It’s important to seek wonder in everyday life, to retain a child’s fascination for simple things. This is not always simple - the sheer grind of daily life can easily knock the joie de vivre out of your system. Fortunately you can find wonder in the most unexpected places, so long as you keep your eyes open.
Just the other day for instance I picked up a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2011 while waiting in line at the supermarket. I am neither a farmer nor terribly old, but I do like to learn new things. Getting home however I discovered that the almanac is not really for farmers any more, but is rather a collection of miscellanies – bathroom reading.
Flicking through its pages I was less interested in the whimsical articles than I was in the multitude of small ads. Since the almanac is ostensibly for farmers, many of the items for sale were aimed at people with rural tastes - e.g. barn lighting, rustic doodads, Amish goods, and handcrafted Vermont cheese. Apparently even in the land of supermarkets the size of air craft hangars some people are still unsatisfied and prefer to have their cheese MADE BY HAND and dispatched to them via the mail.
And yet on the same page, incongruous amid this fetish for the rural, was a true classic of the American small ad genre, something I’d never seen before: a Litter Robot. A photograph showed a cat peeking out of a gleaming white sphere that resembled something from the 70s SF movie Logan’s Run- a teleportation chamber perhaps, or an atomization capsule. There was a small control panel beneath the opening. Now you can enjoy freedom from scooping litter - just let the Litter Robot work for you!
At times like this I realize the poverty of my own imagination. A Litter Robot indeed! Is it really so awful to empty a tray every now and again?
Certainly it’s tedious, but do we really need a robot to do it for us? Then why stop at cats? Why not build a Litter Robot for humans, a giant bathroom-sphere to liberate us from the boredom of our own bodies? (I’ll leave it to you to imagine the details.)
Visiting the Litter Robot website however I discovered that basically it’s a plastic sphere on top of a large bucket that holds the litter for days, thanks to some automated filtering - not exactly Deep Blue, then. Of course, a yawning gulf between ecstatic language and prosaic reality is characteristic of the American small ad.
Ah, to be free of all such onerous chores! This dream is also common in Russian folklore, where the most popular character is the Fool who lies atop the stove all day doing nothing. In one popular story, Emelya the Idiot is sent fishing by his brothers and their wives but since he is too lazy to pull his catch from the water, he lets it swim away. In gratitude the fish grants him a magic formula that will fulfill Emelya’s wishes. Eventually he becomes king without lifting a finger, all thanks to the fish he spared out of laziness. The moral of the story is clear: if you are bone idle, keep your eyes peeled for magic fish.
For hard working peasants suffering through lives dominated by hard work, war, illness, terror of the forest and tyranny, this fantasy of blessed idleness must have been irresistible. In Mediaeval Europe peasants also told tales of the wonderful land of Cockaigne, where tasty roast chickens flew into open mouths, pigs carried their own knives to make carving them more convenient, and the sky rained down high quality dairy products, better even than handmade Vermont cheese. In this dream world of effortless plenitude the harsh realities of peasant life were inverted.
America is about as close to Cockaigne as reality gets - at least in terms of material conditions. Alas, unless you are born into wealth this abundance must be earned via endless and frequently tedious toil. And at the end of a long day, when you are too exhausted even to spend time with your family - who can be bothered to deal with the bodily functions of the beasts we have invited to live among us? Who wants to further wade into the sordid truth of life?
Thus the dream of perfect rest survives - and it’s no surprise to find that in the 21st century Emelya the Fool is living in suburban America, only now he sleeps atop a Litter Robot. Perhaps one day, Emelya will even become king (or president), without ever having to leave his warm perch atop that cybernetic toilet. Until that day, however, he’ll still have to climb down and empty the tray every couple of days.
But that’s OK: I think he can manage.
First published 17/12/2010