Tuesday 06 Dec 2016

Charity on View
Sjef Frenken

"What do you think about this," said Jack, directing my attention with his index finger to some point of a folded-up page of a newspaper.

I wasn't sure what he was driving at so I said "at first glance, I'd say you have recently cut them, and I don't see any dirt under your fingernails, and ..."

"Cut the crap," said Jack. "Read the article."

So I started to read. It was a puff piece about a society event to benefit some charity. A couple of pictures of elegantly dressed men and women, and along-side, in bold, the names of some prominent folk.

I said "Jack what do you want me to say?"

Jack said "Don't you think it's kind of ironic that these people are spending a lot of money just to dress up and be seen? Think of all that extra money they now spend on the hall and the dinner and the dancing, to say nothing of all the new dresses the women are wearing. If they'd skipped all that, the charity would have been a lot richer!"

"Jack," I said, "You're right, I'm sure. But I'm equally sure that if there had been no dinner, no dancing and no photographs, and no prospect of an article in the newspaper, the charity wouldn't even have got the money it's now getting. Big-time charity is part show business and a good measure of ostentation. And think of some of the other spin-offs of a charity ball: think of all those people that were employed to stage that event -- the cooks, the waiters, the musicians, the cleaning staff. It all helps keep the economy going. I guess Ronald Reagan would have pointed out the "trickle-down effect".

Jack said: "I betcha all those trickles don't add up to the cost of one of those fancy dresses."

I said: "You're probably right.

Jack said: "Actually, what I find most galling about charity is the naming of a building after some affluent member of society. Here is so-and-so giving, say, two million dollars and he gets a hospital wing named after him, when you and I and a few million other plain folks have to cough up the remaining 198 million for that building. The least I'd expect is that some overt acknowledgment be given to the huge public participation. Much the way PBS, after listing its high-profile corporate sponsors, says that the particular program was also made possible by 'viewers like you'. On the other hand, as someone said -- and I wish I could remember who -- "there's no end of good you can do if you don't insist on taking credit for it". Those are the best donors, the anonymous ones."

I said "Still, any charitable gift is better than no gift at all."

Jack said "And who said that?"

I said "You heard me. You want to hear another good quote?"

"Sure," said Jack, "if it isn't going to cost me any money."

I said "This one I remember from ... oh, it must have been in the late fifties or early sixties. It was a little blurb under the masthead of MAD magazine. I can't recall it exactly, but it went something like this: 'when a rich man give some of his money to charity, he is called a philanthropist; if he gives back all of it, he's called a reformed crook.'"

Jack said "That takes care of a lot of the world's great industrialists who made their money by less than ethical means," and he proceeded to list some of the great names of the North American establishment. He shook his head in dismay at the thought.

There was a long pause, as Jack and I attended to the more mundane matter of consuming our lunch, thereby playing our picayune part in keeping the economy going.

"Remember one time," said Jack, "we were going into The Bay downtown, when that smiling panhandler opened the door for us, as if he was a doorman at the Chateau Laurier?"

I said, "Yes, I remember."

"It's always nice," said Jack, "when you can give a few coins to someone who actually tries to earn it. The fellow who opened the door for us probably didn't have any marketable talent, I suppose; couldn't sing, couldn't dance, couldn't play an instrument ... at least he was smart enough to figure out something by which he could earn some change. But what about those poor souls, who don't have the mental wherewithal to figure out that kind of little scam?"

I said "I guess, they need help even more, although I'd think that most people would think otherwise."

"You've hit the nail on the head," said Jack, who is probably the most charitable person I know. You deserve an 'attaboy'.

I said "an ATTABOY?"

"Yes," said Jack, "An 'attaboy'. That's the amount of praise you've earned to get you a tap on the head, a slap on the back, or, if you're a football player, a pat on the behind. But only on the football field, and only if you're wearing one of those nice tight-fitting uniforms. And only if there's a large crowd. Otherwise people might get the wrong idea."

Neither Jack, to my knowledge, nor I have ever played football, and we're too old to start now. Jack tapped me on the head.

I said "Jack, that 'attaboy' reminds me of something I came across a long time ago. It was the definition of "a troy".

"Well," said Jack, "what is a 'troy'?"

I said "A 'troy' is the amount of beauty required to launch one ship! I've also heard it referred to as a milliHelen."

It took a beat or two but then Jack said "I get it -- Christopher Marlowe."

I said "Atta boy!"

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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