January 12, 2013

Death Of The Phone Call

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When I was in elementary school, I remember looking up my crush’s phone number in the telephone book. The thin paper of the White Pages slipped under my trembling, sweating, prepubescent fingers, my eyes scanning page after page, looking, searching: L, M, N, O, O’C, O’H… finally landing on O’Malley. My heart skipped a beat, then sank, the long list of O’Malleys stretching for a whole page, Chicago not being an easy place to find a particular Irish girl. I eventually got that girl (Caitie’s) phone number, my crush finally blossoming into my first girlfriend, our 10-year-old hands clasped as we would walk back into school from gym, and we would spend hours on the telephone, just talking, telling each other our deepest secrets (“I actually like broccoli.” “I sleep with four stuffed animals.”) One night, much to my parents chagrin, especially after they saw the telephone bill, we stayed up on the phone late, far later than either of us were allowed to, but parents be damned, we were young and in like. If we wanted to stay up, all the way until nine at night, then by God, we would.

Caitie and I started talking on the phone less and less, putting a strain on our relationship. Sure, we still saw each other every day in class, sitting next to one another in history and health, but those phone calls were where we explored parts of our emotions that we couldn’t say or express when we were face to face. Without the nightly whispers over the phone, the clichéd “no, you hang up first,” the soft assurance that she like-liked me and only me, then we were lost, unable to connect on a deep level, afraid to let our guard down, not wanting the other to see our permanent smile, our reddening cheeks, or our closed-eye sighs. The killer of these conversations? My parents got dial-up internet.

The internet was growing alarmingly fast back in the 90s. First, the rich kids got it, my friend Jay, whose parents owned a house and two cars, had it, showing us all the world of AOL keywords and search engines (not Google yet.) Then the middle class kids like Tim got it, in his house with the computer that had big external speakers, and let him put music on it from CDs. Tim’s parents were divorced, and his mom didn’t understand the computer very well, so when they got internet, it was mostly Tim who used it. He showed me naked girls on it, the first time I had seen a breast. Then, finally, my parents had scrapped the old black and green screen Macintosh and got a color computer, and surely enough, the internet to go along with it. We learned about chat rooms before our parents, before the news, before people were getting abducted. We talked to people on Nickelodeon message boards, people from far off, exotic lands like Kansas, California, even Canada. We started figuring out how to use this vast, never ending world of cyber space, learned about the good and the bad parts of it, and started logging more and more hours, the phone lines tied up for hours.

The last time that I talked to a girl I had a thing for, she had texted me. I felt that same sense of happiness in my chest, the same trembling and sweating when I ran my fingers over the digital letters that appeared on my screen. A few texts back and forth, and I was left beaming, a total of four sentences said by each of us. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to her on the phone, and I can’t even remember what her voice really sounds like. But Caitie O’Malley’s voice will be with me forever. Could it be because she was my first idea of what a relationship was between a boy and a girl? Possibly. But more likely, it’s because those hours we spent talking are now part of me. These texts? My phone will only store them for thirty days, then, like magic, it’ll be like they never existed.

So what happened to the phone call? Did the digital age refine our ability to communicate? More effective means of communications with email and text messages? Or are we hiding behind the technology, able now to send hints and statements without having to hear them aloud, without letting someone else hear the shaking uncertainty in our voice? Or worse, are we worried that we don’t really have anything to say?

I stopped calling people on the phone, especially girls that I had a crush on, mainly because if I don’t have to let them hear how I actually feel, I can pretend to be something I am not. I can be suave, I can be powerful, I can be anything, given enough time to revise text messages or emails. I can set tone using punctuation, and as long as I avoid the impossible text nuance of sarcasm, I can make sure that people understand what I am trying to say, never having to repeat myself. I get the added convenience of being able to talk and hold conversations at work, in class, on the train or bus, without ever having to make those conversations public. So I guess I am as guilty as any in the trial of who murdered the phone call.

But it doesn’t have to die. Cell phone companies are always making “Unlimited” plans cheaper, letting people talk as much as they want on the phone, without huge price tags. Cell phone networks are getting stronger all the time, phone calls able to be made in the subway or the middle of the wilderness. The advances are allowing us to reach out, to say hello, to hear someone we love’s voice and make that audible connection. We can talk until we are hoarse, letting the words echo into the night:

“No, you hang up first.” TC mark

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