Presents of Mind

Dear Will:

Just by hanging around we have managed to live through over five dozen Christmases. For just a couple of humble heads, that’s a lot of dancing sugar plums. We figure that over the course of two lifetimes we have received hundreds of gifts around the holidays, some magical, some practical, most all of which, we hesitate to admit, we have already forgotten. (Except that thing you gave us that one time. We still have it and cherish it. Use it all the time. To this day we just love it. It’s our favorite.)

OK, in fairness, we’re not as sharp as once we were and our synapses fire only inconsistently at best. So maybe some really great stuff just sort of slipped out of our brains while we were trying to find our reading glasses. But try this experiment and see if you can do any better: Look around your home and see if you can identify more than, say, three or four things that you can associate with a specific Christmas giver. You don’t even have to limit it to what’s currently in your home. Open up whatever is left of your memory and scan all of the Christmases come and gone. How many of the dozens of presents you’ve received do you still recall to this day? Not that many, we’re betting.

Or if you think you can take it, here’s an experiment we do not actually recommend: Ask your spouse or kids or significant someone which gifts they remember getting from you over the years. When you do that, you’ll probably be thinking of a couple that you were certain you got just right. Look into their eyes anticipating the sparkle that will settle upon them as they recall the tenderness of the moment and the thrill of the receiving. Just don’t be surprised if instead they furrow their brows and admit that nothing immediately comes to mind. 

What you and your loved ones are more likely to remember are favorite holiday traditions, most of which have nothing to do with the stuff under the tree. Unsurprisingly, those are memories rooted in doing and feeling rather than getting. And before you know it, those memories may start to give way to the sounds of Whos down in Who-ville, singing their Christmas morning song. And perhaps you’ll think: Well, of course! It’s not about ribbons. It’s not about tags. It’s not about packages, boxes, or bags. Boris Karloff says as much every year about this time. And perhaps then your mind will drift to a dimly-lit stage where Linus is reciting from the book of Luke. And you’ll think: He’s been preaching that same sermon since the sixties, but somehow it never seems to fully land.

Which is why, when you finish reading these last few lines, you’ll still be tempted to put down this letter, open up your browser, and click on Gifts for Her—because you can never figure out what to give your mother who always says, with unquestionable sincerity, that she doesn’t really want anything but love and peace and common courtesy. (At this very moment, we are likely in the midst of doing something similar ourselves.) After all, the wrapping and the giving is a way of saying (poorly) a thing that words don’t properly convey. 

Those kinds of urges—to do something nice for those we love—we should always give in to, even when they lead us inexorably to Amazon. But after you BUY NOW, it will be even more worthwhile to ponder if there might be a better way. Because deep down you know there is. You just have to figure out what to do about it.

When you do, please let us know. Because we have this one friend who is impossible to shop for.

This letter is an imperfect way of expressing our love and wishing you holidays filled with the very best gifts of all. 


Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Crying Uncle

Dear Will:

To say that my mother’s four brothers were bald fails to capture the intensity of their commitment to alopecia. They weren’t merely bald—they were extravagantly so. From behind, they looked like a quartet of ostrich eggs jammed into individual nests. On a sunny, mid-summer afternoon, the reflected glare from one of our family picnics could be seen from space. (Allegedly. NASA doesn’t actually monitor northwest Wyoming closely enough to confirm it.) Bald, it seems, has always been one of the core attributes of the Taggart brand.

So it’s not as if I wasn’t forewarned, is what I’m saying. Hanging around my uncles had a way of setting expectations. But just in case I wasn’t paying full attention, in my formative years I was told repeatedly: “You know” [side-glance at my uncle Mac], “boys inherit the bald-gene from their mother’s side of the family” [eyebrow dance]. That’s what passed for the internet in those days. A halfhearted query on the modern-day web reveals that that old myth is maybe only half true, but still. Even when you correct the math, my odds of reaching middle age with a full Gino Vannelli bouffant were never very good.

I recognize that some men effortlessly pull off this polished look of mine, but I never had a chance of balding gracefully (if that is even a thing)—what with the whole Frisbee Incident and all. February 22, 1968. It was a Thursday. I should have been in school. But we celebrated Washington’s birthday on the actual anniversary back then, so I was home, tossing the disc with my sister Barbara. Next thing I knew I was falling headfirst onto the concrete step leading up to our elevated yard. Wham-o. A fractured skull. The repair job left what has been called “the most glorious scar of all,” an unsightly blaze stretching across the breadth of my now-hairless dome. On any other cranium, that crannied indentation would be hidden by a magnificent pompadour. But given my genetic predisposition, you could have forecasted my comb-free future as soon as the surgeon tied off the last stitch.

But even then—even then—you had to figure I had time. Perhaps, but not much, as it turned out. Maybe a dozen years later, little more than halfway through my two-year mission in Uruguay, a sweet, well-meaning, grandmotherly soulcrusher informed me that my hair was much thinner than it had been when she met me a year earlier. I would have been [grimace] barely 20 at the time. I might have hoped to put up more of a fight, but it was clear that while I was engaged in another theater of operations, my frontline follicles had retreated considerably from their original beachhead. The war might not have been over, but surrender had become a foregone conclusion.

So here I am now, all these years later, having spent the majority of my time on this planet with my own denuded globe. That’s a lot of time with a clear head (as it were) to ponder my condition, which now prompts me to request a few societal accommodations. I realize that others have it way worse than we do; nevertheless, I believe that the following is not too much to ask in acknowledgment of the plight of bald guys everywhere:

  • Barbershop Discounts – All of our haircuts should be half-off because—and it hardly seems necessary to point this out—we have half-off already.
  • Preferential Seating – We should be allowed to sit or stand in the shade whenever the sun comes out. Otherwise, within 20 minutes we start to burn worse than those guys from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And trust me on this: You don’t want to sit by those guys at the ballgame.
  • One Token RomCom – Just once I’d like to see Ryan Gosling lose the girl to someone like, say, Ned Ryerson. That’s not unreasonable, is it?

I might add one last thing: The scriptures say that, in the resurrection, “a hair of the head shall not be lost.” Forgive the cynicism of a beleaguered man, but it doesn’t say we’ll necessarily get them back. My fear is they’ll say something like, “We know exactly where they are,” and then hand me a map. So, if it’s cool with the rest of you, it would be nice when that day comes if we could get a head start.

So to speak.


Advice That May Not Work

Dear Will:

I recently listened to a podcast that featured an interview with Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, who describes himself as “the most optimistic person in the world.” The podcast is entitled “103 Pieces of Advice That May or May Not Work.” (It’s great. You should listen to it.)

Well, I’m not as wise or as thoughtful (or as optimistic) as Kevin Kelly, but as I was listening it occurred to me that I have lots of advice which meets the standard of “may not work.” I couldn’t come up with 103 things, so I stopped at 31 because it looks almost like the same number, especially if you don’t have on your reading glasses.

What follows is based on my own real-life experiences, many of which were informed by horrible personal choices. I like to think that I have made my mistakes as an act of public service. And for that, you’re welcome. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Don’t play tennis barefoot. Not ever. Seriously.
  2. Also not recommended: basketball in boxer shorts. Trust me on this.
  3. Even if you think you can fix it yourself, it is always better to call the plumber.
  4. Spend more time with people like Mark.
  5. When in doubt, ask a local . . . even when not in doubt, for that matter.
  6. You will never regret the time you spend reading to your kids.
  7. Take long walks, and while you walk, be quiet and listen to your thoughts.
  8. Eventually you will wish that you had said “yes” more often than “no.”
  9. When offered an unfamiliar dish, it’s best to eat it before asking what it is.
  10. It is not possible to be too grateful.
  11. At some point you’ve got to stop refinancing and pay down the mortgage.
  12. Feel free to be disappointed. But try not to be resentful.
  13. If you’re not sure what to do next, be kind.
  14. Don’t ever use baking soda in place of cornstarch.
  15. Look for opportunities to tell others what you like about them.
  16. When you think you can’t go even one step further, you’re usually underestimating yourself.
  17. From time to time, have breakfast for dinner.
  18. It’s OK to let your schoolwork suffer if you and your roommate are creating something TRULY EPIC.
  19. Spend more effort trying to understand than you do trying to prove that you’re right.
  20. Chances are you cannot fix that vacuum cleaner.
  21. Just because you got away with it, doesn’t mean you’re not stupid.
  22. Sometimes you should just close the laptop and go walk the dog.
  23. If you’re ever going to blow your budget, do it on vacation.
  24. Even if it’s windy and raining, pull out the map.
  25. Stay in touch.
  26. Genuine effort and good intentions are much more important than flawless execution.
  27. Do not, under any circumstances, enroll in Humanities 2B.
  28. If you must judge others, judge as generously as possible.
  29. Say “I love you” more often.
  30. Try to be like Jesus.
  31. Pay attention. God always shows His hand.

One last thing: Don’t take my word for it. I generally don’t know what I’m talking about. But remember what I said about the baking soda.


Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash