In April 1861, President Lincoln asked states to provide militiamen for three months to put down a rebellion. Kaiser Wilhelm II in August 1914 told departing troops, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said of conflict in Iraq in early 2003, “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” Each of those wars raged four years or longer.
The point isn’t that calamities drag out; the Gulf War of 1991 took only weeks. The point is that we can’t predict without a crystal ball or benefit of hindsight. Faced with Covid lockdowns in March 2020, I stocked up on canned goods in case this might continue all the way till June. By fall, that first illusion shattered, we spoke of getting back to normal soon after we had a vaccine. Summer 2021 looked promising until Delta came along. What next?
Covid-19 impacts more aspects of more Americans' lives more dramatically than any other crisis in my lifetime. Now as on the home front during World War II, resources are mobilized, events canceled, and travel restricted. Jobs are reshaped, office work done from home today, factory work done by women back then. Our supply chains are disrupted; their gasoline, butter, and sugar were rationed. We wear face masks; my East Coast parents hung blackout curtains.
Will the disruption go on for months? For years? Our World War II forebears had no way to know. Neither have we.
The first holiday of the Zurich, Switzerland, school year is Knabenschiessen-Montag.
“What?” I look up from the calendar, recalling too many American school tragedies. “Boy Shooting Monday?”
My translation is correct, they tell me, but the term is misleading; for the past thirty years, Zurich’s annual teen event has also involved girls. For boys, the shooting contest goes back at least to 1656 and was formalized in the late 1800s. Normally it’s preceded by a public festival the second weekend of September. This year the festival is cancelled for Covid, but Monday’s shooting will go ahead. Schools close for the day. Many workers get a half day off.
Switzerland has a high rate of gun ownership but very little gun violence, with no mass shootings since 2001. Privately held guns are strictly regulated. Mandatory military service for men ensures training. Switzerland shows a healthy gun culture is possible. Whether it is possible in the United States, I am not so sure.
Last week I returned to Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula after several years away.* Despite Covid-19, vacationland looked as busy as ever. Americans still travel but differently, choosing road trips over flights, short-term rentals over hotels, outdoor recreation over urban crowds. Door County fills the bill with its miles of shoreline, hiking trails, and accessible location. Restaurants and their patio tables were packed by Saturday noon.
And yet, the restaurants are hurting. I found longtime dinner favorites open only on weekends, or only for breakfast and lunch. The limiting factor is not customers but staff. I saw few of the eastern European students on J-1 exchange visitor visas who usually help fill Door County’s seasonal openings. A frustrating quest for Monday supper ended well with locally caught whitefish at the non-touristy, non-seasonal Cornerstone Pub in Baileys Harbor. “Monday is our pot-roast special,” the waitress told me. “If we closed Mondays, we’d have a riot on our hands.”
I wonder if the labor shortage so evident to me last week will have any lasting effect. In medieval Europe after plague decimated the workforce, peasants were able to negotiate better terms. Landowners converted labor-intensive cropland to sheep pasture, and the wool industry boomed. Will Covid-19 reverse decades of low-end wage stagnation? Will some industries shrink and others flourish? One way or another, the natural beauty of Door County will keep attracting visitors like me, and local businesses will find ways to keep us feeling welcome.
*For earlier visits, see “Up North” (2016) and “Up North, Revisited” (2018).
Required reading in my grad school history program included Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), which tracked a long national history of celebrating ignorance. Second-guessing the experts began long before the Internet.
Are egos too fragile to admit ignorance or error? Three thoughts make it easy on the ego to acknowledge how much I don’t know:
1. I know more about some things than others. Thank goodness the contractors who fix our leaks and outages know what they’re doing. Equality doesn’t mean we’re equal at everything.
2. I’m teachable. In my areas of strength, there’s always more to learn. When the facts contradict what I thought I knew, they bring an opportunity to grow.
3. I’m curious. Ignorance can lead in either direction, to ask questions or to think we have all the answers. When we choose to open up rather than close down, we welcome those who have the expertise to answer our questions.
We each see world events through a lens of personal experience and concerns. Along with fear and sorrow for the Afghan people, I look at last week’s collapse through lenses of geography and history: an impoverished, almost impenetrable mountain region at a crossroads of ancient civilizations, repeatedly invaded, never brought under control. I also see it through the lens of polio eradication.
Endemic polio has paralyzed only two children so far this year, one each in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both in January. The Taliban doesn’t object to vaccination on principle, though local leaders vary. Instead, top leadership suspects house-to-house campaigns of being Western spy operations to help target drone strikes. And many believe scarce jobs as vaccinators should go exclusively to men, though a mother at home with her children may open her door only to a woman.
I can’t predict what the final Taliban takeover will mean for protecting children from polio. The dangers are real. Still, an end to decades of hostilities might increase security for families and health workers. Cessation of drone strikes could gradually ease suspicion. On the polio front, the present crisis may offer glimmers of hope.
See Science writer Leslie Roberts for more. Image: Child in Afghanistan receives polio vaccine (UNICEF file photo)
Wildfires, conspiracy theories, and viral variants are raging out of control. Not that we ever held power over the universe, but don’t we remember once feeling we had a voice in it?
As the youngest in a smart and strong-willed family, I grew up with no illusion of control. Some friends and family members find me controlling all the same. Like many of us, I’m probably a bundle of contradictions.
Writing and (I suspect) other creative arts abound in contradictions about control. They require not only technical mastery, but also space for unpredictable flow. Fictional characters don’t always follow an author’s orders; they have their own ideas for what to do or say. Try to control too much and the result is formulaic and flat. Too little, and the result is often incoherent.
Either extreme can prevent ever finishing, the over-controller stymied by perfectionism and the under-controller continually distracted. The same may hold in the arts of politics and of everyday life. To hold on and hold loosely is an art in itself.
It is mid-afternoon, and all the sunflowers are facing east. The farmer says this year has been so dry, the plants conserve scarce energy by not turning to face the sun.
The same farmer is taking his parents this week to the Wisconsin State Fair to receive a Sesquicentennial Farm Award; their farm has been in the family for 150 years. Family farms still exist hereabouts. Some supplement dwindling agricultural income by offering hayrides, corn mazes, pick-your-own berry patches, off-season boat and RV storage, snowplow and landscaping services, or car detailing in an old barn.
After months of national and personal crises, many people are feeling resources stretched thin. Resilience is down. There’s a dearth of emotional vitality. What do sunflowers and family farmers model for how to keep going when we start to run dry? Conserve energy with a break from a practice you normally did. Try something new with resources you already have. Hold on to what’s essential and add or subtract around the edges.
Last week I read my first-ever Nancy Drew mystery. It seemed time to meet the girl whose courage and wits had influenced countless women I admire. Though I heard of her in my teens, I was a Sherlock Holmes snob; why bother with lesser sleuths?
The authors I relished back then, like Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, transported my imagination into a different time or place. Only later did I get hooked on murder mysteries as a genre. Along with the fun of solving a puzzle, many took me to unfamiliar worlds like Tony Hillerman’s Navajo country or Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan Bush.
My advisor at Oberlin College, Marcia Colish, told me mystery novels were favorite leisure reading among her historian friends. It’s no coincidence. Like mysteries, historical research is a process of finding and assembling seemingly disparate clues into a coherent narrative.
Smart, brave women detectives with a passion for justice abound on library shelves today. I may not devour the rest of the 56 Nancy Drew titles, churned out between 1930 and 1979 by a series of ghostwriters for the same publisher as gave us the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. The writing can grate. (“I’ve found it at last!” she thought excitedly.) But no matter. In a culture that taught girls to be timid and hide their brains, Nancy Drew showed a generation of young readers another possibility.
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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.