Things I can’t live without

Survival depends on very little – food, water, shelter, clothing. Fulfillment requires healthy relationships, meaningful work and serving others. Convenience is more complicated.

Reflecting on what I cannot live without is an examination of convenience. Everything on this list contributes to my comfort, productivity, or entertainment, but it isn’t necessary for survival. That said, this list says a lot about me.

Lance wearing a blue vest and red checked shirt clutches a white mug of coffee
My drug of choice requires a machine that I cannot live without.

Coffeemaker. I had my first cup of coffee as a sophomore in college in 1989 at the appropriately named Coffee Kettle restaurant in Troy, Ala. I drank coffee then as now – for its medicinal benefits. Then, I relied on the caffeine boost to power through all-night study or paper writing sessions. Now, it helps me wake up in the morning and it fuels me past my afternoon lull. When I first started the habit, I was like a lot of newcomers to the beverage. I added copious amounts of sugar and cream or creamer to my coffee. That changed in the fall of 1991 during my journalism internship at Knight-Ridder Newspapers’ Washington Bureau. On a crisp fall morning I was at the office coffee station filling my cup with sugar and creamer when the bureau’s office manager came in to get her morning coffee. A refined and attractive middle-aged British woman, she always struck me dumb when she spoke to me. She looked at my coffee accessories and declared “That will kill you.” Internalizing her disapproval of my doctoring, I ceased at the moment to add anything to my coffee and learned to drink it black. When I set up housekeeping for the first time in the summer of 1992 at an apartment in Macon, Georgia, I purchased my first coffeemaker. It wasn’t top of the line, but it got the job done. Even when I go on camping trips, I make sure to bring along a kettle and the easy “boil in a bag” coffee. It’s a dependency and a creature comfort not required for life, but it’s an addiction I choose not to forsake at this stage of my life.

Hot water heater. I have taken cold showers in my life, and with the exception of the time I was in Lake Wales, Florida, helping my parents clean up from the damage of hurricane Charley, I did not welcome the experience. Even during the summer, I like to take long, hot showers. I think deep thoughts. I have good ideas. It’s relaxing. But the temperature really matters. One of the best amenities our current house possessed when we bought it in 2013 was a tankless water heater. Only when the power is out do I have to forego hot water, and in those rare instances, I have chosen to postpone showering until the water is hot enough to turn my skin pink.

Air conditioner/heater. My father-in-law, Lanny Barron, believed the most significant culture-changing invention to impact life in the South was the invention of air conditioning. It’s hard to argue. Air conditioning has turned us into indoor people, lowering our tolerance to temperatures that in the past would have been ideal for outdoor play. Lately, my preferred indoor temperature is a higher than it used to be. I can live with 75 or 76. When the AC goes out completely, it quickly feels unbearable when temperatures reach 82 or 83. A couple of years ago we replaced the main AC unit in our house. Supposedly more energy efficient, the new system controls the humidity indoors as well. That’s a welcomed innovation that adds to our summertime comfort. Of course, these days the air conditioner is dual purpose and has a heat pump as well. As I age, I find that I am more susceptible to cold and probably need the use of the heater as much or more than the air conditioning. The lower range of comfortable temperatures for me these days is 71 or 72, and I confess to having to wear a fleece pullover and sit under a blanket while watching TV at night from fall to early spring.

Refrigerator. Whenever thunderstorms render us powerless, we must contemplate the question of whether the food in our freezer will thaw or the contents of our refrigerator will spoil. In those cases, my under-appreciated fridge takes on greater importance. We have leftovers after nearly every nightly meal. I rely on the bounty of the Tupperware-enclosed morsels tucked away in the refrigerator for my lunches. Our refrigerators allows me to get the most mileage out of our meals and feel thrifty in the process. I have a simple standard for selecting my lunch menu: the food in the fridge that is oldest and will spoil first. I eat that, racing the clock (or calendar) to consume the substances quickly deteriorating, When going to the office, I carry a large lunch bag with the plastic ice blocks to keep my plate of leftovers safely chilled before warming them in the microwave. 

Microwave. Speaking of microwaves, it goes hand-in-glove with the fridge. The bounty of leftovers cannot be properly enjoyed without a microwave. I still remember the late 1970s when microwaves started appearing in people’s kitchens. It was an unfathomable innovation that reduced meal preparation times to minutes. There are a still some dishes better heated up in the oven, but if I’m honest, I will often sacrifice quality for timeliness. There are a few foods that are improved by a few seconds in the microwave. At my age, I try to limit my carbs, but occasionally, a pastry or doughnut warmed for 10 seconds or so in the microwave really hits the spot.

Smartphone. As much as I hate to admit this, I am dependent on my smartphone. Not only do I make use of myriad apps for daily conveniences, if I have a moment of unstructured time, I look at it for no good reason. On the plus side, it serves as my alarm clock, and the time function comes in handy with my workout routines. Speaking of working out, the Run Keeper app and an app from the physical therapist helps me track my fitness and rehab from recent knee surgery. The calorie counting app has helped me maintain a healthy weight for more than two years, and the weather app is the first one I open each day. I use my notes app for keeping up with my “to-do” list, movies to watch on family movie night, TV shows to enjoy with Carla, and other essential data I need to keep at my fingertips for odd moments, like my license plate number. The texting function keeps me connected with family and friends, especially during the isolation of the pandemic, and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) app means I never have to wonder where I’ve seen that actor before or if this movie will have inappropriate content for my children. I can “doomscroll” through the news and fake news, wasting time, or, on occasion, see what my friends and family are up to. The ESPN app lets me see the scoreboard of whatever sport is in season, and my podcasts are never far away, giving me hours of good content to absorb. On the downside, my phone also has my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Reddit accounts just a click away. I recently deleted all of the time-wasting games, and I really have tried to cut back on the amount of time I stare at my phone. I am glad that I now only have to carry one smartphone having ditched a separate work phone. I can’t live without my smartphone, but there are many days I fantasize about trying.

Toothbrush. Last but certainly not least is a device so simple and basic, I take it for granted most days. Good dental hygiene has been instilled in me since childhood, and with the combination of my mother’s good dental genes and my dad’s insistence on brushing and flossing, I’ve managed to live 50 years on this planet without a cavity. On those rare times I’ve been without a toothbrush, I’ve resorted to using my finger, but nothing beats the plain ol’ toothbrush at keeping your teeth clean and healthy and your breath fresh.

There are a lot of climate control, food storage and preparation, and hygiene-related items on this list. I’m sure there’s more I could include, but for now, let’s leave it at that.

Are we there yet?

Summer road trips have been a part of the Southern landscape since rednecks first discovered their Riviera on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. For nearly as long, parents have been looking for ways to entertain their children in the car on the way to the beach.

We’re just past Independence Day, and my family has already made one long and several short car trips. All the time behind the wheel has me contemplating how kids pass the time in the car in the New South.

When I was growing up, my family made annual treks from Fort Worth, Texas, to Columbus, Ga., to see my grandparents.  Not confined to car seats like today’s kids, my two brothers and I freely roamed the back seats of our family’s station wagons and sedans.

We amused ourselves with books, coloring books and handheld, battery-operated electronic games, which were the new technological rage in the late 1970s. We counted “Lovebugs” and cried out in olfactory offense when we passed a nearby paper mill. We enjoyed egg McMuffins and Whoppers, and occasionally stopped at Stuckey’s when traversing Mississippi.

electronic football
Mattel's Football 2 was our favorite. You could even "pass" indicated by one red blip blinking and moving downfield to another red blip. Highly advanced for its day.

Kids in the New South, spend car trips watching movies, listening to MP3 players and playing handheld game systems like Nintendo DS and Playstation PSP. These game systems allow kids to play interactively in high resolution graphics. Back in my day, we tried to move a red blip past other red blips in a game that sounded like Morse Code and resembled a malfunctioning Internet router more than it did football.

Our 2-year-old son, Carlton, demonstrated a new breakthrough during a recent trip to Tampa. As all 2-year-olds confined to car seats for long periods do, Carlton began to fuss and whine and lose interest in the movie my older two boys watched on our minivan’s built-in DVD player.

My wife clicked away on Facebook on her ever-present iPhone attracting Carlton’s attention.

“I want it!” he whined, arms outstretched.

Tough love isn’t something we practice during long car trips.

Carla handed over her phone, and in just a few seconds we heard Barney singing “The Wheels on the Bus.” Carla and I exchanged puzzled looks. She took the phone away, reset it and handed it back so she could see what he was doing.

Carlton on Iphone
Carlton outsmarts the smart phone.

Unable to read but not immune to good branding, the 2-and-a-half-year-old Carlton scrolled through the apps until he found Netflix. After he hit the Netflix button, he immediately found “Barney & Friends” among the “recently watched” options. He clicked it, resuming Barney in mid-chorus.

I get that kids pick up technology quickly. I get that the iPhone is easy to use. What is a little hard to fathom is how quickly we went from counting state license plates and Volkswagen Beetles to playing DVDs and streaming children’s TV shows on our smartphones.

With one more car trip to go, my faithful readers as my witness, if I hear the words “I’m bored” I’m going to lose it.

Here’s hoping Carlton’s fascination with Barney and friends holds up for a few more hours, and Carla’s data plan doesn’t give out.