12/07/2011 10:58 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

My Holiday Conundrum: Want To Do More. I'm Rolling In The Deep

A newsletter subscriber wrote to tell me that she was on the verge of unsubscribing from the newsletter.

She said she came to my site for cultural recommendations. Instead, she was having to read to read the occasional paragraph or two about my wife, the child, me.

Stick to the reviews, she advised. It's what you're best at.

I know.

But --- and this sounds like bad sci-fi --- "forces beyond my control" are pushing me to be more than a concierge for cool culture.

It started in September, when I wrote about "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," a story by Ursula LeGuin. [It's online, free, and not very long, if you want to read it.] In the story, everyone is happy. But there's a price --- the suffering of one child. Ten years old. Locked in a room the size of a broom closet.

"I will be good, " it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining...

There are, from time to time, people who can't stand to be happy at the expense of another's misery --- particularly the misery of a child.

They leave Omelas.

My piece ended like this: I want to find out where the people go after they leave Omelas. I like to think you too would be interested in knowing that.

That story has hung over me --- has hung over this site --- ever since September. In those months, I've written, four times a week, about books and movies and music that excite me, and I get caught up in that. It's honorable work. I do it pretty well. And the feedback is humbling --- you tell me you enjoy those pieces, learn from them, bring some of the stuff I praise into your lives and are entertained or inspired or whatever.

But day in, day out, just under the surface....there's that child in Omelas.

Well, that's not quite it.

As you can guess, I'm also thinking about my daughter.

What a blessed life she's had. Bathed in love. Healthy food. Goes to a great school. And the cultural exposure! Writer X has chatted her up since pre-school. She's painted with Artist Y. On my desktop is a picture of her with Rock Star Z. And, through it all, she's blessedly unspoiled.

How did we get so lucky? And how did she?
And so many others --- how did they get so unlucky?

I mean: the girl at the wedding party in Afghanistan, killed by a drone. The kids who go to schools where there's one ancient computer and it's locked in a cage. The crew that's distributing "Christmas Carol" posters for me now, kids who barely cleared high school and look like they deliver pizza but who are just as talented as the kids in my privileged 'hood.

In the old days, at this time of year, I did what I could to support causes that matter to me --- mostly food for hungry children.

And when I wrote those checks, I felt I was part of a community of caring people who had done something good and decent and effective.

But times are tougher now. And too many politicians sound like sadists about the weak, the sick, the hungry. I often quote Jimmy Breslin: "The poor can never be made to suffer enough." Well, a gang of fat white guys and women who are mothers in their off-duty hours are working on that.

And among those of us with kind hearts and good intentions, I feel a tightening too. The Euro could fall, we could attack Iran --- we've got to store up nuts for the winter. Because we know, no matter how protected we liked to think we are, that we live in the same world as the kid at the Afghan wedding party and the Chinese girl who assembles our iPads.

When I made the Holiday Gift List, I deliberately tried to enable your generosity --- that is, I chose stuff that wasn't expensive, so you'd be able to check everyone off and still have money to give away.

But what I'm talking about here isn't a charity appeal.

It's something trickier --- and maybe it's just my issue --- but I'm having trouble striking a tone that recognizes 1) my good fortune 2) how screwed up the world is 3) how little I can do about it and 4) how important it is for me to feel I can do something (and then do it). And then the trickiest thing: no matter what happens, resolving the "so beautiful or so what" question on the side of "so beautiful."

Example: the chorus of PS 22 on Staten Island. These 10-year olds sang at the Oscars. Their videos have been seen a gazillion times. And it's all because of one music teacher, Gregg Breinberg, who was just voted "Sexiest Man of the Year" by I profiled him on my Gilt City blog.

Lovely story. Now step back. For the first time in our history, a majority of fourth graders in this country are enrolled in the school lunch program --- that's 21 million kids eating subsidized lunches. Depressing, yes? Well, in this part of Staten Island, 75% of the kids qualify for the free lunch. Three out of four.

Now listen to this girl sing:

There's a new chorus every year. Who will cheer her on when Gregg Breinberg is no longer her cheerleader? Or will she fall into the loser cadre, her gifts unwanted and wilting?

On the other side of the ledger: What authority she has! What power! How much joy!

Very hard to keep both thoughts in one head at the same time. Very easy to admire a guy who can ignore the odds and do great things with these kids --- and very easy, too, to feel so paralyzed by the immensity of what's wrong that you don't feel that you can do much of anything for anyone else.

I know that pointing you toward beauty is not nothing. But I still feel like I'm living in Omelas. And that I can do a lot better --- for you, for my family, for me.

If you figure this out before I do, please feel free to share.

[Cross-posted from]