Excitement or extortion?

It’s random present-giving season or, as Chaucer put it, “ ’Tis spring, when small birds make melodies and invitations to sendeth gifties doth impregnate already swollen mailboxes.”

With all kinds of impending baby and bridal showers — often in that order — graduations, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and various accessory holidays (Father’s Day, Flag Day, National Chocolate Eclair Day) calling out to us with coy announcements, if you haven’t figured out whether to gift or call it a grift, you’re behind the holiday curve.

Having a finely calibrated moral compass based primarily on the avoidance of life’s irritations and annoyances, I have learned to judge the character of these double-edged affectionate-yet-charitable requests swiftly and fearlessly.

I can tell if you’re a sweetheart pretending to be a tough cookie or a barbarian pretending to be Lady Bountiful.

Are you celebrating wonderful news and endearingly asking me to join your festivities? Or are you so deep into the extortion racket that you might as well move onto bootlegging?

I’m like Santa; I can distinguish who’s naughty from who’s nice. This is a handy skill. Without the twinned hesitation and shame usually reserved for the more timorous members of my sex, I know instinctively who’s getting a check and who’s getting a blank.

I like to think I’m generous, but I also like to think I’m not going to fall for a gimmick like somebody who’s never seen a licked stamp before.

Guys aren’t prey to this kind of hoopla, are they? Men are rarely active members of the gift-giving mafia. Men’s names are signed to froufrou applique cards without their assent. Thank a guy for the anniversary card he sent and he’ll stare unblinkingly at you for a full minute without having any idea what you’re talking about. He never signed it. His wife used two pens and faked his signature, the way a felon would if she were trying to pass bad checks.

For bridal or baby registries, requests for material objects are made on the behalf of men but without their consent or, in some cases, a fundamental comprehension of the product under consideration.

Few men would ask for an oyster fork as a wedding present, for example, unless they planned to use it as a concealed weapon during the reception. And, frankly, if that were the case, they’d have registered for only one.

If you asked most guys what they wanted for presents, they’d say “nothing” and mean it; the last thing they want to do is be in somebody’s debt, whether that means owing them a thank-you card, a reciprocal gift when attending that other person’s equivalent event, or a hug. If forced to give a token of their affection, they’d rather just hand the recipient a twenty and get it back a couple of months later.

But women? This is something that harks back to The Old Country of Broads, no matter our ethnicity or class. Don’t kid yourself. A woman with an engagement ring so large it can only be looked at through a pinhole in a shoe box will, yes, register for a silicon dish-rack. Yes, she will. Don’t laugh and don’t ask what other silicon the dish-rack matches.

If there’s a wedding anywhere in the family, women want items that match. It doesn’t matter whether somebody’s getting married for the third time and already owns enough towels to wipe down Gatsby’s pool, or if her son and his partner have decided to inhabit a yurt in one of those states where running water is merely hearsay. If she bought presents for you or your kid, she seeks toweling.

Her logic is this: She purchased a handsome gift even though she knew your daughter’s all-important starter marriage had less than a 13 percent chance of lasting more than a year. She sprung for a five-piece setting of Limoges china, which your daughter is now selling on eBay for a quarter of what was paid for it.

Seriously, send her a bath mat and the towels.

Gifts should not be random any more than invitations should be; these should be offered with loving and open hearts in celebration of significant rites of passage. And we should all keep the receipt.

©2013, The Hartford Courant

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