It must be fundraising time.

All the subtle gestures seem to be in place — letters, telephone calls, computer notices, personal contacts. Give. Give, give 'til you have no more money left and are ready to start your own charity.

Rich or poor, young or old — we are asked to empty out our wallets and exhaust our bank accounts until it hurts. When the wound heals, time to give some more.

In the past week, I've been hit by every church and organization you can imagine, whether I'm a member or not. Used to be you could buy a raffle ticket and be done with it. Now, they're asking you to buy the whole book and attend the dinner where the drawing takes place.

If it's 200 miles away, hop a plane, rent a hotel room or spend eight to 10 hours behind a wheel. They've got you coming and going, whether it's a charitable turnstile or an alternate means of transportation.

I'm retired. Can't say I'm on a fixed income. Thanks to some sturdy investments and Social Security, I'm able to live comfortably. With six grandchildren, their birthdays alone can be a financial load, not to mention Christmas and all the other occasions.

Money talks, but not when it's a small amount.

Being Armenian, I suppose charity goes along with the territory. If it begins at home, no way does it stay there. I'd love to support the orphanages of Armenia after visiting some of them. I'd like to help the indigent back home and get my church construction subsidized.

Wish I could donate to every scholarship fund and every endowment meant to stabilize a needy student. At the same time, I don't want to cut myself short and take the usual trips. With my 50th anniversary imminent, I'm thankful I still have a roof over my head and can splurge a little when it comes to extravagance. I'm taking the grandchildren to Disneyworld.

After all, I've earned that right after 40 years as a struggling journalist. The profession isn't included among the more lucrative in our society. Thank goodness I had a teaching wife who ensured that all three children went to decent schools. She also had a feasible insurance plan.

Yet, how can I say no to an athletic cause after spending my best days as a sportswriter and knowing what the financial score is these days with user fees and such?

Aside from my family, nothing means more to me than my church and heritage from which many of these requests derive. Just to give you some sense of proportion, my calendar is bursting at the seams, yearning for an open date.

Sometimes, there are conflicting days in which two or three activities beckon for my attention. Supporting one and not the other may cause some dissent. Maybe that's the price you pay for popularity, but I think of it as commitment to a cause.

"We can't go on living like this," a better part of me says. "You've got to draw the line somewhere and learn to say no, even if it causes hard feelings."

The bad side grumbles: "Hey, you going to let the kids down and not sponsor a child in Armenia? You want your church to decay — the very church your ancestors built and consecrated?"

Maybe it's time to lay out a budget like some of my friends. Allot just so much for fund-raising and when the well goes dry, you live off empty. Being a man of simple means, I don't need an awful lot. I'm not the restaurant regular or the gambling guru. My idea of a night out is watching a free movie and delving into a bowl of pop corn.

Which probably could be interpreted another way. The money you save on the theater, dinner perhaps, and maybe a trinket could be used toward the enhancement of my culture and heritage.

Maybe yours, too.

What bugs me is this: The people who can least afford it wind up donating the most. As for the more affluent ones, they tend to give the least.

My aunt was a true exception. She lived a somewhat disheveled lifestyle. Widowed, she lived off a pension from teaching 40 years and the money left behind by a wealthy husband. Because of her frugality, one would never know she was well off — until she passed on and left a will of her own. The woman left behind $1 million, divided equally among 10 Armenian charities she deemed worthy.

Why she chose to live such a meager life was certainly beyond me. But in the end, she more than paid her debt to humanity.

• • •

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from the Gazette. He contributes this regular column.

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