Give 'em what they want

By John Piotti | Jan 21, 2016

It began at my office Christmas party, and long before drinks began to flow — so that wasn’t the reason. A guest (not a staff member) told me how much she enjoyed my columns.

Then I heard it again from people I ran into at Christmas concerts. And again on Christmas Eve from a shopkeeper.

At first, I chalked it all up to the generosity and goodwill of the season.

But well into January, I’m still hearing positive comments, including one from the man I followed in the barber’s chair last Saturday. So it is clearly more than just good holiday cheer.

Now, if I sound a little surprised, it's because in the last month, I’ve received twice as many comments on my column as in the prior 35 months combined. Why the sudden attention?

I have a theory.

Incidentally, my kids will tell you that I always have a theory. When Anna and John were younger, they began to refer to me — with only minimal encouragement from Susan — as “Theory Man.” The reason is that I'm always trying to connect the dots, even when there aren't any dots to connect. Kids are great at spotting that kind of stuff — and then laughing at you.

Anyway, my theory is that these people enjoyed my most recent column more than previous ones. In every instance, they mentioned how they love to hear about my kids, who featured prominently in the column published before Christmas.

The implication, of course, is that the kids are the draw, and that all those columns about farming and other stuff just don’t cut it. I don't even want to think about how much I must bore readers when I write about tax reform.

I wish it hadn't taken me almost three years of writing columns to learn this, because — to be blunt — it’s easier for me to write about my family than, say, dairy pricing — and more enjoyable, too. I guess I should have figured that if I enjoy it more, my readers might as well. (I may be good at developing theories, but I’m not always so good at seeing stuff that’s staring me in the face.)

Now, I can't and won't abandon writing about farming and other subjects on which I have some expertise and insights. But I have learned my lesson. From now on, I'm going to figure out a way of working Anna or John — or Susan in a pinch — into every column I write, regardless of the broader subject.

The only downside to this is that my family isn’t always all that interesting. Consider the current situation.

John is on a winter break, which at MIT lasts until Feb. 1. In fact, although John is a full-time student at one of the most challenging universities in the world, he will be at college only 26 weeks out of the year. That's right, 26 weeks out of 52 — quite the grueling schedule.

So, what does he do to fill the rest of his time? Well, now that he has most assuredly caught up on his sleep, and now that all the holiday activity is over and his girlfriend is back at school, and given that he can’t afford to go skiing all that often, John is beginning to ponder that very question. And to his credit, he’s making progress. He is beginning to think about the possibility of exploring how he might consider building a new robot to play his guitar.

So far, all he has done is investigate how much it will cost me to buy him all the parts he needs.

But in fairness to him, he is taking it seriously. For instance, he must figure out what size solenoids he needs, and this requires him taking some measurements to determine how much force must be applied against a guitar string to play a chord. He’s thought about how he could do that using a food scale we have. I told him where I thought the scale was located. He disappeared for a long time and came back empty-handed. The next day I walked with him to the exact place where I told him to look, and within five seconds the scale was in his hands. “I guess I could have looked harder,” he said.

Anna, as it so happens, just went away for a week. She’s now in Germany, of all places, which sounds exciting, but it is not nearly as exciting as you may think, after you hear why she is there.

Anna will spend five days in the small Germany city of Mainz, interviewing locals about fairy tales. Anna, who is a German major at Bowdoin, is undertaking an honors project about, of all things, fairy tales. (The Brothers Grimm were German, after all.) Bowdoin is paying Anna to take this trip, which will augment her research. Now, I do see educational value in this exercise, and I also know that the money for this trip is coming from some private donor and not from the tuition bill Susan and I stretch to pay, but still, it’s hard at times not to question the priorities here.

It's almost always exciting to be in a foreign land, but even Anna questioned if it will be much fun to conduct interviews in Mainz in January, when the weather is generally 38 degrees and raining. So she tried to recruit a travel companion. After her closest college friends and a few others turned her down (including a young man who knew he would be much too busy building a robot to play guitar to consider something so frivolous as flitting about Mainz), she convinced Susan to travel with her.

Susan has a way of making travel exciting, so maybe there will be something interesting to report in a future column. As Susan is there now, maybe I’ll email her to ask if she’ll do some research about local farming. That might give me the angle I need.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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