10/09/2007 10:51 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Sky Mall Trap

How have I done it? How have I lived without Sky Mall in my life? You know, the magazine in the seat pocket in front of you when you get on an airplane?

My friend Sherrie and I were flying back from a vacation with our kids. Unable to read our books or truly relax with the young ones, we pulled out the Sky Mall catalogue as a last ditch entertainment option. That's when we both spotted them. The things that we suddenly realized we needed.

What first caught my eye was the Giddyup! Core Exerciser. Shaped like a saddle, it uses dual motors to simulate horse back riding, "causing your muscles to involuntarily contract and relax as you balance to stay up right" in the very comfort of your living room. This sounded like a thinly veiled housewife's dream, especially when her husband was out of town. But if I want to be bucked out of my chair at home, all I have to do is sit still and four kids and one husband will come and try to throw me with a hundred requests. I don't need an electric saddle for that one.

I don't have a cat, but I felt a sudden hankering for one when I saw the luxury cat litter box designed as a Tuscan earthenware pot with a fake plant coming out the top. There is no surer way to entertain guests at your next living room cocktail party than to have a cat walk out of a faux planter trap door.

The Rolling Luggage Cart and Desk struck me as a wonderful tool for anyone traveling through the airport that is suddenly seized with the need to whip out a desk and make a few notes. For $160.00, I learned, it easily stows in the overhead compartment.

Every time I flew, after that first revelatory trip, I usually noticed a bored-looking man across the aisle, lazily thumbing through a Sky Mall catalogue, daydreaming, I imagined, about what gadget he might find to make life even easier. Who were these men? And why did they not seem to have anything else to do on a four-hour plane ride?

I had size 2T clothes still sitting in my seven-years-olds closet that I hadn't had time to properly weed through. I had books I wanted to read and sleep to catch up on. I had gossip magazines to devour so I could be in the know about important current events, like Britney's custody issues or Brad Pitt's marital discourse. There were belated birthday cards and unanswered emails. My nails needed caring for and I hadn't written in my children's journals for over a year.

What was it that drew people to search the pages for objects they didn't know they were missing? How many birthday and anniversary presents had been bought for wives and girlfriends on these plane rides, the 800 numbers being frantically dialed the minute the wheels touched down.

Shortly after our trip a package came from Sky Mall. Sherrie had sent me the instant living room, a giant mesh and polyester screened in room that all folded down to a portable cylinder.

Of course once we opened it, it was impossible to refold without an advanced degree in trigonometry. After its very first use, however, one of the ribs broke, and it flapped like a broken bat wing, beyond repair. Giggling like a third grader during the church sermon, I plotted my retaliation.

I ordered Sherrie an around-the-corner listening device, complete with giant dish and headphones. Two weeks later I received some cylindrical bra protectors for the washing machine -- frankly, somewhat practical if I remembered to use them.

From then on, it was all-out war. We stopped wasting our hard-earned money on the actual objects, but soon learned when one or the other had traveled because a clipped out item would arrive in an envelope. I was sure Sherrie couldn't live without the Solar Powered Talking Bible that fit in the palm of the hand and covered both the New AND Old Testament. She seemed to think my life was incomplete without the home paper towel dispenser that evenly rotated a vertical paper towel with a wave of the hand. Hallelujah! My kids would no longer have to work to rip off a paper towel. They could use battery power to do it and not even break a sweat.

Now surely the Sky Mall industry is keeping basement inventors and entrepreneurs in business. And far be it from me to criticize red-blooded American innovation and commerce, but the Sky Mall catalogue seems to me to be a lot of what's wrong with America.

We are a nation that loves "stuff." Gadget driven and ever seeking the object that will make our life that much more enhanced, we are filling our lives and houses with crap. I have never used the ice cream maker in my closet in the shape of a ball you are supposed to toss back and forth to mix, or the portable upholstery cleaner I knew I couldn't live without. How about the giant, chip and dip container built into one shape that seemed like such a great idea in the store, but is so big that it's stored somewhere I never remember to look when I'm entertaining.

When will any of us learn? These are the things in my house that eventually break down, end up in the neighbor's tag sale, or worse, some landfill somewhere. I recently found parts for the electric nose hair trimmer I thought would make such a great Christmas gift for the man who has everything. Or how about the inner ear light we own, with the pictures long ago lost in the brochure of exactly what a novice is looking for with a kid's ear infection. It all looks red when you shine the light in.

This is America, so the more stuff we have, the better we must feel about ourselves. Now I'm not preaching that we return to the days of foraging for our food on the prairie or churning butter and chopping wood for heat. I'm perfectly happy that I have working plumbing and a dishwasher, all off the amenities that lighten the drudgery of housework. But I think I can live without a Harry Potter and Hermione Granger magic wand with illuminating tip. My husband may not be quite as cool at his tailgate parties without the 12-gauge steel framed swinging hammock chairs that attach on the back of a pick-up for extra hanging to "party in comfort and style." I reckon he'll just have to make his friends jealous in other ways.

I had to admit that my next dinner party just might be a tad better if I bought the talking wireless belt-clip monitor that announced, out loud, when the entree was cooked to perfection. From up to 300 feet away in fact. But I've made peace with all that.

I learned an age-old lesson when our family moved to London in 2000. As the town house we were moving to was 1/3 the size of our house in the Washington suburbs, we put a huge chunk of our possessions in storage. When we moved back to the NY area two years later, I was baffled and dismayed when the storage truck pulled up. Where had half of this crap come from and would I have even missed it if the storage facility had burned to the ground?

As a brand new bride, my husband and I had headed to Beijing, China in 1988, two days after our wedding. We left every single wedding present and possession behind, save for two backpacks and some clothing as we headed to our Peace Corps-quality dorm room with no potable water and jungle toilets down the hall.

At first I mourned the Calphalon pans and the gorgeous bone china with the gold rims that had accumulated in the months before my nuptials. But a month or so into life with my new husband, I realized I didn't really miss the "things" at all. Everything I had of value was sleeping right next to me on the makeshift Chinese dorm bed. I know I would mourn the videotapes and the photo albums if we (God forbid) had a house fire now; the piece of furniture from my grandmother or the desk that had been in Bob's family. But the only precious possessions that really matter are my four children and one husband. As long as they made it out of the burning building, I would still have my home.

A note came the other day from Sherrie with a page ripped out of Sky Mall. She had thoughtfully enclosed the photo of the "Million-Germ Eliminating Travel Toothbrush Sanitizer, something that looked easy to pack, but was probably kind of like clearing a beach one spoonful of sand at a time. I knew from high school biology that the mouth had more germs inside than you could ever "shake a stick at." That sanitizer wouldn't stand a chance.

But it was Sherrie's breezy note that made me laugh. "I just wanted you to know that I looked through Sky Mall on the plane this weekend and sadly, I think you have everything now." One way or the other, Sky Mall had entered my life.