I’ve named this list in honor of my friend Larry, who is notorious for giving self-serving, unwanted, or just generally thoughtless gifts. For example, one Mother’s Day he surprised his wife with a brand new riding lawnmower – the one he’d been pining after for months. She was not amused. Here’s a selection of failures I’ve received or given over the years.
- Books you’ve already given people, or ones you should know they’ve already read. One Christmas I gave my father a copy of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.’ He opened it, turned it over thoughtfully, then looked at me quizzically. “Have you read it?” I asked. “Yes. As a matter of fact, I recommended it to you.” For my birthday, a Hungarian friend gave me a lovely book entitled ‘Embers,’ by Marai Sandor. Trouble is, he’d given it to me the previous year as well. I put it next to the three other copies of the same book I’d received from other Hungarian friends.
- Cellulite cream. I was picking up stocking stuffers at the local drug story and grabbed a tube of Cellulite Cream for Thighs and Buttocks for my wife. I guess I just wasn’t thinking about the implications. Not a hit.
- Homemade soaps, oils, and vinegars. All right, I think these make great gifts, and would be overjoyed to receive something personally made by a loved one. One particularly impecunious Christmas, I spent a lot of time and energy making my family a selection of hand-crafted gifts. Overjoyed they were not. They still tease me about it.
- Exercise videos. What better way to say ‘You’re getting flabby, Honey’ than to get your significant other a workout DVD? I made the mistake once. Just once.
- Kinky lingerie and/or sex toys. For the men: Dildos don’t say “I love you.” They say “Our sex life is dull.” For the ladies: On the other hand, if a guy opens up a box and there’s a crotchless teddy, a rabbit vibrator, and a tube of lube in there, you’ve made his Christmas very, very merry indeed.
- Socks. Or really any necessity that you would pick up as a matter of course in order to simply exist. Underwear, toothpaste, soap, etc. My parents always put socks in our stockings, clearly because they were cheap and bulky and there were a lot of us kids. We always thought they were incredibly lame. Because they were.
- A painting of you or your kids. I thought it would be a great idea. I commissioned a very talented painter friend of mine to do a portrait of our son for my wife’s birthday. A pretty expensive portrait. He generally does very idiosyncratic, stylized portrayals of human subjects, but this one ended up fairly lifelike, and therein lay the problem. It was a huge, reasonably verisimilar version of our boy. My wife hated it. I think the tradition of giving portraits as gifts died with Jane Austen. Just as well.
- A gift that requires the recipient to invest lot of time or energy. Many years ago we gave my parents a ‘Grandparents’ Journal’ for them to fill out, the kind that has “guided questions and prompts [that] help you tell your grandchildren (and great-grandchildren to come) all about your childhood and teen years; your education, love, and marriage; work, community, religion, military service; parenthood and family life; and, of course, grandparenthood!” A fabulous idea, right? Except that the present is not so much for them but for you and your kids, and it requires a lot of work. My parents, despite being loving, considerate, and caring, never even started it. Too much work, and they weren’t up to it.
- For your friends’ kids, anything that makes noise, period. A realistic-sounding machine gun? An electronic xylophone? A mewling plush cat? If you wouldn’t want to listen to it night and day, chances are they wouldn’t either. We once received from a friend a kids’ mobile telephone that makes noises in sixteen modes of obnoxious. I’d hurl the damn thing out the window, but our youngest loves it. I’m just hoping that they have another kid so we can regift it and return the favor.
- Fruitcake and/or a Hickory Farms-style selection of food. First of all, the only people who like fruitcake are the people who bake fruitcake, and they should keep such depravities to themselves. Secondly, if you were really into cheese and sausage you’d go out and buy yourself some cheese and sausage. One Christmas when one of my brothers and I had no idea what to get for another of our brothers, we went out on Christmas Eve and got a Hickory Farms cheese and sausage set. It was a last-minute, shitty gift – we knew it, he knew it, and I’m sure it wasn’t appreciated. At least we didn’t unload some homemade vinegar and soap on him.
Have you ever received or given a really, really shitty gift? Please do tell – we’d love to hear your stories.