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.

Bologna Italy ~ Recipe for a Good Life

Piazza Giuseppe Verdi
Bologna, Italy is home to the oldest university in the Western world and to a medieval architecture nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.  It also enjoys one of the youngest urban populations on Earth. Nearly a quarter of its inhabitants are students. Over a 100,000 of them pulse through the heart of Bologna each day. It is an antique city vibrating with life.

Porticos abound in Bologna!
Palazzo della Mercanzia
Unlike Southern Italian regions famously congested by cars, walking is the most popular mode of transport in Bologna.  Forty kilometers (24 miles) of ancient porticos form a network of vaulted open air walkways throughout the city.  Casual meandering is a pleasure in hot summer sun or seasonal rain.

Energy soars in the evening when even major routes are open to only foot traffic and bicycles. Well past midnight, crowded cafes spill into the streets. Waiters strut between tables, enjoying the atmosphere as much as their guests. There is an entirely human rhythm here, including periods of absolute silence when the city seems to rest along with its people.

Night Life in Bologna

A Medieval City with Modern Sensibility 
I stayed at the Albergo Rossini 1936 near the entrance to the University district and close to the Piazza Guiseppe Verdi which is a natural gathering place for students.  Though the street noise was louder than some would like, for me it was an opportunity to bathe in the (often dramatic) music of the Italian tongue.  It is no wonder that Opera was founded in Italy. Rooms on upper floors of the hotel are quieter, facing an inside courtyard, but I chose to stay at street level.

My Room at Albergo Rossini 1936
Albergo Rossini is located within walking distance of Bologna's best known sites and its rates are a bargain. Staff are professional and charming. The included breakfast is plentiful, satisfying and served in an attractive dining room. I'll stay there again on my next visit.

Bologna has three well deserved nicknames, La Dotta (The Erudite); La Rossa (The Red); and La Grassa (The Fat).  The origin of La Dotta is, of course, based on the University.  A long list of famous doers and thinkers have helped perpetuate the "La Dotta" moniker since 1088.

La Rossa has a more disputed origin.  The usual explanation is that Bologna earned this nickname from its predominance of red tile roofs. A more 
feasible origin, though, stems from its Communist political and economic affiliation which persists in some form even today.  Though he was expelled from the party because of his homosexuality, the writer and director Pier Passolini was a native of Bologna and remained an avowed Communist until he was murdered in Rome at the age of 53.

Of the three epithets, Bologna may be most proud of La Grassa.  As Massimo MontanariProfessor of Medieval History at Bologna University, affirmed in his book, Food is Culture, body weight was an obvious indication of wealth before it became the consequence of a fast food world.

Via Emilia in Modena
Bologna is the Capital of the Emilia-Romagna Province, a region of prominent "Comunes" originally connected by the Via Emilia, completed by the Romans in 187 BC.  Even other Italians acknowledge the preeminence of Emilia-Romagna cuisine.  In upcoming posts, I will highlight some of the Province's best-known cities, Parma, Modena, Reggio-Emilia, and Rimi.  There are options beyond imagination for food and wine tours of the region, though I took the plebeian route, using local trains.

Because of its reputation, Emilia-Romagna is brimming with a wide range of cooking schools, especially in Bologna.  Careful research and clear personal objectives are in order for those who plan to attend one of these schools.  The experience can vary from spending an afternoon preparing dinner in a family home to investing six months toward a certificate in restaurant management. My desire was to recapture a childhood feeling for preparing handmade ravioli. Starting with this Washington Post article, I chose to attend a week long pasta course at Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, a ten minute walk from Albergo Rossini.  I will detail this adventure in my next post but, in short, it was an excellent way to immerse myself in authentic Italian culture.

Emilia-Romagna is one the richest cultural treasures on Earth. Even a veteran traveler could be overwhelmed by the opportunities.  The Bologna Welcome Tourist Office on the Piazza Maggiore is a great help in comparing, consolidating, and booking options, including travel.  Italian train stations can be hectic so I appreciated working out schedules, pricing, and advanced ticket purchase with a gracious English speaking assistant at the Tourist Office.

There are two cherished establishments that claim to be the oldest of their kind in Bologna, and both deserve top billing on any food lover's list, Tamburini - Antica Salsamentaria Bolognese and Gamberini Pasticceria. They are impeccable in every aspect. Their window displays alone may be enough to sate your hunger.

Tamburini Antica Salsamentaria

Gamberini Cafe and Bakery

Often overshadowed by Milan, the Fashion District on Via Luigi Carlo Farini is another alluring aspect of Bologna.  Exquisite window dressings are set in gleaming halls of inlaid marble, where all are welcome to glimpse the rarefied world of Prada, Gucci, Armani, and those other designers not lucky enough to be Italian.

Via Luigi Carlo Farini ~ Haute Couture District

This was my second trip to Bologna.  I first visited as a backpacker in 1977, three years before the deadly train station bombing, known as the Bologna Massacre, in 1980.  This may explain my impression of underlying tension there then. I shortened my visit to only a few days and remembered little about it other than the Two Towers.

So I arrived in Bologna this time with only modest expectation, planning to use it mainly as a base for exploration. Yet even after spending nearly a month there, I regretted having to leave. In fact, I now plan to return for regular extended periods. Bologna deserves to hold a patent on the formula for a good life. It already holds the recipe. And an unchallenged place in my heart. 

Implicit Bias ~ Face to Face

I know when I first recognized my own implicit bias about gender. It was in the Fall of 2006 during a high school speech tournament in Helena Montana. I’d volunteered to judge the Lincoln Douglas debates and, along with a few other adults, was tired from a long day of civil argument as we sat to evaluate the final, prize-winning round.

The realities of gender inequality were not new to me. I was a fifty-two year old woman who had graduated from a women’s college at the peak of 1970’s Feminism. Over decades of work in film production, computer animation, and the Web, my primary colleagues were all men. Some of them, like my son’s father, were generous collaborators in favor of opportunity for all people. The majority, though, were male endowment heirs intent on seizing personal trophies. Harassment was surprising only when absent.

The Lincoln Douglas debate style takes its name from the original 1858 match between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas which focused primarily on slavery.  Now practiced mostly in high school speech tournaments, topics commonly center on moral questions argued between two people who are assigned either the affirmative or negative position.  The topic for the final round in Helena was: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

The young contestants, a male and female, were both attractive, white, successful high school Seniors probably destined for law school.  Both were tall and well-groomed in conventional, tailored clothing. The young women had every sartorial detail crisp, tucked and aligned. In contrast, there was a noticeable rumple in the young man’s shirt. His tie, striped classic blue and red, was loosely knotted and slightly askew, suggesting an ivy league rebel.  

Throughout the debate, the young woman’s arguments were the most compelling and well-conceived, clearly affirming that civil disobedience is morally justified in a democracy. Her delivery was sincere and precise. I naturally agreed with her position.

Perhaps to mask his own distaste for having to support the negative view, the young man adopted a casually entertaining sarcasm that even highlighted the weakness in his argument, yet somehow also made it more appealing. Culture had granted him a wider range of persuasive tools than to his opponent.  On her, this approach would likely have seemed sloppy.  On him, though, it was charming and confident.  I found myself wanting to call him the winner.

Even the most intelligent and analytic of us will rely on cultural “rules of thumb” in everyday life. Acting without thinking because the situation appears to be “without question”. Face to face, these two young people seemed so evenly matched. Before laying down my final marks, I did shake off the enchantment of cultural mythology and gave the rightful win to the young woman.  But I had to consciously recognize and question my own conditioned bias in order to do it.

Acceptance of Denial - In Three Acts

Jim was tall, lean and intense. A successful engineer in sustainable energy, he spoke with the halting precision of those who carefully consider every word. He orchestrated training seminars on a global scale and wrote technical manuals about building the foundation of a fledgling industry. Jim was comfortable in his success and confident in his ability to be effective. I met him when he attended a digital media course I taught in Helena, Montana. When the course ended, we continued a casual friendship.

For the fun of it, our conversations often devolved into quirky fantasies about ways to profit from the foibles of human nature. I had my fall back novelty product, Shroud of Turin beach towels aimed at the Easter break crowds in Florida. Jim usually joked about writing a book called "Acceptance of Denial", targeted at middle aged men. The title alone guaranteed a best seller, he said. Even if the text was nothing but blather.

Jim married a woman with a young a boy from a previous marriage and undertook fatherhood with total commitment as a role model to his step son. Being an accomplished player himself, Jim introduced Sam to ice hockey and signed him up in the local junior league club where he volunteered as a coach, allowing all the more time to spend with Sam.

My son was also on the hockey team so I saw Jim often and watched Sam grow up along with the other boys. He was exceptionally intelligent and a gifted musician. His mother had a talent for languages which he inherited. Sam's future seemed brighter than the sun.

As Sam entered his teen years, Jim got an opportunity to study sustainable energy in Europe. His wife was thrilled since she could assist him using her talents as a translator. And Sam was beyond ready for the cool of living in a foreign country. So they spent nearly three years in Europe, living mostly in the Czech Republic. When the assignment expired, they returned to the US.

Back in Helena, Jim's work in energy consulting flourished. In the aftermath of 9/11 oil prices were beginning to climb beyond the stratosphere. His authority in cutting edge energy made him an in-demand expert with national media attention. Jim and his family became local celebrities in Helena and an invisible wall began to politely separate them from people they once recognized as friends.

Preparing to take my own son on a trip to Rome, some of my older cousins insisted that I get advice from Father Paul, a priest they'd all known since childhood. He was an accomplished stained glass artist who had done restoration work in some of the world's largest cathedrals, including St. Peter's. A long list of adoring clients vied to own his next original work.

My cousins created opportunities to brag about the marvelous trips they took with him to the Vatican. Hoping to stir envy, they would carry on without encouragement about being welcomed into secret inner sanctums simply because Father Paul was such a brilliant and special man. So unbelievably generous and caring, they said. He just happened to be teaching art history at a Catholic college in Helena, so of course I needed to contact him.  Basking in an opportunity to "pull some strings", they arranged for me to meet him.

I vaguely remembered Father Paul from my childhood when he was a teen-ager, but had no expectations beyond those my cousins had planted.  Being a renowned stained glass artist, Father Paul's priestly duties excluded the usual saying mass and such. He had special allowances about living arrangements giving him a private home and studio in a large old Victorian where we met for our appointment.

There was a veneer of polite formality when we met at the door which surprised me since we shared so many connections that boasted about his warmth and friendliness. There was no relaxed acknowledgement of the place we both grew up. 

As though bothered by an unwelcome intruder, he rushed to arrive at the point of our meeting. His eyes remained awkwardly averted as though fearing I would actually look into them.  This opened a recognition from my years in San Francisco and my stomach twisted with the queasiness of being told an obvious lie.

Something in his too fastidious manner projected a tension bigger than just being hidden behind a closet door and he knew that I felt it.  The heel of one foot kept grinding into the floor while he dug both hands into the deep pockets of sharply creased black pants.  The amazing Father Paul quickly covered enough Roman highlights to fulfill his obligation as a travel consultant then hurried me back out the door. 

Planning another European trip for myself, I read about a German concentration camp intended primarily for SS training and experimentation.  Situated only twenty miles from Berlin, Sachsenhausen was not hidden in an isolated region. Instead it was the dominant structure in the center of a small village called Oranienburg. 

I read an account of the camp's liberation written by a young American soldier new to the war.  He said that they began to smell the distinct stench of burning flesh when they were still over three miles from the camp. That's how powerful it was.

Yet when the American soldiers interrogated the local people, many of them claimed complete ignorance of what had taken place behind the barbed wire wall that separated them from the neighboring death camp. At the end of the war, German army commanders paraded thousands of skeletal men and women, the remaining prisoners, in a Todesmarsch (Death March) through Oranienburg in plain sight of the villagers. In their interviews, the villagers usually cited the Todesmarsch as the first time they had any idea about the real purpose of the camp. Even though the arriving American soldiers smelled evidence of it from three miles away.

Of course, there were resisters, sympathizers, and profiteers in Oranienburg.  Fear of ending up in the camp themselves was a strong incentive to ignore the evident truth.  But there were also a great number who seemed truly shocked when confronted with the reality. The only explanation for their ignorance seemed to be an extreme state of denial.

A few years after I met Father Paul, he was found dead in his studio.  The newspapers called it sudden and unexplained, code words for the suicides which happen all too often in Montana. For a long time, "What a shame" was the only comment made about it openly. The college mounted an exhibition of his stained glass art and a walking tour of patron homes where his commissioned work had been installed. "Such a great talent gone too soon," was all that was said.

Cloistered in the recesses of local newspapers, cryptic headlines began to appear about sexual abuse charges being filed against the Catholic Diocese. Names were not yet directly mentioned in the stories, but could be surmised by the timelines of when and where accusations were made. Father Paul's suicide now had a logical explanation. Terms of the eventual settlement required that names be named and published.  In the end, there was no doubt.

My cousins stopped bragging about the Vatican trips. It was as though Father Paul had never existed. I brought up his name once just to gauge their reaction and none of them heard what I said.

In their late teens, my son and many of his friends were busy testing the bounds of acceptable behavior. Keeping track of my own day to day parental tumult was more than enough to handle so, in general, I didn't pay much attention to what was happening with anyone else. 

I happened to cross paths with Jim one day and we exchanged the usual conversation between friends in a small town. While I alluded to concerns about my son's lack of enthusiasm for high school, Jim said that Sam's years in Europe had propelled him beyond the need of a classroom. He was now fluent in four languages which he used to help translate popular Wikipedia articles, all while maintaining his skill at classical piano and working full time at a local health food store. At seventeen, Sam was fit for maximum self direction. Jim and I parted ways wishing each other the best of luck. 

On an unusually warm night for Montana in June, a blaze of police cars wailed through Helena's narrow gulch of downtown streets. Three teen-age boys had been shot at close range by a fourth teen-age boy who know did not even know them. One of the boys died immediately while the other two survived with debilitating wounds. Early police reports said the shooter escaped on a bicycle but had been apprehended at home in his bed.

Because the crime was so brutal, all juvenile exemptions were waved. When the shooter's name was released it was nearly as shocking as what he had done.  It was Sam, Jim's bright and talented stepson who had shot three boys his own age, all strangers, as he looked into their eyes. 

News stories struggled to resolve the absence of motive with acts so ruthless their only logical explanation had to be revenge. Yet there was none. The boys screamed at him to stop but Sam twice reloaded his 45-caliber Tanfoglio handgun and emptied it into their bodies. When the ammunition was all gone, he beat his victims with the butt of the handgun, hard enough to break his own hands.

A few who knew him said that Sam was no stranger to guns and erratic acts.  But he was certainly a stranger to the lives he destroyed. And even to his own parents. 

Acceptance of Denial is a story that many will buy but few will read.

Slow Cheese 2013 ~ Bra Italy

Slow Cheese may be the most tasteful festival on Earth. A cornerstone of the Slow Food movement, this biennial event, next scheduled for September 18-21, 2015, takes place at its headquarters in Bra, Italy. Aside from travel and lodging expenses, this sumptuous celebration is free and open to the public. Slow Cheese 2013 was my last stop on a month long self-guided tour of Italy’s Emilia Romagna and Piedmonte regions and it nearly convinced me to cancel my return flight and take up residence there.

Started in 1997 when Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini, first brought together a small band of local dairy farmers, attendance is now approaching the 200,000 mark. Hotel accommodation in the region is at a premium and usually booked several years in advance. For that reason and the fact that I love to mingle in local atmosphere, I stayed in a modestly priced Turin hotel about thirty miles from Bra and took the train back and forth. Round trip was 15 Euros and lasted about an hour each way with stops at every village along the route. Since trains run at thirty minute intervals throughout the day, I took breaks to explore these villages on my return trip. Trofarello, Vallongo, Morello, Oselle, Carmagnola, Bandito, and even Alba down the line from Bra, all have a place in my mindscape now.

My first trip to Bra was the day before the festival opened and I recommend doing this if at all possible. It is an opportunity to enjoy this delicate village for its own sake as its ancient cobblestone streets are still relatively empty of outsiders. And it is thrilling to observe the focused intensity that brings this enormous festival together from all parts of the world, often with less than a day of on site construction.

Bra, Italy

Preparation Day

Chaos turns to ecstasy overnight. Mishaps become happy accidents in a way that only the Italians have mastered.  Most notable for me was locating a pairing workshop I purchased as an additional event. As a side note, all the special workshops are affordable and rewarding.

This particular workshop was a high profile vertical tasting of Parmesan cheeses ranging in age from six months to ten years, paired with French champagnes aged three to fifteen years. Not finding the venue on the official Slow Cheese map, I went to a Help tent where the guides, after extensive consultation among themselves, realized that the venue hadn't been included on the map. Va bene! They quickly improvised a sketched addition to my map and I came away with a personal experience of Italian perspective.

Slow Cheese is a distillation of all that is essential to human culture.  Those with the good fortune of being there know what a sensuous treasure that is.

Slow Cheese 2013