Wired for Story
Temple lamps lit with a one-day supply of oil still burn eight days later. Wise men bearing gifts have begun their long journey to Bethlehem. Ancient tales, passed down through generations, transmit truths that run deeper than fact.
Humans are story-telling creatures. All the logic and statistics you can offer won’t move hearts or minds as much as the well-told tale of a character’s struggle. Personal, emotionally gripping stories engage more of the brain than raw data. One study found subjects were much more likely to solve a logic puzzle when it was embedded in a problem-solving narrative.
Another research team found blood levels of oxytocin rose after a compelling story. Oxytocin promotes empathy and trust, makes us more sensitive to social cues, and increases altruistic behavior. It’s no coincidence this season of stories and movies is also a season of giving.
How To Survive the Holidays
Christmas boosts my spirits. Lights, songs, stories, and human connections push back against the darkness. But “the most wonderful time of the year” is a lot to live up to. Alongside joy, this can be a season of forced cheer, reminders of loss and grief, awkward get-togethers, or unwanted solitude. A search for “How to Survive the Holidays” generates zillions of hits online.
I like to approach Christmas as a massive buffet table, laden with more selections than will ever fit on my plate. One year I sing carols and admire flamboyant lawn decorations. The next year, my plate holds a simple Indian restaurant, a walk by the lake, and the start of a new jigsaw puzzle. In good years and hard years alike—and aren’t most years some of each?—replacing expectations with options helps fit the observance to the needs of the moment.
Bookstores Are Back
Big box bookstores did a number on small independents, and then online vendors took a toll on the big boxes. University Book Store in Madison sells mostly Badger sportwear and gift items, plus textbooks and school supplies. The clerk told me people who want a book for pleasure or self-education shop online.
The period from the middle 1990s to 2009 saw a 40 percent drop in the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. Now they’re making a comeback, with new stores opening and sales growing 7.5 percent compounded over the past five years. Online giants may be a quick, cheap source for a specific book, but walk into an indie to discover one you never heard of, get tips from knowledgeable booksellers, and bump into book-loving neighbors.
Parnassus Books co-owner and bestselling author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House) attributes her Nashville indie’s success in large part to author appearances, community loyalty, and five shop dogs who help customers feel at home.
Thanks to the Sisters in Crime December newsletter for these sources.
True or False (But Are You Sure?)
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.
Greetings from the Krampus
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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.