All posts by T J Berg

The Method

The Method

Once upon a time there were four villages, but we’ll set the fourth village aside for now, because that one was very far away from the others.  The three villages we’re interested in just now each had a wise healer.  The healer in the first village was called Elspeth and the healer in the second village was called Manni and the healer in the third village was called Sue.

Every year, a particularly bad cold would move through the villages.  The three healers met one day to discuss the best way to keep their villages healthy.   Manni, who was always very intuitive and observant, mentioned that she’d noticed over the years that the people in her village that grew the sacred echo plant in their gardens and enjoyed drinking echo tea seemed to get fewer colds.

Sue got very excited.  “What an amazing insight, Manni!” she cried.  “Let us tell all the people in our villages to drink echo tea!  Clearly the earth spirits are pleased when we grow echo and drink its tea.”

Manni was very pleased with this idea, for she’d had a hunch about echo tea for a quite some time.  But Elspeth was worried.  “Manni, in thinking back, I’ve seen the same thing among my people.  But let us make sure.  We should create a test, so we know for certain that it is the echo, and so that we know how best to use it if it is.  This will require that some of our people be given echo while some are not.”

Manni was fairly sure it was the echo that was helping her villagers, but she always wanted what was best for them, so she listened to Elspeth’s suggestion.

“Nonsense!” cried Sue.  She loved her villagers very much and only wanted what was best for them.  “It’s so obvious, now that Manni has pointed it out, that drinking echo pleases the spirits.  Can’t you feel it Elspeth?  It feels right.  I’m certain of it.  I will require all my village to drink echo.  I cannot deprive any of them of its benefits.”

So the three healers returned to their villages and as the cold season approached, Sue called a meeting of her villagers and told everyone that the spirits would protect them from colds if they drank echo tea, and anyone who didn’t have echo plants in their gardens should ask a neighbor to share their tea with them.

Manni went to her village and called a meeting, and told them she thought that it was possible that the echo tea that some of the villagers drank protected them from colds.  She told her village that she wanted to test this, and asked that half of them volunteer not to drink echo tea for two moons, while the other half would drink echo tea daily.  It was not easy to get volunteers not to drink echo tea, but eventually, Manni succeeded in getting enough that she was pleased.

Elspeth returned to her village and said nothing about the echo tea.  She went to her neighbor, who had many echo plants growing in her garden.  “Good neighbor, may I dig up some of your echo plants for my garden?” Elspeth said.  “I’ve always loved their flowers.”

So she brought home fifty echo plants and put them in pots.  Their leaves got her hands quite sticky as she worked with them, so when she was done, she used the sacred soap and water ritual that was so good at removing sticky things from skin (but which usually was reserved for animal sacrifice rituals).  Then she went to her other neighbor, who grew lots of plabo plants, which looked quite a lot like echo plants, but were otherwise quite different besides also making a tasty tea.  “Good neighbor, may I dig up some of your plabo plants for my garden?” Elspeth said.  “I’ve always loved their flowers.”

So she brought home fifty plabo plants and put them in pots.  The next day she was very busy delivering plants with the aid of one of village children.  She had to choose only homes that didn’t already have plabo or echo growing, and she had to make sure that if she gave a plabo plant to a house with a big family, that she also gave an echo plant to another house with a big family.  It was a lot of work and very tiring, making sure that there weren’t more village elders that received plabo than echo, or vice versa, and that there weren’t more families with babies that received one or the other.  Even harder was making sure that she didn’t know which plant each house got, because she was afraid that her hope for the echo plant might make her think it was doing more than it was.  So once she found a pair of houses that matched well, she would have her helper randomly pick which house got which plant, make a note on his tablet, then deliver the plant.  Hard work indeed, but at the end of a very long day, she felt she’d done as fair a job as she could have, randomly distributing the plants among all household types.

When she gave each home a plant, she was very careful to say the same thing.  “I have this plant,” she said.  “I want you to make tea from its leaves every day for the next four moons.  I think it may be good for your health if you do.”  She didn’t want to bias the people she gave plants to, but she had to convince them to make the tea somehow.

All three healers were very close to their people, and loved them and cared greatly for their health, so all three healers spent the next two moons carefully noting how many of their villagers got colds that year.

Sue was very excited at first, as she was sure that her villagers had fewer colds than the year before.  There was a terrible burst of colds among the people in her village that year, but overall there were fewer total, so she decided that her gut feeling was right, and that maybe some of the things she thought were colds weren’t actually colds.  So at the end of the season, she declared that she would begin growing echo in her garden for her whole village, and distributing its leaves for tea.

Manni was also very pleased with her results.  She noted that there were far fewer colds among the villagers that she’d asked to drink the echo tea daily than among the villagers that had volunteered to drink no echo tea.  She felt very confident in recommending that everyone drink echo tea, and also started her own garden to help those who could not grow the plant in their own.

Elspeth was quite surprised by the results of her experiment.  It was very clear that among those she’d given an echo plant to, she saw far fewer colds.  Much to her surprise, however, the people she gave plabo plants to had fewer colds than the people in her village that she given no plant to at all.  It was as if just believing that they were protected had protected them.  She had divided the village evenly into three groups, and all in all, forty people who were given no plant, and had not plabo or echo growing in their gardens, got a cold that year.  Only twenty people who were given a plabo plant got a cold.  But still, it seemed that Manni’s gut instinct was right, because only ten people that received an echo plant got colds!

When the wise healers met again that year, they each discussed their results.  All three were very excited.  Sue and Manni shared their plans to grow a huge garden of echo to make tea for the whole village.  But Elspeth was still concerned.

“This is a wonderful discovery,” she said.  “But I’m not convinced yet that it is the echo tea.  How does it work?”

“Clearly, the earth spirits are pleased by echo plant,” Sue said.

“Or there is something in the tea that strengthens the body,” Manni suggested.

“But what if it’s not the tea?”

“Don’t blaspheme the spirits!” Sue gasped.

Manni rolled her eyes.

“Of course, I’m not saying it’s not the tea, I just feel like we should make sure.  What if it’s something associated with the tea, but just not the tea itself?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the tea,” Manni said.  “The villagers drinking the tea did much better.  And it can’t just be drinking any tea, because as you showed, the plabo tea didn’t do as well as the echo tea.  Besides, does it matter now that we know the echo tea protects from colds?”

But this time, Elspeth had had a hunch.  It was far fetched, but she suggested it anyway.  “Do you know, when I picked all those echo plants, I had to do the sacred soap and water ritual afterward, because I was covered in stickiness.  Most of us only do the sacred soap and water ritual after an animal’s life is taken to feed us, and during holy festivals.  But I asked the people with echo in their gardens, and they all said that they must do the sacred soap and water ritual every time they handle the plants, because it is so sticky.  The do the ritual every time they make tea!”

Sue was outraged.  “They abuse the spirits by doing so!  The resin of the echo plant is sacred to the spirits.  You must stop them.”

“That is a very strange idea, Elspeth,” Manni said.  “How could it possibly protect someone from colds, when it doesn’t even enter the body?  No, I’m sure it is the tea, and I will proceed as planned.”  For Manni cared deeply about her people and wanted all of them to have the best protection.

“As will I,” declared Sue.  “And I will be sure to tell my people not to perform the soap and water ritual outside of the sacred designated times.”  For Sue was very afraid for her people, and loved them and the earth spirits more than her own life.  The idea of angering the spirits frightened her deeply.

And so Elspeth departed, saddened that her idea was scorned, but she decided that next cold season, she would test her idea anyway.  So the next cold season, she again divided her villagers up so that some were not told to change anything, some were asked to put their hands under water three times daily, and some were asked to perform the soap and water ritual three times daily.  To Elspeth’s surprise, at the end of the season, she saw an amazing decrease in the number of colds in the whole village.  But the fewest colds were in the villagers that performed the sacred soap and water ritual three times daily, even if they had no echo plants and drank no tea.  Putting the hands in water offered some protection, but not nearly as much.  Therefore Elspeth recommended that all her people perform the soap and water ritual three times daily.  Every cold season, she kept careful records, performed more trials, and tried very hard to make sure there wasn’t anything she was missing–no hidden threats from the ritual that might mean the spirits were angered, no possibility that it wasn’t again something else related to the soap and water ritual, but not the ritual itself.

Over the years, Elspeth’s village remained healthy.  Manni’s village also remained healthy, although perhaps not as healthy as Elspeth’s.  Sue, who had become convinced that the tea was most effective when grown in her own garden, claimed her village was very healthy, but Elspeth was not convinced.  Still, it was only a cold, so she wasn’t going to argue.

Then, one year, rumor came down the river that a very terrible cold indeed was coming, that several people in distant villages had even died the cold was so bad.  Elspeth reminded her people to be diligent in performing the sacred soap and water ritual.  Manni insisted everyone try to grow echo plant, to be sure there was enough for all.  Sue doubled the size of her harvest and distributed as much tea as possible.  When the deadly cold came to the villages, only two people died in Elspeth’s village.  Twenty people died in Manni’s–many of whom had been drinking tea prepared for them by a neighbor.  Fifty people died in Sue’s village, including Sue herself, who had been working very hard day and night to the point of exhaustion, growing and harvesting and preparing tea for her village.

When Manni and Elspeth met that year, they were very sad and missed Sue greatly, and mourned for the deaths among their people.  Manni, however, still could not be convinced that it was the soap and water ritual and not the plants themselves that protected against the deadly cold.  She did, however, agree that Elspeth could tell her people what she thought, but that Manni would not advise for or against it.  So Elspeth met with Manni’s village, and told them how few had died in her village, and what trials she’d done before that, and why she thought it was the soap and water ritual.  But Manni’s village had been given good advise and care by Manni for years, because she was a good healer, and so most of them trusted her and followed her advise instead.

Elspeth also went to Sue’s village, to offer her condolences and make suggestions for the next cold season.  She was very surprised when she arrived to find that enormous fields where food had once been grown were not growing with echo plant, and that another healer had already taken over Sue’s home.  Her name was Kat.  She would not allow Elspeth to speak to the village, declaring that she angered the spirits with her misuse of the soap and water ritual, and what was worse, that she only recommended the ritual because her father had been a soap maker and her brother was also a soap maker, and she only wanted to make them wealthy.  Kat insisted that she grew a very special echo plant, and that the only reason it hadn’t worked for people before was because it hadn’t been specially prepared by her.  She offered to trade with Elspeth’s village, if the wanted some of the tea from her special echo plants.  Elspeth asked if she could test these special echo plant as she’d done before, but this made Kat very angry, and she declared that Elspeth was filled with deceptive spirits and banished her from the village.

When Elspeth returned home, saddened and worried, she found an emissary from a distant village.  He had heard of the great healers of the three villages down the river, and worried about the next season’s colds, worried they might again be very deadly, he’d come to ask the advice of these wise healers.  Elspeth told him about what she’d found and how she’d found it, and why she believed that the soap and water ritual was good for preventing colds.

The emissary thanked her and moved down river to Manni’s village.  She also told him what she knew–that she’d noticed long ago that those that drank the echo tea had fewer colds, and that over the years she’d convinced almost the entire village to drink echo tea, and that they were now much better off.  She was warm and excited and shared heroic stories of from her village.  He thanked her and moved down river to Sue’s village.  There Kat took him into her home and showed him her fields of echo plant.  She told him inspiring stories about how well her echo plants worked, how every death in Manni’s and Elspeth’s village came from their misuse of the echo plant, and worse, that the deadly cold was the result of Elspeth’s spread of the irreligious use of the sacred soap and water ritual for her own profit, because it made her father and brother rich from making soap.

This was frightening.  Kat was passionate, her arguments seemed sound and were in tune with what Manni said about the echo plant.  The emissary decided to establish trade with Kat to bring back as much echo tea as his village would need for the coming cold season.

And can we guess how the story ended?

Worldcon 75, Helsinki, 2017

I’m off to Finland next week for Worldcon 75 in Helsinki.  Really looking forward to seeing some of the city and a lot of friends I haven’t seen in a while.  I’ll be on two panels this year, and I’m pretty excited, as I get to be both an evil scientist and a controversial one, all in one day.

How I Would Destroy the World with Science, Thursday 14:00 – 15:00, 203a (Messukeskus)

Destruction by science is a common theme in dystopian fiction. Now it’s our turn. Join our panel of evil scientists as they describe how they would destroy the world with science.

Tech Questions You Can’t Ask, Thursday 17:00 – 18:00, 207 (Messukeskus), Moderating this one!

Some technological questions are too controversial to ask. The MIT Technology Review recently produced a list of seven: Can we engineer the climate? Should we give pedophiles child sex robots? What is the public health cost of guns? What health-care technology is worth the money? Should access to scientific knowledge be totally free? Can we genetically modify an entire species? Is my phone sending radio signals right now? What science/tech questions we might ask that we can’t for various moral, ethical or political reasons?

Why I’m Marching For Science

I’ve been living overseas, so I’ve missed out on a lot of the big marches and movements over the past few years and months. (But you bet your bottom I voted and write my representatives.)

But, I’ll be in the US visiting family in Florida this year during the April 22 March for Science, so I’m going.

Confession?  This will be my first ever march.  For a lot of reasons, good and bad.  But at this point, I really have had it with both Trump and the Republican Party’s agenda.

I’m a scientist, a cancer researcher.  I do not want to politicize science.  But the reality is, almost nothing can be entirely free of politics.  (Heck, I just heard on the radio that bathrooms in North Carolina will be under State jurisdiction.  Bathrooms need a jurisdiction?)

Research is expensive and time consuming, and the best of it is not always profitable.  That means that private funds alone will never be able to fully drive scientific endeavor.  This means the government gets involved, as it should.  What it shouldn’t do is try to use funding to select only science that fulfills partisan wishes or shut down scientific discourse with the public.  This has ended poorly for every government that has tried it.

So there, that’s why there’s politics.  But I’m marching for more.  I want money!  Yeah, you heard me.

The proposed budget makes deep cuts in science (among other things) while growing the military.  Don’t get me wrong, we need a strong military.  We need to take care of our soldiers, who are putting themselves in danger for our safety.  But scientific endeavor, technological advancement, and intellectual daring made this nation great.  Investing in research, investing in educating our children, investing in new technologies, these things build a great country.  These things make jobs.  These things make a future.

When we drop environmental regulations, we aren’t just damaging our planet and our future, we’re damaging our economy.  We lose ground on technological advances that other countries will be making, and we lose the markets of countries that don’t want wasteful, backward technology.  In the long run, we lose jobs.

One of our greatest assets is our university system.  If we don’t fund it, all those bright minds from other countries will find elsewhere.

And if we don’t fund basic scientific research?  We lose early career scientists.  We lose the knowledge we’ll gain.  We lose potential treatments.  We lose lives.  My dad is dying of cancer right now.  No, scientific research has not found a cure yet.  But it has extended his life from the few paltry months he might have had to years.  He got to see me graduate with a PhD, get married, have a baby.  I’m still going to lose him to cancer.  It’s going to suck.  But research needs to keep moving forward so we can keep getting more out of our lives.

Maybe a big border wall and a huge military* make you feel safe.  But they don’t make you safe.  They won’t build a country, they won’t make jobs for you, and they definitely won’t make jobs for your children.  They probably wouldn’t have saved the 13 people that died in terrorist attacks in 2014, and they certainly wouldn’t have helped the nearly 2 million people that died that year from illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, infections, lung diseases, cerebrovascular diseases, and all the other things that scientists are working to fix.And all that?  That just scratches the surface of why I’m marching for science.

*No, I don’t know what the answer to terrorism is, but I do know it has to involve more than the military, and it cannot involve alienating the billions of Muslim allies that we’ll need to understand terrorism.

If facts are outlawed, only outlaws will have facts!

Republicans are supposedly the anti-regulation party, but it seems like the one thing they really want to regulate is facts.  (OK, and vaginas.)

HR 482 seeks to prevent federal funding for obtaining facts about racial disparities in housing.  And of course, they don’t allow the CDC to collect facts about gun deaths.  And they work very hard to prevent government agencies from collecting or sharing facts about environmental issues like global warming.

Clearly, Republicans find facts frightening and dangerous, so I thought I might help them out with a few slogans they’ll surely understand.

First thing to remember:  Facts don’t kill people, people kill people.

And of course, the only way to stop a bad guy with a fact is a good guy with a fact.

Come to think of it, we should get more facts in schools!  Every teacher should come to class armed with facts, and all children should learn how to use them.  Should a bad guy or grizzly with a fact break into their school, only plenty of facts immediately to hand will stop them.

If facts are outlawed, only outlaws will have facts!

Know facts, know peace and safety.  No facts, no peace and safety.

Fact control is not about facts. It’s about control.

Pets and Parenting: Baby vomit and the cone of shame.

Dog lovers out there are all out looking for sound parenting advice, so I’m here to help.

I’ll start by scolding the people out there who let their dog run around the streets off leash, because one of those dogs ran up behind my dog Giles the other day and latched onto his back leg.  I have a beagle and this attack dog was about the size of  a Jack Russell terrier.  This is to say, even if your dog is not big, he can do damage.  Because three days later the holes he made were looking angry, despite careful cleaning, and Giles’s leg had swollen up to nearly twice its size.  So he ended up at the vet and his head ended up encased in a cone of shame.  Poor Giles, and screw you people who let their dog run around off leash on my street.

This is where the angry bit ends and the parenting bit begins.

Some days after the cone of shame was donned, baby Logan discovConeOfShameered the joys of vomiting.  The short sprint from bedroom to bathroom thoroughly covered every surface with delicious, delicious vomit.  (That surface coverage included every inch, from hair to feet, of Mommy.)  Giles, being the helpful beagle he is, instantly rushed into clean up duty.  It isn’t easy licking vomit up from the floor while wearing a cone of shame, but he would not shirk, and if the cone of shame happened to scoop up baby vomit along all its edges as he went, that would not deter him.  Giles is no slacker!  And when relieved of duty by Daddy, he made sure to scamper quickly down the stairs and into the living room with his vomit covered lampshade head, where he might recline on the couch for a time and bask in his successful clean up job.

I think we can end it there.  I mean, we parents don’t really want advice anyway.  We mostly just want to complain and laugh secretly at other parents’ disasters.

#BulldogLivesMatters

Bulldogs have been the victim of severely poor treatment at the hands of breeders.   While many breeds of dogs are suffering problems of inbreeding, the bulldog has seen some of the worst consequences of poor breeding practices through history.  Inbreeding has led to many health problems–they are severe, shorten the life of the dog, and are so costly that many end up in shelters and euthanized.  This is in no way humane.

This is not to say that all breeders are bad.  There are breeders out there making huge efforts to help the breed.  But there are also a lot of bad breeders out there.  Those breeders need to be educated, and if they still refuse to acknowledge the problem and take steps to fix it, they should not be allowed to continue breeding bulldogs.  There must be consequences.

This is also not to say that bad breeding practices are only happening to bulldogs.  The problem is just particularly egregious in this breed.  However, safeguards that are put in place to monitor, educate, and discipline breeders can easily be extended to address these same problems when they afflict other breeds.

If you were able to read these three paragraphs without screaming in outrage #AllDogsMatter or #BreedersMatter . . . if you were able to see why that would actually be a silly response, then you should also be able to understand the #BlackLivesMatter movement without having to decry in response that #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter.

Black Lives Matter . . .

There seems to be some confusion among those that post #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter posts.  I think they’re struggling with something very simple, actually.  They’re just not able to do the simple act of mentally filling in the rest of the sentence.  So I’ve made a helpful image for them.

blacklivesmatter

See folks, replying to Black Lives Matter Too with All Lives Matter doesn’t make sense, because all lives matter is assumed in the statement.  Get it?  Because all lives matter, we have to remind people that black lives matter too, because society is behaving as if they don’t.

When my son becomes a teenager and makes poor fashion choices, the biggest consequence will likely be that he’ll have to look back on embarrassing pictures of himself on social media for the rest of his life.  He won’t be shot by a vigilante or a cop or a scared citizen because he “looked scary.”  See, he’s white, so he’ll have a rest of his life, even if he thinks oversized hoodies and saggy pants are the hottest thing ever.*  He’ll have a rest of his life, even if he gets pulled over for a random traffic stop and has a gun in his car.  He’ll have a rest of his life if he loiters, speeds, sells CDs or cigarettes in front of a store, plays with a fake gun, or walks in the rain to get a can of pop.  Hell, he’ll apparently even have a rest of his life if he holes up in a public building armed to the teeth with a bunch of his friends.  Some people might even send him snacks.

If my son was black, all that might not be true.  Which is just one reason why we need Black Lives Matter.  Because all lives matter, but it seems we need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter Too.

 

*And frankly, if he still does at 35, who cares?  It’s just clothes FFS.

 

Battling the Empty in the Place Before Birth: Or How Logan and Olive Got Their Perfect Ears

The souls wait in the Place Before Birth. It is a great, huge place containing every possibility, and every soul can do every thing it might imagine while it waits to go into the great wide world. Some souls sleep and laze and relax, by riverbeds or in the hearts of stars or under the dappled shade of pinepepper trees. Some souls work, and pick piles of peppermint pickles and collect seashells and build palaces from them and beautiful works of art. Some souls frolic and play, chasing animal souls through ocean waves or digging holes and playing hide and seek. Some souls sit in quiet reflection. Some try all these things while they wait.

And some souls, some souls face the Empty.

The Empty stalks the Place Before Birth. No one knows where it came from or why it is there, but it stalks the souls of the Place Before Birth and steals from them their love of life and turns it to nothing and leaves empty holes in the place where life should be. Most souls go on in happy oblivion, unaware of the Empty, unaware even when they have been touched by it. Some souls discover the Empty and run and hide from it.

Some souls do battle.

The little souls of Olive and Logan frolicked together often in the Place Before Birth. Their best friend was another soul who was the finest climber in all the Place Before. Up and down it could climb, anywhere, no matter how smooth or how high, and would toss down snapdrizzle and carrots from cloud towers for everyone to eat.

Olive and Logan were climbing clouds below their friend when the Empty came. It grabbed hold of their friend so tightly the life was almost gone by the time Logan and Olive came to their friend’s aid. Armed with nothing but a cucumber and a quick wit, the two souls engaged.

Logan hopped on the Empty’s back and recited poetry. Olive batted balls of cloud with her cucumber, smashing them into the Empty’s face. The Empty thrashed and grabbed Logan from its back, hurling him tumbling from the cloud. Olive catapulted from her place on the cloud, grabbing Logan from the air and swinging with him into a nearby cumulus. Together they dove back into the attack. Olive performed a quadratic equation with interpretive dance while Logan drew the numbers of pi to a thousand decimal places to climb back to where the Empty fed.

Interrupted again, it turned on Logan and Olive, a sharp claw of absence slicing the air, tearing off the piece of soul that would be Logan’s left ear After Birth. Olive used the Empty’s distraction to tug her friend’s foot and pull him free, tossing him into the safety of a distant cloud. Then she and Logan grasped hands, leapt, stomped on the Empty and dislodged it from the cloud, as they launched themselves toward their injured friend.

They grabbed up their friend and bounded cloud to cloud, over a star, and into a waterfall that they rode down to a moonlight lake, where they sunk safely to the bottom and sheltered in the coral souls. There they fed their friend soul sips and nibbles of their own love of life until it revived. Then Olive turned her ministrations to Logan. She took a portion of her soul ear and fashioned a new ear for Logan. Though it wasn’t quite complete and would be missing a notch when he was born, it would be perfect in every way. And Olive then rearranged her own soul ear from what remained, and though it would be shaped a little different than her other ear when she was born, it would be perfect in every way.

And so the three friends joined hands and swore always to do battle with the Empty, in the Place Before and After Birth, and left the lake of moonlight to frolic again and keep their watch against Empty.

A big bag of heaven just arrived.

rootbeerbarrelsWhen living abroad, you realize that while we fundamentally all eat and drink, there are serious global deficits.  For example, one would think something as delicious as root beer would be revered around the world.  In fact, it is not.  Not only is it not loved and very difficult to find, Europeans and Brits* often actively dislike root beer.  The usual response is “It tastes like mouthwash” or “It tastes like medicine” leaving me to wonder what genius flavors European medicines.  So when our friend visited, he brought me the next best thing: A big bag of root beer barrels to give me that root beer fix when needed.

Other things lacking?  Triscuits, Wheat Thins, Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix**, tortilla chips that don’t taste stale when fresh out of the bag, Mexican food in general, chewy browny mix***, proper chocolate chips, proper marshmallows, Gram Crackers, and proper hamburgers.

Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing things to eat and drink over here.  In Sweden, you’ll find Glögg at the holidays, which is a delicious spiced wine.  And hot smoked salmon.  And Marabou chocolate with Daim.  And not Cheetos brand cheetos which are way better than Cheetos.  The UK had amazing yogurt.  (No, I don’t know what they do different, but I suspect they add extra cream.)  And Percy Pigs, an inexplicably good pig-head-shaped candy from one of their big, upscale grocery chains.  And Tracklements Chilli Jam. And they eat roasted mushrooms for breakfast.

*One of the first things I learned living in the UK is that British people do not consider themselves European.

**I have had to find recipes to replace these things.  Here is the corn muffin recipe.

***Here is the brownie recipe.  I’ve recently started adding crumbled Daim Bars.  Because yum.

 

Explaining Santa: Logan’s First Christmas

Santa Claus has become so many things to us–magic, mystery, consumerism, a jolly man at malls, a scary man at malls, a myth, a wonder.  Personally, I like him, but perhaps because I know this, his true origin story…

Mr. Claus and his wife Mrs. Claus lived a long time ago in a village far away in the Great North.  It never got very warm there, but in the heart of winter, it was dark all day and the snow was so deep, sometimes you had to dig tunnels to visit your neighbors.

Mr. Claus was a fisherman, and a very fine fisherman at that.  He had a very fine boat, and every year he brought in more fish than any other fisherman in the village.  Because he was such a fine fisherman, he often had plenty of extra fish, some to trade, some to store away for the hard months of winter, and plenty to give to those in need.

Mrs. Claus kept chickens and grew a few hardy vegetables.  She was also a great wood carver, and made some of the most beautiful toys in all the Great North.  She spent her winters carving and painting and sewing clothes for toys, some to trade, but most to give as gifts each year to the children of the village.

Because the snow was so deep, and the nights so dark and so cold, on the darkest night of the year, Mr. and Mrs. Claus would don bright red coats and pants so they could easily be seen, and everyone in the village would light a candle in their window to help guide them, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus would bring a toy to every child in the village.  They made sure, too, to bring along food for those who might be running short in the long winter.

The villagers would share what they could–a treat or a meal or a song, some gossip or a kindly ear, or they might share their woes or joys or tell a story, and it made that dark night just that much brighter.

One year, Mr. Claus left on his fishing boat.  There was a great storm that blew and blew and Mr. Claus never returned.  Mrs. Claus walked the shores every day, watching for her lost husband.  Her little garden lay untended.  Her hens were adopted by neighbors.  She watched and watched and grew sadder and sadder, and when the snows came, she retreated quietly to her home and did not come out.

The villagers worried.  She would run out of food, surely, with Mr. Claus gone and her garden untended.  But she would see no one.  So people began sending their children, because even in her great sadness, Mrs. Claus would never send away a child.  And when the children visited, they brought her little gifts of food, saying always it was extra, it was something they found, that their mothers told them they must eat it but really they didn’t like it.  In this way, the village made sure that Mrs. Claus always had food and company.

So the long winter of the Great North wiled on until the darkest, longest, coldest night of the year.  Mrs. Claus had made no toys that year.  She had no extra food to spare. But this year, groups of children, whole families, came to her home and sung her songs, and gave her food, and told her stories, and shared their woes and their joys.

As the families returned home to bed, some of the children swore they’d seen a man in a bright red suit walking the snowy paths just at the edges of their candlelight.  Their parents hushed them and sent them off to bed.  When the villagers woke the next morning, they were surprised to find a toy for every child, beautifully carved and painted and clothed.

The children cried with delight: It was Mr. Claus! He’d come back!  But the parents knew it wasn’t so . . . or perhaps he had.  Perhaps his spirit rose, the spirit of generosity, given new life by the generosity of the villagers.  As years passed, every act of generosity made that spirit stronger, and as if by magic, every year, on the darkest, longest night, that spirit of generosity would rise and bring toys to children everywhere.  And we call that spirit Santa Claus.