When I was about 16 years old, I had a dish washing job at a local Mexican restaurant. Not a single Mexican worked in there, but they reckoned that tossing a jalapeno into something sort of made it south-of-borderlicious. Nonetheless, it was fun, and the staff liked to party. I got strong armed into going to one of their little fêtes and got knee-wobbling, tongue-swollen flat out drunk. I remember trying to ride my bike home in the middle of winter, a robust endeavour in the best of conditions, but I needed taxi-like help to get me home. As the room spun like a diesel-powered dreidel, I decided that I wouldn’t do that again for a long time. And I didn’t. Well, at least until I thought I could get a handle on it next time. We know how that story ended.
Now, there was a Secret Santa that also went on there on that same holiday season at the restaurant. You know these things – the dirge of the dungeon we call the workplace, the cancer of Christmas, the scourge of the sacred time of year. Pull a name from the hat and you are entirely responsible for making or breaking that person’s entire holiday season. No pressure, of course. I recall asking the dude I picked what he wanted. He said a six-pack of beer. Done, I said. And done it was. I somehow forged and fibbed my way in getting a sextet of ale at that young age. I don’t remember if I wrapped it or not. (The sweat would have torn the paper, probably, yes?) I also recall the same dude asking if I wanted to go out with them for a beer. I said no thank you, I have beer at home. He said he did too, but still wanted to go out. I said no thank you again and washed a pot that I already had washed to scrape away the inanity and uncomfortableness of that conversation.
In looking back at that, I can now see two things that would play out in my life for a long time. One, that I was already an isolator. My preference for hanging out in my basement and drinking alone clearly yanked the “Override” switch in my brain when it came to options in how I spent my time. Even at that young age, I can see that I already had one foot in the vat of Vladmir’s Iron Gut Vodka (Commemorative Loner’s distillation). The other thing was, and is still, a glaring issue of mine: I suck at buying gifts. I knew it even then, and hence I wasn’t shy in asking anyone exactly what they wanted. No hints. No clues. No innuendo. Give me a page number in a catalogue, or scrawl down the address of the store you want me to go to, or send me the URL of what you want. Even better, just get thing damned thing yourself, and I will give you a reimbursement cheque, plus an additional five dollars. Maybe I’ll toss in a card while I’m at it. You know, get all festive and stuff on you.
Fast forward – in the almost nineteen years I have been married, I have probably given two or three good gifts to my wife. I am talking gifts that surprised her – and surprised her not so much that I got what I got, but that I took time to think about it before getting it. That’s a poor batting average, considering that’s nineteen years worth of birthdays, anniversaries, etc. You see, the whole deal is this – I am not usually thinking of others and their happiness as much as I think I am. Or, not in the material sense at least. Maybe it’s a guy thing. Perhaps that XY gene dancing partnership I have took away that ability to not window shop with others in mind. My wife, sister-in-law, neighbours, mother (all females) are magical at this. They can be in the middle of the jungle, getting eaten by a dengue fever-ravaged jaguar, all the while looking at some plants laying next to their severed arm thinking “Wow, those Poincianas would look great next to Debbie’s new couch”. Chomp. Chomp. Dead.
Now that I think about it, I actually don’t have a problem in buying gifts. I am a wizard at it. I have a credit card, a debit card, and on occasion, cash. So I am covered there. Chip, swipe, change. I have it all ready to go when the till lights up and whistles and ding-a-lings for monies owed. That’s not the issue. It’s in choosing gifts that things immediately go pear shaped. It’s my mind that shuts down and turns me into a gravy boat of contempt and confusion when I walk into a store wondering what to get the birthday boy or girl. Or my folks. Or the neighbour. I am reduced to trying to rehash ideas that have already been rehashed and worn down and rather useless. But I have a credit card, and I plan on using it. On what, I don’t know.
This is frustrating, as you can imagine. I dread when someone opens a gift I bought them, rather than being excited for them. I just don’t want them to hate it on sight, or look at me to see if I have contracted Idiotus Majora. I present gifts as if I were lobbing a hand grenade to Charlie. Toss and duck. Wait for the shrapnel to hit collateral objects then come up for air and survey the damage. I remember going half way across the world on a trip, Hong Kong to be exact, and bought a souvenir for my mother that you could buy at 7-11 (Tiger balm, to be exact). D’uh. That’s how I rolled then, that is how I roll now.
So why mention all this? I am certainly not alone. Right guys? <crickets chirping> I consider myself an empathetic person, someone who is in tune with others, someone who can almost feel another person’s spirit, someone who can look into your eyes and sense the hurt or joy or indifference emanating from you. Probably came from the journey from active alcoholic to recovered alcoholic. But when it comes to finding one little thing that would speak to you on any level? Useless. I am in awe of those who go beyond the tried and true. The type who will gladly and boldly give you something off center – like an archery course or a Barney Miller boxed set or a hot pink ukelele. Things that are clearly not you, and that you would never buy for yourself, but somehow these people know that you will enjoy them. What audacity. What brass ones. And I will never that person, although I enjoy watching that sort of magic in action.
As an alcoholic, this whole thing used to put me in a tail spin. I would have been jealous of all those “normal” people buying gifts for one another with seemingly glib impunity. I would have gotten angry at myself for not knowing anything, for being dumb, for being so lame. I would have chastised myself for not knowing what brings joy to the lives of those close to me. I would have worried myself into a grand mal seizure-type sickness wondering what people would think of me. It was yet just another yardstick to measure myself against and come up short.
And this brings me to yet deeper territory – like when you step into what you think is firm snow in a small bank and watch your leg plunge in all the way, and finding one self with a sudden and acute case of crotch freeze. This little sleepy backwater of a town type issue of not being able to get groovy gifts for others gets tethered to some other things going on. And those things are naturally ego-based. What else is new? Anything that has traction in ego is bound to run me over zamboni-style – slowly and painfully. It’s been proven my ego has it in for me, and this is no exception.
The idea that I need to read others in a profound and “magical” way is absurd. Not that I shouldn’t pay more attention to gently dropped hints, or to investigate through enquiry more about someone or their current interests or to perhaps come to the day with a little less selfishness. But the deep seated need to bring someone utter joy and wonder is something that isn’t my job, per se. My desire to bring about their desire in happiness and excitement is great, but can be a detriment to my own mental and emotional health. Sounds like I am squirming out of this one, or finding a loophole. Not at all. This is one of those combination – “don’t be so hard on yourself / pay more attention, dummy” kind of deals. The first part of this thing is realizing that while I love watching someone get a kick out of a gift, it’s also knowing that people will also be disappointed at times. And that’s important to understand.
Expectations are set ups for resentment and/or disappointment. That happens with someone putting expectations on me, or when I put expectations on others. And that includes myself. So when I put an expectation on you, and it is not fulfilled to my 80-proof strength and will, I get bummed out. And pissed off. For some reason, I am much easier on others in that department these days. I don’t mind getting any sort of gift. Really, I don’t care what it is. I’m easy, as I am quick to recognize the other person’s time and money and thought spent in getting me that gift. But for some reason, I won’t let myself off the hook in trying to give some Mr. Roarke-style lavish and mind-blowing present and knowing that it’s not going to happen – again. Bring out the wet linguine and start lashing myself – on Donner, on Blitzen, et al.
Seems a bit extreme to put such lofty expectations on myself, and hope to jump over those suckers like an Andalusian Mega Queen show jumping over boxes of ‘tater tots at the Royal Winter Fair. That sort of perfectionism screams ego and yet again I am the crap end of that power struggle. I certainly don’t win anything, other than my own scorn, and a package of stale pretzels for some unsuspecting recipient who had nothing to do with me other than knowing me. (On the record, I have probably given much worse than that. I am the type to run out of my car and pick up those emergency flowers off the side of the highway exit ramp. The wilted ones with the scent of unleaded gasoline).
Fear is also another thing that lends itself to this runny slushie of failure. Fear of looking bad, fear of disappointing someone, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of not living up to expectations, fear of success even. Just another case of fears ripping me apart on something as silly as giving a small parcel to someone I love or at least enjoy their company. For those of you in the “gloriously ESP-enchanted” category of gift buyers, you are probably casting an arched eyebrow at this whole autopsy of my inept gift choosing. Welcome to my inner world. Alcoholism / my ego likes to try and work me over, even at holiday time.
Now the other part to this whole shindig is the getting out of self part. That’s been my entire journey so far in this recovery process. Not thinking of myself 24/7 is a pretty daunting job. Seeking perfection in this isn’t the point, it’s the process. It’s the “pay attention, jerky” part that I need to work on. Get into a different mindset. Play a new role sometimes. Realize that I am not the be all end all of my own little bubble of an existence. See things through other people’s eyes. Pie in the sky stuff to a selfish, self-centered being like myself, but it’s more than doable. I’d like to think I’ve stumbled forward a centimetre or two in the last few years in terms of thinking less of self. Who knows. Maybe this whole thing is what “big mike” around here calls mental masturbation. Over thinking it all. Keep it simple, they say. I am glad Santa is not one of us. We’d all get copies of his passive-aggressive teen angst-like poetry, bound in tear and nacho cheese stained parchment.
When it comes to gift giving, or any sort of interaction with my fellows, I am willing to give more of myself. Easy to say, hard to do at times. Sometimes I have to ask for the willingness to be more willing. Some additional Kung Fu to bolster the program a bit. But in the end, even with all this rhetorical yip yap and navel gazing, it in of itself is nothing worth selling the house and moving to the farm. Like all the positives and negatives in my life, it’s something that can change or fluctuate. It’s fluid, unattached to anything unless I anchor it myself. In the end, it’s about understanding and tackling these fears and self-centered compulsions and impulses. Allowing the Creator to do His thing. My job is to remain open to it all. And if I remain a lousy gift chooser, so be it. I can make it up in other ways. I have other methods of showing love and appreciation.
What I have learned in my short time is that while in the past I may have ramped up the stress quotient on holidays, or turned a blind eye to stress via booze or just let poor self-esteem run me into the ground and wait it all out, these days I am releasing the pressure valves. Staying still in the quiet and just being. Getting my cues from Santa’s boss there, the Divine. Learning that it’s my thinking that gets me in these messes, and nothing else. Relieving the thinking and boom – out go the lights. No pressure. And so while I still need to be practical and festive and pick up gifts and do that deal, it’s not done out of a place of trying to impress or to fill some need to be acknowledged or appreciated. That’s inside stuff. No frilly paper will do that for me, or the newest i-Blappity Blap. I do those things because I like to and whether others appreciate it or not, that’s none of my business.
I may not have gift purchasing prowess, but I do have cranberry maple walnut vinaigrette that I make. The folks seem to ask for it every year, so I oblige. That is something I can do, and love to do. No pressure.