09/26/2014 02:45 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014


Everyone has a phone, of course. Even though we weren't rich, my family had a phone when I was young. The phone number, I remember, was 3773. Nice. Our phone was on what was called a party line. That meant that if some other family (our party line) was using their phone, we had to wait until they finished their conversation before we could use ours. Alternately, we could eavesdrop on their conversation, which of course you weren't supposed to do. That wasn't worth the time, since they never had anything interesting to talk about.

Nowadays people rich and not rich have phones, preferably the carry around kind. The phone on the desk at home, no matter how sleek, has fallen from favor, may even gather dust. While the carry around phones have advantages, they lack interesting numbers once used such as Plaza5--- or Watkins9---. My phone at home is listed in the directory as 744--- instead of Rhinelander4--- which it once was. That's a considerably decline.

So, yes, even if you have only rice and beans for supper, you feel the need for a carry around phone today. And you do carry it around. With it you have a screen to stare at as you walk down the sidewalk and cause someone coming toward you either to move aside or walk into you. With it you have something to use at breakfast in a restaurant to call your friend to talk about what movie she'd like to see and say I've already seen that and anyway I have a manicure appointment at 3 o'clock while (not to be underrated) simultaneously annoying the hell out of a guy nearby who had hoped for a quiet meal.

A carry around phone also can take photos, obviating the need for that expensive Canon that you just bought last year. It can flash newspaper and magazine articles on its screen. It can remind you of dates with the dentist or the boy you hope to go to bed with.

That phone can also employ new word usage. I'm thinking of the word "text." Anyone who's gone through school knows that a text is a textbook that you use in a history or geometry class. It's a noun. But nowadays not just a noun. "I'll text you the time for the meeting..." my friend types on the screen and sends it as a text message (texts it) to the screen on mine. This, I've only recently come to learn, is the preferred way to communicate--not by email or plain old telephoning. When asked why someone types a message rather than using his voice to send it, I'm told that it's faster. That's better just left.

As I recall, we had the same phone in our house all the years I was growing up. You can bet that won't happen with a carry around phone. A number 4 edition will quickly become passe and everyone you know will have traded it in for a number 5 edition and so on. This is called planned obsolescence, employed by the manufacturer for...well, for obvious reasons.

I'm not a fashionista but every now and then I submit to wanting to keep up with the times, so just now I decided to trade in my number 4 edition for a number 5, especially because the change was free. I went to a store located near my apartment which stocks, conservative estimate, 25,000 small items, gadgets, that are used by people savvy about electronic appliances but maybe puzzling to everyone else.

At that store I hoped for a simple exchange of one phone for the other, itself a rather simple notion. The manager is a well-built fellow of age maybe 30, but when he isn't there, the store is manned by a couple of younger folks of age maybe 20, who provide customers with music from a tape they obviously know, since they sing along lyrics that, i'm embarrassed to say, I can't understand.

They brought out a number 5 edition phone which turned out to be faulty, something realized only after two days of them and me trying unsuccessfully to move material over from the one I was turning in. Ultimately, the manager pinpointed the issue, came forth with another number 5 edition and did the couple of hours work to set it up. I went by today to leave him a small gift.

If all that was worth the trouble, I don't know, as my new phone is new. I plugged it into a wall socket to make it work (to be repeated daily), and looked sympathetically at the phone on my desk, old and reliable, which I can use just by picking up the receiver...anytime.

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Stanley Ely writes about communication issues in his new book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.