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Not Quite the Usual Holiday Gift Ideas

Something a little different for your loved ones this year
Wayne Alan Brenner, 4:12pm, Wed. Dec. 12, 2012
There is no sanity clause.
And not all just things, of course.

In fact, we might do better donating the amount of our usual expenditure to those who need, a lot more than we do, the help it brings – and you know the Chronicle's got its annual list of charitable causes coming soon …

But, on the other tinsel-scarred hand, who would argue that the downward spiral of anybody's mortal coil isn't brightened by the flattery of personal, object-based attention at this time of year? So, yes, we're hoisting ourselves aboard the ol' Gift Guide bandwagon – albeit with five somewhat idiosyncratic suggestions ...

1. GOT A FRIEND WITH A CAR? No, not so they can drive your lazy ass around to stores. So you can surprise them. Kind of like you're pranking them, see, but it's a prank of generous, holiday-based love. Ask them if you can borrow their vehicle for a couple of hours. (I don't know what excuse to offer, the level of desperation you'll need to feign: You're you, make up something that's believable.) Then take that car of theirs and get it washed & vacuumed. Get new windshield wipers installed. Buy an air-freshener & hang it from the rearview mirror. Then return the spotless, freshly scented car to your friend with a full tank of gas. Now that's a helpful, practical gift they'll never forget.

2. A PET LIKE NONE OTHER Adopting a sheltered cat or a dog might be a win for all concerned, but it's seldom a good idea to surprise-gift someone with such responsibility … so let's move into a pre-mammalian neighborhood: Arachnida. A perfect "starter" pet for any kiddos you know – and a creature sufficiently low-maintenance that you can gift it to an adult pal and they won't curse you for years afterward – is a Black Emperor scorpion. These are the putatively fearsome critters available in most pet stores now (yes, even PetCo and Petsmart), the ones that are increasingly popular because they're both 1) the biggest and most scary-looking, and 2) the least aggressive and venomous of all scorpion species. (You've been stung by a bee? These guys don't hurt even that much.) Black Emperor scorpions, living ornaments of exoskeletal darkness, are fascinating to watch and require very little care. Provide them some decent mulchy ground in a five-gallon tank ($10), give them a bit of water and a few crickets each week, and that's about it. (And crickets are so convenient to get these days – whatever pet store's nearest you – and four of them will cost you, oh, half a buck?) Right: That's about $2 a month, total upkeep cost, for a scorpion owner. And the Black Emperor itself, which has a lifespan of four to seven years in captivity, will run you-the-giftgiver less than $20. Again, they're available pretty much anywhere, but we're especially biased toward ZooKeeper Exotics at 9012 Research Blvd.

3. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? No, we're not suggesting that you drop some blotter acid – although what we are suggesting may have as extreme an effect on your perceptions in the long run. We mean: The experience of learning. We're talking about comedy improv classes, specifically. Not to better whatever stage-performance skills you may have; not to help you function more smoothly in social situations and life in general; not for any sort of, guh, life-improvement reason at all. Just for fun. Because improv classes will help you in all those areas mentioned – It's scientifically proven! – but it's the unabashed yet mentored fun of them that'll keep you smiling and coming back for more. Well, you or whoever you're kind enough to buy a series of classes for. Warning: You may get hooked and wind up in a troupe. Look here: We showcased local improv schools back in 2009, and we're glad to note that the round-up of options is still totally valid.

4. MEXICO AND US AND CANADA, TOGETHER AT LAST! Or, in other words, the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) as delineated by the late David Foster Wallace in his Infinite Jest. You may recall that DFW, in one section, described the Great Seal of ONAN, the device used on official documents and letterhead stationery and so forth? Now William Beutler – the man who's also responsible for the Infinite Map poster that charts all the action of the sprawling novel – has designed that ONAN Seal and offers T-shirts adorned with it in full color. You want a perfect (and easily affordable) gift for somebody you know who's an Infinite Jest aficionado? Listen: This is it.

And, speaking of texty things …

5. BOOK YOURSELF SOLID Yeah, this isn't so much off the beaten path … but observe as we make a little end-run around the official Chronicle Gift Guide – waving impishly to Managing Editor Kimberley Jones as we go – with these recommendations of volumes that may be brand new or even a few years old and yet worthy of sharp attention:

Steampunk: An Illustrated History By now even those unfamiliar with the genre and aesthetic may have been blindsided by the sight of corset-clad hotties traveling hither and yon on motorized, brass-chased velocipedes while wearing top hats around which repose their cleverest goggles. Anyone wondering where that stuff came from – and, really, anyone with less than a Ph.D in Steampunk – will profit from reading this new coffee-table tome by Brian J. Robb, recently published by Voyageur Press. From the Jules Verne underpinnings to the digital regalia of anime, from the loom-inspired programs of Ada Lovelace to the retrofitted laptops of Richard "Datamancer" Nagy, this book – listen, you know how they say "lavishly illustrated," right? That's how Steampunk is illustrated: Extremely fucking lavishly – this book covers it all …

Big Questions is a phonebook-thick graphic novel by Anders Nilsen, beautifully published in hardcover by Drawn & Quarterly, the meticulous visuals of which will impress and intrigue you, the surreal narrative of which will do the same, and both of them working together are, well, we sort of covered that right here and are glad to re-recommend this fierce work. Although you may never look at a swan quite the same way again …

Fever Chart This McSweeney's hardcover by Austin author Bill Cotter is the precise book for anyone who loved A Confederacy of Dunces, but especially for anyone who was a bit disappointed, after all the hype, by A Confederacy of Dunces. Fever Chart is a hilarious and achingly human picaresque set mostly in those parts of New Orleans that the city's chamber of commerce would prefer to forget. You don't have to go around with your lacerated, bleeding hand wrapped in a disposable diaper to commiserate with the hapless hero; you don't have to fear death-by-psychopathic-ex-boyfriend to empathize with these vividly written shenanigans. Just read it: You'll laugh, you'll wince, you'll whisper "Oh, thank God someone else's life is even more fucked-up than mine!"


Parting note: We know the word "holiday" derives from "holy day." But we don't care if you celebrate Christmas or Hannukah or some other religion-based thing. We equally don't care if you detest the entire concept of "faith" or whatever. We just know that winter is coming – what passes for winter in Texas, anyway – and the end of the year (but probably not the world) is coming, and we wish you & yours all the best for this month and the next twelve months that follow.

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