Culture

The Catalogs Keep Coming

You’d think that online shopping would have eliminated our need for catalogs, but according to the New Yorker, Americans receive nearly 12 billion catalogs a year—the worst of which is from Restoration Hardware, which has the door-stopping weight of 17 pounds and the ire of UPS delivery people. Most of the catalogs end up in the recycling bin, and are considered a waste of energy and resources.

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The Ethics of Taking Free Stuff

It’s not the best use of philanthropic funds to give people like me free books. Is it an acceptable use?

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In Praise of Non-coworkers

Coworkers are the protagonists of our workplace sitcoms and soap operas—they are the fully realized characters who make the long hours from punch-in to punch-out as tolerable or intolerable as they are. But have we ever stopped to consider that wonderful class of bit players who fill in the interstices, upon whom we can project whatever back story suits us? I’m referring, of course, to the employees of other workplaces that share some physical space with our own, the people we basically don’t know, but see enough to offer a nod and some small talk on This Weather We’ve Been Having—let’s call them Non-Coworkers. I love this class of people, and the non-relationship I have with them. Let me sing their praises.

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Link Round-up! Cheap Hotel Rooms, Egg Sandwiches, Commutes

+ How do you get the cheapest good hotel room? Go through an exhaustive 7-step process that involves several different websites and Skype. (“It gets easier with practice!”) If you’re feeling more like satisfising rather than maximizing and you’re okay getting a pretty cheap, pretty good room, though, even following one or two of the steps will net useful results. Like this one:

If you’ve already booked a flight, or are going on a longer, more complicated trip, package deals won’t work. But this straightforward, in-and-out New York-to-Paris trip is exactly the sort where a package deal might be the trick. (Trips to sunny destinations in the winter also work pretty well.) I went to Kayak’s packages page and it led me to a promising deal on Priceline.com: a round-trip, nonstop flight for two from New York to Paris, plus four nights at the Crowne Plaza Paris-Republique, for $2,505. The cheapest nonstop fare on my dates was $2,503. In other words, four nights at the four-star Crowne Plaza would essentially cost 50 cents a night. I even contacted Priceline to make sure there were no hidden charges.

+ “How much should a bagel sandwich cost?” Step off, Gawker. This is our corner, and we’ve got bats. 

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Job of the Day: Maker of Life-Size Sex Dolls

This Atlantic article about the sex doll industry is even-handed and fair minded and still made me feel kind of queasy. I mean, if it helps certain frustrated or socially awkward men feel like they have a much-needed sexual outlet, great! Right?

The realism and utility of sex dolls took a giant leap forward in the late 90s, when artist Matt McCullen started working on a lifelike silicone female mannequin and documenting its progress on his website. Before long, he began getting emails asking if it was … anatomically correct. At the time, it wasn’t. But the demand was there, and so McCullen provided the supply. Hence, the eerily lifelike RealDoll was born. After shock jock Howard Stern got hold of one and seemingly had sex with it on his radio show, McCullen’s company grew quickly, and he now sells anywhere from 200 to 300 high-end customizable sex dolls per year.

Most of McCullen’s dolls are female; he makes a small number of male ones, but there are fewer options for customizing them, and they account for just 10 percent of his sales. “As an artist, I was always drawn to the female form, so that’s what my subject matter was,” McCullen says. “The female form was my muse.” He insists that actual women have nothing to fear from his dolls. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Do I think the dolls will replace women or threaten to replace women? Absolutely not.”

I did some research (NSFW) and discovered that prices peaked last year at $1,000 per doll and have now come down to about half that for certain models. You can buy a stationary female companion who will never laugh at or leave you for as little as $350, or less if you’re not particular and don’t mind the absence of a head or limbs. On the other end of the spectrum, one that looks like Joan Holloway Harris costs $1,600. (No, I will not provide a link.) For that much, I imagine you could enjoy the company — and then the memories — of an actual buxom redhead, but maybe some people really prefer the fantasy/approximation of the experience to the experience itself.

For whatever reason, the dolls on the page I’m looking at look racially homogenous: white or Asian, though with cartoonishly exaggerated boobs and hips, such that if you tried to stand them up, they’d tip over. McCullen, I’m sure there’s a demand for other ethnicities! Get on that, okay? No pun intended.

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Class Consciousness In Kids’ Books

Last night I read the children’s book Corduroy to babygirl for the 15,000th time. A small bear in green overalls wanders a department store at night looking for his lost button, because that button represents everything that is out of his reach: love and acceptance, family, security, home. He is rescued by a girl, Lisa, who believes in his potential so much that she empties out her piggy bank for him. Once she and Corduroy have settled in her bedroom, she sews on a new button for him, not because he needs it but because he’ll be more comfortable with his strap fastened. And then they share a big hug.

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What Makes a “Gentleman” In This Day and Age?

Several articles I have read recently have used the word “gentleman,” and it’s beginning to make my skin prickle. Once upon a time, the word meant something specific:

:  a man of noble or gentle birth

:  a man belonging to the landed gentry

c (1) :  a man who combines gentle birth or rank with chivalrous qualities (2) :  a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior

d (1) :  a man of independent means who does not engage in any occupation or profession for gain (2) :  a man who does not engage in a menial occupation or in manual labor for gain

It implied a certain level of behavior, an adherence to a code of honor. When Scarlett O’Hara tried to think of the worst thing she could say to Rhett Butler, she came up with, “You, sir, are no gentleman!” (He laughed, that sexy, sexy scoundrel.)

Then came American egalitarianism, and Playboy’s Hugh Hefner lounging around in his bathrobe, and the grim, windowless “gentleman’s clubs” alongside the West Side Highway, and nowadays the word means … what? Supposedly, “a man who treats other people in a proper and polite way.” A nicer-than-average dude, perhaps the kind that doesn’t frequent the clubs along the West Side Highway. The word has been utterly divorced from class, which is appropriate in a world when so many rich men act like boors anyway. But it has simultaneously been leached of meaning. Which is … maybe a shame?

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America Runs on Dunkin’ (In Secret Pools)

The beach is largely democratic. Though, as commenters hastened to assure me when last we discussed it, some shorelines charge for entry or parking or both, where there is ocean there tends to be free access to ocean. Screaming children, old folks splayed out in chairs, teenagers strutting like seagulls: the beach embraces humanity in all its debatable glory.

The pool, by contrast, is elitist. It puts up walls. Yes, there are public pools, but much like public schools, they tend to be used by a specific subset of people with fewer choices. Those who can afford to usually go elsewhere, like the mom I heard agonizing in the playground about whether or not to give her daughter to the best free education in Brooklyn, or like the author of this piece for Mommy Poppins: “if the idea of putting your kids in a public pool makes you uncomfortable, there are other options.” Why would anyone be “uncomfortable”? The author doesn’t say, but we can guess. My dad grew up in small-town Virginia with pools whose signs read, “No Jews, blacks, or dogs.” The pool remains a potent symbol of racial and economic segregation even today. It says, “You there, you belong; come, bathe your weary limbs and refresh yourselves in my rarefied water. Immerse yourself in a Fountain of Youth. Emerge sparkling like a doe touched with morning dew. #NoFatties.”

This piece about secret pools in Manhattan does not, in short, come as a surprise.

The Dream Downtown, a hotel in the Meatpacking District, charges $175 a day to use the pool, Monday through Thursday. A cabana on the weekend will set you back at least $2,500.

It’s enough to make a person long for the Jersey Shore.

BTW: If you’re in the city and less squeamish than the Mommy Poppins crowd, this round-up of the best places to swim in Manhattan includes several absolutely free public pools as well as more affordable private options. Or, try a Dumpster!

Illo by Charrow

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Concerning the Moral Obligations of the Wealthy

I have come under some criticism of late for being uncharitable toward the rich. To be more precise, I offhandedly wrote, alluding to Ester’s piece on trust fund kids, that my policy concerning people born rich is to distrust them. Commenters took me to task for that, and rightly so: it is foolish and wrong to suppose that affluence, in and of itself, defines character. As one commenter noted, mine was “exactly the kind of ignorance several writers on the Billfold would preach against if it were any other kind of discrimination.”

I think that commenter was right, and I said so in comments and a note appended to the post in question. I also said, “We could have a separate discussion about whether there is any moral imperative on the inheritors of wealth to do something selfless and worthwhile with their money, or about the attitudes that may or may not prevail among them about whether they deserve their good fortune.” Several commenters later suggested that yes, that is a discussion worth having. This came to mind over the weekend, when I was engaged in that most proletarian of leisure activities, camping and reading the New Yorker. So let’s start our discussion about the moral obligations of the wealthy with a focus on how they help people with acute need.

I suppose I should not expect a worldview untouched by a certain elitism when I read the New Yorker, but more and more, I notice that there is an archetypal story about rare diseases and how progress is made in their cures. It goes like this:

1. An upper-middle-class couple notices something unusual about their infant child. 2. Doctors are either flummoxed and unhelpful or convinced that it is a terminal illness. 3. The parents refuse to accept the doctors’ assessment and devote large sums of money to (a) organizing and lobbying for more research on the illness; and (b) making all kinds of costly changes to their home, lives, and routines to accommodate their ill child and make the child’s life more enriching. 4. Progress in treatment results from the parents’ tireless efforts.

This sequence became clear to me while reading Seth Mnookin’s piece, “One of a Kind” in the July 21, 2014, issue. The article focuses on a couple, a college professor and an M.B.A., whose son has an extraordinarily rare genetic disease, and their ultimately successful quest to push the medical establishment toward more data-sharing and collaboration to develop treatments. (Spoiler: the disease isn’t quite as rare as previously believed.) The article is great and fascinating: in addition to following a family with the surname Might and involving a glycobiologist who is actually named Hudson Freeze, it illustrates how more base human motivations (researchers’ desire for sole credit on publications; institutions’ need to compete for scarce funding) can impede medical progress. It also has a happy-ish ending: the Mights’ son is showing surprising progress as he gets older; research is progressing.

But all that progress is predicated on the fact that this terrible disease befell not just Matt and Cristina Might’s child, but the child of Matt and Kristen Wilsey as well. The Wilseys, we learn, “are one of the most prominent families in San Francisco.”

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The IKEA Furniture We Live With That Inevitably Ends Up on Craigslist

Two years ago, in a fit of mania and a deep desire to live in less hideous surroundings, I went to Ikea and bought a bunch of shit. My boyfriend and I lived in a one-bedroom on the first floor of a dumpy street, where we had a view of a blindingly bright auto repair shop that used more fluorescent paint than a rave. The apartment was stuffed with ugly hand-me-downs given to my boyfriend by his mother, and I’d occasionally wake up and gaze at my surroundings and think, “Am I 32? Is this what 32 looks like?” This crippling rumination often resulted with me on the couch on a sunny day, unable to do anything more than watch back-to-back episodes of Haven while eating gummy bears.

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