News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.

News and Features

home | metro santa cruz index | features | santa cruz | feature story

Photograph by Carlie Statsky
The Gift of Lite: A candle says so many things, starting with: 'I don't know you very well, but don't you think this smells good? I did. In fact, I kind of wish I'd kept it.'

Grace Under Pressure

Our last-minute gift guide contains precious advice from the Seabright Twins on avoiding Generic Gift Syndrome, a word to the wise about being kind to store clerks, and the lowdown on the grooviest box sets (there truly is one for everyone).

By Deborah and Laura Nadel

December. Price tags. Desperation. These words start flooding into our minds the minute the fork hits the plate after the big turkey (or tofurkey) dinner. 'Tis the holiday season, which, in its truest sense, should conjure up the sugary sweet imagery of the wholesome two-parent, 2.5-kid family singing merrily around the hearth. But let's get real. December and the holidays are now mostly about blind consumerism, in which we shoppers stroll Pacific with vacuous, zombielike expressions, groping merchandise in a meager, last-minute attempt to demonstrate appreciation for our loved ones. Laura: All of this hurried last-minute buying can culminate in what can only be described as the generic gift. Basically, there are 12 kinds of last-minute gifts that say, "I'm thinking about you—but not much." Each of these bland presents also says something particular about the gift-giver. Like so:

1. Candle: 'Indifferent' A candle says that the giver really doesn't know the person s/he is buying the gift for. A candle is generally an overused white elephant or Secret Santa gift. The most meaning that can be gleaned from the candle is that it might indicate what kind of scent the giver likes—not the recipient. Let's face facts: No one unwraps a Buddha-shaped honeysuckle-scented candle and genuinely exclaims, "This is just what I always wanted!"

2. Humorous Mug: 'Corny stereotyper' The giver tends to have a pun-friendly view of humor, and seeks to sum up his/her personal impressions of the recipient with a cup bearing a "funny" phrase like "I Don't Do Mornings," destined to be enjoyed in an office meeting while sipping a beverage under the "Hang in there, Baby" kitten poster. (Exceptions to the generic-mug gift-giving rule may be granted for the ever-ironic hipster generation. Mugs such as "World's Greatest Grandma" are quite coveted in the eyes of the tight-pants, moppy haired, ambivalent twentysomething.

3. Gift Cards: 'Convenience Addict' Deborah: Sometimes controversial, gift cards can polarize recipients into two factions—those who feel that if they're not going to get cold hard cash, a gift card is the next best thing, and those who believe the gift card represents a chasm between the giver and the receiver that says, "I know you have some sort of interest in this area, but I don't know you well enough to have a sense of what you actually own or possess." For example, I once received a Starbucks gift card from a family member which told me that she didn't quite comprehend my stance of never financially contributing to the McDonald's of coffee, and wasn't even aware of the fact of my employment at a coffee shop at the time. I immediately regifted the card to a homeless person, who could appreciate the mass-produced beverage a lot more than I could.

4. Lotto Ticket: 'Self-interested Optimist' Laura: Should the recipient actually win, it is an unwritten law that the giver receive a decent cut in the cash prize.

5. Socks, Underwear (or other Practical Clothing): 'Nurturer' Deborah: The giver of practical clothing may be devoid of creativity, but he or she spots a need and is simply attempting to address it. The giver probably has an overwhelming concern that the recipient is always to wear clean underwear, especially in the unfortunate event (God forbid) of an accident.

6. Something Obtained From Work: 'Opportunist' Laura: This generic gift is hit-or-miss, depending on where the giver works. If the gift-giver works at Microsoft and can kick down a free laptop to all the children in his or her family, then the workplace-schwag gift is gold. But it's hard to say "I love and care about you" with a Zyprexa pen snatched up from a pharmaceutical-industry schmoozefest.

7. The ReGifted Gift: 'Snob' Deborah: Basically what it comes down to is that the regifted gift blatantly screams: "It's not good enough for me, but it's good enough for my friends and family." There are exceptions, of course. I can remember receiving a plastic gold-spray-painted paperweight in the shape of a cat. I got the impression that the giver believed that since I worked at a veterinary hospital, and since I am eternally single and live with my sister and a surly cat named Buster, that I had crossed over into the feared world of crazy cat ladies, and thus needed to decorate my abode with dozens of feline-inspired objects. Luckily Laura actually knew someone who would genuinely appreciate the object as such.

But for the most part, the regifter is just dumping the paraffin wax kit on you instead of storing it in the garage before pawning it off in a springtime yard sale.

8. Puppy: 'Shortsighted Hedonist' The giver wants a puppy, but wants to make the recipient responsible for cleaning up the poop and studying hours of Cesar Milan on The Dog Whisperer. The giver is dazzled by the big brown eyes and white whiskers, and cannot think any further into the future than the moment the box (with carefully placed air holes) is unwrapped on that special holiday morning.

9. Bottle of Wine: 'Crowd Pleaser'Laura: This gift is an easy last-minute stop-off-on-the-way-home-from-work present that says, "Hey, I just want you to relax, forget about the 9-to-5, and sip some mood-enhancing juice." Or it may say, "We will all survive this family function only if one of us provides a stress-reducing libation to sip while the passive-aggressive barbs fly across the dinner table."

This gift definitely screams "impersonal," but it is also thoughtful, and convenient as hell. As long as it's not Two Buck Chuck, the giver can spend as little or as much as s/he wants, and no one will be the wiser.

10. Plant: 'Hippie Dippy Eco Friend' Deborah: You, plant-gifter, probably have a green thumb and naively expect the recipient to be responsible and capable enough to keep things alive. This is not always the case. Take stock of the recipient's home. Do they have pets? A dog, a cat or even a goldfish that they've managed to keep breathing and fed? If not, then consider not making the plant suffer a long, tortured, drawn-out death. It's unrealistic to believe that every plant can be revived into a Charlie Brown Christmas tree by merely draping a ratty blue blanket around the base. Just keep that in mind.

11. IOU Coupon: 'Selfish' Admit it, most of the time, people who give IOU coupons are hoping that the recipient never actually cashes them in. IOU coupons are given by people who have strongly bought into the idea that "it's the thought that counts," but they don't want it to actually negatively affect their bank accounts or free time.

12. Cash: "Smart." Laura: Truly. Cash is the least personal generic gift on this list, but probably the most well-received. Cash says, "Just go buy yourself something. I can't be bothered to figure it out." Giving cash sucks the entire meaning out of the word "gift." But let us reiterate—the giver will never go wrong in this last-minute thoughtless representation of love and esteem.

Six Holiday Tips
So now that the Generic Gift List is spelled out for all to gaze upon and garner knowledge from, the Seabright Twins have collected some helpful tips and recommendations to guide you through the holiday madness.

By the time this issue rolls out, it will be too late to adhere to:

Tip No. 1: Start early.
Laura: The Seabright Twins begin a carefully thought-out gift selection between Halloween and Turkey Day. Sure, that's a little obsessive, but we suffer from shopper rage, and can't stand the pressure of the overpacked boutiques filled with cranky consumers and bitter shop employees. Deborah: Tip 1b: Never, ever enter a store without some inkling of an idea in mind of what you want to get, so you're not mindlessly shopping like a Night of the Living Dead holiday zombie.

Tip No. 2: To provide some semblance of meaning, give the gift of your time and attention.
Laura: The Seabright Twins are not referring to corny "IOU" coupons. Rather, we suggest the considerate gift certificate of a movie ticket—with a date already planned when the giver and recipient will go together. Alternatives to movies include a day at the Boardwalk arcade/laser tag arena (tokens are cheap in the winter) to a day on the Chardonnay II.

Or buy the book Santa Cruz: A Guide for Runners, Joggers and Serious Walkers, by Eileen Brown and Steven Bignell ($12.95 at Bugaboo), and give it along with a plan to take an after-Christmas-binge stroll.

Deborah: Or give a memento of your love for each other. Your love might not last forever, but a tattoo will. You can give a gift certificate for a local tattoo shop for your loved one, and be there to hold his or her hand (as long as s/he promises not to get a tribal band, a Jerry bear, or a yin-yang).

Tip No. 3: Get creative.
Laura: Get a Dummy's Guide to Crafting kit and make a unique gift for your loved one. Buy the cute iconic transfers of lady bugs and owls or country kitsch and create distinctive kitchenware for your significant other or your less-than-significant Aunt Betsy. (All are available at Best of Everything). Create a mixed CD of those nostalgia-inducing songs that remind the recipient of the good old days when times were simpler. Commemorate the gift with some personalized decorations from a CD packaging kit (find one at Papervision).

Tip No. 4: Be mindful of the receiver.
Laura: Your hippie green-loving cousin would love a solar disco ball ($29.95 at BOE) or a "plantable" stationery set, featuring paper that is embedded with real wildflower seeds so after it's used, the paper can be planted to grow real flowers ($14.95 at Gateways), but would probably be repulsed by a sausage-and-salami gift basket. Deborah: If your loved one is super into flowers, you can get some pretty flower lights to add a little sparkle to his/her bedroom—and perhaps diminish some of the patchouli aroma—made from real leaves (at the Om store for $29).

If there is someone on your list who is infatuated with the idea of "green living" that the media is shoving down our maws, give a gift that can make the recipient stylin' and also help the environment: a purse made from Heineken beer cans. (If you're not into the idea of advertising for booze, there are also purses made from soda cans as well.) Both sell for about $30 at the World Market Bazaar. Laura: For that overly excited bike enthusiast, offer a little bling in the form of a bell-pepper shaped bell, or some retro streamers (a mere $5 at Bicycle Trip) rather than a snakeskin car seat that will leave the recipient with mouth agape wondering: WTF?"

Tip No. 5: No recipient is off-limits.
Laura: Gifts are appropriate for mammals and humans from under the age of verbal ability. Laura: Give your puppy something to chomp on, and give yourself the pleasure of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger get his man-muscles slobbered on, with a "Doggy Hoots" squeaky toy, available at Think Pawsitive downtown. (There's a Hillary, too!). If you're tired of the same ol' miniature Ugg boots and blue onesies, give a gift that can truly anoint a baby as a Santa Cruz local by adorning the kid with temporary tattoos for babies, sold at Graffix for $6.

Tip No. 6: Presents can and should be frivolous.
Deborah: Think about getting something that you are positive the recipient would never buy for themselves. That Megadeth enthusiast in your life probably never realized how much fun she would have coloring in the Heavy Metal Fun Time Activity Book, which can be obtained at Urban Outfitters for $9.95. Santa Cruz Gifts and Jewelry has a plethora of shiny things to catch your eye, such as bamboo plant holders for around $20 (bamboo can be considered good luck, too). And for those folks born and raised in Santa Cruz, there's a never-ending supply of clothing and objects to represent the appropriate level of hometown pride at Kaleponi.

Gifts are supposed to be given because you want to give them, not because the month of December lays down an overwhelming sense of guilt and obligation. If you're snatching the first thing off the shelf in a fit of desperation, just remember to pause, breathe in the chilly wintry air and remember the old adage: It's the thought that counts. And if you are truly waiting until the last minute, remember—there's always next year.

The Holiday Retail Shopping Survival Guide

Hate shopping but do it anyway?
Read on.

By Sara Bir

Presents. The whole idea of holiday gift-giving is about generosity and love and sharing, but somehow, every year, the arrival of December fills millions of Americans with dread and loathing. Shopping for gifts shouldn't be a pain, but sometimes it is.I know, because as a retail sales associate, I see it at my store every day that I work. A lot of the frustration that customers feel comes from unrealistic expectations they place on themselves and on the people helping them, but it does not have to be that way. If shopping is a giant drag to you but you're not ready to go giftless this season, here are some helpful tips from behind the counter to keep your mad dashes of consumerism running stress-free.

1. Shop local.
You'll deal with fewer crowds and infinitely better background music if you stick mainly to locally owned businesses.

2. Don't get indignant.
If it's busy in a store, sometimes you have to wait. That's life. Remember that everyone else in line is waiting, just like you are. If the staff is competent, they are doing their best to keep things moving at a good clip, so just think of the time you spend waiting as your own little mini-breather: enjoy the opportunity to space out for a minute or two.

3. Gift wrap isn't a right.
Customers request gift wrap because they either don't want to be bothered with it or they are doing very last-minute shopping and need to show up at a destination a.s.a.p. with a pretty present in tow. But if you're buying something big, heavy, or oddly shaped, it may take a while for the staff to wrap it in a manner that won't resemble a 5-year-old's aborted papier-mâché project. In other words, there's no instant wrapping machine.

If the staff wraps your purchases in plain sight, make conversation, but don't hover—it's rude. They're not putting on a little wrapping show for you.

And, if you're dropping serious cash at the store, why should you have to pay for gift wrap in the first place? Because every second a sales associate spends off the sales floor is a lost opportunity for making additional sales. If paying extra for gift wrap is the store's policy and you're not down with it, state your case in calm manner—you may get that wrapping for free after all.

4. Rude customers get made fun of.
The main source of a sales associate's glee is not the incessant bleat of cheery Christmas Muzak or the misbehaving of young scamps as they systematically destroy carefully constructed displays. Nope, it's obnoxious customers. Every second an associate spends away from customers' earshot is devoted to bilious venting ("that Cuisinart lady SUCKS") and the feverish recounting of bad customer horror stories ("She made me call three other stores to ask if they had the Wilton giant cupcake pan, when I told her over and over that it's sold out nationwide and the only place to get it is eBay."). The underpaid and undervalued must derive merriment where they can, and oftentimes it is in mythologizing the assholery of unreasonable customers. If you are OK with being the person who the staff creates a derogatory nickname for and recounts the tale of your childish shopping behavior for weeks on end, then go for it.

5. Kids are cute, until they are not.
Negligent parents, know this: every time your back is turned and your slobbery child inserts store merchandise into her bratty maw, little daggers emerge from our eyes, and they are aimed at you. The things we sell are not teething rings, and they are especially not trial teething rings. If your kid uses half the store as her pacifier, then have the decency to buy what she destroyed with her gross germy kid saliva.

6. Seasonal staffers sometimes are crazy.
At a larger store, up to half of the sales associates may be seasonal—only working at the store during the holiday period, after which they will resume their studies, parenting, art career, drug habit, or what-have-you. They may not know where everything is, or have the answers to ridiculously detailed questions about store merchandise. But they should be able to locate an associate who does know. Every batch of seasonal staff has its rotten apples—people who don't work full-time, permanent jobs because no sane employer wants to have them around that long. Just hope they don't wind up helping you.

7. Jesus Christ, it's just stuff, and we're not indentured servants.
If you have a lot of disposable income and you love to be waited on and shop mainly for the experience of dominating another person's time with pointless questions and contrarian blather, then go ahead and spend your money on stuff you won't use. It pays my bills, but guess what? I don't respect you or your brand-new $3,500 automatic coffee center. Somewhere out there there's a customer who's normal and pleasant and will spend just as much money as you do, and I'd rather be helping them.

8. Your money is your power. Bad customer service exists.
When you walk into a store—especially one that sells expensive items—you should be greeted within two minutes, if not immediately. If you ask for help, you should get it in a timely manner. If you have to wait longer than you'd like, an associate should politely and patiently check in with you and explain what the holdup is. If your needs as a customer are not being met, then don't spend your money at that store—is anyone making you? Is a holiday present worth being ignored or sneered at by surly staff? Shopping should be fun at best and tolerable at worst. It shouldn't be torture, and it shouldn't be a stand-in for things in life that give actual enrichment and gratification, like hikes in the woods or quality time with friends and family.

9. Let's all be human.
If you're in a bad mood, dump it. If you treat the store staff nicely, odds are they will be kind to you in turn. It's Christmas, after all!

Leisurely Listening

The sprawl of box sets make them perfect for the holidays

By Gabe Meline

Box sets make great Christmas gifts—they're impressively packaged, they come with fancy booklets to pore over and they can be listened to for hours on a leisurely holiday. But most importantly, loved ones often truly want a certain box set, yet often won't justify buying it for themselves. That's where you come in. This year has been especially generous in the box set department; here are a few of the good ones to throw under the tree.

'Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970' An amazing four-CD set that digs ridiculously deep into the San Francisco '60s underground, Love Is the Song We Sing comes complete with detailed liner notes and reminisces about the heart of the definitive cultural revolution. All the heavy hitters from the Summer of Love get their usual due, but it's the utterly obscure groups (the Vejtables, Mourning Reign and the Harbinger Complex, to name a tiny few) that distinguish this set from a mere nostalgia piece. An essential pick for anyone who grew up in the Bay Area during the 1960s.

Miles Davis 'The Complete On the Corner Sessions' I have to admit, it was the famous fat-booty artwork that originally lured me to On the Corner, and on an initial listen I didn't feel anything click. But I tucked it in my memory as one of those albums I'd probably dig on down the line, and sure enough, over the years I've pulled it out to increasingly enjoyable results. This set showcases the uncut, unedited band, playing live and raw in the studio, crafting jams that were too heavy for the public to comprehend even 20 or 30 years into the future. A sticker on the outside talks about Davis going "beyond the outer limits of jazz, rock and funk"; in doing so, he rewrote the boundaries of all three.

'Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration' As with the San Francisco box set, it's the obscure tracks on this affordable two-CD set that make it worth picking up, as with "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)" by Mable John. Who the hell is Mable John, and why did such an amazing singer nearly get lost to the cut-out bin? It turns out she was Little Willie John's sister, and as for why she's not a household name, who knows—all you have to know is she's on this set, which, incidentally, is impeccably sequenced. The line-up of "Mr. Big Stuff" followed by "Never Can Say Goodbye" and then "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" is almost as good as the one-two-three punch of "Tramp," "Soul Finger" and "Born Under a Bad Sign."

'People Take Warning! Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938' A stunning three-CD overview of early American blues and folk recordings that's sure to sink Christmas merriment at the drop of a needle. The songs from these restored 78 rpm records chronicle disasters both large and small—the sinking of the Titanic, the Baltimore Fire of 1904 and the Mississippi Flood of 1927, to name but a few. If you've ever wondered what it was like to live in a world of train wrecks, explosions and fatal diseases, look no further; the brilliant liner notes by Tom Waits put it all in perspective. Incredible.

'The Heavy Metal Box' A mammoth set spanning 1968-1991, from Iron Butterfly to Sepultura, with every screeching solo, chunky power chord and high-pitched wail in between. The best part is that no matter how old or dated this stuff gets, it's still guaranteed to make parents totally miserable. Hell yeah! Most die-hard metal fans could probably do without Great White or Poison, and including Spinal Tap almost seems like admitting defeat, but seriously: Hawkwind, Iron Maiden and Slayer in the same Marshall Amp-shaped container? Dayy-uumm.

Roy Haynes 'A Life In Time' Three CDs plus a DVD that only scrapes the surface of Haynes' vast discography as one of the most-recorded drummers in jazz. If you've got a loved one who recently went to see Haynes at Yoshi's and couldn't stop drooling afterwards, this one's a no-brainer. Every kind of combo is represented, including those led by Charlie Parker, Oliver Nelson, Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Eric Dolphy, up to Haynes' own Fountain of Youth and Birds of a Feather groups. Thwack Thack Thack Bmm Boom Bmm Thwack!

'The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium' Even snobby Anglophobes who cringe whenever Catherine Wheel or the Stone Roses are mentioned will find it hard to argue with the Cure, the Smiths, Spacemen 3, Pulp, Supergrass, Elastica or Spiritualized. (I have a friend who is aghast at the glaring omission of Shellyann Orphan, but when you've got Thousand Yard Stare and Gay Dad, who needs Shellyann Orphan?) Grant yourself extra twee points for wrapping this up with a stringed tea bag as a ribbon and crumpets as a bow.

The Beatles 'Help!' There's a wonderful fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel to this movie and the unwritten vibe clearly enshrines the absurd. Discovering marijuana in the early stages of the skyrocket ride to immortality was never more exciting. As has long been pointed out, this is also the dawn of the music video as we know it, with the ski-pole edits in "Ticket To Ride" preceding Michel Gondry by a good 40 years. A deluxe version of the regular two-DVD set includes lobby cards, a poster, a book with unseen photographs from the film sets and a reproduction of Richard Lester's original annotated script. How tempting is that?

Led Zeppelin 'The Song Remains the Same: Collector's Edition' The first time I saw this film, I fell asleep during "Dazed and Confused." When I woke up, Jimmy Page was still playing his violin-bow solo on "Dazed and Confused"! Which means: the songs are crazy long. This is 'x excess at its finest, and there's bound to be someone in the family who's been frothing at the mouth over Zep's reunion show in London, so give 'em the next best thing.

Megadeth 'War Chest' No one who's sat through the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster could ever forget the crying, sniveling, whimpering Dave Mustaine scene where he talks about getting the boot from Metallica and how it ruined his life. Redemption is his, however, with this massive, avenging box set that chronicles Megadeth's career and shows that Mustaine got heavier and heavier while James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett hella wussed out.

Emmylou Harris 'Songbird' The beautiful voice of Emmylou Harris turns up in so many obscure undiscovered corners of the recording world that it would be impossible to collect even a petri-dish sample of everything she's done. This set focuses on some of her personal favorites from the last 35 years, eschewing radio hits and well-known concert staples. With a well-written book, a DVD of live performances, there's even a home recording, thoughtfully included, of Harris singing "Immigrant Eyes" for Guy Clark on his birthday.

Send a letter to the editor about this story.