My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 3 #21,
November 21, 1997


The XTC song "The World's Full of Angry Young Men" is running through my head, but the words attached to the music are "The mall's full of desperate men." As it gets closer to Christmas, the population of the mall starts changing. Early on women and teenagers predominate, but over time, there are more and more lost-looking men with that deer-caught-in-the-headlights inward-looking stare--the natural prey of eager shopkeepers who know they can sell these men absolutely anything.

The problem is, of course, that when the world's tasks got divvied up by genders, women got to be the gift-givers. By and large this works out quite nicely -- at least until men need to find gifts for women. At this point, many of you are utterly clueless. You sense that whatever you give is freighted with symbolic meaning, but you have no idea what that meaning IS. You strongly suspect this is one of those little tests women put men through that you can't possibly win -- give us nothing at all, and be forever written off as insensitive dolts, or give us the wrong things and be forever written off as insensitive dolts.

But we're not actually all THAT hard to please. Here are a few hints.

  1. Part of the symbolic value is that you remembered at all. So even if you screw up and select something fairly hopeless (crotchless panties are generally a mistake), we WILL give you credit for trying. After all, we have years of practice thanking little boys who give us footballs for our birthdays -- we understand that he thinks this is the finest gift anyone could ever receive.

  2. The malls are trying to sell you stuff for generic females, jewelry and perfume and nice-smelling expensive soaps and moisturizers and such, but she is NOT generic. She is a specific person with specific tastes that, yes, you should have noticed by now (and if you haven't, start looking at her closely). Don't buy earrings for her if you can't remember seeing her wearing earrings. If she does, does she like discreet little buttons, or splashy dangling ones? Show her that you pay attention to her unique interests and preferences. For example, my only real concession to feminine stuff is pretty scarves, fastened with a cat pin; anyone who gave me either a scarf or a cat pin would know that the gift will be appreciated on two levels: I'll wear it and enjoy it, and I'll be pleased that you paid attention to what I like.

  3. A gift should also indicate that you pay attention to what she says, or cares about. If she's a save-the-whales sort of person, a little gold whale charm on a chain would be a delightful present. If she couldn't stop looking at the Degas ballerina in the art museum, check out the art museum gift shop for an inexpensive print, or even Degas notecards. Did she cry her way through The Little Mermaid? You could get her a video of it. Is she never quite warm enough? How about a pretty crocheted shawl to drape around her shoulders? Does she adore Andrew Lloyd Webber? There must be a production of his playing somewhere that you can take her to. A gift doesn't need to be expensive if it conveys the basic message, "I know who you are and I love that in you."

  4. Avoid vacuum cleaners and toaster-ovens and sewing machines, no matter how much she may actually need one. What we want is permission to stop being efficient and hardworking for a while and simply feel treasured. (Even the most competent women want to feel protected and taken care of by their menfolk.)

  5. If you're a man who understands what clothes look good on her, and you know what size she wears, you can buy her a great outfit. The implied message is "You're a damn good-looking woman, and I love to see you looking well-turned out." Of course, if, like my son, you think an orange shirt with red shorts is a nifty combination, you should avoid this route.

  6. One of the nicest gifts is your time. Arrange for someone else to take care of the kids, and take her off somewhere where you can pay uninterrupted attention to her, and she to you. There aren't enough hours in the day for us to do our work, take care of the kids, take care of our own needs, and still keep a relationship fresh. Give her time off from responsibilities and routine, and use the time to renew the romance.

  7. And whatever else you give her, add the gift of words. Tell her why you chose it specially for her. You wouldn't believe what a sucker we are for words like "This was so elegant it made me think of you," or "It reminded me of the music we danced to on our first date." If you could live your life again and you'd still fall in love with her, tell her that. Better yet, tell her that in writing. There's a reason we keep old love letters and mementos -- it's so we can read them over and over again when times are tough, and we're not getting through to each other, and we're trying to remember why it was we wanted the relationship to keep going.

So go ahead, guys. Venture out into the cold and brave the alien territory of the shopping malls and exquisite little boutiques. All you have to do is remember who she is and what you love about her and what she cares about (besides you). Remember: Earth girls are easy. You get points for trying. And with these helpful hints in mind, you might pass the test this time around. Heck, you might even get an A.

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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

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