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.

Garden Woes

Ready for Planting

Ready for Planting

We started our garden at the house in which we now live in 2007.  That garden was limited.  We dug up some lawn and gathered some compost and got going.  We planted tomatoes and carrots and lettuce, pumpkins and strawberries.  Last year we expanded, adding more compost and digging more beds.  This is year three.  That first summer we had no problems at all.  Everything grew like gangbusters.  Now the troubles have started.

One mistake was getting compost from a new source last year.  It was filled with weeds and contained the larvae of cucumber beetles.  Cucumber beetles eat the roots of young plants and then, after they hatch, eat the leaves of the same plants.  I have had to replant zucchini and yellow squash and cucumbers, and the melons are pretty much bumming.  I have done nothing yet to get rid of them this spring so our problems persist.  I thought turning the soil late in the fall would help.  I turned it all again early in the spring.  No dice with that simple plan.

I planted peas for the first time this year.  They started off well but now the rabbit that hangs out in the woods has discovered the plants.  It keeps whittling them down to nubbins.  The pea plants are no taller than they were six weeks ago.  Then our cuddly friend discovered the carrots and the lettuce.  The little pecker is nibbling down our salads.  And a squirrel is eating our strawberries.  These critters are killing me.

I planted popcorn today.  Last year I had to plant corn three times.  The first time the turkeys ate the sprouts just as they emerged.  Then the crows did the same after I put up a scarecrow (can you say misnomer?).  Finally I hung a string across the bed with old CD’s hanging from it.  Those spinning reflectors kept the birds away.  I hope that this trick will keep them away again.  The popcorn was one of our best crops last year.

At this point the onions, at least the ten out of 26 that survived (no idea what was up with that) are healthy.  The leeks (except for the handful some crazy bird yanked out but left on the soil) are shooting up, and the pumpkins are spreading.  The tomatoes and peppers (planted a few days ago) are still alive but my optimism is wavering.  We will have some food out of this endeavor but not as much as we might.

I’m not all that upset, really.  I am disappointed, of course, but not upset.  This gardening adventure is about persistence over the long term.  I planted red zebra tomatoes the first summer.  They grew well but were not the sweetest.  I may plant them again as sauce tomatoes, or I might consider trying to grow them over a few years to breed sweeter fruit, but I learned that another variety might be better.  I also have not had much luck with melons.  They need warm weather and lots of it.  The beetles snacking on them don’t exactly help.  So melons will require much more trial and error (hopefully with diminishing error).

I have had luck with seeds I saved for peppers and pumpkins.  I will try more of that this year.  I like the idea of keeping the cycle going–planting seeds from plants that grew the previous year, then doing that again.  It is amazing that it works at all.  Plant a few seeds and they grow into plants that provide food?  That is plain old miraculous, really.

So I do what I can to keep things growing.  I weed and water and hang old computer discs.  I need to get on the cucumber beetles.  They haven’t hatched yet, but I know they won’t wait for an invitation to sit down to dinner on my cucumbers.  Their social graces, it seems, are less than refined.