By the time my sister and I were adults, everybody in our family had enough stuff, and it was becoming harder and harder to figure out what to get each other for Christmas. The parental units, in particular, were difficult to buy for. My dad had a truly irritating habit of hinting around about something he might like, and then, convinced that nobody would ever get him anything he might like, right before the gift-giving date he would go out and buy whatever it was for himself, leaving the rest of us scrambling for a stand-in.
One of us — probably my sister, who is much the most sensible member of the family — suggested that for Christmas we get each other Good Works.
This turned out to be a spectacularly successful idea. It removed most of the stress of buying something that you were afraid the recipient wouldn’t like.
There are some ground rules. First, don’t inflict it on a family if the kids are still kids. I think it’s just mean to guilt-trip kids into full-out benevolence at holidays such as Christmas or Halloween (“No, you can’t let anybody give you any candy, you have to trick-or-treat for money for XYZ, and it’s all or nothing”). I think teaching kids the value of benevolence is a good thing, but I think it will backfire if it ends up making them feel resentful of benevolence, guilty about feeling resentful, and likely to want to avoid benevolence in the future.
Second, don’t write a check and hand it over and say “Give it to the good cause of your choice.” That’s cheating. That’s saying “I can’t be bothered to think of a good cause that might amuse/move/tickle you.” It gets you right back to square one where everybody has plenty of stuff and you cannot for the life of you figure out what they might want, need, or like. It’s pathetic enough not to be able to think of something my mom or dad might like but didn’t already have (and believe me, I was aware of this), but if I can’t even be bothered to default to a donation to their favorite charity, I’m really doomed.
Third, you aren’t allowed to donate to a cause that would embarrass the person you’re trying to honor. My dad, who was a cranky old guy with his own arsenal, and I am really not exaggerating, wasn’t allowed to donate to the NRA in my name; I wasn’t allowed to donate to one of my own knee-jerk tree-hugging liberal causes in his. Strangely enough we never discussed this; it was a tacit agreement. But neither of us ever broke it.
My dad liked to spend time in Puget Sound on his boat. He and my mom went to the Canadian San Juans every summer for years, and they competed in Predicted Log Races (sort of like a car rally for power boats). In 1982 he and my mom won the national championship — she was his navigator, but the culture was pretty patriarchal so generally speaking they left out the women in the lists whenever they could manage it. The trophy is quite pretty, a Waterford glass globe, but you only get to keep it for a year and then you have to give it to the next winner. Your other prize is that you get to go to the other side of the country and pilot an unfamiliar boat in unfamiliar waters and see how accurate you can be in that predicted log race.
Dad spent a lot of time on the water and he was a SCUBA diver and he always got a big kick out of spotting killer whales — orcas — in the wild. (I don’t believe he ever saw one when he was SCUBA diving, which I’m kind of glad of, even though there’s no record of an orca attacking a human being in the wild.) Seeing an orca myself, and doing research for Superluminal, made me vow never to patronize any institution that keeps cetaceans in captivity. No matter how big the pool is, it’s like putting a human being in a closet and shutting the door.
So I always adopted an orca for him for Christmas, and he always enjoyed it and liked to keep up on the orca’s life and the several pods that live in Puget Sound. The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor still offers Orca Adoptions.
For my sister I adopted a Golden Lion Tamarin from the Woodland Park Zoo. Tamarins are nifty little critters that you could easily hold in the palm of your hand (you could probably hold several) if they would sit still long enough, which probably they wouldn’t. Carolyn and I would visit them sometime during the year; you have to be patient while you’re watching them and hope that one will sit still long enough, in your view, for you to see that she has a tiny little baby tamarin on her back, clutching her fur.
Come to think of it, a zoo membership or a critter adoption and the promise of a trip to the zoo might be suitable for a kid and not hit the forced-benevolence wall.
You have a wide range of possibilities to choose from — museum memberships, organizations such as Heifer, Médecins Sans Frontières, Safeplace, arts organizations, organizations that work for human rights, ecological diversity, fluffy bunnies. (I’m sure there must be a fluffy bunny organization.)
And let me end by mentioning Breaking Waves, edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and Tiffany Trent, Book View Cafe’s benefit anthology for the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. All the stories, poems, essays, and artwork were donated to the book, as was the editing, proofreading, ebook file creation, and hosting. All the proceeds go to the Fund.
I’m not the least bit objective about the anthology. I contributed “A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature,” a short story first published in the science journal Nature, and “Paradise,” an original memoir about spending winters on Sanibel Island in the early 1950s, with photographs by my sister Carolyn McIntyre. You should check out for yourself my belief that the contributors and editors have created an extraordinary book.
Happy holidays and merry Christmas!