What’s Worse Than Coal? These Christmas Presents

(Originally published on The Billfold, a publication that recently shut down)


It’s Christmas morning and I am 20 years old.

My mom poured some hot tea and my brother whined about getting out of bed. Magic, our family dog, barked and jumped in circles as we all gathered around our sparkling tree to start exchanging presents.

My mom got that new mystery novel she was dying to read.

My dad received a new piece of art to hang in the house.

My brother got some headphones and new clothes, and even my golden retriever received a couple of squishy stuffed animals and a bone to gnaw on.

I also received some great gifts that year, but unfortunately there is one in particular that really sticks out: the shovel. Yes, a shiny, new shovel — plastic and blue, given to me by my dad who genuinely thought I would like it. He told me that, if I wanted, I could keep it in my car in case I was ever stuck in snow. From my perspective, it seemed more like a subtle reminder to help with outdoor chores.

Seven years later and my dad’s present still makes me laugh. It was definitely one of the weirdest presents I have ever received, and it got me thinking about what other strange gifts people have received around the holidays. So I did a little digging (no pun intended) to find out. Let’s take a look at some of the worst:

“I did a white elephant thing and got a box that someone literally dumped their junk drawer in. There were receipts and scraps of paper and dead batteries.” — Stephanie (Michigan, USA)

“My dad game me some Poo-Pourri stuff… I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It’s like toilet bowl spray so your poop doesn’t smell. I guess I can see how that would be useful, but honestly I would’ve preferred cash.” – Marley (New York, USA)

“Thirty years ago for Christmas, we had a Secret Santa at work. At the party, we were exchanging gifts and I was very surprised when opening my gift. I found a solid block of caramel in the shape of a butt! I never understood this gift… and I don’t want to know its meaning.” — Juan Pablo (Santiago, Chile)

“When I was a kid my brother painted a wood block and gave it to me for Christmas. Like a wood block about twice the size of a domino. It was painted yellow and intended to be used as a paperweight.”  — Sophie (Washington DC, USA)

“An 8th grade math workbook. I was 26.” — James (Texas, USA)

“A half-empty box of Q-tips, and a box of kitchen trash bags. She (ex mother-in-law) once got my son a Ziploc bag full of used pacifiers that she bought for a dollar at a yard sale.” — Karen (Illinois, USA)

“Twelve huge bottles of terrible beer. My dad. He gave me a few cartons of menthols the year before. I still love him.” — Nicolas (Colorado, USA)

“I received a nice, big sweatshirt that to my horror had a giant Eeyore on the front saying, ’Moody’… I was 26 years old.” — Sarah (West Virginia, USA)

“When I was about 15, I received a personalized mug from my uncle for Christmas. Which would have been perfectly acceptable, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had his name on it instead of mine.” — George (Suffolk, England)

“A VHS of The Wiggles from my grandma’s friend that I had never met in my life. She gave the gift to both me and my sister. My sister was turning 19 in two weeks and I was 16, almost 17 and it was in 2012.” — Elisa (Georgia, USA)

Of course it’s understandable that not everyone has the time or funds to search for the absolute perfect gift. I too, am guilty of gifting a generic Hershey’s chocolate or the occasional boring T-shirt. But I definitely want to do better this year. This Christmas, let’s vow to spend our money on something thoughtful that our loved ones are actually going to appreciate.

To make the most out of holiday shopping, I think it is important to always consider the person first. Sure, YOU may want your daughter to help shovel the snow outside, but do you really think that is what she wants to do on Christmas morning? Pick a gift that reflects the person’s specific interests and style. And just as a general rule, presents should always be age-appropriate, unused, and should never reference the smell of someone’s poop — that’s just weird.

I mean, a VHS of The Wiggles for two teenagers? An 8th grade math workbook or a box of literal junk? I think it’s safe to say that some gifts just aren’t meant to be gifts.

What’s the worst holiday gift you’ve ever received? And — if you’re ready to admit it — what’s the worst gift you’ve ever given?

Jenny Tolep is an American freelance journalist currently based in Santiago, Chile. 

A Piece of Jordyn

By: Jenny Tolep

He didn’t hit me a lot. But when he did hit me…he hit me hard.”

Jordyn, who asked that her last name not be used, hid her bruises with makeup and wore pants on hot summer days. Jordyn was a victim of dating violence.

She met her first boyfriend at age 16. He was a soccer player, just like her.

After being teased and bullied as a teenager, Jordyn lacked self-confidence. He told her she was pretty and made her feel special.

After five months of dating, Jordyn received an unnerving phone call from her boyfriend. He suspected Jordyn had kissed a friend of his.

“If you just tell me what happened I won’t be angry. I just want to know,” he said. Jordyn confirmed it was true, but assured him it was before they started dating. Words exploded like firecrackers.
“Slut.” “Whore.” “Liar.”

He told Jordyn she couldn’t be trusted and they were through. “I wouldn’t eat, I was so upset. I was heartbroken.”

The breakup didn’t last long. He apologized the next day and Jordyn forgave him. But from that moment, nothing was ever the same. He had started taking steroids to improve his physical appearance.

“He let the steroids take over. It was almost like he was a different person after he started taking them.”

He controlled her every move. She wasn’t allowed to wear skirts, dresses or leggings. She was with him every free moment and didn’t see her friends for months.

His verbal abuse turned physical during the 10th or 11th month of the relationship. When the couple argued, he would sometimes hold Jordyn down or punch her in the arm or leg.

“I was afraid if I lost him, I wouldn’t have anything else.”

According to Joy Beth Curtis, a doctoral intern in counseling at James Madison University’s Varner House, the abuser makes his partner feel that she can’t do any better.

“When you’ve fallen in love, it’s hard to leave, even if it’s not the safest place for you,” said Curtis.

It wasn’t until she spoke with her best friend, Joe, about the situation that Jordyn built up enough courage to end the relationship.

She never told her parents and doesn’t know if she ever will.

According to Curtis, abusive relationships are not something our society likes to talk about, but it is more common than people think.

One in three adolescents in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.” (www.loveisrespect.org)

Since ending her relationship, Jordyn has grown more confident. She began dating Joe and they’ve been in a healthy relationship for more than a year.

During the first week of university, Jordyn found out her freshman orientation guide used to be in an abusive relationship, just like her.

The guide, named Megan, dated her boyfriend during her freshman year of school. With her boyfriend verbally abusing her, it was difficult to adjust to her new life in college.

“Verbal abuse is overlooked. It is just as serious as physical abuse,” said Megan.

Jeri Lee, an advocate at First Step, Harrisonburg’s domestic violence shelter, agrees.

“Somebody can be hit in more ways than physical.“

According to Lee, a victim may believe the insults if she is constantly put down. Verbal abuse is a warning sign that the relationship can turn violent.

By the following summer, Megan cut off communication and ended the relationship. She got counseling and started building a better life.

She decided to work as a freshman orientation guide because she understands how difficult the transition to college can be. Megan built a relationship with her freshmen, in particular Jordyn.

“She knows she can talk to me about anything,” said Megan.

Jordyn has grown close to Megan and her new college friends. Jordyn’s friend Janee looks up to her and admires her strength.

“After my best friend opened up to me about her abusive relationship, I realized that this is a battle that no girl should ever have to face alone. It has influenced me to volunteer for nonviolence and domestic abuse organizations in the future,” said Janee.

It is not easy to talk about an abusive past, but Jordyn is open to sharing herself with new people.

“If I give them a piece of me, then maybe they will give me a piece of them.”

Rewards of Being a Parent

By: Jenny Tolep

“Hi Jenny, Hi Jenny, Hi Jenny.”

The sound of an expressive, energetic voice echoes as 6 year-old Maryellen greets a visitor in her home. After greeting her guest countless times, she proceeds to run, jump and climb while singing at full volume. This behavior is normal for Harrisonburg parents Marybeth and Keith Clarke because their daughter is diagnosed with autism.

It is a wide spectrum disorder affecting one in 88 children nationwide, under age 8. After one is diagnosed at age 2 or 3, it completely changes the course of a child’s life, as well as the parents’.

Autism is looked at under a spectrum because the severity and symptoms vary depending on the individual. Those with autism can have trouble communicating or socializing and can demonstrate repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, or sensory impairment.

The key is figuring out solutions that work best for each individual child.

When Marybeth noticed her daughter’s developmental delays at an early age she knew something wasn’t right.

“She was very hyperactive and would do absolutely nothing but run laps around our house,” said Marybeth.

Maryellen didn’t interact well with her peers and began “scripting.” Scripting is the reiteration of words from a commercial, television show or conversation and is common with children on the spectrum.

At age 3, Maryellen was diagnosed with autism, overwhelming news for any parent to hear.

“The first thing you have to do is get over yourself,” said Keith. “Because it’s not about the parents or how you feel about it, it’s about your child.”

The Clarkes now work to improve Maryellen’s functioning the best they can.

Technology has been a successful tool for their daughter. The iPad and television have allowed her to record and learn about communication and what to do in social situations.

“She wants to interact with her peers. She wants to, but just doesn’t have the right words to say or the appropriate time to say it,” said Keith.

The Clarkes redirect Maryellen’s behavioral tendencies and turn them into positive actions, specifically with her hyperactivity.

Instead of jumping on the couch, she’s encouraged to jump on her trampoline. Her parents take her on walks so she can get the movement she needs.

“That is a whole big ball of energy that needs somewhere to go,” said Marybeth.

Maryellen is just one of the many children in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County who have autism.

Another child is a nine year-old boy named Valor. He greets people with the repetitive, “Hi, hi, hi.” He grins wide, as he bounces up and down.

His mother and professor, Lynda Chandler Capaccio calls herself a “warrior mom.” She is a single working mother of two children, one of whom is diagnosed with severe autism.

“I’ve had to look at the world differently because I have him in my life,” said Capaccio.

She spends her free time researching the disorder and finding ways to cope with any behavioral issues that come with her son’s autism.

Capaccio encourages planning and preparation. Like others on the spectrum, Valor likes stability and regularity in his schedule. It’s important to inform and prepare him for anything out of the ordinary.

“I think I’d be a great chess player if I knew how to play the game,” said Capaccio with a laugh. “Just because I’ve learned to plan ahead so well.”

Using pictures is a successful way for a child to prepare, as those with autism are visual learners. Capaccio makes images for Valor using software called “Boardmaker,” which creates pictures and social stories.

Another of Valor’s struggles is inappropriate or aggressive behavior.

Like the Clarkes, Capaccio redirects Valor’s behavior to a more appropriate manner. When Valor wants to hit, he has learned to bang on his drum set. When he wants to bite, he has learned to bite a selected toy named “Smiley.”

According to special education professor and autism coordinator Amanda Armstrong, aggressive behavior occurs because children are trying to communicate something and they don’t know how else to express it.

“You can’t assume that a student with autism is being mean or bad because that’s not really their first instinct,” said Armstrong.

Children may want attention or something tangible. They might want to escape something, are frustrated or have a medical problem or sensory impairment.

When children are showing aggressive behavior, Armstrong suggests looking for things that calm them down. According to Armstrong, some children like to rock in a chair or drink a glass of water to relax.

“But you have to walk a really thin line because you don’t want to reinforce the behavior,” said Armstrong.

According to Armstrong, it is important to figure out the reason for the behavior and then prevent that behavior. Although behavioral issues may never completely diminish, they can improve through the various therapies.

Occupational therapy is a popular option because it helps develop everyday skills.

When it comes to children, their “occupation” is to play. Liz Richardson, director of Occupational Therapy Clinical Education Services at James Madison University, works with local children to develop proficiencies through play.

According to Richardson, sometimes the goal is for the child to learn to play with peers and other times it’s to learn daily skills and tasks. For example, building an obstacle course is a way for children to develop problem-solving skills.

A therapist’s job becomes easier when the children are ready to trust. This is a difficult task as children on the spectrum have limited social and communication skills.

“The most rewarding times are when that child looks at you and smiles,” said Richardson.

Occupational therapy, along with other programs such as speech therapy, applied behavior analysis and music therapy is a way for children to strengthen skills.

“People have actually moved to get therapy in this area,” said Keith.

In the local schools, special education teachers and assistants are readily available for kids on the spectrum.

Options for children include a one-on-one aid, a secluded classroom or a mainstream classroom that they can be taken out of if needed.

A Harrisonburg special education teacher, who chooses to remain anonymous claims, “every day is different.” Teachers and assistants need to be prepared for the meltdowns, along with milestone moments in which a child may ask for a pencil or look you in the eye for the first time.

“The hardest part is to meet everyone’s needs as those needs occur,” said the teacher.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2002 one in 150 children were diagnosed with autism. The prevalence has significantly increased in the last 10 years and it grows more and more important to understand the amount of care those with autism need.

“It’s really becoming an epidemic,” said Keith.

There is no cure for the disorder. All parents can do is make the best life possible for their child.

As for Maryellen, she is now able to go to restaurants and on vacations, activities that seemed impossible a few years ago.

“She’s learned with her coping skills and with her therapy to enjoy those things, embrace those moments and challenge herself,” said Keith.

When Maryellen’s visitor leaves her home, she makes sure to say her last parting words. Keith chuckles as his daughter presses her face to the window screen, chanting “Bye, Bye, Bye” until the visitor reaches her car.

“The biggest reward of being a parent is knowing your actions are rewarded with unconditional love.”



Grab a Handful and Taste

By: Jenny Tolep

How far would you drive for a bag of potato chips?

In Virginia, Route 11 Potato Chip factory attracts people traveling from California, Arizona or Hawaii. Company owner Sarah Cohen likes to think it’s the unique ingredients and methods that draw customers from afar. Visitors can try each chip flavor and watch the production process.

Cohen opened Route 11 in 1992. It all began when Cohen’s father bought a chip factory in Maryland as an extension of the family’s hotel and restaurant. As soon as the factory lease was up, Cohen moved to Middletown, Va., opened a new factory and named her brand Route 11 Potato Chips.

The company started off small, with a 60-pound per hour potato cooker inside an old feed store.

“We wanted to make something special, a chip that had character,” said Cohen.

The chips contain no trans fat and most of the flavors are gluten free.

The feed store was set up so customers could watch the process, as well as purchase freshly cooked chips. Soon enough, Route 11 became a popular tourist attraction in Virginia.

As Route 11 grew in popularity, the company created more flavors, got new machinery and eventually moved to a larger factory in Mount Jackson.

“The best part is just knowing you’re actually producing, from start to finish, a good product. It makes you feel legitimate,” said Mike Connelly, the vice president and engineer.

Route 11 currently has nine flavors. The top seller is Lightly Salted followed by Sweet Potato, both made with an unrefined sea salt.

“We wanted our flavors to be all natural and not taste synthetic, the way a lot of flavors in the snack world taste,” said Cohen.

Dill Pickle is a flavor that has gotten national attention, appearing in Southern Living and Oprah magazines. It tastes as if just the right amount of pickle juice were drizzled onto your potato chips at a deli.

Another unique flavor, Chesapeake Crab, is the slowest seller but has the most devout followers. The chip has a spicy kick and tastes like blue crab.

“We have people drive from Baltimore to get it,” said Cohen.

Chesapeake Crab is nostalgic in a way, reminding Cohen of crab feasts she enjoyed in the mid-Atlantic region.

Frequently, people send in flavor requests. Many people request ketchup or salt and pepper chips, while others crave martini or peanut butter and jelly chips.

But no matter the flavor, the production process is always the same.

The first step is growing “chipping” potatoes, which are dense and have less water than regular grocery store potatoes.

One of Route 11’s potato farmers is Clifford Rohrer, who has worked with the company for two years.

Rohrer is new to potato farming and learning through trial and error.

“The longer you grow, the less you know,” he said with a laugh.

Rohrer frequently checks on his crop and looks for disease or dryness. The potatoes are regularly watered and take about 110 days to grow.

In the factory, a salty aroma fills the air and there is a loud echo of machinery. Twelve production workers, all in hair and beard nets, are stationed along the conveyer belt.

“It’s like a kitchen job on steroids,” said Cohen.

The potatoes are first washed and weighed. They go into a “de-stoner” where any rocks that snuck in are taken out.

Next the potatoes tumble through the peeler, stripping 50 pounds in 20 seconds. All the peelings and bad chips go to neighboring farmer, Ken Burch, to help feed his cattle.

Burch says Route 11 helps save him money by giving him the peels and waste every day the factory runs.

Potatoes then move along the conveyer belt and are inspected by a worker who looks for embedded rocks and cuts large potatoes in half. Production Supervisor Josh Kerrisk explains that a large potato jams the machinery and generally does not make a good chip.

Once the potatoes reach the slicer, they are aligned single file. The slicer has eight razorsharp blades and cuts five to 10 potatoes at a whack.

Next, 100 pounds of sliced potatoes fall immediately into hot sunflower oil. The oil is low in saturated fat and light in flavor, allowing one to fully taste the chips. The potatoes are stirred in the cooker for five to six minutes and a vapor cloud rises.

“The oil is displacing the water in the potatoes,” said Cohen.

Once cooked, chips ride on a conveyer belt toward two production workers. They take out any chips that are too raw, burnt, green or thin.

“If the chips aren’t up to quality, they go to the cows,” said Cohen.

The chips go up an incline and are hand-salted and seasoned.

To come up with the seasonings, Cohen spent hours in a seasoning lab working with professionals to craft the perfect flavors.

Kerrisk said, “I am continually walking through and asking people how the chips taste.”

After seasoning, a scale weighs the chips, putting two ounces in each bag. Then two production workers pack the bags into boxes.

Glass windows separate the production area from the viewing room, where visitors watch the potato chip making process.

For Susan Garrahan, visiting Route 11 was the nice way to spend her birthday. With most chip brands being produced on a gargantuan automate scale, if Garrahan were given the choice, she would always choose Route 11.

At the factory, customers and employees are always encouraged to grab and handful and taste.