Max Escher gazes up from the self-portrait that absorbed much of my January. Nearly devoid of crisp lines or vivid colors, right angles skewed by his reflecting sphere, it launched me more than once into searching the floor for a piece I knew must be missing.
Winter is jigsaw puzzle season. We’re fortunate to have a suitable table available, since the holidays, for as long as the thousand pieces take to assemble. Though I feared this one might take months, gradually my perceptions sharpened. Distinctions of tone and texture emerged that were invisible at first. This temporary shift in perception is as predictable as the conviction that a piece is missing.
For a time, the world around me grows more vivid, too. Colorless midwinter takes on myriad shades of brown, gray, and white. Like skills or muscles, the senses we exercise grow stronger. Perhaps that’s why writers are encouraged to carry notepads, not just to capture phrases or incidents for future reference, but to hone the skill of noticing.
One delight of reading historical fiction is the discovery of cultures I didn’t know existed. Reading Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, I wondered if the “Merikins” Sherlock’s brother encounters in Trinidad were a figment of the authors’ imagination. They turn out to be quite real.
During the War of 1812, hundreds of American slaves escaped to the British navy for a promise of freedom and sixteen acres of land. Afterward these “Merikins” and their families settled six hilltop “company villages” in southern Trinidad, corresponding to the six companies of their service in the Colonial Marines.
The Merikins left a lasting mark on Trinidadian culture. They’re credited with introducing hill rice as a major crop. Merikin descendants celebrate a heritage that includes their Baptist faith and the gayap tradition of “each one, help one.” Historical markers identify the company village sites, two of which—Fifth Company and Sixth Company—retain their original place names.
Photo from the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago.
Researching a college term paper on early Czech nationalism, I learned medieval theologians didn’t use Latin only to please the Church.* Everyday languages like Czech lacked a vocabulary for complex theological ideas; ordinary folk didn’t need it. Language, in turn, shaped and limited what non-scholars could think. It’s hard to discuss or even contemplate matters for which you lack the words.
New terms (neologisms) and new ideas grew hand in hand. Over time, languages became richer and more complex. Specialized vocabulary (jargon) within a skill or interest group made communication more precise. Plumbers confer about a leak in terms that mean nothing to me, with far better results than if they depended on my floundering “that round part on the bottom.”
Neologisms like blog and webinar gain easy acceptance. Not so with death tax, feminazi, intersectionality, and microaggression. Such terms flag the user’s sympathies.** Some serve no other purpose (buzzwords). Consider Democrat Party vs. Democratic Party, or people of color vs. colored people. The choice of phrasing communicates nothing but the leanings of the speaker.
* Of course, Latin also let scholars communicate internationally, as French did later and English does today.
** Some of these terms also facilitate precise discussion.
It wasn’t so much a New Year’s resolution as a turn-of-the-year experiment. Anticipating six days in a row with no scheduled obligations, I resolved to spend the week writing at a pace I hadn’t sustained in a while and see what happened. Would focus and flow come back?
Recently I happened on an article about the brain states of zebrafish. They have a limbic system (involved in emotion) similar to humans and they’re easier to study. Researchers have found a hub of neurons that control a brain-wide motivational switch. When it’s activated, a zebrafish goes into high focus for a limited time to chase prey. Unrelated skills are suppressed until the hunting state winds down. Then the zebrafish swims about restlessly exploring its environment.
Focus or explore? I identify with the zebrafish in its need for both. My New Year’s experiment managed to reactivate the focus switch for hours at a stretch. But art and life also need periods of diffuse attention to fuel creativity, taking us places we didn’t know existed. Without the aimless times, I’d never have thought to inquire into the brain states of zebrafish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.