Fortunately, an old friend of mine, bbwolf, gave me a great example long ago. Many years ago, Wolf and I were in the same faith group, and he surprised us all by giving all of us the exact same winter holiday present. It occurred to him, while visiting many of our homes, how few of us had a visibly displayed first aid kit in our homes. Sure, most of us had a full set of first aid supplies scattered here and there, but almost none of us had a nice, visible, easily recognized first aid kit where a total stranger to our house would think to look for it, recognize it on sight, and know to open it to find minimal first aid supplies. So he ran down to a local discount store, bought a ton of cheap first aid kits in water-resistant containers (those of us who already had kits could always use one for camping), wrapped them, and brought them to meeting. Call it a one-size-fits-all gift if you like; I think it was the most thoughtful and useful Christmas present I've ever gotten, and I think it's the only Christmas present I've ever gotten in my whole life that I was still using on a regular basis a decade or more later.
So that set an example for me, and with times turning potentially very harsh, it motivated me to try to match his cleverness and generosity, to try to find a gift just as useful that would serve everybody I knew as well as his gift served me, a gift that was well suited to the needs of the times. Finally, I came up with the one I settled on: a three-pack of pocket multi-tools. They're lightweight, they're practical, everybody can use them, and (as I told people when they unwrapped them) if the fit totally hits the shan, they can be bartered at really good exchange rate for food or medicine. So everybody on my list got:
- A Leatherman Squirt S4 Keychain Multi-Tool. I got one of these for myself years ago after wearing out a much older Leatherman Micra. The day doesn't go by that I don't get some use out of it. The scissors are the best scissors I have ever seen on a pocket knife, bar none, period, end of story. The knife blade has held an edge, and taken sharpening, better than any other pocket knife I've ever owned. The bizarrely well designed socket for the tweezers makes these the only multi-tool tweezers I've ever owned that actually stayed with the knife, no matter how much the tool has been handled. And I love, love, love the fact that all of the tools except for the scissors are on the outside edges, not the inside edges, so they can be opened without unfolding the whole knife, and yet despite this they make good handles for the scissors -- a hard trick to pull off. It's not 100% perfect. Some day, I hope that Leatherman gets smart and makes a hybrid P4/S4 that has the P4's pliers in the middle and classic pocket knife style folding scissors in the place of the fingernail file. But until that Platonic ideal pocket knife comes along, the Squirt S4 is just about the best pocket multi-tool invented, the Gerber MP600 of pocket tools.
- A Gerber Artifact. I saw this thing in Boing-Boing long ago, and had to find out if it was as cool as it seemed. The answer is not quite, but it's still a fun toy to own. It's hard to get a feel for it from pictures, but basically what it is is a folding X-acto knife with a pry-bar back end; when you fold the X-acto knife shut, it exposes what turns out to be the single best Phillips-head screwdriver I've ever seen on a pocket tool. No, really, for as flat as this thing is, the grip and the torque are amazing. The bottle opener on the side is pretty good, too. The pry bar works great as a pry bar, but not so well as the pair of flat-head screwdrivers they advertise it as; being that close together and parallel with each other, it's very hard to get a screwdriver tip in anywhere useful. But for those of my friends who still travel, the funnest thing about it is that it's a pocket knife and multi-tool that can't be taken away by the TSA Gangstaz -- because the actual blade part of it costs a couple of cents. Pop it off, leave it on the desk at home. (A friend of mine says he just puts his in his shaving kit.) When you get where you're going, stick your head into the first dollar store you see, buy a cheap pack of X-acto knife blades. They're disposable. Sharp, too. So it's not perfect, but it's pretty darned useful, useful enough to be the mythical fourth piece of the late lamented Burning Man "playa necklace."
- And a Swiss+Tech Utili-Key 6-in-1. I got these on a lark, because they were cheap; in fact, it's the only one of the three I don't own one of for myself. The basic premise is that it's a pocket knife (with flat and serrated edges), a bottle opener, and four sizes of screwdriver, but when collapsed, it's the shape and size of a modern car key. It's not meant to pass for a car key (I'm told the TSA Gangstaz have been trained specifically to look for them), so much as it is designed to fit in anything that holds car keys without making the key ring or key wallet or whatever any less convenient to carry around. I do like how easily they're designed to snap on and off of a key ring. If I owned one, I could see being comfortable snapping mine off, snapping it back shut, and tossing it across the room to someone. That being said, if you can't find one on sale for $5 or less, they're not useful enough to be worth it. I did find a stack of 'em that cheap, though, and thought they'd be fun to throw in with the other two (more useful) tools, just for the clever design factor.