It's For You

The attractions of phoning it in

Whenever I hear a tinny rendition of “Silver Bells,” I rummage through my bag and all my coat pockets, feeling shame and excitement in equal measure. Over Thanksgiving break, after years of principled abstention, I got a cell phone. I had long derided cell phone users—had claimed that they lacked the imagination to amuse themselves, had sighed pointedly whenever I heard the “William Tell Overture” echo through a lecture hall, had felt terribly deep and morally superior whenever, out walking, I had heard half of a vapid conversation punctuated by demands to talk louder. And now I find myself listening for “Silver Bells.”

I had known, vaguely, that I would have to get a cell phone. This year, it seemed particularly imminent. Local calls from room telephones are no longer free; dialing the strings of digits on C’est Bon telephone cards had begun to get old. I found myself borrowing other people’s cell phones, which felt uncomfortably intimate, like borrowing underwear. A roommate who had long been a fellow holdout acquired not only a cell phone but also an earpiece and took to trotting around Harvard Square tethered to it, gesturing animatedly. Still, though, I resisted. “I feel morally superior so rarely,” I’d tell people, “and I’d hate to lose that.” Cell phones, I felt, were another instance of the demands made upon us by technology: Why should people just assume that they could telephone us whenever they liked? I liked being unreachable. It made me feel kind of like Greta Garbo. “Sellout,” I hissed at my roommate, but she only motioned at me to indicate that she had her earpiece in.

And then I got a cell phone. Initially, its presence was novel and uncomfortable, like a new piercing. I kept opening it and clumsily punching buttons. “What do those bars next to the cross mean?” I asked a roommate, showing him my cell phone’s screen, which was glowing a vaguely radioactive green. “There. That, like, Golgotha meter.”

“That’s not a cross, it’s an antenna,” he said, making a valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful, effort to suppress his contempt. “The bars measure your reception.” I called my brother at breakfast to ask about the proper usage of “to mack on.” (“What? I’m awake because you called me.… Oh—I think it’s ‘macking with.’ Like, ‘I was macking with that girl at the party.’”) I listened for “Silver Bells.” For an inveterate checker-of-mail and checker-of-e-mail, a cell phone is another source of that Christmas-morning feeling of anticipation and slightly underwhelming resolution.

And actually my overall experience with the acquisition of a cell phone has been underwhelming: is this it? This is selling out? I don’t know what I thought would happen—that my turning on my cell phone would be accompanied by a flash of lightening and a puff of sulfurous smoke? That I would begin to exude a sort of louche glamour? But except for the occasional sound of “Silver Bells,” nothing much has changed.

I ought to have known it wouldn’t. I am old enough to know that many things we dread turn out to be less important than we had anticipated, and old enough to know that we are all blessed with an extraordinary gift for adaptation. But I do not know whether to find this reminder on the ease of selling out—even in this small way—heartening or discouraging. It suggests, I think, that the other kinds of selling out we have dreaded—getting a corporate job, abandoning our elliptical late-night conversations in favor of more adult modes of communication, making enough money to eat something other than Easy Mac, buckling down and growing up in general—may be both less painful and less noticeable than we had anticipated. Selling out may, it seems, produce nothing more than a brief shock of unpleasantness. And then it is as though nothing had ever happened; seduced by the charms and very real benefits of having sold out (and, oh, it is nice to be able to call people whenever I like), we forget why we ever dreaded it. If our succumbing to this sort of temptation is a reenactment of the Fall, it is a well-cushioned one. Perhaps that makes it more dangerous.

The two-and-a-half-year-old girl I babysit is besotted with cell phones at the moment; she has a chunky Playskool phone that rings and says, “Hello? Hello hello?” when you push the “talk” button. When I took out my phone to make a call the other day, she stared at it hard before voicing her approval. “Mighty nice,” she said. And I suppose it is. But it also emblematic of my becoming someone I never thought I’d be; I can never hear “Silver Bells” without feeling a twinge of regret.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.