communication, controversies, expressions, family

“Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”

Yeah, sing it, Avril…

Apologies for the old hit from Avril Lavigne. I’m not even a big fan of Avril’s music, but this song seems appropriate for today’s topic, which comes courtesy of Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post. I had other topics in mind to write about today, but it’s Sunday, and I figured it would be better to write about something less serious. And today’s post from Carolyn Hax is definitely lighter than my subject matter has been lately.

Here’s the letter in question, which was adapted from an online discussion:

Hi Carolyn! 

I’ve recently started to attend family functions with my boyfriend. He always says I don’t need to bring anything, but I never go anywhere empty-handed.

His mom is preparing the entire meal for the next event, including desserts. I’m a baker and usually bring desserts but Boyfriend says mom might be offended if I bring a dessert when she’s already taking care of that. This party is for his sister’s birthday, and I don’t know her well enough to choose a gift, and he won’t give me any ideas because he insists I don’t need to bring a gift. I asked if I could at least get a card, and he said he’ll add my name to his card — but he and his sister have been passing the same card back and forth for 12 years as a joke. This is their thing and I don’t want to impose.

But I just can’t fathom going empty-handed. Any ideas as to what I can bring?

— Never Empty-Handed

Carolyn’s advice to the letter writer was to try to call the boyfriend’s mom and ask her directly what she should bring for his sister, if the boyfriend won’t “work with her on this”. She also said that the letter writer should explain to him that telling her that she doesn’t need to bring anything is easy for him to say, and maybe even well-intentioned by letting her off the hook, but it actually puts her in an awkward position. Carolyn further writes:

He is seeing this through the family lens, but you are not family and you’re newish to everyone, so you don’t know how you’ll be judged.

You want to make a good impression. If he wants to set you up to succeed, then he either needs to give you a token way to contribute, or be more thoughtful in explaining his family culture to you, or connect you to his mom (or whoever’s hosting) to find out for yourself.

This advice makes sense to me, I guess. However, there is also hopefully a good chance that Boyfriend is telling the truth. It’s possible that his mom and/or his sister really don’t want her to bring anything. Moreover, I would expect him to tell me the truth. So my response, which so far is being well-received was this:

I would just take the boyfriend at his word. If it goes awry, then I’ll know I can’t trust what he says and move on.

She can always warn the guy that if he’s not being truthful, and she shows up with nothing and his mom or sister thinks it’s rude, that will mean that she can’t trust him to be honest, and that might mean they shouldn’t continue the relationship. There is a good chance, though, that the mom and/or his sister really are among those people who doesn’t want guests to bring things. My mom is one of those people. She’s at a point in her life that she’s trying to get rid of things she doesn’t need. I have been the recipient of many lovely gifts people have given her that she just didn’t want or weren’t her taste.

If you think about it, bringing something for the host/hostess actually can lead to embarrassing situations. Here’s an example from my personal history.

Recently, I wrote about how I have a phobia of mushrooms. I can’t eat them or touch them, and I prefer not to look at them or smell them. One time, years ago, a woman invited me to her house for dinner. She was a vegetarian. Because I wanted to be a good guest, I baked two loaves of bread and brought one of them with me. Guess what… hostess wasn’t a fan of bread. And guess what else? The dinner she made was LOADED with mushrooms. And yes, it was very embarrassing. I explained to her, honestly, why I couldn’t partake of the dinner. Fortunately, she had a good laugh at my expense, and even told some of her colleagues about it.

People love to leave comments on the Washington Post’s Facebook page about this post, when it’s clear that they didn’t read the article. It’s mainly because they don’t want to pay for a subscription. If they had read the article, they would see that other people offered reasons why bringing the usual go-to gifts of wine, flowers, and candy might not be the best idea. Here’s what a couple of people wrote:

Re: Guest: Yes, please arrive empty-handed. I find hosting people who are compelled to bring something, anything, very tiring. Fine to ask if you can contribute to the meal, for instance, but if the answer is no, then accept that.

— Tired

Tired: Yes, yes. When I tell my guests what (not) to bring, I want them to take me at my word, not send me looking for a vase for the lovely and well-meant flowers.

In the case of someone new being invited into the fold, though, the standards shift a bit. The balance of power is more precarious. The boyfriend can be more helpful here. That’s all.

I have a policy that when people say they want no gifts, I take them at their word. I assume they had a reason for making that statement. If they didn’t mean it, they shouldn’t have written or said it, and they shouldn’t be upset when people abide by it. If Mom is annoyed with the girlfriend for coming to visit the family empty-handed that early in the relationship, that’s another sign that the letter writer might want to consider, should things go further in that relationship. I would hope that the boyfriend’s mom and other family members would be just as eager to make a good impression on his girlfriend, especially if there is a chance she might one day marry him, or otherwise engage in a more serious relationship. Because– that could one day be her mother-in-law… and you want to pay attention to red flags. Divorce is expensive, and marriage can be challenging enough without a mother-in-law with whom you don’t mesh. Fortunately, my own mother-in-law is awesome, and my mom adores Bill.

A lot of commenters seem to think that the letter writer should just ignore what her boyfriend says, and go against his advice on dealing with his family. I don’t know about other people, but it would really annoy me if I told Bill about what to expect from my family– people that I’ve known my whole life– and he didn’t believe me. I can understand the letter writer’s dilemma in not wanting to be rude, but I would consider not trusting my boyfriend’s word as kind of rude, too. I’m big on trust, and I don’t like it when people don’t take me seriously, even though I joke around a lot. Joking around is one thing, but I’m not the kind of person who would deliberately set someone up to fail. If I care enough to bring you home to meet the family, that means I’m serious. And I would not tell you not to bring a gift if I knew that not bringing a gift would make my mom or sister think you were a jerk. I would hope for the same consideration.

I also noticed that the people commenting were suggesting gifts that could be problematic. That bottle of wine might not be appreciated by someone who is fundie Baptist or LDS, struggles with alcoholism or some other health issue, or someone who just doesn’t drink. Flowers might not be appreciated by someone who has severe allergies or, like Madonna, hates hydrangeas… or whatever other flower. Some people don’t like plants because they have a brown thumb, and kill everything they touch.

Ouch!

Or maybe it will be an awkward exchange, like when Melania Trump brought Michelle Obama a fancy Tiffany box on Inauguration Day…

Nice of Melania to bring a gift. Too bad the Trumps didn’t have enough class to show up to the 2021 Presidential Inauguration.

Someone who prides themselves on being a great cook or baker might not appreciate it if you take it upon yourself to bring dessert. A lot of people go to great lengths to plan when they have a party. If you show up with a cake from a bakery or even one you’ve made yourself, it may send a very embarrassing message that won’t be well received. Or, again, it could turn out that someone has diabetes and has to watch their sugar or carbs for health reasons. I had a friend, years ago, who had an allergy to chocolate. She loved chocolate, but couldn’t eat it, because it made her break out in hives. Imagine showing up at her house with a lovely, expensive chocolate cake that took hours to bake. Hopefully, other people can enjoy it.

Here’s what I think is a fairly foolproof gift– sincere gratitude for the invitation, and authentic, attentive, and appreciative company. That’s it. Maybe that gratitude could be augmented by a handwritten note expressing thanks, mailed a day or two after the gathering. One of the nicest “gifts” I have ever received from anyone was a lovely, handwritten note from Bill’s younger daughter, who was considerate enough to think of me when he went to visit her in March 2020. I will treasure it always, for there’s no other gift like it. It came from the heart and, best of all, it cost her almost nothing in money, but yet it’s priceless to me. I will keep and treasure it always, especially since it doesn’t take up any room or collect dust.

Now THIS is what I call a good– and very classy– gift. There’s not another like it.

There’s no reason to sweat the small stuff. There’s no reason to make things more complicated than it needs to be. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While giving a small gift to a host or hostess is usually considered good etiquette, when it comes down to it, the best etiquette is considering what will make the other person feel most comfortable and at ease. I would expect that the boyfriend in this situation knows his family well enough to advise his girlfriend honestly. She should take what he says at face value. If it goes wrong, that will be a sign of things that could be coming in the future. At the very least, it could be a signal that he’s not going to be straightforward about other things.

Damned right.

Some of the comments on this remind me of the American attitude about tipping. So many people seem to think that everyone loves gifts. Not everyone does… just like not everyone expects or appreciates a tip. Seriously… in some cultures, tipping is actually considered rude or just isn’t a thing. American culture is not the end all, be all, and there’s a lot to consider in any relationship. If you don’t know the guy’s parents, I actually think it’s better to wait before you bring a gift, unless you’ve been assured that they would appreciate one. Gifts can go awry. Besides, meeting new people is a two-way street. I see no reason to complicate that meeting by adding in an unnecessary element, like what gift to bring. Especially when it’s been made clear, by someone who should be in the know, that gifts aren’t expected or even desired. I think it’s smart to learn about the culture in any new situation before assuming you know what should be done.

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lessons learned, memories

Partial repost: My own experience with a “Cootie Kid”…

One last partial repost– partial, because I left off the last part, which is time sensitive and no longer relevant. I wrote this February 24, 2015. I also changed the title of the post, because the original title is no longer relevant.

Last night, I looked up a woman I haven’t seen or heard of since fifth grade.  I was surprised by how easy it was to find her.  I just typed her maiden name and the name of the town where we grew up.  I was surprised to find her living in a town not far from our old hometown.  I also found out that she attended the same high school my former boyfriend did.  He may even know her because they probably graduated in the same class.

This woman’s name was very common in the year of our birth.  Indeed, I share her first name, but here I’ll just call her “Joni”.  Like me, Joni was socially awkward and considered weird.  Actually, she made me look like a social genius because she was even louder and odder than I ever was.  Joni was outgoing and smart enough, but she was strangely dressed and kind of homely.  She had very crooked teeth that didn’t appear to be very well cared for and an unfortunate habit of picking her nose in class and eating her boogers in front of everyone.  When we were kids, she was very skinny, had stringy blonde hair, and a face that could be best described as interesting.   

When we were in the fourth grade, I remember playing kickball with Joni.  Our teacher at the time, Mr. A , was big on taking us out for recess if time allowed.  These were the glorious days before the No Child Left Behind Act.  One day, we were playing kickball and Joni, being kind of gangly and uncoordinated, stepped up to the plate.  The ball rolled toward her.  She kicked at it, missed entirely, and fell to the ground with a solid thud.  On impact with the dirt, Joni’s leg made a sickening cracking sound, and she started howling in agony.  At the time back in 1981, there was a McDonald’s commercial that used the voice talents of Frank Nelson, a guy who would say “Yeeeeeees….” all the time.  That’s what Joni sounded like when she hit the ground and started screaming.

You can hear Frank Nelson say “Yeeees” in this commercial. Joni sounded a little like him when she screamed.

Poor thing.  I actually remember people laughing and saying that Joni sounded like the McDonald’s guy at the scene of her injury.  She was not well-regarded by our classmates.  I don’t remember being especially unkind to her, though I also don’t remember being her buddy.  People were mean to me too, though, and I think I might have had a smidge of empathy… though I probably also felt relief that someone other than me was being picked on. 

Anyway, Mr. A got help for her and, after about a week, she came back to school with a canvas cast that covered her whole leg.  She used crutches for months and I remember her wearing what she called a “rocking shoe”.  I even remember her spiritedly telling someone about the rocking shoe when he was teasing her about it.  She was a girl with a surprising amount of pluck and resilience, especially for her age.

I might have felt snarky toward Joni the way our classmates did, but I too suffered an accident while in Mr. A’s class.  In my case, it just involved being knocked unconscious by a soccer ball kicked by Mr. A.  That was a very embarrassing incident, but at least I recovered from it quickly. 

The following year, Joni was in my fifth grade class.  That year, I witnessed another classmate getting hurt, though this time, it wasn’t Joni.  It was another person who, at the time, was a friend of mine.  We were in PE class and she was climbing the bleachers when her leg slipped between the seat and the foot board.  She tore a huge gash in her leg, right by her knee.  I remember all the blood and our gym teacher (not Mr. A, though he did become a gym teacher at that school that year) picking her up in his arms and rushing her to the office where someone called an ambulance.  This girl’s bleacher accident also happened right in front of me and it reminded of me of when Joni broke her leg.  My other injured classmate screamed, but she didn’t sound like Frank Nelson.  She, too, used crutches for weeks afterwards.

One of my last clear memories of Joni was at Christmas time.  We had a gift exchange and Joni drew my name.  On the day of the gift exchange, the teacher asked me to come speak with her out in the hall.  While we were out there, she handed me a present, which turned out to be a little Smurf pin.  I think it depicted Papa Smurf grinning and holding a flower.  She said she had bought it for me because Joni had drawn my name and she knew the present Joni was going to give me would suck.  She didn’t phrase it that way, of course, but that was the basic gist of what she was saying.  I think I remember her telling me that Joni’s family didn’t have any money or something to that effect.  I believed it, having been in school with Joni for a couple of years.

Sure enough, when it came time for gift exchanges, I got Joni’s gift wrapped in rumpled notebook paper.  It was a Christmas ornament that we’d all made in class and hers was painted several different non-complementary colors.  Since the teacher had prepared me, I managed to accept the gift gracefully.  And though I was never a fan of the Smurfs, it took many years before I could bring myself to get rid of that little Smurf pin that my teacher had bought for me.  To this day, I still have the same luck when it comes to secret gift exchanges.  I always get the person who buys me booze and then drinks it all before they present it to me (yes, this did actually happen to me once when I worked at a country club).

After fifth grade, Joni moved away.  I didn’t know where she went and, in time, even forgot all about her.  But then someone on Facebook posted one of those class pictures and I saw her in it, again reminding me that she was part of my childhood.  I looked up Joni because I was curious about where she is and how she’s doing.  It looks like she’s doing fine.  I was a little dismayed to find out that she’s already a grandmother.  Since we are the same age, I hate the idea that I’m old enough to have grandchildren… but hell, I guess I am.  I see that she’s still awkward looking, but apparently has a lot of friends, a loving family, and a good sense of humor. 

I even saw that she was brave enough to post photos from her early childhood.  I actually remembered some of the photos because they were of a scholastic nature and I was around for them.  She even had one that had the full on face shot with the heavenly profile side shot above it, ever popular in the early 80s.  She had on a very frumpy looking dress that looked like it might have belonged to her mother.  One friend asked if she was Amish and her reply was a light-hearted, matter-of-fact response that that was how her parents dressed her.  I was glad to see that she looks happy enough as an adult despite our miserable elementary school days. 

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musings

What I got for Christmas this year…

When I was a kid, my former best friend and I had a Christmas ritual. I’d call her, or she’d call me, and we’d talk about what we got for Christmas. In those days, Christmas was all about the presents. I remember getting a lot of toys that were exciting and fun, although she usually got more stuff than I did. She had a computer and usually got a lot of cool games to play. On the other hand, I had a horse and she didn’t.

As we got older, the phone calls were less frequent and less animated. We grew apart and eventually had a “silent” falling out. Christmas had become less exciting to me for a lot of reasons, most of which involved family drama and abusive behavior. Add in the fact that I was broke, and really couldn’t afford Christmas, and the prospect of the holiday season brought on true depression for many years. I hated the stress of it and the tears that would usually come after a family visit. There were always high expectations and they were never met. I’d spend the weeks after Christmas recovering from whatever drama was unearthed.

It took a long time before I started to enjoy the holidays again. Since we swore off drama at Christmas, Bill and I have become more fond of the festive holiday season, even as we welcome things getting back to normal in January. We usually stay home and have a low key holiday, with me in my nightgown and Bill cooking a nicer than usual meal. We’d open presents, listen to music, drink wine, and enjoy each other’s company. Low key, low stress, zero drama, and almost no excitement.

This year, I didn’t get “much” for Christmas, in terms of what was under the tree. Bill didn’t have time to shop and has a hard time choosing gifts for me, anyway. He did buy me a lovely soft wool wrap at a Christmas market in Weiden, which is in Bavaria. I used it last night, since it was a bit chilly in the house. I think it’ll get a lot of use in the house rather than out and about. It’s just big enough to cover my shoulders and arms, and it’s super warm. Bonus points that it’s navy and grey, which are favorite colors of mine!

Bill also got me a Homepod, so I can stream my huge music collection from my computer. I have a Bose Sound Dock that basically sounds great, but doesn’t easily stream anything from Apple. Instead, I had to stream from Amazon, and since I usually buy albums rather than “renting” them, this was a problem. I’d end up buying my favorite albums twice. I’m sure I could have figured out a way to stream on the Bose, but it involved a lot of hassle and/or using my iPod, which is also pretty much obsolete now. I use mostly Apple products now, so it just made sense to get the Homepod, which works with both Apple and Amazon, but presents its own logistical hassles, as I discovered last night. I’m sure I’ll figure out workarounds, though.

My mother-in-law sent fun, colorful socks to Bill and me. Socks are a good thing, since I wear them all the time when it’s cold. I sent her Keb’ Mo’ albums, since we are considering seeing him play when she visits later this month. After our latest trip, we may decide to skip another trip so soon… maybe we’ll focus on finding a new furry friend instead. Now that the holidays are about over, it’s time to think about giving a home to a dog that needs one, if we can find someone willing to let us adopt.

I got Bill things for the house. A few of the gifts– the first ones I ordered, actually– haven’t even arrived yet because they came through APO (our U.S. government run postal system). What was under the tree for Bill included a new waffle iron (since we have a 110 volt one in storage), a new coffee grinder, because the old one is wearing out, bellows for the fireplace, yet another book about cocktails, and storage containers for leftovers. The stuff that is probably sitting in the post office includes a new shirt, gloves for carrying firewood, and a canvas fire log tote.

So… it was a fairly lean Christmas in terms of tangible gift giving… and yet, it was probably one of the best Christmases of my life. This year, we were invited to France by my dear friend Audra, and her husband, Cyril. Audra and I grew up in Gloucester, Virginia. When we were growing up, Gloucester was a very rural, very small town. It’s grown a lot over the years. In fact, in the mid 80s, it was the fastest growing county in Virginia. We’ve both seen it change, and we’ve both found our ways out of Gloucester. Many of our contemporaries still live in Gloucester and have raised their own families there. Audra and I have both wound up in Europe long term. Audra will probably stay in France for many years– maybe even the rest of her life. I’ll probably stay in Germany for as long as I’m allowed to… European life mostly agrees with me, although it takes me away from friends, family, and being at “home”.

Audra and I spent the time bonding over this whole European/American lifestyle thing… and we have a tremendous number of things in common. We went to the same high school, the same college, are both Air Force brats, and have had some similar life experiences. The older I get, the more I realize how rare and valuable true friends are, and I think that we have them in Audra and Cyril, who so kindly opened their home to Bill, Arran, and me over the holidays and gifted us with local beer.

We talked about so many things, shared so many memories, and enjoyed so much good food and wine with Audra’s French family. It was overwhelming to us on so many levels, since neither Bill nor I had ever experienced Christmas in France before. One common thread, though, was the love of family, which we were allowed to share with Cyril’s parents, brother, sister-in-law, grandmother, and an adorable dachshund named Merlin. I don’t speak French, and yet I felt like I really felt at home with Cyril’s family, who were very loving, accepting, generous, and kind. And they were also so patient with Arran, who can quite literally be a little stinker sometimes… just ask Audra’s cats!

We also received spectacular French hospitality in Beaune. Yes, it partially involved us being crime victims, but the locals there were so kind and welcoming to us. We are especially indebted to the owners at Au Miracle du Pain Doré (The Miracle of French Toast), who even gifted us with a free night in their gite. We were blown away by their generosity and kindness. And since I am the type who likes to pay it forward, I’m spreading the word as much as I can about their gite!

It was a true gift to get to see two very different French cities, too. Nimes is nothing like Beaune in terms of weather, architecture, or local color. Nimes has a large population of people from North Africa, which gives it a real Mediterranean flair. Beaune is in Burgundy, which really isn’t like Germany, but is probably more like Germany than Nimes is. Nimes has almost a Spanish flavor. We could have driven to Barcelona in the same time it took us to get to Beaune. It was amazing to get a change of scenery and a reminder why we love living in Europe so much.

It was even more amazing to have loving friends and family to celebrate with– especially since there wasn’t a single awkward, traumatic, or shitty moment. We were all free to be ourselves and, in fact, we never ran out of things to talk about! And no one was critical, mean-spirited, rude, or attention whoring (Audra knows of what I write). It was just a lot of fun! Bill and I will always be grateful to Audra and Cyril and their family for the wonderful gift they gave us in welcoming us to their home in 2019! We’ll never forget it!

Every year, I try to remind myself about what Christmas is supposed to be about. It’s always fun to get new stuff, but it’s so easy to get “stuff” year round. And we really have too much stuff– as I learn every time we have to move. What’s more important and ultimately more valuable are loving relationships with friends and family… having life changing experiences… seeing beautiful sights and hearing glorious music and eating good food. It’s already a gift to have enough, and we certainly do. We’re very, very fortunate to have all we do, but we are especially blessed to have each other. And even if all we had was just each other at Christmas, in the grand scheme of things, that would surely be enough to make it magnificent!

I know I’m cranky, irritable, and sometimes downright bitchy… people probably read my blog and come away with the idea that I’m a total curmudgeon. I know some people believe I’m clueless and “privileged” (trust me, I’m not as shallow as I might seem). Underneath my crabby exterior is someone with a big heart, and I definitely gave part of it to France over the past ten days.

I hope all my readers had a great Christmas and will enjoy a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year!

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