Misinformation abounds. I haven’t actually heard “I did my research” to defend weak claims, but I’ve read rebuttals: “Searching websites isn’t research. You didn’t use a control group, or do statistical analysis, or apply the scientific method.”
Rubbish. Historical research rarely involves any of the above. Many materials once found only in libraries are available online. What is research, anyway? What do a fourth-grader’s report, a high school term paper, and a grant-funded scholarly investigation have in common?
Did you play telephone as a child? The first player whispers a phrase to the next child in the circle, who whispers it to the next, and so on. By the time the phrase comes all the way around, it has mutated enough to prompt a giggle. The larger the circle, the more the message may change. This year, coronavirus has circulated long enough to mutate into a form more able to bind to cells and fend off antibodies: the Delta variant.
Everything I ever needed to know about the Delta variant I learned in grade school. Did you ever play sardines? More and more children cram into a hiding place until there are too many to hide. Similarly, the Delta variant overcrowds the respiratory tract. Compared to the coronavirus we first knew, it multiplies faster, becomes infectious sooner, and reaches a much higher viral load.
Did you play Red Rover? At Suncrest Grade School, opposing teams faced each other in lines. Our team dared someone from the other side to try to break through our clasped hands: “Red Rover, Red Rover, we dare [name] come over!” A strong runner could break a weak link in our human chain. On today’s coronavirus playground, the Delta variant runs hard enough to cause mild breakthrough infections in some fully vaccinated people.
The Iliad and The Odyssey include tales of swineherds and swine. Among the earliest animals to be domesticated, pigs figure prominently in ancient banquet menus, rituals, and pottery. Tame sows in search of acorns must have met wild boars in the forest. The Romans called their progeny hybrida.
I love word origins. Unlike words that reverse meaning over time (awful once meant “awesome”), hybrid has kept its original sense: something of mixed origin. Its use in English increased after 1850, as scientists worked to improve food crops and animals through crossbreeding. Hybrid tea roses are favorite garden flowers.
Beyond biology, hybrid came to mean vehicles with both gasoline and electric motors. In a fresh use of the term this year, instructors, employers, and worship leaders are scrambling to design hybrid post-pandemic event formats that are both virtual and in-person.
It’s clear what hybrid cars and meetings share with the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar. More puzzling is why we don’t call almost everything else hybrid too. Bronze Age peoples mixed tin with copper. Talking pictures combined silent movies with sound recording. Pasta with tomato sauce blends ingredients from Italy and the Americas. Cultural diffusion shapes our language, clothing, folklore, music; all their origins are mixed. We’ll figure out whatever hybrids we need. We’ve been doing it for millennia.
Pulling weeds, I ponder my options as the pandemic wanes. Resume old habits? Keep the slower pace? Try something new?
When we changed house four-and-a-half years ago, my gardening know-how extended to digging dandelions. The abundant perennials left by the previous owner have been teaching me ever since. A recent sampling:
Long ago I lived a year in Eritrea, in northernmost Ethiopia. With an Eritrean Liberation Front easy to confuse with bandits, we were told to be off the roads by five o’clock and keep a bag packed in case of evacuation. I asked an American who had settled in the countryside, which side did the villagers favor? He said, “They want the fighting to stop and the price of sugar to come down.”
After our departure came drought, famine, and a long civil war. Eritrea won independence in 1991. In Ethiopia, politicians from Tigray—just south of Eritrea—dominated a governing coalition of semi-autonomous regional/ethnic parties for the next 27 years. I remember passing through Tigray on a motorcycle trip to the Blue Nile Falls. The city of Axum, memorable for its ancient stone stelae, was said to hold the Ark of the Covenant, brought there by the Queen of Sheba. A barefoot child guided us through the ruins of the queen’s supposed palace.
In 2018, a new government removed the Tigrayans from power and tried to replace ethnic federalism with a fresh sense of national identity. After the new regime postponed promised elections in 2020 because of coronavirus, Tigray held its own election in defiance. Rising tensions erupted into warfare last November. Amid reports and denials of mass murder, rape, and famine, tens of thousands have fled into Sudan.
Amnesty International reported hundreds of unarmed civilians shot in the streets of Axum. Our little tour guide, if he is still alive, might be a grandfather by now. He may want the same thing Eritrean villagers wanted decades earlier: Security for his family to get on with their lives. Isn’t that what most of us wish, regardless of time or place? For the fighting to stop and the price of sugar to come down?
The calendar above my desk calls today the first day of summer. For meteorologists, summer started June 1 based on monthly average temperatures. In parts of northern Europe, the solstice counts as midsummer, halfway between planting and harvest, halfway through the weeks of longest daylight. Just to complicate matters, some celebrate Midsummer on June 24 to coincide with the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.
I tend to think of seasons as part of nature, untouched by humans except as we interfere. But it’s we humans who define them by dates and pretend nature gave us the definition. Why four seasons, instead of just two—hot and cold—or the six on the Hindu calendar? Why treat them as equal in length whether you’re in San Diego or Wisconsin?
Nature cycles gradually, by fits and starts, with markers like the first robins in March or ragweed pollen in August. Our calendar with its seasonal divisions is a mere approximation, a convenience that makes it easier to think and talk. It only gets us in trouble when we expect nature to comply.
Image: William Blake, c. 1786, Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Midsummer, set in June, was among the most popular and rowdiest festivals of Shakespeare’s England.
“Resolved: that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union by thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”
- Journal of the Continental Congress, June 14, 1777
Every morning in my grade school we pledged allegiance to the flag, mumbled the Lord’s Prayer, and sang a patriotic song. Flag equaled country, sacrosanct, deserving of reverence. It wasn’t always that way.
The young republic in 1777 needed an identifying banner to raise on ships or carry into battle. More practical than emotive, the new flags didn’t fly in classrooms or outside private homes. Their mythic overtones came later, in response to current events.
Union loyalists flew the Stars and Stripes during the Civil War. Soon after, approaching the centennial, descendants claimed Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. In the late 1800s, U.S. flags promoted the assimilation of immigrants. A Wisconsin schoolteacher is among many credited with starting Flag Day. A marketer created the Pledge of Allegiance to boost flag sales to schools.
Two world wars and the rise of godless Communism heightened the distinctively American “cult of the flag.” Presidents and Congress formalized Flag Day (1916, 1949), made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem (1931), adopted the Pledge of Allegiance (1942), and added “under God” to the pledge (1954). Flags marked political discord in the 1960s, unity after 9/11, and polarization last January—surely not what the founders had in mind.
The song from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel has been playing in my head all week. The garden is lush with blossoms, the air melodious with birdsong. Who could not sing, dance, and frolic? In the musical, the high spirits of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” lead into the death and redemption of an unemployed carnival barker who robs to support his wife and unborn child. Joy and woe are woven fine.
Carousel opened on Broadway in April 1945, as World War II was winding down. It was a season of hope. The troops would soon come home to set off a baby boom. Prosperity would replace wartime privation. It was also a season of mourning for the fallen who would never come home, and for their commander-in-chief. President Franklin Roosevelt had died exactly a week before the show opened.
The waning of the pandemic brings another season of joy and woe, hope and loss. Instead of blackout curtains, we begin to shed the face masks we wore to protect our communities. Vacation travel and nonessential shopping are making a comeback, as they did after WWII. At the same time, we are mourning the closure of favorite restaurants and bookstores. We grieve loved ones for whom the possibility of vaccination came too late.
It doesn’t negate the sorrows to celebrate the joys. I’m off to pull weeds from among the flowers, while “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” plays over and over in my head.
One pandemic day looks much like another. I track the calendar by weekly routines: Tuesday trash pickup, Wednesday laundry, Thursday groceries. Chores will remain in post-pandemic life, of course, but people and places and activities will reintroduce variety.
Rituals, like routines, can look the same from day to day. The difference is that rituals are infused with meaning and intention. Some writers begin their pen-to-paper or hand-to-keyboard time with a ritual to focus the mind: light a candle, or meditate, or sip coffee and watch the sun rise. “Meaningless ritual” is an oxymoron. Repetition without presence or meaning is merely routine.
Any routine can be converted to ritual with mindfulness. Washing the dishes to wash the dishes. Feeling the warmth of clean towels as you fold. At the same time, I cherish the inclusion of mindless routines in the mix, activities so habitual that my thoughts can wander free. Being fully present is a wonderful thing. So, to me, is the unfocused state in which imagination runs rampant, untethered to the here and now.
For most of the past year, I figured coronavirus could do serious harm if I got infected, but avoiding people kept my exposure low. Last month, I traveled to a state where exposure was almost ubiquitous, trusting vaccination to minimize my risk.
All our lives we weigh risks as a basis for decisions, large and small. I’ve long thought of risk as having two elements: how likely is something to happen, and how bad might it be if it does? Lately I’ve noticed a third major element: personal risk tolerance. As my sociologist father taught me long ago, statistics predict populations, not individuals. How much certainty does your spirit require? What is your comfort with the unknown?
Data and logic go only so far. In the waning of the pandemic, some of my vaccinated friends remain outdoors in masks. Others dine in restaurants and hop on airplanes. There’s nothing wrong with letting emotions influence our choices. Without emotions, in fact, neuroscience suggests we couldn’t make decisions at all.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.