Twenty-Five Fab Christmas Gift Ideas — Elephants Included!

English: The Park House Club in Cardiff, wrapp...

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This year, skip the dreary I-have-no-idea-what-to-get-them standbys — scented candles, scarves, hats, mitts or gift cards.

How about:

An elephant! Here’s a lovely stuffed, embroidered one from India for $60. My mom has owned one of these for many years and he’s a cheery addition to the household.

Or, why not adopt an orphaned elephant in Africa?

For the older music-lover in your life — perhaps someone in their 70s or beyond — how about this mix of classics from Kern, Berlin and others, played by the inimitable Stephane Grapelli?

For a stylish woman who likes unusual jewelry, these shield-shaped earrings from Vivre are exquisite: yes, a splurge at $280.

If you know and love Joni Mitchell (fellow Canadian!), you’ll know that Hejira, from 1976, is considered one of her best albums ever. I adore it.

This elegant women’s silk jacket — rich purple reversible to brown. I own one of these, (in burgundy) and love having two jackets for the price of one.

A travel shaving kit for the man on the go: $50, smells of sandalwood. Yum!

A mini food-processor, in bright tangerine, great for soups, smoothies: $39.95. I use mine all the time.

For all you old-schoolers who still wear a watch, here’s a simple, all-black field watch from LLBean; $129. A nice unisex gift for all ages.

I dare you to resist this insanely great-smelling (citrus) French soap, Hesperides by Fresh. One bar lasts for a month. A friend gave it to me and I now love it; $14.

For a woman with pierced ears, these tiny “diamond” studded pyramids would be perfect with everything from jeans to her favorite LBD; $28.

Or these really comfortable lug-sole black patent leather loafers. Comfy, water-resistant; $99. I own them and love them!

This Turkish seasoning is the bomb! Rub it into chicken or pork. Add it to Greek yogurt. A big $3.49.

How about a meter of this amazing Liberty print cotton? Red, yellow and blue ladders designed by an award-winning film and fashion designer. From my favorite London shop, Liberty. 21 pounds; $38.85.

From one of my favorite old-school Manhattan shops, founded in 1907, Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, a pound of chocolate cinnamon coffee; $9.95. Their teas are great as well.

Here’s one of my favorite lingerie stores, in Canada, La Senza. Two of these floral push-up bras for $39.50. Deal!

I love this tight close-up color photograph of a cowboy’s tools of the trade, by a Wyoming female photographer on Etsy; $20. If you haven’t yet explored Etsy, get on over there! It’s a huge on-line marketplace of things all made by creative individuals worldwide. (I’ll be opening my site there in 2012.)

This home goods store in Alexandria, Virginia has a fun, retro-look mantel clock in red. It would add a nice pop of color and a small, great style hit; $118.

A fresh set of towels, in rich and unusual earthy stripes: rust, gray, cream: $35-45.

These astonishing pewter candlesticks –– with a geranium leaf motif. Designed by a San Francisco artist, I have one by my bed and love looking at it every day.

Here are five global charities endorsed by international columnist Nick Kristof of The New York Times.

If your giftee has an Iphone 4, here’s a leather Iphone case; $38.

Or a man’s tattersall shirt in a nice weathered gray; $69.50.

Here’s a blog post with ten gorgeously-wrapped foods, (cake, chocolate, marzipan) you can order on-line.

You could also buy a copy, e-book or hardcover, of my own memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which received terrific reviews from People, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly and Marie-Claire. It tells the story of working in a low-wage job, and is filled with useful, practical lessons for employees, managers and shoppers alike. You can read two chapters for free here.

I hope, wherever you shop and whatever you buy, you give as much business as you possibly can to your local retailers, the men and women who give our cities and towns such character and style.

Be sure to say a genuine thank you!!! to the weary associates helping you. Their feet are killing them, they’re making minimum wage and no commission and working crazy-long hours. (Give the best ones a candy cane! Then tell their manager how helpful they were. That way they might get hired on after the holidays.)

Be the best Santa ever!

Still Missing Granny

Granny (Looney Tunes)

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Anyone who reads this blog knows my family is…let’s say, not terribly close.

Lots of drama and strife. For decades. But there’s one person I always miss.

My grandmother, my mom’s mother Aline, was born on December 10 and died in 1975. That’s a long time ago, but I still miss her.

She was decidedly not a conventional granny. She didn’t cook or bake cookies or crochet or do anything vaguely domestic. She was imperious, bossy, drank, cursed and forced me — even at 16 — to start figuring out my own opinions about things and defending them. Not a bad role model.

She inherited an insane amount of money and ran through most of it: jewels, gorgeous homes, great antiques, traveled only by limousine. Not a lifestyle I’ve ever seen up close since then, but fun to be around and gave me a great taste (God help me!) for elegance and luxury.

Nor did she bother to pay taxes to any government for decades, so most of her stuff got sold. Responsibility was clearly not her strong suit.

I still own, and treasure, a gold chain and charm she gave me when I was 15, as much because it came from her as because, when it comes to inheriting anything she owned…that’s it! One of her armoires is now in a Toronto museum, so I can visit a piece of her furniture.

She was hell on her own daughter, my mother, and married six (eight?) times, including twice to my Mom’s father. She packed my mother off to prep school, who then married at 17 to flee the madness of it all, moving north to Vancouver from New York with her Canadian husband, my father. (My mother did not enjoy being her mother’s child; like me, she was always much closer to her maternal grandmother than to her own mother.)

But, for me, Granny was kind, generous, reliably loving,  fun and funny. Christmas was a riot of presents and parties. We ate goose for Christmas dinner, which I loved. She had gay male friends, her jeweler and his partner, who taught me very early that stylish people come in all genders and sexual preferences.

She had little dogs — poodles or Yorkies. She used a gold-topped cane. She was (as I am — in her memory?) addicted to Jeopardy. She wore custom-made raw silk muumuus and turbans topped with enormous jeweled brooches. Grandes dames ‘r us!

She used to have me over on the weekends from my boarding school and dinner was usually a TV dinner I could eat in front of the television — both were luxuries unavailable at school. I used to fall asleep in my armchair, fed and loved, and felt comfort in that before returning to a week filled with bells and rules and strict, dull housemothers wielding lists.

I still miss her.


Clown trousers

Even worse! Image by Eleventh Earl of Mar via Flickr

It takes some kind of skill to totally piss off your husband with one word. And a word that’s G-rated.

But I did.

Poor Jose. The other morning my first word when I saw him dressed for work in beige gabardine trousers was the P-word, uttered in horror.


Shoot me. I’m shallow like that.

We live near, and work in, New York City, a place where the streets are filled with people whose style, income and devotion to looking good can be a little overwhelming. Every time I head into Manhattan, I have to up my game a little. People you hope to work with size you up within seconds.

So when I see my husband wearing a pair of pants that screams 1986, I scream too.

It made for a very tense day. No man wants to be criticized for his fashion sense. But Jose also runs a wedding photography business and some potential clients may see things as I do.

The sad truth is that every time we step out the door we’re being judged by how we look.

Whatever your style statement — including the fact you can’t be bothered making one — it’s saying something to others about you.

If you hope to compete, and win, it matters, (even you personally couldn’t give a rip.)

How much does appearance — yours and others’ — matter to you?

Four Epiphanies


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It’s been quite the year. Here are my four (major) epiphanies for 2011, three pleasant, one not so much…

Why I work

Earlier this year, I took a fascinating test offered to me gratis by James Sale, a British businessman who found me on LinkedIn. His company, Motivational Maps, helps companies and workers find the best possible fit between their deepest personal values and their job. After taking this quick but incisive test, you’ll learn whether you most want to be a Builder, Friend, Star, Director or other role.

I emerged as a Creator and Seeker, which surprised me, but explained a lot. It clarified a wearying battle between my desire for a higher income and my joy in doing good work that satisfies me.

I’ve been duped for decades

The details are too grim and convoluted to share here, but I learned this year that my mother has been lying to me for a long time, relying on my ignorant goodwill. Words fail me on this one.

I’m spiritually hungry

I did an eight-day silent retreat this summer with Jose. I dreaded it, but learned a lot and came away moved and inspired: by the Buddhist teachings, the spirit of community, the wisdom and humor of our teachers and some new, helpful ways of thinking and behaving. (Visit my website if you’d like to read my piece about it from November’s Marie-Claire.)

Spending time in natural surroundings nurtures me deeply

For a New York Times story, I spent eight hours in a Central Park thicket studying wilderness survival techniques, which reminded me how much I love being outdoors, in nature, far away from machines and noise and screens and things that blink and beep. If 2012 allows, maybe it’s the year I finally buy a canoe, small sailboat or kayak so I can get out on the Hudson River and really enjoy it!

Have you had any epiphanies this year?

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I Love Dinner Parties!

Dinner party at a Mandarin's house.

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When Jose and I started dating, it was a very short time before I put him to the acid test — helping me throw a dinner party.

I love giving dinner parties!

They satisfy many urges: to make people happy, to feed them well, to set a pretty table, (candles, flowers, home-made place cards, linen or cotton napkins, colorful plates, shiny silver), and to create new connections between the people I love.

We had two couples over recently who had never met, but I knew would get along and enjoy one another, (another key to a great dinner party. No random guests!) The two women, even with a 15-year age difference, had both worked in book publishing in Manhattan. Their husbands are quieter, but both have a dry sense of humor. They all love to eat well and everyone loves to laugh.

The menu:

tomato soup (with a touch of gin!)

salmon with tangerine/butter/soy sauce glaze


mango rice

chocolate ice cream with my invention, (what I call drunk fruit), served hot on top. (Throw blackberries, raspberries, apple, pear, butter, cloves, cinnamon, maple syrup, lemon or lime juice, scotch and/or Marsala and/or sherry into a heavy pan and boil. Yum!)

The best part was remembering that one of the women had cut a CD a few years ago, a gift from her family. So we all listened to it, and the other woman happily sang along.

We love remembering dinner parties we held a decade ago, like the one that included our minister and his wife (in their 60s), a young photographer and journalist, a Times shooter just back from Afghanistan and my web designer. One couple locked eyes across our table — and married a few years later.

The mix matters!

No boors/bores. No mean jokes. No one smokes. No one drinks to excess. We’re passionate about the news and current affairs. Aggression, whether passive or active, is deeply unwelcome; here’s a sadly accurate blog post about watching three sorts of moribund marriages across the table.

Our friends have generally traveled the world, are educated, read widely and avidly, share enough cultural references we’ve got something in common but enough (civil!) difference of opinion to enjoy talking to one another.

We’ve got it down to a science, helped by the fact I work at home and can easily make time for fussy niceties like ironing a tablecloth and napkins or re-filling the votives. I love settling in with my recipes and cookbooks to plan a meal that’s balanced, interesting and good-looking. Our kitchen is very small, so we do it restaurant-style, with prep work in advance, and plating on the kitchen counter.

I grew up in a family that frequently had friends over for dinner, and Jose’s Mom, as a small-town minister’s wife did often for family and church visitors.

It’s one of the happiest traditions he and I now continue. (I do know that having kids, especially small ones, makes this sort of thing more difficult. We don’t have kids.)

Do you enjoy entertaining?

Klimt, Schiele, Redon — Who Are Your Favorite Artists?

Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which sold for a record $...

Adele Bloch-Bauer, now at the Neue Galerie in New York. Image via Wikipedia

Loving a new book I bought while in Chicago recently, about Gustav Klimt. One of his paintings just sold at auction for $40.4 million, far exceeding the estimate of $25 million. A portrait of his sold for $135 million in 2006 and now hangs (yay!) in a gallery a 30-minute drive from my home in Manhattan’s Neue Galerie.

When I met my husband he was living in Brooklyn, in a brownstone, with a huge Klimt poster of The Kiss, over his bed. Oooh, I thought. Good signs: romantic, likes art, likes Klimt!

Klimt was one of the Viennese Secessionists, along with Egon Schiele, another of my favorites — who also died at a horribly young age (28, three days after the death of his wife), from the same influenza epidemic of 1918.

Schiele was a protege of Klimt and his work considered scandalous.

Odilon Redon worked in several media, one of them pastel, and his still lifes of flowers are some of my favorites.

I recently saw a show of Lyonel Feininger at the Whitney. Amazing! His early drawings, from 1909 to 1912, were an absolute revelation and prompted me to rush back to the art supply store and stock up on drawing pens. They’re playful, detailed, like a mini Tim Burton or Edward Gorey…and 100 years old.

I grew up, luckily, in a home filled with original art: paintings, sculpture, etchings, engravings, everything from Eskimo prints and soapstone owls to Japanese masks and scrolls. My father (a retired film-maker) himself works as an artist, well, in a variety of media: silver, etching, lithography, oils, so a life surrounded by visual beauty — which we made and owned — seemed completely normal to me.

One of our favorite wedding gifts is from a friend who’s a talented artist, three drawings of knots (!) Whenever I travel, I pack my pencils and watercolors and sketchbook, and some of my favorite images are those I drew: a pint of Guinness in an Irish pub, a shop in Bangkok, a cob of corn I painted in a class in Mexico City.

When I was revising my new book, I took a three-hour class every Friday morning, working with  colored pencils and a tough teacher. It was fascinating to see what my fellow students produced. One, a subdued suburban matron, drew huge, gorgeous flowers bursting off the edges of the paper. I, the chatty, feisty girl, drew small, tight images. Go figure!

After each class, focused on capturing one object for all that time, I returned to my computer totally refreshed and happy, re-energized by one form of creativity to dip into the well of another.

If I don’t look carefully at something really beautiful every day (and it’s often in nature), I feel bereft.

Who are some of the artists whose work you love and why?