How we (mis-) (dis-) (un-) communicate now.

As art deco as it gets, the vintage 1937 Bell System '302' telephone is a heavy.

Tipping the scales at roughly 10 pounds, it weighs in to rival the weight of maybe a dozen sleek i-phones, a brontisauras of an appliance that was manufactured predominantly in black, like the Model T.

Its bell flutter-rings in my home office, a vestige not only of Western Electric innovation -- the first desk telephone to contain a ringer and induction coil -- but also a reminder of growing up in the 1950s, when "the mailman" and "the phone company" were the sole messengers in our oh-so-simple lives.

(Yes, Western Union did deliver telegrams on very rare occasions. But that aspect of modern life was quickly fading, even though announcer Don Wilson did occasionally appear on our black-and-white television sets to suggest that we send candy-grams.)

I remember using the same 1937 phone in the basement of our parents' house to call my girlfriend in the eighth grade, since it offered the most privacy. It was the same year that my friend Marty had just gotten a Princess phone -- a newly introduced model -- in his bedroom. And what a novelty it was that we could press its buttons (for the first time there was no dial!) to make tones that would actually play a song!

Then came the breakup of Ma Bell to offer us more choices, and later the introduction of e-mail and colorful telecomm choices and advances like so-called "smart" phones.

Checking mail and messages supposedly delivered in "real" time from friends and spammers around the globe has never been more complicated.

At last count, I have five, count, 'em, five, e-mail addresses, although I only use three of them, and recently discontinued three other. At home, we have an antiquated landline phone, although we recently replaced our legacy Verizon service with Comcast, as cable finally arrived here in the hinterlands.

(That hints at how that universal bible of 20th Century telecommunication, The Phone Book, also has gone by the wayside, but that's of course another story of disconnection.)

That nesessitates keeping track of which email server I've used to send a particular email and searching through three servers worth of spam for something whatever you sent me. Or was that in snailmail, and where might I have put it?

Is that guy walking down the street have an argument with someone on his cellphone, or is he just screaming at hmself, as I once might have thought?

We also have no cell service, living in the hills close to a town that decided it didn't want to mar the landscape and inflict residents with cooties. So if you're phoning me on my cell phone or, G-d-forbid, texting me, you have to know where I am at any given moment. If you text me an "instant message," it may not get to me before next week.

Imagine the complexity in this double-verification world where anytime I try to enter a secure website, its robo-webmaster tries to send my "smartphone" a verification code. The alternative is trying to remember the name of my second-grade best friend or that of my grandmother's cat when she was a little girl.

Let's see: My daughter refuses to accept phone calls and doesn't respond to emails. And my son may respond to text messages but won't respond to emais. And my wife wants me to phone here on her cell if I'm phoning between 10 minutes before the hour and on the hour, but on her office phone if it's at any other time. And my brother doesn't text and ignores my Facebook messages. Yet on the weekend, when his Bluetooth isn't chomping on the bit, I couls try tweeting him .

Thanks to Spammers, most of us now toss out a good deal of our mail without bothering to open the envelope, and we either filter out or ignore completely phone calls and messages from unfamiliar phone numbers, forcing our non-Facebook friends to pre-register to be included in our inner circle of allowed callers/correspondents. Our gated communities have become multi-dimensionalwalled fortresses, our seclusion reinforced to cut us off from our humanity.

Mission control, do we have a problem here?

With so many flavors of reaching out to one another, however am I supposed to find out whether I really asked you about getting together on such-and-such a date (and what was that date?) or whether I'd only intended but was interrupted by someone spamming me about signing up for a new wireless service that I didn't want? Do I look in all three "sent" folders of my different providers, or in the i-message, text, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or was it a Google Hangout conversation, or did I actually phone or send a post card?

When my daughter was in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, I used to ring up the village saloon, where the community's lone phone was housed, and they would send out a runner to fetch the yovo -- or "white girl" everyone seemed to know. I could then call back 20 minutes later and she'd be available. A few years later, when she was in South Korea, I tried setting up Skype on my desktop computer. Her name poppsed up instantly on the directory, and before I knew what I'd done, her voice appeared mysteriously out of a speaker I hadn't even know existed. I was left to look around for where her voice had appeared from, as mystified as any bushman.

And the written messages we now hurry off take on a life of their own.

What a strange time we live in, where our polarized society's discussions have people sniping at one another verbally with incendiary messages sparked by the simplest of comments, ESPECIALLY IF THEY'RE WRITTEN LIKE THIS. (This was a lesson I discovered by inadvertantly sending a message to someone when my caps button got stuck and I didn't think it was worth going back to retype.)

Marshall McLuhan observed, famously, that "The medium is the message." But back in kindergarten where we learned everything really all we needed to know, the game of "telephone" should have taught us that even the most primitive of tale-bearing can go dreadfully awry. And the days of calling for help by simply saying "Operator!" are long gone, along with that helpful lady who always seemed to be standing by.

Now that we truly have real-time, global communication and a entire gamut of options for "reaching out to touch somebody".... maybe we can begin to focus on quality communication.

("What did he say?")


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