Confessions of a Phonophile

The much-reviled telephone provides the best kind of long-distance intimacy. People keep finding new things to do with telephones. They attach speakers and answering machines to them, patch them together for conference calls, send faxes, voice mail, and e-mail over them, go cordless and cellular with them. But one thing never changes. They never stop complaining about how much they hate the phone. Except me. I confess it now, to whomever's on the line: I love telephones. I like almost everything about them, except sales calls and the crick I get in my neck when I cradle the receiver on my shoulder. I like the way we use them and the way they use us. I even like call waiting, and don't mind when other people break a conversation to answer it; it gives me time to catch up on my notes, get some coffee, or read the paper. Besides, I know I'll be doing the same to them soon enough. The people who bitch about call waiting and refuse to get it have forgotten what busy signals sound like. Maybe I'll sign them up for it for Christmas. I like being able to talk to people without smelling their breath, feeling their spittle, or watching their eyes wander -- and without worrying a bout what they see me doing. I like talking to people while I wash the dishes, pick up the magazines scattered around the living room, or water the plants; indeed, without the phone I don't know if I'd ever get these chores done. Everyone's equal, and perfectly dressed, on the phone. Y u can even talk on the phone while you sit on the can or (with a little self-control) have sex. Not that I would. I like -- excuse me, I've got another call, hold on, I'll be right back. (Even as I typed that, my phone rang, here at home where I sit at my computer blithely pecking away. It's a job-seeking friend of a friend who's at the front desk of my paper's office downtown asking to see me. The receptionist thinks I'm at my desk there; I divulge that I've merely got my work phone forwarded home. If I were there he might ask me to give him the tour, take his resume, introduce him to the right people. But I'm able to dispose of him with a quick chat, and get back to work.) What I was about to say was, I like the distance that the phone affords when you need it. Yeah, yeah, I know, CC (communicatively correct) types will say I've been corrupted by technology and alienated from fellow warm, chattering bodies. They think the telephone is the death of human interactions. But let's face it -- most of the conversations we carry on, in person or over the phone, are banal, formulaic, boring, and overlong. Let's get them over with quickly, and save our close encounters for the good stuff. Besides -- and here's the marvelous paradox of the telephone -- it is not just an instrument of distance but of intimacy. Talking on the phone is like having sex. No, I don't mean phone sex, the audio prostitution advertised in the backs of weeklies, newspapers, and skin mags as an aid for unimaginative onanists -- though you have to credit its utility from the view of public health and safety. (The closest I've come to phone sex was when I was 15, when a precocious classmate of mine, who later became a celebrated lesbian gossip columnist, asked me to talk dirty to her and left me red-faced and stammering for a week.) I mean all phone conversations. As sexual beings, we put ourselves through ungodly exertions, stratagems, and privations in order that we may someday lie next to each other in the dark and speak softly and blindly in each others' ears. With the phone, we do that with everyone, all the time. We imagine faces, forms, and lives that suit the words we hear much better than their actual counterparts do. If you've ever carried on an unexpected half-hour flirtation with an operator or a coworker or roommate of the person you tried to call, you know the beguiling intimacy of the phone. If you've ever crossed the line and ventured to meet the person who's voice seduced you on the phone, you know how fragile that intimacy can be -- how it shatters against the hard wall of corporeal form. Better stick to the audio fantasy than trespass on flesh-and-blood reality. Or is it fantasy? Why should our words and voices have anything less to do with our minds and hearts than, say, the shapes of our noses. Skip the meeting. Let's do a phoner.

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