Three years after I explained how I survive everyday life without a cell phone, I’m still doing fine without one. I recently took a three-day vacation by myself, and as I often do when traveling alone, I borrowed my partner Daniel’s cell phone for the trip. However, I found that none of the times I used it was essential, and having it along was as much of an inconvenience as it was a convenience!
I’m not a Luddite who doesn’t believe in modern communication. Not only did I use email extensively when planning this trip before I left home, but I brought my iPad with me and used it frequently, using wifi in two restaurants as well as my friends’ home, not just to communicate by email about my travel plans and to check maps but also to do unrelated emailing, maintain this site, do some Websurfing just for fun, play some music, use some other apps…. I love being able to carry my computer in my bookbag when I choose to do so (typically, I leave it at home unless I’m traveling overnight) and to do all this fun and useful stuff. But I also appreciate that the iPad doesn’t shriek at random (to me) moments when someone contacts me, and that using email doesn’t involve shouting in a public place or trying to understand buzzy sounds that resemble a friend’s voice. It is cell phones, specifically, and the way they are getting used in our culture, that bother me so much.
I made six cell phone calls during the three days. Every one of them was a type of call I’ve often heard other people making on cell phones in public places. Every one of them was unnecessary, or could be made from a land line, in the era when we all understood how to live without cell phones.
Call #1: “What do you want from the store?”
My first stop was an afternoon visit with Friend A. The night before the trip, I called him to confirm what time to expect me, and he asked if I’d be willing to pick up a few groceries for him since he is having foot problems and has difficulty going anywhere. I said, “Sure! What do you want?” He asked me to call him when I got to his block (the store being on the same block) and he’d tell me then. If I hadn’t been taking the cell phone, I would have insisted that he tell me in advance–or I could have gotten the groceries when I went out to move my car from one two-hour parking space to another.
As it was, I called from outside his building, and he then wanted to talk me through the whole thing: walking up the street and into the store, finding the spinach and the carrots, choosing nice ones. I put up with this in order to avoid making another call if some unforeseen circumstance arose, but really it seemed completely ridiculous. How hard is it to say, “Please get two boxes of spinach and one bag of carrots from the store on the corner”? Yes, it was nice to know that the entrance of the store was just slightly around onto the other street and that I would find the vegetable case straight ahead and all the way back, but I could’ve figured it out myself, and I certainly am able to spot the spinach and the carrots in a refrigerated case only 20 feet wide that is stocked with exactly one variety of spinach and one variety of carrots!!! And I know what to look for in choosing vegetables and would not skimp on inspecting them for my friend. But I humored him.
However, I didn’t like being one of those annoying people who blunders through a crowded urban store constantly saying, “Uh huh, okay, yeah,” into a cell phone and has only one hand available to get her purse untangled from your baby stroller. I also was irritated by the terrible sound quality of the call, which meant that I kept having to ask A to repeat himself to make sure he was saying something totally obvious rather than giving some new and important information. A’s only phone is a cell phone–which made some sense when he used to go places and, we hope, will make some sense in future when his feet get better and he can go places again–but since he’s home-bound right now, a land line would be equally useful to him and would transmit a clearer signal. The conversation reminded me of the time my brother called me (cell phone to land line) to tell me about a cicada in Alaska walking in fog, which after about four repetitions was revealed to mean, “Hi, Becca! I’m in Nebraska walking the dog”–except that he was over a thousand miles away, whereas A was, like, 300 feet away, so you’d think it would be possible to get a better connection! He might as well have been hollering out of his sixth-floor window.
Call #2: “Your phone told me to tell you to do the thing you told your phone to tell you to do.”
While I was at A’s place, the cell phone began singing a doodly tune that turned out to be an automated alarm. (See list of inconveniences below.) It was reminding Daniel to take our son Nicholas over to his school to learn about caring for the Edible Schoolyard over the summer. Why he had programmed this event into his phone, when he knew that the phone would be with me on the day of the event, I have no idea. I was tempted to just shut off the alarm and trust them to remember to go, but at A’s urging I called Daniel to remind him. He said, “I know; we’re getting ready to go.” Sigh.
Call #3: “I’m calling because you haven’t called me yet.”
The next day, I visited Friend B, who had told me via email that he wasn’t sure of the exact time he’d be ready for me to come over. He had been working adeptly around my lack of cell phone, asking for the home number of Friends C, D, and E (with whom I was staying) so he could call me there, and suggesting that if I hadn’t heard from him by 9:30 I should go ahead to the subway and he’d surely be ready by the time I got to his neighborhood. We should have just done it that way–but no, I told him the cell number, and then he said that if he hadn’t called by 9:30 I should call him. So I did call him from the station platform . . . and he was very busy and just quickly told me to call him again when I got to his building. Pointless.
Call #4: “I’m declining the assistance of both your doorman and a convenient automated system.”
I called B from the lobby of his apartment building because he had told me to call, not because it made any sense. I was standing right next to a particularly shiny and functional-looking system for calling up to an apartment to ask the resident to buzz you in, and his email had told me his code, and I had written it in my purse notebook for handy retrieval. Furthermore, while I was using the cell phone menu to get his number (which I had input from my purse notebook for Call #3) the doorman offered to let me in. This huge apartment building had two people working at the front desk who appeared happy to assist me. There was no reason to use the cell phone, except that I am a person who keeps my word–even when it’s silly, apparently.
Call #5: “I’m here. Where are you?”
What’s annoying about this one is that it didn’t work. I completely understand the argument that a cell phone in my hand is the quickest, easiest, most reliable way to communicate to my friends C, D, and E that I have returned from B’s place and am now on their porch and wondering why they don’t answer their doorbell–I can simply call one of their cell phones and ask where they are, right?
Indeed, D’s cell phone number was in my purse notebook, so I called it. After several rings, a snippy recording informed me that no decent cellular subscriber would be caught dead using such a number, or something like that–he had quite an attitude about it. Realizing that I had arranged the visit via email and couldn’t recall having used that number for a couple of years, I searched Daniel’s phone index for other numbers for C, D, and E; the only one he had was their home land line, which should work if they were in the house but hadn’t heard the doorbell. I called that one, but it rang 22 times–I didn’t even get that phone company recording, “Your party is not answering. Since you obviously don’t know when to give up, I’m doing it for you. Goodbye.”–just endless ringing.
I got out my iPad and found that I could access their wifi from the porch. I sent them email explaining where I was. Then I utilized this opportunity to post about my guest post that had gone up that day, so that worked out nicely–I had been wondering whether I would get time to do it the same day. Then I amused myself reading blogs and eating cherries from their tree next to the porch.
After about 40 minutes, E came home and let me into the house, expressing surprise because he was sure D was home. Sure enough, she was upstairs–so preoccupied with what she was doing on the computer that she had forgotten she was supposed to listen for the doorbell! She also wasn’t paying attention to whether she had received new email. Yes, she might have noticed if her cell phone had rung. We determined that I had one digit wrong in her number. Now I have the right one. Now I also know that they no longer have a phone connected to their land line but haven’t gotten around to shutting it off. Sigh.
Despite all that technology, I would’ve gotten D’s attention faster by throwing pebbles at the window.
Call #6: “I’ll be home a little late.”
This is the only one of these calls that was worthwhile–and I could have made it from a land line pay phone using my long-distance calling card. (I still have the same one mentioned in my article from 2010. I’ve used it maybe once since then.) In fact, I made this call while sitting in the car in a rest-stop parking lot, right next to the place where there used to be a phone booth that I used a couple of times. It’s gone now, but I had seen a pay phone inside the restaurant, so I could have used that if I hadn’t had the cell phone. I called because my son Nicholas had asked me to come and walk him home from school if I got home early enough to do so, but since I still had two hours to go and it was less than one hour before school dismissal, I wanted to make sure Daniel knew to go and meet Nicholas.
If not for that concern, I wouldn’t have called my family about my travel progress. I’d said I would get home “Wednesday afternoon,” and I did.
[UPDATE: After reading this, Daniel told me that he felt the call was unnecessary! He thought it was unlikely that I would get home by school dismissal time, and he knew that if I did I would park the car at home before walking over to the school–to avoid the traffic snarl there–so he was planning to go to the school unless I came home before then. He thinks I didn’t need to call unless I was not going to get home in time for dinner.]
Interestingly, when I spoke with A the night before the trip, he specifically asked me not to call him from the road unless my estimated time of arrival had already passed when I was still more than an hour away. He said a lot of people want to call him when they’re leaving, call an hour or so before they expect to arrive on schedule, call while they’re looking for parking . . . and it’s just annoying!
In addition to finding the cell phone unnecessary for making calls, overall I felt having the cell phone with me was inconvenient:
- Although nobody called me at any point during this trip, the fact that I had the phone with me, that all 5 friends I would be visiting had the number, and that Daniel’s cell number is one of the emergency contact numbers on file at our child’s school (and I was away from one of those other numbers, my land line at work) meant that I had to be alert to the possibility of somebody calling me. This meant that whenever I had been at any distance from the phone or in a noisy place, I had to check the Missed Calls log. This involves clicking through a couple of menus–as compared to my land lines at home and at work, which alert me to a message with a blinking red light that I can see at a glance from across the room–so it annoyed me.
- Four times, I had to shut off automated alarms that were telling Daniel to do stuff. Sure, that’s his fault; he could’ve disabled them as a courtesy to me, and that certainly would’ve made sense for the one that was reminding him of a one-time event! But the daily alarm that reminds him to get ready to walk to school to meet Nicholas is–as I’ve heard many times–difficult to set, impossible to disable temporarily (he’d have to delete it and then set it up all over again when I returned the phone), and so inflexible that he has to put up with it 7 days a week. This is a flaw of this particular model of phone, I suppose, that others (particularly smartphones) handle more elegantly. I’m grateful, at least, that some months ago Daniel obtained new ringtones for his phone so that the alarm sound is now bearable; its old sound was so piercingly irritating that it made me want to smash it instantly and then give Daniel a good bop on the head for leaving it in a room with me, so the new noticeable-but-innocuous electronic tune has vastly improved the peace of our lives together.
- Because I didn’t want to carry a bulky, electronic-wave-emitting device in my jeans pocket right next to my ovary, I had to put it in my purse, where it fit only in the main compartment. Every time I opened that compartment to get out my wallet, I had to fumble the phone out of the way and avoid dropping it. I know I could work out a better storage system if I were carrying a cell phone all the time…but based on everything else about this experience, I don’t want to!
All that said, I am grateful to Daniel for loaning me his cell phone. I could have gotten into some sort of emergency where it would have been useful. I could have gotten so lost that I needed to call one of my friends to help me get back to them. It was reassuring to have this tool available in case I wanted to use it. A cell phone makes more sense for long-distance travel than it does in my normal daily life.
Still, when I thought back over the trip I was startled at how silly my use of the phone was and how much it mirrors what I hear people doing with their cell phones every day as I walk around the neighborhood and ride public transit. These 6 types of calls are pretty common! (Well, “Your phone told me to tell you to do the thing you told your phone to tell you to do.” isn’t so common, simply because most people don’t borrow cell phones–but I’ve certainly heard, “My phone reminded me of the thing you told me to remind you about.”) If you use a cell phone, think about whether you could cut down on some of your calls. You’ll save money, save time, reduce distractions, save your battery charge for more important calls, and reduce annoyance to the people around you.