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Getting over shitty presents and giving a fuck

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GINTARE PARULYTE

Ily5 Ocv2 Table485rr61

What some may consider the central point of a celebration, a moment secretly craved for and cheerfully welcomed, usually provokes no other emotion besides despair and panic in me: the ceremonial acceptance and inevitable public opening of gifts.

It hasn’t always been that way. Brought up in the Soviet Union by young parents deprived of much material wealth, I was genuinely overwhelmed by simple and unique objects. A basket of walnuts crowned with a metal nutcracker for my third birthday was an instant hit. The move to the West changed things. All in all, most birthday presents were other kids’ stressful mothers’ attempts to prevent their child from arriving empty-handed. Nothing personal. Merely safe choices based on forced politeness. At times, the contents beneath the wrapping was revealed to the recipient at the same time as to the kid who brought it. More often than not, this led to even more uncomfortable situations kids (or their mothers) giving the same gifts, which resulted in competitive glances and unpleasant arguments during school breaks.

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The tipping point for me occurred quite unexpectedly. I came face to face with the intimate garbage from the past whilst tidying my teenage room, following endless requests from my mother, long after I had left home to pursue a life abroad with my boyfriend. Her initial polite hints to undertake this feat gradually evolved into angry and strict orders driven by her desire to transform an unused space into her future private dressing bin. The overarching theme of these gifts from the past was revealed during this short yet intense feng shui-inspired mission. With a few years of perspective under my belt, gifts from “back then” appeared ugly and pitifully useless. Dusty drawers and claustrophobic shelves revealed a collection of one-hit-wonder treasures, quickly demoted to the discount bin of a local record store – the trashiest example being a vulgar sculpture of a man’s waist demonstrating a shrunken, sadly hanging penis, apparently once destined to divert attention from homework or make me laugh. Maybe. More eye-rolling discoveries that don’t deserve to be mentioned followed during what essentially became an unemotional rummage through my past.

After gathering the memorabilia in one big bin bag, it suddenly dawned on me that actually things haven’t really changed with age and time. There is no reason for me to think that by throwing away material trash from the past, I will eliminate a corresponding mindset. These gifts were not useless because they were purchased and given when we were young, naïve teenagers with more humour than taste. We still continue to receive and to give space-consuming and dust-collecting nonsense. What I am trying to say is that the fundamental features of choosing and giving presents have persisted despite growing up. The crap hasn’t disappeared; it merely transformed itself into something supposedly subtler. It is not about plastic candleholders or shiny ugly brooches anymore, but about slightly nauseating perfumes, bad literature and tasteless design objects. Basically, junk became more expensive – not more personal.


The annoying part about presents we frown at is their symbolic aimlessness, juxtaposed with a very real desire to feel special on specific occasions. One hopes to be worthy of effort and investment in terms of love, time and thought. Also, theoretically speaking, we are supposed to receive gifts that people think we’d actually like or indeed even love. What happens then when we unwrap a set of plastic cutlery, which can’t actually be used on food, but apparently cool because it was created by an important artist and purchased in a museum shop in a foreign land? Or a gimmicky something “special” from one of those touristy gift shops that have appeared like warts, unwanted and difficult to ignore, over the past couple of years, selling kitchen towels or cushion covers with quotes meant to make you laugh, smile or summon the strength to get through difficult days. (“Keep calm and insert cliché phrase here” springs to mind.)


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Aside from the materialistic side of gift selection, a few questions of personal and emotional nature (un)consciously arise. How do our friends and family view us? What don’t they get about us and why? It’s tricky to know who bears the responsibility for shitty presents: is it us, because of our inability to communicate our taste and who we really are? Or them, for not trying to discern our taste? Whatever the answer may be, I established a simple rule to minimise future misery caused by cheesy presents: I stopped opening presents in front of the people who gave it to me, my boyfriend, who has exquisite taste and knows about my dilemma, my grandparents who I see very rarely and my mother who is always overexcited being the only exceptions to the rule. My desire to avoid opening gifts publicly comes from my lack of talent to lie and fake facial expressions. From my inability (which I never wish to transform) to look someone straight in the eye and proclaim the traditional “thank you, I love it – it’s exactly what I’ve always wanted” line, with its necessary upward inflections and a matching broad smile that take us further away from the truth each and every time.

The crucial thing to know is that in this entire gift-giving process, it is not about what lies beneath the wrapping, it’s what happens before the wrapping. It’s about being willing to care (more) and to believe in one’s own power of creation or creativity. And I’m really not talking about spending a lot of money. My opinion is based on numerous personal experiences that prove that appreciation can be conveyed easily and at very little financial expense. I once got a card from a friend, who listed all the ways that I influenced her life. It was a small list written with an unsharpened pencil that went straight to the heart and exhilarated me, expressed through my streaming, albeit secret, tears of joy. Another friend, after finding out about a big dream of mine I really needed support for, offered me a horseshoe, his own personal talisman, with careful instructions of how to hang it in order to attract the most luck possible. A work colleague handed me an envelope containing a lottery ticket and a short note promising a dinner at his place with a three-course menu of my choice, in case the scratched ticket wouldn’t surprise me with the anticipated millions. The following week we were in his living room having dinner together with endless talks, endless cigarettes and a family of my favourite Portuguese wine for €3.45 a bottle. Offering beautifully meaningful presents is a skill and it should become a past-time that we all look forward to.

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Why do I remember the few great gifts rather than the constant flow of crap? How come my brain manages to precisely enumerate the few presents that resonated with me and clearly refrains from being able to recall even a humble top 10 of the remaining shit? Because love and good intentions always overshadow laziness and indifference. Gestures of kindness that demand effort are starting to vanish and it is my mission to prevent them from disappearing for good. I have this one friend who often organizes dinner parties at her place and prepares small take-away boxes with homemade bread or pastries for her guests, to be consumed during next day’s (hangover) breakfast. She is known – and loved – for trying especially hard to make ordinary situations, as well as her environment, feel special. Unsurprisingly, people can’t get enough of her. Her urge to simply make an effort became an encompassing philosophy that expanded to every domain of her life: her hairdos are always special, her home interior, her kids’ toys and all (ok, most!) meals she prepares are inspiring results of her valued reflex to really, truly give a fuck. And this is exactly what I wish us to do. In a world where so many people talk of having no fucks to give, let’s rebel. Let’s give a fuck. Let’s become creators of small meaningful moments. Let’s be excited to share our ingenuity and love for life with those around us.

Maybe you use your coffee break to ponder what would draw a genuine smile to your best friend’s face. Or open your fridge to see what you might be able to whip up for somebody from those leftovers. And, in your effort to show somebody a little kindness, try to resist spending any money: much like gifts, the best ideas often come from having nothing to fall back on.


Photography: Marcus Gaab