Looking for a reason to cut back on Christmas commercialism? Try reading Scroogenomics by Joel Waldfogel. I’ll bet you’ve never associated Christmas with the phrase “deadweight loss,” but economist Waldfogel wants to enlighten you in this treatise on wastefulness of holiday consumerism, particularly gift-giving. Waldfogel is not really a “bah humbug” sort of guy; he merely wants people to be more thoughtful about their gift-giving habits and avoid the misallocation of resources and that dreaded deadweight loss phenomenon, which is defined as a “loss to one party that is not offset by a benefit to another.” What that means in plain English is when you give a gift to someone for which they have no absolutely no desire or use, there is an economic loss of value for each party. Which happens more often than we would like to think -- hence, the re-gifting phenomenon. Waldfogel suggest the use of gift cards, which let the recipients choose for themselves, conserving value, or making a charitable donation in the recipient’s name, or just eliminating gift-giving entirely with those people who you really don’t know well enough to choose a gift they will value and enjoy. A sensible thought, and hardly Scrooge-like. For an interview with Waldfogel, visit FailureMagazine.
Now that we've had our first measurable snowfall in the Chicago area (okay, it wasn't very much), my thoughts again turn to books that celebrate the white stuff. Some classics for children (and the adults who love them):
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. This lovely picture book won the Caldecott Award in 1999. It tells the story of Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley, a simple farmer in Vermont, who was fascinated by snow. When he receives the gift of a microscope from his mother, he begins a lifelong study of snow crystals. With the eyes of both a scientist and a poet, he is determined to share his discoveries, as well as the beauty of snow crystals with others, by capturing them in photographs. The illustrations in this book are wondrous woodcuts by Mary Azarian and they fit perfectly with the lyrical text.
Another favorite of mine is The Snowy Day by Jack Ezra Keats. It also won the Caldecott Medal, way back in 1963. It's the simple story of a boy named Peter savoring the joys of a snowy day. I love it because, having grown up in a city, I can relate to the urban environment through which Peter wanders in his red snowsuit, dragging his stick. The illustrations capture the waning sunlight of late afternoons in December and the lavender skies that hang low after the sun has dipped below the horizon. First published in 1962, this now-classic book also broke the color barrier in mainstream children's publishing. I remember as a child thinking it was wonderful to see a child in a book who was the same color as many of my own friends.
And we can't forget The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. In this chilly fairy tale, an imp creates an evil mirror in which beauty is made ugly. The mirror shatters and the pieces scatter and cause evil throughout the world. Kai and Gerta are playmates. Kai is struck in the eye by a fragment of the mirror and overnight
changes and alarms Gerta. He is attracted to and carried off by the evil Snow Queen and taken to her frozen palace. In the spirit of true friendship, Gerta sets off on a quest to find him and has many adventures along the way. One of my favorite versions of this story is illustrated by Vladyslav Yerko.
I would be remiss to not mention the lovely work of C.S. Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Four siblings — Peter, Susan, Edmund,
and Lucy — to be sent away from London during WWII to live in the country with the kind-hearted but remote Professor. The children will soon discover that the Professor's mansion holds many mysteries, including a room which holds nothing but a large wardrobe. When Lucy, the youngest, opens it one rainy day, they discover a passageway into Narnia, a once peaceful world inhabited by Fauns, Dwarves, Giants, and Talking Beasts. But now Narnia is a place "where it is always winter, but never Christmas" by the evil, but seductive White Witch who rules over it. The children become entangled in an adventure that encompasses betrayal, forgiveness, death, and rebirth. I never actually read this as a child. I only discovered it through my own children -- and spent many happy evenings reading it aloud to them at bedtime. Imagine a place where it is perpetual winter, without the joys of the holidays to brighten the darkness. Brrrrrrrrrrrr!!!
Okay, so maybe this, on the surface, has nothing to do with reading and/or writing, but... baseball is a metaphor for life. And so it absolutely has everything to do with reading and writing. Today, Chicagoans can celebrate Ron Santo finally getting recognition from Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the reward is posthumous and several decades late. And the outcome of the "Golden Era" election was hardly a perfect resolution for baseball fans in the Windy City. White Sox great Minnie Minoso was still denied at place in the pantheon of baseball greats and that's an outrageous oversight!
Minoso led the league in steals three times in an era when people didn’t steal a ton of bases. He also led in triples three times and hits once and total bases in another. He racked up 1,963 hits, 186 home runs, and 205 steals. Minoso did not win a major award, and he never played in the postseason. On a superficial level, it’s a very good career, but perhaps not an all-time great one. However, you can’t talk about Minnie Minoso’s case for Cooperstown without getting into his history in other circuits, playing at a time when opportunity was not equal, thanks to matters of race and the reserve clause. His first three years as a pro were spent in his homeland of Cuba (1943-45). He played three more years in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans (1946-1948) and then played in the minor leagues because the Indians felt they were already set in the outfield.
Minoso got his real break in 1951 after getting sent to the White Sox in a three-way deal. Minoso was already 28 years old. As a result, Minoso was already well through the years that are supposed to be a player’s peak seasons, years he hadn’t gotten to spend in the majors due to racism. We can't speculate how much of his career was lost to that.
Despite this late start, Minoso took off on a 10-year run that marked him as one of the best players in the American League.
Minoso was a trailblazer as baseball’s first great black Latin player as well as the first black man to play for the White Sox. His popularity in Chicago was astounding, as he was widely acknowledged as the reason the White Sox attendance crossed a million for the first time in franchise history in 1951, and then stayed there throughout the decade of the 1950s. He was a major cause for South Side pride! Did I ever get to see him play? Of course not. But I listened to many stories at my father's knee as to his greatness, both as a baseball player and as a gentleman. He was ever a positive team force, and had a smile for everyone. The Hall needs to add him while he's still around to truly appreciate the honor!
On this day in 1857, Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski--later known as Joseph Conrad--is born in Poland.
Conrad spent his early childhood in northern Russia, where his father, a Polish poet and patriot, had been exiled. His parents both died of tuberculosis when he was 12. An uncle raised Joseph for the next five years. At age 17, Joseph set out for Marseilles, France, where he joined the merchant marine and sailed to the West Indies. Conrad's many harrowing adventures at sea set the scene for much of his writing.
In 1878, when Conrad was 21, he traveled to England as a deck hand on a British freighter. He learned English and spent 16 years with the British merchant navy. He became a British subject in 1886 and later commanded a Congo River steamboat for four months, which set the stage for his well-known story Heart of Darkness (1902).
Without Joseph Conrad, we wouldn't have the film Apocalypse Now and any number of pop culture quotes, such as:
Kurtz: The horror... the horror... (final lines)
and of course:
Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Kilgore: Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African
American, was arrested for disobeying an Alabama law requiring black passengers to relinquish seats to white passengers when the bus was full. Blacks also were required to sit at the back of the bus. Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system and led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.
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