Unlike some employees, I don’t get in trouble for dipping into Facebook at work. In fact, it’s part of my job, placing my thumb on the pulse, cupping my ear to listen for the buzz, as it were.
So midafternoon Monday, my first day back at the office after a two-week vacation, I hop online, poke around and see what's trending and, oh look, I've been tagged in a video. Let's see what the video is: My older son and his pal Matthew, holding buckets, standing before the little fountain in downtown Northbrook, delivering a speech, in a sort of balled-fist, percussive manner not unlike those Monty Python characters with handkerchiefs knotted on their heads.“Thank you Jacob Levin and Jacob Kahn for nominating us for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge,” my son begins. They then nominate a half dozen people: several classmates; Matthew Whipple, director of the Glenbrook Academy of International Studies, their alma mater; plus Elena Kagan (a running gag at their former school; she was also nominated for Homecoming Queen, sending students searching the hallways to inform her of the honor until a teacher explained that Kagan is a Supreme Court justice).
“You have 24 hours to complete the challenge, or donate $100 to ALS research,” Matthew shouts, with a very WWF jab of the finger at the camera. They then fill their buckets with water, pour in a bag of ice and dump it over their heads.
I was not, like most people apparently, already eye-rollingly aware of the ice bucket challenge, a kind of 2014 cross between chain letters and swallowing goldfish, where individuals are double-dog dared to either give money to fight the disease or dump a bucket of ice water on their heads.
But I was on vacation, and as astounding as it sounds, I did not spend it trolling Facebook. A quick check in the morning, then off to whitewater raft the French Broad River or swim in the ocean or visit Monticello.
The phenomenon has been building for about a month. As of Tuesday, the challenge has raised $23 million for the ALS Association, 10 times what it collected in the same period last year. The group battles, which can get lost in all this, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” It’s a fatal, progressive neurological affliction where the neurons connecting your brain to your body deteriorate while your mind stays cruelly unaffected. You lose the ability to move, then to speak, then you suffocate to death, slowly. There is no cure, little treatment; scientists aren’t even certain of the cause.
Maryilene Blondell, director of development for the ALS Association Greater Chicago Chapter, said the challenge began three weeks ago with Pete Frates, a former baseball captain at Boston College, who has ALS.
“The rest is history,” she said.
The challenge has drawn stars from Oprah Winfrey to Bill Gates, from Miley Cyrus to LeBron James. By the time I encountered it, the inevitable backlash had set in: People complained that ALS isn’t as big a problem as, say, Alzheimer’s or heart disease. True, it afflicts thousands, not millions, but it sure is significant if you or a loved one get it. Buzzfeed gathered dozens of inelegant ice bucket dunkings. Not an easy maneuver to conduct gracefully, as you’ll see if you look at the video of me doing it. One does tend to shout.
Yes, the trend has peaked. My participation in it is proof of that. And yes, compassion fatigue sets in, especially online with its constant pleas and causes. Sure, I could just give the money and stay dry, technically meeting the challenge. But that’s chicken. My kid, who at 12 joined me in the Polar Plunge leaping into icy Lake Michigan, dumped icewater over his head. So can I. (Actually, I did it in Tuesday’s noon downpour, so I was soaked before lifting the bucket).
As the paper’s former charities, foundations and private social services reporter, I am acutely aware of the contradictions of fundraising. People are human, and wedding the grim reality of illness and need to the fun of pranks and parties is an old trick to draw attention. This silly stuff is important. The old “Why not skip the gala and give all the money to charity?” bluff is naive and easily answered: “Because without the dinner, there would be no money to give.”
I’m no paragon of virtue. I gave and dumped ice water over my head (it’s presented as either/or, but you do both) — not out of concern for research, but because my boy, who asks for so little, asked me to. I reiterated the challenge to Justice Kagan. She won’t do it, but wouldn’t it be cool if she did? Plus Karen Lewis, because people suggested her. And I called out my pal Eric Zorn, over at the Tribune, just because I like making him uncomfortable. You have 24 hours.