Monday, April 29, 2013

The High Highs and Low Lows of Giving Gifts

We all want something else.
—"Burn Thru," Abigail Washburn

(Note: as promised [among other promises] in my last post, I've moved my weekly blog post to Mondays, for reasons explained there.)

I really like the practice of giving gifts. I know that there are a lot of complaints abroad about the long dark road of consumerism, materialism, and over-commercialization of holidays in our culture, Christmas in particular, but, while I subscribe to those ideas in theory, in practice I will totally just barrel down the consumeristic excess express if I believe a friend or family member's happiness is at the end of the highway.

Giving a great gift is a wonderful feeling. Not only do you have the pleasure of seeing someone genuinely happy, and knowing that you caused that feeling, but when done right, a great gift indicates the measure of respect and love you have for a person. And even if you utterly fail and give someone something they don't want at all, there is a strong possibility you've just given them something to laugh about a little ways down the road. I have seen someone weep tears of frustration upon opening what turned out to be a pair of purple Chuck Taylors with black velvet bunnies on them, only to later wear them regularly and even occasionally offer a hearty chuckle at their initial disappointment.

For sheer heights of gift receiving, no gift I can recall outweighs the excellence of my big Christmas present in 1999: an N64. It was the culmination of years of longing, hope, and anticipation; after several years of going over to friends' houses in elementary school and reveling in the pure joy of imagined worlds and virtual competition and problem solving, only to have to wrench myself away at the end of each visit, I grew slowly to hope and to dream that one day I, too, could experience the unparalleled ecstasy that was having an N64 in my own home. When I saw a large, N64-sized box under the tree the Christmas of my twelfth year, I could scarcely breathe with the fear that it might not be what I hoped it was, and when I opened it and discovered that it was what I had yearned for so deeply for so many months and years, my joy and relief were intense and lasting. I did have a moment of moderate disappointment when my parents decided to take away the copy of Goldeneye 007 provided by my grandparents, deeming a game where adults shoot other adults with guns to be inappropriate for my preteen self. It did little to diminish my profound happiness, though, as I was well immersed in the deep bliss that is Mario 64 by the end of the morning.

Not that it kept me from eventually re-acquiring Goldeneye.

Undoubtedly the worst gift I have ever received also came to me in preadolescence. It was around Christmas, when people like me, children of Salvation Army officers, were all invited to a party where there were games, happiness, and of course, presents. When it came time for the kids to open their presents, all the boys around me were opening sweet-action Lego sets, with cool undersea divers and large, fantastical submarines, complete with neon green propellers and viewing windows. I loved Legos as a kid; they allowed for nearly endless creative play by myself (an important aspect of growing up as an introvert) and a chance to get another set and build my collection was quite exciting. After eagerly watching others open their presents, I turned to my own. They were disappointingly small in size, I thought; perhaps I was getting several smaller Lego sets instead of the big submarine? That could be cool, I supposed, providing they were still something sweet, like pirates or ice explorers.

Legos: still among the first things you will see when you come to my house.

The first gift I opened was something called a Jupiter Ball. It was a little spherical mold that you would pour different colored rubber cements into that would then harden into a ball that looked sort of like the planet Jupiter, if for some reason you cared enough to do that. It was not Legos, so I was disappoint.

The other present was, I kid you not, a box of fake snot. Needless to say, this was also not Legos.

I tried to be reasonable about my disappointment. I expressed it to my parents, who chalked it up to "I guess so-and-so" (person in charge of buying the presents) "just thinks you're a really weird kid." Heaven knows where they got that impression (heh) but all the same, even weird kids love Legos, so I still had a beef with that person up until I eventually forgot who it was.

Enough about receiving, though; we all know that giving is where it's truly at. I like to pride myself on being a good gift giver. I am often the person who organizes friends into getting an excellent present for a third party with our combined buying power, which is an especially good feeling. But the fact of the matter is that, mainly, being a good gift giver often comes down to simply paying attention to a person and writing down what they say at key moments, such as, for example, when you are in a store together and your friend goes "Man, I would really love X, but I'm totally not going to buy it right now." Then you go buy that thing and sit on it for a few months until their birthday or Christmas or Hanukkah*, badda-bing, badda-boom. Even if they buy it for themselves, you still get hecka brownie points for having paid attention. (Hopefully you kept the receipt, just in case.)

Most gifts I have given in this fashion have turned out well. The best gift, I think, that I have ever given involved not attentiveness so much as extreme creativity and limited resources. I participate in an annual holiday gathering of friends from my time in AmeriCorps, where we do a white elephant gift exchange with an almost unbearably low cost limit of $5. One year, I put together a coloring book featuring pictures of all of the participants; I used an official AmeriCorps application as a cover, altering it so it read "Give a Year, Color the SCMs" (SCMs being our shared job title and "Give a Year, Change the World" being the organizational motto). I bundled it with crayons and wrapped it in used paper with Excel spreadsheets on the back. (Total cost: whatever a box of Crayolas was at Walgreens, so like $3 maybe?) The sheer explosive excitement generated upon the opening of this gift was satisfying enough, but anyone knows that the true marker of the value of a white elephant gift is how much the participants steal it from each other, and my gift was almost immediately stolen the maximum number of times.

Thus, getting gifts and giving gifts are both excellent processes, and even if you find yourself initially disappointed, the process is almost always worth it in one way or another.

*Note: I have never given a Kwanzaa present. This does not mean I wouldn't love to. 
Photo Sources:
Photo 1:
Photos 2 & 3: my house!

1 comment:

  1. Economists have elaborated the economics of gift-giving into the notion of a gift economy. By extension the term gift can refer to anything that makes the other happier or less sad, especially as a favour, including forgiveness and kindness. Gifts are also first and foremost presented on occasions - birthdays and Christmas being the main examples.

    Sarah Khan