Shopaholism by proxy, part 1

I once had a faraway relative who sent me presents several times a year. He never had any children of his own, fortunately.

I say that because he was not a fun person. Perhaps he best revealed his general stance toward life when, in the early years of email, he vowed to me between clenched teeth that if anybody ever once dared to send him a joke, he would never again open an email from that person again, because that person had wasted his time. Good thing that graphics could not be sent in those days; God forbid anyone should send him pictures of kittens.

270px-Une_sandwich_au_beurre_de_pinottesWhenever I visited with him, he would lecture me (decades before it was boilerplate in every financial column) on how much money I could save by bringing a thermos of coffee and a peanut butter sandwich to work every day instead of buying any comestibles at the office, and by making an entire week’s dinners in one large batch all at once (the same dish for every night of that week). He expounded on “the power of compounding” as if I were a wastrel with the impulse control of an infant.

His gifts to me clearly arose from a dialogue he was having with himself that had nothing to do with anyone else. They were always things he wanted for himself but was too much of a cheapskate to get for himself. It was as though he were prying money from his own clenched fingers and, in a bizarrely literal interpretation of the Golden Rule, sent me precisely what he would have liked someone to send him.

The gifts displayed a mind-bending degree of specialization. One time I got an envelope from him, and I tore it to pull out the note inside. The note explained that the envelope was a first-day cover of the stamp, and thus, ineffably more valuable than the stamp purchased on the second day of release. I looked at the stamp in bewilderment and spotted the large picture on the front. The stamp celebrated a topic he deeply cared about which had never interested me; and I was confused about why he would be sending a stamp to me, who had never felt interest in philately, until I remembered that when he was a boy, he had had a stamp collection.

Harry_S._Truman_first_day_cover_1973-05-08Naturally, ripping apart the envelope ruined any value the first day cover may have had. But anyway I always got rid of his gifts as quickly as possible after I had opened them in the vain hope that for once, they would not be all about his own longings for himself.

I wasn’t hoping he would give me what I wanted; I just wished that once in a while he would give me something he didn’t want for himself. Nothing too complicated; it just would have been a nice touch to send, say, a piece of clothing in a woman’s size and proportioned for a woman, instead of the same item in a men’s size and cut.

It would be proper for me to acknowledge that it was kind of him to think of me, and good of him to spend his hard earned, extremely carefully saved money and to take the trouble to wrap and mail the package. And cetera. But when someone is a joyless skinflint, you know that any of their gifts is either joylessly self-seeking, or made from a joyless sense of obligation, or both; and under such circumstances, it is hard to be a joyful recipient.

What is the point of recalling this particularly unpleasant relative? In the light of the approaching “holiday season,” these repeated self-centered gifts bear a very stern warning for us shopaholics.

[to be continued]

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