Have you ever tried to explain something to someone that you felt was pretty self evident but it just wasn’t getting across? Where you were positive you were explaining it clearly, but they clearly weren’t getting it? No? Try describing a rotary dial phone to two girls under the age of nine.
It started with a question that really threw me off balance:
“Daddy, was there television when you were little?”
I regarded them sourly. They had to be kidding. I mean I know I’m old enough to be their father (ok, I AM their father) but still. Television?
“Yes, of course there was,” I answered not a little defensively. But then I started thinking. Was it really the same? Their childhood experience of television is a flat screen on a wall, a billion channels in full color (some in hi definition) and you change the channel by pushing a button on the remote in your hand. About as similar to our Admiral black and white set (biiiig box on a rolling table, seven channels, horrible reception that only improved when one of us stood next to it and held the antenna, needed to be unplugged to be turned off, and required a visit to the set to change the channel) as a cheetah is to a housecat…same species, sure, but hardly the same thing.
So I started to tell them about the Admiral. They were fascinated. “Wow, only seven channels??? How did you find anything good to watch?” “You got UP to change channels? What was wrong with the remote?” And so on.
Then I decided to get adventurous.
“And you know, the phone was different too. You couldn’t walk around with it like you can now because it had to stay plugged into the wall all the time and you had to do the numbers using a rotary dial.”
“What’s a ‘rotary dial’?”
“Well, it’s … well you put your finger in … each number had a hole in this plastic spinning wheel and…”
I was completely stumped. How to explain this? They looked at me. Not a glimmer of comprehension.
“Ok, well you had this wheel made out of plastic, and there were ten holes in the wheel and each hole was a number for you to dial. You would stick your finger in the hole for the number and spin it. Then it spun back and you’d move on to the next number.”
Why? Why? Because that’s what you did and that’s how it worked, that’s why.
“Ummm. I think it had something to do with the clicking sound the rotating dial made. It clicked as many times as the number you chose, and that told the phone line which house to connect to.”
Stephen Hawking had explained black holes to millions of people more simply and clearly than this.
“That’s so cool!” said Anna.
Hardly. The phone number on which my friends used to call me was: 988-7000. It took 45 minutes for the damn dial to go back and forth on that monster. The number of phone calls coming my way that gave up hope and decided to call someone else after misdialing the second “0” had to have been staggering. I know I would have been more popular in high school with a number like 312-1121.
We spent a few more minutes discussing the idiosyncrasies of this particular device. I even showed them my grandmother’s Tiffany dialer (she and I share the same initials, so it came to me after she died) explaining that ladies used these instruments to dial numbers without breaking fingernails. They were enjoying it. But…I definitely sensed an aura of smug indulgence emanating from them as they listened to the old man talk.
So I decided to go on the offensive.
“You know, IM’ing wasn’t invented until after either of you were born.”
Shock. Gasp. Touché.