No more neckties! Sunday is Father's Day, and we dads will be overwhelmed with neckties and wrench sets. We will feign ecstasy, and our loved ones will pretend to believe our protestations of pleasure.
But for a really nifty Father's Day gift, how about sponsoring a rat? Specifically, an African giant pouched rat, about 30 inches long including tail. These are he-man rats, the kind that send cats fleeing. What's more, we're not talking about just any giant rat, but an educated one.
A Dutch company, Apopo, has trained these giant rats, which have poor sight but excellent noses, to detect land mines in Africa. The rats are too light to set off the mines, but they can explore a suspected minefield and point with their noses to buried mines.
A trained rat can clear as much land in 20 minutes as a human can in two days.
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The giant rats are also trained to detect tuberculosis. Possible TB sufferers provide samples of sputum, which are then handed over to the rats to sniff. A technician with a microscope in Tanzania can screen about 40 samples a day, while one giant rat can screen the same amount in seven minutes.
For just $36, you can buy a year's supply of bananas to feed one of these rats. Or, for a gift more on the risqué side, $100 will buy a "love nest" for a breeding pair of rats.
Both options are at www.globalgiving.com, a site that allows donors to browse aid projects around the world and make a donation on the spot.
Father's Day tends to be less a celebration of fatherhood than a triumph of commercialism. The National Retail Federation projects that Americans will spend $9.8 billion on Father's Day this year.
That's more than enough to assure a primary education for every child on the planet who is not getting one right now. In fact, we could send every child to primary school and have enough left over to get each dad a (cheap) necktie.
And if we skipped store-bought cards (almost $750 million annually), the savings alone could make a vast difference to great programs that help young American men escape poverty. Think of the National Fatherhood Initiative, www.fatherhood.org, which works to support dads and keep them engaged in their children's lives.
Another group is the Black Star Project, www.blackstarproject.org, which seeks to get families in low-income communities more involved in the educational lives of kids. Or there's World of Money, www.worldofmoney.org, which coaches kids in poor communities on financial literacy and business skills.
For gadget lovers, how about a donation in dad's name to the National Urban Technology Center, www.urbantech.org, which helps low-income youths gain computer skills? Or for those into automotive accessories or tools and appliances (almost $1 billion a year, by the way), why not rev up instead a motorcycle used to bring medical care to people in remote areas? An aid group called Riders for Health, www.riders.org, provides motorcycles and cars to health workers in Africa, along with rigorous training on maintenance and repair. Health workers reach roughly five times as many patients as they would on foot.
Wouldn't most dads feel more honored by a donation to any of these organizations than by a donation to commercialism? I think so. Give us some credit!
The friend who suggested this column, Sam Howe Verhovek, noted the huge sums spent on cuff links and Best Buy gift cards and said: "I don't know about you, but I don't really need any of the above. A handwritten, 'Thanks, Dad!' note from my kids would mean more than anything Hallmark's poets could come up with."
But if you must pull out the credit card, this is my sincere advice: It's a rare dad who would choose a store-bought card over a homemade card; or for that matter, a necktie over a gigantic, bomb-sniffing rat.
THE NEW YORK TIMES