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What Are Words For?

Last night Madeleine was looking out the window into our neighbor’s yard.

“Mom, the Smiths have three grills. Why do you think they have three grills?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I was messing around with my cell phone trying to figure out how to turn off the vibrating-alert feature and get it to go back to plain old ringing.

“Three girls?” Linnea asked her sister, “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know why they have three of them. What do you do with three of them?”

“Maybe one’s kosher, the other nonkosher and the third—oh, I don’t know . . .”

“Atheist,” Madeleine finished.

“Right,” I said.

“Wait, that’s not right. They don’t have three of them,” Linnea said impatiently.

“Yes, they do,” I said, “Maddy’s right. I saw them.”

“Well, I thought they had two sons and a daughter,” Linnea said.

“So? They do.” Madeleine asked, irritated the way only older sisters can be. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“Well,” Linnea said, defensive the way only younger sisters can be, “then they don’t have three daughters if they’ve only got one daughter.”

I looked up to see Madeleine look at Linnea as if she couldn’t believe they shared the same gene pools.

“Yes. And your point?”

Linnea sighed, stood her ground, “Then why did you said that the Smiths have three girls if they only have two sons and a daughter?”

“I didn’t say they have three girls!” Madeleine exclaimed. “I said they have three grills!”

“They do?” Linnea asked, “What do they need with three grills?”

At that point the vibrating-alert feature on my cell phone started vibrating and I picked up the call.

But nobody was there.

At least, I didn’t think anybody was there.

But then I heard a voice saying “O? O? Issss O air?”

“Hello?” I said, “It’s Jo.”

“Hello. I’m looking for Jo?”

“Yes,” I said, “It’s me. Jo.”

There was silence. Maybe I’d said the wrong thing.

“Jo? Is that you?”

I started walking toward the living room. Linnea and Madeleine were still talking—loudly—about the Smith’s three grills.

“Yes,” I said, “Can you hear me now?”

“I’m getting you in the middle of something? You want to call me later?”

“No,” I said, “I’m not in the middle of anything. The girls are talking about our neighbor’s grills . . .”

“You’re putting caulking on the sills?”

“No. No. The girls are talking. It’s nothing.”

There are lots of quotes about failures to communicate.

In fact, “What we have here is a failure to communicate” is probably the best one.

I’ve also always liked the T-shirt that said, “My wife says I never listen to her. At least, I think that’s what she says.”

And then there’s that classic line from the Richard Thompson song, “When I thought she was saying good luck, she was saying good-bye.”

If you think about it long enough, it’s pretty amazing that we ever really understand each other at all. Because there are lots of failures to communicate.

Such as last week when, before going away for a few days to write, I called my editor and left a message on his machine telling him I wouldn’t be writing the column that week because I was going away to write.

Then, when I got back into town—a day past my deadline—my editor called.

“Well. Jo?” he said.

“Oh, Steve, hi,” I said, “I bet you think I forgot all about your stove.”

I’m buying my editor’s old stove.

“The stove? No! The column. Where is it?”

“The column?” I said, “What column? Didn’t you get my message?”

“What message?”

“The one I left you Tuesday night to say I wouldn’t be writing the column this week.”

Only, as it happened, the voice mail at Metroland’s offices malfunctioned on that Tuesday night and nobody’s messages got through.

What we had was a failure to communicate.

Those five nights I was away, writing, I had no cell-phone service. I hadn’t planned on that. My cell phone usually sits by my right hand like some kind of demigod, poised to summon or be summoned with the press of a button.

Being without my cell phone was not the end of the world. I had a landline. I had a calling card for outgoing calls—no one had the number to make any incoming ones.

And it was kind of exotic not to be able to use the cell phone. It meant that when I made the 10-mile run to the nearest grocery store for a box of Alpen, some double-A batteries and Q-tips, I couldn’t narrate every twist and turn of the road to any poor fool who loved me enough to listen.

It meant I had to sit down when I did make a call since the phone was attached by a cord to a box that was attached by another cord to a jack in the wall. Fancy that, having to sit still on the phone!

Maybe most significantly it meant that when I was writing, I was writing. I even spent a couple of days lying on my belly in a field in the sunshine, hand-editing an old manuscript, my laptop back in the cottage, my cell phone packed away.

Of course, now that I’m back in town, my cell phone is back at my right hand, my earpiece snagging in the buttons on my sweater, my vibrating-alert option making a ruckus against the car keys in my pocketbook. It may be my editor calling to ask about the column. Or the stove. Or even one of my neighbor’s grills.

—Jo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at

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