Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Little Book of Shattered Expectations

I think anyone aspiring to creative writing would do well to get themselves on the mailing list of the Vermont Country Store. Their catalog starts showing up in our mailbox around the same time as the stinkbugs, and continues appearing as frequently and predictably. The VCS catalog is a staple—nay, a ritual—of bathroom reading from early fall to mid-winter, about the point when it slips its staples and finally falls apart.

It is a paragon of tautly-crafted manipulative prose, each product description a compact haiku-length dissertation cleverly crafted to push buttons you didn't know you had.

Each item in the catalog is worthy of a massive piling-on of scientifically selected adjectives and adverbs, each one specifically designed to trigger the release of repressed memories of a common idyllic childhood we never shared. The house was bigger, the windows frostier, the rooms cheerier, the beds both higher and cozier, the breakfasts heartier, the hot chocolate richer, the sledding swifter, our parents wiser, kinder, happier and more beautiful, the Christmas Tree taller, the tinsel brighter, the goose crispier and the presents more wonderful than we could ever have hoped.

I will confess we receive this epistle regularly because we purchased items from this land of make-believe in the past. And the thing is, once the goods arrive on this side of the catalog—reality chasm, they're just...stuff. Stuff like you could buy pretty much anywhere.

Sure, a lot of it is hard to find—but most of the time that's because people stopped buying it years ago and people stopped making it years ago because, hey, in truth back then it was crap, and by golly, it's still crap now.

Nostalgia does not by and of itself validate things; in most cases it's just stuff, like it was back then when we didn't buy it the first go-round. The items are, for the most part, things you have probably walked past in your regular rounds of shopping time and again, with good reason. (Creamed Chipped Beef, anyone?) Yet from their testimonial copy, each item means something special to someone out there, enough for them to resurrect it or recommission it in some cases and to make an effort to stock it at least for a little while. As they say, there's no accounting for taste.

I don't think I have ever gotten something from the VCS that didn't come packaged with its own certain tiny measure of disappointment. It may be that the VCS catalog's greatest value lies in its ability to gently teach children how to gracefully accept disappointment, how to read between the lines of artfully crafted marketing prose, and to understand in a simple way that things aren't always what they seem.

But I gotta say, the catalog itself never disappoints. I love the writing—the unrelenting Rockwellian optimism, the naive cheer, the three or four coats of bright shiny adjectives, the perky and artfully dated design sense, the creation of a whole world within the slick covers. The arrival of the first catalog marks the beginning of the imaginary season they taught us about back in second grade.

Get on their mailing list, if you aren't already. Read the catalog. Throw 'em a bone from time to time, just to prop that imaginary world up a little while longer. There's no harm in playing along.

Addendum: If you're ever in Vermont, you owe it to yourself to check out the brick-and-mortar VCS, which is actually made of wood & stuff. It's the real-life version of the catalog, and as I recall, there are at least two or three of them salted throughout the state. Visited the one in Weston on the grand Vermont tour of 2001, and it was worth the side trip.

1 comment:

Madeline said...

Aww. You didn't have to come out and say it...