My wife could be getting a remodeled bathroom with heated tile floors for Christmas. Or she could be getting a cruise down the Danube with a personal chef and her own burly Teutonic masseur. Maybe a puppy that will grow into a huge, destructive dog, or maybe a freezer and a “Tasty Animal of the Month” membership. But my sweetie will not be getting any of those things because the universe is unfair, and it requires me to pay for everything I want to give someone. Therefore, my wife will receive a squatty wooden chair on Christmas morning.
Presents were a big deal in my family, and I guess they still are. We didn’t have much money when I was a kid, but we didn’t care about spending a lot on gifts. We wanted to give a gift that was so perfectly suited to the recipient that he would go into convulsions from pure joy. It was a modest goal. Occasionally we found the perfect gift at a reasonable cost. Usually we couldn’t afford it even if we sold all the grandparents for medical experiments. So we’d buy the most nearly perfect gift we could afford without actually weeping blood from the expense.
I’ve carried this pathology with me into adulthood. My preferred gift shopping strategy is to walk into an interesting store and stride up each aisle. My goal is to shop for some loved ones whose lives I want to make ideal for one shimmering, eternally-remembered moment. So of course I don’t think about any of those people at all. I just absorb the merchandise’s aura in a consumer-zen fashion, and when my intuition smacks me in the forehead about some item I buy it. When I get home I’ll figure out who it’s perfect for. Or as close to perfect as I can afford.
Over the years, that strategy did not drip insanity, no matter how it sounds. I always employed a critical safety measure. I only went into stores that I could afford that year. If my income made it a Woolworths Five and Dime year, I did not walk into Aberdeen’s Custom Jewelry and Furs Worth Going to Hell For. I could set limits. I indulged my neurotic gift giving compulsion and still remained fiscally responsible. The universe made sense, at least through the skewed lens of my childhood.
Then came the internet.
The internet blew away my safety interlocks faster than a reckless starship captain in a David Hasselhoff movie. Suddenly the world was one big store, with nose hair clippers on one aisle and matching Ferraris on the next aisle over. My strategy would lead only to wailing frustration, immediate bankruptcy, or catatonia induced by irreconcilable psychic and moral conflict. In other words, bad strategy.
I turned to my wife for guidance. She has always adopted a more reflective approach than I to gift giving. She follows the, “Give them something nice and move the hell on,” philosophy. She doesn’t give crappy gifts. She doesn’t shop at the gas station for presents. I’ve never received from her a 5 Hour Energy Drink and a Zagnut Bar in a used Arby’s sack for my birthday. She even dares to ask people what they’d like to get as a gift, which I kind of consider to be cheating. If they don’t tell her what they want, then she gives them something modest and charming, and if they don’t like it then it’s their own damned fault for not telling her what they wanted. It all seems like insanity to me, but I don’t see my wife obsessively scratching furrows into the back of her hand because her brother wanted the blue jacket instead of the brown one she gave him.
So under my wife’s tutelage I’ve developed a new strategy. First I ask people what they want. If they want something too lavish, I just ignore whatever they said. Then I count up the rest of the money I can spend and divide it by the remaining gift recipients. Hopefully it comes out to at least seven dollars per person. If not, I decide which family members and friends I want to offend and maybe never speak to again. Then I find something that I can give to everyone, making sure it’s the nicest thing I can buy for seven dollars. I buy the gifts, bestow them as appropriate, and drink some Christmas tequila to smother my sense of having violated some natural law. Simple.
This is how I know that my wife will receive a squatty wooden chair for Christmas. She got me started on my new strategy by flat out telling me what she wants. She wants this chair so she can sit on it while she applies makeup. She had a nice chair for that purpose, but I crushed it when I sat down to talk to her about weather stripping the front door. She coaxed the chair back into cohesion using a bungee cord and some profanity, so she can sit on it for now if she doesn’t mind risking permanent spinal injury whenever she applies blush. So, she wants a chair, I understand why she wants it, and I even feel responsible for her needing it. I will buy her the best squatty wooden chair I can find.
I wonder if they come inlaid with sapphires and ivory from extinct animals?