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What did we ever do before we had cellphones?

By Edna Froese


Well, to begin with, we kept our promises — or faced consequences. If I agreed to meet my husband in two hours in the Midtown Plaza, I then made it happen. No impulse errands, no dawdling in the library or forgetting to leave time to find a parking spot, because I had no way of letting him know I would be late. Few things irritate as much as not knowing how long one must wait or what caused the delay.

In other words, we made plans in the days before cellphones, but those plans were both looser (“fudge” time had to be allowed — and that didn’t mean chocolate!) and tighter (last-minute changes were not allowed). Since we agreed on arrangements face-to-face or in actual phone conversations, details were clarified from the beginning: if there was a subsequent query — “what do you mean you thought we were meeting at the Citizen’s Café? We agreed on Little Bird!” — that indicated a serious memory loss, not a missed text message.

Yes, there were screw-ups, some monumental ones. I’ll not forget the day my father forgot to leave money with my mother before they parted for the afternoon’s shopping in the big city of Saskatoon. The wasted hours and hurt feelings taught everyone in the vicinity something about thinking ahead and about due consideration. For me, the lesson went beyond planning: learn to write cheques and always have money of my own — but that’s a digression.

Before we had cellphones, we paid better attention to the situation in which we had placed ourselves for however long it lasted. I’m not saying I never took a book with me to an appointment or some paper and pencils for doodling my way through boring committee meetings. However, neither book nor paper had been specifically engineered to push all our addiction buttons. If we had to wait in line somewhere, we noticed other people in the line-up, and often as not, talked to the bloke in front of us or the garrulous grandma behind us. Admittedly, those of us with fewer sociability genes preferred private daydreams to public small-talk, but we were usually not oblivious to our surroundings. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh, we walked the dog to walk the dog, not to do business online or exchange photos with absent friends.

At the theatre, we were present to what was happening onstage — or at least refrained from distracting others. Funerals and other ceremonial services had our attention, and none was interrupted by a ringing phone. The rare person who carried a pager (usually a physician, maybe the theatre’s house manager) might have to exit, but did so apologetically and silently.

It was true we sometimes returned home to discover that some emergency had presented itself, and we had not been there to respond. There were some missed final conversations. Without cellphones, we could not pay attention to anything and everything that might warrant our interventions. We could, however, focus on what was with us and around us — for much longer time spans.

Before we had cellphones, life was less controlled, more ambiguous, more subject to happenstance. We found out precisely when our guests would arrive only as we saw them on the driveway, not sooner. Since we couldn’t text home with a picture, we bought inappropriate items and had to take them back later. Of necessity, decisions were made sometimes without consultation, but we probably thought more carefully first, knowing we had sole responsibility.

If we had engine failure along a lonely road, it might be hours before someone passed by, or we walked to get help. When we travelled to more remote places, we packed emergency supplies. If conditions were too risky, we simply didn’t travel at all. Did we stay at home more? Perhaps not — there was no virtual reality to substitute for old-fashioned visiting. It’s hard now to remember what life was like. Whether or not there were more tragedies then is impossible to say.

Most likely we lived with more trust, because we had to, not because it was easier, although it might have been. I remember one occasion when snow and stalled traffic delayed my return home on the city bus. I sat helplessly, fear churning in the pit of my stomach, with our two younger children, waiting, knowing that our oldest son, still too young for this, was surely on his way home from school to a locked and empty house. My over-active imagination pictured this bereft child, standing at our back door, cold and frightened. When I did arrive home — no footprints were visible in the heavy snow — my neighbour phoned immediately to tell me she had seen our son and had gone to fetch him back to her place, where she fed him lunch and kept him safe until I was home.

We couldn’t control our world; we couldn’t minimize all risk; we were often out of communication, dependent on strangers and our own wits. Yet we lived, as we all still do, in the midst of the quotidian things of life, the messiness of relationships, and the incomparable beauties and joys that life provides. Our dependencies are different now; our responsibilities play out differently as well. Despite all our technology, we still can’t control our world, still can’t minimize all risk, still screw up our communications.

So I believe, as firmly as ever, that whatever slick new technology will yet be invented, it will never negate the need to keep our promises, to show due consideration, to pay careful attention to those around us, and not to forget the grace of trust.

Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.



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