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Immobile Phone

Do you not see this light blinking?” David squealed, in the same voice he uses when impersonating Vizzini from The Princess Bride, a character best known for the line, “Inconceivable!”

“No,” I shrugged. “Phone’s behind the TV, why would I see it unless I walked around the side like you just did?”

“Were you home today?” This was rhetorical — I’m always home, especially when David takes the car to his studio. I stared at him blankly. “Why didn’t you answer the phone?”

“It’s probably telemarketers,” I said. “And, anyway, if it’s important, they’d leave a message.”

“But someone did,” David groaned. I tried not to smile at my man’s exasperation. His ice-blue eyes get all sparkly when he gets that frustrated, and it happens so rarely. “Why didn’t you check it?”

“Why would I?” I felt my face crinkle with incredulity. I often forget we even have a landline. Aside from David’s parents (for whom I always answer the phone), the only calls coming in on that number are from political robocalls and charity organizations that still think telemarketing is effective.

Antiquated landline aside, I hardly ever check messages, even on my mobile phone. At this moment I have 32 unchecked voicemails, some dating back months (I don’t like to delete messages without listening to them, neither do I want to spend the time screening and clearing them). It drives David crazy to know these messages exist out there, that some person’s attempt to contact me remains in an indefinite limbo. I’m not concerned. Most of those calls are from family members and close friends. I don’t need to hear their messages — I see that they called, so I’ll text or call them back when I’m in the mood to chat. If someone has a burning question they need an immediate answer to, chances are they’ll text it.

“It’s kind of rude to call someone these days,” I said, as David was clearing the messages and glaring at me. “You know? It’s, like, intrusive.” David held up his hand, an indication for me to wait while he jotted down a number. As soon as he was done, I continued, “At least with an email or a text you can respond in your own time. But the phone is, like, “Now, answer me now! It’s so impatient and urgent…it stresses me out.”

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have caller I.D. or answering machines,” David said. He’d hung up the phone and had taken a seat in his chair. “The phone would ring, and you wouldn’t know who it was. You just answered it. Then again, I don’t recall there being any telemarketers. It was either someone you knew or a wrong number.”

“Talk about being caught off guard,” I said, and shuddered. “I like to prepare myself mentally for a conversation. I need to know in advance — is this about work? Is it yet another political call or some charity trying to guilt me into giving them money? Is it family drama, or is Mom just calling to say ‘hey’? When I don’t answer, I can check the message for numbers I don’t recognize or wait for subsequent texts from those I do, and then I know in advance what it is that someone wants from me. And before you say it, I know who’s calling to just say ‘hi,’ and I answer them if I’m not in the middle of something else; otherwise, I just call them back or text them to set a time to talk that works for both of us.”

A few hours after he freaked out about the blinking light, David and I were watching Community, one of our favorite shows, when Troy said of another character, “She was born in the ’80s — she still uses her phone as a phone.”

I slapped David on the arm and said, “See? I’m not just making this shit up. There’s a generational divide when it comes to how people handle their telecommunication.”

Later, I found myself considering what David had said and tried to imagine a world without caller I.D. or voicemail. Then I went even further back in imaginary time and tried to picture what life was like before phones. Probably boring, but it also seemed relaxing, so long as I didn’t consider the lack of all the other modern comforts…like indoor plumbing.

The phone was a great invention, but once it went mobile and we became tethered to it at all times, it became as much (if not more) of a nuisance as a convenience. Maybe the latest generation to grow up with the technology has figured out a way grab hold of the electronic leash, rather than allowing themselves to be jerked around by it.

My father has had a mobile phone for only a few years. When he returns one of my missed calls (I don’t leave him messages; I figure he’ll see my name and call me when he gets a chance), he begins with an apology for not answering. “I’m so sorry, I was on my motorcycle,” or “I couldn’t click over, Aunt Carol was in the middle of a story.”

“Dad, you don’t have to apologize for not answering your phone,” I say. “Just because it rings doesn’t mean you’re beholden to whoever’s calling you.” But my father is rubbing off on me. The last time I missed his call, I found myself apologizing right back: “Sorry, I had my phone on silent.” It’s a bad habit to get into, apologizing for not answering one’s phone. You’re either available or you’re not, and if you’re not, that’s nothing to be sorry for.

The less time I spend talking on the phone, the more time I spend talking with friends and colleagues in person. The phone has become nothing more than a tool to keep in touch via the occasional funny text and to arrange when and where to meet up in the flesh. Maybe, as with slow food, speakeasy-style bars, and handlebar mustaches, a growing faction of hipsters has found yet another way to embrace a simpler time: talking face to face.

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