"The Gift of the Magi," O. Henry's classic short story about a young couple's Christmas snafu, will be discussed this Wednesday at noon in Downtown's only street-level bookstore, Awesome Books.
If you don't think that sounds like fun, you've never read the story. Still, even a brilliant fable can need updating. This plot turns on the woman buying her hubby a platinum chain for his pocket watch and him spending big on decorative tortoise-shell combs. C'mon, how does that square in this age of Thanksgiving mall camp-outs and Cyber Monday?
Fortunately, 11 years ago when this century was still an infant, my wife and I managed a Christmas klutzery that O. Henry might have written. I wrote about this a decade ago, but the world has changed so much since that the printed word itself seems threatened.
Thus I return to this tale that began with a chore that already seems as passe as a pay phone: the Christmas letter. Most Americans have no need for these annual family updates now, with too much of our private lives texted, tweeted and/or splattered across Facebook.
Back in 2001, though, we were still dutiful participants in this winter rite. I'd go to J.R. Weldin Co. on Wood Street -- a store so quaint that O. Henry could have visited back when he lived briefly in Pittsburgh a century and change ago -- to choose the stationery. That year, though, my one-and-only erred in slipping some of the pages into the computer printer. A dozen or more pages were unfit to mail. (Remember mail?)
I said not a word and returned to Weldin's for more good paper. Problem solved.
Then on the night before Christmas, my wife sent me on a walnut run. She needed them for a dessert she planned for a big dinner less than 24 hours hence. A short trip through the nut aisle later, I was golden, but then my wife burned the walnuts.
I knew I had to take another ride dahna Iggle, as we say on the North Side. But when I arrived at Giant Eagle at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, the doors were closing. The kindly manager took pity on my schmopitude, to coin a term, as only a fellow husband could.
He said if I could wait outside until all the cars left the lot, he'd hook me up, nutwise. The sainted man took two trips to get the right kind. I handed him truly cold cash, said "Merry Christmas,'' and soon my wife was making a Hungarian torte so fine it makes your ears wiggle.
Christmas morning was magical in that way it can be only when your children are pre-schoolers. (Maybe I'm reviving this memory because I so treasure those Christmases when our daughters literally and figuratively looked up to elves.) Unknowingly staying with the dessert theme, our kids went nuts. The 2-year-old was so enthralled with her stocking, I let her clutch it tight as she settled in for her long winter nap.
When she awakened that afternoon, her stocking was empty, and I marveled how this budding artist had gotten that much chocolate and orange ground into her bedsheets in such a short time. Stripping her and her crib, I threw the mess in the washer, all but the kid. Laughing all the way, I carried her downstairs and shared the news with my one-and-only.
"You let her take chocolate and oranges to bed?" she asked incredulously.
"Yes, and you screwed up the stationery and burned the nuts.''
Tra-la-la, la-la-la, la-la, la!
Don't you see? We had given each other that priceless gift of mutual incompetence. Balance was restored to our world. Somewhere, a bell was ringing because an angel had gotten its wings. Or maybe that only meant the torte was ready. Either way, peace reigned on our little slice of the Earth as Christmas Day slid into Christmas night.
If you still prefer O. Henry's original story, which is not much longer than mine, there might be a copy in your local library. Or, since this master of irony is now in the public domain, you could get "The Gift of the Magi" electronically by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A librarian will lead the noon discussion Wednesday at Awesome Books, 929 Liberty Ave., about how love conquers all. Or at least conquers all screwups. Bring your own torte.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.