Only four shopping days left until Christmas, but that's three 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, struggling to stifle a laugh. "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 when I thought I couldn't find anything he would accept, 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.

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. One year, trying to follow her 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.