This is my last column of the century, so I think I should write about something more important than vegetables. (“The beet,” Russell Turpin writes in response to last month’s column, “is also the most serious of vegetables. Don’t take my word for it. Borrow a copy of Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins, and read the first paragraph.” Adds Denise Sumner: “It’s the only book I’ve ever read in which a beet — or any vegetable, for that matter — is so….well, appreciated.”) Or frozen grapes. (“Another thing you can do with frozen bananas,” writes Anne Speck in response to someone who had put in a word for freezing banana slices, “is throw them in the blender with a spoonful of cocoa or carob powder and a splash of vanilla. Blend it up and you have something resembling a chocolate milkshake without the fat.”)

But what?

I could try to just give each of you a hundred dollars, as money is what a lot of you seem to be interested in. (Me, too.) But American Express has already beaten me to that punch. In order to get you to sample its free brokerage commissions, Amex will now give you $100 cash for opening a brokerage account (refer to Wall Street Journal “Promotion Code 100” and/or call 800-297-7006 if you have problems).

It was once enough just to offer free commissions. Now Amex is paying you $100 to try free commissions. My hunch is that, if this works well, Amex may offer a free toaster as an enticement to take the free $100 to try the free commissions. Toasters have always been a draw for this sort of thing, because their little toast thermostats so quickly break (assuming you never clean them, which no Cooking Like a Guy™ guy ever does), leaving them little more than fire hazards. So everyone could use a new toaster, if not now, then soon, and offering them free would be a way to encourage people to take the free $100 to try the free commissions.

There are huge profits to be made from a promotion like this, which must be one reason American Express stock has been soaring. I can’t compete with a powerhouse like American Express, so rather than give you $100 from my own pocket, I will just join you in running over to American Express for my free $100.

So. No vegetables, no grapes, no free money.

What then? The shirt off my back?

No — although, thanks to alert reader Gary Krager I can steer you to an almost-free $40 men’s dress shirt. (Click here.)

So, then — what?

It seems to me that a few fond words about the Twentieth Century may be in order.

Being a glass-half-full type, I see not the horrors of the Twentieth Century, like the World Wars and Apartheid and the failed communist experiment, but the fact that we survived them and may have learned something from them. Let’s hope. I see not the Depression, but the estimable institutions it caused us to create — principally the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve System, which have served us well.

The amazing thing about this century of radio and TV and automobiles antibiotics and movies and computers (and Velcro and zippers) is that for the first time we realized that virtually anything is possible. Flight -– even to the moon. Instant wireless communication from any mouth to any ear on the planet. Bloodless surgery. Genetic engineering. Even immortality, Bill Gates has noted — and I’m quite sure he’s right — is by now “just a software problem.” (Unsure in just how many decades they will finish debugging the code, I am eating as healthily as I can.)

We could certainly screw it up. But we now have it within our grasp to do almost anything. For thousands and thousands of years, since we lived in caves, this was merely the stuff of dreams.

The other amazing thing about this century — if less miraculous, no less important — is the progress we’ve made in recognizing the fundamental validity of individual human rights. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that . . .”)

  • It was only 79 years ago that women got the vote. By now, even most Republicans think it’s a good idea — even though the Bible says women should be subservient.
  • Until just 35 years ago, African Americans were still officially second-class citizens in part of America. By now, happily, most of that is ancient history — even though the Bible says, “slaves, obey thy masters” (Colossians) “with fear and trembling” (Ephesians).
  • And until just 8 years ago, when the Governor of Arkansas began running for President, the issue of fairness and equality for gays and lesbians had never been placed on the national agenda, debated in prime time. Today, much of mainstream America has come to know us as their friends and neighbors, sons and daughters, colleagues and employees. The Republican leadership has yet to get this one right, but they will.

Anything is possible, and every constructive citizen deserves equal rights and respect. Not a bad century. This next one could be even better. With your help, it will be.

And at least until these crazy e-commerce valuations collapse, a lot of stuff will be free.

Happy New Year!

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