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Clutterless Gift Guide

Christine Benjamin

If it's the thought that counts, give an intangible gift that won't end up in next spring's rummage sale

By David Templeton

'IT IS BETTER," goes the kind old saying, "to give than to receive." It makes one feel all warm and shiny to have done a good thing, they say, and who are we to argue? Altruistic mumbo jumbo aside, the argument can certainly be made that to be on the receiving end of a gift, or gifts--especially during those heightened gift-getting bacchanals known as Christmas and Chanukah, not to mention birthday parties, weddings and anniversaries--brings with it certain inconveniences not experienced by the gift giver.

Those pesky thank-you notes, for instance, with the laborious issue of keeping track of who sent what. But there is an even trickier problem: now that the gifts have been opened, what the hell should be done with all this stuff?

Across the nation, garages and closets and bookshelves are jammed, crammed and overflowing with generous items obtained in last year's holiday haul, much of it destined to gather dust until the annual garage sale next spring.

And though the pangs of guilt suffered by the recipients are ponderous to behold, we must not ignore the discomfort of the benefactors--who so generously bestowed an electric potato prod or hand-painted carousel horse with built-in musical microchip--only to discover weeks or months later that their gift, to put it kindly, had been taking up more room than it was worth.

There is a solution.

Clutterless gifts--those that pack the full sentimental "Oh, aren't you thoughtful" and "Gee, you shouldn't have" wallop, but don't take up any space--have become increasingly popular. In the wake of gift certificates and those cute greeting cards with the built-in slot for cold hard cash, a vast array of alternative honoraria has gradually become available to those creative souls willing to step outside the once stringent gift-giving protocol that insisted on gifts being items that actually exist.

Consider the following.

Someone Else's Animals

THE ONLY THING better than owning a pet is owning a pet that someone else has to feed and clean up after. This is especially true when the critter is a six-ton African elephant, a shaggy American bison or a hungry Komodo dragon. Fortunately, most zoos

and numerous conservationist groups run adoption programs. For a fee ranging from a reasonable $20 and up, it is possible to turn a friend or relative into the proud parent of a wolf, a sea turtle, a lion or a big fruit bat.

In San Jose, the Happy Hollow Zoo--a charming, manageably sized operation--has just launched a special Holiday Adoption program. For $50, wannabe Dr. Doolittles can give either the meerkat, lemur or jaguar package, containing a photo, a certificate, a "Wild Parent" sticker, an admission card and an invitation to Happy Hollow's annual Parents Only Breakfast, granting the beneficiary a chance to observe the animals waking up. With the holiday package comes a plush meerkat or lemur toy or a pack of note cards featuring Jezebel the resident jaguar. For information, call 408/295-8383.

The San Francisco Zoo offers a good adoption package at a reasonable price. The $50 basic package gives the new parent a personalized adoption certificate, a color photo of the lucky animal (a list of adoptable beasts can be had by calling the adoption line at 415/753-7117), a fact sheet describing the animal, a one-year subscription to Zoo Views Magazine and the recipient's name proudly displayed on the zoo's Parent Board. The fee helps support the animals by providing habitat improvements and environmental enrichments.

On a grander scale, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., offers adoption packages as well, with a $25 basic package containing a fact sheet on the animal or plant (yes, umbrella pine trees need parents too), a window decal identifying the recipient as an adoptive parent and a subscription to the Adopt a Species newsletter. To get a photo of the adopted creature and a certificate will cost $50 dollars. Contact the National Zoo at 202/673-4961 or log onto its Web site.

Not every nature lover wants to be given a beast in captivity, however, no matter how well maintained.

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation offers a satellite turtle adoption program. Select either Flo-Jo, Marjorie, Endora, Jacques-line or Rhonda, endangered Caribbean sea turtles that have been fitted with tracking devices so that scientists--and adoptive parents checking the CCC Web site--can track the turtles from their refuge in Florida through annual migration to Toruguero, Costa Rica. A $25 basic membership features a certificate and tracking information as well as a magnet with the CCC logo. Call 800/678-7853 or log onto its Web site.

Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Ind.--a vast refuge for numerous wolf packs that were only recently on the verge of extinction--has come up with one of the best adopt-an-animal programs in the nation. "Wolf Sponsors" are provided an opportunity to get to know a wolf on an unusually personal level. Sponsors receive quarterly updates that include information on the social status of the animal and notable events that have occurred, along with a current photo of the wolf. Many sponsors plan special outings to the park, and in most cases (by appointment only, of course), they can personally meet their wolf or--if their specific animal is unavailable--a stand-in. Sponsors also receive free membership in the park and Wolf Park News magazine. Sponsorships cost $125 per year. Call 765/567-2264 or check its Web site for more information.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

WHETHER THE PEOPLE on one's gift list are the kind who walk out of a movie as the credits roll or sit there and read every damn name, they would probably appreciate seeing their own first-and-last up there on the screen. Now they can--in theory anyway.

A fellow in San Francisco is making a documentary and selling screen credits to finance the completion of the project. This is not an investment, but it sounds pretty cool. The film, called 15 Minutes, tells the true story of a pair of political activists who, in 1995, broke into the newly opened Modern Art Museum in San Francisco, stole several Picasso paintings and accidentally tipped over a Jeffrey Koons sculpture. Two days later, the unharmed paintings were returned, along with a videotape made during the robbery and a note apologizing for harming the sculpture.

The perpetrators, disguised as Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol, explained on the video that their stunt was intended as an act of political performance art to protest the museum's refusal to exhibit art from local artists, despite receiving the lion's share of local arts funding.

Marque Goldblatt, a San Francisco artist, has filmed a trailer--on view online--and written a script for the project. Now all he needs is money. When the film is completed, Goldblatt's False Gods Productions will list your loved one in the end credits. An "Associate" credit can be had for only $10 dollars; it includes a frameable certificate. Twenty-five dollars gains a "Player" credit and a T-shirt with the 15 Minutes logo; $100 dollars brings a "Mogul" credit, the T-shirt and a VHS copy of the film.

The only drawback, according to Goldblatt, is that the film credit cannot be used as a job reference. For information, write to False Gods Productions, 817 Cortland Ave., San Francisco, 94110.

Star Power

THE GRANDMAMA of all clutterless gifts is the naming of a star after a loved one. The business of "selling" actual stars shining away in the celestial firmament has spawned a constellation full of competing astro-sales firms. Most offer to affix some charted-yet-still-unnamed star with the name of any earthbound stargazer, complete with a nifty certificate and packets of astronomical charts and facts about the heavens.

In truth, these certificates are on a par with a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge: they may be fun to hang on the wall but they certainly don't prove ownership. According to the International Astronomical Union--the largest worldwide federation of astronomical societies--scientists recognize and use only those star names that have been published by astronomers at credible scientific institutions. Such names are never sold.

And so what? The aforementioned adopt-an-animal programs don't give you custody of your critter either. As long as everyone understands the make-believe spirit of star giving, it still stands as a novel, one-of-a-kind gift.

Of the many existing star brokerages, one especially entertaining organization is the official-sounding Ministry of Federal Star Registration of Palm Springs, Calif. Started in the early '80s by a resourceful refugee from communist Hungary ("He was a real romantic," says a spokesman for the organization; "he loved the stars"), the company is now run by his daughter and son-in-law.

One of the more reasonably priced of such operations--the cost for pretending to own a star can run as high as $200--the Ministry will send a full-color certificate with telescopic coordinates and the name of the selected star, along with sky charts and a letter of congratulations, all shipped in a decorative box, for the price of $55.90 per heavenly body.

The certificate proclaims that the star's new name is "copyrighted in book form, preserved forever in a federal government archive in Washington, D.C.," which probably means it's in a cardboard box in a back room rented from the downtown post office, but it's the thought that counts.

Overnight delivery is available for an extra $20; otherwise the package takes 14 to 21 days to arrive. Call 800/ 528-STAR (7827) or check the Web site.

The Gift of Godliness

A CERTAIN anthropology professor from Phoenix, Ariz., was surprised a few years back when his students presented the avowed agnostic with an ordination certificate bearing his name. Behind his back, they'd gone and made a minister out of him. It still brings him a perverse sense of pride.

The Universal Life Church in Modesto, Calif., has been ordaining all comers since the early '60s. Originally intended as a way for conscientious objectors to avoid the draft, the mail-order ordinations--which were advertised in those days in the back of Rolling Stone magazine--empower the holder to legally perform weddings and to ordain others, and come with a certificate, a wallet ID and an extra bounce in your step as you walk down the sin-filled street. Not that the Universal Life Church believes in sin. The notion guiding ULC is that all beliefs should be held in the same esteem. One piece of accompanying literature reads, "The ULC believes in that 'Which is right, and everyone has the right to interpret what is right for themselves.' "

To send this most excellent of gifts, call Universal Life Church at 209/527-8111 or send a letter asking for ordination, with the candidate's name and address (you can request the materials be sent to your address so that you can present them yourself), and a donation of any amount. Write ULC, 601 Third St., Modesto, 95351.

Stocking Up

AS THE ULTIMATE stocking stuffer, what about ... stocks? As in stocks and bonds. A piece of a major globe-dominating corporation is always a welcome sight on any occasion. To give stock, one merely has to buy it, sign it over to the recipient and file a letter of transfer.

Most stockbrokers can assist with the process, which involves setting up an account--it can be done in a single day--and placing a trade, after which you have three days to put the cost of the purchased stock into the account. There is a certificate fee of $15, plus the price of the stock--check the stock page of a daily newspaper. Stocks range from as low as $10 all the way to several hundred, depending on the company--and a nominal commission fee.


GIFT CERTIFICATES are always handy and have become such a major part of the holidays that virtually all stores, hotels, restaurants, spas, gymnasiums, movie theaters and--in Nevada--even brothels (a gift certificate to a whorehouse, even if never redeemed, is a conversation piece to be reckoned with) offer them.

Think about the recipient's passions. Does he/she play golf? A local golf course, putting green or pro shop will certainly have a gift-certificate program. Is she/he the bohemian starving-artist type? A certificate at the local coffeehouse, gallery, art school or art-supply store would probably be appreciated.

Don't overlook magazine subscriptions--gift offers almost always include substantial discounts to the giver--and donations to a notable charity in the name of your friend. Memberships in local institutions--museums, aquariums or planetariums, for example--are often welcome as well and usually reward the recipient with special perks and members-only events.

"The possibilities," as that other kind saying goes, "are endless." By giving such a present, the giver contributes to the generous creative spirit that purportedly imbues the holiday season. Not only that, clutter-free givers stand firm and warm in the knowledge that they are not contributing to next year's rummage sale.

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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