For the man who has everything

One of the ways you know you’ve taken up space for too long is that when somebody asks what you want for Christmas, you can’t think of anything.

I slipped to that state about five years ago. My wife asked for suggestions, and I couldn’t think of one thing I needed, or even sort of wanted.

It’s not that we’re wealthy. Newspaper reporters married to teachers can make the house payment and buy a car every seven or eight years, but that’s about all. What the children don’t siphon off goes into the anti-Alpo fund, an account we created to reduce the chance we’ll have to eat its eponymous product when we retire.

Five years ago, though, the kids were gone and the house was nearly paid for, so we had some cash on hand. If I wanted something, within reason, I could buy it. I’d also splurged on an expensive bicycle for my midlife crisis. (A supermodel would have addressed the problem more directly, but have you priced those? And the maintenance!) There was nothing I wanted.

Needs are a different matter. Our bedrooms need carpet. The bathroom needs paint. We need a new well, since the one we have has been sucked dry by development. I can do a load of wash, and I can take a shower, but not in the same half of the day.

But I don’t want semi-gloss enamel for Christmas, and a well costs as much as a car, which is way higher on my want list. If God wanted me to do laundry at home, he wouldn’t have put $2 washers in Laundromats.

Which brings us back, if you squint and tilt your head a little, to Christmas. More specifically and importantly, to my Christmas gift.

Because there’s nothing I want doesn’t mean I want nothing. Getting gifts is one of my favorite things, and the spirit of giving runs deep in my wife, who is thoughtful and generous.

But she has … gift issues.

To sum it up in a word, she overthinks. When we were dating in college, I expressed mild interest for 30 seconds in a hamster, an animal I’d somehow never encountered before. Months later, on some occasion, she gave me a hamster. I had to pretend to like it until it kicked its little rodent bucket, when I had to pretend to be sad.

That pretty much set the tone for the next three decades. She’s given me some wonderful gifts, things I never would have bought for myself.

On other occasions, she’s given me things no one would ever have bought for anyone. If/when—she catches me gazing at them in fascination or puzzlement or horror, she’ll explain how she arrived at the conclusion that I not only wanted, but positively yearned for the item in question. These explanations make sense, but in a weird way that makes me wonder if her brain was wired by Rube Goldberg, assuming anybody still knows who Rube Goldberg was.

When it comes to “hints” this time of year, then, it’s in my best interests not just to be specific, but also to be careful. I haven’t even ordered a hamburger in months, lest that first syllable trigger some impulse and bring forth another furry little parasite.

At the same time, though, it’s hard to be specific when you truly don’t need anything. I keep an eye on catalogs, leave torn-out pages around the house, and occasionally mention a possibility aloud.

You’d be surprised, though, how hard it is to work the phrase “No rodents!” into a conversation.