by Alice Bradley

You probably noticed these catalogues strewn about the coffee table of your strange great-aunt—the one who never married and had fifteen cats all named "Mr. Fluffers." You sat on her plastic-covered chesterfield, trying not to mind the smell of potpourri and soup, but you never thought to reach over, pick one up, and take a frightening glimpse into her skewed sensibility.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, it's probably for the best. Cheaply produced and littered with unintentionally hilarious knick-knacks, these are the kind of catalogues that represents the oddest of middle America. For lack of a better term, it's the catalogue of the chatchke. It has names like "Harriet Carter" and "Lillian Vernon," evoking images of someone else's strange aunt, one who, apparently, has a fondness for both Christian paraphernalia and potty jokes.

Flipping through the pages, you begin to get the feeling that there's an entire generation of surly, incontinent old people who are obsessed with sex and dying to go shoot something, if only their arthritis weren't acting up. What DID my grandparents do with their time, anyway? Did they read from their Ten Commandments charm bracelets and furtively place remote-control whoopee cushions on each other's chairs?

But like the allure of the Infomercial, the relentless mediocrity of the knick-knack catalogue has a subtle but insidious charm. At first, you're fascinated and amused. You're too ironic and sophisticated NOT to laugh long and hard at the German stove covers ("Willkommen in Meiner Kuche!") and the Mooing Cow doormat. But as you peruse its pages, more and more of the items seem less horrendous. Your eyes alight on the Flo-Bee, Hairdini, and the Topsy Tail—infomercial classics all—and you begin to recognize their place in the world. You briefly consider the Thinny Thighs thigh cream as a viable alternative to the StairMaster. You read the copy for the "fungal nail revitalizer" and you think, "Well, now, that's sensible enough. Who wouldn't want to end unsightly thickening and yellowing?" You imagine the potential humor in the Revenge Toilet Paper ("catches 'em with their pants down... literally!"). In a matter of hours, you're on the phone, feverishly ordering whimsical croaking-frog pitchers, St. Francis birdbaths, and inflatable boobs ("hil-AIR-ious!"). Your great-aunt would be so proud. </end>

Touching scenes from Harriet Carter.
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