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Washington Voices

Phone’s cord seems so 20th century

‘It has a cord?” I ask in an incredulous tone.

My husband Richard and I are making our nightly call to his mother in Southern California who has been in the hospital for several weeks. While we’re chatting with her, the phone suddenly cuts dead in the middle of a sentence and when we try to call back we can’t get through. After examining our phones, Richard concludes that the phone base – our portable phone mother ship – is kaput.

Richard goes right out to buy a new phone so his mother won’t worry, while I stay home nursing a bug. We’re a little anxious about the cost on the heels of an emergency trip down there.

A half hour later Richard comes home with a new phone, happy to find a setup under $100 that can hang on our kitchen wall like the other one did and not take up counter space. “It has one roaming receiver and one at the base,” he says, “so we’ll always know where at least one phone is.” Portable phones are wonderful but we tend to forget where we last left them. As the phones are in neutral colors and not very visible in our décor, an eyeball sweep can completely overlook them in a fold of a bedspread or stuck in a chair seam.

The new phone has big, visible buttons and a lighted LED screen, which is great. But when I see the base phone I’m stunned – its handset is attached to the base with a coiled cord. Now this should have been obvious to me, right? But given that we’ve had completely portable phones for almost a decade, my mind simply can’t wrap itself around the idea of an umbilical cord that nails me to a wall.

What’s next, I wonder, a rotary dial? Lily Tomlin’s phone operator Ernestine snorting in my ear?

It’s then I realize how unplugged I’ve become. A phone is now something I tuck in my purse or have at hand anywhere at home, just as I use my iPod to check e-mail, blog, or go on the Internet well away from the computer (which I sometimes ignore for days). So a corded phone seems like an unwelcome “forward to the past,” so to speak.

To heck with electromagnetic fields melting my brain. I’m an American; don’t tie me down. Give me a home where the telephone roams. Let me wander, tuck a phone in my pocket, multitask during calls, and flop down anywhere to chat.

Recently, I came across a column I’d written in 2003 about my difficulty in buying a small cassette recorder. “Recorders have morphed into unrecognizable science fiction-like gadgets,” I wrote. “Did I really need a digital recorder so tiny that one could almost slip it into a gum wrapper?” Huh. We’ve had a digital recorder for several years now and the cassette recorder I victoriously hunted down is long gone, completely forgotten.

Given how quickly we jump to new gadgets, maybe it’s good to have an old-style something around – besides myself, of course – to remind me how far technology has come in my lifetime. Maybe it’s healthy for my soul to have a corded phone, reminding me viscerally of the connections I make. That’s what I tell myself when the coils snag the papers on my counter.

Because, as Ernestine might remind me, the “ringy dingys” still go through, and the “gracious hellos” still sound the same, whether I’m wandering free-range or am tethered to the kitchen wall.

You can reach Deborah Chan at Previous columns are available at columnists/.


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