Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Phone Tag

I have a theory. It’s a completely unscientific, unproveable theory, based on a very small population, but I will cling to it, because it feels right. Here it is: I think cell phones are making people less responsible, less observant, and less able to commit to a plan of action, even something simple like meeting for a beer or coffee.

As do many of my theories, this one comes from my experience in the dating world. I’ve been dating for a very long time, probably about 10 years or so. I’ve had relationships in that time, which never worked out, so I’ve found myself back in the dating pool several times. Much of this has been online dating. I was using Yahoo personals back when it was free, can you believe it?

Anyway, I’ve gone on so many first dates that I can’t even count them all. That movie “Fifty First Dates” had nothing on me. 50? Please! Try 150! Sometimes, I’ll be going along in my day, and all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, I’ll remember a date I went on with someone that I had totally forgotten about for years. And then of course his name has been deleted from my memory banks, and I’ll waste a few moments trying to remember it.

In all that time dating, I’ve never been stood up. I've had people never call me again, sure, but I've never been left staring at my beer, trying to talk myself out of being mad because what if something happened to him and he's in the hospital or something? That is, until a few months ago. After making very explicit plans to meet at a particular spot at a particular time, a man I had met on BART just never showed up, and I ended up waiting around fruitlessly in the San Francisco wind for half an hour. Then, a couple of weeks later, I accepted a dinner date from another guy, and, you guessed it…THAT guy never showed up. And he had invited me to his HOUSE so he could cook me DINNER! But he says he was at a "work function" (I found out later it was a work party) until 9 pm. And the third time's the charm: I made plans to meet a man I contacted through Craigslist, and HE claims to have been at our meeting site but not to have seen me walking around looking for him for 45 minutes. That's three dates in a row (of course that doesn't include the other two dates I've made over the past few months where one guy hurt his leg the day of our date and had to cancel, and another guy got strep throat the day of our date and had to cancel. I don't know what's up with that.)

My theory is this: I think, in general (of course this is a sweeping generalization and doesn't apply to all users of cell phones, as you will see below), cell phones have made people too lazy or ambivalent to commit to anything. If something better comes along, even if they’ve made a date to be at a particular place at a particular time, cell-phone-heads, or “phoneheads”, are so used to being able to call up at the last minute and cancel or change plans or make an excuse as to why they’re late (or to call up the person they’re meeting while at the spot to say “where are you?”), that they’ve lost the ability or the desire to be responsible, to do what they’ve agreed to do, and to pay attention to their surroundings. It’s like the cell phone culture is sapping our ability to honor our commitments and everything that entails. Everything's gone sort of "loosey-goosey", and if you're upset that people are late (or had something else come up and didn't show up at all), you're just an uptight prude who needs to take a chill pill.

When I tell my dates that I don’t have a cell phone, often it’s like their eyes glaze over as if I'm speaking another language. My first stand-up artist, even though I told him repeatedly I had no cell phone, left about 7 messages on my home phone that I got after I came home from our failed date, wondering where we were supposed to meet, even though I had left him a detailed and explicit message about where and when (and repeated myself twice) on his cell phone. And then, when I said I didn't want to talk to him anymore after he stood me up, he seemed genuinely surprised and hurt. So was the second guy, come to think of it.

It's not that I think cell phones are despicable, like some people do. I'm not a luddite. I'm on the computer all day long. I'm constantly writing e-mails, and in fact prefer to communicate that way sometimes. I think cell phones can be quite a useful tool. I only choose to remain cell-phone-less, because paying $40 a month for something you can't use anytime you feel like it (and which only works sporadically anyway) seems insane to me.

But, I have noticed that cell phone seem to have done something to the collective brains of the people attached to them. Eight years ago, the only time any of my dates showed up late was a guy who had driven all the way from San Jose to SF who had encountered some traffic problem. Neither of us had cell phones, he apologized when he did finally get there, and we went on with our date. But in recent dating, every single person I meet is at least 10-15 minutes late, if not later. And that's if they show up at all.

Somehow, I seem to be able to show up on time almost every single time I go out. And it's made even more amazing by the fact that not only do I not have a cell phone, I don't have a CAR. I rely on public transportation and I STILL get places on time about 95% of the time (I'm usually way early). Yet people with cell phones and cars can't? That makes no sense. The only thing that makes sense is that people just aren't planning anymore. They're used to being able to be in touch with anyone at any time, so they don't plan to leave the house or the office at a reasonable time, to insure that they can get to the date on time. They don't plan for traffic, they don't figure out where the place is beforehand, they don't write down the time and location of the date, or print out the e-mail that says what times I'll be available by phone if they need to get in touch with me before the date. They don't check the photo I sent them before they come meet me, so they'll be able to recognize me ( Except for two waitresses, I was the only woman with long blonde hair who was wandering continually around that place. How could he not have recognized me?) Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I believe that if you say you're going to do something, you should do it, unless something untoward happens and you can't. Like you get hit by a bus or something.

Of course cell phones aren't all bad. A friend last night got a flat tire before coming to meet me, and had the bright idea to call a friend of his and ask HIM to come to our meeting spot, knowing I had no cell phone, to let me know what had happened. And then he promptly lost his cell phone. But THAT was an example of using a cell phone for good. I knew why he was late, I didn't feel abandoned, and I had company while I waited. Cell phones can actually be useful.

If I can make one plea, it is this: Please, don't let the cell phone sap your power of observation, timekeeping, and planning for the future. It's not hard to be places on time, we all (well, many of us anyway) used to do it back before everyone had a cell phone. The same with arranging plans and then following through with them. It used to be normal! I used to recognize blind dates because of their photo or their expectant look as I walked through the door, not because they'd be on the phone with me saying "I'm over by the bar. No, over here. I'm coming towards you. Just keep talking. Can you see me yet?"

Technology is a wonderful thing, but our normal, human capabilities are also wonderful. Don't let the cell phone have the last word. Please. For the children.

Friday, June 01, 2007

More news from the Swamp

So, it wasn't all bad, I just had to vent my frustrations in my last post. I enjoyed seeing the area around New Orleans. Unlike a lot of people (Bill Bryson, for one. I'm reading "The Lost Continent" right now and boy, does he have utter contempt for small-town America, which is to say MOST of America!) I actually enjoy the suburbs and the small communities that outlie the major towns. These are where the real people live.

The volunteer camp was in Violet, LA, about 15 or 20 miles outside of New Orleans proper. It was a suburb. There were strip malls (most of which were either partially or completely shut down because of storm damage or defunct businesses), and the houses were one-story, mostly brick-faced, ranch-style houses on fairly large lots. The neighborhoods were mostly deserted, with maybe one or two houses per block either lived in or being renovated. Most of the houses I saw driving around to the worksites were abandoned. Imagine the last suburb you saw, if about 2/3 of the houses were abandoned, or seemingly so. Boarded up, many with the spray-painted markers from the Katrina search crews still on them, many with piles of rubble, abandoned possessions, or other random junk surrounding them. It was surreal; something from a Stephen King novel about the Post-Apocalypse.

My favorite part of the trip was getting past civilization and out into the wilds. The school where the camp was situated was ringed by what seemed to me like jungle - dense undergrowth and tall trees in a green wall pressing against the chain-link fence that surrounded the property. When I needed some time to myself, I'd go out to where the playground used to be when there were kids there, and just listen to the jungle. The crickets, the birds, the frogs. The air was sultry and warm, and I feel like I fell in love with the jungle then. I'd rather have been out in it than in the French Quarter.

Later, after our workweek was over, my friend and I rented a car for a day and drove out on the I-10 to the plantations on River Road. Then we drove past real swamp - cypresses and pines surrounded by green and mossy water, seemingly stretching for miles upon miles. It was prehistoric; primordial. You expected to see dinosaurs tromping out of the trees or emerging from the water with weeds in their jaws. I loved that, too.

The French Quarter was much the same. We drank, we partied, but not as hard as we did last summer. We had beignets and coffee, while sitting on the banks of the Mississippi. I walked a lot. I sat on the benches near the river and watched a storm come in, green and purple and grey. We shopped for tourist trinkets, ate at Alphonso's, Croissant d'Or, and Acme Oyster House, heard some great music, even did our laundry at Checkpoint Charlie's, the only bar I've seen that has washing machines. And they worked! Drunk guys talked to us. We got rained on, but I didn't mind. We avoided Bourbon Street almost completely, and didn't manage to get to some of the places I wanted to revisit, like the revolving bar at the Hotel Monteleone, or Frankie & Johnny's, home of orgasmic fried food and peanut butter pie. We did get up to the Garden District this time, had our requisite mint juleps on the patio at the Columns, and then wandered on Magazine Street looking at the overpriced trinkets. All the typical New Orleans stuff. And, as always, I enjoyed all of it.

The hardest part for me was being around people nonstop for 10 days. As a classic introvert, I find people draining, even when I'm enjoying them. After that trip, I didn't want to talk to anyone else for a week.

There's more to explore, of course.
I feel like I know the town better now, both the bad and good parts of it. The ghetto, the tourist traps, uptown, downtown, the financial and business district, and the places where actual people live and work. I fantasize about going back by myself someday, maybe even renting a car and being able to explore even further afield. But for now, I'm happy puttering around domestically, happy not flying anywhere for awhile, nor undertaking spur-of-the-moment trips filled with uncertainty. It's nice to be home.