My eternal electronic midnight
PORTLAND, ORE. — It's always midnight on Sunday in my living room. At least it seems that way, briefly, every time I reach for my new cordless telephone. The receiver has a small display window that reads "SUN 12:00A" while it's resting in the base. I was supposed to set the time and date when I put it into operation, but circumstances during the start-up weren't conducive to activating the full array of amazing options.
This is not one of those, "In my day everything was simpler!" complaints. I like cordless phones. Some of the bells and whistles are great, like volume control and auto-redial. But while technology races ahead, my personal needs remain simple. I just want to make, and receive, a few calls each day. The consumer electronics industry has other ideas. It is enthusiastic about selling people like me a personal telecom network. Storing data, three-way conferencing, voicemail, and other slick features would be dandy if I ran a brokerage firm or coordinated freelance surveillance operations for the Homeland Security Department. But I'm just an average citizen shuffling around a little house. Changing burned-out light bulbs pushes the limit of my technical skills.
So when I anticipated taking my new phone out of its box and hooking it up in one or two steps, there was no delight upon discovering a 58-page instruction manual. On page 7, I learned that phones nowadays come with a ringer equivalence number (REN) that is stamped on the bottom. I have no idea what RENs do, but the manual advised me to check all functioning phones in my dwelling and add up the RENs. According to the guide, "If the total is more than five (three in rural areas), your phones might not ring."
I came across this fact while skimming through the booklet long after the new phone was operational. Since it's never failed to ring, I assume my other phones don't exceed the REN limit. As you can tell, RENs are low on my priority list, and setting the clock on my new phone is even lower.
Is there some secret government bureau that decides what's appropriate for displaying on home appliances? If time is worth showing on a phone, why not temperature, sports scores, or corn futures?
There's also a big drawback looming over every wireless network. Much of the hardware runs on batteries that need to be recharged by plugging in an adapter. If the power grid ever gets knocked out for an extended period, lots of households in America may find themselves stuck in a communications breakdown. As a precaution, I've saved one of my old phones for emergency use. The flexible cord and clunky design look primitive, but reassuringly reliable.
Perhaps I'm running late when it comes to exploiting the myriad features on my new phone, but I enjoy seeing "Sunday 12:00A" continuously displayed. Sunday at midnight sounds like a calm, peaceful moment in a frenetic 24/7 world. I want to keep it on the clock for a good long time.
• Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.