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11.21.07

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Photo illustration by Mark Poutenis

Gifts That Don't Kill

Our worker-loving, eco-friendly, cruelty-free annual holiday gift guide


The conscientious consumer (which we like to think of as an ideal and not an oxymoron) can find herself beset by angst each time she steps out the door. Is this bauble/tchotchke/food item fair trade/local/sustainable? Or was it made by underfed 9-year-olds out of rare tropical hardwood and then safety-tested on unsuspecting bunnies? Heightened national awareness of climate change—which, don't get us wrong, is a very good thing—has dramatically complicated this calculus, introducing factors like shipping miles and carbon footprints. Ditto the rash of lead-related toy recalls. It's enough to drive a neurotic do-gooder into Scrooge-like, housebound, unholidayesque isolation for the duration of the season.Just in time for the biggest shopping day of the year, we're here to remind you to (a) breathe in; (b) breathe out; (c) consider that diving under the covers for the next month is not necessary. All you need is a little help figuring out how to avoid the karmic land mines. Herewith, our guide to gifts that don't kill: not hardwood forests, not laboratory animals, not Arctic habitat, not children's hopes, not their parents' spirits. In short, gifts that are good for the planet, good for its citizens and good for the soul. From the gang at Metro Santa Cruz, Happy Holidays, and may all your purchases be right-minded.

The Path to Peaceful Presents

by Darya Gilani

Yes, it's the end of the year again—Bing Crosby is crooning through store speakers, the smells of cookies and candles are in the air and warm woolen sweaters are slowly chafing your neck. As you relight the pilot light for what seems like the 12th day, you realize it is Giftmas. This year, show those special people in your life that you care about them and our community. Metro Santa Cruz presents 20 eco-friendly ideas for gifts that don't kill, harm, maim or leave unnecessary carbon footprints.

Good for the World's Workers
1. Jewelry From the UNICEF Store
Stop by this volunteer-run store and check out their very special jewelry selection. Discover brilliant amber from Poland, precious Afghan lapis and Moroccan silver pieces at fair prices. All pieces are fair-trade, and proceeds go to protect children across the globe. Rings start at $6 and most necklaces start at $20. UNICEF Volunteer Store, inside Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, 1330 Pacific Ave., downtown Santa Cruz. 831.459.0100.

Easy on Mother Earth
2. Eco-Friendly Bamboo Products From Local Nurseries
Bamboo not only looks beautiful, it's also a renewable and healthy addition to your home. It grows fast and can be made into a variety of products if you get really serious about it, including furniture and plywood (PlyBoo, to be exact). Blue Bamboo carries a variety of bamboo, reeds and horsetail. Pick up a gift certificate for any dollar amount. Blue Bamboo, 2115 Ocean Street Ext., Santa Cruz. 831.429.8672

3. Cool Vintage Schwag From Antique Stores
Antiques are the ultimate in recycling and catnip to collectors. For that person in your life who never quite grew up, amble to the back of one of the area's many antique shops to grab a few vintage comic books. Mr. Goodies features culty classics such as Alf, Hercule, and The Avengers—a bargain at $2 each. Or for that fashionista on your list, a pair of vintage specs can be acquired starting at $20. Mr. Goodies Antiques, 1541 Pacific Ave., downtown Santa Cruz. 831.427.9997.

4. Three-in-One Candle at Luscious
First you light it, then you use the melted oil to get or give a soothing massage, finishing with a relaxed mind and moisturized skin. Since it's made with hempseed and other natural oils, it's edible too! They come in a variety of scents and flavors for your palate. Pick one up for under $20. Luscious, 121 Walnut Ave., downtown Santa Cruz. 831.421.9986.

5. Weekend Getaway to Costanoa
Far enough to escape, but close enough to turn back if you forget your sleeping bag, this resort just up Highway 1 features coastal hills, secluded natural beaches and relaxing amenities including spa services and dining delights. Purchase a gift certificate in a dollar amount or one of their creative packages starting at $130 and up. Receive 20 percent off if you arrive by bike, hybrid or kayak. Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp, 2001 Rossi Road, Pescadero. 650.879.1100.

Kind to Furry Friends
6. Bonny Doon Farm Bath Products
Lavender, rose geranium, lemon verbena and honey are just a few of the natural ingredients added into these sensational products. Handmade from plants grown near the Bonny Doon State Nature Preserve, they are the epitome of local. Many products are carried at the Herb Room on Mission Street, Bloom on Pacific Avenue and Way of Life in Capitola. Soaps range from $2.50 to $6.50; salves and lotions start around $8.50. www.bonnydoonfarm.com. 831.459.0967

7. Men's Skin Care Line by Pevonia
Within the fully post-consumer recyclable and biodegradable packaging, the man in your life will find skin care products to soothe his shave and brighten his glow. Made from the finest natural marine and botanical ingredients, they're never tested on animals. Try the Aqua-Gel Foaming Cleanser at $31.50 in a generous 6.8-ounce bottle. Sky Meadow Apothecary, 109 Cooper St., downtown Santa Cruz. 831.420.0660.

8. Faux Fur and Leather at Cognito
Save those hides and recycle at this fun shared closet. Faux fur wraps, jackets and matching hats ($30-$160) can keep you warm and safe from PETA. The faux leather wallets ($28) and handbags ($12) and strands of colorful faux pearls ($6-$10) will let you accessorize in animal-friendly style. Cognito, 821 Pacific Ave., downtown Santa Cruz. 831.426.5414.

Good for the Ankle-biters
9. Nonviolent Kids' Games at Game-A-Lot
Enough with the swords and guns, already! There are plenty of new pacifist alternatives. Dragon Riders ($49.95) enables your little beast master to race on magical courses that he or she designs, while Empire Builder ($39.99) allows the wee ones to create intricate railroad systems on maps of the United States, Canada, Japan and even the moon. Game-A-Lot, 835 Front St., downtown Santa Cruz. 831.429.9009.

10. Bento Style Lunch Boxes by Laptop Lunches
The compartments inside these flat lunchboxes can carry all types of foods and minimize the plastic baggies, cartons and other packaging waste sent to the landfills each day after recess. Available in a variety of colors, they are found in New Leaf Markets of Boulder Creek and Felton, Kaleidoscope and also BookShop Santa Cruz. Starting at around $20 each. www.laptoplunches.com; 849 Almar Ave. #C-323, Santa Cruz. 831.457.0301.

11. Kids Kit From New Natives
Let them get their hands dirty while at the same time learning about gardening and a healthy diet. This gift pack comes with a variety of sprouts in different colors, textures and tastes—just what you need to cultivate a green thumb in your little one. Order one for $23.45. New Natives, 1255 Hames Road, Aptos. 831.728.4136 or www.newnatives.com.

Good for the Local Economy
12. Men's and Women's Gifts at Cameron Marks
Tucked away on Ingalls Street, this boutique offers a nice selection of fine apparel and accessories. HRM men's shirts by Bob Scales are made of Italian cotton ($92). And local jeweler Oona Besman uses recycled beads, stones, and leather to create unique Cav Jewelry necklaces and earrings ($50-$80). Cameron Marks Boutique, 402 Ingalls #7, Santa Cruz. 831.458.3080.

13. Hemp Hand-Loomed Shawl by Dash Hemp
Men, put the scarves down. Women get scarves from their aunts and coworkers. Get the woman in your life this versatile, chic shawl. Made of 100 percent hemp in fair working conditions, it comes in a selection of colors, and you don't need to worry about it fitting! Snap one up for $49. Dash Hemp, The Sashmill, 303 Potrero St. #47-101, Santa Cruz. 831.426.1824.

14. Glassware and Ceramics at Artisans Gallery
Find local, functional art galore at this gallery. Pick up flower-pressed glass goblets for $20 apiece, lead-free ceramic cookware and sushi sets starting at $42, or a huge selection of locally made jewelry at all styles and prices. This is a great way to support the "Made in Santa Cruz" ideal. Artisans Gallery, 1368 Pacific Ave, downtown Santa Cruz. 831.423.8183.

15. Recycled Outdoor Blankets by Blue Lotus
The perfect gift for the family next door who never complains when you throw a party. These blankets are made in Soquel from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. They feature soft fleece on one side and water-resistant nylon on the other. Perfect for camping and the beach. Order one for around $65. Blue Lotus Sustainable Goods, bluelotusblankets.com. 831.479.7051.

Good for the Soul and The Local Economy
16. Send Them Back to School, at the Om Room
A sound mind and a tight body are always on our wish lists. At the Om Room, experienced teachers lead classes daily in all levels of hatha and vinyasa yoga. Purchase a pack of classes ($55 and up) or choose your own amount. Don't miss out on their fun holiday benefits and retreats offered throughout the year. Om Room School of Yoga, 300 Natural Bridges Dr., Santa Cruz. 831.429.YOGA.

17. A Month's Worth of Refuge at Kiva
Give the gift of relaxation and serenity, anytime they want it. With a membership to Kiva, the lucky recipient can enjoy unlimited use of the back gardens and hot tubs. Or, purchase individual gift certificates for the private tubs, community gardens and massage. A one-month membership starts at $130. Kiva Retreat House, 702 Water St., Santa Cruz. 831.429.1142.

18. A Relaxing Rubdown at My Center
Feel your best! Each room is influenced by one of the five elements of Chinese medicine: Wood, Fire, Water, Earth and Metal. During the holidays, purchase a gift certificate for massage and receive an extra 15 minutes free. This is also a great place to pick up therapeutic-grade essential oils and aromatherapy for those last-minute stocking stuffers ($5-$20). My Center, 621 Water St., Santa Cruz. 831.457.2848.

19. Chocolate Lip Balm Sticks and Massage Oil by Donnelly Chocolates
At last! Now you can get your loved ones those holiday treats without the guilt of pushing them a step closer to obesity. Roll on a Milk or Dark Chocolate lip balm ($9 each) or have someone else rub you down with the dark chocolate-infused massage oil ($15). Donnelly Chocolates, 1509 Mission St., Santa Cruz. 831.458.4214.

20. Cookie-Filled Native Leaf Market Tote by Pacific Cookie Company
Don't feel bad! Eat all the cookies as fast as you can so you can hurry and use this handmade tote from the Philippines. It is made with sustainably harvested leaves and dyed with non-toxic and eco-friendly dyes. It will be worth the delicious journey. Each priced at $49.95. Pacific Cookie Co., 1203 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.429.6905.


Death Wishes

Killer gifts to die for

By Gretchen Giles


With all this mincing holiday talk of malevolent toys and war in Iran and U.C. fee hikes, some of us just want a little luxury around the holidays. (Some of us also deserve to be well and roundly slapped.) But for those who don't want to pronounce "quinoa" when at table or for whom that extra lap around the track just ain't worth it or for whom cotton has ugly, frugal connotations, we herewith offer our shortlist of once-a-year stuff to die for.

Deadly Sin
Artisanal Foie Gras from Sonoma Saveur
Killer App The velvety, fleeting taste and texture of this rich delicacy can, depending on mood, make it seem reasonable to eat large stout slices of it, discarding any thought of arteries (see: clogging), heart (see: stopping) or tummy (see: growing).

Why It's Worth Dying For This rich delicacy is so controversial that owners Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez finally had to close their Northern California storefront due to threats on their very lives from animal rights activists. Their free-range ducks are raised in the traditional French manner and are treated with the highest standard of humane treatment. While, yes, the animals are force-fed, it's important to remember that ducks have no gag reflex and that their throats are naturally flexible, making them able to swallow large fish in order to survive in the wild.

But forget all the PETA crap. What we're after here is consuming enough melting calories of pure duck foie gras—seared and napped with a lovely cherry chutney, spread fresh over toast points or even tucked naughtily into a fresh-ground kobe burger—that just simply keeling over onto a bite-free plate is worth it.Artisan Foie Gras retails online for $50 a pound, a "lobe" (try not to think of liver's physical geometry) typically weighing 1.3 to 2 pounds. Each tablespoon of the stuff has about 60 calories, only nine of which do not emanate from the goodness of adipose. Artisan Foie Gras also sells rendered duck fat by the pound for a mere $6.50, and if you haven't yet had your fries frenched in hot duck fat, you are not indeed ready to keel onto a bite-free plate. www.artisanfoiegras.com.

Deadly Sin
Homemade absinthe
Killer App There's never a better time to die like a 19th-century poet—mad and frothing and bitter and young and beautiful and stained a slight greenish hue—than during a Bush administration. Taken in thoughtful amounts, chances are even you won't. Best of all, it's illegal.

Why It's Worth Dying For Homemade absinthe is quite the rage among those who live slightly off the grid in tree-heavy areas, or who just like to boil shit up while muttering, "Wormwood, wormwood," à la Hamlet. The flavor of homemade absinthe, particularly when distilled by someone who understands herbology, is only slightly medicinal and deeply layered, beginning with the light green hyssop of new grass and descending on the palate through the entire green catalog until one comes face-to-face with the storied fairy. The effect of a small glass of it cut with sparkling mineral water and enlivened with pure white sugar is like having a tiny hit from a pot pipe. Lawd knows you can still cook dinner or do the laundry, but sitting in a chair gazing up at all of those off-the-grid trees is the preferred ingestion position.Homemade absinthe requires a small home still (the Internet is lousy with directions on building your own or purchasing from those mad cats in Kentucky), high-proof alcohol like Everclear or Bacardi and such herbs as fennel, anise seed, lemon balm, hyssop and wormwood. Instructables.com offers detailed directions replete with images of what your homemade Romantic Poet Swill should look like as you go; it also displays the skull and crossbones symbol when it gets to the point where this stuff mixes with fire. The very online Ms. Jekyll (find her at http://absinthe.msjekyll.com) gives recipes and lore as well as a curious recurring image of a beautiful woman in too much green eye makeup with a butterfly on her lips. Homemade limoncello is so last year. This year, give 'em a blast of Byron. Best of all, it's illegal.

Deadly Sin
Cashmere bathrobe
Killer App When one's clean naked body is entirely swathed in loomed goat's throat hair (yes, the highest quality comes from the goat's throat, a terrific brand name), it's extremely difficult to subsequently put on Lycra items or those warm-up clothes fashioned from recycled liter bottles and go exercise. Indeed, once the cashmere is on, it's rare that it comes off—particularly as it's so expensive to clean. You risk atrophying entirely while wearing it.

Why It's Worth Dying For We're pricing these babies out in the mid-$400s full-price and "on sale" online in the mid-$200s, but what's money? It never bothered Napoleon, who reportedly gave his second wife, the Empress Eugenie, some 17 cashmere pieces during their marriage. Not only did the woman live to be 94 (obviously he never gave her a robe), but her great elegance and wool-clad beauty so moved the groundskeeper at England's Bournemouth gardens that he lit her way to the healing waters each night with a trail of small candles, a tradition that still occurs each summer for women wearing far less goat's throat loom.

If we were buying these in real life and forever forswearing exercise and "career casual," we'd toy with purchasing from the pashmina emporia otherwise known as www.boutiquejewels.com.

Deadly Sin
Bonsai
Killer App This is a plant that you control by shaping with wire and cutters, denying its full horticultural potential at every turn and yet, if you do everything perfectly—tending and shaping and cutting and denying—it'll outlive you by a good century. The irony, the karma, the full-circle joke alone is priceless.

Why It's Worth Dying For We hope that we're not the first to break the news, but you are going to die anyway. Spending meditative time forcing nature itself to your own petty will has proven to extend life spans enormously. Plus, with bonsai, there's so much to argue about! The categories, the technique, the masters ... the list is endless. Discretionary income can just sluice from your hands as you tend to and acquire new bonsai, all of which—we labor to repeat—will flourish directly on your grave. So why not get all your friends a-clipping? Bonsaiboy.com out of New York starts its unusual 48-year-old neri elm at $800, with a mere $95 needed to ship the thing cross-country. But a starter kit, replete with its own three-year-old juniper just aching for soil, is a mere $24.95.

Bonsai folks go nuts about bonsai but tend to do it in that way that mild cult members go nuts: with clear, steady eyes, glowing skin and genuine smiles revealing well-cleaned teeth. That's a positive. The inevitable compulsion to exhibit at the county fair is an easily tolerated negative. Because it won't, after all, kill you.


The Glitzy Gourmet Gift Guide

Because luxury begins at home!

By Christina Waters


It takes absolutely no wit or wisdom whatsoever to simply head for a megamall over the hill and drop a bundle on generic holiday gifts. Which is why we decided to explore the gourmet gift options right here in the Santa Cruz area. (Yes, we know that "local" is a relative term, but we're using the word to mean not simply made in the area, but sold in the area, which also benefits a network of others in the retail ecosystem.)

The Farm is a holiday trove of food-themed tchotchkes and accessories, such as a perky cast resin mermaid bottle opener, sexy as well as useful, for $24.95. But the real seasonal glory lies behind the Farm's infamous pastry cases. Play Santa to your favorite hostess with one of those amazing and brilliantly colored fruit tarts ($22-$24). Swirls of berries, kiwis and grapes (oh my!) top a satiny layer of pastry cream. Joyful decadence.In the Aptos Village Center, Outside/In Kitchen and Home & Garden stores make holiday offers you can't refuse. Well, I couldn't anyway. Oval pottery platters in sunny Naples Yellow from Vietri, a full line of Stonewall Kitchen jams, sauces and chutneys, plus all the Fiestaware that's legal line the kitchen annex. The garden store is ablaze with extreme ornaments, from the hand-blown heirloom type to the utterly rococo. While you're there, check out the kids' room. It has nothing to do with food, but it will blow your Santa Claus mind as far as astounding children's accessories go.In downtown Santa Cruz, a pit-stop at our beloved BookShop Santa Cruz yielded a few hot items for the hands-on home chef. Top among this year's stars is Cook With Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook by the Naked Chef guy, Jamie Oliver. For a budget-friendly $37.50, this handsome book is loaded with mouth-watering illustrations and easy-to-follow, one-page instructions. He'll tell you how to shop for fish and how not to fear duck cookery. The photo of baked potatoes stuffed with bacon, anchovies and sage had me drooling. Unpretentious, straightforward and clear—this is everything you want in a kitchen guide. This season's coffee table prize is The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, whose 150 recipes include tomato sorbet, caramelized fennel and peanut butter truffles ($50). And for eye dazzle, nothing beats the astounding Nobu West, laced with sexy recipes from Nobu Matsuhisa ($39.95).

For the budding wine connoisseur, Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) is the bomb. This 800-page encyclopedia won a James Beard award for its demystification of terms, styles, terroir, clones and classifications. Never be afraid of grand crus again! Speaking of which, the wine snob on your list will swoon over a bottle of Grand Cru burgundy, such as the Chateau de la Tour Clos-Vougeot, 2001 from J. Labet & N. Déchelette ($100) from Soif Wine Store. Also at Soif are top local can't-miss premiums from Windy Oaks, Alfaro and Varner.To partner with that very special gift bottle, some organic, artisanal cheeses from River Café & Cheese Shop will do nicely. Think Cowgirl Creamery. Housemade jams, salsa, preserved fruits and tomatoes, sparkling like gems in their glass jars, make beautiful and delicious gifts. Ditto jars of Big Sur Wild Honey packed for Bonny Doon Farm or a fat container of sea salt from Brittany. Chocolate temptation from Richard Donnelly includes microtruffles and the amazing chipotle bark with pistachios. Grown-up chocolate, naughty and nice.

And then there's Annieglass, where the huge aquamarine glass "flower" salad bowls ($41-$120) offer islands of bold luxury. Especially when paired with some of the witty organic serving pieces by Michael Aram. Gilded resin flower-shaped bottle stoppers turn even Big House Red into a work of art. Choose organic and free-form variations on the gold-rimmed tableware that made Annieglass famous. The ne plus ultra has got to be the tiny silver sea urchin salt cellar, complete with its own micro spoon ($40).Obvious and outstanding: Hand-blown anything from Lundberg Studios in Davenport. Garden-themed housewares and serving pieces at The Garden Company.

Something with a high cacao count from Mackenzie's Chocolates. Oodles of very local gastronomic gifts at Made in Santa Cruz on the wharf.

Truly tasteful: give the gift of decadent dining with certificates for Manresa (two Michelin stars and pampering surroundings in Los Gatos), Theo's, Gabriella Café ... you get the idea.


Safety Dance

Why, and how, to avoid lead-tainted products for kids

By Paul Wagner


Want to avoid giving children the holiday gifts of brain damage, hearing loss, anemia, kidney problems and a lowered intelligence level for life? Then memorize this list: Children's toys. Children's crafts. Children's jewelry. Children's furniture. Children's clothing. And then memorize it again.Why? Because tens of millions of such children's items have proven to be tainted with lead. The heavy metal, the poisonous blue-gray, is showing up the on the shelves of stores across the nation. On Monday, Nov. 19, California Attorney General Jerry Brown intensified the spotlight on the problem by suing 20 toy manufacturers, claiming they knowingly sold toys with dangerous levels of lead.

So great is the number of lead-tinged items that within weeks of the time the federal government, just this August, ordered the removal of 967,000 popular Fisher-Price toys, the toys had not even reached storage warehouses before an additional 675,000 additional items—this time, Barbie accessories—were recalled. The problem, to quote the Centers for Disease Control, was that "surface paints on the toys contain excessive levels of lead, which is prohibited under federal law."

Yet even with the drumbeat of mass recalls, neither the federal nor the state government seems to be able to keep up with the number of lead-contaminated children's products.

In fact, in recent seasons this latest byproduct of the Clinton/Bush "free" trade agreements—usually negotiated without regard to actual costs to nations' workers or the world's health—has continued to spread to millions of other products intended for children. And that's an immense human health problem, because the same properties that make lead industrially desirable also make it biologically toxic.

For one thing, it's heavy, at an atomic weight of 207.2 (compare that to oxygen, at a weight of 16), and its structure is huge, with 82 protons and electrons and 125 neutrons, making it the heaviest of the heavy metals. It's also the softest, most malleable and most able to ooze into just about anyplace. And then it stays put for up to a quarter-century.Like a large drunken, pouting lout who comes into the house to rest "for just a moment," settles in, tosses empty chip bags and beer cans all around and squirms until the sofa breaks—and then moves to a chair to repeat the process—lead enters the body, perches wherever it wishes, and never leaves.And some 20 percent of lead never makes it through the urinary excretion process, remaining in the body. It migrates through the blood, disturbing red and white platelet processes. It settles in bone, displacing blood, cutting bone rebuilding and weakening the bone structure.

And worst of all, lead migrates into the soft tissues, most noticeably the brain. It oozes into the large spaces usually occupied by calcium, a nerve-firing helper, and displaces it, occupying synapse-firing zones and gumming up the ability of neurons to respond.

This in turn produces hearing loss, vision loss, slowing of response time, lowering of IQ, linguistic confusion and progressively more primitive social responsiveness. Lead poisoning victims are not only slower and clumsier, but more likely to misinterpret social cues, be inappropriately aggressive and randomly exhibit cruelty and violent behavior. And that's exactly the behavior, some historians have noted, that characterized the last generations of the Roman empire, which had lined its cities' water-delivering viaducts with lead.

The effect on young children is even more profound, since their rapidly forming bodies will incorporate virtually anything ingested. Infants and toddlers ingesting lead commonly develop anemia as the blood degenerates, encephalitis as the brain swells, and stunted growth as bone formation and replacement slow. And given that young children stick just about anything they can in their mouths to taste the qualities of the new world they're exploring, children can potentially ingest quite a bit of lead. In fact, the primary age for lead poisoning is in the range between 12 and 24 months of age.

Avoiding the Gift of Lead
Luckily, some people are taking effective action to combat the explosion of lead contamination of children's products and have some clear guidance to offer those wishing to avoid giving the gift of lead. One of them is Caroline Cox, research director for the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health.

Cox, who worked on establishing alternatives to common toxic pesticides for more than a decade before joining CEH, advises this: "The first thing to do is familiarize yourself with what toys have been recalled, so you can avoid those" (see sidebar, page 32). She also points out that potential purchasers can look up children's' jewelry recalled for lead content in the last couple of months.

Additionally, she counsels shoppers to "look for toys that are not made of vinyl, and aren't painted." That's because lead, being soft, malleable and stable, is still used as a stabilizer in many vinyl products and many other nations' paints. While lead content in paint was reduced significantly by federal fiat in the United States in 1978, it isn't controlled nearly as tightly elsewhere—and still isn't controlled in any vinyl product but mini-blinds, even in the United States. "Lead protects the vinyl as it goes through the various heating processes," Cox says, so it is often used, despite its dangers, in manufacturing.

Continued use of lead, Cox points out, results just as much from U.S. consumer preference as from manufacturers' irresponsibility. "Somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of our toys come from China, but it's important to remember that this is not solely a Chinese problem," Cox says. The problem is also American and other consumers' pressure on retailers to constantly move prices downward, which emphasizes price over quality. It's a recipe for problems."

For testing already-purchased children's items, Cox mentions home lead test kits, available in paint and hardware stores. Like epoxy glues, these involve mixing two separate tubes of chemical liquid, pouring the mixture on the surfaces of the items to be tested, and waiting to see which color the combined liquids turn.The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, however, says that they're not accurate. "None of the kits consistently detected lead in products if the lead was covered with a non-leaded coating," notes an August press release. In addition, "of 104 total test results, more than half (56) were false negatives, and two were false positives." In short, home lead test kits, designed to measure the many times higher level of lead in old peeling paint, don't seem to read the smaller proportion in children's products very effectively. For that reason, they're not a good tool for judging toy safety.

So what's the best thing to do overall? Follow the recalls.Luckily for anyone with web access, that's relatively simple to do. And it's about to get simpler, since CEH and other organizations are, as of Dec. 4, 2007, going live with a central one-stop checkpoint for getting the word on unsafe toys. Here is a list of places that will take shoppers right to well-presented, easy-to-read information and recalls and lead toxicity prevention:Toy safety: Central checkpoint, to be active as of Dec. 4: www.healthytoys.org.

Children's items lead-related recalls: Federal Centers for Disease Control offers lists, with product photos, of lead-related recalled children's products. Open page, type "lead recalls" in right-hand search box, first item links to all lists: www.cdc.org.

Overall product recalls: Central checkpoint, courtesy of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, for all federal recalls, from air conditioners to children's wagons: www.cpsc.org.

Overall lead poisoning prevention: From the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a wider view of lead's most common environmental sources and how to increase effective safety measures in the home: www.epu.gov/lead. Here's to a safe holiday for all.


The Island of Recalled Toys

By Paul Wagner


This is a brief, partial list of some of the most-recognized brands of toys recently found tainted with lead. It does not list all recalled or lead-tainted toys, and is meant only to serve as an introduction to the scope of lead-related recalls. Please see federal Centers for Disease Control and Consumer Product Safety Commission websites—listed at the end of the main article—for more complete listings of recalled toys and other children's' items.

Brief Glance, Recalls by Brand
Aqua Dots by Spin Master
4.2 million recalled; beads, made to fuse to create 3-D shapes when sprayed with water, contain chemical which converts to date-rape-type drug in the body; induces dizziness; cases of coma following ingestion. Do not purchase; if purchased, remove from child immediately.

Baby Einstein Color Blocks
35,000 recalled on Oct. 4, 2007; lead in surface paint.

Barbie Accessory Toys
675,000 recalled on Sept. 5, 2007; lead in surface paint.

'Big Red' Wagons
7,200 recalled on Nov. 7, 2007; lead in paint on wooden surfaces and handles.

Cub Scouts Totem Badges
1.6 million recalled on Oct. 9, 2007; lead on surface paints.

Curious George Plush Dolls by Marvel
175,000 recalled on Nov. 8, 2007; lead in face and hat paints.

Disney Deluxe Winnie-the-Pooh 23-Piece Play Sets
49,000 recalled Oct. 11, 2007; lead in surface paints.

Dollar General-distributed Children's Sunglasses
51,000 recalled on Nov. 8, 2007; lead in yellow surface paint.

Dollar General-distributed Super Wheels, Super Racers pull-release car toys
380,000 recalled on Nov. 7, 2007; lead in surface paint.

Dora the Explorer toys
967,000 recalled on Aug. 2, 2007; possible excessive lead in surface paint.

Duck Family Collectible Wind-Up Toy
3,500 recalled on Nov. 7, 2007; lead in surface paint.

Jeff Gordon Mini Helmet
2,500 recalled Oct. 11, 2007; lead in surface paints.

Kidnastics Balance Beams
2,400 recalled on Oct. 11, 2007; lead in surface paints.

Pirates of the Caribbean Medallion Squeeze Lights
79,000 recalled on Oct. 4, 2007; lead in surface paint on leather strap.

'Robot 2000' Collectible Tin Robot
2,600 recalled on Nov. 7, 2007; lead in surface paints.

Sesame Street toys
967,000 recalled on Aug. 2, 2007 (same recall as Dora the Explorer, above); lead in surface paints.

SpongeBob SquarePants Address Books and Journals
250,000 recalled on Aug. 22, 2007; lead in paint on spiral bindings.

Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Toys
1.7 million recalled on June 13 and Sept. 26, 2007; lead in surface paints.

Winnie-the-Pooh Spinning Top
69,600 recalled on Aug. 22 and Nov. 7, 2007; lead in surface paint on tops' handles.

Brief Summary, Other Recalls
Branded and Generic Children's Garden Tools Kits
Nearly 500,000 kits and individual items (rakes, shovels) recalled; lead in paint on surfaces.

Generic Children's Jewelry Sets
Nearly 200 million metallic jewelry items, including rings, necklaces, key chains, charm bracelets, spinning pendants, earrings and even religious ornaments (fish symbols), marketed primarily to young girls, recalled; lead in metal products and clasps.

Children's Ornately Painted Battle Toys
Nearly 2 million generic and minor-brand "Elite," "Ultimate" and "Invincible" type small metal battle toys and sets recalled; lead in both paint and products themselves.

Local Safe Toy Sources

By Paul Wagner


Smaller local retailers are often able to pay more attention to individual items than are huge national chains. So Metro Santa Cruz contacted a half-dozen local stores across Santa Cruz and Monterey counties to find out their toy safety practices. Below is what they told us in brief phone interviews. Please be aware that this is not an exhaustive list of local toy outlets, only the ones we could reach on deadline, and that representations of stores' product safety practices are the stores' and no one else's. Here, then, a startup location list for safe holiday toy shopping:

Baby Bloomers 923 Water St., Santa Cruz; 831.423.2229 Carries new and used toys made of wood; scans recalls for used stock; only carries "Melissa & Doug" brand-new products, which are made in various locations but all plants follow U.S. standards. Other products are organics and high-end cotton.

Best of Everything 1540 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.423.3005 Researches products and manufacturers carefully; makes sure that items such as stuffed animals are made of tested best-quality materials.

Eco-Goods 1130 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.429.5758 Carries few children's items but those carried are made out of organic cotton, hemp or tested materials such as recycled plastics; unusual products such as felt hand puppets and hemp Frisbees.

Kaleidoscope: The Parent Teacher Store 828 Bay Ave., Capitola; 831.475.0210 Has written verification from every manufacturer and supplier of toy testing procedures, on display in a binder for customer review. Deals only with smaller, known companies and insists that toys are tested by either U.S. test methods (ASTM) or more stringent European standards (EN-71).

Sandcastles by the Sea 3776 The Barnyard, Carmel; 831.626.8361 Diligent in making sure toys are of the highest quality standard, and carries only toys made in the United States and Europe.

Thinker Toys 484 Del Monte Center, Monterey; 831.643.0907 (also Carmel and Morgan Hill locations) Mostly wooden toys; avoids carrying plastic and unknown mainline items. Additional Tips on Buying Safe New and Used Toys

Materials Unpainted wood toys and washable stuffed animals are some of the more reliable types of materials for safety. The less paint, vinyl and metal the better.

Sources Toys openly displayed on shelves, offering name of maker, place of manufacture, list of materials and guarantee of return are, overall, far safer than toys dispensed from vending machines, sold at dollar stores or minimarts.

Apparent 'Deals' By far the largest lead-related toy recalls—some 200 million—have involved large numbers of toys packaged together in multi-piece "entire lifestyle" blister packs. Aqua Dots, containing coma-inducing chemicals, featuring hundreds of small globules. Battle sets with 32 soldiers, six tanks and five rocket launchers. Jewelry sets with five entire wardrobes' worth of metal ornaments. Bookmark collections with 18 markers of various colors. If you're getting two dozen items for four bucks, you pretty much know that the materials enclosed are end-of-the-road industrial byproducts. Resist these "deals."


Do the Right Thing

Give a book that matters this season

By Michael S. Gant


Some day, books as we know them—printed, bound, shaped conveniently like bricks—will no longer be available as gifts, except to cranky bibliophiles dedicated to keeping the old ways alive, like the rebel reciters in Fahrenheit 451. Instead, we will gather round the designated winter-solstice symbol and hand out URLs, so that loved ones and friends can download the latest mysteries, fantasy epics and celebrity tell-alls.

The process is already under way, thanks to several digitizing projects, most notably Google Book Search. Not that everyone thinks that's necessarily a good idea. For one thing, the process lacks transparency, a point that Jean-Noël Jeanneney of France's Bibliothèque Nationale makes forcefully in Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View From Europe (University of Chicago Press; $11 paper)—at 92 pages, it's just the right size for a bibliophile's stocking.

Europeans, Jeanneney argues, worry that Google's exclusivity arrangements set a dangerous precedent by "conferring a public property to a private organization." But that's Europeans for you—they just won't get with the marketplace regimen. First, it's socialized medicine, then it's socialized book-scanning. Only Rudy Giuliani can stop them.

Eco-Chamber
Meanwhile, Google or no Google, there is still no better gift than a book. Although I sometimes fret about the trees needed to make them, I find solace in titles that offer insights into the world's problems. For instance, at this time of year, the title alone recommends Bill Clinton's Giving (Knopf; $24.95 cloth), in which the presumptive First Guy offers salutary lessons in how anybody (not just Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) can make a difference with networked charity, like microloans, that can directly reach people in need.

Speaking of Bill, someone else in his administration just won the Nobel Peace Prize, which suggests some excellent new books about the environment as presents.

Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World (UC Press; $34.95 cloth) chronicles the journey of photojournalist Gary Braasch as he captures images of a planet on the brink of catastrophe thanks to global warming. From Denali National Park in Alaska to Queropalca, Peru, Braasch's photographs show the retreat of glaciers and the advance of deserts. I know it is anthropomorphism, but the lone hungry polar bear in a melting northern landscape looks mightily annoyed at what we've done to his niche. More than just a coffee-table effort, Earth Under Fire also features Braasch's sobering text, based on his visits with climate-change scientists supplemented with essays by researchers in a variety of disciplines. All in all, it is a good corrective to Bjorn Lomborg's pernicious Cool It, the new bible of the right-wing flat Earthers.

Trees of the California Landscape (UC Press; $60 cloth) by Charles R. Hatch is an exceptional reference book that discusses in detail all of California's native and ornamental trees with photos of species in full foliage and close-ups of bark and leaves. In addition to serving as an identification guide, the book also includes invaluable advice for cultivating trees in the urban and backyard landscape—and enhances our appreciation for the importance of nurturing the natural world while we can.

Switching to a single, nonnative species, Pierre Laszlo's Citrus: A History (University of Chicago; $25 cloth) skips lightly through the botanical and cultural history of the fruit that eventually became a symbol of the California dream. This erudite gallimaufry of a book offers detours on everything from the construction of Italian orangeries to the sometimes sordid politics of early Southern California (the aside on citrus land baron George Chaffey, who also created the Mutual Water Company, sounds like the source material for Chinatown) to recipes (lime chutney) and citrus imagery in art and poetry. Oranges ripen in winter, which adds to the seasonal nature of this tangy grab bag.

More practically, busy activist author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas and the afterword to Earth Under Fire) supplies useful information for raising awareness about climate change in Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community (Henry Holt and Company; $13 paper). Written committee-style with the Step It Up Team (see StepItUp2007.org), the book tells how to convince individuals and the powers that be to cut carbon emissions (all those eager-to-drive Chinese and Indians will only do as we do, not as we say). McKibben's tips range from hyperlocal quick fixes (put in compact fluorescent bulbs at home) to public protests—refreshingly, the book counsels creativity and a sense of humor.

Into the Gap
Last year saw a surge in the number of books dissecting our misadventure in Iraq. This year, left-leaning pundits have taken aim at the home-front economic and governing failures of the Bush administration. The results aren't pretty reading (you'll wake up screaming), but sometimes duty calls, even at the holidays.Now that Molly Ivins is gone, Paul Krugman has become the mainstream media's voice of reason in the face of mendacity and spin. In The Conscience of a Liberal (Norton; $25.95 cloth), Krugman explains how the grand consensus of the New Deal succumbed to radical conservatism. The ultrarich enjoy a new Gilded Age while the rest of us subsist on stagnating real wages. The right people probably won't read this, but if you have a choir to preach to, Krugman delivers the progressive message with conviction and concision.

In Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy (Little, Brown; $25.99 cloth), Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charlie Savage tells the hair-raising tale of how the Republicans have managed to turn the three equal branches of government into one 900-pound presidential gorilla who has packed the Supreme Court and expects Congress to swallow whole the dubious legal notion of the unitary executive. The sordid process includes disregard for treaties, massive secrecy and signing statements that allow the president to ignore laws he doesn't like.

For someone with a long memory, try Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches (Viking; $25.95 cloth) by John W. Dean, who seconds the opinion of many that "Bush and Cheney represent the worst example ever of the American presidency." Since Dean was the White House legal counsel to Tricky Dick Nixon himself, he ought to know. Sadly, for us, way back when, Dick Cheney learned all the wrong lessons from the Watergate scandal.

Art for Art's Sake
Buying large, heavily illustrated, slick-paper art books seems decadent at any other time of the year, but the holidays allow for some indulgences. Consider them good for the soul.

Blessed with both beauty and a superb eye, Lee Miller became an international surrealist muse and a world-class photographer and photojournalist. For the centennial of her birth, Yale University Press has issued The Art of Lee Miller ($60 cloth), a lovely survey (with text by photography professor Mark Haworth-Booth) of Miller's amazing career. Her face graced the cover of Vogue when she was 20; she played a living statue in Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. Moving to Paris, she apprenticed with Man Ray and created many evocative photographs: strangely angled cityscapes, pregnant close-ups of odd objects and portraits of celebrities from boxer Gene Tunney to artist Joseph Cornell. The book forms an excellent companion to Santa Cruzan Carolyn Burke's excellent 2005 biography, Lee Miller: A Life, issued this year in a paperback from the University of Chicago Press.

Speaking of Joseph Cornell, Yale has also published Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination ($65 cloth). An alchemist of assemblage, Cornell (1903-72) scissored together collages and constructed glass-fronted boxes full of enigmatic objects devoted to the fellow artists, ballet divas and movie stars who caught his fancy. He is the ultimate Proustian visual artist—his boxes recapture the past and preserve memories like specimens in a museum display case. Navigating the Imagination supplies copious reproductions of Cornell's amazing works along with some useful essays about his life and influences. If you are feeling really generous, slip a pair of tickets to the current retrospective of Cornell works (the first in 25 years) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (running through early January).Although originally drawn to a purpose, after enough time maps become artworks as well. Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of California (UC Press; $39.95) proves the point on every page with a marvelous selection of maps charting the discovery, conquest and urbanization of our state. The well-annotated selections range from early images of California as an island (if only) to sketches of gold discoveries to aerial views of San Francisco to earthquake surveys. Some surprises include an 1895 map depicting bike routes throughout the state, bordered with ads aimed at cyclists—proof that two-wheeling was a craze long before the invention of Lycra. Just to avoid complacency, the book finishes with a startling upside-down map of the Golden State.


Out With the Old

Hip holiday music shopping made easy

By Gabe Meline


Music marketing during the Christmas season is filled with all sorts of repackaged crapola that caters to the emergency-driven shopper, be it the cash-in box set, the recycled anthology or the truly desperate "deluxe edition." The result: Dad gets stuck with two CDs of Led Zeppelin songs that he already owns (Mothership); Mom's got Van Morrison's hits all over again but with worse artwork (Still On Top); and your brother has the same early recordings of Bob Marley that've been released 543 times already (eight different times this year alone).This year, get 'em something new that they'll love you for finding.

For example, Mom's probably hooked on the Leonard Cohen tribute I'm Your Man, but if she's never heard of M. Ward's Post-War, then you alone can rescue her. For the globally minded mom, there's Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale's Breathing Under Water, a unique, elegant soundscape from worlds away. And if Mom's too mellow for the revived howl-call of soul songstresses Bettye Lavette (The Scene of the Crime) or Mavis Staples (We'll Never Turn Back), there's always Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand, if only for their stunning, hypnotic rendition of "Killing the Blues."For Dad, you could go with Neil Young's new Chrome Dreams II, but it's useless compared to two live recordings released this year: Live at the Fillmore East (totally rockin'; good if Dad still drinks beer) or Live at Massey Hall (captivating solo set; good if Dad still gets high). Bruce Springsteen's Magic pales next to the Live in Dublin double CD, awash in the liberating spirit that the E Street Band once oozed. And instead of an utterly inessential repackaging of Bob Dylan songs (Dylan, foisted off as a one-, two- or three-CD set), how cool would it be to open Dad's eyes with the soundtrack to I'm Not There, two whole CDs of Dylan's music as played by almost three dozen newer artists like Yo La Tengo, Calexico, Jeff Tweedy and the Black Keys?Sure, your sister's been bumping Amy Winehouse, so buy her Sharon Jones' 100 Days, 100 Nights. Better yet, get Jones' earlier album Naturally—after all, Winehouse stole Jones' backing band, the Dap-Kings, along with a few ounces of her attitude. Buying Alicia Keys' As I Am or Colbie Caillat's Coco won't actually embarrass you, but wouldn't you feel better wrapping up something less watered down? M.I.A.'s forward-thinking Kala or Stephen Marley's Mind Control ought to fit the sisterly bill.

If your brother's just discovered the guitar, options abound: The Cribs' Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever is a cornucopia of catchy hook-driven Weezer-ish pop gems; Jesu's Life Line is a heavy soup of spaced-out distortion; and the Heavy Metal box set covers everything evil, loud and thundering from 1968-1991 housed in a replica of a Marshall amplifier. If your brother's a budding DJ instead, go with DJ QBerts's helpful Scratchlopedia Breaktannica DVD, full of insider turntable tips.

Once the family's taken care of, there are the sprinkling gifts. Got a friend who loves the Pogues? Try Gogol Bordello's raucous Super Taranta. The Kinks? Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Talking Heads? The Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. It's not even a stretch for fans of the Police to love Menomena's Friend and Foe. Ohmega Watts' Watts Happening is perfect for kids who aren't allowed to hear rap music with swearing. The Heliocentrics' Out There is an intoxicating blend of hip-hop and free jazz. David Murray's Sacred Ground and Howard Wiley's The Angola Project are deep jazz picks, and Volker Strifler's The Dance Goes On is a satisfying blues choice. The electronica fan can find solace in Luke Vibert and Jean Jacques Perry's Moog Acid, Bassnectar's Underground Communication, or !!!'s outstanding Myth Takes, and even the classical fan can have something new with Osvaldo Golijov's beautiful Oceana.

Love Is the Song We Sing is a worthy box set that digs insanely deep into the 1960s San Francisco psychedelic scene—good for your crazy uncle?—while the Devil Makes Three and Two Gallants both have self-titled albums representing the new guard of the Bay Area.

Also, finally on DVD after decades of criminal unavailability, John, Paul, George and Ringo's Help!, sure to be a huge hit for Christmas and something fun for the whole family to watch while cleaning up wrapping paper.

And remember: there's nothing more boring than buying music on the Internet, so if all else fails, get 'em a gift certificate to your local independent record store.


Family Feud

The fur flies in many of the holiday movie offerings

By Richard von Busack


This winter carries the usual heavy cargo of oversize emotions, love that lasts through many lifetimes, noble wars, dead wives, dead husbands, dead children: the dark end of the year's rich, fatty cinema. And yet the biggest surprise of the holiday movie season, which keeps on giving well into the new year, may turn out to be something relatively lean: a French cartoon. (Remember, opening dates are always subject to the whims of distributors.) Persepolis (Jan. 11; Feb. 1 in Santa Cruz) represents a huge improvement on Marjane Satrapi's popular graphic novel about growing up in Iran. The animation revives the power of UPA Studio's work from the 1950s and demonstrates the graphic power of extreme blacks and whites, simple forms and two dimensions.

Satrapi's work was a bestseller for many reasons. The bluntest one is that she makes the complex subject of Iran in the 20th century completely understandable to self-obssessed American young people. The princessy, very Westernized narrator learns that self-willed blindness isn't enough to protect you, and ultimately, Satrapi's book memorializes her grandmother.

But the holiday's other high points offer a fiesta of toxic families. The best of them, Atonement (Dec. 14), is the exact opposite of Merchant-Ivory. This compelling, unusually flexible and intimate epic is drawn from a slightly intractable Ian McEwan novel. The spur of action is a little girl's willful malice. Because of her storytelling, she forever blights the happiness of her elder sister, played by Keira Knightley at her most glamorous and attenuated best as an art-deco English lady. The film links two vastly different plots: a scandal at an English manor house in the 1930s, and the unpleasantness at Dunkirk, May 1940. Director Joe Wright's show-stopping scenes of the Big War are extraordinary. They look like a combination of Alfonso Cuarón's tracking shot in Children of Men, the art of Belgian symbolist James Ensor and a good dose of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

Speaking of dangerous sisters, Margot at the Wedding (Dec. 7; Dec. 14 in Santa Cruz) boasts two of them. In the new film by Noah (The Squid and the Whale) Baumbach, ulterior motives are in play as two very estranged sisters (Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh) reunite at Leigh's nuptials to a bristly and porky oaf (Jack Black, as hilariously good as he was in High Fidelity). Talented newcomer Zane Pais plays the adolescent son Kidman smothers halfway to Oedipusland. This film will appeal to those who can stand unadulterated rancor.

The lean Australian Kidman also stars in the franchise-starter The Golden Compass (Dec. 7), based on Philip Pullman's trilogy of novels about an alternative England shadowed by a vast and ruthless conspiracy: a church in the books, a "Magisterium" in the no doubt more God-fearing movie. The Philip Seymour Hoffman/Laura Linney vehicle The Savages (Dec. 25 in Santa Cruz) is sweeter than Margot, though good and mean and bleak. It chronicles the Sideways-style bitterness of the brother and sister, twin failures yoked into dealing with their ornery, senescent father (Philip Bosco). They stash him in a nursing home called Valley View, probably because there is no view and no valley. The soundtrack (in which Brecht and Weill's "Solomon Song" figures prominently) is even better than Wes Anderson's eclectic music programming for The Darjeeling Limited.

There Will Be Blood (Dec. 26; Jan. 11 in Santa Cruz) is Paul Thomas Anderson's much anticipated drama of Cain and Abel-worthy strife between brothers in the Texas oil fields, with Daniel Day-Lewis as a moral-free tycoon. The Perfect Holiday (Dec. 12) has a little girl petitioning Santa for a husband for her momma. Lance Rivera (The Cookout) directs. The advance word on Juno (Dec. 21 in Santa Cruz) is rapt. Stripper-turned-writer Diablo Cody came up with a pregnant teen trying to find the perfect family for her baby; Ellen Page (Hard Candy) plays the pregnant teen; Jason Reitman of Thank You for Smoking directs.

Something I can vouch for is the first-rate horror film The Orphanage (Jan. 4 or 11 in Santa Cruz), an elegant Spanish screw-turner that proposes that her child's death is only the beginning of a mom's worries. The Kite Runner (Dec. 14) has strife between two young Afghan men, one who has joined the Taliban. For further family feuding, admittedly among a family of rodents, we get the resurrection of Alvin and the Chipmunks (Dec. 14) in time for their annual source of royalties, "Christmas, Christmas." Awake (Nov. 30) is a horror film about a man paralyzed yet conscious during heart surgery. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Dec. 21) features John C. Reilly and director Jake Kasdan parodying Walk the Line and a whole lot of other musical biopics. The Walker (Dec. 14; Jan. 18 in Santa Cruz) is Paul Schrader's newest. Woody Harrelson plays a gay escort from Washington, D.C., working the wealthy crone trade.In National Treasure: The Book of Secrets (Dec. 21), Nicolas Cage seeks the missing 18 pages of John Wilkes Booth's diary in order to clear the name of a relative who was supposedly in on the Lincoln assassination; trailers suggest a larger conspiracy, too huge for Lyndon LaRouche even. Charlie Wilson's War (Dec. 25) stars Tom Hanks as the ex-Texas politician who helped bankroll the Afghan rebellion against the Soviet invaders. It's heavy on the opera bouffe politics—the late Mollie Ivins, who knew Wilson, said the source material is like a cross between Tom Clancy and a Flashman adventure. Unfortunately, like the book, the movie looks negligent on the part of how Wilson and his other commie-busters gave the Taliban their start in life.

When you think of communists vs. Taliban, it's a natural jump to Aliens vs. Predator—Requiem (Dec. 25), a gift for people who would rather avoid anything that smells like Christmas whatsoever. Similar bloody-mindedness occurs in two other films: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Dec. 21), Tim Burton's Victorian fantasia with Johnny Depp as the avenger/baker. Truly, it is the first cannibal-themed musical since, eh, Cannibal! The Musical. On a much gentler level The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (Dec. 25) is Jay Russell's CGI cartoon about a boy who befriends a Loch Ness Monster look-alike.It's a tragedy to be alone for the holidays, as Will Smith learns the hard way in I Am Legend (Dec. 14). Fortunately, this unhappy last man on earth has some surprise guests to cheer him up: an army of unstoppable vampires.

Rather be drained from the tear ducts instead of the neck? The rom-tradges P.S., I Love You (Dec. 21) and The Bucket List (Dec. 25 limited release) have a common source, one imagines: those self-help books that list the things to do before you perish. In the former, Hilary Swank is led around on a journey to Ireland by her demised Irish squeeze. Must be a Celtic cross between Ghost and Once. This plot was a tear-siphon back in the days of the TV movie Sunshine, where John Denver's ballads got the audience in the proper mood for it; My Life Without Me did it again. A thick-enough soundtrack of Irish keening might liquefy the audience.

The latter, The Bucket List, is a geriatric bromance helmed by Rob Reiner: as men without much time left, ornery Jack Nicholson and angelic Morgan Freeman take care of that list of things they wanted to do before they kicked the bucket.

Jan. 4 (in Santa Cruz) brings us The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's true story of a paralyzed man unable to communicate except with the blinking of one eye. The Great Debaters (Dec. 25) has Denzel Washington as a legendary debating coach who rallied a small Texas school to beat the best of the Ivy League.

If you haven't been softened enough, Grace Is Gone (Dec. 14) deals, in neorealist style, with the tragedy of the patriotic father of two children (John Cusack) whose wife perished fighting in Iraq. Buy a ticket, or the terrorists have already won.


Truly Thoughtful Gifts

The real present is conscious buying

By Patricia Lynn Henley


When Alorha Breaw discovered Ellis Jones' pocket-size paperback The Better World Shopping Guide: Every Dollar Makes a Difference (New Society; $9.95), she immediately bought 17 copies. That was all the store had in stock.

"I've given them for everything from birthday gifts to housewarming presents," Breaw explains. She adds that they'll make great stocking-stuffers this holiday season.

Breaw keeps one copy for herself, but laughs, "I'm having a hard time hanging onto that one." She uses the guide every time she shops, whether it's for groceries, wine, clothing, gasoline—anything at all. "It's a wealth of resources in one," she explains. "When you're out shopping, it's an easy, easy, easy reference guide. And you don't have to feel guilty as you make choices."

The book covers 73 categories from airlines to wine, and gives manufacturers a letter grade of A to F—just like in school. Under the gasoline category, Exxon gets an F, and is described as the "No. 1 one worst corporation on the planet" and a "renowned human rights violator."

The book is based on the idea that individual dollars are becoming more powerful than individual votes. The average citizen casts a vote every few years—maybe every few months if the ballot initiative process goes into overdrive—while folks who are politically apathetic, unmotivated or overwhelmed might cast a vote even less often.

Yet consumers register their desires daily by how they spend their dollars. In this season of gift-buying frenzy, we're making constant statements about which products we prefer, which stores we frequent, which websites get our credit card numbers.

"We do have a lot of power and influence if only we can figure out what our real choices are," says University of California sociology professor Ellis Jones, author of both The Better World Shopping Guide and the larger paperback The Better World Handbook: Small Changes That Make a Big Difference.

The power base in our society is shifting, Jones asserts.

"We have to come to grips with the idea that the economic realm may be becoming more important than the political realm. That's just a reality. We may live in a democracy in the political world, but in the economic world we don't have a democracy. But we do have a role in that realm in that our dollars are our votes." By paying attention to how we spend our money, Jones says, we can hold the larger players—the megacorporations—accountable.

"The bottom line is that every one of these companies needs our dollars to survive. It's their lifeblood." So for the socially aware, it isn't necessary to give up gift-giving on moral or ethical grounds, or to give only donations to worthy causes instead of actual presents."[The guide] provides a powerful way to make choices during the holiday season to allow your gifts to be both something nice that you're giving family and friends, but also something nice for parts of the planet you'll never see and for people you'll never meet." Published in November 2006 with absolutely no marketing budget, the guide has already sold more than 20,000 copies. There's a companion website at www.betterworldshopper.org. The guide is also on sale at Amazon.com and has been spotted in large book chains like Border or Barnes & Noble.

"It's even sold at WalMart—ironically, because WalMart doesn't rate too well in the book," Jones laughs. He recommends buying it through independent bookstores, fair trade shops or the website—but not because he's focused on sales.

"It's not really about the book. It's about getting the information to people so they can make better purchasing decisions. We want to have people shift their dollars."He adds, "Each of our dollars has to be thoughtful and reflective and made powerful so that it makes the world a place that we would like to live in and that our children and grandchildren would like to live in."Which makes holiday gift-giving work on more than one level.

"Part of the gift is the gift itself and part of the gift is building a better world.


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