Thursday, December 23, 2010

Plastic Grace

In a recent report from the National Retail Federation (otherwise heretofore conveniently known as NRF), numbers were supposed to rise this year for projected spending on holiday gift cards. You know what I'm talking about: those incredibly close-at-hand, pocket-sized, credit-card style rectangles of plastic with a magnetic stripe running across their back. Gift cards are the gift just within easy reach in the checkout lane--the last-minute, "oh-my-gosh-I-almost-forgot," "my-cart-is-full-but-I-have-to-get-him/her-something," "I-don't-know-what-sort-of-things-kids-want-these-days," "I-don't-care-what-sort-of-things-kids-want-these-days," "what-do-you-get-for-someone-who-has-everything-anyway?" "I-was-thinking-about-you-in-the-checkout-line" kind of gift.

It's the gift which--quite literally--has come to define that age-old cliche': "It's the thought that counts."

According to this year's survey by the NRF, however, the unassuming little gift card remains the most popular, most requested item this holiday season, with 57% of adults reporting that they prefer to receive it, and 77.3% of shoppers supposedly being willing to support that desire by falling under the spell of the wire slip-rack in the front of the store and buying at least one of the miniature plastic presents for at least one of the lucky people on their to-buy-for list. (

Forget about your flatscreen TVs, your Playstations, your iPads, your iPhones, and any other bit of techno-gadgetry that has an over-abundance of lowercase-i's in its name.

Behold the gift card.

Something is going on here. Exactly what, though, I'm not quite sure. American holiday consuming has now gotten to the point, it seems, where it isn't so much about what we buy, it's simply about buying something--anything--and scratching yet another name off our lists. It's about ease, and speed, and convenience. It's about crunching numbers and good "business sense"--meeting our required shopping quota while expending the least amount of mental and physical energy doing so. It's about shopping made simple. It's about avoiding long lines and crushing crowds at both the Layaway and Customer Service desks. It's about cutting expenses where expenses can be cut--which would certainly include postal fees of boxing up, and wrapping with paper and ribbon and bow, only to be boxed again, and then weighed, and then shipped halfway across the country only to be torn into, and ripped open, and discarded.

*[Aside: I would say, "Imagine how much simpler (and cheaper) all of this would be if, instead, we just dropped a gift card in an envelope, licked it, stamped it, addressed it, and sent it on its way," except I don't have to say that since--if we are to believe the annual numbers being put out from the NRF--most of us are doing that very thing anyway. Including me--as it turns out--in all of my knee-jerk, hypocritical moaning about what something like this surely must mean. I have been known, in recent years, to rely more heavily on resorting to buying gift cards during the holidays. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reasons everyone else seems to be doing it: Because it's easy, and it's quick, and it's convenient. These days, more often than not, I find myself being that person I described earlier who finds himself near the store's entrance, falling under the lure of the wire slip-rack that bulges with thousands of dollars of intangible "gifts," hanging in neat little plastic rectangular rows, waiting to be bought. These days, as well, more often than not, I am also that person--now to be included in the 57% of us, I guess--who, when asked what I would like for Christmas, thinks about it for approximately ten seconds, shrugs, and then responds as casually and noncommitedly as possible: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess."]

Ten words: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess." That's a pretty subtle summation of whatever it is that's going on in our consumer culture these days. What do we mean when we respond in such a way? On the surface, of course, it sounds so casual and nocommittal of us. It makes us sound so selfless and almost zen in our elimination of desire. Nothing as trivial as wanting--and asking--for a specific little something on Christmas could possibly trip us up in our journey of spiritual purification.

All of which, of course--for most of us, anyway--is total bullshit.

Of course we want things. We want lots of things, more than likely. But we've gotten to the point in our society where there is almost an unspoken stigma that goes along with asking for something that you either: 1.) need, 2.) want, or 3.) feel in some ridiculous core of your being that you can't live without. And if you're asking for it, then more than likely that means you don't already have it, (unless you are a hoarder, or a collector, or some other sort of bizarre fetishist for which there is no name yet--all of which is well and good, I suppose, but must remain as another topic for another time, perhaps....) In a culture of affluence such as ours--a culture of big TVs nestled inside big homes with big cars parked out front--there is almost a sad sense of shame in asking for something that you don't already have--even at Christmastime, as it turns out! It's an odd mixture of: 1.) cultural guilt, and 2.) an admission of that guilt, and finally 3.) a way to seek refuge and redemption from that guilt.

*[Aside: Of course another reason that we take the 5th when asked during the holidays what it is we would most need or like (choosing instead the easier, quicker, and more convenient path-of-least-resistance in the gift card) is that we are, in essence, lazier than hell. As it turns out, we're too lazy these days to even give added effort to coming up with a halfway respectable wish-list. When and how did all of this happen? Is there a time and place in our collective contemporary history that we could point to as a hinge, of sorts, a time that led us to where we are now in our habits as fully westernized consumers--a nation of professional wanters and desirers? Think back to when you were a child and of the days and weeks and months leading up--in time-numbingly slow anticipation--to Christmas Eve, and to Santa Claus, and to selfish, shameless abundance and greed. Do you remember the thrill of looking through the toy section in the J.C. Penneys or Sears catalogs--the feel of the slick pages beneath your fingers, the addictive smell of the binding glue, the weight of the book spread out upon your thin lap, holding you down to the couch, keeping you from jumping up for joy (but just barely!) at the turn of each page? Can you remember the thrill and sheer exultation of being a kid at Christmastime, and of how you couldn't believe--you SIMPLY COULD NOT BELIEVE--that all you had to do was ask for something, and you just might find it wrapped in bright, glossy red and green paper and ribbon and bow beneath the twinkling Christmas tree on Christmas morning? And of how difficult it was--painful to the bone, in fact--to be reminded that you couldn't get everything you wanted, and to choose your words carefully when sitting on Santa's lap in the mall, and to be a prudent and mindful editor when writing your yearly wish-list to the North Pole? How, oh how, would you ever be able to narrow your desires down that much? to today. Can you imagine that child of yesterday looking over your shoulder, listening in on a recent conversation as you whine about your adult worries and complaints of the rushed and harried holiday season, moaning about "not enough time in the day," and "just look how fast the year has gone," and "I can't believe how soon the stores start advertising for Christmas, earlier and earlier every year?" And the coup-de-grace', of course, coming when asked what you would like for the holidays this year: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess." That little child--the younger self you used to be--watching and listening to you carry on in such a way, would more than likely turn and walk off in utter contempt and disgust and confusion over just how far away you've drifted from the person you used to be. Your better self, undoubtedly. Your truer self, perhaps.]

Don't worry, this isn't going to turn into some maudlin eulogy bemoaning the loss of our youth. I won't bore you with yet another overly-romanticized nostalgic trip down Memory Lane, wistfully looking over our communal shoulders like Lot's wife at the city she so loved before turning into a giant salt-lick.

Because we all know the obvious, anyway: Christmas is a magical time when you're a child. (And by "magical," I mean, quite literally of course, magical.) And we are equally aware of the obvious opposite end of the spectrum: Christmas is a lot less "magical" and much more "real" with the passage of time. (That's not to say that the much heralded "Christmas spirit" can't still be found and enjoyed as an adult. Of course it can. I'm simply saying that as I've gotten older, and as the bills pile up in my mailbox faster than the Christmas cards from long-distance friends and family--those same long-distance people who eagerly await the box of gifts I was supposed to have dropped in the mail the other day--I find that the mythic "Christmas spirit" is more elusive than ever. The magic of the season isn't gone, necessarily. It's just decided to take a holiday of its own, it seems, and decides to leave in its absence a tangled mess of head games and heartburn knotted in a tighter ball than those stupid Christmas lights that I dig out each year. Just how in the hell those things get knotted in their 11-month hibernation, I'll never know...)

Which brings me back--in an admittedly roundabout way--to the gift card.

Are they really such a bad thing, after all? I mean, in theory, hasn't the idea of "the gift card" been around for a long time anyway? Isn't this little 2" X 3" rectangle of plastic just the evolved version of the old-fashioned "gift certificate"--printed on old-fashioned card stock--that existed in the business world since time immemorial? Doesn't the gift card--as did its predecessor--provide a unique service for the consuming public? It has, within its narrow dimensions, the amazing capacity to make you happy. To fulfill a desire. To reaffirm that it's okay to want something, even if it's simply money in the disguise of a plastic rectangle. To remind you (in a sly, subconscious way, perhaps) of the joy and exultation of selfishness and greed you used to feel this time of year when you were younger. And to be all right with that. And to recognize that deep down inside--in the part that makes us most human and most in need of something like happiness, and hope, and grace--there's nothing wrong with feeling like that, if only for a short time each year.

"You're worth it," this little card seems to say. "Now go out there and buy what you want. When you want. Online or in-store...however you want to do it."

There's something incredibly freeing about all of that, something quite magical in its own way. Hidden within the thin, gray borders of that magnetic stripe running along the card's backside is a promise of fulfillment, and of forgiveness for the year's past wrongs, and of hope for happiness in your new purchase.

The merchants aren't joking, I guess, when they say that it's wisest to gather up the gift cards you received over the holidays and to go shopping for yourself as soon as possible. Redeem the cards for what they're worth. Don't wait, in other words, and let them gather dust and run the risk of expiring. Who would want to risk something like that?

Come to find out, it's all about redemption, after all.

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