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Greene: A Bucket of Dowels

12/12/11 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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(Host) With the holiday shopping season upon us, commentator Stephanie Greene considers what makes for a good gift.

(Greene) One of the best presents I ever got - Christmas or otherwise - was a bucket of dowels. It was an inspired gift: humble, certainly versatile, and full of possibility. The giver saw right into my peculiar little heart.

I never think of that bucket, which still has plenty in it, without a thrill traveling up my spine. I’ve used those dowels to make armatures, puppets, plant stakes, and, after sharpening in a pencil sharpener, knitting needles for an after school project. I’ve used them to fish things out of crevices and toasters — a dowel is a wonderful thing. Besides, it’s satisfying to price them at hardware stores and feel rich.

What makes for a good present? Careful thought and good will.

When we were courting, my soon-to-be husband re-bound a falling-apart paperback copy of Colette’s My Mother’s House, using flower shop paper from a bouquet he’d given me. It was the most romantic present: I still treasure it.

To nail a gift is a true delight. I just found a copy of a book called Knit Your Own Dog for an old friend who’s not only crazy about dogs but is a knitting champ as well. Imagining her delight, I cannot wait for her to open it.

It was pure luck to find it — the kind of luck that evaporates with the mounting stress of the holiday countdown. And that’s the trouble with holidays: you can’t just wait to give gifts until properly inspired. Plus we’re often required to give presents to people we don’t know well.

Insight’s not easy to fake. Retailers pounce on this opportunity to push their one-size-fits-all solutions.

Witness the scores of uninspired - and unwanted - presents we’ve all received, of which many think the fruitcake just may be the ever-recycled king.

Similarly, the phrase "A gift for someone who has everything" will probably not result in anyone’s happiness, since it actually conveys a whiff of barely disguised hostility.

In fact, looking for the one thing someone doesn’t have is a sure recipe for gift disaster. There’s a good reason Mrs. Overshoe does not possess a backscratcher made out of an anteater or a wineglass that holds an entire bottle of wine.

And trust me: these items do exist.

In Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, he reminds us that in traditional societies the only requirement for a gift is that it be kept moving. Europeans arriving in the New World didn’t understand this concept, that, say, a peace pipe accepted as a gift should then be given away again - and I don’t mean to the Smithsonian - but to the next person with whom a smoke was shared.

I’d find it hard to give away my dowels; the recipient would have to be very worthy, preferably a family member from whom I could mooch.

But if we gave gifts knowing they could come back — that might stimulate us to be a little more careful in our choices.

And it might even cut down on fruitcake.
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