Wednesday 30 November 2016

Gifting Grievances

I'm that person who has everything. I've noticed that there are a lot of ads depicting gifts for me. These are lies. You know what that "person who has everything" really wants? By definition: Nothing.

I know that I'm impossible to buy for and I wish my family would stop trying.

I don't actually have everything, but I am very satisfied with what I do have and can afford to buy anything I need, and most everything I want. Those few things that I can not afford are beyond the budget of anyone else I know. Also, I've been told that I am very picky. I prefer to call it "discriminating." Which, I suppose, pretty much proves that point.

I don't try to be difficult, but I'm a middle class, North American adult and if I really want something, I buy it. Therefore, if I didn't buy it I didn't want it. I've told my family this—repeatedly. And yet they persist. I even posted the concept on social media. Surprisingly, it did not go viral. Humbug!

Do me a favour and help this go viral, on social media.

Birthday and Christmas gifts are appropriate for children as they generally don't have the means to purchase every single thing that they want or need. But with manufacturers cheaply churning out millions of copies of every possible thing while online marketers make them irresistibly accessible, it's hard for parents not to spoil their children. Whether your kid is into Lego, Superheroes, Harry Potter, Barbie or vintage Elvis bobbleheads (you know your kid's not like other kids, right?) you can find it and you can probably afford to purchase it. Worse yet, your child knows this.

To combat this, my wife and I err on the side of giving too little, as opposed to too much. This has made our children unusually easy to please which failed to solve the problem. Paradoxically, because of their minimal expectations, a day rarely goes by where they don't have a stocking-stuffer moment. My son is a Pokemon freak. Give him a single sticker and his eyes light up and he vibrates like a lab rat on sugar-coated Cocaine. Similarly, if you present my daughter with a printed out Harry Potter colouring sheet, she will tear up and hug you until it gets awkward. They are aged eleven and nine. It may be relevant to point out that they are home schooled. With the bar set so low, it's difficult to stem the flow of what they consider to be gifts. So, for them, every day is mini-Christmas.

It's hard to not spoil a kid who still thinks that a paper hat
and a target bag is dressing up like Santa...
...or her older brother who believes he's made an
amazing super hero costume from newspapers.

Their friends have similar experiences but on a grander scale. Those few things that the average kid lacks are beyond our gift-giving budget. I suspect that's why a trend amongst our circle of parents is to limit birthday gifting. A typical invite may mention a token monetary donation—usually for charity—but will clearly state "no gifts." The pendulum has swung so far that each party guest receives a complimentary "goody bag," just for showing up. I'm not sure why there have to be goody bags. Why can't humans be happy with a zero-sum game? I wish that we could all just agree that none of us really needs anything and that celebrations are best when they are about getting together rather than getting presents?

But, at least kids love receiving gifts.

For me, unwanted items are a burden. I resent having to store, organize and redistribute them. Most are regifted, donated, or sold. If you are ever in my neighbourhood, you'll want to make a point of checking out my summer garage sale.

We are overstocked and everything is priced to sell! 

It's all about divestment. Price is merely a formality and almost everything is brand new. Beyond untreasured gifts, you will also find a year's worth of my wife's excess couponing purchases—things we don't use but that she made money on, by buying. It's all name-brand and typically includes candy, shaving cream, shampoo, hair dye, electronic soap dispensers, scented candles and cleaning products. (For more couponing details, refer to my 4-part series: Adventures in Couponing)

My family makes a point of visiting my garage sale. They never buy anything. They come to find out whether I appreciated the gift they gave me, six months previous. I see it as a classic demonstration of "if you ask for it, the Universe will deliver." My family really, really asks for it—assuming, of course, by "it" you mean disappointment. Consequently, I endure a family rep for being cold and unsentimental and am sometimes lovingly referred to as "The Grinch Who Sold Christmas." In silent retaliation, I've labelled them all "slow learners."

I've told them my feelings. I've demonstrated my resolve. And yet, each Christmas or birthday I still get saddled with gifts for the guy who has everything—a stylish ornament which never matches our "day-care chic" decor, an animated plastic object that sings an irritating song the entire time you're desperately trying to gouge out the batteries, or another pocket knife. I'd still have more knives than pockets even if I wore cargo pants, a fishing vest, trenchcoat and a billiard table. I've used a pocket knife exactly once in my adult life—to pry open another pocket knife for someone at my garage sale. On balance, I probably don't whittle as often as I should.

If I wanted bad gifts, I would just keep all those art projects my kids bring me to decorate my office. Ok, maybe I am a little bit cold, but to be fair, my kids are very industrious and have far too much free time.

Well, At Least They Tried:
One Christmas, my family thought it would be a good idea if, instead of stressing out to buy a couple of dozen gifts, we put our names in a hat and selected a single person to buy for. Naturally, I was enthusiastic. I drew a name and had an entirely stress-free season... right up until Christmas morning.

There was an unforeseen downside to the name-in-a-hat strategy: it upped the budget which put additional pressure on that one gift. Instead of gifts valued in the tens of dollars, most people decided that they had to spend hundreds. But anything that expensive really needed to be something the recipient would truly appreciate. By this time I had a policy of only purchasing consumables (i.e. food, engine oil, printer toner) or experiences (i.e. movie passes, elocution lessons, interventions) so this worked well for me. I gave my brother-in-law an anger management course which, as it happened, was not well received. Fortunately, his rant only increased my confidence in the appropriateness of the gift. But it turned out that others had less confidence in their purchases and so, had hedged their bet.

I received a second gift. Followed by a third. Then, a fourth; ending up with just as many unwelcomed gifts as I'd gotten the year before. Apparently, no one else had adhered to the single gift restriction. In secret, they had all reverted to their usual Christmas shopping.

To fill one of the awkward silences, I explained that from my point of view, I was the only one who did not have a "shopping problem." Their counterargument: "Grinch!'

The family never again attempted to tamper with the gift-giving tradition.

As we've grown older, the others are slowly coming around. Gifting the adults has not ended, but it's deescalated into a strange, circular ceremony wherein we all exchange lottery tickets. To me, this is a good idea because millions of dollars happens to be on the short list of things I don't yet have. However, I'd prefer if we each just bought ourselves a ticket and dispensed with the ceremony which is as redundant as me buying your kid's Soccer raffle tickets when you buy my kid's Girl Guide cookies. Also, I'm not sure how I'll handle the resentment if my sister wins ten million from a ticket I bought and was forced to give to her in exchange for a losing one.

Good Gift/Bad Gift:
In case you are still bound and determined to get something for the adults in your life, here is the short list of things that I have found to be decent gifts for adults:
• magazine subscriptions, books
• lottery tickets
• food items (candy, specialty jams/tea/coffee, alcohol, Pop Tarts)
• other consumables like soap, bubble bath, perfume, lipstick
• gift certificates to favourite store or for things like a spa treatment, a movie, or the driving range

For contrast, here is a prime example of a bad gift...

Gifting The Spouse:
My largest gift-giving problem each year is my wife, Junko. (June•ko)

I see no reason to buy gifts for other adults, but I always want to get something for her in spite of the fact that she's Japanese and this adult gifting idea is completely foreign and somewhat repulsive to her.

(Note: The Japanese have a much more complex, yet equally illogical, gift-giving culture which, oddly, Junko thinks makes perfect sense and participates in, to the point of obsession—as is the Japanese way. 

As in North America, generous gifts are expected for all major events like weddings, birthdays, new year's day and bar mitzvahs. But, as well, there is a huge industry built around exchanging unappetizing confections wrapped in decorative packages to celebrate the smallest of events...

•Hello, thanks for coming. Have a cookie. 
•Oh, well thanks for having me. Here's a cookie. 

•Goodbye. Thanks for leaving. Take a cookie.
•Well, thank you for kicking me out. Please enjoy this cookie.

•I've been sleeping with your wife. I'm sorry. Please accept this cookie. 
•Thank you for your honesty. Did you get the cookie I left under the pillow?

•I accidentally used your toothbrush. Cookie?
•Though you are the cable guy and your timing is unusual, it is good that you brushed your teeth. Please, have a cookie. 
•Actually, I used it to clean the seat before I used your toilet. Please accept this cookie. 
•Er... you have saved me the trouble of cleaning the toilet seat. Please enjoy a cookie.
•Actually, my aim was not good. You'd better take the whole box.)

Even before she got into couponing, buying a gift for Junko was not easy. She has that traditional Japanese sense of romance which, in case you weren't aware, is just slightly more subdued than a sedated Vulcan's. Chocolate and flowers are meaningless to her—she does like diamonds, but I feel it's mostly for their economic value and, after fourteen years, we've pretty much exhausted the affordable variations on that theme. And, she's eminently practical, with a hair trigger for returning anything that isn't. This is why I strive to be handy around the house.

On top of all of this, she's a minimalist, never purchasing anything extraneous.

In desperation, I now keep a list on my cell phone of anything that she's running low on, or expresses the slightest interest in. Things that break can be a source of great joy for me, but I have to balance this against my need to appear handy.

Early on in our relationship, it was established that Junko would always be our household's primary purchasing agent...

ME: What are you talking about? I'm great with money!

JUNKO: Perhaps. But you are not so great, without money.

ME: . . .

JUNKO: And, you tend to run out of it very quickly. So, I think it would be best if I did all the shopping.

Bested. And in my own language! Again.

So, while she doesn't endorse the adult gift-giving idea, she nevertheless participates by acquiring almost all of the gifts we give. And, she does it in her own very special way because she's a "couponer." I used to have to be forced to admit this—under my breath, with my head lowered. But now, having seen the thousands of dollars she saves us, each year, I announce it proudly, without prompting. Sometimes, without apparent relevance.

When it comes to paying attention to detail, efficiency and innovation, the Japanese are unrivalled. Junko considers the rest of her countrymen to be slackers. She spends hours researching and strategizing special offers, rebates, in-store specials and coupons until she's certain to save more than she spends. She not only surpasses the highest shopping and saving standards, she one-ups us native North Americans at our own game because if it's the thought that counts, her gifts are among the most valuable ever given.

We enjoy many other perks from Junko's constant scrimping and saving: a constant stream of rebate cheques, free movie tickets, our butts get to experience a wide variety of toilet paper, a junk food cupboard that is always full, a junk food cupboard!, and, of course, we save money.

But there are unexpected consequences, as well: We don't necessarily get the brand of Peanut Butter we grew up with, we are encouraged to use only a small portion of a single paper towel, we use clothing remnants instead of cloth napkins at the dinner table, depending upon the specials in the produce aisle we may be eating a wide assortment of zucchini and eggplant dishes for a few weeks, and we never get Pop Tarts. And also, she is incredibly difficult to buy for because:

• She shops almost every day and knows all the prices. I must be prepared to defend every purchase.

• She's very conscious of the total amount spent and as the price rises so does her blood pressure. Followed by mine.

• If my gift passes all the other tests, I must still be prepared to hear that she has a coupon for that item and will not be satisfied until I return it, then re-purchase it with the coupon.

• For it to truly be a gift, I must include a trip back to the store to return it. Bought it online and already unboxed it? Well, not only can she get that precision-packed item back into its original box but, if we're paying the shipping, she'll demonstrate to the manufacturer how it could be safely packed into something smaller.

Last Christmas, the only gifts of mine that she did not ask me to return were a spatula I put in her stocking and cute little gift certificates I made for free massages—which she never redeemed, presumably because she knows exactly how long a free massage lasts and where it leads. I considered it a win.

This Christmas, I lucked out and found a great book that I know she really could use. It cost a hundred dollars and is non-returnable, but I feel confident. It's called, "How to Argue Logically, for Dummies."

This is going to be the best Christmas ever!

Sure to promote a healthy dialogue with my wife.


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