Saturday, July 28, 2012

Hot Coffee

Susan Saladoff's Hot Coffee (2011) starts with the "infamous" lawsuit where a 79 year old woman, Stella Liebeck, successfully sued McDonald's for serving coffee that was "too hot" because she suffered severe burns when she accidentally spilled it on her lap.

Corporations seized upon this development and produced a PR bonanza that fooled most of the country including yours truly. At the time, I bought everything served by the mass media about the frivolous nature of this suit and the greed behind its motivation. Learn the truth, and well, not exactly.

Myth: The woman carelessly spilled her coffee while driving. Fact: The woman was a passenger and the car was parked, not moving.

Myth: The coffee was served at a standard serving temperature for coffee.
Fact: At the time, McDonald's procedure specified a serving pot temperature of 180-190 F. Your home machine will serve your cup at 145-155 F. Premium coffee shops do serve hotter, with Starbucks at 170 or so. A cup of coffee at 190 F is 20-30 degrees or more hotter than what most would reasonably expect.

Myth: The woman was greedy and out to make an easy fortune.
Fact:  Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000.  With this information, the company offered her $800.

Myth:  She was the first person to ever complain of the hot temperature.
Fact: From McDonald's own documents that emerged in the case, from 1982 to 1992 McDonald's received over 700 formal written complaints from customers with scalded lips or tongues, mouth blisters, as well as spill induced burns very similar to those in the lawsuit. McDonald's took no action to address the complaints.

Note: For every formal, written complaint, consider how many customers (including myself) just swore when they accidentally burned themselves with a sip, not recognizing that the coffee was 30 degrees hotter than normal.

Myth: The burns were not that severe.
Fact: The woman suffered severe 3rd degree burns requiring skin grafting and surgeries.

The film uses the McDonald's coffee case as a launch point to expose and illustrate the organized effort on the part of corporations to thwart the ability of anyone to hold them to account for injuries or deaths that occur due to negligence or other malfeasance.

This effort includes the likes of Karl Rove electioneering the defeat of judges sympathetic to injured plaintiffs as well as the proliferation of small print language in just about every contract that waives the right to sue and requires the use of arbitration where the "third party" arbitrator is paid by the corporation involved and faces termination with any judgement in favor of the injured party.

By the way, after the case, McDonald's reduced the temperature of its coffee into the 170s.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Wee Bit of Scotland

(Stirling, Scotland) After decades of "one of these days" projections that never occurred, a lifelong desire to drive the roads of Scotland through its rich terrain of mountains, valleys, and countless lochs became reality last week. Not having the disposition for tour guides or packaged programs, I rented a car and selected my own routes, accompanied by my dear companion L on an adventure that for better or worse would be one of our own making.

L had the easier commute to Edinburgh, catching a Ryan discount flight from Berlin. My flight from Nashville, Tennessee required so much of Saturday, June 11, that it became Sunday, June 12. The free rental car upgrade resulted in a shiny new silver Mercedes E-Class with black interior and yes, the driver's seat on the right side of the car.

The five-minute drive to L's hotel required an hour, but I survived the plunge into the pool, the crash course, of driving on the left side of the road, navigating roundabouts, and unfamiliar traffic signs and signals. After several stops for directions and assistance (some males can in fact do this) and some navigational consternation, I arrived at the Edinburgh airport TraveLodge hotel, mentally preparing for Murphy's Law to prevail with the discovery that there were in fact two Edinburgh airport TraveLodge hotels and that I was at the wrong one.

(The Wallace Monument) These thoughts ended abruptly when L came running out of the building, smiling ear to ear. What a sweet embrace in the parking lot of a discount airport hotel. She grinned at the Mercedes, and before noon L and I were heading west on the M9, bound for Stirling, Scotland, its famous castle and other sites rich with historical drama. While Stirling is quite small (the smallest city in Scotland), its significance and importance rivals any location in the country. Upon arrival, we drove slowly, our eyes and minds devouring our surroundings. We parked near downtown. Within just hours of landing in Scotland, L and I were enjoying our first plates of fish and chips.

Our B&B did not expect us until 5, and my energy, while compromised, remained functional. We made our way to Stirling Castle and took our self-guided tour with informative audio guides that provided interesting and useful background information. In preparation for the trip I'd studied Scottish history in some detail, and this paid off as the audio guide presented much of the 1200 – 1700 period, in particular the highlights of Stuart kings and Mary, Queen of Scots, many of whom had lived or spent time at the castle. While I had planned to visit the William Wallace memorial, energy was waning, and the view of the monument from the castle was good enough for this trip. We returned to town and casually absorbed the ample smorgasbord of sights and sounds until it was time to “truly locate” the B&B, another little adventure.

(Girls learning what it was to be a maiden inside Stirling Castle) The Forth House Guesthouse offered immediate access to downtown Stirling, and after a power nap we walked into the city in search of a proper pub, which we found, a more or less locally frequented establishment featuring authentic Scottish fare. As we had heard and would soon verify, the Scottish pubs offered the perfect ambiance to relax and enjoy a meal and a drink. We suspected that Sunday evening at 7:00 differed from a weeknight, but the place filled most of its seats with a diverse set of folks including some touring couples like ourselves, younger locals, and a highly intoxicated man of about fifty seated alone at a table save a small piece of luggage and his pint, which he drank slowly.

Unlike the American establishments concentrated on milking patrons for as much money as possible as quickly as possible, the Scottish pubs served other objectives. The darkly yet warmly lit rooms produced an atmosphere I have craved as long as I can remember. They had lots of wood, wood floors, wood tables and chairs, wood bars, wood walls, wood shelves, wood stairs and railings, lots of wood. The fantastic bars had an ample row of taps for first rate ales and lagers chilled at separate temperatures. Behind the bars, well lit walls displayed richly stocked shelves full of liquor and in particular a Scotch selection to die for, not to mention a wine selection capable of pleasing all but the most uppity wine connoisseurs. Charging prices that allowed patrons to not only grab a bite, but stay awhile and have a second drink, or a third, the pubs provided community, as the saying goes, “where everybody knows your name.”

(Forth Guest House) We ordered the Scottish mainstay of haggis, neeps, and tatties, which came on a plate separated by oat cakes mounted vertically like walls between the three. Haggis is best enjoyed if one doesn't think about what it is. Yours truly sent a cautious fork into the dark, spiced concoction that looked like a combination of meat and dough. To my surprise, it was quite good. A few small doses of this stuff over the week would not hurt me. L ordered a Guinness and I enjoyed a dark Scottish brew not entirely different from some of the high quality ales produced in America's Midwest (the quality ones you won't find advertized on television). I loved the food, and in particular, the oat cakes. More on the oat cakes later.

A trip to the restroom spared me what L and other onlookers then witnessed, the intoxicated man flipping backward over his chair, feet over head as the last remnants of his beer sailed skyward. Not laughing or smiling, the humiliated soul sought to end his intimacy with the pub floor as quickly as possible, and before I could return, had scurried away as onlookers returned to their prior conversations.

L and I slowly walked the rather empty, Sunday evening streets of Stirling. In spirit I could have spent another three hours downing a few more pints and taking in the sights, turning to L as occasions warranted to share thoughts or observations, but in body by this time I was spent and running on the last remnants of fumes.

We awoke Monday morning for the second B of “B&B” and arrived at 8:04 AM for the published “8-9 AM” breakfast, and most fortunately, for the “8-9” meant starting at 8 and finishing at 9. One didn't start at 8:30. As all breakfasts this week would, it started with a selection of high quality cereals (although one choice was corn flakes, which almost no one chose) that had oats, nuts, dried fruit, heavy, substantive cereals that satisfied to which one could add fresh fruit and milk or yogurt. Then came the real breakfast of haggis, eggs, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, beans, bacon, potatoes, and dark pudding with choice of "white" or "brown" toast. We left Stirling well satiated and ready for a day of adventuresome driving across the extraordinary country in the border region between the lowlands and highlands. The drive did not disappoint, and I will remember it always.

Our trip took us northwest from Stirling towards Doune as L reminded me, “Keep left!” and we enjoyed spectacular “eye candy” of jaw dropping terrain that included not just the mountains and valleys, but a rich and diverse presentation of extraordinary colors and mixtures of colors. L's artistic eyes marveled in the delicious display of roadside flowers and other vegetation, the green of the grasses and hillsides, the Scottish summer skies of morning, afternoon, and night, and the architecture of town after town, each qualifying as a vacation destination with roadside B&B's for those choosing to stop, and water was everywhere. As I drove the Mercedes around curve after curve, up and down the hills, I kept thinking of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. We were on his turf. I was driving through the Shire, expecting to see little hobbit mounds with their tiny wooden front doors and the peephole windows.

The A84 took us through the central lowlands, up through Doune, Callander, and to A85 over to Crianlarich. The highlands, Loch Ness, Inverness, Aberdeen, Perth, and the Highland and Speyside distilleries would have to wait for another trip. When we reached Dalmally and Loch Awe I knew we were close to a sight I really wanted to see, Kilchurn Castle, but we couldn't find it. As a particularly compelling hotel showed up on the left, L suggested we stop.

What a delightful, old hotel, a marvelous structure located right on the Loch with a fantastic view to the south. We admired the sight, and when we turned to our left, in the distance stood the castle. We doubled back from the hotel in search of a road to the castle. No road, but a footpath to the castle did exist.

Kilchurn Castle is considered the most professionally photographed castles in all of Scotland. While quite accessible, it is far enough from the tourist hot spots to escape the crowds. We had the place to ourselves - no audio guides, attending staff, and admission fees. L and I visited Kilchurn Castle proper, thoroughly exploring the 560 year old structure.

As we explored the various rooms and climbed to the higher stations in the structure, I found myself imagining what may be impossible to truly imagine, the many human experiences of people occupying the rooms of this building so long ago when it was the only building (other than tiny shacks) for many miles. Whatever the history books said, who really occupied these dark rooms centuries ago? Truth be told, who can say what is significant and what is not, but I am certain some of what occurred inside these walls never reached pen and paper.

From Kilchurn we continued west, and the Scottish terrain continued to amaze. I could only imagine from photographs how beautiful the highlands must be. My eyes welled up on several occasions. The history of the people in these lands involves considerable hardship and violence, but I couldn't help thinking that to some extent, “If you're lucky enough to live around here, then you're lucky enough.”

As we started getting closer to Oban, my attention became increasingly focused on the clock and the time remaining to catch the 6 PM ferry to Islay. We nixed the plans to visit the Oban distillery in favor of using extra time to visit other sites as we headed south in what proved to be an excellent choice. We shared a quick lunch of fish and chips in Oban, stocked up on British cash, and headed south. L noticed a place on the map called Kilmartin that had dozens of historic sites. We stopped and found ourselves looking at the Kilmartin Stones. Only later did I learn that we had in fact been through the heart of Kilmartin Glen, one of the greatest concentrations of ancient monuments in Scotland.

When we reached the Kennacraig port, we still had time to visit a castle, this one just a wee bit off the usually traveled path (as if Kennacraig were not already a wee bit off said path), Skipness Castle, located near the remote village of Skipness.

The drive to Skipness featured what we did not know would be a preview of coming attractions, a tiny, single lane road barely wide enough for one vehicle. To allow traffic in both directions, pullouts to the left occurred every several hundred yards. The consideration of oncoming traffic became a vital component of using these roads, and failing to do so would be delinquent driving. Drivers were expected to note oncoming traffic as soon as it was visible. Whoever had the first turnoff would signal this with a flash of headlights and turn to their left on the little space provided.

The tiny road to Skipness became even tinier after turning left towards the castle. Again accessible only on foot, as we hiked I wondered how many of the Scots themselves had actually made it to this place. While inside the ruins of Skipness Castle, once again I wondered who had been inside this place at its prime, whatever its prime might have been, and what constituted their lives.

We weren't on the ferry for the island called home by the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bunnahabian, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, and the almost brand new Kilcharin for fifteen minutes before we were talking about scotch with one of the locals returning to the island. The ferry served Scotch with dinner during the ride, but we opted for “Black Rock Ale,” one of the brews produced by an Islay brewery located near Bowmore.

As anticipated, the drive from Port Askaig to Port Ellen occurred without incident and provided a brief introduction to the island, taking us through Bowmore and past the Bowmore distillery. We arrived at the B&B around 9:30, and our host invited us into the living room for an explanation of the accommodations, pouring a generous “taste” of an Islay whisky blend known as Black. When I finished the taste, he poured a second one.

(Kildaton Cross) Our first morning on the island began with a breakfast feast featuring haggis that was delicious and SPICY! Amply fueled with another fine morning meal, we headed east for the “wee bit” of a drive I had fantasized for the better part of a decade, the drive from Port Ellen to the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. We passed Laphroaig as we would be touring it that afternoon and stopped at Lagavulin, touring their gift shop and walking around, but it still felt a little early for tasting and shopping, and in the mind that I would be returning here, I didn't buy anything but took note of the 20cl bottles and some of the glasses and other items. In light of everything that would be coming up, I'm not sure what made me think I would actually make it back.

The reception room at Ardbeg occurred like the entrance to heaven itself, and my concern for the time of day evaporated. Let the tasting begin, and ohh, the water of life indeed! I must have had 5 tastes of different versions of the beyond delicious whisky for the Islay scotch lover. I bought a 50ml miniature to later perform something I had always wanted to do, a side by side comparison of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. I've thought about this comparison for years.

After Ardbeg, L and I headed up the east coast of the island towards the ancient ruins of Kidalton. The Kidalton Cross is considered one of the finest remaining high crosses in Scotland, carved in the late 8th century. This Cross was crafted 100 years closer to the crucifixion of Christ than to our visit today. We walked around the tombstones, reading the engravings and looking at the countryside. Other than an elderly couple who departed shortly after we arrived, we were the only people in sight.

That afternoon we entered the Laphroaig distillery and tasted the 10 year, the Cask Strength, and the 18 year. The 18 year Laphroaig is quite possibly the best scotch I have ever tasted. Over the next 90 minutes, we watched and learned in great detail the process which produced the incredible spirits we were drinking. I bought a bottle of the 10 year, and we returned to the B&B for some delightful R&R. Refreshed, we found a terrific restaurant in Bowmore right on Loch Indaal with floor to ceiling windows looking over the water.

(Peat, a dense, rich soil full of decomposing vegetation on its way to becoming oil, is placed on burning coals to produce a thick smoke which rises up to the next floor over the barley, giving Laphroaig its strong peaty flavor.)

"Whisky" (without the e) refers to products distilled in Scotland, Wales, Canada, or Japan. "Whiskey" indicates it was made in the United States or Ireland. In 1968 the USA's Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms decreed that America would adopt the first spelling. So many American distilleries told the ATF what they could do with their decree that it backed down and let producers use the spelling of their choice.

Wednesday started with a slightly smaller yet terrific breakfast before we headed up the single lane 8016 to bypass Bowmore and head directly into Bridgend and over to the Islay House Square, which featured a series of shops and art galleries, Islay Ales, the brewery which produced the ales we enjoyed on the ferry, and a marvelous community maintained garden enclosed by stone walls. We tasted more brews, bought some whisky fudge, and looked at the galleries.

A short drive took us to the Woollen Factory, a historic facility whose owner had established contracts serving the Prince of Wales and other dignitaries. The owner, easily in his late sixties, bought the factory decades ago. It now featured a variety of tartan weave, as well as solid cashmere/mink blends, thick wool blankets and scarves, and other “home grown and made” wool products of the highest quality. He personally greeted the two of us and then offered to walk us through his domain. Some of the extraordinary machines had been in operation for dozens of years.

We headed for Portnahaven, an exquisite little village that seemed like a place at the edge of the world far out of reach of all things bad on the planet. As far as we could tell, few people and fewer (if any) tourists were around. L struck up a conversation with an elderly woman having lived in Portnahaven all of her life, a reality I can't even pretend to grasp. The woman shared that during the 1950's, she and a friend had all of the papers and arrangements to move to the United States, arrangements that included green cards, apartments, and employment. At the last minute, she had changed her mind and decided to stay. For 50 years, she has wondered what life might have been had she left.

That ponder is a cerebral rabbit hole without a bottom.

(Portnahaven as seen reflected from a window of one of the properties along the coast) That evening, we enjoyed one of those meals one will remember for life, seafood that for the most part one simply doesn't get at a restaurant, at least not in such quantities. It started with scallops, huge scallops including the attachments with the eggs (which I had never seen before, let alone eaten), presented inside of a sauce making it appear like a soup. After this "scallop soup" came the main dish, more lobster and crab than you could eat, masterfully pre-cut so only minimal effort was required to extract the meat. Our host knew the local fishermen who went to sea each day, "Everything you are eating was in the sea this morning."

The food occurred to bottomless glasses of whisky and beer. When I said that I couldn't possibly have the coffee and dessert, our host smiled, “At least taste the coffee.”

Oh my Lord. The coffee, some kind of remarkable concoction, proved irresistible. I turned to its maker, my eyes wide. He grinned, "Yeah, it has whisky.”

With the coffee came more oat cakes, a rather dry food unlikely to appeal to most, but I loved them, and perhaps due to the alcohol, as I ate them after this meal I became overwhelmed with emotions I didn't fully understand. If our host could tell, he kept it to himself as my eyes grew moist and my lower lip started to quiver, but L knew at once and could see my struggle to remain composed. If I had been alone, I would have been sobbing like a little boy. Instead, I managed with regular wipes of my eyes and the occasional napkin over my mouth. There is something about those oat cakes that stirs something deeper than I can reach, calling to memories I no longer have.

One doesn't lie down after such a feast. For the remainder of our last night on the island, we walked hand in hand in the never ending dusk beneath a sun that took four hours to set, a walk in as much silence as speaking, listening to everything.

Thursday morning we caught the ferry off the island and found ourselves in Kennacraig at 11 AM, ready to head north to Lochgilphead and over through Inverary, down along the famous Loch Lamond, and then into Glasgow. As we descended from rural to urban, population density spiraled and the transportation options grew complex. We chose a course right into the heart of Glasgow and slowed to the downtown pace of stop and go through the city.

We reached the Edinburgh airport, returned the shiny Mercedes, caught the bus downtown, and taxied to the B&B. Our new hosts were exquisitely British, “If you walk to the castle, you will arrive in 17 minutes. If you stop for directions, you will arrive in 19 minutes. If you leave, shut the windows entirely, for the rain comes at the building sideways.”

After hearing his advice on nice walks to gardens, reasonable walks for groceries, and not so nice walks to avoid, we asked for his thoughts on a nearby pub with character and affordable prices. He suggested the Conan Doyle, a pub named after the Sherlock Holmes author who had frequented the place during his prime. In case our “affordable” was less modest than might be presumed, he couldn't resist suggesting another option, a fine establishment with exquisite fare at triple digit pound per person prices, but then added, “You likely require reservations.”

We had neither reservations nor the inclination to part with triple digit pounds per person, and walked the three blocks along Broughton Street to the Conan Doyle, and in just that walk we noticed more pubs, cafes, wine shops, boutiques, and city markets than existed on the entire island of Islay. We were farther from the island than a boat ride and a drive. I noticed the creative economy of space both inside the buildings and outdoors, where some rooms had widths of just a few feet, sinks extending only inches from the wall, yards behind buildings split by stone walls into narrow slits of turf, one per residence. Space was not left idle, and tiny balconies and micro-porches held meticulously maintained vegetable or flower gardens.

The Edinburgh Castle attracts thousands of visitors per day, so I wanted to arrive early Friday morning and begin with what I expected would be a bottleneck where the lines could get long – the Royal Jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny. The Castle had an interesting and informative exhibition taking about 20 minutes to traverse on the way through the building to the jewels. For this part of the castle, photography and the use of cell phones were prohibited.

I won't add to the abundant material on the castle, save to remark that in the Scottish National War Memorial, dedicated to those Scots who served and died in WWI and WWII, one of the displays contained captured flags from Japan and Nazi Germany. As I stood there, looking at the two flags, it occurred to me that this was the first time in my life I stood face to face with a real Nazi flag. Though behind glass, the flags were up front and viewers could get within inches. The Japanese flag, as real as reality gets, had dozens and dozens of Japanese signatures, clearly a flag of some importance. I looked at each flag for quite some time.

(The Elephant House, where Harry Potter author JK Rowling wrote many of her early novels) After the castle we walked the Royal Mile, a tourist saturated collection of shops and restaurants serving its volumes of visitors. Even here, the ever perceptive and resourceful L found a remarkably quiet and reasonable restaurant where she enjoyed a Guinness and a rich salad heavily laden with goat cheese. I couldn't resist the “Wallace Special,” a hamburger topped with haggis. After lunch we reached the end of the Royal Mile and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, noticing a marked increase in access control and security measures. In the gift shop it became clear why. The place serves as one of the official residences of the Queen of England. We passed on both the tour of the palace and the abundance of souvenirs associated with Buckingham Palace, leaving the Mile for a stroll through downtown Edinburgh. By this time, my capacity for new data was tapped.

After R&R at the B&B, we caught a bus further into town for live music, Stramash, a small and quite intimate musical concert where 5 musicians played for an audience of only 20 or 30, allowing face to face conversation between all after the show. We arrived in time to first have dinner and selected a pub of the more popular, energetic variety for our last plate of fish and chips with her usual Guinness and my dark, Scottish ale. After the show, we walked the streets of Edinburgh past the countless pubs full of Friday night festivities amongst the wood, the well lit shelves, the whisky, and the lively conversations of the patrons.

In so short a visit we only scratched the wee surface of the rich and deep, but it provided a taste, a taste as thought provoking as unforgettable.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Tale of Two 5/1's

(Above - May 1, 2011. President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and other officials watch the mission unfold in Abbattabod, Pakistan.) The reality of the situation drips from the photograph, the expressions in the room showing the gravitas of competence in the face of difficulty and risk. Count the smiles in the room.

Contrast the faces in the May 1, 2011 photo with that of the May 1, 2003 photo of George W Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished" while Iraq's condition continued to deteriorate, Afghanistan remained a total mess, and Osama Bin Ladin remained very much alive.

May 1, 2003 - Mission Accomplished without the accomplishments

May 1, 2011 - Mission Accomplished without the smiles

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cinema Shrugs

(The John Galt Line) In what has to be one of the longest awaited disappointments in the history of cinema, the anticipated for decades effort to bring Ayn Rand's opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), to the big screen finally happened Friday. Rand's 1000+ page novel represented the pinnacle of her career and influence, permanently engraving "Who is John Galt?" into the wall of a particular conversation.

Ayn Rand's earlier and also impressive The Fountainhead (1943) was made into a motion picture by the end of that decade (1949), and a good one at that, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. When Atlas Shrugged overtook The Fountainhead as the national Ayn Rand favorite, everyone believed it would be made into a film and simply speculated on who and when.

Some kind of curse seemed to attack efforts to film the epic story of Dagny Taggart, heroine of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, Henry Rearden, masterful business tycoon and owner of Rearden Steel, Francisco D'Anconia, the brilliant genius and heir to the D'Anconia fortune, the pirate Ragnar Danneskjold, Ellis Wyatt, and the rest as they struggle against the slime of Orren Boyle, Wesley Mouch, Bertram Scudder, and a host of looters. Arguments over content control, acquisitions and mergers, personnel changes, all contributed to derailments of project after project. Ayn Rand herself worked on a screenplay, getting about a third of the way into the story before she died in 1982. Recently, an effort almost succeeded in making what would probably have become one of the greatest cinematic atrocities ever produced, with Angelina Jolie playing Dagny and Brad Pitt playing Rearden. (Note the inane, idiotic poster with Angelina and Brad donning pistols, which have no role in the story.)

(Dagny wearing the Rearden Metal bracelet) While God or some set of benevolent forces spared us the above fiasco, the picture released Friday, intended to be the first of a trilogy, offers its own version of painful cinema, suffering the malaise that can inflict a film attempting to replicate a voice it does not genuinely possess as its own.

This situation can produce excruciating dialog as actors speak words without adequate grounding or context, leaving the viewer with the unpleasant realization mid-scene that these are actors reciting lines. Sometimes the lines themselves seem to come out of nowhere, not fitting into the conversation taking place. The contextual vacuum can also produce scripts that fail to sufficiently frame what is occurring. Individuals watching this picture without having read the book will miss so much as to render the experience frustrating if not just plain boring. Roger Ebert blasted the film and gave it one star, which is rare under his generous system which hands a couple of stars to even the unimpressive and uninteresting. Rotten Tomatoes matched his opinion.

(Francisco D'Anconia with Hank Rearden) Ever since reading the book in 1978, I pronounced Wesley Mouch as "mooch." The film uses "mowch" as in "mouth." Considering what is typically associated with the word "mooch," I was quite surprised to hear it pronounced differently. The film wisely nixed the smoking in the 1957 novel, but the prevalence of alcohol proved distracting for characters who were not heavy drinkers, including D'Anconia. While I'm poking little holes, the actors for Dagny, Rearden, and D'Anconia were entirely too young and older performers would have enhanced credibility.

Wisely (or more likely, out of necessity) the producers shot the film on a tight budget of about $10 million, which is nothing for a Hollywood feature. Ayn Rand's following and the Tea Party bunch who have heard of her should insure the picture's ability to recover this modest investment. Barring a game changing event, the second and third installments should be able to operate with comparable budgets, so despite brutal reviews and marginal box office of the first film, they might get made.

Some of the Tea Party types so fond of Ayn Rand and her libertarian philosophy will no doubt delight in the production of the picture and enjoy notions that it will help spread the libertarian message. It won't. Those having read the book have already reacted to its message, and the film will have no impact on their sentiments. Those seeing the film without having read the book will be unmoved and unconvinced by a disjointed story that offers no real arguments or sense of cause and effect to explain why the events are taking place.

At the end of the day, so to speak, the film rights to Rand's extraordinary epic of remarkable characters and thought provoking content ended up in the hands of one with a bare bones budget and no time. Her masterpiece was shot "at the last minute" for a song. Should parts two and three make it to the screen, it's possible they will demonstrate considerable improvement. Odds favor they'll serve more of the same. All of that now said, I have to say that the way the Rearden Metal glowed blue in the film was way cool.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Black Presidents

150 years later, the Confederacy still hasn't figured out that it lost the War.

Anonymous Comment
Repealing Reality, March 24, 2010

Since Obama's election I've written a few pieces noting how his becoming President has caused certain elements of society to stoke the flames of sentiments tracing back to the Civil War. Others have noticed this as well, and last week CNN featured a John Blake piece noting these themes, including a poll detailing the ways in which Southern sentiments remain.

The conversation continues to spread. This week Rachel Maddow picked it up and noted that some have been writing on the subject for years, in particular Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic (1999) which discusses how certain groups of society just can't let go, can't move on, can't join the progress of civilization towards a world that works for everyone. It should be no surprise that such energies would approach fever pitch with the election of an African American President.

The irony of the thematic links between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln is rich. The cast of characters that demonize Obama are essentially the same set of folks that despised Lincoln during his presidency. For the same reasons. In fact, during Lincoln's presidency these individuals contemptuously referred to him as "the Black President."

Literally, and while words like "socialist" and "fascist" were not around, the same rhetorical themes existed with "tyrant, dictator, despot..." towards Lincoln. With it came the resulting noise about nullification, secession, and the like. (The 1863 cartoon refers to Lincoln as "King Abraham.")

A certain, 150-year déjà vu itches the national psyche as we see over the top vilification of Obama and rabid attempts to undermine his legitimacy. It's not hard to find the 1860 version of the same sentiments towards the first president referred to as "black." Unlike then, these days everyone appears afraid of offending those behind the vitriol. We see efforts to lie and/or sugar coat the ugly reality underneath the animosity, including attempts to re-write history regarding the Civil War and what it was all about, lies and deception piled higher and higher on what these folks are and were.

The lies are old and have changed little. The Confederacy lied back then. This included ludicrous assertions such as that the slaves liked slavery (not kidding). Of course, when John Brown raided Harper's Ferry, the South went ballistic, because in truth they were terrified the "happy" slaves would join the revolt.

More significantly, the Confederacy lied about the conflict being about states rights. We still hear conservatives pushing this nonsense today. What a crock. The Confederacy was more hostile to states rights than the North. Immediately after it was created, it started imposing its will on states far more intrusively than what occurred in the North, invading both West Virginia and Tennessee to keep them in line. In December 1862 President Jefferson Davis denounced states rights as destructive. In February of 1864, Davis remarked, "Public meetings of a treasonous nature are being held in the name of states rights."

I'll jump to the punch line - the rather simple fact that whites in the South founded the Confederacy on the ideology of white supremacy. Its sole mission and purpose was to justify and protect the institution of slavery.

Occam's Razor, and unlike today's mouthpieces and all of their gobbledygook, back then Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens didn't mince words, "Our new government's foundations are laid, it cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man - that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

You won't find that quote in a high school history book in this country, not one. That's the snake, and rather than denounce it for what it is, rather than fight it as we did in the 1960s, the GOP has chosen to wine, dine, and dance with it, ironically betraying the first "black president," the very man who founded their party in the first place.

If you want a deep dive, The Truth About the Confederacy provides considerable food for thought and shows how its material is particularly relevant in the current political discourse.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Word Reaches Us

Gifted writer Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, has written the following poem for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

©2011 by Alice Walker

Word reaches us that you are sleeping, sleeping.

Dismayed we have turned to the sea. We encounter among others walking there a sense of what we have lost: the broad expanse of humanity’s sensitivity to the oneness of itself.

Gabrielle, while you sleep, resting your nimble brain, we think of walking with you in the valley of the shadow of death; holding you up.

We hope you can feel our grief; our sorrow vast like the ocean that draws us.

We know in this moment you teach us many things: how all across the world there is no one who deserves this fate. We know we must bleach and sterilize our tongues, brighten with understanding all our dark thoughts.

Sister, whom I never met except in this pain that has so wounded you thank you for reminding us through your suffering and your suspenseful sleep that we must change.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Intifada II - The Democratic Gap

Dr. Tamir Sheafer and Dr. Shaul Shenhav, political science professors at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, are known as prolific producers of insightful studies in politics and public policy. Recent work includes a study of the the dysfunction of Isreali political discourse regarding Gaza and the Palestinians, and an in-depth 40-year-study of media coverage of Isreali elections. A search on their names will yield an overview of their work.

Just this week, on February 1st, Hebrew University released an “Ahead of Print” article about a study where Sheafer and Shenhav analyzed 90 countries with respect to the expectations of the general population regarding democracy and human rights. Then, using objective data from they assessed the actual levels of democracy and human rights that exists in each country. Not surprisingly, the study arrives at the very intuitive result that it is not the level of democracy/freedom that indeed exists that determines a population's unrest, but the difference between this level and the expectations that have developed among the people.

Like most brilliant insights, it is remarkably simple, and the study distinguishes a concept that is now going viral amongst educated political scientists and astute government officials, that of the “democratic gap,” i.e. the difference between the freedom the population expects and the freedom the government provides. Time Magazine wasted no time reacting to the story and published an article referring to the story, as did International Business Times.

The research data were collected in 2008 through public opinion polls and objective international indices, which measured the "democratic gap" in a large number of countries and revealed that the popular uprisings which took place recently in Thailand, Iran and Egypt could have been predicted as early as two years ago.

In countries like North Korea, for example, revolution is deemed unlikely because the population has been beaten down to where expectations consist of little more than bare subsistance. In the West, where expectations are high, revolution is unlikely because democracy and freedom are well established.

According to the data, countries that can expect difficulty include Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, and China. While a nervous Jordon recently took steps to appease its people, the findings for Jordon (as well as Algeria and Malaysia) in fact show a "positive democratic gap", meaning the the government is providing an environment that exceeds expectations, which suggests wide scale revolt is unlikely.

Let's face it, democracy is like the genie and the bottle, and taking the long view, it took thousands of years for humanity to develop functioning (well, more or less) democracies. Right wing hacks go on and on about the US founding fathers as the inventers, but historians know that the US Constitution relied heavily, very heavily, on lessons painfully learned over centuries in the evolution of Britain's government.

Once the genie was out, while very slow from the perspective of a person's relatively short life, from a historical perspective democracy is taking the planet by storm, now everywhere in Europe and North America and working its way into the rest of the world.

Expect the democracy gap to become a household word in the next few weeks, and by its very nature this metric gives dictatorships and repressive regimes cause for concern.

Friday, January 28, 2011


The PNAC neocons are likely to suggest that the US invasion of Iraq served as a catalyst for the uprisings and protests now sweeping the Middle East. Glenn Beck will refer to an organized Islamic conspiracy to unite all Moslem nations under one banner and take over the world. Rush Limbaugh will say that Democrats are behind the unrest as part of a plan to insure Obama’s re-election. Sarah Palin will tweet that the fuss has to do with Michelle Obama’s efforts to curb childhood obesity.

The reality of course has nothing to do with any of the above. The demonstrations and riots are about brutal economic oppression and the growing inequality between rich and poor, fueled by increasing outrage over unemployment, food inflation, corruption, freedom of speech, and poor living conditions.

Egypt is currently capturing the limelight, but this is bigger than Egypt, where what is happening would probably not be taking place without the recent development in Tunisia, which overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14. Granted, Egypt is no Tunisia, but the events are connected and extend across the region. At least ten self-immolation attempts occurred in Algeria just in the week from January 12 to January 19, most associated with the lack of housing. In Jordon, protesters enraged over widespread hunger called for Prime Minister Samir Rifai to step down with cries, “Beware of our starvation and fury!”

Though small, protests in Jordon occurred today as well. In Yemen, protests occurred in multiple cities including Sanaa University where a slogan read, “Leave before you are forced to leave.”

Protesters have also set themselves on fire in Mauritania and Saudi Arabia. Sudan is facing a secessionist referendum, and across the Mediterranean, Albania is facing increasing pressure from its opposition parties. has a terrific sequence of photographs of the developments in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak’s grasp is slipping. Facebook pages called for January 25 to be a "day of revolution against torture, poverty, corruption, and unemployment." Egypt has virtually shut down all Internet, all cell phones, all messaging, and it has brought in the army to clamp down on the crowds. Curiously, many of the protesters think the army is on their side.

From a Daily Beast article on Egypt:

Dalia Ziada, a popular 29-year-old Egyptian blogger, noted, "Men and women are standing side-by-side in calling for their rights."

You don’t see political flags [in the crowds],” said Ahmed Samih, an activist who directs an Internet radio station in Cairo. “You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood. You see Egyptians. You see the flags of Egyptians all over the place."

Or as Ziada put it: "All you have is an idea."

Marco Vicenzino, director of the Global Strategy Project, is suggesting that Mubarak, 82, step down peacefully in a way the prevents additional bloodshed, including his own.

Of course, countries like Iran don't have to worry about anything like this.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Unintended

(Unintended Consequences, Lee Roy Beach) Everyone knows various versions of the tale where one obtains what one has long desired, but instead of the anticipated fulfillment, the results are unforeseen and sometimes disastrous. Remember Terry Jones, the minister who announced plans to burn the Qur'an? He got the attention he wanted, with unintended consequences.

Many in the GOP have been screaming for the last two years about what they would like to burn. Their takeover of the House has already generated seismic shifts in national sentiments and the electricity in the network of the nation's political discourse. John Boehner is Speaker of the House, a house with a considerable number of tea party candidates.

Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann are making proposals. Paul's include eliminating the Affordable Housing Program, the Commission on Fine Arts, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State Justice Institute. He would also eliminate the Consumer Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and slash others as follows:

Legislative branch -- 23%
Federal courts -- 32%
Agriculture Department -- 30%
Commerce Department -- 54%
Health and Human Services -- 26%
Homeland Security -- 43%
Interior Department -- 78%

Oh, and eliminate food stamps.

Bachmann's ideas add: cap Veterans Affairs health care spending, privatize the Transportation Safety Administration, Federal Aviation Administration and Amtrak, repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to leasing.

The ideas of these new representatives don't feel the same as they did when spoken at tea party rallies.

Obama's numbers are climbing (1/13-17/2011 NBC-WSJ poll), but this occurred before the State of the Union, which has only fortified his numbers. What initiated the jump? The tragedy in Tucson? Without question the horrific violence shed the hateful rhetoric in a different light, but his eulogy at the University of Arizona, even with the country's tendency to come together after a tragedy, seems insufficient to shift his approval numbers so dramatically.

The GOP's victory in the House replaced its bash Pelosi privileges with a job. It also installs President Obama as the most visible and reliable line of defense against people who apparently want to return this country to the Stone Age. Unlike Jones, Speaker Boehner doesn't have the option to proclaim, "Never mind!" and tell his folks to take the signs down and go home.

Now seen as a voice of reason and intellect protecting a center against extremism, Obama becomes the face of progress so hard won over two centuries. This will continue to fuel approval of his presidency and dramatically enhances his re-election bid in 2012.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Empty Chair

Ever since Gabrielle Giffords was elected to Congress, when I watched various events where Congress was assembled, in particular the President's State of the Union address, I would look into the audience just to see if I might catch a glimpse of her in her seat.

I never found her place.

Until tonight.

I never imagined that when I would find her place at the President's State of the Union address, it would be empty.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

March 21-26, 2010

Congress passed the Affordable Health Care for America Act on Sunday, March 21, 2010. That night, the Pima/Swan office of Congresswoman Giffords was vandalized. On Thursday, 3/25, Sarah Palin posted her now infamous "Take Back the 20" map featuring cross hairs targeting 20 members of Congress who supported the bill. The map made me sick, and convinced that this was the sort of thing that would get people killed, I posted Retreating, Reloading, and Aiming. That Friday, 3/26, conservative and former Palin supporter Elizabeth Hasselbeck addressed Palin's map on The View.

Later that same day, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords spoke to MSNBC about the vandalism, the increasingly violent rhetoric, and Palin's cross hairs. The video below offers the full five minute interview, not the one cut to the brief remark about the map. The video says A LOT.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Killa from Wasilla

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Congresswoman Giffords Shot

Anyone paying the slightest attention to the news now knows that a gunman opened fire at a northwest Tucson Safeway this morning where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was holding a public event. The latest word is that the gunman fired many shots rapidly and has wounded at least five and perhaps as many as twelve people. Most disturbingly, I heard via phone call that Giffords was shot in the head. I don't have any confirmation of this.

The news is still saying nothing about her condition or the nature of her injuries, but it is confirming that Giffords has been flown to University Medical Center via medivac, which is not a good sign.

Okay - the news has just confirmed that she was shot in the head.

May folks say a prayer in support of this well meaning and dedicated public servant.

Update: NPR is now reporting that Gabrielle Giffords has died, but Sheriff Clarence Dupnik is saying that she is still alive. Pray hard.

Update (2:25 PM Tucson time): Gabrielle is clearly alive, now out of surgery but in critical condition. The surgeon expressed "optimism" that she will live. Word is that a federal judge and five others are dead, including someone on her staff.

Update (2:35 PM): The shooter has been identified as Jared Loughner, a 22 year old Caucasian, and that Giffords is responding to doctors and expected to live.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Carol Somers

Former AZ Representative Carol Somers (R: LD-13) died peacefully December 30, 2010 after a battle with brain cancer. I've been told she was ready and prepared to leave this world. May her wonderful husband Mike, who has heroically provided loving support at her side from start to finish, find solace and support from friends and loved ones.

Among other causes she supported as an elected official, Carol was a workforce development champion committed to helping local Tucsonans improve their skills and wages. I met Carol in 2002 shortly after she became the Chair of the Board of The Southern Arizona Institute of Advanced Technology (SAIAT). Under her leadership, the board implemented critically needed changes and transformed the agency from a marginally effective (and heavily subsidized) training institute into an extraordinary organization that served over 100 employers and trained over 10,000 employees per year, requiring only a fraction of the public subsidy needed by the earlier version. Without Carol, the place would have closed in 2003.

Instead, it became something truly valuable and prospered until 2007. When TREO stole its funding and shot it out of the sky, I resigned. Carol, not yours truly, remained with the crippled plane and guided it to the ground.

Carol was one of the increasingly rare Republicans committed to improving the government instead of dismantling it. She contributed to those efforts seeking a world that works for everyone and not just the fortunate few. May she now reside in a better place.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas – A Winter Solstice History

The events that led to modern day Christmas began over 4000 years ago, with most credible scholars pointing first to the Akitu Festival, the Mesopotamian New Year, which featured a 12 day feast called Zagmuk honoring their god, Marduk. The tradition included the notion that the current king should die at the end of the year, join Marduk in the afterlife, and do battle with the monsters of chaos.

To spare their king, instead they selected a known criminal and made him king for a day. The criminal enjoyed royal status and privileges for a day. Then he was ceremonially executed.

Many Winter Solstice Festivals occurred. The Persians and Babylonians celebrated a festival called Sacaea, a day where slaves and masters would trade places. Meanwhile, early Europe associated the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, with evil spirits and monsters, and held rituals and celebrations to welcome the return of the sun. In northern most Europe (in particular, Scandinavia), the sun would literally disappear for a period of weeks. Scouts would climb the mountains to seek the sun. When it returned, a great festival was held. This festival was called the Yule or Yuletide. People tied apples to the branches of trees to remind them that spring would return.

To the south in ancient Greece, like the Mesopotamians, the New Year festival was associated with a god (Kronos) doing battle with other gods, namely Zeus. In Rome, the god was Saturn and the festival known as Saturnalia. The Romans had fun, with parade like celebrations in the streets, feasts, visiting friends, and the exchange of good luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits). The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles and also did the master/slave swap for a day. Saturnalia was huge.

During the first century C.E. a small set of Jews started working on a document that would become the New Testament. Modern day Christians have a tendency to forget that the first Christians were Jews as was Christ himself. The earliest writings, written by the apostle Paul, consisted of a series of letters addressed to various entities like Galatians, Thessalonians, etc. Writings considered to be written by James (brother of Christ) also occurred this early. Different groups maintained their own oral traditions. Mark came later, and then Matthew, Luke, and John later still (as well as many that were not included). Christians aligned behind the four gospel version with the pronouncement of Bishop Irenæus (185 C.E.)

We do not have ANY of these documents.  We've got nothing in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and the disciples, and we don't have Paul's writings in the Hellenistic Greek that he used. The oldest fragments found (2nd century) and the oldest complete text, Codex Sinaiticus, (4th century), are Greek translations. We don't have what they wrote. We have what others wrote while translating and interpreting with an intent that may have been scholastically and linguistically rigorous - or not.

The Jews were deeply devoted to their Torah and the Old Testament. The early Christians, being Jews, were those most committed to the Messiah prophesies, in particular the writings of Isaiah, and especially Isaiah 53:5:

But he was wounded because of our crimes, Crushed because of our sins; the disciplining that makes us whole fell on him, and by his bruises we are healed.

Paul and Mark say nothing about the birth of Christ let alone a virgin birth, and Mark actually calls Jesus the "son of Joseph." (Hmm.) The later writings of Matthew and Luke present detailed accounts of a virgin birth of Christ. The two gospels are so similar that biblical scholars have theorized the Q Source, a lost document on which Matthew and Luke are based.

The material was consistent with many stories at the time with many common elements: a virgin birth of a savior/god, a manger (in some versions a barn or a cave) with animals, visiting kings with gifts, and the guiding star overhead. Marduk was a virgin birth as were numerous Hindu gods as was the Buddha. Roman Mithraism was the most popular religion at the time, featuring the tale of Romulus and Remus, which told that great men must be conceived by gods rather than regular mortals.

As Christianity started to grow in earnest throughout Rome, the Christians had no fondness for the "Jo, Saturnalia!" celebrations honoring a pagan god. The early Christians wanted a solemn, religious holiday honoring the birth of Christ, which they believed to be December 25. Responding to the continuing celebration of pagan customs, the Church forbid its followers from participating. Right. When the participation continued, the Church did its best to tame the more wild aspects of the party and convert it into a joyous celebration of the birth of Christ, accepting the merriment, the lights, the giving of gifts, and the feasts from Saturnalia.

The New Testament provided a great story to celebrate at this time as well as the imagery for the nativity scene, and by the 12th century, people were displaying such scenes as part of the Christmas decorations, and The Twelve Days of Christmas (note - not a twelve day feast) were implemented in liturgical calendars, 12/25 - 1/5. People had the festival with dinners, pageants, gift giving, and games.

Most scholars agree that December 25 is not the actual date for the birth of Christ. Quoting Luke 2:8 (And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.), some argue he must have been born in the fall since no flock would be out in the fields at night after September.

We do know that in 350 C.E. Julius I, a powerful Bishop of Rome, declared December 25th as the observance of Christmas. Roman Emperor Constantine, who had converted to Christianity, sought to have pagans and Christians celebrate together by incorporating the rituals together. With church support and the Emperor’s power, the winter celebrations became almost entirely associated with the birth of Christ.

Around this same time lived Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was very wealthy and generous and adored children. At Christmas time he would throw gifts into the houses of poor children. The Bishop became a patron Saint of children and seafarers and was granted the title "Saint Nicholas."

In addition to the St. Nicholas legend, the pagan roots of the Germanic holiday Yule referred to the indigenous Norse God Odin, who rode a great horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances in the air. Odin had long white hair with a long white beard. Children would fill their boots with carrots or straw and place them near the chimney for Sleipnir to eat. As a reward, Odin would replace the food in the boots with gifts. As the Christian version developed in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the boots became stockings hung by the chimney, Odin morphed into St. Nicholas, and the eight legs of the great horse became eight reindeer. Rudolph did not arrive until much later.

Saint Nicholas. Sint Nikolaas. Sinter klaas.

Santa Claus.

The Reformation occurred and produced these people called Protestants (protest-ant - one who protests), and did these people ever love to get angry and upset about behavior they regarding as immoral. The Christmas celebration was one of these behaviors.

Many Protestants, in particular the Puritans, blasted the celebration of Christmas as a "Catholic invention," the "rags of the Beast" (Beast=Satan), "a festival with no biblical justification." Christmas was a time of "wasteful and immoral behavior."

When the very Protestant Puritans prevailed over Charles I in England, they banned Christmas in 1647. Fighting ensued including riots, and the open celebration of Christmas became dangerous. In 1660, Charles II was restored to power. He ended the official ban, but many years would pass before the holiday's popularity would return.

Like those in England, the Puritans in America despised Christmas. In Boston, Christmas was outlawed from 1659 to 1681. Unmoved by their sentiments, the ruling English Governor (we are 100 years before the revolution) Sir Edmund Andros ended the ban, but uneasy folks refrained from outward celebrations for decades. To the south in New York, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as the German settlers of Pennsylvania, people happily celebrated Christmas openly and without reservation.

The American Revolution caused many Americans to lose their taste for Christmas, now considered an English custom, and George Washington, knowing that Christmas was far more popular in Germany, attacked German mercenaries as they were sleeping off a Christmas feast in 1777. While an intriguing tale, whether the Germans were full of food or liquor remains in dispute. In either case, the Christmas timing certainly didn't hurt. Washington's victory inspired a weak American army on the verge of collapse.

Puritan hostility combined with anti-English sentiments following the revolution led to the decline of Christmas in the United States, and by 1820 the holiday was on the brink of extinction. It would be saved by the power of the pen. Author Washington Irving supported the recognition of Christmas with short stories, but more significantly, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem that would become famous throughout the globe, A Visit from St. Nicholas, which began, "Twas the night before Christmas."

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!

The poem firmly cemented the tying of Christmas to the exchange of gifts and a jolly gift bearing St. Nick with presents for the children. Ironically, it was a British novelist who became perhaps the one individual most responsible for saving the holiday in the United States. In 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, a tale about an old miser named Ebeneezer Scrooge who is visited by three Christmas ghosts. Dickens re-contextualized Christmas to be about generosity and family, goodwill towards others, and introduced the expression, "Merry Christmas!"

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843.

Perhaps as powerful as the story, it's title and the notion of the Christmas carol became fully distinguished. Just ten years earlier William B. Sandys had published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), which printed for everyone for the first time the songs, The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, which Dickens featured in his book.

The heart rendering story and songs took the American psyche by storm. The generosity of the spirit, the celebration of life, family and friends, the transformation of Scrooge, all tapped into forces dating back to Mesopotamia. These energies overwhelmed the somber, dull puritan Christian version, and the shift from an emphasis on the birth of Christ to these other factors was unstoppable. Christian churches found themselves in a position where there was going to be a Christmas celebration and a popular one, Christ or no Christ. They chose the former.

While the practice of placing candles in evergreen trees occurred earlier in northern Europe, symbolizing the return of spring, British royalty started using a Christmas Tree in the early 1800s. By 1840, all of Britain decorated a tree for Christmas. A picture of a royal decorated tree was published in 1848 in England, and one appeared in the United States in 1850. By the start of the Civil War, fourteen states had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. Ten years later, in 1870, Christmas became a United States Federal holiday, and Christmas trees were ubiquitous during the holiday season.

Rekindled by Clement Clarke Moore's poem about the night before Christmas, the legend of St. Nicholas gained energy, and his image was modified, both in the poem, but also significantly by the cartoon illustrations of Thomas Nast, who based an image of St. Nicholas not on a 4th century bishop in robes, but on the Norse god Odin with the white hair and beard, and made him fat. The January 3, 1863 publication of Harper's Weekly contained an illustration that embedded image into the imagination of the country.

In 1897, after her friends told her that Santa Claus did not exist, eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon confronted her father on the matter. He suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time. One of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, who witnessed unspeakable horrors as a war correspondent during the Civil War, chose to answer the question in a philosophical context, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

More than a century later, his response remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

(The original 1931 Coca-Cola ad in the Saturday Evening Post) By the early 1900's, numerous illustrations of St. Nicholas were appearing in magazines making the coat red, the boots and belt black, and an even fatter physique. Seeking to bolster its sales, the Coca-Cola company hired a talented commercial illustrator name Haddon Sundblom, who in the early 30's produced the image that remains with us today. That Coke created Santa Claus (the whole enchilada) is an urban legend actually believed by a surprising number of Americans, who, amazingly, are unaware that Moore's poem was written over a century before the ad campaign widely published Sundblom's Santa.

Only in 1939 did the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer arrive. Copywriter Robert L. May wrote a poem about Santa's having a ninth, lead reindeer featuring a "nose so bright" that it could lead Santa through the dark night. The entirely commercial venture was launched to entice Christmas shoppers into the Montgomery Ward department store.

Most Christians enjoy the view that Christmas is indeed a holiday starting and ending about the celebration of the birth of Christ, and many complain about the commercialization of the holiday. The fact is that the holiday is profoundly pagan, and some Christians, aware of this reject the holiday outright.

Christmas Quotes:

Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart...filled it, too, with melody that would last forever.
Bess Streeter Aldrich

Christmas gift suggestions: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.
Oren Arnold

I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays--let them overtake me unexpectedly--waking up some fine morning and suddenly saying to myself: 'Why this is Christmas Day!'
Ray Stannard Baker

The perfect Christmas tree? All Christmas trees are perfect!
Charles N. Barnard

There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.
Erma Bombeck

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.
Peg Bracken

The earth has grown old with its burden of care But at Christmas it always is young, The heart of the jewel burns lustrous and fair And its soul full of music breaks the air, When the song of angels is sung.
Phillips Brooks

Christmas! The very word brings joy to our hearts. No matter how we may dread the rush, the long Christmas lists for gifts and cards to be bought and given--when Christmas Day comes there is still the same warm feeling we had as children, the same warmth that enfolds our hearts and our homes.
Joan Winmill Brown

This is the message of Christmas: We are never alone.
Taylor Caldwell

Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree.
Charlotte Carpenter

To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.
Calvin Coolidge

Christmas, in its final essence, is for grown people who have forgotten what children know. Christmas is for whoever is old enough to have denied the unquenchable spirit of man.
Margaret Cousins

Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white'.
Bing Crosby

It is the personal thoughtfulness, the warm human awareness, the reaching out of the self to one's fellow man that makes giving worthy of the Christmas spirit.
Isabel Currier

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
Charles Dickens

Something about an old-fashioned Christmas is hard to forget.
Hugh Downs

They err who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart.
Mrs. Paul M. Ell

It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.
W. T. Ellis

Christmas, my child, is love in action.
Dale Evans

Do give books - religious or otherwise - for Christmas. They're never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.
Lenore Hershey

My first copies of Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn still have some blue-spruce needles scattered in the pages. They smell of Christmas still.
Charlton Heston

To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.Calvin Coolidge

I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.Norman Vincent Peale

Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we're here for something else besides ourselves.Eric Sevareid

Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree.
Charlotte Carpenter

Mankind is a great, an immense family. This is proved by what we feel in our hearts at Christmas.
Pope John XXIII

The only real blind person at Christmas-time is he who has no Christmas in his heart.Helen Keller

Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.
Washington Irving

Christmas renews our youth by stirring our wonder. The capacity for wonder has been called our most pregnant human faculty, for in it are born our art, our science, our religion.
Ralph Sockman

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.
Peg Bracken

The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.
Burton Hillis

Many Christians believe that without the birth of Christ, the holiday wouldn't exist, and that Christmas is about the hope and rebirth that Christ represents.

The ideas of hope and rebirth date as far back as humanity and the dark of winter, but that's okay. In the spirit of Christmas, I say we refrain from argument when Christians tell us the holidays grew out of their religion and the birth of its savior. Christmas is meant to be shared.

Merry Christmas, Everyone.