It's December, and do you know what that means? That means it's time for my annual very special article on gift shopping for people you hate.
In a better world, we'd only ever have to be presents for people we want to buy presents for. But the sad fact is that sometimes, presents are obligatory. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that sometimes, giving a present is a whole lot less trouble than the inevitable drama that would result from not giving a present.
Let me just reel out the usual disclaimers before we get started. I love everyone I give gifts to: if I have given you a present and you hated it, I swear I tried to get you something you would like (or at least find briefly amusing) and for heaven's sake please feel free to donate it to a thrift shop or something if you've still got it. And if you've ever given me something that could possibly fit one of these categories, I am not talking about you, your gift was lovely and I do not suspect you of passive-aggressive malice, I promise.
I ran across this totally fascinating document from World War II earlier today. (Props to the Central Intelligence Agency, for sharing this riveting bit of history!) This is a guide to "Simple Sabotage," which I guess was covertly distributed in occupied Europe as a guide to sabotage for the motivated layperson. Probably the funniest part is the section where they talk about how to use office politics as an engine of sabotage against the Nazi war effort. "Insist on doing everything through 'channels.' Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions." "Make 'speeches.' Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate 'patriotic' comments." "When possible, refer all matters to committees, for 'further study and consideration.' Attempt to make the committees as large as possible - never less than five." "Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions."
Anyway, the relevence here is that Resistance members and Allied sympathizers in Nazi-occupied Europe could get away with dropping wrenches into machinery, breaking drill bits and dulling saws, tying up phone lines with wrong numbers, and making lots of time-wasting patriotic speeches to avoid decision making because that sort of thing legitimately happened on a regular basis just by accident. That same basic principle is at work here. People get terrible, inappropriate gifts all the time; usually, it's not because anyone was trying to give them a bad gift, it's just because buying good presents for people we don't know well is really difficult. All those inadvertant bad gifts are your camouflage. Adhere to a certain degree of subtlety, and no one needs to know that your goal here was to make your target unhappy with your
Simple Sabotage Christmas largesse.
ON TO THE GIFT IDEAS.
Many people have a favorite team, and if you buy a thing with their team's logo on it, this shows that you have paid attention to something they like, and are trying to please them. The thing is, even very devoted fans don't usually want everything in their house to be dedicated to their sports team. (There are exceptions. You probably already know if you're dealing with one of those, though.) You can find a Tiffany-style table lamp with a sports team logo. A curtain valance. A wallpaper border. A light switch plate. A spandex throw pillow that looks like a giant baseball. A wall clock! A SHOWER CURTAIN. A pot holder and kitchen towel set. The list goes on, and on, and on.
My favorite item on this list, for sheer WTF value, is definitely the Tiffany-style table lamp with the team logo, but it's $129, and gifts for people you dislike should always be inexpensive. There are far more reasonably priced items.
Like duct tape. Duct tape is not normally something you would give as a Christmas present, probably, but you can present this with the air of someone who'd never seen sports team duct tape before and got overexcited. Use the statement, "when I saw this I knew I HAD to get it for you!" Which is probably a statement you've heard a few times over the years, usually just before being handed a terrible gift. See what I mean about camouflage?
There are well-designed whimsical kitchen items that are both cute and functional. And then there are whimsical kitchen items that will take up space in a drawer or cabinet without being good for anything at all.
1. Mugs are pretty dang basic, you know? How do you even screw up a mug? Well, you can make it take up the space of two mugs or you can give it a handle that you can't easily slip your fingers through.
2. Oh look, a hedgehog cheese grater! So adorable, but try to picture using it. How do you even hold onto it while grating cheese with it? If you read the reviews, the answer is, "argh!"
3. The Nessie ladle looked so adorable in the magazine articles about it six months ago -- I totally wanted one. Too bad they're apparently both runty and flimsy. (Small ladles can be functional -- we have one that we use for gravy -- but it sounds like this one comes in an awkward size, too big for gravy but too small for soup.)
4. A sculptural dragon that will embrace your salt and pepper shaker like they are part of its hoard. Okay, to be fair: I totally know people who would honestly love this item. Use your own judgment here.
5. Even most of the people who would love a dragon salt and papper shaker holder are not actually going to install a dragon TP holder. Especially since, according to the reviews, it's really pretty annoying to install.
6. In the "easy to install but WHY WOULD YOU" category there is a Santa toilet decal. If you give this for Christmas, it'll already be too late to stick it on when they unwrap it; they'll have to save it for an entire year in order to get any use out of it.
7. A decorative tabby cat wine bottle holder. This is a bulky storage gadget for a single bottle of wine that also makes it look like the cat is drinking wine directly from the bottle. Note that the five-star reviews are entirely from people who gave it as a gift and say that the recipient just loved it (except for one person who cheerfully notes that his girlfriend thought it was hideous and "mysteriously lost it.") If you need a present for someone who's more of a dog person, you can get a dog version and somehow the wine-sucking golden retriever puppy is even more disturbing to look at than the cat.
8. In the "whimsical wine" category there are also whimsical wine bottle covers. What are these even for? Is there a reason that wine needs a cozy? Are these to dress up gifts of wine because you don't like wine gift bags? My suggested strategy for bad wine gifts is to go to a wine store or Trader Joe's and tell them that you need a bottle of wine for a stage set, it needs to not be a recognizable brand (so no three-buck-Chuck) but it doesn't have to be drinkable and you don't want to spend more than $5. Then stick a sweater on it, I guess. (WHY. WHY DOES WINE NEED A SWEATER?)
9. Whimsical nested measuring cups. Because you totally want to play "Take Apart the Matryoshka Dolls" before you can measure 1/4 cup of flour, and put them all away again every time you wash them rather than just throwing them in a drawer.
10. Whimsical dinosaur fossil ice cube trays. There is a huge selection of whimsical silicon ice cube trays out there. I spent some time last summer in a rented apartment that came with silicon ice cube trays, and I went out and tracked down a real ice cube tray because life is too short to pry whimsically-shaped cubes out of those stupid silicon trays. They are a complete pain in the ass and no one cares about whimsical ice.
Rather than linking to specific cookbooks, I'm going to suggest that you visit your nearest chain bookstore and check out the discount section, although before buying, make sure that the discount sticker can be easily peeled off.
There are people who love to cook and disdain any recipe that calls for Cream of Campbell's or Lipton Onion Soup Mix as ingredients. For those people, you want to find a cookbook where the recipes mostly involve assembling the contents of cans. The whole "Dump Dinners" series is arranged around this premise but there are plenty of others out there.
There are also people who really hate cooking and for them, you want to find a cookbook that claims everything in it is "quick and easy" and "ready in ten minutes" but also assumes that you just happened to stumble across 2 finely diced onions, 10 peeled and minced garlic cloves, 2 chopped green bell peppers, and four deboned ducks before you started the process of cooking. If you're not sure how to identify those, look for cookbooks produced by Cook's Illustrated or America's Test Kitchen. (I have a copy of the America's Test Kitchen Family cookbook, and I even use it, but they have crock pot recipes in there that call for, I swear to God, two hours of prep before you turn on the crock pot. That is not why I have a crock pot. That is not why anyone has a crock pot.)
Alternately, I'm pretty sure that It's All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great, Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook, could successfully irritate anyone who is not already a member of Gwyneth's personal cult. Especially as it's apparently about 2/3 pictures of Gwyneth.
Charitable Gifts: Wildlife Adoptions
Yesterday, someone on my Facebook shared an article about how the Bronx Zoo lets you name their Madagascar Hissing cockroaches after people for $10 per named cockroach. That is an awesome, if thoroughly unsubtle, gift. However, when I visited the Bronx Zoo website I couldn't find any links to do this, so I think it may have been a limited-time deal last February. (Too bad, because with some effort you can sell it as not an insult, I think. You'd want to focus on the whole "only thing that will survive a nuclear war" aspect of the cockroach personality.)
It's especially too bad because when you browse Wildlife Adoption options they tend to overwhelmingly focus on cute, appealing animals like tigers and panda bears. No one lets you adopt a blobfish. The World Wildlife Fund (logo animal: the panda bear) has 125 species available for wildlife adoption, but the blobfish is not among them. Dear WWF: I think you are missing an opportunity here. I know (I am sure) that as an organization you are strongly committed to saving ugly animals just as much as cute ones. You could even do one of your themed wildlife adoption buckets with the theme "save the uncharismatic fauna, too!" but for sure you'd need a blobfish in there.
Wildlife adoptions from the WWF are available at various price points -- they push the $55 option, which comes with a stuffed toy, but you can also do a $25 option, which is just a photo and a certificate. And while they do not have blobfish, they do have some animals available that might suit your gift-giving needs.
Bonobos. "Bonobos are highly social animals," the WWF tells you on their bonobo page, leaving out the part where they socialize primarily by having sex all day long. "They communicate in a variety of ways--visually, by touch and vocally," they say, delicately leaving out the fact that bonobos in captivity have been observed using a self-developed sign language to proposition one another sexually. "Male bonobos stay with the group that they were born into; a male's dominance is based upon his mother's rank," they say, leaving out the detail that bonobos live in a lesbian matriarchy. Get your homophobic bigot relative a bonobo wildlife adoption, and get yourself a copy of Biological Exuberance, which was where I first heard about bonobos. Fun additional fact: they're our closest primate relative. (Well, they're probably tied with chimps. But they are definitely at least as closely related to us as chimps are.)
Anacondas. If you think about it the right way, giving an anaconda adoption is a very subtle way of calling your recipient a dick.
The Great White Shark. If you have to give a gift to someone who's ever cut you down emotionally, give them a Great White Shark adoption and think of this lovely image of a Great White Shark every time you look at their shark stuffie. (SUPER GREAT.)
Vampire Bats. This one is maybe a little less subtle, but hey, you are RESCUING ENDANGERED WILDLIFE IN THEIR NAME.
Honey Badgers. Not surprisingly, the WWF page does not quote this excellent educational video about the personal strengths of honey badgers.
The Sierra Club also does wildlife adoptions and lets you adopt tarantulas, which is awesome. However, Ed and I used to donate to the Sierra Club and they would not stop calling us, so I hesitate to suggest donating to them. Although they will send you a tarantula puppet, and how cool is that? Also, if you can figure out a way to sic their phone solicitors onto your recipient, that would definitely be a gift that would keep on giving, but I'm not sure how you'd get them to do that while not also calling you.
If you want a stuffed blobfish for a do-it-yourself wildlife adoption, by the way, you can order one. It's kind of astonishing how cute it is, while also being recognizably a blobfish. You could pair it with The Ugly Animals: We Can't All Be Pandas, a book by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, which sadly is an educational comedy group and not an actual non-profit. That's less a gift for someone you hate and more a perfectly fine gift for anyone cool enough to appreciate it, though.
I made a note of this one months ago because it was inexpensive and kind of awesome. These are super cute, but they are also spikey cacti in tiny cases. Available as either key chains or jewelry, and there are teeny tiny holes in the case so you can water them occasionally by immersing them briefly in water. Nifty, cute, suitable for stocking stuffers, but there is something subtly hostile about giving someone a tiny cactus.
Happy holidays to everyone!
Passive-Aggressive Gift Giving Guides from Previous Years:
2010: Beyond Fruitcake: Gifts for People You Hate
2011: Gifts that say, "I had to get you a gift. So look, a gift!"
2012: Holiday shopping for people you hate
2013: Gift Shopping for People You Hate: the Passive-Aggressive Shopping Guide
Gifts for People You Hate 2014: The Almost-Generic Edition
Also, if you're amused by my writing, check out my science blogging at Bitter Empire: http://bitterempire.com/author/naomi-kritzer/
My (kind of low-volume) Twitter feed: @naomikritzer
And my fiction that was published online this year:
Cat Pictures Please (Clarkesworld, January 2015.)
Wind (Apex, April 2015.)
So Much Cooking (Clarkesworld, November 2015.)
The Good Son (Lightspeed, March 2015 -- reprint. Originally appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe, 2009.)
And if you just can't get enough of my writing, you could consider buying:
Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories (short story collection)
Gift of the Winter King and Other Stories (short story collection)
My novels (there are five of them)