The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


 When I was a child, phones were black and had dials. They had only three functions.

 The first of these was that if you correctly dialed a series of seven letters and numbers you would reach the party with whom you wished to speak (that is assuming that they were home to answer and chose to do so).

 The second was that when your phone rang you could speak with the party who had successfully completed the operation described in the first function. (It could be your Aunt Hattie, the IRS or someone who had simply mis-dialed. You just never knew until you picked up the receiver).

 The third function was that while you were waiting to perform either function one or function two, your phone because it was heavy, served as a very efficient paper weight – allowing you to keep all the bills you had to pay in one neat and orderly place without fear that they would blow away and be scattered.

 As I think about it, I guess those phones had a potential fourth function as well. If a robber broke into your house you could pick up your phone (presently engaged in function three) and because of its heft use it to strike the bad guy over the head, knocking him unconscious. Then you could employ function one and call the police to have this evildoer arrested. You see, even earlier telephones were versatile.

 Although they had virtually none of the many features found on even today’s most elemental cell phones they had two striking advantages over these gifts of modern technology.

 First, you couldn’t misplace your phone since the main unit was connected to the wall of your apartment and the receiver was connected to the phone’s base by a winding rubbery cord.

 Second, these phones never dialed themselves – putting you back in touch with someone with whom you had just concluded a conversation.

 Our outlook on phones back then was a little different. We viewed them as a tool – rather than a life support system. But that was then.

 My family would gather nightly for our dinner together. I remember that there was a little ritual which preceded and followed our meal. Either mom or grandma would pick up the phone (engaged in its most frequent function – number three) and turn the little control at the bottom to make the phone silent. After dinner had concluded, one of them would turn it back on.

 We had no idea if someone had called during our meal or not – and we didn’t care.

 Dinner was a time for us to discuss how things went at school, if dad had gotten any big orders, who had come into mom’s shop and what grandma planned to cook for dinner the following evening. It was the time of day that we were all together and that time was far too important to be interrupted with a phone call.

 A few weeks ago I was invited to dinner at a very nice restaurant by some friends. Their twenty year old son and eighteen year old daughter joined us.

 Please accept my estimate that the two youngsters spent at least half of the time that we were seated either making or receiving phone calls, surfing the web or sending tweets. While I didn’t say anything about this, I thought of a four letter word that grandma would have used if she were with us at that meal. That word is “rude.”

 What surprised me more than their behavior was that their parents apparently saw nothing strange or wrong in it. At least they didn’t make any comments about it while we were seated.

 It seems to me that as a mere matter of courtesy, when we are with someone we should turn our attention to that person. I try to do that – although I have to admit I’ve been involved in conversations which I found extremely boring. But I do recognize that the other person must find their subject matter interesting – or they wouldn’t be discussing it. So I try to listen to what they’re saying – no matter my level of personal interest. Sometimes that’s tough.

 In thinking about this recent dinner outing I decided to coin a new phrase –   “Cellular Eatiquette.” I’m not going to define it as I think that it’s obvious from its construction.

 What I will say is that if we ever get together for dinner, rest assured that prior to our meal, I will turn off my cell phone – and I hope that you will show me the same respect.  I promise that you will have my full attention.




  1. I go back even farther. Our number was five digits, and if someone from far away wanted to call, they dialled “0” and told the operator, “Please connect me with Long Beach, California 232-98.
    Furthermore, my mom’s cooking was so good we probably wouldn’t have answered if the phone rang ( which it only did three or four times a week)

    • I’m glad you had the experience of growing up with great food that came out of a kitchen – and not a drive-through window! People today don’t know what they’ve missed.

      When we went away for the summers (post-The Watermelon Man), if we wanted to make or had received a call – we had to go down to the town store – and use the owner’s Party-Line phone. Of course, we could only do so if the other “party” who shared the line wasn’t busy talking.

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