The Sky’s the Limit

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

September 2008

I’m thinking about redecorating my apartment. Nothing fancy, just a giant 7’ by 7’ Cross-Word Puzzle Mural to cover the east wall in my bedroom. It has 28,000 clues and 91,000 squares, and it comes with a 100-page help book and a nifty storage box, all for the very reasonable price of $29.95. Of course, if I purchase that, I’ll also need the World’s Largest Write-On Map Mural, which covers more than 10 square feet of wall space and features capitals, countries, major cities, political boundaries, time zones, ocean depths and more! This is the only detailed, eight-color 2006 mural of its size, and it’s a bargain at just $149.95.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that my living room is going to look pretty drab after my bedroom has been bedazzled with these unreasonably large wall-hangings. That’s why I plan to throw out my couch and replace it with a full-scale replica of King Tutankhamen’s Egyptian Throne Chair. At just $895, this detailed copy of the 3,500-year-old original is a steal. With a hand-painted gold exterior and a carved lion head on each armrest, it’s a must-have for any Egyptophile.

I know, I know — the throne is going to look ridiculous sitting next to my normal, boring oak bookcase. Which is why I absolutely must have the matching $895 King Tut Life-Sized Sarcophagus Cabinet, which looks like an actual sarcophagus on the outside but also has a surprising amount of shelf space on the inside.

*     *     *

I first discovered SkyMall magazine on a flight from Denver to Chicago in 1996. I was 21 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever been on a commercial jet. Consequently, I was scared shitless. I tried to relax by listening to music and digging my fingernails into the right arm of the octogenarian sitting next to me, but I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that I was sitting in a 300,000-pound hunk of metal that was filled with 50,000 gallons of flammable fuel hurling through the sky at 500 mph. For the first time, I truly understood the meaning of the words “death trap.”

After annoying the flight attendant with a million questions, most of them concerning the laws of gravity, I finally picked up a SkyMall and started to flip through the pages. I was immediately enthralled. Robotic vacuum cleaners; collars that translate your dog’s barks into human speech; fish tank coffee tables; musical toilet-paper dispensers — I was perfectly content for the rest of the flight.

Over the past decade, I have continued to collect SkyMall magazines, although I have never made a single purchase from any of them. My favorite issues sit on my coffee table (which, sadly, is not also a fish tank), and I look through them on a nightly basis. As a tool for understanding American culture, SkyMall is more important than The New Yorker, Harper’s, Newsweek, Esquire and Rolling Stone combined. These magazines can only give you facts and supply you with social commentary; SkyMall on the other hand is an ongoing sociological experiment. And since SkyMall’s only agenda is to make money, you can trust that it’s not influenced by anything except greed. SkyMall products that don’t sell are quickly removed from the magazine, but the popular items return month after month, year after year. Therefore, if you’re an obsessive nerd with a lot of time on your hands like I am, you can trace cultural trends by examining how the contents of the magazine evolve over time.

It’s important to note that SkyMall customers don’t fit into a single category. I doubt if bluecollar workers in Detroit are scratching their heads and wondering where they can find a portable commercial steam cleaner or an electric shoe buffer. On the other hand, SkyMall is not just a magazine for high-class millionaires, either. It’s difficult to imagine Donald Trump and his cronies ordering a toolbox with orange flames painted on the side or a bar stool with a motorcycle seat.

At first glance, SkyMall appears to be extremely random and chaotic: a hot dog cooker on one page and a tapestry depicting the French countryside on the next. However, if you read it consistently, you realize that SkyMall has actually tapped into an extremely specific piece of our national psyche: the desire for more. No matter what socio-economic class we belong to, Americans want more. If we have a 24” television, we want a 32” television, or a 45” television, or a flat-screen television. If we have an appliance that makes two pieces of toast at a time, we want one that makes four pieces, or six, or we want an appliance that cooks rotisserie chicken while it balances the checkbook and plays samba music. Americans defeated the British, we conquered the wilderness, we landed on the moon, and now we want a fountain pen with a builtin digital recorder and an FM radio. All for the very reasonable price of $89.99.

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