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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 29, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Annual Letters, Manchester, Goose, Fairness

I keep hearing comedians and other commentators speak abusively of family Christmas letters. You know, the newssheet slipped into a Christmas card -- or completely replacing it -- in which your friends recap all the year's high points, mostly consisting of the achievements of their kids.

I hear them called "brag sheets," but think for a moment: The kids are going to read what's written about them. The parents can only write good, encouraging things.

Can you imagine a family letter that says, "Bucky spent most of the year sneaking every opportunity to smoke marijuana, as if he thought his parents had no sense of smell. Cydney has spelled her name three different ways this year, changing every other time she recolors her hair. And little Doober thinks he's toilet trained, but if you had to do his laundry you'd know that he's got a ways to go."

Actually, some of our favorite annual letters are the ones that go almost that far in their candor about the past year in that family's life.

In most cases, I'm grateful for those family Christmas letters. After all, these folks got on our Christmas card list because we actually know them and like them, and even though we (or they) moved far away, we still care about them and their kids.

Sometimes, they are such old friends, so long separated, that we've never actually met the children whose exploits the letter details. But it's good to know that our friends have children who seem to be following a good course in life, even if we don't know the kids themselves.

Would it be better to sit down and have a good conversation? Absolutely. Years ago, I had a chance to visit the university where my best friend from my time at Notre Dame is teaching. (Unlike me, he actually got his Ph.D.)

Our youngest was just a baby at the time, and the bitterly cold winter winds of Iowa literally took her breath away -- but once we were indoors, conversing with our friends, it was as if no time had passed at all.

We even met their kids, so that when we read the occasional letter from them, we have some idea of whom they're talking about.

The annual family letter is like a special issue of People magazine devoted to people we actually know and care about. These are the major players in our lives, and we want to know what's been happening.

However, there is one kind of family letter that goes unread: The typographical nightmare. The words fill the entire sheet of letter-sized paper, and there's not a single paragraph break. Just line after line of relatively small type, stretching the entire width of the paper.

Apparently, they have so many things to say that they have to use every quarter-inch of space.

Those letters go unread because they're unreadable.

You're probably reading this in the printed copy of the Rhino Times. Have you noticed that newspapers do not run a story all the way across a page? Instead, they arrange them in columns, so that each line of text is only a couple of inches wide.

They also break them into paragraphs -- often very short paragraphs, because the lines are so short that long paragraphs can take up many inches of a column without any breaks.

For many years, that's what we did with our family newsletters. Every word processor has the ability to divide the page into columns, so we first shrank the margins, then divided the text space into two or (usually) three columns.

We changed the tabulation so that paragraph indents were no more than two-tenths of an inch. We turned off right-justification, so that the right-hand edge of each column was "ragged."

Doesn't that waste page space, to have those breaks between the columns?

Absolutely not. The opposite is true. That's why newspapers all do it -- it saves space rather than wasting it.

Every line is short -- just the width of a column -- so it's far easier for the reader's eyes to track from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. When your eyes have to track the whole width of a single-spaced 8-inch-wide line, you're going to lose your place pretty much constantly.

With such short lines, you can use a smaller font size. A three-column page can be printed in ten-point type -- or even nine-point, if a member of your family won an election or got an Olympic medal so you have a lot to say.

But if you don't break it into columns, it would be cruel to use even twelve-point type; fourteen-point is the minimum that's readable for page-width lines.

And it's not just any typeface you want to use, regardless of point size:

In blocks of text, in columns or not, sans-serif types like this one are much harder to read. Those little serifs are part of what guides the reader's eye along each line of text, and when the serifs are missing, it's harder to track the lines. It takes just a little more work -- making it more likely that the reader will stop reading.

But far worse than sans-serif type is italic type. People have the idea that italics are "fancy" and therefore make the family newsletter look more "special."

Italics are not fancy. They're far harder to read than roman fonts. That's why we use italics rarely, only to make individual words stand out, like this one.

But if you set long blocks of text in italics, you are telling the reader, "If I wanted you to read this section, I wouldn't have put it in this unreadable typeface. So skip on till the italics are over. Four score and seven years ago.... This is a filibuster, so it doesn't matter what I'm actually saying."

Isn't that exactly how you treat italicized block quotes in books? When an entire family Christmas letter is in italics, the message is plain: Don't read this letter.

All you can do with a long family newsletter that's a solid block of unparagraphed text in italics is check for the names so you know who the letter is from.

Be glad that your friends are still alive and still married -- unless there's a name change that makes it clear that somewhere in that block of solid unreadable text, either this year or in a previous year, there was probably something about a death, or a divorce and remarriage.

But I don't even want to know who sent the newsletter in a script, blackletter, or otherwise eccentric font. I've seen newsletters that looked like ransom notes. This is a hostile act, almost as evil as enclosing glitter in an envelope.

Take me seriously, O ye newsletter writers: Use columns. Use a regular serif font. And choose one with a large x-height. The more open the body of the characters is, the more easily older eyes can read them. That's why I never use Times Roman or Bodoni; instead I use Century Schoolbook, Bookman Old Style, or Goudy -- much more readable at small sizes.

And if all else fails, Windows comes with Lucida. Use Lucida Fax, because it was designed for readability even when it's printed on a miserable fax machine.

I love getting your newsletters. You don't have to write them cleverly -- just tell what's happened in your family this year. If you write the way you talk, then reading your newsletter will be almost as good as having a chat together while you catch us up.

*

Along with this wonderful, helpful, encouraging advice about layout and typography in family newsletters, let me add a plea about family photos. You may think that everybody who receives your family picture with your Christmas card knows who everybody is in the picture, but you are wrong.

Your children have changed. You have changed. Many of us have never seen your son-in-law or daughter-in-law, and we definitely don't know the grandkids or whom they belong to.

Give us a left-to-right, top-row to bottom-row caption. It doesn't have to be attached to the photo. Just slip it into the envelope. We'll find it, and we'll be grateful.

Because even though you got on our Christmas card list for good reason, after forty years we might not remember what that reason was.

We got a couple of Christmas cards this year that baffled us. The names meant nothing to either of us.

Finally we realized that a friend or relative had remarried and changed names. Or it dawned on us that this was a business relationship and so of course we didn't recognize any of the family names.

Don't misunderstand: Once we figured out who it was, we were (a) delighted that they still included us in their Christmas mailings and (b) happy to remember the time in our lives when we knew them better and spent much time with them.

But if they had sent an uncaptioned picture, and signed their card, "John and Sarah," it's quite possible that we would never figure out who the bald guy used to be when he had hair, or who the overweight old people were when they were young and thin.

Because we're old! When you send out family pictures and family newsletters, the people who will care most about them and study them most avidly are old people! (Oh, pardon me; was I shouting? I'm a little hard of hearing these days.)

So our eyes and our memories aren't what they used to be. Any little thing you can do to help us is greatly appreciated.

*

I kept hearing that Manchester by the Sea is brilliant, beautiful, unforgettable, the best movie of the year.

But writer-director Kenneth Lonergan wrote the script to Martin Scorsese's most pretentious, stupid, boring, and incomprehensible film, Gangs of New York. He also wrote the passable Analyze This and the unthinkable The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, so ... exactly why was I supposed to think that Manchester by the Sea was going to be anything other than pretentious hackwork?

Now I've seen it, and: It's brilliant, unforgettable, deeply ugly and depressing, and if you already lead a life of futility and self-destruction, you should probably stay away.

At the beginning of the film, we see Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a janitor-handyman servicing several apartment buildings near Boston. The tenants range from pigs to prostitutes, and finally he blows up at what must be the stupidest human ever depicted on film. It's a frustrating, unfulfilling life.

But then Lee's brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, back in their hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea. (The real town in Massachusetts uses hyphens; the movie title does not.) Through flashbacks, we learn that Lee had a good relationship with Joe, and with Joe's son, Patrick (the luminous Lucas Hedges), but Lee is not ready to step in as 16-year-old Patrick's guardian.

Joe hadn't consulted with Lee, even though he had plenty of warning that his heart condition might kill him at any time. Instead, he arranged things so that Patrick was financially set. But to do things right, Lee would have to leave the Boston area and move to Manchester-by-the-Sea, which is the last thing Lee wants to do, not because he loves his job or his solitary life -- he hates both -- but because he cannot bear to return to the place where the worst things in his life happened.

And, in flashbacks, bit by bit we learn exactly what those terrible memories are. And yes, they're terrible. Heart-wrenching. Unendurable.

During the movie, there are a couple of moments when people offer Lee a scrap of redemption -- too little, too late, but still, they help the audience actually like a couple of people. And the relationship between Lee and Patrick grows into something like mutual affection and respect.

I don't really know how this movie will affect people suffering from serious depression. Maybe, if you don't empathize with movie characters, you'll feel better because at least your life isn't as awful as Lee's. But personally, I don't ever feel better because somebody else feels worse.

If, like me, you empathize with well-written and well-acted characters, this movie will take you down the road to such deep sadness it might take days to come back. This movie is a joyless place to visit.

The good things. Almost every actor, but especially Lucas Hedges, Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife, and Josh Hamilton as Joe's lawyer. (Mr. Hamilton, please change your IMDB photo immediately; lose the knit cap, because in the thumbnail it seems to be hair and makes you look like the next-door-neighbor (Don Stark) in That '70s Show.)

The hard-but-OK things. The story is told completely out of order. Almost everything that matters comes in the form of a flashback. It's all set up so that only gradually do we come to understand why Lee's decision about whether or not to be Patrick's guardian is so hard. The movie ends with that decision, but nothing is actually resolved. Nothing is all right.

The one really bad thing is: As a director, Kenneth Lonergan does not do one of his most basic jobs. In a movie where flashbacks are constant and vital, Lonergan does nothing to signal us that a flashback is happening. Only by noticing the ages of the characters -- or the presence of somebody who already died in the "present" of the movie -- do you realize that what you've been watching for the past couple of minutes is a flashback.

This is an elementary directing responsibility, to help the audience know what they're looking at. It doesn't take much. The transitions into flashbacks can be handled musically, or with a slight change in the quality of the light, or with a visible pause like the blank line that signals transitions in novels.

I've heard people defend such directorial lapses in other films as "an artistic choice," but that's idiotic. It's like saying that printing a book with the pages unnumbered and out of order is an artistic choice. No it's not. It's a combination of arrogance and incompetence.

Yet because critics and award voters are often impressed by pretentious idiocy, it may be because flashback transitions are incompetently handled that Manchester by the Sea will win some nominations and awards.

Nominations and awards that should have gone to directors who try to help their audiences understand what's going on from moment to moment in a movie.

So yes, I have that complaint, and to me, at least, it's a huge one, because all these bad transitions break the audience's experience of Lee Chandler's life -- and I really came to care about him and his family during this film. I didn't want the director to keep distracting me with his incompetence and/or artiness.

Yet despite it all, I'm glad that I saw this movie; I was moved by the people and by the performers who portrayed them. I want to see Lucas Hedges emerge as a major star so I'll get more chances to see him act.

And I'll never look at fishing boats without a great deal more respect for the people who pilot and maintain them.

Do you want to see this movie? Not if you think Rogue One is the most important event of the Christmas season.

Nothing against Rogue One, mind you -- I haven't seen it yet, but with a script by the team that did About a Boy, and with the director of the only good Godzilla movie at the helm, I assume it's better than it needed to be. (That is, better than Lucas's three prequels.) I will see it.

Let's just say that not everybody who's in the audience for Rogue One will be glad they also saw Manchester by the Sea.

But then, the word "glad" can hardly be used in juxtaposition with Manchester by the Sea anyway. It is certainly a good movie. It may, in some people's eyes, be a great movie. But nobody will ever call it a "glad" movie.

*

Now that I've had their heritage turkey and goose, and heard from friends about the high quality of their Angus beef, I can wholeheartedly recommend D'Artagnan (www.dartagnan.com) as an outstanding source for excellent meat, fowl, game, and other semi-exotic and heritage foods.

Will I ever order their duck fat, black truffle butter, or ready-to-use chestnuts? Not a chance. But if you have some idea what you would do with such items, I can vouch for D'Artagnan's quality and the great care they take in shipping.

The birds and beef I ordered from D'Artagnan arrived, not just cold, but still hard-frozen -- even the ice in the package was so cold it was bone dry inside its plastic. Nothing was even starting to melt. Which meant nothing had gone bad in transit.

In the packaging, everything was tightly packed so that nothing bumped around during shipment. It made me happy to see that these folks care about how their products arrive at the customer's door.

That kind of quality and care are not free. D'Artagnan does have periodic sales and discounts, and if you're ordering Wagyu ground beef, and you know what Wagyu even is, you'll be pleased at the price of $10 (or so) per pound.

There's a little more sticker shock when the base price of a 6.5 lb. Wagyu beef tenderloin is about $400.

But you have to be preparing something pretty extraordinary to want to use Wagyu beef in the first place. My whole experience of genuine Wagyu beef included the price of round trip airplane tickets and hotel rooms in Tokyo, so the D'Artagnan price is way, way cheap.

Plus, at the moment I'm writing this a sitewide fifteen-percent-off sale is going on (till midnight on New Year's Eve) so you can get that tenderloin for "only" $339.99.

What kinds of meat, poultry, and game do they offer? Four kinds of duck, several types of chicken -- if you know what poussin is, go for it -- and heritage, organic, and wild turkey. Plus capon, goose, guinea hen, pheasant, quail, squab, and wild Scottish game birds (red-legged partridge, wood pigeon, pheasant, and grouse) -- basically, the birds you might bring home if you went out shooting with Bingley and Darcy from Pride & Prejudice. Or if you went shooting with the royal family in Scotland.

As for meats, you can get bison (American buffalo), rabbit, venison, wild boar, and veal -- along with grass-fed and/or pasture-raised lamb, Berkshire pork and porcelet (milk-fed pork), whole pigs, and exotic pork like French pancetta, jambon de Bayonne, dry-cured saucisson sec, tasso ham, and various bacons and sausages.

As for beef, cows pray to be selected by D'Artagnan, because it means their lives up to the day of slaughter will be so perfect and coddled that it's worth dying for. Japanese Wagyu beef, Kobe-style Wagyu, grass-fed beef, and Angus beef can be ordered in a wide selection of cuts.

Most of this is way above my pay grade. It's like the difference between .mp3 recordings and ultra-high-quality digital recordings. If you can tell the difference -- which requires that you have the speakers to actually play the difference -- then maybe the huge files of the top formats are worth the hard drive space. But I can't hear the difference, most of the time. The .mp3 format is good enough for me, in most cases.

Ditto with some of the fabulous high-quality exotic meats. Our heritage turkey from D'Artagnan was very good. So was our fresh turkey from Fresh Market. The heritage turkey gave us an idea of what a turkey dinner meant in 1620 -- but the amount of meat on the heritage turkey would barely feed a family of six, with no leftovers, while one 24-pound bird from Fresh Market -- even without the "third leg" -- has us in turkey for a week. And nobody at our table could taste the difference.

If you can taste the difference, or if you're a good enough chef to prepare these meats in order to show off their special excellence, then D'Artagnan is the place to go. I may try more of the exotics over the coming year -- I'm interested in the wild boar tenderloin, and I may impose on a friend with Cordon Bleu training to prepare venison osso buco or venison loin that will make me cry, it's so good. I hear that it's what Bambi was born for.

Meanwhile, Fresh Market remains our high quality local butcher of choice. After seeing the prices at D'Artagnan, we feel like we're practically shoplifting Fresh Market's meat and poultry.

But now, I must tell you about goose.

After years of reading English fiction in which goose is the traditional Christmas bird, I figured I owed it to myself to order one from D'Artagnan, roast it, and see just what it is.

I read all kinds of stuff about how to cook goose. Lots of weird suggestions -- most of which I ignored, because I don't want alien meat -- but the most pertinent information was this: Goose is heavily loaded with subcutaneous fat.

Whereas turkey meat begins directly under the crispy skin, goose meat has a layer of about a quarter-inch of fat that is (a) not delicious and (b) tricky to get rid of as you carve the bird.

The trick, said every source, is to pierce the skin so that the fat can melt and flow out through holes in the skin. One source warned that I should poke the skin with the knife at a slant, to avoid piercing the meat. Another source talked about making a criss-cross pattern of cuts.

I made that criss-cross pattern. But because I had never cut goose skin before, all I succeeded in doing was to score the skin. I was worried my cut would be too deep, but in fact I didn't really pierce the skin at all, so while my scoring was decorative, it was completely ineffective.

Even with the subcutaneous fat still in place, the goose was far juicier, per pound, than any other bird I've ever cooked.

All the goose recipes talked about using the goose fat to cook potatoes in. We were having rice, and we regarded it as significant that nobody talked about making goose gravy.

Maybe that's because, when you try to separate the meat juices from the fat, you find that it's all fat, and therefore kind of lousy for gravy making. Or maybe it's because goose gravy tastes lousy. But we ended up discarding our goose juices because, hey, I had no idea what I was doing with the actual meat, and I certainly wasn't in the mood to spend a lot of time trying to work with hot fluids that even the recipe writers barely mentioned.

Here was the big surprise for me. Not one of the recipes even mentioned this; I had never heard it from anybody. With goose, there is no white meat.

That's right, you heard me. Goose not only looks different -- longer, spindlier legs and wings, a boxy-shaped torso -- but it's a different kind of meat. All dark meat. No difference between drumstick and breast meat. Dark dark dark.

If you like dark meat, you're in heaven. I far prefer white meat. So ... not heaven.

Everybody seemed to like the goose meat just fine. It was juicy and delicious. But nobody said, "Wow, that's so good, we should have goose instead of turkey at Christmastime every year."

So for me, at least, the experiment was a success. We had a meal with a good dark meat poultry entree, which I roasted acceptably. I now know what goose meat looks and tastes like. If I ever decide to do it again, I'll know how to pierce the skin to let out the fat.

It's like when my dad and I made a pact that whoever shot the deer, the other one would clean and field-dress it. My dad was absolutely sure his shot brought down the deer, so ... now I can say that I know, from experience, how to gut a deer, how to remove the scent glands, how to drain the blood from the animal. If I ever need to, I can get from deer corpse to deer meat using my handy hunting knife.

In fact, because my dad did not shoot the deer -- nobody did, it was merely knocked unconscious by the concussion of the bullet passing close over its head -- I can even say that I killed the deer with my knife. I did a much tidier job than, say, hyenas slaughtering a zebra in one of those predator documentaries, where the zebra is still alert and looking around while the hyenas are tearing out its entrails.

Whatever I needed to prove about deer hunting, I proved it, and in the past forty years I haven't had any desire to do it again. I think hunting is enjoyable (though most American "hunters" are pathetic, in that they don't actually hunt, they just wander around hoping that a deer will stroll by and pick a convenient spot to hold still so the guy with the rifle can get off a shot).

It's a useful skill, to be able to shoot a prey animal and prepare it for the spit or the pot. Though Americans learned during the Great Depression that if too many people decide that hunting is the way to feed the family, the herds are so depleted the first year that there's almost nothing left to shoot the next.

And that was when the U.S. population was under 130 million, less than half of today's 324 million. There are fewer than 14 million gun-owning hunters right now -- but in a famine emergency, a lot of the 70 million gun owners who never hunt are going to take their weapons out into the woods and try their luck.

Humans evolved with a division of labor. The athletic guys with skills and stamina hunted. The dweebs stayed home and made arrowheads and spear points -- while pitching the occasional rock at hyenas and dogs that thought human baby would make a great lunch for the pups and cubs.

Some early humans, though, sat around thinking up poetic ways to tell the stories of hunts and battles they only heard about from the guys who actually took part. That would have been my job. Making me totally expendable in times of famine.

By the way, when I was looking up what to call a baby hyena, I ran across an animal-baby website at www.babynamesetc.com/animalbaby_conf.htm and learned a thing or two. I already knew that my first name, Orson, meant "bear"; it's still an act of cruelty to name a baby Orson, but at least it means something. (Female equivalent: Ursula.)

What was most interesting to me was not the list of human names derived from animals, but rather the list of terms for the babies of different species.

Of course we all know the traditional children's book animal pairings: goat/kid, horse/foal, deer/fawn, cow/calf, duck/duckling, goose/gosling.

I could have assumed that "pup" isn't just a baby dog; the term is also used for baby coyotes, prairie dogs, and wolves -- but not baby foxes, which are "kits." The surprise, for me, was that "pup" is also used for baby hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, beavers, seals, sea lions, sharks, and bats.

A baby shark is a pup? Really?

A joey is a baby kangaroo, but did you know joey is also used for baby koalas, opossums, wombats, bandicoots, and Tasmanian devils?

Yeah, I didn't care either, because except for opossums, which we usually call possums around here, I'm not going to run into enough babies of any of these species to make it important that I know what to call them.

A baby hawk or falcon is an eyas. A baby llama or alpaca is a cria.

Cub is used for baby bears, pandas, raccoons, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, and ... hyenas. How did hyenas get into a list that includes bearlike and catlike creatures, instead of the doglike beast list? (I know, baby hyenas can be called pups, too.)

Calf serves for elephants, camels, giraffes, hippos, moose, reindeer, whales, and dolphins.

And a baby jellyfish is called an ephyna.

I'm not even trying to figure out why most invertebrates have larvae, except that flies have maggots and grasshoppers and cockroaches have nymphs.

An owlet is a baby owl; a piglet is a baby pig. But a baby platypus is a puggle? Oh, it's a great name -- in fact, now that people are calling their children, not kids, but the sarcastic "kiddos," I propose that our cute animal-derived name for a human child be changed to "puggle."

Babysitters would now be called "pugglesitters" or "puggletenders." Or even "puggleherds." It just needs to happen.

*

About the Christmas movie Angels in the Snow. A family on the verge of breakup (because, of course, the father is so devoted to his job that the family is rich, so he must be a bad father who is wrecking everything) takes another family into their mansion-like "cabin" because their van got stuck in the snow at the beginning of a massive blizzard.

I was flipping channels and started watching this one when the little girl hung up a short Christmas stocking with name "Bella" on it. The shocked but silent reaction of the parents told me that either Bella was a beloved but dead dog, or it was another child who had died. Turned out to be the child.

The writers handled the parents' response reasonably well, and the actors all did a good job. Especially the young stocking-hanger girl, played by Jaeda Lily Miller, who does such a good job making faux-precocious dialogue sound like a human might actually say it that she was in five TV movies in 2016 and three each in 2014 and 2015.

When she gets older, and braces fix her prominent front teeth, her visual cuteness may disappear along with her career. But for now, she makes any movie better just by being in it.

Since the title is a complete giveaway, I'm just going to go for it, spoilers and all. After the visiting family, the Tuckers, shows the host family, the Montgomerys, what love in a happy family looks like, they leave. The Montgomerys soon follow to make sure they got their van out of the snow -- only to find that search-and-rescue people are putting up a memorial to the Tuckers because they died in that accident with their van at the beginning of the blizzard.

Yeah, OK, that's a legitimate angel story -- if there is such a thing as a legitimate angel story.

But what kind of theology is this? If the dead can come back as angels -- and in this story, the Tuckers were dead like ten seconds when they were given a job to do, saving the marriage of some rich white folks -- then why did God or St. Peter or Buck Henry send four newly dead strangers instead of giving the Montgomerys a visit with their dead daughter and sister, Bella?

I mean, not to criticize God or anything, but if the universe allows visits from dead people, I don't want a visit from some total strangers whom my whole family likes better than me. I want my own lost children back. (And yes, I've read "The Monkey's Paw" and Pet Sematary and I don't mean that.)

I found it worse than irritating that while the Montgomerys are all marveling and being grateful for the dead angel Tuckers, not one person says, "While heaven is sending dead people to see us, couldn't we have been given one more Christmas with Bella?"

Maybe the novel this TV movie was based on (Christmas Journey by Rexanne Becnel) deals with such questions, but I'm not counting on it.

Like any three-year-old kid, I believe in fairness. I count on it -- despite sixty-five years of evidence to the contrary. My idea of fairness is when everybody has to live by the same rules.

We know that in a free market economy, fairness doesn't exist; in fact, it's a problematic outcome. But heaven should be fair, right? If any place is. And the rule that dead people stay dead should apply across the board. At least until a general resurrection that reunites people who already love each other.

And how unfair was it to the Tuckers, who should have been able to visit with dead relatives? Surely there were some grandparents or great-grandparents getting pretty impatient for a visit.

But no, the Tuckers had to postpone going to heaven in order to stick around and fix things for some rich white people whose problem was that Daddy made too much money and talked on the phone with his boss a lot.

Even though Angels in the Snow was successfully manipulative -- I cried when I was supposed to, and watched the family dynamic with interest -- it still left me vaguely angry because it was all so unfair.

*

Speaking of what's fair and what's not, it was fun watching our almost-four-year-old granddaughter learning the concept of property.

Generally speaking, we take it for granted that kids understand ownership because, from a very early age, babies grab things and say "mine." Civilizing adults generally believe they need to teach children to share.

But that's absolutely wrong. The concept of property is way more complicated than grabbing something and screaming "mine" at anybody who tries to take it away. That's not property, that's mere possession.

Property is something that you continue to own even when you're not holding it. Your house stays yours even when everybody leaves the house for hours or days or weeks at a time. Your car continues to be yours when you leave it in the parking lot.

This works because everybody agrees to respect property rights -- and those who don't are put in jail.

Little children don't know this. They think that ownership ends when possession ends. Let go of it, and it isn't yours anymore.

So little children don't need to be forced to share things until after they've mastered the concept of property. Little children need to be reassured that yes, that toy you just got for Christmas is yours, and if you don't want your little sister to play with it, that is your right. It doesn't mean you're selfish or bad; it means that you're the owner.

My feeling is that any adult who forces a little puggle to share things that the puggle supposedly owns should then be willing to undergo a carjacking or home invasion without complaint. What's sauce for the gosling is sauce for the goose, isn't it?

I watched my (brilliant) daughter and son-in-law deal with their almost-four-year-old's insistence that her almost two-year-old sister not play with any of her toys.

What they did was agree completely: These are your toys, and if you don't want the little one to play with them, we'll make sure that happens. Nobody said, "It's better to share."

However -- and here's where the puggles start to learn about sharing and, by the way, economics -- she was also told that she could not play with any of her little sister's Christmas toys. If the rule was "no playing with each other's toys," it would be equally enforced for both little girls.

Fair. Fair fair fair, out the wazoo.

The little one got some really cool toys for Christmas. The older one thought about the world situation for about fifteen minutes. Then she came back into the room and announced that the little one could play with her toys after all. If, that is, the sharing went both directions.

Then the older girl spent several minutes enumerating all of her toys that she would now allow her little sister to play with. Nobody needed the enumeration; I think she was listing them as she realized, Oh, wow, sharing "all my toys" means sharing this one, too.

It was a very sophisticated bit of reasoning, to learn that reciprocity was a way to maximize the utility of scarce resources.

Now if we could just persuade our President-elect that free trade is better than protectionism, we might not suffer the disastrous economic consequences of trying to keep all our toys for ourselves.


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