Seeing ourselves as others see us is greatly overrated. Not having been filmed in decades, watching myself as a talking head in Dare to Dream: How Rotary Became the Heart and Soul of Polio Eradication was a bit of a jolt. On the other hand, what fun to see and hear leaders I know today as a writer, or worked with thirty-odd years ago as a Rotary staffer, or both. How young we all were!
Rotarian Ken Solow’s remarkable documentary recounts how Rotary decided to rid the world of polio and assembled partners for the effort. While my role as historian* is only a bit part in global polio eradication, Dare to Dream reaffirms that beginnings matter. The polio story in 1979-88 was messy, confusing, and sometimes mired in controversy or mistrust. That’s how movements begin. They succeed, if at all, because believers press on through the confusion and mess.
* Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World, Volume I, Making the Promise, and Volume II, Almost Every Child.
Historical fiction is chock full of daughters. Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, and Bloodletter’s Daughter by Linda Lafferty are three I’ve enjoyed lately. If 15th- to 17th-century Europe isn’t your thing, you may be more drawn to Pharaoh’s Daughter, Ninja’s Daughter, or Frontiersman’s Daughter. Fathers also shape subjects’ lives in the occasional biography (Galileo’s Daughter, Stalin’s Daughter) or memoir.
Last summer I reflected on influences from my mother. With my father’s 106th birthday just past, now it’s his turn. He grew up a rural shopkeeper’s son in frontier British Columbia. Inspired by a high school math teacher, he became the second in his large extended family to attend university. Math led to economics and eventually a rare depression-era fellowship in the fledgling field of sociology. The train ride across Canada to Montreal, home of McGill University, was his first-ever venture more than 200 miles from home.
He explored urban immigrant communities in Montreal and Detroit and rural poverty in Appalachia, where my early campus memories feature lush green hillsides, endless books, and the stuffed owl at the natural history museum. At home he answered my questions with the wisdom of a sociologist father. His explanation that “people” commonly means “people like me” helps me understand debates today about the wishes of the American people.
When I asked why we didn’t join the country club, he said we had the good fortune to visit grandparents in wonderful places each summer. When I asked the reasons for racism (though I didn’t yet know the word), he said some who don’t feel good about themselves want someone to look down on; we were lucky to like ourselves well enough to be comfortable liking others. He gave me lessons not only about societal relations but also about respect, compassion, and gratitude.
’Tis the season to sleep, eat, and hunker down. Technically humans can’t hibernate, but the idea is tempting. Our farming ancestors worked long hours to plant and harvest, followed by winters of comparative rest. Then came the Industrial Revolution and electric lights. Now we expect to sustain a busy life year round, but that’s not to say we’re built for it.
The British Medical Journal in 1900 reported how Russian peasants survived chronic famine:
"At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks."
Researchers have found human genes similar to those that trigger animal hibernation. Increases in sleep and appetite associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) resemble hibernation more than clinical depression. By all means use light therapy or medication if it helps, but let’s not berate ourselves for lowered ambition or flail against snow and cold. It’s all part of nature’s seasonal message to slow down.
What joy to wake at home, after dreaming we moved out because we had no business living in a place this nice. The dream followed an exchange about the humiliation of trying to look like the cool girls in high school and getting it wrong.
Other memories flood back. Wondering, in my twenties, when I would start to feel like a grown-up instead of pretending. Shocked, in my thirties, to be approached by an acquaintance told by her therapist to interview successful women. Recently reluctant to join a group of writers, unsure I’d belong in spite of writing for a living for over twenty years.
“Impostor syndrome" was coined in the 1970s for high-achieving women’s fear of being unmasked as a fraud. Studies also find it common among men, with a difference. Women are socialized to be modest and faulted for overconfidence. Men, socialized not to look vulnerable, are under pressure to hide self-doubt. If you feel like an impostor, you’re in good company:
Albert Einstein, late in life: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Maya Angelou: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
Neil Gaiman, on a gathering of notables: “I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among those people who had really done things.” Another attendee, the first man on the moon, questioned his own invitation; he’d done nothing special, just gone where he was sent. Gaiman goes on: “If Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
Mystery author Sue Grafton died in late December at age 77. The last of her alphabetical Kinsey Millhone novels, Y is for Yesterday, appeared this past year. Like other engaging mystery series, Grafton’s combines a fresh crime puzzle in each volume with an admirable, imperfect protagonist whose life progresses from book to book.
I probably read A is for Alibi soon after it came out in 1982. Grafton was 42 years old, her fictional private investigator 32, and the southern California setting contemporary. Reading B is for Burglar and its successors as they appeared, I gradually noticed Kinsey’s world falling out of sync with mine. At first jarred, then intrigued, I finally became entranced with how Grafton handles the passage of time.
You do the math. In twenty-five mysteries over thirty-five years of your life (if you’re old enough) or Grafton’s or mine, Kinsey Millhone ages from 32 to 39. Sleuthing her way from A to Y entirely within the 1980s, Kinsey has to find a pay phone to communicate. She still makes notes on 3”-by-5” index cards and consults reference books at the brick-and-mortar library. With the slowing of time, I’ve watched her world shift from the one I inhabited to the one I remember.
From the window, the lump under the tree out back looked like a large rock. A closer view transformed the rock into a sleeping body. My intrepid granddaughter, bundled against the cold, ventured close enough to touch. The body was quite dead.
I phoned the authorities for instructions. They said the next step depends whether death resulted from a road accident or natural causes. And if the hole in the body’s side suggested neither? Unlike a bullet, I was told, the bolt from a crossbow leaves a clean exit wound. I chose not to turn over the frozen carcass to investigate.
This may not have much to do with history or writing, or maybe it does. Details from the mystery—the lump, the unexplained body, the evidence of shooting, the uncertainty what to do—may resurface in some future tale set in medieval Europe, the deer transmuted to human form. The hole in the crossbow victim's corpse may match the one out back. As I blogged last May, it’s all autobiographical.
Charlie Brown’s Christmas always brings tears to my eyes. My throat tightens when Linus tells what Christmas is all about and suggests the scraggly tree just needs a little love. Of the many holidays honored in diverse traditions this darkest time of year, Christmas is the one that stirs my heart.
Granted, its claims as a holy day are weak. No historical or biblical source suggests what time of year Jesus was born. Christmas originated in the fourth century when Pope Julius I fixed Jesus’s birthday on December 25 to co-opt existing midwinter revels. It became a raucous holiday marked by riots and booze. Religious leaders in seventeenth-century Boston banned it as non-biblical.
Unlike factual origins, meanings are assigned by humans and change over time. The idea that Christmas has a “true meaning” is relatively recent, starting in the 1800s with the writings of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Christmas is no more an age-old family celebration of peace and love than it is the anniversary of Jesus’s birth. On the other hand, this is as good a time as any to heed the call for light in the darkness, hospitality to the stranger, generosity over greed, and hope in the face of fear.
Did you ever visit a place after reading about it and compare it to the picture in your mind? A place you’ve written about can be all the more startling. My historical mystery-in-progress is set in Rhodes, on a Greek island of the same name, far to the east near Turkey. Before last month I’d been there only briefly, thirty years ago.
Our hotel this fall was in the heart of the old Knights’ quarter, its medieval exterior enclosing updated rooms. The alleys of the walled town proved narrower than I’d imagined, the dry moats wider, the cats more languid. I discovered that cobblestones are slippery after rain.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site continuously occupied since 408 BCE, Rhodes is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. The Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers, today the Knights of Malta) moved there after the end of the Crusades and ruled for over two hundred years. Their gothic buildings and defensive walls survive nearly unchanged. Motorcyclists who ply the cobbled alleys and shopkeepers who cater to cruise ship passengers confirm that this town, apparently frozen in time, remains very much alive.
The labyrinthine Bronze Age palace of Knossos, on Crete, was the oldest site on our recent travels. Knossos was the center of the powerful Minoan civilization before the rise of the Greeks. Minoans traded throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Here, according to legend, the Athenian prince Theseus slew the half-man-half-bull Minotaur and followed a thread out of the Labyrinth to escape the Minotaur’s father, King Minos. I came to Crete curious whether the myth dates from Minoan times or the later rise of Athens. That turned out to be the wrong question.
My first exposure to Greek mythology was flat: twelve Olympians, unchanging except within a particular myth. Later, feminist spirituality drew attention to the Minoan Great Goddess or Earth Mother, often shown holding snakes. Now we had two flat steps: Minoan matriarchy, displaced by the Olympic pantheon of the patriarchal Greeks.
Our knowledgeable guide at Knossos explained that the origin of the Theseus story can’t be approached as either/or. Homer and Hesiod in the 700s BCE combined elements from various times and places to create a unified narrative. Minoan art shows acrobats doing backflips over a bull. Minos was a position title, not an individual. Athenian princes came later. Meanwhile, aspects of the Earth Mother evolved into distinct deities such as Artemis for wild animals and Poseidon for earthquakes. Gradually gods from other sources joined the Greek pantheon in a mythology that was anything but flat.
High in the remote mountains northwest of Athens, the remains of a temple of Apollo overlook a magnificent panorama down to the Gulf of Corinth. Before any major decision, ancient leaders made the arduous journey here to consult the Delphic Oracle. Apollo spoke through the words of his priestess, the Pythia, as interpreted by a priest.
Ancient writers attributed the Pythia’s altered state to inhaling fumes from a chasm in the rock. The notion of real fumes was debunked in the 1950s but later revived after the discovery of hydrocarbon deposits and a fault line. The Pythia’s symptoms—usually a benign trance, but occasionally fatal delirium—are said to resemble effects of sniffing glue.
Before Apollo arrived in the shape of a dolphin and killed the monster python guarding the site, the same site featured worship and oracles of the earth mother goddess Gaia. Relief carvings on a remnant of Apollo’s temple show his forces defeating Gaia’s giants. Mythology, like history, is written by the winners.
Visiting Delphi last month, I heard Gaia’s voice more loudly than Apollo’s. The ancient temple is in ruins, the statues and treasure houses plundered centuries ago. Emperor Nero alone took 500 statues away to Rome. With little left of the elaborate structures built by people, the breathtaking natural setting still conjures up a sense of the divine.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.