The last-minute present is always a bad idea. Haste clings to it like a bad smell, no matter how expensive. Did you ever wonder why we wrap presents, carefully, in special fancy paper, with ribbons and such? It’s because wrapping takes time, supplies and skill. You can’t do it well on your knee heading home. Wrapping shows premeditation, the key to gift giving.
My patented Neil Steinberg Gift Method involves a talent not well developed in many men: listening. You must try to follow the stream of practical observations, chore requests and whimsy that your loved one emits — a steady patter like: “The property tax bill is due, I’ve got to get the boiler man in to look at the boiler, and would you mind taking all the dishes out of the kitchen cabinets and organizing them according to color and size, and oh look there’s a kitten outside, hey kitty kitty kitty, oooh what a cute-um kit-um whum-mums we don’t have enough books about kitties scattered around the house . . .”
It’s that last part that should be noted and filed away for the next gift-giving occasion: Get her books about cats. My present — and I’ve had my wife’s Hanukkah gift for months now — is always a hit, since it’s always exactly what she wants, because she tells me what to get, unwittingly.
Not every gift is a big deal for the big deal in your life. There are also those little tokens for friends, and again, I have the perfect one and it’ll only set you back $10.
It’s a book, but unlike most books, whether it will be enjoyed does not depend on the taste of the reader. This book is a one-size-fits-all, Type O, universal donor gift. Since it came out last year, I’ve not only read it and loved it but given, loaned or recommended it to a dozen people — my wife, brother, bosses, friends. It just blows them away, so much so that I began to feel guilty not writing about it, like I’m being selfish.
The book is The Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of articles by Gene Weingarten, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist. (Buy the book at a 32% discount by clicking here or in Kindle Edition at a 19% discount by clicking here)
For the title story, Weingarten somehow persuades violin superstar Joshua Bell to stand in the D.C. subway during rush hour playing for spare change.
In another writer’s hands — mine, for instance — that might end up a jokey, “Candid Camera” kind of piece. But Weingarten makes it into a meditation on our hectic and charmless lives. It’s beautiful.
There are 19 more stories. Some do a similar shift. “The Great Zucchini” starts as a profile of “Washington’s preeminent preschool entertainer.” We get a slice of clowning at suburban children’s birthday parties, then suddenly we’re off to Atlantic City to gamble alongside a clown with personal problems.
The range is breathtaking: light humor to a piece the editor of the anthology asks him to warn readers is “extremely disturbing.”
Is it ever. “Fatal Distraction” is about a subject we’ve all seen stories on — harried parents who on hot days forget their infants in car seats, where they die, horribly. I can’t turn the page quick enough when I see those stories. Weingarten instead plunges into the topic with deep humanity and compassion.
Usually writers are jealous of each other, and were these stories less excellent I might envy the time Weingarten obviously has to lavish on writing them. But they’re so extraordinary that I just feel proud to be in the same profession as this guy.
Buy it, read it, give it to your friends — trust me here. If you later feel dissatisfied, I’ll buy your copy from you. I’m always looking for more, since I tend to give mine away, and the one copy I’ve got looks like somebody scrubbed the floor with it. The holidays approach, tick tock, don’t wait until the last minute.
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