I have no gift for gift-giving

Gift-giving, to me, has always seemed like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. You can try to give a gift that’s incredibly personalized, and risk guessing incorrectly, like when my aunt gave me a hermit crab habitat for my birthday even though I didn’t own (and had no plans to own) a hermit crab. Or you try to give a blandly inoffensive gift and risk seeming impersonal, like when my dad bought every single member of the family a Flip video camera including himself and then he was the only one that used it, leaving him with 4 backup video cameras.

When I was younger, I steered more towards Scylla. I’d give very personalized gifts. I’d give my twin brothers the exact videogames for their birthday that I wanted to play. Then, once they’d open the gift, I’d suggest we play the game together. I thought this was a great strategy, until my brothers started recognizing the pattern and would ban me from playing their gifts. Scylla became too fearsome.

So, then I steered more towards Charybdis. The day before Christmas or a birthday, I’d head to Borders bookstore (or, once that closed, Books-a-million). I’d go to the bestselling books table, pick up whichever book got good reviews, and ask the cashier to wrap it. Easy! This strategy worked great for me until I got a girlfriend who expressly forbade me from using it. She told me that I needed to buy her something that showed I actually knew her.

This was a problem. Scylla and Charibdis, meet the Isle of Lotus-Eating. I was pretty sure I knew my girlfriend. We had been dating for a bit, and had lots of conversations and such. Just I wasn’t sure if she had ever actually told me what she wanted as a gift. She had mentioned that she had trouble focusing on her schoolwork, but Adderall seemed inappropriate. And, despite the mess in her room, a vacuum cleaner seemed downright offensive.

After agonizing for a while, I finally asked her: “So, uh…I swear I know you and know exactly what you want. But, in case I didn’t, what would you want?”

“Oh,” she said. “There’s this coat by Vince at Nordstrom Rack that I’ve had my eye on for a year now. That’s pretty much the only thing I want.”

I thought for a second, and said, “Can you point it out to me and we can buy it together before someone else buys it?”

She agreed and that’s what we did. And that was her Christmas present, and she enjoyed it immensely. Later on, we broke up, for reasons entirely unrelated to gift-giving. But, on that day, I learned something about giving: it’s not about buying the perfect gift for someone. It’s about buying the gift that someone thinks is perfect for them. And the easiest way to do that is just to ask.

Or, you know, not buy people gifts at all, and just take them out to dinner for their birthday/Christmas, which is my preferred strategy nowadays. It’s way less stress.