Five great things about majoring in English

4421990486_37247437fa_bI started college 30 years ago knowing only that I loved books and literature and could write well. Advertising? Public relations? Journalism? Teaching? It all kind of swirled together in an abstract of future career possibilities. Even at 18, I think I also knew that a lot would depend on what job opportunities presented themselves when I finished this four-year marathon . . . and that the future does funny things to your efforts to prepare for it.

Journalism would have been a natural choice, but when I entered Butler University, the journalism department seemed in danger of being eliminated and its students were uneasy. The English department was all stability, warmth, and great books by everyone from Julian of Norwich to the poets and novelists who visited. How could I not major in English?

A liberal arts education was more fashionable back then, but I still got the invariable questions, all some variation of: “What are you going to do with it?” More than one person suggested business as a double major. Or I could at least join a sorority for the connections and a place in the university’s social order. (I did neither.)

What I did was intern for a couple of local publications, help a professor grade freshman writing exercises, and write a bit and edit tons more for the college literary magazine. I got to read and study great literature and practice the art and craft of writing.

Did my career path become clearer as graduation drew closer? Nope. Life kept happening. And, what do you know, that’s the nature of literature — and perhaps, life. We react, respond, and try to make sense of the world as it turns and shifts. Some of us write about it, or we study how other people write about it and what that means and why, and if we confuse the daylights out of everyone by the time we’re done, so much the better. (Just kidding. Mostly.)

Whether you are thinking about majoring in English or did so decades ago, here are five great things about it. These are based on my experience and observation; academic advisors, parents, and other advice-givers may say otherwise. As always, individual results may vary.

1. It’s highly flexible and applicable. The communication and critical thinking skills you will develop by majoring in English will benefit you in all kinds of work environments. Internships can give you valuable experience in specific areas such as teaching and journalism. If you find you can’t stand a particular line of work, you have plenty of other options without changing your major.

2. It works as a single or double. You can combine an English major with a major or minor in another discipline. For example: Double major in English and engineering (and have fun moving between those two worlds) and become a technical writer who can actually explain mechanical stuff to English majors.

3. It puts the ball in your court. What you do with an English major and how it pays off — whatever that might mean — is really up to you. There is no prescribed career path for a student majoring in English; you are free to create your own. Some paths are more financially rewarding than others. Some are more suited to your gifts, talents, and life circumstances than others. So you get to start by applying your critical thinking skills and creativity to your own life.

4. It allows you to see through eyes very different from your own. You will read books, poems, essays, and plays by writers from throughout history, all over the world, and many walks of life. Read the ancient Greek poets and see how a civilization comes together. Read Alice Walker and learn about resilience in the face of racism and male domination. Read Mark Twain and learn how a person takes the world’s woes and incongruities — but not necessarily himself — seriously.

5. It’s an important work in progress. Piecing together your classes, extracurriculars, internships, and whatever else your college years bring is a great introduction to piecing together your life. Studying literature and learning to form and express your own ideas is not a bad way to tell, and live, your own story.

Blessings on the journey.

Street cat smarts

Unknown-1“My goodness, that was strong talk for an Englishman,” says the Earl of Grantham to his valet, Bates, after a brief discussion of feelings in Season Four of “Downton Abbey.” Though divided by social position, these two Englishmen are among each other’s best friends and allies.

Fast forward nearly a century to two more, very real Englishmen who formed an unlikely and unique bond: James Bowen, a London street musician; and a ginger tomcat named Bob. Bowen tells their story in “A Street Cat Named Bob” (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), subtitled, “And How He Saved My Life.”

Bowen was a recovering heroin addict who, as he describes it, had failed to take any of the many opportunities he’d been given. Then one evening he came home to find a ginger tom curled up in front of the door to one of the ground-floor flats in his building. “There was a quiet, unflappable confidence about him,” Bowen recalled. Having a soft spot for felines, he said, “I couldn’t resist kneeling down and introducing myself.”

He stroked the thin cat’s neck; there was no collar and his coat was in poor condition. Bowen wanted to take the apparently homeless creature home then and there — but his friend said the cat must belong to whoever lived in the flat whose door he was camped outside. Reluctantly, Bowen agreed. After all, the last thing he needed was the responsibility of a pet.

The cat was still there the next morning. Again Bowen stopped to pet him, eliciting purrs. That’s when he noticed the scratches on the cat’s face and legs, and became even more concerned. Reluctantly, he headed out for another day’s work busking at Covent Garden. When he returned that night, the cat was gone — but in the morning, there he was again in the same spot. Bowen finally knocked on the door. “What cat?” the tenant said. “Nothing to do with me.”

Bowen fed the cat, treated the abscessed wound on his leg, and tried to figure out where he belonged. Concerned about the wound — and about fleas, which had been fatal to a kitten he had as a child — Bowen took his new charge to the nearest RSPCA clinic. He went home with an antibiotic and a couple of weeks’ worth of cat food. The exam, medication, and food cost all the money Bowen had. Still: “I don’t know why, but the responsibility of having him to look after galvanised me a little bit.”

The four-legged half of the duo got a name: Bob, after Killer Bob in the TV series, “Twin Peaks.” Like most young felines, he could go from zero to maniac in seconds, but he took his meds well (an easily pillable cat is something special indeed) and understood everything he was told. Bowen, however, resisted forming too strong a friendship, and after Bob was well he tried to send the cat on his way.

But Bob had chosen Bowen, and of course the cat is the one who does the choosing and adopting. He began to accompany Bowen on his daily busking ventures, trotting along beside him on a lead (or riding on his shoulder, as he charmingly does on the book cover). While Bowen played his guitar, Bob sat nearby or curled up in the case. He was quite a crowd-pleaser. There was an increase in contributions, and some people who frequented the area brought gifts for Bob. Bowen learned the name for “cat” in several languages.

One day, a man’s threatening behavior frightened Bob into running away. Bowen searched frantically, fearing for Bob’s safety in busy London and that perhaps his feline friend really didn’t want to be with him after all. Those fears were dispelled when the two were reunited, thanks to two kind shopkeepers who took the cat in.

The busker with the cat also drew the attention of the local police, and eventually Bowen had to find another line of work. He began selling The Big Issue, a professionally-produced newspaper sold by the homeless, vulnerably housed, and marginalized. (I had never heard of this publication, but it’s heartening to hear of a print publication doing well enough to sustain street sales.)

In addition to all the challenges the two faced on the streets, Bowen nursed Bob through a scary, garbage-induced illness. That helped inspire Bowen to take that final step toward getting completely clean himself: getting off methadone. Bob stayed right by Bowen’s side through the worst of the withdrawal. Bowen realized he had reached a level of recovery and stability he’d never thought possible. Bob became known as The Big Issue Cat.

He and Bowen have become celebrities, with Bob making appearances in hand-knitted scarves and obligingly giving high-fives, and it looks like a sequel and one or two books have followed. By all accounts, though, he remains humble, a ginger tom who loves his human.

You probably won’t see James and Bob busking at Covent Garden these days, but you can find them on Facebook.