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Necessity isn't always the mother of invention. Consider orange marshmallow peanuts. Consider whoopie cushions. And consider the oddballs that rolled into the Toy Fair, in New York City, last February: the Belly Ball, the Stress-ball, the Hedgehog Ball, the Fuzzy Koosh Ball, the Hand Jive ball, the Pogo Bal and the Glo Ball. Who needed them? Who asked for them? Yet there they were, hard—and sometimes soft—proof that something as pure as a sphere can be perverted a thousand ways.
This year's toy fair included balls with pleasing appendages, balls with agendas, balls with noxious smells and balls with nauseating textures. Take the Belly Ball, which is filled with a damp, foamy substance and has a balloonlike shell. And—here's the rub—it has a belly button. Why should a ball have a belly button? Well, why not? After all, there's a precedent for it with navel oranges—the fruit that makes you wonder what really goes on in orange groves.
So it is with the Belly Ball. By all appearances, the Belly Ball's navel is a true navel. If you probe further, you'll see that the navel is at the end of a tube that comes from inside the ball, suggesting that the ball was not manufactured but born of another Belly Ball.
Truth is, the Belly Ball is not a true ball. It has relatives in the balloon family. It was conceived when an empty balloon was filled with stuff that, when dry, looks like eraser lint. To hide the Belly Ball's mixed parentage, someone tucked in its tube and tried to pass it off as a real ball. Neat trick. If only the filling hadn't leaked out. If only someone hadn't drawn attention to the thing's belly button by naming it Belly Ball.
Invariably, perverse balls draw attention to their parents. Such is the case with the rare Hedgehog Ball and the ominously omnipresent Koosh Ball. Remember when the starship Enterprise on Star Trek began having trouble with Tribbles? The Tribbles, if you recall, were seductively fuzzy, round, invertebrate creatures you could—and wanted to—cuddle in your palm. Trouble was, the Tribbles multiplied like rabbits and overran the Enterprise. Not long after that, the Tribbles evidently came to earth and began mating with cheerleaders' pom-poms, Fuller Brush toilet scrubbers, the rubber bands wound around newspapers on suburban lawns, and those prickly, rubbery, unwelcoming welcome mats. That invasion resulted in at least two new lines of balls.
The Hedgehog Ball, a rubber ball with prickles, is clearly the child of a Tribble that dallied with a rubber welcome mat. Indeed, if you took a tiny welcome mat and balled it up into a wad the size of a Tribble, you would have a brother of the Hedgehog Ball. This ball, though, is not destined for a long life, because it lacks the key to the Tribble's survival: its pernicious cuddliness. The Hedgehog Ball, though cute from a distance, is painful to catch.
The real danger lies with the second descendant of the Tribbles—the Koosh Ball, which is as winsome as a Tribble but lacks the latter's fur. Instead, the Koosh Ball is a palm-sized pom-pom, made of thousands of tiny quivering tendrils that look like broken miniature rubber bands. The Koosh Ball's tag boasts that it has a "unique energy absorbent design"—in other words, it doesn't bounce—and that it is "a love-able, laughable ball that goes KOOSH� when you catch it." (I've yet to hear a single � from my Koosh Ball.) What the tag neglects to mention is that the Koosh is the most prolific descendant of Tribbles.
Not two years after the Koosh Ball arrived, in 1988, it had fathered the Mondo� Koosh� Ball—a bigger version of the Koosh�—and the Fuzzy(tm) Koosh�, made of skinnier, softer tendrils. How did this happen? Koosh Ball tags encourage everyone to buy more than one Koosh. Undoubtedly, the makers of the ball want Kooshes to have ample opportunity to consort with one another. Indeed, the tag orders you to "Throw 'em. Catch 'em. Wear 'em, Wiggle 'em. Teach 'em tricks.... Hug 'em. Collect 'em," and—get this—"Share 'em with your friends." No mystery what's going on here.
But why? There's nothing that makes an oddball look more conventional and respectable than lots of offspring. Take the Nerf family. First-generation Nerfs were surely the result of the unlikely mating of a kitchen sponge with a baseball. That was 20 years ago. Nerfs have since become accepted, fully assimilated members of the society of balls. Nowadays, people play with, the Nerf as if it were the most natural thing around—as if it were as American as a baseball. The reason for this acceptance is that the Nerf now has descendants—Super Nerf, Nerf footballs, Nerf basketballs and Nerf soccer balls. The more generations there are of a bizarre ball, the less bizarre the original seems.
Every oddball strives for acceptance. If it isn't accepted, it won't make it. One of the telling marks of an upstart ball is unabashed self-promotion, which amounts in some cases to a kind of bossiness. These balls come with instructions that tell you how to play with them, lest you somehow miss the whole point of their existence. The odder a ball is, the more instructions it is likely to have.