In Praise of Pleasurable Inconvenience: An Essai

A couple of years ago, I said something to two music-craving, iPod-obsessed friends that to them made no sense whatsoever (and for the record I say a lot of such things).

iTunes and Youtube had just come onto my radar, and I was telling them how on one hand it was cool that if I got the sudden impulse to hear a cheesy song from my corny past like Modern English’s “I Melt with You” or the Sugarcubes’ “Hit,” I could click a few buttons on my laptop, pay 99 cents, and voila I have it. My buds nodded their head and smirked at how “behind-the-techno-hip” times their wonder-loving friend is.

But my “other hand” comment took them back. “On the other hand,” I said and then explained how instant download is a different experience than flipping the radio channels and suddenly coming across a song you love or, better, the song from yore you just happened to be thinking about. There’s something delightful about that coincidence, I said, something pleasurable of having a thing desired just out of reach, of not living a Jetson lifestyle all of the time.

They both grimaced, looked askance, almost embarrassed for their apparently Luddite, clueless, iPad-less friend’s naivete. They extolled on things like “empowerment” and “free from the controls of corporate radio” (as if iTunes and Apple were some quaint garage-sized enterprises) and “free time.”

They didn’t get it. And I couldn’t quite articulate what I was thinking out loud. What I was getting at has something to do with the pleasure of wandering through library stacks in search of the perfect book or obscure journal article that will send me further on an all-day trail of questions versus the ten-minute jaunt on an online university library system’s database or Amazon.com. It’s the luxury and necessity of occasional pleasurable inconvenience. On Getting Lost & Not-Knowing
Two recent essays goaded these long- and loosely held thoughts: Tom Kreider’s “In Praise of Not Knowing” (16 June 2011) in the Sunday Times and David Amsden’s “The Art of Getting Lost” in GQ (July 2009).

Amsden recounts how the purchase of an iPhone 3G with a GPS unit initially transformed him into a technophile. He takes his Russian girlfriend on a special and supposedly meandering drive to her old Brighton Beach neighborhood. While his girlfriend keeps pointing out “cool” sights like the lush Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, Amsden kept pointing to the “cool” blue dot on the GPS screen that marked their whereabouts. When they arrived at the girlfriend’s old home, Amsden realized a startling truth:

We had reached our destination, yet I had no recollection of how we got there, no more understanding of where I lived than I had before we got in my car, and no clue how to get back without the phone. I felt like one of those allegorical blob-people in Wall-E who float through life staring at screens, oblivious to their surroundings. The notion that I would never, ever be lost again, initially so bizarre and thrilling, now triggered in me a fierce mix of fear and nostalgia that I haven’t quite been able to shake since.

What do we lose, I began to wonder, if no one is ever lost?

(You wouldn’t be surprised that I’m reading a book called Free-Range Kids).

Later in the essay Amsden recounts how when he was nine-years-old he and his “prehormonal” girlfriend ventured into the woods and got turned around for hours, unable to find their way out and back home until way past sun set. Although it wasn’t exactly fun,

on some primal level we learned that, alone in the world, we could survive. This is the upside of being lost: You end up finding yourself in unexpected ways.

And getting lost, I would contend, can be a pleasurable inconvenience.

And just this past Sunday in the Times, Tom Kreider opines for the art of not-knowing and pines for the day of “not having every last thing a click away. Because what we cannot find inflames the imagination.”

He continues:

“I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life – why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us – are things we’re never going to know.”

Not-knowing, too, can be a pleasurable inconvenience.

The Edges of Not-Convenient
I know and somewhat agree with the counter-arguments – how the Internet frees up time (ha!), how exploring the Internet can lead to serendipitous discoveries comparable to searching library stacks (yes, I wrote a Tracking Wonder Handbook on just this very thing, and Maria Popova’s blogs Brain Pickings and Curiosity Counts beautifully exemplify what I call the Serendipity Slide), how access of information and videos and music democratizes our world of information and ideas (I agree to a certain extent).

Still, there are what I’d call the edges of not-convenient where I want to walk. I’m thinking about a life of occasional home cooking versus prepared take-out and big bulky dictionaries versus the online tidbit options, of what you and whom might bump into when walking a half mile to the store and of the sun-baked scent of hung-dried laundry.

Of hauling in wood for the cast-iron stove.  Of juicy, meandering conversations at the kitchen table. Of any kind of real friendship.  Of making intricate art or maps like that of Marian Bantjes. Of making books with exquisitely designed covers, carefully cut paper, and finely chosen font.

Of not just information highways and clutter-free zones and mindfulness but also winding roads and wabi-sabi messiness and wanderfulness.

Simplicity, yes. Systems and rhythms that aid productive creativity and authentic creativity, absolutely. Cool tools that facilitate long-distance interaction and help you stay organized, of course.

But not at the expense of visceral, finger-tingling, well textured experience.

Pleasurable inconveniences can have their advantages in the long run. The corpuscles in your arms and legs light up, like forgotten memory-workers ready to do your bidding. We remember, in the long run, what we feel and sense at the same time and what we work our way through.

Remembering the Red Balloon
I remember the labyrinthine back rooms and shadows of the UGL – the “Ugly” as we called the plain Modern Undergraduate Library at the University of Texas. And I remember one especially long day of study and research when I was 19 or 20. I was gathering material for a paper on macro-economics – not my forte but required nonetheless – and secretly holding off against what seemed like the drudgery of being an adult.

I left my books and papers to wander the stacks as if in search of an answer to what bugged me. And within an hour of random searching I found it, a first edition of Albert Lamorisse’s Le Ballon Rouge, a book based on his film of the same name.  In the 1956 film shot in Paris, a boy named Pascal finds a balloon that has consciousness and follows the boy as he wanders the city of love’s streets. I felt as if I had made an exquisite discovery.

And for the record, I did link to Wikipedia to double-check my memory on the film’s plot. It was convenient. I wouldn’t say it was pleasurable or memorable or that I learned much from the experience. And, yes, I will likely buy a DVD copy from Amazon.com so when my daughter turns five – the age when I will allow her to sit before a video screen for longer than three minutes – she might revel in the simple story’s delights. But there will be little reason for her to remember the moment fifteen or more years later.

When we come to die, we will remember the tactile moments and frustrations and eventual victories of, say, teaching ourselves to make avocado lime soup with chile chipotle for a friend’s wake. I have a dim suspicion that forty years from now we will not remember linking onto epicurious.com for the recipe.

Drop in the Hut
What “pleasurable inconvenience” do you indulge in or have you indulged in? What pleasurable inconvenience do you remember? What did you learn from it? How does it stoke your creative life? Do you think I’m off-base here in my praise?

See you in the woods (getting lost, I hope!),

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  1. Thank you for honoring the values of wanderfulness, getting lost and pleasurable inconvenience. I appreciate the balance you are able to strike between the convenience of technology and the inspiration, you and aliveness of random discovery.

    I worry about the generation of iPod obsessed ones. Will they lose their awareness for the zest of experiential learning? Will they become drones with their Droids?

    I’m grateful for people like you, who are willing and open to live in the questions. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Marsha:
    Thanks for taking the time to drop in The Hut.

    I agree that iPod obsessed people of all ages risk losing the richness of direct experience.

    I also wonder about the generation of parents who fear letting their children roam outdoors freely and this rise of digital obsession. Another set of questions!


  3. This is a great point. I remember discovering this in high school: I would stalk a new delicious single from radio station to radio station, at times pulling off the road if it came on unexpectedly while driving, always stopping to put the song on blast no matter what I was doing.

    But all of that ecstasy leaves the moment you purchase the single, or the album. It is as if the delight is not in the music, but in the serendipity, in the receiving of a precious gift.

  4. Bret:
    I appreciate what you say: “It is as if the delight is not in the music, but in the serendipity, in the receiving of a precious gift.” That is spot-on. We risk losing the delight of inconvenient serendipity when everything we want is readily at our disposal.

    So it goes.

  5. about the whole “radio novelty” of coming across a beloved song, something new, or just something worthy of listening to which was unplanned…Meet Pandora Radio. =)

  6. Robin: Thanks for reminding me of Pandora. Pandora offers serendipity, too, even in a heightened way as you might have a little influence on (as you word it) hearing “a beloved song…or just something worthy of listening to which was unplanned.” An independent local radio station here also offers random variety and chance pleasure. Fortunately, the options are available, still. (and Pandora makes the options for desired chance fresh.) Cheers.