Wednesday, April 13, 2005


The abundance of gadgets in our lives has added as much confusion as convenience. When you are my age, you can remember when telephones were menacing dark objects either sitting solemnly on a desk or attached to the wall. There were cords, those rope-like coils designed to hold things together and transmit stuff. At first, there were party lines, and one had to count before answering a phone. "Let's see...three longs, two shorts, four longs...that's me!".

Black was the color of telephones, whether one liked it or not. When white telephones appeared, they were considered very modish and everyone opted for one, but the cords remained, unbilical, tightly wound. One had to go to the telephone and either sit or stand before it. It was a serious business. No monkeying around...and the whole thing was managed by Ma Bell.

It was called a "public utility" back then. I have no idea what they call the mess we're in today. But you could call Ma Bell, tell someone your telephone wasn't working properly, and they fixed it. Free of charge. That was the best part. No one had yet thought of charging for everything. Even Information was free, a part of the excellent service. And you could get a human voice...remember those?...when you called the Business Office.

Someone, I know not who, decided that Ma Bell was a monopoly, so they gave the country the benefit of today's confusion. Suddenly, telephone companies sprang up out of nowhere and the bills sprang up with them. Suddenly, there were cordless phones that you can't find when they ring, thus providing exercise as well as, hopefully, communication, as you sprint wildly through the house lifting the couch pillows and newspapers trying to find the phone.

Colors? Like a rainbow. But they don't have the staying power of the old monoliths during Ma Bell's time, when being hit over the head by a phone would have rendered one unconscious for a month. Today's phones are made of thin plastic and fall apart if you dare glance at them. And they have this frustrating habit of going dead just as you need them most. You have to keep them "charged", something Ma Bell never heard of doing!

But, I could have adjusted to cordless phones. After all, one must put up with some nuisance in this world. But someone then came up with the wireless phone. There are two methods of getting the use of a wireless phone. One is with a phone card, which will give you about two and half phone calls before it goes dead. The other is to join a "Plan".

A Plan is a phone user's version of Hell. There are so many different versions of the Plan that your mind is running amuk before you make a decision. Some people are pretty smug about their choices, too. They look at you as though you are an utter fool for signing up for YOUR Plan and say, "I have a thousand day time minutes, unlimited night time, free roaming, free weekends and all the chocolate I can eat for the next year.".

Whatever Plan you choose, it will be unbelievably short of what you need. If you go over the minutes allowed, you are charged extra, and believe me, you WILL go over your minutes. A minute, which used to be 60 seconds, is now the blink of an eyelash, a mere greeting. There aren't enough minutes anywhere, not on earth, not in outer space, to fulfill your needs on a telephone, believe me. And if you are the parent of a teen, you are going to remember that I said that when you get the bill.

Wireless phones are small, so you can tuck them in your pocket or your purse. Some of them are so tiny that speaking into them makes one feel as though they are talking into an earring, like a spy with a secret communication device embedded in a shoe. These tiny things have teensy little knobs that your finger is too large to dial numbers on. I have seen people use a toothpick to call their work numbers.

People do everything with a phone attached to their ear these days. They shop, work, play, and go to a public bathroom, talking on the phone. What do they talk about, does anybody know? Are they reading the Patriot Act aloud, all nine hundred pages? Or are they all arguments with a girlfriend, a lover's quarrel, using up those ticking minutes?

Now that we have met the phones, which now lay about all over the place, it is time to meet the television remote. This lazy generation, which our health authorities tell us is suffering from obesity, has figured out a way to command the television without lifting a bottom from a chair. The remote is really a handy gadget, enabling one to watch television from bed, sitting or standing, and to surf channels with glee, but is not conducive to exercise.

However, it looks a lot like a telephone and has the same general shape. One can easily try to dial out on it, then sit for a stunned second before realizing you are trying to call your Aunt Maisie from the television remote.

Another thing, you don't have to use a key to get into a car any longer. You just punch a button and you're in. In tomorrow's world, the key will probably be on the list of endangered objects. A collectible! B However, it does give one a strange feeling to stand at a door, frantically punching the keyless button to get into the house. The keyless thingy, one must remember, is for the car only. It will not open your front door. It will only make you look foolish in front of your neighbors if you try.

So, you see, gadgetry has changed our world and not always for the better. Sometimes I yearn for the cheap stability of Ma Bell. Nor would I suffer from overexertion if I used a key to unlock my car or got up to change a channel on the television. But, being a Thoroughly Modern Millie, I plan to buy each new gadget as it is it iPod or TiVo.

On the whole, these gadgets are remarkable and are a lot of fun. But you have to keep your wits about you. You can't toast bread in your printer. You can't dial out on your remote. And you can't keep your mate from straying with an electric fence.