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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 20, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Gift-giving, Sword, Closet Bee, Totoro

We're in the last few days before Christmas, and I think I'm not the only one who feels as if, no matter what I do, I'm not going to be ready.

I also think I know why. Whether you have a lot of money to spend on gifts, or very little, or none at all, there's the nagging feeling that whatever your gifts are, they aren't enough.

Either they're not good enough, or there aren't enough of them.

In other words: They won't do.

And that's because there is no gift that will "do."

Do what, anyway? What is it that our gifts are supposed to accomplish?

Do you really think there's some thing you can wrap and put under a tree that will transform the life of the recipient? Convert them from misery to happiness, from grief to joy, from loneliness to a sense of belonging to a wonderful community?

Well, maybe a bit of that last thing. Because there are gifts that can show that you really know the recipient, that they belong.

That's one of the reasons that, even though gift certificates can be wonderful gifts, they aren't ever really the perfect gift. Yes, the recipient can choose exactly what item to buy, so you know it will suit them; but since you didn't make that "exact right" choice, the gift certificate does not convey that sense of being known by the giver.

A gift, even a poorly chosen one, says at least this much: "I feel a desire/need/obligation to give you a gift, and I spent a certain amount of time and thought, and here's what I came up with."

Sometimes a gift says, "Here's what I think you ought to want."

Here are some other possible messages:

"This is what I know how to make. Here's one for you."

"This is what all the cool people give, and I'm so cool I'm giving you one."

"I have so much money, I can afford to give one of these to you."

"This is what I'm giving to everybody, and you're on my list."

"I really hate giving gifts, but here goes."

"I think you're still six/eleven/fourteen years old."

"Your house isn't full yet. Here's something to stack somewhere."

Don't get me wrong: Not one of these is a bad thing. Because at least these messages are given in the form of a gift. It speaks well of our society that our retail economy is, in many sectors, completely driven by Christmas sales.

What do you think a "perfect" motive for giving a gift would be? Altruism?

I hate the whole idea of altruism, the way so many people use it. The idea often is that if you receive any benefit from giving a gift or a service to someone else, then it isn't really altruism.

So if you do something for somebody and then feel good about it, it somehow negates the value of the gift. Somebody sees you helping somebody or giving a gift and they say, "Oh, I bet that made you feel warm all over."

Doesn't that attitude just make your skin crawl? As if the only way for a gift to be truly generous-hearted is if you feel awful about giving it.

Maybe donating organs counts -- if it's an organ you only have one of. Maybe if you die giving the gift, these people will be satisfied.

The truth is that you should feel good about giving a gift, and the more thoughtful and personal and individual and needed-or-wanted the gift is, the better you should feel about it.

There's no requirement that it hurt you or cost you more than you can afford. There's no requirement that a gift be a terrible sacrifice.

The only "sacrifice" that matters is that you spend enough time and effort to find out what gift might be appropriate and welcomed by the recipient -- even if the result is a gift certificate.

For instance, a gift certificate to a nice restaurant can be the perfect gift for a young married couple who rarely get a chance to go anywhere nice. (It's even better if it's accompanied by baby-sitting, if you're giving the restaurant gift certificate to a couple who have babies.)

But heed this word of warning: Ask the restaurant in advance if the certificate or gift card can be applied to the tip. If it can't, then you are not really giving a gift, because the recipients either have to take cash out of pocket to leave a tip, or they have to stiff the waiter -- and where's the pleasure in that?

Any restaurant whose gift certificates can't be used for the tip doesn't actually have gift certificates -- they have prepaid discount cards. Even if the discount is 80 percent (i.e., everything except a good tip), it still requires the recipient to pay.

A gift certificate to a videogame store or bookstore is almost always best if you haven't received an actual request for a particular game or book. (And if there has been a request, you have to make sure someone else hasn't heard, and acted on, the same wish!)

For a home handyman, Lowe's gift certificates can be exactly right.

So ... if you know the recipient is a reader or a gamer or a fixer-upper, the certificate is a thoughtful, individual gift.

And given the way this economy is going, if you know somebody is struggling to pay bills and hasn't had a dime of discretionary income in a long time, then even a general department store gift certificate -- Target, Belk's, Macy's, Walmart -- can be a personal gift:

Here, use this to buy something that isn't on your list of gotta-buys. Have a few minutes of freedom to choose.

Some people say of gift certificates, "It's the same bad taste as if you just handed them money." But I disagree. Such gifts can still communicate to the recipient: "I know you, I care about you, I want you to have the pleasure of choosing something you'll value."

And yet. Good as they can be, these are not the best gifts. The best gifts are the ones that say, "I know you so well that this is exactly what you will love" -- and they're right.

You open that gift with a gasp of delight. You may not even have known that you wanted the thing. You might not even have known that such a thing existed. And yet there it is, proving that the giver of the gift saw at least a little way into your heart, and did what it took to bring you joy.

Sometimes such a gift is extravagant. Sometimes it's very simple. Sometimes it's expensive. Sometimes it's free.

But it's always rare.

If, over the course of your whole life, you can give such a gloriously-right gift to five different people, or achieve such gift perfection twice for the same person, you are among the greatest of givers.

Often such gifts are achieved partly by chance. You hoped the other person would like it; you had no idea how much it would mean.

Don't ever tell them that you had no idea that it would mean so much. Just be glad they were so glad to get it.

And then for heaven's sake don't expect yourself to ever equal that gift, let alone top it, in subsequent years.

And if someone gives you such a perfect gift, be grateful and show it -- but don't let yourself feel bad, even for a moment, that your gift to them isn't equally perfect. The odds against that happening are astronomical.

In fact, the sheer obviousness of your joy at their gift is the reward to the giver. You're saying to them: You nailed it.

There is no way the gift you gave them is going cause them as much joy as they'll feel from knowing how much you loved their gift to you.

So don't wreck everything by forcing that person to reassure you that your gift was just as good. It wasn't. And that's OK.

We give gifts to the same people, year after year, and most of the time we don't get it exactly right. In fact, most of the time our gifts are pretty forgettable -- rather like last year's Oscars. We all understand this, we accept it, and we keep on giving gifts, knowing that the primary function of the giving is to say, I have not forgotten you, you matter to me. That's always a good message.

Ordinary gifts are just fine. Ordinary thanks for those gifts are also fine. It's like the words of "Wonderful World": "They're only saying 'I love you.'" That is quite enough of a burden for your gifts to bear.

And when somebody give you the perfect gift, don't make them feel bad because your gift wasn't as ecstatically perfect. Even if you never find them a gift that thrills them like that, it's still OK. Your ordinary gifts are perfectly acceptable. They deliver the right message. They're Good Enough.

And who knows? Maybe you'll strike gift-giving gold this year, and finally get even with someone who gave you The Perfect Gift ten years ago.

*

They're selling Daughter of the Sword, by Steve Bein, in the sci-fi section of the bookstore, and I suppose it belongs there, but it's mostly a really cool near-future thriller that is also a historical novel, a fable, a fantasy, and -- oh, just take my word for it. It's really, really good.

The hero is a young woman who is struggling to rise within the Tokyo police department.

Yeah, that's right. The hero is Japanese. The whole novel is Japanese.

I have no particular fascination with Japanese culture. Yes, I loved Shogun and I loved The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino and I'm a real fan of Miyazaki's animated films.

But I'm not a Japanophile the way I'm an anglophile. I am not fascinated by all things Japanese. On the contrary -- I recognize that Japanese culture is very different from mine, and I like mine. So sue me.

Not only that, I'm really repelled by martial arts fiction, which is usually a kind of kata-porn, where the writer expects you to think the martial arts scenes are reason enough to care about the hero and the story. For me, they're not.

So don't read Daughter of the Sword because it's set in Japan; but also don't turn away from it for that same reason. Because the story is not about its Japaneseness.

It's about a smart, tough person trying to cope with her family's needs -- especially her drug-using sister's -- while achieving an ambition that's really important to her.

It's about a grand old man who owns a sword with an ancient history, one that is coveted by a truly evil person who will kill to get it.

It's about the power that some great objects can exert over those who own them, leading us to wonder: Who is the owner, who the possession?

The modern story is interrupted several times by extended stories -- fables at first, but eventually extended historical fiction -- about previous owners of the three swords that become important in the story. And I'm not denigrating the main storyline to tell you that those interruptions are the very best part of the book.

If you're looking for a Christmas gift for someone who likes mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, character-driven stories, fantasy, science fiction, or just plain good writing, Daughter of the Sword might be just the thing.

*

Our house isn't new. It's a federal-style house that was built before the modern fad of monumental two-story entries and shrine-like bathrooms and closets the size of moving vans.

Fortunately, it's new enough that the kitchen is decent-sized and it has indoor plumbing and electricity built right in. (We once lived in a house old enough that all those things were afterthoughts, and believe me, that is not nice.)

Our not-very-big master bathroom is directly over the unmagnificent one-story entryway of our house. And while we have two closets in our master bedroom, they are one layer of clothing deep and neither one is very big.

We can't do anything about the size of the closets. But we can do something about the way the space inside them is used.

So we called in Holly Root from The Closet Bee (2180 Lawndale Dr.; 346-5555; closets@TheClosetBee.com) to take a look at the smaller closet and see what could be done.

We liked her ideas. The price was reasonable. We hired the company to do the job.

The day of our appointment, the doorbell rang. I opened it, expecting the work crew. Instead there was just one guy, no tools, holding a piece of paper.

I wasn't sure if I was being served a subpoena or about to hear a sales pitch. And he, seeing my confusion, wondered if he had come to the wrong place.

But it was the right place. And he was the crew.

I had expected a team. But when you think about it, it's a closet. There wouldn't be room for two people to work on it at the same time.

He was done in a couple of hours; maybe less; we weren't looking at the clock. It was done before we expected. The work was well done, the design was fully executed, and it was done on time and at the agreed-upon cost.

It was not a miraculous transformation. There are still the same number of cubic feet; we pretty much filled the space before, and we fill it now.

But everything is much more accessible, and after twenty-two years of only marginal usefulness, it's almost like getting a new house.

Well, no, it's nothing like getting a new house. Which is fine -- who wants to move? But it did give me a new closet and I highly recommend The Closet Bee.

*

Robert D. Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography looks like it might be brilliant. The subtitle promises: "What the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate."

Alas, the book is about no such thing. There is relatively little geography in it, but there are massive numbers of ridiculous mistakes about history and culture.

Basically, it's full of unquestioned groupthink with, here and there, a nonstandard thought which is usually even more ignorant than the normal groupthink. What a disappointment.

*

It's like the book I browsed through the other day that purports to tell us about leadership and leaders. But when I looked at what the author had to say about Winston Churchill, what I saw was pure ignorance: He took as gospel the political lie that Winston Churchill was to blame for the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

This is a common error, because Churchill's political opponents loved to make this charge.

However, even the slightest research shows that the consensus of military historians is that Churchill's Gallipoli plan, if it had been followed when he put it forward, would have succeeded quickly and easily and would almost certainly have shortened the war by years, saving a million lives or more.

So when a book that purports to tell me useful things about a lot of different historical figures reveals that it is based upon only the most cursory of research, and is hopelessly wrong in its assessment of one of the most written-about figures in recent history, what am I to conclude about the value of the author's statements about historical figures I don't know as much about?

It's like watching Sixty Minutes. It's a great show -- until the first time they do a story on a subject that you actually know something about. Then it becomes obvious that it's a formulaic "reality" show in which the only purpose is to tell you what heroes and crusaders the reporters are, with almost no regard for context.

Or for the lives of the people they attack and embarrass. Once they decide you're the bad guy, you have no chance of getting your side on the air. Michael Moore is just Sixty Minutes without a bath.

In other words, they are not even trying to tell you the whole truth. It's pure spin.

This is why, the older I get, the harder it is to find good books. It's not that I know everything. It's that I know something, and most political analysts and historical essayists either know less than I do and don't realize their ignorance, or are deliberately leaving out things they know in order to support their views.

Either way, they have my contempt.

However, if I can help it they won't have either my dollars or my reading time. Life is too short for me to waste time on books that will only increase my ignorance. And, if I search hard enough, I can still find books or articles by honest writers and scrupulous researchers.

*

You want to know what happens when your scriptwriter daughter marries a film director and then gets pregnant? You get the ultimate Christmas ultrasound video: http://sn.im/christmasfetus

The baby is due in May. We won't find out the sex till January. But we already know the kid can really sing.

*

Oscar-winning Hayao Miyazaki is well known for his inventive and heart-warming animated films, like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service.

I've seen all of those and loved them (and I'm pretty sure I've reviewed them here). But I had never seen My Neighbor Totoro.

I might have seen it sooner if I had had the slightest idea that "totoro" is the child-hero's mispronunciation of "tororu," which is Japanese for "troll." I probably would have been more interested in My Neighbor the Troll." Or even My Neighbor the Twoll."

As with most great children's stories, great issues of death and loss are woven in with the magic; the children are caught up in the midst of tragedy, but through a combination of spunk and magic find their way through.

In this case, two young girls move with their father to a new house, which is infested with soot-creatures that quickly move out. Their mother is in the hospital, and of course the children miss her.

The youngest wanders off, following two small trolls, and meets the giant troll Totoro, who carries her away on many adventures. Her older sister also sees the creature, eventually, and the things that happen are quite wonderful.

Yet at the heart of the story is the terror of parents' lives: The child who wanders off and can't be found. There are stories that My Neighbor Totoro is based on a real incident in which a child was lost and died, and her older sister, who went in search of her, also ended up dead.

Certainly that kind of story is flirted with when people who are searching for the missing youngest daughter find one sandal floating in a pond, and spend hours probing for the body.

And some commentators say that the movie really shows that both girls are dead and don't realize it or some such thing.

I think these commentators are living in Paul-is-dead Land. My Neighbor Totoro's story is clear, and the girls are very much alive, and the ending is happy. Yet the fear of death and loss is openly and obviously the foundation of the story, without reading anything "hidden" into it.

Whether Miyazaki was working with the real-life tragedy as the underpinning of his story or not, My Neighbor Totoro is at once a magical story of childlike wonder and the story of how a loving family can be torn apart by the dread of death -- of the mother, and then of the child.

It has recently been released in a two-disk set for less than twenty bucks. You could do a lot worse this Christmas vacation than watch this wonderful story with your children.

Even small children. Because they aren't half so scared of death as their parents are. And everything really does come out OK.


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