The refrigerator died. All the perishables that hadn’t already perished moved onto the wintry porch. The furnace went on the fritz. All our lap rugs and a space heater came into the living room. With fridge failing to cool and furnace failing to heat, I wished we could average the two for perfect comfort.
Even in the midst of trials and tribulations, I know the difference between crises of the present and those that matter in the long run. In my experience, a graph of personal troubles would not resemble a straight line or a bell-shaped curve so much as a two-humped camel. One hump includes missed flights, malfunctioning appliances, and troublesome calendar conflicts. They drive me to tears and then fade into memory. The other hump includes losses and traumas that change a life forever. They sink into the bones and may resurface years later, out of the blue.
“How are you?” is a more complicated question than it sounds. For me, how I’m doing operates on two levels that don’t always match. The mood of the moment overlies a separate baseline for the year or the season. In a season of grief, I have sometimes—not always—laughed at a good romantic comedy. In a tranquil time of life like the present, losing the use of a refrigerator and a furnace in the same week stresses me out. No point fighting it. We feel what we feel. Below the stress, though, I try to remember that this too shall pass.
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
- Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”
Or a woman’s reach. What Barbie left me mulling has less to do with feminism or patriarchy than whether expectations of perfection boost or squash self-esteem.
As a schoolgirl I brought home the happy news that I could be anything I wanted. My spoilsport father said it wasn’t true. Alas, he was right. Spectacular achievements take not only grit but some innate skill and some degree of luck. Not everyone who aspires to be an astronaut, a U.S. president, or an Olympic athlete will become one, no matter how hard she strives. Will she feel like a failure, as I did after an unsuccessful job search, or will role-playing with those Barbies inspire a healthy interest in science, politics, or sports?
Some say perfection is excellence taken even further. I’d suggest the opposite. Perfectionism promotes limits. Don’t try new things you may do poorly. Stay within the safety of the known. Pursuit of excellence, on the other hand, opens a world of possibilities. Some will work out; others won’t. You win some; you lose some. Adventure. Explore. Ask questions. Admit your mistakes. You may not reach Mars or the Olympics, but you may discover places you never dreamed of—and have fun along the way.
Photo: My grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my best dolls represented neither babies nor fashion models but girls a little older than ourselves.
A cacophony of whistles and squeals drew me from the computer to my office window. A large, gray-brown fluffball rolled and tumbled in the dormant garden. It took me a moment to recognize it as a noisy pair of groundhogs, perhaps in the act of courtship or mating.
Groundhogs (aka woodchucks, of the squirrel family) are territorial and mostly solitary. From spring to fall we watch our resident groundhog Chuck dine on coneflower blossoms or stand tall to survey his domain. After three months of hibernation in his burrow, he comes out about now for his one semi-social season of the year.
In a practice unique to groundhogs, the male emerges early to check his territory for the burrows of potential mates. He visits each female in turn for an overnight of cuddles and bonding, then hibernates another month before reappearing to mate with them all for real. His only role in raising the pups is to guard his territory against intruders. Where last week’s fluffball fit into this cycle is a mystery to me.
Even February, my most difficult month, offers unexpected delights for the taking. My challenge is to notice more of them, without needing whistles and squeals to force them on my attention.
Sources: National Wildlife Federation and Wildlife Animal Control.
Image: Groundhog male, photo by Susan Sam, Michigan.
If asked the cause of the Civil War in one word, I’d have to name slavery. South Carolina declared independence after Lincoln’s election as president, “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” According to its Declaration of Secession, the 1860 election culminated 25 years of “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” Although the immediate trigger to cannon fire a few months later involved a state’s right to secede, that issue arose from the South’s commitment to slavery.
One-word answers are for promoting an agenda, not for exploring history. Cause-and-effect narratives are rarely so simple. Causes of resentment between the agricultural South and the increasingly industrial North were as old as the Republic. Then as now, states that feared or resented control by national majorities have claimed states’ rights on policies from tariffs and slavery to marijuana, abortion, and guns.
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution makes federal law supreme over any conflicting state law. The Tenth Amendment reserves to the states any powers not given the federal government. Between the two, “states’ rights” can mean almost anything. Curiously, while we tend to associate states’ rights with the South, it was northern states that claimed a right to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act required northerners to return people fleeing slavery and punished anyone who helped them.
South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession names thirteen northern states that “have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.” In other words, when it came to preserving slavery, northern states had no rights in the face of conflicting federal law.
No, friends, states’ rights weren’t even a secondary cause of the Civil War. They were only an excuse when they happened to favor slavery.
Image: John Magee, “Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Clubs,” lithograph, 1856. Preston Brooks (SC) beats Charles Sumner (MA) over slavery in the U.S. Senate chamber.
Viking, Scottish, and Irish culture revolved around honor, shame, and violence in response to insult. Honor culture came to America with the Scots-Irish who settled in the Appalachian South. Status rests more on birth and family than individual achievement or guilt. People are expected to know their place. Disrespect is the greatest offense. To appear a loser is worse than to know oneself a sinner.
This helps me make sense of the history I learned in West Virginia public schools long ago. We took pride in the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, born in Clarksburg just up the river, and the legendary freedom of mountaineers. We deplored tobacco plantation field slavery but condoned household slavery as benign. We interpreted the Civil War as a conflict over states’ rights, not slavery.
Nobody likes to lose, but it is worse when losing carries dishonor and shame. From a Northern, guilt-and-atonement viewpoint, the Confederates fought to preserve slavery and lost. From a Southern viewpoint, honor was at stake. Flags and monuments are not about remembering history, but rather about honor and respect. “You lost, get over it” means nothing except as a further insult.
Image: Henry Mosler, The Lost Cause, 1869. Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia.
Growing up just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I saw a fraternity at West Virginia University fly the Confederate banner. That flag appears less often now, except in white supremacist contexts. In 2019 a third of American adults who were asked whether it represents heritage or racism (or other, or don’t now) chose heritage. The percentage was higher among respondents who were older, white, or rural. How well does the “heritage” answer hold up?
The Confederate States of America based their flag of 1861 on that of the Union. To avoid confusion in the heat of battle, southern military units adopted their own distinctive flags. Most popular was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, it was used on soldiers’ graves and at veterans’ events. The Kappa Alpha college fraternity in Virginia displayed Lee’s ANV banner regularly. By the early 1900s it became a popular symbol of the Confederacy and the South at intercollegiate football games.
The Ku Klux Klan began to raise the ANV battle flag in the 1930s and 1940s, especially after World War II. Dixiecrats, a segregationist splinter party of former Democrats, featured it in the presidential election of 1948. It came into its own in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Many white Americans of my generation were taught the Confederate flag represents heritage. The South has a long, rich, distinct cultural heritage. Its contributions to American literature, music, cuisine, and religion cross racial lines. To represent it with a relic from a few years of devastating warfare dishonors the many aspects of that heritage of which the South can be justly proud.
Image: Kappa Alpha Fraternity Raising the Confederate Flag, West Virginia University, 1967.
When the grandfathers dozed in their chairs, I told my child that’s what grandfathers do. After father nodded off too, I explained he was practicing up to be a grandfather.
I don’t know who first tied virtue to sleep cycles. “Early to bed, early to rise” long predates Benjamin Franklin. Consider, for example,
As the olde englysshe prouerbe sayth in this wyse.
Who soo woll ryse erly shall be holy helthy & zely.*
- The Book of St. Albans, 1486
Maybe it’s because teens, stereotyped as reckless and rebellious, prefer to sleep in. Of the many factors that can reset a body clock, the most nearly universal is age. Hormonal changes, not laziness, keep teens awake well into the night. Early school start times leave them with too little sleep, increasing their likelihood of risky behaviors, depression, and poor academic performance.
The circadian rhythms of older adults get weaker and shift to a shorter-than-24-hour cycle. Many elders wake early, doze or nap by day, and fade soon after supper. On cognitive tests, they perform as well as younger folk in the morning but much worse in late afternoon. As with teens, sleep shortage and personal schedules at odds with their body clocks can play havoc with health, mental ability, and mood. To the extent circumstances allow, it’s wisest and healthiest to shape your life to fit your circadian rhythm.
*Zely meant “fortunate.”
Image: Jean Beraud, two gentlemen at sleep while wearing top hats in ‘The Club,’ painted 1911. In The Telegraph, “How many can point to a true gentleman?” Oct. 17, 2010.
Are you a morning person or a night owl? Did you bounce out of bed hours before dawn to greet the new year, or did you ring it in at midnight wide awake? The days have been growing longer for eleven days by now. Do you notice the difference? Me neither.
Like other animals and plants, our bodies respond to changes in the light. Human internal clocks vary by nature and nurture. Based mostly on input from eyes, a master clock in the brain signals cells throughout the body to speed up or slow down. This coordinates daily cycles of hormones, sleep, mood, body temperature, appetite, digestion, and more. If your clock runs a little faster than 24 hours, you’ll tend to wake up early. If it’s a little slower, you’ll get sleepy later.
Neanderthal ancestry may play a part in making some people early risers, according to recent research. Neanderthals in Europe, where seasonal changes in daylight favored faster, more flexible circadian rhythms, interbred with Homo sapiens. Humans of European descent today have between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. The higher your percentage, the more likely you carry genes for a faster body clock.
Stay tuned next week for more on body clocks and why they matter.
For a real war on Christmas, think of 17th century Puritans. Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 decreed, “For preventing disorders arising in several places . . . whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” was subject to a 5-shilling fine. The ban stayed in effect until 1681.
Why did Puritans hate Christmas? Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t stodgy spoilsports who disapproved of pleasure. Less “puritanical” than many later Victorians, they wrote of the delights of the marriage bed. They played a lively game called stoolball, with pitching, fielding, and running. Their objection to Christmas was twofold, biblical and moral. They rejected nonbiblical traditions with pagan roots, including holy days other than Sundays.
More importantly, Christmas back then was far from wholesome. Drunkenness, gambling, sexual abandon, and sometimes violence ranked among the “disorders” mentioned in the 1659 ban. Not until the Victorian era did rowdy chaos give way to such family-centered traditions as decorated trees, roast turkey, cards, and gifts. Clement Moore’s Twas the Night Before Christmas (1823/37) and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) both reflected and reinforced the shift.
Whatever your midwinter holiday or none, in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one.”
Image: George Henry Boughton, The Early Puritans of New England Going to Church, 1867. New York Historical Society.
The tender pinks and blues of sunset nearly compensate for how early dusk falls at this time of year. Some days end with more drama, bright red and orange shouting for attention. Instead, this recent sunset appears to whisper, “Don’t wake the baby.” Baby girls in pink, baby boys in blue, hush-a-bye, sweet dreams.
Pink seems the most feminine of colors. I have friends who love it or hate it for that reason. But parents in the 1800s dressed little boys and girls alike, often in white dresses. By about 1900, marketing for mass production boosted sales by promoting new expectations for domestic life, from vacuum cleaners to differentiated infant wear. Boys crawled in knickers instead of the dresses, laces, and frills of an earlier era. Advertisers tried linking color to gender, with no consensus about which hue went with whom.
According to Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department in 1918, “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls.” Most Nativity paintings showed Mary in blue, considered a gentler color. Time Magazine in 1927 found six of ten major American department stores promoted pink for boys and blue for girls, while four recommended the opposite. As soldiers returned from World War II, their brides left factory work to devote their days to family. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s love of pink made it a symbol of domesticity. A department store buyer told The New York Times in 1959, “A mother will allow her girl to wear blue, but daddy will never permit his son to wear pink.”
Isn’t it odd that today’s era of questioning gender identity and binary thinking also features gala “gender reveal parties,” begun in 2008 by a blogger who now regrets it? Half a century ago, we rarely knew the baby’s sex before birth. Expectant parents might paint the nursery a unisex green to be safe. Now retailers are blending toy aisles formerly labeled for girls or boys. Men wear pink shirts without exciting comment. Will pink and blue fade away as markers of gender, while we still pause to savor them in a winter sunset sky?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.