Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Culture & Trends · On Psychology

How to Give a Terrible Gift

Most people think they’re pretty good at gift giving. I know I do.

But think about it: if everyone were good – and I mean really good – at selecting just the right gift for others, would we have quite as many self-storage units, garage sales, thrift shops as we do? Wouldn’t Craig’s List just be jobs and sex, would eBay even have a business model, wouldn’t our landfills be somewhat less overflowing?

It’s true, we also populate these last-chance depots and “stuff” graveyards with items we purchased for ourselves for no longer valid reasons– self-gifting gone wrong is another story – but for the most part, the items we own and wish we didn’t came to us by way of someone else who meant well. They ushered these unwanted things into our lives with some fanfare, maybe even with a bow on top, and with a great hope that we would like or at the very least appreciate this gift. And it just didn’t work out that way. According to one study, Americans spent about $9 billion on unloved presents in a year, and  54 percent of Americans received at least one unwanted gift.

It turns out that there are ways to avoid this sorry outcome. I began to think about this when I started my little jewelry business a couple of years ago. At first, I thought I was making things that people would purchase for themselves. It eventually dawned on me that I was basically in the gift business. The first holiday season was the big hint – while I’d heard that most jewelry businesses, like many retailers, do most of their business for the year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my aching hands by December 22nd proved this conventional wisdom to me beyond doubt. While some people purchase jewelry for themselves, most buy it for someone else, either for some special occasion, but mostly for Christmas.

This launched me into an informal study of gift giving, which, did you know, has long been of interest to anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists? I also started asking people about the gifts they received (or gave) that were real doozies on the theory that you learn more from failures than you do from successes.

It turns out that good gift giving is pretty complicated. In many ways, it’s an art — no one can tell you exactly what to get someone else — but there’s a science to not totally fucking it up. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

How to Give a Terrible Gift #1: You Don’t Understand What a Gift Is.

You may think you’re buying a book, a sweater, a key chain, but in reality what you’re buying is a symbol, and what you’re doing is communicating.

Gifts are tangible symbols given in a ritualistic fashion.

I’ll get to the ritual part of this later, but let’s take the symbolic part first – gifts are objects that express something about the giver, the receiver, and the nature of the relationship between them. This is why a great gift feels super awesome to give and receive — and a terrible gift feels super shitty. If you don’t realize this, and you think it’s just about handing over a mere object, it’s hard to understand why anyone can gin up any real emotion over a material object, and especially why someone might get really upset about it.

So before you buy a present for someone, think about it: a gift isn’t just about the object that’s transferred, it’s information about how this person is seen in the world. (N.B. You may not like this, or think it’s right, or want to participate in it, but hello, you live in society and like it or not, this is how it is. More on thi later.) Are you communicating a message you think the reciever will appreciate?

For example – and this is a classic one — a stay-at-home mom once received a set of stove burner drip pans as a gift from her husband. On one level, this is a gift that made sense, and was even thoughtful in its own way — she was spending time in the kitchen, this would make her life easier. But on another, deeper level, she was struggling with other’s perceptions of not being in a professional career at that moment in her life, and this gift communicated to her that her place was in the kitchen. Which was a terrible message and therefore a terrible gift indeed. (And they are no longer married, I’m not sure if these facts are related.) Now, in a scenario in which the mom had no ambivalence about domesticity, those drip pans might have been an okay gift.

Why just an “okay” gift? I’m not going to call this a rule, because I can think of lots of exceptions, but let’s just call it this a secondary principle: The best gifts are usually something that a person would not have to buy for themselves anway – they’re removed to some extent from mere utility. They’re a little indulgence, a little frivolity. But I’ve been really pleased with useful gifts in my past, so I can’t say this is an ironclad rule. Still, whether a gifted object is useful or not, it should speak to the best part of the recepient – and convey the message that the receiver is unique, extraordinary and special to you.


How to Give a Terrible Gift #2: You Don’t Understand The Person You’re Gifting To.

Which gets to another central point: a good gift depends on knowing the recipient really, really well. We tend to overestimate our intimacy with others. If you think that might be the case, try this test in advance of a gift giving situation: go out for a meal, or a coffee, or a drink with your intended recipient. Try to guess what they’ll order. If you get it wrong — or you can’t remember the last time you were in such a situation with this person, or when you will be again — the chances of selecting a terrible gift are on the higher side.

If you’ve failed this test, the only real solution is to actually get to know a person better — or to ask someone who knows the recipient better than you do for advice. (That would mean you know the recipient well enough to know who to ask.) Or, just drop the charade and ask the intended recipient what they’d like to as a gift.

But let’s face it, the direct ask isn’t as good as figuring it out on your own. When people say “it’s the thought that counts,” the thought that goes into selecting the gift is what they actually mean. But if getting to know the people on your gift list is beyond your ken, it’s far better to ask a few questions than to give a terrible gift.


How to Give a Terrible Gift #3: You Think a Gift Card Solves Everything

But what about a gift card? (Here, I’m referring to a gift card to a specific store, not one of those that can be used anywhere – that’s really cash, and I’m going to talk about that in a minute.)

Let’s just acknowledge what gift cards are communicating — you were able to choose a store, but were not able to make a specific selection in it for this person. This can be a fine choice when you know your recipient genuinely enjoys shopping for themselves– the gift then, is the gift of shopping. Or it can be a reasonable choice when the recipient has a deep interest or knowledge in a particular area that you can’t match — for instance, a gift card to a bottle shop for someone who has a deep interest in craft beer. (While it would be even more mind blowing if you secured a rare bottle of something or other, lacking years to learn as much as the recipient, you probably would not make the right choice.) Similarly, gift cards also work for people who have collections, and they can be acceptable for perishable or consumable items.

But bear in mind — gift cards can also make terrible gifts, because you’re relying on the store you’ve selected to the communicating for you. Maybe your recipient will be happy that you think they’re the kind of person who would enjoy a shopping spree at Dress Barn or Forever 21 — or maybe not. So a gift card doesn’t exempt you from the requirement of knowing your recipient.

How to Give a Terrible Gift #4: You Default to Cash

That brings into the category of things that people give and receive that function like gifts, but are’t really gifts at all — they aren’t symbolic or communicative.

Gift registries, for instance, should be more accurately called community wealth transfers – these strip almost all the communication and symbolism out of a gift, since you don’t have to know someone at all to purchase a gift off a registry. This is why we have them in the first place – they’re ideal for giving gifts to people you hardly know. These wealth transfers are traditional at the moment of family formation, which is why we have them for engagements, weddings, new babies — and not much else. (They’re the the ancestors of Kickstarters and GoFundMes.) Your only decision is your budget, therefore, it’s a wealth transfer. Besides events in which registries are common, certain occasions are more appropriate for community wealth transfers than others – graduations, Bar Mitzvahs, confirmations come to mind.

Many gifts given by older relatives to younger ones are actually wealth transfers, even on occasions where other people are expected to give a gift. (Bear in mind, a wealth transfer doesn’t have to be a BIG wealth transfer.)

But if you’re not in a community wealth transfer situation, and you’re not the older relative of the recipient, cash is totally a cop out gift. It’s the definition of generic — you could literally leave it out on the street and anyone who found it would appreciate it. Remember, the idea of a gift is to convey that the recipient is special and unique. Most of the time, cash doesn’t do that job.

How to Give a Terrible Gift #5: You’re Actually Giving “Advice”

Tears of anguish are the worst possible outcome when you give a gift — and when criticism is cloaked as a gift, it’s almost guaranteed to produce this result. Stories I’ve heard along these lines include a gift of hand-held vacuum to a person who was repelled by the recipient’s dust bunnies,a grooming kit to an employee who’d been counseled on their personal appearance at work, a game called “Pass the Pig” designed to teach table manners to kids that left everyone in tears.

A very common sub-genre of such “gifts” relate to weight loss – an uninvited gift of a scale, or a diet book, or a gym membership.

A gift is not a opportunity to criticize, even if you think you’re improving someone’s life, and no matter how much you think your intervention will be helpful. Gifts in support of someone’s efforts at self-initiated self-improvement can be appreciated — but they are tricky. You should consider this advanced gift-giving – you need to really know the person, and have a long track record of giving excellent gifts, with few, if any, known instances of giving terrible gifts lurking in your past. And if you’ve ever had a fight with the recipient over the subject of the self-improvement they’ve now initiated, you can consider the area off-limits for gift giving forever, unless you are very specifically asked, and even then I would not.

Remember, you’re looking for a gift that communicates that a person is special, unique and extraordinary. By definition, that means true gifts can’t focus on flaws.

How to Give a Terrible Gift #6: You Don’t Know the Rituals (Or You Don’t Care.)

Rituals of gift giving are highly determined by culture, not just a national culture, but religious, family and workplace cultures too. In the pluralistic United States, our national culture on gift giving isn’t nearly as rigid as it is in other places — but that just makes things more complicated, because whatever group(s) you’re a part of have their own beliefs about ritual gift exchange. Usually these beliefs aren’t clearly articulated, and the group members haven’t thought about them too much. That’s because most people just assume their traditions are normal and shared by pretty much everyone except for some weirdos– which means it’s likely no one will explains the rules to you.

In situations where you’re the new person in a group –joining a new family via marriage is a common for instance – the chances are very high you’re going to screw things up a couple of times.

In my opinion, this is to be expected, and you should just do your best, be very aware of what’s happening around gifts and how they’re received.

There are times when you’re in a gift giving culture (a family, a workplace, a friend group), you know the rules — and you just don’t feel like doing it anymore. Maybe everyone feels that way! It’s worth having a conversation about it. But if everyone is happy with the gift giving sitch but you, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to unilaterally extricate yourself without ruffling feathers. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it – gifts given grudgingly are usually hostile and terrible. But you should just expect to receive some blowback.

Unfortunately, it seems that the person who has the highest expectations is the one who sets the standards.


How to Give a Terrible Gift #7: You Gift Out of Context

This isn’t relevant in all circumstances, but because gifts are often given in group settings, they also are communication about where the recipient stands relative to others. This is a phenomenon that parents of multiple and competitive children are well aware of. The scientific name for it is “equipollence” – you may not get the same thing or spend the same amount of money on gifts given to multiple people— but you want them to have roughly the same relative force, power, or validity.

I will never forget the Christmas in which my former in-laws got their son the usual bounty of high end gifts – a ski jacket, a stereo, a new car, I actually don’t really remember what specifically he got, but good stuff – and I got some Christmas cookies in a recycled coffee can. The contrast was stark, not just with the gifts others unwrapped under the tree, but with what I’d received from them in previous years. (And not for nothing, what I’d gotten for them – reciprocity is important in gift giving.) Of course I didn’t make a fuss, but I was hurt, and I wondered what I’d done to so severely plummet in my mother-in-law’s esteem. (She was the gift buyer at that time). My father-in-law got me a lovely gift a few days later, a repair that wouldn’t have happened had the lack of equipollance not been an injury.

So if you’re gifting in a group situation, assume a comparison will be made. If you’re in a situation where you really do want to buy a better gift for someone – like maybe it’s an office gift exchange and you actually only like one person who’s participating – arrange to give that gift privately. Even a perfectly fine gift can seem terrible in comparison to a totally awesome one received by someone else.

Pssst! Want to give a great gift everyone will love? Head to Alison Wonderland Jewelry and do your very thoughtful shopping. 





Alison Wonderland Jewelry · In the Studio · On History

On Life’s Transitions and Drooling and a New Jewelry Collection!

New Beginnings Collection

The first time I realized I was not quite prepared for new beginnings as an adult was when I noticed I was drooling on my lawyer’s polished oak conference table.

It was at the closing for the first home I’d ever bought, which was a new townhouse in Delaware. It wasn’t an expensive house as these things go, but when the real estate lawyer went over how much the mortgage was in total, with the interest and all the closing costs, this seemed to me to be an impossibly huge number — certainly the most money I’d ever committed to spend.

As he was talking, I hadn’t noticed that my jaw had gone slack. I’d forgotten to shut my mouth — I’d frozen with my pen halfway to my mouth to gnaw on it  — and I drooled a tiny puddle on the table. I wiped it with the sleeve of the olive green silk cardigan I was wearing, scrunched the sleeve a little to cover the dark spot. I don’t think anyone noticed.

I was in my mid-twenties at that point, and oh my God, life had yet to kick me around as much as it was going to. But I remember that moment as the one where it started to dawn on me that freed of the constraints and comforts of an academic calendar, adult life creates its own rhythms and seasons. Key Plate Necklace

You make a decision, or one is made for you, and suddenly you’re living in a new era. You start or end a significant relationship, you change jobs, you move house, and it’s hard to conceive of exactly how much your life will be shaped by these new intimate surroundings — even when the change is much desired and intentional. You want to live in a place with more light, in a better neighborhood, with less annoying neighbors — but that isn’t the only thing that changes, also the patterns of your life, of your sleep, of how you spend your money, what you’re interested in and what you’re not, and eventually who you are.

Change is relentless, even absent these big moves, even if you somehow lived in the same house, at the same job, with the same person, and in perfect health, for decades. There would be smaller moments and quieter, unnamed epochs. Heraclitus, who knew a thing or two said you cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing onto you. We have unquiet bones. But moments of transition definitively alter the course of that river, and it’s often easier to see the shape of that shift in retrospect.

This is what I wanted to remember in making my New Beginnings jewelry collection.  Not the twenty-something who was drooling on her lawyer’s table, exactly, but recognition and compassion for a person who is suddenly aware that her life is changing, and yes — that it is a jaw dropping moment.

These transitions are so well marked in our younger years — academically, religiously — with gatherings of friends and family and appetizers and people telling you what it was like for them, and some discussion of what the tests will be and how to prepare for them. Then we’re left to live the rest of our life being surprised that pretty much all the significant quizzes are pop, and there aren’t any more parties or speakers who tell us that commencement is both and end and a beginning. And this is exciting, but it’s also scary and worthy of recognition.

I’m beginning to post all the pieces of this collection now.  They’re all unique or one-of-a-kind pieces, about twenty in total. (I’ve got three pictured here, with some of the weirder ones still to come.) Check out my progress here.
Alison Wonderland Jewelry · In the Studio · Inspiration · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing

Extremely Beautiful Upcycling – Scraps at the Cooper Hewitt Museum

“Zero waste” is a phrase that improbably makes my heart go pitter-patter. But as soon as I saw that phrase describing the theory behind Scraps, a new exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, I knew I wanted to go and I knew I would get a lot out of it.

The exhibit looks at how three different textile artists make use of what is commonly thrown away in the garment industry. To me, the most inspiring work was that of Christina Kim, of dosa. She saw the intense amount of work that went into making the intricate textiles used in saris, and couldn’t bare to see it go to waste. This image shows how she literally uses every thread.
Scraps at Cooper Hewitt

Gah, I just love it so much!  I don’t know why I’m so attracted to making something precious out of what’s commonly considered garbage, but this has been so ever since I was a kid. Of course I was born in the 1970s, the dawning of the age of recycling. I grew up in a not especially generous household so I always wanted to make things and being able to do so out of something that was free, or nearly so, made sense.

In this phase of my life, my interest in making jewelry began with a trip to Dead Horse Bay. It’s a beach in Brooklyn that is covered in the contents of a landfill in use from the 1920s to the 1940s. The landfill popped its cap and glass and ceramic shards spewed forth. Some people find the place sad, I found it thrilling to my core. On my first visit there two summers ago, I gathered beautiful shards glass and immediately wanted to know how to wear them; I started taking jewelry classes and here we are.

In a real sense, this was the way jewelry got started in the first place — early humans discovering a pretty shell or stone and figuring out how to affix it to the body. I live in the city, so I don’t find so many shells or stones. Instead, my favorite pieces in my personal jewelry wardrobe are the ones I’ve made out of my urban discoveries.  A necklace I made using a piece of a watch band I found in Washington Square Park:

  A cocktail ring I made out of a melted plastic shopping bag:
Please don’t tell anyone my secret: I  just don’t feel terribly compelled by making jewelry out of only materials that are new and pretty.

In addition to discovering beautiful discards, I also really like the detritus I create. (There’s so much.) From working on these knot bracelets last year, I ended up with little snippets of wire that looked to me like commas, which became these punctuation necklaces

I love the idea that the work keeps building on itself, or from itself. Recycling isn’t a chore, then, it’s just something wonderful.

Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Herself · On Politics

Enter to Win a Free “Voter” Stick Pin That’s Good for Democracy


Fired up about this presidential election? You should really wear one of these pretty little vintage stick pins.  I make them with all sorts of phrases on them, but this week I’m giving away two, that say “Vote” or “Voter.” To enter the giveaway, just go over to Alison Wonderland’s Facebook or Instagram page and follow the easy peasy instructions.

Debate snacks

Politics have been described as sports for nerds. I fully embrace the nerd aspect of that description — my degree is in political science, people. You don’t want to get me started on Plato. And I do treat political events in much the same way other people treat football games. I get together to watch with friends. I make special snacks. I can’t resist showing you our spread at the Vice Presidential debate the other week, which was just the immediate fam.  (Note the cat paw at the top of the photo, my cats are very political.)  And while there is a sports-like aspect to it, let’s not forget that the outcome of the “game” actually amounts to something real. Lives can change. Lives can be improved. Lives can be lost.

When I was in elementary school, I was very inspired by a lesson on Susan B. Anthony, and decided that kids should also have the right to vote. I led a small charge on the school cafeteria, where the voting booths were set up for what I now believe was a school board election. I demanded access to the polling place, and I got sent to the principal’s office.

My 18th birthday very inconveniently occurred less than two weeks after the presidential election of 1992, which meant I missed that election. After which I entered a pious phase and decided to skip all the other local elections, because I didn’t want to pick a political party until I completed my degree and registered for a political party, so as to maintain my objectivity during my studies. This didn’t make a lot of sense, and I was confusing an important principle of journalism with that of citizenship, but hey,  I was 19. I made a lot of bad decisions.After graduating, however, I immediately registered and I simply don’t miss elections. In fact, I get a little misty when I enter a polling place. The franchise is a right and an honor that many people laid down their lives and reputations to secure for us. I am so grateful.

So go vote! Go win yourself one of these pins and by so wearing, encourage other people to vote too.  The fate of our Republic literally is in your hands.

Buy Defiant Sentiments Stick Pin – Vintage Stick Pin – Election 2016


Alison Wonderland Jewelry

On The Problem with Peddling Profanity

The Power of Profanity

A couple of days ago, I discovered that Etsy deactivated all of my Fuck This Shit products — and my Fuck Trump stick pin, because it didn’t meet their community standards. I reviewed their policies and I have to do a few things to get my products back on there — tag them “mature,” remove the curse words from the images — and I’ll get to it eventually.  In the meantime, the full collection is available on my independent website.

I get it, I really do — the whole reason why people want my Pretty Profanities collection is precisely because they’re not trying to be polite. If these words became totally accepted, there’d be no reason to have them on a bracelet, necklace or key chain to begin with. And the reality is that many, many people receive a lot of comfort — even if it’s just a chuckle — from these products.  Please see this week’s Fuck This Shit Award winner, a senior in high school fighting a life-threatening disease, if you doubt this.

However, I do chafe at censoring my images. I sawed out the vowels in the image you see here, and it’s hard for me to understand why that passes muster with community standard when every literate English speaker knows exactly which vowels are missing. Can I buy an I and a U?

It’s also a little challenging to communicate with potential customers given that the social media networks that I rely upon for that also have prudish policies. For example, when I submitted my first Facebook ad last year, it was rejected because “the image used in the ad has profane language. Such ads may offend users and lead to high negative sentiment.” (That was from the Facebook Ad Team.) Pinterest also rejected making my pins “buyable” because the image contained a “prohibited word.” Again, I get it. These are private companies that are perfectly entitled to make the rules to their own parties. But the more that social media becomes “the public square,” the more I wonder whether we need to start instituting some more free speech friendly policies.

By the way: If you know someone who’s going through a serious illness  and want to give them anything from Pretty Profanities collection — or if you are, yourself — first of all, I’m so sorry, and second of all, please use the code FUCKMORTALITY and I’ll include a FREE brass Fuck This Shit key chain with your order, to keep for yourself or to give to a member of the care team.**

Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Books · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Food & Drink · On Teaching

On Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken — and a Giveaway!

Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken


My friend Monica Bhide’s novel, Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, launches today. She’s doing a sweet giveaway to celebrate the launch, which includes two bracelets I made specifically to complement this book. Go enter! Then, what you should do is go buy the book and savor it. If you win, you can always give the extra copy to someone else as a gift. (Just think of all the good karma that will create! Although I’m sort of kidding about that, more in a moment.)

Monica is a gorgeous writer, as well as a gorgeous person. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know this, but any of students reading this will: when I teach, I always assign one of her essays. I’ve picked different ones depending on what I’m teaching at the time, but one I always return to is an essay she wrote for Bon Appetit called Save Your Recipes Before It’s Too Late, which manages to be both deeply moving and totally surprising, spanning sixty years of history and the distance between Virginia, India, and the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. If you want to know about structure, character and pacing in a personal essay, this is one to read over and over again.

Okay, back to the idea of karma. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the conception we have in the west about karma being a kind of a hall monitor in the sky, doling out tit-for-tat isn’t quite right.

To me, karma means that all of our actions and all of our thoughts have consequences, for ourselves and others, and we’re all bouncing off of these consequences, often in unexpected ways. Generally speaking, you do a bunch of good things and it’s more likely that good things will likely bounce off others and back at you.  You do a bunch of a bad shit, and generally speaking, it’s more likely bad shit will come from it. But life isn’t some kind of karma slot machine, okay? We’ve all seen people who do all kinds of good and get crapped on, and people who do all kinds of deep evil, and seem to keep chugging down the road in the Mercedes he should have never bought and doesn’t deserve. The point is, karma is complicated and the idea that we can somehow control it strikes me as both total folly and not at all related to the Buddhist tradition from whence karma came.

Anyway, if you want to read a good novel that talks about karma — and butter chicken —  go check out Monica’s book. I can’t promise you good karma from it, but definitely you won’t be generating anything bad.




Inspiration · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On New York City

On The Word on The Street

Here’s a form of traditional publishing that isn’t in trouble. 

While I confess to writing on my wooden desk in junior high and high school, I’ve never felt the urge to grafitti on bathroom stalls. But I do appreciate the reading material I’ve observed, as I go about my daily life.

I don’t have a photo of my favorite, a piece of grafitti that says “shitfuck,” because I only see it from the window of the subway, as it crosses over the East River.

But I like visiting this one:    

I realize these are technically defacements, quality-of-life diminishing property crimes, but I really appreciate these writers and their urge to communicate. That’s such an innate need. It really hasn’t changed very much since humans started writing on cave walls.