Bryson's America: The convenience society, or con for short

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OUR SUBJECT today is convenience in America, and how the more convenient things supposedly get, the more inconvenient they in fact become.

I was thinking about this the other day (I'm always thinking, you know - it's amazing) when I took my younger children to a Burger King for lunch, and there was a line of about a dozen cars at the drive-through window. Now, a drive-through window is not, despite its promising name, a window you drive through, but a window you drive up to and collect your food from, having placed your order over a speakerphone along the way; the idea is to provide quick takeaway food for those in a hurry.

We parked, went in, ordered and ate, and came out again, all in about 10 minutes. As we departed, I noticed that a white pickup truck that had been last in the queue when we arrived was still four or five cars back from collecting its food. It would have been much quicker if the driver had parked like us, and gone in and got his food himself, but he would never have thought that way because the drive-through window is supposed to be speedier and more convenient.

You see my point, of course. Americans have become so attached to the idea of convenience that they will put up with almost any inconvenience to achieve it. It's crazy, but there you are. The things that are supposed to speed up and simplify our lives more often than not have the opposite effect, and this set me to thinking (see, there I go again) why this should be.

Americans have always had a strange devotion to the idea of assisted ease. It is an interesting fact that nearly all the everyday inventions that take the struggle out of life - escalators, automatic doors, passenger lifts, refrigerators, washing machines, frozen food, fast food - were invented in America, or at least first widely embraced here. Americans grew so used to seeing a steady stream of labour-saving advances, in fact, that by the Sixties they had come to expect machines to do pretty much everything for them.

I remember that the moment I first realised that this was not necessarily a good idea was at Christmas of 1961 or '62, when my father was given an electric carving-knife. It was an early model, and rather formidable. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but I have a clear impression of him donning goggles and heavy rubber gloves before plugging it in. What is certainly true is that when he sank it into the turkey it didn't so much carve the bird as send pieces of it flying everywhere in a kind of fleshy white spray, before the blade struck the plate with a shower of blue sparks, and the whole thing flew out of his hands and skittered across the table and out of the room, like a creature from a Gremlins movie. I don't believe we ever saw it again, though we used sometimes to hear it thumping against table legs late at night.

Like most patriotic Americans, my father was forever buying gizmos that proved to be disastrous - clothes steamers that failed to take the wrinkles out of suits but had wallpaper falling off the walls in whole sheets, an electric pencil sharpener that could consume an entire pencil (including the metal ferrule and the tips of your fingers if you weren't real quick) in less than a second, a water pick (which is, for those of you who don't know, a water-jet device which "blast-cleans" your teeth) that was so lively, it required two people to hold and left the bathroom looking like the inside of a car wash.

But all of this was as nothing compared with the situation today. Americans are now surrounded with items that do things for them to an almost absurd degree - automatic cat-food dispensers, refrigerators that make their own ice cubes, automatic car windows, disposable tooth-brushes that come with the toothpaste already loaded. People are so addicted to convenience that they have become trapped in a vicious circle: the more labour-saving appliances they buy, the harder they need to work; the harder they work, the more labour-saving appliances they feel they need. There is nothing, no matter how ridiculous, that won't find a receptive audience in America so long as it promises to provide some kind of relief from effort. I recently saw advertised, for $39.95, a "lighted, revolving tie rack". You push a button and it parades each of your ties before you, saving you the exhausting ordeal of making your selection by hand.

Our house in New Hampshire came replete with contraptions installed by earlier owners, all of them designed to make life that little bit easier. Up to a point, a few really do (my favourite, of course, being the garbage disposal unit), but most are just kind of wondrously useless. One of our rooms, for instance, came equipped with automatic curtains. You flick a switch on the wall and four pairs of curtains effortlessly open or close. That, at any rate, is the idea. In practice what happens is that one opens, one closes, one opens and closes repeatedly, and one does nothing at all for five minutes and then starts to emit smoke. We haven't gone anywhere near them since the first week.

Something else we inherited was an automatic garage door opener. In theory this sounds wonderful, and even rather classy. You sweep into the driveway, push a button on a remote control unit and then, depending on your sense of timing, pull into the garage smoothly or take the bottom panel off the door. Then you flick the button again and the door shuts behind you, and anyone walking past thinks: "Wow! Classy guy!"

In reality, I have found, our garage door will close only when it is certain of crushing a tricycle or mangling a rake, and, once closed, will not open again until I get up on a chair and do something temperamental to the control box with a screwdriver and hammer, and eventually call in the garage door repairman, a fellow named Jake who has been taking his holidays in the Maldives since we became his clients. I have given Jake more money than I earned in my first four years out of college, and still I don't have a garage door I can count on.

You see my point again. Automatic curtains and garage doors, electric cat-food dispensers and revolving tie racks only seem to make life easier. In fact, all they do is add expense and complication to your existence.

And therein lie our two important lessons of the day. First, never forget that the first syllable of convenience is con. And second, send your children to garage-door repair school.

Notes from a Big Country, Doubleday, pounds 16.99.