The value of an English degree during a pandemic, plus a rabbit

I was on a Zoom call recently with some college friends. One mentioned that his college degree, earned many years ago, did not provide much. Another agreed, saying “my degree did absolutely nothing for me!” Now, there may have been some hyperbole there, and this exchange may have involved some ribbing/noodling/general sh*t-slinging, but it did raise my eyebrows a bit.

Now, there is no disagreement that the college experience was worthwhile. I mean, here we were, oldsters who met in our salad days at college, connecting again a couple decades later. There is much to be said about the shared experience of residential college, especially for traditional students. Personal growth, coming of age, maturity, life lessons learned–call it what you will, it is a big deal. But what the heck does a degree in English or Government get you once you head out into the “real world?” Apparently, my fellow former students believe that “nothing” is the answer.

I find myself disagreeing, so here are five things that my undergraduate liberal arts degree in English has given me to help face this pandemic. Call it a metaphor for life in general, but let’s use this quarantine situation for what it gives us, shall we?

It gave me some solid writing skills. I work in an office, so I use email a lot anyway, but these days, working at home every day, I use it more than I ever have. When you can’t just pop by someone’s desk, you have to use other means to communicate. Sure I use the phone or make video calls, but I write emails too, lots of them. And I think about those emails. I write and delete and edit and craft and when I don’t do that I worry that my tone was off or that my message might be misinterpreted. I think about my audience and how formal I need to sound and I try to use the right words. And that is stuff I learned writing papers for English classes. And email is just one example. I will be working on writing a big grant soon, and it will be better because I know how to write–I will be able to focus more on details other than sentence structure, and it will be a better proposal.

It helps me to be a better parent. The past couple of days I spent time helping my daughter, who is home now rather than at school, to fine tune her thesis for her English class. It is fourteen pages, by the way, a solid accomplishment for a high school junior. I can help her with her thesis because I have lots of practice. High school students have to write papers, and if I can help mine to navigate that challenge, then we will have a better relationship. Also, reading literature for a class means you have to pay attention so that you can understand and analyze it. If you are or have been a parent you know the importance of paying attention to your kid. That kid is not you, and they are sometimes going to think in ways that don’t make sense to you. If you do not pay attention you will understand less now and have a harder time coming to understanding later.

It taught me patience. Have you ever read Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or Moby Dick? Or Great Expectations? That crap ain’t easy. First, you have to get through it. It takes time just to read those kinds of books. Then you have to try to understand what the heck is going on. I read Shakespeare in college. You might not know this, but that dude did not talk like we do now. If Shakespeare showed up today he would be all “What gives with the Tik Tok and the acai bowls and spelling shop with only one p and without the e at the end?” Just like I was all “Beggarly account? Jackdaw? Take arms against a sea of troubles? What the…” I had to work through those works of literature to first understand them and then to collect my own thoughts into writing. Sure, one could rush through that and slap together a paper. I guess that wasn’t for me. Right now, whatever your situation, patience is critical. If you can manage to collect your thoughts and be deliberate, you will be better off then just trying to slap things together. We all will be.

It helps me to understand the power of story. Politicians get elected because they tell stories. Leaders are followed because they tell stories. You want to be a good presenter or to make a successful pitch or to teach anything well? You need to harness the power of story. Sure those authors I read in college were trying to make a living by telling stories. People enjoy a good story and will pay to hear it/read it/watch it, but stories are integrated into our lives. When we meet someone for the first time we ask each other questions, and we share stories. If you can tell a good story you will make friends, you will be more respected, you can be a better boss. Of course, the ability to tell a good story can mean abusing that power at the expense of others. People want to listen. Whether it is for good or ill, however, stories have power. I learned that by doing all that reading and writing, and I relearn it just about every day during this pandemic. I mean, how can you have a successful Zoom call without a good story or two? (Also, my wife handed me a book, literally as I write this, that she got forever ago, telling me I need to read something from it because it is relevant right now–power of story in action!)

I am better able to make connections between all kinds of things. When I read some of those old books it was important to understand the context of the story. Dickens makes a lot more sense when you understand the issues of the day in 19th Century London, and it makes even more sense when you understand what was happening all over the world at that time. Things Fall Apart or Night–those books are stories within the larger stories of their time and place. Reading those books, and then analyzing them in order to write a paper about them, meant trying to understand how things are related. I found that I better understood those stories because I was studying other things as well. I found myself making connections or having insights in French class or Geology class because of some of those stories. And the reverse was true as well. Coal plays a big role in 19th Century England, and it is featured in Dickens novels, and I learned about it in my lab. All of that learning fed into each other. Making connections is important to understanding our world, whether our own community or international politics. This coronavirus thing is not easy to understand. Where did it come from? Why did it spread so fast? Why can’t we treat it? Will things ever get back to normal? The ability to make connections between all of these things helps me to understand what it all means. I often don’t get definitive answers, but I at least can grasp why I don’t.

As for the rabbit, well, I haven’t been seeing all that many of them lately. Some years they are underfoot but this year they are scarce. I saw several of them this morning. I took a photo. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything. Rabbits are just cool critters. Seeing them this morning does not have to have any more significance than that. Sometimes things don’t. Studying English in college taught me that, too.

At Least I Can Make Dinner

My daughter said the other day, “We have like three things for dinner,” meaning we do not have enough variety in our dinner menu. This, despite that I just made rice with a homemade Yumm style sauce with peas and potatoes, something I had never tried before, which was, if I may say, even though I made it myself and may be biased or at least have a stake in that particular meal’s success, particularly tasty. Three things indeed.

My son really likes pizza. When my daughter is not around we have pizza at least once a week. What can beat fresh dough that can be garnished with a variety of sauces and toppings and cheeses? I mean, pizza is great, and fresh from the oven? It can’t be beat. So I was going to make pizza, since it has been a couple of weeks since we have had that (I’m sorry did you say three things?). But apparently pizza is one of the three things, so instead I made a pizza wannabe.

I guess you could call it a stromboli. Instead of dough with carefully scattered toppings, I mixed a bunch of stuff together–sauteed shallots and orange bell pepper, chopped spinach, cheddar and parmesan, and goat cheese. The goat cheese was the kicker. I rolled out a huge square of dough, laid out some tomato sauce and spread out the mixed stuff. Then I pulled in the corners and tucked them in to make a square pie. And baked.

And that thing was good. I had never made quite that same dish. I mean, I have wrapped up ingredients in dough and baked it, but never in a square. A square stuffed pizza/stromboli/new thing for dinner. It was hot and savory with a crunchy chewy crust and gooey yumminess in the middle. I may be crappy at other aspects of parenting/husbanding, but at least I can cook up a quality dinner. Dammit. I got your three things. Plus a whole lot more. You want some variety, kid? Bring it.

Another Try at a Pie

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Well it looked good. And it tasted good. But it was still too runny. The last time I made a pie it was delish, but just not holding together. The apples were soft. The crust was flaky. But inside, liquid oozed around the apples. Today I tried again with a new recipe (thanks, Mom) but it still didn’t stay together well.

Last time I used cornstarch as a thickener. That makes for a smoother pie, so I’ve heard. This recipe calls for flour as a thickener. It worked just as well as far as I can tell, but did it work well enough? I am just not sure.

My theory at this point is that my lack of patience is the problem. When I took this pie out of the oven I placed it on a cooling rack. I let it sit for about a half hour. I thought that was long enough. But my family was eager to dig in, as was I. So I sliced it open to find it was not all that cohesive. It seemed cool enough–warm but not hot. But I splashed some of the filling onto my hand. That burned.

I may need to approach pie baking differently, give it more time. I had planned to make this one a couple of hours before dinner. But then I took my daughter to the movies with friends. And I made some chili. The pie had plenty of time to bake and some time to cool. Apparently, my cooling time was not adequate.

We only ate half the pie tonight. The rest, at this point, is in the refrigerator. In the morning I will have to see how it is doing. I am sure my children will insist on pie for breakfast. Call it bad parenting if you want but I am going to let them have it. I mean, it’s for science. If it is cohesive enough at breakfast, I will have proved my theory.  Thanks, Kids!

Update 10/16: I had some of that pie tonight, about 24 hours after I first pulled it from the oven. It was, granted, pretty cooled in the fridge, but it was also pretty held together. Even after a minute in the microwave it seemed to have no runniness. Inconclusive. But it was still dang tasty!

Postcard Every Day

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My daughter is off at camp for a month. The camp is great about making sure campers are off the grid. No cell phones or connected devices are allowed. They can’t even make phone calls on the camp phone for the first week. They do, however, have good old-fashioned mail.

I love mail. Getting a personal letter or card is a small gift. I used to often write letters to many friends. I rarely do that now. We send out holiday cards and I occasionally send a postcard, but I have succumbed to convenience and speed. I use email, text, Facebook messenger, what have you. While my daughter is at camp, however, I mail her a postcard every day.

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I have two rules for these postcards. First, I put one in the mail every day, even if it is Sunday or a holiday. If I do it right, as I did this year, I start mailing them a couple of days before she leaves. That way she gets one on day one. The second rule is that the postcards must be adulterated. Some of them are pretty good postcards. The one above is a painting I love, on display at Shelburne Museum, but it needs captions to fit within my rules.

My daughter comes home next week. That means I stop sending her postcards soon. That takes some pressure off, but it is pretty fun to do so will miss it. My son is talking about going to camp next summer. That will mean possible double duty–two postcards per day if the are away at the same time. It would take some mental wrangling to come up with interesting modifications but, after three summers of practice, I think I’m up for it.

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Snow at Last

White Stuff in the Viewshed

Finally we got some snow yesterday. We spent an hour or so outside as a family last night tossing the stuff at each other. We got wet. We got chilly. We slept well. Today we had good reason to play. We sledded. We skied on the hill and in the field. We had some good fun. The temperature never got all that high. It was in the single digits by the afternoon. Still, we could not stay in all day. The wood stove did its duty for us today.

The temperature should get below zero tonight. We will snuggle down and sleep well again. We will still have snow again tomorrow. The parents in the household need to decide if skiing is worth it with wind chills in the negatives. Skiing? To be determined. We will play one way or the other. I just hope the snow sticks around.

Proud Parent

My daughter had a holiday concert this evening. She was one student of all the students in her grade and the grade above hers, singing and dancing. They had practiced for weeks and tonight was the big night. It was a packed gymnasium where they performed. It was fun to watch and to hear, and the kids had lots of fun.

She was a little nervous when we left–not worried so much as anticipating that she would have to do something in front of others. She knows already that she wants to please others, to show herself in a positive light, to do well.  And of course she was stellar. She sang right out. She smiled the whole time. She looked around. She laughed. What more could a parent ask?

At one point her class sang as a unit. I watched her sing, smiling all the while (both she and I), and I felt a pang of proudness. I had a feeling of how quickly time passes, how she will grow to do wonderful things and lead a fine life, and how I will remember this moment more than she will remember it. I felt proud of her standing up and doing her best, enjoying life in that moment. I was genuinely happy, from within as well as for her. I didn’t just feel the small pride of a parent that comes from watching one’s child do something for the first time or trying hard to accomplish something. There was something more there. It was a flash of the future, an emotional glimpse of the power of the world that is hers now and will be as she grows. For just a moment, time flared out and tingled over me.

I am sure there will be many more moments where she performs in a group or even on her own. I will feel proud then as well, I am sure, but when she ran out of the building afterward, as I walked with her brother in the cold air, and jumped into my open arms for a huge hug, I held onto her and to that earthly briefness tightly, knowing that it will not be long before I remember how long ago this night was. And she may not remember it at all.

In a short while I will look in on her sleeping. I will feel proud, and I will love her as much as one can love one’s child. I will her as long as I am alive to do so, and I will miss that child when she grows up. Tomorrow I will be sure to make meaningful the moments we share, and to let her know again that I am proud of her, and that I love her. And both of us will be better because of it.

Going to Sleep

Ah, the woes of being a parent. My two children seem to be having some trouble falling asleep.  Some commennts they have made recently while they should be falling asleep:

I think I heard something.

I can’t stop thinking about bad things.

I have a question: Can I have two cookies in my snack tomorrow?

I have to tell you something: Why does Mars look so rusty?

I have something else to tell you: Tonight, Jupiter was the only planet in the whole sky.

Can I have a band aid for my cut? I cut myself when I was playing with the Playmobil horse.

Today, at school, I found some treasure in the sandbox and no one would let me keep it.

I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.

I can’t wait to go to school tomorrow.

I have to return my library books tomorrow.

Before you got home we could hear a mouse over by the art table, and you know what? At school, Kristen told us that one time she was with her lawyer and a mouse, I mean a squirrel, popped its head right out of a hole in the wall and she screamed!

How soon is it until Christmas?

I don’t know what I should dream about tonight.

For Christmas, I know just I should order from Santa–a tractor!

I’ve tried everything I can think of to fall asleep but I still can’t fall asleep; I’ve tried to lie this way and that way and do everything and I still can’t even though I tried really hard.

I have to go poop.

When you gotta go…

Learning Personal Finance

We went to the farmer’s market in Hinesburg yesterday. I emptied my wallet. I didn’t even get all I could have gotten, but our bag was full and the kids were antsy. Next time I’ll bring two bags. And make the kids carry one.

This market was great. I arrived with my two children right when it opened, at 9:00. It was held in the Hinesburg Town Hall. There is a summer farmers market weekly but once the fall hits it whittles down to once per month. We missed the one in October so I was eager to be there for this one.

I purchased leeks, onions, potatoes, garlic, spinach and other stuff. I was happy enough. I was looking for food. My daughter, however, was looking to spend some money.

I had told her I would give her some money so she could buy some things herself. The space is small and I figured it wouldn’t be crowded first thing. So I gave her five bucks and told her she buy whatever she wanted. We did a lap to start us off, to see who was there selling what. We tasted a purple carrot and looped back around. At the first vendor she bought a delicata squash, a tiny one, but cute and just right for her. A couple of tables down she bought some popcorn. It was purple, still on the cob but dried, four ears for a dollar. She bought four. Then she bought some of those purple carrots. She considered a stone charm, but it was five dollars and she didn’t want to blow it all in one shot.

This was great for both of us. She felt a sense of responsibility and I felt safe with her learning some lessons in how to spend money. I really don’t think I could have said no to anything there she may have said she wanted to buy. It was a farmers market.  She wants to buy carrots and mini squash? I’m good with that. She wants to but some jewelry made by someone here in town?  I’m good with that.  She wants to buy honey, jam, hand spun yarn, fresh bread, eggs? How can I say no? It was ideal.

She is now the eager one, asking when the next market will be. There is one every Saturday somewhere around here. The next one is in Burlington, then Winooski, Shelburne, and back in Hinesburg again. And there are  others well into the winter. My daughter would gets the shakes if she saw all the vendors in Burlington compared to little old Hinesburg. I’m thinking we may have to take advantage of that. I can give up five bucks for this endeavor for several weekends if she is still into it. I have been wanting to go to these this fall and winter anyway. Fresh local food this late in the year? I can go out of my way for that.

The eggs we bought yesterday and way good, and I turned cauliflower, spinach, garlic and leeks into a fine dinner tonight. And the popcorn? Pops white, tastes great. And that was just one ear. That popcorn may have been the best deal of the lot.

Transcript: Interview with my Son

ME: So what do you want to be when you grow up?

HIM: I want to be a scientist.

ME: A scientist. So what do want to study as a scientist? What do you want to learn about?

HIM: I want to learn about water.

ME: Water. What do you want to learn about water?

HIM: Well, I can learn about what happens when you put paint in it.

ME: Oh yeah? And what else do you like about water?

HIM: Well, I can do a lot of different experiments with water.

PAUSE

ME: So what is your favorite thing to play?

ANOTHER PAUSE

HIM: Outside

Then he started off into space. That was the end of that.

Photo Deconstruction

I let my son handle the camera for the first time yesterday.  He has seen me use it, and his sister.  He has see lots of photos.  So he has a basic understanding of what to do and of what makes a good photo.  But could he take a good one?  His sister has managed to take some winners.  So I had high hopes. Here is his very first one, and what I make of it:

The Boy's First Go at the Camera

The Boy's First Go at the Camera

First, notice that he did his best to aim at what he identifies as me.  He did cut off the top of my head.  Well, OK, he pretty much beheaded me.  But he is not tall.  He is a kid.  He looks at my torso more than at my face anyway.  So I think he was going for what he wanted to capture.

Notice as well the framing.  He didn’t place me in the center of the frame. I am off to the side.  In this way, he is able to include some of the background to give the subject some context. Smart kid, that.  The mail waiting to go out, the uncapped water bottle, the clock on the wall–all are clues to what this scene is about.

Notice as well the dorky sweater.  It was cold in the morning and I tossed that thick baby on to keep from getting chilled.  But by taking the photo when I am wearing it he will have some fuel to rib his old man down the road.  “Look at that dorky sweater!” he will proclaim.  “You were/are so uncool.”

You may be able to tell as well that the focus is soft.  He was going for a warm look.  As I said, it was cool in the house, so the slightly less than sharp focus lends a somewhat homey quality, makes it feel warmer.

So he got it all right.  He took a video later in the day, when his sister got off the bus.  That was a hoot.  He’s got potential.  Do we have a filmmaker in the future?  Or a photojournalist? Or maybe just someone who knows how use a camera?  Time will tell, eh?