31 December 2012

The Cranky Philanthropist

A year ago, after sending out a raft of little charitable contributions at the end of 2011, each with its own little admonition, please do not solicit more than once a year, please do not sell or rent my name, I decided to conduct a small experiment. For the whole of 2012, I kept every piece of mail that came in asking for money - snail mail, not email. By the middle of December, it amounted to a goodly boxful. I sorted it, tallied it, and - I'm sorry to report - was forced to add a few charities to the naughty list.

Most organizations are either sophisticated enough to flag their database in such a way that they did not, in fact, send out multiple solicitations. Others are so unsophisticated that I never get, nor expect to get, more than one or two a year - the local volunteer fire department comes to mind.

After the great sorting, we sat down to discuss the various solicitations, en famille. Some were rejected:

  • Boys & Girls Club: "I don't swim there anymore."
  • Care: Seven solicitations in one calendar year is too many, especially since we've never given to you.
  • The local Police Benevolent Association: "They can always ask the Girl Scouts to fundraise for them." (Um, huh? Don't ask me, I'm just reporting what the nine year old said.)

Some were newly added to the list:

In the end, we sent contributions to a mixed bag of local organizations (the afore-mentioned fire department, the local historical society, the day care center the girl attended) and bigger ones (Planned Parenthood, Unicef, International Rescue Committee), domestic and international.

And, because I am a crank, I sent notes - without contributions - to four organizations that we've supported in the past, because they really irritated me.

  • The NRDC sent us ten pieces of mail in 11 and a half months. Six of them included a return envelope with a live stamp - 45 cents right there in each solicitation! I used one of those envelopes to ask them to take me off their list, and had no compunctions about readdressing the remaining five to use to give to small charities who didn't waste their money giving me a stamp.
  • Doctors without Borders sent us six pieces of mail, and they get extra demerits because not one of their envelopes included a return address, which is a sneaky way of getting someone to open your envelope in the first place.
  • Partners In Health sent us five pieces of mail, three too many. (Even though I asked for only one solicitation a year, two doesn't offend my sensibilities hugely because, well, I'm not that rigid, and anyway, the lists do get prepped in advance.)
  • Riverkeeper sent us four pieces of mail - too much mail, compounded by the fatal error of not having thanked us for last year's gift.

When I ask that a charity only solicit us once a year, I mean it. I don't want paper and stamps and time wasted on asking me for money; I want the money spent on the cause that I'm supporting. It's simple, really. It's all about stewardship.

You can, though, be sure that I'll keep opening the envelopes from the NRDC. I mean, you can always use a nice first class stamp to pay some bill or another, right?

29 December 2012

Two times Two times Thirteen

A deck of cards (without jokers).

The white keys on an 88 key piano.

Weeks in a year, rounded off to the nearest week.

And me.

I'm divisible by 13 (and 2 and 2), and sometimes added into metal alloys.

I'm 52 today, and as I always do, I sent off a check in the amount of my age, to the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. It's my little way of marking my birthday.

21 December 2012

Great Mysteries of Blogdom

Sometimes - but not very often - I look at my blog stats, the ones that Blogger provides. You can't drill too deeply (or I don't know how), and sometimes the results are just weird and mysterious.

Here are the top 10 search keywords, as of the other day:

  • bruce the shark
  • monkey bread
  • cats in hats
  • mix and match ideas for school
  • need christmas certificates
  • reading log
  • azalea
  • boredom
  • underpants enema
  • apple clafouti julia child

At the same time, the post with the top number of hits was one titled IVF Shoes - about the shoes you buy as a treat for yourself while you're in the middle of your in vitro ferilization cycle. How those two things - those keywords and that top grossing post - are related is a mystery to me.

Also, "underpants enema"? WHY?

20 December 2012

Instead Of An Apple

I confess to a great distaste for giving gift cards or money to people at Christmas time. In fact, I'm not really a fan of tipping in general. I do it, because one must, I tip in restaurants and taxi cabs, and I mailed a Christmas check to the newspaper delivery person who I've never laid eyes on, and certain young people of my acquaintance are getting Amex cards, but I've never felt inclined to give a cash gift to my child's school teacher - it's too much like a tip, and Amy Vanderbilt says you don't tip professionals. I know, it's just me, and you may well have lots of arguments as to why the teacher needs the money, and how it's likely that that money will be spent back into the classroom. That said, I very much like giving little gifts at Christmas to people who are important to me and to us, and my kid's teacher certainly falls into that category.

Remembering that on open school night my daughter's teacher had confessed to an Amazon habit to feed her classroom library, and knowing that she had a Scholastic wish list, I decided that a book would be the right gift. I ended up getting a copy of The Doll People, a book my daughter had recently read and loved, and which I knew (from her) not to be on the classroom shelves.

To gussy up the gift, I printed a set of bookplates using art work from Helen Dardik's Orange You Lucky blog. I cut and pasted the art (free to use as long as it's credited back to Helen, thank you Helen!) into a Word template for Avery 5163 labels, figured out how to type on top of the image (so they could be personalized), printed them out, and whacked them a bit with the paper cutter. A spare label (from the outtakes) went into the book; ten more bookplates were tucked into the card. I was really pleased with the end result.

Happy Christmas to a super wonderful teacher!

18 December 2012

The Holy City, O Holy Night

For a good 35 years, most of my life, the Christmas celebrations included a big, raucous Christmas Eve party. Everyone came - kids, neighbors, boyfriends, grandparents, friends from here, friends from there. We'd make lots of Christmas cookies, and buy lots of cheese. My mother would make chicken liver pate, the kind that's so not kosher because it's got two sticks of butter in it, and pack it into a small brown crock with a lid, a crock that wasn't ever used for anything else. [That crock now lives in my kitchen; I'd better lay in some chicken livers.]

Eddie, the Joyce scholar from down the street, banged out Christmas carols on the piano, never stopping even when he'd miss a note (a blessing, that ability to keep going, the sign of a good accompanist). And everyone sang, at least everyone who wasn't in the kitchen with the red wine and the pistachios. Jingle Bells, Angels We Have Heard On High, Adeste Fidelis, O Little Town of Bethlehem. Sometimes people would get fancy and sing harmony or descants; I've always been partial to a descant in the second verse of Stille Nacht, even though I'm really not a soprano by any stretch of the imagination. Eventually, Eddie would get around to playing O Holy Night, out of a book called "Sing For Christmas" where it was inexplicably in something like G flat major, or maybe it was C flat major. In any case, it had way too many flats in the key signature, but Eddie courageously soldiered on. We'd belt it out, and move on to The Holy City, not really a Christmas carol, but full of great thumping Jerusalems.

Christmas was also a time for iconic records: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Britten's Ceremony of Carols. The Messiah. Luciano Pavarotti. The Nutcracker. Jessye Norman. Kathleen Battle. A Music Box Christmas. The Robert Shaw Chorale.

Two of those iconic records included those two oft-belted carols from our Christmas Eves. Pavarotti does a thoroughly charming and idiosyncratic O Holy Night, sung in English, with a heavy Italian accent and prodigiously rolled Rs, it is the night of the dear Savior's bert. Jessye Norman sings The Holy City tenderly, not bombastically, a lovely rendition.

Funnily enough, I have but two copies of The Holy City in my full-to-bursting list of songs tagged "holiday" in iTunes: the afore-mentioned Jessye Norman, and Herbert L. Clarke (the cornet soloist of the Sousa band). But I have 29 versions of O Holy Night - ranging from Pavarotti and Anne Sofie Von Otter, to Dave McKenna, Aaron Neville, Ella Fitzgerald and Sufjan Stevens. Presumably that's because The Holy City isn't really a Christmas song at all; it's just a bit of religious Victoriana. But it feels like Christmas to me, because Jessye Norman's Sacred Songs had been absorbed into our family's Christmas music collection, and because Eddie almost always played it on Christmas Eve, the thundering triplets shaking the very floorboards of the house I grew up in.

This post is part of a blog chain about holiday music. You can read more about the chain here, or just check out all of these links:

17 December 2012

What Do We Want?

What is there to say that hasn't already been said?

* * * * * * * * * *

We don't watch television news, and we rarely listen to the radio, and we read the weekend's newspapers carefully, furtively. We needed the time, to process the shooting ourselves, to wind around what to say to our nine year old. And I think we worried for naught, for her stoic little practical nature shone through when we talked about it at dinner last night: he killed himself? okay, we don't have to worry about him.

But that it were so easy.

* * * * * * * * * *

The thing is, there are a lot of way to analyze this situation. Do we need better treatment and resources for mental illness? Yes. Should we clamp down on guns and ammunition? Yes. Are video games too violent? Who knows? But to try and use the excuse that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" as a deflection away from the very politicized gun control issue is missing the point. A crazy person in China went on a knife attack on Friday - but because he was using a knife, those 22elementary school children were injured, not killed. Guns kill people. As Nick Kristof pointed out in the Times the other day, we regulate the hell out of cars and buildings and food, but "the only things we seem lax about are the things most likely to kill."

What do we want? Gun control. When do we want it? Now. How are we going to get it? I don't know, but I emailed President Obama (via the White House website), and I signed a petition to "address the issue of gun control through the introduction of legislation in Congress", and I signed an open letter to Congress and the NRA to "make today the last day that they block common sense gun regulations that protect all of our families". I'll probably write to my congressperson and my senators, even though I'm pretty sure they're already in favor of gun control. Because what we need is a good strong gun control policy, complete with background checks, waiting periods, restricted access to semi-automatic weapons, ammunition microstamping, a ban on high-capacity clips, and halt to gun sales at gun shows. And you know what? A CNN poll from a couple of years ago shows that a majority of the American people want a ban on semi-automatics (61% in favor) and background checks before gun purchases (94% in favor). I'd venture that those poll numbers would be even higher today.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was a little stunned to learn, over last night's dinner, that they do in fact have "lock down drills" in my daughter's elementary school. Fire drills? Sure, I get that. But lock down drills in my bucolic suburban town, where the kids huddle in the corner away from the windows and the door, just for practice? The innocence of childhood is gone.

11 December 2012

Enormous Balls

We decked the halls the other day. There's a wreath on the front door, some new lights around the front entry, and new "candles" in the upstairs windows. I always wanted some of those dorky candles but I'd never gotten around to getting any. The opportunity presented itself when I had to make an emergency run to the hardware store for a new string of outdoor lights since the ones that had been stored away last year were toast. The battery-powered “candles” are crappy looking if you actually look at them but from a distance, like from the road looking at the house, they look great and have an eerily realistic flicker.

And the tree is up. After my husband and I got the lights on, the girl helped me hang the ornaments. This meant that we completely forgot the glass beads, and the ornaments were allocated without much regard to let's finish one box before we start the next, shall we? As a result, there are several half full boxes back down in the cellar, because I have more ornaments than tree. I’d have done it differently, but hey. She’s nine. She was having a good time.

Because I'm me, I narrated the history and provenance of nearly every ornament.

  • Aw, Granny bought this at Martin Viette's, it was a fund-raiser.
  • This box came from my grandmother, look, here's her handwriting on it.
  • Look, it's a pickle! Look, it's another piece of cheese! Look, it's a potato!
  • Pinky gave this red one to me.
  • I love this really old one even though it's broken.
  • Here’s the box of the really big balls that Daddy's mother brought back from Poland.

While I tend to contemplate the appropriate placement of each and every ornament, small and antique up high, large and less fragile down low, really heavy ones on a sturdy branch, the girl was kind of hither and yon. One thing lead to another and I found myself saying hey, that enormous Polish ball is too close to the floor, and somehow from there I ended up teaching her "do your balls hang low?" It may be our new Christmas-tree-decorating anthem.

08 December 2012

All I Want For Christmas...[redux]

Incidentally, until I looked it up, I had no idea that Mariah Carey had written All I Want For Christmas Is You. Maybe that's partly because I've never paid any attention to Mariah Carey ever at all, but it also speaks to the fact that the song feels old, it feels like a standard from decades ago. Even The New Yorker thinks so: Sasha Frere-Jones called it "one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon".

I think the only version of it that I have is a charming and perky cover by the Puppini Sisters - and I do have a lot of Christmas music.

Part of my Christmas music obsession is that I really like listening to covers, versions of things I know well. When you listen to 47 different versions of a really simple song like Silent Night, you really start to hear what's going on. Lyrics morph, rhythms shift, tempos change. Poking around the 'tubes today, I found a site that may lead to a complete and utter trip down the rabbit hole. Called Who Sampled, it's a "site for discovering and discussing sampled music, remixes and cover songs...about the discovery of new and old music, the exploration of musical influences and the sharing of knowledge". Plug in a song, and get a list with a whole mess of other versions. Click through to one of them, and you get a page with YouTube links of cover and original side by side.

Who Sampled lists twenty four covers of All I Want For Christmas Is You. Most of them are probably execrable, maudlin twaddle, but twenty four! A person could really get lost.

Tell me, what song are you going to look up?

07 December 2012

All I Want For Christmas...

And...it is December. It is December 7th, even. There are two full work weeks, or 17 calendar days, before Christmas. Most of my shopping is done, though not all of the packages have arrived. Nothing has been wrapped, though I got some new Happy Tape in the mail yesterday. The cards are in hand, but only a small handful have actually left the premises. We plan to get a tree and a wreath tomorrow, and to put them up on Sunday. (Well, I could put the wreath up tomorrow, but I always like to wait a day for the tree to relax. After all, it'll have been tied up with twine for who knows how long.) The cats don't have stockings, yet, and the nine year old is concerned about this lack of readiness, so perhaps we'll do a bit of sewing tomorrow. I've even converted the car's iPod to all Christmas music all the time, but, I don't know, I'm just not feeling it yet. And I want to be.

That said, there's a video clip of Jimmy Fallow and Mariah Carey and The Roots singing All I Want For Christmas Is You making the rounds. It's kind of genius and thoroughly goofy, and it totally put a smile on my face.

Go ahead. Watch it. Grin a little. Christmas is actually on its way.