How to Maintain “the Hand” in Your Relationship - #1 Romantic Partners

When I was a teenager, my best gf had an old granny who was always whispering in her ear about “how to maintain the hand” with her boyfriends (as well as girlfriends, bosses, teachers, etc). What she really meant was how to be assertive, get what you want, stand up for yourself, not be trampled on. Researching this topic, I found many “p.c.” news articles and blogs about power and abuse in relationships, what to do, not to do, how to recognize when you are being victimized, etc. This post is not about that. Instead, it is about the rather old-fashioned idea that involves using psychology to manage people and situations. Many of my suggestions I have learned the hard way; I write so you can learn from my mistakes.

1)Set your expectations high, early.

2)There is no Number 2

This applies to husbands, pets, students (if you are a teacher), children (if you are a parent), relatives and in-laws, even services and repairmen, friends, bosses and more. Without being arrogant, foolish, selfish, demanding, mean, or unrealistic, set your expectations high early in the relationship. Be calm, but firm about them. It is always easier to relax your standards later, if need be, than to increase them once established as lax.

#1 Romantic Partners
When I married hubster he had been a grad student for well over a decade. He had been used to living an extremely frugal lifestyle, although he originally came from a well off upper middle-class background. Although he had just recently graduated and found a good paying job, he hadn’t yet transitioned to adult living standards. He was also a bit OCD, a “confirmed old bachelor”, set in his ways, and crusty around the edges. As we ladies say to each other in the frequent conversations we had about choosing husbands, he needed a lot of “house training.” I could see that my work was cut out for me when I started, and was nervous with the task that lay before me.

From the very beginning of our relationship, I let him know that I expected to be “dated” in the traditional sense. I did this by offering him a choice, not between doing it or not, but between two mutually acceptable choices to him and me. I was not entirely selfish, and also selected things to do that I knew he liked, at about a 50% ratio.  “Would you rather go out to for a quick bite to eat, then to the movies/sporting event/theater/concert, etc, or would you like to save that for next weekend, and have a more leisurely gourmet dinner, tonight? Which restaurant do you recommend for ……. (whichever he chose.) Or, “Would like to look up recipes, shop, and cook it together?” Or,  “Where would like to eat after we grab a Happy Hour drink with your friends?” See? It’s not hard. You make him feel like it was all his idea, while shaping it into situations that fit your needs and lifestyle expectations. Versions of this became our conversation, week in, week out. It’s not just about spending money, either, but about what you envision as an acceptable way to live your life, which to me, does not involve each of you staring at your phones, alone, while eating take-out pizza at home in front of the tv. Included in your list of activities I highly recommend a variety of dress-up occasions. I deliberately took the hubster out to a fancy-dress meal, early on (and paid for it myself) just to see if he had decent table manners and owned a suit and tie. I dragged him to church, to social events with my friends and family and work as well as his, to see him in action in a variety of scenarios. We had to have some conversations about many topics, such as the public emission of gas from various bodily orifices. Correct tipping amounts and strategies. The level of hotels that were acceptable to stay in. From the very start, I revved things up for special dates: my birthday, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, our anniversary. “I am going to make a reservation for our …. dinner. What are you in the mood to eat? Would you rather go to ….. or …..?” (For hubster’s birthday, I throw him a large party each year, invite all his friends, because that is what HE wants. I make a big effort with themes, decor, menu, costumes, etc. If he wanted something else, I would do something else. It’s not just about what you want, but tit-for-tat.)  I use the same strategy for gift-giving situations. I pre-select about 5 or 6 items I want, at various price points, available online, and send him the links about 2 weeks before my birthday, Christmas, V.D., M.D., and our anniversary, then again at 1 week, before every major gift-giving holiday. He gets to pick which one, or find something himself that is similar (at least knowing my tastes) and we are both happy. Same with planning a vacation, a major furniture purchase, a new car, or just about anything.

As I said before, this strategy is not just about eating out and buying things. From the very start, I set the table for dinner, because I grew up in a home where people ate meals at the dinner table, together, every single day. Hubster’s family of origin did not, but by taking the lead on this one, it became part of our family routine. I asked the hubs to please wear a shirt at the table, to close the bathroom door when using it, not wander around naked while complaining that the house was too cold, put down the toilet seat when finished, (aim for the toilet, not the floor), the purpose and use of “decorative hand towels for guests only”, that I would not sleep with a pack of dogs in the bed with us (chose: either them, or me), bought him a separate beer fridge and made him use it ( bc having your entire refrigerator full of only beer was not conducive to living and eating healthfully), how to load a dishwasher, how to do laundry, to not go out and fetch the paper in his sagging underwear with his junk hanging out, which drawers/shelves/closets were mine and which were his, how to scrub a bathroom, make a bed, budget planning, menu planning, and more. That together we would clean our home once a week. That we would each take turns cooking dinner for the other (from acceptable menu choices.) All to my level of satisfaction, which became a catchphrase both he, and later our children, learned well. You can’t just say you cleaned your room by throwing a blanket over the piles of crap. You can’t just say you cleaned the den when all you did was throw stuff in the closet, and you didn’t even bother to vacuum the floor.

Within the first month that we had been married, I had enlisted the help of hubster’s sister, and together we went through all his closets/drawers/cabinets/boxes, and pulled out all the ugly, tattered, worn out, stained, hideous, out of date clothing items he had. Bagged them all and gave to charity what we didn’t throw out, then went shopping and bought him new underwear and clothes similar to the sort that he liked, only not ragged frayed stained and hideous. This involved swapping out his denim for the current style, boxing up and saving in the attic his sentimental college team shirts/items that he could no longer fit but didn’t want to get rid of, etc. We filled the attic with a lot of boxes! Involving his sister was key to my success in this event, bc it felt more like a fashion and lifestyle makeover to him, “Female Eye for the Straight Guy”, rather than a one-on-one assault of him by me. It diffused the tension. We also went through his household possessions and did the same: The chipped mis-matched dishes and glasses, scraggly bedding and broken furniture cast-offs, “gifts” from his mother or stolen from bars, went bye-bye and were replaced by items from our wedding registry. His “hand-made” coffee table constructed of 2 x 4’s became a garden shelf, painted a bright new color and covered with plants, outside.

I planned holidays and vacations the same way. Someone has to be in charge and make decisions; if not you, then who? Do you want to spend every vacation for the rest of your life with your mother-in-law or his college roommates/drinking buddies?

The trickier part of “maintaining the hand” has come in the juggling of his family of origin, vs my family of origin, vs the family that the two of us created together with our own children. (Fortunately, my family of origin is almost nonexistent and non-demanding, so it is easier to shape their demands on our time.) Over the course of 25 years, naturally, there is an ebb and flow to which family members get priority at any given moment, as needs and situations change. In the early years of our marriage, I firmly established that our children’s Christmas, Thanksgiving, other holidays, vacations and birthdays would be celebrated with our family as the center of the action, with extended family members invited as guests. (I will go somewhere for Thanksgiving only if all the following conditions are met: 1)the travel is not a nightmare, 2)the living conditions are tolerable, and 3)the food is decent- as in, not giving you food poisoning. First ex-husband’s family Thanksgivings were a “no, no and no” so we only did it once. Hubster’s family earned a “ yes, yes, but no” so it reverted back to our house.) This was in direct contrast to what my mother-in-law imagined would happen, and as we were the first adult children to get married on her side of the equation, the power struggles were rough for a few years. My m-i-l somehow imagined that we would go to her house, across town, to go trick-or-treating, rather than start from our own home. That my children would wake up on Christmas morning at her house, rather than in their own beds. This is where the word “No” comes in handy. Hard to say and do the first time, but increasingly easier after you take that first plunge. Just don’t give in after you have said it, whether to m-i-ls or children or dogs, or you will never see the end of it. Over the years I have followed the same strategies throughout a wide variety of situations: offering hubster choices when it came to those tricky family get-together scenarios. Yes, we can go visit your grandmother in Pa this weekend. No, we will not go see your grandmother in Pa AND also visit your mother in NC this weekend. You will have to choose which one. The kids are going to their school carnival this weekend, so we will not be available to come to your mother’s house and sit around in her backyard drinking beer. The key in all this is to develop an understanding of pacing, and how many events you can comfortably handle in a day/ weekend/ at all. Yes, you may invite up to 6 family members for Christmas, but no more than that. You will have to decide which 6 you invite. Or whatever your limits are.

Perhaps the most important issue in all of this is to put the marriage first. Set firm boundaries for yourself, for each other, and for the relationship. You have to balance the two. I know it feels counter-intuitive to do this, to think this way, once the kids start arriving. But if you don’t have good feelings -kind, warm, loving, respectful feelings - towards each other, you can’t manage the stressors that will come shooting at you, like a flying through an asteroid belt without a guidance system, day after day after day. You have to fill the well of goodwill towards each other in order to have the patience, selflessness and kindness to give of your selves and care for others, endlessly. It’s crucial to get your needs met: individually, whether that means a nice birthday dinner out, or saying “No” to another drop in by relatives; and as a couple, setting aside time together to remember why you once liked each other in the first place. I highly recommend you take mini-breaks or small vacations without the kids. Get grandma to babysit and go out to dinner, or spend an afternoon doing whatever makes you happy, or take a short trip someplace fun. I’m also a big believer that individuals, i.e. each parent one at a time, need a night off from parenting, work, and relationship duty a couple of times a month. I used to see my therapist every other Monday, then take myself out to a quiet, unhurried dinner, with food of my choosing, and no squabbling kids “I don’t like…..!”, afterwards. I needed this to maintain my sanity during the little kid years.  Hubster’s night out involved drinking beer in pubs with his buddies. We each got one night every two weeks, in rotation. Years later, one of my now grown sons was talking about his various friends he’d grown up with, and whose parents were divorced or should be. In spite of my seemingly selfish bimonthly mom’s night out, and his dad and my once a year couples only short vacations, he said to me, “….but then, they don’t have as stable a relationship as you and dad do.” This was how I knew I had made the right choice: to preserve my sanity, and that of our relationship, all those years, so we could have more, emotionally, to give to our children. It’s like when you are on the airplane, and the safety demo comes on: ”Put the mask over your own face, first. Then help those around you to put on yours.” You can’t help them if you haven’t helped yourself, first.


Everything You've Ever Read About India Is Wrong - Pt 1

My husband, an engineering and materials science professor at UNT, recently was invited to attend a conference in New Delhi, India earlier this month and I took some time off from my work and joined him.  I spent weeks beforehand scouring various travel blogs, trying to figure out what to pack. As usual, almost nothing I read was of any practical use, and off we went, having packed all the wrong things.

The first thing I would ask myself, before travelling to an unfamiliar country, is: what sort of traveler am I going to be on this trip? Every single blog, even on professional upscale business travel websites, told me to bring things like water purification systems, water purification drinking straws, tons of medications, probiotics, vaccinations to get, snacks to pack, insect repellant, and female urination devices (because there would be no toilets and I might need to pee by the roadside.) These suggestions might be helpful to you if you are backpacking, traveling through rural areas, staying in low end youth hostels, or visiting in summer, etc. For a business traveler staying in mid-range hotels, visiting universities, businesses, and tourist sites, visiting in winter,  they were un-needed space wasters in my suitcase.

Suggestions to bring American toilet paper were useful, even if only because it took up space in my suitcase, which later was available to pack souvenirs in, upon returning home. Of the 30 or so different toilets I experienced on this trip, all of them were “western” style (porcelain commodes, not holes in the ground) and at least 25 of them had toilet paper. Now, Indian tp may have been rough, but it was there. I enjoyed my super soft American style tp, but it wasn’t as necessary as I had thought. (And it must be noted, I was careful not to clog Indian toilets, as I had been warned that they couldn’t handle our tp, but to put it in the trash, instead.)

We were warned not to drink tap water: anywhere, in any form, and to pay attention to tap water in hidden forms, such as ice in drinks. We didn’t need the water purification devices. Bottled water was plentiful, provided by our hotel (two liters per person, per day), the conference itself (an unending supply of small bottles throughout the day), handed out by the bus company that drove us around, for sale at various tourist sites, restaurants, shops, etc. We ventured out on our first day, to an Indian version of a big box grocery store, aka Big Bazaar, and loaded up on more water, just in case. (Also food souvenirs to bring home as gifts.)

Hubster had a terrible time finding enough to eat, for even though he enjoys spicy foods, he hates vegetables. Our diet was 100% vegetarian northern Indian cuisine, except for one day when we played hooky from the conference, went downtown, and ate at McDonald’s. Hubs ended up eating rice and bread for a week. I followed the rules I first learned from travelling in Egypt, and have refined over the years in various Caribbean countries, Mexico, etc:  No raw lettuces, veggies, or thin-skinned fruits or vegs (carrots, onions, grapes, tomatoes, etc), only thick-skinned fruits that have been peeled (watermelons, papayas, mangoes, cucumbers, zucchini, etc). The issue here is that you don’t know if the fruits or veggies have been washed, and even if they have, the water used to wash them might not be clean. No raw milk, raw cheese or raw dairy. Pasteurized is ok. I ate cooked vegetables and rice in various curries and other Indian dishes, had egg omelets for breakfast with fresh cut papaya on the side, Indian breads, tea that had been boiled, and had a fine time. I never got “Delhi Belly”. I was also careful to wash my hands before each meal with soap, as well as my knives, forks, and spoons for the same reason as the unwashed fruits: you never know how or if they were cleaned. Our Indian friends ate with their fingers, using the bread to scoop up the food.

One smart item I packed, that I wished I had packed more of (next trip to a third world country, I will pack more) was multiple hard dry tiny hand soaps. You may be the sort who carries hand sanitizer around and squirts it on yourself all the time. Because I have an extremely complicated auto-immune disease, the advice of my own personal doctor (and my brother-in-law, also a doctor) is that for me, soap is better than hand-sanitizer. Soap also can be used for multiple things, like washing your knife, fork, and spoon as well, if you feel they look sketchy; you can use it to wash your underwear even, in a pinch. Almost on a whim I had tossed in a few tiny little bars (from my collection of toiletries lifted from other hotels – here’s a great way to use all that stuff) at the last minute, while packing. Small bottles of liquid hand soap would work as well, I just don’t like the fact that they always seem to leak into my handbag. As soon as I got there, I wished I had more soap that I didn’t mind leaving behind (hence the small soap) at various roadside restrooms, or washrooms as they are called in India. While nearly every restroom I encountered had tp, almost none had soap. Solutions abound, of course: you can lug around your shower soap, or cut it up into chunks, or your bottle of shower gel. I got tired of carrying all that stuff, was weighted down w bottles of water, as it was, and tried to lighten my load any way that I could.

A good friend also visited India, a few weeks prior to my trip; she went on a work-related trip to Bangalore. We compared notes, afterwards, and we both agreed: Call your cell phone provider, and tell them you are travelling to India (or wherever) and to update your phone plan for that country for however long you will be there. Hubster has primarily Indian grad students, who gave him lots of complicated advice about buying a burner phone to use in India, bc you use it for everything (more on that, in a minute). We skipped this advice, bc it was too complicated and we didn’t have time – hubster was there to work, after all. By simply telling our phone carrier, AT&T, that we would be in India for a week, we were charged a rate of $10/day, reasonable to us, and our phones (I have an iphone 8, hubster a new blackberry) worked seamlessly, just as if we were in the USA. This one aspect of our trip relieved a great deal of our stress and we carried on, just as we always do, looking up info as we go on the internet (What time is our flight? Which gate? Where’s the best restaurant in this neighborhood? Which are the top 10 Delhi markets? What are the hours for Big Bazaar? What’s the last late-night train?).

The most important thing we used our phones for was the uber app. Hubster’s grad students had warned us: no one uses cabs any more, everyone uses uber. We started out the very first day, asking our hotel front desk to call us a cab, and they tried, but none were available, or answered their call. So we just ubered it, all around Delhi. We were staying away from downtown, in far nw New Delhi, near the university that was hosting the conference. We ubered back and forth to “Old Delhi”: Connaught Square, and all the shops/restaurants/tourist sites in and around that area. An hour twenty-minute ride from our hotel to this area cost us about $5 US via uber. Short hops from here to there were often less than $1. You just can’t beat that. It was as easy to use as it is ta home.

My last piece of advice is: check the weather 10 day forecast for wherever you are going, and believe it. Our conference host kept telling us to pack warm woolens, because it was “ terribly, terribly cold”. The weather forecast showed highs in the 70’s, lows in the 40’s. I listened to the trip host, packed all really cold weather clothing, and was hot the entire time. 70’s/40’s might seem cold weather to a person who experiences Delhi year-round. For those of us in the USA, it feels like springtime.


How to Avoid Douche-baggery in Yourself and Others

No one wants to be thought of as a douchebag, aka what we used to call a jerk in the olden days, so to avoid having people think of you as one, you have to avoid being one. Here's how:

1) Keep your word. 
It’s simple. Say what you will do, and then do it. If you don't think you can do it, if you don't think you will remember to do it, if you don't care, or just don't want to do it, or if there’s a potential conflict - even if it develops, later - tell people. You can say so, beforehand, or halfway through, or even at the last minute. For beforehand, say, “Sorry, I can’t promise that/ do that / be responsible for that.” That’s all you have to say. If you feel you must add more, say “I’ve got something else going on then / another conflict/ other plans / can’t afford it / don't support it / it’s just not my thing.”  Even if your other plans involve a nap. For the last minute conflict, say, “ I’m sorry guys, something has come up, and I just can’t.....” The person who is afraid to say “ I really don't want to do that “ and then is late, doesn't show up, or falls through on his assigned task, is a passive-aggressive asshole. He is fooling no one but himself. Don't be that guy. No one likes him. This sort of behavior makes people twice as angry as if he’d just say Nope in the first place.

2) Pay your share. Do your share. Give your share. 
No one likes the guy who always weasels out of paying or doing his share of whatever. No one likes the guy who never has enough money or time to devote to whatever. No one likes the guy who waits till the last minute and then bungles it. No one. People remember who that guy is, and stop inviting him to participate / join in. If you are invited to participate, see #1. If you are constantly running out of funds or time, re-evaluate your priorities. If no one is inviting you to join in, ask yourself why, and start behaving better from now on.

3) Spend time in self-reflection. Figure out who you are, what you value, what you want out of life, and put your money, effort, and energies towards those goals. If you never have the money or time for “x” but wish you did, re-evaluate. Keep a budget, a ruthlessly honest one, just for yourself. Where you spend your money is what you actually value, even if you don't “think” its true. If your old goals/habits/expenses/ friends aren't getting you where you want, find new ones. Scary though it may be, it’s better to start fresh and try a different tack than be stuck, miserable and complaining, for the rest of your life. If your friends are the ones who are douchebags, find new friends. 

4) What you sow, you will reap. If friends or family matter, go out of your way to cultivate them. If a career is number one for you, hustle and work for it. My personal advice is to balance it all - a little bit for each. Not moving in the direction you wish? Keep a daily journal. Be intentional. Nothing happens if you are passive. Make yourself do one thing each day that moves you towards your goal. Keep a list of what you did in the journal. It doesn't have to be flowery, it doesn't have to be long. Bullets are ok. If you forgot to do something towards your goal today, do two, tomorrow. Make the effort, see #1, 2, and 3. Worried about the past? Don't be. Turn over a new leaf and folks will respond. Just give it time.

5) Move through the world as you wish to find it. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Create the kind of reality you wish to live in. If you want people to like you, be likable. You can't treat people like dbags then expect them to hang around forever, being nice to you. If everyone you know is a jerk, ask yourself why. You have to give, in order to get. While it feels like your life should be all about you, it isn't. Remember you are just a small piece of a larger puzzle. Nothing wrong w/ that....fit into the whole harmoniously. Don't be the piece that’s all ragged and bent and gets hammered down then thrown away and replaced bc it ‘s useless. Don't be useless. See #1,2. If you've tried these things and nothing is working, then #3. 

6) There’s an old saying : Intellegent people talk about ideas. Shallow stupid people talk about other people. Don’t be a gossip. Don’t talk trash about others. Remember, a gentleman never reveals a lady’s sectets. If you can’t say something nice about someone else, just don’t ever say anything. Mark Twain I think was the one who wrote, “Better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” 

Sent from my iPad

Letter to the Young Men I Dated in HighSchool - Another Type of #MeToo

Something has been bothering me for awhile, and it’s a New Year, a fresh start, so I figured I’d take a moment to address it. I have let it sit in my thoughts for years, but I notice from FB that you now have wives and daughters, and presumably care about the females in your lives, so I want to start a generational conversation. 

I know that at various points, either long ago or not so long ago, some of you have said to other friends within our youthful social group that I had sex or slept with you. I know this bc others in our group have told me you said it, or told me you discussed it between you. You and I both know this isn't true. I was a virgin when I graduated from high-school. We may have kissed passionately, made out, groped around and consensually explored each other’s bodies with fingers and tongues, but you know and I know there was no actual sexual intercourse between us.

I understand the male need to brag about exploits real or imagined. I understand the need to save face, to act cool, join the club, to appear more experienced than one was, to avoid the appearance of rejection, and to trash talk about girls. I totally get it. I have raised a house full of sons and watched these dynamics unfold among 16, 17, 18 year old boys, both as a parent and as a teacher- where girls in high-school are several years older, socio-emotionally, than the boys, and tease, toy and manipulate the poor hapless fellows into a variety of situations. It’s a tale as old as time, and the very reason that teenage females were married off to older males, historically. 

I do not dismiss my own role in any of this. As a 16, 17, 18 year old young woman, I had passions, too, that I did not know how to channel. The ‘70’s were an era where young ladies read “Cosmo” magazine as a lifestyle hack and thought we were liberated when we did what it suggested we do. But I also had a strong self-concept, rooted in my own ego needs as a young lady with intellectual, cultural, religious, and social goals for my life, that I somehow managed to wrangle myself into achieving. I am not ashamed of anything I have done or not done - it has made me who I am today.

I did not have brothers or a father around to look after me, when I was a teenager, to have these conversations, to advise me, or stick up for me. But I write to you today bc it does hurt, even a strong minded woman like myself who has lived a good life and is above such petty things, every single time a man talks about a woman sexually in an exploitative way, even more-so if what he says is untrue. It is a form of emotional abuse to spread lies, to engage in dismissive braggadocio sexual banter about someone other than oneself that is untrue. It is, in fact, sexual harrassment. Please look at your daughters, wives, or other female family members and ask yourself: "How would I feel if some boy she knew spoke about her this way?" What sort of world are our daughters growing up in? Let’s change it.

No apologies needed......just stop doing it. Have a conversation with the young men you know, to let them know this isn't cool, and with the young ladies you know, on how to love oneself in-spite of it.

Listen to Joe Biden here talk about the issue (paraphrasing) “the important thing is to get guys to stop the loose talk about women.” The “loose talk” in general fosters the sort of environment where women are harrassed and not believed.


How to Attend a Wedding as a Guest

I know you know all this, but a few reminders. It is not enough to show up, you must also participate. Here’s how: 

1) You shall wear a suit and tie and nice shoes, trim your hair and beard before you go. Trim your nails, wear your best underwear. You want to look sharp, successful, and smell good bc weddings are the best places to meet people, especially potential dates/ girlfriends. I know you will be polite, handsome, and charming. Dance with old ugly ladies, too. At least offer to fetch them something to eat.

2) If you have not rsvp’d to whoever sent you the invite, do so NOW. Phone call, rsvp card, email or text. Do it. They need to know BEFORE THE WEDDING how many people will be there, so they can confirm w the caterer how many plates of food will be planned for / charged to them. If no one rsvp’s but everyone shows up, it’s a disaster - not enough food. 

3) You shall bring a wedding gift that cost over $50 (Texas prices; East and West Coasts start at $100.). No exceptions. Price of admission. $50-100 is the expected price range if you don't want others to think you are a dbag. Trust me, the bride (and her friends and family) will talk about this, as well as who wore what, who was with whom, and who behaved or didn't. Your ability to follow social conventions here will determine whether you pass or fail, in terms of being admired or laughed at, invited to future other friends’ weddings/ social events, and generally considered a contender, as a man, socially. Through one’s ‘20’s, weddings become a huge part of one’s social life. The cost, and the good taste of your wedding gift sets the tone of what others will think of you.....are you white trash? Country? A hillbilly? Or are you a civilized man who sets an example? A potential good provider, desirable? You decide how others perceive you. Always better to err on the side of too much than too little.

The typical thing before buying the wedding gift is to ask someone, before the wedding weekend - ask any friends you have who are also going, female friends probably know more about this than the guys- “Where are they registered?” Typically, the bride and groom “register” a list of gift items they want to set up house -  the only time in life it is truly acceptable to do so-  at several places around town. Back in my day, it was crystal, china, and silver at a dept store like Macy’s. Nowadays, it’s more likely to be blenders, dishes, toasters etc at Target . If a friend says, “Macy's, Ikea, Crate and Barrel, and Target”, you either go online and find “wedding registries” (usually stored by name of bride and groom) at one or more of these stores, or physically walk in the store, go to customer service, and ask. Note: You don't have to buy the item there, if you can find it elsewhere for less. However, you must buy the exact item they have requested, no substitutions. 

They most likely have already had several wedding “showers”, typically small lunch or afternoon parties w cake and more gifts. (Not to be confused w bachelorette parties, which include the bridesmaids and younger friends, and involve drunken revelry.) The showers will include older female relatives as well as younger, be during the daytime, and sedate. Brides get very excited about all this. The difference between a shower gift and a wedding gift is not only price, but seriousness and good taste. Shower gifts range from small items like pot holders, kitchen utensils and measuring cups to gag items like sex toys. If you have not been invited to any of the showers, don't worry about this. Showers are often given days and weeks before the wedding, and involve mostly female relatives and friends, and small or silly gifts. 

You must still bring a wedding gift, in the $50-100 cost range, whether you were also invited to a shower, or not. You will leave it in your locked car for the wedding itself. You will walk in to the reception (the party, after the wedding), with the gift, and ask a bridesmaid, groomsman, greeter, or any old lady, “Where are we putting wedding gifts?” before you sit down, greet friends, eat, drink or do anything else. 

After you have purchased your wedding gift item, you absolutely must wrap it in wedding style wrapping paper, with a bow and a card. No exceptions. So plan on also purchasing beforehand: a roll of wedding wrapping paper. Go to the greeting cards/ wrapping paper section of the store, and find something that is not Christmas, Valentines, Birthday or Baby Shower wrapping paper- this is in the category of advanced, as you must look at the designs here, and choose. Baby shower stuff is in pastels w animal pix, birthday paper will be in bright colors, etc. Wedding wrap is often white, silver, or gold. The more minimal the design, the better. You also need  ribbon and a pre-made bow and a card. You will be judged if you do not. Go to Target to do all this - another $10. An easy classic color combo would be white wrapping paper with ribbon and bow in another color- anything but black. The card is essential - tape it on strongly- bc later, after the wedding, the bride will write thank you notes, and she needs the card to tell her who gave her what. This is where the gossip mill spreads around who gave an acceptable gift, and who did not. If you ever want to be invited to future friends’ weddings, or hook up w the bride and groom's friends socially in the future, don't cheap out. Everyone will know.

Ok, lets say you can’t find where they are registered or you are too lazy, and want to give cash or a gift card. YOU MUST SPEND MORE ON CASH OR A GIFT CARD THAN YOU WOULD ON A GIFT. $75 is the minimum here. $100 is better.

If you decide that you need an all purpose tasteful wedding gift, can't track down the registry, or don't know what to buy, here are your best options: crystal bowls, silver candlesticks, high end cookwear like caphalon or le crueset. Buy one large skillet or a griddle or a dutch oven. Ask for a “gift receipt” (a receipt that does not show the price) when you buy it, and include it with the gift when you wrap it. This way, if the bride hates it, she can exchange it. But no matter what you do, she’s gonna know how much you spent. Stick to $50 minimum.

When dad and I got married, I did not register (long story, I was just coming off my divorce and felt it was in poor taste.) All my friends knew that.....but all of dad’s friends did not. They were determined to give us nice gifts, bc over the years, dad had given them nice gifts for their weddings. It is part of the civilized social exchange under which we live. So instead of the china pattern place settings people typically receive for wedding presents, we ended up with a ton of crystal bowls, silver candlesticks, vases, etc. Even my students at the time gave me gifts. The gifts we liked the most and used the most were the caphalon cooking pan set and a set of high end kitchen knives. We also received tons of random stuff from Crate and Barrel and the Waterford-Wedgwood store. When I need to buy a wedding gift, if I do not know the couple and what they want/where they are registered, I give them a beautiful large crystal serving bowl. When friends have a house-warming party (similar to a non wedding gift occasion) , I give a Le Crueset dutch oven in their favorite color.

Most of all, have fun! Be charming to the old ladies, yes, they are judging you.