too much honesty can be a very bad thing: a story about a birthday present

This post is written with permission.
Recently on Facebook I announced that Allan, my partner, turns 60 this year, and he has already chosen a very special birthday present. We are going to buy him an electric guitar and amp, and he's going to learn how to play an instrument for the first time. 

I'm super jazzed about this! I love that Allan wants to learn something new, that he wants to be more in touch with music, one of his great passions. I also love it because it speaks well for his mental health. Allan lives with depression, and this is a good barometer of how well it's managed right now.

But besides all that, Allan is incredibly difficult to buy gifts for, and his birthday has been a source of hurt feelings for me in the past. I would think long and hard, plan and shop, only to receive a tepid response, a polite thank you, and I'd know the idea fell flat. Nothing I gave him ever got a "wow". Anything "wow," he just buys for himself.

I've been aware that this dynamic touched on some bad memories from childhood: my father would reject gifts from me and my siblings. Birthdays and Father's Day was an occasion for him to tell us we bought the wrong size, or spent too much money, or didn't understand what he asked for, or whatever we did "wrong". Yeah.

That's the backdrop. 

And this culminated in the Great DFW Debacle of 2003.

Allan's favourite author is David Foster Wallace, and he is a huge fan of Infinite Jest. Allan's also a collector-slash-hoarder. In his late 30s he was collecting (among other things) different editions of Jest. The British edition, a paperback with a new cover, a copy Wallace signed for him at a reading, and so on. I had heard Allan talk about an edition of Jest that contained a printing error. It had cache because it was from a limited print run, the typo being fixed in current printings.

Months before Allan's birthday, I hunted for a signed copy of this edition. I emailed with several people, found a copy in the UK, double and triple confirmed that the typo on whatever page was indeed there, and bought it. I had never done anything like that before, and I was so pleased with myself! At last, I had an awesome gift for Allan. I also told him that I finally had a special gift that he would love. Told him more than once, because me. A lot of build-up. Sigh.

After much anticipation, the big day arrived. Allan opened his gift, looked at me blankly and said, "Why did you buy me this?"

. . . .

. . . .

He already owned a copy of Jest with the typo. 

I was heartbroken. 

He said, "Well, signed is nice. I didn't have this edition signed." 

Too late.

I decided, that's it, I'm done. I'm not doing this anymore. Here's a gift card or some cash, go shopping. To me this felt thoughtless and generic, but over the years, he has enjoyed it.

* * *

When Allan turned 50, I created a scavenger hunt for cash in various denominations hidden all over the house. He mostly suffered through it. He loved finding the money, but didn't enjoy playing the game. Back to gift cards.

Last year I actually gave Allan a gift he truly enjoyed. I had taken a wonderful short city trip with a very dear friend who I hadn't seen in many years. I also travel a bit for work. Allan was envious. So for his birthday last year I arranged a short trip to Victoria, and he really enjoyed it. That was quite expensive (rental car and hotel) and we couldn't do it that annually. So, a great idea, but a one-off.

I also want to add that Allan usually makes a big fuss over my birthday and it's always great. This issue only goes in one direction!

So that's the backstory. The announcement of a special gift for his 60th -- already exactly what he wants -- was more than exciting. It was a huge relief.

* * * *

A postscript. Some months after the DFW Debacle, in a Red Sox discussion forum that Allan belongs to, someone posted a question: "My wife gets me birthday presents I don't really like. Should I tell her?" Allan posted a reply: No. Do not. Under no circumstances should you ever tell her. 

Correct answer.


Amy said...

OMG. I definitely can feel how hurt you were. It's a dilemma for a gift recipient: be honest (supposedly "the best policy) or be falsely enthusiastic. Harvey tells the story about his father getting a watch for a special birthday from a bunch of relatives (before we knew each other) and how upset everyone was when his father said he'd wanted a digital, not an analog, watch. Harvey was mortified. So he is always Mr Enthusiasm about any gift I get him---but can I trust it? Not really.

We've learned over the many years that the best gifts are things we decide together---a trip, theater tickets, dinner out, or something we both can enjoy together like new bikes or a piece of furniture. If either of us wants something that is individual, we get it (assuming it's something we can afford). For birthdays we get something very small---a card, sometimes a book. No clothes, no jewelry.

laura k said...

Oh boy, I sure relate to the Harvey's dad's watch story. What a horrible thing to do. I'd go for fake enthusiasm any day.

We also do the experience gifts, but I love to receive thoughtful birthday presents. Birthdays are our only presents. We don't celebrate any of the December holidays, and for our anniversaries, we do something -- dinner, travel, day out. So birthdays, that's it! :)

Similar to what you're saying for you and Harvey, if Allan wants something, he buys it. It's so annoying! lol

Amy said...

I think my own experiences with giving gifts to people (it's always painful for me to figure out what to get anyone; I am so grateful for gift registries) and receiving gifts (I mostly prefer picking out my own stuff) has soured me on the whole notion of gift giving. Just another way I can be a scrooge!!

laura k said...

Interesting! I'm exactly the opposite.

I love gift-giving. I enjoy thinking of special things the recipient will love. Few things make me happier than seeing someone's face light up when I've hit the mark.

For myself, I love gifts that reflect that the giver knows me -- jewelry I will wear, a book on a topic I am passionate about, good coffee.

Amy said...

You likely are better at picking gifts for people. I am always sure I am picking the wrong thing since so many times I have (and have received gifts I have no use for). To each her own!

laura k said...

I do take pride in being a good gifter. But for sure, I've received more gifts I have no use for than I could possibly count.

allan said...

Honestly, there have been only a few really inspired birthday gifts for Laura.

The Infinite Jest typo was a misspelling of the writer (and blurb-provider) William Vollmann on the back cover (dust jacket). His last name was originally spelled with one "n".

laura k said...

Honestly, there have been only a few really inspired birthday gifts for Laura.

Nope. Almost every birthday. Don't argue. I remember.

johngoldfine said...

Jean and I have been an item, more or less, since 1963--we don't vacation together (horses and dogs to be taken care of at home) and we have never given each other gifts. Not for everyone, but it works for us.

laura k said...

I've always thought you and Jean are a great model of "do whatever works". Allan and I have several areas like that.

I think many people and couples experience a lot of unhappiness from trying to adhere to some idea of what relationships are supposed to be, instead of creating their own relationship ecosystem. Especially because the idea may be an unrealistic social expectation, probably impossible for most people.

impudent strumpet said...

For some relationships in my life, we find it useful to make the act of shopping be the gift rather than the item itself, in cases where the gift-giver is better at the shopping than the recipient.

Sometimes the giver buys the item, sometimes they just tell the recipient what to get, depending on how money and logistics work out.

For example, my parents are reluctant to shop online, so sometimes I just send what they need to their door in a few clicks.

One year, when I was still working in a cube farm, my mother's birthday gift to me was making ALL the phone calls to find a doctor in my neighbourhood who was taking new patients.

Some of my friends have access to different bricks-and-mortar stores than I do, so we buy each other things that we're finding hard to come by near home or online. Especially useful when products are discontinued!

It's useful in situations where everyone generally has equal capacity to buy whatever they want, and sometimes it can be less tedious to do this kind of labour to improve the life of someone you love than to do it on your own behalf.

laura k said...

my mother's birthday gift to me was making ALL the phone calls to find a doctor in my neighbourhood who was taking new patients.

That is an amazing gift!

A million years ago, a friend gave me the gift of a phone bill. Allan and I were long-distance (before he moved to NYC) and long-distance fees were much steeper in those days. She insisted I give her a bill unopened.