Toxic Recipients

As the holiday season approaches, it seems the perfect time to rerun this blog post from 2019, regarding those people who, no matter what gift is given, are never quite pleased.

As we will soon be enduring the gift-giving whirl of the holiday season, it’s probably the perfect time to discuss the situation of Toxic Recipients.

Most of us have known one…and many of us, unfortunately, still do: the person who, no matter what gift is given, is never quite pleased. Who is not only displeased, but vocal about her or his displeasure. (The dress is an unflattering style; the shirt is the wrong color. The membership to the local museum is a waste of money—after all, no one goes to the museum more than one time yearly. Movie tickets? The movies these days are all trash. There’s nothing worth seeing. Ditto the restaurant gift card; don’t you know how much that place has gone downhill?)

As to why these individuals behave this way, well, that is a topic for another blog post.  But in an attempt to please a TR, friends and family (having exhausted all the usual avenues for gift ideas), often turn to creativity, sure that something handcrafted, homemade, will be given the respect due the work put into it, if not the gift itself. Homemade bath bombs and salt scrubs, hand-knitted sweaters, carefully-constructed photo journals, “just add water” recipe jars, handcrafted suncatchers, redeem-at-will coupons for yard work, home repairs, chauffeuring, babysitting…  But all are rejected with a roll of the eyes and a heavy sigh, or a scathing comment about a how a flagrant misuse of their funds must have resulted in a limited budget for gifts this year.

A gift card to a favorite store? Couldn’t  be bothered to shop, could you? Cash? Giving money is the biggest cop-out ever! Fresh flowers? What a waste—the damned things don’t last any time at all; they just wilt. A gift made to a charity in one’s name? Don’t you realize that NOW that self-same charitable organization will be dunning the honoree for donations at every possible turn? A planter? Who has time to take care of plants? A spa gift card? One has to tip the staff at those places, you know!

I recall a story once told me by a coworker: Her family was sure they had finally hit upon the absolutely perfect gift for their Toxic Recipient Matriarch. They contacted an astronomical society and had a star named for her. Now there was a present that couldn’t be topped! It was, in fact, sky-high.

The Matriarch’s reaction to this gift was, as they recounted afterward, a true Mastercard moment: utterly priceless. Upon opening the certificate, she read it through twice—the first time uncomprehending, the second time, in patent disbelief. Then she pinioned her hapless family with a gimlet stare and, tossing the certificate toward the discarded wrapping paper, demanded, “Just what the hell am I supposed to do with this?!”

So….  My humble suggestion to all of those trapped in the hellish round of attempting to please a Toxic Recipient on every birthday, anniversary, holiday, or whatever, is just this: Stop. Stop trying. Stop giving. And, above all, stop caring.

Give a gift with the store receipt prominently displayed, and when the TR comments upon the tackiness of this behavior, merely shrug and say, “Well, we knew you’d hate it, since you always hate everything we give you, so we were just making it easy for you to return it.”  Or show up empty handed, and mention casually and with total unconcern that your financial circumstances right now limit gift giving to small children only. Or, when the poisonous remarks about your gift begin to be spouted, throw up your hands and recount a laundry list of past gift failures. “Well, let’s see. You didn’t like the pink blouse/blue shirt. You used the restaurant gift certificate, and then gave us a blow-by-blow description of how poor the food and service were. You never even used the zoo membership. You didn’t cash in on our “a full day of yard work” coupon. You said the tool set was cheap. You never got a pedicure at the spa. You told us the year of gym membership was just our way of saying you were fat. So it was this,” (here making a dramatic gesture toward the most recently-rejected gift), “or purchasing your funeral plot. Of the two, we thought this was better.”

Of course, this last statement is likely to result in one’s being cut out of the will, or thrown out of the house, or banished from the family, or treated to an Amish-style shunning, or some other such volatile gesture of utter disdain.

Which, come to think of it, might not be so bad a result after all.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives from November 20, 2019.

My “Nosy” Encounter

§   Thinking back on this incident, I’m both sad and proud. Sad, because I can see why vicious hate speech is so common in our society; proud, because I avoided my first reaction to grab the little snot and slap her. §

Well before the advent of the current social distancing, I was tooling about the Super Big Evilmart, when I happened upon an acquaintance (and, following what occurred, I suppose I’m glad that she was merely an acquaintance, not a friend, and now is no longer either). This woman was shopping with her pre-teen daughter and the daughter’s friend, and stopped to make conversation for a few minutes.

At a slight pause in the “Hi, how are you, what’s been happening” remarks, the pre-teen daughter, with a maliciously gleeful look crossing her young face, broke in with a question of her own. “Why is your nose SO BIG?!” she demanded. She and her friend broke into uproarious giggles at her non-joke.

The young woman’s mother, looking uneasy, exclaimed her daughter’s first and middle names.  (As we all know from childhood, one name = Mom Conversation; two names = Mom’s Mad; three names = Duck and Cover!)  Her tone was that scolding timbre that mothers use exclusively to upbraid their misbehaving offspring. The girls paid her no mind, continuing to giggle, collapsing upon one another in their Mean Girl success.  The mother looked away from them, facing me with an sickly smile, unable to quite look me in the eye. Notably absent, though, was any apology from her for the girls’ misbehavior or even verbal acknowledgement of their insolence.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I know that my nose is, indeed, quite large. NoseWhile perhaps not of Cyrano dimensions, nevertheless one could probably mold at least two, if not three, average-sized noses from my beak. I’ve worn this honker on my face for 66 years, so I have no illusions about it. But those of my generation who weren’t headed off to Hollywood didn’t rush out to the cosmetic surgeon to have every body part from eyelids to labia altered to meet some insanely unrealistic cultural standard. Still, had I ever possessed both the funds and the time, I might have chosen to have my nose “fixed”. But, there you have it: it’s my nose, and I’ve worn it for a lifetime. It serves its purpose—to keep me breathing—and I’ve learned to accept it.

But it’s one thing to know I have a nose the size of Montana, and quite another thing to have some obnoxious, flippant little smartass point it out. My nose was bequeathed me via the Italian genes in my family, and staunchly half-Roman as I am, standing there in that humiliating situation, realization struck me in one blinding flash of comprehension: Although my family members casually and even proudly refer to one another on occasion as “Wops”,  it is done only amongst ourselves. Woe betide the outsider who uses such an appellation to reference us!

The same rule, then, applied to my facial appendage. I could say all I wanted that I have a snozzle the size of farm machinery, but no one else, ever, got to make that comparison.

So, after waiting the required beat for this kid’s Mom to grab her offending offspring by the upper arm and haul her forward to face me while demanding, “Apologize! Right this instant!”—well, with none of that forthcoming, I waded into the fray with my reply. “That was rude, cruel and unnecessary,” I addressed Miss Preteen, narrowing my eyes and dropping my vocal tone into the “verging on nuclear meltdown” registry. “It doesn’t show you to be ‘cute’; it just shows you to be badly behaved and not particularly intelligent. And it reflects badly on your mother, who I’m sure did not raise you to be so ill-mannered.”

The two girls stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. But the truly remarkable reaction was that of the mother. She just gathered up her bags in a close embrace and remarked, “Well, we’ve got to be getting home.” She turned and made a rapid exit with both girls trailing in her wake, casting wide-eyed glances at me over their shoulders.

Reflecting on the incident now, I’m both saddened and proud. Sad, because I can easily see why vicious hate speech, insults, trolling, and threats are so common in our society, from our reporter-insulting President on downward. Proud, because my actual first reaction, carefully reined in, had been to grab the little snot and slap her until her head rolled off her shoulders and bounced across the floor. It took an amazing amount of personal restraint for me not to do this, so, as I say, I am proud.

It’s painfully clear to me now that manners, as well as self-restraint, are rarely being taught to, far less required of many of  today’s children. And that is, I think, a tragedy, and one that we, as a society, will come to greatly regret.

Barbie Shoes

§  Somehow this poor abused specimen of high fashion survived all the heckling and proudly wore her ridiculous shoes to her sister’s wedding.  §

One of my favorite ways of wasting time used to be reading a Lifestyle news section that scoured the Net to find and share entries from interesting personal blogs. They were occasionally thought-provoking; sometimes frightening; often utter baloney; and frequently downright flabbergasting in their complete idiocy. I enjoyed reading them immensely.

In those innocent days (about two decades ago), one could even publicly comment at the end of these shared posts. Although I rarely did so, I clearly remember one of the few posts to which I ever replied.

The young woman who’d written the post was bitterly upset over the treatment she’d received from her family and friends when she and her husband travelled from New York, returning to her rural childhood home so that she could serve as bridesmaid at her sister’s upcoming wedding. This was during the Sex and the City era, when conspicuous consumption of insanely-expensive, foot-breakingly tall high heels was a huge fashion trend. Young Woman had received just such a pair of heels as a gift during the previous holiday season. She’d proudly packed them to wear at her sister’s wedding…to the absolute hilarity of her family.

Now, long before reading this post, I had personally given up wearing anything higher than kitten heels. Pain and then pregnancy had convinced me that wrecking my feet for the sake of fashion was perhaps not one of my brighter behaviors. But this young woman was obviously years from making that rational decision, and so wasn’t taking well her family’s jibes about her overpriced, overly-tall shoes. Worse yet, it seems, they underestimated the price of the shoes (the cost of which could probably have fed a family of four in a Third World nation for two years or more). No, she kvetched, they didn’t even recognize the value of the shoes, and their teasing went beyond good-natured banter; it was abuse.

To add to her distress, when she and her husband had to drop by the hometown Super Big Evil Mart, he was stared at by locals who just didn’t recognize the style and fashion of a great V-neck sweater. More abuse! This particular gripe set me to snickering as I recalled a class reunion and one couple who had returned from New York to our Midwestern city. They stood out as polished and sophisticated, both in dress and mannerisms, from our classmates; and, yes, they received a few stares just for that reason. People tend to gawp at anything unaccustomed or different; it’s simply human nature. But Young Woman obviously hadn’t lived long enough yet to grasp that fact.

Still, somehow this poor abused specimen of high fashion survived all the heckling and proudly wore her ridiculous shoes to her sister’s wedding. She even persuaded the photographer to completely re-arrange the planned family photos to account for her suddenly-taller stature. As I read her pathetic plaints, though, I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of the very old Lonnie Donegan song, Putting on the Style.  “Putting on the agony, putting on the style/that’s what all the young folks are doing all the while…” This gal was truly obsessed with putting on the style, whatever agony she might have to endure both in her own feet and from the “emotional abuse” she was dealt.

As her bellyaching little post wound down, though, I came to her final paragraphs, which described a comment made to her at the reception by the wedding planner. Describing said wedding planner in extremely unflattering terms that mocked her hairstyle and appearance, Young Woman nevertheless proudly recounted the planner’s compliment to her at the close of the day, “You really rocked those shoes!”

Wait a damn minute…. This Young Woman had wasted perhaps 800 words’ worth of my time with her moans, groans, complaints and kvetches about how much abuse she’d endured—and the one person, the one person in this entire scenario who compliments her, she herself abuses with belittling remarks about appearance? The word irony came strongly to mind…

There was, of course, a photo of her “ruby slippers” attached to this post. Glancing at them, I wondered how much Young Woman would someday need to pay a podiatrist  to repair the wrecked bones, muscles and tendons of her feet. Then I scrolled through the comments, most of which admired the shoes, while a few sympathized with Young Woman for the terrible mistreatment she’d endured. Others were scathing in their responses to her pathos.  None, though, mentioned her ironic insults of the kind wedding planner.

I simply couldn’t resist. Pressing the Reply button, I left, as I said, one of the very few comments I ever added to one of these entertaining Lifestyle posts. It was brief, pointed and pithy:

“Nice shoes, Barbie. But you really need to get over yourself.”

24 Hours Too Late

Mark Twain famously said that “Repartee is something we think of twenty-four hours too late.”

He was right.

I shopped at a bookstore one day with a man I was dating; he wanted to buy a new Bible. We walked up an aisle filled with dizzying arrays of Bibles in a dozen different translations.  New International Version.  New Living Translation.  New American Standard. New Revised Standard.  New Jerusalem.  He darted from one to another, uncertain which to buy.

“I’ve always preferred the King James version myself,” I commented, “just because it’s so poetic.” He cast me a disdainful look and snapped, “That’s why you don’t understand the Bible.”

(And let me just say right here that it is absolutely NOT true that I was ever arrested for boyfriend homicide.)

Much too late, I realized I could have responded that, no, the problem was that HE didn’t understand poetry. My delayed realization just proves the accuracy of Twain’s quote.

If I had a time machine, I suspect I would wear it out going back to make all the superb, cutting, decisive responses that I just couldn’t think of at the time. I’ve wondered, though, why it is that most of us can’t conjure up this brilliant badinage when we genuinely need it.  And I think that I have hit on at least a possible answer – something I recall having read long ago in an article about the gulf between what we anticipate and what actually happens.

When we have trouble with a quick response, it’s because what was said to us is not what we expected. The veiled insult, the subtle snub, the snarky remark, the witty but utterly cutting and devastating quip – we spend a few seconds simply flabbergasted as our brain tries to rewire itself in response to the unexpected.  While perhaps it isn’t true of the most recent generation, in years past, most of us were raised to be at least superficially polite. Consequently, we assume that people in social situations will at least pretend to be polite. Coming up against a contradiction to that assumption requires a split second of adjustment – and in a social situation, a split second can be quite a long time.

This is the same sort of reaction that a teenage clerk has when, having told a customer that the total price of his purchase is $9.17, is handed $20.17 in payment. As the young clerk stares at the money in confusion for a second, the mature customer gloats over the clerk’s ignorance. But the  young clerk is not unintelligent; he is bewildered for just a moment because the money handed to him is not what he expected.  He expected to be handed a ten or a twenty or even exact change. An extra neuron or two has to fire before he makes the connection to the fact that the customer wants only paper money, not coins, in change.

I’ve heard this explanation advanced, too, as the reason that we stare for a moment or two at a person who has a physical difference – a birthmark, a facial scar, something we perceive as outside the norm. Our brains simply take an extra split second to make the adjustment to what our eyes have perceived, resulting in that graceless additional moment in our glance—a nanosecond that is interpreted by others as a rude stare.  It takes just seconds for our social awareness to kick in, reminding us that staring is impolite, but that is long enough to irritate others and infect us with guilt for what was no more than an involuntary reaction.

Returning to the question of repartee, I’ll never be any good at it. I worship those people with the ability to process a nasty remark and return some brilliantly-worded riposte with barely a pause.  My own retorts usually take weeks to evolve.

But let me just say it here and now: Morris, you don’t understand a damned thing about poetry.