Thursday, May 17, 2007

Putting All The Presents In Focus

Our Town downtown
December 25, 2006

Other than the cameras I bought for my three kids, everything I bought for everyone else was a book. I may have bought twenty-five books. I do it every year. It’s partly selfish. I like bookstores and I like staring at the stacks and shelves until the book I’m looking for shows itself, gets my attention somehow.

That is a great pleasure. And it’s like no other in the cultural world. Think of the shallow satisfaction of scrolling down that cable channel that lists all the programs, maybe it’s the TV Guide channel. There aren’t many Eureka moments in that exercise. Maybe here’s the difference. In the bookstore, you’re maybe getting a text for the next semester of your life; you may be buying an epiphany. With the tube, you’re cutting class.

For me, it was in the bookstores that I had my shopping fun. But all sorts of non-bookstore stores were filled all over town, all over the country, in many places around the world. It’s easy to mock out the buying spree or frenzy or madness or whatever it’s called. I’ve mocked it too. My bookstore habit at Christmas has always been in my eyes an act of superiority to the folks going up escalators and through malls. But I have to admit when I’m honest that the other shopping shares a lot with my bookstore thing.

What intense shopping for gifts calls upon us to do is focus. It’s no time for strolling anymore or window shopping. It’s game day. All you know and all you’ve seen has to come together to find a gift that fits the person. You have to get to the right floor, find the right size, remember what the room looks like where the lamp might fit, did I get him a blue sweater last year? This is using our wits. There’s nothing better. We don’t really want to be cutting class. Jerry Seinfeld didn’t really cut class. He wrote a show. Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass.” Thoreau wrote “Walden.” We like life best when we’re focused. That’s the beauty of a camera, the focusing on some smile or luster or shadow and squeezing the trigger. The photos we then e-mail out to friends are a kind of satisfaction, but not as close and personal as that focusing that came before. That’s why golf obsesses even the greatest athletes like Michael Jordan; the focus it requires. The poker craze, same thing.

Shopping allows all of us once or twice a year to have to focus in on a task. Of course we’d rather cut class and not do it, but if you give yourself over to it, it has satisfactions. Right through to the wrapping and the card.

Speaking of cutting class instead of shopping, a bar can look like a warm hideout from it all, especially now with ESPN on the bar tube. In the leafy, aging suburb of Cleveland I lived in for most of my adult life, there was a bar called Bud’s White Door, a frill-less place where you didn’t go looking for a bride. It was guys’ place mostly, beers, cigarettes and old-gold tin ashtrays. Anyway, on Christmas Eve day they cleared off one of the tables in the back by the payphone and set out a couple big rolls of wrapping paper, with a big tape dispenser and a scissors and ribbon. Of course it was free. I never used the service, was never in there that day, but I thought it was funny, brilliant, crazy. It also seems loving to me now.

Lots of things seem loving this time of year. The early darkness makes lights in windows seem warmer.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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