At the onset of every autumn, as Vermont's mountains started balding and the reality of elementary school tedium settled onto my brain like a dusty blanket, a glimmer of hope would arrive in the mail: Sears, Roebuck and Company published its gigantic Christmas-themed retail catalog, then delivered them like phonebooks to good little middle class families like ours. The Sears Wish Book would sustain me for months. I would take a quick look through ours as soon as it arrived, circle some school clothes for Mom to purchase, then run down to the local Sears catalog store to steal a new one for my very own. Although they had a large stack of free ones in the store window, the Sears clerks did not like kids looking at their Wish Books, and guarded them jealously. I would wait patiently for them to be preoccupied with real customers, then shove one into my jacket and make my getaway with a polite "Merry Christmas!"––even though it was only October.
Reading my Wish Book was a torturous pleasure. It was filled with everything you could possibly think of for your home, plus pages and pages of luscious toys. Each night I would crawl into bed, wait for my mother to close the door, then flip on my flashlight and scour the toys. This extended, full-color glossy section had bigger photos and graphics than the rest of the catalog; it was designed to appeal to kids. It was pornographically rendered. I carefully memorized every detail of the radio-controlled airplanes and Star Wars collections I needed to own. I would fall asleep, sated yet tantalized, and dream of a better life through Sears.
Eventually, I could not stop myself at just toys. Sears became an addiction as I slowly made my way through the whole book. I carefully began measuring and cataloging our entire house so I could replace whatever was there with a nicer item from The Sears Wish Book. I realized it was now my responsibility to improve the lives of my hapless family and our home and I savored each photo and description, circumspectly writing down each object's measurements and deciding where they should go. I made cross-referenced lists designed for my brother, my mother, my father, and the dog. I located everything we would need to improve our property: curtains, fountains, a gazebo, a shed, new lawn furniture, a riding mower, car accessories, a lounge suite, canopy beds.
I knew that, should I be granted my wishes, our house and home would be beautiful and we would all be happy. I snuck my father's precious Texas Instruments calculator out of his study and carefully totaled my wishes' prices. They came to $52,000. This did not seem like a terrible price to pay for eternal happiness and excellent storage facilities and I felt no discomfort spending an hour each night reminding God of the task that lay before Him. I told Him it was either these specific lists or simply letting me win Publisher's Clearing House, which of course would take care of everything. In fact it was preferable, as not only would I be able to buy more things from Sears, I would be able to buy some Lincoln Continentals and create a long driveway around the house like they had on "Dynasty."
By sixth grade, I had a real blueprint for our house that included pages and pages of notes from the Sears catalog, but I was having trouble convincing my mother that she should go over it with me. She was annoyingly content with our décor. I'd also been working on God for an hour each night for a number of years to no avail and had come to suspect I was simply not doing enough to get this to happen. I realized one Sunday during the communion ritual in our church that possibly my only route to success would be to create a prayer circle for Sears like they did when a parishioner got cancer or had a car accident. So I invited my friend Todd over––his father was a minister and I figured they'd be a good source from which to draw power. He was impressed with my work, especially with the toys I had selected, and I offered him access to the toy cache if he helped me out. But he balked at me enlisting him to pray. He told me his aunt was in the hospital and he was fairly certain that praying for someone else's material items in lieu of her health was not something he should be doing. I was disappointed, but I tried to act understanding. I desperately needed more Christians to fulfill my plan and, if Todd was out, I'd have to turn to other people in our church.
I started with my little brother to practice my pitch. I didn't really consider him to be a Christian necessarily, because I judged him to be a bad person most of the time, but he went to church and would probably be happy to have the toys around. I asked him to pick out a few of his own toys too, although restricted him to only ten more because I didn't want to seem greedy, and made him promise to enlist his own friends. He agreed, eyes wide as he fantasized about owning several guns and an ATV. The plan was working! I immediately moved to phase two of my recruitment: a list of peers from church I thought could help me out. I sorted them by friendliness and inspiration.
But Cristen, Paul, Daniel, and Luke were not interested in assisting me. In fact, Luke went so far as to tell me he thought what I was doing was sinful. What did they know? Obviously they did not understand how important this really was. And who could blame them? They all had color TVs and snowmobiles and were even named after people in the Bible––their parents had already provided for them. My circumstances were much different. With difficult parents who exhibited bad decisions at every turn it was clear to me that I needed divine intervention. As usual I seemed to be the only one who understood this. Except Rich. He was interested. Not only was his family poorer than mine, he seemed genuinely fascinated by the work I had done as we toured my house together. He also had two brothers he said he could enlist. Perfect.
We started by reviewing his house for improvements, and designed a manifest for which he would pray. The extra brothers helping out in the prayer circle were a boon, and so we saw no problem in adding his house and its overwhelming needs to the requests. It was another $36,000 worth of items, a lot of furniture replacement, tapestries Rich picked out for his mother, and space heaters––very different from my house, although I surreptitiously added a kerosene heater for my own room. We decided to split the toys and set about our nightly hour of prayer so we could get in our requests for Christmas. Christmas was a natural day for God to dispense our new belongings and we prayed enthusiastically for an hour each night through autumn, checking in with each other at church and school. Even our brothers seemed to be excited as the holidays approached.
But we woke on Christmas morning to great disappointment. I discovered almost nothing similar to my toy requests had made it through to my parents, which was nothing new, but also that zero of my household items had appeared under the tree. What was God thinking? I checked the garage and the backyard. Nothing. Where had we gone wrong? When I met Rich in church that week to recon, he told me he had been grounded from hanging out with me and would no longer be able participate in my prayer circle. He and his brothers had cried on Christmas morning when none of their prayers had been answered and his parents had been rather upset when they discovered our lengthy and detailed notes on how to improve their home. It was there, that day in church, that I realized there was no God. It was all a sham, just like Santa Claus. I would have to go back to appealing to my parents––a much tougher audience.
I left praying behind before I even grew hair under my arms, proclaiming myself an atheist by age 13. Asking God for anything was verboten unless I found myself on a plane flying through turbulence. These days, while the convenience and ease of catalog shopping is not lost on me, it is no place for imaginative wishing––not with an entire Internet at my fingertips.
Now I can crank up my desire for the unattainable to an epic scale. Who needs to be concerned with nice drapes and a green Schwinn when there are houses in Marin, yachts in Monaco, motorcars, learjets, and beautiful bodies that I cannot have? Well, it's worth a look anyhow. And besides, I am pretty sure I might win the lottery someday so I should be prepared with a list of demands. God knows I deserve it.