Sharon Randall: Phones can make a connection that we love

McClatchy-Tribune News Service Published:

There was a time when I loved to talk on the phone. That time is long past, but I remember it.

The summer I was 7, my sister left home to do whatever big sisters do and I was forced to spend my days chasing cows or teasing my brothers. Brothers and cows have limits. Push them too hard and they get surly.

Imagine my surprise when salvation came calling, so to speak, on the telephone.

Wait. If you've never heard of a rotary dial telephone, allow me to explain. Once upon a time -- say, in the late 1950s -- all phones were wired into walls, usually in the living room, with a pitifully short cord that could not be moved to another room for privacy. But you never had to worry about losing them.

The dial was a small wheel with 10 smaller holes numbered 0-9. To place a call, you put your finger in the appropriate hole and turned the wheel clockwise until it stopped.

You had to repeat this for each digit in the phone number. It was a lengthy process in which my mother, bless her, would forget on occasion the number she was dialing or the person she was calling, and find herself close to losing her religion.

But on that day, she dialed like a champion. I watched as her finger chose each number. When she finished, I leaned close and heard three rings. Then a voice that I knew well answered with a magic word: "Hello?"

And that's how I learned my grandmother's phone number. I dialed it every day that summer, sometimes every hour. And no matter how many times I called, she always sounded happy to hear from me.

I sound that way, too, when I get a call from someone I love. I'm always happy to hear from them. The strange thing is this: I don't like talking on the phone. I'd rather go to the dentist. Or get a flu shot. Or scrub toilets.

For real conversation, I like eye contact, nodding heads, knowing looks, sly winks, pursed lips, grimaces and grins. I can't get them in a phone call. Trust me, I've tried.

But if I can't talk face to face, I'll gladly settle for ear to ear.

Today I called my sister. We talk at least once a week. I call her or she calls me. I should've called her yesterday before she left another snarky message:

"You aren't answering AGAIN. Probably talking to somebody more important than me. Hope you're OK, not dead. Call me."

Sisters are like brothers and cows. They all have their limits. Whenever she leaves a message like that, she says she is joking. But she doesn't fool me a bit.

So I called her back. She didn't answer. I left a snarky message. Finally, she called again and we talked for an hour about everything and nothing.

Phones are wonderful things that keep us connected to voices we love. But some days it seems we really connecting not to each other but to our machines.

In restaurants and airports or walking down the street, I see eyes glued to iPhones, not to people. Have you ever tried to talk with someone who keeps glancing at a phone?

I like to smile at strangers and get to know them if I can. But I'm finding it harder to do if they won't look into my eyes.

Then there's Siri (a pleasant sounding, very helpful iPhone app.) I've got nothing against her. But I want my children and grandchildren to light up at the sound of my voice, not hers.

I don't know what to do about all that. I guess I'll just keep trying to connect, to be present and mindful -- any time, any place, any way I can -- and hope others will do the same for me.

It's an easy call to make.

Hello?

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