A lot of memorable things happened on the yellow bus I took to day camp when I was a kid: I comforted a girl who started sobbing when we took an alternate route that passed the cemetery where her mother had just been buried; I was courted by an eight-year-old named Ernie who got my attention by paying me to make friendship bracelets; I was told by my friend Lee that if I wanted to sit next to her, she could accommodate me a week from Tuesday.
But mostly I remember one single comment made by a 12-year-old I sat next to one afternoon. "I have two best friends," she said. "Amanda, and my phone." She turned to Amanda in the seat behind her.
"Amanda, who is my other best friend?"
This silly, passing comment made by a pre-teen hoping to project a kind of idiosyncratic brand of cool has stuck in my head all these years; it's clung hard to my gray matter, unmoved by any substances or head bumps that have made more exciting memories turn to dust. It was recently pointed out to me, for example, that when I was 18, I was picked up during a performance of De La Guarda, locked into a carabiner and then flown around on a rope above the audience's head. This was news to me. My life is apparently very exciting in other people's memories. I mostly remember spending that year watching Friends.
At the time Amanda's friend made her phone/friend remark, I liked phones. I got my own white princess phone in fifth grade -- a fundraising gift when I raised money for the March of Dimes. At some point I even had my own line. I also had an answering machine, and I remember getting excited to see its blinking red button when I got home from school -- even if the only message was from Z100, informing me that I would've won $1000 if my outgoing message had said "Z100 means today's best music now give me my money." True story.
Perhaps that conversation stuck with me because, even then, I knew that there was something unsettling about having a disembodied voice going directly into my ear. You talk to someone who you can't see -- and for this you have to pay? Talking with someone you can see is generally free of charge. It's not unlike when people talk about how they've found a really cheap brand of bottled water: Do you let them know what a great deal they could be getting if they used their kitchen faucet? Of course, I've used the phone many times in my life. There were times I even liked it. But those memories now seem as vague as that time I flew above the audience.
I use the phone for work purposes, but that's about it. Recently, I had to miss seeing my shrink. My options were either having the session over the phone, or else just skipping this week. Either way, I was going to have to pay. I went with the latter option, if only because I felt that 45-minutes of talking about myself on the phone would only cause me to need more therapy.
I have friends who berate me for never picking up my phone, but I try to make them see that this is just the zeitgeist. Nielsen recently found that kids send about eight text messages for every one phone call they make or receive. My cousins, all of whom are 10 years older than I am, lament that their teenage children refuse to pick up the home phone. They think a busy signal means a phone is broken. They'll beg their parents to deal with phone calls that have to be made to coaches or relatives.
I'd probably hear a lot more of their griping if I ever returned my cousins' calls. I would, but I jot down their messages and then I forget where I wrote it. Or I worry I'm calling too late or too early or that I won't have enough to say if they do in fact answer. A relaxed conversation is impossible, because I'm constantly looking for an opportunity to say "Bye." I feel an inexplicable kind of dread when I hear a phone ring, even when the caller ID displays the number of someone I like (it's worth noting that experiments with anti-depressants have, at times, alleviated this dread -- a side-effect not mentioned in the fine print on the bottles).
The two people who I talk to on the phone with any regularity are the same people who were there when I was conceived. For several years, I even dated a guy who was deaf. I look back at our lack of phone conversations as one of the best parts of that relationship. My current boyfriend remarks that whenever we end a phone call, he thinks I hate him. I don't hate him. But I'm not saying I wouldn't love him a little more if he were deaf...
My dislike for the phone probably first started to grow when I began using Instant Messenger. Perhaps phone-talking is a skill that one has to practice, and the more IMing I've done, the more my skills have dwindled to the level of a modern day 13-year-old who never has touched a landline. I much prefer writing to talking and I'd go so far as to say that I believe that IM might be one of the most useful forms of communication to be invented since the creation of the written word. (There's a group of 11-year-old gospel singers behind me right now, saying "Sing it, sister!"). Can you have multiple conversations on the phone? Can you cut and paste one anecdote into multiple windows to avoid having to tell the same story twice? Can you play your ukulele to yourself during lulls in the conversation? No, No, and No (or, for you fellow IMers: N).
These days, I keep my phone-talking to such a minimum that I've managed to survive for quite some time with AT&T's minimum allotment of minutes. I don't even listen to my messages any more: They get transcribed automatically and then are sent to me via email or text.
But last year, a friend first encouraged me to Skype with her using a camera. I figured I'd try it. I don't mind talking to people in person, and the whole picture-phone idea seemed pretty close to that. I also admit to feeling a little giddy at the thought of experimenting with a technology that I figure will be one of the things to render phones obsolete.
Since then I've video-chatted on average maybe once a week, either using gChat or Skype. I don't hate it. In fact, I probably like it better than talking on the phone. I especially like it because it meant I could go on a tour-via-iBook when a friend bought a new house in LA, or because I can talk to my niece in Nashville and watch her try to form words despite her missing two-front teeth, or see the pictures she drew at school. I also kind of like seeing my sister's living room from the vantage point of her computer: it makes me feel like Mike Teavee. But it occurs to me that if there's one thing that'll become obsolete because of video-chatting, it's not phones: it's natural flowing conversations with people far away.
When you're staring at someone without a salt shaker and a napkin holder in between you for distraction, pauses seem infinite -- and exceedingly awkward. To be sure, these pauses can be weird on the phone -- they're one of the reasons I don't use the phone. But when you're actually staring at the person, it's extra difficult. On top of everything else, you have to try not to look bored. (And, if you don't have a certain window minimized, you have to look at yourself trying not to look bored.)
Peggy Orenstein did a great job at summing up this weirdness in an essay about Skype in The New York Times Magazine in June. "Suddenly I understood why slumber-party confessions always came after lights were out, why children tend to admit the juicy stuff to the back of your head while you're driving, why psychoanalysts stay out of a patient's sightline," she writes.
Indeed. Perhaps the problem is just that all this non-phone technology just hasn't been totally ironed out yet. I think my friend Ronda said it best when she recently left me a message that was transcribed and sent to my voicemail:
"It's not that I'm calling to say hi and and i did about that let's meet you but I don't know if I'm gonna be going in to get out of my car and see you so right kind of on the hello I'm Larry King Rebecca last night so I don't think enlightenment about or somewhere anywhere if you'd like so much for us."
Sing it, sister.