When I think of the detrimental way speed has affected our society, two instances leap to mind:
- Back in the late ’90s when I was in university, driving to somewhere or another I heard a radio commercial spot for Burger King. The announcer promoted a new convenience the fast-food chain had to offer its customers: “We know sometimes time is short, and you’d like things made a little faster.” (Something like that.) So to remedy this pitiful shortfall on time, and since BK was sure everyone wanted fries with their sandwiches anyway, all you had to do in order to get fries, was to ask for a sandwich—the fries would come automatically. The idea being, of course, that you somehow can’t spare the thirty seconds it takes to ask for french fries. Or that it could never occur to you simply to ask for a numbered meal. Sitting at a red light when I heard this absurdity, I remember thinking, “Is this how low we have sunk? That asking for one item takes too much effort and time?”
- More recently (I think last summer) I was prowling around Costco with my then-eight-year-old son, who is somewhat of a sample-table aficionado—or at least likes to think of himself that way. I followed his wrinkled nose to a table showing off a new product called Crustables, and my mouth literally fell open when I realized what they were. Frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! I tell you now with my dignity intact, I was gobsmacked. I almost began stuttering. I was so dumbstruck by the idea that we as a civilization need peanut butter and jelly as a frozen-food item that the words plainly and simply failed me. The feeling rose in me to the point that I actually became exasperated and even somewhat angry. Do people actually feed this mist* to their families? And I recall thinking, as we drove away from the parking lot, “Is this how low we have sunk? That slapping together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the morning takes too much effort and time?”
It is my belief that the culture of rush-rush is ruining us. “How much is ever enough?”—a phrase I use with my son who is always wanting me to buy more for him, even seconds after I’ve agreed to any given item—comes to mind in terms of time. “How much faster will ever be quick enough?” And yes, I am comparing this pressure to the childish demands of “More!” because it is so self-destroying when we engage it, thinking little of how relatively easily we could have avoided it. Now, however, we’re past that stage, and into the full-blown, head-on screaming-tantrums-in-the-store-phase.
No matter how rapidly we do something, there’s always some genius whose innovative thinking comes up with a brilliant way to do it faster. Like the micro-managing boss who once told me that my way of deleting a character to replace it with another was much less efficient than hers. It involved the older codes of a bygone era, codes I was unfamiliar with and wasn’t willing to learn because, for starters, they are mostly jurassic. Knowing them is simply not very useful anymore and the idea of taking on a whole set of codes to save a nanosecond of time just doesn’t seem, in balance, a durable trade.
Natalia Baranskaia’s novella “A Week Like Any Other,” tells of a week in the life of an exhausted Russian scientist who flits from one responsibility to another each day until she falls into bed, remembering just as she sinks into sleep about the button she forgot to sew back on her pants. Her week opens with the words, “I’m in a rush,” and there are three references to her chronic tardiness before the first paragraph is halfway through. Though the story is primarily concerned with the lot of women in the late—no pun intended—Soviet Union, this preoccupation with haste could be a central theme in our own lives. The great fallacy of multi-tasking drummed into our heads, anything that requires cessation of movement seems wasteful. While Olya admits to her loathing of the rush lifestyle she leads, we pretend to thrive on it.
I think it was talk-show host Rusty Humphries who, in laying out his case against Obamacare and its inherent interminable waiting periods, quipped, “In a nation of people who can’t wait two minutes for a hot pocket, who believes we will tolerate six months to see a surgeon?” His comment, which I found rather funny, by the way, was nevertheless slightly off because the reason people won’t wait six months is justifiable. Come to think of it, maybe the argument about hot pockets is as well, and people get impatient because a food item so horrendous shouldn’t rob them of that much time.
Some food takes a couple of hours to prepare and can be worth the waiting period. But I’ll be the first to admit—along with my confession that I actually do eat hot pockets sometimes, more on that later—I’m not big on über long gaps of time in between asking for or deciding to prepare a certain meal and actually digging in. Still, it’s a give and take. In my opinion a delicious meal is an act of love, and even for people who don’t think that way, couldn’t it be at least the effort to feed one’s self and family something that is really, and I mean, really, nice? I mean nice as in, gorgeous. Food that makes you slow down and savor it, to broaden the mind to food served elsewhere, perhaps, even if the conversation references an entry found in It’s Disgusting and We Ate It!
Nowadays many in our society eat and serve food that divides us rather than brings us together to enjoy each other’s company, and I find this perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole mess, even if there is other fallout (such as obesity). Engaging children in a shopping trip, for example, can promote appropriate social behavior, the art of avoiding packaging traps (or appreciating lovely and delightful presentations), and instill common sense when it comes to pricing. Bringing it home and putting it away helps children to see the work involved in keeping the meals coming, and gives them a job that builds self-esteem in a positive, constructive way. Finally, creating food together isn’t just quality time, it’s a learning experience, for children as well as grown ups, many of whom, ehem, could use a cooking lesson or two in this age of Lean Cuisine. Doing it all together is, if you will, the icing on the cake.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m neither a foodie nor a food snob. But all of that fun stuff above is lost when we grab something that can be nuked in two (insufferably long) minutes and eaten just as fast. Where are the dinners that families linger over to appreciate because they are worth enjoying? Why are we in such a rush to eat our meals, and why do they have so often to be done separately? I know there are several answers to this line of inquiry, some justifiable to me, some not. But even for the ones that make sense, I still wonder: Why does that take priority over families and why do we allow it? Don’t we like each other anymore?
I’ve had this conversation in real life, and usually around the time I start talking about cooking on weekends, enough sometimes to feed armies, and then freezing it, that’s when I get the “Well, some people don’t like to cook” lecture that borders on the “You need to respect the diversity of opinions” spiel. For single people this could work out well; parents, not so much. Taking the time to feed children quality food is part of the job and heated prepared food each night is—well, think of it this way: If they got paid to feed their children, what would their annual progress reports look like? What parents do or don’t do is passed onto their youngsters, who then take that out into broader society, contributing towards a better society or…a worse one.
I am quite aware that not everyone is like me, nor should they be. As it happens, my own mother learned much of her cooking skills from my father, whose superior presence in the kitchen perhaps influenced my brother to be a chef. He in turn shared what he knew with his wife—prior skills unknown to me—and together the pair of them can whip up a dinner party like nobody’s business. Then there’s my sister, who absolutely detests cooking. (Although she used to make killer Sunday tacos; even the rogue pieces on the plate were awesome.) Her husband, however, whose family owned a restaurant for many years, ate and prepared seven-course meals all his life. They struck up a way to handle the operations, and follow their agreement to this day. Their daughter, hard working and inspirational, grew up in a house of family meals and shared conversation. Then there’s me, the single parent of a nine-year-old with Asperger’s, possessor of the advantage of feeding information to a boy who thrives on fastidious detail. I love breakfast because, simple or elaborate, it is so easy! Yet one can do so many things for that meal, and a parent can send their child to school without obsessing about Maslov’s hunger and, sorry, those horrific school meals attempting to satiate it.
A few years back I read a book that discussed slowing down, an idea that started with the slow food movement and expanded into groups of people around the world who wanted to reclaim family and time. In Praise of Slow outlines how speed has become a trap, no longer an advantage, and I think it is no coincidence all this started with food (nor that it was birthed in Italy), since eating brings people together in every culture on the planet (although this is, as I’ve been saying, being lost to us). Carl Honoré does a better job of introducing this movement, so in the interest of time, click the link. (I’m kidding about that time thing. ☺ )
I’ve decided to go back to that book as well, because mornings in our house are the most challenging: Already I wake up at 5:30 (note I said wake up and not necessarily get up) and then getting my son, who sometimes has difficulties with transitions, out the door can be a challenge. I’ve found it helpful to alter my routine a bit, e.g. by laying the table at night and packaging some lunch-box items as I’m cooking. In the morning I deliberately (try to) take 15 minutes for myself: I might check out the news or funny websites, read a bit, maybe even just sit by the window. Contrary to causing me to lose time and needing to rush more, it soothes me a bit—avoiding overstimulation into the bargain—and slowly moves me into a full day of catering mostly to someone else’s needs and/or wants. Still, I know there are other things I can do. And since I claim reading time every night….
Maybe weekday mornings will never allow us to sit down for a long period of time—and those hot pockets will sometimes have to suffice on days I run out of it. Yes, those again. They are the only microwaveable food that I halfway like—that’s why on those days I always resort to that same thing. I admitted to a co-worker recently my shame. “Even trying to prepare breakfast to take with on some days doesn’t work, because I might only have a few minutes and I refuse to stress myself enough to get it done. Driving to work calmly is my trade off.” Fortunately for me I like to experiment with food, so the next step is to make my own little “pockets.” Not quite as good as eating at home, but better than the ones you buy, and fun to do with children. The idea was actually my little Turtle’s, and I marveled at how children often have the capacity to help us grow. Making those little pockets will be slightly more challenging for me, as dough is not my strong suit. However, like re-claiming shopping from the screaming tantrums, the results will be so very rewarding.
*because no one knows I’m saying a bad word when it’s wrapped in another language, right?