The non-valedictorian: The walk toward knowledge begins with a single step


For the Valley News

Published: 04-01-2024 3:27 PM

When my friends recently turned-on “Jeopardy” to test their academic skills, I felt so embarrassed when I couldn’t come up with any correct questions; it’s like the shame I felt in high school after being threatened with a sonic wedgie in gym class.

As any episode of “Jeopardy” can painfully illustrate, I continue to be a cultural numbskull.

Here are some examples of my long-standing cultural dumbing-down, which I hope to rectify.

Classical music: If I listen to a classical music station, I still can’t tell the difference between a Beethoven and Bach piece. I recall from an Appreciation of Music 101 class long ago that one of them is known for happier compositions, the other moody ones. I frankly can’t tell the difference. They all sound alike to me.

Poetry: Someone texted me a message with the following opening: “O Captain! My Captain”! The only thing I could think of was a Robin Williams movie I saw years ago with that specific phrase. So, I Googled “O Captain! My Captain!” and discovered that Walt Whitman wrote that poem about a boat back from a dangerous voyage. Only it was really about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War! My first thought was: why didn’t Walt say so in the first place?

Literature: Because I have some Irish in me, I thought it best to read and understand some of James Joyce’s writings. I still carry around “The Best of James Joyce” paperback, which is dog-eared only in the beginning few pages. Since I am dense about the meaning of most classic books, I bought “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” by Thomas C. Foster. I have had this book for years, but I have only gotten through the preface.

Wine tasting: one “Jeopardy” answer was “sommelier.” I thought it was a sash with bullets on it. But, no, it had to do with wines.

Speaking of which, I went to a wine tasting once. An evening of sip, swish and spit of both mediocre wines and very expensive ones. Of course, I could never tell the difference. The only wine experience that meant anything to me was a bunch of wine boxes next to each other at a party, with the spouts sometimes turned such that they first spurted on my shoes or the floor.

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A couple of years ago we moved to Lebanon, and I finally discovered options that could enhance my cultural learning; there were so many choices, I nearly swooned!

How about AVA Gallery and Art Center, which is close to us? In the past, when I saw paintings, I sometimes thought, “What the hell is that supposed to be?” Could I paint something as confusing and have viewers ponder its real meaning? But I am sure joining AVA could help me a great deal in gaining some insight into art.

An artist friend of mine, Tom, painted a picture of Pam and I as farmers, me with a pitchfork, for our 30th anniversary. I couldn’t figure out why he painted us in an old-fashioned scene, until someone, with much more education than I said, “Love the Grant Wood ‘American Gothic’ picture of you and Pam!”


Next, I contacted the Upper Valley Music Center to find a piano teacher.

In my impulsive quest to sharpen my liberal arts cred, I purchased an electric piano last year, one with 88 keys, mind you. I was determined to learn how to play it (my previous efforts to play classical guitar over the years failed each time),

“Sorry,” they said, “All our teachers are booked. But, we are recruiting others. We will call you when they are here.”

No problem, I thought. In the meantime, I’ll teach myself from YouTube. That idea lasted a week. I haven’t touched the piano in months.

Lebanon Opera House offered me a chance to listen to some great music. In anticipation, I even donated money toward the opera house’s renovation efforts, and as a result, they engraved our names on a seat. Be sure to look for it.

I saw a knock-off ABBA group there, and they were fantastic. I was one of those weirdos who stood up in the aisle and swayed to “Dancing Queen.”

Fortunately, I’m pretty sure “Jeopardy” is not in my future; I have not advanced my cultural knowledge, even being surrounded by organizations that could help me.

In retrospect, I’d rather have that sonic wedgie than be exposed as a cultural numbskull watching “Jeopardy.”

Mike Skinner lives in Lebanon.