LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers might find offensive.
Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth
I have an affliction that cannot be cured. It affects me annually around the holiday season and at a few other scattered points throughout the year, on people's birthdays. It's an obsession with finding the pitch-perfect gift, accompanied by a severe mental block when it comes to interpreting that person's needs and desires. Like an atrophy of the gift-giving muscle.
I've tried hard all my life to do it right, and years of both missing the mark terribly and being at the receiving end of some of the most thoughtless gift-giving possible have fueled my passion to do better, though it is endlessly tiring. I would be extremely happy if I came from a family that composed original poetry, or pulled names out of a hat to give one single gift as our preferred mode of holiday expression.
But in our family, everybody has to get everybody else a present, and that's the way it goes. If you tried to give someone a poem instead of a present, you would find yourself on the receiving end of a clusterfuck of confusion, as the person repeatedly tried to dig through the envelope it came in to find the gift card for Best Buy that surely must have dropped out somewhere along the way.
I am cursed by my mother's insistence on using her wits, and my own insistence that a gift should perfectly reflect the recipient's uniqueness. She's always doing things like freezing a road-kill porcupine in order to remove the quills and fashion you a sunglasses case festooned with hand-cut beads.
Or knitting a dickie for your cat, or making homemade deodorant for you that comes in a holster she made by tanning her own deerskin. You're never quite sure what to do with these things, but you always feel the love and care that goes into every stitch.
And as one of those people who always search for the most perfect gift to reflect the spirit of every occasion, I have been disappointed time after time by other people's lack of enthusiasm for the ritual. I mean, if you're going to put on a blindfold and feel around the inside of a Dumpster for something you can wrap in the paper I wrapped your last gift with and toss it to me Christmas morning from across the room, maybe you shouldn't bother. I don't need a gift. So you can use your gift-giving impulses to make other people's dreams come true.
I don't want a gift. I repeat, I don't need a gift. Honestly. It's more insulting to me that you would wrap the cardigan of a dead person eight sizes larger than me and try to pass it off as something I would wear than if you just said, "We 're not doing gifts this year." If you give me a turquoise, sizesixteen, funnel-neck sweatshirt with three-quarter-length sleeves and a relief portrait of rabbits frolicking in the snow, then I know you didn't really want to bother getting me something in the first place. A gift like that reveals what you were thinking when you bought it — namely, Ugh. I don't know what size she goddamn wears. This one's got rabbits on it. She's a girl. It'll do. .
And then you shoved it in a box, wrapped it in last year's Samantha Bee Christmas Color Palette, and didn't even do a proper job of tucking in the corners and nicely taping them down.
Anyway, I got you an original vintage ivory Masatoshi goblin netsuke for your curio cabinet because I thought it was as beautiful and special as you are. I hope you like it. I can agree in principle that it's the thought that counts when giving or getting gifts, but I would also like to point out that "if there 's no thought . . . it doesn't count." I don't wish to be reminded that you didn't want to take the time to get to know me, or perhaps you have even known me my whole life and simply don't care about me. All I ask is that you not rub my face in it.
For example, if you are my boyfriend, you should probably think about giving me something other than a gift certificate to the liquor store for my birthday. If your next impulse is to write me a check for $50 and put it in a Tiffany ring box for me to breathlessly open, that's probably not going to work either. I will take that check for $50, "boyfriend," and I will pay my phone bill with it, thank you very much! Then I will take my liquor store gift card and get massively fucked up on Amarula, then smoke a pack of menthol cigarettes for no reason and make nonsensical phone calls to you at four o'clock in the morning on my phone line that has recently been reinstated.
In my case, the thought simply has to count . . . otherwise, it's just going to be confusing for you when you receive your membership to the Bacon of the Month Club, let's say, because of that time five years ago when you mentioned that you had never had the chance to try real Canadian bacon and I never forgot it.
Every year on December 1, I run out and spend about twelve hundred million thousand dollars making the gifts I have bought look like they leapt out of the pages of Persnickety Old Opera-Loving Gay Man's Quarterly. So when you fold up my paper and ribbons and try and regift them back to me next year, nice try, but I have a small space carved in my brain dedicated solely to a catalog of wrapping "looks." I practice making new and more voluminous bows every year the way some people practice things like being good parents or caring for elderly relatives. I don't have time for those things, but my Christmas memories and monochromatic color schemes are priceless.
So it's highly distressing to me that I am the only person in my life who cares at all about the beautification and perfection of the holiday season. But it's even more distressing for me when people don't care about the gifts I have painstakingly acquired for them. You may not care whether I ever make it through that stale jellybean pile you regifted from your office Secret Santa, but I have been torturing myself to come up with the perfect gift for you for months, and I'd like a little love in return, please.
Because I can tell you that even if you were standing in your backyard one day, and your dog shat out a pair of jodhpurs that would make me look like the bulb of an onion, and you wrapped them in a creosote-soaked blanket and gave them to me on my birthday, I would still make you feel like I had been waiting all my life to own those pants. I would compliment them, and try them on, and rave about them, and take a picture of myself randomly wearing them and send it to you, and you would feel special and precious and well-thanked for your thoughtfulness, even though I would immediately understand that you don't give a rat's ass about me.
I'm sorry. I don't mean to belittle your gift-giving impulses just because I've been burned so often. The truth is that I would fucking wear that bullshit turquoise, funnel-neck sweatshirt with the rabbits to Christmas fucking dinner, even though I knew that the cameras would be snapping and cherished memories would be documented. That's how much I care about your well-being.
So I really don't like it when I work hard to get people stuff and they open their gifts the way a dog eats a treat, while looking past the treat the whole time to see if there is a treat in the other hand, too. I like my gifts to be savored, not swallowed without chewing. Don't look behind my gift to see if there 's a better gift on its way, like you're trying to get into a club or something and you've run into some nerd who might hurt your chances.
Let me spell it out for you. Here's how it should work: See my gift. Yes, you may touch it, I know it looks beautiful. Remark that it is well-wrapped and how you always like my unique take on Christmas and birthday gifts. Slowly begin to unwrap the gift. Maybe try a little "Ooh, I should really save this ribbon/paper, etcetera, for next year!" (Only don't, because I'm not sure you can handle the responsibility.) Now peel back the paper and appear to get excited. Don't overdo it, but let's have a little enthusiasm.
Now mull it over a bit, tell me where you think this gift fits into your life, and thank me for it. Then, place it carefully to your side. Don't put it in harm's way, but also, don't be a geek about it. If you lay it on too thick, I'll know that you're just mocking me, and then next year, you're getting a mug filled with Reese 's Pieces that I stole from a Walgreens. (I'm just kidding, I could never do that. I hate Reese 's Pieces!)
Now, my father knows how to accept a gift. He knows how to accept one mainly because he wrote his wish list in blood on the dining room wall and has been practicing his acceptance speech ever since. It doesn't really bother me, except that every year the gifts keep getting more and more expensive. It makes me feel weird that my own father asks me for stuff he would never have contemplated getting for me while I was growing up. The man who once gave me a budget of $13 a week for groceries in college — that's $52 a month for food — is now asking me for things like laptop computers and Gucci loafers.
One year, I got him an iPod, which he loved and was moved by. I wasn't making so much money that it was an inconsequential expense, but I could afford it with a little stretching. I knew it would mean a lot to him. Two months later, the whole transaction was forgotten. It was all, "This iPod stinks. It only has six hours of battery life! I hate it."
I was like, "Six hours? Who can listen to that much Bruce Hornsby in a single day anyway? I mean, maybe if the Range was still in the picture . . . but a solo effort? Don't you need to give your ears time to stop bleeding before you fire that bad boy up again?"
"Bite me. It's a lot better than the Smiths, so get over yourself." He always liked to remind me that I went through a very serious love affair with the music of the Smiths and that he thought it was terrible and depressing. I liked to remind him that Billy Joel was a much more interesting songwriter when he was suffering from depression and doing things like drinking furniture polish, not making songs like "Uptown Girl," which was, coincidentally, my father's favorite.
"Whatever. I need a Nano."
"I'd like to remind you that I was the person who bought you your embarrassingly obsolete iPod two months ago, and that it cost over four hundred dollars, so I'm probably the wrong person to be complaining about this to."
"If I buy a yellow one online, can I use your credit card and then I'll pay you back with a check?" Which was really just code for "Buy me one. Now."
There are many people in this world who do not know how to accept a gift properly. I don't really know if it's part of a Depression-era mentality or having self-esteem issues that makes it impossible for them to imagine that someone would give them a gift from the heart. Perhaps the recipient was raised by wolves or grew up in the base of an old oak tree, and like Nell, communicated using only a primitive, guttural language system that doesn't include such niceties as "Thank you" or "Wow, that sure was thoughtful." In any case, many of those people are related to me by blood and I bear the scars to prove it.
I have learned to stop buying gifts of any kind for people in my family over the age of seventy, for instance. It's just a lose-lose proposition. It really doesn't matter how much effort you put into the present; if they haven't bought it for themselves, they just don't believe that you got it from Sears, and therefore, it just won't do. And they don't care at all about fully disparaging your gift while you sit there next to the Christmas tree, hoping beyond hope to bring a glimmer of sunshine into their lives.
"I hate this," said my grandfather after reluctantly pulling the paper off his gift of a sweater vest and leather slippers.
"Will you wear it?" he asked, gesturing for me to put it on.
"No, Granddad, I bought it for you. You asked me for a sweater vest, remember?"
"Well, this isn't the one I wanted. The one I wanted was from Sears. This one doesn't even have sleeves! It'll bind me up."
Everything binds old people up. Pajamas, things with or without sleeves, bedsheets . . . you'd think they were spending their off hours rolling around on the floor trying to put out a fire. I would have gotten him socks, but I was afraid he would hang himself with them.
"Can you take it back? I'll never use it. Take the slippers back, too. Those are slippery — I'll get all tangled up in the night on the way to the toilet."
And my grandmother was somehow even worse.
"Dammit! I told you not to get me towels! I have too many towels!" she hissed.
"But these ones are so soft and the ones you have in the bathroom are so scratchy! I thought you'd like them! You deserve softness!"
"Just don't get me gifts! Jesus! I told you not to. I begged you not to." She was practically in tears.
"I'm so sorry!"
Angry glare. "Just don't let it happen again."
I suppose they had a point. They just didn't want me spending what little money I had on frivolous things when they felt they had everything they needed for the rest of their lives. It didn't really help my case that they had such a skewed notion of what things cost that they could imagine that a set of hand towels would be equal to the cost of a year's college tuition.
My granddad had recently held a garage sale in which he priced everything ludicrously high. A rabbit-ear television set that got two channels in black-and-white had a price tag of $100 on it. A giant brown crocheted owl perched on a stick was priced at $45, and the pièce de résistance, a picnic basket, was priced at $150. What could possibly be in that picnic basket? I wondered. When I opened it up, I found a dog-eared copy of I'm OK, You're OK, some rusty toenail clippers, a box of douching powder from the 1950s, and some leftover tubing from a home enema kit. It suddenly made sense that they might think a sweater vest from the Gap could be worth a down payment on a house.
It has always been this way, and it has been a hard road. My whole life has been a series of gift misfires, all with the best of intentions. When I was young, throwing money at a gifting opportunity seemed too gauche. Best to make it personal, and funny!
As a little girl, I gave my father a lump of coal for Christmas one year. I wasn't angry with him, I just thought it was a hilarious private joke. I can't remember why I thought it would be funny, I just did. I cleverly figured out where I could acquire a handsome piece of coal, wrapped it carefully in a beautiful box, and waited on pins and needles until the day my joke would see the light of day. When he opened it, he came just shy of bursting into tears of disappointment. He had probably requested some Paco Rabanne or something, and couldn't see that I thought he had such a great sense of humor that he would totally get it, and that in this case, the journey itself was better than the destination.
I once gave my uncle a T-shirt that read i only drink on days that end in y. I thought it was hilarious when I was ten. And perhaps in retrospect, it wasn't the greatest gift, but I was still laughing when I noticed the hush that befell the entire room once he unwrapped it. It had a picture of a rednosed boozehound on it, like Andy Capp, and little hiccup bubbles that floated above him. I thought he would totally get it, you know, because of his raging alcoholism.
By the time I met my husband, I was stuck in a quagmire, my gift-giving fire quenched by a series of grueling relationships that had left me battered and weak. My mojo was gone, and my awesome gifts were universally despised. As it turns out, most people just want gift certificates, not turn-of-the-century dentists' tools or vintage carpet beaters. I didn't know what to get Jason for the first birthday of his that we spent together. I had grown so unused to intimate gestures that I finally settled on a book, Song of Solomon, and a massage. Having had no experience with the latter, I booked him a massage at a local massage parlor. When the slinky gentleman emerged from his dank cave to accept my money and fashion an impromptu gift certificate, he eyed me warily. He must have thought I was the coolest girlfriend in the world.
I was like, "Great! A guy massage! Jason will feel so much more comfortable having a guy massage him." Perhaps I should have said each thought out loud to myself, articulating every syllable just so. "A. GUY. MASSAGE. JASON. WILL. FEEL. SO. MUCH. MORE. COMFORTABLE. HAVING. A. DUDE. RUB. HIM. DOWN. WITH. PINE. SCENTED. OIL. IN. A. DARK. MANCAVE. RUBBING. HIM. ALL. OVER. WITH. HIS. BIG. MANLY. MEATPAWS."
It was so traumatic for him that he didn't let on for years that he had, in fact, been molested in that bears' den. So sweet of him not to let on. He just told me it was great and that he loved it and, when pressed for more details, didn't seem to have much to say. Also, he hated the book and never read it. He only likes books that relate in some way to tragedies that befall climbers on Mount Everest.
I swore I could do better. I knew I had it in me to wow him. After all, Jason had consistently wowed me at every possible holiday and birthday. He's the kind of person who remembers every single thing you've ever said about anything you've ever liked or wanted to do, and files it away in a steel trap in his brain in order to make you cry six months later. If he has to special-order it from blind orphans in Afghanistan, all the better to amaze you.
It took me ages to figure out, but I came up with a great idea. I decided to take Jason to an authentic dude ranch and give him the opportunity to rope cows and ride horses and do dude things that did not involve intimate rubdowns by guys in loose-fitting kimonos. Jason loves horses, and he's super-outdoorsy. Perfect.
I researched the idea for months and found the perfect place. It was only a few hours away, and it had all of the features I was looking for in a backcountry experience: off-trail horseback riding with actual duties, such as herding cattle into their pens; rustic Mexican blankets strewn across simple beds; coffee percolating on an open fire; and eating baked beans out of tins! The place came recommended in several of my urban-lifestyle magazines, and plus, all the lettering on the website had that burnt-edge Bonanza look to it. I was sold. We were going to herd cattle all day, rest our weary bones on some rusty old cots at night, then get up in the morning for some grub and do it all over again. He was going to love it. I mean, what the hell. I love horses, too, and I'm no slouch in the saddle, so I figured it was something we could both enjoy.
The guy on the phone was slightly lacking in customerservice skills, but I thought maybe that was just part of the act, like when you eat at Crabby Joe's and the waiters are all supposed to be mean to you on purpose. He called himself Kowboy Kevin, and when I asked him if they accepted American Express, he kind of snorted and I thought I heard him call me a "citi-ot."
I kind of chuckled, like, I get it. It's all part of the rustic experience. Yes, I'm a "citi-ot." But then I really needed to know. "So . . . heh, heh . . . do you take American Express?"
"No, your ladyship, we don't. We don't take American Express."
"Ummm . . . what do you take, Kowboy Kevin?"
"Cash only. No exceptions. Not for you, not for the Queen of England, and not for no Richie Rich and Lyle."
Then he made a sound like he was blowing his nose into his hand. He sounded so authentic and musty. I hoped he was the one who was going to be taking us out on the range!
I put down my deposit, and when I told Jason about his gift, he was impressed by my ingenuity, and probably relieved that he wasn't getting a seventeenth-century merkin in a shadowbox or something. We got a babysitter for our dog, as the website had warned us that their nursing cows would try and trample her to death if we brought her, and took off, full of promise.
From I Know I Am But What Are You? Copyright 2010 by Samantha Bee. Published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.