24 December 2006

A Grinch, But a Charitable One

Don't worry, this isn't all going to be me being grumpy about Christmas, but I have to get that part off my chest so if you don't want to read it you can skip the next few paragraphs.

First off, why the hell is Christmas a national holiday? It is the only national holiday with non-secular origins. Despite the fact that it has become a seemingly non-religious orgy of bling and material cravings, its very name "Christ-mas" betrays where it comes from. In the spring we've got spring break and a scattering of holidays that go along with it. Some people still refer to it as "Easter Break" and that's their right. But there is no national Easter holiday. I've got nothing against "Winter Break" or celebrating the solstice - a natural phenomenon - but I don't want my government giving legal standing to anything of religious origin, no matter how far it has travelled away from its creche. With all the current battling over the separation of church and state, it astounds me that Christmas has managed to somehow stay above the fray. Maybe that's because everyone's afraid if they say anything about it they won't get any presents under their tree.

It's hardly worth carrying on about the dreadful, oppressive music; the forced and often hypocritical good cheer and goodwill; the porcine greed of shopkeepers preying on the terror that parents and partners and nearly everyone else has of not satisfying the craven desires of those who expect gifts; or the traffic.

Well, maybe I will whine about the traffic. Where do they all come from? Does half the population avoid going out in public the rest of the year? It seems as if people who neither drive nor shop on a regular basis, suddenly emerge from hiding and hit the streets and stores in a tsunami that sweeps all before it. Addled by their daunting tasks, no less so than if they were on heavy drugs, they smash into each other on highways and roads, in parking lots, with shopping carts, careening down sidewalks laden with loot.

If you're a Christmas lover, it's safe to read from here on...

Okay, so now you know I don't like Christmas. The best Christmas I ever spent was in Dakar, Senegal. I ate a fantastic pepper steak and drank a great bottle of red wine. Then I went and danced and boozed the night away with a crowd of about three dozen prostitutes, one white girl from Oregon (my traveling companion) and a dozen or so men - eight of whom were in the band that played in a scrapwood barn of a place near the railroad tracks. We all went out to breakfast on the beach when the sun rose.

But still, it's that time of year and you've gotta give gifts or suffer the consequences. Luckily it's also near the end of the year when it makes sense to work out your tax deductions - a much more honest reason for giving this time of year then trying to promote the fiction that something about the season makes you feel more generous than usual. I'm not saying that my charitable impulses are entirely pure. I tend to donate money throughout the year whenever it occurs to me to do so, or it seems like it might be needed. I even donate to organizations such as the ACLU that do not bestow tax deductions on me.

It is a very good thing that there are charities who do a good job of doing our dirty work for us.

This year, as I tend to every year, I donated what I could to Doctors Without Borders. I'm not about to go to Darfur and get in everybody's way trying to help in a refugee camp. They are. And they do a great job of it without any political or religious agenda to promote. They also have one of the best ratios of program spending to administrative and fund raising costs in the charity biz. I made a donation in the name of the Stone Family and sent cards. The relatives are going to have to make do this year with some antibiotics and rehydration in Central Africa rather than another ugly sweater, book I know they won't read unless I buy it for them, CD of music I want them to like or the latest breakable toy or gadget.

Eva and I went to Heifer International on behalf of the nieces and nephew. They've now got some money with which they can pick out a farm animal to donate to a needy Third World family. It's a great idea and seems like the sort of thing that might get kids involved in charity in a fun sort of way. (We're kind of hoping they don't notice the part of the catalog where it points out that the cute little bunny rabbits make good eating.) But then the nine-year-old niece said: "Not another water buffalo." Apparently another set of relatives had the same idea. We'll show her. They're probably coming to visit next year. I think I've got a good rabbit recipe somewhere.

As for Eva, luckily she doesn't like bling and we've got a moratorium on buying any more wine for the house. She did love Cambodia when we were there. And she is adamant on many women's issues. A column by Nicholas Kristoff in today's NY Times (you might have to be a registered reader to use this link) gave me a good idea. I got her a year of school for a girl in Cambodia. I got one for me too while I was at it. With some extra money thrown in to help build and stock and staff a school. This was all done through an organization started by a journalist, called American Assistance for Cambodia. This group will be hearing more from my bank account during the coming year. My next book which will be published in Fall 2007, GRAVE IMPORTS, is about the smuggling of stolen Cambodian antiquities. It seems only fair that some of the proceeds will find their way back to that country.

That was the seasonal gift giving taken care of. Throughout the year I also coughed up bucks to a number of other worthy (IMHO) causes: The Emma Goldman Papers Project, The Center for Inquiry (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), Books for Laos, Fringe Benefits, and a few other things connected to events and local museums and NPR stations.

I am not writing all this to demonstrate how great and caring I am. But these are organizations that I think are doing important and good work and that I like to support. I'm hoping that at least a few of my readers might come across this blather of mine, be looking for a place to send some of their money, and might consider donating to some of these groups as well.

For your information, here's how I decide what organizations to donate to:

I'm an atheist, so they can't have any religious affiliation, much less agenda.

My politics are a complicated mishmash of things. I am not any sort of ---ist, (other than the previously mentioned lack of religious belief.) I don't believe in any sort of ---ism. (There was a time when I described myself as a "Groucho Marxist" but I won't even go that far anymore.) So if it is an aid organization, they can't have any sort of political affiliation or agenda either.

I don't think that professional do-gooders should be getting fat off my donations, so I do what I can to make sure that a much higher percentage of my money is going to the actual projects, than is going to administrative and fund raising expenses. In 2005, for instance, 85.71% of the money raised by Doctors Without Borders went to program services. That is a very high percentage. A good place to start figuring this out is Charity Navigator.

And sometimes I just donate to things that I appreciate for the fruits of their labors. The Emma Goldman Papers Project is an example of that. I think they are creating an archive of significant historical importance and interest, in a field that has been sorely neglected. (I've also loved reading the first two volumes of the four volume set that they're working to put out.)

So I guess that's my Season's Greetings to you all. Next Fall will see the publication of GRAVE IMPORTS (look for Chapter One, or an excerpt on the website sometime in the next few months), as well as the paperback of THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD. I'm currently working on a new novel that has nothing to do with my Ray Sharp series and I'm raking through the coals that make up my brain in an attempt to come up with a good non-fiction topic that will give me an excuse to travel.

Let's hope we all have a great New Year and that 2007 sees at least a little improvement over 2006.

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