This is the season to be desperate — desperately searching online and in stores for that perfect "something" for everyone on your holiday gift list. Sadly, the closer we get to the big day, the more that perfect "something" becomes the not-so-perfect "anything." It doesn't have to be this way.
You are wrong if you think "it's the thought that counts," excuses your participation in the proliferation of inexcusable gifts. It's not just the thought (or lack thereof) that counts. It's the thought and the gift and the presentation that counts. Yes, really.
Before you panic and rush out to buy everyone on your list a boring gift card or a basket full of nitrates consider this; help is available. All you need is basic training and a battle plan.
In the spirit of giving I thoughtfully present you my second annual "What Not To Gift Guide" for 2006.
Plan your attack
You are not entirely to blame for the dud gifts you have given in the past. Retailers and novelty manufacturers prey on your frailty and laziness by stacking cheesy, prepackaged items near the register.
They dress pretty mannequins in Santa hats and flammable lingerie while conspiring to create traditions and demand where none existed before (see: diamond industry).
So arm yourself with information and strike quickly. If your wife hints in October that she really loves the limited-edition, holiday kitchen towels from Williams-Sonoma, and you wait to until Dec. 24 to shop, you will be in trouble. Buy now.
Before you shop, gather intelligence about your target recipient; name, age, likes, dislikes. While it is fun to play the "a little smaller, bustier, taller, rounder" game with the salespeople at Victoria's Secret, it rarely results in accurate sizing.
Instead, spy a bit. Go through the lingerie drawer. Try on some things if you must. Consult with a high-level strategist for everyone on your list; your wife's best friend, your mom's hairdresser and your brother's hunting buddy are excellent choices. Do ask, but don't tell. Camouflage your cargo in a secret location.
To navigate the retail landscape you must fraternize with unlikely "sources." When shopping for electronics or boys' toys, seek out the youngest, most unkempt salesman to get some advice. He will know what's hot in everything from comic books to iPods and remote-control vehicles.
The "geek squad" can show you the newest Lego Bionicle, the coolest Star Wars figure and the hottest Hot Wheels car.
They cannot help you with newborn gifts, jewelry or home decor. For that you'll need a Grandma. Every store has one. She will help you find what you want while freely scolding you for spoiling your child, over (or under) spending, or procrastinating. Accept the abuse, her help is worth it. Prepare for contingencies. Do not get sucked into a life-or-death battle for scarce toys; instead, attach a picture of the Playstation 3 or Nintendo Wii you failed to capture to an Atari flashback machine. You'll get all the credit, none of the guns.
While attacking your gift list you will have to identify and avoid land mines. Stay away from "hint gifts"; the popular book "You: On a Diet" is a bad idea unless it was specifically requested. Nonrefundable experiences, delayed-gratification toys (like ant farms that require you to order the ants through the mail) and partisan political gifts are a lot more fun to give than to receive.
You may think Ann Coulter walks on water, but your cousin Rainbow Hemp may not share your views. And trust me, no matter what your sister says, your nephew will not appreciate the goat you gave to an African village in his name unless he has a stuffed goat, or a groovy Grand Theft Goat Xbox game in his hands to memorialize it. Oh, and leave the cheap knockoffs and off-brand chocolates to Uncle McScrooge. On the other hand, don't go overboard by scooping Santa unless you really want to be on the naughty list.
Need to know
Some items on holiday "hot" lists belong on holiday "not" lists. Many best-sellers will lead to widespread disappointment, remorse and long return lines Dec. 26. Mark my words, the popular Marshmallow Shooter will hit the trash can shortly after Mommy feels the sting of a stale, hardened marshmallow shot at high velocity. (Ask me, I know!)
To prevent holiday misgivings, ask yourself some tough questions before checkout: Would Oprah put this on her list of Favorite Things? Does Uncle Joe want a "Mangroomer," the essential do-it-yourself electric back shaver? Would I let my daughter wear the same outfit as this Bratz doll?
Not sure? Step away from the misgift. (Note to hubby: Feel free to take a calculated risk by going "off-list." Just be sure to buffer your iffy choice with a sure thing. I suggest a Lexus.)
You will make mistakes. Do not be dismayed. This battle plan includes an exit strategy. Every gift you give this year should be beautifully and thoughtfully wrapped by you or whomever you have paid to do it right. Nestled inside will be the most thoughtful present you will ever give: a gift receipt.
Heija Nunn is a humor writer and gifted shopper based on the Eastside: firstname.lastname@example.org