In past December issues of The Peak, I have extolled the worthiness of considering what we might give others, and mused over philanthropy that seeks to upscale the impact and efficiency of doing good.
Worthy causes should have a place in our mind, as we tick off that Christmas shopping list. But – like an ancient Christmas choral Mass – they can ring out of tune with seasonal Santa Claus jingles.
This year, especially, the Christmas spirit leaves us giddy – and not only from too much eggnog and shopping crowds. The world seems to be spinning off-kilter with an unsettling mix of economic, humanitarian and political burdens.
Migrants from Syria seek refuge in the heart of Europe, even as their once home country is racked by a many-sided war in which the great powers intervene. Wobbles in China’s economy echo across most of Asia and world markets, even as American growth and Abenomics in Japan disappoint.
Retailers will hope we ignore these problems. Rather than facing up to crises, humanity has often turned to distractions. When the going gets tough, as the saying goes, the tough go shopping.
Perhaps there is some good in this. Consumer demand, especially in countries like China and Indonesia, could help, some economists reckon. Shopping can drive demand to get growth going again (although rising debt must be watched).
So say no more about world problems or worthy causes. Let’s get tough and go shopping.
First, let’s consider things to give the person we are closest to and know best: Ourselves.
One trend these days is to identify your “personal signifier”. This responds to a truly First World problem. Luxury items are often mass-made and, sometimes, when we arrive at that seasonal party, we realise everyone is dressed in some kind of upper-end uniform of what’s in fashion.
The idea of the personal signifier is to try to single out and individualise one item that most signals our presence. Usually, this would be something you wear. For short-sighted Singaporeans like me, it could well be spectacles.
Yet, many still spend more on a single shirt or dress than on spectacle frames. Indeed, some never give much thought to what sits on their noses. But this is changing, and premier and luxurybrand eyewear has seen growth across Asia.
Anecdotally, I can think of a number of bespectacled CEOs who have adopted more distinctive frames, from the nerdy-chic black frames of the late Yves Saint Laurent to minimalist specs with ultra-thin lenses held in place by mere threads of high-tech metal.
For me, I have been thinking about a pair of Italian-made sunglasses fitted with prescription lenses that I wore every day on leisurely walks during the recent month I spent writing in a villa in Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy.
Within a week of returning home, I’d lost them. I hunted in all the places I had been but they never turned up. It was fitting, I now realise. For what I’d lost was not only the frame and lenses.
What I’d lost on my return to the demanding schedules in this busy city was the luxury of time and focus. The classic, cool Persols were only the symbol of the perspective that I’d had in that month away and that had vanished. I have since bought a similar pair as a replacement, but I seldom wear them.
What might be the best gift to give someone else? Perhaps something you would buy for yourself. It’s not a bad thing if we are as generous to others as we are with ourselves.
That brings to mind another thing I bought in Italy – not lost per se, but unused after my trip. These were notes of Italian paper, printed with a fringe of traditional Renaissance motifs, and matching envelopes. I’d meant to use them to write handwritten notes to friends with a fountain pen I especially like. Notes thanking them for dinners and things they had done or shared with me.
Notes to share some thoughts, reflections and even jokes. Humour, humanity and humility are three “hums” that can and should be emphasised by more of us.
I’d also mused over the need to bring back three-hour meals with small circles of friends where discussion and chat – rather than just the menu – would be the focus. But, when so much is pressing day-to-day, such hopes often remain unrealised.
Only very recently did I finally sit down and use that paper to write a note. It was for my son, now approaching his A-levels and about to go into national service. Such moments require attention and time.
So, let me share my Thank You note No. 1 for 2016:
“Thank you, dear readers. What I have said above about giving thanks and taking time for yourself and those important to you very much applies to me, too.
“In the almost four years of writing this monthly column, I have learnt something about the goods (and ills) of the world of luxury, and tried to share my thoughts about the things that truly count as luxuries, when we already have so much.
“I thank you for your patience, the kind words some of you have shared and the time you have taken to read my words, rather than just flipping the page.
“In the new year, I will be giving myself the gift of time to start some writing that I have long wanted to do but too often found excuses to avoid (writing is about the hardest thing I do). As always, there are trade-offs. Thus, this will be my last column.
“This opportunity to share with you these words on time, thoughts and things has been a true luxury. We are the gift we give ourselves and to others.
“Thank you and goodbye.”
The Peak thanks Simon Tay for his stalwart partnership over the years, and wishes him all the best in his future endeavours.