If there existed a way to bottle and sell the ability to pick the perfect birthday card, I would make millions. It seems so simple at first, as there are entire stores dedicated to helping us tell people how we feel without actually telling them ourselves. This, I’m convinced, is nothing new. Since the dawn of time we have used poetry, songs, flowers, chocolates, small furry animals to communicate what is not easily communicable by words. In matters of the heart, greeting card companies know that we need them, and they capitalize on this need without mercy. Allow me to paint you a picture:
You go to get a greeting card knowing what you want, or at least having a good idea. You peruse the cutesy cards first. They are succinct cards that skip right to the point. “Happy Birthday” reads the front with a picture of a duck wearing a party hat. In real life, animals showing up at your birthday celebration unplanned would be terrifying, but adorned in human clothing and appearing in theory on a card, that is cute. The inside will inevitably make a joke pertaining to the duck and almost always comes from the point of view of the duck him/herself (who can tell?) You’re tempted to write beneath the inside text “I agree with this duck that your birthday should be a ‘quackin’ good time’” since my choice of card basically says “I couldn’t decide what to say to you, so I employed the help of waterfowl for $2.99 plus tax. My poetry is no match for his.”
Then there are cards that lay it all out with such verbosity that anything you add would sound trivial or insufficient. You really hate writing “You’re the best” after a folded-out Maya Angelou poem has just declared the sun rises and sets on the card recipient’s immortal glory. It’s like going up to someone who won the lottery and saying “How about a re-gifted scented candle? You diggin’ it?” It is the very dictionary definition of anticlimactic.
Plus, as added mental anguish, you feel uncomfortable bestowing the card upon someone if you can’t agree with every hailing accolade. I find myself reflecting back on my friendship thinking “Do you I really see this person as ‘the gift of friendship embodied beyond my wildest imaginings’ as the card says? I mean, they’re great and all, but I was kind of mad when they didn’t give me my hoodie back.” Nowhere do you find a card that says “Sometimes you tick me off but for the most part I consider us close enough to acknowledge you with something more cementing than the duck card.” No, sadly, with card, it is all or nothing.
You find it. You find the perfect card, it says it all better than we could ever dream of saying it. It was written neither by a poet laureate or a duck, it even sounds like how you want to sound. Then you glance up above its place in the card rack and see “From Us”. This is a dark moment indeed, because you know that there is no “us”. It’s just you. For a few seconds, you flip through the mental rolodex of mutual friends and try to think of someone who can go in with you on this. Joint cards from friends of the same gender look funny, and joint cards with friends of the opposing gender start rumors. You’re not too keen on writing “From me and…my mom/cat/bird/mailman/dentist” and so the card gets put back in its place and the search starts all over again.
To make matters worse, you find it very hard to stay on mission as you begin to see how greeting card companies have interpreted the complicated network of human relationships. You see…
- Happy Birthday From Dad’s Girlfriend
- Happy Birthday From Niece-in-Law
- Happy Birthday From Neighbor
- Happy Birthday from Coworker
- Happy Birthday From Pet
- We’re Sorry You’re Moving
- We’re Happy You’re Moving
- Congratulations on the New Job
- Sorry for Your Recent Job Change
- Condolences on Your Divorce
Then you see more cards that make you even more confused….
- Happy 4th of July From Mailman
- Congratulations on Your Record Number of Facebook Friends
- Happy Birthday From (secretly in love) Coworker
- (You will) Get Well Soon From Psychic
- Happy ¼ Birthday From Your Stalker
- Congratulations on Weight Loss/You’re Missed From Cold Stone Creamery
- Congratulations on Your Parole
- Condolences on Your Denied Parole
- Condolences on Your Recent Twitter Hack
This is when you’ve had enough of these companies and go the route of the purist. You head to the Blank Cards section and attempt to take matters into his own hands. Then it becomes all about the picture. If there is a garden on the front, you feel the need to tie it in with your message. If there’s an animal, you stress awkwardly that you’re not comparing the recipient to a cow/horse/chicken/koala bear in any way. In the midst of all this, you can feel the stare of a thousand Hallmark ducks and poets whispering: “You think you can do better, don’t you? Just try. You’ll come back to us.” And you usually do go back, overwhelmed by choices and with a thousand words and pictures swimming in your head, you feel like you’re at an adolescent magic show having to pick a card, any card, any card at all.
You find one. You’re almost out. That’s when you notice that there are no envelopes left for that card. How can this be? You think, for this makes no mathematical sense at all. You then go about the same practice that screwed you in the first place, you find a similarly shaped and sized card and substitute its envelope for the one you’re missing, realizing in some unexhausted corner of your mind that you have placed another innocent card-buyer in your same predicament. But in the greeting card world, it’s every man for himself. You finally check out of the store. “No” you utter, dry-mouthed when asked if you’d like to save 10% with your membership card. You just want out.
As I said, cards aren’t easy. And yet they are an unavoidable part of our culture since the very first love note was scratched upon a cave wall and pieces of wooly mammoth carcasses were stuffed into heart-shaped boxes for prehistoric Valentine’s Day. And yet the great irony is this, that when the seal of a card is opened and read, the question in the recipient’s mind is always, without a doubt: It was nice of them to think of me, but cash would have been way better.