Sean McHugh: The ukulele deception: Twists of gift-giving


My girlfriend is difficult to shop for; not because it's hard to find things that she wants, rather the opposite, in fact.

The situation in which I find myself in the weeks before her birthday, Christmas, our anniversary, or the bonus Christmas we celebrate in midsummer, is to talk her out of buying an item I have bought for her, without letting on that I have already bought it.

In the past, I have needed to employ intricate webs of deception in order to prevent her from buying a present that I already have hidden in my dresser. My usual tactic is to stall, recommend that we put off the purchase for a little while in order to better research the decision.

Just over a year ago, we were looking at tablet computers. She was going to a conference in the Middle East and wanted something she could use to Skype home without lugging her often unreliable laptop with her.

We spent at least a week in and out of Best Buy, Staples, and Target testing out different platforms and comparing prices until going back to the abacus started to seem like a better idea.

It was at this point that an email from Amazon appeared in my inbox in a puff of brimstone and offered me a cheap tablet. I jumped at the chance and soon the gift was hidden in the most secure way I could think of: in a drawer under a sign that said "Your presents are under here. Don't look at them."

However, simply telling her that I had found the item that she so desperately sought would have violated all of the laws of gift-giving. As such I had to talk her out of buying a tablet that she wanted without raising suspicions.

So I had to complain that I was getting burnt-out on all the tablet hunting, which was true, and suggest that waiting until after Christmas might be more economically sound.

This year is more difficult. Our fourth anniversary was this week and it was going to be a fairly simple evening. I would go out to meet her at school after I got out of work and we would go out for dinner. I was thinking I'd get her some earrings, and maybe something else if I thought of it.

Then on Saturday I called her on my lunch break.

"I want to learn to play the ukulele," she said.

And with that I knew what to get her. I knew a music store that I was pretty sure had at least one. I could go there before work on the anniversary and surprise her with it that night. It was the perfect gift, if I could give it to her before she bought one herself.

When I came home that night she had been looking at ukuleles online, learning ukulele tabs, and watching ukulele videos.

"I think I should order one tonight," she said.

"But wouldn't you rather shop local?" I quickly deflected. "We could go together."

"Then I can't have a ukulele until next Saturday morning!" she complained.

"I think you can wait a week," I said. "And besides, that will give you time to figure out what type you want."

"You just don't want me to have one because you think I'll play it all the time when you're trying to work and sometimes in the bathtub."

I assured her that I was not opposed to her owning a ukulele, but that I felt we might not be ready for it.

"Are you just saying this because you were going to get me one as a surprise for our anniversary?" she asked.

I had not expected a straight up question on the subject. Her exuberance was reaching critical mass if she had passed the point where you forget that typically you don't ask a person what they are getting you.

Calling on Loki, Anansi, and the Coyote Spirit for aid in my deception, I attempted to divert her once more.

"If I were planning to get you one," I began, floundering for a second half of that statement, "why would I have said we could go get one this weekend?"

It felt like a flimsy rational but the trickster pantheon was with me, and she accepted my excuse.

"Fine," she conceded. "I'll check out a loner from the music department in the meantime. Now come listen to this ukulele cover of the Mario Brothers theme."

The anniversary rolled around and I managed to pull it off. We only own one ukulele.

But it makes me wonder what lengths I'll need to go to next time.

Write to Sean McHugh at


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