Sunday, February 7, 2016

Call Waiting



How ironic would it be if the fall of civilization is brought about, not by greed or indulgence, but the cell phone?

Hey, now, wait a minute. Don’t go tweeting about what an idiot I am, or using my name in vain on a Facebook status. Hear me out. After all, I’m not confronting anyone in person, I’m doing it from a keyboard—just like the one on all our phones. I’m not a total hypocrite.

I think Mr. Bell might hang up on us if he had any idea of what we’ve done with his invention since Watson answered that first voice mail. But here we are, a hundred forty years later, driving around in Mr. Ford’s invention while we talk and text on Bell’s. It’s illegal to do those two things at the same time, by the way. Everybody knows that. Most people pretend it doesn’t matter.

But it does.

More teenagers die in car accidents as a result of driving and texting than die while driving drunk—that’s three thousand texters every single year. So far. Texting and driving is now the leading cause of death among teenagers.

But I’m not here to pick on teenagers. They’re not the only ones guilty—they just lose more years of life when they do it. Fifty-seven percent of adults admit to texting while driving, too. Forty-three percent don’t want to talk about it.

Now and then I take on an unscientific research project—usually while we’re in the middle of an eight thousand mile road trip—and begin counting the number of passing cars whose drivers are holding or texting on a cell phone. In general, it’s about one out of five. This means that multi-tasking is now a greater threat to your life than smoking. Or fast food. Maybe.

It’s one thing if we commit suicide while driving and phoning, but it’s an entirely different thing if we wipe out the life of someone else just because we have to answer that text. Okay. You get the point. You still think it won’t affect you, but you’re glad I brought it up and wish I’d shut up now.

But I’m not done.
 
We’re not going to bring about the fall of civilization by texting and driving. That’s just going to reduce the surplus population. I think condensing relationships to 140 character tweets, Facebook phoniness, and robotic text messaging is what’s going to take us down. We’re living in isolation and don’t even know it.

I’m fed up with texted conversations, including the ones I generate. (Just so you know I’m not only preaching to the choir.) I’m also over emails. As wonderful as the written word is, it’s a lousy substitute for face to face communication. You can send me every cute emoticon Apple comes up with, but if you weren’t really smiling when you texted it—punctuated by fourteen exclamation points—it’s all a lie.

On the other hand, if we’re sitting across from one another talking about our lives and you tell me you’re “fine” while tears well up in your eyes, now we’ve had a heart to heart connection. You were still trying to hide, but it’s harder to do in person.

I think we text because it’s fast. It doesn’t require time or attention. We can carry on multiple conversations with several people all at once without really focusing on any one person. But mostly, our dependency on cell phones is about us and our need to be entertained quickly and constantly.

This morning while my husband and I sat outside a restaurant waiting for a table, I watched an animated conversation between a mom and daughter as they played a game of checkers. Meanwhile, the husband and father sat two feet away from them with his face buried in his cell phone's screen. What’s the message there? Everyone else in the world is more important to that man than his family right next to him.

I used to have a telephone attached to the wall by a long, long cord. If I talked to anyone, it was a commitment, since I was limited to using it in the kitchen or about ten feet into the living room if I stretched it out really hard. When people needed someone to hear their hurts or share their joys, I got a personal phone call from one person who wanted to hear my voice and the animation it held. Now when someone has a prayer request or good news to tell, they send it in a mass text and, for the next two hours, my cell phone dings out the responses of people who have no idea if I’m even listening.

People are dying on the highway for sure now that texting has become such an obsession. But I’m convinced there are an even greater number of casualties all around us as relationships die a slow death at the hands of two sentence text messages.

I’ve seen pictures of crowded sidewalks in New York City where every single pedestrian’s head is down, scrolling through cell phone screens. I’ve watched groups of people out to dinner together, never saying a word—each of them lost in the latest and greatest info on the tiny handheld computer Bell dreamed up. I thought I’d seen it all when I watched a kid on a skateboard sail through my neighborhood with a three hundred dollar cell phone attached to his head. Wonder when they’ll legislate against that kind of moving violation.

But you should have seen my mouth drop open the day I rounded the corner near my rural neighborhood where it’s common to pass acres of cotton crops and view ranches dotted with cattle. Leaving the city is such a balm to my soul that I can actually feel my blood pressure drop once I wind up on the desert back roads that take me home. All the more picturesque is when I spot someone on horseback.

I stopped at the intersection to let the rider and his mount cross the road, but realized the man wasn’t watching my car at all. His head was down, half hidden under his Stetson, his horse waiting patiently for instruction, the reins ignored while the rider sat motionless. Every single illusion I’ve ever held of living here in the Wild West was destroyed that day at the intersection of Combs and Schnepf Roads.

That cowboy was sitting in his saddle, talking on a cell phone.

So I took a picture of him and posted it on Facebook, after I sent out a mass text message full of thinly veiled sarcasm, and then I called my husband.

Good thing I know how to use Bluetooth.

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