The best gift-giving advice I've ever received
A short personal post
Thanks for reading Small Potatoes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Probably the best gift is something that transforms a person’s life for the better. Paying off their student loans, buying them their dream house, getting the district attorney to drop all charges, or finding the organ donor who saves their child’s life. Great gifts all.
Other great gifts express commitment and caring. When I was in high school, there was a book I was looking for—the latest in a series of spy novels I was reading. I knew it had come out but couldn’t find it in any bookstores in Montreal. (This was long before the web.) I had mentioned this to someone I was sort of close to—she had a boyfriend, but things were complicated. Months later, we were walking down a street in the middle of a snowstorm, deep in conversation, and she suddenly poked me on the side so I’d stop, grinned at me, and then reached into her jacket and handed over the book, nicely wrapped.
In late December during the pandemic, my wife gave me two wonderful gifts—one for Christmas, and one for my birthday, which is on Christmas Eve. The gifts were exactly what I wanted and she knew that, and I know she knew, but they shouldn’t have been there. They were impossible to get during the pandemic—nobody had them; if you phoned up the right places they’d hang up on you as soon as you said what you were looking for. And yet there they were—for me, magicked up through my wife’s genius and hard work and love.
Sometimes a great gift speaks to a personal connection. From Season 1, Episode 5 of Breaking Bad.
Walt and Skyler attend a birthday party for Elliott Schwartz, Walt's friend from graduate school and his former business partner. … He and Skyler are embarrassed when their inside-joke birthday present of ramen noodles pales in comparison to the gifts of the more well-heeled guests. However, Elliott immediately becomes overjoyed with the significance of the gift, disregarding all the expensive presents in favor of something so simple, as it was their main source of food while building their company due to how cheap it was "10 for $1.99". He asks Walt where he got them, since they supposedly went off the market a while ago. Walt does not remember, but it is implied he had kept a pack all the years … for old times' sake.
Watch it here:
But suppose you don’t have the resources to buy someone a house or get the government off their back. You don’t have the energy, time, or commitment to get them something almost impossible to find. You never saved the ramen noodles.
You just want to get someone a nice present.
So here’s the more practical gift advice. It came from a counselor named Faith Harrison, who I regularly met with when I went to Vanier College in Saint-Laurent, Quebec. This was right after high school; I was a messed-up kid and she provided a lot of support. I put her name into Google and found that she died in 2008, and I feel bad that I never reached out to her and told her what a difference she made in my life.
Once, she gave me this piece of advice about gifts:
Buy a special version of an everyday thing
Here’s an example. In 1999, my family and I were moving from the University of Arizona to Yale, and we had no place to live in the summer. My advisor and her husband were kind enough to offer us their apartment in Washington Square for a month, while they were traveling in Europe. We wanted to leave a gift behind but weren’t sure what to get. We thought about wine, a pretty traditional gift under the circumstances. But they had a lot of wine and we had neither the money nor the good taste to get something that would stand out, that wouldn’t end up stacked up next to much better bottles.
But I remembered what Faith said. They had great wine but a normal corkscrew. So we did some research to figure out what the absolute best professional corkscrew was, and we bought them that one. They sent us a nice letter saying how much they appreciated it and how often they used it.
I’ve given my share of ho-hum presents, but my best ones were when I followed Faith’s advice. Such gifts are often memorable and moving, and they do transform people’s lives, admittedly in a small way.