Chicago Sun-Times

Think ahead for these hol­i­days

If you need a last-minute gift idea, I’ve­got just the­book foryou

- Lifestyle · Lifehacks · Washington · Atlantic City · Weingarten · Joshua Bell

All right men, let’s syn­chro­nize our watches. It’s . . . Nov. 30; in ex­actly two dozen days, you’ll look up from your desk and think, “Geez, I need a Christ­mas present for my . . .” wife or girl­friend or hus­band or boyfriend— who­ever will look at you with teary eyes of dis­ap­point­ment if you blow it, won­der­ing what kind of in­dif­fer­ent SOB they’ve been lov­ing all these years.

At that point you’ll bolt to the store and join the scrum of men— and it’s in­evitably men, women know how to plan— wav­ing cash, des­per­ate to grab a to­ken and get it wrapped and get home be­fore din­ner burns.

The last-minute present is al­ways a bad idea. Haste clings to it like a bad smell, no mat­ter how ex­pen­sive. Did you ever won­der why we wrap presents, care­fully, in spe­cial fancy pa­per, with rib­bons and such? It’s be­cause wrap­ping takes time, sup­plies and skill. You can’t do it well on your knee on the 151 bus head­ing home on Dec. 24. Wrap­ping shows premed­i­ta­tion, the key to gift giv­ing.

My patented Neil Stein­berg Gift Method in­volves a tal­ent not well de­vel­oped in many men: lis­ten­ing. You must try to fol­low the stream of prac­ti­cal ob­ser­va­tions, chore re­quests and whimsy that your loved one emits— a steady pat­ter like: “The prop­erty tax bill is due, I’ve got to get the boiler man in to look at the boiler, and would you mind tak­ing all the dishes out of the kitchen cabi­nets and or­ga­niz­ing them ac­cord­ing to color and size, and oh look there’s a kit­ten out­side, hey kitty kitty kitty, oooh what a cute-um kit-um whum-mums we don’t have enough books about kit­ties scat­tered around the house . . .”

It’s that last part that should be noted and filed away for the next gift-giv­ing oc­ca­sion: Get her books about cats. My present— and I’ve had my wife’s Hanukkah gift for months now— is al­ways a hit, since it’s al­ways ex­actly what she wants, be­cause she tells me what to get, un­wit­tingly.

Not ev­ery gift is a big deal for the big deal in your life. There are also those lit­tle to­kens for friends, and again, I have the per­fect one and it’ll only set you back $10.

It’s a book, but un­like most books, whether it will be en­joyed does not de­pend on the taste of the reader. This book is a one-size- fits-all, Type O, uni­ver­sal donor gift. Since it came out last year, I’ve not only read it and loved it but given, loaned or rec­om­mended it to a dozen peo­ple— my wife, brother, bosses, friends. It just blows them away, so much so that I be­gan to feel guilty not writ­ing about it, like I’m be­ing self­ish.

The book is The Fid­dler in the Sub­way, a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­cles by Ge­newein­garten, the two-time Pulitzer Prize win­ning­wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist. For the ti­tle story, Wein­garten some­how per­suades vi­olin su­per­star Joshua Bell to stand in the D.C. sub­way dur­ing rush hour play­ing for spare change.

In an­other writer’s hands— mine, for in­stance — that might end up a jokey, “Can­did Cam­era” kind of piece. Butwein­garten makes it into a med­i­ta­tion on our hec­tic and charm­less lives. It’s beau­ti­ful.

There are 19 more sto­ries. Some do a sim­i­lar shift. “The Great Zuc­chini” starts as a pro­file of “Washington’s pre­em­i­nent preschool en­ter­tainer.” We get a slice of clown­ing at sub­ur­ban chil­dren’s birth­day par­ties, then sud­denly we’re off to At­lantic City to gam­ble along­side a clown with per­sonal prob­lems.

The range is breath­tak­ing: light hu­mor to a piece the editor of the an­thol­ogy asks him to warn read­ers is “ex­tremely dis­turb­ing.”

Is it ever. “Fa­tal Dis­trac­tion” is about a sub­ject we’ve all seen sto­ries on— har­ried par­ents who on hot days for­get their in­fants in car seats, where they die, hor­ri­bly. I can’t turn the page quick enough when I see those sto­ries. Wein­garten in­stead plunges into the topic with deep hu­man­ity and com­pas­sion.

Usu­ally writ­ers are jeal­ous of each other, and were these sto­ries less ex­cel­lent I might envy the timewein­garten ob­vi­ously has to lav­ish on writ­ing them. But they’re so ex­tra­or­di­nary that I just feel proud to be in the same pro­fes­sion as this guy.

Buy it, read it, give it to your friends — trust me here. If you later feel dis­sat­is­fied, I’ll buy your copy from you. I’m al­ways look­ing for more, since I tend to give mine away, and the one copy I’ve got looks like some­body scrubbed the floor with it. The hol­i­days ap­proach, tick tock, don’t wait un­til the last minute.

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