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The Pretty and the Practical

I’ve been married for long enough now (it will be ten years this summer!) to realize that I will never fully understand my wife. In fact I’ll never really understand women. Despite knowing Aileen for thirteen years now and despite being married to her for a decade, she’s still a mystery to me in many ways. It’s probably better this way.

Women, it seems, love to receive baskets full of smelly, pretty things they’ll never actually use. This year Aileen came home from one shopping excursion loaded down with these baskets, each of which was stuffed full of strange items I am quite sure no one will use. Ever. There were candles flavored with vanilla and candles flavored with trout. There was soap made with aloe and echinacea and moisturizer made with dolphin mucus and otter snot. And, of course, there were those little round paintball gun bullets meant for the bath that look suspiciously like candy but, as one of my children once found out, taste nothing like it. Each item had been carefully placed on a bed of shredded paper and the whole kit and kaboodle was wrapped in plastic and covered in pink ribbons. These baskets were distributed to female friends, cousins and family members and were received with much joy. Every item was dutifully examined and carefully sniffed. “Mmmmmmmm…”

I just don’t understand. I can’t understand.

Aileen received some of these baskets too. And of course she was tickled pink. She was as glad to receive a basket of this stuff as she was to give one away. She had her own baskets full of candles, soaps, and other pretty, smelly things. When the pretty and the practical collide, err on the side of pretty.

I lit one of those candles a few days ago just to see what would happen. We had just arrived home from our vacation in the States and the house had that stale smell from being closed up too long. I thought a candle might be just the thing. I believe the one I selected was supposed to smell like vanilla, walnuts and roast pork. Within moments Aileen crinkled her nose and blew it out. I think I had violated some unwritten rule by actually using the candle. I later noted that all of the soaps she had received had been carefully placed in a drawer—but not the drawer where we actually keep the soap that will some day find itself being used in the shower. Rather, it was packed away in the “other” drawer—the one we only think of cracking open if we actually run out of real soap. All this pretty pink soap has been relegated to emergency or backup status in favor of the usual Zest.

I learned something important about all of this. As we drove home after an evening of giving and receiving these smelly things, I remarked to Aileen, “But no one ever uses this stuff!” See, I’m the kind of person who is happy to get socks for Christmas. Socks are a good gift because I know I’ll use them. There’s nothing pretty or interesting about socks (or not once you get too old to wear Spiderman socks at any rate) but there’s no doubt that they’re usable. Plus, putting on new socks is one of life’s most underrated and overlooked pleasures. But it turns out that the fact that no one ever uses these smelly things is unimportant. That’s not the point, apparently. The point is that they’re pretty. Or that’s all I can figure.

As I surveyed the gifts I bought Aileen for Christmas this year, I saw that I had bought her mostly things that were practical—the second season of “Star Trek Voyager” on DVD (something else I don’t understand but I’ll leave that for another article!), some items she wanted for the house, and so on. They were good things and things she’ll use a lot, but they weren’t particularly nice or pretty things. And I can’t help but wonder if I messed up. Maybe I thrust what is probably a male-centered understanding of gift giving upon my wife. Maybe I was too practical and didn’t realize that women value prettiness at least as highly as usefulness.

I guess in the female mind the usability of the item is sometimes secondary to the way it looks. The fact that it’s pretty means more than the fact that it’s entirely impractical. I don’t really understand, but it’s something I’m going to have to keep in mind for next Christmas.