Tuesday, November 30, 2010

GIVE SMART - three ideas for making your charitable donations count

A lot of us don't have as much disposable income as we had two or three years ago. Some of us have a lot less. But Christmas is coming, and we still want to give. "It is more blessed to give than to receive," Jesus said (Acts 20:35). Giving makes us feel rich.

Giving is up in 2010, and for that we rejoice. But, warns an article in yesterday's Business Wire, "the small rebound hasn’t been enough to help many nonprofits that are grappling with staff and service cuts even as demand for their services has increased."

It would be great if we could give more. Some of us, if we're honest with ourselves, could do just that. Most of us, though, could give smarter.

How can we make our donations do the most good? Here are three suggestions.

1. Check out charities before donating.
Some charities are outright scams. Some are woefully mismanaged. Even ethical charities differ in their effectiveness - that is, in their ability to get our money to the people we're hoping to help. Before writing those checks, go to Charity Navigator and search for your favorite charities. Beware of any organization that rates less than three stars.

If you have time, browse the website. The top ten lists are especially interesting: for example, "10 Highly Paid CEOs at Low-Rated Charities" and "10 of the Best Charities Everyone's Heard Of." Or look through the entire list of 1770 (as of today) four-star charities.

Charity Navigator does not cover all charities, however. Some excellent not-for-profit organizations fall outside their specifications. If you are interested in a charity that is not listed there, check it out some other way. GuideStar offers information (including tax returns) on a wide range of charities. MinistryWatch profiles and rates primarily Christian ministries and charitable organizations. Or check out Charity Navigator's article, "6 Questions to Ask Charities Before Donating."

2. Give bigger checks to fewer charities.
If you're used to contributing to several charities, it feels somehow wrong to take several off the list. But $1000 given to one charity does more good than $100 given to ten charities, and $100 given to one charity is more effective than $10 given to ten charities. Number 9 on Charity Navigator's "Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors" is this: Concentrate your giving. They explain:
When it comes to financial investments, diversification is the key to reducing risk. The opposite is true for philanthropic investments. If you've really taken the time to identify a well-run charity that is engaged in a cause that you are passionate about, you should then feel confident in giving it a donation. Spreading your money among multiple organizations not only results in your mail box filling up with more appeals, it also diminishes the possibility of any of those groups bringing about substantive change as each charity is wasting a large percentage of your gift on fundraising and overhead expenses.
See, when you give a small gift, you barely pay for the expense of all those letters that start coming your way begging for more gifts. In order to make your gift profitable, many charities sell your name to other charities, who will send still more letters. Your mailbox will fill up rapidly, but not a whole lot will be accomplished for the people or organizations you are hoping to help.

By contrast, when you give a larger gift, the charity wants to hang on to you. No way will they sell the names of their top donors - why risk diluting their gifts next year? They still have to deduct marketing costs, but a lot more remains to do its intended work.

3. Turn your favorite charity into a Christmas present.
Unless you really need more books, liquor, fruitcakes, or whatever your friends tend to get you, put your favorite charity on your Amazon wish list. It's easy to do with the universal wish list button. If you want to know more about how it works for me, read my blog post from last December 1.

In addition, instead of giving friends, colleagues, and neighbors gifts that are useless or fattening, consider donating to a charity on their behalf. Be careful if you choose this approach - be sure the charity you choose is one that will also mean something to them.

This year our parish is especially concerned about a Sudanese health clinic we've been supporting. Sudan is holding an election January 9 to decide whether the southern part of the country should remain part of Sudan, or should separate and form its own independent country. The clinic is in Renk, a border town that will certainly face violence if the vote goes as expected (Aljazeera posted a fascinating article, "South Sudan braces for trouble," today; for more background information, check out my husband's interview with Geoff Tunnicliffe, "Pray for the Peace of Sudan").

Our outreach commission is collecting funds to send to the clinic before the referendum, so it can stock up on medicine and supplies before supply channels are disrupted. Because many of us are concerned about Sudan, David and I have decided to give this card to some of our friends at church and at work. It will cost us about the same as the small gifts we've given in previous years. We hope it will do more lasting good.

Monday, November 29, 2010

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

Normally my book reviews are also recommendations. I write about books I enjoyed, in case others might want to enjoy them too. This time I may be making an exception.

I'm not sure if I enjoyed Freedom, or if I think my friends ought to take the time to wade through its 562 pages. Even though Oprah said, "I am really betting that 'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen will end up being for you, as it is for me, one of the best novels you have ever read."

See, I did manage to read all 562 pages, and I wouldn't have done that if I'd disliked the book, would I? And very often I found myself chuckling over Franzen's characterizations or political asides or snippets of conversation. The man writes well.

I also enjoyed the vast extended soap opera involving Walter and Patty Berglund; their son Joey and his girlfriend Connie; Walter's feckless parents and brothers; Patty's equally misguided parents, brother, and sisters; Walter's college roommate, the enigmatic Richard; Joey's college roommate Jonathan and his amoral sister Jenna; the highly improbable Lalitha ...

Well, it's a bit like a book Dickens would have written, if Dickens had worried, not about the oppressed poor, but rather about the self-destructive middle class.

And maybe that's why I'm not sure if I liked the book.

It is well titled: it really is about freedom. Franzen uses some form of the word about once every five pages. It is about people who want to be free, who do various things to achieve freedom, but who in the end do not know how to use their freedom to make either themselves or anyone else happy. So Freedom would be a fine choice for a book club that is patient with long books and that wants to have a philosophical discussion about what freedom is, when it is good, when it is bad, how to achieve it, what to do with it.

But since book clubs are generally attended by women, let me advise potential readers that the various stories may contain more male sexual fantasy than you really wanted to read about. Franzen's men tend to think with their dicks, and most of his women, for some reason, are willing to do anything the men want. It isn't porn, but eventually the voyeurism gets tiring.

And despite its comic-novel moments and its odd Hollywood ending, Freedom is a typical Oprah-book downer. Its characters struggle against themselves, and mostly lose. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


This is not a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part one. There are plenty of reviews already out there, from A.O. Scott's in the New York Times to Todd Hertz's in Christianity Today. No need to add another one, especially since I'm much more a book person than a movie person.

Indeed I have read the seven Harry Potter books about three times each, and I've listened to the Jim Dale audiotapes once or twice each, and I've watched the first six movies at least twice each - and I still feel like an amateur whenever I'm with people who really know Harry Potter backward and forward.

I'm guessing you too have read the books and/or seen the movies, and that's why you're here. So for you I have just a few observations about the new film. I don't think there are any spoilers here, but then I'm assuming you know the plot.

  • The movie takes us more or less to page 477 of 759 (U.S. edition).
  • I liked the slower pace made possible by splitting book seven into two parts. This movie felt richer, more complete, than the previous movies, which had to struggle to fit far too much story into far too little time. Since part two will cover only 282 pages, it should be richer still. Which is appropriate, because it contains some of the best scenes in the entire series.
  • Still, if you want the total Harry experience, read the book or listen to the tape. The movie alluded to much of the content of book 7, but the book develops it in a way no film could do.For example, the film shows the Dursleys departing, but it completely ignores Dudley's amazing about-face. Harry attends Bill and Fleur's wedding as Harry, not as a Weasley cousin. Harry never reads the letter from his mother to Sirius Black. Harry never changes his attitude toward Kreacher. And so forth. I am by no means saying that the film should have included these scenes. It couldn't possibly have done so. I'm just saying the book is even more satisfying, at least for a wordperson like me.
  • When I say the film is slower paced than previous films, I don't mean it drags. There are lots of action scenes, chases, explosions. Harry leaves Privet Drive pursued by Death Eaters. Harry, Ron, and Hermione leave the Burrow and encounter more Death Eaters. The three of them cause chaos at the Ministry of Magic. Harry fights Nagini in Godric's Hollow. Death Eaters attack again at the Lovegood house. The trio is captured by snatchers and taken to Malfoy Manor for torture. You know all this: you've read the book. It's still gripping to see it onscreen.
  • The film also dramatizes some of the characters' interior struggles. It alludes to Harry's reluctance to continue on a path that may bring harm to his friends. It explores Ron's feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. Unfortunately, it completely skips Lupin's ambivalence about impending fatherhood, and the wonderful dressing-down Harry gives him when he tries to join the trio. That surprised me, since it seems necessary to some of what will happen in part two.
  • This is not a free-standing movie. It ends in the middle. The quest will be more difficult in the final installment: Harry and his friends have not finished their tasks, but Lord Voldemort has found the weapon he covets. When the credits started to roll, a man in the row ahead of me yelled, "Oh, no!" There's no way anyone who likes part one will be able to skip part two.
  • This is a very sophisticated film. I don't have the necessary film buff's vocabulary to tell you exactly why, but there's a stylized, contemporary feel to the artfully composed scenes. And despite its darkness, it has humorous moments: the dialogue is often witty.
  • Though I saw the film on an Imax screen, Imax may be overkill. Mercifully, there was no 3-D to contend with (the snake attack was still terrifying). Since there are no flights on dragonback or in specially rigged Ford Anglias, the tall screen is less necessary than in some of the previous movies. Sometimes, in fact, the characters were just too large. I wanted to back up and give them a bit more room.
OK, that's enough for tonight. I hope you enjoy the movie. I look forward to seeing it again at least once before part two is released next July. And maybe I'll reread the book. Maybe I'll even reread all seven of them.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010


    Terrorism and torture - they're all over this week's (and most week's) headlines: "Germany tightens airport security over attacks threat." "Palestinian forces arrest Hamas cell in West Bank planning to attack Israelis." "Britain to pay ex-detainees in torture case."

    Saturated with such stories since the bombings of 2001, we may think that terrorism and torture are 21st-century inventions, or at least that their incidence has greatly increased during the last decade. We need correctives like Patrick Smith's article in Slate last week: "News flash: Deadly terrorism existed before 9/11." Indeed it did - Smith lists example after example from the late 1980s. And torture, a typical response to terrorist attacks, is as old as recorded history.

    Here is another corrective - a film you need to see, though not for date night. Little kids shouldn't watch it either. The Battle of Algiers is a fictionalized account of urban guerilla warfare during Algeria's bloody war of independence from France (1954-62). Winning a heap of prizes shortly after its release in 1966, it was immediately banned in France and essentially went underground for 37 years.

    And then in 2003 the U.S. Pentagon showed the film to about 40 officers and civilian experts. From the flier announcing the screening:
    How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
    The Pentagon showing led to renewed interest in the film, which was restored and then released in the U.K., the U.S., and France in late 2003 and 2004. The DVD version followed in October 2004. You can rent it from Blockbuster online or from Netflix.

    Why should you see this film? Partly because it's so very well done. From Ali La Pointe, a disaffected Arab teenager who becomes a leader in the National Liberation Front, to Colonel Mathieu, an unbending French military man who plays by the rules, each character first draws you in and then appalls you as terrorism and torture alternate in a deadly dance. In a mesmerizing sequence, a trio of Arab women don Western garb and charm their way past French guards into the European quarter - with disastrous results. Should you laugh? Cheer? Weep? You may find yourself doing all three. The one thing you won't be able to do is look away from the screen.

    Another reason to see the film is to stimulate thinking and provoke discussion about current conflicts. In The Battle of Algiers,as in the news, terrorists kill civilians. Counter-terrorists move in and do the same. Torture is used to gain information. Tortured terrorists become martyrs and incite renewed terrorist activity. Violence explodes on all sides. It sounds so very contemporary.

    And yet, whatever your opinions about Iraq or Afghanistan or Guantánamo, it's hard to take sides when the film takes you into the Casbah or the European quarter or the military headquarters. You find yourself sympathizing with the Arab child who grabs the officer's microphone and tells his people to resist, with the frightened women who hide insurgents in a well or behind a false wall, with the terrified man who talks rather than face another round of torture, and perhaps even with the teenager who has lost so much and now just wants to shoot somebody.

    At the same time, you cringe when European teenagers are blown to bits when all they are doing is flirting and dancing to salsa music, or when tired businessmen grabbing a quick drink after work lose their lives because they neglect to see a basket left under a bar stool. You understand the colonel's perplexity when he says to reporters:
    We aren't madmen or sadists, gentlemen. Those who call us Fascists today forget the contribution that many of us made to the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis don't know that among us there are survivors of Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers, and our only duty is to win
    But what about torture? a reporter persists. Colonel Mathieu gives the only answer he knows:
    Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer "yes," then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
    Terrorism and torture have a long and sordid history, and this film does not glorify either one. Yes, the terrorists eventually win and the French are expelled from Algeria. Yes, The Battle of Algiers has been accused of inspiring violence - though it has also been used as evidence that torture does not work. It's an ethically complex film that may haunt you for days. It might even turn you into a pacifist.

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    What vegetarians eat on vacation

    It used to be really hard to eat vegetarian while traveling, especially if you were traveling from Washington to Illinois with vegetarian children who refused to eat any food that might have been cooked on a griddle that may also have been used for hamburgers (I speak from experience).

    In the thirty years since that stressful trip, America's food tastes have changed. It's now almost easier to eat vegetarian in a restaurant than at home. Even in barbecue-loving Texas, where we just spent nine days.

    The easiest way to do it? Eat ethnic.

    We ate Italian at Hasta la Pasta and Vespaio Enoteca, Colombian at La Palma de Cera, Ethiopian at Blue Nile, Chinese (sort of) at Panda Express, Mexican at Los Cucos and El Chile, Thai at Thai Kitchen, Middle Eastern at Pita Pit, and Indian at Udipi Café. The winner: La Palma de Cera (Katy) - and if you go there, you must try the flan, which is the best we've ever tasted. Runners-up: El Chile (Austin) and Blue Nile (Houston).

    In addition, we ate lentil soup, tamales, and an eggplant sandwich at the delightful Hyde Park Bar and Grill, which despite its name has a range of vegetarian options; strange but tasty concoctions at the vegan bar in Austin's gigantic mothership Whole Foods store, pancakes and sweet potato hash at the famed Kerbey Lane Café, sandwiches and fresh fruit at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center café, and tilapia and green beans at Pappadeaux in Houston's Hobby airport. One evening we bought stuffed portabella mushrooms, Greek potato salad, and green beans at Whole Foods and ate dinner in our apartment. Another evening we went to Central Market and brought home herbed risotto croquettes, cauliflower in truffled oil, and balsamic glazed yams.

    We never went hungry. We never had trouble finding good, affordable food.

    Eating while traveling would probably be more difficult if we were vegans. We cheerfully eat dairy products and eggs (though we do our best to buy them from organic farms, or at least from farms that give their cows and chickens pasture time). We also eat a little fish. The term for what we are seems to be pescetarian, though we prefer a friend's neologism: vegequarium (others might call us part-time vegetarians or pseudovegetarians: you can read a vegetarian taxonomy here). We had tilapia at the Colombian restaurant as well as at the airport, and David had fish tacos at Los Cucos. Most of our meals, however, were lacto-ovo-vegetarian.

    Why eat vegetarian while traveling? Well, if you're a committed vegetarian, that's what you do. But even if you aren't, there are advantages to making some of your restaurant meals vegetarian. Take your pick:
    • Reduce your fat intake, which always seems higher in restaurants.
    • Lower your chances of encountering food-borne bacteria.
    • Enjoy interesting new tastes, especially if you go ethnic.
    • Feel better, thanks to all those fruits and veggies.
    • Save money.
    • Save the planet.
    Also, the vegetarian selections are often very, very good.