Friday, November 26, 2010

Back By Popular Demand... Christmas Music: The Heaven and Hell of It

from December 2008, why Black Friday means nothing to me...

My husband and I were on a phone call recently that required us to wait on hold for about half of the total one-hour time it took to complete the transaction. While we were on hold, we were subjected to the torturous sounds of New Age ‘music,’ put there by some well-meaning person convinced we needed to be ‘entertained’ while we were waiting. Running barefoot on broken glass would have been infinitely more satisfying. I am convinced that New Age ‘music’ destroys brain cells and breaks down resistance to truth, logic and common sense, making people believe that there is no such thing as good or evil – it’s all a matter of preference. New Age sounds dissolve conscience and create a vacuum in its place. Suddenly everything is hunky-dory for listeners and they think all the problems of the world will go away if we all just sit around listening to and grooving on this foulest form of air pollution. New Age ‘music’ is the sorry consequence of bra burning, free love, and Woodstock.

That’s one way of saying I’m picky about music, especially now that it's Christmas time and there's more questionable music in the air. My eclectic musical tastes were formed in a home where we listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday mornings, and ended the day with the steel guitars, sweet harmonies and ukuleles on Hawaii Calls, as well as the authentic Western sounds of Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch.

Because music has such power, particularly in my own soul, my deeply personal celebration of Christmas very often centers on great music inspired by a heavenly source, and its effect on me is profound. Most especially, probably because I pay close attention to the precise meanings of words, my soul yearns to hear or sing appropriate lyrics from significant texts, paired with satisfying and rewarding melodies expressing the deepest meaning of Christmas. Let me worship through reverent, joyful music in the most sublime, eloquent way, as the Savior of the world deserves. In fact, singing in the church choir I sometimes find myself so moved that I can’t sing. My heart is touched by so many inspired works, the cherished carols and anthems, and authentic folk music that arises from simple, humble faith of ordinary people.

However, there is some Christmas music so patently offensive that I want to wipe out all memories of ever having heard or sung it. I want to slink, Grinch-like, into all the music stores, radio stations, private collections and sheet music publishers and obliterate some sounds I hear over public address systems in stores during the holidays. You don’t have a choice when you hear this drivel in a shopping mall. They mean well, but it doesn’t entertain; in fact, most of these songs don’t even mention the real meaning of Christmas. Indeed, they inspire my inner Scrooge, making me want to buy less so I can leave the premises as quickly as possible. That’s how I first heard the number one selection on my Top Twenty List of Christmas Songs I Never Want To Hear Again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the complete and generous list of losers with the heartfelt scorn and derision each so richly deserves:

20. It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas – …to which I want to respond, “Well, duh! What was your first clue – sundown on Halloween?” It sounds like the guy who says during a heat wave, “Hot enough for ya?” This is something clueless Goofy would have said to patient Mickey, who is far more tolerant of stupid remarks than I.

19. (tie) Winter Wonderland/Marshmallow World – Ain’t no time nowhere winter is a wonderland for me; I cannot celebrate the charm I do not find. Winter is a slip-on-the-ice, sprain-your-ankle, freeze-your-tushie-off, endlessly boring season broken only by the sweetness of celebrating a sacred holiday. Don’t let’s confuse the two.

18. I’ll be Home for Christmas – This is total schmaltz when you first hear it, mind-numbingly dull after that. So you’re not going to be there except in your dreams – boohoo. Put on your big kid panties and get over it.

17. Let it Snow – This is nothing but a seductive (you’ll excuse the expression) invitation to use bad weather as an excuse for someone to stay over at his sweetie’s house, a one-of-a-kind gift that can only be given once.

16. Have A Holly Jolly Christmas – Actually, this sounds like the worst kind of Christmas to have, completely shallow and unrelated to the real meaning of the holiday.

15. Jingle Bell Rock – Social events at holiday time are nice, but this lyric is unencumbered by logic or a description of an appropriate observance of a sacred event.

14. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – See #15 and #16.

13. Frosty the Snowman – Once you’ve heard this ludicrous winter legend, subsequent hearings are migraine-inducing torture.

12. The Christmas Song (you know… chestnuts roasting… yada, yada, yada) – Nothing is more offensive than clichés, and this one is loaded with them. In fact, Santa has loaded his sleigh with toys and goodies. Isn’t that what’s wrong with Christmas in the first place? We don’t need more things.

11. White Christmas – Here’s another tear-jerking string of clichés. What’s the big deal about snow? What about Christmas in Australia that takes place in the summer? Huh? Did you ever think of that? And it wasn’t snowing in Bethlehem. Since the shepherds were out with the sheep at night it had to be lambing season, and that happens in the spring. Unless it’s the Rocky Mountains, you don’t usually get snow in the spring.

10. Silver Bells – There’s not much wrong with this one if you like a boring melody and totally mindless lyrics. Can you say platitude?

9. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Really? You love spending too much money, eating too much rich food, going to parties you don’t want to go to with people you don’t really like? What’s wonderful about that? Statistics show Christmas inspires a high incidence of depression, too. Too much hype, too many unmet high expectations.

8. Twelve Days of Christmas – Repetition is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Again, we’re stuck on using things to express love, a pitiful substitute for the genuine article.

7. Deck the Halls – Nonsense lyrics are Exhibit A in the case against this song. I don’t drink, but I should think that drunk would be the best way to find meaning in it. Far more appealing, rewarding and cogent was the Mad Magazine version of this I read in my youth, which began, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla Wash and Kalamazoo…” It makes just as much sense.

6. (all songs referring to reindeer with or without red noses) – On the whole, these are completely idiotic, without redeeming value or even a modicum of charm. Lord of the Flies teaches kids to play nice together, too.

5. (all songs referring to Santa Claus) – He sees you when you’re sleeping? Really? He knows when you’re awake? Really? Isn’t that what God does, and didn’t He do it first? How can kids NOT get confused?

4. Jingle Bells – Here’s another mediocre winter tale with no connection to the holiday. Translation: people with the IQ of pinecones ride around in the snow apparently unwilling to take refuge from the weather and protect themselves against frostbite. Maybe it's really a song about survival of the fittest.

3. We Wish You a Merry Christmas – Nobody even knows what figgy pudding is anyway, and simply repeating the sentiment ad infinitum doesn’t make it more intelligible.

2. Feliz Navidad – If a guy sang this to me, I’d poison his eggnog. I do not want this derivative, dreary rubbish stuck in my head for the month of December.

1. Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time – No, we’re not. We’re paralyzed by the tedium of this inferior music and pointless lyric written by Paul McCartney in a fit of acute uninspired tastelessness. With the last chorus repeating ad nauseum, you think you’ve entered a new rung of Purgatory Dante must have created just for shoppers, as if another were necessary. If Christmas shopping doesn’t trigger insanity, you haven’t spent enough time in the Walmart listening to this on the PA system.

And while I’m on a roll, here’s a bonus: I never want to hear another roomful of third graders shouting I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas, or Up On the Housetop, or All I Want For Christmas is my Two Front Teeth. It’s only cute once.

It’s true of music no matter what time of year it is, but especially at Christmas you’ll have a deeper, richer spiritual experience when you’re more careful with what you choose to think and sing about during the holidays. When your spirit is fed with spiritually nourishing music, you grow closer to the reason for the season.

And by the way, Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 15, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe, Part Three

As an LDS writer, I sometimes ponder the 1888 statement by Elder Orson F. Whitney: We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose tops will touch the heaven, though its foundation may now be low on the earth.

Is this not a mandate? And yet I’m reminded of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Perhaps not fully appreciating the sacredness of their gifts or their potential to participate in celebrating the joy of redemption, some LDS writers are content to pluck blackberries. I am not. There’s probably a trashy novel in almost all of us; that’s the literary natural man we struggle with that constitutes an abuse of talent. Overcoming the temptation to write that kind of book is to acknowledge the heavenly source of our talent and accept the responsibility to use it respectfully. It’s impossible to separate the giver from the gift, and those who try to do so misunderstand the purpose of their gift. Clearly, expectations are high – to paraphrase the scripture, where much talent is given, much excellent output is expected. That gives us permission to become great.

There will never be another Milton or Shakespeare but their works are the paradigm of the finest literature at Elder Whitney’s time. Had Milton and Shakespeare known the Plan of Salvation their works might have been even more sublime. They were born at their times in their places for the same reason we were born in our time in our places – to fulfill a part of an eternal plan. Had he lived in the 20th Century, would Elder Whitney have mentioned Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner? Would he have referred to Nephi Anderson as the standard for LDS writers? Perhaps having "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own" means they will have a different definition than the world might give them. I believe Elder Whitney’s observation means our LDS potential Miltons and Shakespeares should shift the paradigm and establish their own rubrics, though it’s understood that high standards of language, usage and storytelling will always apply.

An author who sees his LDS roots through a noncommittal haze of sardonic cynicism is not spiritually equipped to write a great Mormon novel; he’s a cultural Mormon, what my father used to call a Latter-day Ain’t. Perhaps the question of developing great Mormon novelists depends on our desire to live the gospel. What could be riskier than the decision to be a true Christian every day, in every way? Perhaps my own ambition to share my stories, and my deep caring, i.e. OCD compulsion, about doing it well skews my accuracy in assessing the present LDS literary landscape. Acknowledging that one person’s sappy novel is another person’s revered guide for life, LDS writers still need to keep writing and being honest and meeting high standards of excellence so that the best manifestations of their talents will shine. We can’t be so busy trying to earn the world’s approval that we are embarrassed by who and what we are. No matter what we do, some people on the outside looking in will always dismiss us as naïve.

To limit ourselves to the safe cotton candy topics and to ignore or refuse to write in a realistic way about very real problems in our world implies that those problems either can’t be acknowledged or don’t exist. That’s a collusion of silence that helps no one. In this there is a crushing irony. Novels dealing with sticky topics for which there may be no answers in this life can help people experiencing those things to know how to handle them – think of that circle of support – and yet books dealing with those topics will be rejected by the three major LDS publishers, Deseret Book, Covenant Communications and Cedar Fort, Inc. Even kissing between married characters can’t be in a sexual context. Marriages and families are falling apart all around us but we can’t deal with that in literature because publishing such stories and selling them through Deseret Book stores would imply Church sanction, or - worse - might offend someone. I understand that a filter is necessary when it’s the Church’s bookstore, and of course, the practical issue of sales enters in. Still, I believe realism in fiction can be handled respectfully, without gratuitous detail, but writers of realistic fiction don’t have an alternative outlet to connect them with readers. Perhaps developing Miltons and Shakespeares of our own – superior LDS writers – depends on finding and meeting the demands of an audience of superior LDS readers.

This means that some LDS writers will never fit currently established writer molds. These are committed temple Mormons whose superior prose, eternal themes, fascinating plots and captivating characters will never land on a shelf in a Deseret Book store because the subject matter of the “latter times” they’ve chosen to write about isn’t what Elder Whitney imagined. Sometimes people have to go to some dark places to learn life’s hard lessons before they can rise up to spiritual heights to rejoice in the atonement. Writers don’t go there to praise the darkness; we visit temporarily to show the contrast and to celebrate the triumph over it; its portrayal is a necessary part of the story.

I didn’t grow up with vulgar language in my environment, nor did I marry into it, so reading it in books was a shock at first, but now it’s easier to ignore. I still look for books with minimal offensive words. Ironically, even J. Golden Kimball’s notorious damns and hells aren’t as naughty as they used to be. I understand that rough, coarse language is more the norm than the exception in our world, but I won’t write offensively realistic language; however, I do think some parents don’t know that’s how their children might talk to each other when adults aren’t around. But it isn’t always the swearing that offends. Some bright LDS teens who vetted my book told me that the scene of teenage girls at a slumber party discussing birth control was tame and didn’t sound the way girls really talk. This is an adult book, not YA, and it’s the ideas rather than the language of minor characters that might offend in this scene which is central to the subplot; it also includes some girls who are horrified at the careless attitude of others in the discussion – the point being that having opposition in all things means having choices.

Writers of realistic LDS fiction have a particularly difficult time locating potential publishers, and even if they do find a publisher, distribution of books with realistic subject matter is a monstrous impediment since the only LDS bookstore chain, Deseret Book, will not carry them. In fact, books published by the few small publishing houses willing to take on realistic topics are often skillfully written and edited, often receive high praise from critics and recognition for excellence. As an 18-year-old writer friend of mine observed, not everybody is into perpetual sweetness and light because that doesn’t reflect real life. LDS books with realistic subject matter will often not be reviewed by the major media, further widening the gap between authors and their potential readers. This kind of disconnect in the LDS market needs to be addressed. Perhaps, the way things are going in the publishing world, there’s an electronic solution to the problem for some genius to discover.

Years ago, someone who read an early short story of mine asked if I aimed to be the next Carol Lynn Pearson. As much as I admire that icon some saw as a leader in LDS literature at the time, I respect even more – and she would, too – the potential of each writer to make a unique contribution. My reply: “No, I thought I’d take a shot at being the first Pam Williams.” I know I’m a good writer; I've won contests, for whatever proof that may be. I pray my way through every phase of the writing process; that isn’t to say that I should be published because I’ve been inspired. It just means that I had some moments in the process that told me to keep going despite the rejections.

Serious readers who didn’t find past LDS fiction satisfying, and therefore don’t read what’s being offered now, still want to read something meaty that doesn’t have crude language in every other sentence. They should give current LDS fiction another chance. In passing my manuscripts around, many readers respond that they don’t normally like LDS fiction, but did enjoy my books, wondered why they aren’t published, and asked if I had any other manuscripts to read. However, because of the realistic nature of the stories I wrote, I’m having a hard time finding a publisher, and yet I know somewhere out there is an audience for my books, people who need additional insight and encouragement to keep trying, those who want to be taught out of a good book written by a source they can trust.

But where is the publisher who is the essential broker? And where is the bookstore that won’t pre-determine our LDS reading choices?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe, Part Two

Some critics think that having “all the answers” through revelation to modern prophets robs us of available conflict and prevents us from acknowledging anything ugly in the world. That’s an oversimplification, but if LDS authors are thus painted into a corner because of accepting certain doctrines, then the question is how an LDS insider/writer can get out of the corner and find in the Mormon milieu the conflict essential to page-turner fiction.

A critic who read my unpublished contemporary novels about marriage suggested I remove all the LDS references and sell them in the larger national Christian market. In pondering that advice in light of what I believe my purpose as a writer to be, I realized that my compulsion to write for the LDS audience is driven by my knowledge of being LDS and my desire to comment on issues I know my own people struggle with. I do not worship at the feet of the New York Times best seller list, or even the Norton Anthology of Literature. I think of the circle of priesthood holders participating in blessings or ordinations, or a prayer circle in the temple, and find in them a symbolic safety net of mutual support. That same kind of power is available in the stirring prose of well-conceived stories.

Some LDS writers and critics may disdain my view as too narrow, aiming too low when there’s that big wide national market out there, and if we can just conquer that, we persecuted Mormons can prove we’re just as good as anybody else. But that begs the question. Did we not arrive here with gifts and powers to be exercised for the benefit of each other? We who have the Mormon experience need to speak out on uniquely LDS topics; the secular world can’t do justice to our story. No one understands the expansion of the American West the way pioneer descendents do if they know their own family history. Readers will be moved by a great story, no matter who has written it, but they won’t stand for being manipulated, and LDS readers won’t stand for their doctrines or their history being distorted by someone who doesn’t know our world from the inside.

Conflict is the basis for story, and because contention is evil, Mormon Times columnist Jerry Johnston doesn’t think we will ever produce a writer who can write a nitty-gritty book; we’re too isolated from pure evil to wrestle with it the way secular literature does. However, choices aren’t always clearly between good and evil; the more difficult choices may be between two good things. With human beings, the natural man is the ever-present universal conflict. Some of us come from shakier starting points than others, and many forces try to pull writers away and make us lose focus, or keep us from finding our purpose, or lure us to abandon our personal and literary standards. Those daily challenges to live the gospel more fully ARE large issues, for ourselves and for our characters, and are just as valid as any lofty Shakespearean theme.

Is it possible to be a believing, striving Latter-day Saint and still be acquainted with the level of evil that truly explores the heights and depths of the human soul? As with non-LDS writers, most of us will probably never be tempted to commit murder or betray our country or engage in great evil, even though we may create characters who do. Considering the damage it could do to their spirits, most Latter-day Saint writers aren’t willing to test that side of the spectrum of experience simply to explore a writing topic. It requires meticulous personal attention to meet all the requirements of our Christianity as writers and as individuals. That matters. Like our readers, we aim for perfection while dealing with the realities of the world that intrude on our goal-oriented focus of trying to live up to high standards. We are blessed, but as Brigham Young said, many of us don’t live up to our privileges. Therein lies the essence of scintillating fiction.

In every issue of The Ensign we find examples of conflicts Latter-day Saints confront daily, hourly. To me, the never-ending struggle of good but flawed Latter-day Saints is compelling because it’s also my experience. As a reader, I personally have a hard time willingly suspending disbelief for a vampire story, but show me real but flawed Latter-day Saints trying to live the gospel and that’s where I find my touchstone. No matter what genre we choose to write in, we can connect the unique voices of LDS authors and “teach one another” from a number of platforms.

Story still connects with us, and though we live in the Age of Instant Everything, storytelling is usually an unhurried activity. As author Robert Coover said, “The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it… We need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us. Story is what penetrates.” Vicariously, through fiction they can relate to, readers can grapple with the daily challenges of outsmarting the natural man. And yet readers today are not like readers of even ten years ago. Editors now tell us tag lines except “said” and “asked” are passé, adverbs are literary suicide, and long descriptive paragraphs even brilliantly written will lose the average reader. In Dickens’ day, when there were no electronic devices to depend on for entertainment, people read to each other in the evening, enjoying the language, the adventure, and the descriptions of Little Dorrit or David Copperfield. Readers today are sometimes too impatient to meander through a story and savor the richness of its nuances or the subtleties of storytelling.

Perhaps our LDS paradigm can begin with the way LDS artist John Hafen said it: “The highest possible development of talent is a duty we owe our creator.” We have this talent because the Creator thought it was necessary at this time for us to use it for someone’s benefit, to create through literature a circle of support. Some LDS writers don’t care about the LDS market and others don’t care about the national market. Regardless of the pendulum swing, we’re heading toward different heights more open to that necessary new paradigm, not so confined by the conventions of the past. We each have permission to define that new paradigm for ourselves.

Monday: Part Three

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe

Jennie Hansen’s recent Meridian Magazine assessment of the state of LDS fiction shed positive light on what faithful Latter-day Saint writers are producing these days, but it didn’t go far enough. Likewise, Jerry Johnston’s Mormon Times column last year about LDS fiction, questioning whether there will ever be a great Mormon novel, was too dismissive. Improvements in this species of literature are evident with every crop of books released. In fact, LDS writers, and especially Mormon-oriented fiction, have grown in significant ways since 25 or 30 years ago when I gave up trying to find something meaty in it that fed my soul.

Recently I’ve tackled it again. My personal project for 2010 was an unscientific survey of chiefly adult-oriented LDS fiction and I learned that the high quality work coming out now is the majority of LDS output. I think it portends many great Mormon novels, which could be written by Latter-day Saints for the LDS audience, or by Latter-day Saints for a general audience. We aren’t there yet, but our writers are well equipped and we’re on our way. Readers who didn’t like it 25 years ago, or even ten years ago, are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t give it another chance.

I’ve often pondered with curiosity the scriptural edict to “teach one another out of the best books.” Church leaders attending the school of the prophets in Kirtland received that injunction, but like most scriptures, it has multiple applications. Teaching one another out of the “best books” implies, first, that good books are out there, and second, that we can be the authors of high quality material whether fiction or nonfiction, generating from whatever we have learned “by study and also by faith.” There’s power in teaching one another through fiction because our common belief system facilitates communication. We’ve all had the experience of sharing an incident from our lives and having a listener say, “Aha, I see what you mean.” That should be what we experience when we read LDS fiction; it’s one way writers can connect with readers on a personal level to bear one another’s burdens. If “write what you know” is the standard, the field is wide open for writers with knowledge of non-fiction topics, as well as those with astute observations about the daily effort of living the gospel and insights into the complexities of human nature.

“Teach one another” means it’s okay for LDS fiction to be instructive, as any literature can be. Nobody wants to be preached at but it’s a given that a novel has a theme, a personal take-away for the reader, and that take-away can be offered in an absorbing, entertaining, appealing way without crossing the line into tedious didacticism. Many years ago I heard about a ward roadshow depicting the story of Romeo and Juliet pretty effectively in twenty minutes, followed by a person coming out to address the audience: “This would never have happened if they had been married in the temple.” Now THAT’S didactic and quite oblivious of Shakespeare’s intended take-aways. Our up and coming LDS writers are too smart to fall into that trap. Wouldn’t we rather a good Latter-day Saint teach our children’s Sunday School class than someone off the street who doesn’t know the doctrine or have the Spirit? It’s the same principle with LDS fiction writers. Our purpose as writers shouldn’t be to preach; it should be to represent who we are, and how and why.

Some people don’t mind a steady diet of literary snack cakes, but eventually most readers want substance. Latter-day Saints are much more sophisticated now, on the whole more highly educated than the general population, and educated people want a commensurate literature. An old maxim that told us we should write to the eighth grade mentality is no longer true, unless we’re actually writing for eighth graders. As a writer, I believe in that educated audience and I respect their intelligence. When I couldn’t find meaty LDS-oriented literature 25 years ago, I decided to write the kinds of books I wanted to read, to give other readers rich vicarious experience through compelling stories. An influential college professor once said to me, “If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience.” This is probably the opposite of what editors would advise me now, but following that recommendation I have spent more time on perfecting my craft and less time on marketing the product.

Motivations differ, but our LDS worldview makes us who we are and puts us at a different starting place from other authors. We are a peculiar people intellectually because our cosmology of pre- and post-mortal existence is so non-traditional. We know the rules of Christianity through the Book of Mormon, and the guidelines for this dispensation through the handbook that is the Doctrine and Covenants. As with secular writers, it’s inevitable that who we are will underpin our writing, even though not all of our characters will believe as we do. Our LDS concept of the necessity for opposition in all things overarches our work, and the axiom that wickedness never was happiness undergirds it. Alma the Younger experienced a taste of hell before he repented and knew the sweetness of heaven, and it all happened in three days. That’s drama. All of this leads me to think that we should develop out of our uniqueness a new paradigm in literature that sets us apart.

Saturday - Part Two: Why Are We Here?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Avalanche of Choices

About this time of year the volume of catalogs coming in the mail each day increases and threatens to become overwhelming. Christmas is coming, after all, and every merchant wants his share of the pie that is my budget. While I appreciate offers of new products that could make my life simpler or more fun, the demands of making so many decisions can make you feel like you're trying to outrun a locomotive.

Not all catalogs are bad, just most of them. Living in rural Utah for more than 30 years, where the shopping opportunities and product choices are limited, I have made a habit of shopping from catalogs, but I quickly became very discriminating about the options I took. It was so much easier than going out in the weather and having to listen over PA systems to all that poorly performed Christmas music at holiday time. Even now that I live in metropolitan Utah, I continue to shop from catalogs because the shipping costs are less than gas for the car to drive to the mall, not find what I want, drive several other places and not find it there either, and then try to find an alternate item. I could google it and just drive to one place, but there's that crowd hassle to contend with, too.

Some of my catalog shopping experiences have been less than pleasing, but the vast majority have been positive. It's so nice to find all my Christmas shopping delivered at my front door. I've found some unique gifts that way which would otherwise have required a lot of serendipitous searching to locate. Now, for instance, my son has a tee shirt he wears proudly which has a name tag printed on it that says "HELLO my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed me father. Prepare to die." (The Princess Bride is one of our favorite movies.)

What makes catalog shopping even easier is that I can order everything from the catalog website, and maybe even find some other treasure while I'm at it in the specials for online customers. I know immediately if the item is backordered, out of stock, no longer available or doesn't come in the color I want. And there aren't any snippy sales clerks to contend with. Rarely have I received the wrong item or had to send anything back.

By the way, the items you order are not kept in a warehouse until the purchase is made. They are in the order fulfillment center. That's how much catalog shopping has changed since I was a little girl and spent hours choosing what I was going to ask Santa to bring me from the Montgomery Wards catalog. They had an actual warehouse and they weren't afraid to call it what it was.

However, catalogs breed like vermin. Buy something from one catalog and you're suddenly on the mailing list for their seventeen sister catalog companies. It's like being besieged by dozens of greedy children all yelling "Gimme!" We thought moving to a new place last year would get us off some mailing lists, but alas, they have found us anyway, and have redoubled their efforts. For example, we have started receiving unsolicited catalogs for pet products - you know, cute clothes for poodles and adorable designer doggie beds and monogramed water dishes. This is annoying on several levels because we don't have any pets and being allergic, don't intend to get any. It annoys me that marketers assume that people in our demographic, i.e. people our age, all have pets. I've heard about people who treat their pets better than they treat their kids, but I'm not one of them.

If we want to cut the nuisance factor, we will have to ask these people to take us off the mailing list we didn't want to be on in the first place, which, they will tell us, will take four to six weeks. Labels are printed that far in advance and like the next crop of American Idol losers, there's no way to stop them. Somebody at a computer could easily delete my name and address from the data bank today with one key stroke, but apparently that person doesn't show up for work regularly. I once began receiving unsolicited catalogs of skimpy lingerie and sex toys. I wrote letters to the company and asked them to remove my name from their mailing list. However, I kept getting catalogs I couldn't refuse because, of course, the Post Office is obligated to deliver to me whatever has my name on it. Apparently the company thought I was just kidding. After all, who wouldn't want to engage in a little S and M fantasy now and then. It practically took an Act of Congress before they got the message. I had to file an official complaint with the Post Office to put an end to it, and I had to do it twice to prove I was serious because the catalogs kept coming.

Some catalogs can cause an instant guilt trip. Especially at Christmas time, you get offers you don't get any other time of year. Just this week I received one that invited me to forego buying gifts for all my privileged family and friends and instead purchase an animal, or a herd, for a poor family in some destitute country. It's unfair to be burdened this way with a choice that could mean life or death to an unschooled boy in Africa. I can't deal with that kind of pressure, and I'm an extraordinarily generous person. If I give a goat to one child, they'll all want one, and I can't afford that.

Over the years I've become more discriminating, and each day when the mail comes, I dig through the avalanche and make three stacks: catalogs I have no interest in, catalogs that I'll read for amusement, and catalogs I might actually want to do business with. More and more the temptation is less and less, and it is a most liberating feeling on the day I can fling them all into the recycle bin.