Dear Miss Manners, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren and all the ships at sea. I have a contemporary ethical problem.
This is my problem: Recently, I purchased a Christmas gift for my secretary Ann Dixon. I owe Dixon a lot since she answers my phone. After I wrote critically of Israel, she had to deal with people who called me an anti-Semite. After I wrote critically about making Maksymilian Kolbe a saint, she had to deal with people who called me anti-Catholic. And every day she has to deal with a crank caller who invariably turns out to be my son.
Anyway, Miss Manners et al, Dixon is a former hoofer. She danced for a time in New York and loves show tunes and movie scores, and so I bought her a three-record album of old Warner Brothers hits. The album has Jolson singing "She's a Latin from Manhattan" and the theme from "The High and the Mighty" and also the soundtrack from the "Casablanca" scene where Ingrid Bergman asks Dooley Wilson to play "As Time Goes By." ("Play as 'Time Goes By,' " Bergman says. "Oh, I can't remember it, Miss Elsa," Dooley responds. "I'm a little rusty on it.")
I go on at some length about "As Time Goes By" because it is really the heart of my problem. I love the song and I love that scene. When I got home, I saw that this particular number was on the album and then I noticed that the price tag was affixed to the clear plastic wrapping. I tried to take it off, but it would not budge. I scrapped it with my fingernail, but it wouldn't move. Finally, I just ripped the wrapper off.
There in my hands, I had the album -- naked, so to speak. All I had to do then was remove the records, play them once and tape them. I hesitated. I did not know what to do. If I played the records just once, would that somehow cheapen the gift? Would it cheapen it more if I taped it?
These are not questions answered in any of your books (I think). I know they bear on the entire question of the ethics of taping -- either off the radio or television -- and also of photocopying, about which there are currently many bills pending and a variety of opinions. I know all that. But what I did not know was whether it was right -- proper, ethical -- to listen to and tape the record I was intending to give to Dixon, my secretary, the former hoofer.
I know, too, that questions concerning gifts are among the thorniest known to modern man. They produce great anxiety, often hostility. There are few things worse than having to say thanks for a gift that is really an insult, and no one knows if it is proper to give a gift that you yourself received as a gift -- like a lazy Susan.
Advice is hard to come by. I know people who have dilemmas about books. They put on white gloves and read them before giving them as gifts. They, too, want to know if this is permissible. My wife, who said that I should not play and tape the album, was busy at that moment copying recipes out of a cookbook she was about to give as a gift; a book, as it turns out, she received later in the week from a couple who admitted, when I quizzed them, that they had also copied out some recipes. I think pork roast will be big this year.
But as a problem, this was nothing compared to the Dixon Dilemma. Certainly if I played the records frequently, they would obviously be used. But a single playing could not make a difference. I thought, too, that if I had actually bought the record for myself, taped it and then given it to her, I would be wrong. But I had honestly bought the record for her and not noticed until I got it into the house that it contained the scene from "Casablanca." ("I'll hum it for you," Bergman says. "La di da di la lum.")
So I taped it. I was temporarily insane -- crazed with lust for Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson. I could not help myself. I want to give Dixon the album because I know she will like it, but I feel guilty about it. It makes no sense to erase the tape or buy her another copy of the same album, so this is what I will do. Please tell me if it's okay. I have decided to give her both the album and the tape.
Maybe she'll give me the tape back for my birthday.