Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Here, Girl!

All new parents go through a kind of 'break-in' period, during which they slowly figure out the real ways in which being parents is different from how they were before. For Molly and me, this lasted quite a while - even past 1F's first birthday, we were still discovering unanticipated ways in which our lives would never be the same.

Once, the three of us went out to dinner at a restaurant which the childless Molly and me would have counted very 'family friendly', and in fairness, it probably was, as long as none of the children were younger than five or so. 1F was about a year old on the evening in question, though, and by the time we finished our dinner, there was a circle about five feet in diameter, centered on 1F's high chair, littered with an assortment of food fragments, torn napkins, pieces of silverware, and other miscellaneous items. I left a very large tip, and we realized that taking 1F to a 'nice' restaurant with us was not going to be a live option for a while.

I've always been a bit of a gadget buff, but I really like gadgets that have a certain simplicity about them, and Kid-world is rife with elegantly simple, practical gadgets. When 1F was a baby, the little seats that you can sort of hang off the edge of the table were new, and we got one of those right away. Suddenly, we could eat at friends' houses, or church potlucks, or at a picnic table in a park, without having to pack a full-blown high chair with us. A very cool, simple contraption.

Around the same time, we met a couple who were visiting from Germany, whose daughter was just a bit older than 1F. They had a little leather harness that they put on their daughter when they took her to a crowded public place; they would clip a short tether to the harness, and they could keep the child close to them, without all the bad posture that goes along with holding her hand, to say nothing of the struggles that invariably occur when the child in question decides that she doesn't want to have her hand held anymore.

I loved it - so elegant, so simple, so practical. And all the moreso, because the child actually had a lot more freedom of movement - a lot more freedom to go where she wanted to, within a much larger radius, than she would if her hand were being held. We were so taken by this little item that we asked our German friends to send us one, since they hadn't appeared in the US market yet.

A few weeks later, we received a package in the mail from a German address. We opened it eagerly, and put it to use at our first opportunity. It worked really well, and we were pleased - 1F could roam about more freely, engage her curiosity more freely, and we hardly had to exert any effort to keep track of her. In fact, we were so taken with it that we decided to make a modest improvement - in place of the short tether, we used a 25-foot retractable leash, so 1F could have even more freedom of movement.

The Fourth of July was coming up soon, and the harness setup seemed perfect for such an occasion - a large crowd in an open public place. 1F could wander to her heart's content within a 25-foot radius, and, as long as we kept hold of the leash, Molly and I didn't need to worry about where she was.

Our first inkling that this would work out just a bit less than perfectly came as we walked into the park. We were walking alongside another young family like us, with the toddler being carried on his father's shoulders. They were looking intently at the harness/leash setup we had 1F in. I smiled, knowing that they were appreciating the ingenuity, the elegance, the simplicity, the practicality of it, and preparing to tell them how we had friends in Germany, and this was all the rage among European parents, and how they could get one for themselves. Instead, the dad sort of sneered and said, "Kind of a sick joke, man."

What?!? Sick joke? What the heck does he mean by that? Ah, well; obviously a philistine who doesn't appreciate ingenious gadgets when he sees them. We found a spot suitable to our liking to settle at, and we spread our blanket. Molly and I sat down on the blanket, while 1F wandered around on the end of the leash. When she reached the limit, she would just turn around, and poke around in a different direction, checking for bugs in the grass, or whatever else captured her eye. We were enjoying ourselves immensely, just watching her exploring her expansive little piece of turf.

While we were sitting there, a woman approached us to talk. I smiled in friendly greeting, but she immediately ripped into us. "How could you?!" she shrieked. What the hell? "Treating your child like an animal!"

No, wait, you don't understand - see, she's so much more free to roam about. . .
But the woman would have none of it. See, this was a leash, and leashes are for dogs, and that was that. At the very best, in her mind, this was an inappropriate transfer of technology; at worst, it was slam-dunk evidence of depraved child abuse. And nothing I could say would dissuade her.

Before the night was over, and all the fireworks had flashed, two or three other folks wandered by to very helpfully read us the riot act and call us colorful names.

We were more circumspect about taking the harness out in public after that, and we eventually decided that the elegance, simplicity, and practicality didn't quite outweigh the grief we had to endure from well-meaning idiots fellow-citizens.

So you see, a thing can be wonderfully practical, elegantly designed, and a vast improvement on the existing technology. But, if you don't take account of public reaction, you can still wind up with a marketplace failure. . .


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