Palo Alto resident Catherine Debs knows a thing or two about finding the appropriate gift for a host. As San Francisco's former assistant chief of protocol under Mayor Willie Brown, she traveled the world with gifts for dignitaries: Tiffany crystal; cuff links; scarves woven with city landmarks; and polished redwood urns.
"You have better gifts than the White House," former President Bill Clinton once told her.
Despite a world of experience in international gift-giving, Debs keeps it simple at home. She hunts for interesting things at stores as diverse as downtown Palo Alto's Letter Perfect and Menlo Park's Ace Hardware. She has even made some great finds at Walgreens and Kmart, she said.
"I believe in giving something special that says who you are," she said during a recent visit at her Old Palo Alto home, noting that the redwood urns given to Japan represented the iconic California tree.
Debs opened a gargantuan woven bag filled with potential gifts to bring to parties: tea towels printed with Palo Alto maps; corn-cob holders for barbecues; a scented, electronic candle; a ceramic, bronze-colored pine cone candle holder.
"Don't you want to get something that's kind of fun? Then you have a conversation piece," she said, displaying a box of magic tricks and whimsical paper place mats with the plate and silverware printed on.
When it comes to bringing a gift, Debs recommends simplicity and practicality. Even the most mundane gift can be brought to life with creative packaging.
"If someone has a dog, you can bring dog biscuits," she said. "A container can do it all."
Coming up with stunning packaging was one of Debs's biggest jobs in the Office of Protocol, and she often looked to young urban artisans for the best box design, she said.
Presentation was so important that there was a philosophy around how gifts would be presented and unfolded, she said. Most dignitaries -- and party hosts -- don't have the time to untie knots and paw through packing material, she said.
"Tiffany's was the worst," she said of going through layers of tissue paper to get to the crystal ornament inside. "You want the box to open -- to just pull a ribbon -- and, 'Ta-DA!'"
On the international stage, giving many gifts is an important part of diplomacy, according to Debs. "That's how you make many friends," she said.
A bit of cultural sensitivity was needed, and Debs had to do her homework. There were things that one didn't do, she said.
"You don't give certain colors or things with numbers on them; you only give lucky numbers. You don't want to offend," she said. "You want to go with the colors that are theirs."
In mainland China, for example, she used so much red that she still has a collection of red ribbons, she said.
Personalized gifts were also important. Affixed on each redwood urn she brought to Japan was a gold-plate plaque with the recipient's name. Similarly, one can bring personalized gifts to dinner-party hosts, such as stationery, she said.
"That person will think, 'You went to all of that trouble for me,'" she said.
Fun-loving Debs is often on the fence about bringing something that is amusing or something that's practical, so she often finds gifts that are both. One host raved about a pair of rubber gloves with big flowers years later, she said.
Debs recommends choosing gifts that won't distract the host, who is usually focused on cooking or entertaining, she said.
"If somebody brings cut flowers, it's not a good idea," she said. But one friend brings orchid plants, which come in a nice basket and are meaningful, she said.
Over the years, Debs herself has received several stand-out hostess gifts. A voodoo doll and a magnetized soap dish are among her favorites, she said.
She isn't particularly fond of picture frames. They force her to hunt for a suitable photo to put inside, she said. But after her mother died, a friend of her brother's brought a framed picture of her mother.
"I was deeply moved that he went to all of that trouble," she said.
On the subject of food and wine, a gift doesn't have to be fancy, but it does pay to know the host's tastes, food restrictions and allergies. Food isn't always the best choice for older people, she said, but "if you're young, you gotta bring food."
Once again, packaging can go a long way to turn the usual into something special. Debs displayed a colorful, insulated reusable wine jacket she found at Ace that she will use to spruce up a bottle of wine or champagne.
In most cases, finding a gift that will be at least somewhat appreciated is likely a no-brainer.
"Let's face it. You're probably not going to go to dinner at the house of somebody you don't like. You're probably on the same wavelength," she said.
But when in doubt, it doesn't hurt to do a little online research about a host's interests and tastes, including social media sites.
Of all of the gifts she's given and parties she helped throw internationally, Debs had only one glitch, she recalled. During a trip to San Francisco's sister city, Shanghai, she and Chief of Protocol Charlotte Schultz brought books to celebrate the opening of a new library. Arranged on gathered, red table cloths illuminated by red, glowing lights from beneath to look like lanterns, the stunning presentation was nearly derailed by customs inspectors who initially wouldn't let the tablecloths into the country.
"They weren't made in China," she said. But officials eventually relented after the American delegation explained that Debs had purchased the tablecloths in San Francisco's Chinatown.
"They were made by Chinese in California," she said.