Darren and I are currently working our way through all series of The Big Bang Theory. I love the show, it is so funny. Partly I am pleased with anything which promotes the new “geek is cool” meme (it wasn’t cool in my day believe me), and partly because so much of the behaviour on the show is spot on. I studied Maths at Cambridge, where the gender ratio was about 10:1 and most of my friends (myself included) were a little strange in a harmless sort of way. Aspergers researchers would have a field day, over half would meet the diagnostic criteria I’m sure. Now that geek is cool I will admit I was a paid up member of the Star Trek society and I signed up for Tiddlywinks club (it’s a quarter blue sport, and a thinly veiled front for a drinking society), as well as doing some “cool” things like hang gliding and going clubbing.
So, I recognise a lot in the show, from the competitiveness between the different sciences (may I just point out that Pure Maths is the Queen of all Sciences and I look down on your theoretical particle physics Sheldon Cooper), to the sheer terror on most of the bloke’s faces if a woman was present.
I think I was probably most like the character Leslie Winkler – reasonably self-assured in my quirkyness, not the brightest of the mega-bright but definitely holding my own in the field, not a Penny type (I only had 3 pairs of shoes), and not afraid to use a bit of gender politics to have some fun with the socially awkward geeks. I hope I was more like Leonard than Howard, but I will admit to a few Sheldon tendencies too.
So I was very amused when we watched two episodes about gift giving – The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis and The Peanut Reaction. I’m not a gift sort of person. I really struggle to come up with ideas of what others might like, of what might be an appropriate amount to spend on a gift, to remember birthdays at all in fact. It’s just not something I’m naturally good at. And because I don’t feel secure when I’m choosing a gift I tend to overcompensate by spending too much then I feel guilty about that later.
Luckily, most of my friends are not gift type people either. Some time ago we all decided to ditch christmas presents in favour of spending the money on a big booze up together instead. This suits me just fine, and means no-one ends up forcing a smile and saying “oh its just what I always wanted” when faced with a dodgy jumper they hate or a book they’ve already got. We are lucky that we all have good jobs and we can all afford to buy ourselves the occasional book / CD / game / dodgy jumper so usually there is nothing anyone really wants when birthdays come around. With Darren, we both try to provide a list of gift ideas, we agree a budget and things get bought from those lists. My sister (who loves shopping and is much more socially able than me) tends to arrange joint gifts for our parents for birthdays and Christmases – I just transfer over half the cash and sign my name on the card. I had reached a lovely equilibrium where the pain of gift choosing had mostly been removed from my life.
In the two episodes, Sheldon has exactly the same problem. In the first episode Penny gets Sheldon a christmas present, and is surprised when he reacts in horror. I could not stop laughing as he summarised the heart of how I feel about buying presents for friends…
“I know you think you are being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation.” … “The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me. It’s no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.”
In the second episode Penny is trying to convince Sheldon to throw Leonard a birthday party, after finding out his mother never threw him one as a child. She also tries to explain why he has to buy him a present. Sheldon just doesn’t get it, until Howard suggests that she should “Try telling him it’s a non-optional social convention”, which he immediately accepts. But his attitude still revolves around his premise that “The entire institution of gift giving make no sense. Let’s say that I go out, and I spend 50 dollars on you, it’s a laborious activity, because I have to imagine what you need, where as you know what you need. Now I could simplify things, just give you the 50 dollars directly, and you could give me 50 dollars on my birthday, and so on, until one of us dies, leaving the other one old and 50 dollars richer. And I ask, is it worth it?”
The one exception to my dislike of gift choosing is buying things for Nathan. As my own child, I know him really well, so I find it easier to pick things he would enjoy. There are so many toys and games on the market that there is a lot to choose from. I know what he already has at home so duplicate gifts are not a problem. And because he is a young child he has no expectations about the choice or value of whatever gift I get him (yet… ) and he will not be buying me a present “of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship”. Removing all the baggage meant I started to enjoy buying presents for a change.
But now I am a mummy a whole new mine field has opened up: Buying presents for other people’s children. It seems that some of my mummy friends are really good at presents. You know, the sort of people who just turn up when you’re sick “with a little something”, or remember your wedding anniversary when you’d forgotten it yourself. I am in awe of these people, in the same way as I’m in awe of people who can actually cook without stressing out about it, or dress in a really stylish yet flattering way, or chat easily to a group of strangers without those awkward silences appearing.
Nathan’s birthday is one of the earliest in our group of toddler friends, so at least I have warning that I’m supposed to buy a gift when Nathan receives one for his birthday first. But I still struggle to remember who was born when, and who is what size, or who likes what sort of toys. That’s on top of struggling to actually buy something on time and get it posted off. And yes, I’ve tried lists but then I forget to look at them. Maybe one day I’ll find an iPhone application that can do it for me, and put everyone I know in it, and not forget anyone or ignore the reminders it sends me…
On the other hand, I do want my toddler friends to feel loved, and to be happy that their birthdays were remembered and acknowledged. Now they are getting old enough to remember, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll get away with it. Also, I want my mummy friends to like me and not think I’m a mean old birthday hating Grinch. I have grasped that it is a “non-optional social convention”.
So all I ask is this… if your child is about to have a birthday, please mention it in conversation. Or hold a birthday party and invite Nathan. Or post something on Facebook about your little baby being a grown up X-year-old soon (and make sure I’ve actually read it!). Because I don’t mean to be rude, I have not deliberately forgotten or decided not to buy your family something. It’s just that for some of us who feel at home with particle physics the custom of gift giving is as difficult to negotiate as particle physics seems to be for everyone else.