Thursday, May 28, 2009

Those Ubiquitous Cellphones

When I was a teenager living at home, my parents impressed upon me one of those arbitrary rules I never thought to question: Nice girls don’t call boys. The unspoken corollary, then, was that nice girls had to spend a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring—or as was much too often the case—not to ring. I’m ashamed now to admit how much time I spent waiting on those calls, some that came, others that never did.

By the time I was in college, I had learned—most of the time—to go on, to leave the dorm, where sometimes a dozen of us shared the same phone line, and to enjoy myself. If he wanted to get in touch badly enough, he’d keep calling. Some did; some didn’t. Without an answering machine or voice mail, I wasn’t always sure.

Only recently did I consider that single girls today don’t have to make the choice between sitting at home on the phone or going out with friends. The personal cell phone is considered more of a necessity now than transportation. Teachers are facing “beat ‘em or join ‘em” alternatives—trying to find ways to keep the ubiquitous devices from, at best, interrupting classes, and at worst, enabling a network of cheating previously unfathomable. (I heard one algebra teaching describing an illicitly used cell phone as a “weapon of math disruption.”) I’ve seen cell phone quizzes—set up like American Idol votes—in which students call in answer and see their responses reflected on a Smartboard screen in the front of the classroom.

I can’t imagine how uninterrupted phone access would have changed my life: what “roads not taken” could have led to a completely different life? What teen angst could I have avoided if I hadn’t been tethered to the umbilicus of South Central Bell?

About the time I had begun to envy these young girls in this Millennial generation, though, free to make their own phone calls, to go when and where they wished, never worrying about missing a life-changing call, I saw the preview for the movie He’s Just Not That Into You. Drew Barrymore’s character made clear that downside of twenty-four hour access: guys today, she noted, have at least six different ways to break up with you.

Even my reading reminds me how much cell phones have changed life. I just finished Jane Smiley’s novel Good Faith, a book that particularly interested me because it examines the real estate industry in the early 80s. Since my own short-lived real estate career ended in early 1982 when interest rates hovered around 16.5% and when, like Smiley’s protagonist Joe, I also worked on rezoning for subdivisions and other land development, I found much of the novel entirely believable.

What struck me now, though, is how much cell phones would have affected the characters’ business and personal lives. Every time a character missed a call or worried about how to locate someone during an unexplained absence, my instinct responded, “Call her cell!”

How quickly those little devices have become a necessary evil. Next month I travel to Chicago for a few days, where I always visit the Art Institute, where one of my favorite large pantings hangs—Caillebotte’s Paris Streets; Rainy Day. A docent there once pointed out that when the painting was created, umbrellas, now so common place we barely notice them, were a relatively new development. I had to wonder if Caillebotte were painting now, if he might have a companion painting—the same Paris Street on a sunny day, everyone scurrying around, cellphones held firmly to their ears.

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