As you set about returning gifts this week, you may encounter a helpful clerk who asks that troublesome question:

Did you find everything you were looking for?

I made the mistake last week of saying "Actually, no." This sends clerks into high gear.

"Oh, no! What were you looking for?"

"Pastrami," I said.

"Pastrami is back in the corner with the rest of the deli meats." She pointed in the proper direction.

"I know," I said to the first clerk. "I should have been more precise. I was looking for it in its proper place, and there isn't any."

Frowns of concern. "Would you like us to check the back?" Ah, The Fabled Back, where pallets creak with unstocked pastrami. I said no, that's fine. She persisted: "I can check the system and see if there's more coming soon."

"I'm sure the pastrami deficit will be swiftly filled. It's not a big deal." But somehow it was, because I had mentioned it, and she seemed a bit put off: If it's not a big deal, why did you bring it up?

I have no problem with a store employee's attention to customer satisfaction, but really, there has to be a better question. At a clothing store the clerk asked if I found everything I was looking for. I was buying socks. A man who is buying socks is the definition of a man who has found what he was looking for.

I could've said, "Pants in my size would be nice, but I don't exist according to your buyers, whose inability to correctly judge your customer can be seen in the abundance of unsold XXXXXL khakis at the year-end sales." You know what they say next, of course.

"Have you checked online?"

This is like going to the grocery store, and there's no milk, and they say "You can go the internet and look at pictures of cows." It does not result in timely pants satisfaction.

So when the clerk at another clothing store asked if I'd found everything I'd possibly hoped to find, I sighed, and said "That's a rather fraught question."

"It is," she said, and I brightened: Finally, someone who got it.

I was so happy, I may have gotten carried away when I responded with: "I mean, I'll say what I didn't find, you'll try to find it, then feel bad because you can't, and I'll feel bad for making you do it. Better to just lie, but that normalizes falsehood. Then again, you asked how I was, and I said fine, and I asked how you were, and you said fine, and for all we know we're going through lots of stuff."

I should note that since the pandemic I really don't get to talk to people as much as I would like, and retail workers bear the brunt. But she seemed to enjoy this nonstandard off-script customer interaction, so I continued.

"I mean, I'm fine in the sense that I did not expect to find these slippers in my size at this price. By those narrow parameters, everything's just ducky. It's aces. Peachy-keen. Beyond that, well, we all have our private demons."

I probably lost her there. Point is, the question that stabs and nags and itches at the end of the day is always, in some sense, did you find everything you were looking for?

Most days I say yes, but I'm looking for very little. I want the quotidian satisfaction of routines to provide a sense of order and connectedness: I want my wife to smile, my dog to be happy when I come home, and Daughter to answer my text. I want the coffeepot to work and the remote to be where I left it last. Beyond that, gravy and frosting.

This is why you don't shop on New Year's Eve, because if someone asks The Question, you might have to stop and total up the year. Did you find what you were looking for?

"That's a good question, attentive Gap clerk who has no idea what she just walked into, because is this not the best day to interrogate our needs and desires, and lay them against the stark account of what the year brought? So, yes, in one sense I did indeed find what I was looking for — a steady sense of purpose and accomplishment, as evidenced by 102 newspaper columns, at least three of which I liked.

"But you have to wonder if you should have sought to find more, to push yourself to transcend the innumerable invisible filaments of duty and habit that keep you from casting your arms wide open and asking — nay, demanding, more of the world, of life, of yourself. Would I be better if I had looked for more and failed, instead of looking for less and succeeding? You get to a point where the grave yawns in boredom at your slow but steady approach, and you wonder how many days remain to find the things you do not know you seek. Also, is this really half off? I know the sale's storewide, but this was on the clearance rack."

Turns out it was half off! But it didn't fit. That said, it was a better year than its predecessor, and here's to another. May you find what you're looking for, too. And if there's no pastrami, try the roast beef.