The Thoughtful Art of Gift-Giving


The Christmas of my eighth year, I woke to a beautifully wrapped present from my grandmother under our Christmas tree. Inside was a neat, ironed pile of my dead grandfather’s dress shirts. I smiled and told her how much I loved them.

Later, in my room, I cried like the kid I still was. I didn’t want my dead grandfather’s shirts! I could barely handle his funeral five months before, let alone the concept of death. But the lesson was burned in my mind: You have to put on a good face when you receive a gift from someone who loves you — no matter how much you might hate it.

Now, I’m not claiming to be a perfect gift-giver. Over the years, I’ve been guilty of buying terrible presents for loved ones, specifically significant others. Is there anyone harder to buy for than the person you’re sleeping with? There was the gym membership for the guy I thought could stand to lose a few pounds (I know, shameful). The handwritten “coupon” for a massage (What am I — 5?). Or the set of comedy DVDs for the guy I didn’t think was funny enough. The main mark of the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Gift is the one that comes with implicit instructions: “Take this, use it, and maybe I’ll like you better.”

When I told my girlfriends about my wide-ranging experience of giving (and receiving) A-plus prezzies and total flops, they shared their own lessons on the Fine Art of Thoughtful Gift-Giving. Here’s what I learned.

1. Putting someone else’s needs over your own is the greatest aphrodisiac.
I love my friend Kerry Coddett’s story about how her boyfriend showed just how well he knew her in the form of an epic weekend getaway.

“I’m a wild party animal, but my boyfriend doesn’t drink or smoke,” she says. “As soon as we got to the hotel, he arranged for our room to have all my favorite snacks, drinks, cigarettes — he even got me a cute to-go cup so I could take my booze with me! It means the world that we’re so different, and yet he doesn’t judge me for the things I like to do.”

She’s shown herself to be just as tender — and crafty. “There was this PBS documentary called Eyes on the Prize that my boyfriend watched as a kid, and much of his worldview was shaped by it. I was able to track down the DVD box set at a store that only sold to teachers … by pretending to be one.”

2. There’s nothing worse than the regift.

Actually, scratch that. There is one: the straight-up, admitted-to regift.

My friend Maggie Serota has one of my favorite stories about the extreme thoughtlessness on the part of a significant other. “My ex bought this really nice Mecca track jacket — we were ravers, shut up — for this girl he had a crush on before he met me,” she says. “One day, he handed me the jacket and said, ‘I bought this for [whatever the girl’s name was, I forget] ’cause I liked her, but you can have it.’ I took it because it was a nice jacket, but still gave him a piece of my mind.”

3. If it says, “Look at me,” it’s the worst gift of all.
Sam Escobar provided me with an epic tale of a truly shitty offering. “My ex is a musician and somehow managed to hit that special intersection of ‘not very good’ and ‘extremely performative,’” Escobar says. “He once wrote a song that he claimed was ‘about’ me, but it was painfully obvious that he only wrote it so he could sing it in front of people at my birthday party. In reality, the song related to nothing in our relationship, and I’m pretty sure he wrote it before he met me … about his previous partner.”

4. Practicality is key.
Publicist Dara Avenius is often ushered to A-list parties for her job, and she recalls the perfect present from an ex. “I was having a bad day, and she surprised me with a pair of earrings,” Avenius says. “She knew I was reworking my wardrobe and looking for accessories that I could wear for the many red-carpet events I had to attend. It was clear she’d studied my style and came up with earrings that fit me so well.” Contrast that with another bestowal of accessories that was a major fail — and you’ll see why. “A girlfriend gave me a symbolic piece of jewelry (not an engagement ring, just a particular symbol that matched a tattoo of hers), which would be fine if she hadn’t given something similar to her ex — and the person she dated after me!”

5. There is so much romance in the “I’ve been holding on to this for years” gift.
Take my friend Sylvia Haider, who met her husband through work. Early in their relationship as colleagues, she says, “In an abysmal attempt to be funny, I started making up a story about ninja donkeys who would defend damsels in distress. The story flopped and was never mentioned again.”

Years later, when they were a couple, she says, “For the holidays, he gave me a crimson silk book with an illustrated 20-odd-page story about our relationship evolution centering around a ninja donkey (him) and a damsel (me). He’d been working on it for months (story line, rough drafts, illustration, coloring, etc.). He remembered every detail I made up during our initial conversation, researched and referenced my cultural background into it as well.” This beautiful labor of love, she says, is still her most valuable possession.

6. Impracticality can be insanely sweet.
Quinn Sutherland describes the first Christmas she spent with her boyfriend. “He knew I really wanted a Christmas tree, but we lived in an insanely small studio apartment,” she says. “He insisted, saying he’d bring home a little tree.” Cut to later that night, when her boyfriend called and asked her to come open the door. “He and a friend dragged this enormous tree up into our tiny home,” she says. “We only had about three ornaments, and the branches hit our knees when we sat on the sofa, but I didn’t care. I loved it, and loved that he wanted me to have a proper tree.”

7. If you’re feeling down about a disappointing gift, you’re not alone.
Twenty years ago, my friend Alison Freer received a trash can (yes, a trash can) from her then-boyfriend, complete with a cheap stick-on bow. “He goes, ‘It’s a trash can,’ as if I was partially sighted,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Thank you,’ while thinking the whole time, I’m going to dump you.”

Fair enough. Because if you give a garbage present, you’re guaranteed a garbage reaction.

This tip is for both men and women: exfoliate before shaving.

If you exfoliate before shaving will change your shaving experience drastically. Not only is regular gentle exfoliation good for your skin—especially the skin on your face—but it can give you a more productive and comfortable shave. Exfoliation clears the layer of dead skin cells and oils that naturally build up on your skin and has a host of benefits for a healthy complexion and fresh, healthy skin.

What this means for your shave is that there is one less barrier between your razor and a stunningly close shave. Think of it this way: your razor is gliding over your skin. As it goes, it is clipping the base of hairs where they come out of your skin—it’s not rocket science. But if there is a layer of shed skin cells then your razor has to work double time to get you the close shave that you’re looking for.

Regular exfoliation also reduces the chances of ingrown hairs, those painful and unsightly bumps that crop up when hair curls back on itself under your skin.

Find shaving brushes here.

Guys, did you know that facial hair can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water?

Facial hair, once swollen and waterlogged, loses resilience and puts up less of a fight against your razor. Showering before shaving is essential, and it is a good idea to spend a minute just dousing your beard hairs in hot water. What this means for you once you get started is squeezing every ounce of sharpness out of your razor and getting that great one pass shave. Think about this: if you have to make multiple passes on tough hairs, how long is your blade going to stay sharp?

Speaking of sharpness, contrary to popular belief, it is in fact dull blades that cause the most nicks, cuts, and scrapes—always use a sharp blade and a quality razor. Part of the reason is that finely honed blades will develop an uneven edge as they dull. You may not be surprised to find out that uneven is the opposite of smooth. Plus, instead of cutting through hairs, dull razors are often deflected off of them and as a result, they nick your skin.

If you are noticing that you have to press harder with your razor or it’s not cutting your facial hair well then simply change the blade. Incidentally, this is why quality razors have heavy handles; you should not be placing pressure on the razor while you shave. Multi-blade razors can be a little more forgiving but the same principle applies—don’t apply any pressure to your razor and let its weight pull it across your face.

So, fill your facial hair with water and brush on a good shaving cream. Find brushes here.

The Case against Foaming Creams

Why canned shaving creams are not worth the savings.

If you walk into any store that sells personal care items you will see shelf upon shelf of canned foaming shave creams. What many men (this also applies to women) don’t realize is that the cuts, nicks, and irritation that they assume are a normal part of the shaving process are really the product of using inferior shaving creams. They blame irritation on their razor, or they assume that they simply haven’t found a cream that ‘works with their skin’ yet. While there are reasons why your razor may be irritating your skin, more often than not, simply changing away from canned foaming creams will radically change your shaving experience.

Canned Shaving CreamThe Canned Option

What you may not realize about what comes out of your shaving cream can is mostly air. The parts that aren’t air are a bunch of chemicals and the rest is water. Then what pumps it out of the can is usually either butane or propane. No matter the manufacturer, the basic formula is roughly the same:

  • Stearic Acid
  • Triethanolamine
  • Lanolin
  • Glycerin
  • Polyoxyethylene sorbitan monostearate
  • Water


The result is that canned shaving creams are soapy and heavily perfumed. They sit compressed in the can until a dose of butane shoots the mixture out. When you watch the cream expand, it is the material soaking in air. When you apply the chemical cocktail to your face, everything that isn’t in contact with your skin is essentially wasted.

This means that the Santa beard your fast foaming shave cream gives you is mostly wasted product, and the product that is actually doing its job is mostly air. To review, shaving cream is meant to lubricate your skin so that your razor can glide across it. If there is an inch or more of product on your face then the excess isn’t doing anything for you.

Plus, on the microscopic level, that ‘rich’ lather is only given its structure through copious amounts of air. Air, of course, doesn’t protect your skin in any way. As a result, nicks, scrapes, and cuts are more common—no matter how sharp your blade is.

The convenience of the propellant in the can also means that users grow accustomed to shaving without a shave brush. While a shaving brush isn’t strictly necessary for a successful shave, a premium brush will greatly improve your shaving experience and your razor longevity. When a shaving brush is used correctly (applying cream in a circular motion) facial hair is raised and coated with lather. Your razor’s job is easier, and you will have a more uniform layer of protection for your skin.

The slender can, while convenient, if not properly recycled, contributes to landfill waste, and the production of cans is a more energy and materials intensive process than alternatives. Cases of cans cannot be shipped as effectively, that is to say that the number of units that can be fit on a truck is less than that of alternatives. There a numerous reasons why canned creams are simply inferior to non-foaming options.

Why Canned?

So if canned creams are so terrible, why do people buy them, and why are they even still made?

It comes down to money. Despite the waste, canned creams are still very inexpensive, and they make tremendous amounts of money for their manufacturers. At the end of the day, using a canned cream is better than using no shaving cream at all, but in many cases a bar soap will produce similar, if not superior, results.

Canned shaving creams, in addition to being very affordable, are also very accessible. Even grocery stores carry a wide selection of brightly colored and ubiquitous creams from name brands. In all fairness, some of the gel options are additionally convenient as they produce a clear lather which means that trimming, edging, and shaping of facial hair is easier.

990SThe Non-foaming Alternatives

Leaving the can on the shelf and investing in some non-foaming, high lather shaving cream will dramatically change your shaving routine. Non-foaming options have a myriad of benefits and tend to rely on more natural ingredients. Instead of using a charge of propane or butane, the lather is created by hand with a shaving brush. A high quality brush will retain an impressive amount of water to create a rich lather that clings to your skin preventing extensive waste and ensuring that your skin is well protected.

Because they don’t need to be compressed, non-foaming creams can come in a variety of containers. Tubes, applicator sticks, and shallow screw-lid containers to name just a few. Invariably, these containers require fewer materials than the production of aluminum cans and are more readily recyclable. My personal favorite are the shallow screw-lid containers because they offer a generous amount of surface area to grab a bunch of product with my brush.

In lieu of a cocktail of chemicals, these non-foaming creams—sometimes called soaps, butters, and pastes—often rely on more natural ingredients that are less harsh on skin. Many canned creams are heavily perfumed, the exception being those labelled ‘sensitive skin’. It is not uncommon for the dyes and perfumes in canned creams to further irritate sensitive skin. Remember, the act of shaving can remove as many as two of the uppermost layers of skin making it more vulnerable to irritation.

When applied with a quality brush, a non-foaming cream a quality brush, a non-foaming cream will raise facial hair and coat skin with a rich lather for a smooth and irritation free shave, whether you use a single blade or a cartridge razor. Check out this article to learn more about the difference.

The Disadvantages

Everything has a downside. The downsides to using non-foaming creams are largely convenience based. Compressed and canned creams are convenient, no question. Working up a suitable lather with a quality non-foaming cream, while a quick process with a premium brush, takes more time than using compressed creams. The non-foaming alternatives are often more expensive as well, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot.

My opinion is that the few extra bucks are worth it for the dramatic reduction in skin irritation that non-foaming creams offer but that’s a value judgement. My guess is that if you try a non-foaming cream you won’t want to go back, and combine that with a premium razor and a quality shaving brush and you will find yourself looking forward to shaving in the morning. Your skin will definitely thank you, and if you are in the habit of accepting thanks, consider giving a friend the gift of an astonishingly smooth shave. Check out our assortment of classically styled premium shaving tools for a shave that you will brag about.

Until next time, stay slick, stay stylish, and stay smooth.