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August 22, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: Life’s little conveniences actually can be quite annoying

I am aware that much of the language I use is outdated, stodgy, old-fashioned; I apologize.

So, when I tell you that I pulled my truck into a “gas station” last week to fill up, please understand that I mean a “convenience store” or “express mart.” A guy has to work pretty hard these days to find a real gas station, one where the owner has grease under his fingernails and a name tag sewn onto his shirt.

Anyway, I proceeded to do what I most often do at the gas pump; I jabbed my credit card into a slot, pushed all of the requisite buttons — including those that constituted my zip code — got the official OK, then proceeded to watch in irritation as big numbers rolled up in the “total sale” window.

I use a credit card at the gas pump for convenience. Because I do, I don’t have to stand in a line at the cash register, don’t have to sign anything, and I get a rebate on my purchases.

But, as in many cases these days, I’ve discovered that what is “convenient” has its inconveniences, too. I am not exaggerating when I say that most of the time when I fuel up and “pay at the pump,” I end up walking into the store to get the receipt anyway. Most often, I am told, “That pump hasn’t been giving receipts,” or “I guess we need to get paper in it,” or “We don’t know what’s wrong with that thing.” 

The short walk to the counter isn’t going to kill me; I’m not one of those people who cruises a parking lot for 15 minutes to find a parking spot a few feet closer to the door. I know I could drive off without a receipt, too, but, as a creature of habit, I want one.

After all, who hasn’t had to make a call to the credit card company at one time or another over some kind of a miscalculation or billing error?

Everywhere we go these days, we are told that things are being done for our convenience. Drive-up here, press “1” or “2” there; it’s all being done so our lives will be easier and faster and more efficient. And if you believe that, I have some prime real estate to sell you. What once used to be done by living, breathing people is now controlled by automation, by that almighty god, Technology. 

A few years ago, I wrote about the Luddites, a group of 19th century textile workers who came to oppose technology — sometimes violently — not because they thought it was sinful or the work of the Devil, but rather because they believed mass production and mindlessly repetitive factory work were detrimental to economies and product quality and, of course, to a dispirited and enslaved workforce.

I am, most decidedly, not a Luddite. I understand that many of the products I buy and use are reasonably priced and abundant because they are not made by highly skilled and expensive technicians. But is it too much to ask to actually speak to a human being when I want to discuss a bill? Is it unreasonable to get someone to replace a roll of paper at a gas pump or to walk into a store from which I purchased a product and not be told that their service center is located in Sri Lanka?

I suppose that there’s a price to pay for all of us whose births pre-date the majority of the technologies we live with and depend upon. My children and my students, who often are amazed at my limited knowledge of the latest things hand-held or plugged in, will sooner or later realize that they, too, are slipping behind the electronic curve. 

There’s no doubt that I enjoy the crystal clear television reception I receive via satellite dish, that is, unless it rains. Give me a brief cloudburst or a bit of lightning, and I’m watching a quiet blue screen. A few years ago, we were mandated to switch from an analog to a digital signal, a taller order for those folks who live in rural, isolated areas. A relative of mine lost free television for good. It was either put in a satellite dish or employ Gustave Eiffel to design a tower tall enough to pull in the local channels.

Just a few days ago, I took my cell phone into a store to ask about a new battery. The clerk (a polite young guy) told me that my model — a whopping four years old — was “outdated,” and they “didn’t even sell that battery anymore.” He told me I was looking at an upgrade, or perhaps I could find a battery online. Four years old is old? 

Perhaps the best illustration of what I mean came to me a couple of weeks back. My mother-in-law needed a new window air conditioner, so my wife and I volunteered to pick one up and install it for her. Appropriately, it was hotter that day in local store parking lots than the actual surface temperature of the sun, and after stops at three or four stores that had no window units left, Joanie decided to use her cell phone to save time and fuel and frustration.

After several fruitless calls, we took off for the south end of town anyway. While I drove, her call to one local store got her re-routed to a “convenient calling center” in Florida. By the time she received word that the store in question did, indeed, have a few of those rare units in stock, I had driven four miles through traffic, parked the car, walked into the store, and had asked two sales clerks about amperages and BTUs and prices.

From automated checkout aisles at grocery stores (surely designed by Rube Goldberg) to the ATM machines that eat cards to the fast-food drive-thru lanes with speakers manned by people who sound like Charlie Brown’s mush-mouthed teacher, give me convenience. After all, I have places to go and things to do with all the time I’m saving, that is, unless I’m put on hold …

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/ mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is due to be released in October.

 

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