The problem, of course, is not what she thinks it is. She is convinced that anyone of reasonable intelligence could, if he put his mind to it, buy a perfectly suitable gift for someone whose taste, temperament and wardrobe he knows as well as I know hers.

The problem, she imagines to the point of certainty, is one of postponing the matter until the last minute, when everything has been picked over, and then choosing more or less blindly. She knows that gift-choosing isn't easy. Her own shopping is, often as not, a tedious, mind-tiring enterprise, entailing countless trips to innumerable shops until she finds just the right thing. She reasons that anyone who consistently chooses wrong gifts does so because he won't take the time and mental effort to do it right. It is a failing she tends to ascribe to men in general, having both married a man and been brought up in a family of men who share the affliction.

She's right to a point. The men in her life choose awful gifts (when, unable to foist the chore off on the women, they are forced to choose at all). But she is wrong in supposing that we choose awful gifts because we are last-minute shoppers. We are last-minute shoppers because we choose awful gifts no matter when we start.

Not awful as in garish, or cheap, or frou-frou; awful as in not-quite-right (and occasionally not even close to right) for the women we are shopping for. We put it off for the same reason a convicted embezzler puts off the beginning of his jail term: some sage counselor may come up with something that makes the trip unnecessary.

But why are we so dreadful at something at which we have had so many years' experience? The same men who are so dreadful when it comes to choosing gifts for their women do reasonably well in choosing for their children. It isn't because we know the children better. It is because the children grow up, so that each year opens up a new vista of possibilities. Wooden pushcarts become tricyles, then two-wheelers, then ten-speed bikes. Clackety pull toys become electric trains, then remote-control racing sets, then video games.

It isn't that way with women. Instead of a succession of possible categories of gifts, the categories remain fixed, and become increasingly full. That's part of it. Another part is that children don't buy themselves toys all year long the way many women buy themselves the things they really want, usually during irresistible sales. And children know very precisely what they want, even if they no longer want it the day after they get it.

After years of marriage, anything that grown- ups both covet and can afford, they already own. What's the point, just because it's Christmas, of spending a lot of money on something that your loved one doesn't really want?

Which is another part of the problem. I was remarking to a friend a while back about how much easier it used to be when a man could take a hundred bucks or so and buy gifts for the whole family; when the children could be given $5 each to shop for their parents and siblings and come home with change. It isn't just cost inflation, I told him; it's gift escalation.

The friend said I was a victim of my own increased affluence. Of course -- Christmas shopping was easier when we used the occasion of the holidays to replace threadbare winter coats, holey sweaters and lost gloves, finishing off the affair with fruit, nuts and trinkets. Nowadays, the coats get bought when they are needed (or wanted), and the trinkets, being underfoot the year around, are largely unappreciated.

It's a point worth discussing. Unfortunately there's no time. I've got some last-minute shopping to do