A perfect collection of birthday presents

Yesterday was an especially delightful today for me. It was my birthday, and the gifts that I were given were brilliant.

It started off in the morning with Elysha. Her family has always given their gifts at the crack of dawn, which was decidedly different than the after-dinner gift giving that I was accustomed to for all of my life, but I’ve decided not to fight this tiny bit of crazy.

She’s excited. I get it.

Elysha gave me two gifts:

  • Tickets to the 20th anniversary tour of Rent, a favorite of mine. I saw Rent at least three times with the original cast when it debuted back in the late ‘90’s at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway, and I can still sing all the song by heart.

I was thrilled.

  • A portrait of Kaleigh, my best friend who passed away in 2018. Elysha sent photos of Kaleigh to an artist who produced a beautiful rendition of my little friend of more than 17 years.

    She always finds a way to make me cry with her gifts.

Then I went to school and was greeted by my students who gave me some entirely unnecessary but delightful gifts. One student gave me a handmade ceramic bowl with a card telling me that I was to keep paperclips in the bowl for those moments when I might need to throw them at students.

Another student asked me what I wanted for my birthday earlier in the week, and my list included a bucket of kittens, a time machine, a lifetime supply of cheeseburgers, an addition to my home, a robot, and a cage to hang over my desk to imprison naughty children..

So she built me the cage.

Using baling twine and wooden hoops, she created a perfect replica of the kind of cage that the witch in Hansel and Gretel stuffed the children into as she prepared to cook them.

I immediately hung it over my desk, much to the delight of my kids.

A few hours later it was time for lunch. I’m a member of a secret birthday club at school, and my friend, Wendy, revealed that she was my birthday buddy. My gift was a surprise lunch, complete with a white table cloth, birthday centerpiece, Chipotle burrito, and my good friend and former colleague Rob Hugh.

She gave me time with my friend. An hour to catch up and eat.

What a perfect gift.

When I arrived home later that day, I was greeted by my in-laws, who had spent much of the day with our kids. They handed me a renewed membership to the kids’ favorite museum, where they had spent much of the afternoon, and had so many kind things to say about how well behaved and polite our kids were throughout the day.

Future fun with the kids and the knowledge that they had a great day together… I can’t imagine a better gift.

I’m not the kind of person who gets excited over gifts. I’m a minimalist at heart who doesn’t really care much about things. But yesterday I received the things that I value most:

Experiences. Originality. Creativity. Thoughtfulness. The happiness of my children. Storyworthy moments.

Every single gift that I received fit at least one of these categories. It was a day filled with beautiful gestures of kindness and generosity.

I couldn’t be more thankful.

The two birthday gifts you should be asking for above all others

My birthday is approaching.

My wife often asks me for possible gift ideas, as I can be a difficult person when it comes to presents. I am much more interested in eliminating things from my life than adding to it. The accumulation of stuff does not interest me. In fact, if someone would just agree to clean out the the extra furniture from my basement and remove the bins of clothing on the second floor of my home, that might be the best birthday gift of all.

But if cleaning out my basement doesn't strike you as a reasonable gift, there are two things that I want more than anything else, and I humbly suggest that you consider them as gift ideas for yourself as well. 

I promise you that they are far superior to any cashmere sweater, shiny trinket, or electronic gadget that you think you may want. 

Time

Truthfully, the best gift of all is the gift of time, and it's not a terribly difficult or expensive gift to give. In the past, my wife has hired people to cut the grass, rake the leaves, and shovel the driveway, thus returning this precious time to me.

Other options for the giving of time include babysitting my children, digitizing my photo albums, walking my dog, mulching my flower beds, bringing my car to the shop to get that light on the dashboard checked out, renewing my passport, determining the contents of the boxes in my attic, correcting all my spelling tests for a month, or offering to complete any task or chore that I would otherwise have to do myself. 

Your list would be different, of course Hopefully it doesn't include a warning light on your dashboard or mystery boxes in your attic. But I'm sure you can think of things that you would rather not do that a friend or family member is more than capable of accomplishing on your behalf.

I know what you're thinking:

"Matt, I'd rather mow my own grass and receive that cashmere sweater instead." 

"I'd rather complete the mountain of paperwork required to renew my passport myself and open a brand new iPad on my birthday."

"I'm more than happy to shovel my driveway. Give me that new Fitbit/star finder/water purification device that I have wanted for months."

No. I'm sorry, but you're wrong. I know it may seem presumptuous to tell you what you want, but trust me. I know. I know the difference between what you want and what you think you want, and the two could not be more different.

Studies repeatedly show that money spent on experiences generates far greater happiness than money spent on things. The gift of time is the gift of an experience otherwise lost to a mindless or meddlesome chore. It's the opportunity to play with your kids or enjoy dinner with a friend or read a book or watch a movie.  

I promise you that when you are lying on your death bed, surrounded by all of your material possessions - your stuff - your greatest regret will be the time you could've spent with friends and family. At that moment, the gift of time will mean more to you than anything else. 

It should mean that much today. Don't wait until it's too late to appreciate it.

Honestly, you don't need any more clothing or jewelry or electronics. 

You could do without the device that clips to your belt or fastens to your handlebars or makes imaginary things explode when you click the right combination of buttons. 

The thing you should crave - more than anything else - is time.  

Knowledge

Coming in a close second to time (and in many ways its first cousin) is the gift of knowledge. Find a way to teach me to do something that I’ve always wanted to do but never could or haven’t had time yet to learn. 

Either teach me yourself or find someone who can do it for you.

We all go through life wishing that we could do more. Accomplish more. Achieve more. This is a gift that would allow a person to take one small step closer to those dreams. 

For me, it's meant sending my wife to a cooking or an art class. 

For my wife, it's meant buying me an hour with a professional poker player or an afternoon with a golf instructor. 

In these instances, we walk away with nothing material but something far more valuable: The gift of knowledge. The acquisition of a skill. A slight improvement in an area that means a great deal to us. 

Far more valuable than a pretty scarf or a new sweater. 

In case you're thinking of giving me a birthday gift this year, here is the list of things I want to currently learn:

  • Change the oil in my car 
  • Hit my driver longer and more consistently
  • Install replacement windows in my home
  • Manage my photo library on my Mac
  • Wire my television for the best combination of sound and on-demand and/or cable programming
  • Strike-through lines of text in SquareSpace without having to learn how to code
  • Remove the occasional burst of static and background hum during the recording of my podcast