Good Gifts

Last Friday I “storytelled” at a Brooklyn storytelling event. The assigned theme was “gift”. Here’s a reasonable facsimile of what I said.

I began by describing the irony that I’d been asked to tell a story about gifts, because I hate gifts. I always seem to screw them up, both the giving and the getting. However (I explained to this patient crowd of North Brooklyn hipsters) I came up with three mini-stories about gifts, each of which portray a lesson I have had to learn in my life.

The first story was when I was 8 years old, about to turn 9. My parents had just gotten divorced and so I told them both separately what I wanted for my birthday: a big build-it-yourself dinosaur model that was advertised in the back of one of my comic books. The thing would supposedly be six feet tall when fully constructed, and even though I couldn’t quite figure out what it was made of or how realistic it would look, I could tell it was pretty cool, and I wanted it for my birthday.

On the morning of that birthday, I woke up at 4 am, and there was a giant cardboard box on my bed containing the dinosaur. I immediately tore into the box and started putting it together. It turned out the bones were made of molded styrofoam, and they were fairly realistic. However, it was hard to put together and I quickly changed my plan and fell back asleep with the bones all over my bed. And then in the morning I think my Mom was disappointed because she had wanted to watch me open it. Oh well.

The funny thing is, it was only many years later that I thought back to this and wondered how hard my Mom or my Dad (I never actually figured out which one acquired the dinosaur) had had to work to get the present. Did they actually clip out the comic book ad and send in a check or money order, and if so, how had I not noticed the clipping missing from a comic book? Did one of them buy their own copy of the comic book? Where had they hid the box? And which one of them paid for it, and did they have to fight over which one of them paid for it? So many questions, but none of them entered my mind on my ninth birthday. This present involved two parties, and two parties alone: me and the dinosaur.

So, the first life lesson I learned is, gifts are not between you and the gift. They are between you and the giver. Important thing to remember.

The second story takes place about fourteen years later when I was in my early 20s just out of college, and my old Albany State buddy Russ Miller called me and told me he was going to be in Manhattan for just a few hours, flying in to Kennedy, catching a bus at Port Authority, did I want to hang out? Since he and I were both music freaks, we agreed to meet in Greenwich Village and look at record stores. We went to Bleecker Bob’s and I was admiring a John Lennon album I wanted to own when Russ suddenly said “Hey, I’ll buy it for you.”

Now, after graduating college Russ had become an accountant and was definitely a yuppie. He was also definitely making more money than I was as an entry-level computer programmer, so even though I thought this was a very nice gesture, I thought it was maybe a bit show-offy too. But I let him buy me the album. We had a nice chat for a couple of hours and then he took the subway up to Port Authority to catch his bus. It was a nice summer day so I wanted to wander around Washington Square, Macdougal Street, Bleecker Street, St. Marks, Tompkins Square. The only problem was, it was a hot day and I was carrying around this big record album. I didn’t want to carry anything, and it was annoying me.

So then I did something sort of strange. I ditched the album. I just left it by a garbage can, and I hope somebody picked it up and liked it. I went on my merry way and had a nice long stroll all over Greenwich Village.

So, the second lesson is: every time somebody wants to give you a gift, it’s not necessarily something you want to own.

The third story is the shortest. Not too long ago my wife Caryn surprised me by buying me a banjo for my birthday. This was a very nice gift, especially because I had only hinted very subtly and very few times that I would like to someday learn to play banjo. It was also a very selfless gift, because Caryn was basically guaranteeing that she was going to have to listen to me learning to play banjo.

It was in thinking about this that the third lesson occurred to me: gifts are a language. Every gift is an expression. A gift can be a question, and a gift can be an answer. A gift can be a joke. It can be a hint, an exclamation, an explanation. A gift can be a promise, an apology, a warning, a confession, an invitation. It can be a revelation of a secret. It can be a reminiscence of a past time. It can be an expression of hope for the future.

(That was pretty much all I said. The event was a lot of fun, and also featured some kickass country music by Alana Amram and her Rough Gems, a twitter story by Tao Lin, and solid hosting by Jena Friedman and Jay Diamond. There’s going to be one more LitKicks post tomorrow, and then we’re going to put up some of the best of the year’s Action Poetry and close the blog till 2009. Finally, just for fun and while we’re on the gifts tip, here’s a nice version, found on YouTube, of “All Good Gifts” from Godspell by an outfit that calls itself KPHS.)

5 Responses

  1. Much of this sentiment is
    Much of this sentiment is covered in The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I imagine you may have already read it. It deals in the relationship between creative work and those who receive it, rather than the work and the artist. I’ve over-simplified the book, but I know you’d like it.

  2. Interesting, Frank — I have
    Interesting, Frank — I have heard great things about Lewis Hyde’s book but have never read it. It’s probably about time I did.

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