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I am a sucker for gift guides. I LOVE giving gifts, I LOVE getting gifts, I LOVE thinking about the perfect thing for each person I care about. I’m probably the one person on the planet who actually pages through all the catalogs that come in the mail. I save them up until I have the brainspace to enjoy them. Catalogs are perfect breakfast reading!

So you can imagine that I really like planning for Christmas, and I really like online gift guides.

But not all gift guides are created equal!

When selecting a gift guide, I look for ones from blogs, magazines, or websites I trust, whose values or preferences align with mine. I like consumable gifts, and I’m also trying this year to support local shops and buy mostly handmade items, so I search for companies that promote those.

It’s also useful to think about the people you’re shopping for. You can narrow down specific types of stores to hunt gift guides in. For example, my father-in-law is big into backpacking, so a guide from REI would be great.

PSA to the makers of gift guides: if your guide is a slideshow, and I have to click through 50 Unique Gifts for Women, you will lose me. I may be willing to click a couple of times, but as your page slowly loads in between each click, my mind will start to wander. And when I hit a slide that’s an ad? I’m out. Unfortunately a couple of sites I really like, including Real Simple, make their gift guides this way. Womp womp.

Instead of a slideshow, show me pictures of all the gifts in a grid. Make the pictures clickable. Put a caption on the picture so I know what I’m looking at. If you do that, your gift guide wins, and it makes me happy.

Separate out your gift guide by category – Gifts for Him, Gifts Under $25, Gifts for the Hostess – and let me select the one that appeals to me most. I’ll be honest, I’m a fan of the “Gifts Under $25”…

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Maybe you found a wonderful gift guide back in February. Just because it’s a list of Valentine’s Day gifts doesn’t mean you can’t give one of the items to your husband for Christmas. Personally I’ve always found it weird to give someone a Christmas-themed gift at Christmas, anyway, because then they won’t be able to use it until the following year!

Ultimately the best gift guides are the ones where I actually click through to some of the items. That obviously depends less on the user experience and the layout and more on the store’s content. Without further ado, a few of my favorites:

  • Crate and Barrel – It’s not a local store, but the items are high quality, and I found numerous items (specifically from the “Our Favorite Gifts” list) that I ended up adding to my “Gift Ideas” Pinterest board.

Crate and Barrel

  • Etsy is the mecca of all things handmade. It’s eminently browsable on a normal day and especially nice around the holidays.

Etsy

  • Zingerman’s offers high-quality edibles galore! Some really unique stuff there, too. It’s a little pricey, but everything I’ve ever had from there has been delicious.

Zingerman's

  • I love the websites The Sweet Home and The Wirecutter for their product reviews, so it follows that I appreciate their gift suggestions. This is last year’s list, and I’m waiting with bated breath for the 2014 edition!

The Wirecutter

Others of note:

Sometimes a great gift guide just gets your creative juices flowing. I love when bloggers post lists of gift ideas. Usually if I enjoy the blogger’s writing in general, I’ll get some great ideas from their gift lists! This is a different class of gift guide: not hosted by a store, not necessarily encouraging me to shop anywhere in particular. And I may or may not end up getting exactly what the list suggests. But it gets me thinking, and helps come up with related ideas that may be more perfect for someone I love.

Gift guides turn me into a kid in the candy store, but the store is the Internet and the candy is pretty pictures. It’s practically as satisfying to me to browse beautifully laid out selections of gifts as it is to actually buy or receive anything. And by flipping through, I’m often pleasantly surprised to find just the thing to gift to someone on my list.

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I haven’t been to my birth state in close to two years. The state where I spent 17 years of my life, the state that saw me fall in love, fall into grace, learn to read, learn to swim, make friends, lose friends, become myself. I don’t have any family ties there anymore, and I’ve lost touch with many of my friends from that time in my life (or those friends have moved away, too).

Mississippi Welcome Sign *Photo Credit: http://welcomesignproject.wordpress.com/tag/mississippi-welcome-sign/

And look, I’m from Mississippi. Mississippi has plenty of shit wrong with it. But Alabama and Georgia have shit, too. New York and California have their own, if different, shits. Probably even the paradise of Hawaii has its shit.

But there’s a siren song in the letters Mississippi. It’s not like I’m the first one to try and capture it. William Faulkner supposedly said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Maybe it’s true. Maybe that slow muddy river carves tracks into our hearts. Maybe the humidity makes us malleable, reshapes our psyches, worms its way into our pores.

I am not Mississippi anymore, but somehow I am still Mississippi.

And so my heart resonates when I hear a song about her, my state.

Just for fun the other day, I searched “Mississippi” on Spotify and sifted through the results. I got a lot of North Mississippi Allstars songs, and a number from the Mississippi Mass Choir (and a few from Mississippi John Hurt) that I ruled out. My criteria was that Mississippi needed to be in the title, and it needed to be a focus of the song. A few of these I knew, more of them I didn’t. Some are sweet, some are weird, some are more raucous than others. I was a little surprised by the number of them that weren’t country! I left some out that I just couldn’t even—Afroman wasn’t doing it for me, nor was Ray Stevens’ Mississippi Squirrel Revival. And I assembled this list of Mississippi.

If your heart too sometimes yearns for that place, if Mississippi will always be your home, then this list is for you.

Look, some of the songs are about the river, not the state. I’m aware of this. But seeing as how that river forms one border of my state, I’ll claim it. Thank you very much.

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Yesterday on the train I noticed a piece of candy on the floor. I noticed it because I kept hearing something rolling around and I was curious what it was. When we started moving, it would roll backwards, behind me somewhere. When we stopped, it would roll back toward me, and I’d catch a glimpse of it, a little orange sphere, maybe a Gobstopper or something. As we rocketed down the tracks it would go side to side a little bit, sometimes here, sometimes there. It was so small and inconsequential that it was completely at the mercy of the movement of the train. While I sat in my seat and barely noticed much motion, it was propelled all over the place by the slightest shift.

gobstoppers

Photo Credit

Poor little gobstopper. What if it was trying to get to the front of the car, or to the seat where a cute boy was sitting? What if it really wanted to be near the heater below the right-hand window, or in the seat nearest to the door in order to exit the train quickly? It had no control over where it was going.

Look, I know it sounds silly. I’m aware that a gobstopper doesn’t have a brain and it couldn’t really have been thinking any of these things. But it kind of made me think about how I’m like that little piece of candy sometimes: going about my days, shifting gears as circumstances dictate, not sure what the big picture is.

I’m really good at reacting, at diving in to put out fires, to handle things after something has already happened. Some days I feel like that gobstopper, rolling around, not in charge of my own destiny.

That’s a little dramatic, but it’s true. I want to have a 5-year plan. I want to have a vision. I want to be able to make sure that decisions I make today, actions I take this morning, are part of a larger whole.

To that end, I’ve been meeting with a friend of mine who is conveniently also a life coach for young adults trying to discern their career paths. I’ve always had a really hard time dreaming big, because I tend to get caught in the logisitical weeds. That’s a valuable skill to have a lot of times, and it makes me a great contributor to teams I’ve worked on, but I need to be able to step outside of that and see the forest. Without that, then I can’t be sure that the weeds I’m pulling are the right weeds, the weeds that will lead to fulfillment for me, the weeds that will help me end up in the place I want to be, as the person I want to be.

So I’m zooming out. It’s not easy. It sort of stinks sometimes to see yourself in light of your quirks and flaws. It’s weighty stuff, and it’s not like I’m ever going to completely replace my personality and my preferences with new ones. But I think I can learn how to dream, and I think I can stop being a gobstopper.