The line between holiday gifts and New Year’s resolutions is less clear than it might seem. Unless you and your gift recipients have fallen into the terrible trap of typecasting—Here’s one more item for you with a golf joke on it, Jolly Person Who Plays Golf!—presents are aspirational: Here’s something you’re not using or doing, which you might now use or do.
But the years pass and the range of plausible possibilities narrows, aspiration becomes an occasion for defeat. Quite long ago now, when he and I were both in the process of leaving our 20s, a deeply perceptive former colleague of mine wrote a fine little essay about the problem of gear, the way that his closets filled up with unused or barely used equipment, monuments to the things he’d thought he would do.
“Every January,” he wrote, “the objects I sift through look less and less like nifty new stuff, and more like wishful thinking, like expensive souvenirs of the life I once had time to lead.”
What was an intimation around age 30 is, in the mid 40s, full knowledge. The greatest gift you can offer a fellow traveler through middle age, then, is something plausibly achievable, something that fits within the bounds of life, but offers some measured extra increment of freedom or pleasure or use. These things may help.
One day this past year, as I scrolled through the top-rated produce and seafood on the grocery-delivery website, my eye hesitated a fraction of moment on its way past the oysters. It was the same fraction of a moment it always hesitated on its way past the oysters, but for once I noticed my own fleeting, accompanying half-thought: Someday, it would be nice to be able to eat my own oysters.
Startled, I focused in on that thought. When, exactly, would that someday be? What future version of myself was I waiting for before I would be prepared to shuck and eat oysters? There was no deeper, more capable adulthood ahead, only this one.
The next day, I was standing over the kitchen sink with an oyster in one hand and a straight oyster knife, delivered by the grocery-delivery company, in the other. To protect the oyster hand from the knife, I was wearing a fancy leather kitchen glove that I’d been given who-knows-how-many holidays ago and had stashed on a high shelf while I kept using cruddy hot pads. I jammed the knife into the hinge of the oyster. It worked. My wife and I shared a dozen oysters standing up in the kitchen, before dinner.
A little research led me to upgrade to a “New Haven style” knife, with a sort of scoop-shaped blade tip, which seems to dig more securely into the hinges. I’ve stuck with the leather glove; now it’s crusty and stiff from doing something it wasn’t really meant for, but I’m using it, regularly, as I shuck and eat oysters, which is a thing that turns out to be entirely possible to do. Any cut-resistant work glove should work as well. Give someone the protection and encouragement they need to be an oyster-eater.
When was the last time the guitar got played? It’s still there, in the case, tucked out of the way. But the amp—no way, there’s no dragging the amp out, and for what, to wake up the kids? To bother the neighbors? Easier to stare at Twitter.
What if the amp was right there though? What if it would put out snarling distortion even when turned down to just above a whisper? It would be much, much louder than bored silence.
You can find cute little miniature facsimile amps from Marshall and Fender and whoever else, but the Danelectro HoneyTone doesn’t feel like a baby version of something else. It’s a fully realized version of what it is.
Nobody’s asking for a masterpiece. Nobody’s even making anybody responsible for what happens on a big swath of wall, or for coordinating with the armchair. There’s no studio, there’s no floor space to keep up an easel, there’s no time for long-term projects.
There is, however, enough room to spread out a section of last week’s Sunday paper and to see what some paint looks like on a little canvas panel. Eight by eight inches is good. If the children get too curious and grabby, they can slop some paint on ones of their own, while the adult can think about making something in a small clear space.
I was going to speak up here on behalf of a small glass of 80-proof Pikesville Rye, a cheap and unaffected spirit, tasty enough to sip for a nightcap or between songs on a battery-powered guitar amp or while putting paint on a canvas you may or may not care to look at later. But in October, Heaven Hill Brands, the multi-brand Kentucky distiller that had been producing the low-priced, well-regarded Maryland-style rye since before I turned 21, killed it off.
Late capitalism churns on. The Pikesville name, which long predated Heaven Hill’s acquisition of the brand, is now attached to a newly invented, more expensive, 110-proof rye whiskey, aged six years instead of the previous three. “Est. in commerce 1895,” the label says.
So as long as we live in the age of fancy versions of humble things, try pouring a nip of premium moonshine. A few years ago, my then-boss gave me a little glass flask of 80-proof Kings County Distillery’s unaged corn whiskey, with a plain typewritten-looking label. It looked handsome on the shelf beside the tall white-label Pikesville. Occasionally I drank some, and I found it agreeable—a finding whose proper location on a matrix of authenticity and inauthenticity, and high and low consumer culture, was too much work to assess. No matter what some writers may tell you, whiskey is not identity. But unlike the Pikesville, when the moonshine runs out, there’s more to be had.
A book—printed words, on a page, outside the idiotic churn and stimulus of the digital infofeed—is a refuge, a space to be a thinking, feeling human being once more. But a monument is not a refuge. A fat book, whether a classic or someone’s newly written attempt to bludgeon their way into the canon, is too much to face when the hours in the day are scant and countable, and the years in the life are getting to be that way too. Get something small enough that a person stands a chance of reading it.
In 1972, his own 45th year, John Ashbery published Three Poems. The last of those prose poems—long as poems, but short as prose—is “The Recital,” which opens with a discussion of “The problem”:
It is like the beginning of a beautiful day, with all the birds singing in the trees, reading their joy and excitement into its record as it progresses, and yet the progress of any day, good or bad, brings with it all kinds of difficulties that should have been foreseen but never are, so that it finally seems as though they are what stifles it, in the majesty of a sunset or merely in gradual dullness that gets dimmer and dimmer until it finally sinks into flat, sour darkness. Why is this? Because not one-tenth or even one-hundredth of the ravishing possibilities the birds sing about at dawn could ever be realized in the course of a single day, no matter how crammed with fortunate events it might turn out to be.
A used copy can be had for about $20.