Coffee heat rising

When Giving Goes Awry

Baker at Man vs. Debt hit the gong at several blog carnivals this week with his rumination on the various excuses not to give money to charities. While the article is well written and I respect the passion with which his readers respond, the enthusiasm for giving away hard-earned wages escapes me.

I rarely donate cash to any charities or churches. There’s a reason for that: charitable giving warped my father’s psychology, influencing his entire life for the not-necessarily-better, and it permanently alienated his two older brothers from each other. Effectively, it destroyed his mother and his family. Because of his experiences, he would never allow my mother to teach me religion or to drag me to church, and he would not permit her or himself to donate to anything.

At the turn of the twentieth century, my grandmother inherited a substantial sum from her father, who had accumulated a small fortune in freighting buffalo hides out of Oklahoma to market in Texas. By the time my father came on the scene, rather late in her life, she was pretty well set: she owned two houses and a commercial property in Fort Worth, and she had money in the bank.

My father was a change-of-life baby: the youngest of his two brothers was 18 years older than he. At the time he was born, his father ran off, abandoning the middle-aged wife to care for the new baby herself. Her two other sons were, by this point, out of the house and launched on their own lives. One became a ranch hand, running cattle in west Texas; the other went to work at a Fort Worth dairy. Both men had their own families, with all the concerns that entails.

Over the next decade or so, my grandmother became engaged with an alternative Christian church that since then has evolved into the mainstream. Neither brother paid much attention to what was going on, although my father realized something was awry by the time he was about ten years old. She was quietly giving money to this church: large amounts of money. The church was gratefully accepting it and offering exactly nothing in return.

The two older brothers learned about this only after it was way too late. They found out when the county seized their mother’s home for unpaid taxes. She couldn’t pay her property taxes, because she had no money. She was flat broke, having given every penny of her fortune to the church.

Did this make her a better person? No. Did it contribute to her personal happiness? Obviously not. Did it make her holy in the eyes of God? Maybe. God didn’t do much to keep a roof over her head, though. Nor did He prevent creditors and the government from taking away what little she had left. She lost both houses and the gas station, and everything she had ever had was gone. There was no help for her from any direction. She died in desperate penury, without a word from the worthies of the church that had taken all her money.

My cattleman uncle blamed his brother, my other uncle, for this state of affairs. He felt that his brother should have been keeping an eye on their mother, since he was the one who stayed in Fort Worth. The two men fought, and after that they never spoke to each other again.

My father was a little boy, but he was old enough to understand that his home was gone, his mother was reduced to poverty, and a substantial inheritance that should have supported her and all three of her sons had evaporated into the coffers of a church. He determined that he would earn back the entire amount that she had lost.

And he did. By the time he reached his goal, forty years later, the dollar amount wasn’t very much, and because he wasn’t an educated man, he didn’t understand that to match the buying power of what she lost, he would have had to save over seven times as much. But that didn’t matter: in his mind he’d regained her losses. As soon as he reached his goal, he retired, imagining he would be set for life.

To do it, he

dropped out of school in the 11th grade;
lied about his age to join the navy;
worked like an animal all his life;
spent ten grim years of his life, my mother’s life, and my life in a godforsaken outpost in the Arabian desert;
pinched every penny that came his way;
based his marriage and his entire life on the accumulation of savings;
lived a miser’s life right up until the time he died.

To say he was a frugal man is to understate. Saving money became an obsession, and he focused all of our lives on it. Because he didn’t really understand money well, he made some serious mistakes, topmost among them investing all he had in insurance securities, which during the 1950s were returning at a rate of 30 percent. He didn’t realize a) that investments should be diversified, and b) no investment that was earning that much could possibly last long. When the bottom fell out of the insurance securities market, he lost almost everything—just as he stood at the verge of making his goal.

He did eventually earn the lost savings back, but this fiasco added another ten years of hard labor to his financial plan, and it pinched his personality even more than it was already pinched. Overall, he fared pretty well, considering that he had no education and only the opportunities he managed to wrest from life by main force. He kept us in the middle class, and he left about a hundred thousand dollars to his wife, my son, and me.

But his character was changed by his mother’s charity: warped and crabbed. And he was effectively left alone as a teenager, his two brothers spun off like asteroids in deep space. What remained of his family fell apart, and he spent his entire life trying to put what he thought was his birthright back together.

And that’s why I don’t give to churches.

To my mind, charity begins at home. If I give any money away, it’s to my son, who has returned the favor by growing into a decent man. By keeping myself off the public dole, I save the taxpayer a great deal of money.  And let us bear in mind that what I do to keep myself off the dole—mostly teaching—is itself a form of charity: I educate young people for a small fraction of what anyone with comparable skills doing a comparable amount of work with comparable management responsibility would earn in business. She who gives away her time, energy, and skill for the public good donates something worth a great deal more than cash.

. . . to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Ethical? Charging what the (charitable) market will bear…

Middle of last week, along came the following announcement in the community college e-mail:

Kewl, eh? For ten bucks you get an artsy-craftsy bowl (potential Christmas present!), a light meal, and some general socializing. And you donate to a good cause.

I asked La Maya and Kathy if they’d like to drop by this thing by way of entertaining ourselves and picking up a lunch. Kathy couldn’t get away from work, and La M had other things to do. But, said she, the local paper reported that this event was happening at AJs’ stores, too. She gathered the one in our part of town was hosting it on Saturday. She was busy, but Kathy thought she could make the endless drive from the hinterlands where she lives to the central part of the city.

So during the week when I was in the vicinity of that AJ’s store I checked, and yea verily: Bowls for Charity on Saturday.

Fortunately, Kathy changed her mind at the last minute. But that notwithstanding, yesterday morning I drove down to the store to check out the bowls.

A cluster of society wives was buzzing around the table where a bunch of young volunteers were peddling the nonprofit’s wares. As one of the women selected an unexceptional bowl, the amateur saleslady said, “That’ll be twelve dollars!”

Oh? And BTW, not a cauldron of soup nor a loaf of bread to be seen…

“So,” said I, “these bowls are $10 at the community colleges but $12 here?”

The young girl behind the table looked puzzled—and young, very young. She was probably a high-school kid. She had no idea.

Annoying. The presumption that just because you happen to shop at AJ’s—or because you would choose to go to that site after you read about the event in the newspaper—you therefore can be charged more for less: that’s annoying.

It’s every bit as annoying as the presumption that just because I wear a pair of Costco jeans into the local Saks, I can’t afford to shop there.

Is it unethical? I don’t know. Vaguely, I feel it could be. Why, I couldn’t say. It just feels like a gentle rip-off.

People on food stamps shop at AJ’s, believe it or not. One afternoon, before the Department of Economic Security started issuing debit cards in place of paper food stamps, I saw a man roll an entire cart full of healthy, nonjunk food up to a cash register and pay for it with food stamps. Should he have to donate an extra two bucks for charity (and not get the soup or the bread) just because he chooses to spend his dole at a store that stocks more real food than junk food?

If all you want is to pick up a handmade bowl or two, for twelve bucks you’d do better to wait for the next street fair. Or visit the excellent artists’ and crafters’ consignment shop directly across the street from that AJ’s.

If you want to donate to a worthy cause? Frankly, I think you’d do better to send money directly.

So, what cause would your purchase or donation support? Paz de Cristo is one of the most venerable soup kitchens in Phoenix’s suburban East Valley. Year in and year out, it has distributed hot meals to the poor, every single evening of the year.

It’s the offspring of St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, which for as many years in and out has supported it generously. Along about last August, in the depths of the worst recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, rel=”nofollow”St. Timothy’s decided to drop that support, abruptly cutting $300,000 in funding and throwing the charity to the mercy of private donors.

No indication of any wrongdoing on the part of Paz de Cristo was offered as an excuse for this moment of Christian charity. Instead, the church said that tithes had dropped off so sharply (could this mean something?) that it would no longer support the soup kitchen.

Hmm. What would Jesus do?

Mormons to the rescue!


Thank heavens! Just as SDXB is about to leave town, abandoning his feckless daughter (let’s call her Pauline, as in “Perils of…”) to deal alone with AHCCCS (Arizona’s ungenerous answer to Medicaid), the Department of Economic Security, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, another pending eviction, the usual array of angry creditors, and several flying phalanxes of lawyers, an angel has stepped in to pick up the reins while he’s gone.

Somewhere along the line, incredibly, Pauline managed to make friends with a nice Mormon girl, who has taken an interest in the current flurry of perils. She has accompanied Pauline to DES and otherwise helped out. Even more incredible: this lady has galvanized the LDS Aid Society to come to Pauline’s rescue! They are on their way to her house as we speak to pack her up and get her out of there, and not only that, they’ve found a place for her to stay! 

Do you realize what a miracle this is? Pauline has no, zero, zip credit. She has been evicted from three houses for nonpayment of rent, one of which had its garage door busted down by the Repo Man, who wished to drive her car back to its rightful owner, the lender. She can’t even get a checking account: SDXB had to get her a savings account at his credit union, and to do that he had to sign on it. Only a saint would even think of renting to this woman. 

And…well, I can tell you for sure: a nice Mormon girl is about as unlikely a friend for Pauline as you can imagine.

For SDXB, this is the best news that’s come along in weeks. Make that months. Since there seemed to be no way to get her into another house, he was about to look into trying to get her and the kids into a homeless shelter (although he expected the rabid, possibly homicidal ex-husband would use the opportunity to nail permanent custody of the brats), where she would have to camp until he could get back from Texas and waypoints.

Let’s hope these women do some serious proselytizing and maybe even convert Pauline. LDS provides exactly the kind of social network that a feckless, generally abused soul like Pauline needs. And they promulgate a highly functional way of thinking that Pauline has failed to imbibe during her forty-two years. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the shock of her injury and total financial and social collapse has finally gotten her attention. Maybe she’ll be open to learning a new way to structure her life…something that will work for her and for her children.

Personally, LDS is not my cup of tea. But for some folks, it has a great deal to recommend it: solid values, clean living, a powerful social network, and an ethic that fosters steadiness and responsibility. IMHO, Pauline would benefit enormously from the influence of this group.

Image  by Philipp Spinnler: 
Statue of the Angel Moroni, Berne Temple, Switzerland
Wikipedia Commons 

Decluttered and recluttered

PF bloggers hither, thither, and yon offer as a current gem of instant wisdom that when you buy a new clothing item, you should rid your closet of one, too.

Did them one better today, I did. Actually, I did ’em 6.14 better.

This is the time of year when I like to make a run on Talbot’s, one of the very few clothing stores that sells pants that fit around my capacious rear end without leaving six extra inches of fabric around the waist. Talbot’s actually has two major sales each year, one after Christmas and one in the dog days of the summer. The summer sale, however is N.A., because their buyers’ taste in warm-weather togs is incomprehensible: runs to polka-dots and pastels. But their fall and winter clothes are always classic, handsomely tailored, well made, and fully worth whatever price you pay for them.

Because Talbot’s has moved out of the central city, the choice for the likes of moi was to journey to Scottsdale or to the far northwest valley. Decided to head to the north and west, because SDXB agreed to meet me at the nearby fancy grocery store for a cuppa. After leaving him, I dropped by Chico’s and B’Gauze before hitting Talbot’s (all in the same strip shopping center). Found nothing en route.

Talbot’s was having a 40% sale off already marked-down merchandise, plus an additional 40% off the cheapest item you purchased (“cheap” is a relative term in a joint like this). So, this brought the prices down to almost within reason. w00t! I got TWO blouses, TWO pairs of pants (one washable wool, one washable velour) that look like they were tailored for my bizarre figure, two knit pullovers, and a nifty knit vest: SEVEN highly serviceable and reasonably good-looking items. The bill was bracing, but only about half as bracing as it would have been had I purchased the stuff at presale prices.

Well, my New Year’s resolution is to start looking less like a slob and more like a normal human being.

I’ve fallen into the habit of wearing dungarees to the office…and just about anyplace else I happen to wander. This is partly because our office is isolated and inhabited solely by graduate students, and so there’s really no need to wear anything other than blue jeans, and partly because of my general depression: there’s no one in my life to care what I look like, so why should I care?

Gotta quit that.

All my jeans and easy-wash no-iron tops have resided in the master bedroom closet. Dressier clothing has been stashed in the closet of a bedroom that serves as the TV room, with the result that when I’m racing to get out the door, I grab whatever comes to hand from my bedroom closet: generally unironed jeans and a top that grows shabbier with each laundering. Occasionally I show up on campus in my decrepit gardening shoes, having forgotten to change to newer Danskos, a circumstance that I suppose ought to embarrass me.

So this afternoon when I staggered in the door bearing the weighty haul of the afternoon’s hunt, I went straight to work: dragged every piece of clothing out of the bedroom closet and threw out every stitch that was tired, ugly, or didn’t fit. Then I headed for the TV room and emptied that closet, too: tossed out another mound of old, dusty, tired, unsightly, and ill-fitting costumes from that cache. Then I transferred the jeans, the gardening clothes, and the swimming coverups to the TV room closet and filed the grown-up clothes in the bedroom closet!

And resolved that henceforth the jeans will be worn only around the house and maybe to Costco or the grocery store. Socially acceptable outfits will be worn to the university, to meetings, and to upscale malls where shopgirls won’t wait on you if you look like you’re one of the Clampitts.

I kept track of the ejected stuff: four pairs of jeans, three pairs of better slacks, two knit tops, eleven better tops, eight dresses or skirt/top separates, one sweatshirt, three better skirts, eight miscellaneous items, one sweater, and one pair of shoes, for a total of 43 items. Figuring according to the late successful yard-sale prices, that’s a potential $344 worth of resale clothing: about $20 more than I paid for today’s finds.

Hm. Should I try to yard-sale all this junk? Craig’s List, maybe? Naaahhhh…. Come Monday, off it all goes to St. Vincent de Paul.

But consider that: 43 is to 7 as 6.14 is to 1. (I think.) For every one new item I dragged into the house, I’m dragging more than six off to the charity. The used-clothing value of the outgoing stuff exceeds the retail price of the spiffy new loot.
Decluttering on steroids!