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11.25.09

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Phaedra

The Good One

The radically ecological, perversely philosophical, ultimately economical guide to holiday gift giving. Plus coffeetable books to die for and the season's entertainment highlights.

By Rula al-Nasrawi, Curtis Cartier, Michael Gant, Brian Harker, Traci Hukill, Eric Johnson, Jessica Lussenhop, Gabe Meline and Austin Sardella


DON'T get us wrong--we love the holidays just as much as the next person. We know the names of the three wise men and all eight reindeer. We love to spin the dreidel and light the yule log. Also, we are fans of the Rankin/Bass claymation Christmas specials, so please do not bother us with invitations to do less important things on the nights those programs are airing. Because we do love the holidays.

But we've had it up to here--by which we mean way up there--with Christmas waste. Not just the wrapping paper, which is bad enough. No, this is a problem with the holiday gifts themselves, purchased hastily in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25 in a white-knuckle drive to get something, anything, under the tree for the giftee. This can end in the unfortunate triumph of quantity over quality: we buy multiple second-rate items instead of one good one. And in the nature of second-rate items, these gifts soon break or wear out or just don't get used at all because they're of inferior quality to begin with. Within a couple of years, off to the landfill they go to make room for replacements that are just as cheap, just as shoddy, just as surely headed for the trash heap on the same short schedule.

Let's dump that racket now! Here's an idea: buy the good one from the get-go. It costs more up front, but in the long run it saves money, saves the giftee the hassle of replacing the item later and is better for the planet. Instead of the $10 headlamp that might last one camping season (but probably won't), spring for the hardy Petzl. Skip the flimsy hand mixer and get the aspiring cook a sturdy standing model, something that would break your foot if it fell off the counter (not that such a thing could ever happen, since it weighs too much).

This doesn't mean go broke buying designer brands for their own sake. But it might mean teaming up with other family members in order to afford the groovy item in question, or delaying instant gratification (cups at Christmas! Saucers on your birthday!) in favor of a more durable gift in the end.

It's a mild-mannered, sociable revolution, and in these pages we're jump-starting it with a list of quality items that will stand the test of time.

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Radio Flyer #53 Deluxe Steer and Stroll Trike With Co-Pilot Feature

AH, THE TELLTALE SIGNS of Christmas Eve: the careful placement of milk and cookies for the charitable red trespasser, the hushed tittering of children pretending to sleep, the muffled curses of Santa as he furiously assembles the big ticket gift--a pink tent or remote-control car or bipedal death machine--before sunrise, only to be completely destroyed by lunchtime, possibly taking one or two good little boys and girls with it. It just wouldn't be Christmas without all these things, would it?

Luckily Radio Flyer, the wagon and tricycle brand that made memories and destroyed teeth when you were a kid, is still in business and sturdy as ever, and getting easier to assemble all the time. Remember when you were 3 and your friend Jimmy got his shiny trike and when his mother let go he rolled straight into a ravine, breaking his toy? Wasn't that hilarious? Of course, but we don't want that for our own children. This particular model (the Radio Flyer #53 Deluxe Steer and Stroll Trike With Co-Pilot Feature, about $70) has a great innovation: a backseat driver bar while your child is still learning to steer--and learning to take direction. Instead of ruining a perfectly cheerful Christmas morning shouting, "Sophie! Not toward the street!" or "Jesse! Leave that cat alone!" the parent can steer away from danger or neighbors' property. Of course, even the littlest of kids do tend to grow up over time, despite the promises they made when they were born, and when they're prepared to ride alone--in say, a year or six-the backseat driver bar can be easily removed. Then, with a great swell of pride, you can watch her as she starts to pedal on her own, ready to take on big challenges and responsibilities that you'd never have thought she could--"Sophie! Sophie! Get back here this instant!"

--Austin Sardella

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Seydel Harmonica

CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE shudders at the thought of cheaply made harmonicas given as stocking stuffers. "I only use Seydel Harmonicas," says the 23-time W.C. Handy award-winning bluesman. "The Seydel company is even older than Hohner and they still make them by hand, one at a time, in a little town in Germany. Hohners are now mass-produced in China. The Seydel people make a wide variety of harps, and the ones I use have stainless steel reeds. They can be initially costly, but when you realize that one Seydel will outlast a dozen of other brands, you're actually saving money. The only better harmonica would be a custom-made harmonica, and I think Seydels are as good and often better than some custom harps I've played."

Harmonicas aren't the only thing on Musselwhite's mind this Christmas. "The other gift I'd like to mention is I once saw a flying alarm clock for people who just turn the alarm off and go back to sleep," he says. "The clock has a propeller like a helicopter, and when the alarm goes off it sounds like a helicopter, it lifts off and flies around the room and you have to get up, chase it, catch it and put it back in the clock base to turn it off. Well, by then you are definitely up and out of bed and not going back to sleep."

--Gabe Meline

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Bespoke Labs T3 Featherweight Hair Dryer

LET'S FACE IT: a broke college student's options are limited when it comes to good hair. Running around from class to class and subsisting on a steady diet of alcohol and top ramen can doom a girl's hair to a life of frizzery. The solution? The Bespoke Labs T3 Featherweight. One of the best on the market, this Consumer Reports-approved hair dryer from heaven has the potential to send curly-haired maidens to a utopia where rats' nests cease to exist and split ends are nothing but a myth. This ionic masterpiece contains crushed tourmaline jewels (we wouldn't joke about this) that, when heated, produce negative ions and infrared heat to ensure a speedy blow dry and shinier, static-free hair. While I'm no chemistry major, I do know that the presence of negative ions will seal the moisture in the hair's cuticle, leaving it ready to brave the elements. This bad boy may seem a bit pricey, ranging from $80 to $200, but the T3 is sure to last a lot longer than a dinky Conair that will leave the ladies looking like Sideshow Bob. And the T3 is lightweight and easy to use, unlike old-fashioned blow dryers that could substitute for 5-pound weights at the gym. No girl deserves to spend hours styling only to step outside and watch her hair instantly grow like a Chia pet. So when the bells are ringing and the children are singing and the college students are heading home for the holidays, consider giving the student in your life the gift of fabulous, shiny hair worthy of any winter wonderland with the help of the Bespoke Labs T3 Featherweight.

--Rula al-Nasrawi

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Cast Iron Cookware

FOR THE COLLEGE STUDENT or young adult just starting out, cookware is an essential tool for survival. And while one may be tempted by the cheap Teflon-coated options available from discount stores and chain superstores, there is a better way. The hardy cast-iron pan has been cooking up people's dinners for centuries, and with a little love and care it can last a lifetime. Unlike its cheap Teflon-coated counterparts, cast iron doesn't release toxic fumes when heated up past a certain point; in fact, the only byproduct it produces is iron, which is a vital supplement to any diet. Also, with proper seasoning and care, the cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven will develop a smooth surface that will put even the slickest of nonstick pans to shame. From deep-frying to baking, the classic inexpensive Lodge cast iron skillet (a 9-inch-diameter version runs about $20) works not only better than the cheap alternatives but is in fact better than designer cookware, according to many fans. And while it isn't a fancy or flashy pan, it just might become a family heirloom.

If you've really got cash to burn, the cast iron skillet's fancy city cousin, the Le Creuset French oven, is the kind of high-quality once-in-a-lifetime purchase that young people used to make when they first left the nest. Made of cast iron coated in enamel for an easy-to-clean, natural nonstick surface, these indispensable casseroles have all the advantages of cast iron--namely slow, even heating--without the fussy care and maintenance requirements. Plus, they're perfect for sauces requiring nonreactive pans. The lids fit tightly (rare in any kind of cookware), and the instantly recognizable palette of deep, rich colors is pleasing to almost everyone, making Le Creuset an admittedly rather spendy gift option (expect to pay $150-$200 for a medium-size casserole) that actually is worth every penny.

--Brian Harker and Traci Hukill

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Chrome Messenger Bag

JUST ABOUT every holiday season, my parents take me to buy my yearly messenger bag. Not because it's a cherished annual ritual, but because every time I step off the plane, my mom wrinkles her nose at the ragged shell of the year prior's messenger bag, which I will inevitably have slung across my back.

I take my bag everywhere and it takes a serious beating. I've been particularly fond of one brand made from old billboard advertisements; mostly because I thought the design was funky (it's tough to choose something age appropriate--leather says middle-aged man purse, oversize handbag screams "Kardashians"). Sadly, the material shreds, confettilike, and the things inside take a beating too, including my laptop--I get that devastatingly too-hard "plonk" sensation every time I set it down. No real messenger would deign to use my messenger bag.

So, I called one--a messenger, that is. "Chrome bags," says Rick Graves from Clutch Couriers without hesitation. "We use it in all weathers, riding from here to Watsonville on a daily basis."

Chrome bags are definitely built Ford tough. They're made from Cordura, a nylon fabric used in military wear, and all Chrome bags are guaranteed for life. That means even though my Secret Santa will be shelling out somewhere between $80 and $180, I'll never have to go bag shopping with my parents again. Ever.

I'll be asking Santa for the Buran bag ($140), which is technically a laptop bag, a little smaller and trimmer, with ample padding for my computer and a comfy shoulder strap made from seatbelt material. It perfectly skates that fine line between professional and urban. Plus, it avoids the embarrassing issue of sashaying down Pacific Avenue with a half-empty professional's messenger bag flopping around on your back in front of real couriers.

--Jessica Lussenhop

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Playstation 3

THE MODERN video game geek is faced with three choices when it comes to home consoles: Nintendo Wii ($199), Microsoft Xbox 360 ($199) and Sony Playstation 3 ($299). Each system has its perks; the Wii has the motion sensitive "Nunchuk" controller and the Mario franchise, Xbox 360 has the big online community and the Halo series, and Playstation 3 has the multiple functions and warp speed processor.

So which system will put more joy in your stick? If it's pure entertainment value you're after, the resounding answer is the Playstation 3. Sure it costs a Benjamin more than the Xbox 360 and the Wii, but that extra cash buys you a Blu-ray player, a wireless Internet browser and movie downloader, high definition 1080p output, free online play, 120GB of storage and the ability to also play PS1 and PS2 titles.

The Wii, with its small processor, doesn't approach high definition output or play even "regular" DVDs. The Xbox 360 boasts a high def gaming output that's nearly as high as the PS3, but you'll have to fork over an extra $100 for an adapter if you want to watch HD DVDs (Blu-ray's all-but-extinct evil twin). And neither system allows you to play old games from its predecessors, or browse the Internet for free.

When it first dropped in 2006, the newest Playstation's success suffered from a huge $599 price tag and a lack of big-name exclusive games. Today, both issues have been remedied with the price cut in half and titles like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Killzone 2 on shelves, and the long awaited Final Fantasy 13 title coming in a few months.

Holiday cash may be harder than ever to come by, but if your loved one is a gamer who also watches movies, uses the internet, or owns an HD television, you'll be doing him or her a favor in the long run by going with the PS3.

--Curtis Cartier

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Bamboo sheets

IT'S GENERALLY a good rule of thumb that if you're shopping for a holiday gift for wooing purposes, you're probably better off cruising an aisle that's not marked "housewares." But the truth is, luxurious sheets are something every woman adores--whether she knows it yet or not. And once she's figured that out, finding the perfect linens can become something of an obsession.

One option, of course, is the classic high-thread-count, 100 percent cotton sheet, the kind that's rough and scratchy for a few years until it finally softens and then, decades later, turns into that magnificent texture that's part silk, part suede and all delicious. The problem is, they literally don't seem to be making those anymore. Instead, manufacturers are claiming exorbitant thread counts (500 and 800 are common nowadays) and charging accordingly. But it's fuzzy math--math that counts the piled portions of threads rather than the warp and weft, math that shrinks and pills on the first washing. Consumer Reports busted one maker who claimed a thread count of 1,200; when tallied in the traditional manner, the thread count totalled 416.

Enter the 100 percent viscose sheet set. Made from bamboo, these are smooth, silky sheets that are room temperature rather than cold when you first get in them; they're almost like a very fine flannel in that regard, except that, somehow, they're cool in the summer. And fast-growing bamboo is, of course, the ultimate eco-friendly material. They're not cheap--a 250 thread-count set from Dreamsack will run upward of $200--but they're that elusive combination of high-quality, durable, green and luxurious, and they're guaranteed to make getting that all-important beauty rest a decidedly decadent affair.

--Traci Hukill

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Marmot Sharp Point Soft Shell

DON'T GET me wrong--I still love wool and leather. For a couple or three decades, as Patagonia and then everyone else attempted to replace these naturally perfect weather protection materials, I resisted. Until now.

The soft shell jacket is one of the great inventions of textile science, tailored for winter fun. It's made of the stuff Gore-Tex calls Windstopper. Feather-light, with a texture halfway between neoprene and cashmere, this miracle fabric is windproof, virtually waterproof, breathable and insulates like a wetsuit.

The Marmot version of the increasingly popular soft shell runs about $200. It's cut perfectly--it fits snugly, but thanks to its trademarked "Angel-Wing" design, it allows for a remarkable freedom of movement. With a zippered turtleneck collar, Velcro wrist-closures and drawstring waist, it battens down completely to keep blowing snow out and body heat in. And pit-zips prevent overheating if your idea of winter fun requires some exertion--as a cross-country ski enthusiast, I appreciate that feature on the uphill runs.

Downhill skiers would probably prefer the Super-Hero--a somewhat warmer and slightly bulkier version of this jacket.

Because the Sharp Point is designed for active wear, it does not work as a winter coat in colder climes. If I'm relaxing after the sun has gone down and the temperature has dropped, I wear it under my tweed coat or motorcycle jacket. I suppose it can also be worn under a hard-shell parka--but I'm old school.

--Eric Johnson

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Riedel Stemware

I DON'T CARE how the rustic peasants in Provence drink their plonk, even if it does look romantic in the movies. I shudder at the very idea of serving an everyday albariņo, much less that special occasion burgundy, in some cheap, generic wineglass. I want Riedel--classy stemware for the ages, made by experts to flatter, enhance and maximize every last drop of precious vino.

Yes it does matter what size, shape and density of glassware you use. If the bowl of the glass is too small, the wine just doesn't have room to "open," which means in plain English that there's not enough space for air (oxygen) to blend with the wine and hence magnify the flavors and sensory qualities of the wine. And when the whole point is to taste the wine, well, you're essentially defeating the experience.

Also, if the lip of the glass is crude and thick (as in glassware used at bureaucratic lunches), then the wine cannot be guided to the exact point of tongue and palate to deliver the most flavor. Thick glass insults both the drink and the drinker.

If the glassware is chunky, the experience is chunky. Your hand knows the difference. Just pick up a beautiful Riedel pinot noir goblet. See how your hand feels? The hand smiles. Excitement mounts. Anticipation develops. Now pour an inch or so of wine into the generous bowl. This is going to be a fantastic treat. Your taste buds get ready, and sure enough--if the glass is made by the centuries-old house of Riedel--that first sip is going to knock you out.

Every Riedel glass is carefully designed with ample room for flavor expansion and to deliver specific varietals to their intended tastebud. Riedel makes crystal glasses for every wine varietal, with 24 percent lead content crystal to guarantee color-heightening clarity.

A great wine deserves a great glass. And a decent wine will sip much better than it otherwise would when poured into a great glass.

That's why I want Riedel. Worried about breakage? At $30 a pop, one tends to be careful.

--Christina Waters

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Apple Computer

GET 'EM a Mac!

Yes, you'll have to spend more upfront. And no, you might not find a dirty little third-party app that converts the icons in ChickenEyeball TurboXtreem into Windows Media movies.

But by shelling out more for a Mac than for a PC, you'll give your giftee a computer that will work, and last, for years. 

Let's talk tech: Macs have firewalls already built in, don't attract every virus, worm and Trojan horse ever born, and come with free security updates that automatically appear, download at the click of a button, and virtually self-install.

In addition, Macs feature decent operating systems built upward, in English, from their core. Each OS is built on the last, so unless you want the newest and grooviest, updating is optional. And when you do update, you'll find each new version to actually be better, rather than less bad, with most features right in the same familiar places but working even faster and more easily. 

And if a Mac ever does crash, which is rare, you won't go through sudden collapses into low-budget '60s sci-fi style black screens filled with gibberish, or urgent demands that you move 350 files--all named jibble.kibble--from drive B to drive C before everything goes to hell. Macs have one drive, and it doesn't care where things are. If you've got an app, you can use it.

Finally, there are the positives Macs are famous for; namely, their ability to help those with graphic and artistic talent. Duplicating files perfectly in their native format takes just one key combo. Copying, pasting, importing, exporting, zooming, minimizing and converting are all a cinch. And the colors and rendering are gorgeous.

That's why nearly every film studio and graphics shop in the United States uses Macs. We say: give your loved one the same quality.

--Paul Wagner

Good and Cheap

Low cash flow? No problemo. These good ones will thrill the giftee and set you back less than $25.


Insulated Six-Pack Carrier ($17) Warm suds are fine for the laundry, but they don't belong in a beer bottle. An insulated six-pack tote keeps the cold ones icy when you're far from home. Available at drug and hardware stores.

Wigwam Merino Wool Socks ($14) Grandma's pack of white cotton-poly blend socks gets an update with the ultracushy, moisture-wicking, five-years-lasting wool sock. Cashmere's too delicate, cotton's too damp. Wool: just right. Available in good shoe stores and department stores.

Corkscrew ($20) Brief but unpleasant experience with The Rabbit has convinced us that corkscrew technology doesn't really need improving; the classic folding model used by waiters for decades works just fine. And really: would it kill us if it required some competence to open a fine bottle of wine? We like the Messermeister Pikka ($20) for its handsome wood grain handle, serrated coin blade and smooth, solid action. Available in kitchen specialty stores.

Schott's Original Miscellany ($14.95) Possibly the ultimate bathroom book, this little volume gathers obscure tidbits of knowledge into one irresistible package. Examples of palindromes ("Go deliver a dare, vile dog") and fighting weight tables (straw weights are 105 pounds or less!) take their place alongside other fascinating trivia. Available at most bookstores.

Lodge Cast-Iron Cornbread Pan ($19) Honestly, who wouldn't want this in their house? It positively screams retro authenticity. Plus it puts a mean crisp on those cute little corncob-shaped pieces of cornbread. Available at hardware and kitchen stores.

Archipelago Candles ($21) One of the first high-end candle manufacturers on the boutique fragrance scene, Archipelago makes handsome marbled candles with complex top, middle and bottom notes--and beats the competition at the cash register. At gift stores.


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