We Choose Convenience, Sacrificing Permanence

As the odometer of life rotates back to zeros and ones, I recall a lesson about permanence I learned on Friday, September 5, 2014. Nearly everything permanent is marked by a single moment. More precisely, it’s marked by the last moment before the world made room for this new permanence. Eternity needs only one direction to go forever.

I was flying back to Eugene from Oakland that morning, using a low-cost airline for a quick trip to visit new friends. I returned home and opened the mail collected during my absence. It included a large envelop from a long-ago college roommate. If you had followed me that day, that’s all you would have seen. But that’s not all that happened.

Back up a day, to Thursday morning. The airline reminded me to print my boarding pass before arriving at the airport. This particular airline offers ridiculously inexpensive flights, but then charges for anything extra. Asking them to print my boarding pass would cost me five dollars.

I don’t disrespect their business model. They have to make a profit somehow, and it won’t come from selling seats on their airplanes for less than $50.

My friends did not have a printer at home, so I figured I’d stop at a quick-print shop and take care of it. Our day got busy and I forgot. I was ready to admit my five-dollar defeat, but the airline offered me an alternative. I could download their free smart phone app and display my boarding pass that way.

The app suggested I get to the airport two hours ahead of my departure time, just in case, but certainly I should allow at least an hour. It turns out this “suggestion” might have been a command.

The next morning, I reached the TSA check-point 55 minutes before my flight was leaving. Suddenly the app “encountered an error” and could not display my boarding pass. My phone’s screen instructed me to fetch a printed boarding pass from a ticket agent.

The TSA agent told me the app is programmed so the boarding pass “expires” 60 minutes before flight time. (I didn’t verify this to be true, but it’s certainly technically possible.) I would claim they confiscated it, but I couldn’t prove I ever had it — whatever “it” is in this case.

I did admire their cunning, if that’s what it was. What the app giveth, the app can taketh, however its programmers pleaseth.

You think this doesn’t apply to you, but you don’t run a used bookstore. Apple and Amazon have filed patents for technology designed to prevent users from transferring (read, reselling) their music, e-books, and other digital belongings. They’d like to eliminate what’s called the “secondary market.” And you thought only farmers were being trapped by technology into buying their seeds every year.

With that lesson imprinted on my mind and the airplane’s seat-back tray still imprinted on my knees, I walked in my front door and opened a surprising piece of mail. Jay Goldstein and I were roommates and best friends in 1977. This summer, he cleaned out his attic and stumbled across a shoebox filled with letters I’d written him. His package to me included this very brief introduction: “Not surprising you ended up in the writing biz.”

Juxtaposed to my electronic boarding pass’s evaporation, pen and paper suddenly seemed profoundly permanent — frozen in time.

I had in front of me a personal time capsule: letters, postmarks, photographs. It was mostly mundane teenage stuff, but it was still me, almost two-thirds of a lifetime ago. I was a Midwestern boy learning how big the world was, writing to my friend who had wandered west until he hit ocean.

One letter ended with my pledge to “take seriously [his] recommendation of Oregon,” where he was living that summer. Twenty years later, I did. (Ironically, Jay settled down in Illinois, a few blocks from where he grew up.)

If you’ve not yet made a 2015 resolution, I offer you this. Write a letter to a friend. Mail it. After that, you never know what might happen.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs