I really do enjoy giving other people presents. Everyone likes a pleasant surprise -- from a chance meeting to an unexpected widget -- and I enjoy playing a role in that surprise. But yesterday, with Christmas in mind, I went to the mall and traversed the marbled floors in search of surprises whose joy was somehow diminished by an enforced holiday 'spirit.' I hate malls when they act as an aimless effort to evoke joy. The experience was not improved by the piped-in Christmas music that each emporium insisted on.
Earlier, I had gotten a haircut. The barber I go to doesn't dither and dally. She, or occasionally a he, uses the clippers deftly and once in the chair, I'm out of there in under seven minutes and feel a strange lightness of spirit, as if some messy table had been straightened out and was now spacious enough to work or eat on. The mall, by contrast, seemed to clutter the table without much purpose -- creating the kind of mindless mess that might be found in a teenager's bedroom.
I did see a few wonderful things, as for example a guy in the mall's hallway who was manipulating a model helicopter. It was a mesmerizing piece of machinery, flying, at the controller's behest, with all the maneuvers an actual helicopter might make -- soaring, swooping, banking, landing, taking off, hovering ... all in miniature. At $100 or more, depending on the model, it was well outside anything I was willing to spend, but that didn't mean I couldn't marvel and be surprised.
I ambled around, feeling the fatigue creep up on me like a fog, rising up out of the marbled floors and off the shelves of various stores. I did buy a couple of presents, but not anything that surprising. They would be part of my family's Christmas day, but their surprise quotient or usefulness did not match the effort involved.
And then I stopped into a computer store. Lately, contrary to my usual ways, I had conceived a longing for a laptop computer. I figure the longing is based on the male gene marked "gadgets" or "tools." There are some good excuses I can come up with for having one, but they are mostly excuses and the idea of buying something expensive for myself goes against years of putting off my satisfactions in favor of family needs or surprises. It was somehow a challenge -- imagining doing this for myself.
The young man who helped me was, as I expected, much better informed than I was. And he was patient with my ignorance. And pleasant into the bargain. It was as nice a surprise as I found in the mall. Email friends had told me bits and pieces of information -- comparing personal computers to Apple -- but in the store I was faced with the actual things, sleek and shiny and calling out the the gadget gene. They looked so kool and I indulged myself a little, letting the kool sweep over me. But I am tired of buying things that look kool and then fall apart in a couple of years. I don't like things that fail over the long haul. I like things like the hammer in my tool box: It may be a bit worn after all these years, but it's a hell of a good tool nevertheless.
And what occurred to me during this adventure was that I was surprising myself, challenging my long-held habit of not doing what I felt like doing, buying something for myself that was not as functional as a shirt or a pair of shoes. This was personal whimsy and, on my pocketbook, pretty expensive whimsy. Did I have the nerve for my own whimsy?
And the answer is, I don't know. Why should I be willing to buy whimsical, surprising things for others -- and really enjoy it -- and yet be reluctant to extend the same enjoyment to myself? I can recognize in malls and in others the willingness to succumb to their own whimsies on their own behalf, but I am the mirror image of that willingness.
Well, I didn't buy the laptop yesterday, but I remain interested. Once freed, the gadget genie is had to put back in the bottle. So I'll go to the Apple store today, perhaps, and let some nice young person who knows his/her ass from his/her elbow explain why paying twice as much is really a bargain. And perhaps I will eventually succumb.
At the moment, though, it's all a strangely surprising adventure. If nothing else, completing Christmas shopping means I don't have to listen to lovely Christmas carols that have been reduced to Muzak.