Friday, September 17, 2004

Looking the Gift Horse in the Mouth*



I have two stories to tell you- the first is what E. gave me for my birthday, and the second is why he wasn't here on the actual birthday itself. Originally I was going to split the telling into two separate posts. But when I began thinking about it, I realised that the events are more like interlocking puzzle pieces than discrete chapters. The resulting post is a bit longer than usual. So before you begin, go get a cup of tea, some snacky cakes or whatever it is you choose to dribble on your keyboard whilst reading.

OK?

Part One: The Birthday Present
______________________________

I begin with the gift, since I know you'll be chomping at the bit to hear about that. (A little equine pun there for you).

By way of background, you must understand that, like many families, mine has some specific ideas about gift-giving and receiving. When I was growing up, my parents were always extremely generous- but not in the sense that it was a constant bounty of instant gratification. No, no- there were only two occasions of the year where the giving was a no- holds barred, lavish affair. Christmas, and to a lesser extent, birthdays. You saved up all your requests for those two dates, and as long as what you asked for was within reason, the wishes were, where possible, honored.

Consequently, as a child I learned that the way to get what I wanted was to either hoard my allowance until I could afford the "whatever it was", or to ask for it as a Christmas/birthday present. From a young age, I became extremely focused, discerning and...particular.

I mean, if you only had two shots a year at getting a certain item, you made damn sure that you didn't squander the opportunity by demanding a lot of useless shit. Stuff which might distract from the main event. Surprises were, for the most part, frowned upon. You made sure that the present giver was completely clear about what you wanted. It would not do to leave it up to chance. Because then you might get a lesser or undesirable alternate version, such as the Sunshine Family Dollhouse when your whole being cried out for Pole-Dancing Stripper Barbie. Because whatever you got, you were then pretty much stuck with it.

I appreciate this might sound hopelessly weird to some of you. It is, in some respects, a little odd to me- it smacks of something rather mercenary and rote in terms of the experience of giving. But it works for the Mare Family. We think it saves time, money, energy and disappointment all around if everyone is clear from the outset as to exactly what to buy. And you must understand that it's really not about being materialistic or grasping. Quite the opposite. It's a minimalist approach, about giving less in terms of actual quantity , but making sure that the thing chosen, while not necessarily the biggest or most expensive, is the thing most truly desired. It's reached the point where nowadays, we skip the whole charade at birthdays and my parents just give me money. Perfection.

Of course, E. didn't grow up in my family (which is good, because otherwise trying to conceive would not only be futile, but twisted and illegal). He has his own ideas about how to give presents. He more or less humours me about being told what to buy. Where we run into trouble is when he deviates from that strategy.

Case in point. A couple years ago, I asked him for a particular radio for Christmas. I don't know if you'll have seen these in the States? One of those groovy vintage-looking Roberts Revival radios. A red one.

Now, I don't really listen to the radio all that much, but I thought when I did, it would be cool to do so by means of such a deliciously cute device. And it would look great on the kitchen counter.

E. nodded when I told him this. Then he started asking questions about the specification. What the sound was like, the battery life, was it stereo or mono, etc, etc.? I told him I didn't give a shit. I wanted it because it was cute, not because for the sound quality. He went away and thought about it, and still the questions came. He did some research and began talking about a different type of radio, one with far better sound for an equivalent price.

I got a bad feeling.

"Listen," I said, "Just so we are clear. I really only want the Roberts. If you don't get me that, don't get me a different radio. I don't want any other radio."

"But the Tivoli is so much better."

"I don't care, " I snapped. "I only. want. the. Roberts."

I went on to make a big stroppy noise about it, halfway hating myself as I did it, but you know, not wanting him to spend his hard earned cash on something I would hate, when I soooo coveted the Roberts.

Christmas Day rolls around. I reach for the radio-sized box with glee. Rip, rip, rip paper off and...oh sweet Jesus gay, he bought me the other radio. Argggh! Noooooo! Deviation! Error! Error! You have deviated from the list!

Turns out, after a little convincing, I absolutely love the Tivoli, which in its own right is an extremely groovy piece of kit and yes, a great radio. He was right. I was wrong. But it was one of those moments when you look at each other, and realise how complicated being with somebody can be. I sat there in my jammies on Christmas morning with the box in my hand, confused. Struggling to overcome every ingrained pattern, every notion of what it meant to give and receive that I had carried with me since I was old enough to say "I want".

OK, so, let's talk about last night. (Thank God, finally, I hear you say).

He shows up with food, and a box containing my gift. He was very late because he had only just been to the store to buy dinner and the present (another key difference is our approach to time management, but we won't go there). He is all excited about how much I am going to love this cool thing he has bought me. I open it.

It is a pair of ugly casual hiking-type sandals.

Now, I am not a casual sandal wearing kind of girl. I love shoes, but I hate my feet- I have awful feet and disgusting deformed toenails. So I tend to limit sandal wearing to one high end designer pair for those occasions where anything else would look wrong with an outfit.

E. knows all this. He knows very well of my footwear proclivities.

What pops out of my mouth is: "What are these supposed to be?"

He turns away, starts putting away the groceries. He says quietly,

"I just can't do anything right, can I?"

Now. Before we twist the knife that statement drove into my heart and start concluding that I am a shrew-bitch from hell for treating my sweetie pie like this, I need to tell you Part Two.

Part Two- The Trip
-------------------

Early next week, we are going on vacation. We have planned this for months. After much discussion, we decided that this year, rather than the usual "fly and flop", we would do an "activity-based" holiday. I might as well tell you, it's sailing- like, on a yacht.

E. was the primary instigator for this. Sailing is a hobby he would like to get more heavily into. I have resisted for several reasons, not least of which is that I have a pathological fear of drowning, and so perhaps understandably not so sure water based activities are my thing. But the trip is a compromise- a way for us to experiment with some beginner sailing in a warm, sunny location.

Now. We are going to be spending two entire weeks doing this activity, to the exclusion of most everything else. All sailing, all the time. Bit of a risk for me, if I hate it, but I'm cool with that.

But I was somewhat less than amused when E. announced to me that he wanted to spend this weekend in the south of England with a friend of his...on a sailing trip. The very thing we are about to spend two weeks doing on our vacation. Instead of us packing and getting ready and organized together for a trip, the nature of which I am a tad anxious about, he wanted to go off sailing all weekend. I was to fly down on my own next week to rendez-vous with him at Gatwick airport.

It's not that I am trying to keep E. from going off to do something he enjoys, where the opportunity presents itself. It's just that every single time we travel, something goes pear-shaped. Lost tickets, wrong passport, forgot the driver's license, flights cancelled or delayed due to terrorist threat/hurricane/drunken pilot. I mean, c'mon. Getting from point A to point B is not as easy as it used to be. And I am going to worry the whole weekend that he will get injured on this other sailing trip, or lost at sea, or delayed. In which case, apart from anything else, our vacation together is fucked. Our vacation, the prospect of which, apart from this blog has been the one thing keeping me from completely losing my sanity over the last several months.

I said I'd rather he didn't go. He said he would rather he did. We argued about it on and off for weeks, and then he went dangerously quiet. I was distracted by the wedding, and the idea I might finally be pregnant.

Last week, without telling me, he changed his flights, and arranged to go on the weekend trip. I found out when I got a confirmation e-mail from the airline.

I was incandescent with rage. It was, I told him, a twofold blow. Not only the fact that he was going when I really didn't want him to, but he had lied to me and gone behind my back as well. His excuse?

"I didn't want to upset you before the wedding ."

Eventually, after some bitter bloodletting and non-specific groveling for forgiveness on his part, I decided I may was well to make the best of it, and go with the flow. But, to cut what is turning into a very long story short, the change in plans led to a very mundane re-organising of things in our already complicated two-flat, two city existence, like where we leave the car and when and blah blah blah. All of which had a knock-on effect into when he would be logistically be able to come here to do all that- that date being not my birthday, but the following day.

Turgid, no?

The point, which I have, in a very long-winded fashion, finally reached is this:

His birthday present to me, while sweet and generous and all the rest, was sort of underpinned by the sailing fandango. It wasn't just that I am an ungrateful bitch. It's just that I had that feeling of not being heard, not being understood. It was that childish pang of opening the box, and it being the wrong thing, after you had so painstakingly explained what it was you did want. It was that feeling of having what I want for us together come second to what he wants to do off on his own, a relic from the early wars in our relationship. So, I hope you see, it wasn't as straightforward as me spurning his gift of ugly sandals.

Finale:
________

In conclusion, I can tell you this. It's completely OK. Our relationship is not always perfect, no big revelation there. There's always work to be done, and we're always doing it. Those lessons will no doubt prove valuable when we return from this last break, ready at last to enter the infertility treatment fray.

Oh, and the ugly sandals? Helluva comfy. I've been wearing them since I got home from work, and you know what? Maybe they are kind of cool after all.

* With thanks to Marla for inspiring the post title.

16 Comments:

At 8:22 PM, Blogger lobster girl said...

It does all intersect like that, doesn't it? One thing makes you feel a little fragile or invisible, and then another, and then another, until *snap!*

Hope E. is particularly attentive during your vacation, that you do not in fact drown, and that you have a rip roaring time in your fabu new shoes. You deserve that and more.

 
At 9:18 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

Oh my God, you're me. I am the same way about gifts. When I was a senior in high school, I told my parents I wanted a stereo for my room. (This was the 80s -- a turntable/cassette player/radio was a BIG deal then, kids.) I told my grandparents I wanted a stereo. I even said they could go in together and not get me anything else. I told them and told them and told them, "All I want is a stereo for my room."

Fast forward to Christmas morning. . .

I got a set of pink faux-leather luggage and a Casio keyboard. No stereo. Twenty-one years later and I still get sick to my stomach thinking about how inconsequential I felt that day. I didn't even matter enough to rate getting what I wanted for Christmas.

 
At 9:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mare, did we come from the same family? I totally get where you're coming from in your post because my parents do gifts the exact same way as you described. You make it clear what you want (it's perfectly acceptable if it's on the expensive side) and you get it for your birthday or X-mas. As a result my husband and I have also struggled with the whole gift giving thing too (mostly because his parents are so intent that gifts be a surprise that they will usually go out of their way to NOT get you what you want for your birthday or whatever). He doesn't get it why I don't want to be surprised my my gifts, and why I try to pin him down on exactly what he wants before I get it. I don't get why he can't just get me what I ask for when I ask for it instead of trying to get creative.

Anyway, I'm glad to hear that things are better with you and your husband. Have a good time on your vacation.

Lola
Exile From Babyville

 
At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Mare, I'm right there with you on gifts. For my birthday this year, my husband asked me what I wanted and I told him a ceramic flat-iron, because I've had my hair professionally straightened (best money I've EVER spent, but I digress). He kind of hemmed and hawed and finally, I just put what I wanted on my wish list and told him he could buy me anything he wanted, so long as it came with that flat-iron. I don't like surprises and dealing with infertility has heightened my dislike of them even more. My husband is understanding of why and just usually tells me to go on Ebay and buy myself something if I'd like :) I think it's just needing something to go right the way I want, just once, is what makes me fairly particular when it comes to gifts.

Oh, I so had the Sunshine Family when I was a kid! LOL! They always seemed like hippies from Oregon to me, and I lurved my Sunshine Family craft shack where they could sell their handmade belts at the fair, LOL.

Emily
scrambledeggs

 
At 12:43 AM, Blogger Mustang Sally said...

Now, see - I'm thinking he knows you don't have any sandals. And you're going to want some when you're sailing, especially if it is someplace warm. Specifically, some that have a great grip on wet surfaces and won't come off easily. If they're the kind of sandals like these Teva's
(which are the standard casual footwear here in Oregon), they're perfect! You can jump right off the deck into the water of a beautiful beach and not have to worry about stepping barefoot on slimy seaweed, broken shells or sharp rocks/coral, or having your generic street-type sandals fly off if you lose your balance or get stuck in the mud.

Speaking as a frequent sailor and hippy Oregonian, I think they're a delightful gift and am frankly jealous of your thoughtful honey. Our first Christmas together I actually gave mine a pair just like it (which he wears everyday, everywhere we go. Sometimes with socks). Me? I got a set of industrial sized, stainless steel stockpots. Which would be fine if I ran a soup kitchen. As it is, I don't. They gather a lot of dust in the pantry. Oh! And a hubcap.

Though I'd still be pissed at his making plans to take off without discussing it with me.

 
At 1:03 AM, Blogger Barren Mare said...

Just by way of insight into exactly what type of sandals- I can see Mustang Sally's point, that yes, that kind of sandal might indeed come in very handy on one's sailing holiday. And that would indeed be a kind thing for E. to think.

Unfortunately, these are not that type of sandal. They appear to be made out of sort of suede type material, so I am guessing not so much for the water. I think E. just got a notion they were, um, nice.

 
At 2:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, yes. I hear what you are saying. One Christmas, when I was 8 or 9, my parents bought me a whole bunch of crap from a drug store, after I had given them my list. I ran to my room and couldn't stop crying. You see, my parents had their own problems and didn't have much time for me. The lack of any thought cemented that I wasn't being heard, wanted or loved. And yes, I was yelled at for being ungrateful, but it wasn't about the gifts-- not at all.

Marla
the middle way

 
At 4:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My college sweetheart once gave me a big, puffy pair of grey ski gloves for x-mas. I don't ski and lived by the beach in California. Hmm. I opened them in front of him and his best friend and I couldn't hide my disbelief. What the ----? Since then I won't apologize for being specific with gifts. I try to tell my husband it isn't worth the surprise factor. It's better for me to have exactly what I want so every time I wear/ use it, I will be happy that he picked it out for me. It is somehow hard for him to believe after 11 years.

I hope you have a fantastic vacation!

Lori
heiferpoint@yahoo.com

 
At 6:24 AM, Blogger Jen P said...

Jesus Gay Mare. Where is the link to the Cliffnotes version!?!?

I'm glad things are ok. I don't know if the man would have survived in my house but I'm glad you two are ok.

 
At 3:03 PM, Blogger sherry said...

For the first two Christmases hubby and I lived together, (first was before we were married) he gave me cleaning appliances. Then, right before my birthday, I mentioned an appliance that I wouldn't mind getting sometime...that was my birthday present. I demanded...NO MORE CLEANING STUFF!!!

As for leaving during special occasions, there is just no excuse for that. Diamonds, Louis Vitton...possible substitutions, but even that's a stretch.

Best of wishes to you on your vacation...sounds like you need it!

 
At 5:04 PM, Blogger la gringa said...

My family did the birthday and christmas list thing too. And it works! My husband used to be all romantic with the surprise gifts when we first started dating, but since we've been married, we usually go shopping right around my birthday (which is near thanksgiving and we spend thanksgiving in maine near outlets!) and whatever we buy for me tends to count as my present. if its a big ticket item, it counts for christmas too. it doesn't even matter that my husband gets things for himself that don't count as presents. i've dropped hints that i'd like my present to be (a)something i specifically ask for, wrapped in a box and presented to me on the day of, or (b) a romantic surprise wrapped in a box and presented to me on the day of, but he doesn't seem to get it.

oh well.

 
At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the sandal side of things... I totally understand about hating your feet. I have the ugliest bunions in the world. Therefore, any shoe must minimize them as much as possible. Somehow my hubby has never gotten that... one time he picked out a pair of little strappy sparkly things (that I would love to wear if my feet didn't resemble king kongs), I just wanted to deck him. Humph. Men!

 
At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my favorite quotes is from Whoopi Goldberg.

"Anyone living with you, who is not you, is a problem."

At first glance, this quote seems harsh and quite anti-marriage/relationship.

But it really isn't. It sums it all up. We all come from such different backgrounds. Perception is everything. When two differing perceptions come together (in marriage, for example), it can be really difficult to sort through it all without losing one's mind!

So Mare - I think we can all relate to not having perfect relationships. You can love the man and still not love his "wicked" ways!

Hope you enjoy your trip....and if you could please let me know where I can get the Pole-Dancing Stripper Barbie, I'd be much obliged!

Moogielou
Fractured Fairytale

 
At 10:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just one word: men.
Mine does stuff like that too.
Thirteen years together,and he's only now getting the hang of the gift thing. Sometimes.
I hope your vacation turns out more than well, you deserve it!
Menita
(lifesjestbook)

 
At 2:19 AM, Blogger Heather said...

Just wondering if you might not be able to leverage this a bit. I mean, ugly shoes (comfy or not -- irrelevant) on top of a very poorly timed weekend trip? I'm thinking flowers, jewelry, perhaps a romantic weekend in the country wherein you are plied with champagne and chocolates.

Even if you have to buy the jewelry and book the trip yourself, I think it might be well worth it. After all, at this point, he doesn't have much room to argue, does he?

Heather
One Pink Line

 
At 6:24 AM, Blogger Meh said...

Ok, firstly I have to say that yes, you are a little odd, but ok, that's fine, we all know that.

Secondly, those sandals sound uuugly. I am proud of you for wearing them.

Lastly, I read your whole post, am v proud of myself. It was worth it, v funny.

 

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