the gift of Oprah

The O surveys the firmament: "I could buy that. Nyah, let's share it."

MoT staff members are not habitual daytime/talk show television viewers since, in addition to preferring for other people to hear us talk, we have a day job (and those are two related things).  Even so, we feel compelled to recognize the major event looming on the horizon with the end of the Oprah Winfrey show, which has broken all kinds of new ground and records in its quarter-century history (broadcast just a mere forty miles from MoTHQ, BTW–IK!).  Indeed, it would be difficult for any conscious person to have missed the cultural impact of this woman and her numerous multi-media projects.  So while we do not celebrate the daytime talk circuit, we cannot help but to pay homage to Oprah herself.  Not just a talk show host, Oprah is a force of nature.  A national treasure.  A vibrant thread in the warp and woof of American pop culture.  Seriously: it takes an awesomely accomplished person to be known world-wide by just their first name (Elvis, Cher, Madonna, Bono. . . ).  When you can go by a single letter, well, then you’ve entered the Oprahsphere (population: 1).

Given her enormous popularity (not to mention wealth), Oprah could conduct herself as a real jerk: a blingier, female version of Trumpian pomposity wrapped around Sheenesque wack.  Yet through her years in the public eye, Oprah has proven herself to be a pretty tasty person.  The lady carries herself elegantly and knows how to dress a body shape that might challenge even Tim Gunn.  She manages to connect on a personal level with her vast audience, even though her social and economic sphere places her light years away from them.  Even though the everyday jewelry worn by this woman, whose net worth is the envy of many national economies, would make even Kate Middleton raise a royal brow, Oprah herself pulls them off with a shrug: these old things? I just wear ’em ‘cuz they sparkle!  Let’s share a Tab; it’s FAAAAAB-u-LOUUUUUSSSSS!

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Oprah’s handling of her celebrity and wealth is her penchant for gift-giving, highlighted particularly well in her “Favorite Things” giveaways on her show.  Granted, this event has been humorously mocked for the enthusiasm that Oprah brings to the event (not to mention the wild behavior of her audience).  And critics may be skeptical of just how generous it is to give away merchandise donated to the show.  You say “product placement,” we say “re-gifting.”  Tomayto, Tomahto.  We’re willing to embrace the idea that Oprah is acting–at a grand scale–on the better instinct in all of us, that Hobbit-like part of us, to give stuff away.  And that’s tasty behavior: not only is Oprah generous with her resources, but her behavior is the absolute opposite of the tribute she could demand, Achaemenid Empire-style, of her devoted followers.  And even when those audience members on the receiving end of Oprah’s largesse have a tendency to lose their junk, they never make the mistake of saying one of the stupidest things that you can say to a person who has just given you a gift: you shouldn’t have.  All in all, it is a high-octane, super-sized acting out of the best kind of gift-giving (not because the calendar told you to, just because you wanted to) and -receiving (omigosh, I love it, and you are awesome to treat me like that).

Enthusiastic as gift-givers and gracious as gift-getters, MoT staffers are specially interested in this practice of Oprah’s as she nears her final sendoff finale which is so big, so spectacular, that it cannot be held in little ol’  Harpo Studios.  No, Oprah has rented out Chicago’s Soldier Field for the sendoff before 61,000 fans.  Especially since, well, you heard it here first: MoT’s Senior Pop Culture Analyst will be in attendance at the Oprahganza as a special media guest of The Oprah (Note: by “special media guest of The Oprah” we mean “Tagging Along With Someone Else Who Was Organized Enough To Enter For Tickets and Lucky Enough To Get Two”) and is braced to graciously receive the blessings of The O.  Please note that (1) we are not expecting a gift, since that would be in bad taste, and (2) we are not making suggestions, since that would be even worse.  But if indeed Oprah shows up with 61,000 gift bags, we think the following guesses (Oprah doesn’t mind us guessing–that’s part of the fun) represent reasonable goodies commensurate to the scale of Oprah’s Last Show.  Then again, we, like you, recognize that it’s the presence of the Oprah which has been the gift that keeps on giving, twenty-five years and counting.

Champagne foot bath

Jet pack, just like the one she will use to enter the stadium

Trip to Australia

Wait: trip to Australia?  Try a whole freakin’ island on the Great Barrier Reef!

Miniature Hugh Jackmans

A walk-on role in Star Wars.  The original one.  Via the magic of time-travel

Onyx bathtub full of labradoodles, pugapoos, schnoodles and yorkipoos

Everlasting tranquility, contentment, and well-conditioned cuticles

iPads.  Gold-plated iPads

Black Eyed Peas performing live at the event of your choice

On second thought, scratch Black Eyed Peas: those people will already perform anywhere, anytime

Birkin bag with special pockets to fit cell phone, gold-plated iPad, and miniature Hugh Jackman

“Oprah Winfrey Show Farewell Season” logo-emblazoned travel mug that entitles bearer to free refills at the Fountain of Youth

Commemorative t-shirt

Citizenship in her space nation

What, was that little ol' me winning life? pshaw!

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how to buy a present for an architect


It happens to even the kindest people in the nicest families: you find yourself related to (or, bless your heart, married to) an architect.  Don’t get me wrong: an architect can be a real asset to a family.  They have reasonable conversation skills (on a set number of topics) and they almost always have good personal hygiene and they tend to be well-educated (at least they have been to college for at least six years).  At the same time, those six years that they spent in architecture school (a different environment than being at a university—but that’s a subject for another day) can do some funny things to people.  A certain flintiness, an inability to keep from commenting on the settings of movies, sensitivity to bright lights and impatience with the ordinary are common side-effects of architecture education and practice.  These quirks can mean real headaches for those who, already under the pressure of finding good and appropriate gifts for normal people, are met with the challenge of finding a good gift for an architect, who has been trained at college to react to any new stimulation (a new building, a gallery exhibition, the dinner menu, political candidates, your new shoes, a marriage proposal) with either cool disdain or flagrant boredom.  At best, you may see an architect express reserved admiration.  But this positive reaction is especially rare in situations in which the architect receives a gift.

And we know you’ve tried hard: you’ve found those column-shaped plaster bookends, or the Historic Doors Of Our Town calendar, or perhaps the museum-store silk tie with picture of tiny temples silk-screened on it.  You may have even wrapped it up in navy paper with white ribbon to suggest the image of a blueprint!  And the result is invariably the same: your gift prompts your architect’s face to twist into a withering expression that captures exasperation, disappointment, bewilderment and pity all at once.  As a reformed architect, I am here to help you avoid such painful exchanges. In the spirit of Christmas gift-giving, and in the tradition of end-of-the-year Top Ten lists (but make no mistake, this is advice that is sound for year-round gift-giving for birthdays as well as for that perfect storm prompted by the marriage of two architects), behold this list of:

Ten Things To Give, Or Not To Give, An Architect

DO GIVE:  Garments

Selecting clothing with the proper lines (not “style”) takes some confidence; for safety’s sake you may wish to select from the realm of accessories, keeping in mind that female architects wear the neckties and male architects wear the scarves.  Getting the right color is easy: acceptable shades include black, white (the new black), gray (the new white), and charcoal (the new gray).  You might think these shifts  (that have just changed again in the time it took you to read that sentence) express changes infashion.  Keep firmly in mind that your architect eschews fashion itself for its sense of personality and flexibility, and its lack of truth and consistency.  However, she is sensitive to cultural transformations in hue ascendencies as a manifestation of the zeitgeist in wardrobic modalities. If you insist on “color,” you may choose orange—at least for the next five minutes.

DO NOT GIVE:  Electronics

Your architect already got the Wii, Kindle, Flip, iPhone and iPod, etc. etc., as soon as they came out.  However, he might not be able to afford their maintenance, so a gift certificate to iTunes, Verizon, Amazon or your local electric company might be in order.

DO GIVE:  Things for recording inspiration

Specifically, pens and notebooks.  Architects love pens, and although your architect probably already has a longstanding love affair established with a  very particular kind of felt tip or rollerball, some sort of fancy fountain pen is oftentimes a welcome addition to the stock of pens that litter her apartment, purse, car and office cube at that place where she’s temping.  Also, she likes to carry notebooks where she can doodle little pictures (she will call them parti diagrams) and random thoughts (she will call them critical analyses).  These thin volumes also look great sitting on the table at Starbucks while she scans the job listings online AIA career center on her Mac.  Brand: you can’t go wrong with Moleskine, although you should avoid the temptation to pick up one of the lively colors that Moleskine has brought out recently; your serious architect wants only classic black.

DO GIVE:  Building fragments

Although your architect may scoff at the idea of designing in a historical tradition (she will call it “quaint,” “nostalgic,” or perhaps “retardataire”), she likes to adorn (not “decorate;” architects do not “decorate”) her living space (probably in a nineteenth-century apartment building or an early twentieth-century bungalow) with the remnants of buildings that have been demolished or otherwise abused by later development.  Warning: this has to be real, true refuse from an old building site; do not give a new object d’art that has been rusticated. It is inauthentic and, cute as it might be, is to be scorned.

DO NOT GIVE:  Books on architects you have heard of

Architects love books, especially if they are heavy on pictures and light on text.  But before you purchase that collection of beautifully-photographed Prairie Houses, remember that your architect has received enough books on Frank Lloyd Wright to last a lifetime and, moreover, he worked hard to develop an aversion to popular architects early in his career.  Also, ignore any book that includes any of the following words without quotation marks: structure, efficiency, and beauty.  For safe maneuvering through the two whole shelves of architecture books at Border’s, read on.

DO GIVE:  Books on architects you have never heard of

The main thing: the less the buildings in the pictures look like actual buildings to you, the better.  Look for a book that includes at least five of the following words in the preface: hermetic, enigmatic signifier, spatial warping, transparency, antitransparency, interiority, exteriority, phenomenology, neoformation, anxiety, monadology, nihilism, biomorphism, hermeneutics, ennui, architectonic, and prozac. Examine the dust jacket author photo: if the architect/critic is neither bearing statement glasses nor a facial expression that would win the approval of the most blasé French model, put it down immediately.  Lastly, the titles can help guide your selection, too: choose a book whose title has the highest punctuation-to-letter ratio.  A title that is all punctuation would be ideal.

DO NOT GIVE: Coffee- or tea-making devices

You might think this is a good idea, since your architect is always complaining about late nights and early mornings, how little she sleeps, and how much she depends on caffeinated stimulation to make it through the day.  But, if she is a novice in the kitchen (see “interesting-looking cookware,” below), she will not know what to do with that French Press and will break it.  More likely, she is already a coffee snob and does not need any more gadgetry to make coffee at home, even though she only gets coffee at Starbucks (or, if she is very cool and picky, Intelligentsia).

DO GIVE: Interesting-looking cookware

Even though your architect is still eating the way he did in college (frozen pizza, Chinese carry-out), he has become aware that grownups cook.  Perhaps this discovery was made during a visit to the country house of his office’s principal—perhaps to deliver marked-up plans on a weekend—where he observed the principal’s wife preparing a range of tapas for the guests who were to arrive shortly after your architect was ushered out the kitchen door.  Although your architect has neither the time nor the inclination to learn to cook, he will appreciate a display of interesting cookware in the kitchen.  The Bialetti Moka Pot—all Machine Age aesthetics and Italian pedigree—is  a no-brainer; likewise, anything from the Alessi catalogue will do, and these come with the advantage of reintroducing a semblance humor into your architect’s life.  In addition, even if they are never used, a nutmeg grinder, a paella pan or a tagine would be a fine selections; they suggest a sophisticated palate and the exoticism of travel to fascinating foreign destinations that he cannot afford while paying off all those student loans.

DO NOT GIVE: Sports-related gifts

Architects do not have time for sports.  They learned in college that Sunday was for sleeping in and Monday nights were the first night of the week to stay up late.  Occasionally you will find an architect with a fondness for college sports, but this is only if they went to a Midwestern or Southern school, especially at a campus that positioned the architecture building next to the sports arenas, allowing the architecture students to absorb some school spirit by osmosis as the cheers of the Homecoming crowds echoed through the concrete walls of the studio.  If this describes your architect, you may consider tickets to a game, but by no means should you consider purchasing a team jersey or, quelle horreur, a baseball cap (see “Garments” above).

DO GIVE:  Toys

Architects tend to share a common denominator of having loved popup books and Legos as children.  Such gifts will be welcome, and will allow your architect to enjoy the nostalgic reference to their development, the reminder of play that was part of their first three-dimensional creations.  And you very well may catch them later, after everyone else has gone to sleep, weeping over their little, colorful, plastic building blocks and wondering where their joy in building went.

Magic Bunny Toothpick Holder (Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2009)

first photo: cool black/white boxes available at Lille A Shop

(& available in colors, too)  www.lilleashop.com