Life

No-Dust Giving

This competition is about creativity, not consumption. Game On.

By Shannon Rupp 12 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Add coffee, newspaper, babysitting.

Christmas may be all about keeping our economy afloat, but for most people, shopping is the biggest (and least rewarding) chore of winter solstice. Which explains why so many of us have left it to the last minute. Again.

Now, as the shopping days dwindle, we're getting desperate. But before you succumb to some gee-gaw doomed to circulate, like fruitcake, in the dreaded re-gifting cycle, consider the principle that spares everyone finding more storage space: No-Dust Gifts.

I first conceived of the clutter-free gift during my own campaign to reduce a burgeoning Rubbermaid bin collection. As I weeded out the unwanted stuff -- and felt the guilt that goes with tossing gifts -- I developed one of those mottos to live by: never be the source of someone else's clutter. While you can do nothing about their emotional baggage, you can definitely reduce the physical kind.

That's a fine sentiment, until you're confronted with the problems of limiting yourself to gifts that can be consumed within the year. Obvious no-dust gifts include magazines, books and CDs, but those often look like duty presents because they're so impersonal. Ditto chocolates, specialty jams and baskets of bath-stuff, the other classic consumables.

So I started riffing on the no-dust rule with my equally time- and space-challenged friends and family. Over the years we got creative, and now we don't just minimize mall trips, we get a kick out of dreaming up the ideal sugarplum.

More is better

My favourite gift is the one I call "wretched excess." There's something about even the most mundane thing in huge quantities that makes it look like a celebration.

Take someone's favourite treat -- say, chocolate-covered raisins -- and put a pound or six in a huge tin. Add a ribbon. It's a no-brainer that reflects your thoughtfulness. (Only the closest friend would know about that shameful craving for Purdys peanut butter daisies.) One friend had a favourite cookie she couldn't get where she moved, and it became the symbol of everything she hated about her new home. So I put a package under the tree with a "subscription," -- I mailed her cookies every month, for a year.

Honour people's addictions. Murchie's, for example, sells coffee and tea by the yard. Not only is this impressive looking, they'll do the shipping for you, which, if you have to send anything to the U.S., is essential. I learned the hazards of mailing stuff to an increasingly paranoid nation last year when my friend Eric struggled to send what friends started to call "the terrorist chocolates" to his grandmother, in Minnesota. They never did arrive.

Wretched excess comes in forms other than food. For years, a childhood friend who was hard to buy for insisted that all he wanted was socks. His wife and I thought he was just torturing us for fun. (He's that kind of guy.) So one Xmas I took him at his word, and wished him "The Joy of Sox" -- a box full of footwear for every occasion. He practically wept. Turns out, he really did want socks and couldn't understand why his request was ignored, annually.

No wrapping required

Not only is knowledge power, it doesn't need wrapping.

Introductory classes and workshops are perfect for someone who has "been meaning to try" anything from sailing to building furniture. Look beyond the obvious continuing education flyers. For example, local chefs often teach classes through shops selling batterie de cuisine.

Someone who is already immersed in a hobby will often be delighted with a private master class. For a serious fiction writer, hire a professional author or editor to review the manuscript. Accomplished dance, yoga and pilates instructors often advertise "privates," and you can usually find someone in any sport, art, or craft who can provide this service.

I gave one friend who hated his job a workshop on career changing. He recalls that as the year I gave him "hope."

No work involved

Speaking of services, is there any better gift than having someone else to do the work? Manicures, pedicures, massages, housecleaning, restaurant meals -- the list is endless and could be tailored to any taste or need. And it ensures that you're pumping money into the local economy, not Wal-Mart.

Or arrange for a service that gives someone the gift of time: that's what most overworked people really want.

One year I fetched a friend's children from school every Friday for two months, giving her the uninterrupted time she needed to finish the first draft of her novel. And it gave me an unexpected treat: a chance to introduce them to important life skills, like playing poker.

I've long thought there was a business in delivering Sunday morning breakfast-in-bed to all the couples who want a lie-in. Alas, I've yet to find breakfast fairies -- well, other than at the Elbow Room on Davie Street -- so I take on the job myself, every January.

Depending on the recipient, I'll cook someone's favourite brunch or bring takeout, pick-up fresh bagels or croissants, hit the juice place, get great coffee or tea, throw in the New York Times, and deliver the whole meal as discreetly as any five-star hotel. If the couple has children, I kidnap them for an adventurous day or I take on the soccer-mom duties.

Allergic to malls

I hit on one gift idea accidentally, when I developed food allergies and could no longer grab takeout any time I was I too busy to cook. I began throwing a lot of dinner parties, cooking in huge quantities, and freezing instant meals for myself. It became apparent that loved ones were using their own stoves for storage when they started hinting that frozen gifts of homemade soup, risotto and curries would improve the quality of their lives too. Production started small, but if this keeps up I'm going to be giving Amy's Kitchen, where they manufacture frozen vegetarian entrees, a run for its money.

Subscriptions are an obvious no-dust gift, but don't limit your thinking to print, or even worry about gifts arriving on time. Online products aren't just clutter-busters, they work for Santas who failed to meet even the courier deadlines.

This year everyone I know with an MP3 player is getting a membership to Audible, the source for audio books, newspapers and classic radio comedies like BBC's Goon Show. They have 120,000 hours of audio available, and new additions weekly. The only space it takes up is on your hard drive, and suddenly all those boring life-wasters like commuting and laundry become a treat. You can buy gift certificates, and memberships range from $9.95 US a year to $22.95 US a month for serious junkies.

The bonus is that you could do all your shopping online early Christmas morning: print the details, pop it into a festive envelope, and have all your gifts in less than an hour.

Subscription newsletters, on subjects from money-management to healthcare, also delivered online, are another dust-free option. They provide the independent research and facts so often missing from advertiser-driven magazines and they have the news that devotees of, say, teddy bear collecting, crave. Some of them even do the job of educating customers that newspapers used to do before it dawned on them that advertisers preferred consumer cheerleaders to consumer reporters.

Every teenage girl I know gets a subscription to Cosmetics Counter Update by Seattle-based Paula Begoun. Don't let the neutral name fool you: this woman is the scourge of the beauty business. Before becoming a reporter, Begoun was a make-up artist who studied chemistry. She knows what all those polysyllabic words on shampoo and sunscreen labels mean, and which ones are notorious allergens. Or useless. Six times a year she reviews the steady onslaught of new lotions and potions and tells customers the truth about the difference between $2 and $20 lipsticks -- there is a difference, it just has nothing to do with cost.

I've often thought her essay, "The Crazy Things Cosmetics Salespeople Say" belongs in a Women's Studies curriculum. And her annual "best buys" recommendations alone are worth the price of subscribing. At $12.50 US a year for the online delivery of six issues, the newsletter pays for itself the first time you're directed to any far superior (and much cheaper) product. And the reduction in mystery hives: priceless.

Experiences

Few people can remember the gifts they got, or from whom, but we all remember the things we did, so I give experiences. Memberships to the aquarium, the art gallery, museums, or gardens, make particularly good gifts for families. In Vancouver, my favourite garden is Van Dusen although Sun-Yat Sen and UBC's Asian and botanical gardens are all contenders.

Entertainment in all forms is the perfect no-dust gift. Obvious choices are tickets to plays, concerts or games you know they would like. The Vancouver International Film Centre (which produces Vancouver's film festival) is thoughtful enough to provide something for those of us who practise "one-for-you, one-for-me" when shopping. Their gift-giving package includes a membership and two tickets plus one ticket for the giver, all for $20. For other entertainment gift ideas, check Tickets Tonight for a list of upcoming events and half-price rush tickets in Greater Vancouver. Tourism websites like Hello B.C. provide information on events all over the province.

The most memorable experiences are often a first encounter with something your giftees didn't know they liked. It could be anything: salsa dancing, scotch tasting, dog racing. Look for unusual events. Are there tours of heritage houses? Check with your local heritage society. (Like the Vancouver Heritage Foundation or New Westminster Heritage).

Ultimately, the philosophy inspired by my loathing for Shoppapalooza actually turned winter solstice into a lot more fun for my little circle. Of course, the one-upmanship that seems inevitable in gift gifting has also taken hold: only now we claim bragging rights based on creativity, not cash.

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