Vermont in 1961: Quaint, stubborn and Republican

If you’ve known me for more than say, a few days, you know that I’m quite proud of my home state of Vermont. My parents shipped me maple syrup in care packages during college. I own a Vermont-shaped cookie cutter, and I use it.  My roommate a couple of years ago was born and raised in Texas, and we had a kind of ongoing state-pride showdown.

I recently found this 1961 issue of The Saturday Evening Post at a thrift shop in Alexandria, Va., and you might guess why I bought it.

Sandwiched between a fiction piece called “Too Many Suitors” (“She had a tough time deciding among three. And now there were four.” —  !) and a feature on an electronic telephone switchboard (“automatically transfers calls anywhere”!), I found “Vermont: Last Stand of the Yankees.” Here’s the lede:

“Like a Puritan beset by the temptations of the flesh, Vermont is painfully examining its own soul in a struggle to decide whether being the last of the Yankee states is worth the sacrifice it entails. The alternative is to give up on its independent ways, an emotional wrench to a generation weaned on the dill-pickle philosophy of a distinguished native, the late Calvin Coolidge.”

The article describes the state’s sometimes uneasy shift from a farming and agricultural economy as it opened more to tourism, ski resort development and employers like IBM. It’s a time capsule from the year when — according to the writer — Vermont’s human population had just barely surpassed its dairy cow population. The state’s portion of the Interstate Highway System had just begun to be constructed, and Vermonters were weighing its implications to their way of life.

The politics were different in 1961, too — Vermont had elected Republican governors and supported Republican presidential candidates in every election since the 1850s. The Post writer adds an important caveat:

“Since the state votes Republican 99.9 per cent of the time, this has made it the mistaken darling of a good many right-wing outsiders, who equate fiscal with political conservatism. The state’s politics in fact are liberal, tending on radical.”

This was just before the influx of newcomers from out of state in the 1960s and 1970s, as the New York Times’ Nate Silver recounts in a blog post about Vermont’s political leanings. Today, of course, Vermont leans strongly to the left in presidential elections.

The Saturday Evening Post writer is clearly enchanted by the state, noting with pleasure that Vermonters could approach the governor on the streets of Montpelier to ask about milk prices, for example. And his love for the Vermont landscape — and adjectives to describe it — seem inexhaustible:

“For indeed Vermont is charming, a Yankee Glocca Morra compounded of green meadows, forested hills and craggy mountains with villages nestling beneath them. The state is laced with shadowy valleys into which new generations of explorers are constantly advancing with happy cries of discovery….

“[The Northeast Kingdom] is a land that time forgot and the colonials shunned, with dense spruce forests, gleaming lakes like those of Minnesota, and tiny villages with no pretense at neatness and no money to make it possible.”

But my favorite passage in this article might be the section about the village of Derby Line, at the U.S.-Canada border:

“Derby Line and Rock Island, Quebec, are one long village street. The Canadian side is indistinguishable from the American. The customhouses sit back from the road, and many an innocent tourist has shot through, only to be whistled down. The Rotary Club for both towns is in Rock Island; the fire department in Derby Line. The international boundary runs through half a dozen houses and the barbershop, where customers wait on the American side and are shaven and shorn on the Canadian side.”

The laxness at the Canadian border, by the way, began to change after Sept. 11; the New York Times published an article about increasing border security in Derby Line in 2007.

This is the kind of thing I read in my spare time, and it was certainly worth $2 at the thrift shop. I’m looking forward to returning to the Burlington area next week — which, for all its franchise stores, outlet malls and traffic, has managed to retain some of the independent heart and country charm that makes this 1961 article feel so familiar. I’m homeward bound!

Of heartbreak and smartphones

I stood under this quote at about 2 p.m. Monday during a visit the Newseum. The words on the wall just seemed to fit my final week as a newspaper intern, thankful to be pursuing the career I loved at age 21.

Then two bombs went off at the Boston marathon.

I got the news first on my phone as a notification from the Washington Post, and my breath caught in my throat. I immediately opened Twitter and scanned through a burst of updates, then walked out to the Newseum lobby, where a giant TV screen showed the latest from CNN. I stood in silence with the other museum visitors, thankful not to be alone.

What followed, of course, was a heavy week for the nation, and an especially difficult week for journalists. I wasn’t sure whether that H.L. Mencken quote was true any more. Journalism is good and necessary, but it isn’t always fun. Sometimes, it means chasing the currents of a nation’s grief.

Tragedy after tragedy came in quick succession until it was just too much, and we became convinced that the sadness would end when the weekend came.

Since I wasn’t covering any of the national stories, I kept track of most of them through Twitter or by watching cable news in the newsroom. It was hard to sleep some nights, like when the fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, and each new refresh of my Twitter feed brought more bad news.

Journalists like Jay Hicks in Texas and Taylor Dobbs and Wesley Lowery in Massachusetts used Twitter well for on-the-scene, no-nonsense reporting. But for every person reporting accurate facts, there were a dozen others saying and tweeting nothing but misinformation and guesswork, filling airtime (leading to some truly awful journalistic mistakes). I knew this, yet I couldn’t look away. Maybe it was an attempt to cope by distracting myself from the silence.

I think I followed the news too closely this week. Did it do us any good to catch bits of information and speculation from random people before professionals could write an article to help us to make sense of it?

I was only nine years old on September 11, 2001. I remember watching the news at school, and not much else from that day. The way we consume news (I hate that verb, but it’s necessary) has changed so much since then.

Jesse Washington wrote about this for the Associated Press:

In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends.

We can avoid Twitter and spend time with people we love instead. But there’s this new obsession to know news first and share it, to be in tune with the world, even if the world is breaking our hearts. At least, that’s what I feel. More from the AP:

“There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”

Farhad Manjoo also wrote about this on Friday in a piece called “Breaking News is Broken”:

When you first hear about a big story in progress, run to your television. Make sure it’s securely turned off.

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC….

Get a good night’s rest. In the morning, don’t rush out of bed. Take in the birdsong. Brew a pot of coffee.

Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter.

[The whole post is worth reading.]

I read the full story of the Boston bombing suspects in the Washington Post today — the physical copy of the newspaper — sitting at my neighborhood coffee shop, taking it slow. It was so much nicer than reading Twitter.

Sometimes, I miss the old media. It seems more humane to our grief.

The ballad of the misunderstood English major

In just a few weeks, I’ll don a doofy blue cap and gown and graduate from Wheaton College with a B.A. in English. Right on cue, USA TODAY published an article titled “What’s a B.A. in English worth anymore?”

The article picks up on the familiar tug-of-war between liberal arts  and specialization:

There was a time when college was a place where young adults could expand their horizons. But as tuitions increase, student debt mounts and job prospects for recent grads remain uncertain, Timm and his alma mater represent increasing rarities in higher education: students and schools whose primary goals center on a broad-based education in the arts and sciences. Today, students and parents say college should prepare students for a good job.

The writer, Mary Beth Marklein, notes that some business schools are going the other way by incorporating liberal arts components into their programs. Still, the onus apparently rests on liberal arts colleges to justify their existence — to tout their strong internship programs, for example, or the career success of their alumni.

So, what’s a B.A. in English worth, anyway? Allow me to share my perspective as a soon-to-be English B.A. holder. True, I have not locked down a six-figure post-graduation job to stir the envy of my pre-med or pre-law peers. I’m following my passion into a career in journalism. But after four years at Wheaton College, I’m still immensely grateful for my English major, which has trained me to love learning for its own sake. (Just try putting a price tag on “a love of learning.”) 

I’m a fan of the liberal arts model (not without some reservations — more on that below). But first, here are just a few of the reasons I’m holding high my B.A. in English as I approach graduation:

  • I know how to write an email. I know, you were probably expecting something more impressive at the top of this list. Who goes to college to learn how to write emails? But in journalism — or any job, for that matter — email is the lifeblood of daily work. Knowing how to write a clear, concise email gets you farther than you’d think. And English classes teach you how to write clearly.
  • I’ve encountered some of the currents of thought that have strongly shaped my culture. I learned about postmodernism, feminism, civil rights movements, theology, consumerism, naturalism and transcendentalism in the pages of novels, essays and poetry. And now that I have thought deeply about those things in the classroom and the library, I’m better equipped to discuss them in “real life.” Literature is supremely practical.
  • I’ve been called out on my B.S. Some people say that it’s easy to write essays or fiction for English classes because you can make yourself sound smart without having to know what you’re talking about. Though I understand that opinion, it’s not my experience. I had excellent professors at Wheaton College who cared deeply about every word and sentence of my essays. I read my work aloud to 20 peers. I argued passionately for my interpretation of a novel over lunch with English major friends. I sat through writing workshops where my short stories were picked apart. These people were hard on my words and ideas, and they made them better. My halfhearted thesis statements and muddy arguments couldn’t survive.
  • I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty of language. As a journalist, I now spend my days knee-deep in words, wading around for the sharpest, most evocative descriptions of our world. It doesn’t feel like work when you love language.
  • English has been my portal to every other discipline. English is the most liberal-artsy of all the liberal arts degrees, and it was easy to draw connections from English to my history, philosophy and science classes. My beloved novels, poems and essays in English classes lit up the world and made me a better student overall.
  • I believe that writing well is synonymous with thinking well and speaking well. What job does not require critical thinking and strong communication skills? After taking college English classes, I think more clearly and speak with more confidence. That helps me in every area of life, not least in job interviews.

But here’s the catch: My liberal arts education in the classroom wasn’t enough. I gained invaluable “real-world” experience at the student newspaper and three off-campus internships. I traveled and worked in Europe. I networked with alumni and attended journalism conferences. Without those experiences, I would be ready for graduate school or academia but woefully unprepared to begin a professional career. And those were all things I had to seek out on my own in addition to classes.

More specifically, as a journalist, an English major is not really enough. Journalism favors strong writers who also have technical skills and subject expertise in government, education, business, politics, religion or science. In journalism, knowing how to write is just the common denominator. If I had to do it all over again, would I have still chosen to major in English? Yes. But I would have added to my major by focusing on one or two other disciplines, like sociology, Spanish, computer science or education. Those would have served me well.

The good news for me — for anyone, no matter what kind of college they attend — is that my education isn’t over at graduation. I’ll learn more at every place I work; I’ll read books at night and on the weekends; I’ll travel across the U.S. and around the world; I’ll teach myself new technical skills by playing around with programs on my computer and phone. Heck, maybe some day I’ll even go to graduate school. But I am convinced that I will never — no, never — regret the excellent education I received at my little liberal arts college in Illinois.

Related:

Humor website McSweeny’s recently posted a delightful, satirical essay called “The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid Is Your Liberal Arts Degree.”

Some of my English professors attempt to answer questions about “marketability” of the English major in a page on the Wheaton College website called “Why pursue an English major?”

Better know the District, part 3

We’re accelerating into spring here — slowly, after a few false starts. Here’s what D.C. has looked like from my perspective during the last dregs of winter:

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Near Benning Road NE

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Union Market, Northeast DC

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Recycled water bottle chandelier in Union Market.

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A foretaste of spring at Union Market.

Mar31Capitol view from L’Enfant Plaza.

Peace Fellowship Church in Northeast D.C.

The Bumper Jacksons, a ragtime-jazz-folk band, performing at the Our City Film Festival.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Palm Sunday.

photo (37)

The Frederick Douglass house, Anacostia.

Anacostia — I just liked these garage doors.

Rooftop view at sunset on Captiol Hill. 

Some good news about journalism

… Isn’t it about time for some encouraging words? A New York Times editor, describing his first days at the paper:

It was a Tuesday in early spring 1993, my second day at The New York Times. I had that nervous newbie look, with a too-pressed shirt and half an expectation that someone would bounce me back onto 43rd Street…

Things turned out O.K. There was a place for me, for the fortunate reason that journalism is a big rambling house with many rooms–not just Foreign Correspondence (trench coats in the closet), but also Graphics, Investigations, Web Video and on and on, all in need of people with special talents and special interests…

To me, my personal newsroom journey proves that if you love some aspect of writing, you need not worry that you are not [Pulitzer Prize winner] John Burns. True, from the outside, which is where I was on that April day, the Burnsian heights seemed unscalable. But the good news for journalistic and literary aspirants is this: when you discover a love for some particular writing thing, as I did, that love transports you to the inside, and the world there doesn’t look nearly so daunting.

– Francis Flaherty, The Elements of Story

[I’ve been reading Flaherty’s book since moving to D.C., and it’s excellent. It’s certainly one of my top three books on writing, in the ranks of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools.]

Tread lightly

There’s nothing eloquent I can say about last week. I’ve tried. At my reporting internship last Tuesday, most of the reporters and editors around me received some terrible news: they will lose their jobs in June as the Examiner becomes a new online political publication.

I stood in the newsroom with the others, in silence, feeling a little awkward as the only person in the room who would not be directly affected. My internship will end before the newspaper shuts down. And I’m only 21 years old, after all. I’ll be OK.

Still, I know I will never forget that moment, when I was blindsided by the reality of making it as a newspaper journalist in 2013. I had heard stories of newspapers dying; I had seen ominous empty desks in newsrooms that had resorted to layoffs or furloughs just to stay in business. I knew that if I wanted to become a journalist, it was going to be tough. I was determined not to let newspaper nostalgia distract me from the good journalism that was happening in the wake of new technology. But it was all hypothetical then — a quiet blue line on a graph.

The same day that my newspaper began its long goodbyes, my friend Melissa wrote that she decided to leave journalism entirely:

I don’t want to spend years chasing bylines (succeeding in journalism by all traditional measures) just to end up drained and unsatisfied—that is, more drained and more unsatisfied than I am now.

Former reporter Allyson Bird wrote a very similar piece on the same day, explaining why she left news:

News was never this gray, aging entity to me. It was more like young love, that reckless attraction that consumes you entirely, until one day – suddenly — you snap out of feeling enamored and realize you’ve got to detach. I left news, not because I didn’t love it enough, but because I loved it too much – and I knew it was going to ruin me.

I couldn’t get those words out of my head. Why did I want to be a reporter when my job and my own dreams could betray me? And so it was that I sat on a Metro train on Wednesday morning, reading Allyson Bird’s blog post on my phone, wearing my fancy professional clothes on the way to my internship, and wondering whether this career I had chosen was worth the cost. A woman next to me was reading the Examiner, crinkling back the paper pages to scan the crime section. Tears came, unbidden.

I had believed in what our newspaper was trying to do; I believed in local news, in keeping power accountable, in the relationships we had built. I loved my job, and I came alive when I reported a story. None of those things changed last week. But I did.

I know that I am chasing a career where nothing is guaranteed. It was easy to declare that I wanted to be a journalist when I was sitting in a college newspaper office, with every byline stoking the bravery burning in me. But for a few days last week, I saw my dream like one of those old video games where the character jumps onto blocks that hang precariously in mid-air. He has to keep moving before they crumble beneath his feet.

The ache that kept me awake after last week’s news has stilled. I see that I cannot place my security in the dreams I adopted when I first decided to become a journalist. My dreams and ambitions must grow with me, and I cannot know what forces in my life or in the news industry may come and redirect my path. But as well as I can, for as long as I am able, I will I am going to live out my calling in journalism — if not for the next 30 years, at least for today — and the gift of doing what I love today is enough to sustain me. I am 21, and I want to be a reporter. Come what may.