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Life Lessons from Academia

They say that no matter what you study – regardless of how irrelevant it might seem at the time – someday you’ll find a use for that stored-up knowledge. I’m not just talking about university, but about all kinds of other options for learning. The banquet table is groaning with wide and spectacular choices.
     When I decided to take a degree in Sociology, back in the mid-‘Sixties, it was locally considered a fledgling and rather wishy-washy field. The “real academics” took majors in History, English (I did that too), various languages and so on – and the heavy hitters went for the hard sciences, Maths, Engineering, whatever else had clout. Or they did a Business Administration degree, which was called “Commerce” back then. We also had Computer Science departments – without the internet. Imagine.
      Soc majors, and Political Science types as well, were kind of a fringe element. Our courses included research methodology and other assorted topics that were just as tough as anyone else’s courses. Still, who really cared, except us? We didn’t fit so well.
      I even have a university medal somewhere, which I received for highest standing in my major field. I put it away, which means I misplaced it, and ended up becoming a teacher. I taught everything from English Lit to Phsyical Geography to History to Drama. Anything but Soc! Eventually, when that discipline was added to the high school curriculum, I wasn’t the one assigned to teach the course. This seemed kind of strange: I think I was the only one on staff with a Soc degree. Then again, I didn’t even ask if I could have that course. I kept quiet; I was used to those I already knew. Inertia is a dangerous position. My minor was Psych and that was also considered “soft” so I ignored it, too. Now there’s even a Psych course in high school. I view this as a most positive step.
      So today I look around me, and I realize that a Sociology background can finally be made relevant. Social scientists work with human beings, not lab rats or chemical formulae. And it is human beings, at the moment, who are providing Mother Earth with some very awkward parenting moments. Who better to assess certain situations – including the volatility of the Middle East, the refugee crisis, and the challenges presented by disaffected recruits to gangs (military, ideological and/or street), than someone trained in this area? Who better to study the range of societal variables than people trained to look at populations as a whole, and how individuals relate to these populations? We do understand a bit about demographics, migration trends, ethnic and regional complexities, gender roles, educational and occupational distributions, social and cultural expectations and stratification. We’re no longer soft-core. We “know stuff”. We can even “do stuff”.
      My bucket list includes a return to university, because I love learning, and I thrive in that setting. I’d want to revisit Sociology first of all. This is probably a pipe dream; it’s expensive and demands a certain level of mobility. My degree was long ago and life has intervened since then. Would I get credit for any of my experiences in the interim? I might be a tad lazy these days as well. Call it “age”, I suppose. Other than more letters after my name, I wouldn’t gain anything except more knowledge. And then there’s the interaction with others of different ages. THAT is something I’d truly enjoy!

      Still, I can draw on those long-ago years and courses, at last. I feel rather good about that. They weren’t a waste of my time after all. And there’s the thing: nothing learned is ever wasted. The older I get, the more I believe this.                                                                                                                If you’re taking any particular program or school course or workplace training and someone asks, “Why on earth would you want to do THAT?” – just smile and say, “Someday, I might need it.” You might be surprised when this happens.

 

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A Salute to Seafarers

Lobster-Trap Dumping Day
(Sandford 2012)

The moon swims on an indigo sea, a drift
of mist across the horizon’s swell and shift,
star-gleam, wave-play, foam-sigh on breakwater.
I gaze from the wharf and shiver with my daughter
to watch the boats process below our places,
traps bright as candy, ropes, far-looking faces
already out there, already somewhere ahead

on the open ocean. No fanfare here – instead,
just a scatter of women, a quiet man with phone
to capture the moment. We move to the rocks, alone
in the gathering silver. A last boat leaves us there.
Its trail of light is hung on the edge of air
as we turn to go, while moonset drags the sky
with a wrap of cloud. We smile – my daughter and I –
and stumble back to our car in the rising dawn.
When we pause for one last glance, the lights are gone.

Brenda Levy Tate

Living by the ocean, as we do in Nova Scotia, entails both risk and reward. The rhythms of the tides lap our shores and pulse through our bodies, even when we’re far inland. There’s always an awareness of this regular beat, the monotone that never ceases keeping time. Click – high tide – click – low tide – and all the suspensions between: these are the measure of our days and years.

Whether or not our own families include those who fish or otherwise make their living from the waters, we all know people who do. Most of us enjoy their catches and support their efforts by purchasing fish. It is a fair exchange although, sadly, the market prices seem to have little bearing on what the fishermen receive.

And yes, I call them “fishermen” as opposed to “fishers” which, to me, are small and rather mean animals. Furthermore, I admit that in the Bible, the term “fishers of men” is used. That doesn’t make much of a case for “fishers”, though, because “of men” is pretty exclusive too. 

Women participate in the fishery as well. They’re included here. Language that is reshaped by political correctness can sometimes turn rather ugly and, to me, that’s the case with something as ancient and honorable as the fishing culture. When I was a child, catching brook trout, my Dad always used to call me “a good little fisherman” and I was fine with that. It’s just a term. I will continue to use it, because “fisherwomen” sounds so awkward … and besides, the “men” ending is part of “women” too. 

For those unfamiliar with this particular occupation, the first day of the lobster season probably holds little significance. For us, down in Districts 33 and 34 in southwestern N.S., it is a time for both celebration and anxiety. Termed “Dumping Day”, it signifies the placing or dumping of traps in each boat’s assigned grounds. They’re hauled by the thousands – up to 400 per boat, divided into manageable numbers and dumped on more than one trip – then cast into the sea, attached to buoys that mark their locations. The early morning of this day is observed by those on shore, who gather at wharves and other coastal sites to see the boats off. At Yarmouth Light, there’s always a crowd, enhanced by music and photographers and a breakfast for all present. The boats parade past, gleaming in the pre-dawn darkness. Their mast lights float like stars.

On the wharves themselves, closer to the actual departure of the boats, friends and families assemble to watch and bear witness. I prefer this; it allows me to see the action close up. It’s a more personal experience to stand, wave and wish good luck. My camera catches the foam, the crew balanced on the gunwale or standing on deck, the stacked traps, the procession of boats in a line of hope that strings across the horizon. No diamond necklace is as beautiful as this sight. I enjoy reading the inventive and often comical names given to these sturdy Cape Island craft: EZ-Go-n; Full of Bull; Obsession; Knot Too Shore. Then there are boats named for loved ones, usually children or wives. The family’s story rides on the waves. One cannot separate the boat from those whose lives depend on its bounty.

Almost inevitably, there will be some kind of mishap. The boats are heavily-laden and now and then, one will be swamped and come to grief. It is a good first day when this happens only once, or not at all. Sometimes, an engine will fail, or a crew member will be injured. At the very worst, during the several months of the season, a boat will be lost and her hands will perish in the bitter North Atlantic swells. This is the unthinkable; this is the knife-edge that touches every fishing community with its tracery of fear. Every seaside town or village has its own monuments to those whom the ocean has taken: some are visible, others carved on the hearts of the people. The list of surnames often contains considerable repetition – fathers, grandfathers, sons, grandsons, nephews and cousins, all gone from the world but never from remembrance. When we sit down to a lobster dinner, we are partaking of an accumulated heritage. We are also commemorating courage, determination and danger. No fine thing comes without its price.

But another Dumping Day has passed. The boats once more ply the Gulf of Maine and offshore currents, hauling traps, bearing their harvests, returning again and again. I often walk the shorelines here and step past washed blue and orange gloves, bits of wire mesh, rope, buoys. On a rough sea, it’s easy to drop something overboard. Lines and cables break. The evidence floats back to these rocky beaches where it lies unclaimed.

Here’s to a successful and safe fishery from now through to the end of May! Or, in the words of a Yarmouth business whose sign would probably be taken the wrong way in most inland places:

“Have a Good Dump!”

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For further reading:
http://thisfish.info/fishery/15/