A live performance at the Brady Theater
Long Beach, CA
A live performance at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center
A live performance at the Saenger Theatre
A live performance at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center
Buffalo, NY — with Robin & Linda Williams
A live performance with Robin & Linda Williams in Asbury Hall at Babeville
There is a power imbalance between the president of the United States and me, and so I am loath to criticize him lest he smack me down. Same with my mayor and city council, who could, if I offended them, send dump trucks full of snow and make a mountain at the end of my driveway and I might spend hours shoveling it and then collapse with a major coronary. So I am going to write about telephones instead. With all due respect to you in the telephone industry.
I left the house the other day and forgot to take my phone with me and it was a strange experience. I felt incomplete. I discovered that there are few pay phones around and not so many wall clocks in public places. But going around de-phoned, there is also a pleasant sense of freedom, of disconnect, without the thing in your pocket ready to call you to attention. The phoneless man feels a freedom he gave up back in the Nineties.
The benefits of phonedness are many. I love my family and friends and their unexpected texts and calls. It is pleasant, while driving, to hear from an old classmate and reminisce about Mrs. Moehlenbrock writing vigorously on the blackboard, teaching us cursive writing back in third grade. The phone is a tool for lovely dreamy conversations. It also enables me to snap a picture of my wife reading the paper under a lamp beside the fireplace and text it to our daughter far away at school. And the Guiding Voice in the phone that tells us to turn left in 600 feet is a boon to marriage, eliminating the need for guidance from the passenger seat and allowing us freedom to observe the landscape rather than watch for street signs. As for the news bulletins, one may as well know what’s up as be in the dark and wonder.
On the other hand, I think back to Grandma’s kitchen with the wooden box on the wall with the mouthpiece, the earphone hanging on a cord, the crank on the side, which you could jangle to get the operator, Miss Loucks, who would connect you to your party. We seldom jangled it. The phone was for serious business, to call the doctor or the fire department. It was not for idle chatter. Chatter happened after supper, if company dropped in, and we sat around the table and people reminisced and a little boy scooched up close to Aunt Ruth and listened hard.
I have such clear memories of that kitchen, the smell of bread dough, the clucking of chickens at the door, the smell of ash in the woodstove, the reedy tenor voice of my uncle Jim saying grace over the lunch. Why is that kitchen of 1948 so vivid to me and the kitchens of later years so vague? Could it be the absence of electronic gizmos competing for our attention? I do not know.
I do know that back in my working days, I used to unplug the phone. Anyone who called got a busy signal and there was no answering machine. This did not strike me at the time as unfriendly. Later, I had a studio in the woods, a rectangle on stilts, a big window looking into the trees, and spent whole days there, phoneless.
So how did I become so addicted that I pat my pockets ten times a day to make sure it is there, and when it dings to let me know there is a message waiting, why do I leap up like a laboratory rat to open it? If William Wordsworth had owned an iPhone, would he have written “my heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky”? No. His heart would’ve leaped up when he heard the phone ding. If he beheld a rainbow, instead of writing a poem, he’d snap a picture and text it to someone with the message, “Look wassup.”
There is an imbalance of power between me and the phone and I am going to reset the balance by turning it off for a few hours every day out of respect to the urgency of other senses such as the sight of my wife and the touch of her hand in mine, snow crunching underfoot as we walk, breathing the thrilling arctic air. The phone is only a tool, like a screwdriver. No need to make your life revolve around a screwdriver.