It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed now that cell phones have become ubiquitous. Whereas people used to ask “How are you” as a way of starting a phone conversation, now people ask “Where are you?”
It’s an interesting substitution. In the old days, you automatically knew where a person was when you called them on their land-line: they were at home, work, or wherever the phone was physically located. In a large house with several telephones, you might ask whether a person was in the living room rather than the bedroom or kitchen, but you knew they were somewhere in or around their house.
With cell phones, though, all bets are off. When you call someone on their cell, they might be in their house, at the office, in their car, at the grocery store, or even on the toilet. (I’m always horrified when I hear women answer their cell phones in the ladies’ room: do we really need to be “connected” at every waking moment, even when taking a break for the “business” of bathrooms?) When you call someone on their cell, you can’t even know for certain if they’re in the same region as you are: the first time my father tried to call me on my cell phone, he couldn’t understand why he had to dial my New Hampshire area code even though I was visiting Ohio at the time. In his mind, the “area code” of a phone was tied to its physical location, so the thought of calling a phone number in New Hampshire in order to talk to his daughter in Ohio was completely mind-boggling.
I wonder whether this recent tendency to ask someone where they are versus how they are is simply a cell-phone-inspired quirk, or does it point to something more profound? Is a person’s geographical location more important–somehow, more telling–than her or his physical or emotional state? Can we tell “how” a person is simply by determining “where” that person is?
This past weekend, I found myself among the junked cars and porn shops of my parents’ seedy Columbus, OH neighborhood: my home turf. Earlier this week, I returned to the green lawns and well-tended gardens of J’s upscale neighborhood in Newton, MA, and yesterday and today I snapped pictures of poppies in quiet Keene, NH. So, where am I and how am I now? I always experience a kind of culture shock when I return to New England from my parents’ neighborhood: there’s far more than 700 miles separating where I now live from where I used to live. I’ve written before about the sensation of being betwixt and between I feel whenever I move between the working class world where I was raised and the educated elite world where I currently live and teach. If we are defined in part by the places we’ve lived, what does it do to our individual sense of how and who we are to move between places?
Originally, I had planned to attend a conference in Victoria, British Columbia this week, meaning I would have gone from Ohio to Massachusetts to Victoria in the space of several days. Considering how disorienting it is for me to travel from gangland Columbus, OH to the lush suburbs of Boston, I can only imagine how out of sorts–literally lost–I would have felt had I arrived in Massachusetts and then immediately hopped a plane to Victoria. Most of my friends and professional colleagues are far more traveled than I am: most of the compatriots I would have seen in Victoria are combining the conference with other west-coast travels. For a homebody like me, driving to and from Ohio–and then leaving Newton to venture up to Keene for a few days–is wandering enough. When I ask myself the coupled questions of where am I and how am I, I find my personal contentment is often rooted in my ability to say with certainty that I am right here now. The precise location of “here” might be arbitrary, but having arrived, I quickly settle and find myself loath to travel “there” from “here.”