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I'm Losing You in the Canyon

The joys of telephones past, and the misery of the cell phone.

12:00 AM, Jul 1, 2002 • By LARRY MILLER
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I'M SICK of my telephones; I miss my telephones.

First of all, that's not the same type of thinking as "She loves me; she loves me not"--if it can ever be said that love has anything at all to do with thinking. I played that game when I was six, but just once, and the only thing I came away with was that picking petals was far less satisfying than building things and knocking them down; also, that to continue would lead to the complete defoliation of my mother's garden, which, if past events were any guide, would lead to the complete defoliation of me.

Second, it has nothing to do with the logic of "The king is dead; long live the king," which was an emblem of continuity and fealty from the kingdom's most trusted advisors. This was always assuming, of course, that the kingdom's most trusted advisors had not smothered the old king themselves, and were not currently chasing the new king around the dining room table with an ax.

So: I'm sick of my telephones; I miss my telephones. Let's start with the latter clause.

I miss my old telephones, the phones from my childhood: One color, black, with the density of a neutron star, units so heavy that, once placed on the hallway table, they were simply not going anywhere 'til the house was torn down. This was a fine metaphor for children of any era: "The phone is stable, my parents are stable, my school is stable, my life is stable. And the Yankees won again." Even in the tallest adult's hand, that twenty-three pound receiver looked enormous, like a panicked crewmember from "Land Of The Giants" calling for pizza. Its weight implied dignity, and a two or three minute chat also provided a nice aerobic pump. These were phones that weren't seeking to blend in, that looked strong and competent (and were), that dared someone not to notice them, that laughed at lesser devices. Another good metaphor, and this time for the United States itself.

Then, like all Americans, we moved on to The World Of Tomorrow with the next generation of those wonderful, colorful, rectangular jobs with the clear, plastic dials, the ones some folks took to dialing with pencils. You couldn't dial the old black ones with pencils, not unless your entire objective was to go through a whole box of pencils. Those red and white and olive units (Why can't I remember any other colors? I'm sure they had more) were, what, half the weight of the old ones? Less? Certainly light enough to hang on the kitchen wall. I remember my mom talking with the receiver wedged between her ear and shoulder, flipping something on the stove with one hand and snapping her fingers angrily at me with the other. (You remember those old mom-finger-snaps, bless them, as loud as the bolt of a carbine, and with the same fearsome promise.)

And their bells rang cheerfully. They didn't hum or pulse or vibrate like today's models, whose frightening signals make me think I'm getting a call from the fourth level of "The Andromeda Strain."

The other thing I remember about those old phones is their cords, and how tangled they got. About every two weeks you'd have to unplug them and let the receiver twirl like Kristi Yamaguchi. Any longer than a fortnight, and you ran the risk of having to go through successive calls closer and closer to the phone until the final chat had you fogging up the dial with your breath. The thing is, I still have no idea how those cords even got that tangled up in the first place. So far as I recall, all I ever did was answer the phone, speak, and hang it up. I don't believe I ever answered the phone, tossed it up like a baton, spun it like a Coke bottle, did a chimp-flip, and then hung it up. But, boy, they sure did get tangled.

The most important aspect, though, of the old phones is that they worked, and they worked simply. There were no panels of buttons and no confusing options, and we all did just fine without call-waiting. There was one phone company, they did a great job, and only one guy came to your house, and he was perfectly capable of putting in anything you needed.

What I'm sick of are my current phones. I don't have the slightest idea what company I'm with, or who to call to fix something or put in a plug, and when we finally get the guy in the house, the only thing I seem to hear from him is, "Sorry, I can't put it there." Today's phones have the pathetic heft of an empty milk carton, and their designs are as vacant as the average federal building. But even these insults I can take. It's the cell phones that must be destroyed.