I don’t look good in pink. Never have. I do own a lovely Brooks Brothers pink oxford, and when I am feeling daring, which is not too often, I will wear it with an equally pink sweater vest and khakis and pretend I am a wealthy dilettante in West Palm Beach instead of a generally grumpy magazine editor in Philadelphia. But unless you are African-American or Carson Kressley, pink is a tough color for a guy to pull off.
But it’s October, and it has now become something of a mandate that if you don’t at least attempt it, there is something morally bankrupt about you if you don’t look like a walking peppermint at some point. If you don’t believe me, check out the NFL this month. All of those big, bruising brutes, and all of them running around in pink cleats and pink gloves and who-knows-what-else-pink underneath all the pads. The golfer Bubba Watson plays with a pink driver; the University of Michigan has gone even further, hosting an entire “pink week,” dousing every athlete not asleep in a bath of frothy, frou-frou, bubblegum pink. Kay Thompson’s flamboyant magazine editor in Funny Face, with her credo, “Think Pink!,” would no doubt be thrilled.
I’m not. Frankly, I find it all a bit obnoxious. The Susan G. Komen folks do a lot of wonderful things for the war on breast cancer, and I am not here to argue otherwise, so just pipe down a minute before you get all bent out of shape. The reason I am feeling a bit peeved is because I think we’re buckling under the weight of all of this forced do-goodism, and worse, its accompanying moral judgment. Not wearing pink? Not donating to The Cause? Not wearing your ribbon, or sponsoring the walk or the run or the triathlon? The message is clear: You’re a bad, bad person.
No, I’m not. Personally, I think the breast-cancer awareness folks have become a tad arrogant, adopting a posture that implies breast cancer is more deadly than lung cancer or pancreatic cancer (both of which kill more people a year). And the plain truth is I’m tired from everyone with a pair of sneakers and a sick relative sticking their hand out at me like I’m some human ATM. This month alone I sponsored two bike-a-thon participants and a walk-a-thoner, and it’s only the middle of the month. I’m all for charity, and I like to think I give generously when I can. But I’m not for ransom demands, which is what this relentless, all-encompassing, “I need your support and I need it now and I better get it” has come to. When my house flooded last year, racking up thousands upon thousands of dollars in uninsured damages, my co-workers generously got together and bought me a gift card to try and defray some of the expense, which I appreciated beyond words. But I didn’t expect it. I didn’t demand it. I didn’t hold a telethon in the office, flagging the interns as they passed through the hall. That’s what true charity is: unforced, from the heart, spontaneous.
It used to be that you could go to a funeral, sign the book, maybe bring a casserole or a Mass card, and you were good—a proper sign of your respect and sympathy at the survivors’ loss. Now every obituary lists the charities people can donate to, which on the surface seems not only good but prudent—providing direction from the bereaved to those wishing to show memorial support. Only now, too often it’s become something else: scorekeeping. I saw a friend of mine recently for lunch; his mother had died two months earlier. Over Cobb salad, he sat seething as he recounted the list of “donors” he had received from the charity he selected as his mother’s benefactor, running down a list of our mutual friends who had not yet ponied up. “Can you believe it?” he hissed.
Unfortunately, yes. It’s everywhere you turn, like a church usher constantly swinging the collection basket in front of you, then sneering when you fail to reach for your wallet quickly enough. Another close friend of mine called me last week to lament that her cousin, with whom she is not unfriendly but hardly sisterly close, keeps barraging her with emails asking for donations to her daughter’s school fund-raising project, which the girl needs to beef up her college applications. I begged my friend not to give in. “I know, I know,” she said wearily, “but at this point I just need to make it stop.”
That’s the giving spirit: donation by extortion. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as any big surprise, really. In the last decade we’ve had a national primer in this sort of thing, courtesy of the 9/11 families. Yes, those 9/11 families. There, I said it. There’s a reason it’s taken more than a decade to erect a memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, and it is the simple fact that too many (though, in fairness, not all) of the relatives of those victims have appointed themselves the Official Victims of 9/11, and engaged in schoolyard squabbling over the font sizes and placement of the names of their lost loved ones. This, after they each received millions in payouts from the government for those losses. I don’t begrudge them the money, and I certainly don’t begrudge them a memorial. I absolutely do begrudge them their petty behavior and demands for this kind of lighting and that kind of marble. Why? The loss of their son, their daughter, their husband, their wife, is no more or less catastrophic to them than the loss of Michael Hagan, gunned down in Society Hill three months ago, was to his grieving parents. No one’s asking their approval of his memorial. Because there won’t be any memorial. Or any money.
Loss and affliction are not moral currency one gets to use to make demand after demand after demand upon the rest of us. I’ll give my money where I damn please—to my church, to the Girl Scouts who sell cookies outside my supermarket, to those wonderful ladies who stand out in the freezing cold and ring the bell for the red kettle drums of the Salvation Army every Christmas. If I want to sponsor your walk, I will gladly, but because I want to, not because you pressure me into making me feel like I have to. And if you don’t like it, you can put it in your pink pipe and smoke it.