The problem is not, heaven knows, that I'm insufficiently materialistic. I love stuff, and I'd love to get more of it. But, alas, it has to be the right stuff. Like most Americans of the middling class, I define myself (in part) by consumption. And the better I get at self-definition via merchandise, the harder I make it for anyone else to give anything to me.
The least unpleasant of the wrong presents are the wholly, entirely wrong ones, the ones from left field. I had an aunt who specialized in such gifts. She once sent me an application for a Minnesota hunting license with a breezy invitation to fill it out and "have some fun on her." I had never lived in Minnesota, I don't hunt, and had I suddenly been taken by the desire to hunt in Minnesota, the hefty fee was mine to pay, since my aunt enclosed no check. Hard to compose a suitable thank-you note.
More disappointing are presents that are wrong by being all too right--I already have two of them. The rub begins when the gift is an inferior version of what I've already given myself. A pie plate, yes, but mine is Bennington.
The most sensitive area for me is home furnishings. I am, I admit it, house-proud. I'll never forget the expression on my first husband's face when I made him exchange a broom he had given me. How could anybody look at my blue kitchen (I thought) and give me that broom? How could anybody reject a perfectly good broom (he thought) because it was green?
I don't even pretend any more. When somebody gives me something wrong, I apologize for being such a bitch, and tell them I'm giving their present away. I do invent an imaginary cousin or niece, someone they'll never meet or hear about again. And then it's straight down to Francis House on 12th.
But gifts to me should be so easy. All I want is the very best of what I want, and a few surprises, please. When I'm shopping, I see hundreds of things that would make perfect presents for me. Why can't people who want to give me something be more like me?
Do you ever play the Little Women game? Which sister are you? Jo? Meg? Beth? The sister I seem most to resemble is Amy, picky Amy. Amy with her nose in the air.
The standard explanation for pickiness is decadent capitalism. Vitiated by our alienation, we ape our masters in ever-widening circles of vacuous consumerism. As workers, we stand befuddled, having sold the Manhattan of our labor for a handful of beads and mirrors. "Taste," somebody has said, "is conceivable only as an aesthetic of consumption." Well yes.
Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who loves finding the right gifts to give other people.