I have serious issues when it comes to buying gifts for people. My usual and customary tendency toward indecisiveness becomes a crippling and paralyzing force when faced with picking out gifts for friends and family. If my friend and I were at the store together and he or she picked up an item, showed it to me and said, "I would absolutely LOVE to have this EXACT thing! This one! Right here! This one I'm holding RIGHT NOW!" I might feel confident in my decision to purchase it for him or her. Maybe.
The blame for this singular facet of my personality lies square on the shoulders of my friend Portland, about whom I have spoken on a couple of occasions.
It was Christmastime and our friendship was such that we exchanged gifts on special occasions. Other than family, I didn't have a lot of people to shop for that year. That was good because I also didn't have a lot of money. I thought if I could find the perfect gift for Portland, he would know that what I lacked in money I made up for in thoughtfulness.
So, I began to think. The more thought, the better, I thought. For a gift to be truly thoughtful, it must take into account the preferences and personality of the recipient. It should say, "I know you well enough to know that you would like this." Personally, I also really like to receive gifts that are things I would use if I had them but would never actually go out and buy for myself--useful but slightly impractical. Also, a dash of creativity goes a long way toward saying, "I was thinking about you."
Well, Portland didn't have a lot of diverse hobbies. He liked music, but he only deemed a few select artists worthy of his time. He collected rare, bootleg recordings of worthy performers but he already had every recording known to man. I didn't want to risk trying to buy something rare that he might already have or that he might deem unworthy.
Portland was also into computers. His personal computer was always a work-in-progress, waiting for the next memory or operating system upgrade. I would be way over my head trying to find the latest and greatest computer thingie.
But, an idea slowly formed. I knew that his computer was in the basement and that the basement was pretty cold in December. We would often chat in the wee hours of the morning and he would complain that his parents had turned off the heat when they went to bed. His ill-tempered cat occasionally deigned to sit on his lap to keep it warm, but for the most part he had to wear layers and layers of clothes.
Aha! thought I. What about a big box full of keeping-warm stuff? Polar fleece blankets were very popular that year and all the stores had stacks of them piled on the shelves. I picked out a manly pattern, lest a snuggly blanket seem too girly. I added a Far Side mug (he was a fan), several packets of gourmet hot chocolate, and a pair of those stretchy gloves, which I thought would keep his hands warm while he typed.
My package was complete. Because of the fluffy blanket, it was a very large box, but not heavy. I mailed it off and waited for him to tell me it had arrived. He called a few days later.
"So, I had to go to the post office today and pick up a big box...a big box from Camino. It had your return address on it..." he told me coyly. "I wonder what's in it."
"You haven't opened it yet? I'm surprised you're waiting until Christmas. I wouldn't. If you want to open it ahead of time, go ahead. I'm not going to wait to open yours."
"Well, since I probably won't send mine until after Christmas, you won't have to wait."
"Uh, okay. Open it if you want, though."
"Well, my brother was here when I brought the box home. He's dying to know what's in it. He's been bugging me non-stop all day. I might not be able to put him off. He's excited because it's such a big box, but not heavy. We can't even guess what it might be. I'll let you know if we do open it, though."
The peer pressure eventually got to be too much and he didn't end up waiting until Christmas. During our next conversation, he was much more subdued.
"So, I opened the box. Thanks for the present. It's really nice."
"Yeah? Did you like it? Did you get what I was trying to do? It's all stuff to keep you warm. You know, since you spend so much time in the basement on the computer."
"Uh, yeah. I get it now. I, uh, wasn't sure before. So, yeah, thanks."
"Wasn't sure? What do you mean? You sound weird. Was it damaged?" I began to worry that the mug had shattered or the cocoa packets had leaked all over the inside of the box.
"No. Everything was fine."
"Well, what is the deal then? I can tell there's something wrong."
"Well, it just that... um... this is mostly my brother's thing, so don't get me wrong or anything... it's just that well, you have to understand, he was really excited to see what was in the box...so when I opened it... well...I mean I really liked it when I first saw it..."
"Just spit it out!"
"Well, when I opened it, my first thought was, 'Cool, what a great blanket!' But my brother was there and he said, 'What kind of crap is this? A blanket? What did she do? Just grab the first thing she saw when she walked into the store? How stupid!' But that's not what I thought, honest. That was all my brother."
"Well, I don't really care what your brother thinks. The gift wasn't for him, anyway. It doesn't surprise me that he doesn't 'get it.' So what's the problem?"
"It's just that...after he said that... I got to thinking, 'What if she did just grab the first thing she saw?' And then I got to thinking that it did kind of look like something that someone who didn't really want to buy a gift would pick out. So, did you really want to get me a present this year or did you just get this because you had to? Because, if not, then I'll just send this back to you..."
I was speechless. My gift, the one I had been so proud of and had taken such care with, was not only unappreciated, but had sent him into a state of paranoid frenzy about whether or not we were actually friends.
More than anything, though, this was an indicator of his very, very weak character. His brother's mindless comments influenced him so greatly that he began to dislike the gift that, by his own admission, he initially liked.
Serious injury inflicted. It haunts me to this day. I'm scarred for life.
The next year (why we were still friends the next year is still a mystery to me) at Christmastime, I went shopping for him again. I made one stop. I grabbed the first shirt I saw in his size. It looked exactly like a shirt he already owned. I called him and told him I was sending something but that I had put absolutely no thought into his gift and that I truly did buy him the first thing I saw and that he should prepared to be disappointed.
The irony was lost on him. He had forgotten the previous year's debacle. When the package arrived, he called to tell me how surprised he was.
"Well, I was expecting something stupid because you kept talking about how lame it was...but when I opened the box, there was this really cool shirt inside. I love it! It's just like one I have! Why would you think that I wouldn't like it?"
Why, indeed. I guess, for some, it really is the gift that counts.