Are Words For?
night Madeleine was looking out the window into our neighbor’s
the Smiths have three grills. Why do you think they have three
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.
girls?” Linnea asked her sister, “What do you mean?”
don’t know why they have three of them. What do you do with
three of them?”
one’s kosher, the other nonkosher and the third—oh, I don’t
know . . .”
that’s not right. They don’t have three of them,”
Linnea said impatiently.
they do,” I said, “Maddy’s right. I saw them.”
I thought they had two sons and a daughter,” Linnea said.
They do.” Madeleine asked, irritated the way only older sisters
can be. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
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.
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
didn’t say they have three girls!” Madeleine exclaimed. “I
said they have three grills!”
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?”
I said, “It’s Jo.”
I’m looking for Jo?”
I said, “It’s me. Jo.”
There was silence. Maybe I’d said the wrong thing.
Is that you?”
I started walking toward the living room. Linnea and Madeleine
were still talking—loudly—about the Smith’s three grills.
I said, “Can you hear me now?”
getting you in the middle of something? You want to call me
I said, “I’m not in the middle of anything. The girls are
talking about our neighbor’s grills . . .”
putting caulking on the sills?”
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
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
Jo?” he said.
Steve, hi,” I said, “I bet you think I forgot all about your
I’m buying my editor’s old stove.
stove? No! The column. Where is it?”
column?” I said, “What column? Didn’t you get my message?”
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
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
can contact Jo Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.