The Secret to Gift Giving…
Some men are born gift givers. They zealously clip ads, create lists, or can file away a well-dropped hint. Others, well, others have different talents. My husband falls into the latter category. In all matters of gift purchasing, he must be led, like a bull with a nose ring, directly to the desired item. As in, sent the link to the specific item in the appropriate color and size on the exact website. Like that. If you are looking for the best gift for your man why not get him some really cool night vision gear, especially if he loves hunting or fishing.
I once devoted an entire book chapter (PERFECTLY IMPERFECT) to my husband’s gifting misfires. The situation came to a head after a trip he made to Southeast Asia, where he was under strict orders to only purchase earrings, and only if they were a deal. Rubies and sapphires, I explained, were native to the region.
I’d said “earrings” and “affordable gemstones.” But in retrospect, these instructions were too vague. And so my husband returned, pleased as punch, with… wait for it…a giant turquoise ring. It perched like a robin’s egg on my small, gnome-like fingers, an item best described as the love child between a mood ring and a Navajo belt buckle. I refrained from asking what it had cost. If it had been $5.00, he’d overpaid.
We set rules after that. Gifts would require photos, price points, exact parameters. There was another attempt, a well-intentioned purchase in Colombia where he was doing a story on an emerald mine. I thought it was fairly safe to ask for emerald earrings, but only if there was some kind of insider price. After all, he would be climbing into the actual mine. Talk about cutting out the middle man!
Bob returned, not with earrings, but with a necklace that someone had assured him was “in the emerald family,” an opaque stone with green and black stripes and, God bless his little husband’s soul, shaped like a heart. If you know me, you do not figure me for a girl who covets heart-shaped jewelry. Not lockets, not earrings, not belt buckles, not nothing. Apparently, these types of nuances escape Bob. But these are flaws I can live with.
Recently, Bob’s Beijing-based Chinese news producer emailed me. She was marrying her American boyfriend and wanted advice on our marital customs.
“I’m looking for a set of rings,” she wrote. “I’m not sure about the gift giving rules. Do the rings for both man and woman need to be the same/match? Or just a simple easy one for the men, and women can go nuts on theirs? What’s the rule for that?”
After my reply, she mentioned that she’d read the chapter in my book describing Bob’s lack of a “gift giving eye” with great interest and politely asked if she could share a story about her trip with Bob to Xinjiang province.
“Please do,” I answered. He had returned from that trip with a Christmas gift that hit the mark, a hand made knife, inlaid with stones and sharp enough to carve meat. Beautiful and practical, my kind of gift. I know what you’re thinking, a knife? Remember the bar was low. Remember I had basement level expectations. It’s also worth noting here that my all-time favorite wedding present was a fire extinguisher.
“Bob told me that you were happy with the knife he gave you from that trip,” she said. And then she unloaded the backstory. Their news crew was doing a story in Kashgar, a far western trading and business hub connecting China with the Middle East, Russia, and Central Asia. It was a Silk Road town, ripe with local potteries, textiles, furs, and objects made with inlaid gold and metals.
While they set up the camera in front of the Bazaar, Bob examined the rows of fur hats, sheep, camel hair and mink, all in the Central Asian style.
“I could not picture you wearing them,” Kaijing wrote to me. “Then Bob said, “I’m going to get this hat for my wife.” It was huge, a camel colored fur ball with giant ear flaps. I imagined something perfect for, say, an elementary school production of “The Lion King.”
“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” Kaijing explained in her email. “But I said, Bob, you sure you want to get that for Lee?”
“Yeah, it’s a really nice hat,” he answered excitedly. The heart-breaking part is that I can envision his face, aglow at having nailed the perfect surprise gift, certain he had made a bull’s eye purchase.
How is it, married for almost 30 years, that my husband pictures me cruising the grocery store aisle, or strolling down our suburban sidewalks looking like Simba from the neck up? I can certainly relate to impulse purchases, the western rodeo shirt that seemed so perfect in Austin, Texas, or the hippie dress (on sale, yeah!) in Burlington Vermont that, when transported back to New York, looked like something you’d wear while composting. Yes, there was a slight chance one could rock a Julie Christie/Dr. Zhivago vibe in that hat, but honestly, I would have veered more toward North Korea’s Great leader, all cheeks and curling ear-flaps, with that gamey squirrel pelt smell.
Bob bought the hat for $80 dollars and the crew travelled on. During the last night of their trip, one of his colleagues confessed that he’d been kicking himself for not getting a hat. “Would you ever trade me the hat you bought for Lee for one of these knives?” he asked sheepishly. “I’d love to give it to my wife for Christmas.”
“Is your wife going to Russia soon?” Kaijing asked, confused at this seemingly prevalent American male pattern blindness. Knowing that she was engaged to an American, I assume all kinds of alarm bells were now going off in her head.
“No, Stacy’s going to Switzerland in January,” he answered. “She can wear it there.” Kaijing nodded, remaining mum about the hat, the wife and what she imagined Swiss people wore with their expensive watches, chocolates and on-time trains. Probably not this hat, she must have been thinking. In a generous and fortuitous (for me) move, my husband traded the hat for the knife.
After the holidays, Kaijing causally asked the cameraman about the gift. “She’s never worn it,” he responded, somewhat dejectedly.
“Did she not like it?”
“Oh, no,” he shook his head vehemently. “She loved the hat, but it was just a bit small.”
I’d like to report that our moratorium on presents remains to this day, unless accompanied by a photo, link and price point or a live person with good taste. But if Bob ever returns to that city in Western China, he has permission to get me the rest of the knife set.
Happy Holidays…… and may all your future shopping days be full of bliss and perfect presents.