The Only Gadget Gift Guide You'll Never Need
"Where'd you get that?" the kids are always asking. The answer, almost always, is "It came in the mail." Thank goodness for the PR industry, which fills a columnist's mailbox with all manner of clutter, nonsense and, very rarely, a jewel of innovation or creativity.
I take these items home for kid-testing, then pass them along to charities or the dump, depending on the merits of the product. Generally, the goods that flow in fall into four categories:
#1--Fleeting Fun, But You'd Never Pay For It Yourself: This year's primo example of this category is the Marshmallow Blaster and Blower, from the Marshmallow Fun Company. This bit of plastic has great Wow power, and short of the unbeatable comedy power of gravity, shooting things is the most surefire characteristic you'll find in a successful kid gadget. We are talking about a pump-action magazine that propels marshmallows up to 40 feet. Finally, here's a weapon Raw Fisher can endorse without a weasely waving of the United States Constitution. Kids have so few opportunities to shoot things at each other in this anti-fun era of maniacal parental supervision, in which parents insist on vetting the kids' every plaything yet turn around a few years later and turn a blind eye to oral sex and heavy drinking. Go figure. I enjoy a good opportunity to repeat the great Jean Shepherd line from "A Christmas Story"--"You'll shoot your eye out"-- as much as any parent, but come on, folks, these are marshmallows. Anyway, the problem is that they get sticky.
The first few shots--a grand success. Ten minutes in, the whole works get gummed up. And then the kids eat the marshmallows. All in all, a lovely afternoon. But would I spend $23.95 (MSRP)? Not a chance.
Category #2: The Interesting Idea That Bombs
This year's entry in this category is Story Blankets. Speaking of absentee parenting, get this idea: Instead of lying down with the little one and falling asleep in their bed, thereby wiping out that tiny window of adult time at the end of the long day, you could tuck a kiddie in under a blanket that also sings a lullaby and tells a story. No, really: This is a big fluffy duvet cover and comforter that has a big brick of a battery in it powering a three-minute-long sound and light show featuring 133 tiny LEDs and a tinkling tune that you activate by pressing a button in the blanket. Instant intimacy?
No, horrifying nightmare. The kids we tested this on were uniformly appalled or freaked. They called the thing creepy, sick and worse. "If the parent wants to abandon the child, fine, but don't stick them in a room with this thing," my son said. The Story Blankets come with several different story/music combos, including Princess, Kitty, Heroes and Space!
Category #3: The Totally Useless Concept That's Kind of Cool
So, if you want to barbecue, the way I see it, you either get a grill or do it the old-fashioned way, on the beach, in a sand pit. But no: The folks at Industrial Revolution Inc., decided that there is a need for a portable grill that fits in your pocket. I have it right here and it's well smaller than the keyboard I'm typing on. In fact, I just stood up and it indeed fits into my back pocket. And it is a working grill large enough to handle a few burgers and a few dogs all at once. It's a steel, fold-out contraption that in its closed form looks like a flute. I can't imagine anyone ever telling a loved one, "What I really need is a portable barbecue I can fit in my pocket," but when you see the thing, the $29.99 seems almost reasonable.
Category #4: The Amazing Device That Can Change Your Life
As I sit here typing this, I am in the process of unlocking 20 years of my life from its prison down in the basement. The hundreds of records--that dumb old technology that so fascinates my kids, who stand there watching the LPs turn around and around and around--that have been gathering dust since the dawn of the digital revolution are finally back in our lives, and while there are more than a few embarrassing, grim chapters buried down there (can you say "disco singles" or "Joan Baez" or "Foreigner"?) there are also a great many gems, and they're now slowly making their way into the computer and onto CDs, thanks to the LP to digital recording system that I got for the birthday (this one did not come in the mail, but was an actual voluntary purchase.)
The concept is simple--it's a regular old belt-driven turntable, with an output that plugs into your PC, and software that converts the sound into audio files, which you can then burn onto a CD or play through your media player. And the results, though it's slow going because you have to play the records in real time, are enormously gratifying. For years, when the kids asked if we had a particular song or artist, the response as often as not was, "Yes, but it's on record, in the basement." Now, those tunes are are accessible as anything we can click on. All those years of investing in records had seemed like such a waste for so long--but not anymore. If I sound like an infomercial on this one, I plead guilty. The thing is terrific.
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