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Four floors of phones

How many lines are too many?

When we moved into this house five years ago, we went ape and installed four separate phone lines. It’s been an expensive arrangement, costing about $120 a month without any fancy features like call waiting. For four years, we were happy with it.

But as our kids got older, their telecommunications habits changed. My teenage daughter needed a cell phone so she could contact us when she is out and about. That added $40 of monthly charges. My son commandeered a line for his own Internet use, forcing us to combine home and business calls onto another line.

Then, this past fall, the phone company told us our home is now DSL-capable, so I signed up. (Another $30 a month.) Now I had to re-engineer this rat’s nest of wires.

First I canceled my daughter’s line-a monthly savings of $22. That was easy. I installed the DSL on that line (this was also surprisingly easy) and have been using that line for both my business and Internet/fax use. This freed up Line 1 to be a home phone.

Problem: We all have PCs, so we all wanted DSL, not just me. So for the past three months I have been installing an Intel wireless USB network so all the PCs can access DSL on Line 3. This has been your basic installation nightmare, and I have wept piteously on Intel tech support’s shoulders. You know the drill: Help me or shoot me. After four months, I only have two PCs hooked up. My daughter’s bedroom PC seems to be just out of range for the wireless transmitter, and my son’s PC lacks a USB slot. I have been unable to install a cheapo kit, and unwilling to dial Singapore for online support.

So far, I’ve only been able to get my phone bill down to about $110 per month.

Meanwhile, a silly side problem has cropped up. A couple years ago I bought two identical GE two-line phones for the kitchen and bedroom. This is so my wife Rachel, a nurse, can walk through the house while talking to patients late at night. She needs to move in order to think.

Because the phones are identical, and because the receivers wander through the house, it is possible to get them mixed up and put the wrong receiver on the wrong cradle. (A genius would do something like label the receivers, but let’s don’t go there.)

The problem is that when the wrong receiver is in the cradle, the phone doesn’t charge, and after a day or two or three, it stops working altogether. Which means you can’t “find” the receiver by hitting the find button.

For two weeks I conducted elaborate experiments to determine which receiver went with which phone. That was when I discovered that, having bought the two phones the same day, their batteries died, like doomed lovers, simultaneously. I replaced them with generic batteries, and recharged them–and even then they wouldn’t work. Our marriage began to suffer, because Rachel had to use a regular phone, which tethered her to the wall, preventing thought.

Four months after setting out on my simplification, upgrade, and cost-reduction scheme, I have spent about $600 on networks, wrapped the house with a mile of tan wire, and alienated prestigious clients who call with important jobs and wind up talking to my son–who I notice is developing an impressive anti-authoritarian streak. And so far only Rachel and I have DSL, which she never uses anyway. Everyone’s mad at me, and it can still be hell trying to get a phone line out.

The other night, I snuck down to the basement and picked up the rotary antique with the curly green cord. Thank goodness, my son was offline. I liked how heavy the oversized receiver felt in my hand. And you actually dial with it, putting your finger in a slot and then turning clockwise until the finger-stopper stops you. It’s pokey, but gratifying.

And I sat among the laundry baskets and linens and exhaled.

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