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Thursday, April 18, 2013


April 18, 2013

I once bought something out of a catalog. I’m not sure why I did it. I think it was a subliminal thing like the vending machine impulse. You look at a vending machine with all those curly-queue prongs holding up bags of chips and crackers. Nothing looks good to you, but you pump sixty-five cents into the machine to see the prongs turn and half-hope that the bag of chips will get stuck against the Plexiglas wall so you can rock the machine.

Of course you eat the chips – what else are you going to do with them? But what you really paid for was the idea of seeing the machine work.

You don’t believe me? Then why do so many people get their videos out of Red Box instead of their public library? It’s the only reason some movies are seen at all.

So I ordered something from a catalog, savored the anticipation of its arrival, was disappointed with what it was, and probably gave it to Goodwill a few months later. I don’t even remember what it was, but I have a lasting remembrance of the experience – my mailbox hosts ten or twelve catalogs a month.

Finding late nineteenth century Russian literature a little slow going, I’ve become an avid catalog reader – Harriet Carter, Heartland America, Carol Wright – even Publisher’s Clearinghouse who constantly threatens me with money lost if I don’t respond. It kind of reminds me of the classic, Santa will put coal in your stocking threat. Most of the catalogs are in the standard magazine form, but some like to give you an envelope full of one-page glossy ads. I love them all. The envelope makes a bigger mess of my couch, but each glossy page is the perfect size and shape for a paper airplane.

There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason why each catalog comes to me. I’ve gotten catalogs for professional women, or for new mothers. I even get scary catalogs full of knives, crossbows, and instruction booklets on how to properly filet Federal agents. (I usually forward those to my Congressperson.)

So why am I obsessed with this ersatz form of literature? I’d tell you if I had any idea what ersatz meant. There’s no plot, and so reading the last page doesn’t ruin the mystery. (Actually, I can’t read a mystery without reading the ending first. If I don’t feel superior to the detective and his/her host of two-dimensional flunkies, what’s the point of reading that genre at all? BTW, this might be a good time to announce that book four of the Headley Hauser genre series will be a mystery, tentatively titled, Staying Dead in LA.)

So why do I read catalogs? I read them for their one common theme – gadgets.

You’re not going to make your living sending out catalogs, and charging exorbitant shipping, if you’re going to offer the same stuff people can find at their local WalMart. People are only going to risk sending their credit card information to your minimum wage customer service personnel (read: potential identity thieves,) if what you offer is something they never knew existed.

One of my favorite catalogs was actually titled: Things You Never Knew Existed. I loved that catalog, but sadly, they stopped sending it to me. I guess they didn’t appreciate the gratis service I provided for them. On each order form I scribbled down dozens of item numbers and wrote in the payment section, “I knew these existed.” Then I sealed my helpful message up in their postage paid envelope.

Some people can’t accept a favor.

I could still go to the website, but who wants to read off the computer? (This would be a good time to mention that the Headley Hauser genre series is available for download so you can read it on your PC or Mac.) (Of course, the Genre Series is only Trouble in Taos for now, ‘cause Go Figure Reads moves like a seven-year-old sent to fetch canned broccoli when it comes to publishing my stories.)

Like most works of fiction, catalogs draw you through long pages of mundane to get to the good stuff.

Nothing like a personal bidet – as long as your aim is good. For every Personal Hygene Refresher, you see a dozen workout machines that promise rock-hard abs in twelve seconds a day.

Here are two more treats from the recent Harriet Carter catalog

The Solar Tropical Birds – they sit there conspiratorially all day and jiggle about when the wind blows, then having sucked up sunlight, they glow and disturb your dreams each night. If you’ve always wanted to be haunted by Disney World’s Tiki Room, these are the gadgets for you!
The Squirrel Chaser (three to a box.) They say that these little pouches contain a scent that squirrels don’t like. Clearly, the intent of these gadgets is to spank the little critters, presumably to encourage them to get better grades in rodent school. (It never worked for me.)

Or how about this one from a catalog I can't recall?

Yup – gophers to light your walkway at night. Freddy Kruger would shiver at that sight.

If I may be serious for a moment (seriously serious,) I would like to propose gadgets that I’ve never seen that certainly should have been invented by now. These ideas are gold that I am throwing out into the winds of blogdom. Some scrappy entrepreneur will snag these up and make millions off them. (I expect a generous gratuity.)

1) The bend-over shoulder strap. You’re headed out to social services; you have a knapsack on one shoulder and a laptop bag on the other. You exit your apartment and as you lock your door, you notice a rent overdue notice lying inconveniently on your no; you’re not welcome, go away mat. You can’t just leave it there for the loan shark to see when he comes to break you pinkies later, so you bend over to pick it up… Crash, crash! Down comes your knapsack on top of your over-aged laptop. The loan shark and the land lord hear the destruction of your singular tool of writing hope, and an ugly and digitally inauspicious scene ensues.

For the benefit of fingers, laptop, and overall stealth, why don’t they have shoulder straps that stay on your shoulders? Sure, I could put BOTH shoulder straps on with my knapsack, but that’s too much work. The purpose of modern technology is to allow cretins such as myself do as little as possible and still keep working pinkies.

2) Faucet with temperature memory buttons. This seems like a no-brainer. They have memory settings on radios where the worst thing that might happen to you is you get a second and a half of steel guitar on the way to repeat audio broadcasts of Headley and the Rug (and Cral.) Sink and especially shower faucets can scar you for life with 211, or 33 degree water when you first turn it on. Plus, I’m not too good maneuvering my joystick… I mean the one on the faucet. I can never get it to the right position for the temperature I want. I end up with warm Cool-Aid and cold dishwashing soap (or would if I ever got around to washing my dishes.)

3) A master shut-off switch. Visitors come to call – unwelcome mat notwithstanding. In every generation we seem to breed a certain percentage of drop-ins. Shooting them is illegal in forty-nine states, but fooling them isn’t. The problem is that at any given time, you have half a dozen lights or entertainment gadgets going when you’re home. There’s never time to shut everything down before they get to your door. How hard would it be to have one switch that turns off all the stuff they see without also turning off the refrigerator, the alarm system, and Uncle Herbert’s respirator?

4) A Tim greet. Do you hate tail-gaiters? What to do? Back in upstate NY, I knew a guy named Tim. Tim didn’t like people crowding him in line. His solution was that he learned to fart on demand. (He could also belch the alphabet through Q, but that’s not important.) Unfortunately, if you fart when someone tailgates you, you are the only one to suffer. A single shot of concentrated methane coming out of your (vehicular) tailpipe might do the trick. In the winter it would be methane vapors, which would attach themselves to the heater coils of the offending tailgater – a slower, but more lasting reminder to stay five car lengths back!

Even if these gadgets don’t work as advertised, there’s money to be made here. Just like the over-priced potato (potatoe if you’re a former VP,) chips in vending machine, the purpose of the gadget is not the quality of the product – just the idea of seeing the machine work.