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A Mans Guide to Gift Giving


A Man's Guide to Gift Giving

Part 1

When it comes to self-expression, men are often portrayed in popular media as thick-headed, clueless, tasteless, bumbling morons. I find the opposite to be true. Especially when it comes to giving gifts.

I do, however, think we men could use a little coaching... so I am offering this three-part guide to experiences with gift-giving as my holiday gift to you.

I am good at giving gifts. And I will share with you what works for me to mitigate stress, misunderstandings, and save time and money during the Holiday Season. Yes, you read that right: save money. 

Giving a gift is one of the most graceful things a person can do.  It can also be a source of endless creativity and pleasure for yourself. Using the ideas contained in this series, you will be proud and invigorated as you pull on your coat, twist on your scarf, hug your loved ones goodbye, and dash out into the winter night after a holiday get-together, fresh memories swimming in air scented of moonlit spruce. You are wonderful. And you love the season again.

In this three-part series, I will offer suggestions to the adult male on preparing gifts for other adults.  But many of the ideas herein will be useful to most anyone.

Adults do not usually provide Christmas lists to either Santa Claus or other adults so, the onus is on you and me to be interesting, creative, and intuitive – all while staying within our budgets.  And this can be done.

The first rule of gift giving is: get your shopping done early. The second rule is:  stay within budget. And the third is: make it fun and stress free.

If a family member, spouse, or girlfriend has requested something he or she really wants, by all means try to get that for him! But follow the first three rules. In other words, don’t be a victim of the holidays.

If, on the other hand, a request has not been made (which is more likely), begin at the beginning.

Consider a decorative box as a place to start a personal and creative gift. It can be made of wood, cardboard, or tin. This is something that can be bought at a craft store or made... but I bet you already have something available such as a fancy shoe box, candy or cookie tin, watch case, or wallet package.

Be sure labels are removed or covered. Wrapping paper works well as a covering as do bows and ribbons, or stickers. My friend's mother used to cover boxes with scraps of wallpaper.  Another friend uses last year's holiday cards.

Creating more than one box at a time adds only a few minutes to the production and has you prepared for gift-giving opportunities that may surprise you.

Small, battery-operated, blinking LED lights are everywhere in nearly any color and are shockingly cheap. These can be found at a party supply store or craft store. Perhaps you could engineer one or two to be the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the gift box.

You may be having this thought right now: to get all these supplies is going to cost some effort and money. And, you’d be right on both accounts. But, they will cost less than $15 and you will have the supplies on hand for ALL of the gifts you are giving this year. That is a bargain.

Line the inside of the gift box with tissue paper and/or confetti. You can pick a couple colors that compliment each other. There are printed tissue papers and shape/word confetti that can make your special gift even more personal. Think of paper with a botanical print and confetti shaped like flowers to line a small box with a plant nursery gift card and a packet of seeds to gift your favorite gardener. 

Excelsior or natural cotton can make lovely stuffing and may come to you via someone's gift to you.

Think of this gift box as a small treasure chest.  You almost can’t overdo the decoration and presentation. So, what do we put in this fabulous box?

Growing up, as much as I hated getting soap on a rope, it still got used. As an adult, I find soap is something I’m always running out of, so I like receiving it. Beauty shops are chock full of exquisitely decorated soap and bath products of every shape and scent. Discount department stores stock many of the same products at a fraction of their retail cost. Women love these gifts no matter where they come from. Ask what scent she likes. A bottle of body wash, an aromatherapy candle, and a fancy lotion would make quite a nice gift box. Be sure to remove the price tags. Try three different colors and scents of bars of soap. Another option is to buy Epsom salts and sprinkle them with your cologne or aftershave. She’ll be reminded of you every time she gets naked and takes a bath. Again, not expensive.

So, what have we done? We’ve made a plan, saved money, and readied ourselves for the gift-giving process. But, most importantly, we have made a very thoughtful effort toward the art of gift giving. And, that is our goal.

I have most of my Christmas shopping done before Halloween. The reason I do this is because I thoroughly enjoy the holidays and find myself relaxed and available for things like parties, dinners, white elephant gift exchanges, and perhaps even a last minute gift I can shop for. I avoid hysterical things like Black Friday because I don’t want to be there. I can spend that time with my girlfriend doing something, well, fun!

It also frees up time for baking and other kitchen arts. These things, too, make wonderful gifts.  But that is a thought for next time.


Part 2

The Black Friday mob scene is not fun. A slap on the hand if you have been there in the past. If you have, it was because you felt you had no choice but to be there. You were burdened by obligation just like everyone else. 

The fact of the matter is that people who go to Black Friday have little imagination. They pick a store, stand in line (or camp out in the parking lot) for hours, then go in and buy whatever is presented to them as on sale before everyone else does. This hoard mentality gives rise to conflict and even violence. It seems Thanksgiving weekend is now known more for riots at shopping centers than what it’s supposed to be: A time to enjoy a special meal with people you love!

The holidays present an opportunity for you to express how thoughtful you are. The process of gift giving should not be a chore whose payoff is for you to check your loved ones' names off the screen of your iPhone as you stagger out of the mall on Christmas eve, or worse, Black Friday. Gift giving is a creative and gratifying endeavor and this series will help you get back into the holiday spirit.

How about presenting a card to your significant other guaranteeing a date night with your phones turned off or left at home? Treating someone to a meal at a restaurant is a wonderful gift.  Present it in a decorative card or with your gift box as something you’ve made plans and reservations for. Be definite and specific about where you’re going and when.

Write it down in a note explaining how you feel about him or her. This may sound unnecessary, maybe frivolous bordering on embarrassing, but the written word is very personal and powerful. Telling your significant other she is sexy is nice. Writing that she is sexy will likely inspire her to prove to you just how sexy she is! Now, isn’t that a nice problem to have?

Plans for an outing to a museum, a play, concert, sporting event (where, by the way, you can also do a little gift shopping), or a movie make great gifts. Include tickets if possible in the box.  Just make sure this gift is something the recipient, not just you, would like. Just because you’re a Lakers fan, doesn’t mean your significant other wants to go to a game.

As the holidays approach, I recall some of the horrible gifts I have been given over the years. A box of giant plastic paperclips. Dating (how to) guides. A hardcore feminist rap album. I knew someone who was given a 24 pack of ramen noodles for Christmas, gift wrapped. 

On Christmas night, these items were thrown into a bag and taken to Goodwill for someone else to deal with. This may sound callous but these were thoughtless junk given out of rote obligation and misplaced caring.

I have heard many complaints about people who are “so hard to shop for”. It doesn’t have to be that way. Just because a person is distinguished doesn’t mean he is hard to please.

I have a Grandmother who is ninety years old.  She has dementia and, more and more, has a difficult time getting around. What kind of a gift do I get her? I have learned the answer: A department store gift card and a recent photo of myself. These, paired together, make a good gift combination because it’s personal and she can use (or have someone use) the gift card for any number of things she needs; she can choose, or a caring person can choose for her. I have done this now four years in a row with great success.

I love receiving gift cards. I love to cook, so I often ask for a gift card if I’ve got my eye on something fancy. I don’t expect the cards to have big sums of credit but rather something that will help with a purchase of an item that will likely last a lifetime. Gift cards are not a cop out!  They can be just the right thing. Check a kiosk at your supermarket for the variety available. There really is something for everyone. If you have trouble deciding, an online retailer card will probably do the trick because they sell almost everything you can think of.

Be sure to pair that gift card with something personal like some cookies or brownies you’ve baked. Or, something you’ve canned or brewed. Home crafts make great gifts on their own. 

My girlfriend likes to make oil candles. I like to make my own vodka infusions with honey and peppers. I buy a bottle of vodka and decant it into a French lemonade or fancy beer bottle with a ceramic flip cap. I add a couple tablespoons of honey and some cored hot peppers from the garden, close the lids, and store them in a dark place for a month.

If hot and spicy libations are not to your gift recipient’s taste, try infusing some vodka with a vanilla bean, or some fennel, or peppercorns. One bottle of vodka can be decanted into at least two fancy beer bottles. There’s two gifts I can give for under $15.

Olive oil infusions can be made in the same manner: lime compliments olive oil very well and their combination is something that isn’t easy to find. At the Los Angles County fair, I waited in a 10-minute line just to try some! You can make this with supermarket olive oil and lime juice and it will cost less than the vodka infusions you’ve made!

At some of the excellent hamburger restaurants in Southern California, I have seen ketchups flavored with curry, chili, and paprika. If you can’t buy them, try making them on your own: get some ketchup at a supermarket, decant it into a jar, add spices, mix, and close the lid. Put a couple of these creations in your gift box and you have spent less than $10. And, who doesn’t like ketchup?

I know someone who is giving pickled okra, green beans, and cucumbers for Christmas. At the time of this writing she has mixed the water, sugar, vinegar, and selected the vegetables listed above, and “canned” (which just means put into glass jars with lids –again, you probably have one or two around) so they will be ready. You could do the same, or try pickling some tomatoes, asparagus, cauliflower, carrots, or peppers… The cost for four jars will come in under $10.

Making anything that involves pickling, baking, or fermenting gives you experience with the most tried and true food preparation techniques known. Forget about “fresh”! You make one of these as a gift and you become a part of history: Was this made before in the same conditions (temperature, humidity, altitude)?  Also, if you change or add just one ingredient, like a spice, from a recipe you’ve read it makes it your own.  Did you know that?! Impressive, no?  Maybe you’ve made your mark on the world in a way… That just might beat the latest Facebook post!

Take these ideas a little further by designing and printing your own labels (and photograph them and post the pics on Facebook!). In this case a gift bag might make a better presentation than a gift box, as you can keep it upright and keep things from spilling…

Hey, did I mention I also like to find rocks and glue googly eyes on them so they look like people faces?!  All kidding aside, your time is worth something.  So, giving gifts like these is not in any way being cheap. And, it’s all right to be whimsical!

So, try to find a few things to laugh about as you prepare your gifts (could those googly eyes –which you can also find at a craft store--go on your ketchup jars?). It has been said many times: a quality a woman appreciates most in a man is his sense of humor.  I cheerfully agree.  I look forward to sharing more gift giving ideas with you next week.


Part 3

I recently read an article that summarized intelligence as “a sensitivity to things”.  I have taken great pleasure in wondering about the meaning of that statement.  I think that giving a gift to someone exemplifies that claim. It is also an endeavor that makes us uniquely human.  But, let’s get to the nuts and bolts, or rather, the blood and guts of this and consider some ideas…

Do you shop at a local farmer’s market?  Chances are there are vendors selling local honey, olive oil, or artisanal vinegars.  I often give locally-sourced honey as a gift.  I like to buy two or three 16oz bottles and make a gift box for someone who lives in a distant part of the country.  I make sure to package carefully by padding the jars or bottles with plenty of tissue or confetti.  Again, this is not something you can find just anywhere, which makes it special.  It will cost around $25-30 (including shipping) at the most.

Do you have a favorite restaurant you frequent? Many establishments offer a selection of hot sauces or barbecue sauces for sale. I like hot sauces and was thrilled to receive a gift box containing three extremely hot examples with some daring names and very colorful labels. If hot sauce isn’t your thing, salad dressing is a nice alternative. I remember going to the Sherman Room steakhouse in Reseda, California for dinner and enjoying my salad so much I asked if I could buy some of the dressing. The waitress brought a small bottle, on the house. Just remember, if you’re going to give something like this, do it within a reasonable time, and, of course, package carefully.

I have found excellent food gifts in some gas stations, such as Buc-Ee’s in the Houston, Texas area. Shelves are lined with bright, clean bottles of pickled garlic, tomatoes, and peppers and a mind-boggling array of nuts and candies. They can be presented in the do it yourself gift box too.  Inexpensive, but thoughtful.

I enjoy receiving food gifts like these because of the nostalgia for things I saw in catalogs and malls growing up. I enjoyed the cozy imagery of a plentiful, simple life. Perhaps they are, quite literally, cheesy. But, what I’ve observed is that those kinds of gifts are most often winners, especially with people who are difficult to shop for. So you might keep your eye out for cheese with a manageable expiration date and refrigeration conditions too. If you’re giving a gift like this locally, perhaps a gift basket would work best to show off the varied and colorful treasures you are presenting.

The nice thing about giving food, soap, or candles as a gift is that they go away. You are not imposing your decorating style or clothing style on someone else in any permanent way.

I have a friend who has family in the Midwest. When a funeral came during a particularly bitter winter, instead of flowers, he sent a box of oranges and a book of poems. The “thank you” note he received was not a standard reply but a genuine and personal letter on how the family was touched and life brightened.

For another such funeral, the caterer miscalculated the quantity of food and the gift basket of delicacies (once again, in leiu of flowers) was welcomed at the reception. People always have unexpected guests for the holidays and food gifts come in handy.

When holiday shopping, I would suggest working into your plans a stop at a coffee house or brew pub for a drink. This gives you the opportunity to slow down your shopping experience (which can become a frenzy merely from the hysteria around you) and watch people. I sometimes think that this is where the magic of holiday shopping happens: I’m quiet but the din of human life is there keeping me company; I’m in public but still solitary and I’m sitting comfortably and watching the world go by. 

Take a look around and see that everywhere has gift-buying opportunities.  Coffee houses and brew pubs always have interesting products. Plus, you may come away from the experience, not only relaxed, but also with a good story about something you’ve seen people doing… Flirting, kissing, feeling each other up… naughty can be quite nice! If you don’t take the opportunity to look around, you won’t see it! Beat that, Black Friday!

What are your plans for the next few weeks? Are you traveling for Thanksgiving? I have found that I’ve done some of my best gift shopping while on trips. These trips don’t have to be to exotic locales or far away.  You can find unique and thoughtful gifts almost anywhere.

Here’s an example: My girlfriend and I recently went on a modest getaway weekend to the Reno/Carson City area.

After visiting friends in Carson City we drove to Virginia City, an historic silver mining town, on the way to Reno. Saloons, old hotels and gambling halls line the main street. There are a couple candy stores, book stores, a beef jerky shop, even a joke shop.

At the Bucket of Blood Saloon I purchased a pint beer glass and a kitchen magnet. Across the street, I bought a miner’s tin cup with an illustration of the infamous “Suicide Table” inside the gambling hall. These items are small and came to less than $20. If I’m being honest, I don’t exactly know who I’m going to give them to. But, I have a pretty good idea.

These may seem like tchotsky, and indeed they are. But, you won’t find them just anywhere. I can give them as stocking stuffers, and/or along with another gift. I’ve got plenty of time to figure that out. Having these sure beats breaking into a cold sweat and rushing out of the house in a panic to find something, anything, at 6pm on Christmas Eve. In other words, when it’s too late.  

In Reno, we visited some of the old souvenir shops on a walk downtown.  There, I found a coffee mug in the shape of a woman’s breast.  You drink out of the nipple, you see. At the base of the mug it reads, “Reno, NV”.  It was $4. I could add a couple mini bottles of scotch and a vintage pin up picture and have a white elephant gift! With a gift like this, you just might be the life of the party!

This brings me to the subject of re-gifting.  Re-gifting must be done with discretion or not at all. You are being cheap here. Tread lightly…  This is a case where you’ve received a gift you don’t want to keep but know of someone who might really enjoy it.  If this situation does not apply, put the gift in a charitable donation bag and let it go.

Gift shopping can easily be done in the course of many activities, some even routine, during the year.  I remember reading in an article about a famous photographer the expression “fortune favors the prepared mind”.  I think that concept applies to many things in life, especially gift-giving.  So, apply this practice throughout the year with gifts for birthdays, weddings, graduations, bat/bar-mitzvah, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s and Father’s days.

Cheers and Happy Holidays!