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damage control

The question

Tell me I don’t stand alone: My 75-year-old sister-in-law expects a “hostess gift” in all circumstances. Her home is jammed with hostess gifts. She not only insists on people bringing gifts when they come to her house, she always brings something when she comes to your house. Even though I tell her I am unloading stuff and that anything brought to me will be donated to the SPCA garage sale, she persists. As a result, I am reluctant to cross the country for a visit bearing the useless gift. I go nuts with anxiety about the senseless consumerism this entails. I thought of bringing The New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but it might cause a rift.

The answer

I would say giving her a book like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a little too passive-aggressive.

Plus, it’s a bit beside the point, isn’t it? We’re not exactly talking about tidying up here.

It’s true the book’s author, Marie Kondo, is an avid advocate of decluttering, famously urging people to keep only those objects or items in their homes or apartments or condos that “spark joy” in the owner.

But you just know she doesn’t have friends and family that are constantly bringing junk over.

Now, if there were a book entitled The Life-Changing Magic of No Longer Inundating Your Friends and Family With Junk, my advice might be different. But as it is …

First off, I want to say I hear you vis-à-vis the reception of unwanted materials. I have three kids. Oh, how I dream of a Kondo-esque empty Zen space, with a raked pebble area out front and koi pond out back and … whatever the hell else Zen areas have. Bonsai trees?

Meanwhile, my house is full of junk. It begins when your kids are babies, and your friends and family are metaphorically looking down at a clipboard and saying: “Okay, this is the place. Back up the junk truck.” Beep-beep-beep.

And it never ends. To this day I have people in my life who come over and, with beaming, beatific, beneficent smile, bestow upon me a bag of stuff.

And of course it seems churlish to refuse. It’s a “gift.” Definition: “Gift, n. One more thing you have to deal with or figure out how to get rid of.”

Christmas is the worst. They might as well call it Junk-mas! It’s such a moronic inferno of … (Invisible hand reaches out and slaps columnist).

Sorry. Got a little carried away there. The only thing I can suggest is that you attempt to steer your sister-in-law toward giving you something you could actually use.

I mean, I could advise you to try to get her to cease and desist, but some instinct tells me that wouldn’t be practical. Your sister-in-law sounds like she might be a little bit relentless, sort of a … Terminator of hostess gifts.

So my mind goes to foodstuffs and the like. Victuals. Wine if you’re so inclined. We’ve all got to eat (and drink, ideally), right? One Christmas a while back I threw down with my family and said, “Let’s just give each other ‘consumables.’” Clearly a dirty word in your cosmology but what I meant was: stuff you could eat and drink.

It worked like a charm! For a while. Post-Christmas we headed home with jars of pickled, “drunken” green beans, red-pepper jelly, special cheeses and the like.

Glorious! I think it lasted about two Christmases, then someone slipped a sweater or something into the mix and we were back to the usual routine of furiously throwing landfill-bound items at one another.

But still: what a halcyon era.

Why not try something along those lines on your sister-in-law?

Say something like: “Look, sis-in-law: I know you love hostess gifts. I have an idea! In future, why don’t we exchange stuff like jams and jellies and cured meats and whatnot?”

Even if she balks, even if she cavils and/or flat-out refuses, you bring her jams/jellies/fine wines/smoked meats for her “hostess gifts.”

One advantage to you: less expensive. And maybe if you lead by example in this way your sister-in-law will eventually follow suit, give you jams and jellies and you’ll be able to live in your house free of landfill/Goodwill-bound junk and be able to surround yourself with only those items that “spark joy” in your soul.

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