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Stone age memes: When is a gift not a gift?

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The folks whose lives are intertwined with the tendrils of the Internet believe the meme is something new, but there have always been memes. The latest thing, the knowing smile, spreading from person to person. The sandals of the meme now have wings, but there have always been things we pass along knowingly, loving the knowing.

The purpose of this column is to twit the leet and ponder the creeping kudzu of the Internet. Is there anything new under the sun? Or are those memes on the walls of the Great Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux?

On Fathers’ Day (deal with the apostrophe: did I mention I was an English teacher?), I wanted to give the hub a little gift. Like everyone else, we’re watching our pennies these days, so that left out the gas grill the size of a Triumph mini or the front-row seats to the latest geezer-rock concert, Jimmy Buffet or Bruce Springsteen.

In May, I hit the Internet’s used booksellers and ordered a marked-down edition of Apicius, the Roman cookbook. The text dates from the late 4th century C. E. and was probably not the work of a single person, but a school, kind of like that work from a different empire, the 1920 Perry Home Cook Book by “the Ladies of Perry, Kansas, and Vicinity.”

The bookseller’s email assured me that the book is in the mail, but he didn’t say he’d respect me in the morning. So, there I was on Fathers’ Day with nothing to give the old sperm-bag. Google to the rescue! I found Apicius online and decided to send the father of the house this link in an email: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Apicius/home.html

This is actually a great version of Apicius because it combines several translations and has notes from a scholar at the University of Chicago who deftly summarizes the endless critical controversies over topics like the identity of the strong-flavored substance the cookbook calls laserpitium and which may have been an extinct kind of fennel. Thrilling stuff if you’re a foodie.

But back to the celebration, such as it was. What about a card, you didn’t say? Fearing potpourri and cute collectible pewter figurines, I try to avoid card stores, and so I browsed over to those websites that offer you free e-cards. The first site had merry-go-round music and the second one had a nice simple card, but you had to sign up to send it. Well, thanks for the idea, but I too can paste a clip art of lips under the first letters of Happy Father’s Day and sign my name. Opening Seashore, I sort of made my own card and pasted it into the email.

So, was the day duly celebrated, even though no money was spent? I guess the card works fine; it’s like a digital version of a macaroni drawing. But a link as a gift? You might say that’s no gift at all. There’s Stumble Upon to get you to websites in line with your interests. The principle of the site is that they send you to places liked by people who match your profile. Then you can track the strangers who share your predilections and you all can become fast friends. In view of this, what kind of a gift is a link to a website?  It’s a little like witnessing the last gasp of a human who’s about to be replaced by a social networking site.

As of yet, I’m not ready to let StumbleUpon pick my present for the love of my life, but I was grateful to have the search engine’s help when snail mail failed. And I can tell you that my better half happily “thumbed” his cheapskate present, contentedly immersed in recipes for Roman absinthe, stewed or roast crane, and salt fish balls in wine sauce.

Stone Age Memes is published on Thursdays.

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