Playing the Numbers

broken phone

I accidentally did a security wipe of my phone and eliminated all my contacts, and—no—I didn’t have a backup at the time. So I got on a real computer and emailed all those I wanted reentered in my phone log. I wrote this:

“Could you please text me ‘Hi, this is _____’ so I can put your phone number back in my contact list?”

It was, I thought, a simple request.

First, my friends Robert and Molly in Ohio carried this out perfectly. From both I received a text with their names in the text. Understand, when you send a text to me, I can only see a phone number; it does not come through with your name on it unless you are already in my address book, which obviously no one is. So for the twelve people who wrote, “Here you go” or “It’s me” or “Sorry about your phone, here’s my number” or “Here ya go, let’s get beers,” some deciphering was necessary.

“Let’s get beers” was easy—Jose. It is his standard comment to me, so perhaps he wrote that on purpose knowing I’d know he’d know I knew. Someone else wrote, “So if I don’t say who I am, will you be able to figure it out?” which I figured out because we have always thought exactly alike and often complete each other’s thoughts. For a few of the texts I had to look up the area code to figure out who it might be. One of them was on Long Island, so I knew it was a cousin, but that really doesn’t narrow it down much in my family. Then the message said, “Funny I just saw someone who looks just like you and I was smiling, thinking, ‘Hey there’s my cousin’ when he clearly thought I was smiling at him and it kind of got me in trouble,” so I knew it was Lisa. My cousins, all of them, have distinct personalities.

One friend emailed his name, address, current location, plans for the weekend, apologies for my troubles, offers of assistance, and his next week’s schedule. But no phone number. No kidding. And since it was an email and not a text, I still can’t call him. No problem.

My brother, my friend Jack, and several others just replied to my email with their phone numbers, which was actually much easier and made more sense, but they also took that opportunity to tell me my Blackberry is not 21st century. Well, I suppose neither am I.

And that really is the point here.

There was a time back in the last millennium when I knew everyone’s number by heart. That was when I had no “contact list” in my phone; back when “my” phone was a fat machine on the counter used by the entire family, long before the invention of voice mail, call waiting, or answering machines. When we looked up someone’s number in a small address book enough and then dialed it (rotary), the digits tended to stick in our minds. I can recall most of my own numbers well back into my childhood, most of my friends’ from then and through my twenties, as well as work numbers and relatives’ numbers, including my grandmother’s from her apartment in Queens in the eighties. It is not age that stole my retention; it is convenience. We now live in a world where, “If we don’t have to, we don’t.” In fact I know it isn’t age because yesterday I went into one of my classes and asked fifteen twenty-year-olds if they could tell me the phone number of their best friend, and only one of them could. These are the same people who don’t take notes or rewrite notes from a peer after they’ve missed class, but instead simply take a picture of the pages and then can’t understand why they don’t understand.

I had a friend at Penn State who asked me for the date and time of something I was involved in. When I told her and asked if she wanted a pen to write it down, she said, “No, if I write it down I’ll forget it.” Exactly. Certainly, my memory is not what it used to be. Students’ names for me are nearly impossible, though to be fair that has less to do with memory than it does interest. One young lady said I don’t remember their names because I’m not trying hard enough to do so, and I said she was wrong, that I wasn’t trying at all. Ironically, I can tell you the name of every single person in my first class I taught twenty-seven years ago. Much like the phone numbers, however, I had more reason to retain them years ago than I do now.

Numbers, though, have always come easy for me. I never had trouble committing to memory zip codes, addresses, bank account numbers, as well as phone numbers, and I still can, but since obtaining what is apparently an outdated phone, I’ve made it easy to forget what is essential—the phone numbers of my loved ones. Shouldn’t those numbers be second nature?

Apparently not, so I emailed everyone. Some people didn’t respond at all, which made me realize, yeah, I don’t need them in my life either. What a great opportunity to weed out the ones I wonder why I knew to begin with. Worse, there were numbers for people for whom I don’t have emails and can’t contact them at all. I know if there is a reason to contact me they will, but something more revealing crossed my apparently feeble mind: I don’t need nearly so many people in my life. My average contact-scroll used to take awhile, and why oh why I had so many numbers is beyond me. We have information for lots of people yet we “know” so few. This turned out to be a great way to clean house.

Still, I most likely will not return to memorizing numbers, though I will attempt to retain a dozen or so of those people I can’t imagine not being able to call in an instant. What if I had to borrow someone’s phone? I’d like to remember those numbers again, or recall someone’s birthday without a Facebook prompt. The ability has less to do with age than practice, though I suppose that is true of just about everything. One response via text was, “Hey, it’s me! Shouldn’t you know my number by heart?!”

My immediate thought was, “Yes, of course.” But then I thought, “No, I shouldn’t.” What I should be doing is seeing loved ones often enough that we have no reason to call. We should be laughing together at pubs, at picnic tables, across the fence in the yard, across the room, across time. Numbers should be pointless. Memory should be irrelevant for our consistent commitment to spending time together now.

My favorite response to my email was the last text I received. It said simply, “Just put me in your contact list as ‘Tumbleweed’.” I knew exactly who it was. And then there is my mother’s cell phone, which I opted not to bother re-entering since she hasn’t turned it on in years. That is wisdom.

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