A couple days ago, two special people in my life shared a birthday. This year I attempted to make their birthday presents. Admittedly, part of the desire to go Martha Stewart stemmed from the belief that it might be a tad less expensive. But my greater reason for wanting to craft these gifts was that I simply wanted to make something.
As a Generation Y American, I’ve only known a technology-based world. The dot.com era emerged when I was in middle school, but microwaves and televisions were household staples long before Mom and Dad brought me home from the hospital. There was no need to cook meals or sew clothes or build furniture—unless it was from Ikea and came with Swedish drawings for instructions.
My all-girls college-preparatory school had 14 AP courses and a lab full of ibooks, but no classes on home-ec or metal shop. At the time, I thought such a curriculum was remarkable. Thanks to the women’s liberation movement thirty years prior, I was a career-driven adolescent and never dreamed of becoming a homemaker—a role I saw as outdated, sexist, and downright boring.
However, now that my life revolves around books and a computer screen, I sometimes yearn to work with my hands, perhaps even my whole body—some activity that involves more than fingers on a keyboard. Even more, I wish that my hours of toil would result in something tangible.
And although I’ve never taken a cooking or craft class, my mother is an artist and so I always had homemade Halloween costumes and my sister and I often constructed holiday decorations. Thus, I thought that making a birthday gift or two wouldn’t be too difficult.
But I discovered that I was woefully unprepared to take on such a task without my mother’s supervision or instruments. After Googling homemade birthday gifts, I realized that I would need a sewing machine (I don’t even own an iron) or a laminator (don’t own a printer), not to mention paint, beads, ribbons, frames, jars, a muffin tin pan or a popsicle mold. I knew homemade presents would require purchasing some materials, but I didn’t expect I would need to shell out for so many tools as well.
I scrapped the homemade gift idea and decided to make just cards. But even that was a failure. Without a printer, I relied on drug-store photo centers to produce personalized cards. I was pretty proud of the ones I fashioned—even if on a computer—but when it came time to place the order, I was charged over twenty dollars for shipping the cards. That’s a bit too much money for this aspiring elf.
In the end, I caved to the New York—nay, the American—way of life. I bought stuff and bought it quickly. While scrambling through a retail store, I realized that my quest to make something wasn’t just a desire to produce something tangible, but also a longing for a product that took time and patience. Something that was slowly crafted, rather than spewed out.
The age of information and technology has expanded the world in many ways, but it’s also contracted it by filling its spaces with cheap goods. The Internet has done for information what corporate manufacturing did for materials—prioritized quantity over quality. Thanks to email and instant messaging, I can stay in touch with friends and family across the globe. But an email always feels cheaper than a letter.
In a recession, it’s nice that I don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for clothing, household products or even furniture. But those cheap goods come at a cost. When sweeping my room, I often find screws and bolts that have fallen out of my Ikea furniture. Clothes from Forever 21 and H&M quickly lose their shape. And if I shell out for pricier name brands, most of the time I’m not paying for better quality, just better advertising. Even my music is cheaper than it once was. MP3s sold on iTunes have poor sound quality compared to CDs and vinyl.
I had hoped that my homemade gifts would be sturdy—my friends would find the presents’ value not just in their use, but in their craftsmanship. My longing to make something was born out of nostalgia for nostalgia.
Instant gratification can only be satisfied with cheap wares. Most things that I own will not last another five years. These products were made by machines—and too often sweatshop labor—to satisfy only the moment I needed them. They weren’t meant to be vestiges of memories.
I think that’s why I had qualms about purchasing a gift this time around. A present signifies the relationship between giver and receiver. I wanted to treat my friends to something that would not simply satisfy that birthday’s wish, but honor much of what all birthdays represent—a celebration of the life we have made and a hope for many productive years to come.