Bratz versus Barbie versus Lilli

“Valley Of the Dolls,” by Jill Lepore. The New Yorker, 1/28/2018.

Many a mother has given her approval when her young daughter asks to go to the mall to get a new Barbie doll, but comes home with a Bratz doll. They are not the same. A Bratz doll is something the mother’s husband would chose.

Bratz, not Barbie.

Bratz dolls are bratty-looking, pubescent teenagers in over-the-top makeup: bright, pouty lipstick and huge doe-eyes, icy eye shadow, lip gloss, impossibly-long eyelashes, and cat eyeliner. They dress like wannabe hookers in come-hither clothes. Definitely not Barbie, but much like the girls I see in our mall. Bratz dolls are meant to show a lot of “sass.”

Bratz dolls are made by MGA Entertainment; Barbie dolls are made by Mattel. The trouble is, the designer of the Bratz dolls, Carter Bryant, 31 years old at the time, created them while he was working at Mattel by putting together pieces from the trash, although he claims he got the idea while on an earlier 7-month break. Bryant sold his idea to MGA Entertainment two weeks before he quit Mattel.

As is routine almost everywhere, Bryant had signed an intellectual-property agreement with Mattel that said everything he created during his employment with Mattel belonged to Mattel. Today, nine out of ten patents are owned by corporations, although they are the result of their employees efforts. Still, the corporations provided the creative environment and paid the patent expenses.

MGA Entertainment came out with four Bratz dolls in 2001, named Jade, Cloe, Yasmin, and Sasha, and sold $97 million worth of them. That is a lot of money. Everybody quickly sued everybody else, resulting in millions of dollars flowing to the lawyers, but no clear winner. A judge said, “The only thing wrong that I saw when I held Barbie is when I lift her skirt there is nothing underneath.” (This same judge resigned just last month after being charged by more than a dozen women of inappropriate behavior.)

Ironically, even Barbie is a not-very-subtle copy of an earlier German doll, Lilli, the title character in a tabloid comic strip. Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, bought more than a dozen Lilli dolls in 1956 while on a tour of Europe with her children Barbie and Ken (!) She shipped the dolls home and charged designer Jack Ryan with making an American Lilli. (He did not work hard.  I could not tell the dolls apart.)

Jack Ryan was briefly married to Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1975 to 1976. Ruth Handler called him “the world’s greatest swinger,” but did not say why.

Nine in ten American girls own at least one Barbie doll, so there could be more Barbie dolls in America than people. But we’ll never know. Pull her string and Barbie says, “Math class is tough.”

You can see how complex everything had gotten. And, it may not be over yet. Creativity occurs deep in the mind, and who knows what sparks it? A Supreme Court judge had said, “Virgil had borrowed much from Homer . . . and even Shakespeare and Milton . . . would be found to have gathered much from the abundant stores of current knowledge and classical studies in their days.”

As I pointed out in the posting on William Penn, a jury’s decision is above the written law.  The law may be very clear, and someone may have, just as clearly, violated that law, but a jury can exonerate the defendant if they think the law is unfair.  The ramifications of a case involving the young William Penn set this legal principle.

During a trial, the MGA lawyer asked Mattel’s CEO, “Say I am 18, doodling away. I place my doodles in my parents’ house in one of the drawers of my teen-age closet. Twenty years later, I am hired by Mattel. I visit my parents’ home and find the doodles. Does Mattel own them?”

Mattel’s CEO answered Yes, but the jury awarded MGA over $300 million in damages.  Clearly, there is still a variation of opinion, no matter what people sign when they are first hired.

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Barren Island

“Time Capsule, ” by David Owen. The New Yorker, 1/15/2018, “The Talk of the Town.”

Barren Island  (Google Earth)

Barren Island hangs down from Brooklyn and is not an island in the conventional sense. It is a desolate area with an abandoned airfield (Floyd Bennett Field, but still used as a helicopter base by the NYC police) and filled with debris from a neighborhood that Robert Moses leveled for a highway project in 1953. (Some call the island “the Scrotum of Brooklyn.”  Ugh!)

Barren Island was named from the Dutch word for bears, not for its desolation, but “barren” is appropriate.

Author Owen describes an NYU field trip to Glass Bottle Beach on Barren Island, named for all of the glass bottles exposed at low tide. The beach regulars are either illegal scavengers who sell what they find on eBay, or, as on the field trip, preservationists who see it as an archeological trove of early 1950s artifacts. (The beach faces aptly-named Dead Horse Bay, so there are no vacationers.)

Those on the field trip find many shoes half burred in the sand, all leather and showing wear, but virtually no sneakers. There were also discarded  adjustable metal roller skates, the kind that clamp onto a leather shoe sole (that kids don’t wear, anymore) and tightened with a skate key, very familiar to anyone of my generation.


Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates,
You got a brand new key.
I think that we should get together and try them out, you see.
Pop song released in 1971.  Sung in a child’s voice by composer Melanie.


The leader of the field trip once found a bottle of Stopette deodorant, one of the first deodorants and a sponsor of the TV show “What’s My Line,” also very familiar to me.

Being a responsible preservationist, she left the Stopette bottle where she found it.

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Tasting Spots

About a year ago, Nancy Leith Musser from our class sent me a Penn State hoodie. I love it! Hoodies are much more practical than I thought. They have a wide front pocket that can be reached from either side to temporarily hold almost anything or to just warm the hands. Then, there is the hood hanging from the back where it is out of the way but always available.

Recently, she sent me another, commenting I could now wash the first. She was exactly right. I eat most of my meals in the living room, in front of the TV. The original hoodie had become a summary of every meal I had in the previous year.

Now, with two, I can throw one in the wash anytime it needs it. But I taste the spots first. If they still have flavor, I will sponge them out with a little soap and water, but if they are so old they are hard and tasteless, I will throw the whole garment into the wash pile.  I have never found a spot that tastes bad, only old.

(Burp! Well, yum, that was a good year.)

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Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

I came across a click-bait article  on the Internet titled “40 Ways Your Body Changes After 40.” Clever title, but that was the only clever thought in the article.  It is probably gone by now. It was so obvious, I was embarrassed to admit being sucked in. Here are some of what they tell us (I won’t burden you with all 40):

Your wrinkles become more pronounced.
You experience more aches and pains.
It takes you longer to recover from an injury.
Your prostate grows [if you have one].
Hair loss becomes noticeable.
You sleep less.
It’s harder to lose weight.
You have more gray in your hair.
Your penis appears smaller [or your menstrual cycles go wacky].
Erections are not what they were.
You experience hearing loss.
You leak urine.
You get more distracted [actually, this was useful—for my wife, certainly not me].
It’s harder to get pregnant [the only good news they came up with].
Scaly, rough patches of skin can appear.
You experience changes in vision.
Your risk for health problems goes up.

This list does have some uses. It warns younger people (younger than 60) what they are in for. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a clue. Youth always assumes youth is forever.

I want to plug a somewhat related personal crusade, so far totally unsuccessful.  Many places who charge admission have a senior rate, but I want a super-senior rate for those over 75.  As I once told the people at the Philadelphia Art Museum, the museum is magnificent and well worth the charge, but after getting there, I only have stamina for about an hour.  Even their senior rate is too steep for an hour of anything.  And, any super-senior would have one or two regular customers paying full fare to bring them. The museum staff listened politely, but their eyes said they would do nothing.  And they haven’t.

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Ever and Anon

An extinct old phrase, ever and anon means “now and then,” with the implication of repetition and some frequency. (Anon alone means “in a short time.”)

I first came across “ever and anon” in Melville’s Moby-Dick (which I consider one of the greatest books of all time, a book I can read ever and anon and still find some new insight each time), but I understand the phrase  goes back to Shakespeare. The meaning is not intuitive and you have to look it up, as you must to understand Moby-Dick. Melville uses “ever and anon” ever and anon. Failure to understand just one word (apotheosis in Chapter 22) can miss the meaning of the entire chapter.

Many of us came across Moby-Dick as required reading in a high school English Lit. class, but it is a book for adults, not for  high school sophomores who think they already know everything and can skim through it and still get a passing grade.  The book should be read leisurely and thoughtfully. (Sometimes the title is written Moby Dick, sometimes Moby-DickStarbucks, the coffee chain, is named for Starbuck, the first mate on the Pequod.)

Ishmael says:

As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn . . .

The phrase appears again in a Biblical-rhythmed passage:

Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft deep dived into the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard . . .

Later, near the end:

Meantime, Fedallah [Ahab’s harpooner] was calmly eyeing the right whale’s head, and ever and anon glancing from the deep wrinkles there to the lines in his own hand . . .

I love old phrases and will do my part in bringing this one back. (My two sons are lucky I discovered the phrase late in life.  I would have named the first Ever and the next Anon.)

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“Infidelity,” by Zoe Heller. The New Yorker, Dec. 18 & 25, 2017. (Review of “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,” by Esther Perel.)

This is a very dangerous topic because readers will assume I am posting this for some sort of ulterior justification of my own actions. So, here at the beginning, I deny this. There, that’s over with. Believe what you want.

Swans have long been held as a species that bonds with their mate for life, an example humans should follow. But recently, some chronic philanderers have been found among even swans. No species, in fact, has proved to be totally loyal to their mates, certainly not humans. Infidelity is the norm throughout the animal kingdom. If swans can do it, why can’t we?

Author Perel suggests that denying infidelity will never solve the problem and leads to unnecessary heartache. A better way is by coming to a more compassionate accommodation of our unruly desires. The desire to stray is not evil, but human. Our judgmental attitude does not make us any less likely to transgress and keeps us from understanding why we transgress.

Traditional therapy relies on the enforcement of the monogamous pact, always siding with the faithful spouse, referred to as “the injured party,” while the other is “the perpetrator.” Infidelity is seen as a symptom of marital dysfunction. (I often watch “Cheaters.”)

I once knew a couple who I suspect had come to some sort of accommodation. He had been a naval officer and a pilot and she a stewardess. I never knew for sure, but they seemed to have found some sort of understanding and were happy living together within their own rules.

Perel thinks most of us have an excessive sense of entitlement and outsized expectations of what marriage can provide. And, we are too quick to look elsewhere to satisfy our needs. All this leads to inevitable disappointment. Women, especially, are under pressure to leave a cheating spouse and wallow in the “warm bath of righteousness.”

People often applaud long-married couples as if they have completed a marathon or survived cancer. But why should marriage be considered an endurance contest? Should we not stop fetishizing sexual exclusively?

“In the realm of the erotic,” Perel tells us, “negotiated freedom is not nearly as enticing as stolen pleasures.” Affections are not things, and people can never become possessions. Think otherwise, and you are only fooling yourself.

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The Death of Marel Harlow

I had a long brother-sister relationship with Marel Harlow. Our families were members of the Lansdowne Presbyterian Church, and our parents hoped we would someday marry, but that was not our relationship. I eventually married a Japanese-American, and Marel later married a Chinese-American. In those days before a change in immigration laws, Asians were very rare in America, and the combination was unusual for both of us. That alone would have brought us together over the years, but she died in 1971.

Recently, Nancy Leith Musser sent me this letter Marel’s husband sent to Nancy and Jim shortly after Marel’s passing, and I am posting it here to preserve it. I tried to faithfully copy his style.


400 Quentin Road
Stroudsburg, PA 18360
March 11, 1972

Dear [Nancy and Jim,]

With much sadness, I write you about Marel. She passed away on December 31, 1971.

As you may know, in July 1969 Marel had a kidney transplantation surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. Complications did develop after the initial surgery and three remedial operations were performed. But all were in vain, and finally the transplanted kidney had to be removed. Marel then started to use a kidney machine on the regular basis.

We got the machine in our home and operated it for about two years. Marel had gradually regained most of her physical strength and was able to enjoy fairly normal life. At the time she was discharged from the Hospital, we bought a house in Stroudsburg which Marel became quite fond of. She enjoyed planting trees and growing flowers and vegetables in the yard. She liked the mountain views surrounding our area and was getting to like the natural beauty of the Poconos.

During 1970 – 71, we regularly drove to Philadelphia and Marel received medical check-ups regularly at the Hospital. The doctors usually seemed quite satisfied with her progress. They and the nurses were very kind and helpful to her and took a special interest in caring for her.

The hemodialysis, although a very much involved procedure, did not pose much problem for us. Marel, as you know, was a very patient person and I, thanks to my background in laboratory training, was able to work with the machine very smoothly. Soon we developed a good teamwork in operating the machine.

Even though the treatment itself was going smoothly, the frequent use of the kidney machine imposed such a heavy strain on Marel’s heart that it simply could no longer endure. It happened very suddenly as she was getting off the machine after dialysis. The doctors at the Hospital told me she had a very acute heart attack.

On January 2 a memorial service for Marel was held in Stroudsburg. She will be placed to rest permanently in the family lot in Pretty Marsh, Maine this spring.  Marel’s parents are now living in Pretty Marsh, and I will go there probably next month for the committal service.

During nearly eleven years of our marriage Marel had always been a very devoted wife. In many ways she helped me and made me feel at home in this country. She kept our home with much warmth, and together we had a good life.

Marel liked working with people. She enjoyed helping students from abroad in particular. She cherished the kindness and friendship of many friends.

I continue to teach at East Stroudsburg State College. As you know, East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg are neighboring [indecipherable] in the scenic Poconos. Please stop by when you are this way. I would enjoy seeing you.

[signed] C. Y. Cheng


(The original letter is a Xerox copy with “Nancy and Jim” written in by hand. It is hard to believe her death was so long ago.  Nixon was serving his first term and had yet to visit China.  Elvis Presley was still alive.  Neither Apple nor Microsoft had yet incorporated. Marel once old me her name was invented by her parents as a contraction of Mary-Ellen.)

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