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Survival of the Fittest: Phone-less in America

Author makes his own declaration of independence

I am probably the only person left in America who does not own a mobile communication device. I say "probably the only person" because, though the other one is on record as having voted for FDR in 1936, she is a tough old girl and may still be around.

Whenever someone asks me why, I am up front about the fact that most people don't have an urgent need to reach me. So, naturally, I am wary of those that do.

"I'll call you after the movie if we're going to somebody's house. Or from the park unless we don't end up going there either. By the way do we have plans for the Fourth because there's this get-together—Oh right, I can't call you."  My teenage daughter manages to get all of this into one breath while I'm dropping off her and her mobile in downtown South Orange.

"I have to do a few things myself. Why don't we keep it simple and I'll pick you up at the park at 6?"

But this suggestion has the opposite effect, introducing a whole new set of variables and complicating the travel plans not just of myself, my daughter and her friends but also, it would seem, everybody flying out of Newark airport that day. Finally, she asks, "How come you don't have a cell phone? That way we wouldn't have to decide all this in advance. We could just do it–whenever."

I smile. She has in fact just hit upon an important reason for my not owning one.

"Sometimes it can be a good thing to pick a time and place and then have to show up. Imagine if mobile phones had been around when the Declaration of Independence needed to be signed and Jefferson and Adams were trying to get all those delegates to arrive at Independence Hall on time. Hancock calls to say he's running late and maybe they could postpone until tomorrow. Franklin texts that he's unhappy about the seating arrangements while Witherspoon wants to know if he can bring a date. There'd be no July 4th. That would only be the day they were shooting for. Be sometime in January and we'd be watching firecrackers in the snow or, more likely, singing 'God save the Queen' at televised sporting events. So how about it? The park at 6."

It's only after I drive off to do some errands that I realize we never said which park.

"Aha," technophiles may not be able to hold it in any longer, "with a cell phone you could have straightened this out. No hassle."

Actually, though, it would have been less of a hassle to straighten out with a carrier pigeon. By the time my daughter and I had picked the park where we would meet at 6, one or both of us would no longer be able to be there, having received an urgent text message that somewhere in the universe something else was happening at the same time.

Situations like this one are why carrier pigeons may be an idea whose time has come round again. Birds are about as mobile a communications device as you can imagine, and, as I understand it, most carrier pigeons are only trained to fly one way–either home or else some place with better air-conditioning. So in the  event that a carrier pigeon I fired off caught up with my daughter and her friends while they were waiting in the movie line, she wouldn't have been able to send it back to me  in the middle of traffic with a note about how their plans had changed. She would have had to hang onto the pigeon through the movie, doing her best to keep it out of the popcorn.

Carrier pigeons also would not disrupt designated "quiet cars" on trains the way cell phones do. This is because you cannot use a carrier pigeon to yak on about whether the person at the other end should expect you home at 8:15 or 8:30. If you have a message for this person, you simply pry open the train car's emergency window and release the pigeon. Then sit back and assume that if the family dinner is interrupted by an avian creature hurtling over the garage with a message tied around its leg, one of the kids will know what to do.

All this would obviously be progress, enlivening mealtimes and bringing our nation's railways into the 21st century. So it never ceases to amaze me when people who learn of my phone-less condition make the mistake of assuming that I am a complete technophobe and would like to return to a simpler time and place such as Mesopotamia in 600 B.C.E.

"No electricity, indoor plumbing, or even so much as a roof over our heads to keep out the rain," a friend who had gone camping with his family reported back to me. "You would have loved it!"

Now the truth is that there is no part of this description I would have loved, but without a cell phone–even if you work your fingers to the bone twittering your latest accomplishments ("Found left sock! Yay!") on your laptop–people are always coming up to you with the news that they have the "perfect uncharted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean" for you.

"Is there a cappuccino machine?' is what I always want to know.

Technology is too often presented as an all-or-nothing deal. To opt out of one part of it is to make yourself as obsolete as last year's model of BlackBerry. But let's not forget that, however obsolete by current standards, last year's BlackBerry is still far beyond the comprehension of someone like me. This was made all too clear the other day when my wife lent me her cell so that my daughter could give me a lesson in texting.

"Dad, your message is all numbers," my daughter came into our living room to complain, thus breaking the "fourth wall" of the illusion that we were miles apart and both in situations where we could play with handheld devices as much as we wanted so long as we didn't speak. As a teacher, I would guess that we were each supposed to be in a class of some sort.

 "They're not just random numbers. It's code. In fact, a very old code."

She groaned. "You're not going to start telling me about the Declaration of Independence again, are you?"

"Actually, this code is from ancient Mesopotamia."

 I was about to launch into another of my valuable history lessons when we were interrupted by a strange but comforting sound. This was a sound I hadn't heard in such a long time I almost couldn't place it at first, but, like a lost melody from my childhood, it soon came back to me in all its haunting beauty and simplicity.

It was our landline ringing.


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