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 If we’d had one of those outdated paper thingies—oh, yeah, a map!—I would have spotted the problem and avoided the scenic detour.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.

What Ever Happened to Pen Pals?

“There are a lot of us, some published, some not, who think the literary life is the loveliest one possible, this life of reading and writing and corresponding.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

stationery box

Stationery Box (Photo credit: Spyderella)

When I read the above quote recently and got to the part about corresponding, it really made me stop and think. Granted, Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird in the mid-1990’s, so a lot has changed since then. Still, if writers don’t keep the art of correspondence alive, who will? There aren’t many great epistle writers anymore simply because there isn’t the necessity these days (one exception is my father—ask anyone who’s read one of his emails).

It is a sad reality that the art of letter-writing is becoming rather dinosaur-ish. An elderly woman I know who has bravely moved into the world of technology starts every email to me with “Dear Sarah,” and she ends with “Love,” followed by her name. She types it exactly as she would a letter, complete sentences and all. The first time I received one of these emails, I chuckled to myself, but I also appreciated the thoughtfulness behind her message. She sat down and carefully chose every word, and I’m sure she proofread it at least once. I am also sure that she hand-writes letters, too, probably on monogrammed stationery, and everyone who receives one of these feels special because of the time she takes. (Granted, she is a retired English teacher, but that means little these days. I can’t tell you how many of my college English professors sent emails full of typos, yet took points away if I so much as misplaced a comma in an in-class essay.)

Here’s what Aibeleen from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has to say about writing:

I been writing my prayers since I was in junior high. When I tell my seventh-grade teacher I ain’t coming back to school cause I got to help out my mama, Miss Ross just about cried.

“You’re the smartest one in the class, Aibileen,” she say. “And the only way you’re going to keep sharp is to read and write every day.”

So I started writing my prayers down instead a saying em.

When I read this, I was struck by the novelty of writing prayers. The whole “use it or lose it” cliche applies here, and cliche or not, it’s absolutely true.

Of course, I do write a lot, always have. And I must confess that one of my weaknesses is stationery. As a girl—well, even now—I loved to go into bookstores and lose myself in the writer’s gift section. I’ve turned into a little bit of a Moleskine snob, but I still love looking at all the leather-bound journals, just waiting to be filled, or the fountain pens, fancy notebooks, writing cases, and all the different note cards. I used to scrape together what precious spending money I had to buy these little goodies, and when I was much younger, I used that stationery like it was going out of style, starting with my first pen pal. I guess I was in the second or third grade—old enough to write complete sentences and get annoyed when my pen pal couldn’t copy my address correctly (ever), much less get my name right. But I digress. I had a reason to use that stationery, and use it I did. It also gave me reason to practice writing cursive, which I loved, or as I got older, I experimented with different styles, changing the way I wrote A, E, S, and Z. When I separated from many friends after eight years at the same school, I spent the whole summer writing to a handful of them; I still got the occasional letter from one of them until well after I was married.

As for my sons, I wonder if they will enjoy this same activity. Or will they Facebook or text message each other? I admit, I love using Facebook to keep up with old friends without having to be too social. It’s a great way to keep tabs. But it’s also not very personal (or sometimes a little too personal, and that’s when that “Unsubscribe” option comes into play). Peter, who is five, loves getting things in the mail, though. And at his age, anything with his name on it is always positive. He doesn’t get bills or reminders for his annual eye exam. I can’t tell you how many times he walks with me to the mailbox, hopeful that something in there has his name on it. So is the art of correspondence going to survive his generation? When he’s old enough to fill out an address on the front of an envelope, will he have someone to write to? I fear that one of the reasons our country’s literacy rate is so low is because many people have given up. They don’t care, don’t see the value in it, especially when spell check (they think) will find all the errors for them.

I’m here to say that I care; I want to continue buying and using stationery. Besides, it’s not just the children who appreciate receiving letters in the mail, nor are they the only ones who need to be reminded how to write. I’m not going to let progress and this technological age turn my brain into a smooth glob of mush that only absorbs what it’s fed in one hundred forty character bites or only understands three-letter abbreviations. Oh my gosh, yes, I went there.