Only 18 shopping days left until Christmas, but that's 17 more than my family needs. We generally wait until Dec. 24, pick a store - the less appropriate the better - then wait for inspiration.

My father is the hardest to shop for because he hates Christmas presents. One of my older sisters was passing a hardware store years ago when inspiration struck. She laid down her money and collected three extraordinary prizes - two chains and a bucket."It made sense to me," she said. "People are always saying Christmas is so frivolous and artificial - here was my chance to buy something solid and real."

My dad wasn't too impressed with his bucket, but I loved my chain. I spent hours swinging my gerbils from the third-floor window trying to teach them to fly. Nervous animals, those gerbils, and untalented.

Another year on the 24th, the search for a perfect gift for my father led me to a grocery store.

I couldn't find anything I thought he would accept, but then I remembered that he did like to make Dutch hot cabbage slaw. I bought him a fat, perfect cabbage the size of a basketball. How could he not love it? I wrapped it and put it under the Christmas tree.

"I know what this is, and I hate sports," he said, then he picked up the package and tried to bounce it. A juicy cabbage thud echoed through the house. But we did have plenty of hot slaw that year, even without the bruised side.

Years earlier, my eldest brother had solved his shopping problems at a grocery store too. We watched our mother hide the Oreo cookies after she caught my baby sister trying to stuff a whole bag into her cheeks. My brother bought my sister a super-size bag of Oreos, then spent Christmas watching her choke down her prize.

Once, three of my older siblings bought my father's gift at a Christmas tree lot. They knew he used Alka-Seltzer tablets (heaven knows why), so they bought him the bottom half of a Christmas tree, decorated it with wrapped lemons and limes, and placed on top a glass holding an Alka-Seltzer. He was unimpressed, but did use the Alka-Seltzer.

My mother always tried to buy normal gifts at regular stores, and some years we tried to follow her good example. I remember soberly walking into quite a respectable department store and leaving an hour later with a discarded, clench-fisted mannequin hand for one of my militant friends.

Further proof we were born with a defective Christmas shopping gene is the occasional year when everyone gets the same inspiration. The season we all went to separate drug stores, one of my sisters got a travel toothbrush, an electric toothbrush, a designer toothbrush, a folding toothbrush and a toothbrush on a rope. She didn't smile for weeks.

It's been hard to formally observe the family tradition of well-intentioned but grossly inappropriate gifts since we children grew up and moved away. I've tried to train my friends, but they don't quite get it. Sure, I appreciated the Ronco-inside-the-egg egg scrambler and the Don Ho records, but I doubt they were truly bought with my best interest at heart.

But back at my parents' house, the tradition unexpectedly lived on. A few years ago, my mother decided that because my father adores classical music, she would buy him an album - by the Mormon "Tabby"-nacle Choir. Who would have ever guessed cats could carry a tune so well?