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Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2002 / 6 Teves 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

Sky's the limit --- sort of | MEMPHIS Here's my dilemma: Do I want a $169.95 (plus $19.95 for an extra battery) radio-controlled, 28-inch scale model of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle?

Or do I crave a $210 Harley-Davidson "Motorcycle Ride-on" miniature bike (in either black or pink) for kids? Each comes "with fender tip details, realistic headlight and exhaust pipes and saddle bags that open."

No. This is no dilemma. I know exactly what I want. I want neither. I want to throw away my copy of SkyMall magazine (obtained from the seat pocket in front of me on my previous flight), get on my next plane here in southwestern Tennessee and fly home.

But as I wait to board, something compels me to stare at this catalog the way pedestrians gape at terrible car accidents. Why can't I just turn away? What is it about the wretched excesses of American culture that forces me to pay attention?

I awake each morning to the slightly annoying electronic beeping of a cheap (less than $10) battery-operated alarm clock. But on Page 16 SkyMall offers an alternative for five or six times as much - $49.95. It's "The Peaceful Progression Wake Up Clock," a pyramid-shaped marvel that proposes to ease me into my day so softly that I will barely notice I've crossed the sleeping-to-waking barrier.

Half an hour before wake-up time, a light begins to glow softly. As the light increases, the lamp releases mild aromatherapy scents (which would be wasted on me because I completely lost my sense of smell about 30 years ago). Then, 15 minutes before it's time to get up, the clock makes soft nature sounds (you can choose mountain streams, songbirds or ocean surf). Eventually a buzzer sounds. Better yet, you can reverse all this so you can fall asleep, finally, to a disappearing light.

Oh, please. If you ease yourself into a day in such a gentle way, you'll be absolutely unprepared for the brutish way the rest of the day may treat you. Wake to the surprising - and cheap - din of a buzzer, however, and you're ready for any outrage the day brings.

"The Fiber Optic Flag Hat" awaits me on Page 27. For $29.95, "lightweight fiber optic technology turns the American flag design on this cap into an eye-catching patriotic statement." Flick a switch inside the hat and miniature lights dance in red, white and blue.

I am imagining taking a gross of these hats to hungry children in Afghanistan, who have seen bombs falling and people dying and twisted men ruling their land. And I'm imagining having to explain to them that this is what economic and political freedom can produce - fiber optic flag hats for $29.95. God bless America.

On Page 77, I'm offered "the first ever portable lie detector" for $69.95. Are liars so plentiful in our culture that we must carry mobile fib finders?

"Analyze emotion and stress levels in person or over the phone," the ad copy says. "LCD displays nine levels from truth to false statement." It says two lithium batteries are included, but already I think that's a lie.

Maybe what I should buy my 5-month-old granddaughter to make sure she fits into our covetous culture is the $250 pedal Porsche on Page 102. She's a little young yet for this toy, but if she gets used to such raging indulgences now, some day she'll be able to claim her rightful place as an American consumer. Her highest calling can be what so many people aspire to be - a shopper.

Some day she may feel entitled to own a representative sample of the gewgaws, trinkets and baubles that swamp our market. She may even learn to feel no remorse at spending $34.95 for the "Who Cares!!!" wall clock, pictured on Page 91. All the hour numbers on the clock have fallen haphazardly to the bottom of the face.

This catalog goes on for 235 pages. Not everything in it is astonishing spilth. Here and there are items that can be justified by their utility or their beauty. But is it any wonder that other cultures look at us and gasp at our superfluous commerce, our schlock? They imagine this stuff reflects our core values. Some days I think they're right.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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03/19/02: Space Family Robinsons
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01/24/02: How green is my universe?
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12/19/01: Lost in the cloning debate
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11/19/01: Flying with damaged trust
11/02/01: Recent, recognized research is a hard nut to crack
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10/17/01: It was a time for tea and sympathy
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09/17/01: One precious life among many
09/13/01: Remember who we are
09/11/01: Sometimes all children need is shelter from the storm
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08/28/01: Lesson for the scientific faithful: Some theories come with strings attached
08/27/01: When waste in space is a waste of space
08/21/01: In complex world, we lack tools to carve out understanding
08/09/01: Visited while asleep by gang of magical mischief makers
08/03/01: Recognizing the limits of one's capacity
07/27/01: We are more than the sum of our work days
07/12/01: Some stars, like some people, never shine
07/11/01: Our deeply embedded need for order
07/03/01: Not-so-famous tour explores not-so-rich neighborhoods
06/28/01: Driven to tell the truth about golf and government
06/25/01: When poetry becomes destructive
06/21/01: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a word from deep space
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06/11/01: Shamanic gewgaws
06/06/01: Charity begins at homes with lemonade stands
05/30/01: When are wars worth dying in?
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05/07/01: Killing McVeigh will wound us all
05/01/01: Dubya reinforcing negative GOP stereotypes?


Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved