One of the things I enjoy most about writing this column is the opportunity to help readers to come closer to the arts.
Few things gladden my heart as much as having a reader say that he or she hadn't experienced some area of music, or dance, or theater, until I encouraged readers to try it, and now it's hard to imagine life without this new interest.
Each December, I get a number of requests from readers who want help in buying gifts at the holidays for someone who actively enjoys one or more of the arts. Sadly, there are gifts which would make some people deliriously happy, while the same gifts would make others feel insulted or unappreciated. The most important element of gift-giving is knowing the gift's recipient, and matching what that person needs or wants with what you're reasonably able to provide.
One of the great joys of the holiday season is the opportunity to give people we love, something which makes them happy. Of course, sometimes it helps to have a few suggestions of how and what to give.
That's something I can't help you with. But, once you know what you're capable of doing and willing to do, and what your recipient needs and/or wants, I can offer some suggestions of what you might search for, to make the receiver's holidays brighter.
I'll try to offer a variety of costs, in money, time and effort, but obviously, I can't suggest every possibility for every possible recipient. If you have a specific question, contact me individually. Meanwhile, let's take a general look at playing Santa for the art-loving people you love:
The first decision to make in giving gifts is what you are willing and/or able to provide. If all you are willing and able to spend is a dollar, shopping for grand pianos is both self-defeating and a waste of time.
If you're involved in some kind of ''secret Santa'' or holiday grab bag event with a limit of $10, spending $11 on a gift is no big problem, but spending $20 just makes the recipient feel that he should have done more.
Occasionally, the giver already owns something which he knows the receiver would like, but which is worth more than the limit on giving. Say, for example, you have bought season tickets to the concerts in the Jamestown Concert Association season, and you know the recipient would greatly enjoy attending one of the concerts which you are unable to attend.
I say it's perfectly appropriate to give your ticket for that concert to the person, even though its monetary value is more than the limit. If anyone dares to question you about it, tell them the guy in the newspaper said so.
Of course, it's important to be certain that the organization sponsoring the event is willing to let you share your ticket with someone else. It's your responsibility to contact them and find out, before you put your recipient in the embarrassing position of being refused entry at the door of the event, because he or she isn't the person whose name is on the ticket.
If you don't have a lot of money to spend, you can still give outstanding gifts. If the intended recipient is older or is disabled, you could offer to put up and take down their holiday decorations, for example. That would cost you nothing but some time, and there are some people who would be deeply grateful for such a gift.
If you have transportation, you could invite the recipient to view a free exhibit in the art gallery of the James Prendergast Library or the Weeks Gallery at Jamestown Community College. I know one person who gave his grandmother a book of homemade passes to be driven to three events of her choice during the coming year, conditional upon his availability to make the trip. I'm told it was her favorite gift that year. You need to make clear whether such an offer includes admission or if it is only transportation, whether the gift is only in the Jamestown or Dunkirk area or if you're willing to drive a bit further - to the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, for example - and whether you will accompany the individual. Many people, especially if they are older, are afraid to attend concerts, movies, etc., alone. If you do it the right way, you can make that gift for the cost of gasoline.
You need to be clear in your own mind, whether you're willing to give the gift you're offering. Making the offer and then ruining the experience by letting the individual know that you don't really want to do it is no gift at all.
Once you know your limits and your intentions, it's important to know something about the person who will be receiving the gift.
If it's a relative of your own, you can probably ask questions of Uncle Bill or your sister, Sally, if you're not certain, yourself. Don't give compact discs or DVDs to someone who doesn't own a player, for example. Books and musical recordings can be bought in tangible form, or downloaded onto a computer device. Choose the form your recipient will want to use.
Don't give R-rated films or books of spicy photographs to someone who is opposed to such things. Don't give a recipient who enjoys such things a copy of a children's cartoon. I can hear some of you saying ''Why is he saying such an obvious thing?'' Or something similar, but more colorfully described. But, in fact, I can assure you, there are people who do such things all the time.
If the receiver is the kind of person who likes to try new and different things, he or she might be grateful for being given something completely outside his or her experience. There are people who have never been to a ballet, who would be intensely grateful to be invited to see their first one, perhaps performed by Chautauqua Region Youth Ballet or the Department of Theater and Dance at Fredonia State.
A concert by the Chautauqua Chamber Singers, for example, or a rock 'n' roll performance at one of the many available venues in our area, or a serious theatrical production at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown will be unwelcome by some recipients, but will be a great thrill for others. Myself, I think it is more reasonable to ask, ''Grandma, would you enjoy a weekend in Toronto to hear Nine Inch Nails?'' than to spring it on her.
The element of surprise in gift-giving occasions is wildly over-rated, in my opinion. The surprise can occur when you make the offer.
Of course there are thousands of possibilities outside the arts, and there's nothing wrong with giving Cousin Jim the hockey skates he's been wanting, but we started by saying this is an arts column, and we're here to help people who want to make arts-related gifts.
It's probably better to ask someone who knows the receiver better than you do, than it is to ask the receiver himself, but even asking the individual is better than wasting your time and/or money and putting the receiver in the position of getting something not appropriate to him.
Books make wonderful gifts for anyone who enjoys reading. When I retired from a life's career in teaching, my colleagues gave me gift certificates to a number of book stores and online booksellers, and for a year, I had a shopping spree, in which I could own any book which caught my fancy, from a new translation of ''Beowulf'' to the latest, most up-to-date analysis of the contemporary film scene.
It was a gift which brought happy experiences for more than a year after the occasion. Gift certificates - usually in the form of gift cards - are wonderful gifts, if the recipient is capable of redeeming them. If Grandma can't get to the mall to redeem her gift, it is of no use to her. I strongly believe in shopping locally and supporting our fellow community members who are trying to earn their livings in commerce, but there are very few things which aren't available in town, but can be ordered online, and if your recipient doesn't own a computer or doesn't feel confident in ordering from one, you can offer your own or perhaps another relative's support in getting what she wants.
Obviously there are millions of titles of books which one might consider. If you're looking for suggestions, try these:
Anyone who loves Frank Sinatra's music might enjoy getting a copy of the brand new bestseller ''Frank: The Voice,'' by James Kaplan. The good things about the book are the author's in-depth research, his obvious admiration for Sinatra and understanding of the singer's career. His writing is easy to read, factually accurate, and full of juicy tidbits. Can you guess what was Frank's second-most seductive trait, beyond his ability to sing?
The downside is that the book is very long. It has 718 pages in paperbound edition, and weighs quite a bit. It only covers the singer's life from his birth until his winning of the Oscar, for his role in ''From Here to Eternity,'' in 1953, with all that writing, with the result that it ends up describing lost tempers, wives married and cheated upon, audiences thrilled by performances, and similar topics, over and over again.
The book is published by Anchor Books, and marked for sale, when new, at $18.95. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-7679-2423-8.
If your recipient loves the theater, or is willing to learn about why so many people love the theater, I might recommend ''Drama: an Actor's Education,'' by John Lithgow.
Lithgow is probably best known by the public for his role as the leader of a small group of aliens from another planet, sent to study earth, but who continually completely misunderstand what they're experiencing, in the successful television series ''Third Rock from the Sun.''
Born not far from here, in Northeastern Ohio, Lithgow followed his father, Arthur, who worked all his life in the theater, creating quite a few theater festivals, most notably the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, which currently performs in Cleveland's venerable Hanna Theater under the name Great Lakes Theater Festival.
Blessed with a generous dose of nepotism, John Lithgow started doing walk-on performances and playing child parts in his father's production. He went on to a Harvard education and a Fulbright Fellowship for years of classical study in London, after which he has made a brilliant career of leading and character roles, beginning with a Tony, won only a few days after he first walked onto a Broadway stage in the role of the dim-witted rugby player in ''The Changing Room.''
Time Magazine, which in those days used to assume its readers were capable of enjoying and possibly even understanding a serious piece of theater, promptly praised him to the skies and ran his photo, with the caption ''George Lithgow.''
The author's voice, within the book, speaks beautifully. The chosen language is rich and beautifully descriptive. The subject of his life includes successes and failures, both professional and personal matters, encounters with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, and even an affair with Liv Ullman. I don't think the actor is aware of the tools he brings to his craft which others simply don't have, but he doesn't spend the book blowing his own horn. He is his own sharpest and most demanding critic.
I loved this book, and if your recipient is at all interested in acting and the theater, he will love it as well.
''Drama: An Actor's Education'' has 318 pages in hardbound edition. It was published by Harper Collins in 2011, and is marked for sale, if new, at $26.99. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-06-173497-7.
There is a nearly infinite variety of types of music. No one could possibly describe all the ways in which it has been captured, created and recorded. If your recipient sings or plays a musical instrument, he or she might delight in receiving sheet music so that it could be performed to his own standards and tastes.
Nearly anyone would enjoy recordings of the kind of music which makes his own soul sing. If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never understand the person who goes into a jazz club and suggests changing to rock and roll, or who joins an organization of classical music lovers and tries to force them to program country and western.
All of those types of music are valid and wonderful, but the appeal of music is more than just the music's basic quality. It is the way the music inspires the soul of the listener. You may want to consider one of these suggestions, depending on what your recipient might best respond to:
''Live at Heather's'' is the latest recording by a Canadian singer named Kim Doolittle. I heard her first in September, at which time I said her rich contralto with splendid, crystalline tones at the top of her range, brought back endless memories of my years of growing, courting, marrying, and setting off in life.
The recording is a bit short, lasting only a bit more than an hour, but music such as ''Wild Mountain Thyme,'' ''Dirty Old Town,'' and ''The Last Farewell'' are each worth the price of the album. I listen to it all the time, and shamelessly add my tragic baritone to her golden contralto, when no one else is home to listen.