Look, kid, what do you mean you want a book of poems for Christmas? You trying to make me look bad or something? Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid, we knew how to make a proper Christmas list.

I'm talking serious stuff: stereos, 15-speed bikes, designer jackets, personal computers. My old man used to complain about us to his friends, saying how we were selfish brats with no appreciation for the value of a dollar. But deep down we could tell that he was really doing more boasting than complaining. He was letting his friends know that he was doing all right.

You have to understand, kid, that fathers need to let it be known that they are doing okay financially -- especially when they aren't. Don't you see what it would do to me if the word got out that all you got for Christmas was a lousy book of poems? The guys at the office would be taking up a collection for me, that's what.

You know the Smithsons -- the people your mom and I went to the islands with last Christmas? Well, he's been complaining to everybody at the club that his kids are getting a regulation pool table and a functioning antique juke box for Christmas. Each of the Anderson kids is getting her own personal robot with a built-in book-reading capability. You just insert the appropriate program, and that little bugger will read you any book you give it. How's it going to look when they ask me what you're getting and I tell them a manually operated book of poems?

Sure you like poems, and you like to do your own reading. I don't have any problem with that. Live and let live, you know what I mean? But you can't go through life just thinking of your own selfish interests. There are other people in this world. My next contract may depend on whether the industry thinks I'm a winner or not.

If they didn't know that I had lost the Scandinavian account, it wouldn't be so bad. I could just tell them that you've always been a little peculiar -- and Lord knows that's the truth. But now that they suspect that things may be going badly for me, I've got to prove that everything is still hunky-dory. Your sister, bless her heart, understands that. I know she doesn't really want that fur coat she asked for, but she's promised to wear it to school anyway because she knows what it will do for my image.

If we were truly rich or, heaven forbid, poor, it wouldn't matter. People who are certifiably rich can get away with giving their loved ones little trinkets, because rich people can always pull that "eccentric" number. I remember, back when I was a lad, the president's wife gave him a pick-up truck. It didn't hurt his image, because everybody knew he was rich. As for poor people, Lord love them, they know that there's no use pretending.

It's us upwardly mobile middle-class folk who have to use the Christmas season to make our statement. You tell me what kind of statement I'm going to make with a lousy book of poems when even our cleaning lady is giving her kid a full-length leather coat.

Selfishness is what it is. I guess you think reputations grow on trees. Well let me tell you, I've had to work hard to get to where I am, and I don't intend to let some selfish kid of mine blow the whole thing.

Look, I don't care if the Rockefeller kid is getting that same book of poems. His family has been rich for generations. But I'm not Rockefeller, dammit, and you kids have to help me. That's what family is all about.