Solving the Present Puzzle
Bay Weekly’s 11th Hour Guide to Pleasing the Toughest People on Your Holiday List
If we good citizens of Chesapeake Country get what we want for Christmas, the garden of Eden will bloom again on Earth.
We want peace and goodwill on a healthy planet for all our brothers and sisters. We want the bounty of a recovered Bay. We want long, healthy lives with the blessings of loving family and friends. We want shelter from the storm, and either cozy central heating or well-stacked woodpiles to keep us warm in winter. (In summer, we’d like air conditioning.) We want delicious and nourishing meals that don’t make us fat. We want work that gives meaning to our lives and fattens our wallets.
And for heaven’s sake, we want to figure out the perfect gift for the toughest people on our holiday lists.
The clock is ticking, the year fleeing and the pressure mounting.
We know that you, too, have names not yet crossed off your Holiday gift list and that by this time those names are the toughest.
Lest that challenge dismay you, we hope to provide inspiration as, once again this year, Bay Weekly’s family of staff and writers demontrate that it can be done, since we have solved the present puzzle, yielding satisfaction for the receiver and triumph for the giver.
What do I get for my first grandson, who will be two months old on Christmas Eve?
This lucky little boy has six grandparents, three great-grandparents, a doting uncle, six great-aunts and three great-uncles with associated in-laws and remote cousins. Gifts from three showers and other young parents who claim they’ll have no more children have given him enough equipment, clothes and toys to last through his first two years.
Since I’ve taken on the role of art grandmother, I wanted to give him a mobile. Not one of those cute things. He’s got those. A real art mobile in the style of Alexander Calder.
But no. While I was waiting for the National Art Gallery website to be finished upgrading, baby’s dad bought him the mobile.
He’s too young for clay, plaster, paint, sand and all the fun I envision as he grows older.
There’s one thing I ought to consider. Babies — or at least this one — sleep best with loud sounds: white noise, marches, rap music, the vacuum cleaner.
I’ve got it. The deep, deep chanting of the Tibetan monks’ Tibetan Tantric Choir. The monks have developed their voices to sing not just in single notes but in chords. And the bass is so deep that the room vibrates when you play it. Just the thing for baby’s bedtime music.
Oh yes. I’ll get him a set of soft baby blocks from Be Beep as well. I am a grandmother.
Family of Nieces and Nephews: Under 10
I have six nieces, but you won’t catch me shopping for Barbies or cute outfits. I grew up in a family with five kids, all boys, so girl-stuff just ain’t in my blood. I like to give books. My nephews get books, too, so my aversion to girl-stuff is not the only factor guiding my gift decisions. Shopping, I’m not crazy about; but shopping for books I actually like.
Catherine is in third grade; she likes books and has a good vocabulary, so I want to introduce her to poetry. Shopping at Barnes & Noble, I’ve seen a series of poetry books for kids: Frost, Dickinson, Whitman, Williams and others. The book of Frost’s poems was nicely illustrated; as a fan and illustrator, I was tempted. But I found another book called American Poetry that had more explanatory text, a feature I like. An explanation can help any reader understand and appreciate the poem. I also like the selections, for they give a concise overview of American history.
Claire is going on six. Last year for her birthday, we gave a very nice book written and illustrated by David Aiken called Finding Birds in the Chesapeake Marsh. She and her sister and brother Jack have shared the book and now they enjoy finding birds. Their interest must be encouraged!
Lynne Cherry illustrates children’s books with nature themes. Flute is the story of a wood thrush. I know that thrushes nest in the park near their house, so I am looking forward to visiting with Claire and her two siblings to listen for its song next spring. Finding the book out of stock, I ordered it.
Jack, a piano-playing first grader, is in the middle. At Hard Bean Café and Books I found The Jack Tales, a book with CD by storyteller Ray Hicks. It includes three Jack “and the” stories: Bean Stalk, Robbers and Northwest Wind.
I’ll see these nieces and nephew on Christmas Day; maybe Jack will play a Christmas song and we can read some books together.
Triplet Nieces: 11
The world’s greatest threesomes: Larry, Moe and Curly. Three blind mice. Three little pigs (bad example, as two out of three pigs get eaten). Charlie’s Angels. My 11-year-old, identical triplet nieces: Larissa, Theresa and Helena.
They’re exploding with energy, quick to make a joke and even quicker to fall over laughing at good ones — whether good ones be jokes or bodily functions. What do I get such a threesome for Christmas?
One year, I gypped them by getting a single puppet from Be Beep for all three girls. My justification? It was a cute Christmas box with three finger-puppet mice inside: one mouse for each girl. It encouraged sharing, I said, as if they — who shared their mother’s womb plus everything else since they were born — need to be told about sharing. My feelings would not have been hurt if they had surgically removed the mice.
Fuzzy socks from Eastern Mountain Sports. Warm sweaters. Should they be all the same colors? Different colors make it easy for other people to tell them apart. The same colors would make it easy on their parents when they’re sorting laundry. But what are their favorite colors? Anyway, they are pure Vermonters so they’re already up to their eyeballs in fleece and winter paraphernalia. Clothing raises far too many questions, making it a gift they might not need, want or fit. Besides, what self-respecting 11-year-old wants clothing for Christmas?
I could get them a pony, but they already have one.
Then the answer lands on me like a ton of triplets. If there’s one thing growing girls like to do, it’s eat. Why not send them a basket of fruit and goodies from Harry & David’s? Or a box of meat from Omaha Steaks? Or chocolates from Old Town Candy Company?
Their mom once said that the girls descended on a mailed box of pears (yes, from Harry & David’s) like a pack of starving wolves. I don’t know if the girls would like that any more than a box of socks, but this is my not-so-subtle message to Santa: that’s what I’d like to find under the Christmas tree this year. Triplets, are you listening?
Every year at this time I ask my daughter the same question: “What do you want for Christmas?”
This is always greeted with an enthusiastic, “I’ll make a list!”
Sounds like a pretty simple arrangement, doesn’t it?
Not by a long shot. Not anymore.
Brooke is now 17 years old, and therein lies the problem.
Standing in the Fashion Bug in Prince Frederick, I pick out a beautiful sweater and a pair of jeans. Wending my way through the aisles, I find her coming toward me holding a slinky top that comes off one shoulder and a pair of jeans that are two sizes smaller than the pair I have. Seeing what I am holding she goes still, eyes glazing over.
“You don’t like this, do you?” I ask her.
“No, It’s … uh … nice. Really.”
Remembering that past items of clothing I picked out have vanished into the same black hole that sucks up one sock from a pair, I put the clothes back and opt for a gift card. Where clothes are concerned, this really is my safest choice.
Later I check her list: Clothes, CDs, clothes, jewelry, clothes. Longingly I remember the days when I could go up to Annapolis and buy her toys and games, maybe a doll or two.
Now she is a young woman, and I can’t find the happy medium between music that makes me blush and something she’ll still listen to. I fear that if I get the wrong CD, I’ll find she’s using it as a coaster. I’ve seen her roll her eyes when I have my music playing.
Jewelry? The last time I bought her earrings, her ears got infected. Better let her pick them out, too.
Well, gift cards it is, then. I hope I pick out the right stores …
Object of Secret Admiration: 25
She starts as a friend and slowly wedges her way into the heart. But is it worth risking a great friendship to pursue something more? Silence and uncertainty sew the lips shut, and attraction blooms in secret. Soon a blossom of infatuation is set to burst through the chest and a reservoir of affectionate words pools behind the dam of pursed lips. Collapsing pressure mounts, and the only relief is to take a chance; loose the floodgates and hope she doesn’t drown in a cascade of heartfelt stuttering.
But the words are barely a seep when she announces her departure. Her warm and obvious flirting affection — in hindsight painfully obvious — had been met with mute lips guarding mistrusted feelings. Now she sets out to make a new life for herself somewhere beyond the sunset. The gush of emotion is diverted, churning a mill of frustration; the torrent reduced to a trickle of inadequate sweet nothings and the occasional forlorn I miss you along the tether of telephone wires. She was a secret crush; 3,300 miles and four months later, she’s a transcontinental conundrum.
The telephone tether is enough to stoke a small flame of hope. But the fire needs fuel before its flame is dampened to soot by separation of time and distance. She’s alone without friends, family or opportunity to return home for the holidays. Fortunately it’s the season for giving, and a thoughtful holiday gift seems the perfect tinder.
But what? She’s not exactly typical. She’s politically astute, seeks to learn Chinese and is fascinated by the spy game. She likes to blow off steam at the pistol range and is learning to ride a motorcycle. She adores the cute and cuddly, loves to dance and dotes on her beloved car.
Browsing shelves at Second Looks Books for a tome of modern political intrigue in China would knock out a few interests at once, but she’s likely read much of what’s available. Gun accessories from Eccles Shooting Sports or Arundel Arms & Ammunition in Annapolis are something she’d dig, but I probably couldn’t send them by mail. There are some pretty neat cycle accessories at Harley-Davidson/Buell of Annapolis and Tans Cycles in North Beach. But — as with the other ideas — nothing quite gets the right feelings across.
A more sensitive gesture might be nice, such as sending her a cozy plush animal from Be Beep to cuddle with plus a simple bracelet from W.R. Chance Jewelers in Annapolis or Maerten’s Fine Jewlers in Solomons. Finally, a bouquet of flowers sent via FTD through Richard’s Bayside Florist in North Beach would be a fine follow-up.
But a confession like this should be delivered in person, so what the hell. I’ll book a discounted midweek ticket from Southwest.com with a Christmas Eve departure and December 27 return via BWI. Take her out, see if the chemistry’s right, take a chance at the right moment — and hope for the best.
I’d already found the perfect gift for the new boyfriend, or so I’d thought.
I wanted to get something fun, that he’ll use and won’t pack away deep in the closet or stealthily return. Worse, he has a birthday just three days after Christmas, so not only must I come up with the perfect meaningful-yet-non-boring gift once, but twice.
He loves hockey and is a player himself, so I had congratulated myself on my genius of getting him Capitals ice hockey tickets; maybe he’d take me, too. Then, what should have been easy went awry: The National Hockey League went on strike. So much for hockey tickets: The search goes on.
Electronics are out. He knows way more than I about that sort of thing; watching him set up his new DVD player, with eight cords streaming out the back, served as forewarning.
Books would be a good option, as he’s a reader, but a busy schedule leaves him little time for leisure reading.
Stumped, I revisited the idea of getting tickets for an event. He’s a musician and always has music playing, so I shopped local venues for live bands. I found a show at Rams Head On Stage — Lisa Love, an artist he listens to frequently — that I’m sure he’ll enjoy.
Now that I’ve got Christmas covered, any suggestions for his 27th birthday?
My close friend Richard is a bear to shop for. He is a renter, so knick-knacks for the home are out. He’s a photographer and often travels to faraway places for work and pleasure. His travels mean he is not even in the area during the holidays, so the gift must be shippable.
Over the years, I have waited to the last minute to even consider what to get him; thus I usually slip into the rut of music-store gift certificates. He appreciates them, but I don’t feel that such a good friend deserves such a weak gift.
This year I am facing the issue early. Since he has a flare for the arts, I started at Art Things, a great shop in West Annapolis, for some inspiration. I came across some nice journals and this seemed to click, as he has lots to jot down on his travels. I added a nice pen to complement the journal.
I left feeling satisfied that I was giving him a more thoughtful gift. It will be a surprise for him to get something a little different this year — unless he reads Bay Weekly first.
I never had a problem buying gifts for my brother’s first wife because I learned early on that she didn’t put much thought into buying gifts. One Christmas both my sister and I — who are just over five feet tall and 100 pounds — received the same one-size-fits-all enormous purple warm-up suit. Warm-up suits weren’t even in that year, and that shade of bright purple should only be used by FisherPrice.
My current sister-in-law of nine years is a more difficult person to buy for. She puts much thought into her gifts, and I pressure myself to find just the right gift for her. It’s harder still, because she can have anything she wants. Her husband, my brother, is a successful businessman, making a few million in the early days of the Internet and continuing to make savvy business deals.
The gifts they have given me have been both generous and appropriate, ranging from a sushi serving set to a lap-top computer. I know my brother has a hand in the gift choosing, but I’ve seen a drastic difference between sisters-in-law, so I think it’s she who puts the thought into each gift. My gifts are in the $25 dollar range, but I too try to find a unique gift for her.
I’m not one for department stores, so I first browsed through the shops on Solomon’s Island, which is near my home. I pondered wine charms and even saw some beer charms at the Harmon House Shoppe, but she is not much of a drinker. Uniquely crafted Christmas decorations caught my eye in all the shops, but I’ve been giving her Christmas-themed gifts several years. Scented candles and potpourri also abound, but they seemed too anonymous.
Yvonne’s a master gardener, so I thought I could find something at Sneade’s Ace Hardware. Then I recalled that her last two birthday gifts were garden related.
I headed to North Beach and peeked into a colorful shop, Picadillos, where I found bright Southwestern items. Shelves of cleverly named sauces caught my eye, and I thought of getting her Scorned Woman mustard and Pappy’s Moonshine Madness sauce, as she enjoys cooking. They would get a laugh, but they’d be more appropriate for my brother. Also in North Beach, Karla’s Custom Art and Frame Shop had some lovely decorative pieces, but most were out of my meager price range. Anyway, her home already looks like a page from Southern Living magazine.
Then, over the weekend of the Calvert County Antique Dealers’ annual holiday open house, with no Christmas shopping on my mind, I stopped into Grandmother’s Store on Dowell Road in Solomons. What an array of items — not just antiques — I found in my price range. I loved tea bag holders shaped like teapots with painted lighthouses, flamingos and flowers. Yvonne has ladies over for tea or coffee occasionally, and I had never seen anything similar when I visited her home. I chose four different holders, moving onto Woodburns of Solomons for gourmet tea. I was pleased and hopeful that she would be as well.
By the way, that purple warm-up suit. I gave it a second life. I kept it in its original gift box, then wrapped it up the following year and gave it back to my sister-in-law. She thanked me for it, not even realizing it was re-gifted back to her. My sister and I enjoyed a laugh.
This Christmas shopping should be easy: my husband needs a new watch. The one on his wrist is wearying and slowing down. Its heart, the mainspring, is not as sprightly as it once was. He used to wind it once in the morning; now he winds it several times a day.
The watch is unassuming in today’s terms, but the quality is unmistakable: a thin round face with Roman and Arabic numerals, the Longines logo and a separate small face that counts the seconds. 14 Karat Gold is etched discretely on the back, crisscrossed by tiny lines, like delicate wrinkles.
As you might have guessed, it’s an old watch. My husband’s mother gave it to him for his high school graduation 50 years ago. A widow, she saved her pennies for a down payment, then paid it off on the installment plan over several years. It was an act of love, hope and faith in her only son. She had no doubt that he would wear it proudly as a successful man. But first he took it to swampy Parris Island boot camp, to Camp Pendleton infantry training, cold weather training in a snowy cave in Alaska, and jungle combat training in the Philippines. Dunked in the swamps, frozen in the snow, it kept ticking.
Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, I haunt the antique shops in Twin Beaches. I may be lucky to find a Longines lurking in a dusty corner, one that had an easy life lounging in a velvet box. But he might not lovingly wind the replacement and strap it on his wrist.
So shall I give him new shirts that have spun three times in the washer so they are soft? Perhaps old books? No, instead I consult my trusty jeweler, Dickinson’s in Dunkirk. Surely the mainspring can be replaced, can’t it?
“Bring it in,” says Mr. Dickinson. “We’ll see what we can do.”
We’ve all been there: stuck for what to buy for the person who has everything.
My father-in-law is the king of instant gratification: What he wants, he gets. Ask his wife Wali and she’ll tell you that spousal approval is not a concept he bothers with.
He wants a new computer, he goes out and gets it.
It’s time to trade the old van for another: The dealer is on speed dial.
He wants a digital camera: Hello Best Buy.
A new TV: ditto.
If you’d listen to Charlie, though, you’d think the man was destitute. This year he offered to pay for my wedding. I soon found out that getting him to write a check was harder than robbing Fort Knox. Not that he didn’t pay. He paid a lot. But it took a jackhammer to pry his wallet open.
So as a first-year son-in-law, I was more than a little upset to draw Charlie’s name out of the hat for our secret Santa gift exchange. First, I worried that he has everything. Worse, after all the money he’d spent on me this year, I had to make sure what I got him was impressive enough to show that I knew the value of what he’d done for me.
As Charlie will tell you, I don’t make much money as a reporter, so the thought was going to have to count.
I made a list of what I could get him.
Clothes: He’s got plenty and I was afraid he’d be upset if I bought him pants with elastic waistbands.
Books: Charlie takes a drive out to Barnes & Noble and picks out the latest best seller when he wants a good read.
A satellite dish: He had it and then got rid of it. The mere mention of the dish guarantees you a half-hour rant.
Then I got it. There is one thing Charlie doesn’t have. One thing he wants so much more than electronics, automobiles, entertainment or vacations.
Hair. I’m getting Charlie a toupee for Christmas.
To suggest that my father is the near perfect personification of a small-town, Midwestern conservative would be, well, correct. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and in his defense I will say that he can be very generous. But it’s better not to ask him for anything. He likes to give what he wants when he wants.
I believe this aspect of his personality partially explains why asking what he wanted for Christmas was for many years a meaningless effort. He would gladly give us his wish list, but then without notice he would go out a week or so before Christmas and buy everything for himself.
True to his frugal personality, he is also a very practical man who dislikes waste. One year I thought I had found the perfect gift for him: a toothpaste tube roller so he could squeeze out that last little bit of tooth-cleaning goo. I watched anxiously as he opened it, thinking I had really found a good one. He didn’t even pretend to like it, and as far as I know he never used it.
In recent years, however, he has asked that my brother and I not give him gifts at all, but rather telephone him more often. Finally, here was something we could do that was certain to please him. By the way, this is his reason for asking: “So you can spend your nickel and I don’t have to spend mine.”
Family & Friends
My children’s Christmas lists are long and expensive. Video games, CDs, clothing, toiletries and gadgets are all transitory items they will use and enjoy for a few months and then discard. I long to give them something they will treasure for years to come. So I wrack my head and think: something homemade, something unique and something that will give them a sense of family.
Lately my sons, students living on their own, have been asking me for cooking tips and recipes. My daughter enjoys preparing special dishes and likes to help roll out pie crusts and bake cookies. Long ago I started compiling a cookbook of my favorite recipes. I even sketched my own illustrations. Maybe I could make them a cookbook.
A comprehensive cookbook would be ideal, but it is too large a project. Narrowing my focus to “Holiday Recipes from Nadja’s Kitchen” enables me to keep the book of recipes and the stories to only eight pages.
Again, I would like to have the time to create a handwritten manuscript, but I don’t. With today’s computers, I can approximate the look of hand-printing with the Sand type font. I set up the page to use half of an eight-and-a-half-by-11-inch sheet of paper. Experimenting with card stock, fabric and glue, I created an attractive book cover. With a fabric pen, I’ll write the cookbook’s title.
I glued decorative paper on the inside of the cover and will print the contents on linen paper. A very large stapler fastens everything together. For a fancier look, I can put a satin ribbon in the center to use as a bookmark. The cost of materials per book is only a few dollars. Why not make a dozen to share with close friends?
Family Young & Old
When it comes to the holidays, there are two types of people: Those starting out in life and amassing things and those settled in life and getting rid of things.
My three- and four-year-olds fall into the first group, as on their Christmas wish list is every toy they’ve ever seen and a few they’ve imagined. But I’m waiting for patent replies before divulging more. With such wide-open terrain, there’s no disappointing children.
My brother and sister in-law, but a few years married and expecting their first little one early next spring, are setting up house. It would be easy to shop for them — except they plan to move cross-country next summer. So do I really want to add to their packing? A good bet, at least for my brother, is something that will be gone before moving day, like a subscription to some Beer of the Month club. For my pregnant sister in-law there’s a Chocolates of the Month Club.
Teenagers, you might argue, belong in the second group, being more particular and discriminating than the Queen of England and certainly following a different fashion sense. However, the very extent of a teenager’s pickiness makes him or her easy to please come the holidays. Cash. Check. American Express gift card.
Parents can be tough, as they usually have what they want. Even when they don’t, it’s not every Tom, Dick or Harry that can play Elvis and buy his mother a mansion. Worse, still, most empty-nest parents are trying to unload their possessions. This is where the grand-kids come in, as every piece of paper with a doodle or a scribble from their hands becomes a work or art with the simplest — and cheapest — of Tuesday Morning frames.
The gift I dread giving every year is the one for my in-law’s Secret Santa. With five people, not counting myself, you wouldn’t think it could be that bad. But every year when we draw names, I pick my 72-year-old father in-law. He’s a tough nut to crack, as he has everything he needs — which to him is far more important than having everything he might want. In true patriarchal sense, he hates getting gifts from any of his children or in-laws.
Even the grandchild option only goes so far to fulfilling the gift amount, so what to do? A shirt and tie? Right. A Pop-Pop Boo-Boo sweatshirt? That’s what his grandchildren call him, but how many sweatshirts does a man need? Golf tees? Where’s the Christmas spirit?
In the end, it’s time to think outside the box. What can I get him that he won’t hate and cannot return? Something to repay him for his kindness and generosity?
I read recently that the Emily Post etiquette council has deemed acceptable in all circumstances the gift of cash. And how could he, in the spirit of Christmas refuse or return it? Pop Pop Boo Boo, this year you’re getting genuine, made in the U-S-of-A, legal tender.
—J. Alex Knoll
Bay Weekly Staff Writers & Reporters
“What are you giving me for Christmas?” reporter Louis Llovio wanted to know.
“You get to keep your job,” I answered. “You’re celebrating your first anniversary as a full-time staffer; the rest of us are celebrating having endured you for so long.”
But he’d jogged a memory of one of millions of bright ideas left behind in the dust of the fast-track life of the editor of a small weekly paper.
I’d always intended to make Billy Wilder’s marvelous newspaper movie The Front Page part of the orientation package for new writers.
Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur’s story caught the newspaper business so aptly and comically that’s it’s been made as a movie three times: first in 1931, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien; then in 1940 by director Howard Hawks under the title Girl Friday, with the now-female reporter played by Rosalind Russell and the editor by Cary Grant.
The 1974 version, which I grew up in the business on, stars Walter Matthau as the hard-nosed (and large-nosed) editor and Jack Lemmon as the ace reporter.
Now, with historic videos formatted for DVD and easily at hand on Amazon.com, I could carry out my plan — starting with Louis.
Lest he — or you — imagine benevolence is behind this gift, watch the movie. Like Matthau, I spoke in earnest honey-moon leave when he got married on the job last month and sick leave when he came down with a toothache on the job this month, “Take all the time you need,” I said. “Just so long as I get your story tomorrow.”
—Sandra Olivetti Martin
|Want Not, Waste Not
The giving spirit of the holidays also means expunging wrappings, bows, boxes, tags, bags, trimmings, trappings, lights that don’t work and last year’s decorations beyond repair.
Out with the old, in with the new, right? While that may mean less clutter for us, that’s not good news for our land.
Like people, landfills get their holiday bonuses, too: Americans throw away 25 percent more trash than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, according to the EPA. Each year, that’s about 25 million extra tons of trash.
Resolve to reduce your and your family’s amount of waste this year. First, try to complete the recycling cycle: Look for wrapping paper with high post-comsumer recycled content. Also consider alternative wrappings for your gifts, like reuseable gift bags, scarves or grocery bags — à la brown paper packages tied up with string. Unbuttered popcorn replaces foam peanuts for padding items to be shipped.
Before you ponder your New Year’s resolutions, ponder your holiday purchases. Choose items that have little or less packaging to throw out after the holidays. Also choose items that the recipient will want and use, and thus are not likely to become landfill-bound.
Post-holidays, donate unwanted gifts to thrift stores, and recycle what you can: aluminum, plastic, glass and paper.
And those static-prone packing peanuts that Santa brought with your gifts? Donate them to commercial shipping stores, where clean plastic peanuts are reused for outgoing parcels and saved from a landfill-sealed fate.
Businesses that accept foam packing peanuts include Annapolis Post Box, Parcel Plus stores, Postal Express and UPS Stores.