The Long-Distance Calling Card: Remembering Conversation

Recently, I tried to buy a long distance calling card, and I learned an important lesson.  People don’t use long distance calling cards anymore.  You know the ones.  They let you make a call on a phone attached to a wall.  Those things called “landlines” and “home phone numbers” no one seems to have any more.

Remember these?

When I discovered my need for this obsolete relic of the twentieth century, I was in the midst of packing for a weeklong visit to Weston Priory, the Benedictine monastery where I did my dissertation research.  One of the most appealing aspects of monastic life is the all-encompassing serenity.  Silence in this context is far more than the absence of sound; it is a disposition, a way of life.  Silence is freedom: freedom from the noise of business-as-usual; freedom from the relentless onslaught of media, the endless march of information, and the constant expectation that we are all available all the time.  The Weston Priory guesthouses resist this: they have no cell phone service, no internet service, and no television of any kind.

Bethany house at Weston Priory

Bethany house at Weston Priory

No cell service??  Where is this place?

Indeed, it seems unbelievable that there still remain hidden corners untouched by the broad reach of cell phone towers.  It’s the beauty of Vermont.  The mountains block the signals, and we don’t want any stinkin’ towers on our mountains (we don’t care who says they can be made look like trees).  We’re a stubborn breed, and we’ll live without cell service if it means we can keep our countryside just the way it is.

Can you hear me now?  No?  Good.  That means I’m home.

When I arrive at the monastery, it always takes a little while to adjust to life without the crutches of the digital era.  I often forget that I’ll need a calling card, and so I have taken to keeping one in my wallet at all times (I know, what is this, 1995?).  When packing for my weeklong visit, I realized my calling card—the one I had used throughout my dissertation research—was all out of minutes, and I would need another one if I hoped to phone home to check in with my husband from time to time.

To the grocery store I went.  And after fifteen minutes of wandering around, I learned something: calling cards are not easy to find these days.  I found endless racks of little plastic cards: gift cards for restaurants and stores; prepaid credit cards and debit cards; and dozens of varieties of prepaid cell phone cards.  They were arrayed in tidy rows at the end of each cash register.  They filled a spindle in front of customer service.  They were organized by type on large turnstiles in the pharmacy, the bakery, and the “seasonal” aisle.  I checked each one in vain.  Not until I reached what I felt certain must be the last possible repository of little plastic cards did I find it, tucked into a dark corner in the grocery store hinterlands where reside the day-old baked goods, eyeglass repair kits, and umbrellas.  It was a lone row of long distance calling cards at the dusty bottom of a spindle.

I bought the calling card, and I’m pretty sure the teenaged cashier gave me a funny look.  What kind of nerd uses a landline?  Right?  The kind that hangs out at monasteries for fun.

The next morning I made the long drive to Weston over the rolling hills and through the green fields.  Cell service went in and out as I descended into each picturesque valley and wound along the riverbeds. When I finally settled into my guesthouse that afternoon—just in time for a wild thunderstorm to blow in over mountains—I sat down to call my husband.  I got out my card.  I picked up the phone—a corded phone no less.  The cord was short, and I was out of practice.  I pulled too far and the phone fell on the floor with a clatter.  I moved my chair closer, picked up the phone to try again, and held it my ear to make sure I heard a dial tone.

The dial tone was once a marker of everyday life, modernity, progress, and the information age.  It was a sound that portended endless possibilities.  The world opened up in that buzzing din that went on, ad infinitum, into the interconnected web of telephone lines.  I wonder if my children will know what a dial tone sounds like.  Probably not.

As I chatted with my husband on the corded phone, consciously reminding myself to limit my range of motion lest I pull the phone to the floor again, I realized that talking on the phone used to be a much more focused act of conversation with another person.  A phone that is tethered to wall keeps the talker likewise tethered.  I cannot move about.  When I’m chatting on the phone, that’s what I’m doing.  I’m not chatting and doing the dishes, or chatting and grading papers, or chatting and weeding the garden, although these feats are certainly possible with a long enough cord (and, naturally, the advent of cordless phones), but you see my point.  Telephones connected us to other people, and we used to mark the wonder of that connection by actually paying attention to the person on the other end of the phone.  Further, the phone number was a home number, not a personal number.  You didn’t call a person, but a collection of persons living at a shared address.

Remember not knowing who would pick up?  Remember saying “hello,” identifying yourself, and then asking if so-and-so was available?  Remember hearing, “she can’t come to the phone right now, can I take a message?”  Remember waiting patiently for the person on the other end to get a pen and paper to write out your message?

Even though we seem to have our phones in our pockets at all times, ready at a moment’s notice for whoever might need to be in touch with us, these days we rarely even call one another.  We prefer to text.  In shorthand, no less.  We can rarely be bothered to have an actual human conversation.  Instead of hearing the joy of our friend’s own distinctive laug, we read “lol” and imagine our interlocuter laughing out loud.  We send little blurbs, and expect near-instant responses.

We have constant access to one another all the time, but it seems that in this process we’ve paradoxically lost the ability to connect.  And so I revel in my calling card and keep it tucked away in my wallet, well aware that it is just this side of a museum-worthy artifact, but clinging to it nonetheless just in case I ever have the opportunity to talk on a telephone.

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