Friends and neighbors used to rave about elegant Southern plantation houses they’d toured on vacation. Plantation weddings are still popular. But Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans won’t touch the wedding business. Opened to the public in 2014 as a museum about slavery, Whitney refuses to romanticize its past.*
Times are changing . . . gradually. Four years ago, I visited the historic San Diego de Alcala mission church in California. As I recall, a brochure described how and why Spaniards built a mission in that spot, how the priests lived, and what challenges beset them. The next year at Mission San José in San Antonio TX, a ranger explained how drought and disease drove native inhabitants of the region to live and work on the mission grounds. In time they and their descendants created a whole new culture, blending indigenous foods and customs with Spanish language and Catholic faith.
The histories we hear depend in part on what questions we ask. If we only ask about the white people in charge of a plantation or mission, we turn to Gone With the Wind for images of suffering. I’m glad there’s a rising interest in asking, researching, and teaching about the forced labor that made plantations and missions possible.** Enslaved people’s sufferings are painful to imagine and, I hope, impossible to romanticize.
* Image: Whitney Plantation slave cabins. For more on how diverse sites and programs portray slavery, read How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (2021).
** According to the National Park Service, “Tradition has it that the missionaries never forced anyone into a mission, but once there, they could not leave. Those who ran away were often tracked down and returned to the mission.”
Crowds at the gym are starting to thin. Most people who make New Year’s resolutions quit in a matter of weeks. While I rarely set turn-of-year goals, I sometimes identify—and then forget—a focus for the coming year or a habit to leave behind. Can such short-lived annual practices serve any useful purpose?
I believe so.
Most of daily life, mine at least, is guided either by routine or by response to immediate events. That’s just as well; to decide each action minute by minute would be overwhelming. But once a year, whether at New Year’s or some other fixed date, I might do well to step back from the trees of every day for a longer view of the forest. How is it with my life? Which routines still serve me? What cries out for gratitude, or adjustment, or recommitment? Is it time to begin baby steps toward something new?
It hardly matters whether that long view leads me to make and keep a resolution. Even if I forget the specifics, pausing to look at the forest may shape how I perceive the trees for many months to come.
In war, it’s called collateral damage. In medicine, adverse side effects. Few of us would kill one innocent person to save another. Would you do it to save a hundred? A thousand? A million? Moral philosophers call this the trolley problem. If you saw a trolley hurtling toward five people tied to the track, and your only option was to switch it to another track with just one potential victim, would you pull the switch?
We seem hard-wired to accept greater harm from impersonal causes than from human deeds. To ignore preventable storm damage feels less wicked than inflicting comparable damage. Inaction, sins of omission, or leaving matters to nature or chance ranks higher in our moral instincts than committing active harm, however small. Some take it a step farther, calling nature inherently good. Human intervention feels suspect.
Before vaccines, polio paralyzed about half a million children a year. Mass vaccination largely eliminated the disease in industrialized countries by 1988, but polio still paralyzed or killed some 350,000 a year in developing countries—a thousand children a day. Mass campaigns with a cheaper, easier-to-administer oral vaccine eradicated two types of naturally occurring polio and reduced the third type to only 6 cases in 2021 and about 30 this past year. But 2022 also saw between 500 and 600 children paralyzed by polio that could be traced to mutations in that same oral vaccine.
A new, more genetically stable vaccine should resolve this problem. Meanwhile, which is worse: hundreds of children paralyzed because of indirect human action, or hundreds of thousands paralyzed naturally whom humans could have saved? It’s a real-life version of the trolley problem. Which alternative shocks you more? Which keeps your child safer?
The turn of the year brings out platitudes. “Every ending is a new beginning.” “Out with the old, in with the new.” The date of the supposed fresh start is arbitrary, of course. Remember the relief when annus horribilis 2020 was finally hindsight? Then came January 6, 2021. The gods laughed, “And you thought the worst was over.”
Most changes evoke mixed feelings. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski suggested societies use rites of passage, at changes of personal status, to reinforce the more desirable elements in the mix. A wedding ceremony, for example, highlights joyful commitment and downplays loss of freedom. Though few New Year’s celebrations are true rites of passage, they offer a similar purpose.
Parties, toasts, and "Auld Lang Syne" call us to remember the past but not to wallow in it. Acknowledge grief but don’t despair; the sun will rise again. And if the past year stank, raise a glass to “good riddance” instead of plotting endless cycles of revenge. Out with the old, in with the new.
Image: Reporter and artist Marguerite Martyn, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 4, 1914.
Apart from safety features, my car has few confusing bells and whistles. I chose it hoping still to drive it when I’m eighty. Slower reflexes and a steeper learning curve seem possible. As for traits more basic to who I am—personality and values, likes and dislikes—I don’t foresee much change.
The rapid changes of childhood slow as we grow toward midlife and beyond. At every stage, though, change continues more than we expect. Psychologist Dan Gilbert and others asked thousands of adults how much they’d changed in the past decade or expected to in their next decade. In every age group, reported change far exceeded expectations; 40-year-olds said they’d changed a lot since 30, while 30-year-olds didn’t expect to be very different at 40. Gilbert calls it “the end of history illusion,” the notion that numerous past transitions have brought us now (regardless of age) to the finished selves we were meant to be.
It makes sense. Reporting the narrative of a remembered past is easier than inventing an unseen future. But underestimating future change can entice us to overpay for a years-from-now trip we won't still enjoy. It can drag us down with a sense of emptiness or failure we envision as permanent. What about long-term commitments like choosing a career or life partner, or bearing a child? They, too, may change more than we expected. With luck, the changes could prove richer and more rewarding than we ever imagined.
Image: Janus, Roman god of transition, faces both past and future. Roman coin in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
Brightening deep December with raucous levity, Saturnalia was the merriest festival of the ancient Roman calendar. Inhibitions faded. Masters played at being servants, servants at being masters. The social order turned upside down. Chaos and mischief reigned.
Saturnalia is also my latest read in Lindsey Davis’s series about private investigator Marcus Didius Falco in imperial Rome.
Celebrations of chaos have emerged again and again. Social role-reversal was central to the medieval Feast of Fools. Massachusetts Puritans banned Christmas in part for its drunkenness and debauchery. Chaos is scary, especially when fueled by anger or hate. Even chaos that starts in fun can easily flare out of control.
Chaos and order; order and chaos. We see so much of both lately: riots and insurrection on one hand, hyper-monitoring on the other, all of it in such earnest. Order can never win totally. Some chaos will always break through. Rather than choose either extreme or seek a bland middle way, I’d rather lighten up and enjoy the dance. Savor Saturnalian chaos and order by turns, within basic boundaries of safety and respect.
“You have such a wonderful collection of oldies!” the babysitter gushed, flipping through our 33 rmp Beatles, Doors, and Cream. Oldies? To us, they were just records.
“Vietnam? We studied about that in history class,” a young man told me later. To me it wasn’t coursework, but a major force shaping my life.
None of my history classes ran past World War II, well before my earliest memories. Not until my freelance years editing K-12 social studies materials did I begin to see historical accounts of events I recalled. Some, like the Cuban missile crisis, I barely noticed when they happened. Martin Luther King’s assassination and President Nixon’s resignation held my full attention from a distance. A few, like the shootings at Kent State in 1970, hit closer to home as I visited a sister campus nearby.
The older I get, the more current events conjure up times remembered. Nothing is new under the sun; everything is new because of context and hindsight. Histories depict the forest; we live from day to day in the trees. Writing memoir never drew me, but history always did. The line between the two grows ever thinner as I age.
Image: Kent State University, May 4, 1970. I was at Oberlin College, babe in arms, to find student housing for my soldier husband’s return to finish his degree. All Oberlin (including the housing office) closed down on hearing the news from Kent.
The evening of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, my roommate’s boyfriend was to sing in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard. His solo had the line, “With an ounce or two of lead, I dispatched him through the head!” When we learned midday that President Kennedy had been shot, our friend panicked. “I can’t sing that tonight! I know the show must go on, but I just can’t! I can’t!”
In retrospect, it’s obvious the show would be canceled, like everything else except meals. In the first shock of a personal or national emergency, though, I get disoriented. Nothing is obvious but reflex: save the cat, dial 911, fight/flee/freeze to escape the tiger. Figuring things out, redefining priorities, or discerning which shows must go on takes longer.
Emotions are a blunt tool for rapid response, adapted to keep us alive in the moment. Reason is slower and more finely honed to let us analyze and plan. Survival requires both.
To those who asked since last week’s post, I’m improving, thanks. Perhaps now just sick as a puppy. A couple of disorienting mini-emergencies along the way have settled into practical cancellations and reschedulings. Emotion and reason are each doing their part. Life is good.
Image: Tin box with scene from The Yeomen of the Guard, 1888. Wikimedia Commons.
Inspiration doesn’t bubble up when you’re sick as a dog. Granted, my current bug is respiratory, not gastrointestinal as the phrase might suggest, but even so—why dogs? Do they get sicker than the rest of us, or more often?
“Sick as a dog” is said to go back at least to 1705, though I haven’t found the reference yet. Oxford English Dictionary, anyone? According to the OED, early phrases and proverbs smeared dogs as vicious, miserable working beasts that spread disease.
Who doesn’t love a good origin story? We thirst to know how a word, phrase, belief, cultural practice, or epidemic began. When evidence runs out, make something up. It stretches the imagination and generates hypotheses to explore. Just remember to distinguish evidence from speculation or hypothesis, to avoid getting mired in conspiracy theories not fit for a dog.
Divorce was unknown among the parents of my childhood friends, though one said hers planned to break up after their kids finished high school. Gays and lesbians were deep in the closet. Yet even in that traditional time and place, not all families fit the storybook image of mother, father, and one to four children. Playmates had lost fathers to war, illness, or construction accidents. Aunts and uncles took in three boys whose widowed mother died of breast cancer. “Traditional families” are not universal, and they never have been.
Regardless of talk of death, divorce, or same-sex relationships, early childhood is not too soon to end the false distinction between “normal” and “different.” I’d like to see a picture book something like this:
What Makes a Family?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.