"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 24, 2015

It Is Better To Give Than To Receive–Who Said So?

Ricky Fowler grew up Catholic, and as much as Father Brophy went on about the spirit of Christmas, the Nativity, charity, and spiritual renewal, December 25th was about presents – his presents, not the ones he gave to his parents and sister.

Christmas was the bounty he waited for the entire year.  “Wait till Christmas”, his mother said when he said that his baseball glove was too small, the tracks on his train set bent and out of whack, and his Lone Ranger, faux pearl handle six-gun wobbly and coming apart at the stock. “I am sure Santa Claus will be good to you”.

Ricky was too old for Santa Claus and had been for many years, but his parents liked to keep up the tradition if in name only.  Christmas for them was somewhere between the hokum of Father Brophy and Ricky’s acquisitiveness – part pain and aggravation to have to shop for gifts; part parental duty; and part treacly parental dreaminess – and images of a cheery, red-cheeked, fat Santa were peering out from inside the holly wreath on the front door; on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, and on the dining room table. His parents were always bound and determined to create and maintain The Holiday Spirit for the week before Christmas.

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Mr. and Mrs. Fowler were so happy to get presents from Ricky and his sister that they never cared what they were. “It’s the thought that counts” was the aphorism he had heard over and over on the day after Christmas when his mother cleared the ripped wrapping paper, ribbons, and boxes. There under the tree and among the family gifts were Uncle Joe’s fish tie and handkerchiefs, Aunt Molly’s lace scarf and personalized stationery, and Cousin Brandon’s hook, line, and sinker set.  The colors might have changed, the gauge of the line and weight of the sinkers up or down a notch, and the ties featuring mackerel or perch instead of salmon; but they were all the same.  Ricky’s parents knew the shops on Main Street that sold these items, knew that they stocked them special for Christmas and set them aside for their good customers of the extended Fowler family.

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It was different for Ricky who felt that this once-a-year occasion was an opportunity not to be lost.  Christmas would never be a ‘thought matters’ holiday if he had any say about it; and he began his sales and marketing campaign as soon as the Christmas decorations went up downtown which, he realized was happening earlier and earlier. He began dropping hints about the baseball glove even earlier, at the end of October when he and his friends stopped playing on the New Brighton Green.

He mentioned the make and model of Herbie Swanson’s professional model with the major league webbing and deep pocket; the new tempered steel-aluminum Lionel train cars and tracks he had seen in Popular Mechanics; and the latest model hockey stick, slightly curved like a scimitar and said to be able to generate high-speed power than traditional sticks could never muster.

His parents – suckers as they were for family togetherness for the Holidays – never put two-and-two together – i.e. the indifferent and perfunctory gifts from their son; and the highly specific, detailed requests for his presents.  In other words, they didn’t see that Ricky had no real spirit of giving whatsoever and was concerned only with receiving.

Father Brophy liked to return to this theme on Sundays in December, citing chapter and verse about Christ’s generosity and charity, the spiritual meaning of Christmas, and the importance of sharing one’s bounty.  He knew that most families were like the Fowlers – in a word, venal and acquisitive – and he did his best to challenge these very un-Christ-like notions.  He was happy enough for the merchants of New Brighton – Howard Sale, the owner of Howie’s Sporting Goods, was a good Catholic who made a bundle on baseball gloves, hockey sticks, and golf clubs at Christmastime; Prentice Maple, another parishioner at St. Maurice Church, managed the stationery shop on West Main Street, and he had a hard time keeping a stocked inventory of paper, fountain pens, and silver bookmarks.  Christmas was indeed a good time for New Brighton, and Father Brophy did not begrudge Sale and Maple their profits. It was families like the Fowlers, the old priest reasoned, that were at fault.  Demand influences supply and not the other way around.

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Ricky was a smart boy who kept his eyes and ears open. The lessons of West Main street, Uncle Joe’s ties, and the airy sermons of Father Brophy did not go unnoticed. Christmas was indeed about giving, and the savvy negotiator made it count. 

He saw the desultory offerings to the Church, the lip service given to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, the wide berth everyone gave the Salvation Army Homeless Shelter on Burritt Street (“It stinks to high heaven”, said his mother), and the collections of canned goods organized by the Sisters of Charity, basically back-of-the-shelf rejects of cocktail sausages, pickled corn, and dented lima beans way past their pull date.

The best celebration of all – at least from a young boy’s point of view – was bar mitzvah. The rich Jews of New Brighton never held back when it was time for their thirteen-year old to wear his yarmulke and robes, chant verses from the Torah, and rock and pray in the millennia-old initiation rite. When Ricky went over to Bruce Bernstein’s house to play catch a few days after his bar mitzvah, he was stunned at the mountain of gifts filling Bruce’s room. Not only did Bruce receive a baseball glove, but three, each one a signature model with a card signed by Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams in the original. Not one train set, but two, complete with working signal crossings, loading docks, and drawbridges.  Everything a boy could want was piled high in Bruce’s room in duplicate, triplicate, and sometimes quadruplicate.  Now this was receiving, thought Ricky.

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This banquet of giving, however, was simply an amped up version of Christmas. The Schwartzes, Cohens, Blitzers, and Finemanns all shopped on West Main street and kept the economy of New Brighton humming all year round.  There was always a new crop of pre-adolescent Jewish boys in the town ready for their confirmation, and the haberdashers, clothing stores, sporting goods emporia, and hobby shops all did a land office business.

Once Ricky got a look at Bruce’s haul and saw goods from all the familiar New Brighton stores, he knew that little or no thought had been given to giving.  It was a perfunctory, obligatory ritual in the Jewish calendar, and there was no more Judeo-Christian spirit in bar mitzvahs than there was at Christmas.

Father Brophy was far more ecumenical in is beliefs and practices than most Catholic priests, and he insisted that students in the parochial school attached to the church read the Bible.  It was there that Ricky learned that the message of Christ in his own words or in those of the disciples was this: ‘Giving is good for the soul’. In other words, Christians were implored to give to the poor not for the sake of the poor themselves, but for the divestment of those personal riches which were hindering their – the wealthy – ascent to a higher spiritual plane.  If the poor benefited, so much the better, Father Brophy explained; but for the rich man to squeeze through the eye of a needle, he had to get rid of a lot of personal impedimenta.

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Ricky’s astuteness and his rather spiritually uninspired childhood led him to easily justify his conservatism on matters of economic inequality. The whole issue of giving, he reasoned, was corrupted by self-interest; so why not get rid of the ‘giving’ angle and focus exclusively on personal enterprise. Getting was what counted, not giving or receiving; and those who pulled themselves out of poverty did it on their own.  Christ’s message about the poor, as indirect as it was, was valid.  The New Testament is filled with unequivocal references to Christian charity; but, Ricky asked, what was the nature of ‘charity’ or ‘giving’.  Weren’t unsolicited, non-contractual economic transactions exactly the kind of exchange that dampened enterprise and will and hurt the poor more than helped them?

At the same time Ricky was very careful to manage his government’s largesse.  If the federal government or the District of Columbia wanted to reward him with tax breaks, incentives, and credits for no apparent rationale in terms of the commonweal, so be it; and a good tax attorney and accountant helped him enrich what had started off as a modest financial portfolio.  Receiving, getting, acquiring was the only part of the equation that mattered as it had since the beginning of human society.  Civilizations are not remembered for what they gave but what they acquired.

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Ricky was never considered either niggardly or especially self-interested. He simply led his life as part of an economic contract.  Business, family, social engagements, sexual liaisons were all subject to the same rules of equality – the equal economic justice set by the marketplace.  If some criticized Ricky for being less of a Christian than they hoped, many more applauded his sense of justice which was based on contractual parity, not morality.  Morality, he said, was never necessary if one adhered to contractual rules and obligations.

What more could anyone ask than a fair, just, reasonable man who just happened to pass by the Salvation Army Santa Claus without dropping in a sous?

Image result for image salvation army collection at christmas

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