The archaic corded phone gives way to the wireless

February 21, 2004|By ROB KASPER

MENTION THE words "corded telephone" to the representatives of the modern telecommunications industry and the conversation quickly goes on hold.

Last week, business moguls were buzzing over the news of the $41 billion takeover of AT&T Wireless by Cingular. Meanwhile on the homefront, I was pursuing a low-tech, low-finance chore.

I was trying to find a replacement part for the family's battered kitchen phone. It was an AT&T model 1820, a corded telephone with an answering system. It was at least 10 years old, maybe more.

My quest took me all the way to Canada (by phone), where a nice fellow at the AT&T service center informed me that my model had expired. (Later, I read that the entire AT&T brand, even the wireless units, are likely to be phased out by Cingular). I called a half-dozen local outfits that sold phones and accessories. I even queried "the phone guys," the men who tend the telephones I use at The Sun.

I was trying to find a telephone junkyard, a place that recycled old phone parts. After several days of searching the Internet, thumbing through the Yellow Pages and questioning guys who carry needle-nose pliers in their pockets, I gave up. Instead of replacement parts, I had to start looking for a replacement phone.

Judging by the media coverage of the takeover of AT&T Wireless, the buzzwords of the telecommunications industry these days are "connectivity," "network," "bundling" and "wireless."

Judging by my search for parts, conversation stoppers are the words "corded telephone." "Corded?" the disbelieving voice on the other end of the phone would repeat when I said what was I looking for. This would be followed by a pause as the model number of my deceased phone was verified and a replacement unit was suggested. There was no snickering, at least while I was within earshot.

Occasionally, I felt compelled to explain myself to the wireless masses, to offer a defense of the corded lifestyle.

Corded kitchen phones are, I believe, good for families. As I see it, those TV commercials that tout cell phone chatter as a way to improve communication between parents and teen-agers have it wrong. Parents learn what their kids are doing by eavesdropping on the phone conversations of their offspring. Eavesdropping is much easier when the phone is tethered to the kitchen wall. Yes, the kids can pull the phone around a corner or talk in muted tones. But mostly, they don't. They chatter away as if you were not there. Parents learn a lot when they behave like wallpaper - a comparison the kids are all too eager to agree with - positioning themselves on the edge of the action and absorbing sound.

My kids are now in college with cell phones of their own. But during the majority of their high school years - a time of heightened parental vigilance and intensive phone use - that old corded kitchen phone was their main instrument of communication with the outside world. I uncovered a lot of plots by pricking up my ears when the kids picked up the phone.

Another facet of the tethered life that I like is the "telephone chair." It sits next to the kitchen phone and reflects my belief that when you are on the phone, you sit down, take your time speaking and conduct what is called a "thoughtful conversation." This means you devote mental energy to what you are saying, not to what you are doing with your hands, your feet or any other appendages. When the conversation does not require mental energy, you hang up.

I recognize that in these days of mobile phones, redialing and multitasking, such beliefs are considered archaic. But until a few weeks ago, I was content with my hidebound beliefs and my fogey phone.

Then the phone took a hit. The handset, the hard plastic part you hold to your ear and mouth, took a steep dive and smacked against the floor.

After that, phone conversations sounded tinny. I began my hunt for a replacement handset. Since the damaged handset had square-shaped heads that held it in a wall-mounted cradle, finding an exact replacement was necessary. And impossible.

So reluctantly, I cut the cord. I drove out to one of the emporiums of electronics in the suburbs, got sales advice from a young man about the age of one of my sons, and bought a cordless unit. It came with a thick manual that listed page after page of performance features. Thankfully, there was also a four-page cheat sheet that explained the basics: how to make and receive calls.

Now that the kids are in college my "eavesdropping era" is probably over. The manual of the new cordless phone promises me that I now have the freedom to roam around the homestead while phoning. I don't think so. My phone may be mobile, but I prefer to sit while talking. I may have a cordless unit, but I am still attached to old habits.

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