Tom West: Gift ideas for the person who has everything

When our children were growing up, we had a folded paper creation called the "Present Dragon." The Present Dragon's job was to protect all the gifts under the Christmas tree from prying little fingers. The Present Dragon failed miserably. When we...

When our children were growing up, we had a folded paper creation called the "Present Dragon." The Present Dragon's job was to protect all the gifts under the Christmas tree from prying little fingers. The Present Dragon failed miserably. When we're young, Christmas is mostly about the getting, and our children were young.

At one point, all of the wrapping came off a present while the Present Dragon just sat there. Sister was screaming at brother, who didn't know whether to jump for joy or cry in shame.

I myself still remember two special presents I was given. At the top of the list, when I was 4 or 5, was an International Harvester toy tractor, which was only slightly larger than the Big Wheels that my son pedaled a generation later.

I loved my red IH tractor -- after I got my brother to give it up. It was, after all, my tractor, given to me by Santa, but my brother, who was nine years older, spent his entire Christmas vacation riding my tractor around the basement.

I was too young to recognize the physical miracle taking place. If I was 5, that meant that my brother was 14. Like me, he grew tall, so at the age of 14, he must have been pushing 6 feet. Picture a 6-footer trying to pedal a Big Wheels. How does one pedal without cracking one's knees on the steering wheel? I don't know. All I remember is that eventually he went back to riding his bike.


The other gift was one that he gave me -- two basketball rims and the lumber for the backboards. He built me a tiny basketball court in our basement, not even 15 feet long, with the court lines painted on the cement floor. The baskets were only five feet high, if that, and when I was 10, I opened up a small gash in my head when I ran into the sharp corner of the backboard.

The YMCA gang knows that I have a flat trajectory on my shots; the reason is I learned to shoot baskets in a basement with a seven-foot ceiling.

Nevertheless, for me those baskets were a wonderful gift that have kept on giving for more than 50 years.

And that's what I find to be the challenge of the holiday -- finding a great gift that will touch the recipient for many years to come.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services at our house is the queen of giving. Most of the people on our list have everything they need or buy it when the need occurs. The trick is in finding something that they didn't know they needed. The reward is in learning afterward that they use it, no matter what it is, every day.

So it was that I've been thinking about what I could give to the readers of this column. Nothing I could do compares to the secretary's wizardry, but my offering to you is three gift ideas for the people in your family. They may be just the tickets for the people who have everything.

These three gifts are all books and each appeals to a different kind of reader -- unless he or she is like me and will read anything put in front of him.

The best novel I read in 2005 is "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini. If you read this book, you will learn more about Afghanistan and kite fighting than you ever thought you wanted to know -- but you will learn it in an entertaining, compelling way. This story about the meaning of friendship covers the period from the 1960s to the present, but doesn't delve into Afghan politics so much as how everyday life changed under, first, the Soviets and, then, the Taliban. The characterizations are exquisite. If you like fiction because you can learn so much about real life, read this book.


The best biography I read in 2005 was "Big Russ & Me" by NBC News political analyst Tim Russert. If you are looking for a gift for a member of the Baby Boom generation, this is the book. Big Russ is Tim Russert's dad, but as much as Tim writes about his father, he writes more about growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. His insights are wonderful and cover everything from when the first TV arrived on their block in Buffalo, N.Y., to the Kennedy assassinations to attending Catholic schools where nuns and priests ruled with iron hands. Every Boomer can relate to this book.

And finally, for the senior citizen in your life who has absolutely everything, the Minnesota Historical Society Press has a "book" of postcards called "Winter in Minnesota." Each postcard is a black and white photo of a winter scene in Minnesota, including a vintage 1910 snowmobile, a St. Paul Winter Carnival ice castle from the 19th century, and a couple of incredible scenes from the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard. It would make a great gift for somebody's grandma or grandpa.

When the secretary asks me what I want for Christmas, my usual reply at this stage of my life is "a credit card bill that doesn't run into four figures." I can honestly say that I'd much rather give than get, but the secretary is much better at it than I am, so I'm mostly consigned to throwing out a few ideas and paying the bills.

My ideas for you are the three books above.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at

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