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Monday, September 8, 2008

No Gift Like the Present

Maybe you don’t cogitate over things like this, but since I do, I figured I’d drag you through it with me. What’s the deal with gift cards, anyway? Are they any good? They’re decorative, plastic, and fit in a wallet. But then you can say the same about gum. And it doesn’t conceal the fact that they don’t do anything worthwhile, from what I can tell. Gift cards, in essence, are the perfect way to say “I was too indifferent and lazy to put any thought into a present, and you can’t be trusted with money, so here’s the next best thing. Happy birthday.” On such a momentous occasion, one can only be touched by these sentiments. Just give them a ten, and maybe draw a mustache on Hamilton’s face and be done with it. Don’t pretend that you care by dressing it all up to be more than it is. “Here’s some colorful money I got for you, but you can’t use it here, here, here, here or here. Only here. Have a nice day shopping at the one place I’m forcing you to. If you want to get your present, I’m making you go to that store to get it, since I know you wouldn’t if I gave you cash.”

And then when we get a gift card, we act like it transcends money, because when you’re receiving gifts you have to be complimentary about everything so you can get repeat customers to future birthday parties. “Oh, you got me a piece of string for my birthday? It’s what I always wanted! How did you know? It’s perfect...” I always wondered just how low you could go on the gift scale and still get that same sort of response from the person you gave it to. “Hey, this is a cool bag of trash. For the man who has everything, eh? I like it. It says hope your day is special like nothing else does.” “What? A box full of maggots? You shouldn’t have. No— you really shouldn’t have...”

And then there are the birthday greeting cards. (cue the dastardly organ music, please) The funny ones are good for a joke and they have their place, though I haven’t quite latched onto the sentimental cards. A sentimental thought is supposed to be personal. So you buy a card written by a greeting company that distributed the same one to thousands of stores, and they’ve never met the person you’re giving the card to, but somehow they’re supposed to capture your particular sentiments toward that person. What happens is they end up speaking in generic terms. “You’re the person I always thought if I’d love a person for being who they are it would be you for the way you are what you are like nobody else can, and that’s what makes me love you.” Basically, this is paint-by-numbers sentimentality. All you can really take credit for is finding the card in the store, getting the gender and age right, and then either paying for it or stealing it. You did all that successfully, but is that an accomplishment? What’s pre-printed on the card is no more you than the daily horoscope, except that you got to pick your own sign.

(Note: If any of you have given me gift cards or pre-printed greeting cards, I appreciated them tremendously, and I'll appreciate them in the future. I'm just projecting here. My analyst says it's good therapy.)

* * * * * * * * * *

I used to go to breakfasts at this lovely diner in the basement of the county courthouse near where I work. This place is run by two sisters who have been going at it for over 20 years, and they always have a lot of helpful insight to give, being great conversationalists. I had been frequenting there until the summer of 2006 two years ago when I went on extended sick leave and then had to watch my diet more closely in the interim. So just this week, I went back there for the first time since then, and note that I’ve never talked to them for more than ten minutes at a time and they don’t know my family or vice versa. We just used to talk in passing. So anyway, what happens when I go back? Not only did they remember my name, they also remembered that I like my toast to be sour dough, and my eggs to be over easy, and that we had been talking about me planting trees when we had spoken before. That’s amazing to me that they just picked up right where they left off from two years before. And eggs and toast is only one of the many orders I used to make, so it’s not like I had a usual that they got accustomed to. They also remembered that I’d bought a house back at that time. Completely floored me. You never know how well people are taking notes on you. You figure it happens somewhere from time to time, but you don’t figure you’re the one that anybody’s keeping tabs on. Kind of a little spooky, but in a good way. Maybe they slipped, and I’m in the Truman Show. (looking around for cameras now)

So going back there turned out being a rather surreal experience. It kind of brought everything from the last couple years full circle, into an unexpected form of closure. I remember the first thing they said when they saw me was, “We were wondering if you had died or something.” It’s nice to be missed like that. I replied that I was wondering the same thing.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with everything you said. Gift cards ARE like saying, "I don't trust you to not spend this money on booze and popcorn." Somehow gift cards are supposed to be less crass than cash. That's why they exist.

I always give a funny card and then write my own sentimental message. It never even OCCURRED to me until a few years ago that people pick out those sentimental cards because they like what they they say. I never used to read them at all. I'd look inside for the personal message and then there'd just be a name signed. I figured the person giving me the card liked the way it looked and maybe liked how it read but didn't ever give it to me thinking, "I mean every word of this" because if that's what they meant, if that's how they felt, wouldn't I have some clue of that already? If I'm surprised by your intended sentiments, doesn't that suggest that you don't really give off the "I don't hate you" vibe?

My mother and my husband and my ex-boyfriend all have written their own messages. So, I didn't know that not everyone does this.

My only critique of your blogging is that you try to fit different topics into one blog. I used to do that. I think you could split this one into two blogs.

That's amazing that they remembered you and your stomach. Special people to care that much.

Rusty Southwick said...

Ha! That could be a tall order for an unindifferentiated schizophrenic steeped so much in denial he could be Egyptian, but I'll see if I can muster the gumption to consider giving it a try. I'd have to change my disclaimer of having scattered thoughts. Hmm. This may require a committee and review board.

Anonymous said...

Egyptian-- ha ha.

The scattered thoughts are scattered throughout the blog then, not throughout each post. Then you can post more often so people will come back more often and have something to look forward to.

Renee said...

My kids LOVE getting gift cards. I think they feel like they can spend it as they wish because it's destined for that store (their favorites being Target, Claire's, and Borders). If it's cash, they may feel the pressure to do something responsible with it. Plus some gift cards are actually toys -- the ones that light up, the ones that change images when you move it back and forth.

What I think is funny is when Target sells little bags or stockings at Christmas time in which to package your gift card. They get another $5 spent on that gift card by making it pretty.

Anonymous said...

I have low expectations when it comes to receiving gifts. There are two select people people I trust to buy something I like. That being said, i LOVE getting gift cards. I know the message is tacky, as you said exactly, and I don't care. I am not sentimental when it comes to gifts. Buy me a gift card any day - I would love it.

It means I am going to buy something I like and I want. It's better than getting money - that I would end up spending on something mundane, like gas, anyway.

Rusty Southwick said...

What I'm hearing more of here is that gift cards could be an excuse to not use money wisely and thereby remove the guilt associated with that.

If it's cash, they may feel the pressure to do something responsible with it.

It's better than getting money - that I would end up spending on something mundane, like gas, anyway.

By giving the card, it limits the options and alleviates the recipient of the responsibility of spending it on more worthwhile things. So in essence it's the gift of being guilt-free while splurging. A very interesting psychological game.

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