Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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Chapter Ten

Dial M for Murder

I don't really understand my mobile phone. On certain days, I think I understand Swahili, but my cell remains a mystery once you go beyond the basic call functions. What's more, I don't want my phone to have a camera, and I don't want my camera to have a telephone. It would be nice, I suppose, if a certain brand of sipping whiskey could be poured out of my mobile telephone, but everything else seems rather superfluous.

I realize I am in the minority. The fact is, as of this writing, cell phones with cameras included were selling faster than botox injections. I just shelled out $700 on a new Nokia for my daughter's seventeenth Birthday. A professional employee with whom I work was totally distraught. No, her mama didn't die, but she lost her cell phone, and all the pictures she had taken.

Don't get me wrong. I am not anti-cell phone. They are at least as necessary as handguns, and it should be the right of every American to own at least one. Besides, today they have become fashion statements, dangling from women's necks in the most elegant of pouches. They are small enough that men no longer have to have hip holsters to carry them, a former sight reminiscent of maintenance men with tool belts. I suspect that the combined cell telephone/toothbrush is just around the corner.

(These being the Silverback Diaries, the above paragraphs were written for a column in 2004. In May 2005, as a birthday gift, I received a Nokia 9500 Communicator-and it does do everything short of serving as a toothbrush. Though many of the functions I don't use, such as a rinky-dink camera, I couldn't get along without the instrument.)

No one dials telephones anymore, even if they live with aborigines in the Australian outback. They punch, and they have become so adept at finding those small little buttons, they do it without even looking. I personally have to put on my glasses just to see the buttons. I envision little midgets with hands the sizes of Barbie's working in the Nokia factory. And for some reason, my telephone (the prehistoric former model) dials numbers when it is in my coat pocket, as if it had a mind of its own. I am told this is a simple problem to correct, but I have learned all I care to learn about the damn thing. I once heard the story about a divorce that might have been avoided, except the telephone was in the fellow's pockets when he was grappling with his mistress. The number it accidentally called belong to his wife. Guys, this is a true story. Your worst nightmare waiting to happen could be in your coat pocket.

I also wonder what possesses one to program the William Tell Overture into a mobile telephone such that every time it rings you get this spirited call to action and want to jump on a white stallion named Silver. I doubt Gioachino Rossini, the early 19th century composer, ever envisioned its use in cell telephones, though maybe he anticipated the theme of the "Lone Ranger". These are questions to which answers will probably always elude us.

As you can see, I am not the best buddy of the cell telephone, even though I have had one for nearly a dozen years, first a basic Motorola brand and then later a series of Nokias. This has nothing to do with their causing brain tumors, which I am reasonably certain they don't. My reasons have to do with basic comity among people. The cell phone is a nuisance and a threat to civilization as we know it.

Recently I was in a meeting in my own office with my office landlady. We were going over a number of important issues, mainly the fact that due to construction around our building I had to send a search party out to find clients and lead them to our office. However, during our 20-minute conversation, she was interrupted five times by the ring of her cell phone, which she dutifully answered, chatting away for a few moments each time. And this is the lady I pay money to each month. She obviously used her time efficiently. Mine, however, the customer, was totally wasted. If I had been the Goddamit man introduced earlier in this book, I, too, would have called vociferously on that higher power.

The first time I saw a cell phone was about 1987. My main competitor in the advertising game, a rather smug fellow who had a Colgate smile and buttermilk for brains, was sitting in a caf? with two colleagues, demonstrating for all that his firm had the latest technology. I assume the two colleagues were primarily along to carry the box from which the telephone receiver was extracted, since it appeared somewhat heavier than Fat Albert. There he sat, virtually shouting such that the entire restaurant knew he was 1.) A very important fellow; and 2.) His company had just won a new contract. His name has long since been banished from memory; even the name of his company, but the visual remains a Post-It note.

Actually, though few probably remember it, there was a period--an anthropological sliver it would seem--when it seemed virtually everyone had a telephone in his car. That wasn't so bad, for one can do many things in the privacy of one's car (and here I am not speaking of the backseat of a 1955 Chevy) that one shouldn't do in public. A car is like an office. However, a crowded subway train, a doctor's office, a movie theater; an on-going meeting should not be like an office. Only if it quacks and waddles like a duck should it be called a duck. I was in a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany a few years ago, and I noticed in the sitting lounge the familiar sign with a circle and slash across it: "Damn, no smoking," I said, about to light up my pipe. On closer examination, however, the item in the middle of the circle with the slash was a cell telephone. "Finally, civilization," I shouted.

I realize I am in the minority when I rant and rave against cell telephones. No, more than a minority, I am like a speck of dust in the galaxy. The only confirmed non-cell person of whom I am familiar is Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson, and he is a real caveman about the thing. He also eschews laptops (I love them), ATM's (They frighten the bejesus out of me) and digital cameras (I have the latest Nikon digital). See, compared to this guy I am not at all weird, merely Neanderthal.

The fact is there were 340,000 cell phones in 1985 in the U.S. and today there are about 250 million, or so says something called the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, and their usage crosses all demographics. Even we ancients, aged 60 to 69 have gone mobile, with 60 per cent of us owning a cell phone. That's almost as high as the near rug-rat 18 to 24-year-old, with 70 per cent chatting away while chewing gum and humming techno pop crap. However, the largest group of users being the 30-49-year-old collection, with 80 per cent owning mobile phones in the U.S. What about people in the noble rot years? After 80, the figure dips to an astonishingly high 35 per cent.

With so many of us having ever-shrinking cells, how much chatting do we do? In 2003, cell phone chatter totaled 830-billion minutes, according to our friends at CTIA. That's about 75 times greater than in 1991, and almost 50 hours for every man, woman and child in America. We are told that the average conversation last 2.5 to 3 minutes. One wonders when people in America found the time to procreate, much less become the world's fattest nation. The other downside, safety experts say, is that cell phones are blamed for six per cent of the auto deaths each year, about 2,600 fatalities.

Perhaps because I have been called the Miss Manners of cell telephone etiquette, I was asked recently to come up with rules of the road for usage of the damned instruments for a multinational company. My particular list numbers nine, though I am sure if I thought for another few minutes I could come up with a dozen or so more. Since the purpose of the Silverback Diaries is to entertain as well as educate, I believe to belabor the point would be to lecture those of you who prefer your cell telephones to your first ex-wives.

1. Know when to switch off your mobile telephone. This seems rather elementary, but obviously, it is a lesson in advanced coolness. A telephone call taken during a business meeting is to say to the other suits around the table that they are not really professionals but sacks of Alpo. In most all cases, turn off your cell when going into meetings.

2. There could be times you are expecting an important call while you are in another business meeting. In such case, advise the individual or group before hand that your mother could call, and that she is the Southeastern distributor of guilt. Then, step out of the room before you begin your conversation. Do you really want your colleagues to hear answers to such questions as "Is that wife of yours providing you with fresh underwear each morning? Or, did you make up with your little brother (who is 50)? Even then, to prevent the interruption of a ringing telephone, put it on silent ring or vibration, and excuse yourself from the meeting.

3. Switch off the ringing mechanism of your cell phone if you are preparing to begin an important work function that can't be interrupted, such as preparing deadline work for a meeting. Haven't you ever told your receptionist or secretary to hold your calls? Well, hold your own calls.

4. Keep the ring tone of your telephone at a reasonably soft level. These days, with virtually everyone having a mobile phone, the cacophony in the workplace and public places can send ordinarily sane people over the edge. This is particularly true due to the many different ringing tones available. It sounds like an orchestra with everyone playing a different song.

5. Speak softly. Mobile telephones are sensitive. For some reason, it seems many folks in New York feel their voices have to carry to Miami. Keep your voice to a reasonable level. If you want to impress the girl standing next to you, wear a Homburg and a red rose in your lapel. It will be just as effective, without being quite as annoying.

6. Do you really want everyone knowing your business? Be careful with what you say, because it can come back to haunt you. Whether personal or business, conversations are meant generally for two people - don't tell the outfield bleachers at Yankee stadium.

7. Don't sacrifice effectiveness, confidentiality and professionalism for convenience and immediacy. Beware of the locations in which you use your cell phone, such as riding in a rental shuttle, taking calls in public rest rooms or in elevators. There is nothing more disquieting than being in the men's room, and hearing this disembodied voice coming from one of the stalls.

8. Remember, the vast majority of callers do not require immediate access. Getting back to someone within a reasonable time is much better than committing mobile telephone bad manners.

9. Finally, those are my eight rules on telephone etiquette. There was a ninth, but I have to go now. The theme to the old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is summoning me on my mobile.

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