porcelainandporcupines

Archive for the ‘better to give than to receive’ Category

Of all my recent birthday-related escapades, the greatest was someone trying to sell me a $425.00 watch. This was not, I should clarify, some back-alley deal, conducted under the cover of night out of the trunk of a car, with shady characters trying to unload some ill-gotten gains; rather, it was simply the result of a salesman, shooting for the stars, maybe new to the job and unable to recognize some key signs of financial well-being, or possibly confused enough by recent trends in women’s wear that, to him, holes along the seam of every garment a person is wearing is a deliberate fashion choice, rather than a hint that, say, the coat was actually picked up out of a pile of things that didn’t sell at a yard sale.

The watch I was looking to replace was in much the same shape as my wardrobe that day. Purchased an unknown number of years ago at a mall cart from a bored-looking young woman, that initially inexpensive watch had reached the point where it could no longer be repaired : despite several upgrades to the band; a constant infusion of fresh batteries; and replacing the cracked not-crystal crystal, the hands of time were winding down for that watch (yup : I said that). In fact, that watch stopped for good at 12:40 Saturday afternoon, which I noticed at 3:13 when I looked at the clock on my computer and suddenly realized that I did not have quite as good a handle on the day as I’d thought. Or on the passage of time in general, as I had earlier that afternoon greeted the student employee who I knew was scheduled to arrive at 2 o’clock.

Now, however, is not the time to discuss how I seem to keep getting dumber (although that is on the agenda), but how I need a new watch. A less urgent need on my actual birthday than today, to be sure, but what better occasion to treat oneself? And what better place to buy a watch than a watch store? A store would be a nice upgrade from that mall cart. And what better watch store than the only watch store in the world whose location I actually know, is within walking distance of my house, and is conveniently located just a few blocks from the tea store I planned to go to anyway?

So it was that someone tried to sell me a $425.00 watch. Which would have been a nice upgrade indeed from my cobbled together mall watch, but, as I informed the salesperson, wildly outside of my price range. Although the salesperson expressed a willingness to negotiate, he was not, alas, in a position to lower the price by $400 dollars, and so I exited the store, with no watch and, thus, no birthday present for myself.

*     *     *

Although I typically enjoy buying myself a birthday present just as much as I enjoy taking the day off work, the lack of a present this year was not a terribly big loss – 39, as an age, doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. Sure, it’s a multiple of 3, so it’s got that going for it, but it’s also a multiple of 13, and that I don’t particularly care for. Not because of superstition, but because I find it offensive when a prime number is a factor of another number. Why do you get to have it both ways, 13? Jerk.

Obviously, that does not apply to prime numbers less than 10, or that have 4 or more digits.

The selfishness of 13 aside, what 39 is most remarkable for is what it’s not, and what it’s not is 40. A multiple of 5 and loaded with cultural significance, 40 dwarfs 39 – as well as 38, which, thanks to the natural supremacy of even numbers, has no factoring issues – to such an extent that 39 as an age doesn’t actually exist, but instead is just a lie that you tell when you don’t want to admit that you’re 40. Which presents a problem if, like me, you have no problem admitting to 40. Unlike 29, which is clung to desperately and filled with the dread of 30, 39 is just a place holder, one last scenic overlook from which to gaze at the view of 40 and wonder why you’re not there yet, because you’re ready to round that turn and start the slow, easy coast downhill. But, before you can do that, you have to get through the next year, which will feel like a lie even though it’s true.

*     *     *

I did, however, get several lovely birthday presents from other people this year, most of which were tea related. Which I appreciate, because I do love the tea. In fact, before I realized that my watch was on the way out, I had toyed with the idea of getting myself a gift of tea, such as an unnecessarily fancy tea set for which I have no use whatsoever. Which, before ending up broken, would probably not get much use, since most of my tea drinking happens at work.

The thing about drinking tea at work is that it requires a cup out of which the tea is drunk. That’s actually probably a thing about drinking tea anywhere. But, the specifics of dishware at work means that the dishes need to be washed, and the thing about, washing dishes at work is that it just doesn’t seem like they really get clean. It could be because the choice of soap is not up to me, because the dish scrubber is used by multiple people, or because the scrubber is used to the point where just touching it is enough to make your hands smell or infect any small cuts you may have.

The solution to this dilemma is to bring the cup home to wash at the end of every day, then bring it back to work in the morning. And, since there are cups designed specifically to be carried around, it’s actually pretty easy to make tea at work. Yet, somehow, the process falls apart for me, specifically, in getting the cup home, not because of forgetting the cup, but because, no matter how empty the cup is or I believe it to be, it will inevitably end up spilling beverage all over the inside of my bag. And, if I’m having an especially good day, I will discover this not when I reach into the bag and find a puddle of tea, but when the tea seeps onto my pants where the bag bounce against my legs.

*     *     *

And so, despite the dishonesty of 39, I have, this year, decided to accept a hard truth : I will never be a person careful enough to check if the cup is really empty, and, despite years of evidence to the contrary, I will apparently always believe I can prevent it from spilling simply because I want it not to spill. This is a problem that I can not fix alone, and so I have accepted the help of design experts and engineers, as I should have years before when the technology first became available, and bought myself the gift of a  spill-proof travel mug, although I, obviously, bought mine at Tealuxe rather than Amazon, because I support independent business, and because my pants had tea on them and I needed to fix the problem right then and there. Because I can not be 40 with tea on my pants.

And if I do, it’s the mug’s fault.

One of the most interesting things about being an adult is discovering that the passage of time is neither linear nor entirely consistent. Which, of additional interest, is something that first becomes apparent when you realize that becoming an adult is a process that seems to happen entirely retrospect, as you look back on previous versions of yourself and realize that, like the belief that not wearing a watch is indicative of your refusal to live life by the rules of others rather than of you’re being an asshole who’s always late, they’re just adolescent phases everyone goes through to one extent or another, and only through identifying the end of one of these stages can you pinpoint a moment where you began to mature. And though many of these moments are deeply personal there are still more that are universal in nature and, some of these – like all good things – are related to clothes.

One major shift toward adulthood is understanding that, instead of weird, Mister Rogers was really on to something with the whole changing-his-sweater-and-shoes thing when he got home. Who you are outside the house is, often and especially as you grow, someone you have to be rather than entirely who you are. But at home? Put on your cozy sweater and your comfy slippers and chill. Or put on your best heels and fanciest pearls and vacuum. It’s all you, baby; it’s your castle, regardless of gender, and that means that you, as an adult, get to set the dress code.

As freeing as this understanding is – that, despite meeting the demands of the world you do still get to be yourself – one can not learn this perhap final, lesson of Mister Roger’s before one makes what I think is probably the biggest leaps of maturation a person can: realizing that underwear and socks are the greatest gifts a person can receive.

As a child, of course, any sort of clothing, wrapped in suspiciously thin boxes whose weightlessness betrays their contents before even an unnecessary and dispiritingly silent shake, is the worst present possible. Clothing wasn’t on anyone’s wish list, it can’t be played with, and no matter what alterations may have been made to differentiate this years style from lasts, a brand-new coat will always and only ever be a coat; it’s never going to be the iCoat 5.

Beyond that, however, is the plain and simple fact that clothing for a child is not a gift. Not from a parent, anyway; on the contrary, one of a parent’ s main responsibilities is to provide clothing for their child. If a family is financially equipped to give non clothing-based gifts, then clothes will be given to a child at several points during the year; coats, sweaters, underpants, whatever doesn’t fit from last year will have to be replaced. Getting clothes for a birthday or Channukah or whatever gentile holiday a family happens to celebrate , then, is not so much a gift as it is getting something you would have gotten anyway in lieu of a gift. While they may not be able to elaborate the reasons why, a child who opens a pretty wrapped box only to discover a pair of pants within instinctively feels an unsettling sense of having been ripped off.

Though clothing in general is not welcome, there is still a hierarchy of unwelcomeness in the different types of clothes that can be received: of the things you don’t want, underwear and socks are the things you don’t want most of all. Over-wear and wear-wear items can at least be seen by friends; there exists a possibility that they may be admired, yet, even if they are not, their very visibility gives the child an opportunity to express to a sympathetic audience what a terrible gift it was (i.e. “Look at this stupid coat I got for Tu B’Shevat”.)  The privacy of underwear, however – especially for girls, who spend a large part of their early years learning that the primary reasons they shouldn’t pull their skirts up above their head while they twirl around is that it leaves their underwear uncovered – denies children this outlet. Unseen, friends can’t bring it up, and as underwear is not something that gets discussed on a day-to-day basis (possible exception: underoos and how they are awesome), a child has no option but to suffer their underwear “gift” in silence.

What motivates a parent to think that clothing, especially underwear, is a good gift for their children is unknown; perhaps it’s backlash against the allowance mafia that forces them to pay their kid to do things – make their bed, clear the table- that the kid ought do anyway; maybe they’ve completely forgotten their own childhood and thus the disappointment they felt when, underneath that pretty bow, all they found was tube socks; possibly, it’s that the condition of being a parent has them so addled and overwhelmed that they can no longer remember who loves being gifted with underwear (adults) and who does not (everyone else).

What makes underwear so great a gift for an adult is precisely the same thing that makes it so terrible for a child : that it is a necessity. Unlike a child, however, who doesn’t have to spend his unearned allowance on necessities, an adult understands that underwear is unbelievably expensive. And unlike a child’s underwear, which comes packaged with several other pairs and is then appropriately priced per package, grown-up underpants are priced per pair. So that 45 dollars (if you clicked the above link above) is for a single pair of plain white cotton underpants, and that’s not even the highest end of the spectrum; longtime readers might recall the story of a furious argument had by my mother and sister caused by a pair of $80 underpants; as I never saw the garment of contention, I can’t say what exactly accounted for their very high cost, but I assume they were sentient, willing to clean your bathroom for you, and made mostly of gold.

Even at the lower end of the spectrum, underpants can still represent a sizable investment, one that has to be made again and again. Underwear is infinite for children because they will most likely outgrow it in the normal course of a year; subject to only a short year’s worth of washings, it is nearly as sturdy at the end of that time as was on Christmas day. An adult, however, discovers the sad reality that, like themselves, underwear is mortal and its lifespan is tragically short; even the most expensive and well-cared for underwear will suffer from snapping elastic and seams giving way some day. And on that day, you too will have the child’s sensation of being ripped off as, instead of buying something you really want, like a  watch or the band Hanson’s new beer (and seriously – if you somehow read about MMMhop IPA and didn’t immediately think of me and how I’d be drinking it, you and I need to sit down and have a serious discussion about priorities), you will have to spend your hard-earned money on underwear.

As though the indignity of having to take from your own paycheck for underwear weren’t enough, there is the further sad realization that buying underwear is not fun no matter how old you are. [The exception, of course, is special occasion underwear, which is tremendous fun to buy; however, another sign-post of becoming an adult is recognizing that not every day is a special occasion, underwearily speaking.] In fact, it’s even less fun when you have to go out and buy it yourself. It’s possible that gentlemen’s undergarments do not undergo the same sort of overhaul in style with the same frequency as a lady’s, but speaking as a lady, it is practically impossible to find the same pair of underwear from one year to the next. Either the style is discontinued entirely, or it’s altered enough that it no longer works for you, or it’s for some reason sold only online whereas previously you could just walk down to the store to buy it, so not only are they taking more of your money as you now have to pay for shipping in addition to the high cost of the underwear itself, they’re now also stealing your exercise. The happiness felt when a proper pair is finally found is fleeting at best, since you know, there in the back of your mind, that not just this pair of underwear but the entire phylum of style and fit it represents is critically endangered and even though its habitat is expanding every day, there is a good chance it will have vanished entirely the next time you go in search of it.

Getting underwear as a gift frees you from all of it – the expense, the hassle, the contemplation of your own mortality, the tears. It allows more of your money to be spent on things you truly want : trips to Sweden,  fancy kitchen gadgetry, gifts for your friends, tiny kittens and toys for them; and other things you really, really need to spend money on : rent, the phone bill, food, tiny kittens and toys for them.

Now is the time of year when people’s thoughts turn naturally to what sort of gifts would be most appreciated by the people in their lives. If you’re a parent, one who’s thinking underwear might be a good gift for your children, I urge you to remember : it’s only a good gift if they would otherwise have to buy it themselves. And if you – parent or otherwise – are thinking of buying a gift for me this holiday season, the boring item that I don’t want to have to buy for myself is sturdy clothes hangers; I took care of underwear on my birthday.


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