Life in the Express Line

A radio ad for a bedding company makes an impressive offer. "Mattresses delivered in two hours!" the announcer crows, calling this no-waiting service "bedding for busy people."

Once upon a less-hurried time, mattresses, like other long-term purchases, arrived at a more deliberate pace. But that was before "wait" turned into a four-letter word, and before "Now!" became the imperial command of a nation of impatient consumers. Today waiting is increasingly viewed as an outmoded concept, an insult to a busy customer's time. Immediate service offers instant gratification - it's the new formula for business success.

Who can deny the advantages? From one-hour photo processing to instant hotel checkout and speedy rental-car check-in, progress takes many forms.

Thanks to technology, faxes and e-mail make waiting for post-office "snail mail" unnecessary. Call-waiting spares a caller the indignity of hearing a busy signal and waiting to redial. And credit cards eliminate the need to postpone shopping until cash is available. Just say, "Charge it," and spend freely. In a 24-hour society, eager shoppers, plastic in hand, can fulfill their consumer desires around the clock. No waiting required.

Already the demand for immediacy has become so urgent that one express photo company in Boston offers a "panic rush service."

Further evidence of an increasingly wait-free society appears in two current books. In "Doing Business @ the Speed of Thought," Bill Gates predicts that "velocity" will be the buzzword of the 2000s.

In "Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy," authors Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer take a similar approach. "Make speed your mind-set," they advise. "Your customer should not have to wait for service, your supplier for needed information, your partner for sign-offs, and so on."

So much speed! It's enough to make a weary reader want to order a mattress and take a nap when it arrives in two hours.

The prospect of greater efficiency can be encouraging. But what happens when a whole generation grows up never having to wait for much of anything? When delayed gratification is perceived as a problem to be overcome? When children - and all the rest of us - approach everything with finger-tapping impatience?

In an age of increasing impatience, what happens even to the biblical injunction to "wait patiently on the Lord"? There's more than a little truth behind the joking prayer, "God grant me patience, and give it to me right now."

Even pregnancy, once the ultimate test of patience as parents waited nine months to learn whether their child is a girl or boy, is no longer a sweet mystery. Diagnostic tests can reveal the sex of a fetus in the early months.

At its worst, waiting simply wastes time. A few years ago a lifestyle management expert, Michael Fortino, estimated that an average American will spend five years during a lifetime waiting in line and six months sitting at red lights. He didn't mention waiting on hold. As any frequent flier knows, airline reservation phone lines specialize in soothing recorded voices that urge callers - again and again, while long minutes tick by - to "please hold for the next available agent." Hold - what a clever euphemism for wait.

Yet at its best, waiting can serve as a period of quiet preparation and expectation. As the speed of the world increases, so will the need for people with the capacity to maintain an unhurried pace - who know how to wait, serenely and expectantly.

Certain things, of course, can never be rushed, among them paydays, holidays, and seasons. Still, given the advances of technology, even an otherwise patient waiter can be forgiven for wishing that scientists could shorten winter and speed the arrival of spring. In such a fantasy, the last snow would melt by late February. Tulips and daffodils would bloom on March 1, and trees would begin leafing out the same week. Temperatures would remain balmy all month. No more lions in March.

Scientists, are you listening? Some of us can't wait.

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