Friday, November 18, 2016

 Good Charity in Name Only!

Sometimes you have to vent. So that’s what I’m doing today.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a soft touch. For years, I have succumbed to those dinner-time calls from a wide range of charities for small donations. I would make one demand of the caller—that I not be called again for a full year. The caller, of course, would readily agree to the condition and promise to write it on my “card” at the charity office, though I am sure that he or she didn’t make an actual notation. Instead, I would get another call 4 to 6 months later, and, as the caller suspected, I would have long forgotten just when the previous call and donation had been made, and we would go through the same scenario again. And a few weeks later, Audrey, looking over the credit card account, would ask, “Did you give to the Cancer Fund again. That’s the third time this year.”
Charity solicitors know all of the right words.
[It will also come as no surprise that Audrey is a harder touch than I am about these charity calls. And she is probably more in the right than I am. After she called me on several contributions to something called “Good Charity” over the past few months (and not to the Heart Fund, Cancer Fund, or Childhood Leukemia Fund to which I thought I was giving), I decided to look up Good Charity, Inc. as a fundraising umbrella. I learned that only a small percentage of my donation would actually go where I thought it was going.  I even decided to confront my next caller on this matter. I asked what percentage of my contribution the fund would receive and was given an honest answer—about 15%. I should not have been surprised but I was, both by the answer and by the fact that the caller would baldly tell me the truth. Then I thought about the issue from the charity’s point of view—15% of whatever the fundraising callers were pledged was lots better than 100% of no pledges. And the money was raised without any organization staffers or volunteers having to be involved. But I still felt that I was being taken for a bit of a ride here.]

So I decided to change my ways—sort of. I began asking paid solicitors who they worked for, and if I didn’t like the answer I received, I would say no and hang up. My resolve lasted through a few solicitations. Then, last week I succumbed again. I got a call from the Children’s Leukemia of America Fund. Having survived lymphoma more than a decade ago, I am an even softer touch for cancer-related charities. And who is so hard-hearted as to refuse to support a group that promises better cancer treatment for kids?
When the solicitor noted that I had given a certain contribution last year and that they had, as promised, not contacted me for a full year (possibly true), I agreed to match last year’s amount without asking my qualifying questions. I even agreed to give my credit card information to complete the transaction. I know that’s a little too trusting, but if I am willing to pay for my New Yorker subscription and pants from a clothing catalog that way, why not a charity for kids? Of course, two weeks later, I did note that the money I had given was listed on our Visa account as being paid to (you guessed it) Good Charity, Inc.

But that’s not really why I am venting today. Here is the reason.

A few days ago, I got a letter from the Children’s Leukemia of America Fund. I expected a thank-you note, but what I received was an acknowledgment of my pledge and an envelope to use to send in a check or credit card information to pay off the pledge—the pledge that had already been noted on my credit card statement. Good Charity, Inc. was attempting to “double dip,” which is really over the line, even for them.

So that’s my story, sad but true. But am I any wiser for it?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Our Marathon Man!

Sunday night, everyone in our family was exhausted. Brett had the most legitimate reason for being tired—and the most impressive one. He had just run more than 26 miles as one of more than 50,000 “overachievers” in the New York Marathon. For five hours, he was on the move— running, walking occasionally, singing along to music playing through earbuds, and greeting the occasional friend or family member who yelled his name along the route from the Verrazano Bridge to Central Park. Running a marathon is an amazing accomplishment.

Brett is still going strong after 23 miles!
And from personal experience, I can say that watching a marathon is pretty amazing and tiring! Audrey and I walked nearly nine miles across Manhattan twice, while carrying two helium-filled balloons bearing the message “Yeah Brett!” to see him on First Avenue at mile 18, where he looked pretty upbeat, and then on Fifth Avenue at mile 23, where he looked eager to reach the finish line. 
Cheering, with balloons in hand, for our favorite runner

In both of our watching spots, we were surrounded by people shouting encouragement, waving signs, hugging loved ones who broke stride for a hug, shaking cowbells, high-fiving runners who welcomed the attention, and feeling not jealous at all that they were watchers instead of runners. Whew! I’m exhausted just writing about the marathon.
Making a brief stop for hugs and cheers
This is the third marathon that Brett has run, and each time I have felt a mixture of pride and surprise. The pride because of the training, endurance, and perseverance that running a marathon takes; the surprise because Brett was not much of an athlete growing up. I can remember one memorable occasion during a little league baseball game when, playing outfield, he blissfully admired a cloud sailing overhead as a ball rolled by near his feet. The mechanics of baseball, basketball, and even tennis seemed to elude him in his early years. The one sport he seemed to handle adeptly was skiing, either cross-country or downhill. Audrey and I would watch him head recklessly down a slope making few turns and leaving us far in his wake.

Then, after college at Hampshire College, a pretty nonathletic institution— He once sent me a tee-shirt that proclaimed in big letters “Hampshire Football undefeated since 1965” (because the sometimes wacky school has no football team, silly)—athletics and fitness took on importance for Brett. He trimmed down and tightened his body. Then he began playing tennis with great fervor and eventually with good skill. That was just the start.

Next, to our surprise, came running, and not just the occasional jog. He was going for the whole enchilada, the marathon. Brett ran his first marathon 12 years ago in Philadelphia. He didn’t love the experience and didn’t repeat it for ten years. (Along with other comments, I recall a graphic description of painful rubbing of his sweaty shirt on pointy parts of his chest during the race (TMI, I hear someone screaming at me). And I’m not sure he felt the exhilaration he hoped to experience that time.

Then, two years ago, he won a spot in the NY Marathon lottery and decided to go for it. He knocked nearly 30 minutes off his Philly time, and though he finished the race thoroughly exhausted, he also proved something important to himself (and to his surprised parents) about the value of training physically and mentally to reach a goal. Could a proud parent ever hope for more than that!

Surprising Adam with a long distance "high ten"
He decided to try again. So, last Sunday, Audrey and I—along with sister Amanda and her friends Phil, Hannah, and Cliff and our friends Ken and Helaine and their granddaughter Alexa—who had come to cheer on Brett, his close friend Adam, and their amazing daughter Lauren (Alexa’s mom), who was running her eighth marathon—did our own marathon walk across Manhattan. We clapped and shouted, waved our balloons, and welcomed sweaty hugs as we witnessed what for us were gold medal performances worthy of the Greek gods.
A family selfie at mile 23
Then we joined in a celebratory dinner, gave our children goodbye hugs, came home, and fell into bed, thoroughly exhausted. Marathon watching can really wear you out!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Life and Death Mysteries

For many years, I have printed out or clipped and saved real-life stories that come under the heading of “strange but true.” I would sometimes repurpose these stories in educational materials that I created for kids. One of the first reading skills workbooks I worked on at Scholastic was entitled Strangely True. It featured, among other things, the story of a man named Joseph Figlock, who was walking in front of an apartment building in Detroit in the 1930s when a baby fell out of a high window and landed on Mr. Figlock, breaking the baby’s fall and saving his life. The next year, the same man was walking in front of the same building when the same baby fell out of the same window and once again landed on him. Another miraculous save! I ended my recounting of the story this way: “So far, it hasn’t happened s third time. Not yet, anyway.”

Now, some people might doubt that this story is factual, but I found the details in a book, and you can find it retold in several Internet websites, so it must be true!

I thought I would blog today about two other stories that I have recently added to my clipping collection. They involve unusual happenings involving the remains of two of the world’s most famous writers—Thomas Hardy and Dante Alighieri. This seems like an appropriate time to retell the stories because today marks the 695th anniversary of Dante’s death.

Dante did not live a peaceful life—which anyone reading the harrowing descriptions in the Inferno might guess. He became embroiled in political shenanigans and was exiled from his hometown of Florence around 1300. He passed some important years of his exile in Verona, which is where Audrey and I encountered an impressive statue erected in his honor. He finally died in Ravenna in northern Italy on September 13, 1321.
Dante stands proudly in Verona
with a bird perched on his head.

For nearly 600 years, even Dante's ashes were not welcome back in Florence, despite the poet’s fame. Then, in 1865, on the 600th anniversary of his birth, an admirer in Ravenna reached into Dante’s tomb, gathered up a few handfuls of his ashes, placed them inside several small cloth sacks, and sent them anonymously to Florence to be part of the big birthday celebration. Fittingly, all but one of the bags were soon stolen or mislaid. Then, in 1929, even that last bag went missing. It would remain lost for 70 years, until workmen repairing bookshelves in the rare manuscripts area of the national central library in Florence found something even rarer—a small rectangular sack filled with Dante’s remains. Presumably, those ashes were then stored in a secure place, and Dante is finally resting in peace.

The story of Dante’s wandering ashes seems pretty tame when compared to the tale of Thomas Hardy’s heart. Hardy has long been one of my favorite writers, and we named our beloved Scottish terrier Tess after one of his main characters. When Hardy died in January 1928, his will called for burying him next to his deceased first wife Emma in a cemetery in rural England. But the literary establishment wanted him buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey in London instead. Well, they actually didn’t want his entire body buried there—that would take up too much space— just his ashes. A gruesome compromise was reached. Hardy’s doctor would remove his heart before cremating the rest of him. Then the heart would be buried in a small casket in the country and the ashes in another casket in the city.

This might all seem a little weird, but the really strange part was still to come. According to legend, the doctor removed the heart and left it wrapped in a towel inside Hardy’s house. Then he went to find a small tin in which to place the heart for burial. While the doctor was away, Hardy’s pet cat found the heart and ate all or part of it. What happened next is still up for debate. Either the actual heart was replaced by a pig’s heart, which was buried in the Dorchester grave. Or the cat, with part of Hardy inside him, was also killed and buried with what remained of Hardy’s heart. I leave it up to anyone reading this to decide which ending is true.
Does this large tomb house two hearts
or just one?
Upon finding the story of Hardy’s heart in a literature newsletter, I sent some of the details to my friend Louis Phillips, a much published and most talented writer, who always seems welcome to strangely true tales. Louis had not only heard the story but had even written a story of his own entitled “The Cat that Swallowed Thomas Hardy’s Heart.” In his story, Louis describes how the family cat, named Max, became a great celebrity after eating Hardy’s heart but literally couldn’t live with his newfound fame. The overwrought cat died and was given a memorial service that was even better attended than Hardy’s own funeral. Before the funeral, the cat’s owners decided to remove its heart to store in a special place. But the heart was stolen by an unknown thief. Where the organ is now remains at the heart of a new mystery.