I'm awfully worried about Christmas, and Popsie Tribble hasn't made things any easier. I don't know if you are aware of this, but for reasons hidden in the mists of protocol, Mr. Ambassador and "wife of" are supposed to send out gifts to Powerful Jobs and Close-Tos during the holiday season. Popsie was over the other day giving me the benefit of her advice.

"What gift atrocity are you sending out this year?" she asked. "I didn't think the choice you made last Christmas helped cement relations between our two countries."

Truthfully, Beverly, I was surprised. We gave away 100 beautifully bound books on insect behavior in the Northwest Territories, with color photographs. But Popsie knows more about these things than I do, so I listened to what she had to say.

"At least it wasn't as bad as what Baron Spitte, the dusty diplomat, gave me."

"What did he send?"

"A paperback set of the real property laws of his country, written, I believe, in Turkish."

"But Baron Spitte isn't Turkish," I said.

"I think the Turks occupied his country until the 19th century. It must have been a re-issue of an old book."

I began to feel a bit defensive about this gift-giving business.

"Mr. Ambassador has received some gift atrocities too," I said. "When he went to Vermont for a day to give a speech, they presented him with a large block of green marble to take on the plane. He only had carry-on luggage with him so he had to hold the slab on his lap all the way to Washington."

"What did Mr. Ambassador give to Vermont?" Popsie asked.

"Place mats with maple leaves stamped on. At least they weighed less."

"One has to be philosophical," Popsie said, "about this thing of countries, states or cities exchanging gifts. There is a perverse rule of thumb. The bulkiest gifts are always given to people taking off on planes. When Dexter was a Roving Ambassador, he was always given boxed sets of folk dance records right on the tarmac, or bronze plaques with the mayor's face engraved on them. Once he was given a marble cheese board when he was going up in a seven- seater over the jungle in Central America."

"Mr. Ambassador," I countered, "was handed a Lady Baltimore cake, eight layers of fig filling, and covered with tutti-frutti icing. He was returning from the Southwest and had to make three changes of planes."

"What did he do with the cake?" Popsie asked.

"He dumped it in the men's room at O'Hare."

"There's no accounting for official gifts," Popsie said, "because they are decided upon by committees. A few countries, however, give nice presents. Except when that happens, Powerful Jobs like my Dexter have to hand over anything worth more than $165 to the Official Government Receptacle."

Beverly, when I heard this phrase, I visualized a giant plastic garbage can stamped "U.S. Property."

"The Official Government Receptacle," Popsie explained, "is in the Protocol Office at State. Eventually the General Services Administration auctions off the good stuff. I tried to give them all our folk dance records, but they took Sen. Pod's gold watch. It was presented to the senator by a certain Middle Eastern oil-rich country and had the coat of arms engraved on the back. Senators are occasionally reluctant to hand over the good gifts to the Official Government Receptacle, but Pod thought it was the better part of wisdom to do so given some bad publicity he had had that year. Anyway, auction time came around, and he thought he'd bid on his watch."

"What happened?" I asked.

"Well," Popsie replied, "the watch wasn't in the auction. The senator became suspicious. Had it been filched by a protocol officer? Pod thought there might be possibilities for a Senate investigation. The plot became thicker, however, when a clerk in the GSA told him sotto voce that the watch had actually been taken by someone in the FBI. The senator now believed he was on to something big and was ready to call a press conference. Much to his consternation, he had to cancel it when he found out the watch was worn as a prop by a burnoose-wearing FBI agent in the Abscam scandal. The watch eventually turned up at an auction and sold for $5,000."

"Who bought it?" I asked.

"Sonny Goldstone, of course."

"Well," I said, "Sonny likes nice things."

"For himself," Popsie said bitterly. "Do you know what he gave me for a Christmas present this year? Free Portuguese lessons and a white basketball. I made the mistake of telling him about my New Year's resolutions -- that I would do more exercise and learn a new language."

"However," Popsie added with some satisfaction, "I'm not the only one who's been the victim of a gift atrocity. It's the Thistle Jr.'s anniversary this week and a big limousine drove up to their door. The chauffeur handed 'wife

of' a beautifully wrapped box. The card on

top said 'Happy Anniversary Melvin and

Vera, with love from Joe and Dottie.'

"Those are the Promisalls?" I asked.

"Indeed," Popsie replied. "Joe Promisall,

the world's most expensive lobbyist."

"What was the gift?"

"An apparatus that holds nine boiled eggs,

made of cut glass."

"Not too useful for picnics," I said.

"That's not the worst of it," Popsie exclaimed. "When 'wife of' Thistle dug

down in the box she discovered another card saying 'Merry Christmas,

Joe and Dottie, with love from Henry

and Elsa.'

"I don't understand," I said.

"They were given a floater-gift," Popsie explained. "That's the ultimate gift atrocity.

You'll get it next year for Christmas from the


Your best friend,