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Embarrassing, Uncomfortable and Risky: What Flying Is Like for Passengers Who Use Wheelchairs

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Charles Brown has always loved flying. He loves the steady roar of the engine beneath him as the plane rises high above a shrinking ground, turning houses into small blocks of color and cars into floating specks of light below.

Mr. Brown’s passion evolved from building model airplanes as a child to training in aviation ordnance when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1985. His military career was cut short a year later, when he hit his head diving into a swimming pool and injured his spinal cord, resulting in incomplete paralysis of his arms and legs.

He now uses a wheelchair and, because of his disability, finds flying to be a risk.

“When I fly nowadays, it literally is a moment of, ‘OK, what do I have to do to get through this day without getting injured more?’” Mr. Brown explained.

On his first flight after his injury, Mr. Brown got a concussion during the landing; he couldn’t stay upright, and his head slammed into the seat in front of him. On another flight a few years ago, two airline employees dropped him — it was a hard fall — while lifting him into a special aisle wheelchair. He shattered his tailbone and spent four months in the hospital afterward, battling a life-threatening infection.

There’s also the worry of what will happen to his $41,000 wheelchair when it is loaded and unloaded from the plane. The wheelchair, custom designed to fit Mr. Brown’s body, prevents pressure sores. Without it, he could risk another potentially life-threatening infection.

It’s not uncommon for airlines to lose or damage wheelchairs. In 2021, at least 7,239 wheelchairs or scooters were lost, damaged, delayed or stolen on the country’s largest airlines, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report. That’s about 20 per day.

Because of these risks, many people who use wheelchairs say flying can be a nightmare.

Even on a flight that goes smoothly, Mr. Brown endures multiple indignities from the moment he arrives at the airport to the moment he leaves, he said, largely because of a lack of accessibility for people with disabilities.

Much of this could be avoided, he and other advocates argue, if airplanes and airports were designed to accommodate passengers who use wheelchairs. And while the Department of Transportation recently published a bill of rights for passengers with disabilities, the initiative was a summary of existing laws and did not expand the legal obligations of the airlines.

To get a firsthand glimpse of the difficulties faced by passengers who use wheelchairs, The New York Times documented Mr. Brown’s experience on two recent American Airlines flights from Palm Beach to San Antonio, with a connection in Charlotte, N.C. Here’s a step-by-step visual diary of what we saw.

Mr. Brown arrives and meets his travel companion outside the Palm Beach International airport at 7:25 a.m., three hours before his first flight of the day. (He usually arrives early, he said, because every step of the process takes longer for him.) As he makes his way inside, he stops to fist-bump the airport employees who bring his luggage to the check-in counter. Mr. Brown, the president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, flies frequently for his job and has befriended several Palm Beach airport employees, who are intimately familiar with his needs.

Most check-in counters tower above Mr. Brown, who must lean across the luggage scale to tell an employee that his custom wheelchair weighs 416 pounds — information that he already filled out on a form when he booked his ticket last week. Mr. Brown also checks a shower wheelchair, a medical bag and a second bag of luggage.

The security line, a snake of belt barriers that Mr. Brown bypasses because he cannot easily go through it, is quiet and completely empty this morning.

Mr. Brown gets personally screened by a Transportation Security Administration agent every time he flies. He stretches his arms out as an agent pats him down, running his hands along Mr. Brown’s back, collar, arms and thighs. The agent then swabs his hands, shoes, thighs, the back of his chair and the chair headrest for substance testing.

Today, Mr. Brown said, the agent did a good job. In the past, he has had agents who demanded he lift his legs or lift his body so that they could pat his butt — both actions that Mr. Brown cannot perform because of his disability. Once, after complying with two full-body pat-downs, Mr. Brown got an impossible request from an agent.

“They said, ‘Now I need you to stand up.’ I said, ‘That ain’t happening,’” Mr. Brown recalled. He had to call for a supervisor to resolve the situation.

Roughly 40 minutes after Mr. Brown arrived at the airport, he reaches his gate. He drinks some water and takes his medication.

Normally, Mr. Brown says, he would not drink water before a flight, because many airplane bathrooms are inaccessible to him. Planes with two aisles are required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to have at least one accessible bathroom on board, but planes with only one aisle — which have been used more frequently for long-haul flights in recent years — are not required to have an accessible bathroom.

Today is an exception to Mr. Brown’s no-water rule, though, because he recently had a kidney stone. Because he cannot use the bathroom on the plane, he is using a Foley catheter — which can increase his risk of getting hurt when he is carried and transferred by employees.

On previous flights, Mr. Brown has had to go to the bathroom into a bottle as he sat in his airplane seat, with blankets thrown on top of him, he said.

More and more passengers arrive at the gate, some of them consuming snacks or packaged breakfasts. Mr. Brown refrains from eating; he can’t risk needing to use a bathroom on the flight. He hasn’t eaten anything since 1 p.m. yesterday.

Forgoing food and water for hours before a flight is a common practice among travelers who use wheelchairs and cannot access the bathroom.

When it’s time to board, Mr. Brown must again tell airline crew members how heavy his chair is and how many people he needs to lift him onto an aisle chair — a special, small wheelchair that can fit into an airplane’s narrow aisles.

He repeatedly asks one crew member to put his wheelchair’s headrest into his suitcase and goes over instructions on how to fold up and stow his wheelchair safely. The crew member doesn’t seem to understand him, and eventually someone else steps in to help.

Mr. Brown enters the jet bridge before any other passengers. This gives him privacy during his transfer onto the plane — the part of traveling he worries about most. One drop or slip could mean serious injury.

Today, two managers are watching. This is unusual, he said. He tucks in his Foley catheter and raises his arms in anticipation. On the count of three, one airport employee grips his chest and the other lifts under his thighs to smoothly shift him into an aisle chair. In midair, Mr. Brown’s legs begin to spasm.

Mr. Brown is wheeled, backward, 13 rows to his seat, then positions himself for another transfer. His arms and legs dangle for a moment — during which he watches an armrest graze under his thighs and braces himself for any possible outcome — before he is safely put down again on a special cushion he uses to help prevent pressure sores when he flies.

During the two-hour flight, Mr. Brown jerks with movement every minute or two. His legs splay outward, spilling his right knee into the aisle and causing his hips to hurt. (He always gets assigned a seat by the aisle, not the window, because it’s easier for crew to lift him into those seats.) In his custom wheelchair, there are pads to hold his legs in place. On the airplane, the best substitute he has are his hands, which he constantly uses to readjust his legs and push them inward. By the end of the flight, he rates the pain level in his hips as a 2 or 3 out of 10, comparing it with a nagging headache.

Just before landing, Mr. Brown rams his right arm against the seat in front of him and presses with effort as the plane lands with a thud. He is trying to stop his head from lurching forward into the hard plastic seat.

It was a harsh landing — the kind a pilot in the Navy or Marine Corps would probably make, he says with a smile, but definitely not someone from the Air Force.

As other passengers leave the plane, suitcases and bags of all sizes and colors roll past Mr. Brown, some occasionally hitting his knee. He and his travel companion are the last to deplane; they’re waiting for airline crew to bring his custom chair to the jet bridge — something that airlines are required to do if passengers have requested it.

Mr. Brown doesn’t want to leave his seat and get into an aisle chair until he knows his custom wheelchair is ready for him at the jet bridge; if he spends more than 20 minutes in an aisle chair, he says, he’s likely to get pressure sores. Sometimes, though, he has been forced to sit in an aisle chair for nearly an hour while he waits for crew to find his wheelchair.

Cleaning crews have already come through — vacuuming, wiping down seats and picking up trash. Airline crew repeatedly ask Mr. Brown if he will get off the plane, even though his chair isn’t ready. The staff are under pressure to board the plane for the next flight. Eventually he relents, even though his custom chair still isn’t ready.

The two gentlemen lifting Mr. Brown for the transfer out of his airline seat seem hesitant, as if they’re afraid to hurt him. He tries to tell them to hold onto him tightly and reflectively takes a defensive position, tucking his shoulders and hands inward to protect himself.

The workers don’t quite lift him high enough, causing him to bump the raised armrest and be partially dragged into the aisle chair, landing with a dull thump. The straps on the chair to hold his feet in place don’t seem to be working properly, so a crew member refastens them three times.

Mr. Brown is pushed out of the jet bridge in front of a crowd of passengers waiting to board the plane for the next flight, which is now boarding later than expected. Some look exasperated, others tired; many are staring at him. As he wheels past, one stranger mutters, “Chaos.”

About 10 minutes later, employees bring Mr. Brown’s custom chair to the gate and start transferring him in front of a crowd of passengers.

“It’s frustrating,” he says. “I’m not going to say ‘embarrassing’ anymore because I’m just over that. But it is kind of embarrassing, especially if your pants are hanging off your bottom.” He’s had his pants fall down during public transfers before.

This time the men switch places, with the stronger man lifting Mr. Brown’s chest. They complete a better transfer. An airline worker at the check-in counter soon notices the commotion and comes over to apologize to Mr. Brown about the lack of privacy.

Mr. Brown has a two-hour layover in Charlotte and is supposed to board his 2:45 p.m. flight to San Antonio, which is scheduled to land at 4:42 p.m. As he waits, his stomach is starting to get “shaky,” he says.

Just before the flight is supposed to board, the gate agent announces that there is a delay. The flight will now depart at 4:30 p.m. and land at 6:30 p.m. But, with the time it takes to deplane and get to his hotel, Mr. Brown doesn’t think he can make it until after 8 p.m. to eat again.

At 2:16 p.m., he finally bites into a Snickers bar. It has been 25 hours since his last meal. Just before he boards his next flight, Mr. Brown also eats a cup of pretzel bites from Auntie Anne’s and strikes up a conversation with a fellow Marine who’s waiting at the gate. They trade stories and discuss where they were stationed.

As the flight prepares to board, airline crew wheel three elderly women on regular airport wheelchairs — the type of chair intended for use by those who can’t walk long distances — down the jet bridge to board the plane first. Then, regular passengers start to crowd around the check-in gate. A family with a baby stroller checks in and starts walking to the jet bridge. Amid the commotion, Mr. Brown seems to have been forgotten entirely.

Mr. Brown starts to get upset with the check-in agents. The Department of Transportation stipulates that disabled passengers who need additional time or assistance to board the airplane must be allowed to board first. Further guidance says that, if possible, airline crews should avoid transferring someone from an aisle seat to a plane seat in front of other people.

Soon after he complains, Mr. Brown is quickly wheeled down the jet bridge, shaking his head in frustration and disbelief at a supervisor who insists she did nothing wrong.

In preparation for his second flight, two men strongly and swiftly transfer him to his aisle chair and then to his seat in a blur of motions that leaves Mr. Brown breathing heavily afterward.

Mr. Brown’s body becomes a physical hurdle of sorts for another passenger who tightly squeezes past him and steps over his legs to get to the window seat. (His travel companion was seated between them.) Mr. Brown looks uncomfortable, but, unable to move out of the way, he’s stuck.

He tries to nap on the second flight but has to rouse himself from his sleep to shove his legs back into a straight position and stop his knees from poking out.

The second landing is smoother, but the plane still rattles and shakes as it slows down. Mr. Brown’s arm is once again outstretched against the seat in front of him as he tries to hold himself steady, but there’s a shake of exhaustion in his elbow now.

People start deplaning at 6:50 p.m., and one person thanks Mr. Brown for his service on the way out. Mr. Brown nods and pushes his knee in as people walk by, trying to avoid being bumped by suitcases. Soon after the plane empties, a crew in bright yellow vests starts to clean up around Mr. Brown.

At 7:10 p.m., his custom chair is ready for him in the jet bridge. Mr. Brown has another smooth transfer onto the aisle chair, but he is placed down a little crooked, so an airline crew member has to hold his knees to make sure they don’t bump every seat on the way out.

Amy Lawrence, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, said in an email that the company is focused on ensuring a positive experience for those with disabilities.

In response to complaints of negative incidents while flying, she wrote: “In recent years, we’ve placed a particular focus on giving our team members the tools and resources they need to properly handle and track customers’ mobility aids, and we’ve seen improvement in handling as a result.” One such effort, she said, was the introduction of wheelchair-specific bag tags on all flights; the tags can improve the tracking of mobility devices and make it more clear what the features of each device are.

Mr. Brown goes to pick up his luggage, then finds out from an airport worker that the San Antonio airport doesn’t have any porter service available to help him carry his shower wheelchair, carry-on suitcase and two large checked bags to the car. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to assist disabled passengers with carrying their checked luggage if needed, but people with disabilities complain that, in practice, often either it isn’t provided or they can’t find someone to help them.

Erin Rodriguez, a spokeswoman with the San Antonio International Airport, said that all airlines provide assistance to people with wheelchairs, including helping with their luggage, at no charge. She added that the airport has phones throughout the terminal for travelers needing immediate or after-hours assistance.

The sun is setting, casting the sky pink beneath big, dark clouds as Mr. Brown maneuvers out of the cool airport into the humid Texas heat. (In the end, his travel companion helped him with his luggage; it would have posed a considerable challenge if he’d had to handle it on his own.)

At 7:38 p.m., he easily maneuvers up a ramp into a waiting car that, unlike the planes he just rode, is specially designed to accommodate his wheelchair.

In early July, Paralyzed Veterans of America filed a formal complaint against American Airlines on behalf of four members of its organization, including Charles Brown. Mr. Brown’s inclusion was based on his experience on the flights The Times documented in May. American Airlines did not immediately return request for comment regarding the complaint.


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Margaret Atwood Offers Her Vision of Utopia

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Margaret Atwood is one of the world’s foremost writers of dystopian literature, having imagined such worst-case horrors as a theocracy that forces fertile women to bear children for the rich (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and a bioengineered virus capable of eradicating humankind (“Oryx and Crake”).

But she is also a profound optimist and pragmatist. Despite real-life calamities like the worsening climate crisis and social inequality, Ms. Atwood often dreams of better futures. Shortly before she turned 83 last month, she taught an eight-week course, “Practical Utopias,” on Disco, an online learning platform in Canada.

About 190 students from 40 countries imagined how to rebuild society after a cataclysmic event — say, a pandemic or rising sea levels. Proposals for “real, better living plans that could actually work” (and “not sci-fi epics or fantasies,” the syllabus stated) included amphibious houses built on stilts, high-end cuisine from food waste, and lowering the voting age to 14 to bolster democracy.

Ms. Atwood, who taught the class from her home office in Toronto, surprised students by submitting her own vision for a post-apocalyptic community, called Virgule (“after the French word for comma, indicating a pause for breath,” she said).

In the interview below, which was conducted over Zoom and email, and has been edited, the professor of Utopia gave more details on Virgule and on her class.

Where is Virgule?

Virgule is situated in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, Canada, where my grandfather, a country doctor in the early part of the 20th century, once had an apple farm. So I know what you can grow there and I know about the weather. Blizzards in the winter, with a lot of snow, though it doesn’t get ultracold.

How many people would live there?

Virgule is a planned community for 20 families. I moved into a planned community when I was 8, though the contractor had vanished with what remained of the money and my dad had to finish the inside of the house himself.

What types of homes would be built there?

I chose Dome Homes, made by inflating giant balloons and spraying the outside with a liquid compound that hardens, because they are cheap to build and also fast; and because they provide superior insulation, making them cheap to heat. Although earlier ones used concrete and polystyrene, they can now benefit from a new carbon neutral-to-negative kind of cement made from algae.

What would Virgulians eat?

Virgulians don’t eat meat, but they will have a flock of sheep or goats, for the milk and cheese, and a flock of free-range hens. Cooking would be mostly by induction, keeping costs low. Virgulians will have allotment gardens for basic vegetables and fruit, which will have geothermically heated greenhouses. They will have access to fish and shellfish from the Bay of Fundy — locally fished, as large commercial fishing will be limited and marine parks will increase fish populations.

What would people wear?

I have high hopes for clothing exchanges, making garments over and Japanese artistic mending — also for mushroom leather and algae fabrics. Hemp is very durable and so is linen; a plus is that you can eat the seeds of both.

Tell us more about mushroom leather.

Mushrooms are of great interest to a lot of people right now because, as it turns out, you can make building blocks out of them, you can make coffins out of them, you can make packaging out of them, you can make clothing out of them, you can make shoes out of them. An interesting book is called “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake.

How about basic needs like sanitation and health care?

Just as former villages housed their preachers, Virgule will house a plumber and an electrician, who will be worshiped like gods. This is a figure of speech, but it’s not such a joke if you think about it. Virgule will also have a doctor and a nurse practitioner. Everyone will take a first-aid course and, starting at the public school level, everyone will learn conflict resolution, anger management and elementary carpenter skills.

What happens if someone gets sick?

For more serious conditions, major surgical operations and the like, a trip to a larger metropolis will be necessary. Old folks, when able, will reside in their own Granny Domes within the community. Corpse disposal will be via a respectful composting process.

What kind of government do you envision?

Virgule is a community, so I expect they will vote. To prevent tyrants, the community is divided in two. Each half rules for a year. So they will have to enact laws while they are the rulers that will benefit them when they are the rules. Is this looking like the Quakers, or possibly the Oneida Community? Sort of.

How will gender roles be treated?

Gender preferences will be respected, but not fetishized. Will there be marriages? Open question, but I expect so, in one form or another.

The class featured diverse guest speakers including Dave Eggers and the Canadian senator Yvonne Boyer.

I’m very much not the sage on the stage who knows everything. When you have a mix of people who have been out in the world and know different stuff that is out in the world, you come into learning with a different slant. I’m a person with the same questions everyone else has, so everybody is learning from everybody else. It’s not a one-way street. It’s about a 17-way street.

And the students came from different backgrounds.

One of the most amazing things about the group we gathered is that their ages are all the way from 18 to 80. You wouldn’t find that in an ordinary academic institution. But that is actually the way our species worked for a long time — young people learning from older people, and from other kids. I learned from our fellows and participants because they actually know more than me.

Anything you wish the class had covered in more detail?

Nobody really wanted to delve into prisons and law enforcement. Why? Those are unpleasant topics. We like to think that in our practical utopia, things will go so well that criminality will be beside the point. But if the Disco team decides to do the program again, we might request a bit more planning around that because there would be transgressions of some kind, or we wouldn’t be human.

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Is Your Fireplace Ready for Winter?

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If you’re lucky enough to have a wood-burning fireplace, cold weather comes with a silver lining: an excuse to build a roaring fire.

“Fire becomes this really amazing focal point for a room, whether it’s traditional or modern,” said the New York-based interior designer Thom Filicia. “There’s just something poetic, sexy and inviting about gathering around a fireplace.”

But before you build that first fire, make sure you’re ready. That means not just decorating the mantel — which, of course, steals attention during the holidays — but choosing the right tools and accessories to ensure that your fireplace looks good and works well. We asked Mr. Filicia and other designers for advice.

Not all fireplaces are attractive. In older homes, some have beaten-up mantels and damaged surrounds; in newer homes, they may not have much personality. In either case, a simple change — or a few tweaks — can give a fireplace a new look without tearing everything out.

While you could remove your mantel and replace it with a new one, it’s not always necessary. Never underestimate the power of paint. When Mona Hajj, an interior designer based in Baltimore, Md., was working on a home in Washington, D.C., her clients found the wood mantel in their dining room “so dark and depressing,” she said, that they asked her to scrap it.

But she could see that it was a quality piece, and when she coated the mantel and the surrounding walls in off-white paint, it transformed the look from forbidding to fresh. “It just softened that area,” Ms. Hajj said.

Mr. Filicia used a similar approach while renovating an old colonial-style home in Greenwich, Conn. Instead of white, though, he painted the mantel a dark aubergine and coated the room’s walls and trim in the same color, so nothing stood out. “You simplify it by doing everything in this one beautiful, rich color,” he said. “It turns all of the architecture into texture.”

Changing the surround rather than the mantel can also give your fireplace a new personality. When Amanda Jesse and Whitney Parris-Lamb, the founders of the Brooklyn-based interior design firm Jesse Parris-Lamb, renovated a brownstone in Park Slope, they encountered tired fireplaces that had surrounds of damaged subway tile within attractive original mantels. Rather than replacing the damaged tile with something similar, they chose more distinctive, contemporary tile: a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern from Balineum for one fireplace and a russet-colored floral pattern from Neisha Crosland for another.

“Changing out the fireplace surround is a nice way to update it while still respecting the history of the house,” Ms. Parris-Lamb said.

A pair of andirons or a fireplace grate is critical to help get air under logs and keep them from rolling out onto the hearth. But choosing the right ones is not only about functionality.

“It’s the jewelry. It adds a little character,” said Victoria Hagan, the New York-based interior designer. “I love searching for special and unusual andirons.”

Sometimes it’s the first purchase she makes when furnishing homes for clients, she said, “because it’s the focal point” — not just of the fireplace, but of the room.

Ms. Hagan favors vintage andirons and coordinates them with the period and style of each home, from curly wrought-iron pieces for a casual, colonial-style home to weighty brass ones topped by heavy ball finials in a formal space.

Others opt for more playful designs. When Gary McBournie and Bill Richards, the married partners of the Boston-based interior design firm Gary McBournie Inc., were accessorizing a fireplace on Nantucket, Mass., they chose anchor-shaped andirons.

“An anchor is about as cute as we get,” Mr. Richards said, adding that they like the contemporary andirons made by John Lyle, who crafts models with anchors, fish, stars, human figures and other sculptural elements, as well as more traditional English designs from Jamb.

You could buy a set of matching fireplace tools with a stand that sits on the hearth, but Ms. Hajj and Ms. Hagan prefer a more minimalist approach: They limit the number of tools — often using a single poker or a pair of fireplace tongs — and simply lean the tools against the mantel when they’re not in use.

“I don’t typically like tools in a stand,” said Ms. Hagan, who considers it too formal. “I like them casually placed at the fireplace.”

She buys tools with the longest handles she can find because they tend to be more elegant and are easy to use from a safe distance.

An ash shovel is also helpful for cleaning up after the fire has gone out, but it doesn’t have to be stored near the mantel, so it needn’t match the other tools. “I actually find the shovels awkward,” Ms. Hagan said. “Personally, I prefer a dustpan.”

If your fireplace doesn’t have built-in doors or metal-mesh curtains, a fire screen that will prevent sizzling logs from spewing burning embers into the room is essential. There’s a wide range of designs available — from flat-panel models that nearly disappear when in use, to folding ones with multiple panels and those that curve out into the room, which often look more traditional and provide easier access to the fire.

Whichever style you choose, the most important thing is to use one that matches the size of the firebox opening. If it’s too small, it won’t do its job; if it’s too big, it will look awkward.

“We see a lot of fire screens that are too small or too big, and it looks kind of like the fireplaces are wearing the wrong size clothes,” Ms. Parris-Lamb said. She and Ms. Jesse often order screens in custom sizes from Wm. H. Jackson Co. or Etsy vendors.

Most fire screens are made with a metal mesh, but glass models are becoming more popular. They offer a clear view of the fire, and can block some of the heat — which may be desirable or not, depending on the room.

That was Mr. Filicia’s goal when he designed one dining room with a fireplace. “We chose a glass fireplace screen that almost perfectly fits in the space, so it deflects a lot of the heat,” he said. “It makes it so that when you’re sitting at the dining table, you’re not overwhelmed by the fire. That was really important.”

To keep the fire going, you’ll need logs at the ready — and somewhere to store them. Many manufacturers make special metal racks and leather slings for holding a few logs by the hearth, but almost any large-scale, good-looking container will do.

Mr. McBournie and Mr. Richards usually search out big, sturdy baskets woven from natural materials. “Typically, we’ll have a large basket that can hold at least a day-and-a-half’s worth of firewood,” Mr. Richards said.

Ms. Hajj uses a big Moroccan copper urn in her own family room and has bought similar copper buckets for clients’ homes. “I always try to get these big buckets,” she said.

A bonus: The buckets capture dirt and wood shavings that fall off the logs, keeping the mess off the floor.

“There is a sort of primal interest in fire. It’s an attraction,” Mr. Richards said. “That means people are going to want to sit by it.”

To create the coziest spot in the house, Ms. Hajj likes to put a big, comfortable chair or chaise longue right next to the fireplace.

Ms. Hagan has designed rooms with upholstered stools that sit directly in front of the hearth, a couple of feet from the flames. “It’s a nice place to sit,” she said. “It’s very cozy during the winter.” And in the summer, the stools can easily be moved elsewhere.

In a Brooklyn rowhouse, Jesse Parris-Lamb placed thick, tasseled floor cushions near the fireplace. “It’s nice to have some kind of ottoman, stool or floor cushion close to the fire, so you can cozy up,” she said.

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I’m Having an Operation to Lose Weight. Do I Have to Tell People?

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The exploitation you’re describing is obviously wrong, even if the inequitable circumstances that prompt the wrongdoing are also morally wrong. But these are cases in which authorities have already reviewed the evidence and decided that an applicant is eligible for permanent residency; it isn’t apparent why they should revisit their determinations on the word of a third party who has no independent access to the facts.

The self-petitioning provision you refer to has a compelling rationale. Noncitizens who are victims of domestic violence or cruelty can be particularly vulnerable: They may not know English or be familiar with American laws, and they may fear deportation if they seek help. But the authorities are well aware that the system can be abused. While these petitions have substantially increased in the past several years, so has the number flagged as potentially fraudulent. The Government Accountability Office, which conducts audits and evaluations for Congress, has asked the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to develop an anti-fraud strategy, and the agency has undertaken to do so. The objective is to try to protect victims of abuse without encouraging wrongful claims against the innocent — no easy thing to calibrate. The mills of bureaucracy grind slowly, but they do grind.

What you can do, though, is to make sure that your correspondents seek assistance from law enforcement if they are being assaulted. Nothing prohibits the authorities from investigating if the victims themselves are able to report evidence of their mistreatment.

I wrote a book and self-published it through Amazon, which lets the author mask that fact by listing a faux publisher on the title page. My first question is whether using the identification of a faux publisher is ethical. My second one concerns the following incident. In a local bookstore I inquired about leaving some copies of my book on consignment. The owner agreed. As I was leaving, he asked who my publisher was. Knowing that some bookstores don’t like to sell self-published books, I named my faux publisher. Was my answer ethical? Name Withheld

Vast numbers of self-published books appear each year, often ornamented with the names of fanciful presses. The practice isn’t really troubling. Had you chosen a vanity publisher instead, they would have decorated your book with a grand name that, while referring to an actual commercial enterprise, would have been no more or less misleading. We can easily imagine invented names that would be deliberately deceptive: Random Home, Farrah Strauss. But you’re not appropriating the cachet of an existing publishing house.

As for your exchange with the bookstore owner: Had he typed your putative publisher into a search engine (as I’ve just done), he would have immediately seen that it wasn’t a real entity. Anyway, self-published authors are going to be the ones consigning books on their own account. That you hoped to mislead him, though, puts you in the wrong. He may not see a big distinction between Kindle Direct Publishing, vanity presses and publishing outfits so obscure they have never appeared on his inventory lists. But even if he wasn’t seriously misled, he would have reason to wonder about your honesty. A personal inventory might be in order.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicists@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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