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Buying gifts for little kids ain't so easy anymore

I went shopping for an 8-year-old girl the other day.

No, no, that didn't sound very good, I don't mean that I went out to a store and inquired about how to purchase a third grader -- I mean, you can't do that right? -- but I had an 8-year-old great-niece who was having a birthday party so I needed to get out and purchase her a present. I mean, well, sure, I could've just showed up without one, but then when I'd ask for that fifth piece of cake, everybody would be like, 'Who invited him anyway?'

Well, turns out, nobody did, invite me, that is, because this was one of those modern-day affairs that were posted only on Facebook. For reasons that are entirely obstinate and stubborn -- those words mean basically the same thing but I think if I use them both it emphasizes my point that I'm right and most everybody else is stupid -- I am not a Facebook user. Yes, I understand that 2.41 billion other folks are using the social media tool, but I believe firmly that: 1.) It's a passing fad, and 2.) That's the same reason I was the only kid in fourth grade who didn't have a Hula Hoop. Then again, a lot of those smart alecks have had hip replacements, while I'm still on my original ball-and-socket joint sets. 'Nuff said.

Anyway, despite my relatives' best efforts to hide the birthday party information from 'that creepy uncle who smells like pickle juice' -- the family newsletter's description, not mine -- word leaked a few hours before the event and I now had to decide on either crashing the bash or doing what I normally do on Saturdays, which is riding around town and sneaking into strangers' parties. I mean, this was a no-brainer, here I could actually be with blood relatives -- even though most of them took out restraining orders against me after that little Thanksgiving incident involving the turkey baster and my sister's cat (wow, you wouldn't think they could jump that high). Besides, I figured there was gonna be a plateful of those little ham roll-ups with the pickles in the middle and, I sure do love those, and ... hey, maybe that's why I smell that way. Who knew? I always thought it was general lack of personal hygiene.

Like I said now, I only found out about this shindig a few hours before it began, and even though I searched my closets and my sock drawer pretty thoroughly, there wasn't a thing in the house that I could give to an 8-year-old girl and not have her whimper, 'Mommy, I'm scared.' I thought a while about wrapping up that jar of toenail clippings I keep in the desk drawer, but then I realized how much more meaningful -- and just plain full -- it will be when I present it to her for her high school graduation. I know, I can see the tears already.

Well, I don't buy gifts for many 8-year-old girls these days, so I have no idea what they like or even what's appropriate. I did text a friend and she offered some good advice, but I still figured it was best to just head down to the local bargain place and check out the toy aisle. Besides, they might be havin' a sale on those little vanilla sandwich cookies with the double creme filling. Daddy likes those.

It's surprising how much toys have changed in the years since my own kids were young. Back in the day, there were simple items like balls and stick horses, now everything has either electronic components or requires a parent to know complex computer coding algorithms just to turn it on. Instead of a cute coloring

by TRG Editor Dean Lesar

book with outlines of a puppy, now they have gender-neutral schematic pads so the 8-year-old can decide if she wants to color a princess, or a princess, if you know what I mean. About the only thing in the toy aisle that I recognized was a package of Play-Dough, but it turns out they still don't like it when you pop open a can just to smell it. Dang. I lived on that stuff when I was 6.

I knew my great-niece is into this certain brand of doll and all the accessories, and I even recognized it when I was prowling in the kids aisle like a perve with a foot fetish in the Wal-Mart shoe aisle. The trouble was, after she got a semi-trailer load of that stuff for Christmas last year, I figured there was no possible way I could find something at this small outlet that she didn't already have. (And that's one of the nice things about jars of toenails). Rather than risk a repeat, I decided I'd just take the safe way out and go with cash. That seems to have worked well with most of the women I've known.

Just to not appear as if I had made no effort at all, I did buy a squishy fish thing whose eyes pop out when you squeeze it, and some kind of an egg that you soak in water and is supposed to turn into a unicorn, and I bought a gift bag and tossed 'em in. I picked out an age-appropriate card with balloons and birthday cake images on it, tucked in a 10-spot and figured I had done OK. Well, at least OK enough to qualify for some confetti cake, and maybe even one of those panda-face cupcakes. Daddy likes those. After arriving at the party, I set my gift bag on the table and was pleased to realize that it blended in just fine. In no way could anyone look at that particular bag and say, 'Oh, there's the one from Uncle Pickle Breath,' and, as a matter of fact, it's the first one my great-niece selected when the gift-opening time arrived. Well, sure, all the other ones were larger, kids always go with the biggest one last, but I had shrewdly taped three miniature Hershey candy bars to the outside of my presentation. And who says I don't know how to lure little girls ...

Well, to make a short story long enough to fill this week's space allotment, I'll just say that my gift went over quite well, and the birthday girl was seen several times later that day with the squishy fish in hand. I mingled with the adults at the party and only once thought maybe I heard a whisper from the living room saying, 'It was only on Facebook. I don't know how he found out about it.'

The ham roll-ups were yummy -- they always are -- and I got a hug from the birthday girl as I left. That made for a swell day, and next year -- assuming I'm able to break the secret invitation code a little earlier -- maybe I'll be more prepared. Or not. I have an image to maintain, after all.