Tribune senior correspondent
December 3, 2009
If even the nicest people you know are getting their bah humbug on, blame it on holiday mayhem. This is the season when good intentions go awry, so relax. Deep breaths! Forget your cares. Whether you have a burning question or are just burned up and need to vent, I'm not just Santa's little helper, I'm yours. Effective immediately: You've got an angel on your shoulder.
Dear Answer Angel: Can you help me avoid a problem that has bugged me for the last couple of Christmases? I've bought the "big" present for my boyfriend (a splurge, I might add). Then there we are on Christmas morning in his parents' living room, and he opens his present from his mom and stepfather. Have you already guessed? It's the same present I bought him that is sitting under the tree, waiting for the oooohs and ahhhhs that won't come now. How do I avoid this duplication and disappointment all around?
-- Holiday Letdown
Dear Letdown: Most important, congratulations on your generous desire to give your man a special gift he really wants. The way to make sure that your present is unique (in other words, that his parents don't steal your thunder) is to conspire in advance. Tell the 'rents, "I'm planning on giving Jack a ------. Because we've had some duplication in the past, I thought I would check with you first to avoid the problem this year." Let's hope they reply by saying that they'll choose a different gift. You could even suggest one.
If they insist on giving what you had planned, at least you'll have some notice and can pick something else. One final idea: Perhaps Jack would really love a gift that is too expensive for you or his parents to buy individually. In this new spirit of cooperation, why not go in together on one big present? That way everybody wins.
Dear Angel: This is a tough one: what to give my older relatives who don't need anything and have downsized so they don't have much room for new things anyhow. They love to read, but I'm not sure what books they'd enjoy.
Dear P.: How about membership in a rent-a-book program? Paperspine.com works for books the same way Netflix does for movies. There are postage-paid return envelopes and no deadlines or late fees. They rent only paperbacks (and no large-print books), so you won't find the newest best-sellers here. For example, if you want "Going Rogue" by Sarah Palin and Mitch Albom's latest, "Have a Little Faith," you'll have to wait until they're out in paper. Memberships start at $14.95 per month for three books at a time.
Dear Answer Angel: Do you have any strong feelings about gift cards? I say they're quick, simple, painless, and the recipient always gets what he/she wants. My wife says they show no imagination and no consideration for the recipient. Somehow she thinks you should spend hours visiting a number of stores to handpick what you think is exactly the right gift (when, I maintain, they'd probably prefer a gift card in the first place). Any way to resolve this?
-- Card Quandary
Dear Card Quandary: You're both right. The perfect gift is personally selected, beautifully wrapped and presented with a flourish and a meaningful handwritten card. Angels playing a trumpet fanfare also helps. Seriously, it's not easy to pull this off, which is why gift cards sometimes are a preferable alternative.
The generic gift cards that work at multiple stores often come with an expiration date and service charges, so read the rules and avoid pitfalls. And keep in mind that up to 25 percent of those who got the cards last year hadn't redeemed them nine months later, Consumer Reports says.
If you know the recipient's interests and favorite shops, a store-specific card is more personal. When in doubt, ask a friend or relative for store recommendations. Then wrap the card deceptively in a big box or tuck it into a cute pair of mittens or a tin of homemade cookies to make it special.
Dear Answer Angel: One of the most popular looks I've seen lately is jeans tucked into boots, but how do I jam the jeans in there and avoid baggy knees?
Dear Jean: The skinnier the jeans, the better the results. That's No. 1; No. 2: Try removable clip-on stirrups like those at jeanstraps.com for $9.99. Problem solved.
One more thingI was the opposite of an angel when I came up with an answer in my last column. As advice diva Ann Landers used to say when she gave a lousy answer ("40 lashes with a wet noodle"), I deserve 40 lashes with a wet mascara wand. I gave some lame advice on using department store makeup sales staff for free beauty makeovers while planning all along to buy nothing and to use the expert recommendations to guide you to cheaper alternatives at drugstores.
"I'm still mad at you," writes Frederick K. "That's BS and unfair," he says.
"It is generally understood that when one receives a department store makeover, one should purchase at least one product from the hardworking, commission-based associate," e-mails Joanna J.
And, as usual, a reader offers some excellent suggestions. These from Nancy T:
Be honest: "Say that you are not looking to buy today, but ask if this is a good time to ask a few general questions about makeup, color, etc., until a customer comes along. Also ask if they have any free samples you might try at home, and please thank them for their time before you leave."
Go online: Head to fashion magazine Web sites, and search "beauty makeovers."
Shop: "Now check out the drugstore, and buy with confidence!"
Here to helpSend your holiday-related questions to email@example.com.