On my 37th birthday my true love gave to me -- a wooden duck.

Not an ordinary wooden duck, but a laquered beauty from Bloomingdale's with feathers to match my bedroom decor.

But a duck is still a duck.

I could not erase the mental picture of my husband in the store, bypassing the furs and the finery, the jewelry and the jumpsuits to spy the duck and say, "That's my wife."

Needless to say, I did not accept the duck with grace. In truth, it was not the gift I found difficult to accept--it was the image of myself that came with it.

The business of giving and receiving is a tricky one. As our mothers told us, it is the thought that counts. But since the giver and the receiver often do not think alike, a well-meant gift may be received with the warmth the folks in Troy felt for the wooden horse.

A friend of mine received a food processor from her family on Mother's Day. To her family that gift said "labor saver," but to her it said only "labor." A food processor for the food processor, that was the way she saw it. She wanted a sign that her family remembered that she was more than that. She wanted a sign that somebody still saw the black-lace person under the navy blazer or the weekend blue jeans.

Sometimes a present sends a message that self-improvement is in order.

Jogging shoes may be a terrific birthday gift, but the friend who received them didn't think so. She isn't a jogger. Those shoes did start one person running for his life--the husband who bought them.

Self-improvement presents for men often include articles of clothing that suggest it is time to change images. A man who goes through life in shades of gray will receive a red sports shirt; a weekend lumberjack will be given a pair of white flannels more suitable for the yacht club than Yosemite. The unwritten rule is that the offending gift must be worn at least once, even if your face is as scarlet as the shirt during the wearing. Then the item can vanish mysteriously into the closet or chest.

All of the burdens are not on the receiving end. Givers are faced with impossible decisions: what to buy for the occasion that demands a gift that is personal yet practical, creative yet constructive, and bolsters the relationship but does not break the bank. Unhappily, what the recipients really need--love, health and happiness--you cannot buy for them and what you can buy, they don't need.

How do we know when we fail to find the right gift? One hint is the thank you note which refers to the sterling silver candle snuffer in such vague terms it is clear the giftee had no idea what to do with it. Another indication is when the perfume atomizer you sent your favorite aunt is unwittingly presented to you the following year.

The only solution to the dilemma over presents is preparation--not inspiration. Telling each other what we would like as gifts and shopping together for them makes sense at a time when few people have the time and money to spend for things nobody wants or needs.

I believe in the Holiday Inn philosophy of gift-giving: the best surprise is no surprise. It would be easier for our loved ones to find out what is in our hearts than to read our minds.