The Shiniest Gift

The holiday season is upon us. And I, inveterate dork that I am, had planned on suggesting all manner of gadgets and gizmos to give to all the nice people on your list.

(I don't really like shopping, for the record. But in my experience consumer electronics never let you down. No matter when you look or where you turn, everything shiny, plastic and festooned with buttons is better, smaller and cheaper than it was just a few weeks ago. It's one of the few categories in life that can be relied on for continual improvement.)

Well, I thought the wi-fi memory card was pretty cool. Come back from your day at the zoo or wherever, bring your camera into the house (or within range of any available network) and it automatically connects to the Web and uploads all the pictures you've just taken. Voila — every group shot, blurry reptile and monkey impersonation is right there on your Flickr page for friends and family to browse through. Magic.

The Airport Express is not a new invention, but noteworthy nonetheless. It's a wireless router (which would work well with the Eye-Fi card, naturally) but it's also a handy dandy music server for your home stereo. Just plug it in near your radio, connect its output to your radio's input and holy cheesecake: All the music on your computer can now be played through real, non-tinny speakers. Add to it the C.Crane Whole House FM Transmitter, as I did, and you can also hear the music on any radio on the premises, without running any wires at all.

The Amazon Kindle was interesting the first time I heard about it, fascinating the more I learned, and amazing when I finally saw one in person. 190,000 books available on a little box the size of a paperback in your pocket, plus you can subscribe to dozens of newspapers and magazines and have them wirelessly delivered every day, with no stupid car-dealer ads tucked between every other page or soggy plastic bags in your driveway.

The iPod touch with the incomprehensibly cool "Bloom" application, the temperature-sensitive LED faucet light, the hundred-dollar "Action Cam Flash Memory Camcorder" that straps to your helmet or handlebars and captures video of all your extreme adventures, the multi-thousand-dollar cinema-quality Red digital video cameras... all brilliant and desirable stuff. I was even going to hype the Kill-a-Watt electricity usage monitor, which tells you at any given moment how much energy all these gizmos are sucking down.

But then I couldn't help noticing that thing that happened. You know, the part with the global economy collapsing.

Here we are, with Black Friday coming up -- and Cyber Monday following shortly after -- when the deals are supposed to be "doorbusting" in their appeal, when the malls are supposed to be impenetrable, when 5 *billion* dollars are supposed to be spent on all manner of blinky, blippy electrified hoo-hah, and half the people I know are out of work.

23 folks got laid off from my old employer last week. Retirement savings are disappearing right and left. Relatives are coming to me for help editing their résumés. My entire *state* is asking to borrow money from the federal government -- it seems they've paid out more in unemployment benefits this year than they've brought in. Not surprising, with some 75,000 Hoosiers out of a job.

So raving about the coolness of digital amplifiers and remote-turn off surge protectors just felt a little silly. The stuff's all still neat and all; don't get me wrong. And a lot of it is really reasonably priced, for what it does -- from the $70 Airport Express to the $5,000 Red camera.

But it's unnecessary. Frivolous, in the truest sense of the word. That's a big part of the fun in shopping for something like a remote-controlled blimp -- how wrong can you go? So I guess what I'm recommending instead of gadgets this year is what you probably had in mind anyway: meaningful gifts.

Knit someone a scarf. Write someone a poem. Bake someone some cupcakes. All the stuff you already know how to do, and that you know doesn't cost any money, and that you know is worth so much more than even the shiniest portable induction cooker.

You won't be contributing to the faltering economy, and you may not be helping any retailers go "into the black" this Black Friday, but you may just find the silver lining in this dark financial cloud.

You're also welcome to do what I'm going to do on this historic occasion: listen to some stories. I was already planning this for the holidays, but I just heard on the radio that Friday is also designated as our first-ever National Day of Listening.

Now I'm just more determined than ever. It's a wonderful idea from one of my favorite organizations: StoryCorps. You can go to the site and download a guide to collecting your family's and friends' stories, and even get an extensive list of great questions to ask. All free.

Or you could write your own questions, and just think of some of the things you've always wanted to ask your siblings, or your grandparents if you're lucky enough to still have them, or even just your friend from your hometown who you know will be coming by for the holidays. Just write it down and ask them, and record their answer.

Now of course, my version of this inaugural holiday tradition does involve some dorkery -- I'll be recording the stories with my digital camera's voice recorder function. But you can use a laptop or a tape recorder, or heck -- go get one of those micro-cassette jobbers from the local office supply store. They probably have memory-card-based ones now that would make it even easier to transfer the files to your computer if you like. It won't cost much, and maybe your little archiving project will prop up Staples or Radio Shack for another couple of quarters.

You could even pony up for something like the Zoom H2 Portable Stereo Recorder and get studio-quality recordings of your loved ones' tales.

So as you can probably tell, I still like gadgets. But not for no reason. Not this year.

Right now I think it's a better idea to stay out of the malls, stay off the shopping websites on Monday, and sit down with somebody you care about and listen.

(You might also consider a gift that pays dividends long after the warranty would have run out on the $400 laptop folks will be "busting doors" for: a gift from Heifer International. Purchasing a dairy goat -- or even just a share of a goat, for $10 -- for a little boy or girl on the other side of the world can provide that family with several quarts of nutritious milk per day. And that little goat is likely to give the family more little goats, helping them earn money for food, health care and education.)

I'll close with a perfect comment I just noticed on an article about cash-strapped consumers embracing the idea of "home for the holidays." It's by someone calling himself "oldgeezer."

"Born in the 1920s, both my wife and I grew up during the Great Depression. Thanksgiving was always a time for the greater family, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, parents, and brothers and sisters to gather together for a grand feast. It was really something! You see, normally we ate no meat on weekdays because it was too expensive, and ate chicken on Sundays because they were raised. We had turkey or ham on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most of everything else on the table came from various family gardens.

Well, then, for Christmas the gifts were mainly clothes that were needed, although the children also received a toy or two. Many of the toys were home-made, including tops, stilts to walk on, kites, etc. When the budget allowed store-bought toys were received, such as marbles, toy soldiers, toy cars and trucks, and dolls and tea sets for the girls.

We were not unhappy because we couldn't have things we saw in the movies. As a matter of fact we were close-knit to one another, and we all knew that we were loved and cared about.

So one thing I know, money and things don't make you happy... they aren't the things your memories are made of. So, please, all of you enjoy each other in you family this Thanksgiving and Christmas and in all those to come."


Hello, I'm Ryan Noel. said...

Wonderful post, Colin. I recently heard about the National Day of Listening, and as you might have imagined, it's right up my alley.

I'm taking the video camera to, yes, document Simeon's first Thanksgiving, but also to see if I can coax a story or two out of my wife's family.

Anonymous said...

Yo C. With reference to the $400 laptop...an alternative for some may be spending $400 at Amazon on the OLPC program:


here you you purchase an OLPC for you (or gift) and they send one to a needy child overseas. two birds, one stone, no goats.

- kohn

Colin said...

Aaron: That's totally awesome. My dork and humanitarian leanings are equally intrigued.

I also enjoyed this part of the product description:

"The estimated product lifetime is at least five years. To help ensure such durability, the machines are being subjected to factory testing to destruction, as well as in field testing by children."

JustMe said...

Love the post. This year I'm doing my best to stick to my plan of one big gift for each kid (from Santa) and two small ones (from me), plus stocking stuffers. I totally agree with everything you said in your blog; but just you wait, you will have a hard time not wanting to wrap up the world and give it to that little one for Christmas just to see the joy on her face when she pulls back the paper. So much of what I do is painful now (I'm No Fun Mom in comparison to the relatives who shower them with piles of presents), but I hope they will appreciate and understand it in about 20-30 years.