Howl at the Moon

Lena put it together first. She was playing with the moon phase App on her iPhone during Professor Adler’s lecture on Spinoza, and realized that the professor never scheduled anything on the evenings, or even the late afternoons, of full moons.

“Maybe he’s a werewolf?” Lena giggled as she posed her question. She’d already asked Rado to email her his class notes as they shared a late, post-class breakfast in the cafeteria. He never refused her. She was his best friend and, as far as Rado was concerned, she was the prettiest girl on campus.

“Not one full moon?” Rado asked. “Not one of his big events last year?”

“Not a one — not last year or anything scheduled for this semester. It’s funny.”

Professor Adler was considered the eccentric, rock-star of the humanities program — not an easy feat for a philosophy professor. He was charming and dynamic, when he chose to be, and had published a few notable books. On campus he was best known for hosting philosophical and ethical events: debates, round-tables and lectures on contemporary topics.

Lena, an economics major, decided to take one of Adler’s classes with Rado after they had attended the last three events of the previous semester: a solo lecture entitled “Ethical Implications of Individual Carbon Footprints; a round-table discussion of “The Ethics of Intellectual Property in the Age of the Internet”; and a debate between Vegans and Omnivores that turned into a free-for-all just short of a riot.

Lena loved the theatricality of these events. But in the classroom, Adler’s more subdued manner left her daydreaming and doodling. His voice was low and he looked at his students by peering out above his reading glasses. His thick gray hair looked as stiff and straight as a scrub brush and with his neatly trimmed beard, he resembled a Freudian analyst in a comedy. His lecture on Spinoza led her to check for correlations between his schedule and the phases of the moon. Everything Adler did — even his occasional evening office hours and socials for philosophy students — were scheduled for waxing and waning moons and never during the three days surrounding its fullest image in the sky.

Later that day, Rado volunteered to usher at the October event: “A Philosophical Examination of Halloween and the Role of Ancient Religions in Secular Celebrations.” The small, but vocal, evangelical club on campus was threatening an “action” against the lecture. Although, anyone who knew Adler knew enough not to predict what stance he would take. Rado hung around in Adler’s office after the organizational meeting.

“Thinking of majoring in philosophy?” The professor asked as he packed up his briefcase. It was almost three o’clock on a gloomy, autumn afternoon.

“Between philosophy and history,” Rado replied.

“Umm… You’re not thinking of Law are you?”

“My dad is; I’m not.”

The professor smiled.

“History or philosophy — both paths lead to academia or to a thoughtful life — one that is not likely to put you on an obvious career track.”

“I know.”

“Well, as long as you know. I like to say that philosophy prepares one for an interesting life. It does. But, it’s not an easy life.”

“Easier than becoming a legal zombie like my brother. He hates the work but…”

“But what?” the professor asked.

“He loves the rush of the deadlines, and the suits, and how they run around thinking everything is so important. He wanted to be an actor. I think he’s just playing a lawyer and the money is good.”

“Money is seductive.”

“Maybe that’s a good topic for one of your events?”

“I did it.” The professor paused and smiled. “It was the very first one. A long time ago, before…” He checked his watch and rose quickly. “I’ve got to go. Nice chatting Rado, glad to have you on the usher team. This one could get dicey.”

Rado checked the darkening sky as he headed back to the dorm. The moon was nearing half, and hovering low in the sky.


The text was from his mother. It was her way of reminding him that texts and emails were not an adequate substitute for the phone or in-person visits. It was Friday night, and the family would be at grandpa Leo’s — a noisy gathering of Leonardos, Nardos, Lees and Leons — where Rado had laid claim to an original nickname in self-defense.

He called his mother as he walked, glancing into the picture window of the campus art gallery. Professor Adler was at the center of a knot of well-dressed women. The sign on the door read:

Closed for Opening Reception

Rado was tickled by “closed for opening” but rarely shared such observations. They had earned him the name, Word Nerd. This was better than Skeleton Key — for being painfully thin — but not by much. Since moving on to college, he’d invested a great deal in upgrading his image, while attempting to remain true to himself. It was a difficult juggling act and he sometimes wished he had a bit more of his brother’s star power. Being a sophomore was better than being a freshman, which was infinitely better than high school. The trend was heading in the right direction, but he was still far from his goal of a transformation into a bold and dynamic man — with the ability to grow a full beard and a few muscles.

He chatted with his mom. She was always an encouraging force in his life and supported even his grandest ambitions. She’d made lasagna, his favorite, for the family dinner.

“Maybe you could come home next weekend? I’ll make it again.”

“OK, Mom, next weekend. Did I tell you I’m going to usher at one of Dr. Adler’s big lectures? He’s going to talk about Halloween, religion, secular celebrations and…”

“If they start throwing stuff at the stage — duck!”

“Yes, mom. But I don’t think this one will be like the vegan and meat-eaters riot. What are they going to throw? Halloween candy?”

“A tootsie roll could put your eye out, if it’s tossed hard enough.”


“Only kidding. Don’t forget to call your dad on Monday. Your brother is picking him up at work for a boys-night-out birthday celebration.”

“Yes, Mom. Already sent an old-fashioned snail-mail card. Thought he’d like that.”

“He will.”

Rado heard the music as soon as he reached the second floor. Jack, his roommate, was starting his usual Friday-night party a little early. Rado slipped in quickly, dropped his laptop bag into his desk drawer and grabbed his leather jacket, before saying a quick Hi & Bye to Jack and his friends. Jack was OK. Sometimes he was even a cool guy and a good friend, but he was basically a jock and his friends brought out his macho side. When the group was around, Rado found that it was best to keep his engagement minimal.

“Leaving already?” Jack asked, with beer-enhanced swagger.

“Yup,” Rado replied, stuffing his phone charger into his pocket.

“Hanging out with hot Lena again?”

Rado nodded and waved good-bye before Jack could make a comment about Lena and, what Jack thought of as their inexplicable friendship. Lena’s roommate could be annoying, too, but as she was also Lena’s best friend from home, Rado made a big effort to like her. Most of the time, he succeeded. Nora was a journalism major, and her life revolved around the school’s online daily, the news department of the college radio station, news blogs and newspapers. Nora read a stack of them every day.

Lena’s door was open. She was at her desk working, and Nora was at her desk yelling into her phone.

“You call that a quote! We’ve got to do better than that and….”

Even with Lena engrossed in her econ research and Nora yelling at another student journalist, their room was quieter and more comfortable than his own. He tossed his jacket onto Lena’s bed, plugged his phone recharger into an available socket and started reading the papers in Nora’s to-be-recycled pile. Nothing in yesterday’s New York Times or today’s Wall Street Journal caught his eye, but a headline in the town’s weekly give-away drew his undivided attention.


No Need to Cull Deer Population

            For the tenth year in a row, the county’s environmental impact office has determined that there is no need to cull the deer population….

The story went on to describe the relatively stable deer population in Harris County and neighboring Hampton and Lakeside counties, in contrast to the state overall, where deer were overrunning farms, suburban gardens and, occasionally, waltzing down main streets. In the absence of natural predators, deer usually required some culling of the population. A local hunters’ organization accused a pharmaceutical research facility in Lakeside County of tampering with the deer herds.

            “We’re sure that big pharma is behind this. They’re probably testing a new birth control pill on deer,” Robert T. Roberts, of the Harris County Sport Hunting Association said.

            When contacted for a comment, Louise East, Ph.D. from East and Ballard Chemical Company, described the Harris County Sport Hunting Association as … “Three crackpots short of a quorum. We are not testing anything on deer and there are many other logical explanations for the kind of stable deer population that is, of itself, a positive outcome.”

            The Harris County Environmental Office has two theories about possible causes. County Supervisor Grace Prosser said, “To the best of our knowledge, there has been no introduction of a new predator class, as wolves are a rarity in this region and have been for almost a hundred years. Therefore, either unlicensed hunting — which is both illegal and dangerous — has been keeping the population down, or a change in the deer food source is causing a decrease in fertility. We will continue to monitor the situation.”

Rado reread the article. The phrase, “introduction of a new predator class” jumped out at him. A localized reduced deer population, coupled with avoiding full moons…. Could Professor Adler really be a werewolf?

“You need this paper?” Rado asked Nora.

“No, you want it, it’s yours.”

“Rado, if we leave now we can make the 5:30 showing,” Lena said as she rose from her desk chair. “You ready to rock?”

He tore the article from the paper and stuffed it into his pocket. Lena and Rado headed off campus to the art house movie theater. They slid into their seats during the previews. Rado had been looking forward to seeing Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho” since he saw it on the theater’s schedule. He’d seen “Psycho” on TV, but anticipated a new experience on the big screen. He never relaxed long enough to enjoy the film. His mind simply wouldn’t let go of the idea that Professor Adler was a werewolf. He knew it was a ridiculous notion, but in the darkened movie theater, it seemed to make sense.

He spent the rest of the weekend obsessing about werewolves and, although he should have been working on his research paper on the role of yellow journalism in the start of the Spanish American War, reading Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst lost out to werewolves and Lycanthropy — the rare psychiatric disorder involving the delusion of transformations from human into a wolf. By Monday he was well versed in the mythology of werewolves and other shape-shifting creatures.

The following week was relatively uneventful. Professor Adler gave a fascinating class on the various philosophical approaches to the nature of good and evil, which morphed into a contemplation of nature versus nurture.

“Do you expect a lioness not to hunt? The hunt is in her nature. Of course the behavior of human beings is not solely ruled by instinct. Not solely, but in part — yes we are animals, subject to animal passions, to fight or flight responses to danger, to hormonal surges and more. How much of our behavior is in our DNA and how much is in the ethical and philosophical constructs of our cultures?

“One culture praises the individual — freedom, innovation and leadership are held in high esteem. They are valued. They are good. In another culture, the group takes precedence — compliance, cooperation and the greater good are valued above the needs or desires of any single individual.

“How much of our behavior is nature and how much is nurture and how does this fit into the historical development of ethics and…”

Professor Adler was on a roll and the class rolled along with him. The discussion bounced from topic-to-topic: the existence of a killer instinct, warrior cultures, violent sexuality, religion as an instrument of oppression and as a way to tame violence, and more.

“What about individuals who are predisposed to violence?” Lena asked.

“Are you asking about genetic predisposition to violence, lesions on the brain caused by accidents or abuse, or nurture in violent environments that train violent behavior?”

“I guess all three,” Lena replied. “Do we think of them differently? I mean, if the reason for a person’s violent behavior is biological, would they be less to blame? But then, if some kid is beaten or some soldier has brain damage that leaves him with uncontrolled rages….Wow, this is complicated.”

“Yes, it is Lena. The nature versus nurture arguments raged for decades before there was concrete biological evidence. Now that we understand that neurology and endocrinology play roles, it’s harder to draw a clear line. If, for instance, a child is born into a violent environment and removed and put into a loving and exemplary home, is that enough for he or she to overcome the impact of…”

“Doesn’t that depend on when the kid was removed?” Kim, a normally quiet guy jumped in. “If it’s just genes or if it’s a physical history of abuse. They’re different. Don’t you think?”

“I think a lot of things,” the professor chuckled before he continued. “Quick assignment for Friday. You initial thoughts on personal responsibility in the context of nature versus nurture. And, your initial thoughts on the impact that changing scientific knowledge has had on philosophy… Let’s say five hundred words, more or less, on each. Remember nothing about philosophy is without context. We’re out of the ivory tower — this is your philosophical perspective, an informed philosophical perspective with an eye to the way things have changed with increased awareness of biology.”

Rado wriggled in his seat. He kept framing the professor’s questions in light of werewolves. If it is your nature to turn into a killer beast, is your human persona responsible? Rado was mulling this over during his usual post-class breakfast with Lena. The only reason she didn’t scold him for zoning out on their conversation is that they weren’t alone. Jack and two of his jock buddies joined them. Lena was surprising the other guys with her head for sports stats.

Rado spent more time on his two, five hundred word essays for Professor Adler’s class than he spent on his history paper, but he managed to get everything done and to go home for the weekend. From the perspective of home, the werewolf idea seemed ridiculous, but back on campus Sunday night it didn’t. Rado ran into the professor as he walked from the bus station in town to his dorm. It was almost midnight and the professor was out for a run. It was clearly the 50-something-year-old Adler heading toward him at an impressive speed. They waved at one another and the professor ran passed him. Rado turned around in time to see the professor, in a burst of speed, practically fly along the road.

The night of the Halloween lecture was Friday the 28th (a few days before the full moon). Windows in the dorm rooms were already decorated with carved pumpkins and paper skeletons. Jack insisted on dressing a full-sized inflatable skeleton in boxer shorts and a baseball cap and placing the skeleton in a chair by the window. Every few hours Jack would get inspired and alter the skeleton’s pose or change his clothes, creating tableaus in their second floor window. This was the side of Jack that Rado enjoyed — the funny guy.

Rado was excited about the lecture and pumped up about being part of the “security detail.” The evangelical group decided to set up a prayer station outside the entrance to the lecture hall, making his mother’s fears of rock-throwing fanatics, fired-up by Adler’s inflammatory rhetoric, a fantasy. The lecture was insightful and the professor was at his charismatic best. It wasn’t the first time Rado noticed the large group of adoring young women waiting for Adler to make his exit. If the college girls were disappointed when he left arm-in-arm with Professor Elizabeth Schultz of the Art History department, an elegant and scholarly woman of 50 or more, no one said a thing.

Rado went out for coffee with Lena after the lecture. It wasn’t the first time the platonic nature of their friendship wore on him. He just couldn’t manage to push himself out of the “friend zone” without risking pushing her away. When she kissed him on the cheek and headed up to the third floor he wanted to go after her but he just couldn’t do it. Fear of rejection overwhelmed him once again.

The skeleton was now wearing eyeglasses and a shirt and tie, with a tablet taped to his inflated, plastic hand. He looked like he was playing words with friends. A camera flashed from the lawn outside the dorm. Jack’s tableaus were all over Facebook. Rado felt less popular than the skeleton — and definitely less interesting to women.

The weekend following the lecture was all about Halloween parties. Lena dressed as Bride of Frankenstein — twisting cotton on wires to raise her hair into an Elsa Lanchester up-do. Rado found a werewolf mask at the discount store but it smelled like plastic and he thought he’d have a hell of a time breathing, let alone partying, in the mask. So he wore a black cape, over black clothes and a black cloth half mask around his eyes. He told everyone he was Rado — Zoro’s smarter, younger brother.

On Monday afternoon, Halloween, Rado got an email from the academic counseling office, suggesting he should give some serious thought to declaring his major. He booked an appointment with the head of the history department and checked Adler’s office hours. The professor had a “drop by” policy, first-come, first-served but only during designated hours.

Rado headed across the campus to the Philosophy Department offices. The afternoon sky was more grey than blue, and a full moon hung low in the sky against the clouds. Rado knocked on the door.

“Come in!”

Kim was leaving, having likely received a similar email. Rado took the seat opposite the professor’s big desk.

“I’m here to talk about my major. The academic counseling people want me to declare and I’m…”

“Rado, the answer is YES.”

“Yes, I should major in philosophy. OK, I’ll…”

“No, Rado. Yes, I am what you think I am.”


“Go ahead, you can say it.”

“A werewolf?”

“You all but spelled out your observations in your nature/nurture paper. So Rado where does that leave us now?”

“I, er…”

“Since it’s illogical for me to expect you to actually forget my secret, we shall have to share it.”

“Share it?”

“Yes. I’ll give you a running start, but I’m betting that I’ll take a bite out of you five minutes off the campus.”

“I, er… Professor Adler. This is insane.”

“Is it? I don’t think so. Allow me to enlighten you. I’m pushing sixty and I have the lean body mass of a man of thirty, plus the sex drive of a 19-year-old. I also have an unusually charismatic personality. Do you think this comes without a dark side? No. It’s part of the curse — a fire in the belly and a fire in the soul. It’s what drove me from Law and back into my first academic love — philosophy. Being a wolf is good. It’s bad, too. You nailed it right here in your essay. Let me remind you what you wrote…

This inherent duality complicates our society’s perception of aggression. We admire action heroes and sports stars, pinning medals on soldiers to commemorate acts of violent aggression. But we become uncomfortable with aggressive behaviors when the line between aggression and violence is crossed outside the limits of a stadium or war. Perhaps a better understanding of the origins of this animal violence and a way of channeling it is our society’s best approach. We do that already, with sports and war, but rarely address it head on.

In essence, killing is in the nature of the wolf (warrior or hero). You can’t remove the violence without losing the positive contributions to society overall. Biology is not destiny, but it is a big contributing factor. This goes for the sheep as well as the wolves in our midst.

“I’d say it’s good — as a preliminary draft and that was the assignment, after all, but getting back to our conversation. You know my secret so I have to act.”

“But I can just keep my mouth shut. You don’t have to kill me!”

“Kill you? No Rado, I’m going to bite you and turn you into a wolf. I hope you enjoy game meat. I’ve found that developing a taste for venison has served me well.”

Rado sat in stunned silence.

“I suggest you run off and think about this. You have about twenty minutes. You can run directly to the bus station and go home to New Jersey. There’s a bus leaving in half an hour but they board in twenty. If you leave now, you’ll make it. You can send for your stuff later. I won’t chase after the bus. Or you can run toward the woods. I’ll find you and we’ll see how long it takes for me to catch you. I know that twenty minutes is not a long time to think about a life changing choice, but…”

The professor shrugged his shoulders and continued.

“Most life changing decisions are made in less. It’s an instant of time — kiss the girl or don’t kiss the girl.”

Rado thought for an instant of Lena and replied.

“See you in the woods, Professor Adler. We’ll howl at the moon!”