Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Art of Gift Giving: a guide of sorts

I'm having a little trouble getting into the holiday spirit this year...maybe it's the pouring rain? In any case, I am getting my normal amount of holiday panic/anxiety (hoo-ray) so I know what time of year it is, but I just can't seem to put on christmas music and not feel bazaar. But don't worry, that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about gifts for people since October, because I have. Gotta spread that holiday stress out, and of course I'm very aware that I need to SHIP everything to my loved ones, so that means time crunch people! I thought I was on top of things until a box from my grandparents arrived PRIOR TO THANKSGIVING (!!!!) full of nicely wrapped christmas presents. Way to be on top of it GPs. Maybe by the time I'm 88 I'll be as pro as you guys at christmas.

So in the meantime I have been thinking about gift giving and giving a great gift can be a hard thing to do. I know. Hard to believe because it is so easy to think of things you would care to receive, why can't other people think of these things? Probably because we go around thinking about ourselves most of the time, and also because it can be hard to get into another person's head and understand what they truly want. One way to get around this is LISTS but I think LISTS take most of the fun out of gift giving on both ends. I mean, sometimes you are so desperate for an idea (or so desperate for an item) that it works out great, but other times it's like, "well geez, how about I just give you some money and you go get it..." Plus, no surprise, and no "hunt."

Ok, so here are a few things that I think make GREAT Presents:
1. Luxury items
I don't mean expensive necessarily, but nice things that people would like to have, but maybe can't justify buying for themselves. This includes jewelry and (nice!!) bath/beauty items like perfume and essential oils and bathrobes. (Take note of item 4 in 'Buyers Beware' when you get there) Gadgets. Home items. Lots of stuff. My prime example is wool socks. I think they make a great gift. Wool is an amazing natural substance. We recently got some socks for Nathan at REI by the brand Darn Tough (yes, it's a pun!) Get this: not only are they super thick and cozy like Smart Wool, but they're made in the U.S.A and they have a LIFETIME GUARANTEE. That's right. You wear them out, you get a new pair. That's $18 well spent right there. I'm just going to go ahead and link to their website because I think that's pretty rockin.

2. Food
Maybe this is a subset of luxury items, but I love food so I'm going to give it its own number. If you know someone, you probably know their favorite foods, and everyone appreciates their favorite foods! Duh. Chocolate. Beer. Wine. More chocolate. Coffee. Summer sausage if you're my dad. Maple Syrup. Kinder Eggs are super fun for stockings. Or those chocolate oranges you get to whap. Cost Plus World Market is a great place for stocking stuffers FYI so the secrets out. You can get lots of exotic and miniature food stuffs there. Also gift cards to restaurants/coffee shops allow your giftee to spluge on items they wouldn't normally get to try/indulge in. Steak maybe? Over-priced venti pumpkin spice latte with whipped cream? Yes please.

3. Out of the Box!
This is the hardest gift to give, because it really involves the most forethought, but they are also so wonderful to receive because you know that someone was really thinking about YOU. By definition, I don't think I can really tell you what an "out of the box" gift is, but here are some thoughts: maybe you're giftee is a busy person with a long to-do list. Can you get one of those things done for that person so they don't have to worry about it? Maybe that thing they are really dreading? I mean you can't just do the dishes and be like, "merry christmas honey," but something bigger/more personal if possible.
Also in this category are surprises. Maybe planning a day full of all the things your giftee likes to do (make sure it's not what you want to do/think is fun! Gotta get in their head!) Or setting up a scavenger hunt. Or writing a song. Or making a fake documentary honoring your giftee and their life. Or maybe trying that thing they are always trying to get you to do with them. Or making an installation art piece for them in your local park. Or writing them a letter everyday for a month. I'm just making stuff up now. Be creative, etc.

4. Previously and Subsequently Loved Items.
So I'm a big supporter of buying used because it is cheaper and doesn't contribute to sweat shops/bad labor practices/environmental waste and often the proceeds go to charity. Try beating that for Christmas spirit. Basically everything you want already exists in the world, and probably someone has thrown it out already and it is just waiting to be FOUND. Have standards, duh. But many gently used items have lots of life left to give! It may take a little more time, but you will save money, the planet, and find unique items! Used books are great, especially if they're old enough that the oldness contributes to their value, but even if it doesn't, the enjoyment of the book is no less! Clothes. I can't really imagine buying new clothes at this point. I will speak from personal experience when I say that there is nothing wrong with gently used clothes, and you won't get diseases from them or anything crazy like that. Where else can you get a cashmere sweater for $7. Not at Macy's, not even on black friday. Kitchen items are great to get used too. You can get a tortilla press any day of the week at Value Village. Specialty cook ware is the first to go when people downsize, so if you are thinking of buying a panini grill or a fondu pot, check your thrift store first.

Ok, I'm tired of making categories now, so I'm just gonna list some stuff I thought of.

-"Of the Month" Clubs--of whatever your person is into. They probably have one for it. Many times just for three months, so you don't have to commit to a whole year!

-A nice haircut. At a nice salon. I went to one once because I had a groupon, so I was only paying 50%. There was a DJ and I got a free latte and it was the best haircut I've ever had. I think many people would benefit from a great haircut experience if they aren't totally married to one hair dresser.

-Field guides. What outdoorsy type wouldn't like some nice field guides? I don't know. Just a thought.

-Kits. When I was a kid someone gave me a grow your own monarch butterfly kit and we got to watch the whole development and then released them to the wild. It was awesome. You can even make your own kits. For example, if someone was interested in learning to bake you could get them a book and some starter baking supplies, etc.

-Games and puzzles. Especially quality wooden ones. Brings families closer together...depending. Some places even do custom puzzles. Here is the result of a quick google search: For those of you who don't know, Etsy is a platform for artisans to sell things that they make directly to you. It is a great way to get totally unique items and support independent artists/small businesses.

-Charity. A lot of us have a lot of stuff. And while it's not as fun to open, you'll still get that warm fuzzy christmassy feeling that you are giving to those who need it most, or to a cause your giftee cares about. is a great organization, but there are also many local arts foundations, health organizations, etc. that can benefit from your support. Just be careful. Do your research, make sure the money is being used efficiently, and that you aren't accidentally funding any crazy fundamentalist causes. and are two resources for charity ratings. Also make sure your personal information will be protected so that you don't end up on every charity's mailing list.

And now a few words of caution...

Present Buyers Beware: DANGEROUS TERRITORY
Here are a few things, in my experience, should be given carefully:
1. The Unproportional Gift
Maybe you are really enthusiastic about someone. You want to get them something GREAT. But do not do that thing where you give them something so good that it's awkward. Especially if you do not know this person well. But even if you do, you do not want your giftee to feel embarrassed about their return gift or indebted to you. Too nice is not nice at all. Especially if you aren't really friends with someone and there is no reason they would expect to get a really nice gift from you and probably they haven't even considered getting you a gift, because, um, hello? Broke college student/finals are happening/I didn't even get anything for my best friend/thanks???
2. The Gift with Strings Attached
Getting a gift with expectations attached usually means stress/disappointment for somebody. For instance,  just because you spent forever making something does not mean she will wear it. Just because you buy your boyfriend a guitar does not mean he will learn to play it. Just because you buy your boyfriend a hamster does not mean he will take care of it (sorry wendy...)

SIDE NOTE: I have to get this off my chest, even though it is pretty unrelated to present-giving. This is my opinion about pets: Get a cat, get a dog, do not get anything else. Do not get anything in a cage. Any other pet is going to be WAY less fun and WAY more work than a cat. Thinking about getting a ferret? They stink. Get a cat. A turtle? They stink, get a cat. Not a cat person? A. I'm calling BS because you either haven't met Lyra, or you're a terrible person. Allergic? Get a dog.  I now know this from experience, but I can mathematically prove to you that this is empirically the case.
Caged Animal=fun (maybe)
Caged Animal=work
Cat=.1work (literally easier to keep alive than my jade plant)
So your Caged Animal fun to work ratio = 1
While Cat's fun to work ratio = ONE MILLION
And even though Dog=10work, he still turns out pretty good at 10,000.

And apologies to those bunny fans out there. Whilst your bunny is cute, it is more work than a cat, and denies me cuddles and scratches my face and freaks out if I scoop it. These are just my opinions, that happen to be proven by mathematical FACT.

Ok, back to presents... we were talking about Gifts with Strings Attached. Whatever it is, do not have anything riding on your recipient loving your gift. Once you give something, you have to let it go. If your emotional stability is dependent on your gift being well received, this is bad. Also bad if the giftee feels pressure to love something more than they can. We should all be gracious and grateful, but it is inevitable that sometimes a gift will not be loved as much as the giver wants it to be, so try not to give anything that you NEED to be loved.

3. That Thing You Secretly Want
This is an easy one to fall into. You think, I know, I'll get so-and-so X! X will make a great gift! I would love one of those Xs! But so-and-so is not you. I am super guilty of this with Nathan because I want to get him something meaningful, so I'm like, "I made you this super special thing out of yarn, and construction paper, and glitter glue, and filled it with pictures and memories and love!!!!!" But I realize this is the kind of thing that is meaningful to me, not necessarily what is meaningful to him. So you can do it totally innocently, but also you could be like, "Honey, I got you that giant flat screen television you always wanted" when actually YOU were the one who wanted the flat screen all along. She'll see right through you and then it will be CHRISTMAS DRAMA and you don't want to go there. I don't have personal experience with this, but I could imagine it happening.

4. Crap. Is your gift a piece of crap? Be honest. Is it something that is going to break because it is cheap-o and you got it in the dollar bin at target? Or something your person is just going to throw away later? If your budget is low, I totally understand, mine is too, but you can be more creative and less wasteful. There's enough crap in the world, lets not add to it.

In the end, it's the thought that counts. So don't worry too much and good luck!

Well, I guess I had too much caffeine because I just wrote all that and it took a long time so I hope someone reads it and it is helpful. I know my grandparents will read it, but they were so on top of it they already sent all their presents so this will be of no use to them! If you have any gift ideas to add feel free to comment.

P.S. Anyone interested in the cultural importance of gift giving, gift economies, or art should read The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Basically everyone should read it. It is one of the best books I've ever read.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peace, Love, California, Cups, and Bicycles

Back to real life...Sorry it has taken me a while to post pictures from the bike trip...suddenly the holidays are frighteningly close, with a busy and exciting month coming up (friends and family visiting, performing, etc.) my To-Do list seems to be ever expanding...

I don't even really know where to begin, but I guess at the very beginning. That's a very good place to start...

Visited Occupy LA--love the tent that says "free bike repair or therapy"
I can't write what I want to right now about the occupy movement, or else these pictures will never get up. That is a post for another time. For now I'll say, it was really interesting to visit, notice the community dynamics and see the many different kinds of people who are taking part in this movement.

Getting the bikes packed up!

Venice Beach

 Cool Skater park where we had lunch on Venice Beach. I caught this guy in mid-air!

Caught a ride to Isla Vista with theses three Bros who where DJs and club promoters. It was hilarious. I don't think they ever let a song finish before skipping to the next. Ipod ADD? They were nice to let two hippie chicks along for the ride!
Isla Vista is a strange place. It's occupied entirely by college students and has an inorganic almost disneyland-village like feel. The streets are swarming with students getting to class on bikes and skateboards. Here is a HUGE parking lot (you can't even really see how big it is) filled to the brim with bicycles! From Isla Vista we headed north along the 101.
Stopped at Refugio State Beach for lunch and got a flat tire! Not a bad place to change a tube. Sure beat the side of the 101. We took a dip in the Pacific, and felt very refreshed, but got back on the road a little later than planned. Shortly after this we turned inland, went through a tunnel, which was a most overwhelming aural experience. After that we climbed a mountain and I almost didn't make it, but then we got to go downhill into Santa Ynez Valley and a rancher was kind enough to let us sleep in her stables!

In the morning we did the short hike to this waterfall. It was a geological anomaly because instead of the waterfall eating away at the rock, it built up the rock over time with mineral deposits like a stalactite. You can kinda see in the picture how it's kinda bulging out. 

Next we entered Solvang, which is a dutch themed town. The whole thing. We continued through to the nearby town of Santa Ynez, which is old west themed. I kid you not.

Toni's dad, Burton, came and met up with us in Santa Ynez where he rented a bicycle for the weekend from Santa Barbara Wine Country Bicycling Tours, which is a super great company that Burton had done a tour with several years ago. Although we weren't doing a tour, they asked if we would be willing to be part of a promotional video they were making and could they briefly film us enjoying a sample lunch at a fancy vineyard. 

Um...yes please and thank you!

A view after climbing a big hill! The terrain here is lots of little rolling mountains. Very dry with lots of beautiful cattle and vineyards (and the MJ Neverland Ranch...creepytowns...I mean RIP Michael, I love yooouuu...). All extremely scenic and we enjoyed several days of touring this area. We stayed with some wonderful warm showers hosts, who will remain undisclosed, but their generosity and company was greatly appreciated. Warm showers, by the way, is a network of bicyclers who open their homes (and most importantly, their showers) to bicyclists who are traveling through the area. We used this resource a number of times, and through those experiences we met some truly lovely and inspirational people.

On our way out of the Santa Ynez valley we had a lovely day on the deserted Foxen Canyon Road that led us to the Santa Maria area. We stopped at this vineyard to do a tasting before we left wine country for good. Then we napped in their picnic area before heading on. We stayed in Orcutt, which was not the greatest most exciting place, but we had a comfy bed with a warm showers host and we watched hocus pocus on TV and passed out halloween candy.

These shots were taken at Oso Flaco State Park, which is about four miles of the highway and we biked through a whole bunch of strawberry and broccoli fields. We were hoping to camp at the park, but it turned out there was no camping...bummer. Running out of daylight by the time we got back to the highway, so decided to hitch-hike. It took a while, but we finally got a ride from Freddy the mechanic to the next campground in Oceana. The campground wasn't the most beautiful, but we were glad to be pulling in with just enough light to whip up dinner and the tent. We made friends with the two 50-year old "slacker gurus" in the next campsite over and a stressful day turned into an enjoyable evening by their campfire.

Next day we arrived in San Luis Obispo where we stayed in a 19-person shared house known as "The Establishment." They were just recovering from throwing their crazy annual halloween party/fundraiser. This year's theme was The Afterlife, and just looking at the few decorations left over, I would say if you are in the region on halloween, you should definitely go to this party. Anyways, I loved this house--it was a 1880s (or so) hotel built to house railway workers and the whole thing leaned a little way to the left, but I loved the character of the place.

San Luis Obispo Mission

A menstrual cup workshop at The Establishment. You're looking at four truckloads of trash and four thousand of dollars being saved!

Stopped in Moro Bay for lunch and watched the surfers on the beach!
And we liked it so much we decided to stay! Went to the natural foods store and said, "We're on a low budget bike trip, can we camp in any of y'all's yard?" Which is how we met this very lovely couple who let us camp in their yard and hang out in their cozy trailer for the evening.

We listened to Van Morrison records and cooked lentils while she crocheted and he partook of the local pastime via a large glass vessel. These two gentle souls were a total blast from the past. It was probably the most 70's experience I will ever have.

Off to Cambria in the morning, and even though it should have been a short and easy ride, we had a hell of a headwind and it was slow going. We got a ride for just a couple of miles from Mitch and were we ever grateful. 

We continued on to San Simeon and camped in the State Park there. Our campsite was only a short walk to the beach. 

Something about this day (perhaps cold temperatures and high winds!) had us chilled to the bone! We made a hasty dinner which we shared with Rusty, another biker sharing our camp site, and then even though it was only 7pm, it was so dark and cold that we all piled in one little tent and Toni read stories out of her short stories edited by Garrison Kieler. When we woke in the morning everything was all icy, so there must have been a decent frost!

The next day we went to Hurst Castle to take a tour. Built by tycoon William Randolf Hurst over a period of like 30 years to house a massive collection of european art and architecture. More than house! Incorporate. Like entire ceilings removed from 15th century churches and built into this strange amalgamation castle. It was "the place" to hang out for hollywood stars in the 30's. I took a bazillion pictures, but you can only take my word for it that it is incredibly opulent. The tour guides kept telling us: "if it looks like gold, it is."

After the tour we were hoping to catch a ride up to Big Sur so that we could ride back south with the dreadful wind, but as we lost our light we decided to try our luck with a warm showers host in Cambria and turns out they could take us in at the last minute.

Toni models her scarf tube!

Beautiful San Simeon!

I also have an awesome neon scarf tube.

Since we had an extra day, we headed back up to San Simeon and explored the beaches and forest of the area. It was one of the most fun and beautiful days of all time.

Really fun climbing tree!

We found a cave!

Cave creatures.

Awesome wintery looking woods.

We made a fairy house!

After a day of finding treasures on the beach, exploring forests, caves and tidal pools, we started to head home and were greeted by this:


Why yes, this is a heard of Zebras in front of a Castle next to a rainbow, why do you ask?

Then I found these awesome mushrooms and a deer skull which I brought home.

These were our extremely generous hosts in Cambria. They were such an inspiring couple who had traveled the world together and had just settled down and bought this adorable house. They let us stay two nights with them, so we made them a coconut curry soup that night. Tasty.

The next day we pass back through Moro Bay--here's a better view of The Rock.

And then another night at The Establishment in SLO. Another biker was traveling through on his tall bike. Yes, this bike is being ridden across the country. And those are solar panels on the back.
The next day train back to LA. We made friendship bracelets from shells and a bee mood bead we found at a store in Moro Bay. One of our campsite buddies had just gotten a bee tattoo and we mused about all the symbolism of bees, so finding these bee beads seemed perfect. Plus they change color!!!

The end. I feel like this just touched on the surface of what we did and yet, it took me two weeks to get this posted because I've been working on it in 5 minute increments (busy busy busy) so I don't think I can get much more detailed or I will never get this posted!