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Are cell phones killing too many of our brain cells?

Millennia ago . . . 1939 to be precise . . . the telephone got a new nickname. People began to refer to it as the "Ameche."

That's because in the popular '39 film "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell," Don Ameche starred as the title character. (You may recall him as an older actor; he won an Oscar in 1985 for "Cocoon.")

The film's popularity prompted comedians of the era to make jokes about Don Ameche inventing the telephone, and eventually the joke became the nickname, and the nickname stuck. For a time anyway.

These days, of course, we have another nickname for the telephone: The "Cell."

As in, "Oops, I think that's my cell." Or, "Is that your cell or mine?" Or, "Where did I leave my cell?"

How did the world ever get along without the cell phone?

That's right, all you younger readers. There were a lot of years in the Earth's history when we didn't have cell phones.

I know that's hard to believe, since everyone seems to have one now.

And it's one more sign that I'm a Neanderthal; I don't have a cell phone. (Though I must confess that my wife has one.)

Now, computers I can understand.

Internet access can be good.

E-mail . . . well, it's not exactly my friend, but we have become acquainted.

And I remember what Friedrich Nietzsche said: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." Not that it has anything to do with this discussion. I mean, does that mean if something doesn't make you stronger, it kills you? Or, in this case, your brain cells? Maybe it's called a cell phone because it sucks on our brain cells.

Think about it. Don't a lot of people seem to get stupid when they're on their "cells"? Especially when they're driving?

Is this distraction really a good thing?

We've all been cut off on the freeway by someone who seems to be driving erratically, only to see that he/she is on a cell phone.

Earlier this week, I was stopped at a red light, watching as a string of cars turned left in front of me, and they all seemed to be a little too close to my car on the curve. So, I counted. Five cars in row, all driven by people with cell phones pressed against their ears. Laughing and gesturing, as if the other person could see them.

Maybe all five were talking to each other.

OK, a cell phone can be a good thing in an emergency; if your car breaks down.

But in a grocery store? In a mall? In an elevator? In a business meeting? In a movie? In a restaurant? In church?

I once saw a pedestrian almost get hit by a car that was turning into a parking lot because the guy didn't notice the car as he continued to step back and forth while gabbing into his cell phone.

There's a funny gag in the movie "Clueless" where scads of teenage girls have gathered in the high school hallway, and we hear a telephone ring, which sends the throng into a frenzy as each girl reaches for her own cell phone. At least it was funny back in 1995, when cell phones were an upscale status symbol.

Today everyone has one, and "Clueless" could be a documentary.

Ever been in a meeting where a phone goes off and a dozen people reach into their pockets with worried and embarrassed looks on their faces? Not so funny anymore. Too much repetition does that.

And what is it about telephones — whether in your pocket or on a desk — that we feel we must obey their command? We're like Pavlov's dogs — the bell (or goofy tune) goes off and we are suddenly compelled to answer.

Why is someone who calls on a phone so much more important than the person in the room?

— You're in someone's office, and he interrupts you to answer the phone.

— You're being helped by a teenage clerk in a store, and she stops helping you to answer the phone.

— You're in surgery and the doctor puts down the scalpel to take a call.

Well, all right, maybe that last one is an exaggeration.

Maybe.

Why is someone who has made the effort to meet with you live and in person less important than someone who simply calls on the phone?

Now, of course, it's even worse. With cell phones, a dinner date can be interrupted, or an evening at the theater, the opera, the symphony, a Jazz game. . . .

Well, OK, at a Jazz game, the guy with the phone won't be able to hear the caller.

But it really is getting out of . . . .

Oops, sorry. I stopped writing to answer the phone . . . .


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com