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To Buy or Not To Buy

A gift guide for the seriously perplexed

By Cherie Parker

THE HOLIDAY SEASON inspires, in the reverent among us, a deep feeling of connection and a brief but powerful revelation that meaningfulness is a simple satisfaction contained within the human heart. In others, this time of year instigates a ritualized activity involving small plastic cards, blinking red Santa eyes and pathologically fatigued suburban teenagers who wrap presents for drug money. Still others rebel against both the religious icon-ry of the season and the commercial carnage (the folks who wish everyone "Happy Solstice!" as they leave the office for vacation). These three divergent groups of souls have one thing in common: they're all represented on someone's gift list.

Yes, it's true. Grandma, who screeches, "They're always trying to take the Christ out of Christmas," and the lavender-snorting roommate, who believes the immaculate conception legend to be a centuries-long repudiation of female sexuality, both expect clever and worthwhile gifts.

For everyone drawing a blank (or contemplating some cold sin like buying 40 identical boxes of Fanny Farmer chocolates from Thrifty and heading to the mountains until the holidays are over), we'd like to help. No, we can't supply a higher credit limit at Macy's or a better selection of acquaintances, but we can offer a few gift suggestions for those currently entertaining half-baked, last-minute or just plain lame ideas.

First, let's go over some general ground rules. No current partner should ever be given the same gift as someone who formerly occupied his or her position. Even if the current love adores Calvin Klein underwear or Fossil watches, the giver must stop and recall if such presents have already been left in his or her romantic wake. No one likes to feel as if he or she is only the latest in an assembly line of lovers. The rule: New love, new gifts.

Also, if a relationship has matriculated since last year (marriage, engagement, cohabitation, going steady, scaling down the threesome to two), the giver needs to ensure that the gift's symbolism reflects the change. For example, if last year, when they were engaged, the husband gave his wife a weekend in Calistoga and a brass candelabra, he shouldn't give her a sports bra this year. She'll feel as if the car she just drove off the lot only picks up AM radio.

As far as immediate family goes, there are probably so many emotional tripwires and childhood-memory minefields exclusive to each family that no outsider can ever successfully navigate another's holiday gatherings.

There are, however, a few basic gift-giving tenets that should underlie such specifics as a mother's yellow-sweater crying jags or a father's boycott of cheap power tools. Adult children should give parents expensive presents if they owe them money. A mother shouldn't receive the same present as a girlfriend. No father should get anything that calls undue attention to his age (such as The Old Geezer's Guide to Killing Hours with Birdhouse Repair). And even if the outfit for teenage son or daughter seems to be the height of fashion, keeping the receipt is a must.

The following suggestions are for the less-standard people who turn up on a gift list, the people who have one outstanding characteristic that necessarily governs the gifts they will receive.


THESE are the people to whom giving a gift should be a joy: friends, family, co-workers who bring cookies to work. The giver wants these people to appreciate the heartfelt warmth that inspired their gifts and the clever expression of emotion--not to see them as something to be wrapped up and passed on to someone else next year.

The Workaholic
Most people give the workaholics in their life gifts designed to help them relax: foot massagers, meditation tapes or candles scented with vanilla. What workaholics need to redirect a lifetime's worth of forward motion, the thinking goes, is one consumer item. That's really not very logical, is it? The tai chi video, the aqua mask and the sing-along-with-Enya songbook from last Christmas are surely rotting on a closet shelf by now.

Instead of trying to change clearly entrenched behavior patterns, why not work with them? Working warriors want something that will aid them in their frenzied quest for perfect efficiency. An extra-large briefcase--one designed to hold at least three accordion folders--would come in handy. A basket of sundries from Office Depot (no gift certificates--workaholics don't have time for that) would surely be appreciated. No workaholic has enough Post-its, black ballpoint pens, manila envelopes, file folders or reams of printer paper.

The Postpartum Depressive
Everyone's been over to see the baby a dozen times in the past month. It's a wonder of nature. It cries, it poops, it barfs--it's like a magical little machine. But during all this infant worship, has anyone taken the time to notice that the baby's mother has dark, puffy circles under her eyes and answers all queries about her plans to either return to work or stay home with a flat "I dunno"? It could be that the miracle of childbirth has left this mother feeling like a crabby, weepy, overworked lump. She could use a little bulwarking, not exercise videos, diet books or Thighmasters.

She knows her body looks a little different after being expanded and deflated over the last year--it's not going to cheer her up to get a gift that seems to confirm her worst fears about her appearance. Instead, she could use something that makes her feel good about herself. She's likely too busy to read a book, and any fancy clothes will probably be spit up on, but there is one thing everyone close to her could give her that would be sure to delight: free baby-sitting.

The Activist
When a truly dedicated activist is asked what he or she wants for Christmas, the response will inevitably be "Nothing." When pressed, the activist may suggest a donation to a cause in which he or she strongly believes. But while the lips say, "Do the right thing," the eyes plead, "Please give me something luxurious that I can't afford on my $12,000 a year stipend. Give me something sexy, like made-in-the-U.S.A. silk pajamas. Or relaxing, like good beer from a union brewery. Or gourmet, like quality olive oil, pine nuts, Brie cheese and balsamic vinegar." When it comes to satisfying an activist, the eyes truly are the windows of the soul.

Sibling's First Acknowledged Gay Lover
Mom and dad refer to him as Steven's "friend," and shortly after he arrived on the family scene, Uncle Larry stopped inviting Steve to the hunting cabin. It's a perfect time for a sibling to break through all the unease and welcome the new person to the family. It's probably best to skip all the politicized, gay-themed presents--gay/lesbian fiction, k.d. lang's new CD or a membership in a gay-rights organization--and affirm the union in a different way: by giving him or her the most traditional present possible. A necktie or a sweater says, "There's nothing abnormal here. There's nothing to overthink or overanalyze. Merry Christmas."

The Planet
Even if Jane Q. Citizen and Johnny Lunchbucket don't own sulfuric acid-spewing corporations, they still do damage to the great Earth Mother. Toyotas don't run on mung beans, and the waste from one Happy Meal is obscene. It certainly wouldn't hurt anyone to add healing Gaia to his or her Christmas "to do" list.

Two great gifts for the planet can be picked up at the local supermarket: a big box of baking soda and a jug of vinegar. A combination of these two cheap and safe substances can clean all sinks, bathtub, pots and pans. They work better than Comet cleanser or Brillo pads and painlessly begin to lighten the toxic burden on the planet.


HOLIDAY SHOPPING for these people is what has given the activity a bad name. No one wants to do it. The possibilities for failure are staggering, but that's the price of living in a civilized society.

The Boss' New Trophy Wife
Sure, he looks ridiculous with Katie or Susie or Fifi or whatever her name is. He's even started wearing tight jeans and an Andrew Marc black leather jacket. It's a repellent spectacle. But this is the guy with the power to pry monitor-jockeys out of their cubes and into offices with dimmer switches and high-backed chairs.

It's best to swallow any sarcastic comments about May/December romances and kick in with a welcome present for the little chickadee. A personal or expensive gift would be inappropriate, but it's important to have the patina of store-bought class that will make the boss feel his way of life is affirmed. A minibox of four Godiva chocolates usually retails at around $5, but the fancy gold box and luxuriant confectionery inside will warm the wife's cockles and ensure a star on the boss' mental A-list.

Secret Santa
The annual Secret Santa fiasco at most offices usually ends up pairing such nonsoulmates as the guy from the mailroom who can smoke without using his hands and the woman from personnel who calls everybody "cowboy" (as in, "Did you fill out that 401K form, cowboy?"). Each employee shudders and wonders, "Who will it be this year? My sexual harasser? The tech-geek who always leaves a stench when he fixes my computer?"

The problem with the whole Secret Santa concept is this: It attempts to instill workplace intimacy by breaking down social fire walls that exist for very good reasons. Hence people find themselves needing to spend no more than $10 on a person they have consciously decided to not say "hi" to in the restroom. They can't, or don't want to, learn enough about this year's victim in time to make the gift a personal statement (Wine? No, could be an alcoholic. Candy? No, could be a diabetic), so it's trinket time: something small, something cute, something that can sit on a desk. Best bets for Secret Santa success are a cartoon calendar, an attractive coffee mug or a gift certificate to the restaurant where everyone goes for lunch.

The Surly Teens
She's been on and off Ritalin since she was 6 and uses only three words to communicate: "Duh," "Right" and, of course, "Whatever." He was arrested for stealing Redi Whip from a 7-11 and then impregnated a girl at the Sleeping Pines Facility for Inpatient Juvenile Therapy. Their Cherokee-driving parents call friends between client meetings to express their frustration at how ill-adjusted Susie and Billy have turned out.

They just don't understand, they say; they gave their children every advantage money could buy. A reasonable observer might say the kids have been warped by their absentee parents' slavery to the corporate rat race, but as the parents would tell anyone who ventures to do more than listen sympathetically, it's nobody's goddamn business but their own.

So what should the well-meaning shopper bring the little angels when duty calls? A lobotomy or enforced Buddhist conversion are probably out of the question. These kids are going to return, pawn or swap any material gift. It's best to hand them some cash. It's cold and tasteless and surely will be used to evil ends, but at least it's something they want.

The Distant-Relative Problem
The problem when families have huge holiday blowouts is that people end up having to buy presents for friends of relatives, cousins several times removed or other such individuals with whom they would not associate if it were not for the loose familial bonds. There's brother's mother-in-law, sister's college roommate from Germany, the third cousin who just got out of the Marines and the recently widowed great aunt who moved in with Grandma.

The hapless giver can't be sure about sizes and doesn't feel confident making any musical choices (Cecilia Bartoli? Bikini Kill? Mel Tillis?). There's only one thing that all people have in common: eating. Everyone needs an electric rice steamer. Or if the budget is tight, a really nice knife.

The 'This Is the Last Year on My List' Friend
The relationship has been on the dwindle for a while. Both parties have gone separate ways. There's no longer any mutual speed-dial registry, and such events as new jobs, new lovers and new time zones pass unremarked between them. This could be the first year to let the gift-giving slide, but by chance both fading friends have been invited to the same Christmas Eve party.

The goal for someone in this position is to give a present that inspires no further conversation, activity or happy-hour invitations. The best strategy is to make an obvious downgrade: Whatever the monetary, sentimental or perceived value of the last Christmas present was should be cut in half. If the last present given was a sweater, this year's should be T-shirt. If last year's present was a handbag, this year's should be a change purse. And if the last musical gift was a CD, this year's should be a used cassette.

Gifts Designed to Make a Point

The Chain-Smoker
There used to be these TV commercials in the '80s that proclaimed cocaine to be "The Big Lie." The message was designed to counteract the image that, in some social circles, everybody was doing cocaine and everybody was having a great time. Well, tobacco has become the Big Lie of the '90s. Three whole generations have grown up knowing that cigs kill, but still all the hip, disaffected boho types puff cancer: It's dangerous, it's taboo, therefore it must be cool.

To make matters worse, now fashion dictates that yuppies suck on overpriced stogies while sipping single-malt Scotch in hotel lounges. It's like watching a pack of lemmings all clad in black. To send a truly contemptuous Christmas-gift message to "I smoke because Johnny Depp does it" types, nicotine patches or nicotine gum won't work--these fad junkies require a case of Altoids.

The Old Flame Who's Been Looking Better and Better
They broke up years ago, but both still know all the same people. The split was amiable. Now both are single again, and it looks like somebody's been working out.

To make a move in the direction of giving it another try without being caught sending unwanted romantic signals, the re-amorous could send a friendly Christmas card. Inside the card, two tickets to a concert or show could be accompanied by the casual explanation "I got these free at work, and I don't have anyone else to go with." It may be a cheesy ruse, but it provides a sturdy trapdoor to escape any innuendo of an ill-planned advance.

Just Turned 30
Well, well, well. Looks like Mr. "I don't have to sell my soul to make it in this world" is starting to lose that youthful glow. His friend, Ms. "I can work in experimental theater all my life," just clicked over into thirtysomething, too. They're both getting to the same age the Baby Boomers were when they began to get the blame for the world's problems. And they're starting to realize they'd better get serious about paying off those student loans.

Their friends, after busting their hump at the salt mine and listening to these two issue self-important reports of backpacking in Thailand, staying up all night and avoiding the corporate world forever, will surely want to mark this milestone. One perfect gift for the new 30-year-old would be a print ad from the Men's Wearhouse (with luck, one featuring its smarmy owner), blown up, framed and signed, "Welcome to my world. Love, George Zimmer."

The Eternal Deadhead
Remember, in the early '90s, when the Grateful Dead re-emerged into the mainstream consciousness after at least four centuries of stadium tours? And the return of Birks, tie-dyes and flowing skirts seemed charming and relevant? It really isn't anymore, is it?

It's not just that the Big Man is sadly passed or that the music isn't any good. After something is in style--even in a third or fourth incarnation--it's bound to seem tired and outdated until popular culture's had a chance to take a break from it.

If you have a Deadhead friend who needs to be gently pushed into the present before becoming a complete anachronism, buy him or her a Portishead CD. The spacy groove should be a nice transition back into the musical Zeitgeist. Then, next year, they may be ready for the Chemical Brothers.

The Person Who Went Overboard Last Year
Maybe it was an imported sweater of Scottish wool. Or maybe it was an airplane ticket to New York. Or a new TV delivered to your door. Whatever the specifics, this person's last gift to you made your Chia Turtle to them look cheap, last-minute and more than a little pathetic.

More than that, it made the supposedly selfless gesture of gift giving into a crass display of personal buying power. It is as if the person said to you, "Ha! Try to top that!" This year, you want to strike first, strike hard and strike final. Outrageous spending may not be an option for you, so let creativity be your revenge. Buy a Barbie Doll. It's the ultimate expression of childish one-upmanship.

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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