Marge: You bought that bowling ball for you, not for me.
Homer: What? No!
Marge: The holes were drilled for your fingers.
Homer: Well, I wanted to surprise you. I couldn't very well chop your hand off and bring it to the store, could I?
- From the classic "Life on the Fast Lane" episode of "The Simpsons."
Homer Simpsons of the world, you know who you are.
When Homer famously gives Marge a bowling ball for her birthday - just the thing he's been dreaming of! - he can't understand why she's not thrilled. He even has it engraved with his name, surely a term of endearment.
Not that any of the people we know would do something like this.
The people we know would never do something like give a bowling ball to someone who doesn't bowl. Of course not! The people we know don't even bowl! Anyway, we operate more along the lines of, doesn't it make sense to give a gift that the whole family can enjoy and that, hey, we needed anyway?
We operate under the guiding philosophy of, a gift is a terrible thing to waste on only the recipient. Not nearly as bad as the Seinfeldian regifter, let's call this the put-a-bow-on-anything type.
This type of thinking can lead to dubious events like the floor-lamp birthday present. Not that there's anything wrong with a floor lamp. David Byrne wrote a love song, "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," for a favorite floor lamp (
Hi yo, you got light in your eyes/ And you're standing here beside me
The floor lamp in question was lovely and artistic, and since it was ordered months before, came conveniently just in time for a spring birthday present. (Had it arrived sooner, surely, the gift of light would have ended up a present for the Festival of Lights. Happy Hanukkah!)
Oh wait, that was kind of how the Ping-Pong table went from being a Hanukkah present for the girls to their mom's April birthday present. It took extra long to arrive (necessitating a last-minute Wii purchase in its place for Hanukkah) because of what an awesome Ping-Pong table it is. That's flexibility, a good trait.
In any case, the Ping-Pong table gets way more use than the Wii, which as it turns out had a shorter shelf life than even the must-have, must-be-obsessed-with, must-be-bored-with Webkinz craze. Next up in the we-swear-we'll-never-get-tired-of-it sweepstakes: Guitar Hero 3.
Frankly, no electronic or other gift seems remotely interesting enough to compete with the current obsession in our house, Soulja Boy Tell'em's instructional video of the Crank Dat dance, available free on YouTube. (Concert tickets anyone?)
But the winner in the put-a-bow-on-anything crowd surely goes to the wife of Judge Seamus McCaffery, who told voters recently that his wife had bought him a cemetery plot for his birthday.
Other ways to screw the gift thing up: Letting your mom pick out the gift, whatever it is, is always a bad idea. 'Nuff said.
Also a bad idea: letting the kids pick it out. This works for their special gift to Mom, or Dad, but not for yours. This was recently dramatized on the turgid HBO drama
Tell Me You Love Me
, when the guy who doesn't have sex with his wife let his daughter pick out her anniversary present, a purple teddy. Didn't lead to sex, at least on that episode. Was awkward to talk to analyst about, also. The lesson was clear, though: You can't hide behind your kids. You can help your kids pick a gift for Mom or Dad, but you have to come up with one yourself to get any credit.
On the upside: event-based gifts. I like these. Tickets to something, always a nice idea. A party! Give a party. Other people will bring gifts! For my dad's 80th, we finally figured out how to surprise him, and thank goodness we did. But don't do what a friend of ours did, tell his wife that she's so good at throwing parties that she should throw herself a 45th-birthday party, then beg off helping due to pressing work concerns the day of the party. A sleepless night later, half the guests were uninvited and the party limped ahead with a stressed-out birthday girl. Memorable.
Kids? Give your parents poems. Or anything from the holiday gift shop at school that you pick out yourself. My daughter gave my father a gift-shop special, a $1 Avalon window thermometer that he proudly placed on his windowsill. Sadly, she now has it on hers, where it acts as a little therapeutic locus of grief. Not bad for a tchotchke.
Parents? Give the kids poems (in addition to electronics). We love to write the big birthday acrostic poem. And on my kids' birthdays, I pretend to be a great artist, and paint them pictures. They hide and watch me take brush to canvas late at night. Somehow, despite the lack of any artistic talent, it comes out looking like love.
Speaking of which, it's always easy to figure out gifts in the early stages of love, when the world is filled with inside jokes and references and the simple act of noticing and acting on someone's special interest or something you have shared multiplies the effectiveness of a gift. (This got me to first-rate seats at the U.S. Open several years running due to an excellently timed circa-Labor Day birthday.) Because the relationship is truly the gift. (Though good seats never hurt.) It's only later that a white terry-cloth bathrobe is just a terry-cloth bathrobe. And just the thing.