(Originally published by Earthblog.net, Dec 24, 2005)
I’ve pretty much given up on the Christmas thing. Like many others I resent the concept that, come December, we consumer robots must line up and converge on the mall to buy shiny useless trinkets. Besides, the conserved funds are then available to help someone in genuine need. That the person in dire straits is usually me, is beside the point.
I do adore after-Christmas sales, great for stocking up on thermal long johns. I rely on 50%-off day to lay in a supply of candied fruit. Luckily the stuff keeps like an Egyptian mummy, so I can whip up a batch of fruitcake from the secret family recipe any time of year I darn well feel like it.
I love my friends, but if I buy a gift for A, then I feel bad about not getting one for B, who is an equally good and valued friend – and spiraling depression begins. So my method is: any time of year I run across something that’s perfect for a certain person, hand it over to them and never mind the Holidays.
Still, I do know a thing or two about gifts. First off, a gift should be given free and clear. The recipient ought to be able to showcase it, hide it in the basement, pawn it, swap it, sell it, decorate it with ball fringe, or give it away, with no repercussions. Because it’s not a gift unless it’s theirs to do with as they see fit, no strings attached.
I’ve sold books and art objects given to me by friends, and I hope they understand it’s only to maintain the infrastructure that lets my own creative life go forward. And if I give a friend something I made, s/he is welcome to trade it for the coin of any realm they can get. “By the way, remember that copy of Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics #8 you gave me? A collector just bought it for $200.” Music to my ears.
Some of the best things I’ve been given:
Long, long ago, when I bought my first car, a real heap, I felt responsible for its upkeep and repair. My boyfriend bought me a toolbox and filled it with basic tools. I didn’t even know what a feeler gauge was, but now I had one. His friends said, “Fool, you don’t give a girl socket wrenches for Christmas.” Wrong. This girl learned how to change the oil and the spark plugs, and eventually replaced the carburetor, alternator, and water pump. And loved the boy’s willingness to override cultural stereotypes.
A painter gave me marvelous oil portraits of two of my culture heroes, Virginia Woolf and Lenny Bruce. He also gave me, quite literally, a piece of garbage, found out back of the art supply store. Remember press-on letters? This unique wooden cabinet has cardboard drawers made to hold packages of press-on letter sheets. It fits perfectly into my modular crate-and-board shelving scheme, where its drawers hold shiny paper, pieces of plastic, origami paper, colored cardstock scraps, and the like.
One boyfriend took a discarded swing-arm lamp and replaced the shade and its contents with a clipboard mounted on a swiveling joint. I have the most versatile document holder a computer user could wish for. Early in our affair, he soothed my insecurity by giving me a phone with his number already programmed at the #1 position. Seeing my frustration once when I couldn’t get an irritant out of my eye, he sent away for a strong magnifying mirror and installed it in a little case exactly the right size. Less than five dollars worth of materials, for a thing I still use and appreciate more than a decade later.
I’d never found an earring holder that really worked well, so I designed one and he built it. (Diagram available on request.)
Coolest of all, he found instructions in a magazine and made a trippy brain-wave modifying machine that runs off an AA battery. Little flashing lights are embedded in blacked-out swim goggles. With a dial you control the speed of the flashes, and your brain synchs in, and gets more relaxed or more creative, depending. This guy had a real talent for pleasing, and sister, if you find one like him, hold on to that prince!
Another beau delighted me with a used item from an auction: a Dictaphone machine. I was doing local journalism at the time, with a lot of taped interviews to transcribe, and that machine was just a fabulous boon. Around the same time, I told a friend how much I liked The Screwtape Letters, and when my birthday rolled around she gave me the book on tape – read by Monty Python’s John Cleese!
Worst things I’ve been given:
One boyfriend gave me a boxed deck of cards whose purpose was to cure writers’ block. Shuffle the cards, pick one, and follow the instructions: “Pull out the kitchen junk drawer and describe the contents,” or whatever. Why was I insulted, offended, and hurt? Because I’ve never been at a loss for ideas. The only thing I lack is enough hours to develop more than a small fraction of them. If, during our two-year association, he had listened at all, he would have heard me say numerous times, “My files have more ideas than I could use in another hundred years.”
Then there was the time I mentioned needing a decent haircut. He went out and got a beauty makeover CD. The premise: put your picture into the program and cybernetically try on different eyebrow shapes and hair colors. So why was I mad this time? First, the suggestion that one needs a total makeover is not acceptable coming from one’s Significant Other. Plus, the accursed disk crashed the computer to where the hard drive had to be wiped and everything reinstalled. Why couldn’t he have just given me a haircut gift certificate?
Another man once gave me a real fancy, dressy, expensive watch. And the problem was….? Once again, I wasn’t being heard. If this guy’d been paying attention, he would have known I frowned on raping the earth to extract gold and diamonds from it. Furthermore, I didn’t wear the kind of clothes a piece of jewelry like that would go with. In fact, I didn’t wear such a mundane badge of normality as even a cheap watch. That gift was inappropriate on so many levels, it was worse than no gift. Except that I said “Thank you” and sold the watch as soon as we broke up.
So. What are the lessons to be drawn from all this? Hartman is an ungrateful bitch. Okay, but what else?
1. Pay attention to your giftee’s needs and wants, rather than what you think they should need or want.
2. Sometimes the right gift can even be found in a dumpster.
3. “It’s the thought that counts,” runs the tired old adage, and there’s certainly more than a grain of truth in it. The thought counts for a lot. When picking out a gift, it’s good to remember that the thought counts for a lot. Because you don’t want the recipient to ask, “What were you thinking?”
The best gift song – Shades by Iggy Pop
“Do we ever give anyone the gift they actually want?”
————– Michael Cunningham