Thursday, January 7, 2010

THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS ] As we officially close the holidays, a belated note on gift-giving

xmasAs Christmas as it got. There's red (the taka), there's green (the Kate Spade book), and a white satin ribbon 'wreath,' a gift from designer/painter Doltz Pilar.

There is a part in Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours where one of the three main characters, Clarissa (played by Meryl Streep in the film), is contemplating the perfect gift for a sick colleague. “You want to give him the book of his own life, the book that will locate him, parent him, arm him for the changes.” And I thought, wouldn’t that be the kind of gift that would blow any recipient away, sick or not. A gift that defines a person, or simply say that you know someone well, or have glimpsed a shred of someone’s often-masked truth.

But there it was, the first gift of the holidays: made in plastic and whose provenance is a store you never, even in your wildest of nightmares, thought of entering. Because you’ve always seen stores like these, a P99 store perhaps, a Japanese grocery of trinkets, as a dumpsite of similarly cheap, plastic objects—temporary, bereft of taste or history. And you look at it and think this was how the bearer defines you. You, a writer, a 36-year old gay man who cares about clothes. Even your oversimplified definition of yourself refuses to make a connection to this transparent plastic thing.

And you have been given similar assembly line stuff through the years: a baseball cap that bears the insignia of the clubhouse of the village where your boss lives (from your boss, of course), a calling card holder, body wash bottles of different scents, an early warning device. All from people who, if they had actually paid attention to you enough to think of buying you a gift, would know that you don’t wear caps much less play baseball, never care for calling cards be it yours or others, never wear scents except for the rare unpleasant odor from a shirt that was never taken out to dry in the sun. And you don’t own a car.

Surely these are not examples of adhering to a gift-giving tip that remains with me from so many years ago: Give something that will make the recipient see another side of himself, that side that you, the giver, sees. Did my boss see me as someone who could be running and kicking in the fields, pushing and shoving other men to get hold of a ball (not the kind that usually come in twos)? Did she see me playing with my friend, another gay writer, who she gave the same gift to?

Because it doesn’t take much EQ to guess what was going on in a thoughtless gift-giver’s mind: a) Puwede na ‘yan kay ano. b) I’ll buy twenty of those and decide on who to give them to later. It’s like grocery shopping for relief goods, and you, the recipient, are one of the faceless flood victims, a statistic. The only difference is that donors to tragedy actually give something the recipients need.

It’s like grocery shopping for relief goods, and you, the recipient, are one of the faceless flood victims, a statistic. The only difference is that donors to tragedy actually give something the recipients need.

What I just want to say, really, is if next year you want to participate in a gift-giving frenzy, it would be nice to find a little reason why you’re doing it. Are you buying him the paperweight because you want him to know you remember him? Or you want him to remember YOU? Sometimes this whole gift-giving exercise can actually be, ironically, a little self-serving. Are you just giving gifts because everyone else is doing it? If you buy all those little trinkets to give away—which most often end up in the piles of accumulated junk on someone's working table—aren’t you just contributing to the trash of the world, encouraging manufacturers of plastic whatnots to keep manufacturing plastic whatnots that will most likely end up in some island-size Smokey Mountain and take a million years to decompose? I guess I am looking for a little more authenticity in a season when we want to show appreciation. A sensitive method to all the Christmas madness. If this new approach doesn’t win you points from the guys in the office, at least you’ll save a lot of money.

Still, there are those rare moments that a gift, no matter how carelessly given surprises you eventually. A mug that a friend gave me one New Year’s Eve, a recycled gift, has remained the one and only mug I drink coffee from at home. Another gift, one of my favorites from this season, from my sister and her husband, puts another spin to 'reycle:' they gave me their old iPod whose early discovery--she was already using a new iPod before gift-unwrapping time--made me laugh. Some gifts, no matter that the giver has shared the same to other people, connect with you. Before Christmas, our copy editor, Pete Lacaba, gave all of us a copy of the newly reissued books by Quijano de Manila (Nick Joaquin’s pen name), “Reportage on Crime” and “Reportage on Lovers,” a collection of his journalistic pieces from the ‘60s. I got the former and just read the first story called “The House on Zapote Road,” from which one of my favorite films Kisapmata was based. The prose is beautiful, and it is a lesson in imaginative, literary reportage. It turned out to be, as Cunningham would prefer it, a gift that will parent me in this field called writing, arm me for the changes, and while I’m not sure that it “locates” me, it allowed me to get lost in a world outside of my own. Naks naman!

While I may have made this whole gift-giving thing sound complicated, the key really is quite simple: listen. The other night, a friend gave me a book by the late great comic George Carlin. The dedication quotes a line from page 79. “Joan Rivers turned out to be one of those people she used to make fun of.” He knew I love Joan Rivers, and love humor books since Woody Allen. It’s one of those gifts that didn’t need wrapping, and there it was, an uncontrived smile on my face.

So I don’t really buy that crap when people say it’s hard to give me a gift because it’s hard to predict my taste: we live together (if you’re family), work together, I blog, I facebook, I tweet, my life is out there, spelled out in, I would like to assume, entirely engaging prose. When I’m awed by something I see, I text it, talk about it, my hand in my heart, like someone’s just proposed marriage to me.

I always believed gifts are born from inspiration—a shirt that reminded you of someone, a beautiful bag that so impressed you that you wanted to share it, a crafty artwork you made yourself. Inspiration, not obligation. But if you do feel obligated, it wouldn’t hurt to remember this: the thought only counts when there was actually thought put into it.


  1. Agreed 100%. Thing is, in this day of abundance of cheap plastic and other materials, you can't even give useless gifts away anymore, unless "things" in general are novel to the recipient (like they are 5 years old or something).

  2. keeping this in mind...