Thursday, December 31, 2015

A new form of taxation

Most of us complain about taxes in one way or another.  But we almost always have our individual ideas of what government should do.  We sort of ask government to lower taxes but be sure to fund my sacred cow.

To this end, I suggest that the tax forms have an allocation schedule on which we can allocate where we want our income tax money to be spent:

Each individual cabinet level department
The office of the President
The Senate
The House of Representatives

If a person’s list doesn’t add up to 100%, then the remainder will go into a general fund to be allocated in the usual manner by Congress.  If a person’s list adds up more than 100%, then the values are adjusted proportionally to add up to 100%.
Much of text lost because deleting a duplicate deleted both.

So, if a person thinks the only business of the Federal government is war, aka defense, then he or she can stipulate 100% of their income tax go to the Dept. of Defense.

If a person thinks transportation and education are the most important activities of government, then he or she could stipulate say, 40% for one and 30% for the other leaving 30% for Congress to decide how to use.

With this plan, if only two percent of the allocation went to the military or any other function, Congress would have to use general funds, if available, to make up the difference to what it thinks is really needed.

Whatever we do, we should remember the supposed words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "I like taxes.  They buy me civilization."

When does a new year really start?

You may be reading this just before or just after New Year’s Day, 2016.  But is this really the start of a new year?  Shouldn’t the New Year really start on the Winter Solstice?  In 2015 this was December 22.  How did our calendar put the start of the new year about ten days later?

The Roman calendar of Julius Caesar’s time was based on the lunar cycle.  Many calendars of today are also based on the lunar cycle, such as the Chinese, Hebrew, Hindu, and Islamic calendars.  All of these have ways of periodically resynchronizing the calendar with the solar cycle, but not necessarily in the solar year.  This can result in certain holidays moving over the years from a winter holiday to a fall holiday.

Julius Caesar and several scholars reformed their calendar from a ten-month lunar cycle to a twelve month cycle.  That’s how we got the last four months moved two months later than the numbers they represented: September for ninth instead of seventh, December for twelfth instead of tenth.  The Romans also added an extra day to every fourth year to bring the calendar in synch with a solar year assumed to be 365.25 days long.

Even this was insufficient.  Hipparchus in the Second Century B.C. calculated the solar year to be  365-1/4 days minus 1/309 days.  His instruments were not that precise; he calculated this from his own and others measurements over a several year span.  What is remarkable that this figure is off by six minutes per decade or ten hours per century.

Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a calendar reform in the Sixteenth Century.  Essentially, this dropped leap years in years not divisible by 400.  However the Julian calendar was off by ten days and they were dropped; in 1582 October 5 became October 15.  As with any change of custom, this met with quite a bit of resistance.  For example, peasants thought it was an attempt to cheat them out of a week and a half’s rent.  Most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar within a few years; Protestant countries took decades or centuries to adopt it.

Britain (and its colonies) did so in 1752, but now British calendars were eleven days off.  So, September 2 was followed by September 14.  That’s why George Washington was born on February 11, 1732, but we celebrate his birthday on February 22.

The Orthodox Church did not adopt the Gregorian calendar.  That is why Orthodox Christmas is on January 7 instead of December 25.

Are you having trouble figuring that out?  If George Washington’s birthday was moved, why wasn’t Christmas moved?  It wasn’t and it wasn’t.  The Orthodox Christmas is on December 25 in the Julian calendar.  But the December 25 in the Julian calendar is now January 7 in the Gregorian calendar.  In other words, the adopters of the Gregorian calendar moved George Washington’s birthday, but they did not move the date of Christmas.

This column is shorter than I had planned.  Reading and understanding the why’s and how’s of calendars can take a lot more time than I thought. Did the Julian calendar start with January on the winter solstice?  I didn’t find any definitive statement on that.  But if the Julian calendar was off by ten days in 1582, then the new January 1 would have been December 22 on the Julian calendar.

Well, I kept slogging away, and I did find an article on the solstice and January.  Julius Caesar did want to start the new calendar on the solstice or the equinox, but the Senate wanted it to start on January first of the Roman civil calendar.  That was when they traditionally took office.  Caesar compromised.

And most politicians are still compromising.  After all, “perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Thursday, December 24, 2015

There really are only two religions

What? You think there are dozens of major religions and thousands of sects within them.  That may be true when you consider that many people believe in a long list of do’s and don’ts that are peculiar to their particular “religion”.  But if you look beyond the creeds and admonitions, you will find that are only two basic belief systems: generosity to others and narrow systems of “we are right and you are wrong”.  And all the major religions have many generous believers and far too many hateful believers.

In the third and fourth centuries there were major fights over what the exact natures were of God and Christ.  Often these fights were more political than religious, often depending on the belief of the current Roman Emperor.   Those who didn’t hold the right belief could be exiled and have their writings burned.

These persecutions of others in the name of Christianity continued through the centuries and into this century.

We have Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who set out to rid Spain of “heretics”, generally meaning Jews and Muslims.  He was more merciful than some of his predecessors; he didn’t torture suspects without the testimony of at least two witnesses of “good nature”.  John Calvin was instrumental in the burning of Michael Servetus at the stake along with his books.  His crime: denying the Holy Trinity.  The Ku Klux Klan upheld “Christian morality” by bombing black churches, killing innocent children.

On the other hand, we have many examples of Christian generosity.  The Quakers were very active in the anti-slavery movement.  Florence Nightingale tended to the wounded and dying in the Crimean War.  Mother Theresa cared for the dying in India.  Martin Luther King, Jr. called for non-violent resistance to segregation and other maltreatment of blacks and others.

Islam has been called a religion of peace, but human arrogance has subverted it, just as it subverted Christianity.  Muhammad had not been dead long before his followers started bickering over who was his rightly heir.  If I’m reading the Wikipedia entry on Sunni-Shia correctly, Sunnis believe the leader of Islam is selected by consensus and Shias believe the leadership is inherited by descendants of Muhammad.  There are many more differences, many similar to the Protestant-Catholic split in Christianity.

Just like with Christianity, many wars have been fought between these two groups over the centuries.  Meddling from “Christian” powers has exacerbated these differences in the last hundred years, opening the old sores of the Crusades.  We have Muslim-Muslim violence and Muslim-Christian violence.  Shias blow up Sunni mosques and Sunnis blow up Shiite mosques.  Sunni Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Shiite Iran to gain to much influence and Iran doesn’t want Saudi Arabia to gain much influence.  Into this antagonism is thrown the wild card of Daesh (aka Islamic state).  Daesh shows about as much mercy as did the “Christians” mentioned above.

An interesting aspect of the Koran are the injunctions to have proof for your knowledge.  This may be why in the Dark Ages of Christianity, Arab mathematics and science were making great strides.

I didn’t have time to check it out thoroughly, but some say that Islam means peace.  Google Translate didn’t give me this, but a Wikipedia entry on Islam did say that Islam comes from the trilateral root s-l-m.  One of these words is “salaam” for peace.  Hm,  close to the Hebrew “shalom”.

Charity, especially to the poor, is one of the five pillars of Islam.  The word for charity is zakat, which also means purification.

One Islamic charity is the Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross.  I haven’t read much about it recently, but it has been active in disasters.

Two well-known Muslims who come to mind with a more peaceful outlook are Malala Yousafzai and Muhammad Yunis, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates. 

Malala is the young Pakistani girl who was shot by terrorists who didn’t think girls should be in school.  Fortunately for her and many others, she survived the attack.

Muhammad Yunis is the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.  The Grameen Bank provides low-interest, small loans to the poor.  These loans have allowed many people to start small businesses to support themselves.

We often think of Buddhists as being pacifists.  “One’s mind should be free from hurting or harming others” and several other sayings.  Unfortunately, down through the centuries, Buddhists have been involved in wars and killing.  Think of the “King of Siam”.  The news has recently had many stories of Buddhist rioting against Muslims.  Of course, the Taliban didn’t help by destroying Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon.  The first Muslims killed by Burmese were in the 11th Century.  In the 17th Century Muslims who fled India after losing a war of succession were killed after a dispute with a Burmese pirate king.  Some modern Muslims have fled Burma to Thailand where they have been put in several refugee camps.  There are also reports that the Thai military towed boatloads of Muslims out to sea and left them there.

Fortunately, we have Buddhists like the Dalai Lama.  A refugee from his own country, he still manages to be cheerful and work to promote peace.  He too won a Nobel Peace Prize.

If I put a damper on your Christmas cheer, I’m sorry.  But remember that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the “Prince of Peace”.  I hope that the examples I gave of people of different faiths working for peace will give you hope for a brighter future.  With our help, the religion of generosity will prevail.

Also in the Reader Weekly, 2015-12-24 at

Friday, December 18, 2015

Merry Christmas and other seasonal thoughts

Originally published in Reader Weekly, December 22, 2005

For yet another year, Christmas is controversial.  If there isn’t a ruckus about the commercialization of Christmas, there is a ruckus about Christmas not being “inclusive”.  Some big box stores have told their “associates” to not wish “guests” “Merry Christmas”; instead the associates are to wish “Happy Holidays”.  Some think that this is great because we are a “diverse” nation, others think it is terrible because we are a “Christian” nation, and yet others, possibly the majority, don’t care.

As a freethinker and sentimentalist, I think both sides are expecting too much of other people.  I personally don’t believe the Christian overlay to the winter solstice.  On the other hand, I love the traditions that have derived from that Christian overlay.  It doesn’t bother me to sing “Joy the world, the Lord has come” and other carols because the music is great and it brings back memories of many Christmas celebrations over the years.

Those who want “inclusivity” seem to think that a dominant culture is a dominating culture.   Because a larger portion of a society believes one way and acts on it in any fashion, then that portion is dominating all those who don’t believe that way.  That is, by saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone, you are making them believe in Christmas.

Some of those who don’t want others to practice such “inclusivity” seem to think that a dominant culture has a right to be a dominating culture.  That is, you will say “Merry Christmas” whether you believe it or not.

I think both sides could take a lesson from Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor who fled the anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia.  Irving Berlin wrote both “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”.  He didn’t believe in either holiday, but he helped those who did celebrate them with joy.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can please all of the people some of the time, and you can please some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Rigidity in viewpoint came up recently in another context.  A letter writer to the Star Tribune called Garrison Keillor anti-Christian as well as all of MPR or NPR.  That was a surprise to me.  Garrison Keillor may pillory hypocrites or gently chide those who have feet of clay, but all the evidence I’ve seen indicates he has the deepest respect for those who are sincere in their beliefs.  For as long as I can remember, he has often included hymns and religious singers in his shows.  Many MPR programs include religious music, including the annual “Festival of nine lessons and carols” from King’s College in Oxford.

Rigidity is found all across the political spectrum.  Many think that Kevin Thompson is hard-nosed and uncharitable.  So what do they do; they write hard-nosed and uncharitable letters about Kevin.  Hey, he stopped writing for the Reader Weekly; be charitable and let him be.

Speaking of Garrison Keillor, he recently gave an interesting view of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – it was anti-terrorism.  In Herod’s viewpoint, Jesus was a threat to his power; therefore he had to take steps to reduce that threat.  Keillor went on to say the message of Christmas is that the weak shall prevail over the powerful.

Holiday spirits of another kind abound at this time of the year both in and out of the news.  Before I left for an employee party I decided I would have two beers while there.  When I left for the party it was snowing heavily; I decided I would have only one beer.  As I drove up Thompson Hill I saw either an accident or a disabled truck on the downhill side that had brought traffic to a crawl in one lane; I decided I would have no beers.  When I drove down the hill two hours later, the road was in somewhat better shape, but I was glad I held myself to my promise.

Holiday spirits are not the only thing to be wary of at this time of the year.  I often approach curves in the winter with the thought, “Somebody coming the other way could skid over the center line.”  As expected, my thoughts are usually not realized.  Except for twice in recent memory.  The second was this past week at Miller Hill Mall.  I approached a sharp turn to my left by Northstar Ford.  There was a huge pile of snow on the inside of the corner.  Would somebody be crossing the center line?  Sure enough, a car coming too fast for the conditions started coming into my lane.   I was going rather slowly and stopped without a problem.  The other driver managed to recover from her error, but she drove by me like I wasn’t even there.  I wonder if she even knew how close she came to spoiling both of our evenings, and holidays.

The Reluctant Santa

Originally published in the Northland Reader now the Reader Weekly, December 7, 2000 as "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he's a temp employee"

Santa Claus quit in early December, 1999.  Mariner Mall called Pro Staff for a replacement.  The staff looked at each other and said, “Mel!”  I have white hair and a white beard.

The job was from noon to 6 everyday through the 23rd.  The pay was $7.50/hour.  I was not very enthusiastic but I accepted because I thought it would be an interesting experience.

When I arrived at the Mariner Mall office, I introduced myself as the Santa from Pro Staff.  Grant, the manager, took me down the back halls to the back room of an empty store.  The floor was littered and the small restroom had not been cleaned in months.  The room had two Santa suits and wigs hanging from old display stands.

I figured out the various pieces of the outfit, stripped down to my underwear, and began putting things on.  First was a stuffed front, essential for those of us with a moderate build. Next were the big red pants, and I mean big.  They must have had a 60 inch waist!  Pulling the drawstring as tight as I could, I just managed to get them to stay up over the false front. Then there was the big red coat with white, fake fur trim.  It fit well enough, not too baggy and not too tight.  To go with the coat was a wide black plastic belt.

Pro Staff had said that I should wear black shoes and I did have on a pair of black “dress” boots.  The fake boots were black, lined vinyl with white fake fur around the tops and no soles.  One’s own shoes peeked out from under the fake boots.  Running shoes definitely would not do.

Now I was ready for the finishing touches.  I have a white beard, but it is rather short and sparse so I had to use a false beard.  The supplied beard was a huge frizzy thing with a moustache that covered my mouth instead of staying above my mouth.  Since I have a fairly decent white moustache, I kept the false moustache below my mouth.  The wig was a mass of flowing hair that was also frizzy.

Almost last was a huge red hat with white trim and a white ball dangling from the top.  That hat could not be worn without the wig!  Last was a pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses.  They were smeared and I thought they would pinch and scrape my nose (did they ever?)

SantaI wended my way through the back halls to the main part of the mall.  On my way, I went past the rest rooms, and I immediately had to get into character.  As I met people in the hall, I greeted them with “Merry Christmas!”  Most people reacted with cheer and a “Merry Christmas, Santa!” From my “throne” I looked out over some fake snow to a camera on a tripod, a reflector light on a stand, and three tables in a U.

Being Santa was “easy” but boring, at least in a slow place like Mariner Mall.  I watched for eye contact from people passing by.  If they looked at me I waved and said, “Merry Christmas.”  Some people would make eye contact from thirty feet away and their faces would light up.  Others didn’t seem to notice me until they were right alongside me.  Yet others ignored me by looking straight ahead or at the store windows.

If a kid walked by I would say “Merry Christmas” even without eye contact. Some would shyly hide behind their parents; others would almost run to me.

The photos made my life harder.  Some parents were intimidated that they had to pass by the photographers’ tables to get to Santa, even if the photographers asked, “Would you like a photo or would you just like to see Santa?”  On the other hand, the possibility of photos attracted parents whose kids were afraid of Santa.  A couple of parents were almost abusive trying to get the kids to sit on my lap or even to stand near me.

One thing I didn’t like was bribing the kids with candy canes to get them to come forward or to calm down.  Aren’t they being taught not to accept candy from strangers?

On the other hand, there were the kids who came rushing up to get a hug.  I would open up my arms and give them a big bear hug, and then go into my almost robotic spiel.  “Hi, what’s your name?”  “What would you like for Christmas?” “Anything else?”  “We’ll see what we can do.”  “Would you like a candy cane?”  “Bye.  Merry Christmas.”

It wasn’t all that mechanical.  I kept my tone friendly and I would vary my “script” with questions about details, like how big a truck they wanted and what kind.  I would extemporize with things like “Everybody wants Pokémon cards.  I don’t know if the elves can print enough.” One memorable visitor was Erin, a precocious girl trying to work through her confusion of seeing Santa in different places: “When I saw you at Jubilee...”

There were three Santa substitutes who filled when I had classes at UMD and on weekends. One substitute spent two hours in the bar of the mall pizzeria before he began his shift on Sunday.  I didn’t get any details on how he behaved, but the photographers were told by their manager to just pack up.  A mall customer accosted them at the photo store accusing them of getting Santa fired. The Santa who replaced me the second weekend was moody.  He would be very friendly and open for a couple of hours then be grouchy or withdrawn. The third substitute was almost wooden.  He wouldn’t look around, he apparently didn’t relate to the kids, and he got up to take a break when there were about a dozen kids in line.

Some adults wanted to sit on my lap and I didn’t deny anybody.  My first visitor was a grandmother who had a tradition of getting her picture with Santa.  Several retarded adults were delighted to sit on my lap.  Some adults reeked of cigarette smoke.  Of course, I had to get a photo with my wife.

Almost the very last adults to sit on my lap were a reporter and cameraman from a local TV station.  I was amazed at how well I winged the interview.  Since we don’t have a VCR or a TV, I called a friend to ask him to tape it, but I only got to leave a message.  Unfortunately, his stepfather  was in the hospital and died on Christmas eve.  I later purchased a copy of the segment to watch on somebody else’s TV.

There were lots of other high points like the three or four kids who asked for “Peace on Earth.” Answer: “We’ve been working on that one for a long time.”

All in all I’m glad that I did it because of the many small rewards.  But I doubt that I would do it again.  I don’t think the sore bottom, the itchy chin, and the waiting for the next break were worth the pay.  Especially considering not much was left after I paid for the pictures, the news video, and the chocolate bars I ate on breaks.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

‘Tis the season of beginnings

Originally published in the Reader Weekly. December 20, 2007

This year, 2007, the winter solstice will arrive on December 22 at 6:08 a.m. UCT (Coordinated Universal Time or Greenwich Mean Time).  That means it will arrive in Duluth about midnight between December 21 and 22.  From this time we will have more daylight hours each day than nighttime hours.  This in and of itself is a reason to rejoice.

But such precision was not available to our ancestors.  As the days grew shorter, our earliest ancestors couldn’t be sure that the sun would come back.  They resorted to magic to ensure that the spirits would return the sun to them.  They lit fires to guide the sun and they sacrificed beasts and people to appease the spirits.

Increased astronomical knowledge helped predict when the solstice would occur.  Stonehenge is one early astronomical clock; archeologists have uncovered others in Europe and the Americas.  However, the rituals and the festivals persisted.  Hey, who wants to give up a good party?

The parties weren’t always good for everybody.  According to some, a man chosen to be the god-king Dionysus, the god of wine, had a pretty good party attended by lots of women.  Then the women tore him apart and ate him.  Of course, he was reborn for the next cycle of seasons.

If you have a week or two to spare, look up “winter solstice” on the web, adding various qualifiers as you go.  You will find a large assortment of fascinating information.  You will find that the winter solstice is often linked to festivals of light or the cycle of death and rebirth.  One I found interesting was “Winter Solstice Celebrations”.

As calendars were invented, many started on the solar year, that is, the winter solstice.  Others started at the summer solstice or the equinoxes.  Because the earth doesn’t travel around the sun in an integral number of days, the first day of solar calendars moved away from the solstices or the equinoxes.  January in the Roman calendar, named for the two-faced god Janus, moved away from the equinox.

Solar “drift” wasn’t the only reason calendars changed.  The Romans jiggered their calendar many times, sometimes for political reasons.  July and August (Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus) are two prime examples, giving us the seventh month (September) as the ninth month, and so on to the tenth month (December) as the twelfth.  At one time the Romans celebrated the new year in March.

A good example of calendar drift is the different dates for Western and Eastern Christmas.  The western churches celebrate Christmas on December 25.  The Eastern Orthodox churches also celebrate Christmas on December 25, but on a different calendar.  December 25 on the Julian calendar is now January 7 on the Gregorian calendar: the one commonly used in most of the world.

Why December 25 for Christmas?  The web is full of various stories about this.  One is that it was to replace the pagan festival of Mithra, a god who was born in a similar story.  Another is that it was believed that prophets died on the same day of the year that they were conceived.  Assuming the death of Jesus was on March 25, then he would have been conceived on March 25; thus, he was born on December 25.

Holidays never wind up as desired by those who initiate them.  They take on aspects of other traditions, either similar or coincidental in time.  The Saturnalia was a big Roman holiday around the winter solstice with much feasting and gift giving.  These have been attached to the Christmas festivities.  Saint Nicholas, of gift-giving fame, died on December 6, 343.  In an attempt to revive some of the Dutch history of New York, Washington Irving wrote “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” in which the saintly bishop became an elfin Dutch burgher.  See “Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus” for more details.

The “codification” of gift-giving in the person of Santa Claus has led to what some call the “commercialization” of Christmas.  So what’s new?  I looked forward to the toy catalogues over sixty years ago; and boys and girls looked forward to the winter Sears catalogue decades before that.  What I find ironic is some of the same people who decry the “commercialization” of Christmas want the government to create more jobs.  There certainly are plenty of jobs available at Christmas, and Christmas sales keep many a business afloat for the rest of the year.

If you would like to explore the mythic and religious basis for many of our customs, read The Golden Bough by James George Frazer.  If you don’t want to read the twelve volumes of the third edition, read the abridged version by Robert Fraser.

Whatever your thoughts about solstices and religious ceremonies, may the new year bring you health, joy and prosperity.

A Note from Scrooge

No, I am not like Scrooge who hated Christmas and all of its cheer.  It’s just that it seems to be the same old, same old, and too much effort to decorate and to select presents.

When I was a kid, I looked forward to the toy catalogs in the Sunday paper.  Gosh, I wanted that gas station set, and the chemistry set, and…  Actually, all things considered I and my brother wound up with quite a pile of toys and books.  As a parent, I enjoyed selecting toys and books that my children would enjoy.  Even as a grandparent, I did the same.  But now with half my grandchildren being adults,  it seems all we do is come up with clever T-shirts or sweat-shirts.  Or maybe a book or two.

And despite what the ads say about “perfect gifts”, I think that a gift card for a store that the recipients rarely enter is not a “perfect gift”.  Nor is a $1,000 computer for somebody who already has one, especially in a family where the gift budget rarely exceeds the cost of the aforementioned apparel.

I once was a mall Santa.  That was quite an adventure, but I never did it again or wanted to.  Believe it or not, I was told I was the best Santa at that mall.  Apparently, some of the others weren’t good actors or just didn’t like little kids.

I have all but given up on sending Christmas greetings. I just haven’t put any effort into selecting a different wintry picture for a card or newsletter.  Just as I don’t really care about other people’s grandkids, I don’t care to burden them with what my grandkids are doing.  Do I tell them that we have given up downhill skiing?  My wife did write a bunch of cards this past weekend, but I didn’t even look at what she wrote.

For many years I made a fruitcake that definitely was not a door-stop.  At the peak, I made 24 one-pound cakes each season.  Maybe about ten years ago, it just was too much effort to order quality ingredients, cut the fruit and nuts, beat the eggs, stir in the flour and butter, mix the fruit and nuts in, and…  There were a lot of disappointed people when I stopped making fruitcake.  See the article list below for the recipe and more.

We haven’t put up a tree for years, even though we have hundreds of nice-looking balsam fir at our cabin.  Partly because I’ve developed an allergy to balsam, partly I just don’t want to make the effort to select a tree, cut it, bring it back to Duluth, decorate it, then take it down, and haul it back to our cabin.  But my wife still buys a wreath and hangs it by the front door.

For many years, we did a Julbord or Christmas Smörgåsbord.  This was a five-course buffet, starting with herring, potatoes, and cheese, and ending with three desserts.  All of it accompanied by snaps (aqvavit) and beer.  I forget why we stopped.  Although my wife did the bulk of the cooking, maybe I got tired of doing the shopping or just being on my feet for so long.  Or maybe it was because one relative would only eat bread and nothing else until dessert.

I do get tired of walking by Salvation Army kettles.  One year I bought a money order and put it in a kettle.  I used a money order so that I wouldn’t get appeal after appeal in the mail for the rest of the year.  This year, I just keep my pocket full of change.  As I go in or out, I just grab some change without counting it: pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters.  Maybe I should go back to dollar bills so that whoever counts all the change doesn’t have so much work.

But others are not going to give up their Christmas traditions because of my disinterest.  And if someone says “Merry Christmas” to me, I will respond with a smile.

Now the real Scrooges are those who object to cashiers and other retail people saying “Merry Christmas”.  Way back when I was a grocery cashier I found it repetitive, but I did it with a smile.  But now some object because it is unfair to those who aren’t “Christians”.  One should say “Happy Holidays”.  For them, I have an Italian saying, “Ch’é paese vai, ch’é usanze trovi.”  “Wherever you go, follow customs you find.”  Or “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  I don’t believe in the words of Handel’s “Messiah”, but I enjoy performances of it for the music, and I certainly don’t make a fuss because of the words.

Tom Batiuk, who draws the comic strip “Funky Winkerbean”, is having a ball with excessive sensitivity to the words of Christmas music.  The principal is vetoing song after song for the Christmas concert because somebody might be offended by the words.  Somebody should tell those like the principal that “White Christmas” was written by a Jewish immigrant.  The same guy that wrote “Easter Parade”.

For a list of some of my previous Christmas articles, see “Christmas blog links” at  Many of them are more upbeat than this.

Oh, by the way, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Also published in the Reader Weekly, 2015-12-16 at

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas! Ah Funbug!

Originally published in Reader Weekly, December 23, 2004

During the holiday season I often ponder the complaints of the “commercialization of Christmas”.  In my usual contrarian fashion I take them with a grain of salt.  First of all, some seem to think that this commercialization is a new phenomenon and yearn for another time, a simpler time.  If that time existed, it was long, long ago.  Over fifty years ago one of my Christmas joys was to look at all the toy catalogs.  I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere near my heart’s desires, but it was just a delight to read Lionel’s latest catalog, to see what science kits the department stores had, what whiz-bang airplanes, cars, and trucks were coming out, and on and on and on.

“Commercialization” of holidays goes way beyond the last century; it goes back millennia.  The most well known in Western culture are the sellers of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers at the temple in Jerusalem.  Our lore has them as the lowest of the low.  But they were only providing services to meet the needs of the worshipers.  Not every city dweller had a dove in the cote and a lamb out back to sacrifice at the temple.  If a worshiper felt he had to make a sacrifice, he had to buy it from somebody else.  Similarly, donations of money could not be made in Roman coin; they had to be made in Judaic money, not sisterces but mites and shekels.  Somebody had to exchange the money, and those changers were not going to sit at the temple all day for free.  The animal sellers and the moneychangers didn’t create the situation that required their services; they only took advantage of it to make a living.

Similarly, in our time, the merchants who offer so many goods and services with such lavish ads didn’t create the idea of gift giving at Christmas, but they are taking advantage of the desire of many people to give gifts.  Shall the hardware store ignore the season and let the bookstore get all the Christmas business?  The hardware store has to take out ads and say, “Here we are!  We have some things you could give as gifts.”  Just like all the ads throughout the year, we have to pick and choose which to respond to according to our budget and wants.  My gosh, I’d be a blimp if I responded to all the candy ads.

And gift giving at this time of year is not confined to Western culture.  Dewali is the Hindu feast of light; Indian newspapers are filled with ads for Dewali gifts and Indian electronics stores have their peak season.  The Japanese give New Year’s gifts.  Other cultures have other lavish celebrations of an important time of year – the return of light after the long darkness.  And this goes back beyond the moneychangers at the Temple.

People celebrated this time with huge bonfires and feasts.  With the return of light, they had a better idea of how long their food would last.  If there seemed to be a surplus, they could indulge themselves.  As agriculture became more productive, this wealth became more predictable.  As people had more wealth (that is surplus), they could share with friends and relatives.  Somewhere along the way, giving gifts at the winter solstice became tradition, and like all traditions it became quite complicated.  So complicated that we now call it “commercialization”.

But you can make it simpler for yourself by how you approach gift giving.  If you have a skill, you can give gifts that you make yourself.  I give fruitcake to some of my relatives because I inherited a good recipe from my mother.  They look forward to it, really!  Now it does cost a bit of money for the ingredients, but what I am really giving is my time.  Time my relatives wouldn’t have to spend to make this treat.

Even if you don’t make the gifts yourself, you still are giving your time.  You are giving your time to think of what the recipients would like, the time to find where it is available, and the time to actually purchase it.  Admit it, you are really delighted to get a CD of a group you hadn’t heard of but you listen to it again and again.  Or you love that tool or kitchen gadget that you really wanted but never took the time to buy.  Deep down, we feel good when someone appreciates what we have done for them, and we appreciate the things that others do for us.  And that is called the Christmas spirit.

Ebenezer Scrooge lives on

Originally published in the Northland Reader
now the Reader Weekly
December 21, 2000

Ebenezer Scrooge lives on in many forms with no hope of redemption.  One form is the cold-water Scrooge who dislikes the “commercialization” of Christmas.  This Scrooge complains about all the ads and displays enticing people to buy, buy, buy...

But nobody is forcing us to buy, buy, buy...   We don’t even have to shop, shop, shop...  I did almost all my shopping with two stops at a book store.  One to order books for everyone on my list and one to pick them up.  I also bake fruit cake, using my mother’s recipe, for friends and relatives.  For the ingredients I did have to shop, shop, shop...  No single store had them all.

Of course, all the ads get kids all dreamy and greedy.  “I want a Rowdy Rodeo Rider!”  “I want a CD by BD and QT.”  But parents don’t have to acquiesce to every wish.  The simple rule we had was one gift per kid from Santa and one gift from each parent.  Once they outgrew Santa we just went to the one gift from each parent.  Of course, this was not iron-clad.  If we found something interesting we might add it to the list.

I’ll grant that all the ads and displays seem excessive.  In November and December we probably put three times more newspaper immediately into the recycle pile than in any other months.  Merchants put a Christmas spin on almost any product - toys or tools, food or fiction, books or looks.  Even hardware stores have a visit from Santa.

How did our society get so “commercial” about a religious holiday?  Did merchants make it commercial or did we “ask” merchants to satisfy our desires?

“Commercializing” religious holidays or religion is nothing new.  Jesus drove the money-changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals out of the temple.  Many old churches have sellers of souvenirs and religious goods outside their doors.  Scrooge sent a boy to a store on Christmas day to buy a goose for the Cratchit’s dinner.

Rather than “commercialization” being the result of merchants trying to sell us all manner of goods, isn’t it the result of our desire to give (and get) gifts at an ancient holiday?  Our desire to give gifts is rooted in a longer history than a single holiday.  The “gods” gave humans the gifts of fire and agriculture.  We humans gave gods gifts to sway their actions in their favor.  We humans gave gifts to stand-ins for gods.  And finally, we gave gifts to each other to mimic the giving of gifts to the gods.

We also gave gifts to those in need.  Many religions celebrate the givers of gifts to those in need.  Christian tradition celebrates St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop in Myra (which is now part of Turkey).  Nicholas is best known for giving dowries for the daughters of a rich man who had lost his fortune.  The dowries of three hundred gold pieces to each daughter were themselves small fortunes.

Excessive gift-giving as part of the winter solstice did not start with capitalism.  In one country gift-giving became such a problem that the government made a law that richer people could give gifts only to those less well-off than themselves.  The government: Rome.  The festival: Saturnalia.

Excessive gift-giving as part of the winter solstice is not limited to western traditions.  In one country, merchants lure their customers with attractive discounts and the customers go on a spending spree.  The country: India.  The festival: Diwali.

Another excess modern Scrooges complain about is lighting the outside of houses with thousands of lights.  I don’t agree with those who say that all the lights are part of the Christmas spirit, assuming the strictly religious one of redemption and of charity.  I do agree that the lights are part of the spirit of the solstice, the notion of bringing back the sun with bonfires, fire crackers, candles, oil lamps, and little twinkling electric bulbs.

In many places and times the spirit of the solstice included the celebration of the birth or rebirth of the sun god long before Christianity - from Egypt to Thailand, from Japan to Scandinavia, from Mexico to the Arctic.  The celebrations included quiet reflection and rowdy feasts, family gatherings and week-long or month-long community festivals.

If we consider this wide range of celebrations, we will find it easier to celebrate in our own way Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or one of the many other names and dates for the winter solstice.  We shouldn’t feel we have to celebrate any particular one, or several, out of “respect” for others.

However you celebrate the winter solstice, don’t let the Scrooges get you down.  If you want to give a lot of gifts or have a big party, go ahead without feeling guilty.  Just don’t keep me awake and don’t drive home drunk.  If you want to have a quiet time of reflection and prayer, go ahead without feeling pressured.  Just don’t tell me that my way is “wrong”.  If I greet you with “Merry Christmas”, feel free to return the greeting with “Happy Hanukkah”.  What we all are really doing and saying is that we believe life will improve and the weather will get warmer.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Christmas blog links

This entry is a placeholder for links to some of my previous articles on Christmas.  I will add those links as I post those articles here.

A Note from Scrooge 2015-12-17 Reader Weekly

Ghosts of Christmases Past 2014-12-25

Fruitcake 2005-12-08 Reader Weekly

Julbord or Christmas Smörgåsbord 2006-12-21

Ebenezer Scrooge Lives On 2000-12-21

Christmas! Ah Funbug! 2004-12-23

'Tis the Season of New Beginnings 2007-12-20

Reluctant Santa, 2000-12-07

Merry Christmas and other seasonal thoughts 2005-12-22

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Julbord or Christmas Smörgåsbord

I hope the printer got my title spelled correctly.  Smörgåsbord should have two dots over the first “o” and a circle over the “a”.  It is surprising, in a state with so many “Swedes”, the number of newspapers that can’t print Swedish properly, especially since personal computers have been able to do so for over twenty years, right out of the box. [The printer did get the spelling correct.]

Pet peeve one out of the way.  Now on to pet peeve two.  I bet many of you think a smörgåsbord is a pile-all-you-can-on-your-plate buffet – meatballs on top of beets scrunched up against mashed potatoes buried under a chicken wing sticking into onion rings surrounding olives covering a slice of ham or two.

Nej, nej, nej!  No, no, no!  A smörgåsbord is a buffet but one you approach with a plan for a long meal of complementary dishes.  You take what you want of certain foods, eat them with bread, cheese, beer, and snaps, go get a clean plate to serve yourself the same or different foods, and repeat until you are satisfied.

What’s snaps?  It rhymes with schnapps and is alcoholic but not sweet.  Snaps include aquavit and vodka.  My favorite liquor store used to have five kinds of aquavit, but now only has three.  I prefer the Norwegian and Swedish aquavits to the Danish.

According to Tore Wretman (1) one makes five visits to the smörgåsbord, taking from a different group of foods each time.  These are:

First, “Hans Majestät Sillen”, His Majesty the Herring
Second, fish
Third, cold meats
Fourth, warm dishes
Fifth, dessert

To give you some idea of what is included in a smörgåsbord, I’ll tell you what we have at our house.  But first let me give you a little history.

When we lived in the Twin Cities, we decided in the late 70s to do a julbord for some friends.  We did it for a couple of years until one couple hadn’t even left their house when we were ready to start and one woman’s preschooler bumped her into a stack of good plates (they wouldn’t get a babysitter).  We took it up again in a later year but only for the immediate family.  It became such a custom that our children as adults expect it.  I lost interest one year when the grandkids didn’t touch much more than bread and dessert.  The family persisted and the adult grandkid now expects it.

So, we blew a wad at the supermarket today for some of the stuff, and I’ve searched my computer for previous year’s menus.  For the most part, we try to have three main things for each round along with three side offerings.

Sill: We have served herring in cream sauce.  I’ve also served the pickled herring in mustard sauce and in layers in a glass jar.  The layers are herring, sliced carrots, and red onion rings.  This year we might try smoked herring also.  We also serve potatoes boiled with dill, homemade limpa (Swedish rye), hard bread, and cheese (Jarlsberg, Emmantaler, and Gouda).

Fish: I’ve poached a couple of trout or a salmon filet with dill, bay leaf, carrots, and onions.  We generally have lots of cooked shrimp and my wife makes a crab salad.  My old lists have only olives as an accompaniment beyond more potatoes, bread, and cheese

Cold meats: We always have sliced ham.  My wife makes deviled eggs and I make a special liver paste.  I get the finest grind Braunschweiger (liver sausage) I can find and mix in brandy and whipping cream until it can be served with a spoon. We often put pickles, red cabbage salad, and sliced tomatoes besides these dishes.

Warm dishes: My wife does meatballs that include veal, beef, and pork.  She based it on Wretman’s recipe; he wrote that his readers’ mothers, grandmothers, and aunts might disagree with his version.  She also does a plum-packed pork loin.  We buy small wiener-like sausages to satisfy our daughter’s request for prinskorv.  We serve beets, lingon, and celery at the side.

Dessert:  Pepparkakor (ginger cookies), of course.  We have also included pears, grapes, applesauce, or almonds.  We are generally too tired to think of any other prepared desserts.  Besides, who but our son with his “dessert reserve” has any room for more?

After reading this, I hope you realize that Swedish food is not all white and bland. A good smörgåsbord is an array of bright colors and many flavors.

Så, till bords, skål, god aptit, God Jul och Gott Nytt År (so, to the table, skål, good appetite, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year).

(1) Svensk Husmanskost, Tore Wretman, Forum, Stockholm, 1967.  Originally husmanskost meant plain food for the servants, but I won’t try to translate its modern meanings.  Wretman took seven pages to do so.

Originally published in Reader Weekly December 21, 2006.

See also Christmas blog links 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bombs away!

No, I don’t mean drop bombs from an airplane.  I mean bombs go away, bombs never to be used again.  Let’s get rid of nuclear weapons, drone bombers, conventional bombs, cannons, and all other weapons that indiscriminately kill bad people as well as good people.
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
From Bob Dylan’s web site at

Unfortunately, the answer is not blowing in the wind from the mouths of politicians around the world.  They blow out phrases like “defense”, “saving jobs”, and “gun rights”.

We should ask “defense of what”?  Defense of the right to tell other people how to live?  Defense from dictators?  Strange, we are allies with lots of dictators, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Oh, but they are “our” dictators, not “their” dictators.  Defense from Communism?  Communism as a label is all but dead.  “Communism” in China is just a label for another dictatorship that is withering away.  “Communism” in North Korea is a name for a paranoid dictatorship.  Our “defense” against North Korea only serves to feed the paranoia.

Another paranoid quasi-dictatorship is Russia.  But consider the historical reason for its paranoia.  The Mongols invaded, the French invaded, the Germans invaded twice, and now the alliance that was built as defense against the Soviet Union keeps expanding, feeding the paranoia of not only Vladimir Putin, but many ordinary Russians.  Of course, it doesn’t help the alliance that Putin’s given name contains the Russian words for lord and world.

If we are so interested in “saving jobs”, we should never have instituted Prohibition.  Think of how many bartenders, servers, distillers, and brewers lost their jobs.  Prohibition did help the gun industry, guns for both the bootleggers and for the police.

Do we want to “save jobs” at the cost of lives far, far away?  How many wedding guests should die because somebody up in the sky decided the guests were “terrorists”?  How many hospitals must be destroyed because enemy combatants were believed to be hiding there?  Interesting, the “enemy combatants” live in the country; the bombers are from a country far, far away.

I didn’t know guns had “rights”.  As far as protection in case of a terrorist attack, would more people die because some of the target group had weapons?  John pulls out a gun to shoot the terrorists.  Mary sees John with a gun in his hand and thinking he is a terrorist, shoots him.  Even the police have a hard time shooting the terrorists.  And the police get wounded and killed.  Major Hassan at Fort Hood wounded and downed a police officer who had excellent scores in marksmanship.  Her partner managed to wound Hassan enough to get him to stop shooting.

Maybe the better idea is to keep military-style weapons in armories and not make them easily available to the general public.  Many seem to have forgotten that we had armories to keep the more deadly weapons away from the general public but available to the militia in case of insurrection.

Another better idea is to use propaganda instead of bombs.

Instead of attacking Israel, Palestinian protesters should fly children’s balloons over Israel.  Each balloon would carry a slip of paper with the words of Hillel in Hebrew: “Do not unto your neighbor what you would not have him do unto you; this is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.”

Instead of burying Daesh terrorists in bomb debris, bury them in pamphlets: “...and you should forgive and overlook: Do you not like God to forgive you? And Allah is The Merciful Forgiving.” _ Qur’an (Surah 24, “The Light”, v. 22)

And of course, the “bomb them back to the Stone Age” bloviators who claim to be “Christian” should receive letters from their constituents: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” – Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 7:12

I am surprised that Iran didn’t use this latter quotation with those negotiating to stop Iran’s nuclear capacity.  All the nuclear-armed negotiators except the Chinese purport to be Christians.  If the negotiating countries didn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons, shouldn’t Iran have proposed some schedule for these “nuclear powers” to eliminate their nuclear weapons?

Maybe the only answer is for a peace coalition to be formed in the United Nations.  It could start with countries without militaries, like Iceland and Costa Rica.  This coalition could offer a time table for the elimination of nuclear weapons, then of massive navies, then of bombs, then of armies.

Impossible?  Improbable?  Maybe!  Consider that Europe had a very vicious war, with many, many civilian deaths on both sides, seventy years ago.  The Cold War ended twenty-four years ago.  And a country divided by that war is now a major player on the world stage.

The answer my friend is blowing in your votes!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Bearing arms: collective or individual right

Those who interpret “people” in the Second Amendment to mean “persons” forget the reason for armories.  Armories were where militias kept the more deadly weapons until the militia needed them.  An armory is the place for semi-automatic and automatic weapons, not in any given person’s house or vehicle.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Three views of economics

I recently took a class based on David Korten’s Change the Story, Change the Future.  I would call his view of economics as pessimistic and his solution as overly optimistic.  I would also say that his book was repetitive; he could have put his message in about ten pages.

He thinks that if we have a “living economy for a living earth” that life will be so much better for everybody.  My thought is that it ain’t going to happen.

He envisions us living in small communities that rely on local resources.  We will have more public transit and trains for travel between communities.  Instead of flying between continents we will take ships.  Oh, yes, we will be connected by high-speed internet.

First, I don’t think most of us want to live on local resources.  We want our bananas, coffee, and chocolate: none of these can be grown locally without lots of well-insulated greenhouses.  And will every local community have access to sufficient glass for these greenhouses?

Second, we will need large corporations to provide the steel for the rails, build the trains, provide the fuel or electric power to drive them, and provide the Internet.  But he repeatedly dismisses large corporations and their “corporate robots”.

Third, by having ships instead of planes, he will deprive many of visiting other continents.  If a ship takes four days to cross the Atlantic, then a vacationer would use up over a week getting to Europe and back.  I wonder how soon a four- or five-week vacation would be available to most Americans.

A more realistic bit of optimism is provided by No Ordinary Disruption by Richard Dobbs, James Manyika, and Jonathan Woetzel.  It is subtitled “The Four Global Forces Breaking All The Trends”.  These trends are urbanization, accelerating technological change, an aging world, and greater global connections.

More and more people want to live in large cities, not on farms, small villages, or even exurban developments.  They want to be in large cities where there are more opportunities for work and leisure.  China, once a land of peasants has several mega-cities and dozens of cities with populations of 250,000 or more.  Many people whose parents were peasants now have middle-class jobs.

If you are over thirty, you can remember when cell phones were not ubiquitous.  Now even farmers in Africa have them.  Now even grandmas can’t do without their cell phones.  They have more computing power in their purses than I had on mainframes in the early 70s.  If you are over fifty, you may remember when 256KB was high-speed Internet.  Now many areas have 100GB Internet.  Given the U.S. with its quasi-monopoly of telecommunications, is it any wonder that large cities in other countries are growing faster than in the U.S.?

As more and more of us live longer, we are seeing retirement age later, more health-care costs, and higher pension costs.  The number of workers that can support these trends is becoming a decreasing portion of the populace.

The greater global connections are helping in the urbanization on all the continents.  An idea created in one country can spread to another country almost overnight.  eBay went world-wide and soon imitators sprang up.  A former school teacher, Jack Ma, started Alibaba which is now dominant in China and elsewhere.  Global connections are helping money move around faster, sometimes just for increased profit, sometimes for a greater good.  Reliance Communications of India was able to get three billion dollars from several Chinese banks, at interest rates significantly lower than they could from Indian banks.

Korten writes negatively about economists, basing this on the thoughts of some long dead economists and possibly Milton Friedman.  Many often misquote Friedman.  Paraphrasing him, he wrote “The only purpose of a corporation is to provide profits to its shareholders, within the law.”  That last part is ignored by the self-serving who want to increase their own power. 

This gets us to the third book, Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich.  Reich is one of the many economists that Korten doesn’t even consider, like Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and John Maynard Keynes.

Robert Reich rephrases Friedman with “Capitalism, alas, depends on trust.”  If a car company produces cars with defects because it costs too much money fix it, will they lose money in the long run because they have lost the trust of potential customers?

Many large corporations have become untrustworthy but hide their sins by blaming the government.  Reich points out that the purpose of government is to regulate the market so that it is fair to all.  Remember the constitutional purpose to “regulate commerce”?  The actuality is that large corporations are now regulating government in their own interests.

These interests seem to be getting themselves bigger and bigger shares of the “pie”.  To do so, they hire legions of lawyers and lobbyists to sway members of Congress, state legislatures, and the regulators.  They also “bribe” these government employees by hinting at corporate jobs after they leave government.

These interests also are controlling the terms of many political discussions.  They complain about government regulations, but they work hard to make the regulations favorable to themselves.  Have you really read the “Terms of Agreement” for which you clicked “Agree”?  Some of these agreements are longer than this article.  We don’t bother.  But if we do have a complaint, most of these agreements state that our complaint will be settled by binding arbitration.  Guess who will select the arbitrator?

Oops!  I’ve run out of space.  I recommend you read both No Ordinary Disruption and Saving Capitalism.  Then be sure to vote next year.

This was also posted in the Reader Weekly, 2015-12-02 at