A Catalog of Worthless Gadgets

SCOTT SHANE

August 20, 1993|By SCOTT SHANE | SCOTT SHANE,Scott Shane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

I latch the seat belt on my three-year-old son's airline seat.

He begins to study how to unlatch it, so that I'll latch it again, so that he can unlatch it, so that I'll latch it again. But it's a challenge for him, which gives me a chance to reach into the seat-pocket in front of me and enter another world.

Skymall, says the on-board catalog. I like the sound. I like the slick, crisp pictures, the cooing copy. Skymall is consumer pornography of the highest order. It is salve for the human condition, in which satisfaction seems always barely out of reach, always on order but never quite arrived.

I like to tour this world of infinite tiny problems, each with just the machine to fix it. The Parked Car Hot Air Extractor, for instance. Just $34.95 and it will suck that nasty hot air right out of my car!

The Vacuum Powered Insect Disposal System. Pay $49.95, and never again bash at the wall with a running shoe, leaving centipede legs stuck to the stained wallpaper in posthumous twitch. Skymall doesn't say it that way, of course. It says: ''Flies, spiders and bees are suctioned by the 14,000 rpm fan'' -- 14,000 rpm! Sweet revenge! -- ''and drawn into a sealed disposable cartridge.''

No mess, and for the truly entomologically challenged, Skymall offers an additional six disposable cartridges for just $29.95. (Every fly his own cartridge, I wonder? Each bee sealed up like a little Pharaoh in his tomb? That could get costly.)

My son abandons the seat belt and starts to raise and lower the plastic window shade. He is entranced; more time to continue my tour. There's the Voice Changing Telephone, 16 levels of programmable voices for $89.95. ''Your own mother wouldn't recognize you!'' Skymall exclaims, without explaining why that might be important to me. Perhaps if Mother were pestering me with calls, I could program in James Cagney's voice and tell her she better stop calling if she knows what's good for her.

In Skymall, almost every price ends in 95 cents. To end in 99 cents would be too obvious, too tacky, too . . . discount. But to stop a nickel short of the next $5 or $10 increment -- that's just right. The Skymall purchaser needs to feel affluent, but sensible.

Maybe what's missing from my life is the Machina Pencorder? For a nickel short of a hundred bucks, this is a ballpoint pen with tiny tape recorder built in: ''Record up to 40 seconds of your spontaneous ideas on two channels.'' My spontaneous ideas in stereo?

It promises to capture my ''flashes of brilliance.'' Sure, say: ''Change the oil in the Corolla before the engine burns up'' or ''Buy sour-cream-and-onion potato chips.'' Then there would still time left to record a message to Mom that I could play back to her through my Voice Changing Telephone.

My son's got the window shade stuck open now, and he's staring at the baggage handlers. I'm getting the feeling that maybe I'm not a Skymall kind of guy. But Skymall has the answer to that little problem, too. I can be improved.

I can renew my body with Sundance Granola, personally mixed, or at least approved, by Robert Redford. At $27.50 (not $27.95?) for four pounds it's a little costlier than filet mignon, but it has ''17 wholesome ingredients.''

I can renew my spirit with the Relaxation Dream Medium, a ''computer-directed audio/visual component system that uses rhythmic pulsing light and sound that can help guide your mind into a state of deep relaxation which may enhance creativity and improve levels of concentration.'' May? If it doesn't enhance my creativity, do I get my $149.95 back?

But the most life-transforming power seems promised by a package called ''The Neuropsychology of Self-Discipline.'' You get eight audio cassettes, a Study Guide, a 450-page personal achievement planner (it certainly would be nice having 450 pages of achievements) and best of all, a 30-minute motivational video entitled ''The Fire That Burns Within.''

''Why do some people charge relentlessly ahead,'' the blurb inquires, ''while others can't get started?'' Presumably, because the former have forked over $89.95 and repeatedly watched ''The Fire That Burns Within,'' while the latter have 3-year-olds who keep distracting them just as the fire is getting kindled.

Mine, for instance. He has grown bored with the window and extracted his copy of Skymall from the seat pocket in front of him. He looks it over, and tears off the back page, which explains how you can order right now by punching *023 on the Airfone In-flight Telephone.

He tears off another page, and another: there goes the self-discipline, the granola, the spider-eater, the heat-remover. Finally, charging relentlessly ahead without the aid of a personal VTC achievement planner, he hurls Skymall to the floor and demands that I read his book to him, now.

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