Monday, April 12, 2010

Where Cell Phones Go to Die

A couple of months ago, I was on the phone with a friend from college.

"You never call me," he accused.

"I never call anyone," I corrected. Well, almost never. I never call anyone just to talk to them.

I explained my reasoning. There was a pause. Then, "You're kind of neurotic, aren't you?"

I am.

I think cell phones are, despite their usefulness, the worst invention known to man.

Aside from e-mail, no other technology has held us hostage the way cell phones have, unless you go back to the clock, hundreds of years ago.

I have always hated telephones. This sprang from childhood, when a telephone call meant one of two things. It could mean that I had to stand for ages as one grandmother told me again and again how adorable I was, despite the fact that she could not see me (and it wasn't true). Then she turned from the phone, shouting for my grandfather, and I got to listen to them argue about why he ought to actually speak to me, though he had nothing pertinent to say and didn't want to. Then we would hang up. A phone call could also mean that my other grandmother wanted to say hello, which meant that I would hold the phone for twenty odd minutes as she told me all about things happening in the world and how to fix them, a one-sided conversation, as she couldn't actually hear a word I said (she was mostly deaf).

When I grew old enough to have friends (and to consider the telephone a novelty), I would call my friend Lisa, who would invariably be far away in some field feeding a cow, or, failing that, far away in a field on a four-wheeler. But Lisa hated phones too (or so I imagine) because when I finally did get her on the phone, I was the only one who would utter a single word.

Later, a lady in an assisted living facility decided that one of her childhood friends lived where we lived, or at least her phone did. She called every day for many months, begging to speak to her friend, bursting into tears, demanding to know what we were doing in her friend's home...It got so bad Mom stopped letting us answer the phone, except during the times she told us she would call home (this was when she worked at the bank).

When Dad started working as a pastor, it got worse. See, a pastor must always, always, always be reachable. So, if you fall off a cliff and damage yourself, he must know so he can help you deal with your imminent crisis of faith (Why did God let me fall off that cliff? Why didn't he stop me? And so forth). He also has to be there so you can call him and tell him your teenage daughter is pregnant or on drugs. Or both.

Naturally, as I had reclusive friends and was, myself, reclusive, I had little use for a telephone and hated the thought of being an unpaid answering service for my father.

Then, cell phones came into our lives.

Dad got one first. He thought it was the best thing in the world, except that he had to keep his face plastered against the picture window to get a signal. Back then, though, he still couldn't talk to anyone when he was by the window, he could just answer the phone and then run outside and stand under the security light. Or, better yet, stand in the middle of the road.

Then, on Valentine's Day, he thought he would express his desire to remain in touch with Mom even as his hours increased from 8 to 24 hours a day. He hid a phone in the couch and called it.

No one answered.

He then called it again, and we yelled at him.

He'd set the ring tone to match his own, you see.

He called again, then, having run out of his short supply of patience, he reached behind Mom and into the sofa cushions, pulled out the phone and gave it to Mom. She tried to answer it, but it had already hung up, because it had no cell signal. Since we weren't at the picture window.

What followed was a complicated arrangement of Mom's phone usage. It was stored at the picture window, until Dad discovered a tiny extra antenna thing, which had a cord that was less than a foot long, and only worked when held high in the air. So Mom would hold up the antenna while pressing the phone to her ear and walk around the house searching for a signal.

A signal she would never find.

When this grew taxing, Mom stopped charging the phone.

"Why give me this thing?" She wondered in a conversation with me. "I'm always home! Just use the land line."

You couldn't use the land line because Paul was on the internet.

Time passed. I started college. Then, the phone started traveling with me. This was because my car was older than my brother (1986 Honda Accord) and, unlike Paul, kept dying. Unfortunately, so did the cell phone. But I used it until Dad gave up on his version of the little Nokia and opted to improve matters. He switched phones and Mom put her foot down--the phone would be mine.

This was good, because it meant I got to have my Very Own Cell Phone, but bad because I had to lug the thing around, turn it off when I was in class, and answer it.

And there was no escape.

I love my friends. They get it. They know that I hate the phone and use it only because I like talking to them. They know not to call me and do the long pause thing, during which I am driven by forces beyond my control to fill each pause with endless prattle.

When I pick up a phone, I am hit with a momentary rush of anxiety. Who will be on the other line? Will they want to talk to me? Can I be of any use to them at all, or are they calling for some other reason? If they are, then what is it?

The terror fades when I answer and discover it's someone nice, like Jen or Rachael or our friend Becky or Auntie Jean. It increases when it's some lady who really wants to talk to my dad, but since she can't, she wants to tell me her problems, like how she just swallowed a whole bottle of the little white pills her doctor gave her or how she wants money. Which I don't have. Ask my bank.

Worse still is when I need to call someone. I have this terror that, when I try to call you (whoever you are), you will answer only to tell me you don't want anything to do with me and then ask, "Why are you bothering me?" This is because no one can possibly really want to be my friend. It takes years for me to get over this, as I have with many of my friends now, because after all the times I've called them, they haven't once told me I was annoying and hung up on me.

Say I meet a stranger. This person is nice. I like them. Moreover, they like me. We are going to be friends. Person X says, "Laura, call me this weekend and we'll get lunch."

Then the terror sets in. Will they actually want lunch when I call? What time should lunch be eaten, really? What if my lunch time is different from theirs? Will they be angry if I get hungry before them? What if they do, will they tell me, or will they just stop talking to me? What if their brother answers? What if their sister answers? What if their parents answer? Will they be mad? Because answering the phone isn't fun, especially when it isn't for you and you have to take a message. Will they tell me never to call again, because I so completely couldn't take that, I just couldn't, life is hard enough without having people yell at me for no reason and I just can't--

And so forth.

So, one can understand, I don't use the phone so often. In fact, I go as far as to not call the doctor's office for refills of prescriptions. I just go without. I figure, if I really needed that asthma medicine, they would have written the prescription for a year and not just for three months at a time.

Last week, I lost my cell phone.

By "lost" I mean it fell under the passenger's seat in my car. And fall it did, right between the seat and the console and whoosh, under the chair into this little well contraption Ford designed to prevent objects lost under the seat from rushing forward when one brakes and slipping beneath the pedal, resulting in death and maiming.

From what I can tell, one set of my car keys, a tube of lip stain, and perhaps a book are all stuck under the seat. Oh. And a chocolate. Well, there used to be a chocolate. We managed to get that out before the thaw.

When you stick your hand under the seat, the first thing you encounter is sharp. I don't know what it is, what it does, why it's there, or why the car manufacturer actually made the effort of sharpening it before it was installed, but it's there. And sharp. So when I went in for the phone and cut myself, I gave up.

As I do.

At first, it was annoying. My phone is my alarm clock, so I had to make alternative plans. Like, using a beeping alarm clock, which was loud. And obnoxious.

But then I started to enjoy it. Finally, I could disappear. My parents could not call me and ask me to buy dog food (I did anyway). Nor could I get caught in hours-long text battles with my father during his varied (boring) meetings. I was free.

So I didn't go back in. I let it stay right there.

But then it was Friday night and I was lonely. And I went looking for my address book and found it. Then I discovered I hadn't updated it since junior high, and it lacked many important numbers like Jen's, and even my accurate address. So I hunted some more. And then I got depressed and gave up. I would never find the addresses--or the phone number, which was what I actually needed. Why? Because that was what my cell phone was for. So I knit on the sock and went to sleep. Then I went to work. Still no cell phone.

By then, I had reached the peak of loneliness.

I went back. I dug under the seat, I hunted, and I couldn't find it.

"I'll just call you," Mom said. Whispered, really, as she's got no voice right now. "When it rings, you'll find it."

Except that the battery had died. So it didn't ring. And I couldn't find it.

I began to imagine the phone slipping out of the passenger side door as the car lingered in park somewhere. I wondered if there was a trapdoor beneath the seat, one that could open to free wayward cellular phones.

It had to be down there.

Saturday evening, having realized the error of my address-book-free ways, I put on a glove (Hand knits to the rescue!) and went back in.

And there it was. Its battery was dead and it was a little dusty, but it was there! I charged its little battery and turned it on, looking in horror at the sheer volume of missed calls (five) and texts (three).

I suppose all this goes by way of saying: I'm sorry I missed you. Your call is important to me. And I'll never give up on my cell phone again.


  1. I'm sitting here thinking, "I bet all those missed calls were from me..."

    Don't worry, I have a life without you. Really....I do!!!

  2. Actually, most of them were from someone else...