Friday, December 25, 2009

Blessings at Christmas 

There is nothing quite so pretty as a Christmas morning with snow filling the pine trees in the back yard. (Only one of them is mine; my neighbor has five more that I see from the breakfast nook. God bless externalities!) The old tool shed has a white hat, and the wheelbarrow we never put away is filled.

Because Mrs. is a church pianist first and accompanist second, our mornings are always long and relaxed while we wait for her to come back from church service -- Littlest and I figure we did our share in the last weeks with Advent, Sunday and Christmas Eve services, and so we sleep. The two of them went sliding at 10pm after church last night; wish my back would permit it, but I settled for a Christmas Eve Cafe Creme or two and a cup of coffee with a dollop of adult beverage. With snow drifiting down and the frozen Mississippi behind me, I thought I should have brought the flip camera but, honestly, you couldn't have done the memory justice.

So Littlest slept while I ran the snowblower for Mrs. to get to church. 10" on the ground since Wednesday night; heavy stuff that strains my little 5hp mower that would make Soucheray snicker with derision. Then grab Littlest and go to a tradition we have called Christmas Breakfast with a Jew, which involves my golf partner and several friends. The group has changed over the years but the tradition continues -- the local Holiday Inn may be the only place with a Christmas breakfast buffet, and they expect us. So do many of the other patrons, many who are at other tables in St. Cloud's Panera the other 364 days.

Then home and open presents. Now that Littlest is a high schooler it doesn't have the same buzz, but it is a time for laughing as many gifts are humorous. Littlest got slime and a snow brick mold, Mrs a gaydar detector (Littlest's idea, not mine; I think I outgrew Spencer's Gifts last year) and I got tidy whities. I've announced they will be worn to Christmas dinner at the sister-in-law's tonight; they laughed at being brought in on the secret. Probably just humoring me, which is the best gift a man can get.

That will probably be all I do this afternoon. If the family wants to go sliding again I'm taking a bigger cigar, and will drink port from a mug. Not elegant, but effective. Sometimes an old friend calls and we walk together with the cigars and brandy (he does not like port, a pity.) The snow will make it harder work, but well worth the effort.

So much to be thankful for. A new radio show that I thought was a terrible idea four months ago and love now; a sabbatical and changes to my life as I stop being a department chair next summer; my younger child about to start driving lessons; a full humidor; a year of better health and a back that feels as good as it has in ten years; memories of China still being processed. ("Walk the Great Wall" is now scratched off the bucket list.) If I sat here for an hour I could triple this list.

I did honestly think last September I might decide to close this blog -- seven years and over 7000 posts is much more than I had planned to do. But it has just become too much a part of my day and as so many other things are changing for me this has gone from fling to habit to anchor. When in China I was told I could not blog I thought there had to be a way. (There is, btw, via email. That's how I posted.)

Some gifts keep giving, and in this season where we celebrate the greatest gift of all time, God's gift of salvation, I just wanted to thank those of you who keep reading what Janet and I put up here. Your clicks are gifts to us, each and every day.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Magic 

As with many children, my brother and I always looked forward to Christmas. Church was always special because of the music and decorations. But, our home also was special. Our parents went out of their way to keep Christmas as magical as possible, at least until we were older. Our dad worked for the USPS and at that time, put in an incredibly long day on December 24. He would arrive home late, often after my brother and I had been put to bed.

We would awake Christmas morning (always early) and go downstairs to see a Christmas tree, lights, the cardboard-house village underneath the tree, the Manger creche and presents. Then it was a burst into our parents' room, "Wake up, wake up! Santa came last night." My poor dad had to drag himself out of bed, probably with less than 3-4 hours sleep.

My parents kept the magic alive for a number of years. After gaining a bit of maturity and realizing that Santa Claus hadn't decorated the tree on December 24/25, I finally asked them where they had kept the Christmas tree? See, neither my brother nor I had ever found it. It just appeared on Christmas Day.

What they had done was buy the tree, then they stuck it in the neighbor's back yard among other trees. After Dad came home from work on Christmas Eve, they rearranged the living room furniture, hauled in the tree and decorated it, during the night. My brother and I were never the wiser.

Today, and when I was a single parent, the tree is decorated before Christmas. We have a different ritual where we decorate the tree, have great finger food, and play Christmas carols. This year, as last, our son is deployed overseas but we kept the ritual alive. When he returns next Christmas, we'll do it again.

Rituals and magic are important. I was lucky as a kid to have parents who understood all the beauty of Christmas. Today, as we recall memories and celebrate Christmas in all its manifestations, let's remember the real reason for the holiday - a gift of life for all.

Merry Christmas to our readers.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cash offends some people 

I have an old friend from my grad school days who once said of giving gifts, "cash offends no one." He, like me, was trained as an economist and to us it seemed obvious. And Mrs. S and I are more often than not likely to send gift cards or checks to my family out East for the holidays. Costs less to send, and you can use it everywhere. Cash offends no one.

But many readers will say "no, not always." You can't give cash to a romantic interest; they won't gasp with delight when they open the pretty box and see a check inside. Even my parents seem to remember and like more when I send something other than cash, even when we know that gifts destroy value.

Bryan Caplan argues that our understanding of people is improved when they are better at being selfish. In the formal rules that economists think apply to being "saintly selfish" Caplan includes not putting someone else's satisfaction directly as a factor in one's own. Yet doesn't that seem to be the gift problem in small: I only really worry about buying gifts for those closest to me; a niece or nephew almost always gets the gift card, but never the spouse? Why, if not because her happiness directly infuences mine? "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

I suspect that interdependent-utility-functions condition is the one we find least realistic. Turns out, unfortunately, you can't prove many of the welfare-maximizing properties of competitive markets if you relax the assumption of independent utility.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas 2008 

Christmastime around here is always a little hectic. �Academia impinges for those of us on the semester system, with finals coming the week before; my grades are due Friday, but thankfully I got through grading Tuesday afternoon. �That meant Christmas Eve shopping, which found me out by the mall at 9am wondering if I had outsmarted the crowds or if the last day of holiday shopping would disappoint the shopkeepers.

Janet mentioned the snow and cold; it was -4 when we got back to the car after church last night. �Another bit of hecticness -- Mrs. S is not a regular pianist anywhere, so she was at a different church playing on Christmas Eve. �(She could have worked tomorrow morning too, but begged off.) �So Littlest and I sat among friends and some folks we don't often see, some with small kids. �You feel bad for them because they are sure their kids are ruining it for the rest of us. �Our pastor has small kids, so he seems not to mind the noise. �The one who had, um, 'diaper issues' might have put a small dent in the festivities, but it's a joyous time, and the candlelight during Silent Night is as much a highlight as dinner or gifts. �Indeed, the only thing I missed was finding time to sing The Messiah with a chorus this year. �(If you know of one next year with room for a baritone who can bat from either side of the four-part register, drop a line.) �

Our day today is simple -- we take a Jewish friend to breakfast (it's a tradition; we pray for a year a Chinese restaurant here has Christmas dim sum), then presents are opened, phone calls, and finally dinner with Mrs. S's family. �#1 is now engaged and already lost to his fiancee's family, alas, so that dinner happened earlier this week.

Posting from me will be kind of light next week. �I'll be in tomorrow as we release the new Quarterly Business Report. I fear we're going to harsh your post-Christmas buzz. �If you're up early doing the bargain-hunting here in St. Cloud, please tune in to KNSI 6-8am as I give Don Lyons a little time off. �Then I'm meeting up with my siblings and parents this weekend; the first week of January is, as always, the American Economic Association meetings. �(Yes, recruiting again, amazingly.) I'll be for the most part on the road the next ten days, with a luggage change in the middle on New Year's Eve (and another stint on Don's show.) �I'll check in as time and internet connections permit. �

Meanwhile, from Littlest (now a budding 5'6" hoopster in high school), Mrs. S from whatever church or chorale she's playing for -- I've no idea how she keeps it straight -- and our three pets -- Buttercup the dog, Pepper and our newest, Sparkler -- a Merry Christmas to you and your family. �We hope your candles are lit by the spirit of the season.

We'll let the pets do a star turn.

L to R: �Pepper, Sparkler, and Buttercup.
And here they are with us:

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas - To All 

To Our Readers,

Merry Christmas!

Today, Christmas Eve, was very special. We just received a phone call from our son stationed in Korea. The technological advancements made, driven predominantly by the US are mind-boggling. He's half the planet away and we talked as though he were next door.

It's definitely warmer in Korea - he's running around in sweats and jeans. We had expected Korea to be more like MN - now with 4' of snow piled at the edge of our yard and at least a foot in the yard. But, it's warmer there - in the 40's.

We also went to church with our daughter, son-in-law and 11-month old grandson. It was the children's service and was very nice. Our grandson sat, watched, doodled on the "kid's paper," had some snacks and "walked" among parents and grandparents. He's a delightful little boy - we are very fortunate.

I sincerely wish all of you enjoy this holiday of Christmas. We sure do.


Monday, December 22, 2008

The warm glow of Christmas and giving to charities 

A quick timeout from grading -- one stack left, will take about 24 hours to finish -- to ponder a question. I won't identify who's who in this because the parties may read this blog, but anyway...

A woman sends a holiday card to a close female friend and includes in it a note. The note says that money is donated by the sender in the receiver's name to a charity in lieu of a gift for that holiday. The receiver does not particularly like this charity and is miffed. The two normally exchange gifts directly; there was no agreement beforehand on the use of this "indirect gifting". (I'm not sure that is the term of art here, but I'll use it throughout.)

Now there's the famous paper of the Deadweight Loss of Christmas, written fifteen years ago by Waldfogel. Tim Harford noted this weekend that the point of Waldfogel isn't to say gift-giving is wasteful or pointless but simply to identify sentimentality as a significant determinant in gift-giving. But sentimentality doesn't necessarily rise with expenditure, so "the wise gift-giver," Harford says, "will choose something inexpensive that expresses affection."

So how do we pick the charity that we contribute to on behalf of another? A friend or his spouse passes away, and the obituary announces where to send memorials rather than flowers. Very handy, but hardly useful here. Maybe our blogs, Facebook pages, etc., should all carry announcements telling our 'friends' "if you want to give to charity in lieu of sending me a gift, here are the ones I support." I guess that is unseemly or mercenary, so few will do it. But I don't think it's a terrible idea. After all, my friend wasn't upset that her friend sent to a charity: The charity her friend chose was the issue.

The point is that, much like with direct gifts, the point of an indirect gift should be that you demonstrate your knowledge of the receiver by the choice. This is why most men tremble in fear in buying gifts for their wives, and why I love Mrs S for her direction: She likes perfume, and it is always appreciated. (Yes, used to be perfume and jewelry last time I wrote about this, but she's off the latter.) My job is to walk to a counter and purchase something that I think will smell good on her and which is like what she wears. Something different but not too. (It's OK that she reads this, as this is what she expects of me.)

Now I can imagine a friend contributing to a charity the receiver doesn't know because the friend has some knowledge about a charity the receiver has not heard of. But giving to a charity without some knowledge that "my friend would give to this place, if she knew about it" is pretty dangerous stuff.

There's a tradeoff, of course. I have liberal friends who give to liberal charities. I am unlikely to join them in giving to them. If we don't share a value on charities to whom I could contribute on their behalf, I probably wouldn't do so. But then, why would be friends?

I guess I'm better off buying them a gift card somewhere. They can give the card to charity if they prefer.

Labels: ,

Friday, November 28, 2008

Price cuts start early 

According to at least one article, the holiday season never started.
Piles of jewelry, clothing and electric drills are bypassing store shelves and heading straight to liquidators by the caseload as stores try to save as much cash as they can.

Major department stores and mall-based chains have cut prices up to 70 percent to move out mounds of excess inventory stuck in the pipeline since the financial crisis hit in September and people snapped their wallets shut.

Big moves of merchandise happen every year � but usually after Christmas. This year stores are desperate to shed inventory even before Thanksgiving.

...The deep price cuts even on luxury brands � think 40 percent off on $5,000 Chanel suits and 70 percent off on designer shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue and 40 percent off $695 Ralph Lauren leopard-printed pumps at Bloomingdale's � are only good news for the dwindling pool of consumers who are comfortable enough financially to take advantage of the deals.
The Wall Street Journal is keeping track of all the holiday deals, and the morning traffic appears to be up at any number of stores, but the degree of price-cutting may mean that high traffic doesn't increase sales revenues.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays 

To our readers,

Thank you for visiting our site, reading our posts and leaving your comments.

This time of year, we celebrate - Christians, the birth of Christ; Jews, Hanukkah; others celebrate what they choose, some do not celebrate. For those of you who do take time to remember during this season, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Take your choice but enjoy.

We have had beautiful snowfalls. The term "White Christmas" is close to perfect this year. Here are a few photos taken outside our home.

King adds: To show you how cold it is: The family always wants pictures of us, for fear we have died in the cold (you'd think New Hampshirites would understand cold, but they get more snow than cold.) So we had procrastinated more than normal and on Wednesday Mrs. S makes Littlest take the camera outside and intercepts me before I dump the sport coat for sweats. The effect is:

That's Littlest breathing behind the camera.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas and the PC Crowd 

Being the holiday season, we have been "out and about" at stores and restaurants for the last couple of weeks.. We decided to wish servers, clerks, etc. "Merry Christmas" instead of the politically acceptable "Happy Holidays."

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Every recipient has responded with "Merry Christmas to you, too. " One may conclude they feel safe saying it since sometimes, note sometimes, we say it first. However, I have encountered a number of service people who are saying "Merry Christmas" before I do. Could there be a little backlash occurring?

One server at a national restaurant chain shared the following with us. She said the servers had a discussion to decide what to say. They all concluded that they were going to say "Merry Christmas" and the result was that very, very, very few customers objected.

One may or may not be Christian but face it, this is a happy time of year. It does us well to remind ourselves that we have a history of celebrating Christmas. Let's keep it.