Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Creative Holiday Shopping Guide

And now for something completely different ....


For weeks now, Wal-Mart has stocked its shelves with Christmas decorations -- which irritates me to no end.   The Christmas shopping season with all its trappings should not begin until the day after Thanksgiving.   I make no apologies for this sentiment, unabashed capitalist though I am.


But I'm also a notorious procrastinator.   So to get a step ahead this season, I'm going to compile and share with you, in no particular order, my Creative Holiday Shopping Guide.  With six people, two dogs, a cat, and a ball python living under one roof, our family really doesn't need a lot more clutter.   I generally prefer gifts that don't require feeding, dusting, or maintenance.   You can vary many of the ideas to suit your budget.


#1 -- Books.   A recent poll showed that one in four adults in the U.S. read no books last year.  Shameful!   There are so many wonderful writers out there, so many terrific books.  Reading fosters creativity and imagination, helps with concentration, and opens up new worlds of information.   Bookstores are full of wonderful books on all manner of subjects, including Large Print Editions for older readers.   For some ideas, click on my bookshelf or on the list of blogs, many of which are by writers.


#2 -- Books on Tape/CD.  I discovered these while driving to a writer's conference last month.   I picked one up at a Cracker Barrel in Florida, and Nora Roberts kept me company until I pulled into Atlanta.   I've discovered these also make housework a lot more fun. Cracker Barrel refunds most of your purchase price if you return the recording within a week, so maybe a gift certificate to Cracker Barrel would be a good idea.


#3 -- Games.   Games often have small pieces.   Like the dread LEGO or Barbie shoe, these can wreak havoc on your vacuum or your bare foot.   Even so, games can be a lot of fun. I'm not talking video games, but games that involve two or more individuals interacting around a table or in the living room.   Games like Nanofictionary.   My son Chris was introduced to this while on a mission trip a few years back.  LooneyLabs calls it the card game of telling tiny stories.  You are dealt a hand of cards, including Character, Setting, Problem and Resolution, as well as some other cards to make play more interesting.   You need to collect a certain number of these cards, and then tell your tiny story to the rest of the players.   Our favorite resolution, hands down, is "and that's how duct tape saved the day again."  Perfect for someone who loves writing or improv.  If you have a favorite game, share it in a comment.


#4 -- Tickets.   One of my favorite gifts last year (attached to four cans of SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM) was two tickets to Spamalot.   Tickets to sporting events, shows, movies, and festivals don't need a lot of wrapping or expensive shipping.   They pull us away from our computer screens (kicking and screaming) and involve us in the world around us.   They support local teams or the arts.  Maybe you can't afford tickets to a Broadway touring company production, but you could afford tickets to the local civic theater, college, or high school theater.  You'd be surprised how wonderful these productions can be.   Throw in dinner and a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine, and you'll really romance your sweetheart.   Or add a cooler full of sodas and beer and a picnic basket to those sporting events tickets, and you'll have a very happy honey.


#5 -- Charitable Gifts.   I have mixed feelings about giving something in honor of someone else.   It can really be a non-gift if the charity isn't something of great interest to the honoree.   But if someone on your list has a passionate interest in a cause, a gift in their name might be a wonderful surprise.   {See my last blog entry for how to donate a Long Lasting Insecticidal Net (LLIN) to help combat malaria.)   Just keep in mind that a gift should reflect the needs, wants, and interests of the recipient, not your own.


#6 -- Memberships.   How long has it been since you've visited your local museum, zoo, botanical gardens, or science center?   Many of these have affordable annual memberships for individuals and families.  Just make sure that the membership is something that would interest the recipient.


#7 -- Subscriptions.   There are wonderful magazines out there for every interest -- cooking, travel, home improvement, business, sports, pets, history, electronics, entertainment, gardening -- you name it.   Sometimes it's nice to package a gift subscription card with an appropriate token -- a spatula with Cook's Illustrated or a USB flash drive with PC Magazine.


#8 -- Ornaments.   One year, we sent glass flamingos wearing santa hats to all the relatives in Connecticut.   We've received some lovely personal ornaments throughout the years.   Ornaments are great, because they remind you of the giver year after year. 


#9 -- Lessons.   I've always wished I could {knit, sew, sail, salsa dance, decorate cakes, grow orchids, ski, make stained glass, play piano, arrange flowers, do woodworking, ______________}. If you've ever heard your loved one utter those words, you have a gift idea.   Lessons broaden horizons and stretch abilities.   Lessons they enjoy show you not only know their dreams, but you also support them.   Priceless.   Lessons can be expensive, but you can often find reasonably-priced instruction at your local craft or fabric stores, home improvement stores, vo-tech schools, or community colleges.


#10 -- Food and Wine.   Everyone eats, making food an obvious choice.   Of course, with dietary restrictions, you have to be careful when choosing food or beverage gifts.   I'm a foodie, and I know from bitter experience that many of those pretty holiday gift packages look lovely but taste nasty.   If you are a decent baker, homemade gifts can be a real treat.   I bake a mean Christmas cookie -- better than anything you can get prepackaged and better than most you would buy in a bakery.   That's because I use fresh, high-quality ingredients and add a lot of love.   Baking isn't necessarily inexpensive, but it is usually appreciated.


If baking isn't your style, there are many books for making homemade mixes.   Packaged in canning jars with pretty labels and a cap of holiday fabric, these can be a wonderful gift.   One year, we gave pretty jars filled with a special pancake mix we put together -- perfect for breakfast on Christmas or New Years -- to all the teachers on our list.  Don't forget to include the recipe.  Here's a recipe for Baking Mixes.  If you don't want to make your own mix, King Arthur makes wonderful mixes like these for scones.   I've never had a bad mix from King Arthur.


Certain ingredients can be expensive which might keep them off of the every day shopping list.   Perhaps the chef in your life would enjoy spices from Penzeys.   If your region of the country has a food specialty, it might make a treasured gift for your friends and relatives far away.


Wine can be a lovely gift, but not everyone likes wine, or even the same kinds of wine.   When it comes to wines, I like it sweet and wet.   Give me a Riesling or Liebfraumilch Auslese or Sp├Ątlese, Eiswein, a late-harvest red or sparkling wine, or a bottle of Cockburn Port, and I'm a happy camper.   My friend Shannon likes her wine dry.  She would prefer a dry Cabernet to any of those I like.   You don't have to be an expert to give a nice bottle of wine.   Many stores have ratings from organizations like Wine Spectator displayed on the shelves.   If you know your friend's tastes, you can choose a fine wine within your budget.


One final word of warning:   if you're giving a gift of food, please let the recipient and anyone helping with its transportation know it's perishable when you give it.   Once, we sent a nicely-wrapped summer sausage to my father-in-law.   Unfortunately, the person carrying the gift to Miami didn't get it to him right away.   Summer sausage is pretty hardy stuff, but Miami winters are warm.  Perhaps it was left in the trunk of the car....   All I know is that my father-in-law received a rotten sausage for Christmas that year.   He still speaks to me, forgiving soul that he is.  Sorry, Ed.


Please share your favorite gift ideas in a comment.   I would like to finish my holiday shopping early, so I can spend Advent and Christmas concentrating on the reason for the season.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Malaria isn't History

In 1942, Robert Kanavel, an 18-year old Navy Hospital Corpsman, left the MOB 5 Hospital on New Caledonia and headed to Guadalcanal as a volunteer for innovative Malaria Control Unit “Skeeter Beaters.”   Early in the Pacific Campaign of WWII, malaria caused more Allied deaths than did Japanese bullets.   With the help of his unit and others which followed, casualties in the Pacific were cut by 98%.  Many of the Skeeter Beaters, including my father, Pharmacist Mate Kanavel, contracted malaria while fighting it.


Malaria isn’t history.  According to the World Health Organization(WHO), malaria kills more than one million people each year.  More than 40% of the world’s population is at risk, in areas such as Africa, Central America, Hispaniola, India, the Middle East, Oceania, South America, and Southeast Asia.  Children and pregnant women are most at risk.  The Centers for Disease Control   (CDC) report that malaria is the fourth leading cause of death for children under five years of age worldwide.   A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds.


The Skeeter Beaters are still fighting malaria.   Joining with the charity Against Malaria, Skeeter Beaters, their families, and friends are helping to combat the illness by purchasing long lasting insecticidal nets (LLIN).   You can join them. A contribution of only $5.00 buys one LLIN. You can also contribute to the Skeeter Beater legacy by purchasing items from the Skeeter Beaters -- U. S. Navy Malaria Control Unit Cactus online store.   The proceeds will be donated to Against Malaria in honor of Malaria Control Unit Cactus.


Every day, the number of children who die of malaria would fill seven jumbo jets.   In the time it took you to read this, another two children have died.  Please join the fight against malaria.