My sister, Mary Lou, is the one who told me about Netflix. We were at her house and, as usual, it was full of commotion.
Nick, her nine-year-old, was filming us on the family's new digital camera. Dry-cleaned clothes still hung in a plastic shroud on the front door. Keith from Computer Geeks was visiting to fix something on the hard drive.
"Oh my God, it's great," said Mary Lou. "You order online, and they have every movie you can think of. Then they mail the DVDs to you. The best part is, you can hold onto them as long as you want; there are no late fees." At that point, the guy from Pizzeria Uno showed up with dinner.
On the way home, my daughters and I passed the fancy house that has stood vacant for years now, ever since an overzealous pest-control technician sprayed an amount of pesticide so toxic that the new owners couldn't move in. At least that's what the Puglieses, who own our nearby dry cleaners, told me. If I want to know what's going on in my Chevy Chase neighborhood, I pick up my dry cleaning.
The thing about Netflix is, I like my video store. I like to see whether I recognize the name of the band imprinted on the T-shirt George is wearing and to discuss music with him. I like to eavesdrop on teenage conversations on a Friday night. I like to run into friends.
"On the other hand," says Caitlin, my 17-year-old, "think how nice it would be not to have to worry about returning a movie on time."
Each of us chooses her moments and modes of expediency: drive or walk, e-mail or call, shop in person or online, hire someone to run our errands or do them ourselves. For most, it's a matter of practicality in ever-busier lives. For me, it remains as much about the personal touch as it is about efficiency.
For the time being, I'll continue to do my own shopping, usually with my 12-year-old, Lucy, who likes to lead me to her newest passion (Hostess Brownie Bites), and so I can chat with my checkout pal, Al, about his model-train hobby or with Reg about his latest bike ride. I'll pay at the window rather than the pump when I get gas, even though I'm pretty sure the men who work at the station are convinced I have a crush on them.
Mary Lou and her clan are coming over for dinner tonight. It would be easy to boil some pasta and toss a salad to feed the nine of us. Instead, I think I'll walk down the street and order up some delicious gyros from those cute guys at Moby Dick. Let's just say it's the personally expedient thing to do.