Charm-i-days Idea #9: Water bottled up

December 15, 2008
Drink water like it's 1883.

Drink water like it's 1883.

Everyone on your list drinks water. But are they drinking stylishly and with eco-flair?

We’ve been given plenty of reasons to give up bottled water over the last couple of years … full landfills, heavy carbon footprints and plastic toxicity concerns. Add another reason to list: pretty, shiny objects.

Experts can argue about the dire nature of all the other reasons to switch, but I haven’t found anyone yet who will deny the high charm quotient on these aluminum alternatives.

Perhaps the most spectacular aluminum water bottles of all are based on Arts & Crafts Movement patterns designed by William Morris in the late 1800s. The nature themes are typical of that style – the movement was a rejection of excesses of the Victorian age and the dehumanization and mass production of the Industrial Revolution. (These water bottles sound very important now, yes?)

Sigg bottles have been around for a while now, too, and they’re mighty fine as well, although I can’t claim any historical significance. But you know, they’re from Switzerland. Mountains, pure streams, timely trains and all that. I love my turquoise Maharadsha bottle, and REI is selling a holiday design.

I refill my bottles with my Brita filter pitcher, but when I’m a millionaire, I’m going to buy my own seltzer maker and drink bubbly water like there’s no tomorrow. I’ll be so far beyond plastic and aluminum at that point that I’ll likely use a sterling straw. But I digress. My point is: save the planet, get a friend or family member hydrated, make a historical/design statement and cross someone off your gift list in one fell swoop.

William Morris-inspired water bottles, $14.95
Sigg Maharadsha bottle, $24.99
Sigg holiday bottle, $24.99
Sigg, Sigg and more Sigg

Charm-i-days Idea # 8: Fun with biology

December 13, 2008
Sea monkey upgrade

Sea monkey upgrade

For the scientific Santa on your list: eco-systems for your viewing pleasure and a plant that responds to your touch.

My friend Andrea describes these ecospheres by Viva Terra simply by saying they’re “way cooler than sea monkeys,” and I think she sums it up quite charmingly. The hand-blown glass orb is pretty on its own but also contains a whole world of plants, shrimp, algae and microorganisms. The sphere-dwellers require some light, but other than that are pretty low-maintenance, which is more than we can say for other holiday pets.

I did love my sea monkeys as a little girl – I found myself completely transfixed by the happy-looking sea monkey family on the box. (I think I wanted to live inside that little bubble.) I never had much luck with the actual sea monkeys, though – I just looked at the package a lot. So now we have a sophisticated, grown-up version to entertain us and to look pretty on a shelf.

I also ran across these “TickleMe Plants,” which look fun. Mimosa pudica is the tropical plant’s scientific name, but what the plants do is more interesting than whatever you decide to call them. They bloom with pink flowers, and they curl up their leaves when you touch them.

Living ecosphere, $89
Sea monkeys, price varies
Tickle plants, $5.95 and up

Charm-i-days Idea #7: Origami sticky notes

December 10, 2008

Sticky-note origami makes an unexpected gift for the creative person (or the bored office worker) on your list.

origamiHow cute are these? Each of the sticky note origami pads has instructions for origami shapes from pigs and butterflies to squirrels and lilies. Recycling old post-it notes has never been quite so … shapely.

I think lots of people would be amused and surprised by this as a gift. Think of those office workers looking for something interesting to do with their post-it notes, not to mention creative types (and fidgety ones?).

I have to admit I’m not patient enough to try origami, but the company says their instructions are good for beginners and advanced origami lovers. So add “extremely dexterous people” to the list of appropriate gift recipients.

Since the sticky origami notes are only $5, you could pick up a packet for yourself, too. Who knows – start on the penguin this year and by next Christmas, you could be crafting paper reindeer in front of a roaring fire.

Origami sticky notes, $5

Charm-i-days Idea #6: Swaps and coupons

December 9, 2008

Swaps and coupons lower the stress and the cost of holiday merry-making.


Gourmet magazine's swap-ready cookies

More people are deciding this year to celebrate the holidays without pricey gifts – or even without traditional packages & bows altogether. Phrases such as “it’s the thought that counts” and “quality time” are in frequent use. The Charm-o-Matic approves.

Swap-o-Licious: Scientists have discovered two main types of swaps – one that results in more baked goods than Rudolph can shake his nose at and one that results in presents under your tree.

For the baked type, simply invite a group of friends over. A traditional cookie exchange means you and all of your friends have a variety of treats throughout the holidays. You can either do a swap with people you would have been exchanging gifts with, or you can divvy up the cookies later for gifts to neighbors, co-workers and such. (Or you can eat them all – I won’t tell.) If you’re fresh out of recipe ideas, take a look at Gourmet magazine’s beautiful cookie retrospective.

If you have a smaller group, everyone can bring enough casseroles for all swappers – for example, if four people are participating, Sally makes four lasagnas, Cindy Loo Who makes four classic tuna noodles, Mrs. Claus makes her corn and zucchini concoction and so on. All swappers go home with three casseroles (plus her own back at home) to stick in the fridge or freezer and whip out when she doesn’t feel like cooking.

For the gifting type, pick a theme such as sporting goods or kitchen gadgets or kid’s clothing and swap like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone brings a load of items they no longer need, and all of the friends get to pick what they want from the pile. Fun.

Coupon-o-Rama: Find the construction paper or card stock that must be sitting around somewhere and create a few holiday coupons. These won’t be like the ones you used to make for Father’s Day by hastily scribbling “one free hug” and “one free car wash.” Use whatever resources you have so they  reflect your personality – print them with graphics from your computer, dig up some fun stickers or work your own magic by drawing or showcasing that impressive penmanship of yours (don’t think I haven’t noticed). The more specific these coupons are to your relationship with the coupon-ee, the better.

Charm-i-days idea #5: Light it up

December 6, 2008

A match made ...

Four ways to light up a cold, dark winter.

Suggesting matches as a gift idea may seem like a tacit nod toward a bleak economy. It may even seem like a small step from that to lumps of coal. But think not such thoughts, fellow Americans. Instead, think of the flares of light your gift will offer far into the winter ahead.

Besides, these aren’t matchboxes as much as they are tiny masterpieces. And you’ve heard the one about good things in small packages, right?

You could tie these on top of a present, put them into a gift bag with other small presents or buy an inexpensive candle for someone on your list and make the gift stand out by including one of these matchboxes. Are you with me yet?


The graphic matchboxes above from HomArt feature horses, birds and hearts and have a vintage feel. For a more literary approach, Quotable matchboxes feature light-themed quotes from Alexander Pope (“Vital spark of heavenly flame!”), Ralph Waldo Emerson (“To the illumined mind, the whole world burns and sparkles with light”), William Blake (“Shine eternally”), Dante (“A great flame follows a little spark!”) and the like. These are larger than your average matches, so they’re both practical and poetic.


I’ve also found a couple of diminutive and interesting lamps recently.

The sun lamp looks like a basic jar, but it lights up at night after being stored in the sun all day, using LED and solar power. Sold by Charles and Marie and designed by Tobi Wong, the lamp’s sandblasted glass gives the light a soft, cozy glow.


This lantern from Eddie Bauer gets a mention because of its remote control. Even if you’re not a big camper, this gadget would be fun to have around – you can control the brightness, too. The company says that the LED light will operate up to 100 hours on 4 AAA batteries.  That’s a lot of reading time after the s’mores are eaten … even if the s’mores came from your microwave at home.

Sun lamp, $44
Remote-control lantern, $19.50
Graphic matchboxes, $4
Quotable matchboxes 4-pack, $11.95

Charm-i-days idea #4: Tokyo Milk lip balm

December 6, 2008

A Christmas debate topic: whether this goodie is the cutest stocking stuffer ever or the most sophisticated lip balm in the known universe.

Fred Flare does lip balm right.

Ms. Antoinette didn't really say that.

It’s a rare object indeed that’s equal parts beautiful and cute … simultaneously sophisticated and whimsical. In this case, the stars have aligned to meet those criteria in a form that’s portable and that softens your lips. Really, the universe has outdone itself this time.

Or at least the folks at Tokyo Milk have. The packaging on their perfumes is so fun and unusual (the first time I’ve even seen an Edgar Allan Poe reference worked into a perfume bottle) that I actually sprayed some on a few weeks ago. But over-the-moon as I am about their packaging, the fragrance was just too much for me.

So imagine my delight when I found their lip balms on Fred Flare. I have to admit it’s all about the packaging here – an intoxicating mix of old-fashioned fonts and sweet confections. The Marie Antoinette-inspired “Let Them Eat Cake” flavor (we all know by now that she never really said that, right?) tastes exactly like coconut cake, while the “Petits Fours Glaces” and “Cherry Bomb” flavors are on the fruity side.  A kissing quote is part of the packaging, too, along with an insert with kissing tips. (Not that I think you need any.)

My only wish is that the designers worked with tubes instead of tubs, so they had more surface area for images of Marie Antoinette or desserts on the balms and not just on the boxes. Because let’s face it – I’m never going to spend my hard-earned dollars on a Marie Antoinette action figure, but after reading a couple of biographies about her life and wardrobe, I think she deserves a place in my repertoire of accouterments.

Of course, $18 is a lot for lip balm, so be sure that the person you have in mind will truly appreciate the inspired packaging. (Otherwise, buy some retro Bonne Bell for $1.99 and call it a day.)

Tokyo Milk lip balm, $18 at Fred Flare

Charm-i-days idea #3: CB2 stemware

December 3, 2008

From CB2 to you

From CB2 to you

Create a festive mood with just-right champagne and cocktail glassware … and maybe something tasty to pour.

These handsome Valencia martini glasses and flutes are ostensibly Moroccan-influenced, but you can interpret the filigree however you’d like. The relatively new CB2, a younger sibling of Crate & Barrel, specializes in home and office furniture and accessories that are affordable, modern and fun. I’ll drink to that. The company’s Gigi stemware would also make sipping merry – the flutes and wine glasses stand out (and up) with outrageously elongated, slender stems.

CB2’s celebration-friendly glasses are unique-looking and budget-friendly, which is an entirely jolly combination. They’d make a great gift for newlyweds, new home owners, the consummate entertainer on your list or perhaps someone like me who loves the idea of entertaining but never got around to filling the cupboard with appropriate dishes.

If you’re making room in your own holiday entertainment budget for these pretties, you might want some holiday cocktail ideas, too – Martha Stewart has some tasty-looking ones.

CB2 Valencia and Gigi stemware, $4.95 each

Charm-i-days idea #2: Emily Dickinson poetry

November 24, 2008

A new illustrated collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is presumably for kids but would feather anyone’s bookshelf.

Isabelle Arsenault's Dickinson ... hope on shoulder

Isabelle Arsenault's Emily

Hope’s all the rage these days after our recent election, but Emily Dickinson got there first. One of our greatest poets, Dickinson’s reputation as America’s favorite quirky hermit sometimes overshadows her genius. This new collection, My Letter to the World and Other Poems, presents a few of her rightfully well-known poems with drop-dead gorgeous illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault.

While hope (that “thing with feathers”) is perched on Dickinson’s shoulder in the cover illustration, many of the poems she wrote describing her feelings toward death and isolation are featured in this collection as well, which is part of a series that pairs classic poems with contemporary illustrations. Arsenault’s paintings complement the poetry beautifully, and it’s hard to avoid words like “haunting” and “dreamy” when describing them.

So yes, the illustrations are haunting and dreamy, but they also contain a good bit of whimsy (you have to peer through the death imagery to get it, which is just as Dickinson would have liked it).

Taking a Dickinson seminar in grad school, I discovered that her initial poems were prettied up a bit by her first editor. It was nice of him to publish her and all (which isn’t quite how they say things in grad school), but by trying to make her what he deemed presentable, he put her work in packages that she didn’t really intend. Paired with these illustrations, the poems have another context entirely.

In fact, some of her verses seem even more riddle-like in this presentation. Illustrations that accompany one of the poems recast Dickinson in her trademark white dress as more of a tumbling teacup:  “I cannot live with You — / It would be Life — / And Life is over there — / Behind the Shelf.”

One of my favorites opens the book: “There’s a certain slant of light, / On winter afternoons – / That oppresses, like the heft / Of cathedral tunes.” The first time I read that poem as a child, I was astounded that someone understood my hidden melancholy. So even though the aforementioned “haunting”-ness may not make this book the very merriest of holiday gifts, the hope is there, too – and the smart kid on your list will appreciate the nuance.

My Letter to the World and Other Poems, (Visions in Poetry), $9.95

Charm-i-days idea #1: Zingerman’s treats

November 22, 2008

Try some sugar and spice. And by that I mean from brown muscovado sugar from Mauritius and smoked paprika from Spain.

The charming Zingerman's bread lady

Mmm ... Zingerman's bread

Holiday food gifts have moved so far beyond fruitcake that even fruitcake is going to be trendy again one day. If anyone on your list has a sophisticated palate and likes to dabble in a kitchen now and then, head straight to Zingerman’s online store. Acclaimed by everyone from Mario Batali to Jeffrey Steingarten, this Michigan food shop and deli makes amazing breads and desserts and is a trustworthy source for all kinds of other goodies.

Just pick and choose based on the taste of whichever lucky person you have in mind – even with a selection of random items, you can’t go wrong. How about some light muscovado sugar and a tin of smoked paprika that magically transforms soups and meats? Or a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar and a jar of wild Italian cherries? Throw in a jar of licorice jam or a chocolate-hazelnut spread that leaves Nutella in the cocoa dust.

The breads you can order online come with instructions for reheating, and I recommend starting with either the chocolate sourdough or the paesano loaf. Zingerman’s also offers gift baskets and unusual clubs, like bacon of the month or the rare olive oil club. I could go on and on, but it’s much more fun to just go look at their site.

The economy being what it is, culinary delights seem like more of an indulgence than ever – and a comforting one at that.

Brown sugar from Mauritius, $4
Pimenton de la Vera Paprika – dulce, $7
Hazelnut & chocolate spread, $22
Licorice Jam, $17.00
So many more delights, prices vary

Happy Charm-i-days to you

November 19, 2008

Ignoring my inner grinch … or making lemonade out of eggnog lattes.



A couple of weeks ago while I was running errands, I found myself surrounded by holiday decorations and piped-in Christmas music. I automatically initiated my annual cranky interior monologue: an embarrassing, Andy-Rooney-style rant about stores these days, putting out their holiday goods unthinkably early, grasping at every dollar they can and commercializing-slash-ruining every last-gasping day of the year. But I got tired of hearing my monologue as soon as it started, and I decided to embrace the holidays instead. After all, avoiding early holiday onset is impossible: eggnog lattes are on the menu, and wreaths are on the street lights.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to decorate early. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend it feels like Christmas morning every time I see an aisle display of plastic reindeer. But it does mean that I’m going to enjoy the trappings when I see them instead of complaining to myself about our crass, mad world.

So today, I’m rolling out my Charm-i-days gift guide, one seize-the-holiday idea at a time for presents that will create charming experiences and won’t break the bank.

Before the gift guide unveiling …

If you’re craving a more meaningful holiday this year and don’t want to spend senselessly, consider reading Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas – even if his budgetary suggestion is too grinch-like for you, he presents convincing reasons to rethink how we celebrate.

And remember that for some of us, the day after Thanksgiving is Buy Nothing Day.

Hundred Dollar Holiday, $12
Deciding not to complain about early onset
holiday, free