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story.lead_photo.caption Karen Martin

It's usually simple to find a birthday gift for a far-away friend or relative: Gift cards for one of their favorite local restaurants, shopping cards for multi-purpose stores like Target or Lowe's, movie ticket gift cards, season tickets to a theater, cards for hair stylists, salons and spas.

My go-to presents for my sister, who lives in a western Cleveland suburb, tend to be Starbucks cards--she loves their products, and the cards can be purchased online. No packaging or fancy wrapping is required; the cards fit nicely in a mailing envelope.

The same goes for my husband's mother, who often receives a certificate for a manicure/pedicure at a stylish nail salon near her Savannah home.

But such gifts may not be appropriate in these pandemic days, because social distancing makes using them problematic.

Lots of us don't much want to frequent dine-in restaurants right now--not only because of the risk of becoming infected with the virus, but because it seems so dreary to wear masks while seated at a table without condiments within reach (a packet of hot sauce isn't nearly enough when hot sauce is needed) and far from fellow diners (isn't the idea of going out to dinner to see and visit with others, along with enjoying well-prepared food?) and having a plate handed over by a similarly masked server.

I'm sticking with takeout until a vaccine is available.

Plus it's difficult to know if restaurants--from chains to local hole-in-the-walls--are open in other states where shutdowns can be implemented suddenly, which can affect takeout ordering as well.

And hands-on personal services like hair styling, massages, and nail care, indulgent luxuries though they are, require a decided lack of physical distancing, which may not be appropriate for aging relatives and friends.

Shopping at Target stores nationwide requires mask-wearing, but that doesn't mean everyone will be comfortable there, especially those of a certain age. Same with Home Depot, Lowe's, and other home improvement outlets.

And even if movie theaters in other states begin to open (Little Rock's Riverdale 10 is already there, with limited capacity and strict social-distancing rules), they don't have much in the way of new product to put on their screens.

Does this get us off the gift-giving hook? It does not.

Acceptable gifts in the covid era are those that amuse and engage people who are spending a lot of time at home or in solitary situations, or provide visual, aural or ambient distraction.

A plant--especially one that involves more attention than plunking it down on a windowsill--comes to mind. Make sure it's accompanied by care instructions (flowers are nice too, but they don't last long). Delivery of plants has improved greatly since the last time I sent one to a friend about five years ago and the indifferent shipper placed it upside-down on her front porch. Not sure it survived.

If your friend/relative has the necessary technological skills, a digital streaming bundle is likely to be appreciated. Figure out how to send one by visiting the websites of Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, and NBC's newcomer Peacock (the base version of Peacock is free but there are commercials; access to twice as much content and no commercials is $4.99 per month with Peacock Premium).

Amazon Video can't be gifted, but you can send a gift card to a recipient and recommend it be used to purchase the service.

Same goes for giving a month of music streaming service (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music) or digital books. Restrictions apply (Amazon only lets you gift Kindle ebooks).

For non-techies, send a printed book ("The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice" by David Hill is a thrilling read, and not just for Arkansans).

Or a jigsaw puzzle. Popular adult choices are Jackson Pollock, Convergence, Movie Lovers, Women March, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and Life of the Party 1,000 Piece Puzzle (that'll keep 'em busy for a while). If a playing partner is available, consider a board game like L.L. Bean Deluxe Scrabble or Telepathy.

Then there's my favorite category: foodstuffs. Coffee fans might enjoy Bean Box Gourmet Coffee Sampler, offering Seattle-based coffee in a choice of light, medium, dark, decaf or espresso roasts in three-, six-, or 12-month subscriptions.

I enjoy anything from Harry and David, especially Harry's Gift Box with succulent pears, caramel popcorn, sharp cheddar, summer sausage, mixed nuts, and three-seed crackers. The company has been around for 80 years and knows how to handle shipping of delicate fruit.

Williams-Sonoma can provide all sorts of tempting culinary gifts such as croissants and pastries, fruits and nuts, popcorn, caviar, cheese boards, cocktail mixes, and oils and vinegars; cookbooks too.

Summer's heat makes shipping chocolate a messy business, but sweet-toothers might be pleased to get a wooden tray filled with dried fruit from Zabar's, especially nice for recipients who are yearning to visit New York's Upper West Side and wander the tempting aisles of this unique specialty food store.

My mother-in-law got a Home Depot card for her birthday in July, which, unlike many of the gifts we send her, probably won't end up in the hands of grabby grandchildren and their families. My sister, currently not undertaking one of her intermittent attempts to give up caffeine (why bother?), was rewarded with bags of whole beans for being sensible enough to know that pandemics are bad times to give up anything.

I hope they take the hint that there's no need to send me gift cards to department stores or specialty shops. Most of my summer clothes haven't made it off their hangers yet. But I'd be delighted to get any of the above.

And maybe the state Beverage Control Board will consider giving us a break and allow gift-givers to ship wine to Arkansas.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

kmartin@arkansasonline.com

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