I am upstate with my son, Alex, and his wife, also named Alex.
Like everyone else on planet earth, we are thinking nonstop about the future.
The economy. The forces of good and evil. About the meaning of time and, of course, life and death.
There is also another subject on my mind: paper towels.
Specifically Bounty Select-A-Size paper towels.
This is not a new interest for me. I have loved Bounty Select-A-Size for a long time.
I have always been impressed and dazzled by this bit of American language and American ingenuity. You can choose the size of the paper towel you need. Not too much, not too little. How did we function before this?
The promises, slogans, and jingles of American products have populated my life since I arrived in this country in 1954.
Every one of us has their favorites.
PLOP PLOP FIZZ FIZZ OH WHAT A RELIEF IT IS; YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE JEWISH TO LOVE LEVY’S;
I KNOW YOU HAVE A HEADACHE, BUT DON’T TAKE IT OUT ON HER; LIKE A GAL NEEDS A GUY, LIKE AN X NEEDS A Y, LIKE ALMOST ANY FOOD NEED RITZ.
I want to know who invented Select-A-Size? When? Why?
And when did Brawny come up with their competitive Tear-A-Square? Which is not bad. Poetry in motion.
Last night, with a lull in my schedule, I wrote an email to Procter & Gamble, the parent company of Bounty.
I acknowledged that in such dismal times my question might seem frivolous, but asked if they could supply the answer. I received an immediate auto-response.
If I was a journalist with an urgent deadline… but if not…
Since I was in the latter category, I did not expect a response.
But still I woke up in the middle of the night to check my email, just in case they had written back.
I imagined a P&G archivist/historian of all paper products, alone in a huge building, responding with precision and thoughtfulness to my query. Alas, still no reply.
Consumerism is one of the glories and curses of capitalism.
We have so much. Too much. Not a new concern. Impossible to tackle now.
It is clear that if we are smart, we will live with less.
But what is less and for who?
Where am I left?
Clinging to hope. Is that a new product?
One of our family mottos is
EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.
FROM BAD COMES GOOD.
In case you think we are simplistically naive, the end of the slogan is:
FROM GOOD COMES BAD.
Same as it ever was.
Wait! I am amazed to report that I have just heard back from the family-care communications manager.
Her emails were very congenial. She wrote, “Our Bounty Select-A-Size product was introduced in 1991/1992 in an effort to meet consumer demand for a better product. This improved product enabled consumers to use a smaller sheet to get the job done.”
A team worked on it, she did not know who came up with the name (though was happy to hear I liked it), and diplomatically declined to answer the question about Brawny, the competition.
So the consumers demanded. No one foisted it upon us. Now I understand why it is so brilliant.
The brain is a little like the paper towel roll, selecting a size to get the job done. Sometimes I can select a big problem and tackle that. And other times, I select a smaller-size problem and wipe that up in no time.
Maira Kalman is an illustrator, author, and designer. She has created many covers for The New Yorker, including the famous map of Newyorkistan (created with Rick Meyerowitz). Ms. Kalman’s thirteen children’s books include Max Makes a Million, Stay Up Late, Swami on Rye, and What Pete Ate. Her most recent book for adults is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated.