FROM “NUMBER PLEASE” TO A 6000 MILE DISTANT QUERY ABOUT SCOURING PADS


In 1953, I first picked up a telephone receiver, hearing, “Number, please” (notice the please, now an endangered word).  Our telephone number (we called it a telephone) was Hillside 2765.  It didn’t matter on the dial, because we didn’t have dials. We neither made nor received calls during dinner, and answering a telephone call was a priority.

Twenty years later, James Garner had an answering machine on The Rockford Files, and his car phone was then high tech.  I called my wife from the Philippines, when the USS ST. LOUIS was in port; it was a big deal.  Fifteen years later, we didn’t believe that long distance phone calls some day would not incur additional charges. My first cell phone was in 1990, the “brick era”.  Today, we need an answering machine to screen 95% of our telephone calls, which ask for money, call during dinner, and even late into the evening.

When I see people talking to themselves, it is not psychosis, which it used to be, or discussing one’s problems with oneself, but talking on the phone. Hello is more difficult to say in public, when many are listening to music or using their phone. Formerly, when we called a store, we spoke to a human. Today, we get a menu beginning with “unusually high call volume,” and ending with “your call is important to us,“ which it is not. Things used to be stock, before “just in time” inventory was invented.  Now, items must be ordered.

Smart phones allow us to access the world from just about anywhere in the world, although there are places where it is impossible to do so. Such places are interestingly the most beautiful I have ever seen:  Alaska’s Brooks Range, Arctic Canada, the Quetico-Superior, Isle Royale, and Great Basin National Park.

I turn my smart phone off at night, because I may get calls from those who aren’t aware of time zones or my sleep patterns.  Through Whatsapp, I have been asked–from Brazil– the difference between a scouring pad and a scouring towel, which may be found quickly on Google.  I listen to conversations in public about people and things I would just as soon not hear, and for the first time wonder whether my family history of deafness in late life might yet be a blessing.

On the bright side, headphones made boom boxes obsolete, so people can destroy their hearing silently, without bothering others.  Headphones do have a disadvantage, however.  While looking for a building on the University of Oregon campus; half the students didn’t know where it was, and the other half were wearing headphones.

Mail used to require pen, paper, an envelope, stamp, and going to the post office.  The stamp cost 3 cents. One corresponded with friends by mail; writing back was polite.  We wrote thank you and sympathy notes, saying specific things about the gift or the person who died.  More than one has commented my sympathy note was the best note they had received. I still have thank you notes from former patients; somehow, a CD containing them isn’t the same and may be unreadable in a decade.

Thank you notes for wedding presents were a necessity, not only for politeness, but to ensure the sender the gift arrived.  My wife and I wrote ours all before our wedding.  It was easy, and we personalized each one, for it was expected.  My parents used to have a large tray of Christmas cards, all personalized.  This year, I got four, two in mid-January. Back then, typed notes saying how stellar everybody in their family was were frowned upon.

We didn’t use calculators but slide rules, which got us to the Moon.  Calculators have  produced a generation of teachers who believe memorization of the multiplication tables is wrong, students who can’t subtract 8 from 10 without a calculator and can’t divide 3 into 12 by hand. I am not exaggerating.  Clerks counted change accurately.  Yesterday, a clerk at Dutch Brothers gave me an extra dollar in change. I gave it back, because I like the company.  Once, a clerk argued with me, so I kept the money.  Not knowing math is a tax on those who don’t.  Don’t expect Republicans to complain about that tax. They count on ignorance.

We taught writing: the act and the result. I can’t remember when I last saw a young person hold a pen properly.  Handwriting today is sloppy, and I say that as a physician.  Grammar is often not taught, because “people pick it up.”  No, they don’t.  “Whom,” one of my favorite words, is disappearing, and “gonna” and “wanna”  were considered by one language Website as correct, until I made a stink about it.  Nominative case is considered formal, rather than….nominative, and “these kind”  and “these ones” abound.  I find it ironic that many of the “English only” folks can’t write English properly.  If you don’t know English rules, please feel free to contact me.  I love teaching the most dynamic, beautiful language on Earth.

We can talk world-wide on Skype, making language instruction with a native speaker possible, once unheard of.  We may e-mail instantaneously and access information that used to be stored in large volumes of books called encyclopedias, which were once sold door to door.  On a German professor’s advice, I recently ordered a grammar book from Germany before I left his building.  Twenty minutes later, I sent my wife a picture of my standing on Autzen Bridge over the Willamette. This is great.

However, most of my e-mails go unanswered, ostensibly because “people are busy,” although “Dear Mr. Smith, We regret to inform you that we have no need for your skills to teach 6 subjects at our school.  Sincerely yours, xxxx” takes 24 seconds.  I timed it.  Much on the Internet is worthless, inaccurate, porn, and a forum for nasty people who formerly had no world-wide public voice.  I consider the routine daily emails from West Africa a price I pay for e-mail.

Tonight, an Asian woman, whom I had often helped, wanted to chat, proudly announcing she was currently chatting with a woman in Brazil.  I told her to continue; I felt it was time for dinner, I did not feel like being second in her priorities. Language websites are great for non-English speakers to learn English.  I have found them disappointing to learn German, French, or Spanish. These three languages are not nearly as tolerant of accents as we are; corrections are seldom explained. I explain mine. I am optimistic some day the Websites will improve. They are still new.

I have lived through changes in technology and the world that will continue in ways I can’t even dream of.  The winners will be those who adapt.  I hope that politeness, curiosity, willingness to change views in the face of new evidence, respect, friendship, and the ability to embrace diversity will thrive. The record suggests the opposite.  I hope I am wrong.

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