Newest tester report

REI Trail 40

For her 16-day journey to Everest Base Camp, our gear editor wanted killer comfort and convenience. The Trail 40 delivers. It has the structure and padding to support loads up to 25 pounds. “I barely noticed it on my back,” she says, “even on epic days postholing over 17,500-foot passes.” But it’s the made-for-trail-living packbag that really shines. It opens via a U-shaped zipper with four sliders: Use it as a top-loader, peel back the entire front panel, or zip from the corners to access the bottom without exposing the rest. The stretchy side pockets keep 1-liter bottles secure and huge hipbelt pockets swallow iPhone, snacks, sunscreen, knife, lip balm, and mini-wallet. Bonus: sweet price. $109; 3 lbs.;

L.L.Bean Pathfinder LED Cap

At first, we thought this lighted ball cap was, well, dorky. So we gave it to our kids for a long weekend of camping. By the second night, we stole it back. After all, you need a light and you need a hat; it’s cleverly efficient. The Pathfinder is a simple cotton cap (we wish it were nylon) with three LEDs and a clickable button built discretely into the brim. Three settings offer different brightness levels (the highest is bright enough for trail hiking). It won’t always take the place of a full-powered headlamp, but for warm weather camping, it perfectly fits the, ahem, bill. $20; 4.2 oz.;

Minus 33 Isolation/Sequoia Midweight 1/4 A Zip

When a puffy’s too warm and a fleece is too bulky, a thin wool layer is just the ticket, and this one is a bargain. Our New England tester wore the Sequoia (women’s) as a high-output midlayer for more than a month’s worth of frigid, stormy days this winter, and she continues to wear it as a warm-weather insulator. It’s slightly thicker than typical wool long Johns, and the relaxed fit doesn’t cling like so many other wool zip-tees we’ve tried. The 18.5-micron merino “just gets softer with each washing,” says our tester. “It’s become my go-to cozy piece for both the backcountry and daily wear.” The fabric shows no signs of pilling–even in high-abrasion areas like underneath pack straps–but the interior finishing could be improved. We see signs of fraying along the flatlock seams. $76; 8.8 oz. (w’s M); m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XXXL;

Eider Airy

Airy is right: This shell became our top pick among dozens of test jackets for high-octane activities that demand high breathability and low weight. The rear mesh vented sweat off our backs on cool Cascade trail runs, and the paper-thin Windefender fabric shed mist and light drizzle (real rain eventually soaked through, especially at the pack straps). Underarm ports vent more steam, and Lycra hem, wrist, and hood linings seal out drafts. In Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, the Airy kept our tester dry on the uphills and repelled winds up high. A single pocket just barely fits an iPhone 6. $150; 4.9 oz. (m’sM); m’s XS-3XL, w’s 4-16;

SteriPen Classic 3

This latest iteration of the Adventurer Opti (a 2011 Editors’ Choice winner) has all the convenience of its big brother–just dip and swirl–but for 20 bucks less. Tradeoff: Instead of tiny disc batteries, the Classic runs on four AAs, so it’s a bit bulkier (about 7 by 1.5 inches) and heavier (by 2.4 ounces with batteries). The UV lamp purifies up to 8,000 liters and fresh lithium batteries will treat 150 liters (according to the company). We used it for two weeks in Nepal, where it treated up to 8 liters per day without fail. “It’s great in the backcountry,” says one tester, “and it’s also perfect for treating city water in developing countries.” $70; 6.2 oz.;

What You’ll Need When Backpacking with Your Baby

* Child carrier: Until your child is four or five years old, you can carry him or her in a child carrier if you purchase the heftiest, best-made one you can find. Madden makes the heaviest duty child carriers with the greatest storage capacity; Tough Traveler and Kelty also create models suitable for the trail. These are indispensable when your child is small and very convenient when your older hiker gets fatigued or the light is fading and you need to move faster.

Child Carrier

* Rain gear: Choose rain gear for your children that is designed with the same high-quality standards as adult rain gear, like suits made by Columbia Sportswear, with all the “adult” features like underarm vents, taped seams, and snaps on the elasticized wrists and ankles.



* Family camping tent: Next to your rain gear, the most important piece of rain equipment is your tent. “Family camping”- is the one of the best camping tents often incorporate fewer poles and tie-downs in their construction and can be quite high. These features can be dangerous in mountainous, above-treeline camping, where severe storms can collapse a less sturdy tent. The more ragged or remote the outing, the further away from family-camping tents you should move, and the closer to an expedition-type tent like Sierra Design’s Stretch Prelude. Never only look at cheap tents or tents on sale but spend more time to find a best family tent for you.


* Sleeping bags: Kelty has great sleeping bags for kids, and Tough Traveler makes the Growing Bear, a unique modular bag that adjusts for children 3 feet to 4 feet 10 inches tall.

* Backpacks: Most children should be about ten to 12 years old before they’re big enough to wear an adult backpack. Before that, they need a children’s backpack. Tough Traveler and Kelty make some great ones. Have your child fitted by a knowledgeable clerk in a reputable outdoor store. It should fit comfortably and not be too big in the hopes of getting more years of use out of it.

child backpack

* Water filter: One item worth its weight in gold to the camping family is the gravity-fed water filter by Basic Designs. Pumping purified water every night can be the most time-sapping of camp chores. You merely hang this bag up in a tree, and in an hour, your family has two to three gallons of effortlessly purified water.

water filter

* Hiking boots: Children can wear high-top sneakers for day hikes and ovenighters, but they do not offer the ankle support and traction of a genuine hiking boot. Sports sandals make good in-camp shoes that can go right in streams. The better-made models by companies like Teva and Merrell can even be hiked in if necessary.

child Hiking boots

Jane McConnell and her husband, Jeff Heyman, camp and backpack with Jack (9 months), Henry (2), and Lucy (4). She works as a part-time freelance writer and an associate editor for Mothering from her home in Boulder, Colorado.

Pee Wee Harris looks at camping

Last year, I and my little boy (nick name Pee Wee) were going to camp at Salt Lake. We’ve never met any rain heavy like that but I have my very best family tent and it protected us well. Next morning, he woke up early, sat beside our Coleman Red Canyon tent and sang happily (absolutely like this below picture). This is the poem I made at that time:














Beats, beatniks, and beat movies (3)

Salles and Rivera deserve applause for simply getting the picture finished, and their adaptation is moderately true to the novel’s basic structure, following Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund) on a series of journeys, stopovers, and visits that take them to such far-flung locations as Denver, San Francisco, North Carolina, a California cotton field, a Mexican brothel, a modest Queens apartment, and an upscale Manhattan neighborhood, picking up and dropping off a variety of friends, acquaintances, and relatives along the way. Riley and Hedlund are less than dynamic as the leads, but they’re both appealing, and the supporting cast is consistently persuasive, from Tom Sturridge and Viggo Mortensen as the Ginsberg and Burroughs characters to Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, and the marvelous Elisabeth Moss as wives and girlfriends who cope the best they can with the shamelessly male-chauvinist Beat crew.

These things said, what’s missing from On the Road is the novel’s deep investment not just in movement and travel but also in the incessant, compulsive curiosity about people, places, and things that propels Sal on his voyages and energizes every page of Kerouac’s hyperactive first-person prose. The novel’s psychological perceptions are also diminished, most notably at the end of the movie, when Sal–dressed to kill, going with friends to a fancy Manhattan jazz concert–abruptly dismisses Dean, who has just endured a miserable cross-country trip to visit him. In the novel, this moment marks the culmination of Sal’s gradually growing realization that Dean is irresponsible and unstable in ways that Sal himself is finally outgrowing. The film depicts this in a shallower, sketchier manner that reduces Sal’s bittersweet epiphany to a moment of everyday rudeness–plausible enough in narrative terms, but lacking the emotional resonance that makes the novel’s conclusion so memorable.

Since the movie was made so long after the publication of On the Road, I also wish Salles and Rivera had been emboldened to include some of the biographical facts that Kerouac left out of his autobiographical novel. Sex scenes recur as regularly in the film as in a summertime teenpic, but unlike the real Kerouac, Sal always leaves the room when a male partner beckons. And from watching the movie, you’d never know that Kerouac detested hitchhiking, or had a truly weird relationship with his truly weird mother, or was well on his way to alcoholism even before the period of On the Road. Kerouac was a more fascinating figure than his famous novel reveals, and recognition of his full complexity might have lent the movie some of the bite and surprise it lacks.

Big Sur begins with an unexpected epigraph, slightly altered from a passage in Kerouac’s 1962 novel: “All over America highschool and college kids thinking ‘Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitch hiking‘ while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded …” This is the Kerouac portrayed in Polish’s moody film–a middle-aged alcoholic sickened by three years of unsought fame as “King of the Beatniks,” now realizing he is “surrounded and outnumbered and [has] to get away to solitude again or die.” His great friend Ferlinghetti (the film replaces Kerouac’s pseudonyms with real names) offers him the use of his isolated cabin in Northern California, so Kerouac boards a train from New York, has a final misbegotten bender in San Francisco, and finally settles down for a healing, restorative sojourn in the wild. “No booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody,” his voice-over says; in their place are nature, books, contemplation. And on the fourth day, he realizes “with amazement” that he is bored and jaded once again. So he hightails it out of there, eager for more “wino yelling with the gang” in San Francisco.

Kerouac returns to Big Sur during the story, first with a gang of writer friends and later with Cassady’s lover Billie, with whom he is having an affair. Interludes with other Beats and fellow travelers occur between the cabin episodes, but at the climax he’s back in the woods, ravaged by delirium tremens and paranoid hallucinations in which “everything is death.” In the film’s last moments he has a glowing vision of transcendence, peace, and joy, complete with a Christian cross shining before his eyes, but it’s obviously a self-deluding mirage that would seem pathetic even if you didn’t know that his real-life counterpart died an alcoholic’s hemorrhagic death a few short years later. “Simple golden eternity blessing all,” he tells himself. “Nothing ever happened. Not even this.” Cold comfort. Polish takes large artistic risks in Big Sur, pouring on the voice-overs, spinning long sequences with no dialogue, and downplaying the drama of many story-driven scenes. The film packs quite a wallop, though, and again a crucial asset is the cast, which was apparently chosen with resemblance to the real-life characters in mind. Jean-Marc Barr and Josh Lucas are hunky and handsome as Kerouac and Cassady, and Anthony Edwards is uncannily right as Ferlinghetti. The women are sensitively played by Kate Bosworth (Billie), Radha Mitchell (Carolyn Cassady), Stana Katic, and Nora Kirkpatrick. Also present are second-tier Beats little seen in other Beat movies, ably portrayed by Henry Thomas (Philip Whalen), Balthazar Getty (Michael McClure), and Patrick Fischler (Lew Welch). Ginsberg isn’t a character in Big Sur, but this and Howl are the films that radiate what he called “eyeball kicks,” meaning the jolts of cosmic awareness that distinguish visionary art from everyday diversions. We don’t yet have a movie that evokes the full rambunctious essence of the Beats, but at last we have a couple that come close.

Beats, beatniks, and beat movies (2)

 The films also add up to a fragmented docudrama about the edgy period after World War II, when life was changing fast in what was now the strongest, most prosperous power in the world. Americans surged into an economic boom fueled by everything from the Marshall Plan overseas to television advertising at home, where consumers were moving from cities to suburbs and purchasing big-ticket conveniences galore. Yet feelings of psychological and spiritual well-being did not keep pace with the material comfort enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. Loaded terms such as “rat race” and “lonely crowd” cropped up frequently in journalism and entertainment, and cautionary books like Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955) and William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) became bestsellers. Republican war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956, comforting conservatives even as the Cold War produced commie-baiting McCarthyism and brooding fears that the Soviet Union would infiltrate, overthrow, or nuke the United States to oblivion. The nation’s problems intensified as gaps widened between rich and poor, suburbs became all but indistinguishable from one another, African-Americans suffered oppression in the South and bigotry in the North, and “planned obsolescence” caused consumer goods to break down just when you were starting to rely on them. The word “homophobia” didn’t exist but the sentiment was everywhere, and the message for young straights was “look but don’t touch” until the “right person” comes along and marries you.

This was the cultural situation that Kerouac confronted in The Town and the City (1950), his first novel and the first real Beat publication. Often dismissed as an uninspired Thomas Wolfe knockoff, it’s actually a well-realized, pugnacious book that anticipates the more adventurous writings to come, as when a small-town New Englander silently warns his neighbors, “Look out for that budget … Love your wife and kiddies … Learn to accept the whip of your next in rank. Don’t revolt, whatever you do!” Revolt was exactly what Kerouac had in mind, not by changing the system via politics but by opting out of it via creativity, spirituality, and an inward-looking quest for what he called “the unspeakable visions of the individual.” What this meant in practical terms was summed up by that small-town character: “As for me, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to desert the sinking ship.”

Others were coming to similar conclusions, and in the middle Forties the quintessential Beat writers–Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs–met one another in New York, where they cultivated their mutual interest in literature, drugs, travel, opposition to the sociocultural status quo, and spirituality of various kinds–most notably Buddhism, although Kerouac was also Roman Catholic and Burroughs became a Scientologist at one point. Burroughs published his novel Junkie and finished writing Queer in 1953, then gained international notoriety with his radically nonlinear novel Naked Lunch, published in Paris in 1959 and in America in 1962, whereupon it was banned in Boston and vindicated in a Massachusetts obscenity trial four years later. In 1956, the Beat poet and entrepreneur Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in the Pocket Poets Series of his recently formed company, City Lights Books, with an introduction by William Carlos Williams, one of Ginsberg’s heroes. Ferlinghetti published his own first collection, Pictures of the Gone World, in 1955, the year that also brought the first book by Gregory Corso, another gifted poet. Kerouac had written much of On the Road by early 1950, but in 1951 he began it again, using an entirely new method–nonstop typing on a single long roll of paper–inspired by the manic exuberance of the long, free-form letters he received from Cassady and by the free-flowing riffs of his favorite jazz musicians. It reached bookstores in 1957, and its enthusiastic New York Times review had roughly the same effect that Francois Truffaut’s Cannes best-director prize for The 400 Blows had on the French New Wave filmmakers in 1959–putting the author/auteur on the cultural map, and taking his talented friends there as well.

Colorful characters though they were, the Beats have not fared well in the movies. Pull My Daisy, the whimsical short made in 1959 by photographer Robert Frank and painter Alfred Leslie, is generally accepted as the Beat motion picture par excellence, featuring horseplay by Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky accompanied by Kerouac’s semi-improvised narration. Antony Balch’s elliptical Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut-Ups (1966) are strained attempts to create a cinematic structure with the collage-like “cut-up method” that Burroughs used in his most drastically experimental writing, such as the 1964 novel Nova Express. As for the mainstream Beat filmography, don’t expect the high-voltage spontaneity that characterizes Beat literature at its best. Items include The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a 1959-63 sitcom featuring Bob Denver as lazy, scruffy beatnik Maynard G. Krebs; Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959), a dark comedy with a beatniks-and-bongos setting; Ranald MacDougall’s adaptation of Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans (1960), with the book’s African-American heroine magically transformed into Leslie Caron; John Byrum’s Heart Beat (1980), with John Heard as the most tedious Kerouac imaginable; David Cronenberg’s lumbering take on Naked Lunch (1991); and documentaries notable less for their insights than for their footage of Beat figures. In their day, the Beats exerted considerable influence on American literature, social thought, popular culture, and spirituality, and it’s a scandal that cinema has fallen so short in exploring their lives and activities.

The recent Beat pictures are imperfect but welcome attempts to fill this gap. The first to arrive, Epstein and Friedman’s Howl, is a genre-crossing hybrid that appears to be influenced by Chuck Workman’s 1999 compilation film The Source, in which diverse materials–interviews, movie excerpts, and so on–alternate with recitations of Beat writing by Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and Dennis Hopper. Howl mixes more ingredients, using four different formats to present information about the poem, the poet, and the trial that made them famous. Ginsberg, played by James Franco, speaks at length to an unseen interviewer about how “Howl” came to be written; the obscenity trial is re-enacted; animated sequences illustrate passages from the poem; and connective sequences present archival footage and reconstructions of other moments in Beat history. The filmmakers say that about ninety-five percent of the dialogue comes straight from the historical record, gleaned from trial transcripts and interviews that Ginsberg gave. The courtroom scenes provide most of the film’s drama, but the animated episodes–based on Eric Drooker’s illustrations in Howl: A Graphic Novel, an edition of Ginsberg’s poem marketed as a tie-in with the movie–best capture the Beats’ free-flowing creative spirit, with city blocks looming like pagan gods, golden light pouring from a wailing saxophone, and urban scenes pulsing with power, energy, and mystery.

Ginsberg is also at the center of Kill Your Darlings, marvelously played by Daniel Radcliffe, hitherto famous as the star of the Harry Potter movies. The screenplay takes its cue from a mournful episode in early Beat history. David Kammerer was a college instructor, youth-group leader, and longtime friend of Burroughs, who said Kammerer was “always very funny, the veritable life of the party, and completely without any middle-class morality.” Kammerer developed a heavy crush on a boy named Lucien Carr, following him to several schools he attended, including Columbia, where Carr enrolled in 1943. Burroughs came to New York as well, and there they all met Kerouac and Ginsberg. In his 1968 novel Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac says that Carr possessed “fantastic male beauty … actually like Oscar Wilde’s model male heroes.” This beauty had no evident interest in a gay relationship, but he appeared to enjoy the attention Kammerer lavished on him, especially when the former English teacher did his homework.

Their friendship plummeted when Carr fell in love with a woman. Kammerer alternately stalked and ignored him until a summer night when he found Carr drunk in a bar near Columbia, went outside with him, and came to blows with him on a nearby hillside. A little later Carr showed up at the apartment that Burroughs shared with Kerouac and his girlfriend, Edie Parker, throwing Kammerer’s eyeglasses onto a table and saying he had just stabbed him in the heart with his Boy Scout knife because “the old man” had come on to him and then threatened to kill him. Carr had tied stones onto the corpse’s arms and legs and pushed it into the Hudson River.

Burroughs advised Carr to turn himself in and plead self-defense, but Kerouac went with Carr to the scene of the crime, where Carr buried the glasses (eerily echoing the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924, which inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope and other films) and dropped his knife into a sewer. Then they went to a movie. Two days later, Carr did surrender to the police, plea-bargaining a sentence of two years in a reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested for not reporting the crime. Burroughs’s rich family quickly bailed him out, but Kerouac’s humiliated father refused to follow suit, so Parker put up the money on the condition that he marry her, which he did. Ginsberg avoided the legal system but was profoundly shaken by the events, fearing they resulted from the morbid romanticism that had attracted him and his friends.

Kill Your Darlings mines this material for melodrama, of which there is plenty as director Krokidas supercharges the amour fou material with generous injections of quasi-Beat aesthetic flash, thus compensating for the relative lack of historical context and psychological detail. Radcliffe is excellent as the painfully vulnerable Ginsberg, and as Kammerer the remarkably versatile Michael C. Hall gives a performance as good as any I’ve seen by him. Equally sharp acting comes from Dane DeHaan as Carr, Kyra Sedgwick as his mother, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s mother, Jack Huston as Kerouac, Elizabeth Olsen as Parker, and Ben Foster as Burroughs, a tough role to carry off without seeming mannered or repetitious. Ginsberg and Burroughs both tried to deal with these sad events in literary form, eventually giving up the effort, and Kerouac managed only to weave it into his first and last novels. Krokidas’s partial success looks quite impressive by comparison.

Kerouac’s days as a Columbia student were several years behind him when he started to write On the Road, first as a conventional novel and then as a work of jazzlike spontaneous prose. He had loved movies all his life–he recalled seeing Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia, for example, no fewer than fifteen times–and when On the Road was published, he quickly imagined a screen version, deciding that he should play Sal Paradise himself, opposite Marion Brando as Dean Moriarty, the Cassady character. He wrote to Brando, who didn’t write back. And there matters lay until 1980, eleven years after Kerouac’s death, when Francis Ford Coppola acquired the movie rights. Among the many writers Coppola engaged to pen the screenplay were such notables as Michael Herr, Barry Gifford, Russell Banks, and himself, but none of the drafts proved satisfactory. After seeing Walter Salles’s 2004 road movie The Motorcycle Diaries, about the young Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) tooling through South America with a friend, Coppola hired Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera to make the Kerouac project happen.

Beats, beatniks, and beat movies (1)

After decades of neglect, the Beat Generation is suddenly a hot topic for filmmakers. The recent wave of Beat movies started in 2010 with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, about the obscenity trial inflicted on Allen Ginsberg’s great poem a year after it was published in 1956. The long-awaited screen version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the 1957 novel that gave the Beats their first national fame, arrived in 2012. And two more pictures debuted back to back this fall. Kill Your Darlings, the first feature directed by John Krokidas, is a fact-based story of mayhem and madness centering on two friends of the nascent Beat group in 1944. The best of all these pictures, an adaptation of Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur by writer-director Michael Polish, digs into the psychology of the most famous and troubled Beat writer with aesthetically striking results.

It’s hard to say exactly why interest in the Beats is on the rise just now. No crucial anniversary or literary find has happened lately, and the last major survivors of the original group, Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, died in 1997. The simplest explanation may be the best–that the long absence of Beat writers, subjects, and stories from the screen has made them ripe for rediscovery by new generations, and ready for revisiting by baby boomers who recall the days when they and the Beats were young. Nostalgia for the Fifties surely plays a role as well, notwithstanding the vast existential gap between the eccentric Beats and the money-minded Mad Men crew.

What remains to be seen is whether attitudes beyond simple curiosity and nostalgia are at work. The only one of these films with explicit political views is Howl, and while it’s intelligent and smartly made, its stand against censorship, prudery, and hypocrisy is hardly controversial in this day and age. It augurs well for the American future if renewed interest in Beat ideas is a sign that the group’s disgust with conformity, conventionality, and consumerism is once more on the rise. It’s less encouraging if people are tapping into Beat lore because they share the deep, even paranoid misgivings about collective action and political militancy that gave the Beat worldview its shadow side. When celebrating the group’s healthy disdain for lockstep cultural consensus, it’s worth remembering that the Beats had failings of their own. Kerouac turned into a reactionary crank, Burroughs was a chronically obstreperous loner, all of them were heedless sexists, and the whole Beat phenomenon quickly faded when the nervous, conflicted Fifties gave way to the swinging, politically charged Sixties.

If there’s a single main character in the recent Beat-related movies, it’s definitely Kerouac, who appears in each of them. His prominence makes sense, since he was the most important chronicler of the Beat scene, dubbing himself a “great rememberer redeeming light from darkness.” Nearly all of his important works are obsessively detailed memoirs wrapped in thin layers of fiction, and he dreamed of someday bringing the novels together in a sprawling autobiographical saga, following chronological order and giving the recurring characters their real-life names.

Other key Beats also play pivotal parts. Ginsberg is naturally the hero of Howl, and he shows up with Burroughs in On the Road and Kill Your Darlings. Neal Cassady is a key player in each movie except Kill Your Darlings, which takes place before Kerouac and company made his acquaintance. Taken together, the four films amount to a collective biopic portraying the core Beat writers just before and during their heyday, freely dramatized but reasonably true to the group’s spirit, considering how easily this material–a bunch of wild-minded literary guys attacking the cultural givens of their time—could have been inflated and sensationalized in the familiar mainstream-movie way.

Mars & Venus go shopping

You want a chenille sweater, and he gets you toaster. Why men are so bad at buying us presents (or are we just too hard to please?). Plus: shopping mistakes wives make.

back when you wore kneesocks and believed in princes, you probably read The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry’s classic story about Christmas shopping. Pre-mall, pre-Lands’ End.

The plot, in a roasted chestnut shell: This couple is madly in love, but short on cash.

She has lovely long hair; he has a nice watch. She cuts off her hair and sells it to buy him a beautiful watch chain; he sells his watch to buy her a beautiful pair of combs.

Touching. And totally fictional-at least from many a husband’s point of view.

This is not because men are unwilling to make sacrifices or because they don’t care deeply about buying their beloveds’ nice presents. They do. But to generalize brazenly, husbands usually don’t have a clue about what that treasured something should be. And most hate to shop–especially around the holidays.

Of course, as the day of gift reckoning approaches, both sexes may suffer performance anxiety. Yet they experience it in different ways. For women, holiday shopping is a test of stamina, like hiking to the up of Kilimanjaro. We know we can do it–it’s just a matter of finding the time and oxygen. So in between baking, decorating, and sending out holiday cards, we hunt down the hottest gifts for the kids (which are always out of stock because they are the hottest gifts for kids), pick out meaningful presents for our husbands, and get something for all the relatives on our list. This is what family is all about. This is what nervous breakdowns are all about too.

Men, meanwhile, are caught between opposing forces. They tend to think of the holidays as a time to kick back. Yet just when they would love to relax, maybe struggle with kindling to get a fire going, they start to worry that if they don’t come up with exactly the right present for us, they will be judged as uncaring.

In fact, according to a recent poll conducted by the Mall of America, 31 percent of men believe they have a better chance of winning a Heisman trophy than scoring the right holiday gifts for their wives, while only 13 percent of women feel the same sense of from about shopping for their spouses.

Around my house, I’m always listening for clues about what my husband, John, might like to receive. He swims laps and loves the exercise hut gets bored. Wouldn’t it he great if there were some kind of waterproof stereo headphones? Bingo.

But men don’t usually hear gift-giving innuendo. Maybe there’s a biological difference in the wax that collects in their ears, causing it to block out all subtle hints about antique marcasite pins or how your sister-in-law’s blue chenille sweater looked so nice and didn’t she get that at Nordstrom?

For many husbands, gift-giving prowess deteriorates over time. In the early stages of a relationship, they try to endear themselves to us. Then they enter a utilitarian phase. “He went from nice dangly silver earrings to camping tents and kitchen supplies,” sighs my friend Lynn.

One of my husband’s first gifts to me was a handmade pendant. I was touched. Next came an embroidered Indian skirt. I was impressed. But the day I unwrapped the coffeemaker, I didn’t know what to say. As much as I love my morning mugful, it made the holiday season too much like a Tupperware party.

Men’s hearts are usually in the right place, says Carol Moog, Ph.D., a psychologist in Bala Cynwyd, PA, who studies consumer behavior. A woman needs to understand that when he places a wrapped garden hose or a clap-on, clap-off light switch under the tree, it’s an act of love. “He thinks he’s making life easier for her by buying something practical. But she’s likely to feel rejected because it’s such an unemotional gift.”

When his good intentions come in 14 individually wrapped empty Mason jars, which happened to a coworker of mine, it’s hard to remind yourself that the meaning is as sweet as sugarplums. “When I opened the first one, I said, `Oh, this is nice,'” says Rita. “By the fourteenth, I was annoyed–he’d bought me all these jars to put spices in so I could cook for him. How thoughtful!”

i will be the first to admit that women can be tough to please. Personally, I want my husband to figure out what I want, intuitively. Without, say, my having to use the magnetized alphabet letters on our refrigerator to spell out: V-E-L-V-E-T L-E-G-G-I-N-G-S.

“Women expect the most from the person who knows them best,” says Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, who’s researched gift exchanging. And there are countless ways for men to offend, whether it’s buying a skirt large enough to fit a beanbag chair, or necklace and bracelet that look like prison shackles.

Shopping for kids seems to come easier to fathers. They’ve been infantile. They can relate. But if they’re not careful, they can get caught in a time warp, like my brother, Dana, who still buys stuffed animals for his daughters even though one is a high school sophomore and the ocher a college freshman.

Although many husbands have arrested shopping development, wives, too, have their flaws. Just like men, we can stumble into ruts, buying our spouses computer software, L.L. Bean sweaters, or cases of Guinness again and again. And we do sometimes buy gifts to please ourselves.

“One year, when my husband and I put on a few pounds, I gave him a rowing machine,” recalls Julia. “I was so excited–I hauled the huge package home from the store in a cab and spent a lot of time wrapping it. But he got this hurt look on his face when he opened it, like he was thinking, What are you frying to tell me? don’t think he touched it once. I ended up using it as a clothes hanger.”

Many of us see the holidays as an opportunity for making subtle improvements in the men we love. A few years ago, when I was trying to get my husband to give up the ties he’d been wearing for decades, I bought him a chin, silky design splashed with blues, yellows, purples, and greens. Like Monet’s “Water Lilies,” only electrified and made in Italy. “Wow,” he said. “That’s pretty wild.” Translation: He hated it I finally gave it away to a friend of ours.

I should note one major advantage that men have over women: speed. Once they figure out what they want, men don’t waste any time looking for a better deal or wondering if there’s a nicer white blouse in the next store. They seem to need the adrenaline rush of racing against the clock; a reported 31 percent of them wait until the week before Christmas to shop, compared to 9 percent of women.

You see them wandering around the malls with desperate looks in their eyes, the ones who walk up to you clutching a sequined sweater and say, “Excuse me, but my wife is just about your size. Do you think she’d like this?” On Christmas Eve you spot them in drugstores, supermarket aisles, even 7-Elevens, searching for that perfect gift.

So what can you do if your spouse is shopping impaired? There’s only one surefire way to help him cope with his disability: Drop hints like anvils. “You know what I’d really like for Christmas? THIS. THAT. HERE. THIRD EXIT, TURN RIGHT.” Thanks to this ploy, my husband seems to have finally figured out that if you can plug a gift into the wall, it’s not going to make me swoon. He has learned that onyx is not a zoo animal, and which store carries the best silver jewelry in Philadelphia.

It helps, too, to provide detailed information to your friends and kids, just in case your husband gets desperate enough to ask them if they have any ideas about what you’d like.

After receiving a toaster one year, my friend Lynn decided to abandon all pretense of subtlety. “This year, I’m filling out the catalog order form and sending it to his office,” she says. “I may even provide a stamped envelope.”

Of course, of course, it is the thought that counts, although you may wonder exactly what he was thinking when you find an electric toothbrush under the tree. Try not to look for a hidden message. You’re better off just thanking him and giving him a big hug. And hoping you can find the receipt.