My 2017 Christmas haul

Every Christmas, I take inventory of the holiday gifts that my wife gives me.

Some people wish for cashmere sweaters, the latest gadget, stylish watches, and jewelry. My hope is often for the least pretentious, most unexpected, quirkiest little gift possible, and she never fails to deliver. 

For the past nine years, I’ve been documenting the gifts that Elysha gives me on Christmas because they are so damn good. Every year has been just as good as the last, if not better.

The 2009 Christmas haul featured a signed edition of a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
The 2010 Christmas haul featured a key that I still use today.
The 2011 Christmas haul featured my often-used Mr. T in a Pocket.
The 2012 Christmas haul featured my fabulous No button.
The 2013 Christmas haul featured my remote controlled helicopter.
The 2014 Christmas haul featured my "I Told You So" pad.
The 2015 Christmas haul featured schadenfreude mints: "As delicious as other people's misery." 
The 2016 haul featured a commissioned painting of the map of my childhood Boy Scout camp.   

I wept when I opened that painting last year. A high bar. 

Once again, my wife did not disappoint.

It's an incredible collection of gifts. It feature a specially designed set of playing cards for poker, a Tom Brady Lego set, a device that replaces the cumbersome cords that connect my phone to my laptop, and that fabulous blue ribbon that reads, "I survived another meeting that should have been an email."

Best of all is the Atari 2600 simulator, which will allow me to play some of my favorite games of my youth. When I opened that gift, I told Elysha that it was hands-down the best gift of the year. It is my vehicle into boyhood. A chance to dive back into one of my favorite things from childhood.

Unbeatable.

Then I opened this: 

A commissioned painting of my grandparent's farmhouse. 

I grew up next door to my grandparents, and in many ways, their land was my own. It was truly my adventure land. A place where I ran in the sun and sledded down hills. Forests to explore and mysteries to uncover.

Hulks of ancient cars that my father and his brothers raced in the backfields.
The foundations of burned out farmhouses from decades ago. 
Apples and peaches and pears and chestnuts for the taking. 
Streams and ponds and fields that I would spend hours hiking. 

With the passing of my great uncle this year, it looks like the farm will be broken into pieces and sold off as housing lots.

It breaks my heart. 

Unbeknownst to me, Elysha took photos of the land and the house this summer and commissioned a painter in the Ukraine to produce this work of beauty. 

I wept when I opened it. For the second year in a row, my wife caused me to cry on Christmas morning. 

There's no better gift giver in the world, people. Every year, Elysha looks into my heart, finds a hole in need of filling, and fills it with thoughtfulness, generosity, creativity, and love.

So much love.  

The two birthday gifts you should be asking for above all others

My birthday is approaching.

My wife often asks me for possible gift ideas, as I can be a difficult person when it comes to presents. I am much more interested in eliminating things from my life than adding to it. The accumulation of stuff does not interest me. In fact, if someone would just agree to clean out the the extra furniture from my basement and remove the bins of clothing on the second floor of my home, that might be the best birthday gift of all.

But if cleaning out my basement doesn't strike you as a reasonable gift, there are two things that I want more than anything else, and I humbly suggest that you consider them as gift ideas for yourself as well. 

I promise you that they are far superior to any cashmere sweater, shiny trinket, or electronic gadget that you think you may want. 

Time

Truthfully, the best gift of all is the gift of time, and it's not a terribly difficult or expensive gift to give. In the past, my wife has hired people to cut the grass, rake the leaves, and shovel the driveway, thus returning this precious time to me.

Other options for the giving of time include babysitting my children, digitizing my photo albums, walking my dog, mulching my flower beds, bringing my car to the shop to get that light on the dashboard checked out, renewing my passport, determining the contents of the boxes in my attic, correcting all my spelling tests for a month, or offering to complete any task or chore that I would otherwise have to do myself. 

Your list would be different, of course Hopefully it doesn't include a warning light on your dashboard or mystery boxes in your attic. But I'm sure you can think of things that you would rather not do that a friend or family member is more than capable of accomplishing on your behalf.

I know what you're thinking:

"Matt, I'd rather mow my own grass and receive that cashmere sweater instead." 

"I'd rather complete the mountain of paperwork required to renew my passport myself and open a brand new iPad on my birthday."

"I'm more than happy to shovel my driveway. Give me that new Fitbit/star finder/water purification device that I have wanted for months."

No. I'm sorry, but you're wrong. I know it may seem presumptuous to tell you what you want, but trust me. I know. I know the difference between what you want and what you think you want, and the two could not be more different.

Studies repeatedly show that money spent on experiences generates far greater happiness than money spent on things. The gift of time is the gift of an experience otherwise lost to a mindless or meddlesome chore. It's the opportunity to play with your kids or enjoy dinner with a friend or read a book or watch a movie.  

I promise you that when you are lying on your death bed, surrounded by all of your material possessions - your stuff - your greatest regret will be the time you could've spent with friends and family. At that moment, the gift of time will mean more to you than anything else. 

It should mean that much today. Don't wait until it's too late to appreciate it.

Honestly, you don't need any more clothing or jewelry or electronics. 

You could do without the device that clips to your belt or fastens to your handlebars or makes imaginary things explode when you click the right combination of buttons. 

The thing you should crave - more than anything else - is time.  

Knowledge

Coming in a close second to time (and in many ways its first cousin) is the gift of knowledge. Find a way to teach me to do something that I’ve always wanted to do but never could or haven’t had time yet to learn. 

Either teach me yourself or find someone who can do it for you.

We all go through life wishing that we could do more. Accomplish more. Achieve more. This is a gift that would allow a person to take one small step closer to those dreams. 

For me, it's meant sending my wife to a cooking or an art class. 

For my wife, it's meant buying me an hour with a professional poker player or an afternoon with a golf instructor. 

In these instances, we walk away with nothing material but something far more valuable: The gift of knowledge. The acquisition of a skill. A slight improvement in an area that means a great deal to us. 

Far more valuable than a pretty scarf or a new sweater. 

In case you're thinking of giving me a birthday gift this year, here is the list of things I want to currently learn:

  • Change the oil in my car 
  • Hit my driver longer and more consistently
  • Install replacement windows in my home
  • Manage my photo library on my Mac
  • Wire my television for the best combination of sound and on-demand and/or cable programming
  • Strike-through lines of text in SquareSpace without having to learn how to code
  • Remove the occasional burst of static and background hum during the recording of my podcast

3 petty bits of nonsense that should never bother you (unless you are equally petty)

1. Friends or relatives who name their baby the same name or a similar name as your child

You don't own the name.
You didn't invent the name.
The name is not a reflection of you (even if you'd like to think otherwise).
Most important, the kid will never give a damn if someone else shares his or her name.

Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, so be flattered that someone liked the name that you chose for your child so much that they decided to do the same. 

2. Failure to receive a thank you note

We don't send gifts in order to receive thank you notes. Sending a gift with the expectation of receiving something in return is called a trade, and in this case, a gift in exchange for a thank you note is a tragically inequitable trade. We give gifts because we love a person or at least like a person. We should be giving gifts free of obligation or expectation. To do otherwise is petty and sad and cloying.   

3. The cost of a gift given to you

If you are spending even half a second contemplating the price of a gift received or (even worse) comparing the cost of a gift given to you by a friend to the cost of the gift you gave to that friend, it is time to start volunteering in an orphanage or a leper colony in order to find some meaning in your life. Gift giving is not a dollar-for-dollar exchange of goods but a heartfelt offering unrelated to expense.

Just eliminate gift registries entirely. Also, divorce registries are disgusting.

A recent New York Times piece tracks the rising popularity of gift registries for occasions other than weddings.

While it’s hard to count how many exist, registries for not just weddings and showers but birthdays and other events such as housewarmings, holidays and even divorces seem increasingly common, perhaps because of the expansion in digital registry services like wish lists, smartphone scanners and universal gift aggregators.

Registries might decrease stress and save time for both giver and recipient, but they are also etiquette minefields.

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Part of my wants to love this idea. It’s economical. It’s logical. It’s sensible. Best of all, it’s almost certain to offend traditionalist, who seem to garner a sense of self-worth through their understanding and practicing of etiquette as well as the criticizing and judging of others.

Miss Manners, who continues to find readers despite her condescending, highly predictable, completely conformist column, expressed distaste for expanding gift registries last holiday season.

I love it.

I so enjoy offending these narrow-minded, sheep-like people who are incapable of cultural subversion or free thought.

But alas, I don’t think I can support the expansion of gift registries. As logical and sensible as they are, I fear that they perpetuate the fetishization of gift giving in our culture.

While I am not opposed to the giving or receiving of gifts, the amount of time and energy spent in the process of choosing and giving the gift, as well as the subsequent process of returning gifts that weren’t just right, and the inevitable and horrific gossiping about family and friends who failed to give a gift or failed to meet some predetermined, arbitrary monetary threshold often makes the act of gift giving distasteful and awful.

The expansion of gift registries, while uncouth to many, would only serve to support this system of misplaced priorities, greed, intolerance, and gossip-mongering.

Also, for the record, anyone who creates a gift registry in celebration of their divorce has to be one of the most vile people on the planet and worthy of being alone for the rest of their lives.

Right?

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We finished our anniversary in the negative

Yesterday was our seventh wedding anniversary.

I couldn’t imagine a better day.

Best of all, we ended the day in the negative.

My anniversary officially kicked off the night before when I arrived home around 11:00 PM from a wedding and discovered that my lawn had been mowed while I was working at a wedding. I had lamented my bad timing on Facebook earlier that day after noticing that I would probably be spending a portion of my anniversary mowing the lawn, so my friend, Tom (who owns a landscaping business), came over around 9:00 PM and cut it for me.

I have made Tom the villain in the golfing memoir that I;’m in the midst of writing. He’s the villain for good reason, but it’s moments like this that make it difficult for me to be mean to him.

He actually helped to save my marriage immediately following our wedding.

Off the golf course, you won’t meet a better guy.

On the golf course, he is a villain of the greatest order. At least that’s what I want my readers to believe. 

On the morning of our anniversary, my wife and I exchanged gifts, although we had nothing to actually hand to each other.

My wife informed me that she was taking me horseback riding for our anniversary. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I grew up on a horse farm until my parents divorced when I was about nine years old, and so I spent the majority of my early years on the back of a horse.

Since the divorce, however, I had never had a chance to ride again. It’s one of my deepest regrets from my childhood. Climbing on the back of a horse flooded me with memories of my youth. We had a great time riding through the forests and fields behind the farm where she had brought me, and it made me want to start riding again.

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I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend the afternoon.

My gift to Elysha was cooking lessons at Sur La Table. I’ve arranged for her to take one class with her mother and another with a close friend later in the month. She was equally excited. 

One of my favorite moments from the entire day was when Elysha said, “We both managed to find gifts that didn’t bring any more stuff into our house.”

I loved that.

I recently noted that there are only three types of gift that I want to receive in the future:

  1. The gift of time
  2. The gift of cash
  3. The gift of experience, including learning something new that I can’t currently do

I later added the gift of spiteful yet meaningful charity to the list as well, but this is a gift better suited for a particular breed of human being.

My gifting criteria seeks to eliminate the gift of things in favor of a means of living a more meaningful and full life. I don’t want any more stuff. Instead, I want to be able to do more stuff.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.

Elysha gave me a signed first edition of a Kurt Vonnegut novel years ago that I cherish to this day.

Her Christmas-time stocking stuffers are always amazing.

The occasional clothing item, golfing gizmo or new fangled electronic, especially when it is truly needed, is always appreciated.

But as a general rule, I would prefer that items be removed from my home in a gifting situation rather than added to it. 

Our gifts to each other, as well as Tom’s gift to me, matched my criteria perfectly.

And the day wasn’t over.

Elysha and I went to dinner that evening and were surprised to learn at the end of the evening that her parents had called the restaurant and picked up the check.

It was a wonderful surprise.

Our final anniversary gift was given to us by our babysitter and friend, Allison, who refused payment (after much protestation on our part) for her babysitting duties. 

It was an ideal anniversary. I spent it in the company of my beautiful wife, and at the end of the day, we had added nothing to our home in terms of stuff.

Actually, the garbage and recycling were picked up yesterday. We actually subtracted a considerable amount from the home yesterday.

We ended the day in the red. I couldn’t be happier.

The Matthew Dicks Law of Thank You Notes

Inspired by a pair of insipid aunts in Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, I offer this bit of indisputably accurate wisdom regarding gift giving and thank you notes: There is nothing wrong with being disappointed when someone fails to send you a thank you card for a gift that you sent.

I find the requirement a little tedious and arcane when a verbal thank you has already been expressed upon receipt of the gift, but some people think a more formal act of appreciation is important and appropriate.

I think these people are slightly insane, but so be it.

But the important thing to remember is that there is something very wrong with telling other people about a person’s failure to send a thank you note. When you tell a parent, relative, coworker or friend about someone’s failure to send you a thank you note for a wedding or birthday gift, you become exponentially worse than the person who didn’t send the thank you card.

You become a vile and disgusting person.

That’s my rule.

Based upon this year’s birthday gifts, I’m much more mature than I was two years ago.

My wife gave me tickets to American Idiot, the theatrical adaptation of Green Day’s rock opera of the same name, for my birthday.

Coincidentally, a friend who shares the same birthday as me (along with a laundry list of other bizarre coincidences) also received tickets to American Idiot.

Great minds think alike.    

Though I recently posted that the gift I want most is the gift of knowledge, tickets to American Idiot are damn good, too. In terms of gifts, my preferred list includes (in no particular order):

1. Experiences
2. Knowledge
3. Time
4. Cash

With few exceptions, I have no interest in things. Other than a few large ticket items, I have plenty of stuff already.

American Idiot represents a unique experience, and considering I’ve written my own rock opera, it’s the perfect gift.

Ironically, someone at work attempted to solve my iPhone calendar sync issue on Friday, which is one of the items on my knowledge list, and two of my friends read the aforementioned post and have offered to assist in getting my podcast up and running.

I even received some cash.

This represents a dramatic shift in terms of the gifts that I have received for my birthday. Two years ago, Elysha planned a surprise party for me. The gifts from that party included

  1. A pocket copy of the US Constitution
  2. A sweatshirt that read Matt, The Man, the Myth, the Legend
  3. A basketball
  4. Gift cards to Dominos Pizza, McDonald’s and Wendy’s
  5. Snow pants
  6. Mille Bornes, a French card game that I played as a child
  7. Underwear (from my in-laws)

In the words of one of my former students, “It’s like you’re not even a man yet, Mr. Dicks.”

Another said, “I can’t tell if you’re an adult nerd or just a big kid.”

The husband of one of my colleagues and the bearer of the McDonald’s gift card asked his wife, “Are we really giving McDonald’s gift cards as a birthday present?”

I like to think that the tickets to American Idiot represent a newfound maturity. 

Or perhaps my wife’s attempt to mature her husband a bit.

A holiday gift idea that is unusual, renewable, charitable and might gleefully annoy the materialistic moron in your life.

My classroom operates a microloan account through Kiva that has been funded over the years by students through the sale of poetry. We have a total of $250 that we loan to small business owners and entrepreneurs around the world, focusing primarily on third world nations where our money can do the most good.

Whenever we have money available to loan, my students spend a couple hours researching prospective loan applicants on Kiva’s website, choosing possible recipients for our loan and writing proposals that are then read to the class. We debate the merits of each proposal and ultimately decide to whom our money will be lent via a vote.

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My students love the process. The ability to make a tangible difference in another person’s life is a powerful experience for them, and the time spent learning about these struggling entrepreneurs provides a greater perspective and understanding of the world beyond our borders.

It has also led to a possible holiday gift idea:

In lieu of a traditional gift, why not open a microloan account on someone’s behalf via an organization like Kiva and provide enough funding for the recipient to begin making loans? Kiva requires loans to be made in $25 increments, so for a relatively small amount of money, you can give a friend or loved one the gift of gift giving. There are even microloan organizations that allow for the lender to charge a nominal interest rate, meaning your gift could continue to grow for the recipient as the money continues to be lent.

I love this idea for both children and adults. It’s unusual, it provides the recipient with a renewable experience, it serves as a counter to the materialism and commercialism that dominate so much of holiday gift giving. and it does not contribute to the accumulation of stuff in a person’s home.

It’s the perfect gift.

Moreover, there is a decent chance that this particular gift would be poorly received by the gift-obsessed, materialistic moron who insists on traditional, quid pro quo gift giving.

You know who I mean. Right? That less-than-enlightened person in your life who remembers every gift that he or she has ever received and attempts to infer your intentions and level of affection based upon the quality and cost of the gift. 

In exchange for the cashmere sweater that he or she has given you, this particular breed of materialistic friend or relative expects something of similar value and quality in return. Offering the ability to loan $50 to a dressmaker in Guatemala or a fruit picker in Pakistan might annoy this kind of person, which makes the gift even more appealing in my eyes.

Poking and prodding and provoking the materialistic can be great fun, and even better, it’s al for a worthy cause.