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.

What the Blue Jay Says

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WHAT THE BLUE JAY SAYS

 

All morning snow—like

nothing but snow—

falling on snow.

 

The Blue Jay does not compare itself

to the Cardinal.

It sees red.

It sees blue.

 

It fears nothing—

not silence, not darkness, not even

nothing.

 

Feathers fallen on new snow

are buried in new snow. Snow

on the Blue Jay, alert

in the sleeping lilac.

 

Silence, like the water snow becomes,

evaporates into clouds.

In spring it falls between raindrops.

This is the sound of flowers.

 

The Blue Jay has always known this.

It keeps trying to tell you—

all day shouting and shouting.

Listen, it says. Listen.

Trypod

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I listen to a podcasts quite a bit, typically when I am driving. I hook up the Bluetooth to the car audio system and read with my ears. I learn a lot. I laugh sometimes. I say things aloud like “No way!” or “Seriously?” This March is the month to share podcasts we love. You can join in by posting the ones you like with the hashtag #trypod.

I never listen to the radio. Well, I rarely listen to the radio. If I do, it is to catch the news on National Public Radio, on my local station. But in general I like to listen to what I want when I choose. Podcasts let me do that. I found the native podcast app on my phone to be a bit clumsy so I even researched other options to download. I settled on iCatcher and listen to my podcasts through that.

Here are some of my favorites:

Planet Money

This NPR program offers this: “Imagine you could call up a friend and say, ‘Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.’ Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening.” That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.” And they nail it. They take sometimes obscure and sometimes everyday financial topics and make them interesting. One recent episode featured a professor who tried to make filing taxes easier, and came up with a system that everyone loved, but got stymied by politicians who valued businesses over people who actually file their taxes. Another featured the creation of a Blackberry manufacturing plant in Argentina.

Work in Progress

This is put out there by a for-profit company, Slack, which makes communication tools for businesses. I was slightly skeptical at first because of this but that skepticism vanished quickly. It is one of my favorites. They say it is about “the meaning and identity we find in work.” They tell stories about all kinds of work, from a professional cuddler to a prison warden who has to perform executions to a professional Santa Claus. It is always interesting with well-told stories.

Radio Diaries

This is one of the best audio story podcasts I have found. There is little narration. Radio Diaries takes audio content and lets the people who are part of the story tell the story.  Interviews and personal recordings are woven together to create an always riveting tale. I try to listen to this one only when I can hear the episode in its entirety; if I have a short drive I save it for later. Two recent episodes include the story of a man who lived in the United States since he was a small child but got permanently deported to Guatemala; and the recording of a Vietnam War soldier.

Gastropod

Gastropod takes a “look at the hidden history and surprising science behind a different food and/or farming-related topic.” It is funny and almost always offers a wow insight. Recent topics include honey, seltzer, chocolate and oysters. I can’t wait for each new episode and bi-weekly seems too infrequent. Plus the name is clever.

Brave Little State

This is a local podcast from Vermont Public Radio. They take suggestions from listeners, who also get to vote, on what topics to cover. The theme is “Vermont, our region or its people.” The latest episode was “Why is Vermont so Overwhelmingly White?” It offers a perspective on Vermont that is not just from postcards.

Do you listen to podcasts? I have more than I can handle, but still, I always am on the hunt for interesting stories.

Women’s March Montpelier

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Like thousands of other people across the country and across the globe, I attended a march today.  I have never seen more people in Vermont’s capital than I did today. The Burlington Free Press estimated 15,000 people attended the rally. Some estimates were as high as 20,000.

We left early to get there in time to find parking and to get to Montpelier High School, where the march was scheduled to start. Still a good way from the interstate exit we were in the slow lane to turn off. Traffic was backed up before noon. The march was scheduled to start at 1:00. Good thing we left early.

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We later learned that the Montpelier exits on Interstate 89, both northbound and southbound exit 8, were closed. Then exits 7 and 9 were closed in both directions. There were a lot of people trying to express themselves in the capital city today.

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And express themselves they did. There were many signs, some clever, some hardhitting, all honest. I have put a few of them here.

We walked from the high school to the capital lawn. There were poets, politicians, speakers and musicians on hand to offer some guidance and inspiration. It was difficult to hear it all but that didn’t matter to me. Most people didn’t seem to mind. The atmosphere was a mix of celebration and pissed-offedness and determination to not stand for all the negativity of our new president. People are not happy about this change and they wanted to do something, to at least show up and demonstrate how much they do not support discrimination and oppression and fear.

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The message, on signs and in conversation and from speakers, was about supporting women, for sure; but it was also about fairness and equality for all in general. There were plenty of people who are just angry about our nation electing such a hateful man to represent us all and to lead us. “Not my president” was a common theme.

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Pussy hats and other pink hats, and just pink in general, was prolific. I wore a pink hat myself, borrowed from my spouse. My daughter, plus her friend and her mother, were in my party. There were plenty of my friends and colleagues and neighbors there, although I saw few of them. There were just so many damn people.

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I was inspired today. I felt more hopeful. It was a hell of a better day than yesterday. I am baffled that every day can bring more head-slapping, eye-rolling, are-you-f-ing-kidding-me news. It wasn’t just that I was around so many similar-minded people, although that was helpful. I was proud to be a Vermonter. I was proud to be around people who believe that kindness matters. I was proud of my country.

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Let me clear here. I am not upset with anyone who believes that government has a different role than I believe. I am not against anyone because of their political party affiliation. I can disagree with others on how things might be changed, or our national priorities, or how to make things better, or even what the problems are to begin with. But I cannot support this president. He is a nasty man. He is a liar. He is dangerous. I am frightened for our nation. I am not upset because “I lost” and I am not going to “get over it.”

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I know that many other people stand with me now. Change is hard. Apparently we have some work ahead of us. I am not sure what I will be able to do, but I guess I will need to be doing something. For now I am just angry and confused. In terms of what I am feeling, this guy with the green sign nailed it:

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Read more details about the Women’s March in Montpelier here.

Word Challenge

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For Christmas a couple of years ago I got a set of Scrabble tiles with magnets on the back (thanks Bro!). At the time we did not have a refrigerator with a magnetic face. Ours was the one that came with our house when we bought it–it had wood face to match the cabinets. When we had to replace the refrigerator we had magnet capability. So up went the letters.

We keep shifting them around, spelling new words, or sometimes arranging them in ways that make “words” if you know what I mean (Thwand?). Lately I have been trying my hand at my own challenge.

First, know that there is only one tile for each letter–26 tiles for 26 letters. The challenge is to use all the letters in words with none left over. It can be any number of words and the words have to be common usage words. It is not a difficult challenge to understand, mind you, but accomplishing it has proved a struggle.

The photo above is a pretty good attempt; only two letters are left over. That Q, with its typical U pairing, isn’t making it easy. I was pretty proud of Blintz as it uses three consonants in a row. That is a win.

If you can do this better, let me know. I want to know if it is possible. And if so, what words. I’ll keep trying, of course. Those letters aren’t going anywhere for a while.

Pretending to be Responsible

Ok, I pretend to be responsible all the time. I sometimes feel that, although I am supposed to be an adult, I, like many others who are supposed to be adults, am just winging it. I guess I manage to pay my bills and buy life insurance and take the kids to the birthday party, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I get the responsible thing done, in the end, but don’t tell anyone that the seat of my pants is really what flies the plane around here.

When it comes to businesses who advertise and sell things and affect lots of people, I feel like a different attitude should hold sway, however. I mean, you can’t just say or even infer that your product or your company is one thing when really you are pretending. Exaggeration shouldn’t be allowed when lots of dollars or lots of people are involved. I saw an example of such hyperbole today, on a paper towel dispenser in a restroom at a conference I attended.

IMG_2108It is this last line with which I have an issue. “Closed loop” to me means a cycle. In this case I am led to believe that paper gets used, recycled, turned into paper, recycled, and so on. The “loop” gets “closed.” A loop keeps going. It doesn’t stop. Otherwise it is not a loop. In this case, however, there are three things, but they are not in a loop.

To sum up the “Power of Three” here: the paper company collects paper, uses it to create further paper, then sells it, possibly to some of the same people who provided the paper they collected. This is a good thing. It means that at least some paper gets made from recycled paper, rather than from trees. But this isn’t a loop.

The original paper comes from trees. The recycled paper gets turned into lower grade paper–it is downcycled. Eventually it cannot be turned into paper any more, as it is too degraded. There may be some back and forth here but it is definitely not a closed loop.

What wrapped up the whole thing into a tidy little ironic package was the waste basket below the paper dispenser. The paper in that dispenser may have come from paper, but the paper being dispensed ended up in a plastic bag in a landfill.  The top of that plastic trash bin makes a closed loop, but I am guessing that is not the one to which the paper company was referring.

Before I left that little room I realized I had a closed loop of my own. I had picked up my water bottle, I had processed the water, and then I provided a product to be taken away. That product would get recycled and perhaps one day return to me when I filled my water bottle again. Sounds like I might know what I am doing after all but let’s be honest, I’m still just winging it.

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Um, Seriously?

Earlier this month we made a trip to Barnes and Noble for some books for my daughter. She can’t have enough books–reads them fast and twice. Accompanying the receipt was a separate receipt-like mini-document. It listed what “You May Also Like,” the “you” being me, I suppose. Thanks, I guess, but I just left. Not planning to go back in to get those.

It also offered this:

LIMITED-TIME OFFER!

Visit us dressed as your
favorite character during our
GET POP-CULTURED
Preview Event on 7/19/14
to receive a coupon for a
special cafe offer.

Offer is only valid if dressed in
costume on 7/19/14

Um, seriously? If I dress up in a costume and head in to your cafe on that day you will give me a coupon? Oh wait, the coupon is for a special offer. Oh that sounds great. I would totally be willing to put on a costume and show up for 20% off coffee and cookies at a future visit. If I make the effort to create and to publicly sport a costume, for someone else, I have this idealistic notion that they might offer more than a coupon for that effort.

Seems like Barnes and Noble needs to work on their incentives. Then again, I wasn’t there on the 19th. Maybe a bunch of Harry Potters and Catwomans and Lord Businesses showed up. Hope that coupon was a good one.