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.

Last Day of the Year

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We finally got some snow here in the valley. Not much, mind you, but enough to make things look bright. We took a trip to the hardware store and they filled the new inflatable sleds we got for Christmas. They worked like a charm. Fast and fun. Until one of them found a stick, got a slice, and flattened right out, with me on it. No more of that sled today.

At the beginning of the year I set a few birding goals. First was to find 50 species of birds in Vermont in January. Check. Second was to make a birding checklist every day of the year. As of today, check to that as well. Total checklists: 562. My third goal was to find 300 species of birds. As of today I have seen 406. A sub-goal was to find 300 birds in North America alone. When the year started I had not planned a trip out of the country, but with a trip to South Africa that yielded lots of species not found in North America, I easily made my goal. North American birds: 279. Pretty far off but not too shabby.

I have been thinking about goals for 2017. One goal is to run more. I have not run as much in the past several years. Out of shape, lazy, injuries, depression–I have all kinds of reasons. But I’m done with that. I am going to hit the roads again. Twice a week at least. I would like to say that I will run a half marathon in 2017 but I have made goals like that before and then gotten injured; so let’s say that is a tentative goal. I am willing to put in the effort–it just might not be an option.

Birding goal? I want to move away from the list a little. One goal is to go birding in half a dozen National Wildlife Refuges. They are always beautiful to visit and offer fantastic birding. I will have to hope no group of fruit loops decide to occupy one when I plan to visit, as happened this year in Oregon. I also would like to add some birds to my life list. How about ten? Can I add ten lifers? That isn’t too many but I will have to get out there to make it happen. So I have a list-based goal after all.

And I need to write more. How about I average one blog post per week? That seems doable. Plus I need to make some progress on that book. I will make that one a sub-goal–get an outline done. Then I can take it from there.

This was a good year in many ways. I watched my children grow and do some great things. I took some trips and saw new places. I watched the sun rise from the top of Mount Mansfield. My son and I visited South Africa to see a good friend, plus zebras and lions ostriches. I heard Hermit Thrushes and Golden-Winged Warblers and Baltimore Orioles and Go-Away Birds. I swam in clear water in summer and skied on fresh snow in winter. I baked dinner rolls and made cheesecake. Lots to celebrate.

2016 also offered up some crap. Some of that is the usual crap–work stress, stupid mistakes (did I really back into that car in the trail head parking lot?), stuff that gets tossed around in the course of your standard day. Other crap was a little bigger–Brexit and the U.S. presidential election come to mind. Hopefully we all will get though that garbage in the next few years and come out with some lessons learned. I have less hope for that than usual but I am not totally hopeless.

So here is to 2017. May it be filled with everyday joy and wonder and beauty and fun. And may the bigger crap be less biggery and crappy than it might be. But mostly let’s go for the first bit. Happy New Year y’all!

Scrapping Paper

Here is what I can’t figure out: why does my bank allow me to make electronic payments for free? I have all my account information with them and I can just log on, enter amount for the account I want to pay, and BOOM, done.  I don’t have to write checks and payments both get there and get processed sooner.  It saves me time, saves me money, and is way easier and faster.  I just made two payments this afternoon. It took me all of two minutes.

OK, I do get why they make it free. It saves them time and money as well. I worked at an organization that processed payments and we encouraged people to take advantage of electronic billing and payments.  Handling a paper bill and a paper check once it arrived too way more time and effort than having it enter the system on its own. Still, I keep waiting for the catch. Heck, we used to pay the day care center electronically through the bank. Since the center did not accept electronic payments, the bank mailed a check. I guess that worked better for the bank. It certainly worked better for me.

I do get a few statements in the mail still. The bill for one credit card we hardly use comes in the mail, for example. And I still make charitable contributions mostly by paper check. I buy many fewer checks these days. I am always surprised when I run out. I order those online.

In fact, I get most things by ordering online–clothes, Christmas gifts, bandages, seeds, flavored syrups, books, music, whatever. A while back I subscribed to a service called YourMusic, which sent CD’s once each month for 7 bucks each. Add CD’s to your queue and they get sent automatically. It is a good deal, except I had to get those CD’s in the mail. Now I just use iTunes. I rarely read a paper newspaper, either. I read it online.

I have been reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peal Pie Society. It consists of a collection of letters. I am fully engaged in the story. I want to be reading it right now, in fact. I have not yet given up paper books altogether (although I have enjoyed a few on my iPod Touch). I have realized by reading this book, however, that I never write letters anymore. I used to write scads of them. It used to be the thing to do when I was in my teens and twenties. Now text messaging has become the norm. Letters, however, have a tangible and emotional substance to them. They can be held. They last. I have stopped writing them, as have most people in the 21st century. This has its convenience and certainly saves resources. We do miss something by giving them up, however.

I don’t feel that way about bills. Send me an email notice and let me look it up through the magic of the internet. I get far more unsolicited crap in the mail these days than anything of use or worth. Thanks for your good work, I want to tell all these organizations looking for donations. I would love to help but I give to others and you don’t make the cut, so stop sending me mail. I tell them that often–I either send an email or just stuff the contents back in the return envelope with a note. Still, I’d rather they did not send me something I did not ask to receive. They would save a lot of money by not mailing me all that junk. They should talk to my bank.

I have plenty of paper files hanging in file folders, but I am trying to cut down. Do I really need those bank statements from the past seven years? I doubt it. Tax returns I’ll save, although it is unlikely I will need those either. One of my summer projects is to clean out the closet. I will pull out the recycling bin and drop it next to the closet and transfer contents from one to the other. And when I  am done I will leave the dust on my journal and get online right here to tell about that exciting adventure. As if that is a good idea.

Car Story

Yesterday my daughter wrote a story, pictured here and translated below:

The Original

The Original

Once there was a car and it was clean and it was small.  One day it went for a drive but it wasn’t looking where it was going and it got lost so it found a place to sleep.  In the morning it started to look for its home but it just could not find its home.  So that night it built a home and it had a good night sleep.  The next morning it made some new friends and it missed its old friends.  But it lived happily ever after.  The End.

Sharp Pencils

Crank This Puppy Up

Crank This Puppy Up

We all have our quirks.  Some people are particular about how the toilet paper roll hangs.  Some people have to load the dishwasher just the right way.  Some people never use their turn signal.  I like sharp pencils.

I know a lot of people don’t even use pencils.  They yse pens, if they write things by hand at all.  It’s not like people tend to keep journals these days, or write letters.  Even the words I am writing now are not being written by hand, unless you count typing on a keyboard.  Pencils seem so elementary school.  But I love them.  If I start a grocery list, I reach for a pencil first.  Crossword puzzles?  Gotta be in pencil.

The thing is, I like sharp pencils.  A dull pencil is like a dull knife.  Sure, it can get the job done, but it isn’t fun and it isn’t easy.  A dull pencil makes for work.  A sharp pencil makes for pleasure.  A fine graphite tip scratching across paper–that is simply a joy.  And those mechanical jobbers won’t do.  A newly sharpened wooden pencil is a fine and incomparable thing.

I got a pencil sharpener from my grandmother a few years ago.  She moved out and so cleaned out and gave me one.  It hangs on the wall and has a hand crank.  It is one of the most used tools in our house.  I use it almost every day, in fact.  I attached it to a post next to our desk downstairs.  A few pencils sit in a bin above it.  When my pencils start to wear too much, I crank it and start writing again.

One thing of which I am not a fan is an electric pencil sharpener.  That seems like a waste of energy.  That seems like it was designed for sloth.  You can’t even wrap a couple of fingers around a little knob and make a few turns?  You need electricity to sharpen a pencil?  How lazy can you be?  I guess if you have to sharpen hundreds of pencils (SAT test administrator?) it would come in handy.  But otherwise, come on people.

We have been trying to weed through all of the random crap in our basement lately.  We have boxes with art supplies, kitchen supplies, office supplies, all of which are half unpacked.  I keep wondering how one couple could have gathered so many damn writing utensils?  We have hundreds of pens and hundreds of pencils.  I kid you not.  I have to keep changing the system for how we will store them to accommodate more.  We have a whole bin of pencils on the kitchen counter, tucked behind the telephone.  My sharpener has been busy.

This doesn’t count, of course, the pencils that my daughter brings home.  Apparently someone at the National Education Association convention recently announced that all teachers will be condemned as half-ass slackers if they do not provide dozens of pencils for each pupil to bring home each month.  And the National Halloween Federation must have passed a ruling that since candy is bad for you, the safe and smart alternative is to hand out pencils.  As a parent this isn’t all that bad–hey, less candy to rot my kid’s teeth.  But if I were a kid I’d be pissed–A pencil?  Do that again next year and I’ll poke your eye out.

In summary:

  • I like to write with pencils
  • I have scores of pencils, some of which are older than Thriller
  • I like sharp pencils
  • Electric pencil sharpeners are for lazy people
  • I sharpen my pencils with a tool that is older than Michael Jackson himself
  • I support, although I do not necessarily agree with, the idea that pencils are better than candy, even if they are sharp
  • If you happen to need a pencil when you stop by, and I’m not home, you can find them behind the telephone
  • Satellite television is the biggest ripoff ever

OK that last one has nothing to do with pencils.  Got a problem with that?  Write me a letter.  In pencil.

Triptych

Triptych

After Han-shan

1.

This farmhouse—my home at field’s edge.

Sometimes cars pass on the dusty road.

The woods so quiet, turkeys roost at night.

In the river’s shadowed pools, trout rising.

My daughter and I pick pears from a lonely tree.

My wife tugs carrots from the garden.

And in my house what would you see?

Walls of shelves filled with books.

2.

My father and mother taught me to be content;

I need not envy how others make their living.

Click, click—my wife knits by the window.

Zoom, zoom—my son with his trucks.

Apple blossoms swirl around my raised arms.

Hands in pockets, I listen to warblers high in the oak.

Who might notice how I pass my days?

Well, the mail carrier stops each afternoon.

3.

Walking, I pause at the collapsing barn.

The barn, slowly folding, fills the still mind—

Mornings milking despite drifting snow,

Afternoons stacking the loft with hay.

Where sumac tumbles from the window hole,

And gray walls tremble from swallows’ shadows.

In the old cemetery, the bones of those who built this place—

Their names fading, but written in stone.

Why Pay Attention

I remember reading once that the best newspapers are ones that feature people.  They name names.  They contain photographs of those in the community.  The stories are about readers’ neighbors and friends and family.  People buy the paper because it has direct relevance to them.  Recently we have been receiving in the mail, unsolicited, a section of the Burlington Free Press that is about people in the community.  It contains stories about everyday people and it contains lots of photos.  Normally, I pitch those free papers, but I flip through this one every time.

I check it out because I may see someone I know in those photos.  I have seen people I know in its pages.  I was in it once, as were my children.  USA Today won’t contain pictures of anyone I know personally.  This little paper likely will.  So I open it up each time and peruse it before adding it to the pile of fire-starting material.

I thought of this little newspaper today.  This past weekend I spent some time with David Grant, who is president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  He just announced he is leaving his position.  He wrote about this on the foundation’s blog.  I subscribe to the blog through a reader.  The foundation hosts a huge poetry festival every couple of years.  It is of interest to me.  I had not made the connection, however, between David’s association with the foundation, and my own interest in it.

I find that I sometimes do this somewhat dramatically, at least in my own head–I connect two things together in one arena and then connect one of those things with something else in another arena;  and then one day a light bulb goes off that all those things are related.  I have a Eureka moment–“Hey that is related to that, and that is related that and whoa, everything is connected!”  The reason this seems so dramatic to me is that I spend a lot of my mental energy on looking for and finding connections.  Discovering how things intertwine brings me real joy. So when I find that I have missed something that, in hindsight, seems so obvious, I stumble a bit.

I had one of those moments this weekend.  “Oh, David directs that Dodge Foundation–Duh!” I thought to myself.  Today I went back and looked at the foundation’s blog and found the articles that David had written that I had previously just skimmed over.  I hadn’t noticed who had written them and so had not made a personal connection to them.  This time I read them more thoroughly.  They were interesting to me the first time, but they were more interesting to me with another read.  I had some context the second time around.  I could picture who was doing the writing and I had at least some idea of how he thinks, of what he has experienced in the world.  It made the articles more relevant.  I had a picture.

The point is, I paid more attention because I knew the author of the article.  I suppose, while the writing is of a very different type, I might compare it to a favorite poet or author.  If I have enjoyed a poet or author I am likely to pay attention if he or she comes out with a new book.  I have some context, some personal history, so I have a link to the new book.  That is what happened with David’s blog posts.  That is what happens with the local newspaper that comes in the mail.  Once I feel that I have a connection, or that I might have a connection, I pay more attention.

I think most of us do this.  The captain of the U.S. ship that was recently hijacked by pirates and then released, was from Vermont.  Vermonters paid attention.  My guess is they paid a lot more attention than Oregonians or Floridians.  They had a connection, even if it was not directly personal.  It was still personal.  We pay more attention when a neighbor is in trouble than when a stranger is.

This is why it is important for me to look closely.  When I look closely I notice more, and the more I notice the more I am likely to see connections.  Then I pay more attention.  Attention feeds attention in a positive feedback loop.  The more I pay attention, the more connections I see, and so the more I pay attention.  If all of us could stop to look closely, to ask questions, to challenge our assumptions, to simply wonder, we would see that many things are not so strange after all.  We would see that we are connected to our world.  And we would notice what we do.  And we would see how we affect those around us.  And we would better understand that all we do has consequences, good and bad.  And we would, perhaps, make more conscious and better choices.

Maybe not, but I’ve been doing my best to pay attention to what I see in the people I encounter everywhere I happen to be.  I believe if we could slow down and refect a little more, we might just take care of ourselves and our neighbors and our world better.  And that would certainly be something to which we all could pay attention.