We’ve all heard the harried holiday shopper ask, “What do you give the person who has everything?” Come on. Is there someone on your gift-giving list who really has everything? Does this person have my black 1940s horsehide jacket that was ripped off from the 7th Street Entry dressing room in December of 1999? Because, dude, I’d really like that back.
The more important question to me is, what gift do you give someone you’ve been at horrible odds with for the good part of a year? More specifically, what if this someone is a member of your immediate family?
If you were brought up Catholic, you no doubt have between five and seventeen siblings (give or take a few), and you are therefore familiar with the name-drawing arrangement for gift-giving. Last year, I drew the name of a sibling with whom the last words I had exchanged were via voicemail—something to the effect of, “You’re a black hole. Lose my number.”
Being Catholic as well as female, I felt wicked guilty for saying those pointed things, no matter how necessary it was for me to unleash. I still could’ve phrased them with kindness: “You are a talented and sensitive black hole. When you get a minute, please lose my number.”
I wracked my brain to come up with the right peace offering. What gift says “I’m sorry I said the things I said, though I meant every word”? I was nearly drifting off to sleep when the answer came to me like a vision. I would give the gift of absurdity.
The next day, I went online and Googled “full-body adult gorilla costume.” As I typed in my credit-card number, I wondered what kind of interesting spam lists this purchase would put me on. I felt giddy receiving the big package and thought surely it would magically heal the rift.
Christmas Eve came, and it happened that our mom was feeling quite ill and frail. With a laundry list of vague symptoms, she bowed out of the evening’s festivities.
We are a Christmas-morning gift-opening kind of family, so I thought my gorilla suit would now have to possess the power not only to mend my broken-kin fence but also to heal the sick. I needed a Christmas miracle.
Early the next morning, I awoke to a voicemail from one of my sisters. She was with our mom, who had collapsed and been taken to the hospital by ambulance, barely registering a pulse.
For reasons I still can’t explain, we allowed that one sister to deal with the ER drama alone. The rest of us, for the sake of my young nephews, decided to proceed with the gift opening that morning and deal with the 40/18 blood pressure of our hospitalized mother afterward.
The festively wrapped gorilla suit sat under the tree, but no one was feeling merry. We jumped every time the phone rang, awaiting some news. When it was finally time for its recipient to open the gorilla-suit gift, I grew nervous. The spirit in which I had bought it was now heavily overshadowed by the morning’s turn of events.
First to be pulled out of the box was the costume’s hairy black head. Huge reaction. Big laughs and much needed levity were had by all. A series of “Try it on!” chants followed.
A look of grave seriousness crossed the recipient’s face, and a sincere explanation was made: “Normally I would, but I have the strongest feeling that the second I get it on, we’ll receive the call from the hospital informing us our mother is dead, and I’ll forever have to remember that I received this news dressed as a gorilla. I don’t think I can live with that.”
God bless us every one.
P.S. My mom is fine, and I love my family.
Mary Lucia is a music host for Minnesota Public Radio’s the Current.
A gift in general is a grim thing, an obligation, a social tie; the best gifts make us forget they are gifts even as we, years later, remember the giver—they are at worst what we always wanted, at best what we never knew we could love. Do not give live animals. Gifts imply wants. Gift in German is poison. Gang of Four sang “Return the Gift” and meant to make bodies sway angularly in self-hatred, guilty for each privilege they receive. Scrawl sang “What Did We Give Away?” They gave us their songs for ten years; in a room full of air, near the end, I was one of few takers. Everyone give it up for the opening act: They gave it everything they had.
Turn away from friends’ or lovers’ faces as they open any gift from you, lest you believe they chose to show false joy. A baby will give everything new meaning, even or especially phonemes to which the language gives no meaning at all. Give me your tiny hand, unable to answer or call each gesture and hour a gift. Children, surrendering, declare “I give.” Gifted and Talented.
Give each question at least five minutes before you give the next one your time instead. The not-so-rich can give until it hurts; the rich instead give graciously, yielding gratitude, losing nothing important—or else do not give at all. By the time you read this sentence, bad guys will have given up control over one part of our government, unless—given to cynicism, glib fatigue, habit, or fear—too many voters gave up or gave in. Information, memory, and affection you can give out and yet keep; secrets, however, once shared, are given to shrivel and fade. A gift economy is an economy still: see potlach on Vancouver Island, then see Hanukkah in Bethesda, Christmas in White Plains, the day after Thanksgiving for the caterers’ daughters and sons.
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope, I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that; did you think that I was going to give it up for you, this time? Give this and time extended resonance, an open book, an open question, wide-open blue eyes, an open adoption, a commitment to open source, and yet beware of geeks baring gifts. What gives, who hesitates, why keeps its counsel, giving only how away. It is a gift to be complicated, so much so that your friends try to figure you out. For years I folded and saved the wrapping paper on every birthday and Hanukkah present, accumulating paisley, shiny, striped, and printed rectangles in drawers, as if to remember the fact of their gift.
Stephen Burt’s new book of poems is Parallel Play (Graywolf); his new chapbook is Shot Clocks: Poems for the WNBA.He teaches at Macalester College.
Ten years ago, my girlfriend’s brother came to stay with us for the holidays. He was younger than we were and aloof and melancholy. A few months earlier he had spent three days in jail for dealing pot at his high school. He was as cool as I imagined I wasn’t. For some reason I felt hopelessly square around this guy, and I worried that my girlfriend would dump me as soon as he told her this truth about me.
Then one day, while we were sitting around the living room smoking some of his pot, he decided to let me know that he—unlike his parents—didn’t have any problem with his sister living with a Jew. He liked Jews, he said. He just didn’t think he could be one because it was such a cynical religion.
“Cynical?” I asked. “How so?” Until that moment, I hadn’t considered that my cynicism was a genetic by-product of my Semitism.
“Well,” he said, as though it were obvious, “refusing to accept Jesus as Christ, and all.”
Oh . . . ooooh. I assured him that I wasn’t cynical at all about Jesus. I simply didn’t think about him. Jesus wasn’t really a part of my universe. Like Australian football. Or menstrual cramps. I neither denied him nor accepted him. Being Jewish, I honestly didn’t give him a second thought.
I think I offended the poor kid.
A few days later, his parents showed up at our doorstep with shopping bags full of Christmas gifts. They even brought a big, beautifully wrapped present for me. “For your Hanukkah,” they said. Such a lovely menorah they gave me.
“Apparently, you think that the only appropriate gift for a Jew is a Jew gift?” I did say that, out loud. I couldn’t help myself.
We offend when we assume that everyone is like us, shares our values and sense of humor—or, at least, we feel that they should. We take offense for the same reason. We give and take offense when we don’t see the individuals in front of us and acknowledge their right to be different from us. I don’t care whether you actually love Jews because they’re so smart and funny. Or if you think that writers make good, sensitive husbands. I’m offended when you see me as a category instead of as a person.
The perfect gift, on the other hand, is the one that affirms individuality. The perfect gift shows how specifically the giver cares for you as a distinct individual. Two years ago, my wife gave me a pocket watch with an inscription from a Pablo Neruda poem; you probably wouldn’t want it but it’s priceless to me.
Offense is much easier to give than the perfect gift, however, and I believe the results can be the same. My girlfriend’s parents may not have seen me as an individual when they arrived, but they certainly did by the time they left. Plus, I understood that they gave me a gift at all because they meant as well as circumstances allowed. A boy they did not know was living with their girl, out of wedlock. I had offended them first, the moment I signed the lease with her.
As a result of that holiday ten years ago, I’ve developed a certain appreciation for giving and taking offense. In fact, if you don’t know how to give someone the perfect gift, consider giving offense. If you’re lucky, they’ll take it. Then you’ll really have something to talk about around the Christmas tree—I mean holiday tree—I mean Kwanzaa bush—I mean, what the fuck are you calling it these days? Have a happy December.
Alan Berks is a playwright, actor, teacher. Cocreator of Thirst Theater, he can be found drinking and enjoying daring, inexpensive, professional theater every Mon-day night at Jitters Café and Martini Bar in Minneapolis. His solo show Goats was recently nominated for a New York Innovative Theater Award.
Who knows how countertrends begin? My hunch is that they start as conversations among a few people who share a certain uneasiness with the status quo, and then take root.
I recall one such conversation back in the fall of 1995, in a town just outside Philadelphia. My friend Bill and I were engaged in one of our routine philosophical debates on the state of the culture. On this occasion, we had taken up the topic of the holidays.
I remember Bill—an Ivy League grad, Lutheran pastor, and father of three—lamenting the unrelenting pressure that families and individuals are under at the holidays to “deliver the goods,” literally and figuratively. God help us if we didn’t buy everything on the spreadsheet that we used to refer to as a wish list; hurt feelings, misdirected anger, and moping were sure to follow.
Bill and I agreed that regardless of where you fall on the socioeconomic continuum, the culture of consumption doesn’t discriminate, especially during the holidays. In short, it’s a 360-degree marketing assault promising that gifts equal love and happiness.
For me, each year as the holidays approach, it feels like I’m standing at the base of a huge mountain. I realize I have to scale it, but there are a couple of problems: I’m not in shape for the climb, and I don’t have the proper gear. However, lacking better alternatives, I begin the ascent.
Bill and I didn’t start a countertrend back in 1995. That was already well under way, thanks to the creators of Buy Nothing Day, the annual anticonsumerism event celebrated worldwide at the end of November. Rather, thanks to Bill and our periodic philosophical discussions, I learned how to do the holiday thing a bit differently, devising an approach somewhere between hiding under a blanket the day after Thanksgiving and going into a manic frenzy while ascending Macy’s preholiday mountain.
During our conversations, Bill had shared how his wife’s parents had become disillusioned with the relentless emphasis on holiday spending—especially as it was influencing their grandchildren. After consulting with their adult children and in-laws, this couple decided to start a new tradition. In addition to giving gifts to each grandchild, they also gave each a “share check.”
The process was simple. The share check was nothing more than a bank check from Bill’s in-laws with everything filled in except “pay to the order of.” That line was left blank because it was the responsibility of the grandchildren to give the money away to causes or organizations they were passionate about. The grandparents’ goal: Introduce a counter-rhythm of gratitude amid the cacophony of “it’s all about me.”
Since 1995, I have told this story to thousands of people who are searching for an alternative to holiday hype. I, too, am a believer, having used the share check for years with family and friends. And the best part? It really works. We have received thank-you notes from junior high school band directors, church groups, a homeless shelter, the Humane Society, and YouthCARE (an urban youth organization)—each grateful for being a recipient of someone’s share check.
Imagine if this were the norm rather than the exception. The impact, on individuals and organizations alike, would be profound. It’s almost too simple: Buy a little less and help change the world.
Nathan Dungan is the president and founder of Share Save Spend, an organization that helps youth and adults develop and maintain healthy financial habits.
Giving and Getting. The best game in town—anywhere, anytime. (We are talking about eleemosynary gestures, of course, not self-indulgences.) It’s about creating one thing, expanding another, lightening up a life, leveling the playing field a bit, and trying to get others to join your team. (Oh, block that metaphor!) It’s about preserving something or even reversing something. The game of Giving and Getting can be about handing someone the proverbial bootstrap, putting food on a table, easing the amount of adversity that someone has to overcome. It can be about opening doors and opening eyes to things that enrich and refresh, and to people who need to endow them; in other words, it’s not just about giving your own money, but also about getting others to do so.
Since, as the saying goes, “We can never get enough of what we didn’t want in the first place”—the big, the pricey, the transient, the excess—let’s play at giving to and getting for. Following are a few rules of the game.
Giving. Do not “give until it hurts.” Whoever thought that one up? Pain and martyrdom will move you back ten squares. Give until it feels as good as it can get.
If you are rich, never, ever voice that hackneyed protest that you are benevolent only because you must give back to the community that has been so good to you. (As opposed to the hapless souls “the community” has not been good to?) Queen for a Day is another game entirely.
Give with conviction. You could even try a little outrage. Think about a three-year-old who learns to remove the phone from its cradle and take it to a special hiding place when daddy goes nuts. How about all the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of institutionalized racism and homophobia? It hurts. How about library closings? Books are a basic right! Even a little outrage will move your piece along on the board.
Getting. Giving comes first. You can’t go out and try to get without giving.
Have a good story, pleeeease—a positive, promising story about your fund-raising cause so that everyone is happy to be asked and happy to contribute.
Wringing your hands and whining about how the “Cause for All Seasons” will collapse if someone doesn’t pony up practically disqualifies you from ever playing again. The world turns without the CFAS. If yours is in such crisis, maybe it deserves to fold.
It’s all right to have fun. Actually, you have to have fun. If you don’t, you must default. The world doesn’t need more people on pity pots. Go buy yourself a Lamborghini or designer jeans, but do not contaminate the lively, visionary, gratifying, satisfying, energizing game of Giving and Getting.
The next thing you know, you’ll be passing Go and collecting two hundred dollars. Ah, ah, ah. Remember: You can never get enough of what you didn’t want in the first place.
Just think, it’s a total freebie to wake up in the morning knowing you’ve made the world a little more comfortable, a bit more civil, or a lot more just for someone, and you had a good time doing it. Even if you don’t notice that, your children will.
Penny Winton lives in the NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) on the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. She thinks she knows all there is to know about philanthropic stuff, but her husband, Mike, may know more. She loves every award she has ever won, including one for swimming in a relay across Lake Minnetonka when she was sixty-six.