When I receive a gift I’m not expecting from someone who doesn’t know me all that well, I sort of lose control. It starts with a prickling sensation in the back of my neck and follows with a reflexive, forced smile. My heart quickens, the hair rises on my arms, and I feel myself blush fully. Openly sweating, I open the thing. I praise it before I can fully grasp what it even is. I thank the giver profusely. Make eye contact. Keep smiling, I say to myself. Be cool.
I try to make sure whatever internal valve makes the normal thoughts flood in my head say untouched. But it doesn’t and the thoughts flood in: I don’t like this gift. God, I hope no one notices. I’m terrible at receiving holiday gifts. A lot of men are, too.
I find most stuff — the trinkets you get for someone that are nifty things you might see in a “cool gift” catalog — are just not for me. I don’t really want stuff and I find this sort of gift exchange to be super impersonal. Yes, I fit the hard-to-shop-for dad cliché. But I am also a defender of that narrative. Everyone is hard to shop for. If you’re giving someone a gift because you care for them, that gift should show that you know them. Great gift-giving is an act of empathy, it’s being able to see the world as someone else sees it and buy them something that fits who they are. It’s damn hard to know someone well enough to give them a good gift. That’s the point.
But if you really knew me, you’d know that I, in fact, do like a great variety of things. If Patagonia sells it, I’m there for it. Have a good book? I love books and will even read it and talk to you about it. I’ve yet to find a running gadget I didn’t enjoy. I’m someone who can be shopped for. You just have to listen.
I came to my curmudgeonly view of gifting through my dad. He’s the reason I’m terrible at receiving gifts. But he’s also the reason I’m a good gift giver.
Even though my dad has an MBA and is a dealmaker by trade, he’s a very bad liar. More often than not, I can bluff through my palm-sweating, blushing reaction to a bad gift. He definitely cannot. He’s also a little more honest in his actual dislike of gifts. “I don’t need any of this crap,” I once overheard him muttering under his breath one Christmas at his parent’s house. I was maybe 10 at the time. The sentiment blew my mind. I was a kid and kids love crap. Who didn’t like a bunch of crap?
But my dad’s statement was doubly confusing because his personal preference never got in the way of his ability to give a good gift. He always got me and my sister things — special things, wrapped separately and kept from the rest of the payload that was no doubt circled at random by me in a Toys ‘R’ Us catalog. He made no show about it, but the man — the man who hates all that crap — knows how to give a damned good gift.
These days, I usually don’t get my dad anything. This is because, I like to think, I have heard him. Occasionally, I get signals that tell me to buy him something. A few years ago, I got him an Amazon Echo and connected it with Amazon music for him, so he could just listen to any song at any time. It was a helluva gift because I know that my dad loves music and goes to great lengths to find weird songs that he hears on the radio. Still, most of the time, I let my dad know that I understand he truly doesn’t like a less-than-spot-on gift by not getting him anything. I hear him. You see, a good present is 90 percent listening to 10 percent buying for most people. Not getting someone a gift because they don’t want one is simply 100 percent listening.
I emailed my dad to ask if I was correct about my no-present presupposition. He agreed with the sentiment. And then he responded with something sort of profound.
“Maybe when you lived a rich and full life, presents no longer are wrapped in colorful paper and adorned with a bow,” he said. “Maybe they are at the dinner table or walking in the woods, laughing or quietly exploring. Giving the best present of all — presence not presents.”
Well, shit. Maybe there is some truth to the cliché that dads — aging men one and all — really are impossible to buy gifts for.
The thing is, the older you get, the more you just want to be heard. The younger you are, the more you want to consume the world. Kids don’t have that much to say about the world yet, but they are curious as hell and want their hands over every last piece of it — starting with all the world’s toys.
But when you get a bit older, that consumption loses it allure. Things are not as valuable because they are someone else’s idea of how the world should be. A really cool sweater is not something you created or observed — unless you did observe it, and some thoughtful person got you a merino sweat from that region you visited in New Zealand a few years back and couldn’t stop talking about. There’s nothing quite like your experience and preferences being heard through verbal recognition or, sure, the right gift. That, after all, is what giving is all about.