Features

Claus & Effect

The holiday how-to guide for the perpetually perplexed

Wendy Nolin, manager, Ben Bridge Jeweler, Barton Creek Square
Wendy Nolin, manager, Ben Bridge Jeweler, Barton Creek Square (photo by Kate X Messer)

Oh hell, it's the holidays.

It's the rare curmudgeon among us who does not participate in the annual fete of gifting – whether they are good at it or not. Count yourself among the fortunate if you have never experienced the soul-crushing, "Uhhhh, what was it you needed again?" followed by the frantic, last-minute shoving of said object, elegantly unwrapped, into your sad little hands. You know that saying "It's the thought that counts"? Well, that saying has not been beaten to death just to make cheapskates feel better.

For real. Spend a few minutes thinking about the person you wish to impress and check these handy hints to help with holiday gifting challenges and hopefully avoid permanent damage to your loved one's tender psyche during this most wonderful time of the year. – Kate X Messer


How to Buy a Diamond

As Leonardo DiCaprio's Blood Diamond looms on the holiday hit list, are Austinites concerned about so-called "blood" or "conflict" diamonds? Jim Kruger, the owner of Texas-based Kruger's Diamond Jewelers in Barton Creek Square Mall, says that it doesn't come up much at his store. "The industry dealt with the issue five or six years ago and came up with industry standards for 'certified nonconflict' diamonds." Since 2003, 68 governments adopted the Kimberly Process to control the import and export of rough (precut, prepolished) diamonds.

Most folks who have set foot in a jewelry store or have any experience with diamonds know the basic "four C's" of what to look for when buying: cut, color, clarity, and carat. But Wendy Nolin, general manager of Ben Bridge Jewelers at Barton Creek Square, says the most important factor is the cut. "Mother Nature controls the color and clarity," she notes. "But the sparkle is unleashed by the quality of the cut. In the end, the letters and numbers don't matter as much as what the gem looks like." For that reason, Nolin recommends not buying from a catalog or the Internet but shopping for jewelry in person. "You can't see the beauty of a diamond through a plasma screen. Ultimately, the diamond must look good to you."

Once you begin to narrow down your choices, be sure to ask to see the gems under a Gemscope or microscope. Close up, you'll see the distinctions that make each diamond unique – what appear to be cracks or small fissures, "inclusions" or "feathers," as they are called. These are the normal birthmarks in diamonds. As you look through the scope, note these differences, then compare how the diamonds appear to the naked eye. Price differences between rocks will begin to make sense.

Look for white brilliance. If there is a cast of yellow or brown, you should be paying much less. While the color affects the price, so does the type of cut. According to Nolin, "A more intricately cut stone means that more of the rough diamond was scrapped in the process; this accounts for the premium you pay. It all really comes down to taste. Buy the most beautiful you can afford, even if it's not the largest."

Ben Bridge Jewelers has an upgrade policy for jewels purchased from them that allows customers to exchange a jewel for its original retail rate and apply that amount to a new gem that's at least twice the value of the original. So that $895 diamond purchased in 2004 will hold its value, and the entire amount can be applied to that larger $2,000 gem in the more fashionable setting.

Kruger adds that a clear idea of a budget will drive all the other factors of the decision. "If it's possible, shop together with your loved one beforehand to get an idea of what shapes and styles appeal.

"Guys never think about what matters most," Kruger laughs. "To come up with a drop-dead romantic way to present the gift. You know the minute she gets it, no matter what it is, she is going to call her best girlfriend or mother or sister and tell that story forever."


How to Buy High-End Jewelry at the Last Minute

Every jeweler knows that guy: Last-Minute Christmas Eve Guy. Invariably, it is a guy (or the occasional, rare affluent bull dyke in the doghouse). Wendy Nolin's first advice for LMCE Guy is, "Don't be one." But if you must, at least make your experience (and the sales clerk's) a tad less frustrating:

• Have an idea about what you want before you walk in. Don't come in at 4pm and say, "I'm just looking."

• Don't expect to find the season's most fashionable items. But fret not. That can work in your favor. You can limit your search to the classics: diamond solitaire pendants, pearls, diamond or pearl earrings. And use the same guidelines as in the "How to Buy a Diamond" guide: It's better to go for prettier and smaller than big and ugly.

• If you're buying for an older woman (especially a relative: mom, grandmother, aunt), go for heirloom-type pieces like lockets.

Ben Bridge, Barton Creek Square, 329-9066, www.benbridge.com.

Kruger's, Barton Creek Square, 327-6660, www.krugersdiamonds.com.


How to Send Austin

Austin, oh, Austin. We're so in love with ourselves, how can we not spread this joy to those not fortunate enough to call this home? Three items in particular, this year, are perfect ways to send love from Austin. The Still Naked 2007 calendar, with 100% of the proceeds going to the Austin Children of Musicians, Artists and Writers Fund, features 100% buck-nekkid musicians – like Patrice Pike and the South Austin Jug Band (huh huh, we said "jug"). Another calendar captures another sort of Austin beauty: Austin Calendar 2007, featuring more than 200 Austin events and a dozen gorgeous pics of classic Austin landmarks. Each calendar is only $12. The king of Austin gifts in 2006, however, is Leslie: The Queen of Austin magnet set. Much like the ubiquitous David and Venus magnet paper-doll series, this iconic figure of the Austin streets also comes with his own wardrobe: an orange-and-white cheerleader's uniform, a smart little leopard number, and even an armadillo on a leash. The creator, Wet Salon owner Jimmy Haddox, says the sets are "moving like crazy" and that he's doing his best just to keep up with the demand. "It's the Cabbage Patch Kid of 2006," he laughs. Sales have been so brisk, Leslie's already opened a bank account and procured a new shed.

The Still Naked 2007 calendar available at Farm to Market, Waterloo Records, Pink Salon, MonkeyWrench, Forbidden Fruit, Jo's Coffee, and at www.souppeddler.com.

Keep Austin Beautiful's Austin Calendar 2007 available at Blue Genie Art Bazaar, Congress Avenue Card & Gift Shop, Happiness, BookWoman, and at www.keepaustinbeautiful.org.

Leslie: The Queen of Austin magnet set available at Wet Salon, Flipnotics, Oat Willie's, and BookPeople.


How to Buy a Digital Camera

Before deciding on a digital camera as a gift, ask some key questions: What size prints will be desired? What types of photos will be taken? The size of pictures translates into how many megapixels you need, while the types of photos, such as landscapes or portraits, will determine the type of lens, features, and size of the camera. Say mom likes taking family snapshots and won't need anything above an 8-by-10. Four or five megapixels should do the trick. For your landscape hobbyist, a bigger camera means better zoom; look for optical zoom not digital zoom. Wide angle will help take bigger and better landscape pictures. For socialites or kids, smaller cameras with bigger LCD screens offer the capacity to snap and easily display photos directly from the camera. Local Precision Camera & Video stocks more than 100 models of cameras from $150 to $8,000. The store offers a digital class where staff members work with new and returning customers, as well as a camera repair center.

Precision Camera & Video, 3810 N. Lamar, 467-7676, www.precision-camera.com.


How to Buy for Homophobic In-laws or Family Members

Queers and the holidays don't always mix nicely. Neither do highly flammable conifers and hot bulbs on electrical wires, but somehow we make it work. If you are a big queer, or even a trembling closet case, be brave and proud, and consider the following when bringing your "special friend" home for the holidays.

First, be sure to send the parents a festive, rainbow-bedazzled holiday card from Lobo, and customize it with a collage of pictures from your last vacation to Fire Island. Marking them "wish you were here" is a nice touch, and if you're tech-savvy, include a DVD slide show of the both of you in your Borat thongs.

'Tis the season for giving, and a charitable donation to the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is probably the most constructive gentle nudge. You can even donate in your parents' honor from the organization's Web site, and PFLAG will happily send them a card recognizing their contribution.

No holiday dinner with the fam is complete without music. Consider bringing RuPaul's Ho Ho Ho Christmas album and putting it on as the family sits down to break bread together. Then just sit back and watch as this holiday night becomes the most memorable and perhaps least silent of them all.

Your sister's ex-linebacker husband has a Ford Expedition that could use a little sassing up? Slap a "Would Jesus be a homophobe?" sticker from CafePress on the bumper, and smile and wave as they head back to Vidor.

Lobo, 3204 Guadalupe Ste. A, 454-5406, www.myspace.com/lobo_austin_tx.

PFLAG, www.pflag-austin.org.

CafePress, www.cafepress.com.


How to Buy for the DIY Crafter

Buying for crafters can be tricky: Some like working from kits; some are complete DIYers. Some want equipment; some want supplies. The craftiest sewers find Austin lacking in fabrics, but here are a few local resources: Silk Road has gorgeous silk, linens, and cottons. They carry the most luxurious fabrics in town, and the staff is helpful and knowledgeable. Sew Much More carries top-of-the-line brands for home sewing. Perhaps a surprise to many, but chain store Sears has long been noted for the quality of their sewing equipment and their extensive selection of sewing accessories. For a special treat for your fabric-happy crafter, plan a day trip to Houston to High Fashion Fabric Center, and let them go wild.

Silk Road, 3910 N. Lamar, 302-0844, www.srfabrics.com.

Sew Much More, 3010 W. Anderson, 452-3166, www.sewaustin.com.

Sears, Hancock Center, 1000 E. 41st, 459-2300; Barton Creek Square, 2901 Capital of TX Hwy. S., 329-1300; Lakeline Mall, 11200 Lakeline Mall Dr., 219-2400; 12625 N. I-35, 652-4800; www.sears.com.

High Fashion Fabric Center, www.highfashionfabrics.com.


How to Shop for Those Who Just Left the Nest (and Don't Have a Trust Fund)

Post high school/college kids usually cannot be relied upon to spend what little extra cash they have on necessities like trash cans or laundry baskets. They're gonna spend it on essentials, like beer, maybe a carton of ramen, or a bong. This makes shopping for the freshly free an easy feat. The 18- to 20-year-old is starting from scratch, so all the makings of a home make for good presents. For example: towels, kitchen utensils, throw rugs, laundry baskets, answering machines, books, desk lamps, etc. Look around any house, and whatever you lay your eyes on or find at yard sales will most likely make a great gift for the young adult in your life. And, hey, if they don't like it, they can pawn it. Don't kid yourselves: Even at this tender age, they're totally familiar with that racket.

Kids fresh on their own rarely can afford the luxury of shopping sprees. This is the one case where money and gift cards are superb gestures. Your pup can pretend for one day that he or she actually is liquid.

Claus & Effect

And if your young one has an idea of future career goals, then work with that: A Physicians' Desk Reference or stethoscope for the wannabe doctor, ketamine for the aspiring vet, a kiddie pool for the budding marine biologist, pounds upon pounds of coffee and cigarettes for your aspiring journalist ... you get the picture.


How to Shop With Political Consideration

For chrissakes, what's wrong with a little thoughtfulness when it comes to someone else's differing beliefs? "Happy holidays!" or "Merry Christmas!" What's the big deal? A greeting is a greeting. That's a decision best left to you and your personal saviors. While many people dismiss this type of open-mindedness as "politically correct," we like to call it "politically considerate." For example, it's best to avoid giving your neighbor, the Jehovah's Witness, a singing Santa Claus or a Christmas card. Oh, it slipped your mind, or you didn't know? Well, why the hell are you giving gifts to people you don't even really know in the first place?

Don't give self-help books or self-improvement gifts unless the person has asked for it. Your good intentions won't matter as they open your carefully wrapped weight-loss program, Proactiv Solution starter kit, and bottle of mouthwash and die a little inside. Merry Christmas!

If you have a 14-year-old goth daughter and think that pink sundress at the mall is just so cute and decide to buy it for her along with a gift card to Claire's, expect 10 more layers of black eyeliner and a fresh row of piercings just to make sure that you get the point next time around. If your grumpy-ass grandpa spends most dinners with the family going on and on about how great we are doing in Iraq and how Dubya's "his boy," skip the spiritual enlightenment book The Four Agreements and stick with historical fiction instead.

And lawn jockeys? Bad idea. Even if they are painted "tan."


How to Buy for Your Fave Conspiracy Theorist

He uses words like "they" to describe everyone from the postal clerk to the overseers of international policy. To him, barcodes are the mark of the beast, and cell phones are little more than tracking devices disguised as fancy toys. He is Paranoid Guy, and may the good Lord have mercy on any fat, bearded man sneaking down his chimney. What can you get this fretful fella that won't get him frothing about giant owls in the woods? Aside from just about anything from Alex Jones' online boutique (infowars-shop.stores.yahoo.net/index.html) or a copy of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly on DVD, a few gifts from Spy Exchange are sure to make him feel a step ahead of the rest:

• A pen audio-recording device starting at $139.95. Because ink alone can neither incriminate nor vindicate.

• A camera disguised as a shirt button from $195. For when your cuff-link camera isn't enough.

• Pepper spray disguised as lipstick for $19.95. Beauty's a bitch.

Spy Exchange & Security Center. 9513 Burnet Rd. #101, 719-3595, www.pimall.com/nais.


How to Buy for an Old-School Video-gamer

Console wars? Ha. Maybe if you're talking Atari vs. Intellivision. Gamefellas in Northcross Mall offers an extensive collection from Sega Genesis to PlayStation2. Test games on several stations scattered throughout the store. Game Over Videogames is a smaller local store that also has novelty items including Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog plush toys, Nintendo Monopoly, and video-game-themed apparel. Hot Topic carries Nintendo-themed gifts like shirts, key chains, buttons, bumper stickers, hoodies, and the like – good for the gamer that already has all the software or youngsters who like advertising their love of the games while slurping on a Super Mario energy drink as a plush Sonic watches them play Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64.

Gamefellas, Northcross Mall, 2525 W. Anderson, 302-3021.

Game Over Videogames, 911 W. Anderson #112, 454-4263, www.gameovervideogames.com.

Hot Topic, Highland Mall, 6001 Airport #2260, 453-2633; Lakeline Mall, 11200 Lakeline Mall Dr., 249-8705; and Barton Creek Square Mall, 2901 Capital of TX Hwy. S., 328-1106; www.hottopic.com.


How to Shop for the In-Laws

The Cadeau sells a number of silver and leather flasks, money clips, and desk accessories all ranging from $25-65. Engrave it, and you're on their good side for another year. Bottle openers shaped like parrots, dolls, etc., are thoughtful additions to the gift bottle of wine. The Cadeau also stocks a collection of cut-crystal plates and vases for the woman you now call "mom." Decorated wine glasses and upscale housewares are a specialty here, including Asian-style table sets complete with chopstick holders. Moms-in-law will be more impressed with the fact that you picked something fantastic out from a local business instead of just picking up a gift certificate. Shop now; sadly, the shop is closing. Everything is 20% off.

The Cadeau, 2316 Guadalupe, 477-7276; 4001 N. Lamar, 453-6988.


How to Buy for the Naughty

Sometimes mother would like to do more than just kiss Santa Claus. Edible undies ($10) from Forbidden Fruit are a good start. Some other nice suggestions for the naughty: the 8-inch Great King Massager ($65). It's great for relieving the pain and stiffness of all that holiday giving and receiving. Swings aren't just for the playground anymore: Tapelenders has high-quality leather swings great for working off those holiday pounds. Jewelry is always a good standby. Forbidden Fruit has an assortment of firm and formidable beads of various sizes starting at $6. Wear them around your neck, wrist, or ... elsewhere.

Tapelenders, 1114 W. Fifth, 472-0844, www.tapelenders.com.

Forbidden Fruit, 512 Neches, 478-8358; 108 E. North Loop, 453-8090;

www.forbiddenfruit.com.


How to Impress With Host/Hostess Gifts

Have you sorted out this season's party invitations? Have you thought about gifts for the host/hostess? For fun twists on typical party gifts, Zinger Hardware has printed cocktail napkins with slogans including "If a bear shits in the woods, should I drink a cocktail?" and a variety of sauces with different Beverly Hillbillies characters on the labels. For the veteran party-thrower, silicone baking pans double as ice trays – essential items for the socialite – and offer shapes for all occasions such as fish, hearts, and Christmas trees. Or put together a bag of different Christmas cookie cutters for 69 cents a piece or a prepackaged box of sparkly ornaments in green, gold, white, or red for about $10. Appetizer plates and bowls in pool-triangle/-ball motif are a nice touch. Or if you really want to impress, head over to Breed & Co. for a five-minute wine chiller, an electronic pocket guide to more than 10,000 wines, or a mother-of-pearl bottle opener and double jigger.

Zinger Hardware & General Merchant, 2438 W. Anderson, 533-9001, www.zingerhardware.com.

Breed & Co., 718 W. 29th, 474-6679; 3663 Bee Caves Rd,, 328-3960; www.breedandco.com.


How to Buy a Bike for a Kid

Eschew the conventional wisdom: Size does matter when buying a bike for a smaller person. Don't buy with the idea that they'll grow into it and that a simple seat-lowering will take care of them for the time being. For the wee tots (ages 2-6), look for 12-inch to 16-inch wheels. Save the 20-inch (the common chain or toy-store size) for the bigger tykes (7-8). Consider buying from a local dealer who can adjust the fit perfectly to the child and allow for a growth spurt or two, better than any straight-off-the-rack bike can. If junior can sit comfortably with both feet on the ground and reach the handlebars (arms slightly bent), then it's a fit.

Also, don't be too eager to get the latest or coolest style. Your kid may be quite comfortable being a nerd with little interest in shredding the neighborhood on a BMX. Take your progeny with you to see how they react to different styles. Do include a gift card for extras like baskets and bells.

University Cyclery, 2901 N. Lamar, 474-6696, www.universitycyclery.com.


How to Purchase Spa Packages

Gifts of luxury and indulgence: What could be more desirable? Few things say luxury and indulgence like time at a spa. From a simple pedicure or facial to massages, scrubs, and peels to medical treatments like microdermabrasion, Botox, and Restylane to an all-day package for the both of you. What better way to recover from the holiday stress and face the New Year? Most spas have their treatment menus online, so click away and find something that you'd like the recipient to have. Don't hesitate, however, to visit the spa in advance to see if the atmosphere feels right, especially if your recipient has never been there.

NAAVA Salon and Spa, 10000 Research Blvd, Suite #141, 813-1000, www.naava.com/.

Lake Austin Spa Resort, 1705 S. Quinlan Park, 372-7300, www.lakeaustin.com.

The Crossings, 13500 FM 2769, 258-7243, www.thecrossingsaustin.com.

Barton Creek Resort & Spa, 8212 Barton Club Dr., 329-4000, www.bartoncreek.com.

Vickmay Skin & Body Spa, 1715 W. 35th, 478-1915, www.vickmayskinspa.com.

Daya, 3208 Guadalupe, 374-1010, www.dayaenergy.com.

Avant Salon & Day Spa, Gateway Shopping Center, 9901 Capital of TX Hwy. #240, 502-8268, www.avantsalon.com.

Maximum FX, 1007 S. Congress Ste. 10-C, 472-3331; 9600 Escarpment #920, 637-0888; www.maximumfx.com.


How to Outfit a Home Spa

First, determine the needs and desires of the person you intend to pamper. Do they crave sensual baths and aromatherapy, or are they hardcore massage junkies? For olfactory delights, massage oils, and bath and beauty products, head straight to Sabia, a conveniently located Austin institution that carries desirable brands like Dr. Hauschka (Moor-Lavender Body Oil, $25), Red Flower (Italian Blood Orange Body Lotion, $22), Original Swiss Aromatics, and their own line of oil blends and products. For serious massage gear and ergonomic furniture, Relax the Back stocks everything from exercise balls ($35 and up), self-inflating back rests ($40), to serious furniture, like the zero-gravity recliner ($2,795). For more modest budgets, Homedics brand personal gadgets are available at a number of local chains and are great introductions into the world of home spas. You needn't invest thousands to approximate the pampering of professionals right in your own home. Their Therapist Select Quad Roller Massaging Cushion ($149.99) and Foot Pleaser Ultra Deep Kneading Foot Massager ($39.99) provide amazing comfort and relief for the price – especially after long days in crappy office chairs, stuck in front of computer screens. They also carry a variety of affordable skin-care gear, like microdermabrasion systems ($19.99-29.99) and paraffin baths ($29.99 and up). Yum!

Sabia, 1100 S. First, 469-0447, www.sabia.com.

Relax the Back Store, 3800 N. Lamar, 459-2225; 9607 Research. Ste. F-140, 342-2225; 5400 Brodie #1200, 892-4800; www.relaxtheback.com.

Homedics, available at Walgreens; Macy's; Bed, Bath & Beyond; and www.homedics.com.

Claus & Effect


How to Ship Something as the Date Draws Near

"Best of Austin" winner Rick Wheeler at Drive-Thru Postal on Riverside says, "If you're reading this on the 15th, you're already running late for mailing, but you still have some options."

Work quickly to keep your shipping costs down. On the peak holiday mailing day, this coming Monday, Dec. 18, the U.S. Postal Service will process 900 million pieces of mail. On that day alone! Note that they offer free package pickup from home or office, regardless of the weather. Unlike other shippers, there is no fee for the service.

For those wishing to ship on or before Monday, Dec. 25, here is a list of deadlines:

USPS

Forget Parcel Post. It's too late.

Dec. 18 Last day for First-Class Mail

Dec. 20 Last day for Priority Mail

Dec. 22/23 Last day for Express Mail. The post office will deliver Express Mail in most major cities Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.

United Parcel Service

Dec. 18 Last day for UPS Ground

Dec. 20 Second Day Air will have it arrive on Friday

Dec. 21 Second Day Air w/ Saturday Delivery

Dec. 22 Next Day Air w/ Saturday Delivery is best bet

Dec. 24 UPS SonicAir. Call 800/451-4550.

Dec. 25 Yes, you can actually send something and have it arrive on Christmas Day by using UPS SonicAir (Same Day Delivery, with holiday rates = $$$$$).

FedEx

Dec. 15 Last day for FedEx Ground

Dec. 18 Last day for FedEx Home Delivery

Dec. 19 Last day for FedEx Express Saver

Dec. 20 Last Day for Second Day Air

Dec. 21 Last day, Second Day Air w/ Saturday Delivery, Standard Overnight, Priority Overnight, First Overnight

Dec. 22 Last day, Priority Overnight w/ Saturday Delivery

Dec. 25 Same Day Delivery available

DHL

Dec. 15 Ground and Home delivery services

Dec. 19 Second Day Air

Dec. 21 Next Day Air

For those unwieldy gifts (cow skulls, skis, bicycles, large artworks, etc.) go to Drive-Thru, and have them do the packing for you. But give them a break, and get your items to them as soon as possible.

U.S. Postal Pick-Up, www.usps.com/pickup.

Drive-Thru Postal, 1712 E. Riverside, 443-5848.


How to ReGift

As kids, we weren't afraid to express our disdain for unwanted holiday presents. But since societal standards of adulthood preclude us from openly bitching, the civil solution is to regift. Here are a few tips to learn before regifting, to be gleaned from a disgruntled regift recipient's comments:

• "Wow. I never subscribed to the whole distressed/torn jean fad, but the idea's magnificent when applied to gift wrapping."

• "Thanks for the Arrested Development second season box set! Judging by its homemade cover and language dub, I can barely tell you bought it for 75 cents from a street vendor during your last trip to Bangkok!"

• "Oooh! Dr. Spock's The First Two Years and On Parenting! It almost makes me forget that because of a genetic mutation my ovaries are drier than the Mojave!"

What have we learned? 1) Presentation is important, 2) not everything is regiftable, and 3) know your regift recipient.


How to Plan Ahead for Next Year

Think about Christmas on spring break! Ponder Chanukah while you are on summer vacation! "Exotic" gifts from faraway destinations like Milan, South Beach, or Port Aransas will delight, especially in the wintertime. Totally unexpected, considering we live in the Hill Country. How often do most people travel away from home in a year? Two, maybe three times, if not more. When you're in a faraway land, get gifts that you can't get at home. It's a double-edged surprise, "Wow! Look what you got me! Wow, where did you get this?"

Also, within the last few years, online wish lists have become de rigeur. With Web sites like Kaboodle.com, MyOnlineWishList.com, and YourChristmasList.com, you can browse others' wish lists and get them exactly what their little hearts desire ... or make your own! Next year … whoa, did we say next year?!

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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