Thursday, August 15, 2013

Habits for the 21st Century

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve been thinking about things that everybody used to do that no one does any more. Or do they? How about reading in the bathroom? When I was growing up in the 1950s, most literate households had a bookshelf in the bathroom. Visitors could conduct their own household-to-household sociological survey by perusing their friends’ and neighbors’ shelves. Does your Kindle accompany you to the loo? And with the accelerated pace of postmodern life, who has time to read there?

Then there’s going out to mail a letter. You didn’t have to dress up to take a pleasant little constitutional to the nearest corner, where you could always find a mailbox. Nowadays? For one thing, who writes letters? In English novels, people were always excusing themselves from present company to write letters. In Jane Austen’s time, it was the fastest way to communicate with family and friends in other towns and the conventional way to communicate with neighbors even within a village. Now we can email, text, Skype, post on Facebook, and have a conversation on the phone wherever we are. I wish those cellphonistas on the bus would excuse themselves when they have private business to discuss.

As it happens, I still buy stamps, and I do mail the occasional envelope on my corner. This probably makes me a Luddite, since the USPS is constantly trying to get me to get my postage online and print it out at home, and all my utility companies and other creditors would like me to go to their websites to pay the monthly bills. I use my own bank’s online service for many regular bills, but with others, it’s proven more trouble than it’s worth. Case in point: one month my billionaire landlord refused the rent check on my rent-controlled apartment on the grounds the check came from a “third-party payer”—in other words, my bank. If I hadn’t figured out a workaround, I might have lost my apartment. Since then, I pay my rent by check.

Then there’s the mail that I’m not allowed to put in the mailbox. Anything that weighs more than 13 ounces must not only be carried to the post office, but be handed to a living person. There is an automated machine that will weigh my envelope or package and spit out digital postage. I can then put the piece in a giant drum of a mailbox. If, however, I have made the mistake of weighing the thing at home and putting on actual stamps, I’m not allowed to put it in the drum, but must wait on line—along with customers who actually have business to transact, sometimes at great length—to put the package in a living hand. The other day, I weighed in a three-pound manuscript in a lightweight bubble wrap envelope, answered all the digital questions about whether it contained any hazardous materials and whether I wanted to add any additional services, and then was told (digitally) that the printer wasn’t working so I’d have to stand on line (that’s a line of human beings, who in my branch post office usually outnumber the tellers by 20 to 1) to buy my stamps.

And let’s get back to the cellphonistas for a moment. (I’m always good for a rant on them.) In the 1980s, when I became a mental health professional, there were already plenty of people walking the streets alone while talking with unseen listeners. However, all of them were either schizophrenic (the ones who hear voices) or suffering from Tourette’s (the ones who involuntarily blurt out obscenities in public). Nowadays….

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