It's challenging enough getting through the holidays with happy family units, but if you've recently split up with your significant other, ho-ho-hos are hard to come by. Sadly, everyone's got such a person on the gift list. How to convince your newly solo friends that being home alone has its bright side? House presents, and lots of 'em -- especially if the departing partner took half the furniture. Those of us in the know call it "retail therapy" -- a capitalist campaign that helps boost your friends' spirits and the economy, too! Here, then, are seven ways to deck the halls...
PLEASE BE SEATED OK, a leather chair is expensive, but it's a great group gift. Soft and sensuous, the Ashley "double-wide" chair with ottoman in Lancaster black is big enough to share with a new love interest. But until that happens, it's also a great place to snuggle up with a good book, or pass out in front of the TV. Chair, $444.57; ottoman, $363.74.
VOTIVE MOTIVE Some avians mate for life, but we won't hold that against them. Besides, they seem pretty happy in groups, too. No pecking orders here. Black birds in the house bring good luck -- at least in my opinion -- and these cute little birdie candleholders can light up anyone's life. $24 each.
NEW HORIZONS Whether a landscape lover or an abstract thinker, your lonely-hearted friend needs a new view. I recommend buying beauty in the form of original artwork by any of a jillion talented Vermonters. Love may not last, but art is timeless. Prices vary.
FANTASTIC PLASTIC Wash that man, or woman, right out of your hair... and life. Clean living is a lot more fun with a Dirty Girl shower curtain -- see-through, and sprinkled with happy naked ladies. $24. (Bonus: other bath products in the Dirty Girl line.)
UP THE ANTE When the going gets tough, the tough... play poker. Or any number of other games. Instead of moping around the house alone, set up the Monte Carlo Nights Deluxe Gaming Set (with portable tabletop) and try your luck with a foursome. $109.99.
SPRING AHEAD Help put the past out to pasture with a datebook that only looks to the future. Waterbury photographer Peter Miller's Vermont People calendar (Silver Print Press) is filled with evocative portraits of inspiring, hardy, rural folks. And maybe this subtle suggestion: You think you've got it bad? Some people have to milk cows every morning at four. $12.95.
IN THE MOOD When it's time to turn the lights down low, a Moroccan "Henna" lamp is the way to go. Achieve dusky, sensuous illumination without the fuss of cordwood or fear of flames. Varied exotic stenciled designs, each sure to inspire dreams of Arabian nights. $72.
ids by Andy Barker
Let go of the Barbie doll, and step away now. Drop the Power Rangers Dino Thunder figures. My holiday gift list for children is built on three premises:
1) Opening a present should be an act of discovery, not of recognition. While Legos and Playmobil sets are marvelous toys, they're ubiquitous. I'll wait to buy a big bucket of them at a neighborhood tag sale. I want a present that will surprise.
2) Heavily promoted toys are rarely satisfying. When you buy The Incredibles action figures, you're letting a multi-million-dollar marketing machine make your gift decisions. Besides, The Incredibles probably won't have any arms or legs left, come February.
3) Toys that adults wouldn't want to play with aren't worth buying for kids. Even though the "Fur Real Friends" Luv Cubs are a hot seller this year, their insipid coos and burps will make adults pray for the batteries to die. Ditto for this year's Elmo doll.
Here are some unsung children's gifts that won't break easily or go out of fashion. They're fun right out of the wrapping paper, but they'll also offer deeper layers of challenge and intrigue to kids of all ages.
ELECTRONIC SNAP CIRCUITS Made by Elenco Electronics Corp., this 60-piece set of electronic components can be combined into hundreds of devices, including a motion-activated light, a sound sensor and an AM radio. $59.95.
FUN SLIDES CARPET SKATES If you've got wall-to-wall carpeting, these strap-on skates by Simtec Co. will transform your house into a year-round ice rink. $16.99.
SUPER SAXOFLUTE This is what you get when you cross a clarinet with a set of Legos, offering endless permutations of wacky musical instruments that actually play. Made by Quercetti & Co. $13.99.
APPLES TO APPLES JUNIOR Out of the Box Publishing, Inc., offers this funny, subtly brainy game in which players take turns judging their opponents' suggestions. $16.95.
MONKEY PUPPET Folkmanis, Inc.'s puppet is not only cute, it's also the most expressive, dexterous and lifelike one I've come across, and takes puppet play to a new level of sophistication. $19.99.
CONGA This multimedia game by Cranium, Inc., has you sculpting, acting and drawing, while other players try to guess what you're thinking. $18.99.
ORCHARD In HABA's clever, cooperative game, players have to work together to harvest fruit before the big, bad raven gobbles it up. $36.95.
technology by CATHY RESMER
Shopping for high-tech gear-heads is a daunting prospect, especially if you're a low-tech boob who can't even program the VCR. But cheer up -- DVD players and DVRs (digital video recorders, like TiVo) are rendering VHS as obsolete as Beta-Max. Either of these digital recording/playback devices makes a great gift, though most electronics aficionados already own them.
Same thing goes for digital cameras and iPods -- if someone on your list doesn't have one yet, now is a good time to buy. And listed below are some more creative, cutting-edge gifts for the connected.
But before you plunk down your plastic, spend some time doing research online. Websites like www.zdnet.com and www.imaging-resource.com compare products and publish reviews. Thanks to the Internet, it's possible to be a smart shopper even if you don't know a megabyte from a megapixel. And if you can't use the Internet, well, maybe you should stick to gifts you don't have to plug in.
SATELLITE RADIO Satellite is the cable TV of radio. Buying a receiver and a dock -- and subscribing to a monthly service -- gives you access to hundreds of coast-to-coast music, news, sports and entertainment stations, all of which are commercial-free. Sirius and XM are still competing to be the standard provider; buy Sirius now and, in 2006, you can hear radio's most popular talk-show host, Howard Stern. Receiver: $50-$150, dock and monthly service extra.
OAKLEY THUMP They call it "the world's first digital music eyewear." Download up to four hours of skip-free music to the MP3 player embedded in sleek sunglasses and listen through the earphones that protrude from the back. $395-$495.
BEYOND MICROWAVE OVEN One of a number of "smart" appliances from Salton, Inc., this oven scans the barcodes of your food purchases to determine how long your popcorn should pop. It can also connect to other smart-kitchen appliances -- such as Salton's Icebox kitchen computer -- to download cooking times. $149.99 at www.esalton.com.
VISTAFRAME DIGITAL PICTURE FRAME Display your digital photos as a slideshow -- without a computer -- in this 7.3-by-7.5-inch silver frame. $299.99.
AIRPORT EXPRESS Snap an ethernet cable into this lightweight device, plug it into an electrical outlet and, presto! -- you've got wi-fi, or wireless Internet access. Apple's Airport Express lets multiple wi-fi-connected computers print from the same printer, and allows you to stream your iTunes into your home stereo. $129.
APEX 27-INCH WIDESCREEN LCD TV This is a good deal on a great TV. It's widescreen and HDTV-ready; plug it into a high-definition receiver and experience true clarity. It's slim and sleek, and it doubles as a PC monitor. On sale at Circuit City for $1099.99.
TV-B-GONE For people who appreciate quiet in public spaces, this handy keychain-remote turns off virtually any TV in sight. Why bother? "Because a TV that is powered on is like secondhand smoke," says the FAQ at www.tvbgone.com. $14.99, plus shipping and handling.
music BY CASEY REA
At the time of year when the sky's the same color as pavement and the air hurts to breathe, you're forced to schlep around in these wretched conditions for the benefit of others. But I'm not crying humbug. Listen up, musicians, music lovers and their kin: The holidays don't have to completely suck. To help you through them, I've put together a seasonal sonic wish list that should cheer up even the grumpiest Grinch. Let's just say that if I received any of these items, the giver wouldn't need mistletoe to receive some sloppy smooches. And if you're one of the aurally smitten, make your desires known -- it never hurts to ask.
LESSON UP If you're lucky enough to own an instrument, you should learn how to play it. Whether you're just starting out or wanting to expand your musical horizons, Burlington-based guitar teacher Paul Asbell has the knowledge and experience to help you unleash your inner axe-god. Former student Trey Anastasio seems to have done pretty well for himself. $50/hour.
BE A GUITAR HERO One of the most legendary guitars ever manufactured, the Gibson Les Paul Classic Gold Top has a seductive shape that's instantly recognizable even by non-musicians. Its signature tone has graced countless records -- from the jazz musings of its namesake to some of the most popular rock albums of the '70s. Every time I'm in a music shop, I can't resist taking this classic axe for a test drive. Its fat, warm tone is perfect for non-rock nuances, but when you need some snarl, the Les Paul has plenty of bite. $1200.
DIG IT Once you've got some licks down, you'll want to capture them on tape. OK, maybe not tape. The world of multitrack recording has changed quite a bit in the last few years; digital technology has enabled both professional musicians and bedroom superstars to record their ideas quickly and inexpensively. Your masterpiece can now be captured with little fuss or muss on, say, a Boss BR-864 Digital Recorder, and with nearly endless sonic possibilities. Better write the jolly fat man another letter. $399.
TWO FOR THE SHOW No better thrill for the music lover than the real thing. Vermont has no shortage of live music and, with Montreal just up the road, there's even more to choose from. Some local venues offer gift certificates and multiperformance passes -- perfect for star watchers and local fan clubbers alike. Concert tickets are great stocking stuffers that will earn the giver serious brownie points. Prices vary.
HEAR, HEAR Protect your loved one's ears and slip a pair of plugs in the stocking -- some of those concerts get pretty loud. Custom-molded musician's earplugs safeguard hearing without changing sound dynamics, but they're expensive -- around 500 bucks -- and require a visit to an audiologist. A cheaper, more readily available alternative is the Sonic II, which cut out only harmful high-end frequencies. $12.
YEAH, YEAH, YEAH Nothing puts the merry in Christmas like the lads from merry old England -- the Fab Four. Though they've been endlessly re-packaged, The Beatles Capitol Albums Vol. 1 box set has unique appeal for U.S. fans. As you may know, American Beatles albums had different tracks and sequences than the UK editions. Now you can finally retire your scratchy copy of Meet the Beatles -- this four-disc box is the first time the original U.S. LP cuts have appeared on CD. $54.99.
HERE COMES THE NIGHT As music books go, Nick Kent's The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music is indispensable. As the title suggests, Kent offers first-person accounts of some of the seedier characters in rock history -- Keith Richards' grim heroin brotherhood, Lou Reed's amphetamine-addled nihilism, the cracked ramblings of Brian Wilson and the egomaniacal alcoholism of Elvis Costello, to name a few. Not for the squeamish, nor for those who prefer to keep their heroes on pedestals. $18.
outdoors by SARAH TUFF
The most dangerous part of my day arrives when I pull into my garage. On the right side hangs the canoe, and if I nick it again with the car's side mirror, my husband might go ballistic. The bikes dangle from ceiling hooks on the left side, and if I don't park the car just right, I'll open the door and smack my head on their handlebars for the 84th time this year. Lining the walls and stacked in the corner are so many skis, snowshoes, tennis rackets and paddles that one step in the wrong direction -- heck, one hair blown the wrong way -- threatens to bury me in a lifetime's worth of adventure accessories.
But, like many Vermonters, I'm willing to put up with a few bumps and bruises for easy access to the lakes and mountains just beyond the garage door. And with technology making outdoor goods sleeker and smarter than ever before, I'm ready to find space for the latest stuff. So what if we have to leave the car in the driveway this winter?
GOING DOWNHILL FAST Burlington-based Karhu's Zodiak is an all-new telemark and alpine-touring ski, with grippy edges, a solid wood core and anti-hippie bear-growling graphics. It makes me want to drop a knee -- but I'd rather someone else dropped the $499.
SHOE IN Jimmy Choo and Manolo who? I'd prefer a pair of Gravis D-Bah flip-flops to replace the ones I'm about to blow out. It may be minus 20 this winter, but apres ski, it's time to stretch out the little piggies. $12.
ICE IS NICE Even if the snow fails to fall, Vermont still has plenty of ice to pick. Ice-climbing classes from Petra Cliffs are sure to please and challenge your outdoor-lover, because wielding an axe and shoving your spike-studded boots into a wall is just about the best way to cure cabin fever. One- or two-day classes include kick-ass rental gear. $100-$180.
SMOOTH SAILING We already have the canoe, but I'm squeamish about piloting the big boat alone, so a Current Designs Squamish kayak would do nicely for long solo cruises along Lake Champlain this summer. And at just 23 inches wide, it's garage-friendly, too. $999.
TRAIL MIX The Catamount Trail, which turns 21 this season, offers 300 miles of cross-country terrain. Membership includes half-priced tickets to two dozen nordic centers and starts at $20; the newly updated guidebook, with maps, is $16.95.
BOILING POINT A one-pot stove is not, as you might think, an outdoor appliance for a 4/20 rally. Rather, the Jetboil Personal Cooking System streamlines the art of camping cuisine: It packs a saucepan, a fuel source and a cup into a single package only slightly larger than a Nalgene bottle. $80.
LOW-FLY ZONE My mother refuses to buy me a snowkite, because she thinks the sport sounds too dangerous for a woman of childbearing age. Nevertheless, I'm eyeing Stormboarding's Ozone Samurai to carve up frozen fields and lakes. And look, Mom: It's got a nifty safety line. Three-meter snowkite, $445.
books by MARGOT HARRISON
Stepping into a bookstore these days is a bit like stepping into a cultural war zone. The New Non-Fiction displays bristle with titles like Liberals: Let's Ship 'Em to Canada, More Dumb Stuff Bush Said, and Whomever You Voted for, You'll Probably Die in a Terrorist Attack. When we're not attacking one another, it seems, we're declaring war on our own flabby bodies -- Barnes & Noble now has an entire display devoted to the low-carb lifestyle. Over in the Fiction aisle, so-called "chick lit" reigns supreme, with its focus on Bloomie's, break-ups and babies, although The Da Vinci Code and its many imitators have carved out a respectable niche. I was tempted to add to my wish list The Bush Survival Bible -- a guide to the next four years that appeared, with suspicious alacrity, days after the election -- but I decided to go with books that would have a longer cultural shelf life. Well, at least slightly longer.
RUNAWAY: STORIES by Alice Munro (Knopf). The leading lady of letters north of the border brings out another volume of deceptively serene stories about the hell those nice Canadians inflict on one another in the name of love. $25.
THE NORMALS by David Gilbert (Bloomsbury). In this acclaimed first novel, a Harvard grad with a crappy job and looming student loans decides to make some easy cash by participating in the trials of a new antipsychotic drug. Hmm, what could possibly go wrong? $24.95.
DON'T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT! KNOW YOUR VALUES AND FRAME THE DEBATE by George Lakoff (Chelsea Green). In this concise volume, a Berkeley linguistics professor tells progressives how to play to their strengths and get beyond the Bush-bashing. $10.
UNTAMED VERMONT: EXTRAORDINARY WILDERNESS AREAS OF THE GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE, photographs by A. Blake Gardner, commentary by Tom Wessels (Thistle Hill Publications). No church steeples or sugar shacks appear in this coffee-table book, which instead celebrates gorgeous desolation from the rocky summit of Mount Hunger to the sapphire mirror of Lake Willoughby. $39.95.
PLANET SIMPSON: HOW A CARTOON MASTERPIECE DEFINED A GENERATION by Chris Turner (Da Capo Press). Is "The Simpsons" our version of The Canterbury Tales? In chapters with names such as "Homer's Odyssey" and "Citizen Burns," a Gen-Xer with tongue sort of in cheek celebrates the cultural juggernaut that gave us the phrase "Eat my shorts." $26.
COLORS INSULTING TO NATURE by Cintra Wilson (Harper Collins). In this satirical novel by the Salon.com columnist, perfect for the age of paparazzi, a girl named Liza Normal -- mother's name: Peppy -- devotes her life to becoming a celebrity. $24.95.
THE PARTY, AFTER YOU LEFT by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury). The self-deprecating New Yorker cartoonist, whose human figures seem to wobble with pure cluelessness, offers another collection of high-concept comic strips with titles such as "The I.M.s of Romeo and Juliet." $17.95.
Pets by KEN PICARD
When it comes to gift-giving for your pets -- or other people's -- remember the old adage: "The reason there's a Mother's Day and Father's Day but no Children's Day is because every day is Children's Day." For 365 days a year, your animals cover your sweaters in fur, hack up hairballs behind the sofa and deposit steamy piles in the yard. When you go to work in the morning, they lazily shift from the bedroom to the living room for a busy day of licking, preening and napping. They wallow in the lap of luxury and you're still expected to buy them presents?
Only a non-pet owner would have any doubt. For most of us -- six in 10 U.S. households, in fact -- our critters are like little Peter Pans who never grow up, get a job or stop looking cute in funny hats. And, surprise, surprise: We love to shower them with goodies. This year, Americans will drop more than $34 billion on their pets; nearly $8 billion of that will go for "supplies," i.e., cuddle bones, heated window hammocks, rawhide pretzels and miscellaneous rubbery, squeaky doodads.
What's new on store shelves this year for Henrietta the guinea pig or Cecil the Siamese? Here are a few ideas culled from local pet-product purveyors.
WEATHER MASTER CHIC SHEARLING SNOWSUIT Just in time for the plummeting mercury comes this winter outerwear for the thin-skinned canine who wants be a wolf in sheep's clothing. $25.99.
PET POCKET 2 This hands-free, vest-style animal carrier keeps your pet close to your heart -- literally. In black mesh with a padded bottom and "easy in and out" flap. Works great for small dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets or easygoing birds. $32.99.
POLITICAL ANIMALS BY KITTY HOOTS "You can't get even, but your pets can." Whether you've got a bone to pick with the Democrats or the Republicans, let your hound or kitty tear them a new speech hole. Choices include "Governor X-Terminator," "Capitol Hillary" and "George W." $5.99 for cats, $12.99 for dogs.
SHEEPSKIN BASKETBALL Simple but durable, this faux-shearling dog ball is the only gift item not easily found around town. Still, it's a great indoor toy that lasts for years. $9, plus shipping and handling, at http://www.newfemporium.com.
THE KITTEN MITTEN Give your cat the finger -- five of them, actually, each one filled with catnip and a bell. Though you'll look like Edward Scissorhands wearing one, the Kitten Mitten is thick enough to protect your own paws from cat-scratch fever. $7.
DOGGIE DENTIST Keep those canines -- and incisors and molars -- free of unsightly tartar and plaque buildup with this motorized toothbrush. With a removable, 3.5-inch rotating brush head, this puppy runs on four AA batteries. $19.99. (Enzymatic toothpaste sold separately.)
WORDY BIRDY DIGITAL SPEECH TRAINING DEVICE Teach your cockatiel or African Grey to talk using microchip technology. Records your own voice and repeats it back at adjustable intervals, from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. The only hard part is choosing a message you won't mind hearing ad nauseum. $24.99.