Christmas Gifts

With the holidays fast approaching, people are trying to find the perfect gifts to give.  Some want to give a sentimental gift, others want to show their humorous side.  For many people this will be a chance to show how they feel about someone, and for others the gift they give will stylishly fulfill an obligation.  In any case, everyone wants to come up with a gift that will convey just the message they want to send.

Sometimes the memory of a perfect gift outlasts the given item.  The thoughtfulness or creativity that was woven into it inspires a happy feeling for years to come.  I recently asked a few women around the Chippewa Valley if they had any such gift memories to share.  Some had ones that warm the heart, and others had funny memories.  Here’s what they said:

Jan – One year when my sister didn’t have much money, I came downstairs Christmas morning, and her sewing machine cabinet was there by the tree. She wanted to give it to me for my gift, as she knew I loved to sew and didn’t have one. I protested, saying it was too much, but she insisted, a little teary-eyed. That was pretty cool.

Barbara – I grew up in a family where money was tight, and my mother made my clothes.  One year I begged for a robe I’d seen in the Sears catalog – it was beautiful. To my delight it was under the tree on Christmas morning, my first store-bought item, and I wore it until it was threadbare.  After my mother died many years later I was going through her things and found the pattern and some material from that robe.  She had secretly sewn it herself – complete with a borrowed Sears tag – so that I would have my dream come true.

Amanda – When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend of 18 months worked with – and probably begged – my mom to allow him to get me a kitten for a gift.  She was a sweet little orange kitty who lasted quite a bit longer in my life than my boyfriend.  He went on to date my best friend four months later, and now she’s his wife.

Ann – My sweetest Christmas gifts came from my husband.  Three weeks after we met in October 1991, he went to Texas for work and was already thinking of being with me at Christmas.  My gifts came from that trip – a stuffed armadillo and a Texas longhorn sweatshirt.  And yes, I still have them.

Glenda – One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received arrived under the tree the year my daughter was 11. It was in a huge box, and I couldn’t imagine what a child her age could afford with her small weekly allowance. On Christmas morning she could hardly wait until I opened the big package and then several inside it, each one smaller than the last, each individually wrapped. At last I came to a small ring box, and inside was a gold ring set with a tiny ruby — my birthstone. She had spotted it in the jewelry store window and saved every penny she had to buy it for me. The little girl is now 40, and the ring remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Pat –  My Aunt Pepper was known for giving meaningful gifts, but one year she shook things up.  She gave me a crazy brown and white purse made of fake fur.  Its strap was a chain.  I was grateful for the gift that had been chosen and given with love, but I wasn’t about to take it out of its hiding spot in the back of my closet.  A year later, I found it again and realized that my hip aunt had been incredibly fashion-forward and given me something that was indeed very cool.  It became my favorite purse.

No matter what the gift or who the giver, there are thoughtful and funny gifts that pepper our memories.  Maybe it’s a piece of special jewelry or a traditional gift that passes between family members. It could be a child’s hand-made treasure or a gift certificate for romantic dance lessons meant to rekindle a flame.  In any case, remembering these gifts recalls the affection we shared and inspires us to keep the tradition alive.

My own memory involved a gift that didn’t cost much but is worth its weight in gold.  My brother works in Los Angeles and knows that my favorite Christmas movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  Several years ago, a book came through his publicity office about the making of the movie.  He called Jimmy Stewart’s publicist and thoughtfully arranged to have it autographed to me.  In the movie, the actor’s tender character ultimately realizes how incredibly important each of our tightly interconnected lives is – a lesson worth revisiting at least once each year.  In my book he wrote:  “To Lesley – I send you all my best wishes and have a merry Christmas,  James Stewart.”  I wish the same for everyone.  Happy Holidays.


Eco-Friendly Yard Space

Temperatures are rising, summer is on its way, and the heat is on to surround your castle with the most attractive and eco-friendly yard in town.  Create beauty around your home in a way that includes respect for Mother Nature, and you might find that your yard work load will be reduced as you make an environmentally responsible space.

First, it is important to decide what kind of yard represents your style.  Are you looking for a way to cut your water use?  Do you want to use all natural products on your property?  Is a game of catch on a verdant lawn what you enjoy?  Or are you a person who longs for a simpler life and wants to make as little work as possible for yourself?  Xeriscaping, organic gardening, traditional lawns and hardscaping can all be done in ways that keep the environment healthy and provide a striking setting for your abode.

Explore the benefits of xeriscaping as an alternate to having a grassy yard.  By grouping plants with similar requirements together, you can manage and reduce water use by as much as 60%. Native plant species are already adapted to local rainfall and may require no additional water at all.  Artfully arranged berms with indigenous flora can add colorful interest to an otherwise water-hungry lawn.  Look to yews, lavender, sedum, thyme and hemlocks for variety without a high fertilizer or water demand.  Colorful boulders, statuary or fountains scattered thoughtfully among plants provide an eye-catching change of pace.

Xeriscaping and water conservation are important in all areas of the country, not just arid climates.

Jean VanPelt of the Colorado WaterWise Council says, “There is no reason why the seven principles of xeriscaping can’t be applied anywhere in the United States.”

Those principles are:  plan and design carefully, improve soil, irrigate efficiently, zone plants together according to water and light needs, mulch, choose native or low-water turf grass, and maintain xeriscape appropriately.

In addition to being water-conscious, organic gardeners make it their goal to use as few chemicals as possible on their landscape in an effort to keep poisons out of the watershed and animal population.  Fertilizers run off yards into city drains and eventually enter lakes and streams where they cause an overabundance of weeds and algae that disturbs riparian habitats and food chains.  Birds and animals of prey can digest toxic pesticides in the food they eat.  As they die off, pesky bugs and rodents remain without any kind of natural predator.  In either case, nature’s balance is shifted out of alignment.  The organic solution is to get creative.  Spray diluted soapy water on plants to eliminate aphids, and spread pine needles around acid-loving plants to add nutrients without the use of harsh chemicals.  Yard and kitchen waste can be piled in the far reaches of the yard or in a store-bought compost bin to decompose and produce a rich fertilizer for gardening.

A lush, emerald lawn can also be achieved in an environmentally aware way.  Bob Rastani, Rastani Landscape Design in San Diego, says that grass consumes more water than any other vegetation.  Although a healthy lawn can be an effective erosion control, grass requires intense water management to induce proper growth and reduce runoff pollution.  The best plan is to water grass once each week with a slow soak early in the morning.  Yards generally require 1 inch of water per week and may cultivate fungus and disease if watered during the evening or nighttime hours.  Mow frequently with blades that are sharpened two to three times each year to cause the least distress to the grass, and let the clippings fall as you cut.

Says Rastani, “Everybody should mulch their clippings or they are bagging up a natural fertilizer.”

Another way to make the most out of a grassy yard is to call your local extension office for a soil test to determine the chemistry, quality and density of your soil.  This evaluation will direct you as to how much fertilizer, insecticide and water to use.  Visit a local landscape company to determine what kind of grass is best for where you live.  A properly watered and tended lawn will naturally crowd out many unattractive weeds and cut down on the need for chemical supplements.

Hardscape requires the least amount of water, fertilizer and homeowner effort.  By putting in a patio, pathways, walls and planters, a yard can become an easy place in which to gather and enjoy long summer days.  Incorporate potted plants, stone benches or tastefully placed xeriscapes, and your simple space can become an enchanted garden.  Point downspouts from gutters into attractive rain barrels for future watering needs or at least direct them toward a permeable surface where rainwater can make use of the earth’s natural filter before it seeps into lakes and streams.

Eco-friendly landscaping can be attractive and showcase your own personal style, and it doesn’t require much more labor than you already devote to your yard.  In fact, these options will relieve you of enough work that you’ll have time to enjoy the paradise you create.


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Insurance Info

Asking for an explanation of insurance is a bit like opening Pandora’s proverbial box. Insurance exists to cover almost any situation, and there are plenty of agents and companies who are enthusiastically prepared to sell it to you. But how do you know what you really need? How can someone without hands-on experience navigate the vocabulary and fine print that accompanies any insurance policy?

The first step is to understand the structure that supports the insurance industry. There are hundreds of insurance companies to choose from, but the person you find when you flip through the phone book is only their agent. Some companies, like State Farm, AllState and American Family, have agents called “direct writers” who sell only their company’s policies, but some of those are expanding to represent other carriers that are carefully screened by the parent company. Other insurance companies sell their policies through “independent” agents. Instead of having a symbiotic relationship with one company, these agents deal with many companies to find good rates and policies for their clients.

Ken Mullen, an agent for State Farm Insurance, recommends doing a little comparison shopping before selecting an insurance company.

“Call local body shops and contractors to see which company they would like to work with,” suggests Mullen. “There is no substitute for the research [consumers] do about the products [they] need to buy; even insurance,”

Standard and Poor’s <> has assessed the financial integrity of insurance companies for 37 years and is an excellent place to check a company’s ability to meet financial obligations. If there is a catastrophe in your area, you want to be sure your insurance company will be able to meet its commitments.

Some companies like GEICO and AIG sell insurance policies directly to consumers on the Internet.  A savvy shopper might select exactly the right kind of insurance, but most people need help understanding what is necessary and available. When your house burns down or your child is in an accident, you might regret having missed out on policies that an agent could easily have helped you find.

“If you have anything of value, including yourself, you need insurance,” warns John Killey, an independent insurance agent in Eau Claire, Wis., “but insurance is complicated.”

A good agent can help you succeed in your search. The decisions you reach together on how to insure you, your family and your property will be as individual as you are, so you want to choose someone who will understand you and have the best ability to weave your safety net. To find this person, do some research and ask for referrals. You can find information about particular agencies by calling your state’s Insurance Department. Look for that contact information online at <>.

Once you have settled on an agency, actually go to the office and meet the staff.

“People buy the agent, they don’t buy the insurance company,” affirms Killey.

And Mullen agrees, “You are depending on someone to help you set up coverage that will deter a financial crisis should there be a loss due to accidents, weather, injury or death,” he says. “These events are important enough to take the time to get to know the agent and staff personally.”

Trust your intuition. See how you feel about the agent with whom you’ll be dealing. Then ask some questions that will help you assess the agent’s capability to meet your needs.

* What are the agent’s credentials? With which professional organizations is he affiliated? Does he pursue continuing education?

* Does this agent represent all types of insurance: auto, homeowners, liability, health, etc.? Can she handle all of your insurance needs, or will you need to choose other agents for specific policies?

* How long has the agent been in the business? An agent with experience can more easily evaluate your needs and match you up with the best policies.

* How accessible is this agent in case of an emergency? Does he have Internet, cell phone and office hours that are compatible with your needs?

* How will quoted rates change after a claim? Perhaps an attractive premium will not remain so attractive after a speeding ticket or fire.

Finally, bear in mind that the most expensive insurance policy isn’t necessarily the best. When you find the agent you trust, let him or her determine the right policy for you.

Says Killey, “With a good plan, the benefits outweigh the expenses.”

And with a good agent comes a good plan.

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