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Presents of Mind

Express your love with gifts that don't take up space

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Way, way back in the early 1970s, when Top 10 radio was a crime against humanity (wait a minute-- it's still a crime against humanity!), there was an especially sappy song that became a nationwide sensation. It even inspired a Coca-Cola commercial. It was Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "What the World Needs Now," sung by the 5th Dimension, and right after establishing that what the world needs now is love, sweet love, the musical bridge asserts, "Lord, we don't need another mountain / There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb / There are oceans and rivers enough to cross, / enough to last till the end of time."

While this song is still banned in certain civilized countries (talk about a weapon of mass destruction!), and though its intrinsic insipidness has not been diminished with time (nor has its anti-environment message), we'll say one thing about it: It perfectly sums up the most pressing problem that exists regarding Christmas today.

In short, we don't need more stuff, but we could use more love.

Lord, we don't need another knickknack, we have knickknacks and doodads enough to fill the garage and the closets till the end of time. So what does one give the loved one whose cupboards are already full of the whimwhams and trifles of Christmases past?

It's easy. You express your love by giving a clutterless gift, by which we mean a gift that does not linger about in true physical form. These are gifts of the mind and the heart, but they are gifts without corporeal matter or substance. Such gifts might include things like naming a star after a lucky relative or buying a love one some real estate on the moon, which you could do if you wanted by calling the Ministry of Federal Star Registration in Palm Springs (800.528.STAR) or by visiting the Lunar Embassy at www.lunarembassy.com.

Gift certificates and gift cards are always a good clutterless gift, but unless they are cards from a restaurant or a movie theater, they will probably result in yet more clutter. So to help the holiday shopper who has set out to disseminate less gewgaws, baubles, and bric-a-brac, here are a few suggestions for gifts that cannot and will not spend the year gathering dust in the back of someone's storage space. Aside from a possible paper certificate or disposable gift packet, these thoughtful gifts communicate your friendship and your love without having the bad taste to actually exist.

This is your clutterless gift guide.

Physical Love

One time-honored method of expressing your love is to nag your family members about the state of their health. Down deep, the phrase "Are you getting enough exercise, dear?" is really just another way of saying, "I care about you, and I don't want you to suffer a heart attack just yet." To that end, why not give the, ahem, gift of health by slipping someone a trip to the gym or a date with a personal trainer. Sure, if you wanted to go the whole enchilada, you could buy someone a full-on membership to a health club, but if you are hoping to dole out your love in smaller portions, there are a number of North Bay health institutions that have invented clever ways to help.

Curves for Women, currently the fastest-growing health franchise in America, has over 6,000 locations from coast to coast, with several in the North Bay, including Santa Rosa, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Sebastopol, Napa, Novato, Fairfax, and San Rafael. Serving only women, in small, pleasant, well-organized facilities, Curves for Women uses an extremely gentle fitness approach and has developed schedule-friendly 30-minute workouts for busy women. For the holidays, Curves is offering gift certificates beginning at around $75. Should this appeal to the woman-loving, health-supporting gift giver in you, you can find the nearest Curves in the phone book or on their website at www.curvesinternational.com.

Innovative Fitness is a Canada-based company with a unique approach to fitness, focusing specifically on smart personal training without all the trappings of a big health club. They now have a facility in San Rafael and for the holidays are offering a clever gift idea. Instead of stocking stuffers, you can give a "Sneaker Stuffer," a gift-certificate program ranging in price and scope from the $49.99 "Pump Up" sneaker stuffer (a 60-minute health and fitness consultation with a 60-minute personal training session), all the way to the $199 "Firm Up" stuffer (a 60-minute health and fitness consultation, a 60-minute health and fitness evaluation, and three 60-minute personal training sessions). To find out more, check the website at www.innovativefitness.com or call Vince Danielson at 415.454.1657.

Jaws of Love

There is no grander expression of love than to suggest the adoption of a baby and the formation of a new kind of family bond. But let's face it: babies smell, they make a lot of noise, they injure the once-healthy sex lives of their parents, and they should not, as a general rule, be left in the care of others for months or years at a time, at least not until they are old enough for boarding school.

How useful then that we can adopt certain animals at a reasonable fee and enjoy the sense of connection we feel to the animal kingdom, without ever having to have the filthy things in our own homes. There are few animal preserves or animal welfare organizations on this planet that have not established some sort of adoption program as a way of raising money for their important work. There are usually hyphens involved: adopt-a-dolphin, adopt-a-wolf, adopt-a-wombat, adopt-a-bat programs . . . Imagine the thrill you'll create when you give a loved one his or her very own adopt-a-shark membership. Sharks are dangerous and toothy, and are really quite excellent as gifts, especially for that young lawyer on your Christmas list.

The Fox Shark Research Foundation in Sydney, Australia, offers an especially nice adopt-a-shark program and, unlike other such programs, does not force embarrassing names, like Lumpy and Scarface, on the sharks your money supports. Founded by one-time great white shark victim Rodney Fox, the organization has been working to promote the preservation and scientific understanding of the endangered great white.

Adoption packages range in price and come with different goodies and "privileges." The standard package runs $100 Australian (about $75 American), and allows a "parent" to choose from a list of identified sharks that have been tagged and now live off the Neptune Islands. Your shark-loving loved one will receive an adoption certificate, a photo of the shark, and a bunch of statistics about shark markings and other scientific stuff, along with regular updates about how the little maneater is doing. To adopt, visit the website at www.sharkfoundation.com.

Backseat Love

Most people live in a place without ever learning much about it, never exploring the nooks and crannies just outside their front door. Golden Gate Jeep Tours in San Francisco (www.goldengatejeepttours.com) has a number of road-riding packages that will take your loved one on private guided tours, in a jeep, to the hidden corners of San Francisco, the Sequoia Redwoods, or off the beaten track at Muir Woods. Packages are pricey but worth it. Not only do riders get the trip through the hills and byways of the North Bay, they get a driver who is a knowledgeable source of historical and geographical information. Tours tend to run around $200 per person, but a gift of a backroad tour is one that will certainly not be forgotten and will definitely not end up in next year's garage sale.

For the economical gift giver, a company called Extranomical Tours (www.extranomical.com) offers dirt-cheap minivan tours of the wine country ($39 per person), Muir Woods ($19 per person), and even Yosemite ($85 per person). Call Golden Gate Jeep Tours at 415.457.4400 and Extranomical Tours at 866.231.3752.

Universal Love

Let's just say it straight-up: Your Uncle Charlie really doesn't need anything new. He's already got everything. Mom and Dad just want to know that you still think of them from time to time. And your boss does not need or want an assortment of collectible cheeses. Truth is, most of the people on your gift list don't really need anything.

But there are people on this planet who do need things. There is a family in Burundi that could use a goat. A village in a Haiti, where they are ill from lack of clean drinking water, could use a new well. There are children in dozens of poverty-stricken countries who would like to go to school or be immunized against deadly diseases. There are plenty of people who'd love a few fruit trees, which could feed their families and provide income. Homeless kids in America need some new clothes.

You can give these things through World Vision, an organization that provides lifesaving items, medical supplies, tools, and other necessities to poor people around the globe. Through World Vision's gift program (www.worldvisiongifts.org), you can send a child to school for a year for just $50, which includes tuition, school supplies, and a uniform. The cool thing is you can do it in your loved one's name.

For $75 you can buy a goat for that family in Burundi, and your friend will receive a special card describing the gift and its impact. On the World Vision website, there are over a hundred such gifts. Want to give that water well in Uncle Charlie's name? World Vision will show you how, and your donation will spread the love around a whole lot further than you would by giving anyone another thingamabob. After all, as Burt Bacharach has firmly established, it's love, sweet love that the world needs now, not another Chia Pet.


Going Giftless

How to gracefully give the gift of nothing

By Sara Bir

Quite some time ago, I quit giving my family Christmas presents. We are just not a fun clan to shop for. Dad always wants computer accessories, but none of us understand exactly what. My brother likes to shop for camping gear nearly as much as he enjoys using it, and my aunt's condo is too small to house knickknacks. Mom always says, "I just want to see my kids and have world peace."

So a few Christmases ago, we made it official: no presents. No stress, no shopping, no returns, no exchanges, no wading through novelty shops at the mall. Just pure, unmitigated holiday dee-light. It's very liberating. But in order for it to work, there are a few basic guidelines.

Get everyone in on it. A giftless Christmas will only work if everyone in your family--not just you, obviously--participates. If there's a sole dissenter, point out that since no one else is buying presents, he or she will accordingly get none. That'll get 'em to your side right quick.

Go somewhere cool and new. How many Christmases have you spent holed up in the house, eating too many crackers with port cheese spread and growing testier with every passing minute? There's a whole world out there to explore, so why not do it on Christmas? Visit people who you know don't have many guests and are as fed up with boring Christmases as you are. Camp out at a National Park. Go on a day hike (warning: on Christmas day, every family in the world decides to go to Muir Woods). Play exciting and different board games. Pretend you are Jewish and go see the sing-along Fiddler on the Roof at Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

Overcompensate with food. No one said you have to save money by not buying gifts. Splurge on a really nice dinner at an elegant restaurant you've always wanted to try--better yet, make something at home, something decadent. And don't forget: Christmas cookies are better than gifts!

Keep the grog flowing. While self-medicating with wines and spirits is, frankly, a depressing method for overcoming holiday woes, it does not mean that keeping the eggnog virgin will make the troops merry. Get some good shit and drink it--it's Christmas!

Don't renege on the ungifting. Last year, I saw this Spanish soap that my mother has always liked but never been able to find. So I bought a bar (costing all of $5) and gave it to her. She was scandalized, claiming I had ruptured the purity of our new family tradition. I learned my lesson. Next time I see something for Mom, I'm saving it for her birthday.

Have young kids? It won't work. The main reason Christmas was ever fun in the first place--outside of Christmas break, animated Christmas specials on television, and the sudden proliferation of sweets--is toys. Piles and piles of new toys. Wait until everyone is grown up to play the ungifting game, just to be fair.

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From the November 27-December 3, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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