MY aunt tends to her house as if it were her child. The place is spotless; the windows squeak; the kitchen counter is so shiny that I can see my reflection; and the floors are so finely waxed that my sister and I sometimes slide across in socks and pretend we are skating.
Smells of soy sauce, scallion, and boiling red-bean soup drift from the confines of the kitchen whenever I visit. The hum of the washing machine lulls me to sleep. The roses in the garden are in full bloom, the white rug is spotless, and every vase holds flowers arranged like a painting. My aunt enjoys keeping house although she's wealthy enough to hire someone to do it.
I am a failure at keeping house. I have chosen to be inept at what my aunt has spent so much time perfecting. When I was 13, I stayed away from domesticity and all the little chores in life because I considered it my contribution to the women's movement. At 19, I stay away from it because I consider it a waste of time.
I am a member of a generation so concerned with saving time that often we lose sight of why we are so time-conscious. Like most young people, I am lost without my wristwatch and daily planner. I am one of a seemingly growing number of young people who are doing college in three years instead of four and cramming in credits in the summer. We are on fast-forward and never put our life on pause.
In my freshman year of college, my roommates and I survived on Chinese takeout, Pizza Hut Express, and Taco Bell take-home dinners. We ate lunch while walking to class. We bought boxes of juice that we discarded after we'd finished. Every day seemed like an endless picnic as we ate with plastic utensils and styrofoam plates. It was fast, efficient, and in the end there were no dishes to wash.
My girlfriends and I talked about our mothers and grandmothers, models of domesticity, and pitied them. We didn't see the benefits of staying at home, ironing clothes, and making fresh spaghetti sauce when canned sauces were almost as good and cleaning services were so convenient.
We got depressed about the centuries of women who wasted their time making clothes, cutting curtains, grinding their own flour, and making everything from scratch. "It's mindless work," my friend said. "We're so lucky we don't have to deal with it."
My generation did seem fortunate and seemed to have more time because of all the technological conveniences. A block from my dorm there is a 30-minute cleaning service that delivers. One ingenious local lingerie store even sold throwaway underwear. "Saves time," the package read. "No laundry."
ATM machines became convenient cash cows, and using credit cards at supermarkets was a welcome change to waiting for a cashier to count change. We even dropped off our tax returns fast-food style and chatted with our friends and scheduled job interviews with the cellular phone as we walked to class.
One time, my roommates and I took a trip to a newly opened supermarket where we discovered microwave burgers, escargot in five minutes, meat sauce in half a minute, and a special kind of frosting that could be spread before the cake cooled.
That night we baked brownies in 10 minutes in the microwave and ate the frosting because we were too impatient to wait for the brownies to cool.
My aunt was silent and expressionless when I told her about the plastic utensils, microwave meals, and disposable underwear. "It's a waste of money," she finally said. I seethed as I stared at the perfect garden, the plump tomato plants, the hand-ironed laundry, and curtains that she had carefully designed. "Well, you're wasting your time," I said defensively, but I wasn't so sure anymore.
It seemed that all the young people I knew were time-saving fanatics. Everyone on campus preferred e-mail to snail mail, and the art of letter writing was long gone. I knew classmates who had forgotten how to write in script and printed like five-year-olds.
In schools across the country, children take trips to the White House via the Internet and Mosaic. One school, I heard, even considered canceling the eighth-grade Washington trip - a traditional rite of passage - because of the convenience of the Internet.
That's when it hit me. I remembered how in eighth grade my classmates and I were so excited about being away from home for the first time. We stayed up late, ate Oreos in bed, and roamed around the Lincoln Memorial without adults hounding us. It seemed silly all of a sudden, these acts of saving time that really made one lose out on the things that made life worthwhile, reassuring, and familiar.
It wasn't as if the time saved was being used for anything extraordinary or meaningful like volunteering, engaging in national service, or networking. Most of my friends spent their extra time watching TV, listening to their stereos, going shopping, hanging out at each others' houses, talking on the phone, or catching a snooze. The saved minutes were merely scraps that were discarded.
I began to loathe the tasteless microwave meals, the watery egg rolls, and the slimy pizzas. There was little joy in eating meals with sporks and plastic plates, little joy in eating the batter instead of the cake. Somehow, all of it made life seem cheaper.
I remembered how happy my aunt looked whenever she finished baking bread or a cake, how proud she seemed whenever she made a salad with the tomatoes and cucumbers she grew.
Once I frowned when she picked up the raw ingredients for making a birthday cake for her daughter. As she shopped for brown sugar, flour, food coloring, and eggs I pointed to a lavish-looking cake covered with pink roses. "Why don't you just buy a cake and save time?" I said.
"A cake is more than a cake," my aunt said. "It's time, energy, it's the thought ... you'll understand when you're older."
Slowly, I'm beginning to understand why my aunt takes joy in spending the time cooking for her family; why the woman down the street made her daughter's wedding gown instead of opting for Vera Wang; why the man next door spends so much time tending his garden. Recently, when I went on my evening walk, he offered me a bag of his fresh-grown tomatoes. "They're good," he said. "Not like the ones at the supermarket."
The other day, I abandoned the microwave meals, the half-hour laundry service, and spent the day making a meal for my family. As the pasta boiled and the red peppers sizzled, I wrote a letter to my cousin in Canada.
I hand-washed my favorite skirt and made chocolate cake for my little sister's birthday. It took all the self-control in the world not to dig into the batter or lather the icing on before it cooled.
That night I grinned as I watched my father and sister enjoy the pasta and cake. It was the first time in ages that I could remember feeling so proud. A week later, my cousin called to thank me for the letter - the first handwritten one she had received in two years.
Sure, my generation has all of the technological gains at our fingertips. Sure we are computer savvy and have more time at hand. But sometimes I wonder at what price, if in the end we forget the most important things in life.