Returning to work after the holidays was less jarring than usual this year. A board game from under the Christmas tree set my mind on course for two days of meetings about the global eradication of polio.
Pandemic challenges a diverse team of specialists from CDC Atlanta to stop four deadly infections before they engulf the world. Players race around the continents in a collaborative effort to bring outbreaks under control. Should we suppress an outbreak from the epicenter or work in from the edges? Focus on one disease till it’s gone for good or strive to maintain low levels of each? Divert staff from existing programs to respond to each new outbreak? Invest in research for future cures at the cost of immediate treatment?
This map-based strategy game reminds me of the Avalon Hill war games of half a century ago, such as Waterloo, Gettysburg, or Battle of the Bulge. While Pandemic isn’t overtly historical, that’s only because the game doesn’t name the infections. In any recent year, the international health community has battled multiple pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, diphtheria, cholera, SARS, MERS, H1N1 flu, Ebola, Zika virus, or Lassa fever. Pandemic mimics reality in the way deadly infections spread and the strategic challenges of combating them.
Would a character in this time and place really do that? Reader feedback helps novelists make draft characters more credible, but unfounded expectations complicate matters. Recently I’ve had a protagonist challenged for failure to act like a typical medieval woman: meek, docile, obedient, and subservient. Where did that come from?
Though men held most of the formal power and property, medieval literature and history abound in assertive, influential women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (Canterbury Tales) and the women in Boccaccio’s Decameron were feisty, if fictitious. Blood feuds in Icelandic sagas depended on women goading reluctant men to fulfill their vengeful duty.
Abbesses ruled monasteries that included men as well as women. Women of rank plotted with sons and lovers to control the English crown. Some queens governed as regents for minor sons or demented husbands. When feudal knights rode off to war, the complex management of their manors fell to their wives or widows. Widows who inherited property enjoyed considerable independence.
There are lots of good reasons to question a character’s behavior, but the presumed docility of medieval women isn’t one of them.
Gratitude. Intention. Simplicity. Joy. If you were to pick one word for personal focus in the year ahead, what would it be? Clarity. Self-care. Authenticity. Trust. The practice of choosing a word instead of making resolutions has been around a while, but I first heard of it a couple of weeks ago. Resolutions are a set-up for failure, typically forgotten in a month or two. A word isn’t a promise to keep or break, but a lens through which to view one’s life during the year ahead.
Nature’s years don’t start and end, of course; they cycle. Knowing New Year’s Day is arbitrary doesn’t stop many of us from endowing it with a sense of fresh beginnings. Often I’ve chosen something I wanted to leave behind. Last year, Fear turned to ashes in a New Year’s Eve bonfire. Right now the idea of a focus word calls to me more strongly. At this writing it’s Magic, though it has a few more hours to gel.
With what rituals do you usher in the new year, if any? What word would you select for focus in 2019, or what from your past is it time to let go?
Childhood Christmas Eves taught me much of what I love. The brightly lit tree in our living room was draped in tinsel, with a home-cut tin star at the top. Having no fireplace, we each hung a sock on the couch, which backed against the wall nearest the furnace pipe. I wondered what difference that made when Santa had to go from chimney to furnace, up the basement stairs, and around through the kitchen. But it worked; the socks were always full the next morning.
We sang favorite carols at the piano and read the ancient Christmas story, illustrated with paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our other annual reading was “King John’s Christmas” by A. A. Milne, which still brings me to tears.
Lasting lessons from those Christmas Eves: The joy of home and family. Lights, music, art, story. Tradition, ingenuity, wonder. Unconditional goodwill to all, even to bad King John.
Image: by Gerard David, 1480s. Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was one of the paintings in the Christmas book I grew up on.
A whisper in the ear, a note on the counter, a hand on the shoulder. We use more than one sense to communicate, perhaps all five. Then again, the “five senses” we learned in grade school may oversimplify. What about our ability to sense balance, temperature, motion, or pain? What senses might other creatures have?
Communication goes beyond humans, of course. Animals exchange information within and across species, from the roar of a lion or the warning flick of a whitetail to the dance of bees or the pheromones of ants. More surprising, to me at least, is communication among non-animal organisms, involving senses so alien we turn to metaphors like “language,” “eavesdropping,” or “information highway.”
Through underground threads of fungus, plant roots not only poison competitors and share nutrients but also pass information. Aphid-infested broad beans signal aphid-free seedings, through fungal networks, to activate chemical defenses against aphids. Bacteria communicate through chemical signals to act as a group. A grad student at Princeton just published research showing a virus can “listen in” on bacterial “conversations,” using the information to guide its spread from one host bacterium to another.
As a specialist in the written word, I find it humbling to learn of communication among life forms of all sorts, probably since before we humans were a twinkle in nature’s eye.
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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.