Open Mike: Apex Products

["Open Mike" is the often off-topic, anything-goes Editorial page of TOP, wherein Mike scats and vamps and riffs off the top of his pointy head. When all is right with the world, it appears on Wednesdays.]


Thomas Riley Marshall, Vice President of the United States under Woodrow Wilson, was presiding over the Senate—one of the VP's duties in our country—when he was forced to listen one day to a litany of complaints from various Senators about what was wrong about America. When it came his turn to speak, he spoke a line that became famous: "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar."

The phrase, usually credited to Marshall, went on to be used by several generations of Americans to complain about anything that was overpriced or fancier than it needed to be.

Marshall, however, was probably quoting a line from the 19th-century humorist Kin Hubbard, the author of a popular cartoon that ran in newspapers from 1904 to 1930. The Senators were probably already familiar with it. Another line Kin Hubbard made famous was, "It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be," quoted later by Kurt Vonnegut in his novels Slaughterhouse-five and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.

Another of Kin Hubbard's many maxims might pertain to more than a few photo enthusiasts: "Boys will be boys, and so will a lot of middle-aged men."



I don't smoke cigars and never have, but, without ever thinking about it too much, I've always kinda liked the five-cent cigar thing. One reason might be because I'm a Hoosier* by birth, and Hoosiers cotton to cornpone. They like, or used to like, homespun, old-timey, good-natured down-home humor. And another might be because the notion of solid, unpretentious, middle-of-the-road, good-enough products, of whatever type, has a natural appeal to me on the level of idealistic principle. I like 'em. And I enjoy the task of finding that level.

So what level is that?

Products of all sorts by nature follow a bell curve, where the left side of the graph and the lead-in tail of the curve represents woefully insufficient quality and dolorous cheapness, and the far tail over at the right is excess, decadence, one-upsmanship, greed, naked status display, and the rubbing of one's neighbors' noses in the fatness of one's wallet. Both extremes are deplorable in my view of things. Both are unbalanced; both verge on the immoral; and both are traditionally un-American. I don't care for extremes. Just because something is good doesn't mean more of it is better. Seek the middle. Find balance.

It's raining, better get back inside

I'll give you an example. I saw a memorable interview on television once with a couple who were living in a dumpster. That is, the dumpster was their address; it was their domicile; it was where they slept and kept their things. As an abode, a human habitation, the dumpster had a few shortcomings. It was not big enough to stand up in, for one thing. It smelled bad, although the man informed the interviewer that "you get used to it." (I doubt many in the audience were eager to test that claim themselves, though.) Entry and egress were awkward. The roof—AKA the hinged plastic lid—did not keep rain out entirely, nor did it provide the ordinary security of even a screen door with a hook-and-eye on it.

Hook and eye

A hook-and-eye latch—too luxurious for a dumpster dwelling

And of course, passers-by regularly threw a varied mix of trash and garbage down on their heads, which the couple then had to remove and stack on the pavement in the alley next to the dumpster. I'm just guessing, but I'll bet the lack of a kitchen or a bathroom in the home was also a drawback.

At the end of the interview, it started to rain. The couple apologized that it was inconvenient for them to get wet, because they had no place to wash or dry their clothes. Thus they excused themselves. The camera and the television audience then watched as they climbed into their house and closed the lid.

Contrast this to where another couple lives: a 37,000-square-foot mansion with thirteen buildings, forty bathrooms, three complete kitchens, a movie theater, indoor and outdoor pools, a bowling alley, a sauna with massage tables, a 20,000-bottle wine cellar, six bars, twelve bedrooms (seven with adjacent sitting rooms), a meditation room—and so on; the list of all the features of the home is longer than it is interesting, but you get the idea—on 52 acres of meticulously manicured land. In this house, the servants' quarters occupy more square footage than, well, several average houses. (In 2015 the average American house had 2,687 square feet of living space, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That would be a pretty lavish apartment in New York City but smaller than you're allowed to build in some Midwestern housing developments).

Bell curve

Both of these examples, the dumpster and the estate, are beyond three standard deviations from the mean—one at one end, the other at the other. Neither are very satisfactory.

You might say one extreme is noxious, whereas the other is obnoxious.

Seek the middle way

At the apex of the bell curve might be, what, a good, solid, tidy 3,500-square-foot house, nicely constructed of good but not lavish materials, durable, safe, with one kitchen, three or four bedrooms, two and a half or three and a half bathrooms, and an attached two- or three-car garage, on a half acre or so of land maybe, in a nice, friendly, safe, and hopefully not too sterile or "Stepford-wife"** neighborhood. Affordable but not cheap; nice but not too nice; gracious but comfortable.

That or something near it would be the apex house, at least in the areas of the United States where I've lived, and according to my middle class, middlebrow values.

Of course, the apex of a bell curve is, sensibly speaking, a region, not a single point. For instance, if I were to pick the Fujifilm X-T3 as the apex product among cameras, it would perfectly sensible for you to pick a product a little to the left of it (a little more basic) or a little to the right of it (a little fancier) as your own nomination for the apex point. In automobiles, the apex product has long been said to be the Toyota Camry. Or these days, maybe it's a good mainstream small SUV like the RAV4. 

You get the concept. The point is that there's usually a segment of the line at the top of the bell curve where sufficiency is reached, economies of scale are optimized, decadence has not been breached, and the product (whatever it is) is utilitarian, not too precious, and not too difficult or expensive to maintain—a place where usability is optimized, reliability is good, resale value remains robust, and where enjoyment and pride of ownership on the one hand, and practicality and a decent modesty on the other, are in balance. That kind of product is the best kind if you ask me. Somewhere in the middle ranges, a balanced option, neither too much nor too little, nothing too extreme.

That was Kin Hubbard's good 5¢ cigar***, back when.


*Born in the state of Indiana

**Oh, how clever and cunning your humble host can be. The Stepford Wives is a 1972 sci-fi thriller novel by Ira Levin (who also wrote Rosemary's Baby and The Boys from Brazil) in which a woman moves with her husband to a suburban neighborhood and gradually discovers that all the other women there are submissive robots created by their husbands. The book was made into a movie twice, once in 1975 with Katherine Ross in the lead role, and again in 2004 with Nicole Kidman as the star.

So why is that sly? Well, the protagonist, Joanna Eberhart—in the book, at least (I haven't seen the movies)—is a photographer.  :-)

***Men a century ago clearly cared about their cigars. In his bawdy poem "The Betrothed" about a man who received an ultimatum from his wife to choose between her and his cigars—spoiler alert—the rascally but entertaining Rudyard Kipling, roughly contemporaneously with Thomas Riley Marshall's pronouncement in the Senate, had his character say, "...a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke."

Original contents copyright 2019 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.

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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)

Featured Comments from:

Matt (partial comment): "I feel like the best strategy is to look to the left at least one standard deviation for products you care very little about, and to move to the right at least one standard deviation for products you care a great deal about."

Al C.: "On the economic well-offness bell curve, I am now situated well to the right of apex. However, I was born and raised at slightly left of apex, which conditioned me lifelong to agonize over spending beyond +1 sigma, except, curiously, for the few big ticket items such as houses, cars, sound systems. For smaller items, including cameras, I have a hard time justifying paying more than five cents for cigars. Which, I have learned but not yet managed to correct, is often false economy, because, using cameras as examples, I end up churning through multiple good but not great apex purchases which in total cost more than if I had reached for the +3 sigma model in the first place. How many of us have a shelf (closet?) full of 'apex' cameras and lenses, gathering dust? Quality over quantity may be the better advice, and strategy. Besides, YOLO [you only live once —Ed.]."

Mike replies: Your cameras example was the subject of one of my more famous posts, "Letter to George" (2010).

Tom Duffy: "Didn't St. Thomas Aquinas say, 'Prudence is the mother of all the virtues'? Ironic since he's been described as very short and weighed over 300 pounds."

George Feucht: "Having grown up in Wisconsin with a lower-middle class background, I was absolutely raised to these same values and I would totally agree, but I've found a curveball: I moved to Los Angeles to go to school and ultimately become a cameraman. The idea of having a 3,500 square foot house here is laughable. That is far right side of the curve. The average house in my apex-of-the-curve suburb of Burbank is 1,400 square feet, three bedrooms, on a 7000-square-foot lot for about $800K. That is way left of your curve for size and way right of your curve for price. It's odd when I'm home for Christmas and tell my relatives that I'm in a house half the size of theirs but pay five times the mortgage. As for other indicators of where I like to live on the curve, I own a RAV4 and the previous middle-of-the-road camera standard: a Canon 5D."

Mike replies: I have a cousin who has a two-story house on a spacious lot about a block from the ocean in a place called Palos Verdes Estates in L.A. (He's in finance.) He said "It's a really nice house for L.A., but any place else, it's just a house."

[Author: Michael Johnston]

Tags: Books, Photography, Senate, New York City, America, Los Angeles, Indiana, United States, Nicole Kidman, Brazil, Wisconsin, Canon, Reflections, Rosemary, Marshall, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Johnston, Mike, Michael C Johnston, Matt, Burbank, Hoosiers, Woodrow Wilson, U S Census Bureau, Thomas Aquinas, Ira Levin, Tom Duffy, Palos Verdes Estates, Kin Hubbard, George Feucht, Thomas Riley Marshall, Rosewater Another of Kin Hubbard, Mike Born, Katherine Ross, Joanna Eberhart


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