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Volume 38 Issue 13 • July 24 - 30, 2008
now in our 37th season

Fences

by Robert P. Barsanti

I was at Jetties for an evening in July.  A beach day was fading into reds and oranges over the dunes.  The fading light brought out the mackerel back in the high clouds.  Small puffs of fog scuttled just out of reach and into the Atlantic.  Seven or eight kids were far away on the sand, jumping from the life guard tower under a watchful and indulgent eye.  The Nantucket passed the outer channel markers and headed back to the horizon.  Even better, the book was good, the cherrystones were cold, and the Red Sox were winning.  And then I was sent a free beer.

Across the bar, a young man with a moustache waved behind the bartender.  I looked at the glass.  After a few moments, he came over an reintroduced himself to me as a former student.  We talked a for a moment about forgotten homework, adolescent rages, and memorized poems, then he gave me a pat on the shoulder and went back to his fiancé.  I was still trying to decide about his beer.

Every adult becomes his own Liechtenstein; we create our own Ambassadors of Protocol to weigh the appropriateness of gifts.  We sift and weigh the offer, then perform the polite calculus of reimbursement and penalty.  Accepting a beer from a now legal member of the contributing alumni is one thing, taking the same beer from the same man five years ago is quite another.  Beware the alumni bearing drinks. 

Now in my forties, I have learned that gifts are never just gifts.  Free beer is never free.  The gift giving ambassador comes to the border, holding a gift that may explode, cling, or require a late night meeting of the Cabinet.  That lovely, dewy glass may have come to me as bribe, hoping to buy some easy indiscretion.   Certainly, if the same drink had arrived while I was grading essays at the bar, I would know what it would be buying.  A gift may also come as a tribute, gleaned from someone who had performed a yeoman like service.  Big Papi and Curt Schilling will drink free in every bar in New England in tribute.  At best, a frosty gift may just be the beginning of favors exchanged over and over until the Ambassadors go to sleep and the borders open.  

Moreover, The Ambassadors of Protocol need to weigh and estimate the gift.  The packages don’t need to be so much opened as interpreted.  We read gifts the way that we read e-mail; we understand the words in front of us, but we listen for the message behind it.  If I send someone a pack of scented paper, I am sending a message.  I think you smelled better and wrote to someone else.  If I send them a Swiss watch, I am sending quite a different one.

It’s all about the fences and the walls we place around us.  For good reasons, we mistrust the offers that invite us to Florida for a free weekend, the free toaster for just stepping onto the car lot, and the free totebags.  Sad experience has taught us that someone wants to come inside the fence and mess with us and our stuff.  It’s better to build the stone wall between the apple trees and the pines than it is to find yourself with a two-week timeshare in Orlando.

Behind my fence, I would rather give the gift than receive it.  I am much better at sending messages than at receiving them.  Accepting gifts involves opening up the gates and welcoming people in, while giving gifts just means tossing them over the wall.  I don’t owe anyone anything when I toss it over the wall.  I do when it comes over to me well-chosen, wrapped, and over my walls.

When I was a kid, I didn’t have these fences.  Instead, I got my presents, shook them, ripped the wrapping paper off, and lived in the world of LEGO or GI Joe for 48 hours.  As I got older, I whined for different presents, or better presents, or more presents, but I always accepted presents.  I never wondered why my Uncle was giving me books.

As adults, we don’t get to choose the gifts we get, or who gives them, or when they come.  Perhaps I could refuse my alumni beer, but I can’t refuse Jetties Beach.  And Jetties is a beach bought and given to the town decades ago.  Even the concession stand was a gift from the past.  I didn’t deserve it; I could read it; I couldn’t reject it; I could only enjoy it. 

So much of this island has been a gift from the past.  The Trustees of Reservations, the Land Bank, and all of the others were gifts from previous generations to ours.  We didn’t negotiate it or investigate it, but like children we just accepted it from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. 

On another July evening, I sat by the Roy Larsen marker in Sconset.  Around me, fathers and mothers were buying kids Cherry Garcia, Heath Bar Crunch, and Fudge Brownie ice cream.  Then, they would get back on their bikes and pedal through Roy’s old gift back to their beds.  Their thanks came with their unspoken use. 

We have our fences around ourselves.  We protect ourselves from obligations and connections to other people right now, but we have no fences in time.  We can only accept without thanks the gift others gave us, be it Jetties Beach, Sanford Farm, a beach house, or a whole pile of books.    If anything, we need to keep those gifts and add to them for the generations that follow us.  There will be many birthdays and weddings that we cannot attend, but that doesn ‘t mean we shouldn’t send them presents.

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