I am incapable of offering any help to you because I am, getting right down to the nub of it, a dad. Yes, cryptic and maddeningly unresponsive when it comes to proffering gift lists or dropping hints or revealing what my heart desires for Christmas. And crushed -- yes, secretly crushed -- every Christmas when I hold up the bottle of cologne and say, "Gee, thanks guys. This is great. Cologne."
And don't tell me I have no right to complain. Of course I do. Because in addition to being a dad, I am a guy. My world is immune to your logic.
Here are five things the dad in me would love to find under a Christmas tree. Certainly not all dads share my tastes, but we'll try to sound a universal note here. -- Kevin Taylor
Duct Tape Tie & r & What? Am I on drugs? I used to have a job where I wore a tie every day. No clip-ons; I tied my own. Often comically. But, to my great surprise, I became a hippie, then a sportswriter and -- Ahhhh! -- haven't worn ties since.
I see ties as some sort of vestigial appendage that should be studiously ignored -- except for the tie my oldest child made me all by herself. Out of duct tape, the handyman's secret weapon.
Dads hate ties, but they love things their children make. Dads hate ties, but they love duct tape. Put them together and it's beautiful. You may be surprised to learn duct tape comes in a range of beautiful colors and in several levels of shininess. & r & GET IT AT: Hardware stores, under $5
Try Square & r & A great gift for a Dad can be anything -- a rock, a cantaloupe -- as long as it has proper heft. Heft is big with dads. Why do you think we are always chucking our kids up into the air and catching them? Aye, checking the heft-to-keeper ratio.
Heft is nowhere more important than when it comes to tools. If your dad is a carpenter, a do-it-to-himselfer or a woodworker, you might be tempted to buy him a saw. But then you think for a moment and decide you don't want to call your dad "Stumpy."
So go for a square. Yes, a simple try square. They are essential to good work. You can find ones made of aluminum and plastic at any hardware store. But for one with the necessary heft to be a gift cherished for years, you have to go elsewhere. And none is better than the smallest-size jointmaker's try square made by Bridge City Tool Works in Portland. I've had one for years, and I can feel the heft of it even now. & r & GET IT AT: www.BridgeCityTools.com, $68
London Map & r & Here is the perfect gift for Dad. Any dad. It's credit card-sized. (Ding! Score one.) It's stainless steel. (Ding! Score two.) It's a map. (Ding! Score three!) Yes, any dad would love to handle, fondle, rub, study and scrutinize this etched-into-steel map of the London Underground. It seems so weighty and precise and important ("Good Lord, man! You don't have a wallet-sized steel map of the London Underground?") And it's so pointless. If you live in London you don't need one. If you don't live in London, you don't need one. And what dad refers to a map anyway? Perfecto. & r & GET IT AT: www.Paramountzone.com & pound;25
Macho Gift Certificates & r & Walter Mitty was a dad. And all dads, of course, are Walter Mitty. We live heroic and dangerous secret lives, the existence of which can never be revealed, where the fate of the world often hinges upon the pattern in which we rake the leaves. Jealous people call this daydreaming. So feed this illusion and get the man a gift certificate to Black Sheep Sporting Goods in Coeur d'Alene. A celebrated group of local marijuana smugglers did the bulk of their outfitting -- boots, camo, bear spray -- at Black Sheep. Of course, they never told management. Secret lives are secret lives. Yes, let your dad shop where the drug lords shopped. Now he can try on backpacks and boots, check out camo and GPS systems and night-vision goggles -- because on the surface, he may look like a dorky middle-aged guy, but underneath he is an outlaw on a secret, dangerous mission ... & r & GET IT AT: Black Sheep Sporting Goods, CdA, $25-$50
Journals & r & A surprising number of dads -- primitive, maddening creatures though we be -- like to keep track of how much they love their kids or chart new episodes in their ongoing Walter Mitty adventures, and nothing is better for this than a journal.Especially a cool-looking, hefty journal with either a leather cover or an embossed cover and handmade paper. Go to Paper Garden inside Auntie's Books for a wide selection. & r & GET IT AT: Paper Garden, $15-$25
THE GIFT OF GAMES & r & Thanksgiving has come and gone. Among all the uncomfortable pauses and silences at dinner, a peculiar feeling begins to set in - the dread holiday guilt that comes from ignoring the family members whom we can't fail to ignore because they live at our house. Fear not, though, spending time together can be easy and, thanks to fantastic game designers, enjoyable. Board games are a sure-fire way to enjoy your family without loud arguments about Uncle Steve's conservative politics or Cousin Zara's multiple face piercings. And I'm not talking about letting that sadistic 11-year-old nephew chuckle throughout the six-bazillion hours it takes to crush you in Monopoly. As a matter of fact, there are loads of games out there that can make for a quick 15-minute contest or a marathon evening of game-playing. -- Josh Smith
Kill Dr. Lucky & r & Cheapass Games is a Seattle-based game company dedicated to the idea that good games don't have to cost a lot of money. When you think about it, most of the cost of a board game is all the stuff that comes with it and which you already have: playing pieces, dice, etc. Cheapass assumes you own Monopoly already. (If you don't, they sell you the game bits just the one time.) Their games deliver just the unique part of the game: the board, the playing cards. etc. Kill Dr. Lucky is a personal favorite wherein you and the other players are, for whatever reason, attempting to kill the hapless, and aptly named, Dr. Lucky. But you've got to manage to kill the old goat when no one else is looking. All the fun parts of Clue that were left out wrapped up into an hour-long game. & r & GET IT AT: Uncle's Puzzles and Games, $8
Set & r & Set is one of the most deceptively simple games ever devised. Imagine confronting a 12-card grid in which each card has four attributes (number, color, shape and fill). Yet there are also three variations of each attribute: one, two or three; red, green or purple; oval, squiggle or diamond; and solid, empty or lined. The idea is to select a set of three cards out of a 12-card grid. The game is more complex than it sounds, defying any attempt at explanation. Initially the fun comes from the thrill of successfully finding a valid set after multiple failed attempts. Later on, it's simply a smug sense of satisfaction as you introduce the game to your friends. Games go quickly, so you get a chance to get into the groove of pattern recognition even if your wife defeats you repeatedly. Not that my ego feels bruised because of that or anything. & r & GET IT AT: White Elephant, $6
Betrayal at the House on the Hill & r & You and the other players are exploring the creepy old house on the hill. Maybe you were just taking shelter from the rain as you tried to walk into town from your broken-down car. Or maybe you were hunting for ghosts. Work with the other players to build a unique game board from tiles until the suddenly the traitor is revealed. One of your group turns out to have been a mad cultist attempting to summon their terrible elder god from the deepest recesses of the universe, or perhaps you've fallen prey to the gypsy curse that Jimmy Marks put on the joint. Betrayal features 50 unique end games depending on how the game plays out. Despite the need to download several pages of errata from the Internet on account of editing and printing errors, this game still makes for a fantastic evening of gameplay. & r & GET IT AT: Uncle's Puzzles and Games, $40
Settlers of Catan & r & In this award-winning German board game for three to four players, you take the role of explorers and settlers of the island of Catan. Build settlements and trade commodities to win. Each game is unique as the board is made of individual tiles that are laid out randomly for each game. Even better is that Mayfair Games (which released the game in the States) has also released multiple expansions for the game which allow you to add more players (up to five or six) and more complex scenarios such as Seafarers of Catan and Knights and Cities of Catan. Game play is on the longer side, so plan on an evening of strategic gaming and wine drinking. & r & GET IT AT: White Elephant, $30
Apples to Apples & r & This four-to-10-player game is as easily played at Grandma's house as it is at your buddy's high-alcohol-content Christmas party. Each player is dealt a hand of red-apple cards which have topics ranging from bungee jumping to Ernest Hemingway. In each round a judge (the job rotates around the table) will select a green-apple card specifying a particular adjective. The other players must quickly select a card from their hands that they think the judge will find most relevant to the adjective. Then you try to explain the connection and playful arguments begin. You'll find yourself playing it for hours. & r & GET IT AT: Whiz Kids, $30
ECO-FRIENDLY GIFTS & r & Chicks love the environment, dudes, I'm serious. They also love helping people. These are unassailable truths. This winter, then, show her how much you care by giving the sustainable gift that keeps on giving and sustaining -- the gift of eco-friendliness and/or social consciousness. Plus it's pretty cool to help people who can't help themselves and, we suppose, to rein in our conspicuous consuming, pit mining, non-renewing, scorched-earth national mindsets every once in a while. Here are some ideas to get you started. & r & -- Luke Baumgarten
Heifers and Vasectomies & r & You always feel pretty good putting those little cards that say, "A donation has been made in your name to the Limping Buckaroo Ranch for Wayward Seniors" -- or whatever -- in the stockings of loved ones. It makes you feel like you've done something great for a worthy cause, even if you've only given an abstract concept (Das Kapital) to some monolithic nonprofit. If you're like the Unitarian Universalist Church, though -- and you know you might be -- you want to make sure your dollars are going to sustainable endeavors that benefit the right people. Good for you; it doesn't pay to trust people.
Enter the Alternative Gift List, where you can give all sorts of very concrete things to very needy, very specific people. Among many other options, for example, there are sack dinners for homeless people through SNAP, a goat for a starving Third World family courtesy of Heifer International, and -- our very favorite -- thanks to Planned Parenthood of Spokane, you can go halfsies on providing some underprivileged man with a vasectomy. & r & GET IT AT: Unitarian Universalist Church, $10-$120
Solio Solar iPod Charger & r & I totally wanted to climb Denali last year -- you know, to finish off the Seven Summits. I trained and everything. But, at the last second, I bailed because I got super stoked on that Animal Collective CD, Sung Tongs. I was like, "Bummer, these are the perfect cuts to mountaineer to!" There's no electricity up on that joint and I knew I couldn't be without my iPod for 26 days (plus flight time), so I gave up.
If only I'd known about the Solio Solar iPod Charger then, I would have owned that hill. See, it's a super-compact, ultra-light little unit that fans out into three high-efficiency solar panels. All you need is eight hours of direct sunlight and you get a full charge. This season, don't let the outdoorsy person in your life suffer the way I have. Give them the gift of music in the wilderness. Give them life. & r & GET IT AT: Mountain Gear, $100
Pend d'Oreille Winery Rock Creek Alliance Chardonnay & r & A company wants to mine near Rock Creek, which is a tributary of the Clark Fork, which feeds into Lake Pend Oreille, which is where Sandpoint is -- and Sandpoint, among other things, is the town all our favorite Lord of the Rings characters are moving to. Opponents say the mine would dump disastrous amounts of contaminated water into Rock Creek daily, potentially damaging Sean Astin's property values. It would also be the first mine on a federally designated wilderness area. Shades of ANWR, kids. That's bad news. But $5 of the Rock Creek Chardonnay price goes to stop it from happening.
Of the wine itself: Pourer Jenn Witte called it "a really light, refreshing Chardonnay with hints of green apple and possessed of a light vanilla undertone." Jenna Bowers said almost exactly the same thing, calling it "a really nice, light and fruity Chardonnay. It has green apple with just a hint of vanilla." That's what politicians call being "on message." With or without the wine-dork talking points, though, I'm pretty sure it still gets you crunked. & r & GET IT AT: Pend d'Oreille Winery, $15
EcoSphere & r & These little globes make great gifts for everyone from biology geeks (you know who you are) to small-business owners. They teach all kinds of lessons about competition, mutuality and niche-dwelling. According to the product Web site, "The living resources within the EcoSphere utilize their resources without overpopulating or contaminating their environment." There's a lesson to be learned there, Uncle Jeff, with your 10 kids, your hostile takeovers and those dogged sexual harassment allegations pending against you. Every day, the Ecosphere will remind the CEO on your gift list that competition is healthy, that resources are finite and that life is precious. And since it's designed to be a completely self-sustaining ecosystem, it's also the perfect gift for people who suck at keeping things alive. & r & GET IT AT: www.GreenFeet.com, $58-$413
Vespa Scooter & r & Vespas were the original hipster scooter. Made by S.p.A Piaggio since the mid-'40s, they were adopted wholesale by the Mods -- British roustabouts and wankers who were obsessed with Ben Sherman shirts, American music and, later, the Who -- who'd ride their scooters to scuffles with sworn nemeses, the motorcycle-riding Rockers. Mod-revivalism is behind the upswell of scooter sales in America. So they're the hippest things on two wheels. They're also, though, incredibly fuel-efficient.
This is ultimately a forward-thinking present. Forward to warmer months, certainly, but forward also to the point in the future when we've so alienated the rest of the world that gas prices rocket toward European levels. Certain Vespa models get better than 60 mpg. That number hits as high as 90 mpg on certain non-Vespas, but really, passing up a Vespa for a Stella is like passing up an iPod Nano for a Zen Micro. It's a cred-killer. & r & GET IT AT: Vespa Spokane, $3,200-$5,200
GIFTS OF OUTDOOR GEAR & r & Hey, kids, here's a quintet of gifts for the five chief classifications of people who love sports, the outdoors, and outdoor sports -- namely, fisherpersons, stylish mountaineers, bicyclists with too much time on their hands, hoop fanatics and cutting-edge pranksters.
For added fun, don both the T-shirt and the jacket, then simultaneously pedal indoors while scarfing a pound of smoked salmon off your plastic flatware. It'll make sense after you read on.... -- Michael Bowen
Bradley Smoker & r & Drying and smoking 20 pounds of salmon is more dangerous than you might expect. Gerard Connelly of Tri State Outfitters advises that the Bradley Smoker "is a lot safer than other [less expensive] smokers. You're a lot less likely to start a fire with it."
This deluxe stainless steel smoker has other virtues, too: "It starts automatically, it shuts off automatically, and it has a better kind of smoked-through flavor," says Connelly. "It's aimed at the kind of person who's accumulated a lot of kokanee. In just a couple of sessions, he can smoke an entire season's worth of catch. It's kind of the Binford 5000 of fish smokers."
Says Connelly, "If you're into smoking fish" -- and who among us is not? -- "then you'll find this is so far superior that you won't ever want to go through the hassles of owning a $39 smoker ever again." & r & GET IT AT: Tri State Outfitters, $350
Moonstone Women's Down Jacket & r & In sizes X-Small through X-Large, this baby weighs, on average, just 10 ounces. And why does it come with its own "stuff sack"? Because you can compress it down to the size of a softball.
This isn't just any old down jacket, you see, because it's shaped to the womanly form: pinched in at the waist and, uh, ample in the, you know, chest part. And it's so form-fitting that it's suitable both as an insulating layer and as an outer shell.
If you buy it in basic black, says Mountain Goat's Matt Cusack, "you can wear it on the slopes, then brush it off and use it during the evening as formal wear" -- for that distinctive Versace-meets-Nanook-of-the-North look.
Best of all, the Lucid model comes with "premium 800+ filled power goose down." That's industry-speak for fluffy insulation so light that a single ounce of it will fill 800 or more cubic inches -- with more of the down and fewer of the feathers to shaft their way through the outer shell. & r & GET IT AT: Mountain Goat Outfitters, $160
Cycle-Ops Magneto Trainer & r & For cyclists who don't want to give up on a great outdoor sport during the winter months, here's how to keep yourself and your bicycle active when there's slush on the roads. Using a stand attached to your rear axle and a focused magnetic mechanism, the Magneto Trainer allows you to pedal for hours while remaining stationary and catching up on reruns of Breaking Away. Other trainers create resistance using wind, oil or even software programs -- but this gizmo allows for no-hassle variation in resistance levels. A pair of magnets close in on a flywheel as you increase your rate of pedaling, increasing resistance and simulating the acceleration of a road bike while changing gears.
With its wide stance, the Magneto Trainer is very stable. And after folding it up for storage beneath your bed, you can climb up top and sleep off the effects of all the indoor cycling you'll be doing. & r & GET IT AT: Wheel Sport, $240
Kennel Club T-Shirt & r & Real men and Kennel Club members wear blue shirts. But if you're a wanna-be Bulldog supporter, red will have to do. (Hell, just be glad you scored a ticket to get inside McCarthey.) And there's some exclusivity associated with this item -- it's only available at Kimmel, the sporting goods place nearest the G.U. campus. Besides, you get special features with this athletic chemise not readily apparent in our photo: You get to sport the Kimmel logo on your left sleeve, along with Papa John's on your starboard side ("The new official sponsor for Gonzaga Athletics!") and, emblazoned on the back of the T-shirt, Northern Quest Casino, "Where the Fun Never Ends." Which is also true of McCarthey -- as long as the 'Dogs block out on the boards, fill the lanes and finish with slams. & r & GET IT AT: Kimmel Athletic Supply, $15
Orikaso Fold Flat Ware & r & Ever spent hours trudging up a mountain trail with the guy right ahead of you trailing pots and tin cups below his backpack? Looks like a donkey, sounds like a donkey.
But watch his donkey eyes grow big as you pull your Orikaso dish, bowl and cup out of your own pack. They're plastic, they're flat, they don't clank. Instead, after folding along a few creases and snapping a few buttons, you've got high-country tableware.
Still, you've got to wonder if the higher elevations are affecting the judgment of some mountaineering types. Because among the "Common-Sense Guidelines" for the Fold Flat products is this item: "Do not unfold while in use."
So let's see, you tell Uncle Dwayne to cradle the boiling-hot soup in his lap, then simply undo a couple of the snaps and ... yowee! ... backpacking meets dinner theater. & r & GET IT AT: REI, $4-$6
GIFTS FOR THE STARVING ARTIST & r & Artist-types don't ask for much. Most of the year they're content to scribble away their misery on paper napkins in tiny coffee shops. Or just get out and bob their heads at the occasional rock show. But think long and hard this Christmas about what your starving artist friend/brother/granddaughter really needs. It's winter, it's cold. Snow has already clogged the streets and shuttered the meek inside. This is the time of year when, absent something to keep themselves busy, artsy-types start listening to Elliot Smith on repeat and have to be pried from their beds. If there were any other kind, I'd say nobody likes a mopey artist. The least you can do is help keep their creative juices flowing this winter. -- Joel Smith
Literature Refrigerator Magnets & r & Starving artists are just that -- starving. When they're not singing, dancing, lighting their life's work on fire, or catching pneumonia in a cobwebbed corner somewhere, they're staring blankly into their empty fridges. So why not turn that moment of despair into one of opportunity? This collection of magnets contains 301 words from literature's greatest works. (They throw in some pronouns and prepositions for fluency, too.) Suggest that your artist use the magnets as a brain-warming exercise (In the Beginning Were the Apes), an outlet for inappropriate thoughts (The Old Man and His Dick), or as haiku (Invisible Pride / Cold Slaughterhouse of Courage / Call Me A Stranger). In any case, what could be more postmodern than deconstructing such pieces de resistance as Don Quixote and War and Peace, then rearranging them on the front of an empty refrigerator? That's sooo deep. & r & GET IT AT: Paper Garden, $10
Speedball Deluxe Screen Printing Kit & r & Luke Baumgarten's friend made him a T-shirt that reads "Elliot Smith Kettle Corn," and he's pretty damned proud of it. Rightfully so. But how much cooler would Luke be if he'd actually made that shirt himself? You know what they say about teaching a fish to swim.... Hip T-shirts promoting obscure bands and dropping non sequiturs are practically membership cards for the artist community. Convince your artist to make himself a T-shirt that reads "Win Butler is my baby's daddy" and he'll be in like Philip Seymour Hoffman. This kit comes with a 10-inch-by-14-inch screen frame, a squeegee, an instructional video and everything else he'll need to print edgy, uber-hip platitudes ("Who died and made you the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?") on fabric, paper, cardboard and wood. If you figure out how to make a wearable wooden T-shirt, we'll be your first customers. (Warning: Screen-printing kit does not include business license.) & r & GET IT AT: Spokane Art Supply, $95
Fostex MR-8 Digital Recorder & r & The starving artist loves nothing more than to hear herself talk. Maybe she likes to hear herself scream, shred and whistle, too. If so, give her this digital recorder; it'll keep her busy for hours. Whether she's actually musically inclined or just fancies herself the next John Cage, the MR-8 will allow her to create multi-track opuses in CD quality sound. It's got onboard effects and editing, and it records to Compact Flash memory cards (128 mb included), so you can easily transfer data to a computer for further editing, mastering and noodling. For the price, this is one of the simplest and most powerful machines of its kind on the market. It's on this starving artist's Christmas list. I'm going to record myself reading Atlas Shrugged in six different languages, then overlay it with some hand claps and the sound of an Indian crying. & r & GET IT AT: Guitar Center, $229
Camera Mounts & r & We heard about this little gadget a couple of years ago and were mightily impressed. It's like the mount for a tripod, except that it allows you to affix a camera or video camera to the handlebars of your bicycle. Now your starving artist can forever enshrine in video tape the moment she gets beat down by the cops during Critical Mass. And then she can make a movie out of the footage, overdubbing some sad Eastern European violin music (recorded on her Fostex 8-track) and calling it cinema. If she's the kind of artist for whom exercise is kryptonite, however, you can get her a car window pod, from Huppin's, which attaches to a rolled-down window and allows for the production of drippingly nostalgic Cameron Crowe-esque road movies. Just add Simon and Garfunkel! & r & GET IT AT: www.cycoactive.com, $39; Huppin's, $23
Maker's Mark Whiskey & r & No hipster, artist or self-styled intellectual is complete without a fifth of Maker's stashed away in some nook, cranny or bedside drawer. What would Hemingway, Faulkner and Raymond Chandler be without a couple fingers of Kentucky mash close at hand? Hacks, that's what. And no starving artist can afford to be a hack. So get your artist's day started the right way -- with a cloud of warmth and self-importance. Their work can only improve. And forget that Jack Daniels/Jim Beam hogwash. You wouldn't start them off on their first novel with a Bic; you'd get 'em a fountain pen. Likewise, you gotta go with Makers, the only whiskey such hipster deities as the Weakerthans' John K. Samson will touch (or so we hear). Enough of this stuff and they'll be whipping up brilliant screen-print-fridge-magnet-audio-visual installation masterpieces in no time. & r & GET IT AT: Idaho state liquor stores, $24
HIGH TECH GIFTS & r & Everybody loves a good gadget, but nobody wants to spend a year's salary giving one. Here are five cutting-edge choices that come in under $200. -- Russell Page
Garmin eTrex GPS Unit & r & GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and the eTrex does just that. At four inches long and two inches wide, the handheld eTrex will tell hikers, hunters and even boaters where they're located, where they've been and where they're going -- from anywhere in the world. It even works in thick forest conditions. The eTrex GPS is tough, waterproof and runs for 22 hours on two AA batteries. Spendier models with more bells and whistles are available, too. & r & GET IT AT: Mountain Goat Outfitters, $106
Toshiba DR-4 DVD Recorder & r & The DVD recorder is the VCR of the new century and has finally come down in price. Way down. The DR-4 also plays audio CDs and will allow you to bring your old VCR recordings and camcorder videos into the digital age by transferring them to DVD. & r & GET IT AT: Huppin's, $150
Soyo Z-Connect G668 VoIP Phone & r & A VoIP phone makes telephone calls over the Internet (DSL or broadband required). These phone calls skip the telephone wires, so there's no problem getting through during the busy holiday season. It also gives technophiles the option of checking voice mail via the Internet. Many of the phone companies offer VoIP telephone services that include unlimited calling to anywhere in the United States or Canada for a fraction of the cost of a normal telephone package, and international calling is practically free. Calls to Rome, for example, are all of five cents a minute. Now if only it were that cheap to travel there. & r & GET IT AT: www.TigerDirect.com, $60
XM Satellite Receiver and Home Hookup Kit & r & A radio signal is hard to lose when it comes from the cosmos. Satellite radio is exactly what it sounds like: radio signals that come from satellites. But you can't pick up the stations with grandpa's old transistor radio; you need a special satellite radio receiver like the ones from XM. For a $13 monthly subscription fee, you get 150 channels to choose from, including 67 commercial-free music channels and access to Major League Baseball games. XM satellite receivers can be purchased for the car, home or personal lifestyle. A portable boombox customized for XM costs $100. & r & GET IT AT: Circuit City, $80
ZVUE Z-002 & r & A ZVUE (pronounced "z-view") is the Jetsons' version of the MP3 player because it also plays video. About the size of a pack of playing cards, ZVUEs let technophiles to tote around their favorite videos, songs and audio books and photos on a device that will fit in their pockets. The ZVUE comes with postage stamp-sized memory cards for storing movies and tunes and will play videos for about eight hours on a full charge. At $150, the ZVUE costs about half the price of a video iPod and gets almost three times the battery life when playing video. & r & GET IT AT: www.Amazon.com, $150
THE GIFT OF TOYS & r & We may pretend to be adults around here, but really, Christmas is all about toys. If you're too old to justify adding toys to your own wish list, the next best thing is to get toys for the kids in your life --- and then come up with some pretext for getting your hands on the toys yourself. When I was kid, we could only dream about the kinds of toys that are standard fare today. What more excuse do we need? -- Mike Corrigan
Nerf N-Strike & r & I'm old enough to remember when the first Nerf ball was introduced to American kids. It was squishy, sort of fun to toss around and infamously "mom-approved" for indoor play. But there was always something vaguely unsatisfying about it. For one thing, you couldn't throw it very far. Even a marshmallow was more threatening. Boy, times sure have changed. Today's Nerf toys appear anything but tame -- and they go a lot farther, too. Check out the fearsome factor of the Nerf N-Strike. Allusions to thermonuclear war notwithstanding ("Launch your very own N-Strike, kids! And watch 'em duck and cover!") this three-in-one tool of destruction looks like a lot of fun. It's certainly the largest projectile weapon in the Nerf Blaster system and includes three blasters, nine micro-darts, one mega-missile (for that deeply satisfying "mutually assured destruction") and an interactive DVD. Now if they could only devise Nerf toy that would shield you from your opponent's incoming missiles. Hmmm ... & r & GET IT AT: Fred Meyer, $40
Transformers Cybertron Supreme Starscream & r & Like the name? So did I. This imposingly chunky monkey is the King Daddy of the Transformers line by Hasbro. Even in the box, I was somewhat taken aback by this thing's sheer size, not to mention the complexity of its chiseled, transformable form. (He's certainly easy to spot on the toy store shelf.) Standing erect at an impressive 15 inches tall, Starscream is loaded with electronic lights and sounds, not to mention the ability to transform into a spacecraft. With great manipulative features and firing projectiles, this action figure/space jet will keep 'em busy for hours. The Cybertron emits a truly Supreme Starscream when in robot mode. But don't fret, NASCAR dads: His scream is, thankfully, far more unearthly than girly. & r & GET IT AT: White Elephant, $50
Scamps, My Playful Pup & r & Have Mom and Dad just told you "No dog!" for the quadrillionth time? Well, just let 'em try and find fault with this little fella. "Scamps" from Playskool's FurReal Friends line, is an amazingly (and somewhat disturbingly) life-like electronic puppy that is more than just a pre-programmed, one-trick mutt. Unlike most real dogs I know, Scamps actually understands and responds to your vocal commands. Say "sit" and he'll do it. Say "howl" and he'll howl at you. Say "jump" and he'll say, "howrl fawrl?" He also barks, shakes, and sits up and begs. If you reward Scamps by patting his back and saying "good dog," he'll want to play even more. Best of all, no poopies. That's right, though Scamps may scarf down his weight in "C" batteries every month, the only things this frisky little guy excretes are love and companionship. & r & GET IT AT: Target, $45
IlluStory & r & Do you have an aspiring Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist lurking within your brood of hatchlings? Well, here's a learning toy that will send them, if not into the international literary spotlight, at least bounding off in the right direction. IlluStory is an award-winning kit that lets kids write and illustrate their very own professionally typeset, hardbound book. Inside the kit is everything the budding author needs to write, illustrate and design a 12-page story, including 10 washable markers and 18 special book pages. Once completed, the manuscript is mailed to the publisher using the included pre-paid envelope for printing and binding (there's also an Internet production option with expanded choices and faster delivery times at no extra cost). In a couple of weeks -- shazam! -- your kid has his or her spiffy finished masterwork in hand and ready to show off (complete with title page, dedication page, even an "About the Author" page) thereby leaving your own frustrated literary ambitions hacking up dust. & r & GET IT AT: Target, $20
LeapFrog Leapster & r & Rarely in the annals of kid-dom has such an obvious learning toy so easily slipped under child radar without taking at least a little "no fun" flack. But such is the genius of LeapFrog's seamlessly integrated Leapster multimedia learning system. From a kid's perspective, Leapster is strictly entertaining, providing all the instantaneous gratification and sensory stimulation of a favorite video game. Meanwhile, something more insidious is taking place. Through the utilization of Leapster's vast library of educational games (which load cartridge-style into the hand-held player / controller), kids are actually embarking on learning adventures in reading, vocabulary, math, creativity and critical thinking. This sleek, ergonomic and, best of all, durable portable device houses a 4-inch color backlit display with brightness control. Interface with Leapster is achieved using a touch-screen stylus and multi-directional control pad. There's also a headphone jack for times (while riding in the car, for instance) when rambunctious tight-quarters play would perhaps threaten to drive family members to smash Leapster into a thousand ingenious tiny bits. Comes with six game cartridges. & r & GET IT AT: Toys R Us, $50
GIFTS FOR COOKS AND FOOD LOVERS & r & I love food. (You'd figure that out soon enough, but because I'm safely hidden behind the printed word, I thought I ought to tell you.) I love cooking food and eating food, but most of all I love sharing food. Sure, sustenance is among the most basic of human needs, but once we're eating enough for survival -- generally not a problem here in supersized America -- food becomes a way to connect with others, the basis of a social occasion or simply a good excuse for a party. What do you do when you really want to get to know someone? You get together over a beer or a cup of coffee or a light meal and let the food act as a catalyst. And there's something about breaking bread together that dissolves the walls between people, making a meal feel like a sacrament even for the most secular among us. So, herewith, some gifts meant to be shared. -- Ann M. Colford
Cuisinart Griddler GR-4 & r & Grills to make those delightfully hot and gooey panini sandwiches are all the rage now for home cooks, but I hate the idea of buying an appliance that'll only cook one thing. This stainless steel grill is small enough to fit comfortably on the kitchen counter, but the 8-by-11-inch cooking surface is big enough to handle two thick sandwiches. Swap out the cooking plates and you have a low-fat grill for meat or open it up fully to create a double-size open griddle for pancakes. Front-mounted temperature controls adjust to the task at hand and removable dishwasher-safe nonstick plates mean easy cleanup. It's not endorsed by a boxing champ, but the Griddler gets top marks from friends who use theirs everyday. Holy panini, Batman! & r & GET IT AT: Macy's, $130
Cocktail Napkins & r & Sometimes all you need to turn a gripe session among girlfriends into a party are some little pink-and-black napkins with attitude to slip under those wine or martini glasses. Sharing sentiments like "Friends don't let friends take ugly men home," and "Put your big girl panties on and deal with it" will take you straight into Sex and the City territory. (Of course, now that Kirstie Alley has signed on with Fruit of the Loom to model the company's new plus-size underwear line, that last statement may take on a whole new meaning, not to mention the visuals.) Add some chocolate, some frou-frou cocktails, maybe a feather boa or two, and you've got yourself a top-rated Girls' Night In. & r & GET IT AT: Four Seasons, $5
Riedel Cabernet/Merlot Tumblers (set of two) & r & The best wine needs the finest crystal to complement its subtle je ne sais quoi and display its aesthetic qualities. The Austrian company, Riedel, makes marvelous crystal stemware for wine snobs -- er, wine lovers -- with individual styles for different varieties of wine. But stemware, while beautiful to behold, is a pain in the butt to clean and way too easy to knock over, especially after downing the contents. Enter the wine tumbler, a wine glass without the stem. The bowl of the tumbler is shaped specifically to enhance the experience of a particular grape varietal, just like the stemmed version, but without that pesky stem to get in the way. These glasses are dishwasher-safe -- and they'll even fit on the top shelf. The Cab/Merlot glasses are my favorite, mainly due to my fondness for the full-bodied reds that go so well inside. Anybody listening? & r & GET IT AT: Huckleberry's Natural Market, $20
Jaccard Meat Tenderizer & r & Health-conscious diners look to leaner cuts of meat these days, but sometimes the cuts with less fat cook up less tender. Ditto for bargain cuts or wild game. What's a home cook to do? You can grab a meat mallet and pound your steak into kingdom come, losing many of the juices along the way, or you can try this nifty tool invented by a Swiss & eacute;migr & eacute; in New York. Visualize one of those little address stampers that you'd find in any office, the automatic-inking kind. Now, instead of a rubber stamp on the bottom, imagine a row of 16 tiny blades (48 on the deluxe model) that punch into the meat with the flick of a hand. The blades break the connective tissue that makes meat tough, opening a channel for marinades and rubs to work their delicious way in. Yum. & r & GET IT AT: Everyday Gourmet, $21
Loose-Leaf Tea Sampler & r & The British may have deemed 4 pm to be tea time, but for my money just about any time of day is right for a steaming cuppa. All true tea (excluding herbal) comes from the tea bush camellia sinensis; the difference in varieties lies in the level of oxidation and the addition of flavors. There's green tea, the leaves freshly dried off the tree, and hearty black tea, which has been allowed to ferment slightly for a stronger flavor. Earl Grey tea contains a hint of bergamot oil for its distinctive scent and flavor; often, fruit essences are blended in during fermentation. A sampler of loose tea is the best way for the uninitiated to choose a favorite; two ounces each of favorites like apricot flower tea, pan-fired green tea, peppermint and decaffeinated orange spice will get things started. & r & GET IT AT: Java on Sherman in CdA, $6
GIFTS FOR SENIORS & r & We all have people on our gift lists whose needs are hard to define. Years ago, the problem was what to get for Grandma; more recently, it's been what to buy for Mom and Dad. Aging brings both benefits and challenges, and gifts for seniors need to reflect their new realities. -- Suzanne Schreiner
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion & r & I come from a family of readers. My parents restricted television and set the example of book-reading, sticking their noses into works of history and biography and, in my dad's case, a whole lot of golf. Books featured prominently in family gift-giving, and when my dad would bemoan the fresh titles on the grounds that he was still working on last year's batch, my ready reply was that books, unlike fresh strawberries, were not perishable. This year, the book will be Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award and recounts the aftermath of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, as well as the fatal illness of her daughter Quintana. While death and loss are not exactly cheery Christmas fare, they are not unfamiliar issues for seniors, by virtue of their years. When a writer as accomplished as Didion takes up those universal experiences, the result is a good read, however bleak the subject. & r & GET IT AT: Auntie's Bookstore, $24
Sugar-Free Chocolates & r & If there is a holiday that does not require liberal amounts of chocolate, the seniors in my life do not acknowledge it. Chocolate is celebration, as only cacao laid on with sugar and butterfat can be. And as my mom reminds me, dark chocolate is heart-healthy, too. But for a country that has seen rates of obesity and diabetes soar, chocolate is no longer a guilt-free indulgence, heart-healthy or not. Consider then, that seeming oxymoron: sugar-free chocolate. No, this is not the stuff of grim-faced Puritans, hair-shirted penitents or the abstemious; it's actually quite good. Spokandy offers an array of sugar-free nuts and chews, cr & egrave;mes, almond bark and fudge to make merry (and healthy) the heart of every chocoholic senior on your list. & r & GET IT AT: Spokandy, $8.50-$18 per pound
Norman Rockwell Santa at the Globe Puzzle & r & Shopping for puzzles is like entering the funhouse -- you stagger out dazed and disoriented. Unlike the odd angles and trick mirrors of the funhouse, it's the wild, puzzle-junkie abundance that bedazzles. There are fabric-textured puzzles and puzzles that glow in the dark and 3-D puzzles that render Manhattan or San Francisco or Venice with thousands of foam pieces. The impossibles come without borders and with extra pieces -- puzzles for masochists, in other
words. There are murder mystery puzzles and photo-mosaics and spherical puzzles that can be hung as ornaments on the tree. Puzzles are also a prescription for mental agility, so seniors are all over them like a Florida beach. Besides, if you're attempting one of those 5,000-piece monsters, you bloody well better be retired. For sheer nostalgia and Yuletide appeal, Rockwell's rumpled, list-checking, route-mapping Santa at the Globe is hard to beat. I damn near walked out with it myself. & r & GET IT AT: Uncle's Games & amp; Puzzles, $15
Resistance Bands with Handles & r & Seniors are not universally infirm, as my own parental units will tell you loudly. But there are physical changes that come with age: less muscle mass, slower reaction time, balance that is not as reliable as it once was. If ever there was a panacea for slowing the symptoms of aging, though, it is exercise. Some seniors tout wrist and ankle weights, others sing the benefits of medicine balls for strength training, and exercise physiologists are all in a flap for the pricey ($129) BOSU Balance Trainer. But the folks at Spokane Exercise say that the humble resistance band, stretching back (sorry) to the heyday of fitness messiah Jack La Lanne, is what seniors ask for most often. Of course, these days the bands come in all colors of the rainbow and in thicknesses ranging from not much bigger than an udon noodle to the size of garden hoses. This is no-fuss, low-tech exercise. Wrap it around a table leg -- pull, lift, repeat -- and your favorite senior is on the way to healthy aging. & r & GET IT AT: Spokane Exercise, $19
Sheepskin Slippers & r & As I look out my window today, it's a snowy, winter scene straight out of Currier and Ives. Branches are traced with snow, rooftops are blanketed, the riverbank is a vision in white and the sky itself is a vast white canvas as more flakes flutter down. Throw in some skaters gliding on a frozen pond and the nostalgic reverie would come to life. Yup, it's winter, so let's get comfy. A good blaze in the fireplace, hot chocolate (or, even better, a hot toddy), a hearty bowl of soup and yes, a warm pair of slippers to keep the toes toasty -- all are essential elements in celebrating Old Man Winter. The fleece-lined sheepskin slippers at Moose Lake are a classic version of this winter essential. Seniors will especially like the non-skid soles, sturdy enough to step outside and grab the newspaper or fetch the mail. They are made by -- I swear I didn't plan this -- Old Friends; the men's slipper is called "Romeo" and the women's, "Juliet." You can't make this stuff up. & r & GET IT AT: Moose Lake Company, $45