A New Flock of Birds

I’m at the movie The Intern, when someone’s cellphone breaks into song up front. It’s a catchy, little instrumental and I’d probably feel like dancing if I weren’t holding a bucket of popcorn the size of Seattle and trying so hard to hear what Anne Hathaway is telling Robert De Niro. When the cellphone’s owner finally answers it, he tells the caller—and everyone else in the theatre—that he’s in the middle of a movie, something those of us in the audience are well aware of.

But I’m not judging. I’ve forgotten to silence my phone a few times too, and I bet you have too. It’s not that we don’t know better, it’s just that our cellphones are such a part of our days that it’s easy to forget. If we use ours as an alarm clock, it’s with us from that first chirp, or chime, or sound of seagulls landing in our bedroom to that last text before bed.

Some of us have our phones set to ding every time we get an email, and since even the smartest smartphone can’t distinguish between a message from a friend and one from the Nigerian Oil Ministry, they ding a lot. They buzz to remind us of appointments, they tweet to tell us we have a tweet or a Facebook message, and they ring, ding, or play a rousing chorus of “La Bamba” every time we get a phone call.

“Ring” doesn’t begin to describe what phones do these days. They sing, ding, beep, and buzz. They chirp, trill, chime, and vibrate. It’s like a new species of bird has migrated into the area.

We can have practically any type of music, from classical to jazz to mariachi, serenade everyone at the movies. We can interrupt our next meeting with our choice of animal sounds: a chimpanzee, a wolf howling, or a dog—not barking—but laughing. I’ve heard it. It sounds like Old Yeller in the front row of a comedy club.

We can download a ringtone that sounds like Yogi Bear repeating, “I got a text and you don’t.” Or one of an angry fellow yelling, “Pick up the phone! Would you please pick up the phone? Pick it up! Pick it up! PICK IT UP,” which is exactly what everyone in earshot is thinking.

We can have a ringtone of a baby laughing, which is probably better than a baby crying. Or we can download one that wolf whistles at us every time we get a call. That could be a real self-esteem booster.

All of these are entertaining the first time we hear them, but much less so after four or five hundred times. If we don’t silence our phones, we run the risk of someone doing it for us … with a hammer.

And the odds are good that our clever ringtone will go off at the wrong time sometime. I’ve had cellphones ring while I was presenting, and one of those times, I was in the middle of a joke about cellphones. I’m not making that up. I didn’t mind; the joke was a lot funnier when the phone rang.

I was at a banquet where a cellphone rang at the head table during an award presentation. To make matters worse, it belonged to the honoree’s mother, and she missed much of the presentation while she tried to locate and silence her phone. So did the rest of us. Fortunately, the ringtone was a little musical ditty and not, “Pick it up! Pick it up! PICK IT UP!”

I’ve heard cell phones go off during church services many times, but the worst was when one rang just as its owner was about to receive communion. At least it wasn’t a wolf whistle or a mariachi band.

Again, I’m not judging—or planning to tell you about all the times I’ve neglected to silence my own phone. I’m just explaining why I use a common, boring ringtone. It’s for all those times I forget.