A Real Sucker

This is an artist's rendering of a Mars Exploration Rover.
I did something a couple of weeks ago that I rarely do: I exchanged a gift. I usually don't do this, either because it seems like a hassle, or I can't find the original box, or I just feel weird exchanging something that somebody took time to pick out for me.

But I had a hard time justifying keeping this one. It was a thing with a propeller that you hold onto while you're swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving. It allows you to dive quickly to a depth of 15 feet, or skim along the surface at up to two miles per hour. I've never gone scuba diving, the last time I snorkeled was several years ago in Hawaii, and if I want to swim at two miles per hour, I shouldn't need batteries. As nice as this gift was, it was always going to sit in its original box. So, I brought it back to the store, and traded it for a robot vacuum cleaner. Or, as my daughter put it, I traded it for something I "really needed."

If you haven't seen these robot suckers, you've probably seen ads for them. They look like small flying saucers, and they scurry across the floor using some kind of sensor to tell them when to turn and when they have hit a wall. They can vacuum your living room while you're out taking a walk. However, I'm so fascinated by this little thing that goes under our couch and around our dog's bowl that I've become addicted to watching it. I just can't get over that it can actually do what it does. So, I'm not outside going for a walk while it's vacuuming. I'm inside, marveling at the fact that it's vacuuming while I could be outside.

There are Web sites you can go to that give you tips on how to use your robot vacuum cleaner. We never needed a Web site to tell us how to use a broom. Online, I learned that some owners feel these gizmos are like pets, and have even given them names. Naming a vacuum cleaner seems a little silly to me. After all, it's not like it's a car.

Besides watching it work and going online to learn about it, there's something else that cuts into the leisure time of the robot vacuum cleaner owner. You have to empty it after each use. And after every 10 uses or so, you have to find your Philips screwdriver and take it apart to clean it.

It's not the first "time-saving" device in history that isn't saving time. I'm sure there were some folks about 100 years ago who predicted that the invention of the car would mean that people would spend less time commuting to and from work. Remember when computers were going to free us from our desks? The first time I rented a car with a GPS navigation system, I spent ten minutes programming it for a two-minute trip.

We're not all that concerned with how well the latest thing works. We're just fascinated by the fact that it works at all.

Maybe the gods of Gifts were trying to teach me a lesson. The next time somebody gives me something that I can't imagine ever using, maybe I should just keep it. The logical thing for me to do now is just to write it off as a learning experience. The original thing was a gift, and I could just put the robot vacuum cleaner in a closet, waiting for a garage sale that we'll never have. But instead, I reacted like a red-blooded consumer raised in our techno-society: I went online and ordered some accessories for it.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver