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It’s a word that has a positive connotation to most people. Convenience is the ability to do more with your time. In an ever-shrinking, constantly-speeding, eternally-stressful world, convenience can be a very powerful tool in a toolbox that often feels woefully empty.
Convenience is also destroying America’s incredibly dynamic culture.
Convenience does not urge you to take the time to create something unique. Convenience does not encourage you to spend several hours, days, or weeks to learn a new craft. Convenience does not inspire exploration, deviation, or experience. Convenience pushes us to accomplish ever more with what precious little time that we have, and pushes creativity, uniqueness, and craftsmanship to the side. Efficiency replaces aesthetic.
It’s an oxymoron, if you get right down to it. Convenience encourages you to do things more efficiently so you have more time to do more things… except oftentimes, that “more time” is not spent experiencing something new and different. Convenience often lulls us into dull routine. Or worse yet, that extra time is wasted working longer hours, driving further to more distant destinations, watching Netflix or scrolling through social media. We don’t learn new skills, we don’t build new things, we don’t create or generate or flex our brains – we take the most convenient option so we have more time to … veg.
As the host & primary author of the Take Back Roads blog, the idea for this blog struck me after taking a particularly lengthy drive – all highways – south to Myrtle Beach from Pittsburgh for our family’s summer vacation. My wife and I were sitting in our beach chairs in the pounding Atlantic surf, unwinding from your normal American stressors – family, work, money, education (she’s just about to start her doctoral degree in psychology), and of course, the drive down.
To be honest, the idea hit me powerfully, in the “ton of bricks” fashion that’s so cliché. I looked over at Amanda and expressed it angrily: “Convenience is killing America.”
It’s a tribute to the friendship that is the foundation of our excellent marriage that she understood what I meant immediately. Granted, she has the advantage of spending most of her time with your aforementioned Take Back Roads host, but the idea is a simple one to grasp.
One of the main ways that convenience is destroying American culture (perhaps a better way to say it than my disgusted exclamation in our beach chairs) is also the genesis of TBR: the damage that’s been done to the small towns dotting the American landscape by the development and domination of America’s “super-highway” system. I discuss this theme much deeper in the “About” page here on TBR, but the basic gist of it is that when you travel strictly by highway, you speed by the small towns and villages that make up a huge swath of our country doing 70 instead of cruising through them at 40.
Instead of seeing and stopping at a fascinating artwork or jewelry or silly little knick knack store along the way, you begrudgingly drive as far as you possibly can as fast as you possibly can and only stop to hit up a generic fast food joint or grungy rest stop area. If the words “Hurry up kids, we need to get back on the road!” have escaped your lips in the last few years, you know exactly what I’m talking about. As a result, many of the family-built, family-run enterprises that were the backbone of our country during it’s cultural peak of the 50’s and 60’s are now long-dead, replaced by insipid big box stores and chain restaurants.
Sadly, it’s not just roadside America that’s being killed by convenience. Oh no, the problem is so much deeper. When’s the last time you bought groceries from a store where you actually knew the grocer’s name? The last time you had a meal where you knew the proprietor’s name? The last time you bought an item from a locally owned shop or farm? The last time you baked a pie or made spaghetti sauce or pierogis (yup, I’m a Pittsburgher) from scratch? The last time you went camping, pitched a tent, and cooked your dinner over the campfire you built? The last time you read a real, honest-to-goodness paper-bound-in-a-cover book – maybe one that you borrowed from the library? The last time you were even IN a library? The last time you wrote and mailed someone a letter? Hell, the last time you mailed anyone ANYTHING?
Now contrast that by the opposite of the questions above. When’s the last time you bought groceries at a big-box store like WalMart, Target, Trader Joes, Giant Eagle, Piggly Wiggly, etc? When’s the last time you had a meal at a chain restaurant? The last time you ordered something from Amazon? The last time you made food in the microwave? The last time you stayed in a chain hotel, with a chain restaurant near the lobby where you had dinner? The last time you read something on a Kindle or a Nook or a blog on the internet? (OK, OK, I threw that one in to be funny) The last time you sent a text message, PM on Facebook, or email? The last time you paid a bill online?
Convenience and streamlined efficiency have also nearly destroyed the American creativity that’s brought us such icons as the ’57 Chevy, craftsman style homes, vinyl album art (don’t get me started on the creativity and quality of music then & now), hand-made hardwood furniture, and even our interpersonal interactions like talking on the phone or mailing postcards or writing love letters or making mix tapes (yeah, I made them for my girlfriends in high school).
Instead, we’re now stuck with utterly boring cars (self-driving cars?! *gasp* THE HORROR!), cookie cutter houses, a tiny digital thumbprint on an iPod, mass-produced compressed sawdust faux-wood furniture, and Snapchat, LOL/OMG/GTG, email (only if you’re committed enough) and digital playlists.
This is not to say that convenience, and more specifically the technology that creates it, are bad things. It’s not intended to be a blog that simply rails against convenience in a “You damn kids get off my lawn, I walked 10 miles to school uphill both ways!” kind of manner. Convenience and technology can be and very definitely are good in many ways. But what we do with the extra time that is freed up is crucial, and really is the heart of the matter.
I urge you, I beg you, I implore you, down on my knees pretty pretty please – do something better with your newly-freed up time that convenience allows you. Do things the inconvenient way. Don’t take the easy way. Don’t avoid learning how to do/make/build/create something simply because it can’t be done in less than an hour’s time.
If you truly want to make America a great country again, it’s going to need to be done the inconvenient way: Take the time to learn a new skill, read a new book (a real book that you got from the library!), make a new meal from scratch, or shop in a local retail store. Roast your own coffee. Write and mail someone a letter. Can your own salsa or spaghetti sauce. Learn how to change your own oil, rotate your own tires, fix that squeaky step and leaky pipe, and build a new bookshelf to hold the books and records and knick knacks you start finding while taking the long way home. Buy fruits and veggies from a local farm stand or market. Get your bread from the baker and your meat from the butcher – if your town even still has either one of those.
Take a back road.
1 – Nelson’s Ghost Town at El Dorado Canyon Mine, Nevada
2 – Relaxing before the campfire in the desert near Goldfield, Nevada
3 – The Main Drag in Bloomfield, Kentucky
4 – A late 50’s Buick sedan seen at the Sewickley PA Car Cruise
5 – The bottom stretch of Montgomery Rd in Franklin Park, PA