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Presents of Mind

[whitespace] illustration Our annual clutterless gift guide: intangible treats to tease and tantalize

By David Templeton

IS IT JUST US, or has the world become a little bit complicated lately? Wasn't there a time--not too far back in the Western world's collective memory--when our pace was slower, our expectations were smaller, our desires were simpler--and our holidays were a hell of lot less stressful? Or perhaps we are merely having a Happy Days flashback.

Regardless of how it once was--or might have been--the truth is that our lives are now generally fuller and busier than ever before. Our days and nights are already so full we can barely squeeze in one more thing. And then along comes December with its annual shopping rituals and its high-octane pace landing on our lives like a ton of unsorted, unwrapped bricks.

These days, whether our holiday of note is Christmas or Kwanzaa, Chanukah or Solstice, we're doing pretty well if we can just manage to make a list, check it twice, buy all the thingamabobs and stash them under the bed. By this point, the idea of having to wrap all these presents is tantamount to one last bloodletting before parading out to the guillotine.

We can't help with the part about life being too busy. We can, however, offer this one valuable suggestion: When shopping for presents this year, avoid buying gifts that require wrapping.

Take advantage of the growing spate of "clutterless" gifts--those that pack the full sentimental wallop but don't use up any space in your loved one's closet--things like tickets to a movie or a show, an actual celestial star "purchased" from the Ministry of Federal Star Registry in Palm Springs, Calif. (800/528-STAR) or a certificate announcing the "adoption" of some endangered animal (a Caribbean sea turtle, for instance, which comes with online satellite tracking and a nifty refrigerator magnet--800/678-7853).

Aside from their being novel, distinctive and a little bit bizarre, such gifts seldom require much more than an envelope and a reindeer sticker in the way of wrapping. (And if Martha Stewart happens to be reading this, please feel free to make your own pastel-colored envelopes out of hand-pressed paper crafted from real Egyptian papyrus pulp.)

Here, then, are a a few of our best suggestions: gifts that are clutterless, wrapless and often kind of timeless--available in a range of prices from next to nothing to nearly impossible.

Valet Service

IF YOUR FRIENDS are as busy as you are, they could probably use some help. It's weird, but in our technology-rich culture, such "time-saving" conveniences as fax machines, electronic mail, multiphone conferencing and cellular car phones have proliferated to the point where we are spending all our time pushing buttons--or having our own buttons pushed. Wouldn't it be nice to give responsibility for a few of those buttons to your very own, very proper personal valet?

Meet Webley, a relatively new but much-talked-about "personal communications" company with a whimsical solution to techno burnout. Webley will take your phone calls, forward important ones to wherever you are, send emails and faxes that you dictate over the phone and read aloud all of your incoming calls, faxes and emails, speaking in a charming, butlerlike British accent.

Housed in Chicago and Deerfield, Ill., Webley is a voice-activated system--you can call up and say, "Webley, list my phone calls. Webley, put me through to the last guy that called. Webley, take a message." It is all intended as a way to free us up to focus on business at hand rather than--well, all that other business at hand.

Currently, Webley is being offered for a reasonable rate of $10 per month (first month free), plus 14.9 cents per minute when you call Webley (or he calls you). Call toll-free 888/333-0300 (8am-7pm, CST).

Celebrity Rush

SPEAKING OF STRANGE voices on the phone, a California-based company--specializing in singing telegrams and clown-delivered balloons--has a neat little side business called Telephonies. For $45, a trained celebrity impersonator--portraying your choice of Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, George Burns or Jimmy Stewart--will call your loved one on the phone and babble engagingly for a while. They even offer the voices of live people: Joan Rivers, Little Richard, Woody Allen and, um, Santa Claus (he's still alive, isn't he?).

Along with the phone call, the recipient will be mailed a party hat, a horn, streamers and a confetti-filled envelope with your personal message written on a telegram card. Call Singing Telegrams and Balloons toll free at 888/339-7925.

Bats Above Average

THESE DAYS, it is possible to "adopt" everything from the aforementioned sea turtles all the way to free-range wolves and zoo-bound zebras. Basically, your adoption fee supports whatever animal-protection program is involved, and you get a neat little kick of parental pride should you ever get to actually come face to face with your particular critter.

So imagine the special thrill your friends will experience when you give them their very own real, live, insect-swallowing adopted bat. That's right--a bat.

The Adopt-a-Bat program run by Bat Conservation International, based in Austin, Texas, can hook your bat-loving buddies with seven different species, including the free-tailed bat, the epauleted fruit bat and the gray-headed flying fox. Adopted-bat parents also receive a color photo of their bat, an official adoption certificate, an "endearing" letter from their bat and a fact sheet. Adoptions run a very reasonable $15 and can be made online at or by calling 800/538-BATS.

Serious Reservations

KNOW SOMEONE who needs to get away for a while? Nearly every major hotel or motel chain has a gift certificate program--and most bed and breakfasts can make similar arrangements. Find out what the weekend rate is, pay for the number of days you want to bequeath and leave it in the recipient's name--they can call in and work out the exact date on their own. The advantage of using a hotel chain is that your friend will have a wider choice of destinations to choose from. B&B's tend to be the classier gift, but if your gift is intended to be a surprise, you'll need to be certain that your friend wants to spend a weekend in that particular town, city or coastal village--and is willing to drive there if it's far away. One intuitive gift-giver gave a buddy a weekend at a nice little inn--located only a block and a half from said buddy's home.

The gift was much appreciated: sometimes it's not how far your getaway takes you, it's the getting away itself that counts.

Heaven and Hell

AND SPEAKING OF reservations. A naughty little New York company called Halos and Horns is offering to reserve a spot for anyone on your Christmas list--in either Heaven or Hell. Confirmation comes in the form of registration certificates that are full-color and drop-dead gorgeous, featuring baroque illustrations of winged cherubim and seraphim or angels plummeting into flames--your choice.

"This certifies," says the tongue-in-cheek document, "that ____ ____ has been registered and has earned and deserved eternal residence in Hell." Or Heaven, whatever. You can fill in various blank parts to tailor-make the gift, including naming the specific region of Heaven or Hell your loved one will be residing in. The Clown Room, for instance. Feel free to express yourself.

This service costs $14.95, plus $4.95 shipping and handling. Orders must be made online or by faxing the online form to Halos and Horns in New York.

Stock Stuffers

AT FIRST MENTION, the notion of giving someone stocks and bonds for Christmas seems roughly equivalent to giving them 10 pounds of meat: it would seem to be lacking that requisite Christmas magic. We beg to differ.

A San Francisco-based company called One Share of Stock Inc. has done a great job of turning single shares of stock into a gift that is simple, fun--even kind of cool. Know someone who is a fan of Walt Disney movies, Apple computers, Marvel Comics or the Florida Panthers? You can make them a partial owner of any of these companies--and more.

Aside from owning a fraction of, say, Planet Hollywood, the recipient gets a frameable stock certificate--some of them are stunningly beautiful, with amusing features: Planet Hollywood's certificate bears the signatures of CEOs Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, while the Mattel stock shows a row of happy kids playing with Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls--and most of them come with an annual stockholder's report. Every certificate can be previewed on the Web site.

Stocks range in price from around $60 dollars to $100, including brokerage fees, etc. The good people at One Share of Stock will even have the certificate professionally framed for an additional fee. Orders take around six weeks. Purchases can be made on the Web site or by phone 24 hours a day. Call 800/SHARE11.

No Limits

THERE ARE PLENTY of other gifts that require no wrapping paper as well: What about the gift of flight? Send someone on a catered early-morning hot-air balloon cruise or a glider excursion. Prices for such things tend to start at $100 or so. Check the Yellow Pages for a balloonist near you.

What about the gift of personalized music? For only $400, a couple of professional musicians in Hawaii will write, compose, perform and record a made-to-order love song, crafted according to your specifications. Talk about romantic! Check it out at www.maui.net.

There's always the gift of membership. Sign up your favorite folks as members of a local museum association (an individual membership to the Santa Cruz County Museum of Art and History runs $35 a year) or as members of their local noncommercial radio station (KUSP-89FM is $40 a year; KZSC-88.1FM is $30 a year).

Virtual Kitchen Sinks

SHOULD THE ABOVE suggestions not quite serve the wrapless and clutterless needs of you or your loved ones, consider Gift-o-Matic, the ultimate free Internet service for time-challenged gift givers.

At www.Gift-O-Matic.com, you can select from hundreds of improbable gifts: an elephant, perhaps, for the wishful child on your list. What about a baby brother? A fancy automobile? A supermodel? A desert island? Select a full-color photo of these and more, fill in the email info for that item's recipient, attach a note to explain or to place the gift in some context and send away.

Recipients receive an email announcing that they have been given a virtual present. They will be given a special identification number and will be directed to the Gift-O-Matic Web site. There, they will click on "receive gift," will enter the I.D. number and--voila!--on the screen will appear a colorful graphic of a prewrapped present. Clicking again will reveal the virtual fantasy you have chosen.

The possibilities, as they say, are endless.

And whether your present comes in a ribbon-tied box or not, a gift as unique and unexpected as those we've suggested is sure to be remembered and treasured long after the holidays have been all wrapped up.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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