I finally called my grandma this past Sunday. It had been a good couple of months since I heard her voice, and in the meantime she’d slipped in the shower and hurt her hip, but still managed to take yet another tour of Portugal, Spain and France, albeit with a limp.
I meant to call her sooner, as usual. Every Thursday or Friday I’d think, I should probably call this old lady up so she doesn’t start to think I don’t love her or something. But then the weekend would fly by, the hours crammed with eating and entertainment, liquor and weedsmoke, and by the time Sunday night rolled around I’d be shot and too anxious about the coming week to speak in full sentences. And so I always went into Monday feeling guilty for not making the call — not just to my grandma, but to my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, and all the other people who I should call but don’t.
But this past Sunday morning I found myself with an empty hour and no good reason not to call the old lady — my partner was busy being responsible at her desk, and all I had on my plate was some Emerson and gymtime — so I decided to call The Grams real quick. She answered after the first ring.
“It’s a miracle you answered!” I kidded her (in Spanish, “¡Y ese milagro que me contesta!“).
She was ready with it: “¡Y ese milagro que me llama!”
It’s not that I don’t like talking to my grandma; I do, just not on the phone. I don’t like talking to anybody on the phone, regardless of who they are. You could tell me Neil deGrasse Tyson is ringing me in an hour, and I’d spend all 60 minutes dreading the looming boredom of the call. I don’t like chatting with a disembodied voice; I never have, unless the voice belongs to a body I want touching my body. Even then, though, I haven’t spent hours chatting with a girl since high school, and when I met my wife, I told her straight up that I didn’t like talking on the phone — which was fine with her, since she hates talking on the phone, too.
If I’m chatting with someone, I want to do it face to face. Hence, why nearly all of my podcast episodes have been recorded through video calls via Skype or FaceTime. And when my wife is out of the country on business, she knows to FaceTime me if she wants to chat. I prefer to talk and listen to a person’s face, which usually says a lot more than the person does. I don’t like talking to a voice coming through a speaker from who knows where — and I hate texting.
I’m notorious for never texting back. You’d think, since I’m a writer, I’d prefer texting above all forms of communication. But texting and writing are two very different fish. When I’m writing, I’m organizing my thoughts and laying them out in a way that, I hope, makes sense. Writing involves a lot of rewriting, a lot of cutting this, adding that, moving those around, and so on.
When I’m texting, however, I’m trying to carry on a conversation through my fingers, along with typos and pauses and everything else. Trying to have a decent conversation using your mouth is hard enough, and mouths are by far the best organ for talking. Mouths are so good at it, they often say things we didn’t want to say but were thinking deep down inside (the furtive Freudian slip). Fingers, on the other hand, fingers are the worst at talking. They’re too slow and always misspeak; and when they don’t misspeak, then AutoCorrect misspeaks for them. If God had wanted us to converse through our fingers, he would’ve given them lips and a tongue. As is, fingers are too blind and clumsy for good speech, which is why texts come out in fragments and half-thoughts, and cause so much miscommunication, even missed communication.
But the real problem with texting is something my grandma said during our most recent conversation (which makes me think I really should call the viejita more). My grandma was saying how we young folks think texting is a proper and fully effective way of communicating between people. “But a text isn’t physical like a call is,” she said. “Human,” I tried correcting her, thinking she had misspoke. “No, physical too,” she said.
Physical? I thought. How can a phone call be physical? But listening to her voice booming through the speakerphone, it was immediately obvious that she hadn’t misspoken at all — a phone call is physical. Her vocal cords were vibrating the air around her, the vibrations were being recorded by her phone and sent through the air, to my phone, which then sent her vibrations to my ear drum. I sat out on the front patio actually feeling her voice in the air. I was in the presence of her voice, and thus, at least partially in her presence, and she was partially in mine on her end. Though separated by 1700 miles of desert and mountains and open plains, we were communing physically with each other.
Texts don’t give you that same physical sense of presence. When someone texts you a “u up?” at two in the morning, you don’t feel them next to you, not like you would if you actually heard their voice speaking to you there in the room — which is what gives the “u up?” text and ones like it that sad, desperate, booty-call-in-a-bottle feel. Yet, when someone is talking to you over the phone or Skype or whatever, you’re not alone. Even though you may be the only person in the room, another person is sending you their voice and therefore a bit of themselves, too, a bit of their physical presence; and you’re sending the same of yourself to them. Or, to think of it another way: If there was something like a phone through which someone could send you their scent, or the feel of their skin against yours, or the taste of their lips, even if you couldn’t see their face or hear their voice, would you still feel completely alone in the room?
Any lover of good music already knows all of this. When I put on Otis or Etta James or any of the great singers, especially some live performance, and if I play it at the right volume, there comes a moment in the song — either the climax, when the singer is really blowing, or a quiet part where the singer’s voice sounds like leaves rustling in a soft warm breeze — and in that moment I feel like I’m in the singer’s presence, as though I were in the room where the recording took place, or they were singing right there in my living room. I feel their voice in my chest, vibrating all the atoms of my being, becoming a part of me. I am there and then with them, or they are here and now with me — but what’s the difference? Einstein showed that time and space are relative, that any distance we perceive in time or space, or space-time, is merely an illusion, our minds playing another one of its infamous tricks on us.
So if time and space are all one thing, with no separate parts, no real past or present, no here or there, only frames of perception, then what really happens when I play Otis in my living room and close my eyes…?
Something similar to what happens when I call my grandma: I feel the fake walls of time and space evaporate, and my grandma and I suddenly feel like we’re in the same place and time. My call becomes a visit, at least a partial one.
But even a partial visit is better than a crummy text. So make the call.