This week's question: What's the coolest pop-culture-related item you got as a holiday gift this year?
I answered this question in a blog post right after Christmas. (In brief: I got some reference books and retro pop, plus one awesome comics collection.) But I look forward to finding out what the rest of my colleagues received. And here's a side question for you readers who already shared your list of loot on the blog post, but still want to participate: If someone gives you a book, a DVD, or a CD you didn't ask for, but that they think you'll like, is that a thoughtful gesture, or an unwelcome obligation?
In the post linked above, Noel points out that he gets a lot of freebies throughout the year, which means his Christmas wishlist winds up full of low-priority items. I'm in the same freebie-filled boat, but for me, wishlist items aren't low-priority, they're just obscure but beloved things that I know are too nichey for coverage here, and are generally from micro-press outfits that can't afford handouts to grabby critics anyway. With that in mind, I had two favorite gifts this year. War And XPs is the latest trade collection of my favorite webcomic, The Order Of The Stick. The stick-figure art is deceptively simple, but the storyline—which started out as a simple goof on role-playing campaigns—has become a terrifically deep, expansive epic fantasy, and this book contains my favorite strips to date. The whole thing's available online, but the books are full of additional material, and they require no load times when the action ramps up and the tension kicks in. And The Gabriel Hounds is the latest CD from one of my favorite indie artists, Canadian Celtic singer-songwriter Heather Dale. While everyone else in the office is keeping up on rock, rap, and punk, this is the kind of thing I'm secretly listening to on my headphones: sweet-voiced ballads that spin out elaborate stories.
What do you get for the pop-culture fanatic who has everything? If you're my family, the answer is "something else," like a nifty gadget that starts our car remotely, or the expected deluge of gifts intended to pamper, pacify, and please our infant daughter. But I did get one major toy for myself: An iPod Touch, which in a couple of weeks has already transformed my time-wasting minutes profoundly. Favorites from the App Store so far: Instapaper, a nifty tool for catching up on online reading offline; the addictive puzzle game Trism, with its blissful harp-like affirmative noises; Rolando, a pricey but quirky and inventive platformer that's built (rather than adapted) for the technology; and Stanza, an eReader that can connects to Project Gutenberg's immense free catalog of classic literature, on the off chance I ever stop goofing off long enough to ponder the deep cuts in Dostoyevsky's bibliography.
My Christmas was mellow in the gift department, so I didn't have any full-on geekgasms. I was psyched about The Dark Knight on Blu-ray, because it was probably my favorite film of '08, and I've turned into a Blu-ray advocate since buying a PS3 last year. (Genevieve only allows me to say "Blu-ray" once a day.) I'm still working my way through the bonus features, some of which are pretty cool, but no commentary track? (The "make your own commentary track" feature doesn't count. What the hell am I gonna say? "This part was filmed by our office. It's pretty rad. Oh, and yeah, so is this scene. Maggie Gyllenhaal looks pretty hot there." Fascinating!) I also plan to use our company-given Amazon gift cards to help pay for a discontinued 160GB iPod, now that my (also discontinued) 80-gigger is full. Apple has abandoned completists like myself by settling on the one-size-fits-all 120-gig iPod Classic, but dammit, I need more space for the thousands of tracks I will rarely, if ever, listen to.
Hands down, the most awesome/obnoxious gift I received was an iPhone, which technically counts as pop-culture-related because it's already seismically changed the way I do everything from finding movie showtimes to reading my favorite blogs to making sure Decider.com hasn't been overrun with commenters squabbling about hipsters to figuring out what annoying song is in that commercial so I can properly direct my scorn. Shortly after I got it, I downloaded Brian Eno's awesome "generative music" app Bloom and the entire works of Shakespeare for free in under 30 seconds—which is amazing, considering I remember spending the first week of my sophomore year of college going from sold-out bookstore to sold-out bookstore trying vainly to blow more than $100 on the same damn thing. Isn't the future something? (And lest you think I'm some kind of snob, I'm also a big fan of useless apps like More Toast! and Peanut Butter Jelly Time, both of which are great for showing your friends you're a dork with too much free time.)
I got mostly socks and sweaters this year, so the only pop-culture-related gift I can brag about is the 2001 book Hello Darlin': Tall (And Absolutely True) Tales About My Life by Larry Hagman with Todd Gold. I'm on record at The A.V. Club as a Dallas fan, so I'm actually sort of looking forward to reading about Hagman's real-life misadventures on the Southfork ranch. And, because there's a handy index, I can find out whether Hagman hit that tasty Barbara Eden shit back in the I Dream Of Jeannie days without also having to plow through tedious "I'm sorry I drank so much back in the '70s" platitudes.
My two coolest gifts came from my cool wife, and I didn't expect either of them. The first is a box set of all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels packaged as The Complete Ripley Novels. I'd previously only read the first two, but I'm looking forward to exploring each of Tom Ripley's sociopathic adventures. The other is a calendar by artist Dyna Moe featuring Moe's Mad Men-inspired art. Moe also has a Flickr set dedicated to her Mad Men art that features the calendar art and then some. It's all quite fantastic, couching a contemporary knowingness in an era-appropriate style. (Though I didn't understand why she rendered Pete as an android until I learned it was by her readers' request.)
I asked for no pop-culture, and I got no pop-culture, not exactly anyway. I got some Amazon gift certificates, which I've already used to buy a new water pitcher. (Exciting!) I may use the balance toward a PlayStation 3, but that might be too extravagant. But the biggest gift I received this year may or may not qualify as pop culture: My lovely wife and her parents got me dinner at Charlie Trotter's, which is one of the fanciest restaurants in Chicago (and pretty much anywhere). Come to think of it, it's actually pretty pop-cultural: Chef Trotter has had a TV show on PBS, and he cameoed in My Best Friend's Wedding. He's also written lots of books. His digs are pretty crazy: It's a converted old house in a fairly fancy Chicago neighborhood, very low-key—you wouldn't know it was there, really. Jackets are required, of course, and a team of waiters introduces each course. (The menu has two options: "Grand" for $165, and "Vegetable" for $135.) So I ate things I've never eaten before and probably never will again: Maine day boat lobster with yellow beets, chestnuts, and bull's blood. Kumamoto oysters with pork belly, fingerling potato, and pickled celery. Satsuma with clove and sauternes. Etc. After the meal, one of our waiters gave us a tour of the place, including the kitchen (which includes one dining table and about 20 chefs). He told us that at Charlie Trotter's, you can eat whatever you want. If you want a hamburger, he told us, they'll go out and get you one.
I was pretty pleased to get Connect 4, a game that doesn't require a lot of thought or analysis (it's no chess, that's for sure) but that tends to make a complete fool of whoever happens to lose any given game. It's a devious proposition: Winning is only just kind of rewarding, really. But losing is totally embarrassing, a full, thorough soul-crushing experience of the kind that actors draw from in scenes when they stare into mirrors and go all gaunt. Such fun!
My Christmas wasn't long on cool this year; for whatever reason (the economy, an insufficiently imaginative wishlist, being boring and middle-aged), the gifts I received were fairly utilitarian (although nonetheless greatly appreciated). The one pop-culture item that I plan to treasure throughout the year wasn't under the tree due to a delay in publication schedule, so I'm still looking forward to Complete Little Orphan Annie Vol. 2: The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn! from IDW Publications' Library of American Comics series. Last year I stayed up far too late for weeks in a row devouring the first volume of Annie strips, reveling in their melodrama and pondering Harold Gray's fascinating brand of political conservatism. In "Little Orphan Annie," good people can be found both on Skid Row and in the mansions of the wealthy, and Annie's great failing is that she expects the best from everyone, but doesn't think she deserves it. Although Annie gets off plenty of zingers, the joy of these massive, exuberant volumes is in the breathless soap-opera stories, presented from an admiring but polite middle distance that somehow binds readers more tightly than the histrionic close-ups more common in later dramatic strips. Whoever tries to take advantage of Annie in the next volume better watch out, because I'll be burning the midnight oil anticipating their comeuppance.
My Christmas was woefully low on pop-culture paraphernalia this year. Really the only sort of media gift I got was the one I gave myself: The Wire: The Complete Series, purchased with the help of the Amazon gift card the company gave us this year and a kick-ass sale price, bringing the whole thing down to 40 bucks. That doesn't change the fact that I will forever hate Kyle for pulling rank and snagging the promotional box set that came to the office a while back, but it eases the pain a bit. Probably the most unexpectedly fun gift I received though was a little afterthought present from my mom: A paper-plane-a-day desk calendar, which consists of 365 different origami-style sheets that fold up into super-nifty paper airplanes with names like "The Comet" and "Skyhawk." Coming into work each day and making a new paper airplane to annoy my coworkers with has been the highlight of 2009 so far.
Being a Jew means inevitably coming up short in the holiday-gift department, as it's been about 22 years since my dad even bothered to pretend that Hanukkah was a real holiday, and not a shitty, half-assed consolation prize for missing out on the mind-blowing awesomeness that is Christmas. But am I bitter? Well, yeah, a little. Oh well, at least we still control the media, international banking, and Hollywood. I did get an iTunes gift certificate from Scott that I used to buy Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's Mecca And The Soul Brother, Billy Joe Shaver's Greatest Hits (alas, not every song is as awesome as "I've Been To Georgia On A Fast Train," but what is?), a few Devin The Dude songs, and that Duffy song from the Damages commercial, which is awesome, incidentally. (The song, not the show, which I've never watched.) I also got a nifty '50s pulp-fiction paperback collection from Keith, which I am very much looking forward to digging into. Next year, I'm totally converting to Christianity, if only for the gifts.