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Just when you think the cell phone antics couldn't get any goofier you see something involving cell phones that's goofier than the last.
I was walking down a residential Portland street the other day and saw a woman wrestling furiously with shopping bags and her cell phone. What was so vital that she had to talk while trying not to dump her bags all over the ground? Well, she was explaining to the person on the other end that she was taking her shopping bags out of the car and getting ready to go into her apartment.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I think this was information that the woman could have kept to herself. People used to be able to take shopping bags out of the car and bring them into the house without feeling the need to share the experience.
The cell phone incident reminded me of years ago when I experimented with a few communications devices of my own.
One afternoon when I was a kid my friend Neil and I spent several hours making what today might be called “a dual-station, single purpose communication system.” It was a neat walkie-talkie we saw in "Boy's Life" magazine. According to the article and simple diagram all we needed to make our own was a long piece of string and two Birdseye orange juice cans. The article did, indeed, specify “Birdseye” cans, but then added that the cans of other brands may also be used.
After getting our materials together we ran the high-tech string between our houses - a little over 100-feet - and used a state-of-the-art six penny nail to poke a hole in the end of each can. We then threaded the ends of the string through the holes and tied a fat knot in each end of the string to prevent it from slipping out of the hole. Once the string was tightly stretched between our houses and the Birdseye cans were securely in place we tried to talk back and forth. We must have been way ahead of our time because, for the rest of the afternoon, we kept yelling into the Birdseye can, "Can you hear me now?" just like that annoying guy in those cell phone service commercials.
The next day Neil called me on the phone and said he had been trying to can me on the walkie-talkie. He wanted me to pick up my Birdseye and talk. It was the only time I ever had a call holding on a can.
For the next several weeks Neil and I experimented with our communication system. We made a shorter version and used wire instead of string and that worked pretty well. Eventually we gave up and just called each other on the phone when we wanted to talk. It was a lot easier. Come to think of it, lots of things were easier back then.
Remember when the phone rang and if you were there you answered it? If you weren't there, it rang until the caller gave up. Simple.
Then someone invented the answering machine and before long it seemed like everyone had one and in an attempt to solve one problem - missing phone calls - more problems were hatched - like not missing phone calls.
We've all heard the messages: "Hello, you've reached the home of Bobby and Barbara Schlahbotnik and all the little Schlahbotniks. We can't come to the phone right now but if you leave a name and number - preferably your telephone number - we'll get back to you as just soon as possible."
With an answering machine you would never miss another phone call, not even those annoying calls that you wanted to miss. A whole new set of rules and practices developed around the telephone. If there was someone you had to call but didn't want to talk to, you could call them when you knew they weren't there and leave a vague message: "It's me and I guess you're not there so I guess I'll just say I'm sorry I missed you and try to call me when you get back." Then it was their turn to try and reach you. This childish game of avoidance became known as “phone tag.”
Then came the cell phone. And as we all know, things are worse now than ever and there's no place to hide.
Just once I'd like to have someone say, "John, you have a call holding on your Birdseye."
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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