When I noticed the big gift-wrapped box under the tree I was so excited. I couldn’t really believe it when I saw it. I was perhaps nine years old and my passion was photography. I’d managed to acquire a little basic photography darkroom setup. I had a little Kodak Brownie camera that had film (think it was called Kodak 120) that took maybe a dozen black and white pictures per roll. For a film developer I had this little Bakelite container that had a screw tight lid and inside was a reel device somehow spring loaded that allowed the film to be wound around it in grooves so it wouldn’t touch itself. The top had some sort of cone shape that allowed liquids to enter and exit without light contamination inside. I’d go into some closet and sit underneath the coats and clothes with my back to the streak of light at the edge of the door and take the film from the camera. By touch I’d get it loaded into this reel device and placed inside the container and screw on the lid. Then I could take the container out into the light. I had little packets of chemicals that I’d mix up. The first to be poured in was surely a developer. Then carefully timing it I’d swirl the inside reel using a little knob that stuck out the lid. Dumping the developer out next came the “stopper” and “fixer” (these might have been the same chemical solution). Again the same process. Finally dumping that out, I could open the container take out the film and hang it over the bathtub to dry.
Once the film was dry I had a strip of negatives each maybe 1½ inches square. Then the fun part was the printing. My printer was a little grey metal box about 8 inches on a side with a tiny red bulb and a small regular white incandescent bulb. The top was glass covered by a rubber flap that could be lifted up and replaced. Out of heavy paper I cut a mask the size of the image on the negative and taped it on the glass. The printing method involved going into a dark room, the bathroom this time with heavy cloths on the window and a “do not enter” sign on the door. We had only the one bathroom, so the sessions had by necessity to be kept short and planned ahead. Once in the dark the red light in the box was illuminated allowing me to see to place first the negative on the glass aligned with the opening in the mask and then cover it with a tiny piece of photosensitive paper. The rubber flap was closed and then I’d press a little button on the box that would turn on the white light. I’d count off the time I thought it should be exposed and release the button. Now the little slip of photo paper (smaller than a post-it note) would be slid carefully into the first tray of chemicals. When the image magically appeared on the paper I’d transfer the print to the next trays and finally I’d hang the print to dry. The results were a dozen little bitty black and white prints that were so small identifying the subject was not always easy. Yet I treasured them and loved the complex equipment-involved process.
What I really desperately wanted was an enlarger so I could make a print maybe four or even six inches on a side. I had looked up such devices in catalogs and done the necessary not so subtle hints to my parents that this is all I wanted for Christmas. Now here was that box all wrapped up under the tree. It was big and had a little heft to it. What else could it be? For days all I did was dream about making photo enlargements and how amazing that was going to be. I could hardly sleep in anticipation and thought Christmas would never ever come.
My family tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve; I think of this as a German tradition, but we weren’t German; I don’t know how it got started. We’d always have a nice Christmas Eve meal and then my mom would feign the necessity of having to do dishes and clean up and all sorts of things driving us kids to despair. I did my best to be patient, but all I could think about was that big box. Finally, my turn came to open the big present and I ripped into the paper and struggled to get open the box.
Inside was a desk lamp. It had a round base and a twisty adjustable extension and a cone-shaped brown plastic shade. I think I did okay hiding my disappointment, but that was the moment Christmas lost its magic for me. Every time I looked at that damned lamp on my desk it reminded me not just of that Christmas, but over the years it took on more and more significance. Maybe I stopped being a kid at that moment as well.
My parents struggled financially and worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. Both of them were depression kids and they were gesturally formed (a phrase that I should unpack a bit more at some point) in the environment of constant unmet need. My dad often told the story of when he was a kid and his mother couldn’t afford to buy a two-cent postage stamp. My parents, as did theirs, practiced squeezing every nickel until “the Indian rode the buffalo” as that old saying goes (don’t even think these nickels are still around). That lamp came to symbolize to me this kind of life; a life where every act was focused on either meeting the current desperate need or on a plan to eventually do so with less struggle and effort. The lamp served my education; my education was my hope for a better life than my parents had known. A photo enlarger was a toy; what value was that?
In ways that I cannot even begin to account for and inexplicably with practically no resistance, that desk lamp came to be iconic of my own life. While certainly not suffering the kind of unmet need that my parents did, they did without food, I nonetheless have lived never being able to feel that I quite made it. I’ve always felt I had to keep working constantly because surely there is more work to do. One dimension of this lifestyle has been financial, but that probably has been the least of it. I have struggled to be recognized and established and known and understood and appreciated, yet without being able to acknowledge any of these things should they occur; indeed, energetically denying them. I have always taken on three extra tasks that I might somehow finally get there; get to the point where I felt I deserve that photo enlarger and that to have that photo enlarger would not be some act of foolish frivolity and selfishness; not be some act of disillusioned grandiosity. I have formed myself in the pattern of the desk lamp; practicality, plainness, work, devotion to task, accomplishment to meet basic needs, denial of rewards, fierce independence, devotion to family.
These are, of course, the old values of those who have been considered “salt of the earth.” This phrase comes from Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The phrase is commonly used to designate the “excellent” and may be related to such phrases as “worth one’s salt” referring to a time when salt was of great value I suppose. And the words salt and salary are related as well. I’m not so sure I’m clear on Matthew; what was Jesus saying? The statement is part of the Sermon on the Mount and directly follows the beatitudes. Jesus is speaking to his gathered followers; it is they he identifies as salt. Salt is salt no matter; it cannot lose its saltiness. Of course it is its salty taste that creates savory or tasty food; so, I suppose that if salt did somehow loose its saltiness (akin to loosing one’s own nature) then food would loose its tastiness; would be bland. And if salt did loose its saltiness then it would be good for nothing and discarded. It seems to me the phrase could be understood as saying “be true to one’s own nature,” or “stay the course.” Still, too much salt (now taking on larger implications) can ruin the taste of food. In this case Jesus’s message might be “a little goes a long way” or “just a pinch will do ya.” And too much salt is poisonous as when, in the Middle Ages, salt was spread on fields to poison them. If used for irrigation salt (brackish) water ruins soil. I believe I may have gotten too much salt and a near absence of any of the more subtle spices.
This story, somehow way too personal, is but a tangent, a workup, to the topic I really want to consider, giftwrapping. Why do we do it? What is the point? Certainly it is a way of incorporating the tradition of gift exchanges into the tradition of holiday decoration and festivity. Yet we could have focused the tradition of gift exchange on the preparation of gifts that themselves are beautiful and festive. Some are. We sometimes give tree ornaments or decorated cookies or candies or cakes. Giftwrapping them would seem at odds with what they are, with their intent to beautify and delight right now. Yet, we insist on giving gifts that are not quite properly designated as gifts without a festive wrapping and a period of display.
Thinking about this wrapping is what led me back 60 years to that damned desk lamp. Had it not been in a big box; had it not been all wrapped up; had it not been there in sight for days or weeks before Christmas; I might have had a different, a happier, life. Well, of course not, but it seems so in some sense anyway. I have begun to realize that giftwrap creates anticipation. To giftwrap something is to put it on display, to make it (a present) present, while also hiding it and disguising it. Giftwrap says, “here it is, but you don’t, or only think you, know what it is!” It is the not knowing, the thinking you know but not knowing for sure, that creates the anticipation and excitement and emotion around wrapped gifts. The wrapping, as thin and insubstantial as it most usually is, is a seduction. A tantalizing glimpse, a suggestive hint, that, based on its size and lift, is suggestive, but that also foils certainty, prevents the bare naked gaze. The wrap says “maybe, but maybe not!” The wrap is “surprise” in waiting.
Disappointment experienced when what we anticipate does not occur, is a most effective demonstration of the seductive power created by the wrap. The thin eye-attracting covering is more important in some sense than what it hides/reveals. It creates anticipation, hope, expectation, excitement. All these active feelings cease with the opening; thus there is always some small let down even when the richest of gifts is unwrapped. Seduction is best when it is seducing.