too-realistic) look at the goings on in higher education classrooms and administration. Set on campus at the fictional Pembroke University, the show is nominally about Professor Ji-Yoon Kim’s tenure as chair of the English department. Kim, played by Sandra Oh, is the first woman appointed to the position of department chair, and her mission is to reverse the department’s downward trajectory in both enrollment and relevance. It’s the perfect setup for drama and comedy.

I'm not gonna sugarcoat this. We're in dire crisis...

— Sandra Oh (as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim), in "The Chair"

Having worked in higher education the show had particular and immediate appeal for me (which is why my friend recommend it at first, I’m sure). There are many, many moments in the series’ first (and only, so far) season that resonate resoundingly with me because of my experience in both the academic and administrative sides of the university environment. But make no mistake: The Chair is the kind of show that will have appeal for folks of all backgrounds, not just those who’ve worked in academia. It’s funny, it’s ironic, in some ways it’s even kind of a sad commentary on where we are in certain circles of our society today. But at the end of the day—or at the end of season one, I should say—I’m pretty sure you’ll be wanting more and hoping it gets renewed for at least one more season. Fingers crossed on my part, anyway.

As I said, the show is nominally about Dr. Kim, but it’s also about what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt call The Coddling of the American Mind in their book by that same name. College students are running the show on campus, reacting and overreacting, turning what is really an academic-freedom-nothing-burger into an objectionable and, perhaps, a “fireable” offense. Politics at the student, the faculty and the administrative level are rampant and almost ridiculous, too. So ridiculous, in fact, that it’s actually pretty funny, truth be told.

There are also a few complicated personal relationships that just get underway by season one’s end, so all the more reason to hope that there’s at least a season two, if not more beyond that. Give the show a whirl if you have the time, if you’re looking for something to watch when the same old network shows aren’t scratching the itch. If you’re not satisfied, I’ll be surprised. Either way, shoot me an e-mail if you want to share your thoughts with me. I'd love to hear them , and my credentials (e-mail address) are in my profile.

Song: “The Weakness in Me,” by Joan Armatrading

When “The Weakness in Me” was released in late 1981, I was a sophomore in college, driving a barely-functioning 1970 Ford Maverick with a three-on-the-tree gear shift and holes in the back seat floor due to salty South Dakota winter roads.

I was attending school in Vermillion, South Dakota and occasionally drove over to Hawarden, Iowa to pick up my grandmother and her sister to go to church. When my Aunt Minnie (Grandma’s sister) got in the back and we started moving, she said, “Oh, my, I can see the ground rushing by under my feet.” And so it goes. So it went, anyway.

That was the weakness in my car, and because of it the three of us didn’t take my car to church ever again. Truth be told, I’m not sure I went to church with them again at all. In any case, the strength of that old car was a brand new AM/FM stereo cassette I’d purchased at the beginning of the school semester that year. Can you imagine how happy that made my mother when I had school and other bills to pay for? Anyway, that awesome stereo seemed like it kept on playing this wonderful song nearly every time I got in the old Maverick. And I’d crank up the volume both to hear the song and to hear the DJ say who it was singing it. Sadly, frustratingly, maddeningly, it seemed like they never did say who it was.

Why do you come here

When you know I've got troubles enough?

Why do you call me

When you know I can't answer the phone?

Make me lie, when I don't want to

And make someone else some kind of an unknowin' fool

You make me stare, when I should not

Are you so strong or is all the weakness in me?

— Joan Armatrading, "The Weakness in Me"

Digression: I was talking to my college roommate and closest lifelong friend not long ago and even he remembered how obsessed I was with finding out the singer of that song. It was a significant chapter in my college years. Then finally one day, after so many frustrating waits to no avail, I got the idea to call the radio station and ask: “What is that song, and who sings it!?”

At that time, I’d never heard of Joan Armatrading, and none of my friends and acquaintances had, either. Still, once I found out from the DJ, I went and purchased the cassette tape. Yes, you read that right, cassette tape. Eventually I bought the CD, but this car (remember it was 1981/82?) didn’t have a CD player, it had a cassette player, so that was pertinent in the moment.

Since my discovery of that song, its artist, I have become quite a Joan Armatrading fan. She is a talented singer-songwriter and guitarist. I not only commend and recommend her fabulous song, “The Weakness in Me,” I’d suggest you check out some of her other great works. Start with “Willow,“ then listen to “Love and Affection,” then branch out from there and make your own playlist of her fantastic work. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it if you do.

A Word You May Not Have Heard



Ripsnorter has one generally accepted meaning: something extraordinary. It is a very flexible (and therefore, fun!) word.

Ripsnorter is one of those words that had its origins in British English. “Snorter” was already available and in use, but Americans apparently didn’t think that was sensational enough so “rip” was added to the front of it to make it an even more ripping good thing. Merriam-Webster says that expansion probably occurred in the mid-1800s, or thereabouts, and was another to add to a list of humdingers, pips and doozies that could all be used to describe something exceptional, extraordinary, ripsnorting.

Ripsnorter Used in a Sentence

“Last week her set piece was a ripsnorter - peppered as it was, with traces of embedded humour - involving journalists, military mayhem, cover-up and collusion.”

"A review by "The Virginian-Pilot" said "Gottschall assesses and accounts for that powerful narrative attraction in a compelling chronicle of his own...and it is a certifiable knee-slap, three-pipe, blue-moon ripsnorter."

“What was the joke? It mus’ have be’n a ripsnorter, judging by the way you fellers was gigglin’.”
— Wayne Graves Barrows, The Law of the Range


: something extraordinary: humdinger


See You Next Time

Next time I put together a River Rocks edition, I'll have a great Hugh Grant movie to talk about, a classic Van Morrison song and a word that is (perhaps) more out of use than ripsnorter. All in all, though, it is shaping up to be a real humdinger, so I hope you come back to check it out when it gets published.

Meantime, be safe and be well.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 greg cain