Your call is very important to us…

Now that I am approaching my dotage, I am remembering bits and pieces of my life that I thought had hazed over about the time of John Kennedy’s election to the presidency. I’m not sure how that happens, but I’m enjoying the occasional flashbacks immensely.

Take, for instance, a “picture” of my grandfather Harry Espy, his son Willard, and my father Bill Little, all sitting around the fire in the library discussing one of the favorite topics of the day: What has been the most important invention of your lifetime? It seems to me that they always settled on the automobile and talked endlessly about the many changes in lifestyle that began with Henry Ford’s Model T back in 1908. (Nevermind that my dad wasn’t born until 1909 and Willard not until 1910. Those details were irrelevant.)

I think that once in a while someone would propose an alternate invention like penicillin or even electricity, but they were always poo-pooed out of the running. That was in the early 1940s, mind you, when doctoring continued to be pretty much a matter of home remedies and electricity was considered “new fangled” and, at least here in Oysterville, not particularly reliable. We still had an outhouse as backup to the indoor flush toilet and “coal oil” lamps for use during winter storms when there were often days at a time with no power.

Phones

Do kids still enjoy making and playing with tin-can telephones? Or have smartphones eliminated yet another childhood pleasure from days gone by?

As I recall those discussions — I’m sure there were more than one — I can’t help but wonder how the conversation would go now, some 75 years later. Of course, there have been so many life-changing inventions during that time period that I think everyone would have been hard-pressed to choose. If we could modify the discussion topic from “inventions” to “innovations,” I’d definitely vote for the smartphone!

All-in-One Device

“Phone,” smart or otherwise, is a bit of a misnomer, of course. My smartphone keeps me “connected” through messaging services, email, video calls and social networking apps, in addition to standard text messaging and … drum roll … phone calls. It functions as a camera, a video recorder, and a handheld mobile computer for accessing and browsing the Web. I’m unclear as to whether my forebears — those sitting in our library in 1943 or ‘44 — would actually recognize the nature of the smartphone or relate it to the old crank-style telephone that lived on our kitchen wall.

On the other hand, a newly retired friend was telling me recently about an experience with a young relative who came with his mother to visit. “He’s 5,” she said, “so I broke out the toy box that I keep handy for such occasions.”

The little boy kept himself occupied for 30 minutes or more and when my friend went to check on him, she found him busy with an old rotary telephone. He seemed to have the hang of it — earpiece and mouthpiece in the right positions and he was tirelessly spinning the rotary dial. “I’m happy you’re enjoying that telephone,” my friend told him. “Yes,” he said, not missing a beat, “but I don’t know the password.”

I got a big laugh out of that story but, at the same time, I could feel the child’s frustration. Gone are the days when we could simply pick up the earpiece and tell the operator how to direct our call. And gone, too, are the days when the telephone rings and we can answer with pleasurable anticipation, knowing that the call is (almost always) meant for us, specifically, and is from someone with whom we actually wish to speak.

Who the hell is Connor?

Just lately, I’ve had a whole rash of calls from a rapid-fire speaker who identifies himself as “Connor” and… But I don’t get beyond his name. “He” is a robot or, perhaps, a recording, and I really could care less about what he wants to “say” to me or what he’s trying to sell, or … anything else. I hang up and feel safe until the next time the phone rings.

Even worse, to my way of thinking, are the phone calls I generate myself — especially to small, local businesses — that answer robotically with the demand that I “listen to the following options.” Sometimes, if I am persistent, I get to the end of the litany and find that if “I will just stay on the line,” a live voice will answer. Sometimes.

And then there are the calls made, usually with some underlying urgency, that are answered with a recording that says something like, “Please stay on the line. Your call is very important to us and we will…” Then it’s some feeble explanation that they are busy with other callers and that they are answering calls in the order received. You know, of course, that if you hang up and start over that you will be at the end of the queue once again.

Those particular types of messages always remind me of the “Friends” episode in which Phoebe hangs onto the phone throughout the entire program. Or perhaps two. Time goes by and she, naively and determinedly, hangs on through missed meals and periods of sleep believing that she is, as the voice assures her, “the next caller.”

For Better or For Worse

But it’s hard to argue with the safety features that smartphones can provide. The app, for instance, that allows parents to keep track of their children when they are out of sight. Long have I lamented that we now live in a world where kids can’t go outside to play without coming in until dark, or at least until meal time. Never would it have crossed my mother’s mind (or mine either when Charlie’s turn came) to worry about where we were or what we were doing. But, given the world as it is now… having a GPS function is a no-brainer.

My favorite use of my phone’s GPS, though, is when I’m driving. There’s nothing that bolsters confidence like having that disembodied voice from your phone telling you, step by step, how far to go and where to turn when you are in unfamiliar territory. And what about all the apps for food delivery or the banking apps that allow you to disperse or consolidate your money with nary a trip out of doors? Of course, some smartphone apps discriminate against us rural folks — Uber and Lift, for instance, are “not in our network.” Which probably means that some things, like the differences between urban and rural lifestyles, have been accentuated rather than reduced through advanced technology.

Someone recently told me that he finds the best function of his smartphone is the instant settlement of bar bets. (Now that’s one I’d have never thought of!) And more than one teenager I know uses their phone when researching homework assignments. I have to admit that when I was that age, I’d have certainly preferred any research option rather than going to the public library. Of course, that was back in the dark ages when libraries were dank and dreary and books were actually written on cumbersome clay tablets…

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