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Can You Hear Me Now?

Our cell phones are our lifelines—and that's not really a good thing.

“Lunatic” is not a word of these times. You rarely hear it used in the year 2012, but I remember it as being a favorite of my mother, who employed it as others employ profanities. She would hurl a “lunatic!” when cut off in traffic, or when we’d pass a grimy panhandler ranting outside of Wanamaker’s on one of our shopping trips to Philly. “Poor lunatic,” she’d say sadly, tossing him a coin if she deemed him harmless. If there were a hint of a threat, her “lunatic” would be brusque and hissed under her breath as she hustled me away.

I grew up with varying shades of “lunatic,” using it myself when it seemed appropriate to explain someone’s outwardly inexplicable behavior. Now, I can’t use that word to explain why someone might be walking down Main Street talking loudly, gesturing madly, because as we all know, that person is probably on his or her cell phone.

I still shake my head in disbelief that today, this is the norm. People around me, everywhere, are having out-loud, one-sided conversations and not in the hushed tones privacy would dictate. No. These people are yapping about breakups and breast implants, body parts and sticky buns, and they want the whole world to hear.

One New Year’s Eve, when the boys were young, we went to a local multiplex to usher in the new year with some friends. We were all looking forward to a non-alcoholic evening with a tub of artery-clogging buttered popcorn, some laughs and the experience of watching and listening to a movie. This particular multiplex is not the place for serious cinephiles, since at any moment, gunfire might break out and talking aloud to the screen seems to be the norm.

As the movie began, after two hours of previews, a large man walked in front of the screen and yelled into the crowd: “Rita! Where you at?” Rita, of course, screamed back at him from the extreme rear of the theater. From that point on, it was almost three hours of loud conversations, none of which were on the screen. There were babies crying, phones ringing, texts being sent and retrieved and the occasional rant aimed at the movie screen.

I was incensed by the cell phone-induced rudeness surrounding me that night, and I vowed not to become one of those people. Sadly, we have all become “those people,” as the cell phone and its very public usage have been woven into the fabric of our daily lives. When it all began, we were annoyed when someone whipped out a cell phone in a restaurant or a store and began a very public discussion. Now, one can witness an entire table of restaurant-goers with their eyes in their laps, carrying on a silent conversation with their fingers.

The Children’s Department of the is a hot bed of advice and recipe-sharing while moms, dads and caregivers sit and wait for their offspring during story time. While the conversations might sometimes seem mundane, I remember when I was having banal conversations with other stay-at-home moms, delirious for some adult interaction that had nothing to do with Legos. It was affirming to hear they, too, dreaded the daily what-to-make-for-dinner dinner dilemma as much as I did. It was gratifying to know other moms struggled with boredom while playing pirates for the ninth day in a row. These conversations are still going on, albeit punctuated with cell phone calls and texting.

Just recently, as I was hoarsely guiding a group of kids through their craft, I looked up to see a cluster of moms sitting in the couch-train table area. They were all talking, but not with each other. They were staring into their laps and either texting or checking email. They were communicating, but not with each other.

I was reminded of how much society has changed recently while we were catching up on Mad Men, watching an episode where Don and Mrs. Draper Number Two get into a fight and he drives away, leaving her stranded at a Howard Johnson’s in upstate Nowheresville. After cooling off, Don spent the rest of the hour making frequent trips to the pay phone, hoping to find out where his toothy bride had gone. He was frantic with worry. The cell phone keeps us accessible 24/7. Mad Men reminds us there was a time when this wasn’t the norm, and we were all okay with it. 

One recent evening, while wandering looking for a gift, I was treated to a very public tirade. “No! No! No! You’re not going to do this to me again!” shrieked a voice in the next aisle. I was intrigued and annoyed. I walked around to see who was screaming and there, in “Literature,” was a store employee shouting into a cell phone the size of an eraser. I learned that theirs had not been an easy relationship. I learned the distraught woman had been fair and honest and good, while Person X had withheld and withdrawn. “When will it ever end?” she screamed into the phone so all of New Jersey could hear.

My question exactly! When will this culture of public rudeness end? Can it end? How can people who think it’s okay to share all conversations with the rest of us be persuaded that it is NOT okay? That we don’t want to know how drunk they got at Ott’s, or what they really think about their child’s teacher?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Ours has become an in-your-face culture of rudeness and self-entitlement. I am just as guilty as the next person of interrupting some face-time moment with “I really have to take this” when my cell phone chirps. I try to scurry off and make the call short and sweet, but I can visualize a disapproving mother, her lips pursed, shaking her head and saying “What a bunch of lunatics.”

And you know what? She’d be right.

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