Okay, I’m on a roll here with the whole gifts thing (ie, I can’t shut up about it.)
This post is long. It is not earth-shaking or particularly interesting. It makes me seem hopelessly neurotic and self-obsessed. If you skip only one entry on this blog, maybe it should be this one.
And ordinarily I wouldn't post something so blatantly all about me and my unoriginal emotions.
Okay, yes I would. But hey, it's *my* blog, innit? :-)
Here are some more things that I think of when I think of presents.
I’m 8 or 9 yrs old. One day we’re all at a bookstore, and when we come out my parents surprise me with a present – it’s a book, but it’s one I’ve already read. I hug it to my chest and smile, but not before Mom sees a flicker in my eyes. She says “You already read that one?” I admit that I have. So we go back into the store and exchange it for one I haven’t read yet.
No big deal, true. But my disappointment, and my guilt for not being glad, and my feeling sorry for my folks for getting the wrong thing, for trying to get a good gift and failing – those emotions are no less real for being foolish and unnecessary. Instead of making me happy, a gift makes me feel disappointed, sorry, guilty.
And even at eight yrs old, I can’t figure out why we go through this. Why didn’t my folks say to me while we were still in the store, “Would you like to pick out a book?” It would still have been a surprise, I’d have been very happy, and we could have avoided all the embarrassment and the unnecessary trip back into the store.
One day my mom says “Hey, go look outside, your dad’s brought you a surprise.” Someone at my dad’s office has given him a hand-me-down bicycle for me and my brother.
It’s about 1975. The cool bikes are the ones with the banana seats and big handlebars. No one – I mean no one – rides the old 1950’s style any more. You might as well have a sign on your head saying “dork”.
This old bike represents to me:
a) Another way for me to stand out, to look different, to be pitied or mocked instead of admired.
b) Our poverty. (And for the record, although I’ve said we were poor, we weren’t. My dad worked hard and had a decent job; we were buying a home, not renting; we always had enough to eat; we wore garage-sale clothes, but we also got vacations, camping trips, etc). But anyway, we didn’t have a lot of money, and I thought we were poor.
c) A failure on my Dad’s part. This sounds stupid, I know. My dad isn’t (and wasn’t) an insecure person. He had a tough childhood (he really WAS poor), and in spite of obstacles had come to be a great father, loving husband, and an honest, respected, hard-working professional. If I had told him I didn’t like the bike, I suspect he would have just laughed and explained that you can’t have everything and I should quit being so spoiled. But here’s the story as I imagine it at 9 or 10 yrs old: My dad – hopelessly out of touch with modern life – doesn’t know what’s cool and what’s not. He brings home an old bicycle, expecting cries of delight from his sons. His sons, far more sophisticated in the ways of the world, know that the bike he’s brought is lame, and are disappointed. Dad is riding the bike around in the street and laughing. If he knew that his sons didn’t like the surprise, his smile would fade, he would be crushed and feel like a fool. He’d be confused and hurt, and unable to understand why his attempt to please his sons has failed. He’d be sad to find he has fathered such unkind and selfish sons.
It never occurs to me that my dad could possibly understand about Cool vs Not Cool, or that he might already understand and not care. That he might laugh as he rides a kids’ bike in the street just because it’s fun/funny, not because he’s tickled with himself for scoring such a fantastic present for us.
A few weeks later my younger brother, seeing a “cool” bike, says to my parents, “That’s the kind of bike I wanted” at which I cringe and they just shrug. Apparently their sense of self-worth doesn’t derive entirely from the question of whether or not their sons like a hand-me-down they brought home from work one day.
THE OTHER STUFF
Add here a number of other instances where someone has gone to some trouble and spent some money on me, and gotten me something that I appreciated, but was in some way lame or mockable. I don’t know how to explain it very well – it’s not that I wasn't grateful -- I was. *I* would never mock anything someone got for me. I felt tremendous love, and gratitude, and… pity, I guess. And it used to stress me out. Like if your grandma from the old country knits you a traditional peasant cap and stands in the doorway waving proudly to you as you head off to school where it will be savaged by your classmates. Or if you’re a scuba diver and spend a lot of effort saving for the best equipment, and then your friend buys you a regulator that the day before you had derided as a cheap piece of crap. I’d feel bad for the person for buying crap for someone as picky as me, I guess.
I think most of it stems from insecurity on my part – for much of my life I’ve been hypersensitive to being laughed at, to failing publicly. If I get someone a gift, and they don’t like it, I am embarrassed. And I project that onto others – I assume that if THEY buy ME a gift, and I don’t like it, they’ll feel sad and stupid like I would.
So I feel under a lot of pressure to act pleased, and terribly guilty if I feel the gift isn’t what I’d have chosen for myself.
In past years, my wife let me know – in no uncertain terms – that the gifts I got her were not up to snuff*. It’s not that they weren’t expensive enough, it’s that they lacked imagination – they said “I bought this in desperation at Safeway at the last minute”
rather than “I spent hours thinking about you and all your varied and fascinating traits and interests. This gift is the result.”
But I’m extremely busy most of the time (my blogging notwithstanding). Hannah put me thru the last year of school, and since then I’ve been the sole breadwinner. I work a lot of hours. After work, I come straight home. I don’t spend much time in the mall.
I guess for someone who spends the whole day at home, and can go to the store any time they like, it’s easy to think everyone should be able to spend hours trying to think up wonderful gifts, and more hours searching for them at the store. But the fact is I spend most of my life working my nachas off to put food in four people’s mouths and a roof over our heads. I don’t have a lot of time for ruminating, and less for wandering around the mall.
What I’d like to do is put a pink bow around every single thing in the whole bloody house and say “Here, this is what I’ve bought you this year. Do you like it? I hope so, because I spent a lot of time working to buy it for you. Or failing that, maybe it wouldn’t be too much to ask you to tell me what you’d really like. Because I don’t have the time or energy for the guessing game called If You Really Loved Me You’d Know What I Wanted.”
*To Hannah’s credit, this is not something she does any more. She has been working outside the home for the first time since the kids were born – she had a big project to do at work, and found herself too busy to get me a birthday present. (Well, well, well – imagine that. When this situation was reversed in years past, of course, I was Unloving Evil Husband…)
Anyway, since I can’t ever let things just slide, I had to bring this up to her. I asked her – now that she understands how it can be – if she might retroactively cut me a little slack for past failure to devote 100% of my time to buying the perfect Valentine or whatever. To my surprise, she said “I was unreasonable and immature. I’m sorry.” You could’ve knocked me over with a feather…
So there you have it. The (hopefully) full & final story on why I’m a pathetic gift giver and receiver.
And I should also add this: much of the above is not necessarily how I feel any more. That is, I still have residual angst about gifts, but I’ve moved past much of the underlying insecurity and over-concern about others’ opinions, etc. (If my great-great-grandmother - may she rest in peace - knitted me a yarmulke or something, it would be cool.)
The last few years I’ve enjoyed letting many things be what they are, without having to assign a value to them, or worrying about how they might have been better/worse/different, or what someone else might think about them.
Perhaps now that I’m 40 – and barreling full speed toward old age and death – I’ll even learn to love exchanging gifts soon. You never know...