Should you carry an umbrella on a cloudy day? Can you wait till the chance of rain is either 100% or 0% to decide? Day-to-day choices—and the big choices, too—rest on imperfect knowledge. How much certainty we demand depends on what’s knowable and how much it matters.
Long ago, I was married to a soldier in the Army Security Agency. Though I wasn’t privy to his top-secret training, I suspect that’s where he learned labels for different degrees of certainty or validity. A-val meant certain, B-val probable, C-val perhaps fifty-fifty, D-val possible. These terms entered my vocabulary for historical research and everyday life.
The standard of evidence in criminal prosecutions is A-val, beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil suits it’s B-val, preponderance of the evidence. Lack of certainty isn’t cause for paralysis or cynicism. Often the best we can do is estimate likelihood, compare the risks of getting it wrong in one direction versus the other, and move forward.
Fear of disappointment and fear that tingles your spine are so different they scarcely deserve the same name. Sure, Santa may leave you a lump of coal if you misbehave, but that’s nothing to being beaten with a switch and carted off to a demon’s lair.
The goat-horned, cloven-footed Krampus of central Europe punishes the naughty on Krampusnacht, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day in early December, while the saint rewards everyone else. Young men in Krampus masks parade through the streets, the drunker the scarier. Krampus greeting cards were a fad of the early 1900s.
Saint Nicholas and the Krampus may seem opposites but they’re far from enemies. Some cards show them working happily together, good cop and bad cop, the yin and the yang. I wonder what broader lessons these agents of joy and woe might offer us this season.
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” my mother misquoted Shakespeare when I went on and on about why she should let me do something forbidden. This childhood memory resurfaced last week during revision of a highly repetitious draft. Why had I made the main character restate her motives in different words every few pages? And why was I finding it so hard to be concise?
The lady did protest too much. Stepping away from the page, I saw the problem: Her motivation was weak. I didn’t trust readers to grasp it because I hadn’t grasped it either. Not until her motive came into better focus could I write it in one compelling paragraph and move forward.
Does the same hold in daily life? Counterintuitive but possible. I’m starting to suspect the harder I argue a point, the more uncertain I am about its logic. Clarity should make it possible to state the case once and be done with it.
Things keep breaking. Body parts, house parts, car parts, appliances, zippers. Entire days disappear into repairs.
Kintsugi, “golden joinery,” is the Japanese art of piecing together broken pottery with gold-dusted lacquer to enhance the breaks. Bloggers often pair it with Leonard Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” If the crack holds potential for beauty, kintsugi fulfills the potential and blocks the light. The beauty lies not in the flaw but what’s done with it.
It’s another way fiction isn’t like life. I’ll deem the day a success if the repairs make things work as well as before. In fiction, with no crack there’s no story, and how the characters respond transforms them. Otherwise it’s a big yawn—which, in real life, is what I’d prefer today’s repairs to be.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row . . .
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
- John McCrae, 1915
After World War I, poppies were strewn on graves and planted in parks in memory of the war dead. Three “poppy ladies” created a lasting tradition.
Moina Michael (U.S.): The Georgia teacher helped rescue stranded Americans from Europe after war broke out, trained overseas YWCA workers, taught disabled servicemen, and wore a red memorial poppy. The American Legion Auxiliary adopted her proposal to sell silk poppies for funds to help disabled veterans.
Anna A. Guérin (France): After a speaking tour of the U.S. to raise money for French war orphans, Guérin organized French widows to make artificial poppies to support widows and children. The Veterans of Foreign Wars helped distribute them in the U.S. and later arranged to include American disabled veterans in the labor and benefits.
Lillian Bilsky Freiman (Canada): Called the most influential Jewish-Canadian woman of her generation, Freiman organized sewing circles to clothe soldiers, found Canadian homes for Jewish orphans from Ukraine, opened a hostel for veterans, and helped set up job sites for veterans to make furniture and toys. She introduced Canadian poppy campaigns like those in the U.S. and France.
“. . . Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders’ fields.”
Moina Michael, 1918
Are you YELLING at me? Are YOU yelling at ME?
Like boldface or italics, all caps in small doses lend emphasis. They're great for book covers and road signs but considered rude in email. Selectively equating all caps with shouting long predates the Internet. (“This time he shouted it out in capital letters.” Evening Star, Feb. 28, 1856.) There’s method in the madness.
ALL CAPS go back to the ancient Romans, who used capital letters only. Early medieval scribes invented cursive and lower-case scripts for faster copying. The printing press standardized a mix of caps and lower case, with two advantages over boxy all caps. First, mixed case took less space and used less paper. Second, in long texts with high resolution, it’s easier to read. The variety of letter shapes, some dropping below the line and others rising high above it, helps the eyes distinguish whole words at a time.
Later technologies offered less choice of fonts and cases. Teletype equipment was engineered with a single all-caps keyboard; traces remain in military, naval, and weather communications. Typewriters produced upper and lower case but not bold or italics, making capitalization the way to accentuate key words in legal documents. Ever wonder what's behind the tradition of all caps for comics? Hand lettering, ink that bleeds on cheap paper, short phrases—and smaller speech bubbles because no letters drop below the line.
Pumpkins, autumn leaves, flickering flames, and golden chrysanthemums: Now is when orange comes into its own. Lanterns and bonfires push back against the deepening darkness.
The color got its name from the fruit tree, native to northern India. The Sanskrit name naranga traveled west with the fruit, reaching English as orange by the late 1300s. Sailors planted orange trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. It wasn’t until the early 1600s that the fruit’s color, formerly called geoluhread (“yellow red”), began to be called orange as well.
While seasonal bonfires are an ancient tradition, the prevalence of orange in mid-autumn decorations is distinctively American. Irish immigrants in the 1800s, accustomed to carving turnips for lanterns to ward off evil spirits on All Hallows Eve, discovered North American pumpkins worked even better. The brilliant, spooky orange of glowing pumpkin lanterns against the black of lengthening nights set the ubiquitous color scheme of late October.
The story of Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti working for decades on one set of cathedral doors used to boggle me. It no longer seems strange. I’ve been writing Rotary International’s history of polio eradication for a quarter century now, with no clear end in sight.
What’s taking so long? The World Health Organization (WHO) eradicated smallpox in eighteen years from the first plan to the last natural case. With one human disease gone forever, WHO, Rotary, UNICEF, and CDC launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988. More than thirty years later, natural poliovirus still paralyzes children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the smallpox and polio challenges is that smallpox was reliably visible. Its telltale rash let health workers close in on the virus by vaccinating each patient’s neighbors and contacts. Most polio infections are invisible. Poliovirus paralyzes fewer than one in a hundred people infected, so it can spread widely before anyone knows it’s there.
Like many projects, polio eradication is taking longer than first envisioned. The work continues, and so does the writing. I look forward to the day I can finish Volume III confident that poliovirus will never paralyze another child.
The published volumes of Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World are Vol. I, “Making the Promise,” and Vol. II, “Almost Every Child.”
Back in high school and college, friends sometimes set me up on blind dates. Nice guys all, but nothing clicked. How, as a writer, can I set up an enjoyable blind date between reader and character? They’ve never met before the reader picks up the book. My hope is to craft a character with whom readers will click.
Writing advice is clear and consistent: A relatable character needs strengths, quirks, and one fatal flaw. The narrative must carry the main character through an arc of personal growth that involves facing the flaw head-on and overcoming it to do what must be done, revealing a theme in the process. All without coming across as formulaic.
I get it, or think I do, up to the moment I sit down to write. Then the questions bubble up: Who among us has one and only one significant bad habit? What’s the flaw for Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache to overcome, kindness? In an ongoing series, does character arc mean conquest of the same flaw again and again, like Sisyphus’s stone rolling back down the hill?
Script consultant Dara Marks defines fatal flaw as “a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness.” Going back to my novel-in-progress, I’ll try stepping away from moral judgments or bad habits to ask what old way of being no longer works in my character’s new situation. Perhaps I might even step away from fiction to ask the same question of myself.
What a comfort to be told that what we believe is true! Even if our belief feels unpleasant, to hear it affirmed is somehow to be reassured. In sooth, this affirmation soothes, as any soothsayer might predict.
Sooth and soothe come from the same Old English root. Soth was originally an adjective meaning “genuine” or “true.” The noun form meant “truth”; the verb form, “to verify or show to be true.”
Soothe emerged in the 1560s for humoring or flattering others by asserting what they said was true. It denoted the comfort of uncritical agreement, not the pain of truth confronting falsehood. Soothe meaning “to calm gently” appeared in the 1690s, finally detached from any relationship to truth.
To learn the error of a former belief is disorienting at best. It may be exciting, it may be distressing, but it rarely soothes. Small wonder we go to such lengths to avoid it. Small wonder our efforts to persuade others (or theirs to persuade us) by facts and logic are often met with deaf ears.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.