I recently wrote about the Mother's Day journal idea which I discovered online, then instructed J that I wanted, and then mostly implemented for myself. (J and LO did absent themselves for about a half hour on the Saturday night before Mother's Day in order to make this year's card, although LO had trouble with the concept of waiting for Mother's Day, as he kept bringing the journal in to where I was giving BB a bath in order to proudly show me the pictures he had drawn of the family and the giant L for LO he had written several times on the picture.)
Despite doing quite a bit of stage management on the creation of our special occasion journal, I was thrilled with the gift.
Regular commenter Haverwench did bring up a good point, however, when she asked "what's the difference between asking for what you want and just buying it for yourself?"
And therein lies the real kernel of the gift-giving conundrum. Our culture has made it clear that we shouldn't ask for what we want. (For instance, Miss Manners froths at the mouth at the mention of gift registries. It's a genteel kind of froth, but still, it makes her hopping mad). And in an ideal world gifts would be a simple and lovely gesture of affection which shows that the giver has thought about the recipient and carefully considered what would be most appreciated. I absolutely feel as though we ought to strive for that kind of ideal world, particularly when it comes to thank you notes. (Another area which causes unseemly anger in the usually unruffled demeanor of Miss Manners. This is also one where I agree with her). The fact that someone saw fit to give you a gift, even if it is a membership in the meat-of-the-month-club and you are a vegetarian, is deserving of thanks.
However, we don't actually live in the Miss Manners world. We live in a world wherein it is very difficult to discern what kinds of gifts would be appreciated on the regular gift-giving occasions that are littered throughout the year.
I am also at an age when I can very easily remember the life cycle of my stuff. An object's trajectory from admiration to acquisition to use to disuse to how-the-heck-am-I-going-to-get-rid-of-this seems awfully short. As a child and into my 20s, acquiring stuff seemed to have no consequences, since I hadn't yet gotten to the point when I knew just how fickle my own needs and wants can be. And since I am a dedicated environmentalist and all around frugal person, I get very uncomfortable with the idea of more and more stuff coming in to my home, even if it's coming from my beloved J. I know that a lot of the stuff will someday have to flow out of my house again.
Of course, Miss Manners does talk about this. Once you have received a gift, it is yours to do with as you please. And if it pleases you to give it directly to Goodwill, Miss Manners wishes you g-dspeed.
This is where I have trouble with Miss Manners' suggestions. I have a tendency to feel an obligation to items I received as gifts. I know that they are more than just stuff--they are physical manifestations of the affection that the givers feel for me. So it's difficult for me to simply let go of gifted stuff, even if it is a gift that, for whatever reason, doesn't fit.
All of this together has led me to a very practical view of gifts.
If I have a great idea for a gift, sure, I'll go ahead and do the traditional model of a surprise. But generally, I know that it's really tough for me to know what others would like, so I don't expect them to know what I would like. So, I ask for what I want, and I'm perfectly content to stage manage the creation of things like our special occasion book, since having it will make me happy--much happier than the fact that J realized that I wanted it could ever make me. (I also consider the asking for what I want to be a kind of gift to J, since he finds this sort of thing stressful).
I also try to make special occasions special in ways that don't necessarily involve traditional gift-giving. For instance, one year for J's birthday, I hid birthday cards for him all around the house, including one that I taped to his steering wheel. I love to make the birthday boy's favorite meal (or a special meal we all love in the case of Chanukah) to celebrate. And I love to treat gifts as gifts, even if they are not a surprise. J may know exactly what I am getting him for Chanukah or his birthday, but I will still wrap it up beautifully and present it to him over dinner.
Basically, I feel like our cultural model of gift giving is pretty unsustainable (and Carolyn Hax gave a great write-up of why that is). So, I ask J for the things I want, and I ask others what kind of gifts they want. It feels like the best way for me and my family to live intentionally. Deciding to live this way makes me much more contented and relaxed.
But, all that being said, you better believe that if you send a gift to the Mensch household, you'll be getting a prompt thank you note in return.
(J would also like me to add that the Mensch household is always happy to accept kosher meat-of-the-month club subscriptions. I guess I know what I'm getting him for his birthday).