Give the gift of experience

If decades’ worth of gift giving has taught us anything, it’s that the best gifts sometimes come in small packages … even envelopes. Yes, I’m talking about gift certificates, but not gift certificates to Target or Macy’s. Don’t most of us have enough stuff anyway? How about giving your soul mate a gift certificate for a romantic dinner or a couple’s massage? Something you can do together. Give your mom that pedicure she wants or your brother a day on the ocean sport fishing. Get creative. Your friends and family will thank you. Here are a few suggestions.

— Stephanie Kinnear


Is your loved one stressed at work? Did your mother spend 18 hours slaving over Christmas dinner? Are your hands tired from giving ad hoc massages to the people you love? Get them the real deal for the holidays.

There is no time as wonderful or as stressful as the holidays (unless you happen to be 8 years old). Any family member or coworker will appreciate a gift certificate for a massage. At Yamaguchi Coastal Day Spa in Ventura you can buy a gift certificate for any amount, but we suggest you check their prices and kick in enough for an hour massage plus a generous tip. After all, a half hour massage is just a tease.

Yamaguchi Coastal Day Spa
and Salon
1794 Victoria Rd.

Release the inner child

There is something about climbing that makes you feel like a kid all over again. Do you have someone in your life who’s really just a 10-year-old kid with scraped knees in a 35-year-old’s body (or 55-year-old’s for that matter)?

Go ahead, step out on a limb and get them a beginner’s rock climbing lesson at Vertical Heaven Indoor Rock Climbing Gym in Ventura. The facility is brand new and conveniently located.

Rock Climbing is a great adventure for kids and the semi-athletically inclined of all ages. Trying it out in an indoor gym with the supervision of professionals is a nice segue into the world of real outdoor rock climbing. Surprise that special someone on your gift list with something a little out of the ordinary this year.

Vertical Heaven Indoor
Rock Climbing Gym and School
1954 Goodyear Ave

Put on your best face

Now you don’t want to ruin the holiday spirit by telling your mother that her skin isn’t looking quite as firm as it used to. But, as long as you approach this in the right way, she will definitely appreciate a gift certificate for a facial. Facials can improve facial definition and skin tone and, according to some, erase years from the look of your face.

Now, what woman is going to look down her nose at a gift like that?

35 South Body Retreat
35 South Oak St.

Surf’s up!

Sure, the water is freezing cold. But zip up that wetsuit anyway. Winter in Ventura offers some of the best surf of the year.

Have you got a kid who seems like a natural in the water? Do you have a husband or girlfriend who keeps watching Blue Crush over and over again, lamenting the fact that they don’t know how to surf? A private surf lesson through is probably the best gift you could give that aspiring beach bum.’s instructors are CPR certified and have thousands of hours of ocean experience. They teach the process of surfing and are close by in the water at all times, so even the most hesitant rookie will feel safe. They’ll be hanging ten in no time … or, well, at least riding a wave to shore!

Death takes a holiday

TV, music and a turn for the macabre

by John Larsen

While it may seem odd to recommend death for the holidays, fans of the HBO series Six Feet Under would kill for a copy of The Complete Collection. They can bury themselves under five seasons, 63 episodes and 24 discs, plus two CD soundtracks and a book of obituaries, perfectly packaged in a faux tombstone box with grass and a grave marker.

Conceived by writer-director Alan Ball (American Beauty), Six Feet Under continued the cable network’s goal of delivering adult, topical and character-driven drama and comedy. Unlike the network’s freshman class, which focused on joke-driven comedies and dramas, Sex & the City, The Sopranos and The Wire, Six Feet Under took viewers down a different road.

Creative freedom allowed Ball to turn a chamber drama about a family funeral business into a mirror reflecting life before and after death. The winner of numerous broadcast and humanitarian awards, Six Feet Under (HBO Home Video) took chances, not just with subject, but with delivery. Every episode starts with a death and an inner dialogue. The characters don’t just see dead people, they talk to them.

Set in Pasadena at the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, Six Feet Under begins with a bang (the death of patriarch Nathaniel, Richard Jenkins) and ends with a melancholy farewell which neatly and satisfactorily closes up shop. In between, we learn to love the sons and daughter of Nathaniel and Ruth (Frances Conroy): Nate (Peter Krause) and David (Michael C. Hall), and flaming redhead Claire (Lauren Ambrose).

Six Feet Under was able to attract a host of major talent to its burial plot, both in front of and behind the camera. Its strong storylines, daring character arcs, honest emotions and continuing sense of the unknown made the show a magnet for talent. The collection unearths over two dozen audio commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes and enough dirt to fill a family plot.

Those looking for their own life after death experience should also invest in Laid To Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and Famous, by Patricia Brooks (Globe Pequot Press), a handy guide to the final resting grounds of stars, politicians, musicians and more. Brooks has done her homework, traveling the state looking for points of interest, and she fills the book with photos, maps, locations, visiting hours, tours and much more.

What may sound macabre is actually a fascinating history lesson, taking readers to well known and out-of-the-way cemeteries. The author even provides contacts and local eateries, because there’s nothing I like more after hanging out with dead people than eating a dead cow. Learn the final words of those enjoying their dirt nap, including Rodney Dangerfield, whose epitaph reads There Goes The Neighborhood.

Finally, take a spin with Last Kiss: Songs of Teen Tragedy (Varese Saraband), a blast from the past collection of singles (some hits, some not) from the ’50s and ’60s revolving around teen tragedies. Unlike pop songs, these tunes laid out tales of some poor guy or gal being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The collection includes the obvious teen wreck songs (“Tell Laura I Love Her,” “Last Kiss”), some off-the-wall choices (“Leader of the Laundromat,” “Endless Sleep”), grave robbing (“I Want My Baby Back”) and tearful ballads (“Patches,” “Rocky”). Since the collection focuses on teen tragedies, missing in action are perennial anthems like “American Pie,” “Shannon,” and “Wildfire.” For a starter set of tragic teen tunes, Last Kiss doesn’t crash and burn.

Man, we’re good

Shopping Ventura County is easy as one, two, three

We knew there was talent in Ventura County, and now we have even further proof — just in the nick of time for the season of gift giving.

While searching for gifts with meaning can be tough, avoiding the holiday shopping rush can be even tougher. Thankfully, there are a handful of locally produced items that are both original and reflective of what Ventura County has to offer. These are gifts that celebrate and recognize what makes our communities unique and support the work of the artists next door — artists with more to offer than cups of sugar.

Check out these three potential gifts, all created by Ventura County residents.

Wine Bar Reveries 2006 demystifies local wine tasting

For a person who enjoys wine but doesn’t know too much about the more intricate aspects of tasting it, sitting down at a wine bar or taking a trip to a tasting room can be a daunting endeavor. Do I smell the wine first or do I swirl it around in the glass? Do I take a small sip or a big one? Do I dump the remaining bit of wine in my glass in that bucket o’ wine on the counter or do I chug it? Do I eat the cheese on the counter or do I have to pay for it? The questions are endless, and no one really wants to look like she doesn’t know what she’s doing … even if she doesn’t.

Luckily for Ventura County-based wine enthusiasts (no matter the level of expertise), Jacquie Lovell and Tom Matthews have recently published an insiders’ guide to the local wine scene.

In Wine Bar Reveries 2006 Lovell and Matthews, a wine-loving couple who met at an art opening, explore 10 of the more popular wine bars and wineries in Ventura, Camarillo and Oxnard, offering their opinions and unique perspectives on the experiences along the way.

Matthews, an obvious movie buff, pairs whimsical re-imaginings of some of his favorite movies with his first-person accounts of tasting different wines at different locations throughout the county.

But, creative writing aside, Wine Bar Reveries offers practical information that is incredibly useful to anyone who has an interest in trying some new wine in some new places. One of the most helpful bits of information in the book just might be the very brief chapter, “Seven Basic Steps to Wine Tasting,” which completely demystifies the process of successfully and critically tasting a glass of wine.

And once you have the tasting technique down, you’re ready to leave the safety of your living room for the swanky patio at, say, Wine Lovers in Ventura. With Lovell and Matthew’s guide in hand, you can know what to expect. Their reviews of local wine bars and wineries offer information like prices on tastings, prices on flights of wine, average prices for wine by the glass, what kind of wine the bar tends to carry (international, California, Central California), whether they have a dinner or appetizer menu, whether or not there are complimentary snacks and even directions to the venue. Having this information before you set foot outside your front door should make you more confident and help you get the most out of your local wine tasting experience.

— Stephanie Kinnear

Where pyramids and wine converge

With cartoons, fun facts and page after page of delectable recipes, The Great Wine Pyramid, by Venturans John and Shari Rudy, is a veritable grab bag of so much fun with wine that you’ll have fun thumbing through it even if you’re a teetotaler.

It’s obvious from the get-go that the Rudys want us to not only enjoy their book, but to enjoy life. This book doesn’t cater to wine snobs, which is just one of many reasons it’s a refreshing read for those of us who may not know diddly about wine. With random wine facts, the low-down about wine culture and enough recipes to stuff 10 stockings, this gift is a real crowd pleaser.

With recipes that include alcoholic beverages of one kind or another, like easy cheesy crab spread, glazed duck with plum sauce, port-poached pears with bleu cheese and sinful chocolate cake with syrah fudge sauce — there’s a little something for everyone in the Rudy’s ode to the art of cooking with and enjoying wine.

Thirty-five wineries contributed recipes for publication in the book. Rudys used about 70 of their own recipes and Ventura County contributors include 71 Palm and the California Wine Club.

— Stacey Wiebe

For more information about The Great Wine Pyramid, visit

Then and now

The San Buenaventura Then & Now 2007 Architectural Calendar is both homage to Ventura’s past and a salute to its present. Handily shaped in a long, slender rectangle — which makes carrying the calendar around town tucked beneath an arm an easy task. (I know this because I’ve watched someone do so for about a year now.) The calendar can be easily referenced for anyone curious enough about the town’s history to learn something new for 12 whole months in a row.

Called a “home-grown project” by its producer and publisher, Stephen Schafer of Schaf Photo & Schafer Design, the calendar is designed and printed in Ventura. Though not a history book, the calendar features vintage photos of notable Ventura buildings — such as the Schiappapietra Mansion, an 18-room Italian-style villa on East Santa Clara Street —juxtaposed with photos from the present.

Other sites featured include the 500 block of Main Street, the Union National Bank and the Plaza School — which is now the post office on Santa Clara Street.

— Stacey Wiebe

For more information, call 652-1000, or visit

Take a load off

Why remembering to not lose your cool can make the holiday season

Ah, the holidays: acres and acres of people, lists to make (and check twice), gifts to wrap and parties to attend. With all the to-do, it’s a wonder we often forget to add “have fun” to the list. After all, if we forget to enjoy ourselves, what’s the point?

Keep it in perspective

The No. 1 goal during the mad holiday dash is to not make mountains of molehills, or, in the case of last-minute shopping, a mountain of gifts left to buy into a matter of do-or-die importance. With all the extra pressure the season adds to the wallet and the psyche, putting too much pressure on ourselves to find just the right gift can suck all the fun out of the holiday experience — which, I am told, is not actually about gifts.

If you find yourself about to have a massive coronary in the middle of Macy’s, or are awaking in cold sweats, stop and take a breather. Think about the AIDS epidemic in Africa — no, scratch that. That will only increase your blood pressure. Instead, think about an event that didn’t involve gifts, an event or gathering at which you had a great time with people you like, or even love. Remembering what made it special will not only get you back into the mood for shopping, but will put you in the right frame of mind to find great gifts.

The relatives

For some of us, holidays are the only time of year that we spend more than a few minutes at a time with relatives — which can be stressful.

Shopping for those we see infrequently and who seem to bring little but stress to our holiday experiences can be a true test of patience. A constant barrage of “When are you going to get married?” “Aren’t you even trying to get a promotion?” and “When I was your age, I already had four kids” can make us feel like braving the holiday crowds isn’t worth the trouble. It can also really put a damper on any fun that can be had at large family gatherings (unless you manage to get your hands on some egg nog, and lots and lots of brandy).

One great way to deal with your relatives on such occasions is to mentally give them a “day pass.” It’s like giving them a get-out-of-jail free card without actually having to play Monopoly with them. Give it a try: When the inevitable questions and judgments come, just think “Pass” and smile as sweetly as you can. This will not only send your loved ones some mental good will (usually, they really are just trying to help), but it will make you laugh and help you remember that you really do love these people — just the way they are.

Take a breather

If the stress proves to be too much, sit down. Do whatever it takes to get your mind off the holiday rush. Play some tennis, watch Arrested Development (surely, our families aren’t as deranged as the Bluths), or take a bath. Do what you need to do to de-stress.

Remember that the season of brotherly love means that you have to be kind to yourself, too. Don’t get too caught up in the buying and remember that thoughtful gifts don’t have to be expensive to be appreciated. Try to have fun with friends and coworkers (or friends who are also coworkers). It doesn’t take much time to stop and laugh about how stressed you are — and laughing always helps.

Happy Holidays.

— Stacey Wiebe