If things haven't changed by the time you read this, the approaching holiday season will be my second without a full-time job.
I don't tell you this to solicit sympathy or pity. I declare my joblessness only to help my fellow paycheck-challenged comrades: With much of the country in the throes of a recession, you probably know someone who's in the same boat -- and I hope to educate you on what the unemployed do and don't want for the holidays.
First and foremost, your jobless friend or family member does not want your condescension -- nor do they care to rehash the details of how they came to their current circumstances. Chances are, they've already done this hundreds of times and won't relish doing it again. (It always ends the same way -- with an uncomfortable silence, followed by the gainfully employed person offering the same cliched advice that the recipient has probably heard too many times already.)
Instead, focus on the person and not the job that used to define them. They're probably feeling a little down and out, so why not brighten up their gloomy world with a thoughtful and appropriate gift? Because this is the season of giving, your gift won't seem like charity. Read on:
Gifts to avoid
• Office supplies: Chances are, if there was anything we wanted from where we worked, we "appropriated it" as we walked out the door.
• Dress clothes: This person is unemployed; where is he or she going to wear them? Around the house? Try again. The veteran job-seeker probably already owns the appropriate attire for interviews, and this kind of gift would only make him or her more self-conscious during the search for a new gig. Don't make an already-difficult situation worse.
• Workout equipment: The unemployed are not lazy -- it's just that we're working on getting our whole lives back on track, not just our bodies. (This holds for gym memberships, too.)
• Inspirational books: Unless the person is already a self-help nut, works by Tony Robbins or Dr. Laura, once freed from the pretty wrappings, may quickly be chucked at your head. Buyer beware.
• Cash: Overtly appealing, but rather impersonal. (On second thought, nonsequential tens and twenties are always appreciated.)
• Smokes (in bulk, of course): I'm speaking from personal experience here, but this unemployed person emits more smoke than a chimney. Not only does it occupy my time and support North Carolina's cash crop, it also makes me seem terribly deep in thought when I'm really just reflecting on the last episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "ChiPs." Make sure to get the right brand (I like Avanti cigars, if anyone cares), and buy lots of 'em. You really can't go wrong with the gift of the burning leaf.
• Home-improvement items: The first thing the unemployed person in your life will focus on when he or she is stuck in the house all day long is getting around to all those annoying little projects there never seemed to be time for before. I've repainted two rooms of my house, cleaned the gutters so well you could drink out of them, and raised my yard to a state of manicured perfection. Other good ideas are car-cleaning kits or woodworking projects. All these things allow the jobless to use some of their downtime productively.
• Pets/pet supplies: I would have lost my sanity long ago were it not for my dog. He likes having me around more, and his mere presence makes me feel less alone. If you think your jobless pal has room for the responsibility, give him or her a new friend for the holidays. But don't go the goldfish route: If (read: "when") the aquatic acquaintance dies, it only makes things worse. Trust me.
• Gift certificates: The unemployed person in your life probably buys the Sunday paper just for the want ads -- but that paper also comes with loads of sales fliers touting stuff they can't currently afford. Any gift certificates are welcome -- but one to Wal-Mart is more practical than one to, say, a local bookstore (there are libraries, after all). In fact, I'd go with a gift certificate over anything else on this list -- it lets the intended customers pick what they want, while still letting them know you care. Plus, it gets them out of the house.
In the end, if you mess up, don't worry too much. Folks without jobs have plenty of time to stand in line at the return desk to get what they really wanted, anyway.
[Jonathan Rich is a free-lance writer based in Brevard. What he really wants for Christmas is a full-time job with insurance benefits.]
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