The Rap on Gifts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Somewhere out there some holiday shopper is picking out a vegetable dehydrator, paying for an automatic video rewinder, finding the right size box for a matched set of Mickey and Minnie sheepskin wall hangings, wrapping a Regis Philbin workout video, imagining the look on sweet auntie's face when she lays her eyes on her 1997 Duct Tape Calendar.

Almost everybody has received a holiday gift they might call surprising.

Sometimes it's amusing. Occasionally it's irritating. One hopes it's exchangeable. Mostly, however, it's mystifying. Sure, it's the thought that counts--and some people are harder to please than others--but what the heck are some gift-givers thinking?

It's not that there's anything innately wrong with the gifts that miss the mark; it's the poor match between gift and recipient that's the problem.

Twenty-one years later, Kenny Kennedy of Westminster is still befuddled by the Christmas morning when he unwrapped a present from his father and discovered a car stereo.

"I didn't have a car," Kennedy points out. "I didn't have a driver's license. I was 15 years old!"

For a moment, little Kenny was confused.

"Then I jumped up, thrilled--I figured there must be a car waiting for me to put the stereo in," he recounts. "I asked, 'Where's the car? Where's the car?' My dad looked at me funny and said, 'What car?' "

Kennedy, now 36, didn't own a set of wheels until he was 20.

"Of course, that car already had a stereo," he says. "Every car I've ever bought has already had a stereo."

His "spare" is still in a closet.

Sondra Evans, 60, of Garden Grove didn't know what to think last year when her daughter gave her a pair of bright red stretch pants and a matching crop top--the kind of get-up Jane Fonda doesn't have the gall to wear anymore. "I'm not sure whether she was trying to send me a message," says Evans, "or if she just made a mistake. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and I gave the outfit away."

Kathy Nguyen, 16, of Huntington Beach is trying to put last year's gift from her sister behind her and get on with her life.

"She gave me a poster of some actor--I can't even remember who," Nguyen says. "I just smiled and said thanks, like any nice person would do, and put it in my closet. But I keep wondering why anybody would give somebody a poster of some actor?"

Jenny McCormack, 22, of Garden Grove is beyond asking such questions anymore.

"Every year my aunt gives me a gift; every year she sits there and watches me open it, and every year it's a calendar," McCormack says. "And it's always a corny calendar."

McCormick knows her complaints come off poorly.

"I sound so ungrateful, and that's terrible," she says, "but I've been on the other side of it too. A couple of years ago I gave my mom a water filter--you know, one of those things you pour your tap water into and it purifies it? After she opened it, she was like, 'Uh. Wow. Thanks.' Now I use it."

McCormick's admission of giving a gift that missed the mark is unusual. Most people can't seem to think of even one instance when the gift they gave was not thoroughly appropriate and appreciated.

That, of course, is the problem.

Not everybody finds this subject easy to talk about. Sherri Leiding, 46, of Yorba Linda needed a moment to get quiet and gather her thoughts. Then she took a deep breath--because she had such a long list.

"Let's see, there was the year my husband bought me English Leather after-shave and cologne, having no clue it was for men," Leiding began. "Another time my mother-in-law bought me a feather boa, which I couldn't take back because she had my initials monogrammed in the lining. Once I received a smoke detector. Last year my husband gave me a book. I was so pleased, thinking, 'He finally knows me,' until it turned out to be the book I was currently reading, the one that had been on the night stand for weeks."

Ed Mauss was finally forced to face up to the truth about his gift-giving practices.

"I often used to recycle gifts I'd received at work into gifts for some of my wife's distant relatives," admitted Mauss, 33, of Trabuco Hills. "But one year the corporate-type box of See's chocolates that I gave to Grandma Thelma was exactly the same assortment she gave to us. It was a very embarrassing moment, awkward for both of us."

Recognizing the pervasiveness of bad-gift giving, Ed Portmann, a public relations consultant in Irvine, turned the phenomenon into a party theme. For years, he hosted parties after the holidays to which guests brought the worst gifts they had received and swapped them.

"There tended to be a lot of plaster-of-Paris animals from Pic 'N' Save," Portmann recalls. "There was a lamp in the cast of a cat that nobody wanted. And outlandish hand-painted ties. One was Hawaiian, and nobody could figure out where and when you could wear that."

There were 4-foot bottles of vinegary wine and a grotesque, wrought-iron advent wreath. Even one of those tacky lava lamps, "though I see they're in again," he says.

The worst gift, Portmann says, was an assortment of Knott's Berry Farm jellies and jams. What's so awful about that? They were given to a diabetic--by his sister.

A universal awful: cheap cologne. It is the champion of bad gifts.

"Everyone's gotten it," chuckled Janine Limas, 32, of Cypress. "But I got it when I was really young. I didn't know it was bad. I thought it meant I was all grown up. So I wore it everywhere I went--until my mother finally told me I stunk."

Two years ago, Limas wrestled with a more wrenching dilemma--bad jewelry.

"My boyfriend gave me a charm bracelet, which of course is totally outdated," she says. "It was silver--with some turquoise, too, I think--and the little things hanging from it were sea creatures or something.

"It took me a week to get out of it gracefully. I finally told him I didn't have any other silver jewelry to wear with it. I took the bracelet back and got a pair of roller-blades," she says. "About two weeks ago we were actually joking about it."

Eventually a Tustin woman and her now-ex husband were able to joke about the gift he gave her one Christmas.

Come on outside, he coaxed her, everything's ready. As he led her out to the driveway, she was envisioning a surprise getaway trip with bags packed and waiting in the car. "Well, what do you think?" he asked excitedly. "About what?" she asked. "Your new tires!" Not much, it turned out.

The following year, when she went to buy new floor mats for that same car, the attendant told her he couldn't sell them to her. "Your husband," he confided, "is getting you some for Christmas." She insisted that the attendant sell her the mats. That year, she remembers, her gift ended up being a vacuum cleaner. But a very expensive one.

The mismatches go on and on.

The 18-year-old woman who received a Barbie doll from her grandmother. The boyfriend who doesn't know what to do with the Marvin the Martian floor mat he got from his girlfriend's mother. The high school boy who received a pair of Speedos--those form-fitting swimmer's trunks--from a female teammate on the diving team, but in a size that would fit a toddler. The woman whose mother gave her a purse with a working clock embedded in the side.

Then there is Dru Ann Copping of Placentia, who can't remember ever receiving a Christmas gift she didn't like. But she credits her own proactive approach for that fact.

"I've actually unwrapped gifts early, and if they're not what I wanted, taken them back and exchanged them before I opened them on Christmas morning," Copping admits.

"The people who bought the gifts were the ones surprised by what I got."

Staff writer Steve Emmons contributed to this report.

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