Janet Sheridan: Questionable time savers

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In the late 1980s, I took a cruise to Alaska to visit my sister Barbara in Homer to remind her she could run, but not hide.

In preparation, I dropped into the brochure-laden office of my travel agent, Shirley. In the past, this efficient lady had helped me by arranging a last-minute flight and a rental car for a family funeral, coordinating a train trip to San Francisco for six friends wanting to see "Cats," and recommending affordable places to stay in California’s wine country.

When I mumbled vaguely about a cruise, she asked questions to discover my preferences, presented me with options, booked the deal, and handed me a folder of organized documents, two leather luggage tags, and a neon-green shoulder bag with the cruise logo.

Though travel agents still exist, technology has made travel planning a do-it-yourself activity for most people.

For a recent cruise, my current travel agent, Joel, did everything Shirley did, but without her overriding concern for my wishes or her social graces when I requested a change. Over the course of several weeks, lengthy telephone conversations, and lots of household agitation, his efforts matched Shirley’s, though he failed to give me a florescent bag or thank me for choosing him.

Airlines now charge a fee if you call them to schedule a flight rather than booking it yourself online. They also expect you to check yourself in at the airport, which irritates me: I hate touching my index finger to a screen last used by a constant cougher. And when I become confused by the complexities of the process, impatient travelers know I’m the idiot making them wait, not an unskilled ticket agent.

Shopping online is another technology-dependent activity with a downside. Choosing clothing on a computer is a convenient option for residents of Craig, but sometimes I long for quick access to a mall with several stores where I can tell at a glance which items may be worth the trauma of the dressing room.

It’s true that the best websites allow me to click on a jacket I’m considering to see it in each available color. I can also view it from every angle and zoom in to examine the “fanciful” edging on its collar and sleeves.

Still, I can’t truly assess what I’m getting until I open the package delivered to my door and scrutinize its contents: how did I not notice the strange gathered pouf across the back or that “sunshine yellow” looks like something you’d scrub off with a toothbrush?

When I crane my head over my shoulder before my well-lit bathroom mirror, why does my rear view never equal that of the model on the website?

My irritation increases as I repackage the offending garment, deliver it to the correct carrier, and wait for my requested exchange.

Then, after three weeks of waiting and deleting a barrage of emails from the online company extolling its fantastic sales, I receive notification that the item is no longer in stock.

Great.

I also question the timesaving qualities of the pestilence of cell phones devouring the land. Though at times they’ve eased my passage through life, we seem to spend an enormous amount of time on cell phones: updating one another other about trivialities once thought too mundane for a telephone call or double-checking a myriad of details we once would’ve ignored.

Even cars have developed a bossy streak: cancelling cruise control when three raindrops fall, telling us to check tire pressure, and nagging about oil changes and engine malfunctions.

When young and poor, if I heard an ominous noise while driving, I turned up the radio so I couldn’t hear it. Now lights light and beeps beep until we take our car to a mechanic only to discover that the commotion was caused by a malfunction of the warning system, not the car.

Well, that saved time.

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