All I want for Christmas is …

A couple of days ago, a colleague who has one of those ill-timed birthdays just before Christmas, stormed into the office the day after her birthday with a face full of thunder. This somewhat melodramatic entry resulted in one of those impromptu discussions common to small workplaces. Her birthday experience got us debating one of the abiding themes of Christmas.

You might be mistaken for thinking that we discussed the meaning of peace on earth. But no, our philosophical dive was even deeper than that. You see, her husband had just committed the ultimate crime. For her birthday, he bought her … er … well … none of the things she’d flagged so carefully as being acceptable — the gorgeous silver bracelet, a painting she’d fallen in love with, a bottle of her favourite fragrance, tickets to the Nutcracker etc. No, he didn’t buy any of those. He bought her one of those slim-line stick vacuum cleaners. What was he thinking? So many issues there. The domestic goddess thing exists only the Nigella’s dreams. For most of the rest of us the gift of a bit of cleaning apparatus, however beautifully designed, has eerie echoes of Stepfordwifery!

After we got over the horror of it all and revived once of the more faint-hearted among our small group with smelling salts, we exchanged worst present stories and had a good laugh. Of course the terrible offerings received over the years from our various ‘Hims’ morphed into a bleat about the minefield that is buying presents for the men in our lives. Why is it so difficult for both parties to recognise a fundamental and universal truth; buy them what they say they want, not what you think they want? Of course, being single, I’m spared the soul searching that goes with selecting a gift for THE man in my life. But I do have men in my life and while they are a little less problematic than buying for a HIM, the challenge still feels a little like a blank Sedoku puzzle (I’m crap at Sedoku by the way).

Few of us are strangers to that ‘oh crap’ moment that sets in as we realise that his or her birthday is imminent. And Christmas? Well, Christmas can move from being a time of goodwill to all to one filled with axe murdering rage as the pressure mounts, the budget gets blown and we approach the big day with trepidation — be still my beating heart — will he like it?

I’ve had a few fails over the years, but I’d say the epic one among them was a few years back. I’d just come back from the UK equipped with what I thought was the perfect present for the then man in my life who pretty much had everything and had the means to buy himself anything he didn’t have. I had thought what I’d found was an inspired choice. Who wouldn’t cherish a sterling silver olive spoon based on a design made for King James I? Consider the perfection of my gift. A tiny, exquisitely-formed runcible-spoon with which to fish an olive out of a jar or bowl, the runcible feature (aka the built-in holes) allowing for drainage of the unappealing briney stuff olives usually float around in, preserving one’s clothing from drips and similar. What more could a man want?

Truly, I thought this gift had everything: novelty value, cute quotient, implicit statement to new man about my towering good taste AND expensive enough to impress, but not be overdone. Imagine my surprise when my beloved looked at it for a nano-second before moving on to fuss endlessly about some cutesey thing his young daughter had given him. I sulked for about five minutes then grumpily acknowledged to myself that perhaps it was one of those gifts that were really all about me and what I’d like. Of course, it was consigned to that Bermuda Triangle at the back of the wardrobe (every house has one) where unwanted presents get sucked in, never to be seen again. … why, oh why, didn’t I take it with me when I left? I loved it. So my point?

“What would you like for Christmas, darling?” we say.

“Buy me books … music … chain saw accessories … a subscription to Model Engineer … a drone… Oh, and those new mags would look so cool on the car,” he replies with the fanatical light of the obsessive lurking in the depth’s of his pleading eyes.

And what do we do possums? That’s right, we ignore him. Or perhaps we do buy him the current D.I.Y best seller — How to dismantle a toaster and put it back together in world record time — as a token gesture. Then we go and buy a little romantic something else because we can’t believe the D.I.Y. snorefest, however much of a masterpiece it may be, is a proper gift because it’s not what we’d want to get. Where’s the romance in it? We simply can’t imagine that he can really be happy if we give him the ‘blokeish’ thing he’s asked for. Of course the outcome is as predictable as my inability to say no to chocolate; he hates it and we lurch from (at best) utter incredulity and hurt feelings at his lack of gratitude to (at worst) relationship-threatening outrage.

So my point is, buy him what he asks for … unless it requires sacrifices or participation on your part that is distasteful to you or downright illegal. Surprising him with a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses delivered to his work place on Valentine’s Day, or dimming the lights while he opens the elegantly wrapped package containing Dupion silk boxers is not necessarily the way to his heart. If he asks for a widget, it’s probably what he really, really wants. If you buy him a widget you will be spared the disappointment of seeing his bewilderment as he unwraps your carefully chosen object d’art with a “wtf?” look on his face.

If you want the same treatment, don’t just give him hints in code that would have furrowed the brows of the Enigma team. Be very clear. Be clear to the point of pushy. When he asks you what you want, tell him. Don’t fall back on the cruise for a bruise idiocy of “I’ll love anything you buy for me.” That path leads to stick vacuum clearners!

But really, what a ‘first world’ problem to have! It’s all so shallow. I’d love it if we could get rid of the commercial madness that is Christmas (or pretty much any other festival), and all the brand-led conspicuous consumption that is par for the course. The endless coveryer belt of consumer crap that no-one either wants or needs — let’s axe once and for all the ‘landfill’ shopping and find some deeper meaning in our lives.

Stranger in a strange land?

My sister and I launched a satirical magazine for women a few years ago. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle.

As part of this, we created frankly ridiculous quizzes for people to complete, spoofing the absurd ones in some mainstream women’s media. You know the type — Which Disney Prince Is Your Soul-mate? Can You Tell The Difference Between A Designer Handbag and A Cheap Knockoff? Does This Sexy Body Part Belong to Luke, Liam or Chris Hemsworth? While it’s actually tempting to linger over the Hemsworth hiatus (Chris for president I say), my point is, it’s all such utter bollocks.

Ours were so much better… Is My Mummy The Queen of England? Should I Wage War On My Neighbours? Are You Wonderwoman? Flicking through these old mags again recently, the one I liked most was Is My Partner An Alien? In fact, I liked the idea so much I found myself burning to find out. Then I remembered the inconvenient truth; I don’t currently have a partner. Undeterred, I decided to answer the quiz from my own perspective to see if I myself was an alien (forgetting for a moment that we had invented the quiz and therefore it was as much bollocks as the ones in the other magazines).

Much to my astonishment, my answers provided conclusive evidence that I was, in fact, an alien. I was quite taken aback by this. If true, clearly I’ve been suffering from whopping amnesia about why I’m on earth amongst humans — some sort of deep under-cover operation? If so, I have no sense at all of the otherness that I figure I should be feeling as a stranger in a strange land. Most of all I wondered where the space ship was parked.

In all seriousness, in the current international climate, the question “Is your partner an alien?” is no joke. Setting aside for a moment the Close Encounters extraterrestrial type of alien in our quiz, down here on earth, in law, a human alien is a person who resides within the borders of a country and is not a national of that country.

We all like to belong. To fit in. To identify with others. Be recognized by our kind and recognise others like us. We like our tribes. Us humans have a prime-evil, almost visceral need to identify with kindred spirits. Unfortunately, looking at the world scene right now, for many this goes beyond the simple comfort factors of a sense of belonging to  issues like identity politics, fanaticism, bullying and terrorism against people who are different or believe differently.

I’m an expat, but an expat by choice not circumstance and living in a place with a lot of similarities to the country I left. Even after more than two decades, I still miss aspects of my previous life deeply but there are no barriers to going back and I can visit as often as I wish or, more realistically, can afford. In some ways, I’m lucky enough to have two countries that I think of as home. I can only imagine the anguish of people who have no place. Refugees running in fear of their lives, forced to leave everything precious and sacred behind. What must it be like to have lost everything you hold dear? Then there are ‘over-stayers’ who’ve built lives that are as fragile as butterfly wings in a gale. Living lives that force them to be constantly looking over their shoulders, stalked by the fear of being torn away from their friends and families and deported.

Particularly at this time of year, my heart goes out to the people all over the world for whom life turns on the whim of others and who feel alien on a daily basis. I just read a heart-rending article about the atrocities suffered by Rohingya refugees who’ve fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh with whole villages burned after soldiers butchered the men, raped the women and girls and mutilated and burned babies. And yet despite their horrendous ordeal, there is no happy ending in sight for these ‘aliens’. Bangladesh doesn’t want to take them. Nor, apparently, does anyone else and there are even suggestions that the best option would be repatriation!

From the bottom of my soul I believe we should treat such people with the milk of human kindness. But it’s complicated. I watched as my birth country, the UK, absorbed waves of aliens, many arriving with religious belief structures as their guiding stars and for whom adherence to religious law was more important than adherence to the law of our land. We lived in a duality where everyone knew there were places — whole cities even — where the law’s writ didn’t fully run. The clashing cultures of nationality opened up deep divisions and dislikes. Un-crossable Rubicons flowed where political correctness enabled and then tacitly ignored horrors in our midst like ‘honour killings’, where there was often no justice to be had for many and discontentment bred the shame of home grown terrorists.

I don’t know where the answer lies, but I don’t believe we can just shut our borders and lock out any and all outsiders. I hate the ‘Little Englander’ mentality that spawned BREXIT or the isolationist America First thinking that is gaining ground in many western countries with its underlying shades of white supremacy. We need to be better than that and find ways of getting over our tribal affiliations with their deep-rooted prejudices.

Maybe salvation will ultimately come from the intervention of some as yet undiscovered but highly evolved extraterrestrials who’ve found the answers! Perhaps said ETs could helpfully start by removing for scientific experimentation fanatics and cavemen leaders like Trump and their offensive Banyonesque henchmen who fan the flames! Particularly at this time of year, I’m reminded of the age-old and still highly valid concept of peace on earth and goodwill to all.