My robot vacuum cleans up more than I'd bargained for

As a kid growing up in the '60s, I used to watch "The Jetsons" cartoon show. I liked all the high-tech gadgets they had, but I thought their 6-year-old son, Elroy, had it made when he did his advanced calculus homework on his own desk-sized computer. Struggling with long division, I sometimes said to myself, "I wish I had one of those."

My dad was an engineer who divided his time between Houston and Cape Canaveral, Fla., during the infant days of the space program. Hearing my wish, he assured me that one day everything the Jetsons had would be mine. I found this hard to believe. At my dad's workplace I had seen huge rooms holding banks of computers, so I knew computers would never be small enough to fit onto a desk top. And anyway, who would be silly enough to give a kid a computer?

Of course, by the time my own child was in third grade, he had a computer - in his bedroom. "The Jetsons" cartoons were still being broadcast, and my son loved them as much as I did. Sometimes I'd stop for a minute to watch, but what got my attention now was Rosie, the robot housekeeper who could wash dishes, dust, and play basketball with Elroy while simultaneously vacuuming the Jetsons' space pad. As a mom with a full-time job I sighed, secretly wishing I had a Rosie. Dad wasn't with us anymore, but I knew he'd be amazed at the house full of wonderful inventions I had accumulated. Still, I felt that if somebody could invent a space shuttle, surely a robot vacuum cleaner wasn't too much to ask.

More years have passed. Our son has graduated and moved to the opposite coast, so it's just my husband and me now. I still work full time, but it's not hard to keep up with the laundry, the cooking, and the dishes. After all, I have an automatic dishwasher, four crock pots of different sizes, a microwave oven, and a washer and dryer. On weekends, they operate simultaneously.

Recently, though, I knew the Jetson era had finally arrived at our house when we bought our first robot vacuum cleaner!

Driving home from the department store, I looked forward to opening the box, putting my own personal version of R2D2 down on the carpet, and firing it up. I promised myself a long bubble bath while it tackled my least favorite and most time-consuming chore.

It didn't exactly happen that way. In fact, the first day it felt as though I was babysitting a precocious toddler intent on wreaking havoc with my imported Persian rugs and crystal vases. No relaxing bath for me. I spent several hours watching what the little round beast would do. I never let it out of my sight. It got twisted up in rug tassels. I had to rescue it when it got caught between narrow chair legs and walls. It bumped into delicate side tables and sent fragile bric-a-brac rocking. (Danger, Will Robinson!)

The vacuum was smart, but it wasn't intelligent. I had to put barriers up to keep it from wandering out of the areas where I wanted it to work. Floor-trailing curtains and long damask tablecloths had to be protected from its zigzagging path. Twice it backed me into a corner until I realized that it didn't hurt when the persistent little thing bumped into my foot. Just the same, I was glad I didn't have a small dog or a nervous cat.

By the time the battery gave out, the floors under the beds and the couches were cleaner than they had been in years. I, however, was so exhausted that my husband suggested we take the vacuum back. Like my dad, though, I could see a better future in store for me ... if I could just rearrange the rooms and put the rugs and knickknacks out of harm's way so that the machine could work unhampered. My husband advised me to keep the box, anyway, in case I changed my mind.

Later that night, when the gizmo was quietly recharging under my bed, I asked myself some interesting questions - and got surprising answers.

Wouldn't it be better, I wondered, to put away some of that china and crystal - or give it away - instead of just letting it sit out and gather dust? The idea of giving up beloved belongings had seemed ludicrous in the dim past. But now I conceded that, yes, I was willing - no, eager - to do it for the sake of automated housekeeping. More questions arose: Wouldn't the living room traffic pattern be better if the furniture was moved away from the walls enough to let the robot vacuum get in and out easily? Wouldn't it be prettier to put away the long tablecloth for special occasions and let the dining table's polished wood show?

For the sake of my new self-propelled friend, the answers were "yes."

As I spent the next day making the adjustments, I was reminded of the days when my son was just learning to walk. We had decided that, for his sake, we could live with child-proof latches and electrical outlet covers. The breakables were packed away, and our d├ęcor became "early American teddy bear." But it would have been nice if he'd had a built-in mechanism that backed him away from ledges and stairs the way the new vacuum does. How much I would have appreciated having a laser beam for the baby that created a virtual wall he couldn't pass, just like the one that sends the robot spinning safely off in a new direction.

Eventually all necessary adjustments were made, tested, and found sound. Now I sit on the couch, feet up, typing on my laptop computer, while simultaneously conducting a symphony of swishing dish washer, simmering crock pots, thumping clothes dryer, and whirring vacuum cleaner. I almost laugh out loud when I think how tickled Dad would be to see me now.

Alas, I still have to get up to stir the spaghetti sauce, unload the dish washer, and fold the laundry. This past week, though, I finished all my household chores in record time and I celebrated with a trip to the dumpster.

I had a box to throw away.

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