Not a phone person
Early on in my friendship with Sarah, she advised me not to phone her. I was perfectly welcome to ring; I just shouldn't expect a voice-to-voice conversation. Sarah doesn't like to be caught off guard. She wants to know what's on someone's mind before she frames her reply. She loves the freedom e-mail gives her to be funny and warm when she's in the mood for connection. No one writes more a more expressive message than Sarah. But as she told me at our first girlfriends' dinner, she is simply "not a phone person."
This struck me as odd---for about 30 seconds. Then I had to admit that I'm not a phone person, either. Haven't been since the dawn of e-mail. You know that saying "Middle age is when the phone rings and you hope it's not for you?" I could have coined it. And don't get me started on cell phones (I do carry one, but grudgingly). What astonishes me, when I stop to think about it, is how quickly I've shed my former dependence on the phone and how subtly but profoundly this choice has affected my life.
I grew up in a household with a squat, black rotary phone that whirred and clicked when you dialled. It sat in our hall, within eavesdropping distance of the whole family. My father had an extension in his study upstairs, and if I got there before he did I could shut the door, put my feet on his desk and unburden myself to my best friend for the next hour, or as long as my luck would hold. I'd twist the cord around my finger while the two of us described our moods of the moment in exquisite detail.
These exchanges consisted as much of eloquent sighs as of actual dialog, to the acute annoyance of my phone-deprived parents. For this they had to put off a call to the plumber? Some times they'd spoof what they overheard, hoping to shame me into curbing my phone habit. Not a chance. For another 15 minutes' communion with my friend Anne, I'd have gone without dessert, unplugged my record player and let my pesky sister wear my pink-and-orange beads. What I said to Anne was never really the point. I craved the comfort of knowing she was there to hear me breathe.
I thought of those years when my son reached his teens and our one phone line came under assault. As a full-time freelance journalist, I relied on that line to research my stories. Suddenly I found myself repeatedly stalled in mid-interview by some kid or other who just had to speak to my son. My standard reply---"You'll have to wait, I'm working"---bought me five minutes of peace before the kid returned to plead, "I NEED to speak to Benjy." So it went every five minutes until I faced the truth. When you're 14 years old and you want your friend's ear, you're not about to take no for an answer.
It's not just for the young, this flowering of friendship on the phone. I've known plenty of women who seldom let a day go by without calling a sister of the heart or blood. They don't need arrangements to make or news to share. They just need to hear each other's voices. This hasn't been my style since adolescence. Yet I'm still moved, with a faint wistfulness, by the intimacy some women find on the phone. Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, poets and best friends, had dedicated phones at their desks, used only to confer about poems. Kumin later recalled, "We sometimes connected with a phone call and kept the line linked for hours at a stretch. We whistled for each other when we were ready to resume."
When I crave companionship at my desk, I shoot someone an e-mail or log onto Twitter. Buoyed by a virtual smile and the promise of a lunch date, I return within minutes to the task at hand. Staying in touch took a lot more concentration 20 years ago, when I worked at home as a full-time freelance journalist. I'd flip through my address book. Stop at Joanna's name (how was her trip to France?). Give her a ring, leave a message on her machine. On to Charlotte or Chris or Lynda. I recall a few awkward moments of the kind that e-mail heads off---waking Joanna up (she worked shifts), finding Lynda surprised and a little annoyed to be hearing from me (turned out she'd dropped all her old friends). But most people were delighted to hear my voice, even if I'd caught them in the middle of something. They answered with a vividness that dashed-off e-mails can't convey. In those days we were all phone people.
My source for the story about Sexton and Kumin is Diane Wood Middlebrook's fascinating Anne Sexton: A Biography.
I often write about women and friendship. Click here to read "The year of friends lost and found."
Posted by Rona October 22, 2009 @ 1:44 PM. File in Between friends