Dianne Klein and Richard Beene, both Times staff writers, are married to each other. They did not compare notes before writing these columns. Any appearance of a joint effort can be attributed to spouse's intuition.
Oh, for those carefree Christmases of my childhood, when any clay ashtray or tie clip would suffice as a gift for the man of the house.
It didn't matter that my father, the sole man in that ranch-style suburban home of my childhood, didn't smoke, or that the tie clips, cologne, sweaters and other manly presents I would invariably select were never in sync with my father's taste, whatever that was.
At least during those early years, my father would try to act the good sport. He would smile rather insipidly, exclaiming something like, "Oh, isn't this nice!" and then ask my mother, in the semi-privacy of the kitchen or some such place, how much I had spent.
The clear message behind this, of course, was something along the lines of: "How could you let her waste money on that ."
In later years, my father stopped bothering with the semi-privacy thing, instead asking me flat out whether I got his gift on sale (i.e., he was showing his concern for my finances again) or whether I would mind exchanging it as long as I was going to the mall anyway.
But I digress. It's not my father I'm concerned with here (although I could clearly get carried away on that alone). It is men in general and my husband, Richard, in particular.
I'm here to report that, based on decades of gift-giving to my father and, more recently, my husband, men must have some sort of genetic impediment to being gracious, or at least open-minded , about receiving gifts from the women they love.
In hindsight, I think it may have been a newlywed's naivete about such things that made me assume that my new husband would absolutely love the present I was to bestow on him during our first Christmas together.
It was 1983. We were in Madrid, where we had moved from New York the previous summer, and were spending the holidays alone. It was supposed to be very romantic, if I recall correctly.
Anyway, fully aware that not just any gift would do (the thought of cologne or a tie clip never crossed my mind), I set out, several times, to Calle Serrano, which was the city's best shopping area, in search of something personal, something great.
OK, the word great, in this case, deserves some sort of definition. Richard, for example, would think that great, when it comes to a Christmas gift, is something like 365 identical button-down, long-sleeve shirts from Brooks Brothers.
He would argue that they are, in fact, far from identical when you take into account that about 4 months' worth would be white, another 4 months' worth would be blue and maybe the remainder would be--oh, who knows?--red-and-white-striped, blue-and-white-striped or an occasional pale pink.
Anyway, the button-down is the important part. My husband will not buy a shirt without a button-down collar. One year, a relative, maybe it was my sister's husband, gave him a shirt without a button-down collar. He put on that shirt exactly one time, before bathing, to do some chores around the house.
So I'm sure you get the picture. For my husband, just putting on that shirt was a daring fashion statement. Someone might have stopped by the house and seen him in it.
I know this. Now.
I have long since abandoned my own ideas of a great Christmas present for my husband. For example, if money were no object, I would love to give him something like a Giorgio Armani suit, which would look fabulous on him.
But if he were to unwrap such a present on Christmas Day, Richard would probably say something like: "What is this? An Italian suit? You want me to look like those guys with those stupid tapered shirts and those skinny ties?"
Never mind that the suit would not include a shirt or a tie--that is what he would say. He makes these associations all the time. Like when he sees some particularly awful-looking man on the street, or in some store, usually one who is probably colorblind or otherwise
aesthetically impaired, he'll turn to me and say, "See, that's how you want me to look."
And this is from a man who still wears, almost every day, the same style of shoe--they're suede, with crepe souls, sort of like desert boots--that he wore in high school. "When you find something good, you stick with it," is what he says.
All right, so back to Spain. I search, for days on end, for the perfect gift. I think the clue that my husband gave me beforehand, when I asked what he would like for Christmas, was something along the lines of "a nice button-down shirt."
But, although some of you, probably men, will say, "Why not just buy him a button-down shirt?" maybe others among you will realize that such is not possible.
What kind of a surprise is getting a button-down shirt? What kind of imagination does that show? How much caring goes into picking out a button-down shirt?