Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Invention Continued

"She became an independent, forgetful little soul, loving from her own centre."

"There was a life so different from what he knew it. What was there outside his knowledge, how much? What was this that he had touched? What was he in this new influence? What did everything mean? Where was life, in that which he knew or all outside him." - The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence.


The one line above is about a little girl, at the age of Elizabeth Bishop in her waiting room. The next is about a man in his 20s, rambunctious in his own curiosity, wondering what he's supposed to do to imagine himself into a new kind of world. But put them together, and you've again got me at seven, the crack-inventor trying to figure out his next big move after the conceptual success of "The Craneraser."

What was there outside this Craneraser? What was this that I had conceived? What did everything mean? Where was the next gadget, in me already or outside me to be discovered?

(And why was I such a forgetful little soul?)

My dad, who is himself still tinkering and whittling his way toward a space shuttle in his basement workshop, recognized my invention bug and bought me The Way Things Work. It was a fantastic book that seemed way over my head. I looked at it once to figure out how to make a radio, but real inventions seemed too practical, and had too many gears.

I was most attracted to magical inventions of the kind my cartoon character friends seemed to enjoy (Handy Smurf was quite ingenious), and I wanted to draw pictures of things and have them work automatically, widgets already churning as they rose up from the paper.

For awhile, draw and conjure is what I did, but even naivete turns to bitterness eventually. I saw that a blueprint of "The-Sister-Blotter-Outer," for instance, would not blotter-outer my sister, whose vast attitude was coming to dominate my life.

So, for the sake of solitude-from-sister, and for the sake of practicality, I re-engineered myself. No longer would I be an inventor. Architecture was the place for me--so, alone in my basement cove, I drew multi-level treehouses, built domed arenas with blocks, and sketched Starfleet Academy based on my extensive knowledge of intergalactic space.

(My design was better than this official drawing, and it set aside a special wing for Stellar Cartography. Obviously.)

From 8-13, floorplans were my creativity. At middle school, I took seven straight terms of Architecture, fizzling out only when we changed from pad and graph paper to computers in 1996 (counting out six graph paper squares, which represented six inches apiece, was a much more satisfying way to create a doorway than anything on the computer could be).

But my transition to architecture didn't mean that invention ideas disappeared completely. The most persistent--probably because I thought about it obsessively while I was trying to fall asleep during long, hot, eventless summers--was The Self-Cooling Pillow.

You've tried ice. You've tried opening the window. You've tried turning your pillow over, again and again. You've tried sleeping naked. You've tried desperately praying the heat away while gnashing your teeth. You've tried pacing insomniatically around your room, begging for sweet release. You've tried swallowing a reptile's cold blood. You've tried circulating fans.

Well, now, try no more. Sleep soundly, and coolly, with The Self Cooling Pillow. David Wanczyk's revolutionary new design uses a tank of freon, the power of gravity, and a network of tiny pipes to keep the temperature of your soft down...way down.

The problem with this invention was that it would retail for $9,000 and might cause extensive liver damage.

I held onto the idea for awhile, though, and consulted with others on possible upgrades to my admittedly rudimentary design. It wasn't an idea that dominated me, but it did seem that some time, far in the future, I'd be cashing in on it, so this signature invention tided me over for a long time, even as architecture faded as a creative outlet (The SCP, I see now, mixed my interests in Invention and Architecture; clearly, I outfitted all of the beds in my multi-level treehouses with self-cooling pillows, three graph paper squares by two).


At about 14, I'd have trouble sleeping because of my hot pillow, and trouble drawing treehouses because I'd pretty much exhausted all of the ways I knew how to put jacuzzis and bay windows on an Elm.

So sleeping and boredom inspired my faux-artistic growing up. Inventor--Architect--Writer.

When the "Night Court" reruns (and the phone sex commercials that came with them) got me down on those hot, eventless nights, I'd write flight-of-fancy stories about presidents and heists and Rome, all of which were nonsensical and thoroughly pun-based (Et Tu Brutal). And every night I stopped, satisfied, thinking that I'd pick up again in the morning to file away the rough edges of my obvious genius. But of course I never actually revised. I'd only start a new soon-to-be-aborted project about Robots in St. Louis during the 1 am "Mad About You."

And then start again. Because something active had to happen, something had to come from my media-asphyxiated nights.


Strangely, all my arttempts (to coin a word) were about planning. I'd draw blueprints in the hopes that an invention would spring from them full-formed, floorplans that anticipated future houses, and writing that called for some future reader, some future payoff. Crafts these were not. Not pots or silkscreen. They were all ways to jar me into a different way of seeing the world, ways to imagine a glassy-glamorous existence that had my name on it, and not John Larroquette's.

Ways to transform: they were mostly futile, and inspired by futility. But they started me doing what I do today, which is still, I hope, a little bit fanciful.

In essays now, I'm usually trying to reinvent The Craneraser by putting two or more elements together that don't belong--here, in case you didn't notice, D.H. Lawrence, inventions, my writing life (such as it is), what it feels like to be eight.

Sometimes the effect is the smeary, Forest-Green sun of noun-barf; but occasionally the abstraction might get pretty-strange, emphasis on the hyphen. And, either way, plotting out a more curious world is still great playtime.


Other inventions over the years:

1. The Washer-Dryer Combination in which wet laundry falls through a trap door and activates the dryer, forestalling the need to move wet clothes. I'm told this exists in Europe. I'm told it wouldn't work here. But I can only think that's because some people have unnecessarily strict methods of laundering.

2. Screen-Clothing. Aren't we headed here inevitably, to a place where out t-shirts can project our status updates? All we need is an affordable techno-cotton that wouldn't electrocute in the rain. Imagine the possibilities of these I-frocks? We could literally wear our emotions (or at least the words for them) on our sleeves; we could walk around like photo albums or art galleries; we could constantly change the direction of the arrow on our "I'm with Stupid" T-Shirts).

3. Nacho-Chip Regenerator. Ever get to the bottom of the bag of corn chips and find the shards there too small for salsa-scooping? Isn't this America? Should we have to put up with getting a mediumly-spiced sauce under our fingernails because the vehicle for said-sauce is inadequate? No, I tells ya. Somehow, we need a way to pour the corn-crumbs into a machine that creates fully-formed chips. I'm imagining a kind of waffle press.