Giving vs. receiving — which is best?

They say that giving is better than receiving. This sounds to me like one of those counterintuitive urban myths, except with fewer unauthorized kidney transplants. I would contend that common sense dictates that it’s the receiving that’s better than the giving. Sure, there’s a rush of warmth when you see the look on that loved one’s face as they open your gift. But that tends to pass pretty quickly, whereas on the receiving end, you’ve still got the socks.

No matter how much joy I’ve ever experienced giving or receiving during the holidays, it can’t possibly match what one of my coworkers went through just the other morning. Lucy is widely known as, shall we say, the expressive type, never one to keep her thoughts or feelings unshared. The generosity with which she lays out all the details of her life is something I don’t always appreciate. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. And giving. And giving.

The co-worker sitting immediately to Lucy’s right has become her close friend, which Lucy pretty much requires when you’re that close to her every day. Jen was nice enough to bring Lucy a gift, a contraption called the Pasta ‘n More. You may have seen the ads on late-night TV: features include a strainer lid, steam rack, storage lid and, if you order now, two handles. You can cook, drain, serve and store pasta all in one vessel constructed of FDA-certified materials. Makes a great gift.

But “great” didn’t come close to describing how Lucy felt upon opening the package. There were shrieks, there were yips, there were even tears. The entire production floor ground to a halt and got to hear how wonderful the gift was, how fantastic the pasta was going to be, and how unbelievably extraordinary was the two-quart capacity. Eventually, she had to be comforted and led to a chair.

Kind of made one of my most memorable gifts from childhood pale in comparison. I grew up in Miami, which sounds like an ideal place to spend your formative years but was actually quite lacking in many ways. I’d read in books at school about concepts like autumn leaves, mountains, chimneys and snow, though these were totally alien to the south Florida scene. Our Santa came not in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer. He came in a helicopter powered by Pratt & Whitney.

My grandmother, who lived in Pennsylvania, took pity on me one year and actually mailed me an oak leaf that had fallen in her yard. I removed the leaf from the envelope and marveled at how red and how leaf-shaped it was, not like the palm fronds and crocus spirals in my unnatural subtropical hell. She could’ve used the U.S. Postal Service to clear her yard like her neighbors used the city’s curbside vacuuming trucks if we could’ve figured out the logistics. Only the intervention of my parents kept me from requesting a snowball with the next shipment.

This is not to discount the value of the gifts I received from my own parents, for these were also very special. We lived in a modest working/middle class neighborhood but they always made sure my sister and I had one of the best Christmases in that part of town, and not just because all our neighbors were Jewish. My anticipation and gift list began in late November, when the 3,000-page Sears catalog would arrive at our door by flatbed truck. Up till about age twelve, I’d quickly flip to the last section of the giant volume where the toy section was spread out in its full black-and-white glory and begin to compile my list. (When my teens arrived, I tended to first make a furtive stop to check out the models in their industrial-strength bras and the sexiest girdles this side of J.C. Penney.) More often than not, I’d get most of the items I’d requested.

Aside from the conventional gifts that every boy of the ‘60s received – footballs, cap guns, the occasional bike – my parents were as accommodating as they could afford to be to some of my more unusual requests (no, not the bra). One year I asked for and actually received a full-size pool table. Our three-bedroom home contained modest floor space at best, yet we managed to turn that monster on its side and wrestle it down the hallway to my bedroom. There, it barely fit next to my bed, hard up against the other three walls. I still remember how impressed visiting friends would be as we stood in the closet banking shots into the corner pocket.

Other especially memorable gifts included a punching bag, a portable tape recorder and a slot-car racing set. As a nerdy, pimply overweight kid, my pugilistic skills were not the best. It was theorized the punching bag would build both the confidence and technique that would allow me to defend against those vicious Jewish bullies. The height of the bag on its spring was not quite right, so my most vivid learning experience consisted of the punched mass viciously returning back to my lower abdomen. I spent hours complaining about this to the tape recorder in an affected British accent, which I imagined would ultimately land me a job as radio deejay. The car racing set, much like the small stereo and the electric guitar I received at subsequent Christmases, was a mass of primitive electronics that alternately provided fun and dangerous high-voltage currents.

My folks were also open-minded enough to buy me some of them rock and roll records all the kids were so crazy about. I still remember the year I received the Beatles’ White Album, and the contortions I had to go through to hide the picture inside of a naked John Lennon. Though I succeeded at that, the Fab Four were eventually exposed when my mom overheard a playing of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which contained the line “everybody’s got a wet dream.” What had previously been just noise to her now took on the awkwardness of a subject the 15-year-old doesn’t especially care to discuss with his mother. A year later, she heard the lyric “nothing’s gonna change my world” on “Across the Universe,” and commented that John should “quit whining and do something about it if he doesn’t like the world.” That is one valid criticism you can make about the Beatles: they didn’t exert much influence on the culture.

So now it’s the day after Christmas, and I’m enjoying playing with this year’s gifts – peanut-butter-stuffed pretzels, a book of crossword puzzles and a hat. (“Whee!” I gushed as I spin the fedora on my finger. “It’s a hat!”) At least these gifts are unlikely to electrocute me.

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One Response to “Giving vs. receiving — which is best?”

  1. Revisited: Giving til it bleeds « DavisW's Blog Says:

    […] out there after my recent post claiming that gift-receiving was so much better than gift-giving The Internet was absolutely abuzz, if you count the guy who said I was a “seflish idoit” and […]

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