Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gift Economics

Apparently, the whole idea that we bartered for goods and services before the advent of currency is a myth, traceable back to Adam Smith. We instead gave gifts, expecting reciprocity somewhere down the line, whenever we next need a favor. Each economy essentially ran on the inevitability of future need, similar to the way circles of smokers rely on one another for the occasional bummed cigarette.

Pleasant as this arrangement may sound, during the age of gift economies, rules were complex, and overstepping one’s expectations risked humiliating others. The Icelandic tale about Egil, the aging Viking warrior, and Einar, his young, spear-wielding friend, speaks to these risks. The two were best buds, quite fond of writing poetry together: especially after a long, exhausting evening of mass-slaughter. One day, when Egil is not home, Einar gifts his elder friend a particularly beautiful Norwegian shield. Egil returns shortly after Einar’s departure and, upon beholding the shield, and presumably feeling a bit vanquished by the splendor of the gift, Egil attempts to avenge his lost honor by finding and killing his young friend. Unable to do so, Egil instead takes a deep breath and writes a poem about the shield, as the social mores impel.


Popping-out of a trash bag in a neighbor’s yard, I spotted Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I must have jolted a bit with name recognition. The elderly Chinese woman who lived there noticed my double-take and beckoned me into her yard.

And thus, like an overeager, erudite raccoon, I dug through the bag, finding several paperbacks on Eastern religion, a copy of On the Road and a few other treasures. “Take! Take!” the kindly woman implored. Gifts.

I wanted to give my gift-giver a gift in return, so the following day, I visited my local florist and bought her a festive, purple flower. Too awkward to know whether my gesture was weird or otherwise inappropriate, I decided to simply leave it on her doorstep, with a note thanking her for the books, lest she wonder what the flower was for. As I approached her yard, it suddenly occurred to me that, unlike the Viking warrior the Icelandic folktale, my own biblio-benefactor might, in fact, be home. Indeed, outside her door, there she was, slowly sorting her mail. She stood there for a long time, even after I rounded the block twice, in the light rain, holding that big, ridiculous flower: I must have resembled a failed poet in a hippie flick.

Finally, she went inside, leaving the screen door shut but the main door ajar. I hurriedly entered her yard, placed the note and flower gently on her doorstep and dashed away.

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