Advice for Graduates

The May, 2010 cover of The New Yorker had a graduate hanging his degree (Ph.D.) in his old room back home, with his parents looking on.  Not much has changed in two years – even for undergraduates, with the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree at 4 percent.  Graduation speeches haven’t changed much either; Richard Perez-Pena in his article for the New York Times suggests they are following a standard template, including well-worn references to:

  • Do what moves you.
  • Much in the world needs fixing.
  • Have a little humility.
  • Be willing to make mistakes.
  • You can make the world better.

Many of this year’s graduation speakers hail from the media, rather than the august halls of academic learning.  A few used humor – maybe that’s the best way to face the world.

From Adam Samberg of Saturday Night Live fame for Harvard grads…

“The following majors are apparently useless…history, literature, all things related to art, social studies, East Asian studies, pretty much anything that ends with studies, Romance languages, and, finally, folklore and mythology.  Unless, you can somehow turn them into an iPhone app…”

The Technologists

Using the ongoing rivalry of the Harvard elite and the MIT futurists, Matthew Pearl mixes post Civil War Boston with a slow-moving historical thriller.  The story opens with compasses gone awry causing boats to collide in Boston harbor; then bank windows melt with an unsuspecting customer leaning against the pane toppling to the street.  A promising opening, but the action slows immediately.  The search for the perpetrator suddenly switches to the confrontation between  Harvard old-school classical learning vs the new school in town – MIT with its suspicious sciences and new technology in the nineteenth century.

A team of MIT seniors (the first class about to graduate from the fledgling school) drives the action: scholarship student (known as “charity scholar”) Marcus Mansfield, a Civil War veteran and former factory worker with a brilliant mind; Robert Richards, blue-blood Boston dropout/transfer from Harvard; Edwin Hoyt, the quiet brains of the outfit; and token woman scholar, Ellen Swallow, who manages to rise above the trials of being among the all-male nineteenth century class.  To demonstrate that MIT students can think and solve problems as well as their Harvard rivals, the group works secretly to uncover the villain and save the reputation of their alma mater.

The historical context uses the then-new controversial revelations of Darwin and the suspicion  of machinery to add to the fear, with the underlying supposition that technology somehow is behind the city’s destruction. After the thrilling opening events, however, Pearl settles into flashbacks of the recently ended Civil War, and the culture of the late 1860s in old Boston.

After more catastrophes, a little romance, and continued drama among the collegiate, the mystery is solved and the unlikely genius behind the technological crimes is uncovered – but the revelation is a long, tortuous journey.  I tend to like my thrillers – historical or otherwise – to be fast paced and hard to put down; this was not a page turner.  Although I finally did finish The Technologists, it took longer than it deserved. I’d had the same feeling with Pearl’s other bestseller, The Dante Club –  the end was worth getting to, but also a relief to get to the end.

Spontaneous Happiness – this is the season

How are you?  Are you Happy?  Would you like to be?  Looking like a modern Santa Claus with a full white beard and perpetually smiling face on the cover of his latest book – Spontaneous Happiness –  Andrew Weil, the prolific Harvard educated medical doctor, offers his recommendations for overcoming depression –  a common ailment during the holiday season.

Known for his involvement in integrative medicine and his healthy lifestyle regimen – good eating, exercise, change of lifestyle, etc. – Weil’s caution that pills are not the path to happiness is no surprise.  In the book’s first section, Weil offers evidence that the “biomedical model now dominant” neither cures nor prevents depression and just offers easy access to medication with a promise for treatment.

If you are already convinced that your life would be better if you could follow a naturally healthy path, you might skip directly to section two with his specific recommendations…

“…designed to increase your emotional resilience, alow you to move your emotional set point toward more positive moods, …that come from within… always available…{and} does not depend on external circumstances or the vagaries of fortune.”

No surprises here: take vitamins, especially Vitamin D; add fish oil to your diet; exercise; sleep well.  Weil adds a few that have made recent health news:  find ways to satisfy the need for physical touch; meditate and practice mindfulness; stop dwelling on your problems (negative thoughts) by using positive psychology (write down three things that are going well each day; do volunteer work).  By using his own struggle with dysthymia – “a chronic type of depression in which a person’s moods are regularly low or sad, with symptoms not as severe as with major depression” – Weil focuses on how his “anti-inflammatory” diet and lifestyle can cure depression and anxiety disorders, and  he includes extensive case studies and medical research to support his recommendations.

His description of the “mantra” surprised me.  I had heard of the practice of silently repeating in the mind’s ear, certain Eastern religious sounds, but Weil adds Western religious phrases to the mix – using the Roman Catholic rosary as an example.  I  remember the nuns’ suggestion in elementary school to revert to repeating “Holy Spirit, enlighten me” whenever experiencing test anxiety – and it usually worked;  maybe Weil would consider that a successful application.  In his “secular spiritual approaches to emotional well-being,” he also adds non-religious avenues for connecting with nature, including pet therapy, laughter, forgiveness, and avoiding all those people who bring you down with their pessimism – “emotions are contagious.”

In his last section Weil offers a plan with questionnaires and specific action to address the answers – taking into account each of the subtopics he previously addressed in the book.  The plan is simply stated – with bulleted lists – and includes progress report self-evaluations as well as his famous anti-inflammatory diet in the appendix.  Weil tacks on suggested readings, websites, and other useful resources at the end – a complete encyclopedia of advice for improving your well-being.

The book is organized like a well-written text, with clear subheadings and a summary of important points at the end of each chapter.  You could read the summary first and then go back to fill in the information you want.  If you are an advocate of Weil’s healthy lifestyle, the book offers a quick reminder of all that you are supposed to be doing; if you are new to the plan of giving up junk food, smoking, and blind allegiance to the television tube, you might find some useful pointers for starting.  Despite his tendency to be preachy, Weil’s Spontaneous Happiness combines all his experience from years of trying to be good, and welcomes you to join him.

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Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

How does a Pilgrim girl who is confined to housework and cooking and not allowed to learn, despite being smarter than her brother, survive in colonial America?  In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks follows Bethia Mayfield’s life on a small colonial island, now Martha’s Vineyard, in the 1660s as she befriend’s a boy from the local Native American Wampanoag tribe, secretly listens to her brother’s lessons, and goes about doing what was appropriate for girls in those days.

Although Brooks titled her book after Caleb, the Native American who learns to read, speak in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, attends Harvard, and ultimately leaves behind his own native life – hence the “crossing over,” the story is really about Bethia, renamed “Storm Eyes” by Caleb.  As Bethia narrates the action, rereading her notes as an old woman on her deathbed, the difficult life of a woman during that time emerges.  Not only is she not permitted lessons, at one point she is sold into indentured service for four years as an exchange for her brother’s tuition, room and board at Harvard.

Brooks sprinkles the story with well-researched information about the times: the untimely death of mothers and babes, the strained relationships between the settled Christians, the newly converted Indians, and those native Americans who want to sustain their gods and their own way of life.  The suspicion of the newcomers and their beliefs comes to a face-off between the medicine man who is Caleb’s uncle, and Bethia’s father, a minister and healer. Bethia’s father is the winner, saving the chief’s life, but when the chief does not gratefully succumb to the Christian teaching, he dies later – and his death is attributed to an angry God, prompting converts.

As a result of a number of family deaths, Caleb, his friend Joel, and Makepeace, Bethia’s brother, leave the island to attend a Harvard prep school; Bethia accompanies them, only to be a servant at the school.  Through her research, Brooks found evidence of two Indians attending and completing studies at Harvard, and creates an imaginary life for them in her story.  Although Brooks uses the friendship of Bethia and Caleb as the pivotal tool for the action, from their childhood and into their adult lives, she is careful to keep their relationship as brother and sister, even creating a love interest, an older man of letters, for Bethia at Harvard.

Brooks does her homework, and infuses historical facts into her fiction, but she is also a realist.  Her nonfiction changed perceptions in Nine Parts of Desire – and her acclaimed story March won her a Pulitzer prize.  In Caleb’s Crossing, the hardships and prejudices are not tempered, and although Bethia finds her way to learning, it is through the back door.  No happy endings here…

Is it ever thus, at the end of things? Does any woman ever count the grains of her harvest and say: Good enough? Or does one always think of what more one might have laid in, had the labor been harder, the ambition more vast, the choices more sage?  …I find myself smiling at that…young girl, her daring and her folly and her many fears.”

Once again, Geraldine Brooks has written a good story – suspenseful and insightful –  worth reading.

Best-Read Cities – Did Yours Make the Cut?

In a clever marketing ploy, Amazon published its List of Best-Read Cities – places where readers read the most, based on Amazon’s retail sales of books, magazines, and newspapers.  Readers from B&N or independent bookstores were not included.

The list was more amazing for the cities it did not include than for the ones that made it.  Not included – those bastions of the literate Northeast:

  • New York City
  • Philadelphia
  • Boston

Harvard Yard

Cambridge topped Amazon’s best-read list with an explanation that confirms that town’s hubris:

Not only do they like to read, but they like to know the facts: Cambridge, Mass.–home to the prestigious Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology–also topped the list of cities that ordered the most nonfiction books.

Other “Amazoning” comments were a little demeaning:

  • Boulder, Colo., lives up to its reputation as a healthy city by topping the list of cities that order the most books in the Cooking, Food & Wine category.
  • Alexandria, Va., residents must be reading a lot of bedtime stories – they topped the list of the city that orders the most children’s books.
  • Summer reading weather all year long? Florida was the state with the most cities in the Top 20, with Miami, Gainesville and Orlando making the list.

But, the marketers insist that it was, after all, only a “fun look.”