Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Giftology 101

By Spike Gillespie

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Johnny and I were sprawled out on my big bed, trying out the gift he had just given to me. What a surprise, this fancy version of a cheaper model I already owned and had already broken in with others. I smiled -- half-shyly, half-knowingly -- when he handed it to me. He grinned triumphantly. Johnny knows how I like to spend my nights with him and which games I most prefer.

Johnny had given me other treasures -- jewelry, clothes, books, unforgettable romantic dinners. But this gift, I knew, would go down in my personal history as one of the absolute best, a present thoughtfully chosen, that spoke directly to one of my greatest pleasures.

Mind you, I'm not terribly fussy when it comes to gifts. This is possibly a defensive stance, taken due to the fact that I was born in early January, and have received a number of "birthday" gifts actually leftover from Christmas. And anyway, truth be told, my favorite gifts of all are the "capital-G" Gifts -- those things bestowed upon us by God, the universe, muse, whatever -- that we share with each other. In fact, I can get downright Stevie-Nicks-mystical when I think about all these Gifts -- music, writing, truth, love, friendship-to-the-death, an attentive ear, my child's bright smile -- others share with me.

But I also have a big spot in my heart for gifts of the tangible variety. I have studied gifts over the years -- the best given, the best received. As a result, I fancy myself an expert. The best of the best, I have concluded, come from those with the Gift of gifts, a Gift I have worked hard to develop myself over the years. With no offense to those who don't quite have the hang of it, who year after year bestow hastily purchased items on others, I say proper gift-giving involves a certain science, let's call it "giftology," with many factors coming into play, determining what will be deemed dud, what will provoke gasps of delight.

Will the offering be shot-from-the-hip, spontaneous? Or will it be pre-conceived, plotted, well thought-out? Will it be silly or serious? Is this gift for an occasion or no occasion? Is money an issue (i.e.: Do I have any? Will my recipient feel uncomfortable if I spend too much? Disappointed if I spend too little?)

Then, there is honesty: Is a gift something the recipient wants, or is it really something I want for myself? Am I demonstrating love or performing penance? Am I expecting something of equal thought and value in return, or am I just giving because I love giving?

illustration by Jason Stout

Primo gifts fall into roughly three categories: Gifts which offer usefulness; Gifts that provide enhancement/amusement; or Gifts which encourage escape.

My own gift-giving preferences and limitations, combined with the fact that most of my friends are quirky kitsch-o-philes, place me in the category of non-traditional gifter. I have a big memory and a small wallet. I hate the pressure to give give give on holidays simply because it has come to be expected. (Christmas particularly irks me). I am much happier memorizing my various friends' various penchants, perusing junk stores, and procuring and delivering presents on non-holidays -- presents that would mean nothing to most people but suit the recipient to a T.

Take the crocheted-poodle bottle holder I found for two bucks in a second-hand store in Galveston in October. Why hang onto that until December, when I know Kate, a lover of all things poodle, will adore it no matter when I give it to her?

Or fish. My friend Jonathan collects fish everything. I can't recall the last official birthday or Christmas gift I sent him. But his apartment is full of fish I have found -- porcelain fish chopstick holders from Chinatown in San Francisco, rubber fish from Toy Joy, a fish ashtray I encountered cross-country.

Gifts from nature -- rocks, shells, autumn leaves -- are another favorite. If I'm on a hike and see a beautiful rock, I pick it up and give it to the person who will appreciate it most. Don't ask how I decide. That takes years of practice; I am a trained giftologist, after all. Here, have a chunk of volcano from Mt. Hood, a flat river stone from Tennessee, a pebble perfectly worn and rounded by the mighty Pacific.

I count gifts like rocks and yarn poodles as enhancement gifts. Clothes, flowers, candles. Jewelry, soap dishes, conch shells. Does the recipient really need the item? No. I look at my own assortment of enhancement gifts received over the years -- the drill core from West Virginia, the sea glass from Florida, the Dojo curtain from Japan, the ceramic milk pitcher from Barcelona -- and I can tell you exactly who gave me what, when they gave it, and why it means so much.

Escape gifts are more practical. They can offer literal escape -- witness the gift of my car (unbelievably, not the first vehicle flat-out given to me, but surely the best), that sturdy Toyota that Suzy and Richard gave me years ago that has gotten me across town and across the country. Or the divorce certificate an attorney friend bestowed on me as a wedding gift -- now that really came in handy. Less grand escapism is fine, too: Tickets to a hockey game, massage certificates, and bottles of champagne or fancy six-packs all offered as temporary respite from the weight of real life.

Useful gifts, particularly the rectangular green variety, may seem mundane and not very well thought out. But this is where the important factor of timing and knowing your recipient come in. If there is a practical need on the recipient's end, why not offer something helpful? A simple dinner, hand-me-down furniture, and -- ask my son -- even underwear (which, when wrapped in nice paper, is at least momentarily exotic) may not rank as grand-scale booty, but I can tell you just how appreciated these things can be. When it comes to useful gifts, I know more from the perspective of receiving than giving.

As both a single mother and a more-starving-than-not artist, I have needed, and I have needed often. And while I've had the occasional flush year, I've collected more pending termination notices from the phone and utility companies than I have lucrative writing contracts over the years. 1998 was particularly harsh. In December of '97, I lost a steady writing gig, one that had allowed me to live for a year without the anxiety of poverty, one that had allowed me the chance to enjoy being a generous giver. This good fortune, however, was fleeting.

My friends noticed I was hurting, struggling to hold it together. They offered help. Initially, my pride and I declined. They tried another tactic. They forced. Gently, pleasantly, they came forth and they gave. My friends have always given me plenty, but these gestures were clearly acts of helpfulness. Two friends loaned me rent, wouldn't take no for an answer, emphasized that repayment was not to be rushed. Others passed on job tips. Still others invited us to meals. Many gifts fell into dual categories -- both enhancing and useful: The fancy French-milled soap, the care packages practical (coffee, healthy food), and frivolous (cookies, candles).

My first inclination was to feel bad or embarrassed. Ashamed that the givers knew I needed. Guilt is a funny thing, the dark side of the science of giftology. This is one of the reasons I get edgy at Christmas, a time when stress runs high due in great part to all of the negative feelings we associate with gifts.

On this holiday, who among us doesn't worry that someone will show up with a gift and that we will have no gift to offer in return? Or that we will buy some small token and offer it, only to receive back some elaborate something? We worry that we'll hate a gift or that our gifts will be hated. We'd rather give than receive because that way is safer, throws any ball of obligation (real or perceived) squarely in the other guy's court.

Yes, obligation. The ugly, inherent evil that sullies what should only be pure joy, whether giving or receiving. Is it learned or bio-instinct? My fellow giftologists are working around the clock to determine this, to find a cure -- but something inside of us suggests it is wrong to receive without immediately giving back equally.

Which I learned, the slow way, is pretty stupid. Any hint of protest on my part netted me the standard response. These loving people reminded me I had given, and had given often. My friend, Mike, for example, drove up from Houston, took a day off of work, to take my picture for the jacket of my forthcoming book, and then took me out to lunch. He shot several rolls of film, paid for the developing, then would not take compensation.

I was humbled. I remain humbled. The ice cream cake, the reflexology socks, the bags of groceries. The beautiful clothes, the delicate silver, the recycled Sunday New York Times (put back in order, even.) For my son Henry: a bicycle, 500 baseball cards (from our mailman!), a Playstation. And these are just a small sample of the tangible things others heaped upon us in '98. Is it any wonder I've grown more corny and sentimental? That the friendship I've been given, the very thing that inspired people to give me so much, has been the greatest gift of all?

Finally, I understand the Gift of being able to receive, to say "thank you," when I have nothing more to offer in return.

It was this Gift, this sense of being so loved and realizing it, that filled me up that night that Johnny and I lay stretched out on my bed, trying out my latest gift. More of the escape variety than the useful variety, it nonetheless had its useful qualities, the main one being those raised ridges between the tile spaces. Weeks before he gave it to me, Johnny had to struggle not to get miffed when -- just as he was about to whip my ass -- I accidentally elbowed the corner of my regular model, toppling it into the mattress, sending all those letters flying like passengers on the deck of a fast-sinking Titanic. Now, that would no longer be a problem. What he had given me was a Deluxe Edition Scrabble set, complete with a sturdy, turntable base.

I lay, propped up, and spun the board to face me. I scrutinized my options, trying to fashion X, Q, O, I, E, P, and F into a seven-letter word (Hint: you can't). Finally, taking advantage of an open T on the board, I put down "POET." Granted, not many points. But something felt so right about that word at that moment, something felt so good about that gift, and all the gifts that preceded it. Contentment with my life and gratitude for my friends washed over me.

There was perfection in this gift and in all the countless others I'd received through a less-than-easy time in my life. Poetry if you will, this list of gifts in my head, the reasons I'd received them all, the beauty of the giving, the grateful feeling I had at being recipient. Like carefully chosen words in a precise and gorgeous sonnet, these gifts -- balancing each other with equal parts of much appreciated, much needed, escapism and enhancement and usefulness -- came together, brought forth by the givers, and reminded me of the lyrical side of life. The true sign of perfect gifting. Giftology at its brightest.

All Spike Gillespie wants for Christmas is for her new book, All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Little Boy, to come out on time, due May 1999 from Simon & Schuster.

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