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When a Chia Pet just won't cut it Why is it so hard to find the right gift for the one you love most?

You've picked out the perfect present for your parents, for your child's preschool teacher and for the postman.

But it's mid-December and you find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m., with visions dancing through your head -- and they aren't sugarplums. You keep hearing, over and over, that shriek of horror that greeted last year's big gift for your spouse: "I can't believe you got me a toaster oven!"

She did stop weeping after a few hours. And the diamond earrings you picked out together on Dec. 26 went a long way toward healing the toaster-oven trauma.

But now you feel trapped. And as the shopping days till Christmas dwindle to a precious few, you worry and you wonder:

Why is it so darned difficult to buy a gift for the person you love the most?

Amy Remmele, who, with her psychologist husband, Dr. Kent Bath, operates Peak of Success counseling and life coaching in Amherst, says you're stewing in enough anxiety to fill a wassail bowl because of the significance of the gift to both the giver and the recipient.

"If you're just buying something for the mailman, you can get a gift certificate, you can get a box of cookies," Remmele says. "You might get a little thank-you, but there's no ego investment. When you give a gift to somebody that you have a very solid relationship with, you have an ego investment in the gift and the person you're giving the gift to. So you're going to start to see anxiety."

Anita Renfroe, an Atlanta-based comedian and author of the book, "A Purse-Driven Christmas: So, What Did You Get Me?" goes a step further.

"I call it indecision paralysis," Renfroe says. "When you get to that point that that person means so much to you, there's no way you could possibly express that by something that you purchase, but the pressure's on to do just that. So you become paralyzed in your indecision because you love them so much."

After paralysis comes frantic last-minute action, which can result in the purchase of beyond-bad gifts. This is what explains Chia Pets and the Pocket Fisherman, says Renfroe. "Normally you end up buying something 'As Seen on TV,' or in an infomercial, because you're paralyzed -- you can't possibly choose between the diamond tennis bracelet and the new car, and who's got the funds to do that? So you end up getting something Ron Popeil is hawking on TV," she says, laughing.

>Hearts and wallets

Ed Knierim of Springville sees plenty of confused shoppers in his job as a sales associate in the Dick's Sporting Goods hunting, fishing and camping area.

"A lot of them come in with a couple of items on their list," he says. "Like they say they are looking for a flashlight. So I ask them if they've thought about whether they want a headlamp or a hand-held flashlight," he says, motioning toward a display of dozen different types of lights. "Then they take a step back, and say, 'Well, Jeez!' So then I ask about what the person's interests and hobbies are, what they might use the flashlight for."

Angela Findlay, of Barrie, Ont., has no problems shopping for Scott, her husband of two years. "He's pretty easy to buy for," she says. "He has lots of interests, hobbies and sports that he plays."

And how does Scott do in his present purchases? "Really well!" says Findlay. "Sometimes I leave him hints, but he's observant, has good taste, and he likes to shop!"

In fact, at that exact moment, Scott Findlay is roaming the mall, separate from his wife, picking up a few gifts for her.

Once couples marry, gift-buying may be complicated by a common budget, says Knierim, who has been married for almost 21 years to his wife, Jayne. "It's either, 'Don't spend too much,' or 'I can't believe you spent so much!' " he says.

Remmele says, "When you're married to someone, you're not only giving them a gift from your heart, but a gift they have to help pay for!"

Robert Chapman of Buffalo had no such worries. The lacy red nightgown and robe he'd selected for Sherrine, his wife of six years, was sure to be a hit. "I wanted to get something nice for her," he said, as youngest son Caleb, 18 months, smiled from his stroller. "She's been working out, so I didn't get any bathrobes, any grandmotherly stuff."

Chapman says he and his wife buy practical items, too. "Just recently, we bought a curio cabinet together as a gift to each other."

>Men who pay attention

Just down the aisle from Chapman, here's more of what ladies want to see:

It's still early in the holiday shopping season, and Jim Patterson and Dave Zack are striding confidently through Walden Galleria. Each man holds a large pink bag from Victoria's Secret that contains a gift for his wife.

Guys, what's the key to selecting the perfect present for the woman in your life?

"I have no key," says Patterson, then laughs. But then he and Zack, both Cheektowaga police officers, spill the secrets.

"I pay attention to the kind of stuff she wears throughout the year," says Patterson about Diana, his wife of two years. "I've noticed that she likes green -- lime green -- and pinks and purple, so that's what I go for."

Zack says his wife of 20 years, Debbie, has already told him not to buy her anything "because she's always so concerned about getting stuff for the kids," he says. But he's clearly disregarding that request. To make his gift selections, he says, "I pay close attention through the course of the year when she mentions something she's seen that she liked," he says.

But the Victoria's Secret bags -- you have to wonder who those gifts are really for, don't you?

"No, not at all," says Zack. "I buy things I know she's going to like. The stuff I have in here is really conservative."

>Pretty or practical?

The classic gift gap -- the one that causes tears on Christmas morning -- is the miscommunication between a person who expected a luxury gift and another person who chose a practical present.

"There are some women who, if you give them a vacuum cleaner for Christmas, you may as well have just insulted them," says Remmele. "But then there are women who can't stand frivolity. So if you go to Victoria's Secret and give them beautiful lingerie, they look at you and say, 'Wait a minute! I thought I was getting a new vacuum cleaner!' "

Men may be at a disadvantage because their basic idea of a wonderful gift may differ from their spouse's, says Renfroe. "Men sometimes think they are going to give the woman something that will save them time and make their lives easier, but when a woman sees an appliance, all she sees is, 'You see me as a housewife!' Now, if women get a man something that plugs in -- bliss!"

How to avoid a gift gaffe?

"The best thing is to talk -- and to talk before the day before Christmas," says Remmele. "The worst scenario we see is women shopping for themselves. She buys the stuff she wants and puts it under the tree as though it came from her husband. There's something big missing there."


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