Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cell Phones R Us

For two years, I had a Verizon family plan. It did not serve to unite us but drove a wedge of miscommunication and frustration smack dab into the middle of our family. We had two basic no-frills phones, a basic plan, way too many minutes, and a teenage daughter who, whenever in crisis large or small, failed to call us or to turn the darned thing on. [And, who also got into a car accident while using one.]

In 1997, five months pregnant with our first son and allergy ridden from a house in renovation, our then 8 year old daughter and I spent a week in Ohio with my father. He drove us to all of my favorite childhood haunts and to neighborhoods we had never seen. In a Bob Evans restaurant I saw my first PDC (public display of cell phone). This guy strutted in and paced about in the line of people waiting to be seated and started commentating on the scene before us. Then he spoke about his day in great detail. I wanted to say, "Look turkey butt, we see you have a cell and a nice set of tail feathers...now park them right on the bench and let the rest of us enjoy the wait in peace."

Two years later on a solo research trip to Ohio, now pregnant with our second son, I noticed a plethora of suburban women driving big Suburbans with cell phones firmly attached to their ears. What could they possibly be talking about? The sale at J.C. Penney's? A run on sauerkraut balls at the markett? Skipper's soccer game last night? A secret lover? Clearly they had a lot to say and I noticed they weren't very focused on the many lights of the metro region (as I warned my husband: yellow in Ohio means slow down, not drive faster as the lights turn very quickly--then again, we average about one stoplight per ten square miles where we live in New England).

I didn't think the cell phone would permeate into our rural pocket but I was wrong. Cell phone towers now dot our landscape but because of the hilly topography, few cell phones have consistent service. But that isn't why we stopped. I hate the phone and rarely use one in the house. Perhaps it is because I used to talk to my father back in Ohio for hours each week on the phone. It was our thing, our pipe line. After he died four years ago, I kept thinking of things I wanted to say to him and I'd go to the phone and remember that he wouldn't be there to answer.

Perhaps it is the amount of political surveys we seem to be bombarded with on an all too regular basis or the recorded calls that you can't shut off. I consider myself a well-mannered person so I tend to handle these calls with a polite but firm tone: "No thank you, I'm making dinner." CLICK. "No, I never give money over the phone even if you sound like a nice college kid from my alma mater." CLICK. "No, I really have nothing of substance to say--drop me an e-mail or let's have lunch." CLICK!

A phone is an intrusion into our home but I concede its necessity. I just ignore it behind the mask of a remote answering service (thank you, Verizon) or a husband or children who are more eager to answer it. Sure, it has been helpful to have a cell phone on long trips. If I traveled more, I'd probably get one again. But our daughter is going to have to buy her own plan next time. I won't be on it.

I'm convinced having watched this cell phone experiment--a husband who won't use it or doesn't know how, a daughter who doesn't use one for the reasons we got it for her--that a cell phone is not something we have to have in our society. Ok, maybe the president. But even they have an assistant or two that would have a cell phone on their behalf.

A cell phone has also become an anti-tracking device for our kids. If your teenager calls and says, "Yeah, I'm at Cindy's and we're watching a movie. I'll be home by midnight" they could really be three hours in another direction doing something else that you probably didn't give your permission for them to be doing. They must work just as effectively for adults who want to misbehave, too.

The woman at Verizon was a bit shocked when I came in to cancel our service. "Was there a problem with the reception?" she asked, while attending to two other people who were updating to some gadgety things and adding minutes.

"No, that was the least of our problems!"

I left the phone store--lined with shelves of Palm Pilots and Blackberrys and headsets and picture phones and who knows what else--and I'd never felt more free.

If only we could revive the time when our parents had our friends' phone numbers, when our parents spoke to other parents about their children and who they were with, on land lines to actual places, fixed and static in time. When I attempt to describe the thrill and joy of the fax and answering machine of twenty years ago to my daughter--I am met with a blank stare and suddenly feel middle aged. Yes, back when we didn't seem to be propelling so fast and far into the future, back when we couldn't always get someone or communicate something instantaneously. Back when we weren't so out of touch.

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