Our boys–Scooter and Skipper–stopped believing in Santa Claus last year but the disappointment didn’t last long. It was, in some respects, a philosophical breakthrough; they found that the loss of make-believe in their lives had absolutely no negative effect on the haul of presents they annually rake in. They were like little David Humes, awakening from their dogmatic slumber, temporarily blinded by the bright light of reason, then unwrapping their gifts just like they did before the scales fell from their eyes.
Their loss of innocence created an opportunity for me to emerge from behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz as the real power behind the presents. No more would they be allowed to enjoy their new toys without an annoying lecture; now, instead of Santa’s naughty-or-nice pass-fail standard, I’d drum a perverse moral code into their impressionable little minds.
After they’d torn through presents from grandparents, uncles and aunts on both sides of the family, I gave each of them a special gift–from my heart.
“Scooter,” I said to the older of the two at twelve years, “here’s a little something from Daddy.”
“Thanks!” he said as he ripped the wrapping paper off a box that fit easily in his hands. When he opened it up, he found a very handsome–and expensive–French watch.
“A watch?” he said with obvious disappointment.
“Don’t you like it?” I asked.
“Nobody wants a watch for Christmas,” Skipper said. “That’s almost as bad as a pen and pencil set.”
“That’s okay,” I said, trying to conceal my pain. “It’s not really for you anyway.”
“It isn’t?” Scooter asked, confused.
“Not now, anyway,” I said as I put my arm around him. “It’s actually for me.”
“Then why’d you give it to me?”
“Because, Scoots,” I said with a fatherly tone, “when a man wants to blow seven thousand bucks on a overpriced gewgaw for himself, he can justify it by saying he’s really buying it for his son, who will get it when he dies, or in case he gets Alzheimer’s disease and can’t tell time anymore. That’s what the company that makes those watches says in their ads.”
Scooter frowned. “So–do I get another gift instead?”
I raised my left eyebrow and gave him a look of restrained disapproval. “Now Scooter,” I said, “let’s not get greedy. There are a lot of daddies in the world who can’t buy expensive watches for themselves and pretend they’re doing it for their kids–okay?”
“Fine,” he said grudgingly.
“Anyway, it’s Skipper’s turn!”
“Yay!” my ten-year-old said. “What’d you get me?”
“Here,” I said as I handed him a business envelope.
“What is it?” he said, screwing up his features into that little-boy look of consternation that’s so adorable.
“Open it up!”
He carefully slid his finger under the flap and removed a gilt-edged card, then began to read aloud. “Malbec wine futures? What’s a ‘malbec’?”
“Malbec is daddy’s favorite wine.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I can order it without getting a lecture from a know-it-all wine snob like your uncle. Unlike cabernet, which sends him off into spasms of one-syllable adjectives like ‘big’ and ‘bold.’”
Skipper seemed curiously indifferent. “I like chocolate milk,” he said finally.
“Sure you do now, but in eleven years you can cash this in and get a case of wine.”
“What if I still like chocolate milk?”
“No problem,” I said. “I’ll drink it. Besides, you probably won’t like malbec at first. It’s better for you to start off with lime-flavored vodka, like Daddy did. It has loads of Vitamin C in it!”
“That’s not much of a present for me,” he said with a note of grumpiness in his voice.
I felt sorry. “You’re right. And I tell you what,” I said, getting down on one knee to look him squarely in the eye, so he knew I was sincere. “When the time comes, I’ll trade you even up. A case of something you like for the case of malbec.”
“Can I have mine now?” he asked.
“Nope, you have to wait a long time.”
“That’s not a very fun Christmas present,” he said.
“Now Skip,” I said. It was his turn for a lecture. “When we sit down for dinner, does mom let you eat your dessert first?”
“No–we have to eat stupid vegetables first.”
“Right. That’s the Way of the WASP.”
“You mean those bugs with the stingers?” Scooter.
“Nope–White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, like you and mom and half of me. In order for us to hand down to you boys our highly-affluent way of life, you have to learn to delay gratification.”
“What’s that mean?” Skipper asked.
“That it’s more fun to have fun in the future than in the present.”
“I don’t think so,” Skipper said. “I want to have fun now–with a new toy.”
“But Skip,” I said, “if you deny yourself in the present and save up, you can have more fun in the future because you’ll be able to afford bigger, better and more mature toys.”
This was, unfortunately, a sore spot with the young fellow. He had decided long ago that he didn’t want to be mature, because all mature people he’d ever met were boring.
I could see that my first experiment in didactic gift-giving was a bit of a failure, so I decided to swing for the fences and give them their big, joint present. This had been a tradition in our family since they were toddlers; each year we gave them something for the two of them to share–a swing set, a backyard hockey rink–to teach them the lesson that it’s better to enjoy things together than by yourself. “C’mon–I’ve got one last present, out in the garage!”
They were off like a shot, round the corner and into the kitchen, then out the door into the garage where they saw–a robin’s egg blue ’57 Thunderbird!
“Cool,” Scooter said, as he started to jump in the driver’s seat.
“Whoa, whoa!” I shouted, causing him to pull his hand back from the door handle as if he’d been burned.
“What?” he asked, mystified.
“You can’t actually sit in it!” I said with repressed outrage.
“We can’t?” Skipper asked.
“No–it’s a very valuable car.”
Scooter sized it up. Next to my wife’s behemoth SUV, it looked somewhat insignificant. “Why is it so valuable?”
“Because it’s an antique, and they don’t make them anymore. Daddy’s wanted one ever since he was a little boy like you guys.”
“Will I be able to drive it when I’m 16?” Scooter asked. He’s still four years away from the onset of automotive freedom, and he’s itching to get his fingers on a steering wheel to get away from his father.
“I don’t think so, Scoots,” I say with affected regret. “You can have my 2006 Pontiac as your starter car when you first start driving. I don’t want you to scratch this one up–it cost a lot of money.”
“How much?” Skipper asked.
“We don’t talk about money in our family, Skip, except in a vague, roundabout way, like it’s some spirit in the sky. Let’s just say I had to take all the money that mom and I had saved for your college to pay for it.”
A dark cloud seemed to pass over Skipper’s face. He’s a thoughtful little guy, more studious than his older brother. He’s already looking forward to the day when he will leave home, paint his face and appear plastered on TV at a major athletic event. “Then how will we be able to go to college?” he asked plaintively.
“Skip–that’s not going to be a problem, okay?” I said, reassuring him. “When Bernie Sanders is elected president in 2020, college will be free!”
“Grandpa says Bernie Sanders is an idiot!” Scooter said.
“Scoots, I don’t want to contradict Grandpa, but if Mr. Sanders says college will be free, I think he knows what he’s talking about.”
“Where will the money come from?” Skipper asked.
“From a land far, far away,” I said. “Where unicorns roam.”
Scooter laughed, but Skipper didn’t. I once took him for a walk through a local college campus, and he absolutely loved the atmosphere. He was most impressed by the complete absence of adult supervision, so he’s really looking forward to the undergrad experience.
“I bet Grandpa is smarter than Bernie Sanders,” Skipper said, unwilling to join in the joking about such a serious topic.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Mr. Sanders has the lowest net worth of any of the candidates and he’s the oldest. You have to be pretty darn clever to pull off a stunt like that.”
Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!”