Friday, January 28, 2005



A friend of mine recently complained that her husband spends all his time in the basement, dreaming up useless inventions. “I wouldn’t mind so much if he came up with something that would sell,” she said, “but all these pointless contraptions are a waste of time.”
Boy, have I got a book for my friend. 101 Useless Japanese Invention by Kenji Kawakami contains photographs and descriptions of (you guessed it) 101 totally useless but fascinating inventions created by people who are determined to solve problems we don't have. According to the editors of the book, these inventions have – and I quote - "broken free from the chains of usefulness to enjoy the sublime liberation of the highly impractical."
This concept of coming up with answers for which there are no questions is so intriguing that the Japanese have actually built a philosophy of design around it called Chindogu. As far as I can tell, Chindogu means that while inventions can be created which are initially intended to solve real problems, in order to be truly Chindogu, these inventions must fail "heroically, magnificently and beautifully."
Chindogu, then, is the art of failing spectacularly.
Is this a great idea or what?
Some examples from the book include the Hydrophobe's Bathing Suit which allows the wearer to take a bath without getting wet, the Daddy Nurser which is a sort of double-cup bra-type harness designed to –quote - "let Dad experience the joy of motherhood," and the Duster Slippers for cats which are booties with tassels that feline household pets wear around the house to help chase dust bunnies out from under the furniture.
Is North America ready for Chindogu? Considering that we are the people who invented and embraced the "J"-cloth which was so much more than a paper towel, so much less than a rag, the umbrella-you-wear-like-a-hat, and Jiffy-pop, I believe that North America in not only ready for Chindogu, but is already on the leading edge of the movement, with examples of Chindogu that date back to the last century.
I give you the old-fashioned wood-and-metal instrument designed to simultaneously peel and core an apple, for instance. The idea behind this invention was that the user would insert an apple into the device, turn a crank, and the apple would be both peeled and cored at the same time. Given that it took a good deal longer to insert the apple and perform all the necessary actions than it did to take out a pocket-knife and do the same thing, the invention of the apple-corer/peeler indicates that our pioneering ancestors either had way too much time on their hands, or had a much under-appreciated sense of humor.
A more recent example of North American Chindogu is the so-called "leaf-blower", which is a motorized device using an internal combustion engine to blow leaves and dust off sidewalks and lawns. The engine sucks fuel like a racing car, pollutes like a truck, deafens the user, frightens pets for miles around, retails for the price of a small motorcycle, and is only slightly less efficient than a broom or a rake.
So for those of you who spend countless hours perfecting cat grooming machines, silver cleaners, vegetable choppers and aluminum can compactors, take heart. Failing heroically in your endeavors may not land you your very own informercial, but it will guarantee you a spot in the Chindogu hall of fame.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Guest Room,

When we were looking for a new home, one of the things that got our real estate agent really excited was the fact that the house she was showing us had a guestroom.
“Look,” she said, opening the door to a very nice bedroom. “Here is a lovely little room where your guests can stay. Isn’t it nice?” Well, sure it was nice. In fact, it was nicer that some apartments I have lived in. The closet alone could have been rented out as a bachelor.
Anyway, apparently buying a house with a guest room meant that we had somehow “arrived,” never mind the fact that in some 20 years of living in houses without guest rooms, what few overnight guests we hosted were perfectly happy sleeping on the roll-out bed in the family room.
But now we were ready. The real estate agent had been so excited about the guest room that we were starting to feel as if we were opening a bed-and-breakfast for visiting foreign dignitaries. We bought a four-poster bed for the guest room, and had a designer come in to create something called a “window treatment,” which actually looked very much like what I used to think of as “curtains.” (Small joke: what’s the difference between a window treatment and a curtain? About 300 bucks). Then we went to an antique store and paid more for a “primitive” Quebec nightstand than I paid for my first car, after which we drove all the way to a lighting store in Toronto so we could take out a second mortgage in order to buy a lamp for the aforementioned nightstand. The wallpaper we imported from France at a price that allowed the child of the importer to attend university, and the throw rug we put on the floor next to the bed was hand made by a group of Shaker women at a small commune in New Hampshire. It was the only rug the women made all year, and the income from the sale of the rug bought the commune a new barn.
The painting we hung over the bed was the crowning touch, but by this time the bank was starting to make nervous noises using words such as “overdrawn” and “repossession,” so we had to settle for an original watercolour by someone who just paints an awful lot like one of the Group of Seven.
When the room was finally finished, it was just about the most perfect thing I have ever seen. Five star hotels in New York would have been envious. People would have paid to sleep in there. The duvet on the bed was as warm and fluffy as only the hand-picked down from 150 Avon swans could make it, and although no human head had yet rested on the pillows so lovingly enfolded in Italian linen, just looking at them was restful and calming.
With the room completed, ready to enfold any overnight guests in an embrace of soothing luxury, we closed the door as tenderly as one closed the bedroom door to the room of a newborn child. It was everything our real estate agent could have hoped for. We had even bought a leather-bound guest book.
Time passed. The children grew older. The guest room remained in its pristine condition since most of our friends live within easy driving distance and, with children of their own, are not inclined to stay overnight. Our children had plenty of friends for sleepovers, but the guestroom was absolutely out of bounds to small, chocolate-covered fingers and Play-Do stained pets.
Then one day we bought a new couch, and the inevitable happened. The question of what to do with the old couch was finally resolved by our reluctant decision to put it in what was suddenly no longer the “guest room,” but the “spare room.” I’m not when the demotion happened, but putting the ratty old couch into the “spare room” was not as painful as putting it in the “guest room” would have been.
The couch was the slippery slope. A few weeks after the couch it was the blanket box with the broken lid I hope to get around to repairing sometime after I retire. Then, a couple of months ago, we found the kids, their friends, our cat, and a dog we had never seen before, building a fort in the spare room.
That was the end of the guest room. After being a show-piece guest room, it became a sort of spare room/storage area/hobby room and children’s playground.
When we finally did have a guest come to spend night, he slept very comfortably on the fold-out bed in the family room.
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