Fake News is Not New

Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.

...Or is there?

In 1897, Virginia O’Hanlon wrote this letter to the New York Sun newspaper.

Dear Editor.
I am eight years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Before reviewing the Sun’s iconic response, let’s examine the newspaper’s history and ask why Virginia’s Papa seemed to trust it so much.

The first edition of the NY Sun came out in 1833. For a time, it was the most successful newspaper in America, even winning two Pultizer prizes before closing in 1950.

Paving the way to that success was a series of articles it ran in 1835 called GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES. Now known as the “Great Moon Hoax” the paper reported on the discovery of fantastic life forms on the Moon thanks to a "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle". The series described a Moon covered with trees, oceans, and beaches along with an odd variety of animals including a Vespertilio-homo which translated from Latin as bat-man.

After six installments, the series ended when the Sun reported that the telescope was destroyed in a fire caused by its powerful lens.

The GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES stories boosted the Sun’s circulation and established its success and credibility. Presses had to run ten hours a day to supply the demand for papers. Readers waited outside the Sun offices for copies. Far from suspecting a fake, rival papers congratulated the Sun and some even pirated the stories. Even after the hoax was accidentally exposed, the Sun never issued a retraction and did not lose circulation. Many years later, people like Virginia’s Papa were still convinced that, “if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

Let’s return to Virginia’s letter and its specific request : Please tell me the truth.

What the Sun actually gave her was a classic “Red Herring”, something that misleads or distracts from the relevant issue at hand.

In his still celebrated reply, Francis Pharcellus Church, evades her direct question with a bombast of distractions better suited to marketing than the pursuit of truth.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished...

The NY Sun achieved its initial success by promoting fantasy fiction as scientific fact. In Virginia’s case, it responded to reality-based inquiry with a sentimental cautionary fable. Fake News is not New and might best be called Make News. Why dig for Truth when Make News is a ready made Gold Mine?

So, to all the curious Virginias and Virgils out there, know that there are often many answers to a question. For the benefit of yourself and others, consider more than just a single source of authority when you’re searching for the truth.

The Pasta Shop Difference ~ Devotion to Detail

Started by artisan pasta makers more than twenty-five years ago on College Avenue, The Pasta Shop became a signature brand of Market Hall Foods in 1987 and now produces over 2,000 pounds of pasta products each day. Renowned throughout the Bay Area, The Pasta Shop ravioli, tortellini and fresh noodles are available at all Market Hall locations as well as online, at other fine grocers, and at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

I recently visited The Pasta Shop production facility with Market Hall’s Prepared Foods Coordinator, Sandy Sonnenfelt, who has been responsible for the pasta program for over ten years.  A gracious and engaging woman, Sandy hails from South Africa and is herself a testament to the ongoing success of the organization.

Employed by Market Hall Foods for more than sixteen years, Sandy’s respect for her staff members is obvious.  Even seeing a small part of the production process, it was clear that such exceptional quality could not be maintained without each individuals devotion to both the success of the product and to each other.

In addition to highly skilled and conscientious employees, outstanding ingredients are the foundation of The Pasta Shop's success.  Along with its ongoing commitment to finding suitable local sources for basic commodities, The Pasta Shop also features a seasonal menu of pasta and ravioli using produce and complementary elements available only for limited periods of the year.

Perhaps the most significant detail in The Pasta Shop "Difference" is listening and responding to their customers' requests. Sandy and Fernando, her right hand manager, do ongoing research, experimentation and product development because of needs and suggestions that customers have expressed.   Their new Gluten Free Fusilli is one of the latest examples. The finest ingredients, a devoted expert staff, and placing customer service as its highest priority...no wonder The Pasta Shop has set a standard by which all others are measured.

When Wrong is Right

On the verge of my sixtieth birthday, I spent a year as a cheesemonger in a prominent creamery at Point Reyes Station, California. The cheese shop was set in an old barn, re-purposed as a quaint hay bale mini-mall that included stalls of handmade clothing, jewelry and pottery.  Free cheese samples, though, were the main attraction.

Crowd control was supposed to be maintained through a numbering system that befuddled everyone including us mongers. In practice, customers simply pushed, shouted, and sometimes actually fought their way to a sample. With most of them being on the last leg of a Northern California winery tour, they were usually loud, hungry, and drunk. Decorum be damned when free food is involved, even in West Marin.

Being in a barn, acoustics in the shop were challenging even on a quiet day. With boisterous crowds, droning ambient muzak, and a clientele dominated by candidates for AARP discounts on hearing aids, a shift behind the cheese counter was primarily a communications challenge. Despite the ongoing chaos and suggestions about possible solutions, the shop owners believed that this was an outstanding customer experience and the shop manager was determined to prove them right. 

In the midst of mayhem, we mongers were expected to know the correct name and origin of every cheese which we then elegantly inscribed on the wrapping paper of individual customer cuts. What I discovered, though, is that magic sometimes happens in being mistaken.

One day an elderly Englishman mistook a cheese for one he'd loved but hadn’t seen since childhood. He called it by a name and type that had no relationship to the display tag that clearly labeled the wheel he admired.  I politely corrected his assumption by lifting the wheel while referring to its actual name, saying, “Yes, this Wisconsin Pleasant Ridge gruyere-style is great! Would you like to taste it?” He responded by saying, “Yes, this is wonderful! The last time I saw a wheel of Montgomery Cheddar I was a young boy in Cadbury!”

I gave him a taste thinking that would certainly right his misconception, but instead it evoked more memories bringing him to the verge of tears. At that, I let it rest and started calling it Montgomery Cheddar myself as I cut, wrapped, and wrote the pretender name on the outside of the cheese paper.

The manager saw me selling a fresh cut of Pleasant Ridge which I labelled as Montgomery Cheddar and he whirled into corrective action, apologizing to the customer while insisting that I remedy the wrong. In a flash the story shifted from delightful illusion to absolute confusion. The customer’s smile sank along with his heart. He was left with an exceptional experience in all the wrong ways.

The next example resulted from poor acoustics but had a much better outcome because the manager was on a break.

West Marin County was once home to a native California tribe called the Miwok. There are prominent markers along the Point Reyes stretch of Highway 1 commemorating this fact. And an unrelated fact is that the Point Reyes shop where I worked produces a famous specialty cheese called Red Hawk named after a raptor in West Marin.

On one particularly loud and crowded afternoon, a mature gentleman visiting from the East Coast took a waiting sample of Red Hawk from the counter and asked me its name. I said “Red Hawk” and he nodded in confirmation while saying “Miwok”. I repeated “Red Hawk” as a polite adjustment, but through the crowded dissonance he again heard “Miwok” and smiled in appreciation.

He and his wife were impressed by the “Miwok” archaeological sites they visited. When he praised the creamery for naming a cheese in the tribe’s honor, I knew immediately that correction was out of the question.  The most endearing experiences in life can sometimes depend on the right to be wrong.

Skating Over the Cracks


I picked up the frayed leather skates as I had a hundred times before. Puffs of lint and dust made me sneeze and stop to consider why I kept them. With their life on the ice long gone, now they were only a reminder of the hope my mother once held in her heart.

They are Nestor Johnson speed skates, size 8, made in Chicago in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. They were the first thing my mother bought with her own money and may have been her dearest possession.  

She grew up in a family of Italian immigrants with no money to spare. Her mother said they were lucky to be in Meaderville, a neighborhood of Butte, Montana, where people knew and trusted each other. The local mercantile extended so much credit that some families would repay it for the rest of their lives. But, as her mother said, at least they ate while those in bigger cities were starving.  

Ice was everywhere through the frigid winters in Butte. She and her friends salvaged a single skate from the local dump and took turns using it, one-legged, on a frozen settling pond. My mother discovered a love for gliding.

At twelve she got a job after school washing dishes at the Rocky Mountain Cafe in Meaderville. By the time her shift ended near midnight, her hands would be cracked from the dish water so her mother would wrap them in salve and strips of cloth.

Her mother, my grandmother, welcomed the extra money, but also wanted her daughter to have the hope needed to imagine a better life. My grandmother saved small amounts of my mother’s pay, then gave it back to her in a sum to use however she liked. That was how she bought the best speed skates then on the market, Nestor Johnson, many sizes too big so she’d never outgrow them.

When I gave speed skating a try, nearly forty years later, my mother gave those skates to me, wadded with cotton in the toes to make them fit. Demonstrating how the cotton worked was her way of bequeathing me her resilience. And now holding those skates in my hand, I write this as my way of bequeathing generations of resilience to my own son.

Martyrs in Training

My father was an accomplished alcoholic in a town that considered this more of a career than a crime.

Before taking some teen-age independence, I spent most of my days helping my mother try to control my father’s behavior. Every night after school she'd load my sister and me into the back seat of our faded green Buick and drive up the steep hills of Butte to the Steward copper mine where my father worked as a boilermaker.

Arriving just as the shift whistle blew, my mother then squirmed “on pins and needles” until we spotted my father cross the mine yard on his way to the showers. On nights when our wait grew into an empty hour, we knew that he'd gone before the end of the shift, straight to his favorite bar.

Usually, though, we’d take him directly from the mine yard to his mother's house a few blocks away. There, my mother, younger sister and I spent a tense hour or two in my grandmother's overheated front room while her son drank a quart of beer and finished off a pint of whiskey, his second or more of the day, that she’d hidden for him in the bathroom.

Our grandmother wasn’t a cruel person, but her life had been hard and she resented us for taking her son. Widowed at a young age, she worked as a cleaning woman in Catholic schools for less than a living wage while her mother raised my father and his sister. Grandma never had the privilege of seeing life from a gentler point of view.

My sister and I often passed the time pretending to cook in her large barren pantry. Our concoctions, which may have passed for an actual meal in many local households, always involved a boiling pot of water with salt, pepper and whatever stale bread was on the shelves. Beneath the shelves, behind brown paper bags filled with other brown paper bags, were my father's empty whiskey bottles. His mother put much more effort into supporting her son’s habit than objecting to it. She believed he was all she had left in the world and she was keeping him with her however she could.

From my grandmother’s house, we’d head to my father’s favorite haunt, the Atlas bar. The Atlas had a tarnished chrome Art Deco entry that was out of tune with its current clientele. Filled with patrons after a shift change, though, its narrow dark interior did resemble a mine tunnel. This was where my father felt most at home. Without us, it probably would have been his home. It was a futile struggle to pull him away.

No matter the season or time of day, we never knew how long we’d be parked in front of the Atlas. After an hour, especially in winter, my mother would start honking the car horn which, of course, did nothing more than vent her frustration. After confirming yet again that the horn had absolutely no influence, she’d send me into the Atlas to get him.

I was about eight years old when she first insisted that I go. She coaxed me by saying he would only come out because I asked him. Quite an ego trip for an eight-year-old so I went with conviction. Eventually though, the reality of my surrogate role became obvious and I refused, saying that I hated the smell of stale whiskey. So my mother plied me with guilt. “Well, at least he’s not a mean drunk”, she’d say, implying that if I were a good daughter, I’d care enough to get him home.

It was clear to me by then, as I attempted to separate him from the thing he loved most, that my father had only one care in the world and it had nothing to do with us. Usually he’d just tell me to tell my mother, “to go to hell”. He’d come out when he was damn ready. Then I'd argue with her about other options like divorce or, at least, leaving him at the Atlas. All this accomplished was to convince her I was a renegade copy of my father and she now had two pig-heads on her hands.

During the horn-blowing segment of this script, one of my father’s friends often stumbled over to the car to impress us with the loveliness of Ireland and the holiness of the Catholic Church. Jimmy Harrington, one of the oldest cronies, had a brogue so heavy we often didn’t understand him. My mother nodded occasionally and he never seemed the wiser.

One frigid night through an open crack at the top of the car window, he told us we had the patience of a Saint and would surely be rewarded in Heaven for such willing acceptance of Hell on Earth. Then he smiled, tipped his cap to the virtues of our martyrdom, and proclaimed what a lucky asshole my father was to have us.

Such sacrifice will surely be worthless on Judgment Day, but it felt good to finally hear someone notice that this was a lot to ask of a child.