Monday, December 12, 2005

Cheap Ho Ho Ho's

We are now waist deep in the Christmas season. This can only mean one thing: You are going to be spending some money. Tis’ the season which makes cash registers light up with merry ka-chings and even the most feeble of starving artists have no choice but to pony up some cash on holiday presents. There is no way around it. You will spend money around the holidays. You can’t afford to look like an ungrateful, selfish, cheap sod to the people who are closest to you. The buying of Christmas gifts is a part of life, even for the starving artist.

It’s sad really that I have to take such a jaded view of gift giving. I actually enjoy giving gifts. I like trying to match the perfect gift to a particular person on my list. I savor the feeling of watching friends and family opening a gift and knowing that I got just the right thing. I love making the people around me happy. I just don’t love spending a lot of money, at least not currently when money is in such short supply in my life. But spend money I will because I just can’t let my mother feel like her caesarian scar was acquired in vain.

Now, the starving artist has many unique obstacles when it comes to holiday shopping. The obvious one is the utterly pitiful lack of funds, but this is not the greatest of obstacles. No, the greatest obstacle is your very own position as an artist. You have assumed the mantle of an artist and with this comes certain expectations. It’s not just enough that you get people something, anything – this may fly if you were simply starving, but you have of your own accord added the term ‘artist’ to the equation – you need to be creative. You are an artist – even if it is a pose – and people expect artistic things from you. Artists don’t get people toasters. Artists don’t get people things they ‘need’. Artists have a responsibility to think outside the box and get the people on their list the perfect gift, they never thought they wanted or needed. I know. I know. That’s a pretty hefty responsibility. Don’t worry; I’m here – as always – with some helpful hints to all my starving artist brethren.

1. Have an Exclusive List
I know. We all want to be the great guy with all the gifts for everyone. But you need to be realistic. You can’t give gifts to everyone. You’re working with limited funds here. If it’s not expected for you to give gifts to all your co-workers at your day job, don’t. If you really want to do something for co-workers, think small and inclusive. Bring in a plate of cookies for everyone to share. If you want to make it really special, make the cookies yourself – this can be as simple as slicing up some pre-made Pillsbury dough and baking. Also, really differentiate between friends and acquaintances. Friends are those people you speak with all the time, the people who would make sacrifices for you. Acquaintances are people you run into at the bar. Acquaintances don’t get gifts. As for the friends, if they really know you and your financial situation, they don’t expect much from you. Get them a bunch of little cool gifts. Even things which cost a few bucks can look big to people who know how poor you are.

2. Give Your Wares
Unless you are a total poser starving artist – not that there’s anything wrong with that – you have some of your artistic endeavors lying about just begging to be given as gifts. Of course, anything that you yourself have produced makes fantastic gifts. They come from the heart. They are the very sweat of your brow. The major dangers with going this route are appearing cheap and immature. Remember, for most people, the homemade gift went out of style right about the same time they learned to tie their own shoes. You don’t want this gift to look like a cop-out for actually paying for something. So, either give something of high quality or use it in a combo with bought gifts. For instance, this year I am giving burned CD copies of the Christmas episode of the podcasted Radio show – ‘Dodge Intrepid and the Pages of Time’ – I write and perform with my friend Mike Rubino – who is doing the same. While for some friends this may be my only gift, I will certainly give it in conjunction with other gifts to my family and close friends.

3. Toys!!!
Here’s an easy way to think outside the box: appeal to everyone’s inner child. No matter how mature anyone seems, there is part of them which is just screaming to play. This is particularly true of guys. Inside of every male, no matter how severe and serious, lurks an eight year old who wants nothing more than to put a GI Joe in the microwave – FYI, not a good idea since many action figures have metal pieces you cannot see. When it comes to buying toys for adults, keep it simple and fun. There are also a lot of toys out there which play on nostalgia. Do you have a twenty-something man on your list? Chances are he’d flip over a He-Man action figure. Also, no matter what, if you give any man a radio controlled car, he will play with it and he will love it.

4. No Gift Cards
Yes, gift cards are quick and easy. You just need to know what kind of store someone likes and go get a gift certificate. There’s nothing more to it. They are also incredibly dull and can reveal you to be the cheap bastard you truly are. Think about it. When was the last time you were really excited by a gift card? Exactly. Gift cards are filler gifts. They’re gifts to give only as a last resort. And as to revealing you as a cheap bastard, remember gift cards tell everyone exactly how much you paid for them. A twenty dollar gift card costs twenty dollars. Everyone knows this. If you are working on a tight budget, giving a gift card can often tell the recipient “Here dad. I know you worked your ass off providing for me all that time and making sure I went to a good school. All that effort is worth exactly $15 at Dick’s sporting goods.” If all you can afford is, say $15 for any particular person on your list, it is the best policy to find something as nice as possible for that person. This will take work. You may need to really search for a sale or a great deal, something to make that particular person think you spent too much money on them.

5. Don’t Fear the Second Hand Store
There is not always anything wrong with going the used route. Not to say you should always do so. That can get you in trouble, but with certain people on certain things, buying something previously owned could be a smart way to go. For instance, when it comes to friends I have often bought books from second hand stores. They are cheap and it is easy to match books with the personalities of your friends. This is not a good way to go on what I like to call ‘front line gifts’ – i.e. immediate family, very close friends, girlfriends, etc – but if you have a bunch of friends you’d like to buy for give the Salvation Army a look. You might be able to find some quirky, funny gifts. There are also some rare occasions when you can find something truly nice which can make for a front line gift. You may be able to find a hard to find collectable or hardly used beauty. There are even those times when being used – use the word antique if possible – gives a gift a certain charm lacking in something new.

6. Stay Single
If you are not in a romantic relationship leading up to Christmas, don’t you dare jump into one until at least the 26th. I don’t care if there is that particular person you’ve been flirting with. I don’t care if it’s incredibly sad to be alone around the holidays. If you do have a relationship, it will cost you, especially if you are a man. Not only do you need to buy another gift, you need to provide all the other things which go along with it. It’s not enough to buy a gift. You are going to need to buy flowers, dinner, a bottle of wine, maybe some candle’s to set a mood, among other things. Remember, no matter how much you spend on these secondary things, they do not count as gifts. You need to provide a gift on top of these things. So, if you don’t have a special someone this holiday season, relax. You may be lonely, but you are saving money. If there is a certain someone you have an eye on, make your move after Christmas so you don’t have to spend New Years alone.

7. Wait
If there is someone you are buying for and you know you will not see them until after Christmas, you may be able to get a great deal by taking advantage of after-holiday sales. Just don’t admit to it.

As always, these are just a few simple tips from my own meager experience, mixed with some observations I have made over the years. This is not a hard and fast list of laws. The most important thing is to remember to have fun. You are giving gifts to the people who mean the most to you. Even if you are not spending a lot, aim toward pleasing the gift recipient as much as possible. These gifts are signs of the appreciation toward the people who mean the most to you. Do not dread giving gifts. Be joyful in giving, and remember: when you stop being a starving artist and become a world famous rich artist, you will knock everyone’s socks off with what you have for them.

Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 8, 2005

Holy F*cking Sh@t

Those were the words. At least those were the first words to even vaguely resemble English. The first syllables to come to mind were something along the lines of ‘Wha-ba-da-doo’, which – I believe – translates to something along the lines of ‘come again’. But ‘Holy F*cking Sh@t’ was the first thing I really wanted to say. I was shocked. Absolutely shocked. I had never – in my entire life – heard anything as ridiculous. I was completely blindsided. I didn’t even think God – in his infinite wisdom – had created numbers so high. I was left almost completely speechless. Except for those three awful, awful words.

My entire existence is based on an underlying financial house of cards. If one card was to be removed or an extra one added, the entire thing may very well collapse. For some time now I have been able to survive at an unhappy equilibrium. I make just enough money to pay all my bills and eat a little. Add one more bill, or one unforeseen large expenditure, and that’s it. Game over, man. I might as well fold up my tent, move back into my parents basement, and spend every night crying myself to sleep. Luckily, up to this point, this has yet to come to pass. I’ve slid by, sometimes by the very skin of my teeth, but I’ve always slid by. The one thing for which I’ve always fallen to my knees and thanked God for is not having car payments. My old Lumina – affectionately dubbed the Silver Bullet – has been a warrior. Received on the cheap from my grandmother, I’ve hoped it would last until I was on sounder financial footing to get a new one.

Of course, life doesn’t always go as planned.

This brings me back to ‘Holy F*cking Sh@t’. Yesterday I had the Silver Bullet inspected. Now, when the lip-ringed kid behind the desk told me my car didn’t pass inspection, I was fully prepared. I knew the car wouldn’t pass inspection. It almost never did. By my amateur estimation I figured the car needed at least two new tires, some brake work – the Silver Bullet is hard on brakes – and maybe a new mirror. My mental math put the sum total for the work at somewhere between five hundred and sixteen hundred dollars – a hefty sum but still, ever so barely, within reason. So, I was prepared to hear some high figure, but I sure was not prepared for what came next. Fifteen hundred dollars. That’s all I heard. The guy was explaining stuff to me, but it was a silent flapping of lips devoid of any semblance of reason. All I heard was ‘Fifteen hundred dollars’. All I could think was ‘Holy F*cking Sh@t.’ Needless to say, the number quoted me had one more digit than I was prepared to handle.

So, now I’m screwed. My entire life could easily fall to earth in one little cloud of dust, hardly noted by the world at large. I was completely dazed. I wandered around the garage waiting room like one recently lobotomized. Where was I? What was I doing? Why couldn’t I feel emotions? The only thing I knew – the one unshakable truth which refused to leave my mind – was ‘Holy F*cking Sh@t’.

Now, a day later with a cooler head, I am better able to survey my situation. And still, all I have is ‘Holy F*cking Sh@t’. It really is quite a hard thing to come to terms with. I can’t afford to get the work done. The car’s not even really worth getting that kind of work done to. I can’t afford a new car. I called my parents. I asked for a new car for Christmas. They laughed. I started listing my assets. Looking for things I could sell. I have an old 19 inch television: worthless. I have a car which needs more work than it’s worth: worthless. I have four years worth of liberal arts education in English from an accredited, well-regarded college: worthless. I have two kidneys: now we’re talking. I don’t need both of those bastards. What are kidneys worth? Has to be a few hundred dollars right? I’ll just put one up on e-bay. I have bone marrow: score. I have – I assume – potent sperm: more money. I have two livers…right?

That was my line of thought for some time. I turned my body into a big operation board and wherever I found a valuable, unnecessary asset, I placed an imaginary plastic dollar sign. Every time one would be removed my nose would light up with a cash register ka-ching sound. I was a desperate man willing to take desperate measures.

Then my parents saved me. Apparently, after they stopped laughing at me – three or four hours – they talked it over. Since my mother walks to work, they can do without one car for at least a little. Thank God. So, I’ll get my dad’s sweet-ass Ford Escort with all four cylinders of pure, unrelenting power. I can have it for a few months while I save up some cash and try to find a new ride all my own. So, I’ve been saved. At least temporarily.

Of course, if something else were to go wrong again, ‘Holy F*cking Sh@t’.