I take the giving of gifts seriously. In a way it’s a personal challenge—can I pick out a present that’ll be rewarded with the oh, WOW, I didn’t even know that I wanted this! But I do!
My favorite is when the gift is for someone who isn’t expecting much of me. Maybe we don’t know each other well, or they didn’t ask for anything in particular so they assume I couldn’t possibly have picked out something they really want.
Now, just because I care about gift giving doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. Sometimes I’m really “on” when it comes to what I pick out, but just as often I’m completely, well, off. People are too polite to say they don’t like their present, but it’s obvious. And it bothers me.
It takes me back to a fiasco back in second grade at summer day camp.
There was an event called “Trade Your Lunch Day” (they must have really been hurting for daily activity ideas) and I was partnered up with this kid, Darren. Either my parents didn’t get the memo, or I just never relayed the information that this was going on (more than likely the case) so I showed up at camp with a regular paper-bagged lunch, never vetted by yours-truly.
It was a definite “Oh, shit!” moment when they told us to meet up with our partners on the gymnasium floor. I had no idea what was actually in my paper bag, and that scared me. We had good lunch days, and mediocre lunch days, and downright weird lunch days back then. It was important to be stellar on a day like this. And, I couldn’t guarantee it.
They literally had us sit across from our partners and take turns opening our lunches.
As I went through the booty, I had one thought. Oh wow. I was not expecting something this amazing.
It was a superb lunch, truly a second grader’s dream; peanut butter and marshmallow fluff, a homemade brownie, apple slices, Doritos and a juice box. I still remember the feeling of pulling the items out one by one. I get to eat this. And then a bit of a jealous, Are Darren’s lunches always this good? In those days, marshmallow fluff was a commodity. We never had it at our house.
Poor Darren waited his turn with a curious, expectant look on his face. What was he going to get to eat? What little foreign Blackwood-y lunchtime presents were inside my paper bag? String cheese? A fruit roll-up? Was he going to test drive PB&J minus the crust and cut out in a cookie cutter shape?
I handed it over, reluctantly, and he reached inside. There were two things in there. The first was a peanut butter and butter sandwich. Let me repeat. A peanut butter and BUTTER sandwich. No jelly. I don’t care where you’re from–this is disgusting.
The second item was an apple. It wasn’t even at least a softball-sized Fuji. It was no bigger than a golf ball and tart, a Granny Smith I believe.
It must have been a desperately light grocery day in the Blackwood household.
Darren’s smile faded to confusion and the poor kid actually peered inside the empty bag to see if there was anything else in there. I was so embarrassed that after the volume of voices picked up again and kids were digging in, I sort of crawled away to eat my new, top quality lunch in the corner. I couldn’t look at Darren for the rest of the day; the only way to overcome my embarrassment was to pretend that he, my crappy bagged lunch, and everything in between simply didn’t exist.
That’s how I handle ultimate embarrassment. I just shut down and disappear (mentally first and then, as soon as possible, physically.) The only way to cope is to move on with my life like it never happened, until years later when I feel emotionally ready to face the memory without dry heaving.
I can’t believe I’m going to share this story, but it’s like this time I was in my late teens and went running on a treadmill at the gym. I’d just gotten my period and didn’t have a pad with me but was determined to work out, so I stuffed toilet paper in to my underwear, thinking that would be sufficient. Guess what crawled out and slid down my pant leg on to the treadmill? My makeshift, crumpled toilet paper pad. All bloody, mind you. The only way to survive the situation was to press STOP, wait the agonizing seconds for the belt to slow down, grab my sweat towel and water, and leave.
I pretended none of it happened, and I never went back to that gym. Problem solved.
So, I have no idea if he touched the peanut butter and butter atrocity. You’d think I might have had the wherewithal to at least offer him half of his lunch. Nope. I just wanted him to disappear for the rest of my life. And, I wanted to eat his marshmallow fluff sandwich in the meantime. Which, I did.
I truly think this incident scarred me enough that it propelled my desire to pick out gifts for people that they unwrap and like.
It may even have inspired Darren, who currently owns a bakery and was responsible for the creation of our wedding cake, topped with a golden fondant castle reached by a trail of cobblestone.
Perhaps, in some small way, that day of subpar lunching and butter turning up where butter doesn’t belong propelled him to take up the culinary arts?
Why, yes, I’m giving my bagged lunch credit for Darren’s successful business.
I’m also giving it credit for my desire to outdo myself in the gift-giving department. And, if that summer camp incident was a barometer of success, the goal is to create what I’ll call The Darren and ultimate failure is The Peanut Butter and Butter.
I’ve experienced both. And, made some ‘Notes to Self’ along the way.
When I was in eighth or ninth grade, my best friend Jodi’s birthday was coming up. I wanted to get her something, to quote Clark Griswold’s cousin Eddie, “rilly niiice.”
So, obviously I started out at Spencer’s in the mall. If you’re not familiar, it’s a store that sells all kinds of things; rock band posters, all things bathroom humor, wallets, hats and beanies, sex toys, drinking accessories, and bachelor/bachelorette party entertainment. I went there mostly for the gags—I once picked out “butterscotch” candies that taste like cod liver oil once you get to the center and also bought a rubber pile of graphically chunky, totally-realistic-when-wet, oh right, there’s the carrots and broccoli we ate last night puke that I went so far as to put on my seventh grade teacher’s desk when she wasn’t looking. (Thankfully she thought it was hilarious, especially when she found out it was me—the most ridiculously shy girl in the class.)
Feeling very confident and generous in my selection, I bought Jodi no less than eight key chains. Eight.
Now, for one thing we weren’t even old enough to drive at that point. At the very most she had one key to her name (a house key.)
Who knows what I was thinking. I guess I was just drawn to the sheer variety of what I found; one was a Magic Eight Ball you could interrogate, shake, and be told yes, no, or maybe. Another was Jodi’s name spelled out in plastic capsules filled with water and glitter, a third was a miniature catcher’s mitt and baseball, a fourth had some snappy saying on it that included the word ‘bitch’ which I thought was touché and cool. Yes, a keychain for all occasions. The perfect gift.
It could have stopped there, but didn’t. My dad dragged me along for a trip to this store he had to go to in order to buy something for my brother’s hockey team. I sulked behind him and half-heartedly looked around at the merchandise. Then I saw it. Something else amazing for Jodi.
It was metal. It was decorative. It was sentimental and shaped like two friends holding hands. I figured it was just perfect for Jodi, so I bought it.
When she opened her birthday gifts there were lots of facial expressions, not many that I was expecting . As far as the key chains went, it was puzzlement. As for the metal thingy, it was puzzlement. (So, now that I’ve written it out, I guess there was only one facial expression.)
“I love it,” she said pragmatically, holding up the metal, hand holding buddies. “It’s—is it, so it’s a decoration, right?”
“Yeah, I think so!” I said, and I suddenly sensed we had a Peanut Butter and Butter situation going on here. She asked a valid question. What, exactly, was the thing?
I had to go home and ask my parents. Well, it turned out to be a trophy decoration. It was something you’d buy to mount on top of the stand…of a trophy.
Did Jodi have trophies? No.
Note to Self:
A.) Things can be pretty, but are they functional? Can the person actually use the gift? Consider that.
B.) One of anything is probably enough. Avoid overkill.
C.) Do you actually know what it IS that you’re buying?
Around that same age (so, what was obviously the twilight of my worst gift giving days) I bought a gift for a woman who I still introduce to people as my “babysitter.”
My parents hired her to babysit when I was six and my sister was a newborn. She came over every single day up until my brother, who is ten years younger than I am, graduated from high school (by then it was obviously just out of love, and not because we actually needed a baby sitter at that point. At least I hope that’s the case.)
Her name is Mary, she’s our second mother, and at a Special Moments gift shop in the mall I found what I needed to get her for Christmas. It was perfect. It spoke to me. It was her name on a coffee cup and each of the four letters branched out in to a list of adjectives describing her personality. And, these adjectives didn’t seem generic. They were perfect words to describe her; I mean, the adjectives really fit.
Marvelous, Maternal, Mature, Memorable, Adored, Adaptable, Admired, Affectionate, Radiant, Reflecting, Real, Responsible, Valuable, Vibrant, Virtuous, Vivacious.
When I handed her the gift she said, “You shouldn’t have gotten me anything. You didn’t have to do this.”
That’s how she always opens gifts—she says these two lines over and over, the whole time she’s unwrapping. And, she says it in a way that seems progressively more annoyed as it becomes apparent that we did, indeed, do this.
“You shouldn’t have done this.” She said. “Oh, thank you, sweetie! This will be great for my morning coffee.”
It wasn’t quite a Darren, but she obviously liked it so I felt pleased with myself.
Later, I caught Mary and my mom whispering to each other.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
Well, it turns out she hadn’t wanted to tell me, but then changed her mind because it was actually kind of sweet/funny in her mind. The mug didn’t say Mary. It said Marv. I don’t even know the alphabet all that well, apparently.
We could have returned the mug and found one that said Mary. But that would have meant admitting defeat and tracking down the gift receipt (which I no doubt forgot to hang on to.) So, we changed her name. That very night Mary became Marv, and we’ve never gone back. Truly, if someone mentions something to me about “Mary,” I have no idea who they are talking about.
Note to Self: Look at the gifts you pick out closely. If need be, ask a witness if they see what you see.
I just want to take a minute to clear something up and even give myself a pat on the back. It’s not like everything I buy has gone wrong. I’ve had some proud moments once I got past the pre-teen twilight of cluelessness.
My sister and I (with Marv’s help) ordered my parents a Waterford Crystal lamp from the Brand Names catalogue. We were very young at the time, maybe thirteen and seven? So, to pool our money together like that and buy something so fancy was unprecedented. (Both of us were in tears when it didn’t arrive in time for Christmas Day.)
I used my first Chuck E. Cheese paycheck to buy my parents a brand new TV and DVD player. And, once I started to earn the big bucks, I surprised them with a night in a hotel at Niagara on the Lake and even flights to Europe!
I was feeling pretty confident that my missteps and notes to self over the years had upped my gift-giving status to guru.
Then I met my husband.
He has put my determination to pick out good presents to the ultimate test. When I ask him what he wants, he has one standard answer. “Medieval stuff and geeky stuff.”
What does that even mean?
At first I was thinking he wanted literal medieval relics, like bits from a wall or tools they used or something like that. My question was, where on earth I was supposed to find or afford these thing? When I asked for clarification on what he meant by “geeky stuff” he said, “You know. Anything sci-fi or fantasy.”
That seemed just as impenetrable as medieval stuff. So, I took the coward’s way out and got him ‘functional’ gifts, instead—like gift cards from Dick’s Sporting Goods, nice sweaters, and moisture wicking socks. These were all good things. He definitely used them. But, whenever he opened up gifts from me, I wasn’t getting the Darren look of pleased surprise that I craved. He wasn’t unhappy, but he wasn’t giddy, either. He wasn’t about to crawl over to the far corner of the gym and hoard these gifts in fear that someone might try to trade him for them. In fact, he even returned things on occasion.
(Okay, Todd just read this blog for me as part of the editing process. He would like you to know that I just told a lie. He claims he has never returned anything that I’ve bought him. Not even the Jack Wolfskin hiking shirt that was a size medium and didn’t fit.)
Then came two Christmases ago. For the first time, when I really pressed Todd to use specific words to explain what he meant by “medieval and sci-fi stuff” his responses finally started to made sense to a person whose idea of a great gift is Clinique Moisturizer. He mentioned proper nouns like Star Wars and we visited a few Christmas markets in Europe, so I was a firsthand witness to him drooling over medieval fare, like chain mail and armor and spears.
I also kept a running Microsoft Word File called ‘Gifts for Todd.’ Whenever he mentioned something offhand that he liked or wished he had, I went back later and secretly wrote it down. I did this all year long and it has become my most coveted key to obtaining The Darren.
Note to Self: All year long, write things down that people mention they want. Don’t tell them you’re doing that, so it’s a surprise.
Shopping for him was so much fun. A heap of gifts piled up beneath the tree and Todd was more and more alarmed, “I don’t know what to get you. Okay, now stop buying me things! I’m starting to feel bad. Okay–stoooooop!”
But, there was no reason. I could have cared less what was under the tree for me. I’d cracked the case! For the first time in our marriage I was going to get the reaction I most wanted to see! I was going to win the “Best Wife Award,” nominated and awarded by yours truly!
I ordered him a medieval sword off of Amazon, picked up a leather pouch at the Wiesbaden Christmas market (it was a medieval clothing booth.) He got two Star Wars t-shirts, an R2D2 cookie jar, clay smokers of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and my grandfather’s snow shoes (Todd had randomly mentioned wanting old fashioned snow shoes. I wrote that down, mentioned it to my parents, and voila! They were able to get rid of something that had been sitting in the house since my grandpa died nearly twenty years ago.)
In Todd’s words, “It was the best Christmas ever.”
His smile was huge; after unwrapping each gift he repeatedly threw down the scraps of wrapping paper and gave me the type of smile that only comes from nailing the shit out of the unvoiced wish list.
I was proud. I got cocky.
And then this year, I messed up.
There were a few issues. First of all, I followed my own new and golden rule of writing down ideas as they came up throughout the year. But, that didn’t necessarily work out in my favor.
Case in point—this marionette.
We first noticed it at a dirndyl/lederhosen shop on Heidelberg’s Hauptstrasse. Every single time we passed by it this year, Todd said, “Those things are so cool.”
I thought, huh, that’s quirky—but this is Todd we’re talking about. I added it to the “What to Buy for Todd” list I was working on, and picked it up on one of my solo ventures in to town.
When he opened it up on Christmas Day, there was a frozen smile and silence as he flipped the plastic package over and over again, trying to figure out what was inside.
“Do you know what that is?” in a voice so overexcited he must have thought it was a decoration that belonged to his brand new car parked out front.
“No. I have no clue. What is it?”
“The horse marionette we always pass by on Hauptstrasse!”
The revelation registered after a minute, sank, and just like that I was back in the 1980’s sitting on a gymnasium floor holding out my bagged lunch to eager Darren.
“Oh!” He laughed, uncomfortably. “You bought that for me?”
“Of course I did. I thought you wanted that! You told me you did—remember?” (When it’s your husband, you’re allowed to pick a fight when their reactions to your specially chosen gifts aren’t good enough.)
“No, it’s cool! I like it,” he said.
“No you don’t,” I said.
“Yes, I do.”
“No you don’t. I can tell by your expression. Arghhhhh….sorry babe. But–every time we passed it you said it was so cool. I thought you wanted it! Be honest. You don’t like it.”
He laughed, gently. “I do think it’s cool– for Laken, maybe. She’ll love it.”
“No, you said it would be cool for you.”
“Sweetie, it’s fine. I do like it. Thank you.”
I couldn’t help but sulk. I felt tricked—my greatest tool for present buying success had been wielded against me.
(Todd has yet another comment he’d like to make, as part of the editing process. He says that when we saw those marionettes there were actually four, side by side, in the window. A mechanical arm was making them gallop. Todd thought this was cute—i.e. the galloping—and not the individual marionettes, themselves. Amazing gift, nonetheless, he says.)
Note to Self: Just because someone expresses an appreciation of something doesn’t always mean they want it as a gift.
Ah, well. The next gift I felt fairly confident in. Todd had specifically mentioned Star Wars as a safe bet to fulfill his ‘geeky side.
We have a wine bar in our house, so I figured these little Yoda lights would be the perfect offset to all our wine glasses and decanters.
He opened it up and, while there wasn’t the perplexed look he gave the horse marionette, I could still tell the lights just weren’t quite right.
I came to this conclusion because Todd said, “Oh! I like these—but, we can’t use them in Germany.”
Note to Self:
A.)If buying something electrical in the States that you want to take back to Europe, make sure they are 220V and not 120V. Otherwise, they’re useless.
B.) Just because someone enjoys something, it doesn’t mean that every single product on the market that’s related to that “thing” will work out as a great present.
The next three presents were also a bust. Again, I didn’t realize it until he opened them up and I saw his facial expressions and was able to compare them to the ones from last Christmas.
I can chalk it up to one thing—rushing. Todd and I arrived in the States just two days before Christmas. We weren’t able to fit much in our suitcase aside from clothes (sweater season creates a lot of bulk, so there’s not much extra space.) I suppose we could have ordered some things from Amazon, and we did, but not for each other.
In between our ‘first days back in the States’ plans, we set aside two hours in the Galleria Mall to go Christmas shopping. So, things that looked promising in that short time span might not have made the cut with just a little bit more consideration.
Note to Self: Don’t rush. It’s unlikely you’ll find a Darren present when you’re going too fast.
How about you? Have you given or received any Darren gifts? Or, Peanut Butter and Butter gifts? What are the best/worst of the bunch?