Our sprawling perennial garden delights me with constant surprises. What’s in bloom today? Dedicated gardeners appear to pot, divide, or transplant with pleasure. Me, I’d rather pull dandelions.
I studied the Emancipation Proclamation as a schoolgirl but didn’t hear of Juneteenth till much later. On June 19, 1865, the Union army announced in Texas that all formerly enslaved people were now free. Annual celebrations spread from Black communities in Texas throughout the South and beyond. Urged by activists such as Opal Lee, last year Juneteenth became our newest federal holiday. Lee said, “It is not a Black thing, it’s not just a Texas thing, but it’s about freedom for everybody.”
As a white northerner, how can I join in with joy and respect? The difference between cultural diffusion, appropriation, and assimilation is imprecise. Already some businesses have introduced Juneteenth-themed products and faced backlash. Opinions online vary. Many say to study, recommit, and give the holiday the solemnity of Veterans Day or Memorial Day. Unlike those days, though, it’s fine to wish people a happy Juneteenth. Is it supportive or intrusive for me to enter into Juneteenth traditions like street fairs, rodeos, and barbeque cookouts featuring red drinks and desserts?
We know how to enjoy a festive wedding without making it all about us. We attend by invitation only; we don’t try to dress like the bride or groom; we take our cues from the organizers; we listen more than we talk. We have a great time and remember what it’s all about. This might be a model for a white northerner at a local, public Juneteenth celebration. Thanks to Opal Lee and others, we’re all invited.
Image: 1920s Juneteenth celebration, from a documentary film by Solomon Sir Jones. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale.
I furled my umbrella and passed the registration desk without stopping. As directed by email, I took the elevator to the third floor, bypassed another registration desk, and followed a young woman through a maze of hallways. Her desk held a tape measure, a blood pressure cuff, and a rack of eight or ten vials with brightly colored caps. An hour later I opened the umbrella and stepped back into the rain, lighter by several tablespoons of bodily fluids. My doctor would never know unless I decided to tell her.
All of Us is a nationwide program to support medical research about interactions among environment, lifestyle, and genetics. Organizers aim to build a data base of a million adult volunteers who give researchers anonymous access to their medical records. Now that I’ve donated specimens and measurements, my role is to answer occasional surveys online. I’m always free to opt out.
Part of life is finding ways to contribute that fit one’s interests, skills, and opportunities, whether organizing a petition drive or feeding a hungry kitten. In this time of widespread distrust of science, one small way I can help is to be one of a million whose data researchers can draw on for years to come.
What once-common jobs can you think of that are now obsolete or nearly so? Town crier. Lamp lighter. Phone company switchboard operator. Wet nurse, a woman who breastfed someone else’s baby.
A less desirable alternative was to feed the baby milk from goats, cows, mares, or donkeys. Compared to human milk, cow’s milk contains fewer easy-to-digest carbohydrates, and more protein in the form of hard-to-digest casein. Milk spoils quickly without refrigeration or pasteurization. Babies fed only cow’s milk were less likely to survive infancy.
In 1865, the German chemist Justus von Liebig introduced Liebig’s Soup for Infants. Formulated to make cow’s milk more like human milk, it added wheat flour, malt flour, and potassium carbonate. A powdered version to mix with cow’s milk and water resolved the problem of spoilage. Soon afterward, Nestlé in Switzerland introduced a cereal composed of cow’s milk, wheat flour, and sugar, for infants who could not be breastfed. Such products were expensive. Most caregivers preferred to mix their own at home.
Harvard professor Thomas Morgan Rotch taught pediatricians to direct infant nutrition according to a “percentage method.” Caregivers should dilute cow’s milk with water to reduce the percentage of casein, then add sugar and cream to restore their concentration. It was cumbersome to do at home but reached a close match to the percentages of protein, sugar, and fat in human milk.
By the 1950s, many hospitals gave new mothers recipes for formula made of evaporated milk, water, and sugar or corn syrup, with a liquid vitamin supplement on the side. Perhaps our present emergency has caregivers reviving such recipes. (Consult your pediatrician.) On the borderline between food and pharmaceuticals, commercial formula is closely regulated to keep babies safe. That makes the industry difficult to enter. Like so much in life, it’s all tradeoffs.
Image: The bureau of wet nurses in Paris - wet nurses waiting to be selected. Aquatint, 1822. Wellcome Collection.
Memorial Day and Labor Day mark the unofficial beginning and end of summer. They’re days to grill out, watch sports, and celebrate an extended weekend with family or friends. According to my late mother-in-law, they were the first and last acceptable days to wear white. Days to give our war dead and our workers a passing thought.
The Civil War killed more Americans than any other war in history. In village after village, the bereaved brought spring flowers to decorate their graves. Over time Decoration Day became a widespread state and local holiday, extended to later wars, and evolved into the federal Monday holiday called Memorial Day. Wartime losses no longer pervade whole communities as they did in the Civil War. We have fewer graves to visit. Each new one still represents a tragedy.
Am I the last person in the U.S. to hear of the National Moment of Remembrance? It started in 2000 by presidential proclamation and then federal law, designating one minute at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day to honor Americans who died to keep us free. According to a White House fact sheet, “3:00 p.m. was chosen because it is a time of day when most Americans are likely making the most of the freedoms we enjoy.” One minute of Taps or silence and then back to the freedoms we enjoy: to grill out, watch sports, or celebrate an extended weekend with family and friends.
The Ice Age Trail is blazed in yellow. White blazes mark side paths that rejoin the main trail; blue indicates spurs to points of interest.
Trailblazers are innovators, pathfinders, pioneers, firsts in any endeavor. Among these synonyms, trailblazer stands alone in its focus on marking the track to guide others. Only distantly related to the blaze of a blazing fire, the second half of trailblazer comes from the blaze or white stripe on the face of a horse. Wilderness explorers chipped away bark to leave similar white marks on trees, so later travelers could follow their route. Today they use paint or signposts.
I’m thankful to the many who scout the Ice Age Trail route, acquire land rights, open and maintain the path, build boardwalks and bridges, and clear dispersed camping areas for long-distance backpackers. Perhaps most often, day hiking through unfamiliar terrain, I feel gratitude to the trailblazers who help me avoid getting lost.
My three-season project for 2022 is to walk at least part of every Ice Age Trail segment within an hour’s drive from home.
Last year I hiked every City of Madison conservation park and most of the larger Dane County parks. It was a joy to explore unfamiliar places, relish natural beauty, and enlarge my mental map of the area. This year’s forays onto the Ice Age Trail promise all that and more: a deeper knowledge of how the geological past shaped Wisconsin’s landscape.
I’ve long heard of the Appalachian Trail but didn’t know it was the first of many under the National Trails System Act of 1968. Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail joined the list in 1980. Conceived by Milwaukee conservationist Ray Zillmer in the 1950s and built mostly by volunteers, the thousand-mile footpath winds along the terminal moraine of the region’s latest glacier. It runs from Door County in the east to Saint Croix Falls in the west.
The trail passes through a mix of public and private lands. Negotiating the necessary agreements is a slow, arduous undertaking. More than half the projected trail is now complete, with finished segments connected by road. It’s a work in progress. My understanding of the lasting impact of the Ice Age is a work in progress too.
Fury, anger, rage. Whenever life seems to settle down, some new event sets off fresh tirades. Apart from letting off steam, are tirades of any use? Can a rant help change the world?
By temperament I shy away from rants, until I erupt with one of my own. Rants tend to drag on and on in circles, long past the initial need to vent. They rarely persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree. In fact, they’re likely to leave dissenters more entrenched in their dissent. Quiet stories from personal experience may carry more influence. I’m tempted to say, enough already, ranting doesn’t help. Let’s talk solutions or move on.
Yet I have to admit it’s more complicated than that. The value of a rant (if you share its viewpoint, or the danger if you don’t) lies in its power to bind and energize. It affirms like-minded listeners with a sense of rightness, community, belonging. It can stir a group to action.
When you feel an irresistible urge to rant, steer clear of dissenters and undecideds until the urge passes. With allies, rant at will, if your strategic purpose is to inflame the crowd. If you just need to get your fury off your chest, best do so with a calm, patient, trusted friend who will listen till it eases. Till you’re ready to talk solutions or move on.
Shame can get you shunned. Humiliation can get you killed.
Shame is a tool to enforce norms of moral behavior. It’s also a weapon to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of people in need, data scientist Cathy O’Neil writes in The Shame Machine (2022). She explores how and why we shame those who are homeless, obese, addicted, mentally ill, undocumented, or formerly incarcerated. Requests for aid run up against complex paperwork, intrusive questions, and insurance denials. Food stamps and free school lunches put hardship on public display. Who gains? Blaming social problems on personal “bad decisions” lets everyone else off the hook. Privatization boosts corporate income. For-profit prisons and weight-loss programs thrive on repeat business.
Humiliation is a different matter. It’s more about pride, reciprocity, and standing in the community than about morality. In the epics of medieval Iceland, law professor William Ian Miller (Humiliation, 1993) finds a culture in which reputation is all and insult is repaid with violence. Similar traits mark the honor societies of the Old South and the urban gangland. They tinge playground bullying and adult anxiety about throwing a party to which nobody comes.
Hypocrisy lies at the intersection of shame and humiliation. The politician who campaigns on family values, later revealed as a sexual predator, invites both reproach and ridicule. Humiliation is always cruel, whether or not it’s deserved. Shame, on the other hand, aimed upward at public figures who abuse their power, has potential to bring reform and reconciliation.
If only I had gotten that surgery years ago. What if I hadn’t seen the child run into the street? Human minds love to imagine a past or present world much like the real one, with one key element changed. It’s one way we learn from experience. It may also mire us in remorse or self-pity, unable to move forward.
Over a balmy California outdoor dinner, a philosopher and a brain scientist discussed David K. Lewis’s classic example: "If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over” (Counterfactuals, 1973). What does it mean to make a factual statement about a situation that is contrary to fact? Why do we so often describe the world we know by comparing it to one that doesn’t exist?
In a recent thought experiment, I’m trying to replace negative statements like “It isn’t cloudy or cold” with affirmatives that mean the same thing: “It’s sunny and warm.” The editor in me tweaks “I can’t get that app to load” into “How to load that app is a mystery to me.” With each switch, my spirits lift. It’s as though the negative wording suggests an imaginary, alternative, cold and cloudy world in which apps load easily every time. In the affirmative, the only world I need is here and now.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.