A thoroughly modern magi
June 11, 2016 5:19 PM   Subscribe

A young heterosexual couple in San Francisco try to give each other gifts for their anniversary. They give up something of value to themselves to buy each other a gift, but when the exchange occurs they realize that what they bought for the other is dependent on something the other has already given up. What have they given each other, and what have they lost?

Yes, it's a re-telling of "The Gift of the Magi," that I've been working on for fun. I'm much more interested in the rest of my take on it (not a happy ending), but I'm completely stuck on what a modern, urban couple might give each other that would work in this fashion and have *emotional resonance* in a similar way that a woman's hair (!) and an antique watch would have 100 years ago.

Assume that both the man and woman have pretty stereotypical interests for a middle class couple (they survive ok but don't have much) living in SF proper. He has a tech-bro job (but he's not a great coder) and she does something pink-collar, like public relations. Both are liberal.

The best ideas I've had so far, but not feeling quite right yet:

One of them buys a rare video game for an antique gaming set-up the other has (an atari? I'm not a gamer myself) but they've sold the set-up.

One of them buys some valuable accessory (a case made of rare reclaimed rainforest wood? No idea what people buy for their phones) for the other's smartphone, but she's downgraded to a flip phone.

One of them buys some fancy accessory (but what is it?) for a beater car that the other owns, but the car has been sold.

One of them buys a fancy display case or frame for a semi-valuable piece of art that the other came into by luck, but the art's been sold.

Appreciate any spit-balling! All suggestions welcome.
posted by permiechickie to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
She sells her bassoon to buy him evening time in a maker space, he's taken a night job to buy her bassoon lessons.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 5:34 PM on June 11, 2016 [49 favorites]

Given the modern focus on experiences-over-stuff, maybe some sort of time commitment issue? (e.g. one buys tickets to a once-in-a-lifetime concert or a major sports event that the other loves -- but it's on the same date as a fantastically expensive dream vacation the other booked to a place that their partner has always wanted to go).
posted by eponym at 5:37 PM on June 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

She bought him a fabulous light-up furry coat to wear to Burning Man, but he sold his Burning Man ticket to buy her Hamilton tickets.
posted by woodvine at 5:39 PM on June 11, 2016 [58 favorites]

She gets a tattoo to match his, which he removed or edited to make space for some symbol of her?
posted by metasarah at 5:59 PM on June 11, 2016 [12 favorites]

Because they're happily child free she had her tubes tied to save him from using condoms (that he hates) while he was away on a boys weekend in Vegas. But he was actually having a vasectomy and sitting with a packet of frozen peas on his balls for three days (?)
posted by taff at 6:19 PM on June 11, 2016 [13 favorites]

She sold her inherited grandmothers run-down Painted lady and bought a piece of land for his tiny house he's been living in the parking lot, he sold his tiny house to pay the taxes and fix up said house.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:21 PM on June 11, 2016 [22 favorites]

She sold her great-grandmother's antique singer sewing machine (that didn't work) to get the money to rent a parking space for his 1994 Saab 9000. He sold the Saab to fund her start up (including fixing the sewing machine) sewing organic linen pants for cats.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:22 PM on June 11, 2016 [19 favorites]

He's a coffee addict so she got him some kopi luwak coffee but he's sold their fancy coffee maker to afford a mindfulness course to help him wean off of caffeine.

Plus, he's a PETA member and he stops loving her because she supported the kopi luwak industry. But next time she sees him he has a man-bun so she feels it's for the best.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:23 PM on June 11, 2016 [11 favorites]

The video game idea works. (I'm having a hard time seeing a phone case or a car accessory as something personal enough to qualify - but perhaps that's just me.) The art piece seems hard to set up - framing can be expensive, but you don't usually pay for it before delivering the piece.

Any collectible could serve the same role: the remaining first edition to complete a specific set of books / the last vintage action figure / an large and expensive piece of depression era glass that matches a serving set, etc. Convincing the reader to care about the object seems like the challenging part.

If one of them could be a musician, it's hard to beat musical instruments on the list of things that have sentimental value, have genuine resale value, and are important to people. Breaking it into parts is tough for most instruments, though. Replacing her broken electric bass amp with a beautifully restored vintage amp, only to discover that she's sold the bass could work. Or, if one of them is a serious musician, buying someone recording studio time to discover they've sold their instrument could work. (On preview - BillMcMurdo has an even better version of the same.)

In general, though, it's hard to come up with physical objects that professional class people in SF could care enough about to match the import of a gift in the original story. Stuff is just too cheap now.

Something like high-end bicycles could work; they're expensive and you can buy expensive parts for them while the bike itself is being sold. Replacing the busted engine on a classic Vespa that someone's been "restoring" for years could work without the athleticism or bike-culture. (Horses, boats, and planes are similar, but have even more significant class implications.)

The conflicting events/experiences/long-term-decisions option seems a lot more contemporary. e.g., She bought tickets to travel the trans-siberian railroad during their shared two week vacation in June instead of visiting family like they'd planned, he canceled the vacation and signed up to staff conference booths or teach a class for extra pay to cover the cost of her gift. She dropped out of the part-time masters program she was taking so he could accept a promotion and move to Seattle, he turned down the promotion so she could finish the program.
posted by eotvos at 6:40 PM on June 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like woodvine's Hamilton / Burning Man example, but it lacks the parallelism of the original. She could still go see Hamilton (accompanied by a guy wearing a fabulous light-up furry coat). And they all lived happily ever after!
posted by fussbudget at 6:44 PM on June 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

They both have long commutes to their jobs - in opposite directions. So they can spend more time together, she quits her job and takes a lower paying job that's close to his (thinking they can move to an apartment in that area and the money they'll both save on commuting will at least partly make up for the pay cut.) But it turns out he's just done the same thing - taken a lower paying job close to the workplace she just quit. So they're still stuck in the same situation, but with less money.
posted by Redstart at 7:07 PM on June 11, 2016 [16 favorites]

It's hard to do the same thing for a middle-class couple in 2016 because they have way, way more disposable income than two O. Henry characters. (By definition--I don't think O. Henry intends for the James Dillingham Youngs to be middle class.) The inflation calculators I'm looking at don't go all the way back to 1905, when the story was written, but Della's $1.87 would be ~$45 in 2016, and Jim's $20 a week would be ~$25k a year. Plus it's just easier to buy things now, and there are way more things than there used to be.

"Gift of the Magi" (which I should admit I've always had a soft spot for, and believe to be more true/beautiful than people give it credit for) turns on scarcity, and the middle class--especially the middle class of 2016 (or let's say 1970, or wherever we stopped making progress on this front)--feels financial scarcity far less acutely than poor people, especially poor people in 1905.

I think a sad/modern version of the Magi story is more likely to involve both people trying to max out the same credit card, or something. But I like the experience direction other people are suggesting better, because among my SF/tech-worker friends the thing they most value, and what they scrimp and save for months like Della, is time. Money, or at least the ready illusion of money, is comparatively easy to get until you lose your job or your credit takes a turn, but as your so-so coder's company gets bigger and more efficient and better at tracking his work he's going to be asked to give up more and more time.

They each take on more hours to buy the experience vacation that's supposed to make their lives better and align their progressive ideals with their base, human, embarrassingly provincial urges. The twist: They both wanted the same vacation! It's a reverse Magi! Only they worked so many hours that they lost track of each other along the way, and they break things off, and by the time the trip comes, months after they bought the tickets and hotel room and had the big happy reveal and then the slow burn away from each other, they sit on separate sides of the airplane and walk progressively/bestially around Haiti alone.
posted by Polycarp at 7:22 PM on June 11, 2016 [25 favorites]

Something like your video game idea but about a record collector and a vintage turntable.
posted by irisclara at 10:00 PM on June 11, 2016

Variant: She sells the Hamilton tickets on StubHub to buy Burning Man tickets; He sells the Burning Man tickets he secretly bought earlier to buy Hamilton tickets on StubHub. They're in exactly the same place, but StubHub made a hefty commission off the both of them. A venture capitalist comes to tell us the system worked.
posted by zachlipton at 10:08 PM on June 11, 2016 [10 favorites]

She sells her bassoon ukulele to buy him evening time in a maker space, he's taken a night job to buy her bassoon ukulele lessons.

(Or he sold his 3-D printer to buy her ukulele lessons.)
posted by wintersweet at 10:25 PM on June 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

He lets one of the partners in his startup buy out his stock options in order to rent a storefront for her artisanal cupcake business. She sells all of her baking equipment to help cover payroll at his startup. The startup gets bought by Google the next day.
posted by MsMolly at 11:30 PM on June 11, 2016 [10 favorites]

They are childfree and happy about it but are not saying never yet, she is a base jumper in her spare time and he drives an MPV.

She has a lot of pain and discomfort and is diagnosed with endometriosis. The Dr says "have a baby now or have a hysterectomy". They leave in a tailspin with both wondering if the other feels "forced" into the finality of it all.

After a week apart and a lot of thought she sells her wingsuit and uses the cash to make up a layette "from" a potential baby she has decided she must give him, in the form of a car seat with an outfit inside and a card saying, "bring me home daddy?". Meanwhile he trades his MPV for a 2-seater sports car and has a vasectomy so the "choice" doesn't have to fall onto her.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 2:11 AM on June 12, 2016

Nothing so far has the impact of the original, if that is what you are going for. HER HAIR, ffs. Yes, it'll grow back. But in that moment, she sold LITERALLY the only thing of value she possessed (short of her actual body, which I guess would have been the line she chose not to cross).

What, in modern times, can literally be the ONLY THING OF VALUE one possesses? We cannot comprehend this. Most of us, thankfully, will never find ourselves so desperate or option-free.

It's not that her hair was rare, or in demand, or any of the other signifiers that can add value to something, as most of these examples sound.

The pathos of the original turned on the very smallness of their world, and how love still managed to shine through. Not sure that essence, that truth, is possible to recapture in the modern world as we know it.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:52 AM on June 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

Even the responses that center on having children don't work for me, although I suppose they are closer to the core truth... In the original, her hair will grow back. It's even conceivable that the watch could be tracked down and reclaimed some day. But getting a vasectomy/tubes tied...

OK, I suppose that wins, for me. Since it's the only scenario-type that so far has elicited any sort of real response beyond the merely Alanis level.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:57 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bassoon > ukulele. That is all.
posted by flabdablet at 6:13 AM on June 12, 2016

Thanks for all the responses everybody! Very helpful... I think the time > possessions angle is really good and helps explain why it was hard to think of items that would work similarly to the original.
posted by permiechickie at 8:21 AM on June 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

In SF, this would have to be tied to intellectual property, like a startup founder's patents or new algorithm or something, sold to a patent troll who won't ever actually use them.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:19 AM on June 13, 2016

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