Is Scrooge Merely A misunderstood Businessman?

It was a tradition in our family for many years that at Christmastime we get together, eat, drink, make jokes, and endure the Yule Season with a skeptical resolve to give unto Santa what is Santa’s. We appreciate the spirit but the actual mechanism leaves us a bit chilly. In rejecting the corporate gloss of Xmas, though, we’ve sort of recovered some of what the holiday is supposed to mean, at least according to all the armchair philosophes.

My mother is more enamored of the childlike aspects of Christmas than my father ever was, and he indulged her. She still holds to that in her small way, even as circumstances have changed. We still try to get together around this time, though it has long been a loose calendrical event. 

However, one ritual had worn on me for a long time. I write about it now because the entire country seems in the grip of ethical and moral contests which echo this seemingly minor one and it may be that exploring the small might illuminate the large in some useful way. 

My father, who should be a charter member of the great Curmudgeon’s Club, picks bones as a hobby. He’s good at it. He can find something to carp about with almost any topic. He can be fun to listen to and more often than not we find ourselves nodding with sympathy at some sage formulation from his mouth. 

Except this one. He thinks Ebeneezer Scrooge is a maligned and misunderstood character.

Classic conservative business-speak: “What the hell, he’s employing Cratchit! And Cratchit has a house! A house! How poor can he be if he has a house? As for Tiny Tim, what could Scrooge actually do to save his life? The kid’s a cripple, they didn’t have the medical technology back then. Would just paying Cratchit more help save his life? Everybody beats up on Scrooge and in all honesty, just what can he do?”

It was an aggravating rant because the rest of us knew there’s something he fundamentally missed, yet, like many arguments from specific points, it’s difficult to counter. My mother attempted to explain that the story isn’t about what Scrooge can do for others but what he needs to do for himself. He’s got a lot of money but he’s poor in spirit, and I imagine most people see it that way.

But I grew impatient with it after years and did a little digging.

Dickens wrote four Christmas tales, A Christmas Carol being the most famous. Each was intended to be edifying about some aspect of the Christmas Spirit and they were hugely popular in their day, and A Christmas Carol has remained so, through many reprintings and several dramatic adaptations. If all one is familiar with are the movies and television versions, it might be understood that certain aspects of the story are misapprehended, but I always found this particular view stubbornly obtuse. 

Firstly, you must credit Charles Dickens for his powers of observation. Read any of his other novels and you find a severe critic who was engaged in the close inspection of the world around him. He put down in detail the ills and failures of the society in which he lived and when considering a work such as Oliver Twist or Bleak House one would be hard pressed to complain that he had gotten anything wrong. His chief power as a writer in 19th Century England was as a social critic. So, given that he was not one to complain about something just to complain and was unlikely to abandon truth and fact just to make a point (since his points were all pointedly about truth and fact), why gainsay him in this tale?

Oh, well, we have ghosts and flights of supernatural fancy! Obviously he didn’t mean it to be read at face value in those passages concerning the “real” world. 

Nonsense. Credit him with keen observational skills.

Scrooge paid Cratchit 15 shillings a week. “Fifteen bob” as it says in the book. It’s difficult to be precise, but rough equivalencies can be found. The story takes place in 1841 (or thereabouts). Fifteen shillings then would be the equivalent of approximately 56 lbs today, or about $90.00. 

Now, it is unlikely Cratchit owned that house. He likely rented it. A great deal of housing in London at the time was owned by people who may have kept a townhouse but more than likely lived elsewhere. Rental fees ranged between 2 lbs annually to over 300 lbs. Dickens doesn’t discuss that, but just the cost of food, clothing, and heat—heat especially, which was from coal, and not cheap—would have eaten up most of Cratchit’s weekly salary. Anyway one looks at it, taking care of a family of eight on less than $90.00 a week would be a challenge. 

The goose was likely from a club in which funds would be pooled, paid in advance and over time, so geese could be purchased in bulk (reducing the price somewhat) and then made available to the subscribers at Christmastime. Cratchit was hardly buying such things on a weekly or even monthly basis.

As to what Scrooge might have done for Tiny Tim, well, that is difficult to say. Medicine was not advanced, causes of diseases were only vaguely understood, and many ills befell people simply from living in squalid conditions. The onset of the industrial revolution had drawn people into the cities from the farms by the thousands and they ended up shoved into tenements where the normal barriers that kept disease proliferation in check broke down. Poor hygiene, close quarters, bad water.

Patent medicines were big business. Some of them actually had palliative effects, like Turlington’s Balsam of Life, which sold for between 2 and 5 shillings a bottle (about 12 oz.). That would have been between 8% and 33% of Cratchit’s salary to treat Tiny Tim on a regular basis.

But treat him for what?

There wasn’t much accurate diagnosis of disease in 1841, but Dickens assumes in the story that Tiny Tim’s condition can be alleviated by Scrooge “loosening up” his wallet. Certain diseases Tiny Tim might have had, granted, there would have been no cure. The best that might have been done might have been to make him comfortable. But if we allow for Dickens’ accurate powers of observation, then this wasn’t one of the guaranteed fatal ones.

Tiny Tim might have had rickets. They were rampant in London at that time. The coal used to heat homes, run factories, drive boats up the Thames had filled the air with a dense soot that effectively cut down on sunshine, which would have cut down on vitamin D manufacture, and, subsequently, rickets. A better diet would help—better diet from maybe a raise by Scrooge. But rickets, even untreated, was rarely fatal.

There is a disease that fits the description. Renal Tubular Acidosis. It’s a failure of the kidneys to properly process urine and acid builds up in the blood stream. Enough of it, and it begins to attack the bones. Untreated in children, it is often fatal.

But the treatment was available at the time as a patent medicine, mainly an alkali solution like sodium bicarbonate.

Scrooge’s penny-pinching didn’t just hurt himself and his miserliness could cost Tiny Tim his life.

But it’s also true that Dickens was talking about a wider problem. The tight-fistedness of society was costing England—indeed the world—in spiritual capital. Interestingly, Dickens never, in any of his novels, suggested legislative or government intervention in poverty. He always extolled wealthy individuals to give. He thought the problem could be solved by people being true to a generous nature. It’s interesting in a man so perceptive that he recognized a problem as systemic but then suggested no systemic remedies.

In any event, on the basis of the information at hand and a couple of shrewd guesses, we can see that Dickens was not just telling us a ghost story. The consequences for Scrooge and company were quite real.

There is at the center of the Christmas Spirit, so I have been told and taught from childhood, a benefit to abandoning questions of profit and cost. That generosity should be its own reward. That mutual care is balm to the pains of society as a whole. Scrooge is a Type, one that is with us magnified in ways perhaps Dickens could not have imagined possible, a constricted soul who sees everything in terms of costs, returns on investment, labor, and balance-sheets. Everything. The point of Dickens’ story is that such people not only poison their own spiritual pond but can spread that harm to others simply by never seeing things any other way. The stubborn money-soaked impoverishment in which Scrooge lives does no one any good and the point of Christmas is to at one time a year stopping living that way. 

But Dickens was not all of the spirit. He was a materialist and for him the costs were very real, in terms of hunger and disease and crippling disorder and agonizing despair, and that a man like Scrooge has real, destructive impact on the people around him, whether he knows them or not. The potential for him to Make A Difference was not some sentimental concept bound up in airy essences of fellow-feeling, but in the actual material well-being of people and, by extension, society.

I must here explain that my dad, curmudgeonly as he was in such debates, was in no way a selfish or stingy man. His response to need—need that he saw, that was tangible to him—was axiomatic and without strings. He never was a Scrooge.*

But I think it behooves us to stop paying lip service to the very old and too-oft repeated idea that “there’s nothing to be done.” We may not as individuals be able to fix everything, but we can fix something. We start by fixing ourselves.

The last word here I leave to Tiny Tim

______________

*To be clear, my dad is still alive, but circumstances have changed somewhat, and certain traditions have had to be modified to suit.

Coolth

Weather patterns are insane. It’s over a 100 in the Pacific Northwest and here in Missouri this morning it’s 70. It’s July.  Our civilization is lurching toward solving what may be the greatest civil engineering project in history and hopefully reversing the last century (or more) of human-contributed climate change.  (You know, I used to have arguments about this back in my 20s and the counterargument was always “The planet is huge! Do you know how much pollution goes into the atmosphere when a big volcano erupts? How can we possibly add so much that things could change?” On its face, a certain logic, but you have to leave out key obvious factors, like the constant production of the greenhouse gases, and the fact that the planet, if we assume a certain homeostasis with natural systems, was already at an optimal point of balance.  So how much extra does there really need to be added to what was already being produce to tip it over the edge?  Not a lot.  In fact, about what we’ve added. Anyway.)

That all said, I have nothing much more to say. So, something to assist with cool thoughts.  Have a good weekend.

 

Brag

It’s two days past Valentine’s Day. There’s a blanket of snow on the ground and I’m at home with my best friend. I wanted to take a little time to brag about her.

I met Donna in 1979 (correction, I am informed it was January of ’80), started seeing her in 1980, moved in with her by the beginning of 1981, and we’ve been together since.  She is, simply, my best friend.

Of all the things she has done for me, the one that mattered most was that she simply accepted me.  For who I was (whatever that may have been at any given moment) and supported me in anything I wanted to do.  When she discovered that I wrote, she read what I had done and encouraged me to pursue it. That led, of course, to everything since. I wonder sometimes had we known how difficult it would have been, would we have done it. The writing, that is.

But it would not have mattered to her, not much. If I had really wanted to, she would have done what she could to help.

And help she did. I have friends, but I do not think I’ve ever known one so limitless.

For a time, I still thought I might pursue the photography.  We actually did the ground work to open a new lab once.  But the more the writing took hold, the less interest I had in that, even though I was good at it and when it came to Day Jobs, it was one that supported us for almost 30 years.

I’ve written about her before, but I wanted to say more this time. We’re coming up on 41 years. To be honest, it took me a while—longer than it did her—to realize what we had, to come to the conclusion that she was the One. I’d been through a very bad break-up and I was gun-shy, tender in spots, and unwilling to either hurt or be hurt again, so I was, perhaps, too cautious.

She waited. And every year since, I’ve had cause to be grateful.

We’ve lived in three places. She had her own apartment first, and I moved in with her. (When I told my parents, dad’s reaction was “It’s about time.” They knew before I did how important she was.) Then we found an apartment on Grand Avenue, where we solidified, partied, laughed, made plans. It was from that apartment that I went to Clarion in 1988.  Six weeks away, the longest we’ve ever been apart.

We took each other for granted. Both of us, with the other. Any relationship that lasts any length of time will have that about it. In a way, the fact that you can do that is a testament to how much trust—unspoken trust—you have with each other. But we always realized it and compensated and renewed what we had.

If this begins to sound unreal, forgive me. Some things, when reduced to words, do seem improbable, unlikely, too good to be true, pretentious.  I can’t help that. It is easier to make tragedy and pain convincing sometimes more than joy. More difficult is to make contentment and safety sound either convincing or compelling, but that is a failure of the language and the culture in which we live, one that prizes shock over calm, at least when it comes to what entertains us.

So we celebrated another Valentine’s Day together, our 40th.  I think she still loves me. Always best to check. In any event, she’s here.  She is my home.  It is one of my motivations to make her proud of me, to make her feel safe with me, to make her laugh, to help her.  We are very different when it comes to talents and proclivities. (It is best we clean house and so forth apart from each other.)

This lockdown has been a struggle. In some ways, we’ve had to find new strategies to not get on each others’ nerves. As time passes, it wears. But then, it occurred to me recently that we haven’t had too much trouble with that.  We’re…comfortable…with each other.

There’s not a lot of activity in the going out department. We have movies. I’ve taken up reading aloud to her, so we share a book simultaneously.  It’s a pleasure.  But boy, when the worst of this passes, there are places I want to take her.  She is a private person and doesn’t like to show off, but I like to let people know how special she is.

I have always found her incredibly sexy.

So here I wanted to brag. I have a partner, a companion, a sweetheart, a lover like nobody else. Remove her and you lobotomize me. If I am anything in this life, it is because she found something and breathed life into it and said “Hey, you should do this.”

My parents recently celebrated their 67th anniversary.  They had known each other a year or so before marrying, so let’s say almost 69 years for them. I like the idea of spending another 28 years with Donna. It will not be dull.

We travel well together and have been many places and will be many more places. It is a journey I relish. Even the strange new worlds of imagination have given us many places to visit together.  (We started going to science fiction conventions in 1982. We even tried out costuming a short—very short—while.)

I’m rambling. I’m feeling nostalgic. For the past, certainly. I like the idea of Quantum Leap, being able to dip in and out of our timeline at various points. I’m trying to think if there’s anything I would change. Minor stuff, to be sure. Regret is part and parcel of engagement, if for no other reason than you can’t do everything you want to do, no matter how little sleep you get.

So I’ll wrap this up now. I’ll leave a couple more pictures below. I appreciate your attention.

I hope you all have found or will find your lifelong valentine.

 

Have a good life.

 

 

 

 

Onward

We stayed up till past midnight, so heard the revelry, stepped outside in the cold and saw some beautiful firework bursts, and retreated back inside where we toasted each other, wept, laughed, and made stabs at promising to have a better year. Some excellent bourbon and he late hour and I feel a bit…strained.

But it is the first of a new year, and while I am not much for symbols, I respect them to the degree that they enable rather than encumber.

This morning, we had this:

 

Tomorrow? Who knows?  I exhort you all to find beauty, turn away from bitterness, do something fine in the world, and indulge your dreams (where possible).  Harm none, smile a lot, and be the solution rather than the obstacle.

May we find ourselves on the far end of this year with our friends, homes, and sanity intact.

And So It Is Christmas

Late thoughts on one of the strangest Christmas Days I’ve experienced. Strange in that the world has become strange and yet, in here, inside our home, it is so warm and normal, that the strangeness is made even more so.

I worked Christmas Eve, which is not unusual. Short day, not much business, which turned out to be usual, too. But the store is still shut to foot-traffic. We who worked gathered briefly before closing and just exchanged looks and a few wishes for good weekends, all of us sharing a sense more of having been through battle than merely holiday retail. The barrier between us and our customers took a toll. All of us were immeasurably worn. We have done good work, we served, we filled expectations, and provided…but my word, are we beaten up.

But we are also fortunate. Left Bank Books is still open, and we survived. So many other places have not. I have no idea what 2021 will bring, but we are going to be there to see.

I count myself fortunate that I have my partner. We have each other and a home and in so many ways have found ourselves lucky.  So many others are not.

No matter what happens in the coming year or two, it is clear that we must remake our collective appreciation of community. We will weather this time, but I suspect it is not a one-off. More of this is ahead. We will have to confront it in ways which 12 months ago may have been unimaginable. Things Have Changed.

But we have what we need to manage and do well. We have an abundance of each other, no matter where we are, and this year, today, perhaps was the time to look at where we are and take account of what we have and construct a better way of being.

In any event, no matter what label you use, what name you give it, my wish is for all to be well and embrace love and banish the fear, which is only a symptom of feeling abandoned. We may be isolated, we may be spending today in company with fewer people, but we are not alone.

And as long as we believe tomorrow is worth greeting, we will find each other and all the ways we can create wonder, for ourselves and each other.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Peace, Joy, and Fearlessness.

2018

I suppose I should do this. What a year. What a miserable year.

Not entirely. But it’s amazing how a couple of truly unpleasant events can color an entire period, mixed bag though it is. There were good things, there were pleasant things, there was ample to lift the spirits.

It’s just that they had to be lifted so far.

As year-in-review posts go, I should probably keep this one short.

At some point back in the spring I finished my last novel. (Or was that the year before? I’d have to check, I don’t remember. No, that was April of 2017, so among other things my sense of time is fraying.) So a year and a half (or more) ago I turned in a novel to my agent and I am still waiting. I should be good at this.

I say “my last novel” because I have a drawer-full unsold. (I know what it was. I set aside the third volume of the alternate history trilogy I’d been working on to do Voyage of the Only Child and went back to it that fall and finished a draft this year. Okay, not as frayed as I thought.) I decided to go back to short fiction. The trouble is, I haven’t been writing short stories on a regular basis for so long that somewhere along the way I sort of forgot how.

Not completely. I’ve got a half dozen in rough draft now. I just have to find the time and patience to do them up and get them out, but that’s on track, and I actually submitted two stories last month.

All of that to say, basically, that this year has caused me to reassess my so-called career.

I don’t really have one. There are many factors at work—lack of time, too many things vying for my attention, being 64 and tired—many I’m probably not even aware of. My output, which used to be respectable, has slowed to a crawl.

I’m working on it. That fact alone is a positive. I am working on it. I’ve got new stories in process, ideas, and I find I cannot just say I’m done. I have officially given up on quitting. It never works and I start to sound like a broken record.

It helps to be working with several of the brightest people it has ever been my privilege to know.

It seems surreal that I’ve been working for Left Bank Books now six, almost seven years (is that right?) and I’m looking at the fourth year just ending running the Great Novels of the 22nd Century reading group there. The SF component of the store has grown and as of this past year we have a regular author track for events, the SF: STL series. Working with Archon has been a plus and it seems on track to become a Real Thing.

It seems often that all the peripheral things to The Career work out fine while the central thing—publishing books and stories—lags. I had something of a revelation this past year in a conversation with a coworker who claimed she wanted to be as successful as I. When I demurred, stating that I am not particularly successful, she cut me off and talked about how many books I’ve published.

Well, it did cause me to reassess, and it helped. Metrics vary, standards are different.

In the end, though, it comes down to how you see yourself. For now, I’ll keep that to myself.

2018 has been a mixed bag, to say the least. I’m not sure where it will end up, but right now it’s hard to get past the fact that too many friends have left the scene. It just wouldn’t stop, leaving the stage with one more loss that seemed almost insulting. But to who?

What I am looking forward to is a year of getting our feet back under us and accomplishing what we managed not to accomplish yet.

I read 76 books cover to cover (up from 51 the previous year) many of them read aloud to Donna in a newfound pastime we both enjoy. I’ll go over them on the Proximal Eye later.

As I said, I started submitting stories to magazines again. There aren’t that many of the old magazines left, but there are bunch of new ones.

I get up every day with curiosity, even though I feel wearier than ever before. I have no doubt the state of the world around me is a big contributing factor. It’s hard to be hopeful in the face of so much crap.

Philosophy has its benefits in this case, but I find the fact that we don’t have much choice but to do better pretty serviceable right now.

I plan to play a little chess, read several of the really Big Books on my to-be-read pile, and travel.

And write. Again, not a lot of choice there.

But I can endeavor to be less boring.

On that note, welcome to 2019, and I hope all who read this will find health, reason, joy, and hope in the coming months. Be safe, be alive, be well.

Friends

We had a Saturday night get-together with good friends. There was good, good wine, laughter, music, stories. They have a cool place. It was fun.

I’m working on some things. For now, for this week, Thanksgiving is coming up. Be safe, be well, treasure each other, value time, show kindness, and keep a warm place for those times when you need refuge. Inside.

Mild Mannered Bookseller From a Great Metropolitan City

I’ve never really had the nerve to do this. Not since I was about eleven and I trick-or-treated as Superman with one of those old, too-big, sparkle-spattered costumes that tied up the back like a hospital gown.

But what the hell.  This year, some friends suggested I try the superhero motif for Halloween.  I thought I had the bits and pieces to do Captain America.  But I never got around to ordering the helmet and almost at the last minute I considered not bothering.

So I compromised.  I cobbled this together and decided, screw it, I might just pull this off.  So I showed up at work like this.

When asked “Who are you supposed to be?”

“Clark.”

Some folks got it.  

Anyway, I may never look like this again. But, folks, this is what 64 looks like. For me, anyway.