Belmont Club

Despite Ourselves

It’s the time to remember O Henry’s old hoary tale about a girl who sold her hair — a valuable thing in those days — to buy a present for her beau.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas…

Where she stopped the sign read: ‘Mme Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.’ One Eight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the ‘Sofronie.’

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

And of course the scene shifts in Henry’s tale to reveal the similarly impecunious young man saving up an impossible sum from his miserable income to buy Della some combs. You know — the kinds of things used to arrange one’s hair. And then they meet on Christmas day, he with the combs and she shorn of hair.

Eight dollars a week or a million a year – what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table. … For there lay The Combs – the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise-shell, with jewelled rims – just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone. …

The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

That the exchange of things should turn out to be, from utilitarian point of view, an epic fail is less important from O Henry’s perspective than the fact that they were gifts from the heart.

Today we are much richer than in O Henry’s day. No one would now give away anything so paltry as a set of combs, except in some wretched favela in a poverty stricken third world country.

Today — even in China — it would be Ipads, remote controlled drones, all expense paid vacations to some balmy destination, a car even. Things beyond the wildest imagination of people who lived 20 years ago. For even in our poverty we are become rich, in more ways than we realize.

A friend recalled that years ago he spoke to an old doctor and asked him about the “good old days” to which the old medico replied “son, in the past there were no good days. Before antibiotics you might die of a cut.”

“Do we then,” I asked my friend, “live in the best of times?” He thought long and hard for we had been talking extensively about the foolishness of the world and the stupidity of bureaucracies. But he reluctantly concluded that “yes we do live in the best of times.” For despite every effort to wreck things, people perversely create as if there were some engine that kept pulling us ahead in spite of ourselves.

The engine; the motor that made Della and Jim give all that they had and laugh at the loss; the unquenchable curiosity that drives science, technology and inventiveness over the stifling barricades of red tape, past the maddening narrowness of those who want their cut. It is a motive force we have long strived to name. For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And so it is possible, even as we reflect on the paltriness of circumstances, to wish you and all the best this Christmas and a happy 2014.

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The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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