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December 14, 2004
That's a teenager in the picture, and the thing is taller than he is, I say to Q, pointing at the picture of a toy we propose to send the grandsons. But it will come in a box, and their dad can help assemble it -- it's called "Chaos," and it can be assembled in an infinite number of ways to make an infinite number of cool things. Which is just the way the universe came, and look at all the cool things in it.

The girls live on the East coast and the boys live in Minnesota, so there is a mailing project at Christmas. From the time of Conor's birth 10 years ago on Christmas Day -- well, no, from his first Christmas a year later -- and for the first few years, we sent conveyances: a wooden baby sled, a red wagon, a rocking horse. They were bulky to mail -- Listen, when he's sixteen I'll come East and drive the Maserati home if you want, his dad said. When his brother joined the family, the presents got a little smaller -- books, games, robots that walked around the house, bird calls, a bat house. We've send them some weird stuff.

Q's negotiations with the catalogue companies take time. He has to be sure of details -- I see the notes he has taken of each call and shake my head: he's just about got War and Peace written down in the margins for each one. Better safe than sorry, I suppose. It's still hard for him to think that you can order something without ever seeing the actual object and it'll be all right. And sometimes they do get it wrong, like the time I got edible Christmas underwear instead of the Christmas potholders I ordered. These things happen. But ordinarily, it's fine.

And I prefer it to stores. I was poor once, and stores make me feel that way again: inadequate and sad. The wealth of objects closes in on me and I overload very quickly. A small store, for a very short time, is about what I can manage. It has been true for some time that America's principal cultural activity is shopping, and the most cursory of glances at our common life reveals that it is true Pondering that fact for long makes me feel a little ill.

But it doesn't have to be, does it? Not for me and not for you. We can turn on some music and let it transform us. We can read, silently or aloud to one another. We can read a play together, or we can go to a play. We can sing or play an instrument, or we can go to a concert. We can cook and share a meal. We can chat quietly while the afternoon grows dark outside. We can imitate one another and laugh, or we can imitate somebody who has power over us and laugh even more. Left to our own devices, we do pretty well.
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