Monday, November 30, 2009

Cell phones: The device I love to hate

I have hated cell phones since their inception. Maybe it is because I have always hated talking on the phone to almost anyone at anytime. I just don't like to talk that much, so the act of actually carrying around a device in your pocket where people can talk to you anytime is totally repulsive. Maybe it is because my family and I lived in Monteverde, Costa Rica in the mid-1980s, where we had no phone. Mail was delivered only once per week, and any mail from the states took about three weeks to arrive. And there was no internet there then. And we had no car. And life was pretty good there. So I know we can live happily without cell phones.

But there is more to it than that. It is the almost narcotic-like attachment that other people seem to have to their cell phones that repels, angers, and disgusts me. I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, so I know what that kind of addiction is. When you are a smoker, you can't wait to get out of a meeting or a class so you can go someplace to light up. For the past decade, when I saw students leave a classroom, the first thing they did was to retrieve their cell (remove the pack of cigs from their pocket), flip open the cover (flip up a cig from the pack), dial a number (light up), and begin to talk (take a drag). Of course, this sequence is then followed by a slight smile of pleasure as you hear the voice of the person you called (as the nicotine hits your lungs). This compulsion to use the phone as soon as it is socially acceptable to do so looks exactly like the cigarette smoking habit with which I was all too familiar.

If I see someone driving their car while talking on a cell phone, I literally want to ram their car with mine. They are putting other people's lives in danger so they can find out whether they were supposed to pick up Miracle Whip or real mayo at the grocery, or whether Emily or April is picking up the kids after soccer practice, or whether Harry should get black olives on the pizza he is about to pick up. I don't really know what those drivers are talking about, but I will bet my dog's first born that 99% of the time it is about nothing important. The cell phone is mostly for chit chat, gossip, and entertainment in a life that seems boring without constant digital stimulation.

So for many years, I resisted getting a cell. After all, if I ever wanted to make a call on the fly, everyone with me always had one. Cell owners are all too proud to offer up their phone for use, to show you all the neat things it can do and how kewl it looks. I parasitized this pride for a long time and, in the process, probably saved thousands of dollars in cell phones and cell plans.

However, last year my wife and I got our first cell. We actually have two landlines at home, but my wife’s work often has them both tied up for hours or days. Our children insisted that we get a cell so they can contact us during the day if necessary. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But I am still basically clueless. I can dial and receive a call, but I don’t know how to text, to send a picture, to retrieve a message, or even to put it on vibrate. I really don’t care to know, because Management can do some of these things. It is a basic model that we got free with our plan, so it is not a “smart” phone. Therefore, I guess it must be a dumb phone.

My ignorance about cell phones can result in some interesting moments. A few months ago, my wife handed me the cell that she had just put on vibrate to put in my pocket in a restaurant in Albany, NY. A few minutes later, I felt a very strange sensation coming from my mid-section. I waited, it passed. A short while later, it happened again. I jumped out of my seat, wondering what was happening to my stomach. I was about to alert my wife to dial 911, because this is not normal. When you get to be my age, you wake up every day wondering if this is the day you get THE CALL. Turns out, I was getting A CALL, just not THE CALL, from the cell in my pants. I always thought that vibration machines were supposed to bring pleasure, not trepidation.

Then, last weekend, my daughter and her family decided to go to the local mall when visiting us. After she left, I realized I needed to call her about something REALLY IMPORTANT. I dialed her cell from my cell, because Management was using our landline. As soon as I dialed, another cell phone that was sitting on our kitchen counter began to ring. Not our phone; we only have one. I hung up, ran over to answer it, and no one was there. I redialed my daughter on my cell, and the same thing happened again. What an incredible coincidence that that cell rings at exactly the same time I am using mine. I hung up again, jumped across the kitchen to answer it quickly, but no one was there. I HATE PHONES! About an hour later, I realized I was calling my daughter’s cell from my cell in the same room. I guess if I had not hung up my cell, I could have had a pretty interesting conversation with myself.

It should be clear by now that I hate cell phones, and I suppose I always will. The myth we tell is that cell phones were developed to make our lives better, but they were actually developed so companies could make money selling them. But in addition to the irritations enumerated above, there is another. On nearly every hill of any size in America, there is a cell tower. Another bit of environmental degradation, another bit of visual pollution, another ugliness on the landscape. All this, so Harry can find out whether he should get olives on his pizza. Go progress!