Thursday, February 21, 2008

It’s a Nice Day for a White Wedding…

Milestones in the Age of the Registry

Continuing in the vein of my graduation-related posts, Kermitthefrog mentions the existence of store and internet gift registries back in the previous set of comments. Registries are indeed trippy and weird things. Now you can sign up for wedding and baby gift-lists at a huge range of stores and price points, and we’ve gone from those clunky touch-screen displays for silverware in the corner of Macy’s which I remember from way back to little cordless price guns that you can run around with in everywhere from Crate and Barrel to Wal-Mart, shooting at bar codes everywhere in an ecstasy of consumerism. Amazon’s genius was in creating the Wish List, because not everybody is a bride or new mother but surely everyone deserves to get exactly what they want for as many consumer occasions as possible, yes?

And the notion of the gift has really changed recently ---- I know there have been wedding registries for at least 60 years, but at one point, the thought really was what counted. Hence all the stories of getting 12 gravy boats and not having any silverware, or hauling out an ugly vase or picture every time the relatives came over, only to banish it in the attic as soon as they were gone. (Thinking about it, this whole fifties-style “you must get an entire formal entertaining set for dining” expectation is also weird. My sister clashed a lot with mom over the whole “but you need a set of good china” thing when she got married --- she doesn’t do a formal entertaining style and wanted living room lamps instead; she never did get her lamps.)

But back to the idea of the gift ---- it used to be that people thought about celebrating you or some specific milestone, and thought about who you were like, and then bought something based off that. Now there is an expectation that whoever is getting the gift deserves to get what s/he wants, exactly. So the gift giver must either find the wishlist or the registry of the gift receiver, or give a “check card” or “gift card” so that the recipient can get exactly what is desired. ---- My mother, growing up in the 40s and 50s as she did, is still horrified by this development; she thinks it is tacky and low-class, exactly as if you were throwing a wad of cash at the person rather than bothering to pick out something nice and wrap it up prettily, an investment of time and thought and planning rather than a sheer commercial transaction.

She’s right ---- the gift card is money, just not money in the paper greenback sense we automatically think of. Stores use the pretty colors of that piece of plastic and its strategic placement by the greeting card section to distract us from that fact and sell it to us with rhetorics of convenience. But really, when it comes down to it, you could probably hand a wad of cash to the gift recipient yourself rather than introducing the store as middleman. The only thing the store is doing is providing a fig leaf over a money transaction. Which I guess was all it was doing in back in the instance of the gift as well.

Except I don’t think it was. Somehow that slightly older notion of the gift was more focused on a sense of relationship between giver and receiver, and on the moment of exchange, of unwrapping, of surprise and the theatrical moment of revelation (“Oh! So you got that for me!” “Yes, I got that for you!”) whereas, in the wishlist/registry model, all the emphasis is on the recipient. The giver almost drops out of the equation ---- in fact, ads have been pushing us to give gifts to ourselves for a while now. The “women should buy themselves diamonds” campaigns come especially to mind. In this new model, the emphasis is on the recipient desiring things and picking them out long before the occasion of the gift exchange happens, or desiring things and picking them out long after the exchange happens, in the case of the gift card. Where before the gift-opening moment was about recognition of the relationship between the giver and the receiver, now it is about pure potentiality --- the anticipation of whatever future purchases that gift card will become.

How to get out of this consumer trap, I don’t know. What this has to do with my graduation, I don’t know. I do know that I have been hassling my family both immediate and extended to come to the graduation, and behave in ways I want them to behave. Sure, it would be nice to get gifts --- especially because I’m not moving on from graduating into an immediate secure job (but most of the stuff I need to replace is big and expensive anyway so, meh) --- but what I’ve been pushing for from my family has been more about recognition: I want them all to be there and stand around while everyone takes my picture and pay attention to me with me being the focus of everything. I have a lot of specific demands for them and they all revolve around these ritualized, theatrical moments of recognition, and some of my family, which doesn’t like parties or crowds or these types of moments, has been reacting with “oh, do we really need to be there, do we need to do all of that, can’t we just send you gifts and you bring back the pictures” statements.

It’s funny --- I do know lots of people who didn’t attend their own graduation or walk in the ceremony because they “weren’t interested” or “just don’t care about that sort of thing” or who felt that any celebration they did would be private and more meaningful to them that way. It’s just odd that my whole family is like that except me, and I want the party and the nice dinner and the posed picture in front of the school mascot and the ceremonial hooding and the flashy whatever. I’m not really into the gifts (and yet I can be incredibly picky with getting gifts particularly regarding my family's bad sense of taste, so I can’t say I’m above the gift-registry mentality) and the idea of being handed money or gift cards in this situation squicks me out.

So, yes. Not filthy lucre but unmitigated adoration is what this cog desires, for she is a jealous Cog and requires many sacrifices of time and effort and offerings of photographs and silly hats. And dinner at that nice steak place, with a fancy dessert, that would be good too.


Anonymous said...

i really agree with you about presents. that's why it's so hard for me to buy presents at the holidays, i feel it's not worth it unless it's a meaningful gift. and also why i have said i don't want to register for gift for my future imaginary wedding. it's like telling people they have to buy you presents. that you expect them, you know? i would much rather, like you, just have recognition in the form of family around me!

Maude said...

i don't mind the wedding gift/baby gift registry. here's why. especially for first weddings and first babies, they are useful because it lets people know what you'll need--not necessarily what you want. okay, really honestly, who *needs* china, but if someone or multiple people want to get you china or silver or crystal, at least they're getting you matching sets, right? plus, lots of people don't even get you what's on your registry. the registry, i think, is there for people who want to get you specific things and need help. if it weren't for the registry, we wouldn't have had a towel without holes or more than four plates.

that being said, i do think they have gotten out of control.

re: graduation. right there with you! i expect presents (doesn't matter what kind or size--even five dollars works for me--i need the physical recognition of what i've done from the family members) and dinner and people celebrating ME! selfish and a bit snotty, yes, but other than my parents (who should probably be given a round of applause for the copious amounts of $ i've borrowed and have yet to repay), dammit, i want to celebrate the moment that took me 8 friggin years to get to--"for she is a jealous [Maude] and requires many sacrifices of time and effort and offerings of photographs and silly hats. And dinner at that [Mexican restaurant I love], with a fancy dessert, that would be good too."

amen sister. amen.

dr four eyes said...

I, too, agree with you about graduation. I moved away from grad school city years before I finished, but I went back for the ceremony. Given how anticlimactic finishing the dissertation often is (and was for me), I felt like I really needed a specific event to make it real. Also, I like most events with bagpipes; I love bagpipes. And Chica took copious pictures of me, which was great. She even got a picture of my diss director yawning during the ceremony.

Susan said...

I agree that getting a Ph.D. is a big deal and it makes sense to celebrate. (My brother got his BA from the same place I got my Ph.D. the same year, so we had a REALLY big family do.

As for presents, I've never been into the gift card bit, precisely because it is giving cash, and not very thoughtful. On the other hand, my god-daughters put together wish lists of the generic type (I need a new briefcase) and I get to choose what makes sense for them. It's a compromise...

Amber said...

I know exactly how you feel. It's the recognition that you've done what you set out to do, and it's a really big deal. Which, most of the people in our private lives don't really understand the significance of finishing and how it truly is an accomplishment.

kermitthefrog said...

The gift card trap seems particularly dangerous to me, since it forces the recipient's purchases in a relatively narrow direction. Multiple gifts of cash could be combined for a large purchase, or saved toward an expected one; gift cards can't be stacked up in the same way, so you're stuck buying relatively trivial things you might not otherwise have thought of.

As for the graduation, previous commenters are right on. If you want recognition in a public (and delicious) way, then recognition you must receive!

zombieswan said...

I really enjoyed my graduation walk, although it took me soooooo long to finish my dissertation that there was NOT one person in the line who I knew. So that sucked. At least every other graduation I'd been in I could sit next to someone and make snarky comments about things with. This time, I was forced to pretend to be nice. And listen to the undergrads at my University be silly (which is what they're supposed to do but it took too long.) And it was hot.

That said, I am very, very glad to have done it. It's like the prom: if you don't do it, you'll always wonder if it could have been magical.

And the speaker was surprisingly interesting/entertaining.

On gifts: I didn't expect any, and was sort of embarassed when someone gave me one. That wasn't the point for me telling them about it. That's what bugs me about too many of the wish list games-- why should I put my wishlist on my blog for perfect strangers to buy me stuff?

But then, when I do pointedly tell my mom that instead of buying me something I'll never use she could look at my library widget and get something I'll actually treasure, she doesn't do it and goes on Overstock and gets me things I'll put in a closet.

She's good at buying the babies things though.

I like gift cards. And can't you combine them? Add them all up into one purchase if they're at one place?

moria said...

I'll come to your graduation, Cog (a little Cali would go a long way to healing my Albion-sick soul). And not only will I bring you original, hand-made, personalized presents -- I will also throw things at all the other new-minted degree-holders. And heckle.

I'm not sure I even get a ceremony for my MA. I sure as hell hope I get a hood. All I really want out of this, honestly, is a hood. Because I, like you, am all about the ceremonial gestures that everyone else seems to find rather empty.

Earnest English said...

I'm totally for the graduation celebration -- and frankly can't imagine anyone who suffered through the dissertation not wanting to have the celebratory moment, just to get a sense of closure. Also, since my doctoral institution had a special doctoral hooding (I didn't go to graduation, where they just have graduates stand up and don't even get the diploma moment), it was wonderful to have my advisor there rearranging my hood. That was awesome and totally needed. I'm also totally for the big dinner. But I'm also for the presents, including cash. When I graduated, I was soooo poor and owed money all over town. When my dad gave me a graduation bear holding a nice whopping check -- well, I didn't think it lacked thought or caring or personalization. It was exactly what I needed.

About wedding registry stuff: back in the day when I married that first dude I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, we registered. This did not at all prevent people from getting us whatever dishes they wanted. So we had a set of four of these blue speckled things -- and couldn't get more because they had gotten it at some small place that when we called, they didn't pick up the phone. Personally, i think the most wonderful wedding presents are handmade -- an artist giving the couple a wonderful piece of her/his art, for example. Of course not all of us are so gifted, but that's what I prefer. Baby registries I'm totally in favor of, for the reasons that Maude said earlier -- it's what you need rather than some cool thing that you might want but what's the use of having a rose-shaped rattle if you don't have the baby-changing table. These thoughts are uppermost in my mind -- for reasons you'll have to visit my blog to find out!

Renaissance Girl said...

I confess that the whole registry thing leaves me cold, especially when wedding invitations come with the little card inside advising the addressee where s/he can buy stuff. That just seems like a public beg for gifts, rather than an invitation to share in the happiness.

Not too long ago, a friend of mind received a wedding announcement (not invitation) a year after the fact which said, essentially, "We're delighted to let you know that we were married last year on August 10. In lieu of a gift, please contribute to our mortgage fund c/o Wells Fargo..." etc., etc. Blah. I'll take my chances, and be thrilled to get homemade potholders.

Quiche said...

I sent you an email--if you are in my area let me know.

Dr. Brainiac said...

I'm with you on the graduation celebrations. They are good and I recommend them highly. Mine lasted about ten days including road-trip style travel to and from the city where the festivities were held. People in my fan club threw a dinner for me at a fancy steak place and the whole time we were there, I could barely move without someone buying me a drink. I don't think my BAC was below .08 the whole time. -And, I got loads of presents, most of them brain or psychology-related, including Freud finger puppets and a funny little desk plaque that my father had made that reads Dr. (Insert my real name here), Ph.D. So all I can say is celebrate - hard. You've earned it.

gwoertendyke said...

i missed my ceremony because there was no way i could attend it AND my defense, but then, i lived far away from my institution. i kind of wished i could have gone especially when i heard that they announced my award (why, i asked, when i wasn't in attendance, but oh well). even though i missed the hooding i had massive celebrations in two states with family and friends--much wine was consumed, many fabulous meals, lots of laughter. i ate it all up.

celebrate--it is such a major accomplishment and a huge relief. i cannot remember ever feeling so light and really proud of myself. embrace and enjoy! i wish i lived closer to you, i would absolutely cheer insanely for you.

Bardiac said...

Dang, I wish I could lend you my family! They're really into celebrations and stuff.

Sisyphus said...

There will be bagpipes at the commencement ceremony??? Right on! The only thing that would be better would be if I got my own set in school colors.

And yeah, my place has a graduate student only graduation, which is nice --- nicer than my undergrad one where they said "Where are the English majors? Stand up! You're graduated! Now Engineering..." I didn't really mind then though since I had had most of a bottle of champagne beforehand ---- and my expected blood alcohol level this time is a major reason why I won't be liveblogging the event.

Mine lasted about ten days including road-trip style travel to and from the city where the festivities were held. People in my fan club threw a dinner for me at a fancy steak place and the whole time we were there, I could barely move without someone buying me a drink.

Now this kind of pilgrimage-slash-rock star arena tour I could really get into! I'm going to have to work more on beefing up my entourage and possibly working in some sort of royal progress, with blessing people by the wayside and whatnot as well.

I'll take my chances, and be thrilled to get homemade potholders.

Oh, I don't know --- I don't have the time to make something really nice and handmade for others and my family has such terrible taste that I am leery of handmade stuff, especially potholders. And my sister has promised to crochet me an afghan, which, remembering how she had so much trouble with the Quilt of Much Ugliness of 1985, I'm not particularly excited anticipating it.

Now if I were only done! Let me tell you, senioritis has nothing on end-of-PhD-itis!