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.
When I was growing up, one of the great things about Christmas was how wonderfully easy it was to buy gifts for my mother.
I would run up to the Card 'n Party shop or Belk's, pick out a dandy set of wooden salad bowls or a nice leather wallet (one with lots of plastic picture holders), have it wrapped and then head home. Mission accomplished. Tomorrow: Dad's gift.
Eventually, I graduated to glass salad bowls, scarfs and thoughtful little items like "Things to Do Today" note pads that hung on the kitchen wall. And always, without fail, they were received on Christmas morning with grace and gratitude and a warm motherly hug.
"My," she would say, unwrapping the third set of salad bowls in as many years, "how thoughtful! You sure do have a way of picking out such nice things!"
This was fine with me, of course. And after a decade of this, I was beginning to truly believe that maybe I did have a special knack for picking out just the right gift for old mom.
It wasn't until many years later, while digging through a closet where I came upon enough salad and soup bowl sets, hors d'oeuvres trays (wooden, plastic and Chinese style), coasters and ice buckets to fill a good-sized general store, that I realized maybe my gifts weren't as useful as I had believed.
Which brings me to my dilemma: How does a man with little or no recognizable taste shop for his wife? Let's just say I'm no Calvin Klein and, if left alone, I probably would decorate our house in matching Naugahyde sofas with sheets covering the windows.
In my defense, however, let me say that I now take this shopping business quite seriously. But, like most men, I have the patience of a gnat, and I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to accomplish an entire Christmas shopping run in, say, 30 minutes or so.
My problem in shopping for my wife runs much deeper. It seems that no matter how hard I try, or how long I look or how much money I spend, the gift never seems to be exactly right. Not that my wife isn't gracious about all this. On the contrary, she has come to learn to live with my miscues, and for that I am grateful.
All this seems so unfair because, in general, I believe men are the easiest people in the world to please. At least I am. My wife might argue this point, but her problem is that she insists on buying me things that are (how shall I say this?) out of character for the man she married.
I would, for example, be perfectly content to receive a couple of button-down Oxford cloth shirts and some khaki pants. Throw in a maroon striped tie and some boxer shorts and we're talking the perfect gift.
So what does she want to dress me in? Some geeky tapered Italian shirt, a skinny tie with amoeba-like parasites on the front and an Italian sport coat with no inside breast pocket. I don't care how old or rumpled my sport coats may look, at least they have breast pockets.
Aside from clothes, like most men, I enjoy gadgets, preferably something electronic and compact and durable. Take those tiny black metal flashlights with lifetime guarantees. I love them. I'd have one in every room if I could, but she thinks that just because I have three already, I don't need anymore.
Or tools. Give a man a good, heavy-duty, three-quarter-inch drill and watch his eyes light up. Not that I'm good around the house. In fact, I don't do a lick of work around the house. I couldn't hang a new chandelier if my life depended on it. But good tools are like guns and fine cameras. They feel great in your hands even if you don't know how to use them.
That settled, it's curious just how difficult it can be even figuring out what your mate desires, particularly when she has taste and you don't. Even now, after almost 6 years of marriage, I have only the vaguest sense of my wife's taste in clothes.
She could make it easy and dress like those models in the Land's End catalogue, but she loathes that style of dress. Instead, she has chosen to dress in her own eclectic "tailored professional" style that I have yet to find in any catalogue or department store.
Fun to her is mixing the blouses, the dresses and jewelry in a way that totally baffles me. Don't get me wrong. It looks great. It's just that I have no earthly idea how to buy for it.
You just can't run into Nordstrom and say, "Hey, how about something in your Eclectic Tailored Professional line?" You do that, and the first thing you know, they'll be asking you penetrating questions like, "Well, what does she like to wear?"
OK, so I'm no expert on women's apparel. And that's the thing that is so maddening: If I can't figure out her tastes, what is there to save me from myself?