Giftless in Durham

Dear Sensible Midwestern,

I have been happily married for seven years, and first started dating my husband 13 years ago. My husband is a great guy – he is funny, and loyal, and emotionally there, and a good provider, and not hard on the eyes. HOWEVER, my husband is terrible – I mean really a total disaster – in the area of gift-giving. And his deficits in gift-giving skills have been apparent from the beginning of the relationship, but my resentment has grown over time about this (in my view) ridiculous situation.

He procrastinates until the last minute, and then produces some incredibly lame offering from (literally) whatever store he happens to walk by the day the gift is due. Last year, no lie, my main Christmas gift from him was a Christmas ornament. I did not receive a Valentine’s Day, birthday, anniversary or Mother’s Day gift from him in 2013.

I have tried everything a sensible midwesterner, in my mind, would try, such as telling him that it bothers me, giving him concrete suggestions a month in advance, and just buying myself stuff at holidays. I have found no relief yet.

As you know, Sensible Midwesterner, it is challenging to sustain “romance” in long-term partnerships and marriages, and while I consider myself mostly immune to the shallower notions of love and courtship and romance, I have to confess my melancholy at knowing my Christmas gifts next week will be scant and randomly chosen. It just doesn’t make a lady feel all that special.

I am wondering if you have words of advice or solace for me, O Sensible Midwesterner?

Best to you,
Giftless in Durham

Dear Giftless in Durham,

I’ve been thinking about you and how your Christmas went. I was sorry to receive your question too late to publish before the big day, but perhaps it’s best. We can focus on the future.

Much like the neatnik and the slob, the gift-averse and the gift-loving seem to have a perennial opposites-attract thing going on. While some movement can be made in either direction, it does seem, from my anecdotal observation of those around me, that adults have a bit of a set-point that’s tricky to move much in either direction.

Gifts are a form of social currency. We use them to express, in a physically manifest way, that we were thinking about the person to whom we give them. The more thought and effort (in time, money, connections, etc.) they entail, the more they mean to the savvy receiver. Because of this, the lack of a gift or the lack of a thoughtful gift can quite reasonably feel like a lack of thought or feeling from the giver.

The flip side of this, as far as this Sensible Midwesterner can parse, is that mandated gift-giving isn’t really all that thoughtful. “It’s December 25, you need to get your wife a present” doesn’t exactly equal romance. That’s why the thought counts. The giver needs to go past the prescription of the holiday or event into the realm of showing that they know the person – what they need, what they may like, what could delight them – to truly succeed at gift-giving.

Since buying gifts for yourself hasn’t offered you any relief, you seem to know all this already. You know that it really is the thought that counts. That’s the problem. The thought counts and you aren’t seeing any. That stings.

While plenty of sensible midwesterners would fully take your side and say convention and tradition should win the day, that your husband should simply get on-board the gifting train like all the other grown-ups, that approach doesn’t help much. He’s not the one writing in, so I can’t give him advice (for the record, it would be “It seems that it would mean a great deal to your lovely wife if you bothered to buy her presents; it’s a fairly easy thing to do for marital accord; you may find it silly or unnecessary, but who cares? Don’t know what to get? Ask one of her friends.”).

This Sensible Midwesterner is willing to consider the fact that your husband (who sounds delightful in so many ways!) may find the practice of gift-giving onerous, unsatisfying, or it may even dredge up seriously negative feelings. Perhaps he came from a family that didn’t put much stock in it and never learned how important it can be to people. Perhaps the idea of trying to put his thoughts about you in a gift form is ludicrous or overwhelming. Perhaps he’s so worried about getting it wrong that he skips it entirely.

I’m glad to hear you’ve tried talking about it directly. Since you put it in the form of “that it bothers me,” I’m a bit concerned that it’s been a fairly negative conversation. The word nagging comes to mind.

After the new year hits, try sitting down and talking about how you each see and understand gift-giving. Instead of approaching it as something he’s doing wrong, try thinking and talking about it as something that as a couple you haven’t gotten quite right yet. The two of you clearly have wildly different expectations on this subject and it’s time to lay them out. Gifts are all about reciprocity, so if your practices are different, it’s surely adding to the problem (both his reluctance to give gifts and your bitterness about it).

Without knowing what his take on gifts is and why he’s essentially backed out of giving them at all this year, it’s difficult to suggest a specific solution, but various possibilities come to mind: scaling back the number of gifting occasions (nothing says couples have to exchange gifts on Valentine’s Day or anniversaries, for example), joint gifts for shared holidays, more experiential gifts (this approach would also work with joint gifts – fancy dinner out, tickets to a performance, a trip), both adding cash to a savings jar (or account) on gifting occasions towards a bigger item you both want, setting up a conversation a week or month before a holiday about “what we’re doing about gifts this year,” giving up on gifts on set occasions entirely but perhaps exchanging tokens in a more random way. These solutions all address different issues of pressure or resentment that are often in play for the gift-averse.

I would also keep all conversation about and reaction to gifts extremely positive. Gift-giving should be fun – at its best it is even more fun for the giver; you may need to demonstrate that.

With all that said, I can’t imagine a solution that doesn’t involve, to some degree, a shift in your expectations. I can see why your resentment has built, why the entire subject might make you feel bitter. Midwesterners of yore may have told you to stamp those feelings way down deep, keep them down with a shot of whiskey or a big piece of cake, and hit the hay. A better solution may be to acknowledge your own feelings about gifts, accept them, and then let go of them as quickly as possible. I would be more concerned if this seemed to be the symptom of something deeper or symbolic of some discord between the two of you. It doesn’t sound like you think it is.

And that leads us to the solace you ask for: For all the delight a well chosen gift can bring, it pales in comparison to being able to honestly write the words “happily married.”

GMO-Free in DC

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I have always lived on the East coast, I’m a fresh food freak, a lover of all things handmade and homemade, a green juice drinker, only eat meat if its local kinda gal and I’m about to spend a week in NE Minneapolis with my Mountain Dew-addicted, overweight, and cranky in-laws. I’m not going to gift all of them a collection of Michael Pollan’s books, lord knows I’ve thought about it though.

How do I keep cool, and talk about my job and interests (market manager, food stamp matching dollars fundraiser, femivore) without sounding snobby and condescending? The impact and importance of fresh and local foods goes so far beyond my job, it’s a part of my everyday life. Do I forgo my daily morning lemon water routine when I’m out there? I don’t want to look like a freak for bringing my own bag of organic lemons around with me but I want to keep my digestive fire going for all the cookies, deep fried cheese curds and pierogies that are sure to be eaten when I’m out there. So here is my question for you, how does a locavore keep the peace with in-laws who aren’t on board with a healthy and sustainable lifestyle this holiday season?

GMO-Free in DC

Dear GMO-Free in DC,

Since the Sensible Midwesterner abhors geographic stereotypes, it bears pointing out that there is plenty of very fine food in Minneapolis and many Mountain Dew addicts on the East Coast. That is not, however, your issue.

Your issue is as old as time: For the love of all that is holy, how on earth do I get along with my in-laws?

The answer is simple: With some difficulty and a certain subjugation of self.

It is clear that you set yourself above your in-laws in habit, mindset, and values. I urge you to step down from your seasonal, local, organic pedestal – if just for the week – and, as their guest, follow their lead. You married into the family; try and focus on something of value they offer. It may not be dietary and it may not be something you’ve ever considered before, but it’s there and you need to find it. The sooner you move to a place of honest appreciation (of something, anything!) about them, the better.

I should think you would be able to discuss your work as a market manager and fundraiser without sounding “snobby and condescending” without too much difficulty. First step: don’t be snobby or condescending. You like your work, it’s important to you, simply talk about it as such. Don’t lecture, don’t explain how important it is, just talk about what you like about it on a personal – not a political or ideological – level.

I have one little but important caveat to add: When asked.

That’s right. When asked. It’s really a basic getting-along-with-people and having-adult-conversations rule. Don’t assume the other party is all that interested in you, especially with Midwesterners. Sensible Midwesterners know that no one really cares what anyone has to say. When they ask how you are, the answer is “Fine, and how are you?” If they ask “How is work,” the answer is “It’s going great” or maybe “It’s been a really busy season” if you want to hint that you’d like to discuss it more. If they ask follow-up questions to that, which I’m guessing they won’t, respond with one-sentence answers and wait for more questions or encouragement. A tendency to natter on about themselves is a (quite negative) stereotype many Midwesterners have of East Coasters; don’t feed that beast. Find subjects of mutual interest: what their child, who you married, was like as a kid is a good bet. The weather is a classic stand-by, of course. How various family members are doing can also eat up some significant conversation time.

In terms of your diet, let me be clear: No one cares. What people do and do not eat is super duper boring for everyone except themselves. Eat what you like of what they serve or don’t eat it, but do not talk about it either way except to say “thank you” and “this is delicious” or any other sincere compliment that comes to mind. “This is such a treat” is a good one too, especially if they’re serving pierogies.

Since you are from the East Coast and thus bizarre anyway, I will give you one pass. You can choose one thing you’re going to be all weird about, but only if you make it clear that you know it’s crazy and beg everyone to please indulge you. The “morning lemon water routine,” for example. Sure, bring organic lemons and have some whole “routine” that involves them. But know that you will look crazy and try to embrace it in a good-humored way. They will, I assure you, “dine out” on stories about it for months, if not years to come, with their cranky, Mountain Dew-drinking friends.

Aging on the East Coast

Dear Ask a Sensible Midwesterner,

Why do I have a double chin?

Aging on the East Coast

Dear Aging on the East Coast,

I sympathize. Every morning I see a bit more of my grandmother’s turkey waddle developing under my own chin. It’s not my favorite part of aging, although I do always try to remember what she had to say on the subject: “You look better now than you will!” And then I try to appreciate how awesome my 80-year-old self is going to think I look right this minute.

Several factors come into play in creating a double chin. First, genetics. Look around your blood relations. How do their chins look? Doubled up? There may not be much more to yours than that.

Second, age. Losing muscle tone and skin elasticity leads to sagging in all sorts of places, including chins.

Third, fat. Could it be that you’re eating too much pie? You can find people who will suggest you chew gum to exercise muscles around the double chin, but a plan of more exercise and less food is a better bet for healthful weight loss.

Or just do what generations have done before you: Invest in turtlenecks and colorful scarves.

Sensitive Californian

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My parents rarely visit, which means we have to drive several hours away in order for our two young children to spend time with their grandparents. I often ask them to come and they usually decline and come for a visit maybe once every one or two years. We don’t have a guest room so they have to stay elsewhere, but money isn’t a big problem for them as they often stay in hotels in other nearby places.

Luckily they live in a place that we love to visit, and otherwise we have a good relationship. But how can I tell them that their lack of visits and seeming lack of interest in our lives, not to mention the kids’ soccer games and dance performances, bothers me?

-Sensitive Californian

Dear Sensitive Californian,

First things first, let’s all take a moment to relish the phrase “we have a good relationship.”

That is an excellent starting point.

Second, I’m sure many readers will read this with great envy, wondering how they can get their all-up-in-their-diapers parents to back off and stop coming to every single event, trip to the park, and sneeze the grandkids have.

The problem, of course, is that knowing other people would like our situation doesn’t help us like it much better. The other problem is that while the relationship is good, it isn’t quite good enough for you.

It sounds like you’ve taken some solid initiative and actively and pointedly invited them for specific occasions and events. To be clear, “You should come visit sometime” isn’t an invitation; “Petunia has a dance recital on April 20 in the late afternoon, we’d love it if you two could come visit that weekend and see her dance” is an invitation. If you’ve been general, get specific. See if that works better.

If, indeed, you have issued specific invitations for specific dates and/or events and those have been declined, I can see why that bothers you.

You ask “How can I tell them their lack of visits… bothers me?”

Most Sensible Midwesterners would say “You don’t.”

But I have a soft spot for sensitive Californians, and I understand that sometimes you can’t help yourselves and simply have to share your feelings.

First, make sure you’ve done the tough work of being honest with yourself about what really bothers you about the situation. Is it something that more frequent visits will actually address, or is their failure to drive to you more often merely part of a more systemic problem? Are visits the crux of the matter, or are there other ways you feel neglected? Having a solid understanding of where, exactly, you’re coming from is key here.

Ideally you initiate this conversation in person, in a relaxed state, and, dare I specify, when sober. In other words, don’t bring it up over the phone when facial expressions won’t help convey meaning. Don’t bring it up after a wine-filled holiday meal – even if everything seems jolly and the good will seems like it could take everyone along for your happy “let’s see each other more” ride. This Sensible Midwesterner find walks or car rides perfect times to bring up these emotionally tough topics – the possibility of avoiding eye contact, if necessary, can make one a bolder speaker and a better listener, two skills you may need. Sitting on a deck drinking coffee and looking at a view works well too.

The trick with this conversation is to make yourself understood while not making your parents defensive. Avoid the phrase “hurt feelings” or anything in that family. “We have such a good time with you when we visit, but the drive is a long one and I really wish you would come visit us more often.” Something along the lines of “I know you love us, but it bothers me that it seems like I have to make so much of the effort for us to see each other” might be uttered as well.

The more specific you can be, the better. Is there a recent event they missed despite an invitation? That could be a good starting point: “Otto’s basketball tournament was really fun. I was disappointed you couldn’t join us that weekend. It’s been awhile [or be specific here – over a year? since spring?] since you two came to visit – let’s set something up before we leave this time.”

Then listen to what they say. You may or may not like the answer. (This is why most Sensible Midwesterners would tell you not to open this can of worms.)

If the response you get is vague – claiming an unsure schedule or generalized busy-ness, I can only say that it sounds like they’re not that into you.

Harsh? Perhaps.

I’m sure they love you and your children. It sounds like you see them, through your own effort, with some regularity and enjoyment all around. And that may be how they like it: on their turf, at their convenience.

Our stereotype of doting grandparents who will do anything to spend a few precious moments with their beloved grandchildren is a powerful one. Like all stereotypes, it tells us nothing about any individual. Plenty of people thoroughly enjoy seeing their children and grandchildren – and love them all to pieces – without being completely devoted to them or, dare I say, willing to do much driving.

Good luck.