“You aren’t wealthy until you have something money can’t buy.”
My husband’s request for a Christmas list has sent me into paroxysms of anxiety, guilt and self-examination of a most unflattering sort. It seems dirty and incredibly un-PC to want anything for myself at all, other than a donation to the food bank, or a big box of organic compost or CFL light bulbs. Unfortunately, my goals of selflesness and oneness with the Simple Goodness of Nature are at odds with the fact that I am terrifically fond of stuff. I love my stuff, I want other stuff, and I fantasize about stuff. I catalogue all of my materialistic desires as either “useful” (by which I mean that I can utter their names in reply to a question about what I might like for Christmas without feeling faintly nauseous) or “aspirational” (those things which I just want because they are beautiful, interesting, cutting edge, or might make me taller, thinner and more mysterious). Unless one is an heiress or a small child, the seemingly simple act of listing ones’ desires involves a series of careful calculations, and is not to be taken lightly. Do you go honest or PC? If you go PC, do you really mean it, or are you secretly disappointed that you received a card thanking you for a donation instead of a blender? Is it okay, if you fully acknowledges the horribly commercialized nature of the holiday season, to admit that there are things you want, and that this might be the only good time to request them?
In childhood (or at least in mine) there was freedom to ask for anything I might like, reined in by careful parental vetting visible only from my adult vantage point. There was always One Big Present, and it was always the one I wanted. (I was not given to requesting ponies or real estate). One year I was given Melissa Ann, a baby doll with a complete wardrobe sewn by a family friend; another year it was Penny Bright, a sort of homelier and more industrious version of Barbie, who came with a tiny nurse’s kit which I adored. (Much later, after Penny’s body was consumed by our dog, my father mounted her head on a plaque which he hung in his office announcing that her tiny head was all that remained of “the last student who requested a grade change”). One year I requested a robot, and received a splendid specimen which lit up, walked and made interesting noises; I named her “Maureen” and carried her around in one of Melissa Ann’s blankets. There was the year my father made me my dollhouse, and the year I was given my red Olivetti Valentine typewriter; I didn’t get great piles of things, but I always got my heart’s true desire, and had the good sense not to return that loving kindness with outrageous demands.
As an adult, I am keenly aware of the precise contents of the bank account, the necessity of paying bills and replacing the missing piece of soffit that lets the squirrels into our attic, and the propriety of holding back a little something in case of a leaky dishwasher or pipes full of tree roots. This is not knowledge that tends to lend itself to magical thinking. I am pretty much oblivious to all commercials suggesting that “Every Kiss begins with Kay,” that this is the time of year to surprise someone with the gift of a luxury car, or that we might wish to take advantage of deals on giant flat-screen TVs, GPS gadgets or a new suite of high-tech cellphones. I put store circulars immediately into the recycling bag unless there’s a great deal on conditioner, and I don’t go to the mall.
There have been fabulous Christmas gifts to be sure: the red KitchenAid mixer which is the pride and workhorse of my culinary life, a diamond solitaire necklace given to me the Christmas I spent in the hospital hatching Sam, a handmade gold and silver bracelet with the names of my children on it, and a beautiful watch which I eventually dropped down a running dispos-all. I will not deny for a single second that I was thrilled, in the most unabashedly materialistic way, to open every one of those things, and play with them, and look at them in the light, and caress them…you get the picture. The thing is, the budget doesn’t allow for that kind of extravagance in some years, and this is one of them, as it is for many families.
I could, in maybe three minutes, come up with a list of “what I really, really want,” and ask for it and make Rob feel terrible. In the alternative, I could insist that he run up credit card debt or spend our savings in order that his 47-year-old wife can get the stuff that she wants. I know folks who do both, and it isn’t pretty. Neither is a workable option here, and I wish that I could see Christmas the way he does. He grew up in a household with 6 kids and a tight budget, and it was nice to get a present, but gifts were often utilitarian and the same as what everyone else got. Based on this kind of history, no one should be expecting fanfare, magic, or the keys to a Lexus with a red bow on top. I think that’s how adults think, mostly (except for heiresses), and I really envy it. I can’t know everything I know about the economy, global and personal, be as old as I am, and still expect to find my heart’s true desire on Christmas morning. I have been thoroughly blessed in life, and should look at gift-giving season as an opportunity to request things that I genuinely need to make life better. (The “useful”). I can make sure Sam gets what he wants most, I can buy thoughtful, modest gifts for Rob and our parents, but I cannot legislate my own personal windfall. Nor, really, can I request it. Right?
Since you are no doubt itching, at this point, to know what I really, really want, I will tell you. If I were an heiress (after I gave a great deal of money to the local food bank, which I’m pretty sure I would actually do), I would request the following: an immersion blender (useful), a portable steamer (useful), a subscription to “The New Yorker” (not useful but somewhat PC), an online subscription to the 2010 Writer’s Market (useful), a Chan Luu wrap bracelet or three (not useful), an iTunes card (not useful), an iPhone (not useful until AT & T is out of the picture), a gift certificate for a massage (not useful), a vintage copy of Julia Child’s “Art of French Cooking” (somewhat useful if we ate French food, which we don’t), the DVD of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Video Blog (not useful), and did I mention the Chan Luu wrap bracelets?
I know that the people who love me would beg, borrow and steal to get me everything on my list if I asked them; which is the very reason that I will not. Applying proprietary algorithms, I have decided that it’s reasonable to ask for the immersion blender, the steamer, and “The New Yorker;” two of the items are really tools useful to the whole family, and one is fairly decadent, and will keep me amused and informed for an entire year at a fairly modest price. If Santa showed up with a daintily wrapped stack of boxes containing Chan Luu bracelets, an iPhone and a gift certificate for a massage, I would be…delighted, then guilty, then frantic as I thought about what we could have done with that kind of money. For now, my “big gifts” will be my family, my snoring dogs, the bright red berries I see out my office window, and the smell of coffee and Christmas tree mingling throughout my house. If I ever become an heiress, however, I’ll be bathing in Chanel, dining on Petrossian caviar, and making a list of epic proportions. Look out.