When I looked up from the menu and realized that both twins and my wife had cellphones to their ears, I began to fear for my powers of conversation. Why was the prospect of speaking to someone they could neither see nor, in most cases, hear, so much more appealing than addressing their thoughts across the table to me or to each other? What was it about these pocket devices that the whole world found so appealing, prompting millions of otherwise reasonable people to spend a small fortune for the privilege of being interrupted anywhere, anytime, by anyone?
For a dozen years now I have resisted the blandishments of family and friends, refusing to equip my car with a cellphone or hang one from my belt, steadfastly maintaining that the best reason to leave the house is to escape its tyranny. Carrying one around seems as onerous as wearing a court-ordered collar, but then I've never been comfortable making calls - few of the men in my family are. My father used to sit beside a ringing phone insisting, "If you wait long enough, it stops." And it always did.
I feel victimized by its imperial summons, forced to interrupt work, to pause in mid-sentence, to rise from the dinner table, even, on occasion, to step from the shower, dripping with irritation; I feel entrapped by another's impulse, impelled to respond without benefit of adequate reflection or the eye contact so critical to understanding true intent.
Perhaps I'm alone in this, or perhaps, as others have suggested, it's genetic. It's not the caller that annoys me so much as the conditions of the conversation. I hear well enough, but discovered long ago that hearing alone is not sufficient for comprehension. In order to absorb the full import of another's words I need to be in their presence, to watch mouth and eyes, the tilt of the head, the tension in neck and shoulders. The spoken word is but one part of the total communication and I, for one, simply don't get the message without the other elements. So why compound this discomfort by exposing myself to it wherever I might be?
Several years ago I applauded the advent of e-mail, believing it would herald a more measured and thoughtful means of rapid communication. Ask me by phone if I'm free for lunch and I begin tripping over myself in an effort to juggle all the factors that go into responding to such a seemingly simple question - am I truly free, do I want to be free, what prompted the invitation in the first place, and do I even feel like eating lunch? I stumble and stammer in an effort to buy time, to think through each concern without wounding the feelings of my caller. Most people, it seems, can navigate these considerations instantaneously, but after roughly 50 years of practice I'm still as inept as an adolescent suitor.
I watch with amazement as my children juggle not only our two home numbers but their cellphones (equipped with call waiting), moving seamlessly from caller to caller like chess grandmasters competing against multiple players simultaneously. If someone so much as enters my field of vision while I'm on the phone I lose my train of thought, miss what's being said, and have to begin again.
Which is why e-mail seemed such a blessing. I could respond to that same lunch invitation in a timely fashion without alienating the caller with abstracted deflections while weighing the consequences of a simple yes or no. Online I can choose my words carefully, strike just the right tone, and exercise thoughtfulness.
But for many, e-mail just isn't fast enough. They need to know this instant. An hour from now, even five minutes from now may be too late; an opportunity will have been lost. And like all mail, e-mail is subject to the vagaries of delivery. More than one electronic communication has evaporated in the ether of the Internet, no record of its transmission left behind as evidence of intention. Whether it simply joined those legions of checks purportedly "in the mail," or truly entered some anomalous realm beyond the world wide Web is impossible to say. Nothing, ultimately, is more certain than a live voice on the other end of the phone. The words themselves may be feigned, the emotions concealed, the intentions masked, but there's no doubting their receipt.
Having recovered from my restaurant astonishment, I listened to the several conversations swirling about me, my daughter informing a girlfriend that she had just sat down to lunch, my son congratulating a buddy on his new car, my wife checking our phone messages, scribbling phone numbers across a cocktail napkin. At the same time all three were also glancing at the lunch menu. It all boils down to multitasking.
We have begun modeling ourselves on our machines. No self-respecting businessman can expect to advance without laptop, Palm Pilot, and cellphone in hand, accelerating his data-processing capabilities at the speed of the latest silicon chip. I, on the other hand, do best concentrating on one small task at a time. I can't listen to music while writing without losing my train of thought. I'm too easily distracted to drive and carry on a faceless conversation. Call my phone or my name, thrust a menu in front of me and I overload; all circuits go down; I must reboot.
My children don't understand the concept of interruption. Like their computers, they simply layer new tasks on top of the old, juggling TV, stereo, phone conversations, call waiting, instant messaging, live friends, and homework concurrently. If they ever feel overloaded they don't admit to it. But perhaps the strain of maintaining so many open circuits accounts for their desperate need to sleep past noon whenever given the chance.
So while I pondered the menu, unable to decide between the chicken Caesar and the mushroom omelet, the kids fired off their orders and checked their messages, eyes glued to the television over the bar. I longed to snatch the phones from their ears, turn off the TV, and enjoy their undivided attention for a moment, but undivided is not a condition they aspire to. Single-minded is a shortcoming in their book, a quaint throwback to slower, simpler times before nanoseconds, gigabytes, and megapixels. In an age of digital transmission I'm a pneumatic tube.
Were I to admit any of this to my children they would look at me, as they often do, with the indulgent gaze of the wired for the clueless. It's bad enough that I wear my pants belted at the waist, listen to classical music, would rather read than watch TV; to admit to being so "aurally challenged," so conversationally clumsy would consign me to realms of the deepest hopelessness in their adolescent minds. As they'd say, "The phone rings, you answer it. No biggie." If only it were that simple.