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The Secret to Gift Giving

Some men are born gift givers.  They zealously clip ads, create lists, or file away a well-dropped hint.  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.

During a trip to Southeast Asia, he was under strict orders to only purchase earrings if they were a deal.  Rubies and sapphires, I explained, were native to the region.

I’d said “earrings” and “affordable gemstones.”  Which is how 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, the love child of Liberace’s mood ring and a Navajo belt buckle. If it had cost $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 Columbia 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.

Bob returned, not with earrings, but with a necklace that someone had assured him was “in the emerald family.”  I’d already tempered my expectations when I unwrapped the heart-shaped, green and black striped stone that hung from a slim gold chain.  So much for the rules.

Not long ago, my husband’s Beijing-based Chinese news producer emailed me for advice on our marital customs as she was marrying an American.

“I’m looking for wedding rings,” she wrote.  “I’m not sure about the gift giving rules in America.  Do they need to match?”

After my reply, she mentioned that she’d read the chapter in my book “Perfectly Imperfect” that described Bob’s lack of a “gift giving eye.” She asked if she could share a story about her trip with my husband 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 you were happy with the knife he gave you from our  trip,” she said.  And then she unloaded the backstory.  The news crew was shooting a story in Kashgar, a far western trading and business hub connecting China with Russia and Central Asia.  It was a Silk Road town, overflowing with local potteries, textiles, furs, and precious inlaid objects.

While they set up the camera in front of the Bazaar, Bob examined the rows of fur hats, sheep, rabbit, camel and mink. “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 a giant caramel colored fur ball with ear flaps.  Imagine 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 this was not a stylish hat.  So I asked Bob if he was sure he wanted to get it for you.”

“She’ll love it,” he responded.  The heart-breaking part is that I can envision his face, aglow at having nailed the perfect surprise gift, certain he’d finally hit a bull’s eye.

How is it, married for almost 30 years, that my husband pictures me cruising the grocery store aisle, or strolling down a city sidewalk 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 traveled 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 now 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 to friends and family everywhere, may your future shopping days be full of perfect presents.



And no matter who you are shopping for, from the dog walker to the boss, you can find the perfect present at Macy’s.





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