When I look at things, I always see the space they occupy.
Under the heading “Yes, commas DO save lives,” are three items—T-shirt, sweatshirt, and 7” x 12” plaque, all in a color described as Chocolate—bearing two lines: Let’s Eat Grandma and Let’s Eat, Grandma. This is exactly the type of gift the sister I despise would buy me for Christmas because she knows I would despise it but she could say, “See! It’s because you teach English.”
I would much prefer the Polaroid Cube (page 106), which pleads, “Life is unpredictable. Record every moment with the newest lifestyle action camera… Designed to take video on-the-go with a recording capacity of up to 90 minutes on a single charge… water resistant, mountable and ready for anything—just like you!” Friends will say I want to make hip, homemade pornos, but in reality I just want to re-enact the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. On page 16, a Caucasian baby lies on a Mexican blanket, maracas nested at its feet. Below is a superlative slice of copywriting: “This stand-out baby gift is the whole enchilada. From their sweet rosy cheeks to their delectable little toes, you know your baby looks good enough to eat.” For $47.99, you can purchase a tortilla-printed swaddle blanket and matching hat, which turns your baby into a living, breathing Chipotle burrito. I plan on buying two for every expectant family I know.
The majority of the SkyMall catalogue is devoted to two types of business travelers. The first wants his home life to closely resemble his business life, a cacophony of airplanes and boardrooms and hotel bars. We are led to believe these men and women are essentially incapable, in need of machines to help them do everything: Glasses that aerate wine, making the hours required for decanting unnecessary; Memory foam neck pillows, which simultaneously massage, play rain sounds, and charge cellphones; and the “TreeNanny,” which alerts when the Christmas tree needs water by playing a synth version of “Jingle Bells.” All of these gadgets remind me of the theorist Noam Chomsky, who warns of our culture’s “constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
The second type of business traveler is sadder: Enraptured by guilt. An extensive toy section offers items ranging from customizable story books that nestle your child alongside Disney Princesses or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (perfect for the parent chagrined he cannot read his kid a bedtime story) to the Hushamok Baby Hammock, a finely-tuned oak bassinet ($599.99) that will not only look at home beside your mid-century Eames chair, but also make baby look cool as fuck. Sadder even than these guilt-ridden products, however, are the pages devoted to pets of the SkyMall business traveler.
These are dogs and cats and birds (yes, birds) wrought with melancholy over their owner’s absence. Here, a platform with sod—Your Dog’s Very Own Yard!—that drains piss to a basin so pet remains happy and carpets remain dry. Or here, a self-dispensing food bowl that records your voice and beckons your pet to dinner, also spraying your scent into the air, lest the pet suspect the plastic machine with an LED face is not actually you. I imagine the dog lurking away from its bowl disappointed, reciting the end of Jane Kenyon’s “The Clearing,” where the poet personifies a canine speaking back to its owner: “Do you know— / since you went away / all I can do / is wait for you to come back to me.”
In her 1992 novel The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag writes, “There is no such thing as a monogamous collector. Sight is a promiscuous sense. The avid gaze always wants more.” I never read Sontag’s novels for the reasons I read fiction, for characterization or escape. Rather, I read her novels for their wisdom, their clarity about how we live. I flip through SkyMall, knowing every bit of its contents is gauche, but also that I want it all. I want to buy the “museum-quality watch cabinet” that holds 24 watches even though I own only one, rarely worn. I want to buy a map of the United States made from fifty vintage license plates. Or a lamp whose base is the leg of the Wicked Witch; her ruby red slipper’s big toe, before Dorothy has stolen the shoes to travel to the Emerald City, serves as a light switch. In January 2015, SkyMall filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in U.S. Federal Court, and though it was bought I fear this is the end of an era—a great loss for American culture writ-large and demise of the truest amalgam available to the poet and cultural critic; the original SkyMall, it seems, might have been, in the lineage of pop consumer artists like Warhol or Frank O’Hara, a metaphor for our collective lives.
(At this point, the essayist usually wishes to say something that draws an even deeper, universal meaning from the catalog of images aforementioned. If you must have it, here: perhaps SkyMall represents both the ugliest of American consumerism and our deepest fears of loneliness and guilt, which we soothe by buying things that not only physically surround us, but also coddle us in a Freudian desire to return to the age of curiosity, whimsy, and infancy. But no, the essayist just wants to celebrate the thing.
The essayist would rather you do some work, some digging for metaphors, some comparison-shopping for yourself. Thesis: Perhaps SkyMall represents the laziness of both essayist and reader. Scratch that. The essayist just wishes to direct you to erstwhile page 167, containing the Seabreacher boat). Reaching speeds of over 55 m.p.h., the Seabreacher can soar and dive and provide passengers with a 360-degree view of their kingdom from the safety of a vessel customized to look like your favorite sea creature: Killer whale, octopus, great white shark.
Maximum occupancy: One.
Price starts at $85,000.