Monday, October 16, 2006

I Can No Longer Shop Happily

Okay, I've got a confession to make. I love the Holiday Season. I always have. So much so that I start thinking about it around now—in fact, I made a gift list a few weeks ago. For whom I intend to get gifts, I mean. And that's late, for me—when I was a kid I used to start in June. I love making these lists, love taking three solid December days to stay home and make different kinds of cookies (my face, by the by, is currently sporting some scone-related injuries), and when the time comes, bouncing from store to store in an effort to find objects that will make the people I love happy. Christmas, to me, is devoid of all religious significance (thank you Bill O'Reilly); it's a day, or in my family/social world more like a season, of celebration of loving people, of having these connections and meanings in your life (I never said I wasn't a sentimentalist at heart), and of representing this love by finding and giving objects, or edibles, or events, that you feel confident will make them happy. I love walking downtown in Chicago, or around the city in New York, in December, even for the last several years when the excess of shoppers and the piped-in music and the prepackaged emotion has started to bother me. I still like having a time of year where my culture forces me to think about everyone I love and how to represent by means of objects the reasons I love them.

It is, to use Tyromaven's phrase, one of the most American things about me. In the immortal words of Don Hertzfeldt, "I'm a consumer whore!" "And how!"

But this year, especially, has made me realize where the difficulties lie. I have spent the better part of this year making a conscious effort to reduce my consumer whoredom. For the record, I've always recognized that love isn't proven by objects—it's a metaphor, not an argument—but I'm coming to engage more with the concept of assembling objects, and what it makes us think about our permanence and the permanence of our lifestyle. It could be that this sort of American decadence will outlive me, but more and more I doubt it. And I'd imagine that developing the ability to let it go gradually would be a much better choice than having it yanked out from under me by force.

I cannot let it go so easily. Gifts are neat. So the question is, how am I going to maintain my sentimental connection to gifts as symbols, and this consolidated time of spraying symbols all over my life, without encouraging my consumer whoredom and endorsing decadence?

Plants are one way, food another (I'll admit I make decadent cookies, but it's a start). I like making things I know have uses—one of my constant gifts to my mom now is a large amount of cookies that she will then serve as snacks to the classes she teaches. So knowing needs, or uses—knowing how to fit your gift into people's lives, specifically—is another way. I'm looking for more suggestions and thoughts on this, if anybody has some.


At 5:09 PM, Anonymous Milligan said...

First off, your *face*?! I'll assume it's nothing serious, but really now, what are you putting in your scones these days?

So on to the question at hand. To contextualize my opinions here, it's worth noting up front that I'm big on sustainability, and thus pretty down on consumerism in general, and that I move around a lot (and stick to high-density spaces), so owning things unnecessarily is also a burden, physical and psychic. Therefore obviously the utilitarian is good, but I'm always wary of trying for utilitarian gifts. People have pretty specific needs, of course, and moreover that which isn't consumable needs to be made to last to maintain sustainability. So cookies and like food items are actually a really good way to dodge those issues; I generally take some local maple syrup home to Texas to accomplish the same thing, but something you've specifically baked has the advantage of being more personal.

However, I more frequently give things for their aesthetic value (or, better: for the degree of awesome which I predict the recipient will attach to the gift). This kind of gift should be small, so as not to be a burden in case I'm wrong. Straight-up art works, of course, if carefully selected, and I wind up doing a lot of my holiday shopping over the summer at art fairs. Also a good source of useful-AND-pretty craft things, but durability can be an issue. Little toys work well for certain types, too -- my desk currently has an assortment of mini-slinkies and wooden tops wandering about, for instance, that delight when the head needs a break or the hands need something to do.

Then there's the things you make yourself or otherwise involve your particular skills. A favorite writer strategy is short poems or similar, or Christmas cards from the visual artists. My parents have a tendency to give books (the publisher, since he makes the things; the librarian, she always knows what's just come out that you'd love but never have heard of). I've got a friend for whom I'm rebinding an old book this year. Your cookies, again.

(End braindump. I think that was more coherent in my head, but hopefully still useful.)


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