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Is the bell still ringing ’round your house? December 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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To paraphrase the two gentlemen who accosted Scrooge on Christmas Eve in Charles Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol, at this festive season of the year, the poor feel want more keenly as the cold bites hard and the well-to-do rejoice. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the scene in the musical “Scrooge” where you see poor Bob Cratchit trying to pull together Christmas for his impoverished family against a backdrop of well-to-do Victorians and what they’re able to buy. It would be enough to give even a Scrooge, as Mrs. Cratchit points out, a piece of her mind to think about.

The great divide between the rich and poor in the Victorian era was as great as our own today, but there was a difference: The Scrooges of the past didn’t have to see the poor unless they wanted to. They were shut away in workhouses and poorhouses and coal mines and factories, the Oliver Twists (another great Dickens creation) of the world. Deprivation and dirt were ways of life. (Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” lives this kind of life at home in District 12.)

Today, the poor aren’t kept away from us. We see them shopping at Wal*Mart or eating a Big Mac, painting their nails and using their electronics just like us. They don’t look thin or hungry—cheap but filling convenience-store food usually makes sure of that—unless they’re homeless, and they’re certainly not begging.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not suffering. Just this week, we read about a grandmother who was caught trying to shoplift a carton of eggs to feed her multigenerational household because the carton cost $1.75 and she only had $1.25 and was desperate. (The policeman called to the scene bought her the eggs, and she tried to give him the $1.25. In the ultimate happy ending scenario, she wasn’t charged and the townspeople started sending in food for her family and other needy people in their area.) Also this week, we read about families who had to choose between food and health care every month.

Pope Francis is building baths in one wing of the Vatican so the poor and homeless can take regular baths and feel better about themselves. And the soup kitchens and rescue missions are as busy as ever, while the rest of us have been documented throwing out an ungodly amount of food—48%, if memory serves—not even bothering to compost it or, say, feed it to the chickens or earthworms. Our friend Ben is sure Pope Francis’s favorite birthday present this year was the massive amount of meat a Spanish meat organization donated for distribution to the poor in his name.

Getting back to the point of this post, for many years around this time, everywhere our friend Ben and Silence went, we would encounter the jolly Santa and the black Salvation Army kettle, his bell ringing furiously as he doubtless froze to death. In front of one local pharmacy, Santa had been replaced by caroling kids. Whatever the size of our offering, we were always happy to give. But for the past three or so years, the black kettles and their tenders have been gone. Whatever happened to them?

We used to have a thriving Goodwill in the shopping mall in the closest little town to us. It was always packed with people, most of whom appeared to be buying clothes, shoes, toys, and the like for their families, most of whom were poor, most of whom spoke a language other than English. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood loved the Goodwill—going there was like treasure-hunting, you never knew what you’d find—and, as noted, it was as crowded as Cabela’s, a godsend for people for whom Wal*Mart was a luxury. A thriving business. Then one day, it was gone. We were horrified, but what must the people who depended on it to clothe and entertain their children think?

Just yesterday, we went to drop off some clothes at one of those drop-boxes in a pharmacy parking lot, only to find that it, too, was gone, and nobody seemed to know where another one was. Why and where had it gone?

In areas where just getting from one place to another is an issue if you don’t have a car, having stores like Goodwill just pack up and leave is a real hardship. For those of us who’d like to bring a little warmth and good cheer to those in want during the Christmas season, failing to find Santa with his bell and black kettle on every corner is really demoralizing.

If the bell’s still ringing ’round your house, please give to keep it going. For us, it’s one of the happiest sounds of Christmas.

And please, don’t waste food this year while others are going hungry!

Matthew, Mark, George and Ringo. November 10, 2014

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A friend who teaches philosophy at a local community college recently told our friend Ben that he’d asked his class who the current Pope was. Not one hand went up, even though Pope Francis is the most popular Pope of the era, or at least the one with the most media coverage. But let’s give the kids a break: Not everyone is Catholic, after all. Could you name the pastors of the megachurches if you weren’t Evangelical, or name the head of the Anglican Communion if you weren’t Episcopal?

But then, he asked them—a class who identified as Christians—who had written the four Gospels. Again, no hands went up. This is pretty bad, even shocking, to a generation who grew up reciting “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed I lie upon” every night. It’s one thing to ask a class to name the members of the Beatles, or the Monkees, or even Led Zeppelin, a generation or two out. Why would they know or care? But the Gospel writers?! Sheesh.

The Pope, the parrot, and the porn star. February 1, 2014

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Silence Dogood and our friend Ben aren’t exactly up on the world of porn. It frankly amazes us that people would spend so much time watching it when there’s a whole world out there to explore, but then, we feel that way about lots of things, like, say, video games, Facebook, and reality TV.

Anyway, you’ve probably heard by now that Pope Francis blessed a parrot in St. Peter’s Square recently, and that it turned out that the parrot, named Amore, belonged to an Italian male stripper-turned-porn star. The parrot, a yellow-naped Amazon like our own Plutarch the Pirate Parrot, even went so far as to chant “Papa!” along with the crowd. (Yellow-naped Amazons and African greys are considered the brightest of all parrots, and are quick to pick up language, especially when they’re excited as Amore must have been in the midst of the chanting throng.)

We of course think bringing pets of all kinds for Pope Francis to bless, in the tradition of his namesake, Saint Francis, is a great idea. We wish we could take our entire menagerie to Rome for a papal blessing.

What surprised us wasn’t the parrot but the porn star. He had come to see the Pope not just with his parrot but with his wife and two daughters. The whole family loves Pope Francis.

The thought of porn stars having pets seems perfectly normal to us; even Paris Hilton has her chihuahuas, why shouldn’t porn stars? But the thought of a porn star having a wife and kids, perhaps leading a perfectly normal, mundane life when not filming, really rocked us back on our heels.

True, we love the movie “Independence Day,” where star Will Smith’s on-screen sweetheart is a stripper and loving partner and mom to her child. But we thought that was just a clever plot twist. Clearly, real life and love are a lot more interesting than we give them credit for. That’s Amore!

Animal rights done right. January 28, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. There’s a folk saying, “It’s easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar.” This isn’t literally true; fruit flies love vinegar. But the meaning of the saying is that it’s easier to win people over to your view by being nice than nasty.

As a lifelong lover of animals and vegetarian for moral reasons, it has long horrified me how the animal-rights groups, PETA being the poster child for this, fail to internalize this lesson. Is throwing blood-colored paint on rich women’s fur coats or harassing Vogue‘s editor, Anna Wintour (the role model for the monster boss in “The Devil Wears Prada”), likely to win them to your side? History suggests that vandalism of any kind, and especially fanatic, intolerant, strident, one-dimensional violence and vandalism, is unlikely to win converts to your cause.

I was relieved to read that Italian animal-rights organizations didn’t make this mistake when two doves released by children at the Vatican in an annual peace ceremony this past Saturday were attacked by a predatory seagull and crow. (Fortunately, the doves only lost a couple of tailfeathers.) Instead of flooding the media with gory photos of animal abuse or suing Pope Francis for cruelty to animals, they mildly suggested that this ritual release of the doves, the symbol of peace, be stopped, since there are now too many predatory birds for the doves to be safe.

I hope Pope Francis heeds their call. The ceremony is full of symbolism and meaning, and I don’t think it should be stopped. But there’s no reason why the children can’t release origami doves to float down to Saint Peter’s Square, unmolested by hungry predators, as symbols of eternal peace.

Honey, not vinegar.

‘Til next time,


Give to the poor. January 1, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was horrified to read this morning that billionaire Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot, had attacked Pope Francis for daring to suggest that wealthy people donate money to the poor instead of, say, their own self-aggrandizement. Mr. Langone, who is a trustee of and donor to the $180 million renovations of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, said, in effect, “Who does this guy think he is, trying to tell us how to donate our money? Who wants to give money to the poor? Will that get your name on the wall of the cathedral? How can you even prove it to get your massive tax deduction?”

Our friend Ben thinks that Mr. Langone and like-minded billionaires and millionaires would find it enlightening to watch a movie from 1947, once considered a must-see Christmas classic, called “The Bishop’s Wife.” In the movie, a young, ambitious bishop, played by David Niven, has abandoned his struggling New York parish church to focus on building a great cathedral. Cary Grant plays an angel sent to help the bishop—and everyone whose lives he touches—discern their true priorities.

This certainly strikes a chord in my area, where many churches, threatened with closure, support themselves when the pastor rolls up his sleeves and makes nut rolls, kiffles and the like for sales to help the parish eke out another year. And of course, in the movie, the struggling inner-city parish of St. Timothy’s gets a new lease on life as well.

But the lesson Mr. Langone and his ilk could take from this film is provided by the bishop’s patroness, Mrs. Hamilton. The wealthy Mrs. Hamilton is willing to bankroll the new cathedral if, and only if, it is made into a monument to her deceased industrialist husband. She demands that a chapel be built in his name and put front and center in the cathedral, with his name incised in huge letters in marble and gilded with gold. She even insists that the stained-glass window portraying St. George and the Dragon feature her husband’s likeness as St. George.

The bishop, convinced that a great cathedral would be worth as much kowtowing and compromise as it took to erect it, agrees to Mrs. Hamilton’s demands. But fortunately, the angel, posing as the bishop’s secretary, pays a visit to Mrs. Hamilton and reminds her of her humanity, her ties to all the poor, weak, and suffering. When the bishop returns to collect Mrs. Hamilton’s check, she informs him, radiantly, that she’s decided to give the money to the poor instead.

Just as the divide between the very wealthy and the rest of us has grown exponentially in the last decade, so has the increase in giving on the part of the very rich. Just this morning, I read an article about the top ten American donors of 2013, and to make that top ten, they had to be giving between $100 and $992-plus million. But what were they giving it to?

Certainly not the poor and suffering. These are tech/investment/real estate millionaires/billionaires, and they put their money where their minds and fears rather than their hearts are: in research. Every single one of them gave to research hospitals or universities. Lesser donors give to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, seeing echoes of their young selves.

They all think big. Not one thinks of the poor streets in their own states, filled with suffering, laid-off, impoverished, cold, suffering people who can’t afford to pay their mortgages or heating bills, who can’t afford to feed and clothe their kids, who may be working three jobs and never making ends meet.

There’s a kickback here, too, and not just in terms of tax writeoffs. For every huge donation, there’s an endowed chair or a building or a museum wing or opera house or even a university or hospital in your name. There it is, incised in gold-plated marble on your own personal cathedral. Or, in Mr. Langone’s case, on St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This is by no means a new form of payback. Alfred Nobel and Joseph Pulitzer and the MacArthurs and Cecil Rhodes would all have become footnotes in history were it not for the prestigious awards, prizes and fellowships they established. They live on through their generosity. But did even one of them give a dollar to the poor? Did even one of them so much as think about the poor, even for one moment of their lives? Where is the glory in that?

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the champion of the poor, said that in every suffering face, she saw the Lord in His distressing disguise. She erected no cathedrals and wore no grand attire. Her homespun wisdom and compassion echo that of Pope Francis’s grandmother, who said, “Burial shrouds don’t have pockets.”

Jesus the Christ had a great deal to say about the Pharisees, who made quite a racket when they gave alms. “They have their reward,” He noted. The Ken Langones of this world might do well to sit up and take notice.

Is there space for the Lord? December 24, 2013

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This Christmas season, let us ask ourselves, with Pope Francis, “Is there space for the Lord, or is there space only for parties, shopping and noise?” Even if you feel very far removed from God, or any concept of God, if you spend quiet time this holiday season, avoiding parties, shopping, and noise, you will find space for yourself, for something greater than consumerism and busyness. And we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac think you’ll be glad you did.