24 Mar No Phone

Jill and I just went a week without a phone—due to a mix-up as we changed carriers. For six days we heard no phone-ringing in our house. It was very nice. We have two (land) lines; home and business. The business is my band, Jazz Caravan. The band line rings all day. Ninety percent of the calls are from solicitors trying to sell me credit cards, better phone service, payroll software, and so on. The other ten percent are from people who think Jazz Caravan is a club. They want to know when the show starts. Nowadays, I never answer the band line. I check the messages once a week. Every few months the band line gets a legitimate inquiry that leads to paying gig, which pays enough to make keeping the band line worthwhile. But only barely.

We also have cell phones but seldom use them. Unlike most of my peers, I have yet to integrate cell technology into daily life. I reserve the cell for travel. Without question, they’re handy (literally), but they’re also high maintenance. You have to charge them every day; you have to keep track of them; you have to remember to turn them on or off; and then you have to answer them . . . or not. This, in addition to your land line—unless you’re one of those people who has forsaken the old-tech home phone.

There is something reassuring about having a land line. It feels solid and predictable and seems to give the house a center of gravity. The first thing I do when I walk in the door is pick up the phone to see if there’s a message waiting. (Long ago I gave up on answering machines because it seemed I was replacing them every year. I could never be sure they were doing what they were supposed to do.)

Most of our friends know that we almost never answer the phone. This is Jill’s doing or, rather, not doing. Until I met Jill, I always answered the phone. It was like answering the door. When Jill and I moved in together, I was amazed that she could let the phone ring and ring and not answer it. She insists on talking only when she feels like talking. Otherwise, she’ll check the message later. Really, no phone call is so pressing that it must be answered now. It took me a while to get used to this. But it makes sense.

In the days before automated message services, everybody answered the phone for obvious reasons: a phone call was either an opportunity you couldn’t afford to miss or a message you needed to hear sooner rather than later — because you might not hear it until much later. Also, phone talk was something special, in part because it was a novelty but also because it was high-tech. By the time I was a teenager, phone-talk was cheap and central to daily life. So central that I always picked up the phone because, really, there was nothing else going on. That may explain why today’s teenagers are so enamored of their cell phones, which they coddle and cradle like pets, taking them out at every opportunity to stroke, coo at and talk to. At bottom, not much has changed: I would have done the same.

If you’re one of those people who walk around all day with a cell phone attached to your ear, you need to reconsider what you’re doing. Sorry, but, come on, think about it—you’re attached to a phone! All day. Unless you’re working at a telethon or sitting at the switchboard of a phone company or piloting a rig across the country, what’s the point? If you want a laugh, watch the second installment of the Star Wars trilogy, “The Empire Strikes Back,” and look for the scene in Cloud City, when Lando Calrissian is about to shut things down before Darth Vader’s arrival. There is a close-up of Calrissian’s assistant standing near a door. Attached to the back of the assistant’s shaved head and terminating at his ears is a thin band – it’s a communication device that looks remarkably like those we have today, only it is flashing little red lights. When I first saw this movie, in 1980, I believed that, yes, in the far future, we’d have something like this, but I didn’t imagine we’d see it in my lifetime. This bit of Hollywood prognostication remains one of the few instances in which sci-fi fantasy actually got it dead right.

(Calrissian’s assistant himself was another dead-on prediction. Though his shaved head was meant to look strikingly odd in the movie – remember, in 1980, many of us still had long hair and blow dryers — he’d fit in easily among today’s hipsters.)

Ear bud phone technology has gotten to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s plugged in and who’s not. Whenever I pass someone who is muttering to him/herself, I always assume it’s a phone call, even when there’s no visible evidence of hardware. This may not be a good thing, I’ve decided. This summer, I tell myself, I’m going to get an I-Phone. I’m not sure what that means, except that I’ll have access to the internet virtually anywhere at any time. Generally, I’m enthusiastic about technology. But taking it on, I remind myself, is a mostly a luxury, not a necessity. Stay tuned.