by Ann M. Colford

Time may be an illusion, but we've come up with plenty of tangible ways to track its usage and mark its passing. Take calendars, for instance. Given the close proximity of Christmas and New Year's Day, calendars are popular and reasonably inexpensive holiday gifts. At first blush, choosing a calendar for someone may seem like an easy task; after all, each one marks the same 12 months, the same 365 days, and in the same order. And yet shows 3,219 different calendars in stock. How is one to choose?

The first thing to settle on is format. Do you want a standard wall calendar? Or maybe a mini-version only one-quarter that size? How about a desk calendar, with one page per day? Or do you prefer to tote your days around in a bound appointment book?

After settling on format, the intrepid gift buyer faces a bewildering array of options: Comic or serious? Hip or sentimental? High- or low-brow? Puppies or kittens?

The choices seem endless -- and laden with risk. Rather than simply marking time, our calendars now make a statement about who we are. Picture the scene: First day on the job, and in the cubicle next door, you spy the latest Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging above the desk. Even before meeting your new co-worker, you've learned something about what she -- or he -- values. Imagine instead a Harley-Davidson calendar. Brings to mind a totally different co-worker, doesn't it?

Now, that's not to imply that a person couldn't like both Mary Engelbreit and Harley-Davidsons, nor is it a value judgment of either one. But these temporal art installations can be powerfully personal symbols. Bearing that symbolic nature in mind, here are a handful of choices from the multitude of options. If none of these appeal to you, remember that there are at least 3,213 others to choose from, including calendars dedicated to abandoned trucks, giant earthmovers and Spam.

Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) -- Photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist Craig Marberry teamed up two years ago to produce a book of 50 photographs and stories celebrating the tradition of African-American women and their Sunday hats. This wall calendar draws from those images and includes excerpts from interviews with the women. Sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking, their stories underscore the dignity reclaimed through these statements of "hattitude."

Out West: Photographs by Philip V. Augustin (Ronnie Sellers Productions, Inc.) -- Photographer Augustin travels throughout the Western U.S. each year capturing both the grandeur and the desolation of the Western landscape. His broad dramatic skies and eerily hushed snow scenes are reproduced in duotone plus silver metallic ink in this wall calendar. Transplanted Westerners and tenderfoot Easterners alike will enjoy these reminders of this region's harshly beautiful nature.

Mollie Katzen (Mead) -- The Queen of Moosewood returns with this wall calendar featuring a Katzen pastel illustration for each month, along with a seasonal recipe. Katzen's artwork conjures up bright, colorful visions of domestic bliss in the kitchen.

Edward Gorey: The Gashlycrumb Tinies (Pomegranate) -- Gorey, the artist known to millions as the creator of the quasi-Victorian animated sketches that introduce each weekly episode of the PBS series, Mystery, had a gift for combining the ghastly and the amusing in his work. In this week-by-week appointment book, adapted from his cautionary alphabet rhyme of the same name, Gorey's illustrations show charming waifs meeting untimely ends by dastardly -- but poetic -- means. (My favorites: "M is for Maud who was swept out to sea; N is for Neville who died of ennui.") The translucent hard plastic covers front and back are a nice touch, too.

Origami Desk Calendar (Accord) -- As page-a-day calendars go, this one at least offers therapeutic activity, as well as the promise of artful recycling. Each day's page gives instructions for a small paper-folding project using the previous day's page. The early projects are relatively simple, but the lessons build as the year goes on. If you miss a few days, you may need to review what you missed in order to move on successfully. There's a danger that the daily origami projects may become just one more item on your daily to-do list, but it's a good option for those nervous types who are always looking for something to do with their hands.

Pulp Attack (Tushita) -- The images on this calendar bring back the glory days of B-movies, True Story magazine and those novels you always hid from your parents. There's Marijuana Girl, promising "the plain, uncensored truth about teen-age addicts and their search for thrills," and Pickup, in which "they gave her a bad name, and she lived up to it!"

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