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 If we’d had one of those outdated paper thingies—oh, yeah, a map!—I would have spotted the problem and avoided the scenic detour.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

Let Them Be Children Now, So They Can Be Adults Later

 

Kids racing

I was saddened to learn of a recent teenage suicide, in which the boy who took his life apparently felt that he had screwed up so badly that the only recourse was to take his life. Why in the world would a seventeen-year-old from a good family and with a bright future think that ending his life was the only option he had left?

I believe that there are too many pressures on today’s kids, and you can see it in the way we structure their days. Think about the schools in which the arts and recess have been cut. What message are we sending? That sitting at a desk and making the right test score is the most important thing.

I jokingly lectured a dad of one of my preschoolers at the beginning of this school year that there’s nothing more developmentally appropriate for her to do than play. “Her Harvard application isn’t due for a few years,” I said, and I thought he would laugh, but the look he gave me said, I couldn’t disagree with you more. My question is, if she’s already being discouraged from letting her imagination run wild at the age of four, when exactly does she get to be a kid?

One of the tasks of a preschool teacher is, indeed, to evaluate the readiness of students to move on to the next level—but we’re talking kindergarten, folks, not the Ivy League. In considering one child in particular—a child who has all kinds of processing and attention and core strength issues—a comment was made that 10 years ago, he would have happily played through his preschool days and moved on to kindergarten with no one ever considering holding him back. But instead, he’s having all kinds of interventions to make sure that he can make it through preschool. And it’s not like he’s the only one.

As I already mentioned, children are losing many opportunities to express themselves creatively and physically with the loss of arts programs and recess, but the problem is that it’s not just at school where this is happening. Within the past 10 years, we’ve had the advent of the touch screen. We have a number of iPads designated for our classroom, and although our four- and five-year-olds love them, there is a marked difference in the way they behave when we bring them out. It places them in self-absorbed bubbles, and if that reminds you of anyone (ahem, teenagers and Millennials), then I hope you’re disturbed enough to want to reverse this trend. When you’re four and five years old, this kind of technology should be used sparingly, if at all, and LEGOs, building blocks, puzzles, and play kitchens should be the norm. (Here’s a great article about the dangers of turning over smartphone technology to our kids.)

At the end of 2016, I wrote about spending less time with my own technology (social media, in particular), and although I’ve really enjoyed putting my phone and down and breaking that addiction, I’m just one person. In this digital age, it’s more and more common to see families sitting around the dinner table, parents and older kids on their devices, ignoring the smallest members, who are literally screaming for attention. When asked recently by a workshop facilitator why we have K through 12 education (and in my case, PreK), it occurred to me that teachers have to provide more than the three R’s anymore; present day teachers are also teaching the things that children should be learning at home. Take manners and respect. It’s difficult expect a child to behave appropriately when he engages in disrespectful behavior right in front of his parents with no correction. These basics aren’t being taught at home because parents are mentally elsewhere, which gives people in my position an extra responsibility in addition to teaching letter and number recognition.

As infants, children are learning to swipe on a touch screen. Then when they start school, we teachers have to introduce their parents to such novel ideas as coloring with crayons, playing with Play-Doh, and painting at an easel—and paying for occupational therapy. For most children, if they’d just engaged in developmentally appropriate play to begin with, their parents wouldn’t have to incur this added expense just to teach them how to hold a pencil or use a pair of scissors.

I understand why technology is so attractive—it’s a great babysitter—but we have to understand that it can easily turn to junk food for the brain. There’s no substitute, in my book, for a box of LEGOs in the middle of the living room floor, a coloring book and crayons at the kitchen table, or a few minutes of introducing children to a beloved book. (Here’s an article about what parents of “good” kids do.)

More and more, we’ve come to expect that kids are just going to be tortured and inattentive while they sit at desks for extended periods, and that just shouldn’t be the case. A well-rounded childhood should include playing outside unstructured, which means that we shouldn’t micromanage every minute. One of the methods we use in our preschool to help children get ready for our “work” time is to let them run outside and play. In fact, I have one student who will hit the wall, and I’ve learned to just let him go and play with blocks for a few minutes, and he’ll be better able to finish a project after getting this little break. Here is one article, and here’s another, that both explain why the absence of play is leading to attention and sensory issues in this upcoming generation.

Kids can be kids when we sing silly songs in the car and at bath time, when we read books together, and, most of all, when we take the time to express why we do things the way we do. It doesn’t take any extra money, but it does take time and the willingness to put our children first. By connecting with them in these simple ways, we’re showing that we care, and if you don’t think that matters, then why did you have children to begin with?

Instead of raising techno-zombies and expecting them to succeed from the moment they show an interest in learning, we need to spend the effort to let them know that whatever they do, their lives are worthwhile. They need to learn how to fail, so they won’t expect everything to be handed to them without ever lifting a finger. They won’t be crushed when life, inevitably, is unfair. Instead, they’ll tackle challenges with creativity and resiliency. They’ll take responsibility for their actions and understand that other lives are being impacted as well, and they’ll have respect for those other lives.

In short, as long as we understand that throwing our hands in the air and doing the easy thing is not the best thing, then there’s the chance that this next generation will give aging Millennials the opportunity to say, “What’s with this generation? How’d they end up so well-adjusted? Oh, that’s right. We raised them that way.”

Face Time

FaceTime logo

There’s a good reason why Apple chose “FaceTime” as the name of their video-calling product. Unlike a regular old phone call, it allows people with the FaceTime app to chat face-to-face. It’s something my husband and I used recently when our kids were out of town. I’m so grateful for the benefits of modern technology, but I also have to be careful not to let those same benefits turn detrimental.

I fought getting a Smartphone for a long time. My husband had a Blackberry for a while, and no offense to Blackberry, but it was a piece of garbage. I know now that it was just an inferior model, but its rudimentary GPS that only worked when you didn’t need it and super-slow Internet search capabilities left me underwhelmed. Not to mention that I would rather stay in the stone age than learn how to use new technology. Update the operating system on my computer, and I get all ticked off that the icons look different. You’d think I’m more like an octogenarian than a millennial.

I did finally break down and get an iPhone. A longtime Apple user, I knew that it would be user-friendly and easy to learn, and I wasn’t disappointed. But I had heard about people becoming glued to their Smartphones, compulsively checking email in the middle of the night, over-stimulating their brains by browsing Facebook instead of reading a book before bed. I was afraid I would turn into a Smartphone zombie, and the games and apps available soon had me trapped. I was playing Words with Friends at stoplights and browsing shallow entertainment articles when I could have been doing just about anything else. To lure a bookworm away from her books is quite a feat.

There were other issues at play—I can’t place all the blame on my iPhone. When I purchased it, I had a months-old infant and was mired in the depths of postpartum depression. It was easier to engage in mindless pursuits and live on autopilot than try to do… anything. Fortunately, the depression was temporary, and once I was myself again, I realized what was going on: I had allowed myself to be seduced by technology.

I deleted all the games I’d downloaded, and I moved the ones that I couldn’t delete off my home screen. I started to read again. I came out of my funk and remembered that I liked to write and edit and decided to try my hand at making some money on the side.

Thus began my transition from pro bono editor to freelance writer. I once again let technology take over. While I wasn’t necessarily playing games, I was writing articles when I should have been a mom. My wake up call came in the form of my elder son telling me that I wasn’t always very fun. I knew I had to make some changes, and you can read about them in my Work-At-Home Covenant post.

But working at home is just a part of it. Parents who work 40-plus hours a week outside of the home are just as susceptible to the likes of Candy Crush and Pokémon Go (or so I’ve heard—I engage in neither). I’ve set a few rules for myself. I don’t use my phone at all after I’ve gone to bed, unless responding to an emergency text in the middle of the night. I used to check emails if I awoke in the night, only to wake myself up so completely that I couldn’t get back to sleep. Also, after recently reading an article (written by a non-millennial) about how young people are unable to start their day without technology, I decided to buck that trend by starting my days with at least five minutes of contemplation. Sometimes this means that I fall back asleep (oh, well), but I usually spend it thinking about the people in my life who are going through tough times. If I tell you I’m keeping you in my thoughts and prayers, that’s not an idle promise—I’m doing it every morning.

So I’ve insulated myself when I need to sleep and when I wake—what about the rest of the day? Such as when I’m being a wife and mom?

It just so happens that when I was watching the news this morning, the resident “expert” seemed to be talking directly to me. The story was all about how harmful it is for parents to be on their phones when they’re around their children. It could be texting, spending time on social media, reading the news, or checking emails—it doesn’t matter what the parents are doing so much as what the children are seeing. They’re seeing that their parents are engaged with technology rather than the family.

The news story made me rethink my own use of technology, how I will sometimes read a stupid article with a catchy headline, which is followed by something like, “Readers who liked this also liked 50 Hairstyles You Don’t Care About and That Will Steal 10 More Minutes from Your Life!” I didn’t buy an iPhone to read vapid tripe like this. I use the camera feature when my kids are doing something cute; I use the alarm to keep to my schedule; I access dictionary apps when I need to look up a word—but the email and social media and all the rest is like so much icing, pleasant in moderation but sickening if I overindulge.

Many parents, conscious of the overstimulation of so much technology, limit the amount of time their kids watch TV, play video games, and spend on their phones doing who knows what. I do the same. So this morning, when my elder son asked if he could watch TV and I said, “No,” he pulled out the iPad. “That’s the same thing—you’re still watching a show,” I told him.

You’re using technology,” he said.

I was. I had my laptop open, ready to write this post. Touché, little man.

I closed the laptop and pulled out my novel. I helped my four-year-old cut some shapes that his brother had traced for him. And long after I’d planned to let my son turn the TV on again, he was still sitting on the couch, looking at one of my old scrapbooks.

It’s not all about technology, but rather about being present. Technology just happens to be the biggest culprit. So the next time you pull out your Smartphone or tablet or sit in front of the computer, take stock of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it useful? Can you do it later? When was the last time you played a board game with your kids or sat at the table as a family, all phones switched off? Do you remember when you last had actual face time?

Unplugging (At Least a Little Bit)

I’ve seen many an article in which the writer talks about how he or she has gotten rid of smart phones permanently, and I’ll have to say that I’m not one of those people. Believe me, I fought even getting an iPhone much longer than is normal for a so-called millennial, but I finally got one three years ago. I don’t play games on it (although I did at first), and I’m not the type of person who has to have the latest version. I like it for the convenience of being able to take snapshots and videos of my kids and check my email on the run and make phone calls and look up obscure trivia all in one device. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m glued to my phone all day. My rule is that I simply don’t use it at all if ever I wake up in the middle of the night (unless, of course, I get an emergency call or text). It’s easy for me to ignore it. In fact, there are some times when I am so busy that I’ll got 12 hours without doing more than checking the time.

But then there are those other people who can’t pull themselves away from whichever device is their vice of choice (and see how “vice” is already there in “device” – it’s like it was planned that way). These people check their email if they happen to wake up at three A.M. They play Farmville at their children’s band concerts or ballet recitals. They talk through the checkout line at the grocery store and text while driving. A lot of this comes down to a lack of common sense as well as courtesy – blog topics for another day.

The iPhone isn’t my problem, anyway. We have a semi-joke in our house about “my” MacBook. We bought this computer almost four years ago when my husband went back to school. At the time, I thought it would be great to have after he graduated, in addition to our desktop model. And for the longest time, I didn’t do much with it. He took it to class, typed term papers on it – was even typing one in the hospital room when our second son was born – but then… well, I kind of took it over after he graduated. (Don’t worry – I did get him an iPad mini to make up for stealing his tech.) By that point, our desktop computer was on it’s last legs, but I wasn’t worried about replacing it – the MacBook was more than adequate. It’s where I do everything from this blog to typing my NaNoWriMo novels to doing my freelance work to editing photos and creating photo books (for me and for clients). I’ve taken it on every vacation since we bought it, including Disney World, and I’ll even carry it in the car to work on projects if it’s a ride of 30 minutes or more (and when I’m not driving, obviously).

But this weekend I’m going to leave it at home.

That’s right – I’m letting go! My in-laws are taking the kids Friday after school through Monday – the longest I’ve gone childless since November 5, 2007. And this time, instead of my husband working half the nights they’re away, we’ve actually booked a room at my friend’s bed and breakfast – a first for us. My elder son was shocked to hear that we’re going to be doing fun stuff, too. And here’s something really different for me, the planner: we don’t have a plan. We’re going to go and just do nothing – or anything. And I’m not taking the laptop. I’m not going to write at all. Now, it’s only going to be for one night, but these are baby steps, folks. While I love writing, my husband can tell you that sitting down to innocently write a scene turns into balancing the budget for an hour and editing for Fiction Fix and any number of other computer-related distractions. We’ll take our phones (and probably the iPad) so we can FaceTime our kids and watch Netflix to our hearts’ content. I’ve been so busy lately that I refuse to go on a vacation only to do more of the same while paying extra for the room. (And see – I’m even posting this blog early just to make sure I’m distraction-free.)

We’ll have our books and a new-to-us area to explore. It’s going to be the perfect pair-of-introverts weekend.

Unplugged

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I have the love-hate relationship with technology that almost everyone seems to have nowadays. I kept my dumb phone for the longest time because I didn’t want to get sucked into the world of iPhone lovers, yet now I am one of their ranks. I didn’t want to internet bank, didn’t want to read ebooks, yet I no longer mail checks to pay bills, and not only do I own a few ebooks, but I’ve even e-published a short story.

This week, a friend mentioned a village that houses a radio telescope that is so sensitive that there aren’t any cell phones within a certain number of miles. Intrigued, I did a little research. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is located in Green Bank, West Virginia, and there is a 13,000-square mile area around this observatory in which technologies like cell phones, Wi-Fi, TV and radio broadcasts simply don’t work. I wonder how people can live in a place like this. Certainly there must be some technology, but I imagine it’s like stepping back in time, somewhat.

On a much less drastic scale, I remember my friend Amy’s blog post last year, regarding her struggle with turning off the TV. It was well and good for her, I thought at the time, but I was not willing to even consider giving up my TV. Of course, at the time, I had a new baby and counted on the TV to get me through the three A.M. feedings—and those many nights when Ian didn’t sleep at all. There were maybe three shows that I followed regularly (shows that I actually sat down and watched every time a new episode aired), but everything else was mindless viewing.

Fast forward to where I am now: I can’t remember the last time I followed a particular program. Downtown Abbey? Never seen an episode (didn’t even know how to pronounce it until someone corrected me). I don’t know when this phenomenon happened, maybe when I was in the middle of a good book and just chose not to watch. Also, as the baby got older, and then my elder son started going to school five days a week instead of two, my life got a whole lot busier. The few spare minutes I had to myself weren’t worth wasting by watching some other mom making a spectacle of herself on “reality” TV. I have enough of my own reality to deal with, thank you very much.

From time to time over the past year, I’ve thought of Amy’s post, often reflecting that, if it were just me, I could get by with the local news and Netflix. There is something strangely powerful about the TV; it is hypnotizing. One night after the kids went to bed, the TV was still on, and I suddenly realized that I was waiting until the commercial break before getting up to brush my teeth. It wasn’t even a show I care about. My husband and I laughed about how we got sucked into the program simply because it was on.

The technology is even more disruptive at work. As a bookkeeper for a small business, I am dependent on crappy accounting software that, unfortunately, is pretty universal, so it’s what our accountant requires us to use. At least once a week (and more often once a day), the software crashes, despite the fact that it’s the latest version, and I rail at the computer and how stupid it is. Then, while I’m waiting for it to restart, I pick up my iPhone and check my e-mail.

Yet I can’t be too mad at this technology, without which I couldn’t have this virtual monologue. But it does drive me nuts that we’re so dependent on it. When the power goes out, we forget how to function. God forbid a cash register goes down, and a clerk can’t count change without the register doing the math. A time traveler from the nineteenth century would most likely think us completely inept.

Speaking of time travel, I started a series of books last year, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, in which the protagonist travels from the 1940s to the 1700s and decides to stay, despite the lack of technology. I mean, we’re talking cold baths, here. Not only that, but after returning to the twentieth century, she still chooses to go back in time again. And all for love. Now, I’m not advocating giving up hot showers (please, no), but I do think that there are some things that are more important than super fast download speeds and whatnot.

My five-year-old is at the age now where he has several television shows that he likes, and if I weren’t paying attention, I could easily let him rot in front of the TV all day. When he asks why I won’t let him watch as much as he wants, I remind him that we have a house full of toys and a backyard where he can play now. I’m fortunate that he often remembers on his own, and tonight, he won my heart again. He was excited that we have a new table, where he can do his schoolwork and drawings. Right now, he’s finishing a poster about black bears, which he’ll share with his class on Monday. And he asked if I would sit with him at his new table and have a “conpersation” about his poster. “And then we can just talk about other things or play games and stuff,” he said. You can believe that his request did this mama’s heart good.

So can you do it? Can you turn the TV off for any evening? Or can you put your smart phone down for an hour, resist the temptation to check your e-mail or play another round of Words with Friends? Cutting my TV consumption down was the first step; now I try to use my iPhone less when the kids are up. What can you do to allow all the wonderful technologies of the twenty-first century to aid but not impede on your life?