We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons. — Alfred E. Neuman
After searching every aisle, I found David squeezing avocados in the produce section. “When you’re done with that, you need to see something,” I said in a no-nonsense tone.
“What is it?” David’s voice was casual; he continued testing for ripeness.
“I can’t describe it,” I answered. “You’ll just have to come and see for yourself.”
David studied my face for a moment. Deciding this wasn’t just another fashion-vandal sighting, he raised the avocado in his hand and said, “This’ll do.”
I led David past heaps of onions, potatoes, and lemons to the refrigerated section in the next aisle where bags of shredded cheese were suspended above shelves of vacuum-packed cold cuts. “There,” I said, pointing to a package on the lowest shelf. “What do you make of that?”
He looked at the package and read the words, “Fast Franks.” Through the clear plastic wrap he could see three hot dogs nestled into three buns, each of which was encapsulated within its own microwavable paper sleeve. “What the... No,” said David, as the horrific implication sunk in.
“I know,” I said. “I mean, is it really so hard to place the wiener in the bun that this sort of convenience is marketable?” In my best commercial voiceover, I added, “Tired of wasting your time by placing your hot dog inside the bun? Irritated that you have to soil a plate in the microwave? Never know what to do with those two buns you’re left with when the hot dogs run out? Well, hold on to your ball caps and break out the mustard because we have a revolutionary idea that will change the way you look at hot dogs forever!”
David shook his head and muttered, “The Apocalypse is near. Come on, let’s go check out. I can’t look at it any longer.”
At home, after the groceries were put away and another Scrabble game started, my mind wandered back to Oscar Mayer’s latest innovation. It occurred to me that my reaction to the preassembled hot dogs had been hypocritical. How could I condemn one product of convenience when there are so many others I enjoy? For Christ’s sake, I buy my eggs already hard-boiled so as to spare myself half an hour and a dirty pot. You’d think I’d be a tad forgiving about someone who doesn’t want to expend the effort of removing a wiener from one package and a bun from another, placing the dog inside the bun, putting the combo on a clean plate that will need washing, and then sticking it all in the microwave.
I can’t remember a day that I did not make a handful of “clever” decisions in the name of convenience; decisions that, when scrutinized, turned out to be nothing more than a series of choices made to satisfy laziness. Products of convenience, by definition, are created to save time and effort. This, in turn, leads us to invent new ways to spend our time — most often, in Sisyphean efforts to shed pounds and tone atrophied muscles, the side effects of our newfound leisure time. For example, a man might purchase a riding lawnmower and, a week later, a treadmill — one machine to save energy, the other to expend it. We must give pause before dubbing that man a fool. How many of us drive our cars to the gym?
It all seems to be about control; whether it’s saving time and effort (from microwaves to Segways) or spending it (from elliptical trainers to video games), people want to do so on their terms. I am alternately lazy and energetic when I want to be, not when I have to be. But, as writers of fables have tried to teach us for thousands of years, getting what we want when we want it does not always make for the best outcome. Take the past 50 years’ advances in communications technology, for instance. It may be easier for us to get ahold of people, but the price for that ease is more interruption and distraction in our daily lives.
Technology now allows us to work, attend meetings, shop, and pay our bills without crossing the threshold of our front door. One afternoon I took a break from the relentless torrent of information gushing forth from my laptop, grabbed a book, and retreated to the reading chair in the corner of my office. Moments later, I heard my cell phone chime as it received a text message. It was from David. He was sitting in his office, one room over. Rather than laugh aloud or shout to him across the divide, I chose the path of least resistance — the path of the thumbs — and texted him back. An hour later, we convened in the kitchen and prepared dinner: flash-frozen broccoli in a bag (five minutes in the microwave) and Trader Joe’s premade turkey-stuffed red peppers (four minutes).
Ironically, it seems the more time and effort I save myself, the more stressed and frazzled I become. I feel pressed to fill every second of that time, as if once saved, it becomes more precious. “We used to call that a ‘blibby’ in New York,” said my dad when I’d complained to him that I felt I had more to do than time to do it. “You’re squeezing in a lot more than you can,” he clarified. “A blibby is 15 pounds of shit in a 5-pound sack. And that ain’t gonna happen. We think we’re being efficient if we’re doing more things, but we’re no longer paying attention to the things we’re doing. If you do what you’re doing 100 percent, you’re going to enjoy it more.”
Despite my geekiness for gadgets, one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve ever had was due to the absence of the very same modern conveniences I felt I couldn’t live without. It was the time David and I stayed with our friends, Urs and Gudrun, at their home in Öland, Sweden, and then, together with them, in a small villa in Trevi, Italy. For those weeks I was without phone, a clothes dryer, microwave, and dishwasher. Televisions were available but were never turned on. Despite the lack of access to my usual “timesavers,” I had a surprising amount of free time. In the evenings, a bottle of wine would be opened and dinner prepared, not from a box or bag, but from actual individual ingredients. The table was set and, eventually, the four of us would sit and take our meal accompanied by the soft textured sound of Urs’s classical music on the stereo. I have dined at four-star restaurants, but I cannot remember any meal tasting better than the savored fare from those unhurried evenings.