This past Thursday, Dec. 6, was the feast of Saint Nicholas, when children in parts of Europe woke to find candy in their shoes. Some had left carrots in the shoes the night before for the good saint’s donkey. Carrying a saint with his bag full of sweets is hungry work.
Patron saint of children, seamen, and travelers, Nicholas (280-343) was a bishop known for his gifts to those in need. He’s said to have saved three sisters from being sold into slavery by providing gold for their dowries. In another old tale, illustrated above and retold in Benjamin Britten's 1948 Saint Nicholas Cantata, an innkeeper killed and pickled three boys for meat during a famine. The good saint stopped unwitting customers from eating them and brought the boys back to life.
If you want to throw something different into the sweet seasonal mix of lore, carols, and movies, you can always conjure up Saint Nicholas and the pickled boys.
Image: Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths, by Bicci di Lorenzo, Florence, 1433-35. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.
“It is sweet, when winds trouble the waters on the great sea, to behold from land the distress of others, not because it is a pleasure that any should be afflicted . . .”
- Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book II
Few of us deliberately seek out life situations to make us sad, anxious, or furious. Yet paintings, music, and poems that arouse those feelings keep us coming back for more. On a peaceful, contented evening at home, you’ll find me reading a murder mystery novel. Philosophers call this mismatch the paradox of tragedy.
If the arts have one overarching purpose, it’s to make us feel. To feel is to be deliciously alive. Within limits, what we dislike about a “negative emotion” is not the sensation so much as the situation behind it. When art lets us relish intense feeling without suffering the actual loss, hazard, or injustice, it offers the best of both worlds.
My ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Swisher, immersed our whole class in diagramming sentences. She invited us to bring in long, intricate sentences—one from Darwin ran a page and a half—to diagram as a class, sometimes covering the two full chalkboards on the front and side walls of the classroom.
Lately it’s the short sentences that have me puzzled:
Who cares? Probably only those of us who learned to love grammar with teachers like Mrs. Swisher. If that's you, I’ll welcome your solutions as I continue to puzzle over this odd structure. When the isn’t a definite article—as it isn’t, in this construction—what part of speech is it? Given that the first and second phrases aren’t interchangeable, what’s their relationship? And how on earth do you diagram “The more, the merrier”?
Starting this month, some doctors are prescribing art museum visits for selected patients and their families or caregivers. By agreement with the Médecins francophones du Canada (MdFC, French-speaking physicians of Canada), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts admits up to two adults and two children free of charge for one visit per prescription.
Clinical research confirms the medical value of art. According to the museum/MdFC press release, “The studies stipulate that the arts stimulate neuronal connectivity that supports psychological resilience; that they have a positive impact on attention and working memory; and that they promote relaxation, and richer, more complex neural activity.” Like music, dance, and poetry, paintings shift levels of vital hormones and neurotransmitters. Art museum visits can help against pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart conditions, mobility issues, and shortness of breath.
Culture is right in there with exercise, sleep, and social interactions in promoting good health. As for whether your insurance will ever cover it, I won’t venture to predict.
Another election has come and gone. With the return to divided government—more the norm than the exception in recent decades—we hear predictable calls for bipartisanship and working across the aisle. How might that work? These three terms are often confused:
Compromise is agreement reached through concessions on both sides. The word has negative connotations, not always deserved, depending on what’s conceded. Refusal to consider even minor concessions shifts a divided government from checks and balances toward gridlock.
Meeting halfway can be foolish. The midpoint between poisoning all the nation’s schoolchildren and none is to poison half the children. Less dramatically, if my friend wants to meet for dinner and I’d rather meet for lunch, eating midway at three in the afternoon may irritate us both.
Common ground involves human needs and concerns shared across party lines. In northern Israel, Jewish and Muslim women with a shared desire for healthy families and the means to support them cater meals for underprivileged children. While compromise is iffy and midpoints often fail, collaboration across difference can work when decision-makers value common ground more than making their rivals lose.
Renaissance, square, contra, social, modern, international folk: I’ve done many kinds of dance over the years, none of them well. When I failed the audition for the modern dance honorary Junior Orchesis in high school, the judges said my choreography was creative and original but I didn’t point my toes on the leaps.
Composing dances was always fun. Even as a beginner, my response to any new step was, “Here is my variation.” Floor plans in choreography appealed to the same part of me as maps and house plans. My teacher, Toni Intravaia, was among the few dance instructors anywhere to teach children Labanotation, a system to record human movement on paper. That led to my implausible credential as a prize-winning choreographer with “Country Capers,” national winner of the Dance Notation Bureau’s Junior Dansnotator Choreography Contest.
Today, handheld devices can record movement electronically, and digital technology lets me rediscover “County Capers” on my computer. Labanotation expert and Dance Notation Bureau co-founder Ann Hutchinson Guest turned 100 this past Saturday. Toni Intravaia died this past April at 95. I’m ever grateful for their encouragement of children’s creativity more than half a century ago, even if I never did learn to point my toes.
While most parents I know reject the adage that children should be seen and not heard, leadership and personality gurus tell adults to shut up and listen. For evidence, plug the title of this blog post into your favorite search engine. What’s up? Do we want people to talk when they’re young and stop it when they’re grown?
Like most generalized advice, the wisdom of listening more and speaking less varies with the direction you tend to err. Are you more apt to dominate or defer? Though I haven’t found a whit of advice to talk more and listen less, “find your voice” generates millions of hits. Some youth programs use a ground rule “step up, step back,” asking quieter participants to extend themselves and more assertive participants to give them space.
Of course, “be seen” is not the same as “listen.” Less obviously, talking is not always the equivalent of self-expression. The goal isn’t just to take turns or achieve balance, but to absorb and process what we hear and let it inform our output.
One writing instructor prohibits the student whose work is under discussion from speaking until everyone's comments are finished, sometimes an hour or more. Then there’s a chance to ask questions. This is remarkably effective at quelling the urge to retort, defend, or argue. Forbidden to talk, all the student can do is soak it up and take notes. The input starts to gel. Over time, listening and applying what I hear strengthens my artistic voice.
“The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history. Later, the historian will come, take down the old files, and transform the crude but sincere and accurate annals of editors and reporters into history, into literature.”
- “The Educational Value of ‘News’,” The State [Columbia, S.C.], Dec. 5, 1905
In writing polio eradication history as it happens, I draw heavily on what journalists write. I interview some of the same participants. To say journalists cover the present, while historians treat the past, is only partly true. Six weeks after an event, both the magazine or website journalist and I may write accurate accounts, but they will differ in focus and perspective. Beyond past versus present, the difference is also about the future. Journalists ask, what matters to readers today? Writers of current history ask, which of today’s events will readers five years from now care about, looking back?
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative began thirty years ago, in 1988. This year's World Polio Day event will be livestreamed in Philadelphia this Wednesday, Oct. 24, with a recording posted soon afterward. Journalists will watch for the latest news on efforts to end polio. As a historian, I’ll also be looking for clues to major turning points in the polio story—developments that will still stand out when we read about them long after the world is free of polio.
Back in grad school, I wrote about early modern Europe. Personalities only occasionally shone through the fragile archival materials. When they did, I had a blast. Some 17th-century Puritans were vain, some petulant, some playful, some quick to anger. I wrote them as I found them. Those pages of my dissertation were the most fun to write, and to read.
Years later, writing a short history of a local church, I encountered a new constraint. True, the sources were more abundant, the personalities easier to reconstruct. Yet writing them as I found them demanded a different quality of care. This wasn’t investigative journalism of public figures, but an honest narrative of well-meaning, imperfect individuals, likely to be read by those same people or their widows and children. I struggled for diplomatic wordings such as, “His greatest strength was not in preaching but in pastoral care.” Had the beloved pastor in question died three hundred years earlier, I’d have felt free to say all sources agreed he was a lousy preacher.
In my current history-as-it-happens writing about polio eradication, fortunately, treating personalities with respect comes easily. The players are doing important and valuable work, policy or strategy disagreements are just that, and differences in temperament or style don’t tempt me to mockery. Debate may arise about who gets credit or which events merit coverage, but that’s a subject for another post.
We’re just back from a four-day escape to Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula, our vacation home away from home. We walked our favorite walks and viewed our favorite views. The comfort of familiarity contrasts with the stimulation of last year’s visit to Greece, where everything was new to us.
Human senses tune into change, novelty, the unexpected. In Greece, grand edifices like the Temple of Poseidon grabbed my attention. Perception operates at a different level in a setting one knows well. In northern Door County, where every turn of the road is familiar, it’s the doe and fawn by the roadside who catch my eye. The particular blend of red, green, and yellow in this patch of woods, this particular week. The cormorant preening its feathers on a ledge fifteen feet from the observer. Sunbeams shooting straight up into the clouds from a purple sunset over the bay. The joy of novelty in a home away from home lies in the ever-changing details.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.