The past and future of the Christmas present

steve’s column

Nothing’s as mean as giving a little child something useful for Christmas.” – Kin Hubbard “I once bought my kids a set of batteries for Christmas with a note on it saying, ‘toys not included.’” – Bernard Manning Blessed are those who do not want a pile of material possessions for Christmas, because based on my budget, they shall not be disappointed. No, even though I have now reached the “Grumpy Old Man” phase of retirement, I shall resist the Max Goldman tactic of placing small boxes of laundry detergent or kid-size staplers in Christmas stockings. I do understand Max’s logic, however; trying to read a preschooler’s imaginative and ever-changing mind challenges my ever-dwindling brain cells. “I might suggest checking the Bomgaars flyer online,” daughter Alexis said. Bomgaars, an Upper Midwest farm supply store, was a favorite family haunt in 1990s South Dakota. (Or Dad’s favorite, at least, with accommodating tolerance from everyone else due the promise of dinner at a nearby steak house.) “You could choose from a foghorn or the ever-popular ‘Cow Come Home,’” she added. “Cow Come Home” was my label for an electric cattle prod when my children were pre-teenagers. (Forgetfulness turns from blessing to curse when a child well remembers a parent’s ramblings decades later.) A perusal of the flyer found specials on a 192-piece mechanics set, more designed for me than grandchildren. With luck, some have hinted, I could take myself apart and re-assemble in a less-confusing model. I did find specials on chicken, horse and wild bird feed, possibilities depending which cartoon character or alter-ego Aria or Michael choose on a given day. When visiting Minnesota friends displayed unique birdhouses they construct and sell while snow-birding, I briefly pondered making my own presents. “Our RV gets 117 miles to the (bird) house,” Dale said. After elementary art projects, a plywood magazine rack for my grandmother and a bread board for Mom, my sole post-adolescent do-it-yourself gift was a black-and-white photo of yours truly in deep snore. An enterprising friend snapped the shot, and since I had more darkroom access than money that Christmas season, I printed enough copies for my grandmother, parents, siblings and spouses and several sets of aunts and uncles. Below the surface of the “I didn’t mean it” attempts at gratitude swam sincere appreciation for any ugly sweaters relatives received that year. As years advance, what I want for Christmas grows as perplexing as finding presents for others. There is a particular pitch I would like to retrieve, tossed in a 1971 baseball game that turned a victory into a walk-off loss, and a black Labrador traveling a hair ahead of the speed of sound to snare some regrettable comments, but as Satchel said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you. My sister jumped ahead of the curve of the Midwestern phase of bovine motif gifts, showering me with waterfowl technology in the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Ducks paddled alongside my numerous DU framed prints, on neckties, key chains, suspenders and letter openers. The “Roadkill” series found its way to my curb in the form of a flattened pottery mallard adorned with a tire track. Later, a mallard’s tail section dabbled in a plastic pond on our coffee table. The “Quacky II Quacky Ringer,” a mallard-shaped touch-tone phone that quacked in lieu of ringing, completed the zany circle. I learned more operating details via my daughter, whom I called while on a hunting trip. “Guess what, Dad, I’m talking to a duck’s butt!” she said. “I may have my shortcomings, but that is no way to address your father!” I responded, secretly thankful that Alexis did not choose more familiar references associated with horses “I mean the phone, Dad,” my then-nine-year-old said in the typical tone reserved for younger children and annoying parents. Alexis and her brother Zeb have both asked me what I want for Christmas this year, and so far, I have drawn a blank while telling them to scratch off lutefisk and dentures. I also hope to avoid new maladies that require prescriptions or medical attention. And, while I pondered my short list, Nancy Jane provided a reality I seldom avoid. “Well, just don’t be depressed, Honey. There is a Santa: he’s just not stopping here because you haven’t been good.”

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Steve Lang’s mantra was supplied by his brother Andy in 1963: “Stephen, you weren’t even any good when times were good.”