Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It’s For You-2: The Call from the Wild

Times in my life when a cell phone would have come in handy:

1. When my tire flattened on the 401 and no one would stop to help me.

2. When I grew weary fending off an over-amorous blind date at a drive-in showing “55 Day at Peking” and wanted to be rescued - immediately!

3. The one night of my life when I was actually enjoying myself so much on a date that time dissolved and I didn’t get home till 4am and my parents were worried. (If you knew me, back then, you’d know they had nothing to worry about).

4. Whenever I forgot my shopping list at home. (This happened more often than you’d think, even before I became chronically forgetful).

5. When, as a young mother, I stood at my suburban window, staring out at the snowy night, wondering if my husband was going to make it up the Don Valley Parkway at 1 am, after a long day’s work on a late-night TV show.

The occasions that really stand out in my mind, though, are the many dinnertimes, when I stood anxiously looking out yet another kitchen window, positioned, as it was, to give a panoramic view of the entrance to a different little townhouse development, wondering whether or not to serve dinner to my hungry child or wait just a few more minutes, in case my husband really left the studio when he said he did and was about to walk in the door and we could dine together like those families on TV and in Norman Rockwell paintings. You see, if he’d have had a little iPhone (or even a Nokia) back then, he could have reported any little frequent distractions that often caused a delay in his departure, or informed me of his progress through the rush hour traffic, and my fears of his demise would have immediately been allayed. True, they might have been replaced by anger and frustration, but those are a lot healthier than morbid fantasies of car crashes and ‘what-to-wear-to-the-shiva’ concerns.

Instead, many an evening would find me banging my head on the Cuisinart, while a small, starving boy clung to my ankles, begging for nourishment.

Nowadays, with our matching iPhones, my husband and I keep pretty close tabs on each other. Believe me, it’s a matter of necessity, not trust. I still forget my shopping list at home and he is always on duty, wherever he may be, to report any items I may be forgetting to pick up. Since he cannot be trusted to stay within sight, even if I am talking to him (especially at Costco), I find a quick call, to ascertain his whereabouts, is immediately reassuring. It saves hours of searching. (I never have to worry at a mall, since he can always be found at the Mac store!)

I suppose the day will come when he will be found snoozing on a bench under a potted plant, mid-Galleria, with the other male senior spouses, but hopefully, that day is still far off….although, you never know.

All this reminiscing has a point, besides the obvious therapeutic one. How can ‘society’ demonize a device that has given me such peace of mind? What parent hasn’t heaved a sigh of relief after reaching their mindless teenage daughter, who reassures them that she is, indeed, over at her friend’s house researching the 'Causes of the French Revolution', and not running amok in the big city? (The French Revolution should be an immediate tip-off that something is fishy, since it vanished off the curriculum decades ago, to be replaced by the 'History of Rock and Roll', but that’s another story).

This reminds me, who among us, still lucky enough to have them, hasn’t rejoiced in the hourly calls of an elderly parent, wondering where the hell we are and why haven’t we called? You can roam but you can't escape!

Sure, the cell phone has gotten a few people into trouble.
Tiger Woods, most recently, springs to mind. But that was mostly about texting, which is another matter, entirely. Leaving a written trail of guilt like that has driven the wiretappers out of business!
NB People who like to text: There is a very clever saying that goes,
“He’s as dumb as a bag of hammers” or something.
You know who you are!

Just like everything else in life, there’s a good side, and a not-so-good one. Fortunately, the people in charge are ever vigilant. Back in the 15C, it didn’t take the Church long to realize that they’d better sew up the rights to the printing press or people would start thinking of other things to publish besides Guttenberg Bibles. Remember the funny stories about how, when the first automobiles hit the streets, someone would have to walk ahead of the car, waving a red flag, to warn pedestrians away? Doesn’t everyone of my generation glow in the dark because we sat too close to the TV in our childhood? (Well, maybe that one is a little too close for comfort).

I imagine that when the wheel was invented, some old bureaucrat decreed all this rolling around must stop because someone could get hurt! (This probably led to the invention of brakes, since all efforts, throughout history, to shackle the progress of man and womankind simply encourage even greater creativity to get around the rules.)

When I was a young woman, barely out of my teens, as they say, I trotted off to Europe for four months after second-year university, as we call it in Canada, (sophmore, to my U.S. readers) I toured with a gaggle of girlfriends. During that entire time, roaming all over Europe and the Middle East, yet, not one of us ever even considered placing a long distance telephone call home, even though we were desperate to know of our scholastic results and wondered if our families were still well and intact and thinking of us. More to the point, some of us fell ill at various times and even got attacked (the seriousness depends on whether or not you think rubbing and pinching on the Madrid transportation system was alarm-worthy or just another day on a “Streetcar Named Desire”, as my friend called it). A few airmail letters, picked up at local American Express offices, kept us somewhat informed. Those on the other side of the vast ocean had to be satisfied with tissue-paper ‘aerograms’, posted home from various remote locations. At the time, no one thought much of it. Weeks went by, with limited communication, and life went on. This certainly was an improvement over the days, a century before, when wagon trains lit out for ‘the west’ from someplace called St. Joe, leaving relatives for years, without any contact, unless the Pony Express happened to ride by your homestead.

Of course, all this has changed completely. Because they can, people must now be in constant communication. You’ve heard all this before, so I won’t bore you, or myself, about the pathetic nature of the socially-challenged, who have to be reminded to turn off cell phones in movies and restaurants. (Remember the days when, if you heard a buzz and saw someone jump up and quickly squeeze by everybody in his row, you knew it was a doctor getting a life-saving emergency call and proper deference was shown?) It certainly didn’t take long until the joy (and relief) of this possibility turned out to be ‘a bad thing’ (apologies to Martha Stewart….do I even have to add the ‘Stewart’ for you to know who I mean?)

There was an automatic assumption that students carrying the first cell phones were, obviously, drug dealers, who needed to keep in touch with their ‘clients’. This replaced the previous notion that pager-carrying pupils were the drug dealers, and not future doctors. More often than not, the caller on the other end of any device was a mother, bypassing the school office to inform her forgetful child that she was dropping off the bag of lunch left on the kitchen counter and to meet her out front NOW!

In the last few years of my teaching career, I enjoyed participating in a special ritual, devoted to this new invention. Students would be reminded, at the beginning of the day on the P.A., to leave their cell phones in their lockers during class time….or else! (This kind of threat had no ‘teeth,’ as they say, since there were never any ‘elses’ to breaking the rules anymore. Besides, as everyone knows, a locker is the least safe place in a school. Any drugs you hide in there will be sniffed out for sure. Your lunch, should you remember it, will be eaten by ants or mice. One of my students had her fur coat swiped. It was stolen right out of her locker. Apparently, no one noticed.
The only things that can be stored safely in school lockers are books. No one wants them.

At the beginning of each class, teachers would proceed to remind their students to make sure all such technology was ‘turned off’ (which proves my thesis that no one ever expected the kids to obey the first command from head office). It wouldn’t take too long into the lesson before some wacky musical tone would emit from a backpack and an embarrassed student would admit to possession of a weapon of personal destruction, which would then have to be confiscated for the time being, to be returned at the end of class. (No one felt confident enough to actually take the phone, permanently. Who could afford the ensuing lawsuits?)

Further along in the period, usually at a crucial ‘teachable moment’, a student would leap up in the air, as if electrocuted, and subsequently raise his hand and ask to leave the room. If a test was returned and someone didn’t like the mark she received and ran out of the room in tears, without permission, you could bet that when the classroom phone rang, two minutes later, it was the Principal calling you down, after class, for a meeting with the mother of said child, who had somhow miraculously learned of her daughter’s disappointment and needed to speak to you right away to renegotiate.

Yes, technology has a way of speeding things up, in life. It changes our concept of time.
No more life-threatening treks across the continent before getting in touch.
No more hopeless worrying over late night commutes or questionable exam results.
And no more uninterrupted romantic evenings that last until dawn.

It’s definitely now or never.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

It's For You!

Like any romance, an interaction with new technology begins with an irresistible attraction, followed by infatuation, a honeymoon period, a relatively content period of adjustment, then, the inevitable taking-for-granted phase which descends into constant criticism before the inevitable demonization and outright rejection. Think about it. Didn’t you love your first computer enough to tolerate, if not completely overlook its many shortcomings? Was it more than a couple of years before you were cursing the very qualities that made you fall in love in the first place? How long did it take you to start sneaking around behind its back, popping in to the Mac store to check out the prettier, shinier models with the bigger ‘hard drives’? And where is that big hulk of plastic and wires now? On some container ship, traveling across the Pacific to a scenic dumpsite in China? ….on a vacation? Shame on you!

Today, I would like to trace the history of another modern piece of technology that changed everything humankind ever knew or did before it showed up. For the record, it’s a Canadian invention, even though many Americans have tried to take credit, as they often do in such circumstances. Therefore, you won’t see Ken Burns making any tedious, albeit, thorough documentary about it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

I am speaking, of course, of the telephone. That little device now condescendingly referred to as a ‘land line’ by the latest generation of users (we are long past the honeymoon phase) has, in a little over a hundred years, changed everything that went before, from where, why, when and how people communicate with each other to our entire sense of time and place. What used to be totally inappropriate or even, alarming behavior, has become commonplace.

Think about it. A few years ago, if you had seen someone walking down the street, babbling away in an intense conversation with himself, what would you have immediately concluded? Wouldn’t you have crossed to the other side of the road, just in case? These days, do you bat an eye? If you tsk, tsk, you have already joined the ranks of the demonizers, proving my thesis!

We all know how excited old Alexander Graham Bell was to get a response to his first call to a Mr. Watson, and some of us have even visited his house/museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, while others have been right there but didn’t even bother, opting, instead, to go for a lobster dinner, but to get a really clear picture of how exciting this miracle of human interaction was to the general populace, watch the opening scenes of one of my favorite old movies, “Meet Me in St. Louis”. At dinnertime, the entire family gets to anticipate and then listen in to a ‘long distance call from New York’, placed by a swain calling the eldest daughter (the one who’s not Judy Garland). The reason they can all eavesdrop is because the machine, cumbersome and enormous and encased in mahogany (like all first models of any new technology) hangs on the wall in the main hallway. No one ever uses the phone again, during that entire movie. Judy still gazes across her vast lawn, longing for that ‘boy next door’, but she never phones him. Or he, her. God forbid! Teenagers have yet to discover the urgency for constant verbal contact and besides, in is original form, the telephone just too ungainly to sneak into your sleeve so you can lean on your wrist and secretly communicate with your boyfriend during your math class. In “Meet Me”, a telephone call, from New York, no less, was a big deal, treated with appropriate respect and awe. It raised the social standing of the daughter considerably, instead of being the cause of a visit to the Principal’s office for a reprimand. (Notice I didn’t say ‘detention’ since that device, like that old wall phone in the hallway, has also long-gone on some slow boat to China).

Back in the days when I first noticed the telephone, it continued to hold a place of conspicuous honor in the front hallway. Although some of my family and friends still had to reach up high on the wall to converse into older models, my family, newly ensconced in bungalownian splendor in suburbia, had the latest design, a shiny black upgrade. It still sported that huge circular dial, the bain of every manicure. But who knew about manicures unless you were a perky secretary moving to New York to work on Madison Avenue, sleep with the boss and never even get engaged, in a Rona Jaffe novel? The phone perched on the little shelf attached by wrought iron to an upholstered seat. Right under the telephone was a specially designated opening which accommodated something called a ‘telephone book’ in which were listed all the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone in the entire city! If you had any need for privacy, you could, if the cord was long enough, carry the contraption into the front hall closet and bury yourself beneath the winter coats for sound insulation. But long cords came much later. As did my need for them.

Technologically advanced neighborhoods had already dispensed with the ‘party line’, a feature which required next door neighbors to share the same input wire, enabling them to hear the ‘party’s’ ring and surreptitiously pick up and listen in to each others’ conversations. Since there wasn’t a lot of entertainment around the house, in those years, this was pretty exciting!

There was no ‘call display’ either, so there was a great deal of anxiety and anticipation whenever the phone rang. You were taught to answer, “Gordon residence, to whom do you wish to speak?” That’s how the Andersons and the Cleavers did it. Nothing less than a polite, “Hello” would do at our house, since my father received his business bookings on our phone. Without answering machines, it was crucial to inquire if the person “wished to leave a message” and to write it down, legibly, or else. When you placed a call, you would say something like, “May I please speak to Marilyn?” instead of “Yo!” since, without ‘call display’ you never knew who would answer on the other end. The sound of the busy signal was frustrating and you knew you were in for a long wait if there were teens in the house.

Speaking of which, we were the exception in that department, too. Our calls were strictly limited in number and volume for at any moment of the day or night, my dad might get a call for work. You might wonder why, in a household of three women, two of them at prime phone age and one trapped in suburbia taking care of them, why my father didn’t just install a second line and solve a whole lot of aggravation. Well, things like that weren’t so simple. Like a lot of things people used to do which now seem so ridiculous and self-defeating to us. in these more enlightened times, it seemed to be a better idea to see the phone as an opportunity for deprivation and a source of punishment rather than as a simple means of communication. How far we have come! Not! (A little current jargon injected here to give this rant a little historical accuracy).

I think the 50’s and 60’s were the ‘Golden Age of the Telephone’. The phone was the favorite technological device of the adolescent ‘baby boom’ generation and, as such, was ripe for diversification. In a few years, it went from being the weighty, black clunker moping in the hallway to being redesigned as a slim, dare I say, cute, pastel plastic oval, small enough to fit on a young girl’s night table IN HER BEDROOM! It was called, in a brainwave of brilliance, “The Princess Phone”. If you managed to get your parents to ‘coronate’ you and rent one from Bell (monopolistic behemoth), you would henceforth be known in your circle, as royalty, due the deference and respect that rise in status entailed.

The brilliant creation of the teenage demographic required the creation of products for that ‘sector’ and this one was the biggest hit! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but if you had been a teenage girl, like I was, during that era, well, you’d understand the enthusiasm. No longer a child, but not yet allowed the privileges of adulthood, we early teens wandered, undefined, until this little baby was created just for us. I have a reprint of a behavior guidebook, written during that era, which instruct teenagers on the niceties of living, (how to entertain without alcohol, how to ask for and accept a ‘date’, no petting, how any sexual conduct which ‘goes too far’ is always the girl’s fault, etc.) which devotes an entire chapter to how to use the telephone in a respectful and appropriate way. (As a teacher, I used to read it to the class to cheer them up near exam time. I liked to see them fall off their chairs in convulsions of laughter and disbelief, their cell phones spilling out of their pockets).

Suddenly, ‘The Princess” was on every female bedside table. There was no corresponding brown model for boys, of course, since even back then, young males were not disposed to talk much, either to each other or anyone else. If you had your own number, you could talk all night and day. One of my friends and I used to have a rule, to which we religiously adhered, that we could only end our conversations on the stroke of the hour….a kind of ‘talk around the clock’. If that minute hand slipped past the twelve, we had to keep chatting until it made its way all the way around again. We never had any trouble filling in the time. And that was when there were good shows on TV!

This cultural behavior was celebrated, at the time, in the opening number of a huge Broadway hit called, “Bye, Bye Birdie”. The song is called, “The Telephone Song” and in it, the huge cast of teens, take turns phoning each other with the compelling news that Hugo has pinned Kim. You might not think this is much of subject for a hit song, but first, familiar ‘Br-r-r-r-ing!’ of the telephone, breaking the silence in the theatre, sent shockwaves through the audience. The second call provoked a burst of applause. By the time the third kid answered the third ring, the house was brought down….as they like to say in the theatrical world. This was big.

This celebration of the telephone gave it it’s due, both as a communication instrument and a cultural landmark.

(I don’t recall anyone writing a song about the pager or the cell phone. Is there a ditty about plasma TV’s? “You Got Mail” just doesn’t raise the hackles, although you could make a case for “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson, I suppose).

So where else did the telephone have to go, but down?

Excuses, excuses

The dog ate my homework.

Sorry it's been so long, but I've been busy cooking. Up to my typing fingers in egg whites, brisket and chocolate. Sound yummy? (Not together, silly).

This is a very action-packed time of year for 'Balabustas' like moi, so finding the time or left-over energy to indulge myself at the computer is very difficult.

Add to that, the very early Spring, after a non-existent Winter, and whatever time is remaining must be spent cultivating my other garden.

Enough excuses. Back to business.

I can put away the china and silver chatchkas later.