JUST CALL ME

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I’ve been dropping my phone lately. This habit was preceded by the thought that maybe I didn’t need a cell phone. Rob countered that just having a long commute requires one. I argued that I commuted for years without one and it worked out okay. Then I dropped my iPhone in a parking lot and the glass shattered. It still worked and I pressed on with the idea that I’d trade it in soon enough. About a month later it fell into the toilet. I learned no amount of time in rice would save a wet iPhone with a cracked screen. I was due for an upgrade and went for the cheapest solution. Ninety-nine cents for a 5S. I ordered the phone online and paid in advance. When I arrived at Verizon they had other ideas.

“You want a 5S?” he asked incredulously.

“Weeell,” I demurred. “I had a 5 and now I want a 5S, so it’s an upgrade.”

“The phone is already four years old.”

“Three and a half actually.”

“By the time you get a new one it will be six years old!” Saliva was gathering at the corners of his mouth.

I held my ground. “I like that phone. It fits my wallet, my pocket and I like the cover.”

“We have a lot of covers for the 6.”

I dug in. “It’s already paid for and that’s what I want.”

He shook his head and went to retrieve one from the back. After a bit of back and forth on the service and connections he asked if I wanted to buy insurance for eleven dollars a month.

I didn’t flinch. “No.”

“Well you broke the last one.”

“It took me three and a half years—I’ll risk it.”

“Look,” he sighed. “This phone would cost you over five hundred dollars if you had to replace it.”

“I thought you just said it was old and not worth much.”

“I never said that.”

“You implied it.”

He was finished. He couldn’t get me out of the store fast enough.

I drove home with my new–old phone wondering why a store would offer a product they didn’t actually want you to buy. It made me think about phones in general and how they’ve become far too complicated. What I didn’t tell the hip, young sales associate was that I spend most of my time on a land line. But some things are better left unsaid.

My lake community is an old, sleepy town transitioning from retirees to young couples trying to find buyer’s relief from the New York City housing market. Maybe the new young buyers aren’t installing land lines but the rest of us have them. To begin with we lose power on a regular basis. Once you go without power for more than two days, charging your phone in the car gets old fast. Your cordless land line goes dead too so you have to keep an older land line that’s connected to the wall so you can call the electric company for an update.

I have a friend at the lake who doesn’t answer her phone. She has a landline and a cell but can never find the cell. When the land line rings she’s usually working one flight down in her studio and doesn’t bother to climb the steps and see who is calling. She does 98 percent of her communication on Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook account so we rarely communicate unless we meet face to face. It was simpler when everyone had and used the same means of communication.

My son owns a hundred year old row house in Baltimore. The entry way has a beautiful hallway leading into the kitchen. There’s a space hosting a small table and chair. He has an old black dial phone resting on the table, but it’s only a prop.

“You should get that hooked up,” I say.

“Why? I don’t need it. I have a cell.”

“Land lines are nice,” I explain and then I tell him all the attributes I can list. “Homey, historical, secure, no battery worries—”

“Unnecessary expense,” he interrupts  and walks away.

It’s easy for him to think any phone expense is unnecessary when he and his sister are still tied to our wireless service and they get their cell phone service for a mere 10 dollars a month. Maybe I have a few unnecessary phone expenses too.

In his entry way, I stand and stare at the perfect little sitting area under the stairs—centrally located for the only house phone. It’s charming and inviting and I can imagine the pace of life in this house and on this street when the first line was installed. I picture family members racing to answer before anyone else could.IMG_0601

This reminds me of my own childhood, when we fought our way to the telephone to be the first to pick up the receiver.

“Make it snappy,” someone would inevitably order when I received a call. “I’m expecting an important call.” All of my mother’s calls were deemed important but none of mine were. Eventually my parents added a second children’s line so one line could always be free. It wasn’t. I often kept a friend on each line while I skipped between them making plans. In the early 1970’s I could have been a major deal maker except my best friend Mary trumped me because her father was a big shot at Ma Bell and she could organize three party calls.

Then there’s the whole idea of privacy.

“Excuse me,” I would say, cupping the voice end of the receiver. “Can I have a little privacy?”

“Nobody cares about your dumb call,” one of my siblings might say in response, refusing to leave the room. The only true recourse was to turn your back towards the interloper. It wasn’t a very effective strategy and it often erupted into a fight.

When my mother wanted privacy on the yellow kitchen wall phone she would say, “Go play outside.” And that would be the end of it.

“It’s raining.”

“Take an umbrella.”

In public, people used phone booths. Early phone booths had little wooden seats and counters to lay out your change and louvered doors that allowed for privacy when you were away from home. Today everybody’s one sided cell phone conversation is public knowledge for anyone within ear shot. “Why does that man think we need to know about his divorce?” I might grumble to Rob over a hot drink at the coffee house. Rob shrugs. He agrees but tries to block it out.phone_booth_real

When my children were growing up they shunned the phone. The unknown voice on the other end was better left unknown.

“Pick up the phone!” I would scream from behind a locked bathroom door. They rarely did. Even when Jackson received his first cell phone after his 8th grade graduation—long after his friends had—he never made any calls.

Texts would travel back and forth between our children and their friends about upcoming plans and somewhere along the way it might become muddled.

“Call them up,” Rob or I would say to them.

“No!” they would cry. “Nobody does that.”

“Well it might make things a bit clearer!” one of us would shout back. Occasionally in an act of utter desperation and at our insistence, Quinn might chance a call and firm up an arrangement to meet someone. It usually worked out well but she never converted.

Once Facebook arrived on the scene all bets were off and messaging and texts were the only known means of communication. Even emails were oddities they received from their parents or professors once they went away to college, but never a friend.

Phones today are complicated and instead of offering labor saving means of communication they come with a bundle of problems especially when you buy a new one. You’re told that the process is supposed to be seamless unless of course you drop your cracked phone in the toilet…then you can’t recover anything that wasn’t backed up on the Cloud which, being old school, I didn’t do.

I spent every evening for a week trying to sync my new phone with my iTunes. I became good friends with the people at Apple support who assigned me a case number and pretended to have great affection for the faux-luddite on the other end of their line. However, each solution ended with a new problem. It turned out that even a teeny little upgrade from a 5 to a 5S meant my laptop no longer supported the phone—too old. I have now learned to back up, migrate and restore but it took six support sessions and a trip to the Genius Bar to get me back on track and I still have issues.

I understand things change and when I complain about this stuff I usually get the time honored argument that the eraser was going to send civilization straight to hell when they added it to the end of a pencil. Between my iphone and my laptop and my PC at work I’m inundated with emails and have a whole host of people demanding things in a very short period of time. We’re expected to work away from the job because they can contact us instantly. Parents of my students tread where parents never used to tread. I think because they don’t have to work very hard before they click send—there’s no cooling off period anymore.

“Now that I think about it, maybe you deserved that B- in Art, Johnny. I don’t think I’ll call the school and contact the teacher about it after all.”

Tasks that used to be allowed a week or two to complete are now anticipated in 24 hours. As a society we spend far more time managing all this stuff than we used to, so I don’t think we’re saving much labor except our now defunct perusal of Encyclopedia Britannica. I used to love looking through those books.

Students in my school aren’t allowed to have their phones out or on. It’s sort of like holding a tsunami at bay with a child’s plastic bucket. About half of the school population still complies. A boy in my class recently asked me for the time and I looked at my wrist watch. He marveled at the pie time dial.

“You can read that?”

“Of course. You can’t?”

He shrugs. “I just check my phone.”

It seems pointless to have a discussion about why he might want to learn how to read an analog clock.

“Well a watch might come in handy when you can’t use your phone. Especially in this school where the clocks are all broken.”

“I guess,” he answers, but he doesn’t seem convinced. “An iWatch might be cool.”

“But you can’t call anyone from an iWatch.”

“I never call anyone,” he said.

“Then why do you need a cell phone?”

“To play games.”

We’d better get a bigger bucket.

As for me I’m shopping online for a working rotary phone. It will never shatter and it couldn’t possibly fall in the toilet.

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WHERE AM I ?

 

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“Wasn’t that our turn?” Rob shrieked, as we sped past our exit and drove into the unknown darkened superhighway.

Tossing the map aside I scanned the large green signs above me in hopes of getting us back on the right path.

“Well?” He asked impatiently.

“Don’t talk,” I said, “it makes me nervous.”

“Not knowing where we’re going is even more nerve-racking!”

I’m sorry to say this is an all too common occurrence.

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I have never understood maps. I love them, I find them attractive, but I can’t read them; even the ones decorated with pictures of little 3-D buildings. I get lost in the pictures and can’t find my way to where I need to go.

In elementary school I struggled to understand geography lessons. My eyes would focus on the icons decorating the map: corn in the Midwest, cotton in the South. I would daydream about who might live in this spot. Did the girls play with dolls? Did they eat fried bananas for breakfast? I would make up a story about a family and when the teacher called on me I would always have to answer. “I don’t know.” I promised myself I would do better next time but it was pretty pointless.

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In college I took a cartography course which was almost laughable. The instructor, an adjunct (in a time when they were less common) painstakingly showed me, yet again, what I was doing wrong.

“Your drawings are well…beautiful,” he would say. “But they’re all wrong.” He paused thinking he had hurt my feelings. “Does that make sense? Does any of this make any sense?”

I only wanted to take the class because a friend of a friend had a clear box of cartography pens on his desk. I had never seen pens like those. They were filled with loose ink that dripped down into tiny needle points.

The instructor probably thought that teaching an evening class to college students would be a nice break from toiling away for long hours, alone, at his drafting table. I sometimes wonder how this group of highly trained draftsmen transitioned over to modern technology and gave up their pens. Such beautiful pens.

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When I am driving alone to a place I have never been, a certain panic sets in. I can follow line by line directions much better than visual ones. That’s interesting to me because I have great spatial reasoning skills when something is right in front of me, when it’s physical. But hand me a two dimensional line drawing that points the way and I’m hopeless.

So when GPS came along it felt like a match made in heaven. Until it wasn’t. Same two dimensional map, but now it’s smaller. Tiny really, and you can’t get a lay of the land which is the only thing about paper maps that worked for me. You can only see a little bit in front of where you are and it’s moving. This fact makes it hard to look backwards.

“Is the blue dot on the green line?” Rob asked in complete frustration.

“I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t find the blue dot.”

“I can’t drive and navigate!”

Then there’s “the lady”; that is, the lady in the phone who tells you where to go. Until she stops talking which can happen more than you’d think. Or she never shuts up and repeats the information six times over and you turn her off thinking, you so “got this,” and then you don’t.

When Jackson was graduating from college I left my family at the school to drive to the airport to pick up my sister, Susan. Her flight was getting in an hour before the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. We had plenty of time and Rob had given me a Garmin GPS for Mother’s Day the week before.

“The clerk in the store said this was the best one on the market.”

“Great, “ I said ripping it out of the package like it was the thing that was going to change my life forever.

“I wouldn’t be so hasty to throw that away,” Rob said picking up the directions. “You better read this instruction manual all the way through.”

Reading instruction manuals is something Rob does, not me. He also only seems to get lost with me in the car. My feeling is that if the manufacturers really wanted you to understand what they made, they would put it down in neat, bulleted points that fit on one sheet of paper creating something one possibly could understand.

So with Susan in tow I punched in the coordinates for the college and off we went. The Garmin voice told us to turn, drive and turn. The voice decided for some arbitrary reason to take us off the highway and even though I knew better, I listened. After all she was the authority.

“This must be some sort of shortcut,” I assured Susan.

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We drove on. We meandered into odd neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, rich gated neighborhoods and industrial districts where we passed numerous body shops that didn’t sell gas. All the while the Garmin voice kept telling us, “Turn here and here.” And with each turn she added on the number of minutes it would take us to get to our destination.

“Look it’s five minutes longer than it was ten minutes ago and we’ve been driving the whole time,” I screamed.

We hit every red light imaginable between the airport and the college. At each stop the time until our arrival increased.

Susan stayed calm and tried to make the whole situation seem funny. “It’s very hard to argue with her,” she said. Our father used to say there was something funny in every situation, even someone’s death. I wasn’t laughing.

We arrived in time to hear the President of the college propose a toast to the inductees and then make a hasty retreat. I learned about the ceremony weeks later from the pictures Rob had taken.

“I want to get a hammer and smash the Garmin.”

“You didn’t read the instructions,” Rob said.

“No, it doesn’t work. I hate it and I don’t want it. I’d rather be lost.”

The Garmin went back to the store and we carried on as before. If our destination was difficult and we were together I drove and Rob navigated.

Then two years ago I bought an iPhone. I didn’t buy one to text or read my mail or take photos. I bought one because of the GPS. It seemed they had gotten most of the bugs out of the system. I would plug in the address from my current location and off I’d drive, carelessly listening to music while the voice interrupted occasionally to ensure I was on the right path. All was right with the world. Until it wasn’t.

Early in the Fall we were driving home from New Jersey and Rob asked me to plug the directions home into the phone.

As we headed towards the George Washington Bridge he asked me to check the traffic and compare the upper and lower levels.

“It’s not showing up.” I said.

“Well, find out. I need to know if I go left or right.”

It still wasn’t working and he had to make a guess. As we were crossing the bridge he asked me which way to go. Again it wasn’t working.

“You’re doing something wrong,” he shouted.

“I can’t help it,” I cried.

“What am I supposed to do?” he exclaimed.

I thought about it for a second and said, “Didn’t you grow up here? Don’t you know the way home? What if we didn’t have a GPS, what would you do?”

He laughed a good long laugh. “You’re right,” he laughed again. It was as if he had been hit by lightening. I shut off the phone. Rob’s strong sense of direction kicked in and he navigated us home GPS free. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments. We were using it even when we didn’t really need it.

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Two nights ago I punched in the address for a bowling alley in a town I had never been to. I was driving along and the voice kept repeating, “You have arrived, your destination is on the left,” but I couldn’t see a bowling alley. It was hidden down a long drive I hadn’t noticed. I drove back and forth past the entrance. The lady in the phone never got excited and never wavered she just repeatedly told me to turn around. I pulled over, looked at the map on the tiny screen and saw my mistake. But unlike most people I had to study the map for several minutes to understand that unnerving question: Where am I?

When I arrived at the bowling alley I saw one of my friends and told her how hard it was to find the place.

“Oh I agree,” she said. “I got lost too.”

“Did your GPS forget to tell you to turn left into the service road?”

“No, I didn’t use one. I just pulled over and asked someone for directions.”