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Schmoozing Over Great Depression (Part II)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Uh-huh, Carolyn Thornton's recent column, "This is the Season for Giving," suddenly reminded me that, more than the season for "getting," as most of us materialistic North American fogies quickly learned to characterize the month of December, for the first 67 years of our lives, December should indeed be the season when we should all at least consider and then re-consider "giving," before the IRS steps in and decides for us.

I've been quickly (in the last two weeks, in fact), gleefully anticipating the political tide turning (like Parisians gleefully anticipating the U.S. Army troops arriving to cleanse their city of the resident Nazi vermin) in my early dotage. During my years of seething anti-George W-thinking, even I couldn't fully appreciate the corrosive power of the President's strange, twisted genius, slyly concealed under his cover of grinning, bumbling buffoonery. Only recently, in fact, did I fully realize that all along he was, like a skilled playwright, designing a breath-taking script for his second presidential term that would surpass Sophocles's "Oedipus Rex" in perfection of climax-reaching dramatic form and chilling reiteration of the familiar, ever-relevant theme of hubris (or, "dangerous human over-reaching"), until, about to pass through the White House front door, canvas carpetbag in his left hand, waving good-bye to his giggling assembled staff, preparing to get into the waiting black stretch-limo that would, with luck, carry him to his miserable and richly-deserved future in the slammer (Hold on a minute, will you? I've sorta lost control over this mustang of a sentence!)

(Are you still there? Okay, let's start over! Sorry.) At this down-most, climactic moment of George W's life, he has unveiled his life's masterpiece, Great Depression (Part II). Joy to the World, y'all!

And so, in our brand-spankingly new fiscal sobriety, we're all left to re-prioritize, especially for this holiday season, look through the long list of all those who'd like -- or, whom we'd like to have -- a portion, however miniscule, of our accumulated wealth. Fair enough. "It's better to give than to receive," they say. Okay. Of course, there is a third option -- "saving" it in the bank (or, if you're really old, you might prefer to put it in a sturdy tin can and bury the can deep in your back yard). But let's hold off on that idea. In digging a deep hole on your property, you might sever a big underground electrical wire. Then all this schmoozing would be moot.

Anyway, back to re-prioritizing our Christmas gifts.

These days, a person needs a Ph.D. degree if he wants to teach nearly anything in college. (Although I ought, in all fairness, to tell you a degree doesn't necessarily make a person wise, or a great teacher. In fact, the time required of the candidate to research in the library sometimes causes the young teacher to skimp on his class-preparation.) At Hunter College, my favorite professor was Mr. Irving Howe, a world-renowned scholar, leftist-leaning political writer, and teacher, whose classic study of Jewish immigration to America, "World of Our Fathers," won a Pulitzer Prize. He didn't have the Ph.D. I believe he thought he had better things to do with his time. He'd have to muddle through with a lowly M.A. degree

Anyway, because I spent a large part of my young adulthood attending school, slurpping de-caf coffee with students in the Student Union, if not poring over a signed first-edition of Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" in the library, or writing a 20-page research paper on every Brit who ever wrote a sonnet, I'm on the donor list of nearly every college east of the Mississippi. In late-October, therefore, I get a phone call from a whippy young woman with a heavy New York Jewish accent, who, first, thanks me for my recent donation, and, second, asks if I would care to help the NYU Scholarship Drive for this coming year?

"Well, sure. Put me down for the same amount I gave for this year, whatever that was."

"That's very generous of you, Dr. Nash, but, what with the Great Depression (Part II), and all that, we're having some trouble paying the bills around here. Yesterday, for instance, we had to substitute "Dr. Pepper" for "Coca-Cola" in the vending machine. Yuck and Gaggaroo!! You know what I mean, huh, Dr. Nash?"

"Okay, I'll add another 50, but that's about the limit. I've got another half dozen or so schools to help support, and I teach at a college that started me off at $10,000 a year, from which I had to pay for my daughter to graduate from Macalester."

"You poor man!" she explained.

Two or three days later, I get a phone call from a young Hunter College female, with a much less pronounced Jewish accent, which told me she's a generation farther removed from the Old Country than my earlier caller. We go through much the same drill, except she informs me that Hunter College has embarked on a plan to clean up all Greenwich Village, and needs as much money as I can afford to send them. Suddenly, I feel like I used to feel when, cornered by an odoriferous drunk panhandler blocking the entrance to the revolving door at my favorite Chock Full o' Nuts: in some circumstances, an academic degree ain't no help at all. That morning, my life-saving cup of coffee cost me a c-note. But how could I measure in dollars and cents what NYU was worth to me?

When the young blond girl with the Frances MacDormand accent, from the University of Minnesota, calls (How do I know she's blond? Just think about it for a sec, okay?), I have a problem. I had the best, happiest educational, learning experience of my life there, between 1969 and 1973, but I'm expecting a few more phone callers to satisfy "before I sleep." Mental juggling, especially about money matters, is not my strong suit. I think to ask my blonde if she'll accept my pocket change, but before I do, I wordlessly scold myself, and pledge a hundred-and-a-half. Her voice quickly climbs toward the stratosphere:

"Oh, thank you, so very much, Dr. Nash, for your wonderful generosity. I'm sure you were an extraordinarily gracious and gifted teacher!"

Another two seconds and I'd pledge another 500. I hang up, as if in a huff!

Well, I've spent a total of 56 minutes on the phone this past week, feeding the ravenous employees of three scholarship offices. But, in retrospect, I figure it was time (and money) well spent. When, very early Saturday morning, after watching Leno read hilarious classified ads, and Charlie Rose get dismal analyses of Great Depression (Part II), from his financial experts, I tuck into bed and lean over my sleeping Ginny's warm ear, to murmur, maybe a little louder than I might've, "Are you still awake, Hon?!"

"I am now, Sweetheart, thanks for asking," she replies, a tad snippily, without budging her eyelids.

Trying to anticipate other, future phone calls from the other, needy institutions that depend on my annual donations for their continued surviving, if not exactly flourishing, I figure I've about "covered the waterfront." My head on my Kliban-cat pillowcase, which one of my students (class of '89) gave me just last week, I offer up silent thanks that my heart surgeon, Dr. Joe Graham, persuaded me to give up Marlboros on the day before the price went up to more than $25 a carton. I drift off to a peaceful, self-satisfied sleep.

But tomorrow, of course, is another day, and before lunch I receive an unexpected phone call from my Taft School class agent, who reminds me that our reunion, on May 17, is our 50th, and would I like to make an extra-large contribution to commemorate this historic occasion. Well, maybe I can still find some spare change that's fallen from my pants pockets into the sofa's underpinnings. Next place that calls me, I'll answer:

"Aww, he don't live here no more, Honey. Dat Chuck Nash he got so plumb gen'rous wit' his money, he don't have none left, nohow. Ain't got enough to buy one teeny carton of Girl Scouts cookies, e'en though Great Depression (Part II), done drove price o' dose down from $35.99 to $33.99 a carton."