Peter Shelton

Singing the Cell Phone Blues

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on February 10, 2012

Way back in grade school somewhere we were forced to learn a poem and then recite it back to the class. The poem was “Eletelephony” by Laura Elizabeth Richards.

Once there was an elephant / Who tried to use the telephant –

No! No! I mean an elephone / Who tried to use the telephone.

(Dear me! I’m not certain quite / That even now I’ve got it right.) . . .

Phones and I have had a complicated relationship ever since. When I took the job as Ouray County Editor for The Watch a year and a half ago, I was told I’d need a cell phone. I’d never had a cell phone. I didn’t want a cell phone. I could get into my car and be assured a certain number of miles of peace. I never had to leave a restaurant or excuse myself from good company because something in my pocket started dinging.

I got to make fun, silently, inside my head, of all the people staring at their palms or walking down the street apparently talking to themselves, like the crazy people I had seen on the sidewalks of New York.

My mother, who is 86, had a cell phone years before I did. She’d often say, “With all that wild driving you do, over the mountains, in the snow, don’t you want a cell phone, just in case?”

The newspaper’s associate publisher told me that the landline at the Ridgway office was going away; it was an unnecessary expense, and in order to do my job I would have to have a cell phone. I whined back that I had always been slow: slow to grow, slow to get teeth, slow to discover sex. I was slow to accept every new technology that came along. I hadn’t wanted to get a computer because I was worried it would change what I wrote, that the connection between brain and pencil was somehow crucial to the act.

I got over that eventually. Just as I accepted, finally, the move from LPs to CDs, from film to VHS and then to DVDs. I bought our first flat-screen TV last year. We still haven’t connected it to a cable.

The associate publisher, who is half my age, smiled sweetly and said, “Just embrace it.”

So, I got the cell phone. I hold the skipping-rock sized thing to my ear, but I don’t know how to make a contact list. If you call me, don’t be offended when I answer, “Thank you for calling The Watch,” instead of, “Wassup, Scotty?” There’s just this line of tiny numbers on my screen. Everybody gets the same treatment.

I have no idea how to text.

The other day at Powderhorn, I was skiing with my phone turned on, because friends I was meeting were late, and I expected a call. When it came, I was just about to get off the chairlift and didn’t want to start unzipping just then. I dug it out finally and got Julie’s voice message, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the phone call her back. I surfed through menus and options and recent calls but couldn’t in the end make the thing do what I wanted it to do.

I skied down and there they were standing in front of the lodge.

The world is moving so fast; we seem to be taking ever more shortcuts, adding unnecessary layers of disembodied communication, substituting clicks for real contact. I read in The New Yorker this week about the gay New Jersey teen who killed himself after his freshman roommate used a laptop cam to catch him in a tentative man-to-man kiss. Much of the evidence in the case has come from recovered tweets and text messages and IM’s, from postings on chat rooms and “social media” sites. These kids were up all night typing illiterate shorthand to each other, posturing, preening, pondering advice from strangers. Sharing secrets with the world as if they were tittering in the bathroom together. They are completely facile with the technology, but they have no sense.

My grandkids almost seem to have been born with the desire to push buttons and manipulate screens. Little Boden, who is 16 months old, reaches for my phone every time he sees it unattended. He wants it, and I have half a mind to give it to him, to let him drool on it until it short circuits.

He has only a few words at his command. He says, “Hi.” He says, “Hot!” and points at the woodstove. The other day he got hold of Ellen’s glasses case. He pressed his thumbs into it as if it held a hidden keyboard. And he put it up to his ear and said, very clearly, “Hello.”

. . . Howe’er it was, he got his trunk / Entangled in the telefunk;

The more he tried to get it free / The louder buzzed the telephee –

(I fear I’d better drop the song / Of the elephop and the telephong!)

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