Saturday, January 02, 2010

Home Life Addiction

I’ve long been addicted to humor columns. The obsession started with my discovery of the dazzling Dorothy Parker, whose brief, witty essays, “In the Throes” - about being a writer and losing her pencil-- and "My Home Town”--which happens to be New York - are as wildly burlesque as her stories and poems. That led to Village Voice columnist Cynthia Heimel’s hilarious Sex Tips for Girls and Enough about You. Then somehow I went British and carried around copies of Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands and E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. And then I discovered Alice Thomas Ellis’s mesmerizing Home Life books, four collections of her engaging columns from The Spectator from the ‘80s.

A novelist, mother, editor, friend of writers and artists, and a conservative Catholic, Ellis wrote brilliant domestic comedy about state-of-emergency plumbing in Chelsea and personal hygiene in a cold house in Wales. In Home Life Two, she muses on the absurdity of bank cards and credit cards (money is faster); building on to her house; struggles with faulty dishwashers; and the ridiculous prevalence of love in the lyrics of pop music. She also wryly catalogues the eccentricities of her family: the laconic husband (referred to as Someone), four sons (who like bad pop music and leave dangerous, ominous-smelling camping equipment around) , “the daughter” (12 and incomprehensible), and a sensible live-in housekeeper/nanny/friend, Janet.

I was especially amused by her whimsical column about the telephone.

“I rather hate the telephone, especially the new sort which makes an awful kind of chirrup like a demented bird. I can never think what on earth it is when it suddenly starts cheeping, and it is maddening when you bother to answer it only to find that you have a lunatic on the other end who maintains a determined and--inevitably--rather threatening silence.”

We all used to complain about the phone. What a switch from today! when everybody walks around talking on tiny metallic phones as if they’re some kind of Hearing Aid--and as if it were a pleasurable novelty instead of a Big Brotherish nightmare. Yes, everybody wants to listen to your Musac ring tone. You have to listen to boring phone calls about nothing while you are at the gym or the grocery store. They usually go like: “I’m at the gym” or “I’m at the grocery store.” Then loud TV commercials insist at intervals that we need “free minutes.” The concept of "Free Minutes" is a curious one. "Free" wasn't always associated with the phone.

I had a curious experience at the gym the other day. Somebody had left a small metallic object on the treadmill. I didn’t know what it was. It had no cover and a very tiny screen. Was it a phone?

I stood outside the restroom, where the person without the "phone" had retired. And stood some more. Finally I knocked and yelled, “Did you leave your phone?”

But the embarrassing thing is I don’t know if it was a phone or not. Was it something like a PalmPilot or a Blackberry?

"I left it because I'm coming back."

Still, I kept guard over it till he returned.

By the way, Ellis was not against phones, which are convenient for transacting business and talking to loved ones.

Nor am I against them.

But Ellis does have a good anecdote about a party line. You must read it.

P.S. If you'd like to read more about Alice Thomas Ellis, subscribe to my free print newsletter, A Few Green Leaves. Using the U.S. mail (or Pony Express!) fits in with my retro-style. The mail may not be revolutionary, but it's a proven form of communication, and I thought it would be nice to proceed at a more leisurely pace. This isn't a joke: I'm really doing this in addition to the blog. Click here for more information.


Ellen said...

You're kinder to the continual use of phones as a crutch than I would be. These continual conversations seem to me so much grooming. Jim refused to have a cell phone when he worked; he felt it tethered him to the office.

I see you started a newsletter. I think it's a marvelous idea. It will be interesting to see if such a paper experience can compete with your blog.


Frisbee said...

I don't have a cell phone. The one time I saw a man collapse in public no one's cell phone would work and the call had to be made from a land line! I'm always several years behind the culture and find it characteristic that I have a Sony Reader but not a phone.

Frisbee said...

Oh - as for the newsletter, it seems like fun. I like getting mail and think other people do, too. But it can't compete with the Blog World. (I do like my blog.(