My Daddy was a gadget-lovin’ man. He’d see an ad for something in the back of, say, VFW Magazine, and pretty soon a parcel would arrive in the mail. There was the electric food dehydrator (our basement is a kind of shrine to Ron Popeil). One time he got a meat slicer that you stuck to the counter with suction cups; it didn’t cut any better than a knife, and took up a whole lot more room in the kitchen, but it was cool.
Gadgets fascinated Dad the way magicians did. He’d watch David Copperfield or Doug Henning vanish an elephant or jet airplane or the Great Wall of China, and he’d shake his head, marveling, “How did he do that?” (My mom, unswervingly sensible and straightforward, dislikes magicians for the same reason; she can’t figure out how they do it, and resents the feeling of someone putting one over on her.)
I have an early childhood memory of standing next to my Dad in some big department store, both of us transfixed by the smooth patter of an in-store demonstrator. The guy was shilling knife sets, but that’s not the show we were there to see. As a free gift with a set of these knives, you got a gadget. It consisted of a short, curved blade that pivoted on a metal skewer. He showed us how you stuck the skewer in a potato, then turned the blade around and around until you produced a perfect coil of a potato – a Slinky in starch form.
But wait! There was more! You also got a very special bonus gift: an orange plastic device with jagged teeth on one end and a spout on the other. The pitchman demonstrated how to plunge the sharpish end into an orange and then, with just a gentle squeeze of your hand, pour orange juice straight into a glass. That day we went home with a new set of knives, which we didn’t need, and these two gadgets, which we absolutely did.
One Christmas all us kids got a new-fangled digital watch (this was the early 80s) that played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” quite loudly on the hour. If you set them just right, you could make several of them perform the song in a round. I can still see my mother’s mortified face when one of them went off during the consecration at Midnight Mass.
The fact that these treasures invariably turned out to be something decidedly less wonderful than advertised never deterred my Pop. His eyes would still light up at every new doodad with the same optimistic zeal that compelled him to laboriously transfer “You could be a winner!” stickers from one piece of paper to another as part of the endless ritual of Publishers Clearinghouse mail-ins. He kept sticking stickers and mailing them in until Ed McMahon presented somebody else with the Big Check on TV. And the next year, he’d do it all again.
It’s possible I have inherited my Dad’s useless junk mania. Case in point: my new robot vacuum. (I’ve written about my complicated relationship with robots before.) I’ve been hankerin’ for one of these things since the first time I saw one on a late-night infomercial. Finally, after pining as long as I could stand it, I ordered one. It’s been sitting in the back of my car for several weeks, waiting for a propitious time to make its debut. I knew my mother would strongly disapprove, as she says on an almost daily basis, “Don’t you bring one more piece of junk into this house.”
Anyway, I brought the thing in on Saturday morning. As expected my mother was not pleased (perhaps because she’d spent the entire morning cleaning out a closet full of pieces of junk I’d previously brought into this house).
Full disclosure: the ostensible reason I bought this was to spare my 89-year-old mother the labor of having to drag out the heavy upright vacuum whenever the cats get into a tussle and leave tufts of black and orange fur on the beige carpet. The ACTUAL reason for the purchase was my desperate need to see these same cats riding the thing around the living room, like the videos you see on YouTube. I failed to remember, though, that those robot-riding Internet cats are robots themselves, or cunningly Photoshopped Chihuahuas – complacent and biddable in a way no real cat ever was.
The gizmo I bought is called an iTouchless. It’s a low-end model, because even I can’t justify paying $500 for a cat toy. I charged it up overnight and, after my riled mom had cooled down some, brought it into the living room on Sunday morning.
I set it in the middle of the room and let the cats circle it for a minute or so. They seemed interested, but not alarmed.
“Apparently people give these things names,” I commented to Mom as I thumbed through the manual, trying to figure out how to make the thing go. I envisioned something like “Jeeves” or “Giles” or “Alfred” – something butlerish – but Mom had a ready answer: “Lucifer.”
This was either a prescient choice or proof of the old adage, “We live up to the names we’re given.”
It was time. I hit the “On” button and the show started. First Lucifer lit up and emitted a series of R2-D2-esque beeps that are just about worth the cost of the machine all by itself. The cats were intrigued. Then it started to move in slow, concentric circles. The cats … were largely indifferent. They neither fled in terror nor tried to play with Lucifer. Instead, in the way that cats are with things they don’t give a damn about (which is most things, frankly), they turned their backs on it and pretended it didn’t exist. True, Peep had to move a few inches to the left when the thing tried to suck up his tail, but even that affront didn’t really upset him.
Well, shoot. At least we got a cool, new vacuum cleaner, though, right? Hm. The slogan on the box Lucifer came in says, “Let iTouchless do the work while you live your life!” Apparently, the iTouchless people define “live your life” as “hover over the robot vacuum at all times to prevent it from destroying the house.”
With the unerring precision we’ve come to expect from 21st century robotic technology, Lucifer carefully avoided every speck of link, wad of cat hair and brownie crumb it was designed to vanquish. Instead, it crawled under the easy chair and stalled, beeping pitifully, until I fished it out. Next it tried to mount the legs of the rocking chair (perhaps it’s just really lonely?) and I had to thwart that forbidden love affair before both parties were irreparably damaged (emotionally, if not physically; these things never work out).
After 30 minutes, Lucifer’s battery charge was expended and the carpet was … not much cleaner than it was before. Still, it had provided half an hour of mild amusement (for me, if not the cats), so I’d say it was worth it. Likely I’ll now find a place for it in that closet mom was cleaning and start casting about for the next can’t-live-without-it toy. (I have my eye on a robot lawn mower.)
I think my Daddy would be proud.