Lo! Men have become the tools of their tools. — Henry David Thoreau
I remember my first time like it was yesterday. My heart beat fast with the excitement and trepidation of journeying into virgin territory. It was David’s idea. Like walking backwards, it was too unnatural a concept to ever occur to me on my own. We had only been dating for a few weeks, but I already trusted him enough to follow his lead. So it was, one Friday evening around five years ago, after David had loosened me up with a home-cooked meal and a few glasses of wine, that I did the unthinkable: I climbed over my new beau, dug through my purse, and, when my fingers found what they’d been searching for, I pressed the button that turned off my cell phone.
The 36 hours that followed my bold action were both blissful and hellish. On Saturday, we were lazy, ordering takeout and watching movies. But all the while, I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering back to my phone. Who might be trying to reach me? How would they manage to survive if I didn’t answer their calls?
Telecommunication anxiety has plagued me ever since I purchased my first pager while still in high school. When that thing beeped, it was as though a person were standing beside me, saying, “Hey, Barb,” and if I didn’t respond immediately, it was like I was turning my back on that person in the flesh. I had an uncanny feeling that people could see me reading their number on the small display and that I would hurt their feelings or piss them off if I didn’t get to a phone and call them as soon as was humanly possible. The situation became more desperate when I got my first cell phone, a clunky black Sony Ericsson. The ringing phone, like a crying baby, demanded my immediate attention. Missed calls were not an option.
On Sunday morning of that momentous weekend five years ago, I turned my phone back on to discover that four people had left me 25 messages. David was baffled. Being older than me, he could remember when people did not have answering machines in their homes, when the concept of mobile communication devices existed only on shows like Star Trek. The horrified look on David’s face at the apparent expectation of availability I had cultivated among my friends and family members brought me to the tragic realization that I had been fixed to an invisible leash. Since that moment, I have been slowly coaxing the telecommunication monkey from my back.
One recent afternoon, my mother and I were sipping coffee in a shop near my home. Twenty minutes into our visit, my phone rang. Without checking, I quickly reached into my bag and switched the mode to “silent,” which I had forgotten to do prior to meeting Mom.
“Who is it?” Mom asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” I answered.
Mom looked concerned. “What if it’s important?”
“Then they’ll leave a message.”
“What if it’s someone with big news?”
“Then I’ll hear the news later.”
Now she looked worried. “What if it’s an emergency?”
“Then they should call 9-1-1,” I stated.
Mom seemed mystified by my nonchalance. As if to test the extent of my unflappability, she suggested the worst-case scenario: “What if someone was in an accident, and they need your blood?”
“They’ll have to find someone else’s,” I said.
“What if they’ll die if they don’t get yours?”
“Then they’ll die,” I said evenly. In answer to my mother’s gasp, I added, “And I would be sad.” Mom seemed uncomfortable with my answer, so I expounded a bit. “As my friend Jen once told me, my cell phone is for my convenience, not other people’s. Having a phone doesn’t mean I’m ‘on-call.’ No one is paying me to answer this thing every time it rings. Right now, I’m enjoying coffee with my mother, who is sitting in front of me, and who I would like to give my full attention without needless interruptions.”
After a few moments of silence, Mom said, “Okay then,” and we picked up our previous conversation where we’d left off.
It’s easy to expect an immediate response when everyone is just a text message away. Everyone, that is, except my father. Not only does Dad not have a cell phone or pager, he has no call waiting on his landline. “I find it rude when someone interrupts a conversation to get the other line,” Dad has told me. When calling Dad, my sisters and I are often confronted by the infuriating indifference of the busy signal. While on one of his daily peregrinations, Dad doesn’t seem to mind the inconvenience of having to track down one of the three remaining payphones in town whenever he wants to make a call. I, however, find it aggravating when I screen unknown numbers, then hear Dad on my voicemail saying something like, “Hey, I’m down the street, seeing if you’re around,” leaving me with no way to call him back to say, “Yes, I’m around, please come over!”
The women in my family are notoriously impatient, a condition the men in our lives must forever battle. We don’t “call,” we “attack.” For example (and these names are interchangeable for any one of us), Heather calls Jane on her cell phone. When Jane doesn’t answer, Heather hangs up and immediately dials Jane’s home phone. When that line isn’t picked up, Heather (having left no voicemail yet), calls Jane’s cell phone again, maybe even two more times, before leaving a message. The reason we do this? Because incessant calling increases the sense of urgency at the other end of the line, and the sister on the receiving end will invariably pick up. We do it, because it works. Simon, David, Sean, and Brad commiserate over the relentless ringing in their ears.
In the way a thrill-seeker is addicted to adrenaline rushes, I was hooked on a false sense of urgency that resulted from my distorted sense of importance. Despite my mother’s fears, I know it is more probable that all the molecules of air will simultaneously rush to the same corner of my office than it is that my not answering my phone will cause someone to die. I was a slave to my cell, not because I thought someone might need me but because I had an irrational fear that if I didn’t answer, people would stop calling.
While settling into our red leather sofa for a movie the other night, I asked David if he remembered that first time.
“You mean when I suggested you turn off your phone, and you reacted as if I’d asked you to bungee jump off the Coronado Bridge with me? Yeah, I remember,” he said.
“Come on, give me some credit. I did it, didn’t I?”
“Oh, yeah, you did it, but you were freaked out until you turned it back on.”
“I’ve gotten a lot better though, haven’t I?”
“Yes, you have,” David allowed, cozying up next to me. “And I am truly pleased that I no longer have to stand in front of the television and request, ‘for the sake of all theater goers, that you please remember to silence your cell phones.’”
“Of course you don’t! I’m much better about that now,” I cooed, wrapping my arms around David and reaching, ever so discreetly, for the button that would ensure we would not be disturbed.