Do Something Inconvenient

convenience definition

If you’ve ever been the victim of an infomercial, you know that seemingly too-good-to-be-true items are marketed toward consumers, all for the sake of convenience. Does that heavy-duty blender you already own walk the dog? Because if not, it’s completely worthless. But with three easy payments of $19.99 (plus shipping and processing), you can sit back and do nothing while this miracle kitchen implement does everything for you. Just for giggles, check out how incompetent the infomercial marketing people think we are without their products:

How dare we use regular shampoo or soap dispensers! That’s how those backward Neanderthals of the 20th century lived, poor fools. There’s a new commandment in the 21st century:

stone tablet

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy conveniences as much as the next millennial—maybe not a one-pot wonder that can transform raw food into a gourmet meal in 10 minutes flat, but I have been known to pay a convenience fee to pre-purchase movie tickets online. And GPS apps! I use one every day to plot the fastest course through rush hour traffic to work. Last summer when my family took a road trip to the mountains, we plugged our hotel’s address in and hit the road without a second thought.

Everything was fine until we arrived at an open field in the middle of nowhere that the GPS assured us was our destination. So deep into the mountains that we didn’t have a signal anymore, there was nothing we could do except drive around until we found an amused road construction worker, who gave us directions. Apparently, when I told my GPS that the address was on Sugarloaf Road, it didn’t believe me, taking us to Sugarloaf Mountain Road instead. I just figured the GPS was smarter than me (big mistake)—it’s updated by satellite, after all. If we’d had one of those outdated paper thingies—oh, yeah, a map!—I would have spotted the problem and avoided the scenic detour.

Convenience is convenient until it isn’t anymore. We’re so conditioned into the rut of convenience that we scoff at previous, “inconvenient” ways. People will say they don’t know what they did before cell phones. Maybe they worried when they couldn’t get in touch with each other, but no more than they do now when there’s not an immediate answer. Could it be that inconvenience cultivates patience? That it’s all right to have delayed gratification? For crying out loud, two-day shipping isn’t fast enough anymore!

I love the Disney Pixar movie Wall•E. Here’s a clip that demonstrates an (exaggerated) example of the convenience snowball:

No, I don’t think we’re all going to turn into blobs, floating around in recliners, unable to walk or even open a book. But I do know that we can become so absorbed in our modern conveniences that we don’t spend the time developing relationships like we did when we were more dependent on people than technology, when we were—just wait a minute for me to answer this text or email or follow this Twitter feed, and then I’ll give you my attention.

I recently attended the memorial service of my friends’ grandmother. One granddaughter spoke about the care her grandmother took when it came to letter writing, the importance of which she passed down to her daughters and granddaughters. In a time when learning to write in cursive takes a backseat to learning how to take a test, these women are keeping alive an art form and a courtesy that’s on the ebb. While many might consider it a waste of time, these aren’t throwaway texts. These are nuggets of character and history that are saved and cherished, surviving longer that the person who created them. A handwritten letter can’t be deleted, won’t ever need a software upgrade, and can be read and re-read time and again by the recipient and the generations that follow.

Yes, it’s much more convenient to communicate electronically—you don’t even have to leave your chair. Who wants to go to the post office and buy stamps, after all? A simple verbal “thank you” or “I’m thinking about you” gets the point across, right? While I’m in favor of gratitude and thoughtfulness in any incarnation, there’s something extraordinary about the person who takes the time to swim away from the current of convenience and wade into the calm waters of courtesy, kindness, and thoughtfulness. And sadly, before we had the ability to communicate instantly, tapping on a screen, it seems like our communications were more meaningful, if not instantaneous. Would it be cliché to say worth the wait?

I’m not just talking about writing letters, about buying expensive stationery and never sending an email again. What I mean is that there are some things worth taking the time to do—and to demonstrate for the next generation. Spend a Saturday morning making breakfast with your kids instead of hitting the closest drive-thru. Visit a family member or friend in the hospital—even if the drive is out of your way, and you can only stay ten minutes. Any time you use the rationalization of doing (or not doing) something because of the convenience factor, ask yourself if the alternative is really all that inconvenient after all. It could make a positive difference in your life—or the life of someone else.

Pacing Is Everything: The Parenting Version

Alphabet Soup & Wordsearch

Alphabet Soup & Wordsearch (Photo credit: dmelchordiaz)

I never understood what people meant when they talked about the “terrible twos.” My first child, Peter, has never had that kind of behavior problem. My second one? Well, Ian is a different story. When people ask if he’s a terrible two, I’ll usually come back with, “He has been since birth.”

Peter and Ian couldn’t be any more different. From the womb until the present, Ian has made sure everyone knows he’s his own person.

Still, I couldn’t help but compare my kids. And to aid me, I keep “baby’s first” books, where I record when they cut their teeth and ate solid food and took their first steps. Both of my boys walked and said their first words about the same time, so I made the bad assumption that their development would be pretty similar.

With such opposing personalities, I should have known better. For instance, Ian is a screamer. Granted, he had a rough start with colic and reflux – but so did Peter. Yet Peter got over his colic and was a happy baby. For Ian, however, the screams never stopped. He screams in his sleep, screams when he’s happy, screams when he’s upset, screams when he meets someone new. After witnessing one of these episodes, a woman told me, “That’s because he doesn’t know how to communicate yet. When he learns how to talk, he’ll stop.”

What I wanted to tell her was that I had a whole list of words that he’d said, but as soon as Ian learned a new one, he seemed to forget it. I made an effort to teach him baby sign language (after all, it worked with Peter), but Ian only ever picked up two or three signs. For the longest time, I would talk to him and get a blank look – or he would avoid looking at me altogether.

When Ian was about eighteen months old, we pulled out an old video of eighteen-month-old Peter. The difference was striking. Peter talked in complete sentences, told us his eyes were blue, and re-enacted scenes from his favorite book. We weren’t sure Ian even knew he had eyes, much less their color, and forget trying to read him a book. Thomas and I felt we had failed him at some point.

We knew we had to make an effort. We struggled to hold Ian in one spot to read a book. I took him for walks and pointed out lizards and flowers and told him the colors of things. For the longest time, it didn’t seem like he understood that a yellow house was, in fact, a house that was yellow. He said it like a compound word: “yellow-house.” He was months and months behind Peter.

But slowly, so slowly, he started using more words. Communications improved: I could say, “It’s time to clean up,” and he would clean up. There was one-way understanding, at least, even if he sounded like the Muppets’ Swedish Chef when he talked.

After Peter was diagnosed with several learning disabilities, we expected the same for Ian. In fact, when I researched the cues for reading disabilities (slow speech, late speech, trouble speaking complete and complex sentences), Ian fit them all. If our well-adjusted child had dyslexia and a practically non-existent working memory, what other surprises were in store with the kid who had behavior and communication problems? Instead of trying to force concepts into Ian’s brain (like we did with Peter), we hoped he would absorb things via osmosis, and we crossed our fingers that something would take.

Something did. A couple months ago, Ian started to recognize shapes. And colors, too. Not all of them but enough to show me that he understood that “yellow” and “house” were two separate things. And he started counting things – usually without skipping numbers. Thomas and I admitted that he was actually ahead of Peter on that score. He was learning, just at his own pace.

Then last week, the biggie:

We have letter and number magnets on our fridge. I have to keep them out of Ian’s reach, otherwise they’ll be all over the house. In fact, I’m not sure why I never got rid of them, but now I’m glad I didn’t. Out of the blue, he pointed up and said, “Bumblebee.” I looked all over the fridge for a bumblebee but only saw the magnet letter B. I pulled it down, and that’s exactly what he wanted.

Later that week, Thomas was wearing a shirt that said “FLORIDA,” and Ian started pointing at the letters and naming them. He got them all right. Shocked, we began writing uppercase letters at random. He knew them all, including Q and Z. Well, X did trip him up a little. He called it K. But as soon as I told him the difference, he got it. Peter, who is four years older, still gets M and W and B and D mixed up. I don’t think it will be long before Ian will be able to read the easy reading books that still challenge his dyslexic big brother.

After so much frustration, we’re watching our child blossom. I don’t know what triggered this change, only that I am grateful for it – that this is the turning point I have prayed for since we came home from the hospital with an inconsolable baby.

Not only does Ian know his letters, but he’s talking more than ever. He cracks us up with “Oh my goodnets” and “heeky-boos” (peek-a-boo). He often offers a spontaneous “thank you” when someone gives him something. He’s even able to entertain himself independently, something that he could only do sporadically a couple weeks ago.

I’m sorry I let mothering Ian be a chore for so long. A lot of it was that we were just out of sync. The greater part, however, was that I wasn’t one hundred percent okay with his pace.

I am well aware that there is plenty of room for all of us to grow. He still screams. And he still has to be potty-trained. But I know he’s not Peter, and I’m done wishing that he would be more like his big brother. I am fully aware of how unfair that is to him – and the frustrations it will cause if I expect him to meet someone else’s milestones. I am ready to parent him along the unexplored and exciting Ian Way.

Communication Is More Than Maintenance Talk

Communication

Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

Talking to my husband has always been easy. As his side of the story goes, he “fell” for me on a high school chorus trip to New York City. On the bus ride home to Florida, we sat together and talked almost all night. It had never been so natural for him to talk to a girl before. I certainly didn’t think at the time that I was making waves, but I guess my conversational charms won him over. I have my parents to thank, who work together and communicate very well, and who also have always treated me like I deserve respect for what I say. Even when I was a child, they conversed with me like I was a human being, not a sweet little darling who says cute stuff. That means that they’ve listened to a lot of dreams and ideas that they knew were naive or unrealistic. It also means they’ve had to set me straight a time or two. Although I didn’t particularly appreciate my dad telling me, when I was an adolescent, that pursuing a career in acting was not the way to go, I’m glad for the candor and that we shared the kind of trust that allowed me to lay out my dreams.

I look at my own kids and hope that the lines will be open for us as well. Communication truly starts in the womb, which is why I listened to music that I wanted my babies to hear and talked to my pregnant belly. When I was expecting baby number two, I encouraged Peter to talk to him. He would put his mouth up to my belly and say, “I love you, Baby Ian. I can’t wait to see you. I’m your big brother.” I think that has a lot to do with why Peter is Ian’s absolute favorite person in the world. It’s also sweet to me that Peter often says he can’t wait until Ian can talk (more than the baby talk he is capable of now).

Some people’s idea of “quality time” with their kids is to hover and be overprotective. Others feel guilty for not being able to spend as much time as they would like and create events that are supposed to equal that imagined quality. But do whirlwind trips to amusement parks, occasional weeknight baseball games, or other activities that wear us out and wear us thin make up for the everyday interactions that should be natural and lead to life-long trust and closeness? I’m not saying that doing those things is bad, but they don’t make up for lack of communication. A good friend once observed that every time she saw a marriage deteriorate to the point that maintenance talk was the only communication between husband and wife, divorce was usually around the corner. It happens to parents and children, too, who find they have no reason to talk after the nest is empty.

But maintenance talk is necessary, isn’t it? Thomas and I keep very busy schedules and are often like ships passing in the night. “What time is your meeting?” “Will you be able to watch the kids?” “I need more creamer when you go to the store.” “We need to run by Target to pick up school supplies.” When the necessary becomes the only conversation in a household, however, relationships become fragmented. My favorite parenting book, On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the GIFT of Nighttime Sleep, recommends that parents have “couch time.” (Read more about my Babywise experience here.) If there is no other time in their busy day when parents can talk, at least they’ll have fifteen precious minutes to catch upon more than the grocery list. And the key is to have couch time around the kids, so they can see that their parents are important to each other.

I remember my college days, when I thought my life couldn’t get any busier (ha). I always took five courses at a time, and I attended summer semesters, too. I worked twenty to thirty hours a week, sang in the church choir, sang with a community chorus, helped found and edited the journal Fiction Fix, attended numerous workshops and events for that same journal, and drove almost thirty minutes one-way to Thomas’s house four or five times a week. It was all a part of my plan to get my degree as quickly as possible while continuing to stay active in all the activities that were important in my life. I could have made things much easier on myself if I hadn’t gone to school over the summer, if I’d taken four classes instead of five. What was the big hurry to graduate, anyway? Well, Thomas and I were getting married, and we knew that one of us had to be out of college and working to support the other. Since I started a year before him, the pressure was on me: the sooner I finished, the sooner we could move on to the next stage of our life together. We planned a summer wedding, so he could continue to go to school without interrupting his spring or fall semesters.

Except that things didn’t turn out that way. Although I adored a few professors and enjoy some of my classes, I had no great love of college; it was an obstacle, something I had to conquer. But Thomas absolutely loathed it. College was something he could barely stomach, especially when a professor showed up and told his class to dress professionally – all while she was wearing sweats. I don’t know if that was the last straw, but it was certainly bad timing on that professor’s part. It was during that first week in the fall of 2003 that he met me after an evening class, and he just had that look. I took a deep breath, knowing what was coming. He had spent all evening thinking about what he was going to do and how in the world he was going to break it to me and his parents. I knew he was miserable in his classes, and I also knew that it in no way helped that it was my last semester, and he still had two years to go. I listened and tried to be sympathetic, encouraging. And then we moved on because talking through problems is what we do. And although we were creating a future together, he had to be at peace with his half of the deal. Fortunately, his chosen career wasn’t dependent on a four-year degree, and he did eventually (very eventually) graduate.

But there are couples out there who are sorely disappointed – even surprised – when they find out their relationships can’t survive on date nights and diamond rings alone. There are parents who think they can keep their kids busy with sports and camps and buy them cars, and those same kids will, in return, go to the colleges and pick the careers their parents prefer. And it’s not just parents and children. Everywhere you find relationships, you find people who expect things from others that are unrealistic, unfair even; you’ll find little respect for each other’s time and thoughts; you’ll find misunderstandings that could have been easily fixed. You’ll find broken communication. But when you see people really talking to each other – and listening – you witness a truly beautiful thing.

Sometimes our family has to drive somewhere in separate vehicles, and on those occasions, when Thomas can drive home and have Peter with him, I know he cherishes those rides. With the radio off and phones put away, they just talk. Peter asks questions, and Thomas answers. And Peter tells what he thinks about the world, and those are priceless (and often hilarious) moments. Thomas always seems to glow afterward, as if our five-year-old has just recharged him.

I watch parents who seem to care more about their phones or cars or any number of other distractions than their kids. Perhaps a big reason that young people have an increasing disrespect for their elders has a lot to do with the way we treat them, and often, I am convicted. I have to remember that I was once their age, too, yearning for answers, for information, for attention. And when I spend the time with my kids that they desire and deserve, I not only have hope for surviving the distant teenage years, but turning two men out into the world who will make it a better place.

I hope, if I have the chance to look back over my parenting experience some day in the distant future, I will see much improvement on my part and be proud of myself for hanging in there. And I hope that my kids will still want to talk to me then, to ask questions, to share their joys and concerns. But it won’t happen on its own; I have to work on it today – and always – to create that kind of a future.

Are You Listening?

A near-ending game board, tiles and racks of t...

Scrabble (International, Mattel, Inc.,photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, someone asked my father for a favor. Daddy, being the dependable guy he is, immediately complied. He then sent a rather long follow-up e-mail to the person in question, detailing what he did and what needed to happen next. But the person didn’t read the whole e-mail, didn’t act on my father’s instructions, and when Daddy finally took matters into his own hands, the person wondered why my dad was exasperated—he didn’t even remember making the original request to begin with. The problem, Daddy concluded, is that all people do anymore is listen (or read) in sound bites.

I hate to say that, fight it as I do, I too easily fall into the same pattern. Here I write what I would consider lengthy posts if I had to read them, yet I watch the scroll bar and groan if a blog that I normally read takes me more than a couple minutes.

With this in mind, in Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, one of the first things he talks about is the use of the period and the stylistic differences between writing short and long sentences. Granted, I do ramble, but I try not to write run-on sentences that lose the original thread from beginning to end. In reading many of Lukeman’s examples, I realized why I write the way I do. Considering some of the books I had to read in college and absolutely hated (or classics I forced myself to read because I knew they would be worth it if only I made it to the end), I realized that one of my problems was this whole long, circuitous sentence thing. And you know what Lukeman points out? Long sentences can be risky because of the less-than-adequate attention span of the modern reader. Writers beware! Too-long sentences could very well cause readers to put your books down for good.

Blaming society’s shortened attentions spans on modern media is a nice distraction—and a lot easier than examining myself and asking how I’ve let it happen to me, too. Ugh. Does this mean that I’m going to embrace the half-a-page sentence and start rambling worse than ever in self defense? Never fear; it’s not my style. Besides, I don’t think forcing people to read longer streams of drivel solves the problem. What I must do, however, is pay attention, focus on this fault of mine and try my hardest to remedy it.

There must be a happy medium between jumping from topic to topic as soon as interest fades and becoming focused to the exclusion of everything else in the world. If you’ve ever watched cooking competitions, the people who can’t multi-task in the kitchen are usually the first to go, so it’s got its advantages. But I don’t want to be so busy that I ignore a long e-mail that has some very important information. I don’t want to be in too much of a hurry to communicate properly (and politely).

I know that I’m not the only person plagued by this impatience. It just gets worse with every succeeding generation, I’m afraid. When my kids are old enough to text (or whatever the craze is, at that time), will they even know what OMG means? Will they translate it to “oh my gosh” every time they see it or just think that OMG is some normal (albeit meaningless) exclamation?

And since we’re on the topic, do you remember the “reality” show “Survivor”? I’m proud to say that I’ve only ever seen one partial episode. I thought it was pretty stupid because the show in no way puts the contestants in situations in which they would actually have to adapt to survive. But if you consider a true survival situation, would the people of today be able to do it? Survive without cell phones, GPS, Kindles, computers, processed food? I know moms who get fed up with their kids being absorbed in the TV, so they go cold turkey, and the kids have the hardest time figuring out how to be kids—and in homes full of toys, no less.

The first autumn that Thomas and I were married, we went through more than a week, combined, with no electricity because of the number of hurricanes and tropical storms that hit Florida. We spent many a night playing Scrabble (yes, an actual board game) by candlelight, eating the “comfort” (junk) food that we’d stockpiled for just that kind of situation. And you know what? Except for the stifling heat, I remember those stormy stretches of no electricity with fondness.

I suggest, to cultivate this elusive patience, to help new generations of techno-children, who learn immediate gratification but have little concept of the delayed kind, going out of your way to do things the so-called dinosaur way. Show someone you care enough to snail mail a “thinking of you” card once in a while. What does it cost you—a few minutes of your time and a stamp? Turn off the TV and play board games with your kids. Try to sit with a lengthy article or a book for more than five minutes at a time. Cook a meal from scratch. If you’re really brave and aren’t afraid of failure, start a garden.

I’m just as guilty of loving technology as the next person, but I don’t want to depend on it to the exclusion of my intellect. And, although I know it sounds extreme, that’s a lot of what’s at stake here. If we count on technology and short cuts to do everything for us, forget losing deep thinkers, we’re losing thinkers, period. Instead of spoon-feeding people bites of information—the least amount they need to get by—why not try provoking some actual thought processes? Are we so lazy that we can’t do a little mental work anymore? (And don’t even get me started on the physical kind.) If I want people to read long blogs like this one, I need to be able to do so myself. So I’m going to start with me and branch out to my kids. And my audience, all three of you.