Friday, May 20, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Present Malpractice

by Peggy Robin

Last week the subject was birthdays. This week it’s the related topic of presents -- the kind you would rather not have. I’m not talking about clothing that doesn’t fit, or a duplicate copy of a book you’ve already read, or a vase so ugly you can’t help but wish it would meet with an “accident.” Any of these things can be accepted with a smile and heartfelt thanks, if not for the object itself, than for the gesture. So what if the giver’s taste is the polar opposite of your own? If you can’t return the item and can’t or won’t re-gift it to someone else, you can always donate it to a charity that will either find it a good home or sell it and put the proceeds where it will do some good. Nothing wrong with that.

What I’m talking about is a present that goes beyond being unneeded and unwanted to somehow wreaking havoc in your life. The gift of a pet, for example, when you neither expected nor are prepared to accept one. Any pet at all –even if it’s a just a goldfish in a bowl—fits the category. The harm is greatly magnified when when the pet is given to your child. Of course, your child will instantly fall in love with it, while the various ways to refuse the gift or send it somewhere else can be painful for all concerned -- including the pet.

In a similar category is the gift of a trip or vacation, especially if you are expected to join the gift-givers at a particular resort or at their second home.

In both the pet and the trip scenario, the giver is likely to be a close relative, and the gift comes with an unspoken but still unmistakable message. In the case of the pet, it’s: “You’re denying your child the joy of a pet and we intend to correct that.” In the case of a trip, the message is “You don’t spend enough time with us, but now, goddammit, you are going to enjoy a week with us, whether you like it or not!”

I know I have picked the two most extreme examples. The typical case of present malpractice is not so elaborate; common types involve a gift of food or drink, such as:
  • Giving a dessert-of-the-month club to someone on a diet. (The danger factor goes up exponentially if the recipient’s a diabetic.) 
  • Giving any food containing nuts to someone you know (or should have known, if you’d been paying attention), has a nut allergy. If the person’s ever been hospitalized for anaphylactic reaction before, you can bet some prosecutor will be thinking of manslaughter charges. Conspiracy buffs will think murder one.
  • Giving champagne, wine, brandy, or any other alcoholic drink to any couple or individual who is now or may have ever been or may be in the process of becoming an alcoholic. 
  • Giving a basket of goodies including imported gourmet salami or tinned meats or fish to someone who’s a strict vegetarian. 
In the non-consumable field, the salient example is this one:

Giving a gym membership to anyone for any reason, except if it’s a close relative or your very best friend, who has specifically requested that particular gift and has also specified the gym. A gym membership given under any other circumstances might as well come with a card that says, “Happy Birthday, Couch Potato!” because that’s just how the recipient will view it.

And finally, there’s the sort of present malpractice where the negative consequences are not immediately clearcut. The gift I will use for this example was an introductory flying lesson. I won’t give the true names of the couple involved but will call them Eartha and Skyler. Eartha knew her husband Skyler had been hankering to learn to fly. His birthday was coming up. Eartha decided to get him a flying lesson as a surprise gift. Her motives were not pure. She had the sneaking suspicion that if he received the gift of a flight lesson that he would take that one lesson, discover that it was something of a hassle to schedule into his busy life, go all the way out to the faraway airport where the gift certificate had to be used, and fly for a half hour with the instructor, and that would be it. Whereas, she figured, if she waited until he acted upon his own impulse to learn to fly, he would be more likely to commit to a whole series of lessons, and then, not wanting to admit that he didn’t like it so much as he thought he would, he’d feel compelled to finish out the series before giving up on the whole idea. Which is exactly what Eartha wanted in the first place.

As Eartha initially expected, Skyler was thrilled to open the envelope with the one-lesson gift certificate. But from there things went just the opposite of Eartha’s flight plan. Skyler loved that first flight lesson. He thought the instructor was terrific, too, and he immediately signed up for a whole series of lessons – yes, at that inconveniently distant airport. Skyler spent hours, weeks, and months learning to fly and got his private pilot’s license. Flying became his great passion, a love that nervous Eartha never learned to share. And so she sits at home while Skyler flies here and there, using the skill first acquired in an act of present malpractice whose only true victim was, in this instance, the giver.

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