Friday, February 27, 2015

Generosity Assumed

“It’s OK to give to that charity; they pass muster.”

My wife and I are able to contribute to charities and we are grateful to be able to do so. Not wanting to waste resources, we are picky about those to whom we contribute. Either we have personal knowledge of them or they pass muster with one of the online charity evaluation web sites.

One of our favorites was local; it was fairly large and the founder still plenty visible, both at the facility and giving talks about it to any that would listen. Many of the talks are not specifically fund-raisers – they are billed as educational talks about the problems faced by people in poverty – but the evening usually involved an opportunity to contribute. Our first encounter with the founder may have been at one of these.

In any case, we liked the founder, believed the organization does good work, so we did a little research on the web.

We used the Charity Navigator web site, They combine financial performance metrics ( such as Program Expenses, Administrative Expenses, Fundraising Expenses ) and metrics of Accountability and Transparency ( such as Independent Board Members, No Material Division of Assets, Documents Board Meeting minutes ) in an x-y grid to come up with a final score of zero through four. Our charity got an overall score of 3, scoring 99 Financial, but only 81 Accountability/Transparency. ( See graph. ) This charity, using this measure, “Exceeds or meets industry standards and performs as well as or better than most charities in its Cause.”

CharityNavigator's Score for the Charity we Chose

As you may be able to tell from the graph, with a Financial score of 99, the Accountability and Transparency score would have to be approximately 86 get an overall score of 4. With the Accountability score of only 81, it is not possible to get an overall score of 4.

I found this analysis for the charity we were considering and hurriedly left my office; “That Charity passes muster,” I called to my wife. We sent a year-end contribution. It was more than a token, but not institution-changing; it was not going to cause any buildings to be named after us.

Not long after, the Charity sent a Thank You note. Reading the note humbled us; it confirmed the wisdom of our choice. The note told us how much the organization appreciated our gift and the sorts of differences the organization was making in people’s lives.

Then I noticed it; a small envelope, just large enough to contain a personal check, slid from somewhere in the Thank You note envelope. It was an unstamped envelope, addressed to the charity. There was printing on the underside of the back flap, providing space for me to identify who I am and where I live. It also had several box/number pairs, one of which was for me to identify how much I’m sending in this envelope. The Thank You note did not refer in any way to this envelope. Though I am not a rocket scientist, it did not take me long to realize this envelope was a not-too-subtle request for another donation.

I was, first, put-off; then, offended; finally impressed. They were, after all, saving the cost of another mailing by including this solicitation with the Thank You note, the postage for which was already paid ( or was this a rationalization? ).

We did not respond to that solicitation but we thought we'd give again the following year.

"Do you think I need to keep this envlope?" I asked my wife.

"I'd guess they'll send another," she replied, with a bit of a smirk.

The Thank You note for our second donation also included a solicitation envelope. No longer feeling like rationalizing, I was mostly just offended. That second donation was several years ago, and we have not given since. True to my wife's prediction, that charity no longer waits for a Thank You note to send us the solicitation envelope. They reliably send one about once a month. We no longer support this institution. Its habit of asking for more when thanking for current donations is part of the reason.

Getting a letter with the effective but unspoken message, “Thanks very much for your generosity. Do you think you could be generous again? Right now?” is very off-putting and may, all by itself, get a charity off our list. Call us old-fashioned.
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Monday, February 23, 2015

Does the Pope Speak for You?

A man mocks religion.  He mocks Jesus.  He mocks Mohamed.  He mocks the Pope.  He mocks faith, and the very notion that any idea should be above approach.  He stands up for what he thinks is right, trying to make the world a better place.  He knows he's putting his own life in danger, and he does it anyways.

On the 7th of January, Charlie Hebdo died a hero.  He was gunned down by religious extremists, along with fifteen of his supporters.  Twenty-two others were injured.

The perpetrators were Muslim.  I do know that your average Muslim would not have committed these murders, but I don't know if your average Muslim is prepared to condemn them.  I'm positive the Christians I know would.  I do know one Christian who would not.  This Christian defends these murders.

Here's what the current pope had to say the day after Charlie Hebdo was buried:
“If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,”
(Then throws a fake punch)
“It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

No.  That is not "normal".  It's not "normal" to punch someone because you don't like what they have to say.  That would make you an asshole.  To say that about a hero the day after he was buried for saying something you find offensive is unforgivable.

At the time he spoke those words, he also stated that killing them is no longer the Catholic policy.  Additionally, days later he tried to justify himself by explaining that he wasn't trying to say that he thought they should be killed, just that they shouldn't have said things that would make people want to kill them.  I don't know how you can interoperate his statement any other way than, 'They had it coming.'

Before his death, in response to his death threats, Charlie Hebdo said, "I am not afraid of retaliation.  I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit.  It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than live on my knees."

I think it's important for reasonable people to understand that belief without evidence is not just a silly thing most people do.  Charlie not only agreed, but was willing to die for it.  I'm not as brave as Charlie.  I'm lucky to live somewhere I don't have to be.

Friday, February 20, 2015

All is Forgiven

As birds go, I suppose,
you were unexceptional.
Though a lovebird,
you were tough to love.

You treated my fingers
as masked intruders
fighting them and biting
whenever in your cage.

You forbade me touch you,
scratch your head,
or your beak, your breast
or your back.

But still … I did love you.
Wanting to be with me
you leaped to my shoulder
riding it to my office.

You raced up and down my arm
unable to wait for your serving
of ice cream, but I had to
serve it on a spoon.

You’d chirp and shriek
at the kitchen sink
until I’d draw your bath
in a Texas Bluebonnet glass.

Then, freed from the trap,
you nibbled my fingers
nuzzled my neck
and let me scratch your head.

Letting me love you
as I’d always wanted,
you gifted me.
And then you died.
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Monday, February 16, 2015

The Other Side of the World - #4

I write this in the middle of the night from my hotel room in Bangkok.  I could be out having fun right now; it's almost a waste not to.  The thing is, I'm really just partied out.

It was about a week ago I arrived in Chiang Mai.  Twelve hours on a bus, even a luxurious bus, was enough to make me feel like a shower.  Since this is Thailand, that can be arranged.  I made my way to the closest massage parlor, which happened to be awesome.  It's called Silver and Gold Fingers, and I recommend it.

An hour later I left refreshed and relaxed.  It was a long walk to my hotel, but I was looking forward to a nice cool stroll for a change.  people in Bangkok warned me to bring a jacket to Chiang Mai, and I did.  It turns out the people of Bangkok's idea of cool, and mine, are very different.  I arrived a sweaty mess, ready for my next shower.

Chiang Mai is a very big city for the north of Thailand, but it's nothing compared to Bangkok, or even Pattaya.  They don't have the sewage issues, or the crime.  I saw a lot of poor, but few homeless, and even fewer who seemed to have given up.  The city still has way more shops per block than you'd expect for its size, but most of them close by 7 pm.  It's a town that sleeps at night.

I knew now would be a good time to go there because the flowers would be in bloom.  I didn't know their flower festival was about to begin.  In addition to the festival, they had plenty of open air markets, and live music.  Unlike Pattaya, the live music was a major draw, and it was actually good.

Things are cheaper there.  I got a three star hotel for $20.  I paid $60 to zipline around the forest for a half a day, which included lunch and transportation.  Fruit was about half the price, and even more abundant.  Fresh fruit smoothies as far as the eye can see.

If I could keep my current salary, and live in Thailand, I would, and this would be the place.  In a lot of ways, it's like my home town of Saint Paul, Minnesota.  My only real concern would be the "hot season".  It's about to start, and while in the forest I saw the locals damming up the river to prepare for the coming drought.

Could the hot season in Chiang Mai really be worse than a Minnesota winter?  It can't be.  It just can't.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sharing my Addiction

“You can get a decent writing fountain pen without spending a small fortune,” I said.

I have discovered the Fountain Pen Revolution ( FPR ), a Fountain Pen Company based in India, dedicated to providing affordable fountain pens. “Declare your independence from overpriced pens.” Long story short: FPR held a world-wide drawing for a free FPR fountain pen, which I won. It is a large pen ( my favorite kind ), green and black in color, good looking, a screw-on cap, very smooth writing. A super pen. I was soon carrying it everywhere.

At lunch with a friend, I shared the winning the pen story. I bragged about the pen, brought it out, showed it to him, wrote with it, let him write with it. The pen impressed.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about fountain pens. In my work I frequently have to sign official documents. I use a ball-point pen and I’ve always thought the pen looks cheap and my signature kind of looks second class.”

Sharing this story prodded my fountain pen addiction; talking to a friend already thinking about fountain pens nudged me into full frenzy.

 “If you sign with a ball-point, I believe your signature looks rather second class,” I said. “Signing with a fountain pen would almost certainly change that.”

 “You can get a decent writing fountain pen without spending a small fortune,” I continued.

“I have a pen I like a lot for which I spent less than $40.”

“You don’t have to go online for these, There is a nice fountain pen shop less than two miles from where we’re sitting,” and we were sitting within one-and-a-half miles of his job. “They’ll let you hold the pens. See how they feel. Try writing with them. This is important.”

“In fact, Travis, for less than three bucks you can get a disposable fountain pen. Called a Pilot Varsity. It writes pretty decently. To test your interest in going further. To see if you want to invest in a really nice pen.”

I eventually inhaled again and realized I was nearly traumatizing my friend. “The place up the street is called Art Materials … and they carry the Pilot Varsity disposable. I’ve gotten several of them there.” I then let him change the subject.

Several weeks passed and we lunched again. Believing both that he really wanted to try a fountain pen and that he had not given it another thought, I had decided to give him one of mine. I had  had two or three of the Pilot Varsity disposables, just in case of some emergency but I hadn’t had any emergencies in the entire time I’d had them. They were literally just lying around.

He admitted he had not acted in any way on the fountain pen suggestions I had made. Not being in the habit of giving gifts while at lunch, I believe I was slightly awkward when presenting the pen. I know the segue was ragged. “Oh, thank you,” he said. Using the clip on the pen cap, he clipped the Pilot Varsity next to two other pens clipped to the placket of his shirt.

He looked pleased. He said, “Thank you.” But. Still. He had not even tried writing with it before clipping it to his shirt. Had I misjudged? I wondered …

He was off work the next week, taking a one-week, intensive management course, followed by a certification test. He was also starting a multi-week online writing class. In the midst of this, he sent an email continuing the discussion of a touchy subject. The email was all business, except for the last two sentences. My heart leapt.

“I’m loving the fountain pen. Thank you!”
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Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Other Side of the World - #3

I write this from a Nakhonchai Air bus while my seat gently kneads my lower back.  For $22 dollars I got the most luxurious bus ride I've ever been on.  I recommend it for twelve hour bus rides.

No place on Earth is exactly like any other, but some places are slightly more unique, and Pattaya Bay beach is definitely one of those places.  When I returned this time I took seven days, and spent them all essentially the same way.  I woke around noon in the king size bed of my penthouse condo.  I'd then take the first shower of the day, and head out to my favorite restaurant in Pattaya, maybe the world.

It's called Sweet Potato, and serves the creamiest Thai curry I've found yet.  Like most traditional
Thai meals, the main dish is small, flavorful, and meant to be part of a meal consisting mostly of rice or noodles.  I'd have two or three main dishes, forget the rice, and wash is down with a fresh fruit smoothie or four.  This is a good way to start a day.

Then it was off to the beach where I tried unsuccessfully to get a tan.  Parts of me got some tan, but the sun's different here.  I can't explain it.  It was relaxing though, and there were plenty of locals to sell me drinks and snacks.

Then about 4 pm, I'd go get my first massage.  This is a touristy area, so you can expect to pay a little more, so about $9 for a massage.  In addition to it being relaxing and enjoyable, it's also a chance to get my second shower of the day.  I leave clean in the change of clothes I brought.  The sun has not set, but it's no longer pounding down on me.  Time to find more food.

There were a lot of good places to eat around the beach, but after a week I can say that I didn't find anything reasonably priced that I liked.  There were some decent places, but they were even more expensive than they would be in the US.  The one exception is Casa Pascal.  You're gonna pay at least $20 a person, which is more than I'd normally spend at home, but it would be two to three times that in the US.  It's the fanciest restaurant I've ever eaten in.

Then with a full belly, it was off to the bars as the sun finished setting.  Many open around noon, but they're just like a bar in America at that point; you can get a $2 drink to have alone.  Around eight at night you start seeing live music, and scantily clad girls beckoning you to come have a drink with them.  Alcoholic drinks start costing between $3 and $4.  A drink for a lady will cost you about $.50 more.

A bar girl's job is to get you to buy them "lady drinks".  They have the drink with you, and flirt while they do it, often times in a revealing outfit.  In some bars they can play pool with you.  Some bars are go-go's, which means the girls will dance on stage.  Some go-go's are nude or topless, which means the drinks will cost about $.50 more.  I believe all bar girls will come home with you for a price, but I never tested this.  If that's what you want, you'll probably have to pay $15 just to the bar before they let you leave with her, as she will no loner be driving up drink sales.

Around midnight or one I'd start stumbling home.  If I still had enough money in my pocket, I'd stop in a restaurant and get another massage.  If I didn't have a lot, I'd buy some street food on the way home.  Then I'd fall into bed, and do it all agin tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Seeking Forgiveness

“Walter,” the email read, “Sally Smith did pledge. On 9/25.”

I am the IT person for one of my parish’s volunteer ministries.

The ministry involves offering training in ten life skills ( such as Healthy Relationships, Change, Budgeting, Health & Wellness ) to guests who want to learn these skills to help them make change in their lives. If a guest pledges to graduate, and attends each of the 10 topics ( any order, any length of time ), s/he may graduate. We celebrate these on the night they occur. For many of our guests, this is the first time they’ve made and fulfilled any sort of commitment. Each training event requires six to seven volunteers and we do this almost weekly.

My job includes
  • managing the Schedule Worksheet
    ( We schedule in six-month increments. )
  • maintaining the Attendance Worksheet
    ( This documents who attended when, who pledged, who graduated. )
  • posting the Facilitator’s Summary for each event to our Yahoo group
  • managing our Yahoo group
Mine is a pretty responsible position; I am pretty responsible.

A recent email disturbed me. It began, “I made a mistake … could someone switch with me?” Another email recipient took her spot, solving the problem. I looked into it, though, and the error was mine, not the writer’s. I scheduled her for a week earlier than she had requested. Inadvertently. I fessed up, apologized, she graciously forgave me and life went on.

Two days later I received the current Facilitator’s Summary which contained five or six guest questions about which topics they needed to graduate. I looked up the answers, clicked REPLY TO ALL, and responded. Two of the questioners had not yet pledged; Sally Smith ( not a real name ) was one of them.

The facilitator wrote back very quickly, “Walter, Sally Smith did pledge, on 9/25.”

Uh oh. Why wasn’t that in the Attendance Worksheet?! Thinking it might have been obscurely documented, I looked up the summary for 9/25. I found, “Sally Smith pledged.”

“Well, that couldn’t have been any plainer,” I muttered. Chagrined, I opened that Attendance Worksheet to document Sally’s pledge. And there it was, “9/25” in the pledge column for Sally Smith! Somehow I had missed it. Two errors in the space of a couple of days? “I’m slipping,” I feared.

I thought it might be good to review the other answers I had provided. And I found yet another error. I ( correctly ) said a guest was missing four topics and named them ( getting only 75% of them correct ).

Humbled, I again clicked REPLY TO ALL, acknowledged and corrected both errors, admitted being humbled, asked forgiveness.

I am also trying to forgive myself; I find this is sometimes the hardest forgiveness to obtain.
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