November 18, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

It’s the jolly catalog season again

Shopping by catalog has its hazards, and I’m not talking about identity theft here, although that’s definitely possible. The problem I find by shopping this way is that I’m put on endless lists for imaginative, if not outrageous, catalogs produced by overeager merchants. And with Christmas coming within the next few weeks, their number increases by the day.

Not that these catalogs aren’t fun to look at. Sometimes we’re treated to the “sharper image” of elaborate technical or electronic devices, most of them totally useless. Or we receive kiddie catalogs featuring size 6-month sleepers that cost $70, or storybooks with the child’s name in every other sentence. Intended to increase the tot’s already healthy self-esteem, no doubt.

Catalogs of kitchen items are another burden for the postman. Not only do they offer mincers/mixers/kneaders, wicked knives and machines that make every kind of coffee, but also less important cooking “aides.” Most of the tasks these products are supposed to do used to be done by hand, such as forming hamburgers or separating eggs. And, in my opinion, should still be done by hand. But then, I’m an old grouch.

Entire catalogs may be devoted to silk flower arrangements or stationery supplies or party favors by the gross. (Some folks must have lots of parties.) Of course, clothing is a major catalog subject, with separate issues for shoes or large ladies’ sizes or sportsmen outfits. Some catalogs are filled with products designed in wildlife motifs, others with meats, candies, even grapefruit.

There are catalogs of exotic teas and coffees, English scones and crumpets, puzzles, maps and atlases. UNICEF sends a catalog of stationery supplies designed by people across the world, and monasteries offer homemade fruitcake or cheese.

“The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World” is illustrated with pictures of goats, water buffalo, chickens and rabbits, which we’re urged to “buy” as gifts for others. Then the animals are donated in the recipients’ names to needy rural people around the world who can use them for food or to earn a living.

Then, there are what I call the “la-la” catalogs, devoted to “reawakening the spirit” or “dwelling in possibility.” They feature items to breathe in, slather on your skin, sprinkle in bath water, or steep for tea. There are products for mood music and meditative exercise, candles and prayer beads of all persuasions. The Oriental influence is huge.

Now, it seems to me that all catalogs offer genuine possibilities of one kind or another. If we want to buy someone the perfect gift, jazz up our homes or improve our minds, there’s a catalog item for that out there somewhere. Or, if we’re merely too busy or lazy to go shopping at the mall, we can buy ordinary items that way also.

The fact that people are making money by offering us so many possibilities, some of which are dubious, doesn’t bother me. Using trees for all that paper does, but that’s a story for another time.

To me, reading catalogs is like waking up to the surprise of every new day. They’re full of possibilities, just like the Christmas feast they’re focused on.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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