1. PRESENTS. IT’S NOT that I don’t like them, but… No, actually I do dislike them. I have this split response torn between extremes, the manic and the depression.
2. At first, a gift feels full of possibility – all the possibility in the world. Really I’m talking about here the “idea of a gift.” It’s all expectation and anticipation and that anything could be contained therein, anything that might make me feel connected and loved and, I don’t know, good. I’m sure scientists have studied this and that presents must activate the same part of the brain as heroin. But, there’s the part afterwards when the wrapping paper is torn and the ribbons balled up and whatever was concealed inside is made tangible. Real. Not so full of anything but only one thing.
3. You, my fine reader, are probably thinking get her to a shrink. Indeed, my feelings here deserve some sort of analysis. And, I can, in fact, date this all to my 7th birthday, the first without my sisters who were both off in college. I was alone in my parents’ glass house at the top of the hill (a bit like a modernist fairy castle) the windows peering out the tops of trees, and my mother swishes past in her shoes and skirt from work. All I can see are her legs, the skirt’s hem. It’s beige, her shoes beige. She’s forgotten to get my present. Hushes and whispers and a few swear words are uttered. There is a sinking feeling in my lungs, swamped, as they are, as it dawns on me that she has forgotten my birthday. She rushes out and returns, and there is a gift…. a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia, which is all sorts of wrong: A) I didn’t want books. I wanted something bigger – more expensive, more special, proof that I am special. B) My mom scoffs at Narnia; it’s so Christian, though then she buys the books for me. C) Of course, there’s the problem that the present is suffused with disappointment. I still see the day and remember the sun’s slicing through the trees as sadness, the games played with my friends and being convinced I was losing every one. I think I had a tantrum. In fact, of this I am sure.
4. You, you’re probably thinking: I’d just come here for a nice little Christmas story maybe with a dash of family angst to make me feel better for sitting through Aunt Peg’s candied yams. And I did set out to write about the chocolate my family consumed at Christmas, and how the chocolate covered cherries and Droste chocolate oranges encoded a kind of class aspiration. Then there was my dad with his penchant for hard candy as expressed in a book (yes, book) of Lifesavers.
5. I’d wanted to describe waking on Christmas morning and eating all the Hershey’s Kisses (ah, the very words “Kisses” and “Lifesavers”) and standing by the tree desperate to open my presents. But, I was forbidden to – and forbidden from waking anyone up until after eight. Before me is a tree full of gifts, dazzling in red and green and silver paper bedecked with sparkling ribbons, and all I can do is shake the boxes and read the hints written on the cards. (In my family all gift tags had to include clues like: “Bigger than a bed bug, smaller than a book.” Or, “For your favorite activity…”). So here it is, maybe 5:15 AM, just me, the tree, the smell of pine and a lot of bad chocolate. Why didn’t my friends have to wait, or why did they get to open one present or five or three all before their parents woke? Here we all had to open the presents together, one at a time, taking turns, patiently as my sister, say, guessed at the clue on her card, or my dad carefully unstuck each piece of tape, preserving the paper while in the background my mom, sisters and I utter respectful coos. It was enough to kill a kid. So, I was off my head on cheap Kisses and hoping I could hide the foil wrappings deep enough in the trashcan to avoid getting in trouble.
6. This year (like every year) part of me is tempted to ask my husband if we could dispense with gifts. I like the possibility of them more than the reality. I like that suspension when a present can be anything, and the deflation of opening is held at bay. Funny, now it occurs to me that this is the element my family tried to draw out as long as possible.
7. One thing, and one alone (No, that’s a lie. There are a few things.) holds me back. It’s not that we have kids, and they’d be deprived. We don’t. It’s my mother. First she cancelled Easter when I was 10, saying: “Why do we need it? We’re not even Christian.” I wanted to say, “Mom, it’s Easter baskets and chocolate rabbits and Ellen and Gale (my sisters) never got it cancelled on them.” They were off at college, and she was rather cynical, something I appreciate deeply now, so there goes Easter, dispatched like the Tooth Fairy. Next, she’s waging war on Christmas. Truly this is a war of attrition, fought like a terrorist, ganging up on my dad and fraught with heavy sighs and Christmas Eve battles, sulking and slammed doors.
8. Also now, thinking about it, I’m sure both my parents’ responses to Christmas, my father’s giving tons of gifts and my mother’s wanting to ban them, goes back to their own childhoods in the Depression. My father’s family lost everything; his mom was institutionalized and he was threatened with being sent to the orphanage. My mother’s family lost a home but was pretty much okay, but I can imagine how fraught the holidays were in both their families.
9. By the time I’m in high school, the attack is a full-scale ground invasion. In fact, she’s already onto the peace negotiations. She’s saying we can keep the tree and carols and cookies but not the presents. She’s been fighting with my father all these years about the gifts. He buys too many; she finds it overwhelming. She pulls out his name like this: “Baah-ubb” (he was a Bob) “Really, this is disgusting, so much stuff. I don’t want this.” My poor father.
10. This is one of those fights my parents had every year, which is to say really my mother had every year at my father like the way she got on him for setting the table wrong and burning the toast. Maybe that’s another reason I don’t like presents. But, anytime I express such sentiments, my husband jokes that I’m turning into my mother. That fear is enough to keep me buying and wrapping, buying and wrapping. Plus, I do like giving gifts. It’s just the receiving them that’s my problem.
11. The Hedonic Treadmill—this might be another problem. “Hedonic” like “hedonistic,” you know, relates to pleasure. (That very image of a pleasure treadmill just does my head in. Somehow I see Kafka’s tattooing machine from In The Penal Colony crossed with something from a porn flick). But, the phrase itself like “hedonic adaption” means how quickly pleasure dissipates and our equilibrium returned. Our internal pleasure and joy dial has a level. So, whatever our baseline for happiness (or unhappiness) is, we return to it – and fast. Few things knock the needle on the dial for long. This is why impulse buying doesn’t work. It might produce an addictive high and even more addictive guilt but we quickly return to normal.
12. Now I don’t know if this is true for you, but my own treadmill is a bit out of whack. Take me a couple weeks ago in the New Museum bookstore, not a place particularly given to fashion and shop windows and seeing those sorts of things that typically make me think, “Oh, I just need that X and then I’ll feel Y. (And yes, the X and Y can be attached to just about anything).” But, here I am in the museum store, and there’s a bracelet with hearts on it which I don’t even really like, and I start to want it. I start to try conjure up lust for it. I start to think how this thing will make me better, happier – I mean, not even any of those specific emotions just vaguely better about myself as if the metal in the bracelet might have this power. And, standing there I have this reflex memory of being a kid in a store with my parents and wanting something, anything, gifts, to make me feel something else.
13. Clearly this is nuts, right? But, living in the country where I don’t get many chances for object lust for me I notice it very quickly when I’m in a city. And that afternoon I’d been in NYC for all of three hours when there I hit the Hedonic Treadmill again. And no I didn’t buy the bracelet.
14. A New York Times article in August 2010 asked “But Will It Make You Happy?” It was all about buying stuff and deeper values and satisfaction. It came out when the recession had people turning away from consumption (what a quaint idea) and valuing a simpler life. Put in short the article talked about longing and shopping, happiness and value. Also, I think values as well. Apparently the longing is what people want. The longing is what people buy. The longer you long, the happier you will be with your purchase. The thing you buy is suffused with the emotions, the experience of longing. The thing is a palimpsest that recreates the memory. Also the things that create the most happiness: experiences.
15. Still the Times piece is pretty fuzzy with quotes like “A $20,000 increase in spending on leisure was roughly equivalent to the happiness boost from marriage.” Is this over a year? And where in this economy do we get a spare 20k a year? Or, over a decade for that matter, and how long do you need to be married? I mean, I seem to recall that divorce causes all sorts of bad stuff like more depression and early mortality rates.
16. In any case that Hedonic Treadmill is why gifts don’t work. It’s why they excite and then disappoint. The article’s logic may be iffy, but it follows my point about presents – and the present, expectation and longing.
17. When I was ten I got two things for Christmas: the chicken pox and a Raleigh 3-speed. The bike was wrong (like Narnia). Everyone had Italian racing bikes—ten speeds with those graceful curving handlebars and thin tires, and my dad bought me a used women’s three speed at the Unitarian Church’s Christmas sale. A used bike, ugly olive green, thick tires, three speeds, girls’ frame and a wicker basket? Still, I’m out on said bike in the cul-de-sac with my chicken pox Christmas morning, and despite abandoning the bike for five years from 11-14, as I get into punk and want to go thrift stores and record stores, I ride that bike to freedom. Cue life a couple decades on. I move to London, and first thing I do? Buy a bike. I want one just like the one I had as a kid. I get a red Raleigh women’s 3 speed (no olive green to be found, and I search for days to find the right wicker basket). Where is that on the Hedonic Treadmill? How do you explain the Proustian power of a bike that you’re so embarrassed of it gets lodged in your memory, but it connects you to something with your father, something you value in him? Also not to be ignored the power of those things you bought on the bike: Minor Threat and Govt Issue albums and black clothes at the Salvation Army.
18. Now my husband jokes about calling stores up and asking if they sell Hedonic Treadmills. “Yes, is that Best Buy? My wife has asked for a Hedonic Treadmill. I’m not sure if that’s a brand or a type of treadmill. She wrote the name down for me here on a piece of paper…”