I am not sure that shopping is a sex-linked trait.
I know men who sift through conversation for gift ideas.
I know men who spend time (and money) at the mall, searching for just the right sweater or record album.
I know men who have memorized sizes, preferences (turtle or crew neck, pastel or primary, silver or gold) and who are aware of special interests, like watercolors, china collections, sports equipment.
I know men like that. But I am not married to any of them.
At our house, gift buying for the wife goes like this: It's Dec. 23 of any year.
"Honey, are you still reading Agatha Christie?"
"I finished the 82nd and last Christie two years ago."
"Oh. You using any perfume lately?"
"Not since I started to smell like diaper wipes, in 1980."
"Oh. Still wear a size 10?"
"I don't really need any clothes." (A good answer when you don't want to admit that size 10 was three kids ago.)
Pause. Then, in an exasperated voice, "What WOULD you like for Christmas?"
We have had a variation of that conversation every December for the past decade. I always request diamond earrings. Under the tree I find (selecting random dates): a stroller (1979); an electric frying pan (1981); place mats illustrating the Washington, D.C., Metro route (1984); the last pair of bedroom slippers from Sears (I know it was the last pair because I tried to exchange them, 1985); a framed print of the Battle of Gettysburg, complete with bleeding horses (1986).
This year, I launched the campaign early.
In July, I needlepointed a pillow for his office. It read: "Ice would be nice."
In August, I removed the Mantovanni cassette in his car and replaced it with "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend."
In September, I placed a Happy Ad in the local newspaper: "Experiencing a letdown after the Iran-Contra hearings? Go buy your wife one-carat diamond earrings!" I had them put it next to the baseball box scores.
In October, I dressed my sons for Halloween as gift boxes from Tiffany's and Cartier's. Emily, my daughter, went as an American Express card.
In November, I had T-shirts screened for the children. They read: "Buy rocks, not stocks."
Did I get his attention?
Let's put it this way: Early this month, during my yearly marathon sock-sorting session, I happened to open his underwear drawer. In it was a paper bag, and in that was a book. It was The Murder of Simon Sedgewick by Amanda Christian, "in the tradition of the great English mystery writers."
Next year, I think I'll ASK for a mystery.
For all husbands like mine who find themselves at the last minute frantically trying to find something for the stocking, here are some hints:
Jewelry is seldom received with a sneer. It doesn't have to be real gold, but try to notice what the women in your office are wearing so that you do not give dainty dangle earrings when large button-style earrings are in style.
A membership to a health spa or a ticket to a fat farm might be taken amiss, but if your wife is interested in exercise, a one-size-fits-all velour sweat suit would be nice. Or a new tennis racket or 10-speed bicycle (one without a baby seat).
Speaking of babies, baby-sitting coupons or, better yet, a note guaranteeing the prepaid services of a neighborhood baby sitter along with the new tennis racket would be great.
A new house with a bigger linen closet is always acceptable. Better would be the promise of a housecleaning service once a month for 1988.
A microwave, if there's anybody else left who doesn't have one, is a nice labor-saving device.
An electric blanket would be heaven.
Bubble bath or a large, beautiful houseplant.
What has she mentioned? At Thanksgiving did she complain that there are only three knives left in the stainless pattern? Did you have to borrow a gravy boat or turkey platter minutes before the meal? Is there one sherbet glass missing from the crystal? The gift is in tracking down the pattern as much as paying for the item.
Maybe she needs a new briefcase if she works in an office, or a canvas tote bag if she doesn't. Stay-at-home moms can always use an oversize flannel shirt.
Glance at her wrist. Is she wearing a Mickey Mouse watch? How about getting her one of those new sporty versions in some wild color combination?
All gifts do not have to be intimate. The year I got the stroller (it was a two-seater) I really wanted one. But this year, I want diamond earrings.
Ann Yost, whose ears are pierced, is a Washington-area writer.