Here's a quality I admire in others: being difficult to buy gifts for.
It speaks to a kind of selflessness - to lack the conceit of those who, unasked, share their wants and preferences. Give me this person: someone whose colleagues, spouse and siblings couldn't tell you what he or she materially desires.
My wife Marie possesses this selfless quality. In an early confidential moment about a decade ago - while we were living (separately; Catholic) in her native Dublin, I recall, Marie's older sister Sue frowned at me during the first week of November and declared with an exasperated shake of the head: "Marie is impossible to buy for."
No such problems here.
The past two years, I've been specific in the weeks leading up to Christ's birthday and my own: Get me the Oxford English Dictionary set and Slingbox. (Given Web access, I can now deliver the etymology of any word in our language while watching "The Office" on my DVR.)
Not only am I selfish - I'm also hypocritical, because I find gift registries totally obnoxious.
Isn't thinking of your gift recipient part of gift-giving? What if there's nothing on the registry that speaks to me, that echoes my thoughts of you, my experience of you, my feelings for you? I get it - people often give really lousy or useless gifts, and it's nice, in a wedding registry, for example, to be able to guide someone toward something that you really want or even need that they'll be pleased to pick up for you.
But I don't believe that actually happens. Gift registries and the spirit of the registry signify the death of gift-giving as a genuine act.
Over-specification isn't limited to gift registries, either.
My sister-in-law upset me recently. An hour before my nephew Cooper's fifth birthday party, I phoned her from the parking lot of Toys "R" Us on Connecticut Avenue here in Norwalk, Conn., to ask what kinds of things he was interested in these days.
If he were interested in legos, for example, or baseball, or "Star Wars," those would serve as good broad categories for me to work within. I'd still be able to put my personal stamp on the gift - underwear, action figures, sports cards, whatever. But Cooper's mom (a phenomenal mom, I recognize that) told me that she and my brother Terry had picked up a Nintendo DX and she fed me the names of three games that would be good gifts.
I felt violated, snubbed so early in my hunt for a gift for little Coopie. I wanted to say: "Why don't I just hand you the cash?" Instead, I texted her a terse thank you for her "very specific instructions." I also bought the games, of course.
Here's the other thing that I cannot get my head around: The greatest gift I ever saw one person give another pre-dated the Registry Era.
Born between 1973 and 1976, my brother Terry, sister and I (I'm a middle child) came into our music-listening age just as disco was displaced by punk-inspired pop music, heavy on synthesizers. Bob Dylan was in his born-again Christian phase. On their 8-track, my still-married parents played "Summer Breeze" from Seals & Crofts.
But I associate none of that music with my childhood.
Because of a tiny blue Fisher-Price record player that mom gave to Terry one year, and my mom's own personal record collection, we three kids grew up listening to The Beatles just as any child of the 1960s would have - better, maybe, because we could avail ourselves of every album.
Through her job as a schoolteacher, probably, my mom acquired a large, freestanding blackboard that my parents dumped down in our musty basement-turned-playroom. There, we three kids would sketch the Fab Four in various stages of their careers - basing our drawings on "Meet the Beatles," say, then "Rubber Soul," certainly "Sgt. Peppers" and finally "Let It Be."
The subtle and not so subtle changes in facial hair and costume took shape under our white and yellow chalk sticks, and for years, up in my brother's room, we listened over and over to "Help!" and the rest on that little record player (it was the one that folded up like a briefcase).
Soon, The Beatles took a central role in our lives. Terry took up guitar; a McCartney-Lennon songbook appeared. We rented "A Hard Day's Night" multiple times on an early form of the VCR. Lyrics became a secret language among us, and certain words uttered by grown-ups triggered songs in our like minds. We adopted favorite songs in turn, and they became touchstones that now are forever associated with distinct memories. We sang "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as one summer we climbed the Gothics, a mountain in the Adirondacks. Another summer, "Rocky Raccoon," which my sister Rachel butchered as only the enthusiastic tone-deaf can.
The first time Terry left North America was in 1996, when he came to visit me during my junior year at Oxford University. I was a visiting student studying philosophy at Pembroke College, and after eight months at the school, I'd made inroads among the Brits through rowing, drinking, shooting pool and croquet, tossing darts, punting on the Magdalen River and even playing cricket. I was in good shape. One time I was walking near the river Isis with my buddy, Neil Jasani, and a town boy heard my American accent and stopped dead in his tracks, looked me up and down and asked whether I was Ken Shamrock.
"Who is Ken Shamrock?" Neil and I asked.
"He' the world's most dangerous man," the answer came.
I enjoyed limited yet rare success, among us Yanks, with the English women of Oxford - and my brother, sitting anonymously among the spectators during one cricket match when I was playing, witnessed in one girl the start of another torrid and ephemeral fling.
* * *
For anyone confused or intimidated by cricket as a sport, check out Bollywood classic "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India." Ancestor of U.S. baseball, cricket is a game played at its own pace, with a ball, batsman (batter), bowler (pitcher) and fielders. It's brilliant. The referees stand in their own white gowns, stone-faced, and when the team on defense (the bowling team) believes that a batsman has illegally protected the "stumps" on the "wicket" from tumbling down, they all scream "How is that?" like this: "How's thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!"
At Pembroke, a large, gin-blossomed man would open an oblong facility at the sports grounds, and present (England's version of - yuck) sandwiches and tea during intermission to the cricket players, all in white.
Today, sports technology is helping - a la "Avatar" - deliver the great game to more TV sets in Great Britain, in a more realistic way.
Jolly Old satellite TV giant Sky Sports announced that it will cover the NatWest one day cricket international between England and Bangladesh on July 8 in the 3D format.
"It will be a return to the air of live coverage on Sky 3D, which launched on April 3, and is currently available to around 1,000 pubs in the UK and Ireland," Sky officials say. "Premier League football featured high on the agenda during its first few weeks of operation, but with the World Cup rights being held by the BBC and ITV, Sky has been unable to show any of the matches from South Africa in 3D."
Two rugby matches, the Guinness Premiership Final and England v Barbarians, were shown at the end of May, Skype said.
"The NatWest series actually gets underway on June 22, when England face the old enemy Australia, but the schedule coincides with the World Cup that unsurprisingly features on the majority of pub TVs," Sky Sports said. "The arguably less exciting Bangladesh match falls during a hiatus in the World Cup ahead of the July 11 final."
One sunny June day, playing with Pembroke's third side, I bowled six wickets versus St. Edmund (Teddy) Hall in four overs, including two golden ducks. Translation: I was a nasty pitcher. I didn't wear white. I didn't even have white. And instead of taking the traditional run toward the batsman and bowling the ball, I would stop and nod like a baseball pitcher shaking off signs, then start my cricket trot toward home plate. It was entertaining.
And it was effective. A week later, with Terry watching, I mowed down Worcester College in similar fashion - to the (I later discovered) outspoken chagrin of several Englishman students sitting near my brother. But not to one girl who grew to like me - a girl who approached me soon after the game through a mutual friend, and with whom I would go punting on the Magdalen and then for a drink at The Perch pub out past Portmeadow in Oxford's Jericho neighborhood.
Her name I do not remember, but she was sweet and what was strange was that she brought her 12- or 13-year-old younger brother on our "date" - and it was perfectly fine. Nothing "happened" between us but we held hands at the end of the night in Worcester College's junior common room and watched Mel Gibson's still new "Braveheart" with a roomful of students that included some cricket players who cast withering looks in my direction.
Terry's favorite part of his visit to England must have been the day we took in London - especially going to the Abbey Road Studios (yes, we took that photo of him mid-stride.)
I took Terry to my recently discovered and favorite London haunts - disembarking the coach (bus) from Marlboro Street and then walking over to Oxford Street and down to Trafalgar Square, then over to Picadilly Circus and finally to Covent Garden, to the underground café where I wrote my letters home, drinking coffee and eating cherry pie.
We would end up at Abbey Road, though - and it was a surreal experience. We'd been to Shea Stadium - a facility The Beatles had played - and my brother with his encyclopediac mind could retrace John Lennon's steps at The Dakota on Manhattan's west side, but we'd never been to a genuine Beatles site like this.
During that trip, we would take a train to Stratford-on-Avon to watch "Macbeth" performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. We would visit the Tower of London. We would see Wembley Stadium. But the entire trip was about Abbey Road - real-life location of the music that permeated our shared childhood.
The Beatles' canon is vast.
Several years ago, Terry decided one year to take me to Peter Luger steakhouse in Williamsburg in Brooklyn for my birthday. He knew just what to order: a salad that included a slice of beefsteak tomato and Bermuda onion with Luger's house sauce, a side of bacon that reminded me of Irish rashers, the steak for two, sides of German fried potatoes and creamed spinach. He drank stout while I drank the local Brooklyn Lager.
It's very difficult to get a reservation at Peter Luger, so en route once recently - for my birthday, probably three years ago - Terry and I grew very concerned. We left Stamford, Conn., around 4 p.m. to make our 5:30 p.m. reservation, but we got snagged in traffic on the FDR Drive. The Williamsburg was visible but unyielding - it felt further away with every passing minute. Naturally, a Beatles playlist blared from the car's speakers. Terry and I became very concerned. His attempts to get through to the restaurant and adjust our formal reservation time were met with hostility by the Peter Luger.
Finally, just when we absolutely knew we'd be turned away, a break in the traffic - a clear path across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn.
Terry turned up the volume and it was "There's a Place" - the first track on "Please Please Me" - the group's U.K. debut:
There's a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue.
And it's my mind
And there's no time
When I'm alone.
We got to our table in time and enjoyed a delicious steak dinner - as we always have at Peter Luger.
And "There's a Place" has become a touchstone song between us - we sometimes sing a few lines to each other if one of us describes a traffic jam, certainly if we're on the FDR in traffic or even the Major Deegan en route to Yankee Stadium.
What would Terry have put on his own gift registry as a 6-year-old back in 1979? Chances are, he didn't know much about The Beatles. Maybe he would have wanted a Big Wheel, or a Millennium Falcon.
But if it weren't for the Fisher-Price blue record player from mom, where would we be?