Apr 22, 2016

"The Cleaner": birth of an idea

We were spending a lazy summer weekend at our neighbors 'camp' on the shores of a New Hampshire lake when my friend Anu's FB tag showed up. It was the ALS Ice-bucket challenge that was swamping everyone's news-feed, inciting equal parts amusement and annoyance. I've done my share of ranting over armchair activism that breeds complacence and indifference but jumped happily at this one.

That afternoon on the O'Connors' dock by the glassy, peaceful lake our friend Michele filmed as my 7 year old son Oyon dumped a bowl of ice water on my head and we made our appeal for research funding to cure this awful disease. 

Amidst the usual din of comments on the video I posted on FB was one from my friend Nandita in California. She was sympathetic to the ALS cause but indignant at the irresponsible waste of water. California was severely drought-struck so her ire was understandable. Also, the scale at which the ice bucket challenge was playing out meant that the cumulative volume of water wastage was substantial, no matter how well-intentioned.  

Nandita had a point.

It's never as much fun to concede to reason as it is to complain though, so I took to ranting - not thinking that Oyon, who was within earshot, would pay any attention to my words. Heaven knows, he doesn't usually. I grumbled that Nandita was missing the point: the average ALS challenge probably only uses a gallon or two but raises awareness and funds. I muttered to myself that a daily shower surely uses more than that and without helping fight ALS.

Little ears pricked up at that: "How much water do we use in the shower Mamma?"
 Dr. Google answered: 50 gallons in 10 minutes 
(source: http://water.usgs.gov/edu/qa-home-percapita.html)

"Is 50 gallons a lot?" he asked, trying to understand the horrified expression on my face.

"The milk jug in our fridge is 2 gallons. Now imagine 25 of them gurgling down the drain." I answered distractedly, my insides twisting with guilt at the 20 minute showers that were my routine.

Oyon shrugged and walked away to resume playing (and not-listening to me). I didn't think more about it. Until a few weeks (maybe months?) later, when Oyon stepped out of his bedtime shower with a particularly thoughtful look on his face. 

"When I grow up, I'm building a shower that only uses 3 gallons of water." he announced.

"How will it do that?" I humored him.

"The dirty water won't go into the sewer. It'll go into a special tank where there's a sponge, a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush! It'll get CLEANED!"

"Hmmm. Then?" I said, only half-listening. 

ASIDE: Oyon, like many kids, has a steady flow of crazy ideas and fantastical stories. I try my best to be his sounding board so they'll keep coming but have slipped into the age-old parenting model of only half-attending at times so I can multi-task. I'd like to think that the validation of being heard helps grow his self-esteem as well as his imagination. The last one seems to me the most important goal of childhood, for without an imagination there's no way of truly understanding of the world around us. Or people. Because an imagination helps you to deal in abstracts: as important for developing skills like empathy and compassion (for which you need to imagine the feelings of others who may be unlike yourself) through science (dealing often, with invisible ideas). 

So that day too, I tried to lend him my ear. Or at least part of it.

"And then......" his legs were planted apart in brace position and he had jazz hands going as if for a big reveal....."the clean water goes back up to the shower so you can use it AGAIN!"

"Hey!" I said, looking up from tidying the counter, "That's actually a good idea!"

"'Course it is! It uses 3 gallons instead of 50!" he said with an eye-roll.
"But....You will have to add a little every month to the water tank." he added thoughtfully.

"Why? I thought all 3 gallons are getting cleaned and re-used." I asked as he towelled his hair.

"Yeah but lots of drops get trapped in our hair and never make it to the drain. Also, there's evaporation." he said, tugging on his clothes.

As his head hit the pillow that night, he sleepily announced "I'm calling it 'The Cleaner' "

"Sounds good!" I answered before turning off the lights.

That was that. For then.

He moved on to other fanciful creations over the next two years: The Listener (translates animal sounds to human), special boots to walk on Lava, fighter planes that fling rotten food instead of bullets and bombs (to make wars peaceful), a new airplane wing design that will shorten runway length and many others I no longer remember.

But he kept coming back to The Cleaner. 
Last year, at age 8, he even came up with a pricing scheme: 
- Low at first so everyone could afford it: those who wanted to help the Earth AND those who wanted to save money because they didn't have much to spare. 
- Then when it got popular (because so many people had bought it already), he'd hike the price and make tons of money. The rich would buy it even at high prices because their friends had it and it was cool. 
- Everyone’s happy!

One look at my stricken expression and he rushed to explain:
"Mamma...it's ok! I become a millionaire BUT poor people save money, rich people get more cool stuff and EVERYBODY helps save the planet!" 

But he had misunderstood me.

I wasn't disappointed (too much) in his capitalist inclinations. I was taken aback at how well he'd intuited his parents' worldviews, sensing that we valued compassion over materialism and were queasy about the idea of great amounts of amassed wealth. Plus, he'd not only understood the basics of modern day market forces but harnessed them for his own ends! I suspect his generation is hardwired to these senses but its still a little scary to me.

So there he was. An invention nestled in his brain, tied up neatly in a clever marketing package, but nowhere to put it.  This year when he became eligible as a 3rd grader to enter the Fitzgerald Elementary School science fair, we nudged him to give his dream an airing. 

He and his friend Mateo decided to test the filtration part of The Cleaner. By now it had evolved from the original cartoon (of a scrubbing brush and bar soap) in Oyon's 7 year old head to a chamber where pistons drove sponges back forth, trapping the dirt and letting clean water flow out. Mateo and Oyon's research quickly revealed a more realistically filter designs that they tested and presented in a beautiful presentation to the judges.

Blow number one:
Mateo's research revealed the existence of a recycling shower, though it's still a niche product that's not easily obtained. Oyon's invention was not unique after all! They soldiered on as we whispered solace into Oyon ears that this was only proof that he was thinking along the right lines. 

Blow number two:
A Silver medal, not Gold, at the science fair. Now, everyone got a medal so the Silver really was only average. Now we were whispering solace into his ears about how almost all the gold medals were won by 5th graders so it was a tough contest. Most of all though, the winning projects were so impressive that the outcomes were just. There was a valuable lesson here: there will always be people better than him no matter how good he is. Their win doesn't necessarily mean his loss if their work was admirable. That's actually a source of inspiration, not dismay or envy. He liked some of the Gold medal projects SO much that this rationale actually seemed to get some traction.

It didn't totally quell his sadness though: the wind had visibly gone from Oyons sails. He's fairly buttoned up about his emotions so it was only the occasional comment that gave him away.
"It was a dumb idea"....."what’s the point anyway, someone already made it"...."I don't want to be an inventor anymore. I'm going to test Minecraft code instead"
To be fair, he also was a little bored of this idea by then and had moved on to others.

But when Camp Invention, his favorite summer camp, put out a call for entries into a nationwide invention-centric contest, it seemed a providential chance for his Big Idea to try and get out again. After all, before he had entered an 'invention' in a 'science' contest so the goals were really not well matched. But Oyon would not budge in his determination to call an end to the sordid episode of The Cleaner.

Now we don't usually force things on Oyon (though we insist he honor his commitments) so this was pretty much the first time I brought my foot down - with an almighty crash - to tell him that he was GOING to enter the contest because….we said so! (So liberating to use those 3 words, given the democratic parenting we default to in these times of mindful child-rearing.)

My husband was travelling for work and unable to referee as usual so I tried to behave myself with this project of forced labor. Oyon reluctantly agreed to spend 20 minutes on 2 Saturdays to create his invention prototype and the 4 minute video submission for the contest. He was draconian about the terms and conditions too, using the kitchen timer to drop the project at the determined time. We’ve made many toys from trash in the past though so 40 minutes (and my help cutting plastics with sharp tools) were enough for him to put together a prototype. We’ve also made short films before so it only took a few minutes in Windows Movie maker to edit for length, add music, credits etc.

This was the final product that he submitted to the nation-wide Camp Invention ‘Mighty Minds’ contest:

 

As I emailed the link on his behalf I added a note about how this idea came into being, along with a disclaimer that we found out only recently that it’s already been invented. I added a request for some words of encouragement from the judges because I knew he had little chance of winning. All I had wanted was to garner some support for him and teach him to keep faith in himself, to know that the path to success is paved with failure.

A few weeks later, we learnt he'd won the grand prize. Nation-wide.

Our lives are terrible exciting right now.
Oyon's is even tinged with a little glamour. 
He's soon to travel to DC, be part of a prestigious ceremony (with Mo Rocca and some of the brightest minds of our age), get his invention incorporated in a museum etc. It's a fair bet that I'll blog about these things at some point but the best outcome of all.... is that a nascent idea he had of a Solar powered robot team to clear up space trash....is now bubbling, brewing and coalescing into another invention idea. 

This kid might literally touch the stars.
PostScript: https://youtu.be/8r2_eLAv9FQ

Oyon-ism (5)
I'm fixing dinner one evening as he chatters on animatedly about the days' adventures from the next room, where he's playing trains. I'm cycling through my usual pattern of responses every few minutes: "Wow!"-  "Oh no!" - "Really?"when he suddenly becomes silent. A minute later he's at my elbow...

Oyon: Mamma, you meant "Wow"
Me (still only half listening): Huh?
Oyon: You said "Oh no!' just now but my story needs a "wow!"
Me (shocked that he knew my pattern and a little worried he might be hurt): Oh, Ok. I'm sorry?
Oyon: No problem! I get confused too sometimes.
Me (relieved to have gotten away with it): I'll try to get it right next time, ok? So what happened next?
Oyon (as he walks away to resume playing): I'll tell you but next is an 'Oh no!'. OK Mummum?

It's ALWAYS ok to be around this child.

Oyon-ism (9)
Chit-chatting about his day in school, Oyon announces that they talked about 'hormones' in 3rd grade today. How they can confuse you. When pressed for details...
Oyon: You know, like the blues?
Me: Ms. N told you hormones can make people sad and blue?!
(This is my first experience with American public school education but I could've sworn that sex education waiting until 5th/6th grade.)
Oyon: What? No, Mamma! Not to be rude but please can I read now?
He dove back into Harry Potter's world and I left things be, feeling more rattled than usual. I was signing his homework agenda later that evening when he came by and gleefully pointed to the weekly spelling words listed on the page. He pointed out the words 'blue' and 'blew' and chuckled.....
Oyon: See the hormones Mamma? The 'blues' sound the same but don't mean the same. Isn't it confusing? GREAT for tricks though.

Darn Homophones. Really SO confusing.



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