How to Give the Perfect Present

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 9 of 100.


Once, I received the best present ever. 

This is not a trick or a twist or a hoax: I’m not going to tell you I received a lung, or true love, or an understanding of the evils of capitalism. Later in this essay, I am going to tell you about the perfect present I got, and I am going to convince you that it is the perfect present for any living human you currently know.

But first, you should know something about me: I am a present person. You know that horrible book about how there are five love languages? If not, the gist is that all people “speak" in one of five love languages to show or understand that they are experiencing love. For the most part, the love languages are sweet — they're things like “acts of service” or “quality time” or “human touch.” “If only my husband would touch me! Then I would know that he loves me!” says the the saintly-but-weathered wife who needs nothing more than a palm on her collarbone to feel comfortable in her relationship.

There is one language, however, that is kind of an asshole language. You guessed it: one of the love languages is “gift-giving.” When and if you read an article about love languages, you will think, “Who are these dickwads who prefer MATERIAL WEALTH over QUALITY TIME? What pieces of shit. This is why the human species is actively crumbling.” 

So here’s where I need to be honest with you, even though it may make you hate me forever: my love language is definitely gifts. I love everything about gifts. I love giving them, and I love receiving them, and I have difficulty understanding relationships outside of the context of gifts. I know I am a horrible person, and I have tried to change, but there’s really nothing I can do.

Mostly, I prefer to give gifts to make up for the fact that I am terrible at spending time with people. I am not sure that I am more busy than anyone else in the world, but I certainly make a bigger show of being busy, and I spend a great deal of my mental energy wishing out loud that I had less to do. I cancel dates and appointments, I postpone agreed-upon service duties, and I am generally terrified of engaging in any sort of touch, because I certainly don’t want to presume that a person would like to be touched by me. Gifts are easiest. 

This is a problem. I don’t mean to be self-loathing or loathing towards other gift-language-speakers, but the friends with whom I’ve shared the most love are people who don’t spend a lot of money on gifts.  They are people who cook not for me, but with me; they are generally people who are good at salad dressings, and who compliment my crispy sweet potatoes. They are people who call, or write, or both. But more than anything, they are people who talk with me about conflict. They tell me when I have hurt them, and they let me talk about how they have hurt me.

In short, for the sake of healthy relationships, I really need to step away from the plush giraffe section of Target. And I know that. I’m trying; I promise. 

But it is nice, sometimes, to show the people you love that you have been thinking about them in their absence; it’s nice to be able to give a present. Giving a present is a kind of gift in and of itself. 

Like I said a thousand words ago: once, I received the best present ever. The present came from my mom, in the middle of February, while I was in college. When I rack my brain remembering the gifts I’ve loved most in my life, I feel almost guilty for choosing this one. I mean, people have given me some good gifts. A boy once made a full-fledged Portland scavenger hunt with hidden clues for me like in a fucking Wes Anderson movie. My sister has given me more expensive shoes and beyond-perfect vintage dresses than I am comfortable talking about.

But the best present came on a Thursday, in a plain padded mailing envelope. The envelope contained three things: 1. A pouch of dried mangoes. 2. A printed out excerpt from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” and 3. A $5 bill.

This gift has it all, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who wouldn’t love its basic formula (snack, poem, $5). 

The food is the instant gratification — something that won’t clutter a room and is amply share-able. Dried mangoes are great, but so are peanut butter M&Ms, or a bag of marshmallows, or smoked almonds. When shopping, go for something a little unusual and definitely inexpensive — nothing that the recipient might feel like saving for later. You want the kind of snack that can and should be opened right now. 

A poem has the remarkable power of making the reader believe that the person who sent it was thinking about them in some kind of specifically deep way. Honestly, it’s often more emotionally affecting than when someone writes a gushy letter in their own words. Maybe you’re not a poetry person, but go ahead and do a search from “love” or “friendship” or “family’ and I dare you to tell me you can’t find a single thing that fits your needs. 

And maybe you think $5 is tacky, but I disagree. According to countless surveys, most people don’t like the presents they receive. Gift cards end up in the shuffle of desk drawers or in the dusty cesspools under beds. There isn’t a person on the planet, however, who can’t use a $5 bill. Even if you have all the money in the world, a $5 bill comes in handy when you stumble upon an unexpected garage sale, or when a particularly talented street musician moves you.

I’ve reformatted and refit this little package dozens of times now, and just yesterday got a text from a friend that said, “I was just thinking about the time you sent me that Prufrock poem in the mail with the $5. LOL. Made my day a little better.” You may be LOLLing, Friend, but I’m brushing my shoulder off. That’s the whole point of a present: to make someone’s day a little better. Just a little. It isn’t supposed to fix anything major; a gift is not a plumber or a surgeon. And it isn’t supposed to prove that you, the gift-giver, are a better gift-giver than everyone else is; it’s not a contest or a scoreboard. A gift is a message that should say, simply, “I care about you. I think about you. Thank you for being you.”