Every year I send the same letter to the White House, and every year that letter, apparently, gets lost. "Dear Mr. President," it begins. "Can we please skip the holidays this year? I've spent all my money and don't wish to leave the house. It's cold and dark out there. Yours truly, etc."
I don't know what to do. I mean, who needs all this seasonal stress and expense? Who can hibernate with so much goodwill in the air? How do I recoup hours of making merry instead of engaging in online Metroid against my formidable nemesis, Eviscerator5 (a.k.a. my cousin Dirk in Passaic)?
I can't stop the madness. So I do the next best thing. I stay inside. I don't spend any money. I eat whatever's in the freezer. And I do my holiday "shopping" for free. No, not like Winona. I mean, through the Internet. Not Amazon, but rather NASA. And the Justice Department. And the good people at Gourmet magazine.
I pull together choice, freebie stuff that I can download or print out and slap into customized packages for my (shudder) loved ones. Then I stand back and bask in my gift recipients' praise for—what do they call it?—my "loving resourcefulness."
Let me give you some examples. Pretend you've got a cousin, oh, somewhere in New Jersey. Name of, um, Dirk. He has an interest in outer space, though it's not as strong as his interest in weed or never rising from his ratty futon. For Dirk, you start at Solar System Live (www.fourmilab.ch/solar/solar.html). Click on "Your Sky," then click on "Make sky map." Set the date, time, and place of Dirk's birth, click "update," and whaddya know, you've got a map of the sky exactly as it was over baby Eviscerator5's newborn head.
Print out the result, then skip over to www.terraserver. com. Terraserver's various searches (city, zip code, points on a map) will lead you to a limited overview of free satellite im-ages of Earth's populated and nonpopulated surfaces, including many a famous spot. The USBG search, however, allows you to look for specific street addresses in the continental United States. With zoom function and directional panning, you can create a bird's-eye pilgrimage of Dirk's old abodes, schools, favorite places, and even the bridge under which he squandered his adolescence.
Drop by www.spaceimaging.com to browse that site's handsome galleries of satellite photos of Earth. The mostly color shots of pre- and post-9/11 Manhattan, the Grand Canyon, Mount Pinatubo, Venice, the Indy 500, and much else are amazingly sharp and compelling. Finally, hit up the Hubble Space Telescope Public Pictures site (www.oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pictures.html), and download a few of the orbiting spyglass's greatest hits, such as "Gaseous Hula Hoops" and "Gallery of Galaxies," the latter a mind-boggling, deep-space photo of the oldest celestial residents we've yet found.
Print everything out and assemble an album of Dirk's life. The hospital in which he was born (and the cosmic alignment outside), the houses of his youth, the parks, his grandfather's dairy farm. Perhaps some of the touchstones of his travels. Or the places he still dreams of reaching. Or the soul-shattering, impossibly beautiful machinery of his universe.
But enough of Dirk. How about your sister, Maile, a big reader? No big deal. Log onto one or more free literature sites such as www.bartleby.com and www.literature.org, or the grand poobah of downloadable Web libraries, www.gutenberg.net.
If you don't have time to dink around with more than one cybertrove of good reading, go straight to Gutenberg. The inventory will blow your mind, extending far beyond familiar, or even largely obscure, classic titles. Another benefit is the downloading process, which is simpler than the others; you can get the entire text all at once, rather than chapter by chapter. All you have to do is choose an array of books that Maile would appreciate, then burn them onto a CD. As gifts go, this one is particularly personal but modernist-cool, too.
Of course, you can burn a lot of things onto discs now (if your computer is equipped to do so). Why not give free-thinking Uncle Barney a do-it- yourself anthology of hot FBI dossiers on the Freedom of Information Act's site foia.fbi.gov/ball.htm)? Perhaps include files from the House Un- American Activities Committee's investigations of Lucille Ball, Jackie Robinson, and Albert Einstein, plus summary accounts of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, the Hindenburg disaster, and (oh, yes, yes!) a one-page teletype, dated 7/8/47, sent by the Bureau's Dallas office about an incident in. . . Roswell, N.M. The truth is out there, dude.
For anyone else on your list, you might consider customized discs of old radio shows (www.n8elq.com), music (do a Google search on "free music downloads," and pay a visit to artists' sites like www.petetownshend.com, www.bobdylan.com, etc.), and comedy (same Google deal).
Kitchen wizards will appreciate unique collections of gourmet recipes (www.epicurious.com, www.free-gourmet-recipes.com, www.international-gourmet.net), while young kids will love homemade story anthologies (you can print these out, too, of course, with illustrations) at www.unityspot.com (click "fairy tales"), www.childhoodreading.com, and www.magickeys.com (click "children's storybooks online," and don't miss "award-winning links" at the bottom of this page). You can also assemble coloring books with pages culled from www.crayola.com (click "coloring books and activities") and www.coloringpage.org (find your way to the "print" section), as well as mazes and other puzzles (www.kidsdomain.com/down, www.microsoft.com/kids).
Does it all seem like too much effort? OK, so you have to miss a couple of episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants to get it together. Sometimes you've gotta give till it hurts.