Originally published December 17, 2010...
There’s a Peanuts cartoon I’ll always remember. Charlie Brown asks Linus what he got for Christmas and he gives Charlie quite a list. “I got a sweater and I got a red wagon and I got roller skates…” he goes on and on and finishes, “You know what else I got, Charlie Brown? Guilt feelings, that’s what I got!” Then his mouth turns into a squiggly line or whatever. I totally get that. The older I get, the weirder it feels to get a bunch of presents. I feel like a five year old, or the son of an oil tycoon, just spoiled and obnoxious and undeserving. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, it is wonderful to receive something you’ve coveted, but I feel like I haven’t done anything to warrant such extravagance. Like, maybe if I took a bullet for Jon, or pulled my mother from a speedboat about to be blown up by mobsters, I’d open my gifts at Christmas and think, “That’s about right.” But instead, I feel uneasy over the holidays when I open my box of Awesome, and they receive my bottle of Disappointment, or my gift card of Mediocrity.
That’s the trouble, right there. I’m a terrible gift-giver. Not intentionally, of course, I’m not a douche-bag. I don’t send bras from Sears to the women on my list “because chicks have boobs so Merry Whatever!” Or those terrible novelty gifts—I once had a frequent customer at one of my past jobs give me a Christmas gift, which was touching, but it was a coffee mug on it was an illustration of Santa taking a dump. Who sees that and thinks, “James!”? I’m just lousy at figuring out what people want and giving it to them on December 25th. That has to change, if only to allay my annual Christmas guilt, but more importantly so the people I love are adequately compensated for putting up with me all the time.
Dream: Give the perfect gift this holiday season.
Goal: Achievable. I wouldn’t think it possible to be a perfect gift-giver, if my brother weren’t exactly that. Somhow, every year, he picks out what he thinks we all want for Christmas and fucking nails it. And it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Even as young kids, where family was concerned, I was always more demonstrative and extroverted and, as my father puts it, I “never shut up for a goddamn minute.” Joe was, and is, pretty quiet, which is easy to interpret as coldness, but he has a sentimental streak that belies that assumption. Somehow he always gets you exactly what you want, even if you didn’t realize you wanted it. I remember one year he got me gift cards to all the places I loved to go. To the store I really liked, and the coffee place I always went to, and these were places he’d never set foot in himself (except, I suppose, to buy the gift cards). Or the year he bought my parents the coffee carafe thing which holds (and keeps hot) a fresh pot of coffee so you don’t have to leave it on the burner. And he was young, like eleven or something. What eleven year old thinks of that? And my parents still use this thing, fifteen years later.
Plan: Shut up for a goddamn minute, observe, and gather the necessary information to get someone exactly what they want for Christmas.
I think the trouble is, I always end up selecting someone’s gift through the prism of my own desires. That is, if I don’t at least kind of want what I’m getting you, you ain’t gettin’ it. For example: my father has a birthday close to Christmas and one year, all he kept requesting for both Christmas and his birthday was “a big pan.” He put his Christmas List (like a child’s wish list, he does this every year) on the fridge and item one was “A big pan!!” and it was underlined. I guess he wanted to make a bunch of eggs at once, I don’t know. Rather than just buy him the stupid pan I thought, “Well who wants that? That’s boring, he doesn’t know what he wants!” Instead, I found one of his favourite old records (Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty) as a digitally remastered cd, and bought him that. He could care less about digital remastering, though, and the first thing he said after opening my gift that year was, “But… I already have this.” Which he did! Why I thought buying him a cd copy of something he already had on vinyl was a good idea, better than buying him what he actually wanted, is anybody’s guess. And I wasn’t a child, either, this was like three years ago!
But getting someone what they say they want has its pitfalls too. For instance, last year Jon and I were watching this stupid show about television comedy, and they showed a few clips from the show Laverne and Shirley. Jon laughed and said, “I used to really like that show! I wish they had that on DVD, I’d buy it!” In retrospect, though, I think Jon was saying that the way one says things like, “I should really eat organic” or “Building a birdhouse wouldn’t be that hard.” Just an impulsive, spontaneous statement that doesn’t mean anything. So Christmas came and he opened his present from me and said, “Laverne and Shirley season one! Oh wow!… Hey, great! Yes. All right.” He tried to be really gung-ho about it, I’ll give him that. “That’s not all!” I reassured him, excitedly watching him move on to his second gift from me which was (seriously) Laverne and Shirley season two. He spent the rest of his Christmas with his family where he says he watched both seasons back-to-back. I don’t know if he did or not, but he’s certainly never busted them out here in Toronto for some repeat viewings. For this, I am grateful.
Really, though, I realize I speak from a very privileged vantage point. I can afford to buy gifts for my nearest and dearest, and am still at the age and income level where a serious gift misstep is forgivable. And I hope the adage somehow will prove true, that it really is the thought that counts. And it must count for something, for I know my Dad puts Running on Empty in the cd player sometimes, and my Mom still wears the perfume from the giant bottle I got her a few years ago because she mentioned in passing that she liked it decades earlier. And that they will both be here in my Big City in a few weeks, just to spend a little time which is, once again, exactly what I want for Christmas.