Lack a knack for knickknacks

Kevin Cowherd

September 26, 1990|By Kevin Cowherd

IN MY LIVING room there are two ceramic swans, a little bowl with some sort of plum blossom motif, a tiny brass music box in the shape of a piano and a porcelain frog reading a newspaper.

Knickknacks, they're called. And whenever I survey these items -- the frog in particular sticks in my mind -- two thoughts occur immediately:

1 -- What are these items doing in my house?

2 -- What purpose -- if any -- do they serve?

The thing is, I don't remember buying any of these knickknacks. Especially the porcelain frog reading the newspaper. It seems to me that you would remember buying a porcelain frog reading a newspaper.

The incident would be etched in your memory, as would the store where the purchase was made and even the dialogue between you and the salesperson: "Yes, I'd like one of your porcelain frogs, please. No, not the one on the lily pad. The other one, with the frog reading the newspaper."

Maybe you see what I'm getting at here.

People don't buy porcelain frogs every day (I'm assuming). So the purchase of a porcelain frog -- or maybe any knickknack, I don't know -- seems as if it would be an intensely personal event. Certainly it would be a memorable one.

Anyway, I didn't buy the porcelain frog reading the newspaper, is what I'm saying. I want that on the record -- if only for tax purposes.

On the other hand, I don't remember my wife buying the porcelain frog reading the newspaper, either.

I can tell you this: She never bought it while she was with me. We never went porcelain-frog shopping, for instance. She never dragged me to the mall on some flimsy pretext of there being a huge knickknack sale, with terrific discounts on porcelain frogs. Believe me, I would have remembered that, too.

Anyway, from all this there has evolved my theory on knickknacks: People don't buy knickknacks for themselves. People have knickknacks foisted on them by others.

Which leads me to yet another question: What kind of person gives a porcelain frog as a gift?

Off the top of my head -- and I'm not a psychologist -- I'd say the giver of a porcelain frog would likely be well-meaning but delusional, someone with a heart as big as Wyoming but perhaps not quite anchored in the here and now.

Someone like, say, my mother.

Who, as it turns out, was the person who gave us the porcelain frog reading the newspaper.

The exact circumstances surrounding our receiving the frog are shrouded in history. But as I understand it, my mother was shopping in some sort of Knickknacks R' Us outlet and came across this porcelain frog reading the newspaper (admit it, it happens to all of us.)

And since I worked for a newspaper, she somehow figured it would be the perfect gift. (It is amazing what goes through a person's mind in times of great stress. Other mothers give their sons sweaters, ties, socks, etc. Me, I get a porcelain frog reading a newspaper.)

Those who practice knickknackery (loosely defined as the accumulation as well as distribution of knickknacks) defend the concept as a cherished part of Americana. They say -- get this -- that many people actually appreciate receiving knickknacks as gifts. Sure. Right.

(Knickknack. What an odd word. I just repeated it three times to myself. It sounds vaguely cult-like, even. You wonder if all that trouble at Jonestown had to do with knickknacks. If the Hare Krishna people start peddling hand-painted carousel horses at airports, we'll have our answer.)

Still, it has been my experience that houseguests will rarely comment on a person's knickknacks. They will walk into your living room and say they love your drapes, your furniture, your carpet, etc.

But you rarely hear: "Oh, that's a wonderful porcelain frog on the mantel. What's he reading there, the newspaper? Marvelous."

No, you rarely hear that. At least I rarely hear it.

In fact, to my knowledge, no one has ever commented on our porcelain frog. And we've had this porcelain frog for, what, almost 10 years?

I think it's fairly safe to assume that if you haven't heard a kind word about your porcelain frog in 10 years, people won't all of a sudden start gushing about it.

Not that I blame them, understand.

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