We were watching Objectified the other night. It’s a documentary about the everyday things we use in life, and the future of design. I really enjoyed it, in part for its focus on quotidian items and the thought that goes into them. It made me think of all the things that have gone obsolete recently that I truly miss. Here’s a curated listing:

Ma Bell phones

from digitallydo.com

I so love these big clunkers. I love the heft of them, the way the base stayed put no matter how far you stretched the cord. I love the effort you had to put into dialing–really, really mean it–and the way you could dab the little twin buttons on the cradle to hang up. (Incidentally, this reminds me of one of my favorite writers, Lee Child, and the way he describes certain actions: car tires “patter” when they’re crossing train tracks; his hero “butts” papers into a neat stack; he “dabs” at the cradle to dial again. Verb choices. Critical.)

I also love the lack of caller ID, and here’s why. Every time the phone rang, you never knew who was calling. Picking up the phone was like opening a present, only you couldn’t even shake the box first to find out what might be in it. And so, the greeting: “Hello?” Tentatively, curiously: “Hellooo?” Or even better: “Hello!” “HI!” “HELLO!” I don’t know who you are yet, but “HELLO!!! HOW NICE TO HEAR FROM YOU!” No, it doesn’t matter who you are.

A close second for the reason I miss this phone: The angry hang up. Slam! Bang! Down goes the receiver, with an authoritative crash. You can’t do that anymore, with the cordless phones. You can push the END button, that angry little red crossed-out phone icon, as hard as you want to, jab at it, press it until your nailbed goes white…but no one will know you’re angry, and, worse, you won’t get the satisfaction of letting the other person know just how angry you were when you hocked that receiver into the cradle.

Train Boards

from @Triborough's Flickr Stream

When I first moved to New York in 1996, Grand Central still had its ticker board up. As the trains left the station, the numbers and letters on the board would turn: ticketyticketyticketyticketyflip! and then all would be quiet for a few minutes.

The tickers were mesmerizing. They were like magic. I never understood how they worked. I still don’t, and I don’t really want to know. They were part of the background noise that makes up a train station for me. Without them (Grand Central Terminal moved to digital ticker boards in ’98, I think), the station seems eerily quiet to me, somehow too efficient.

Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station still has a proper ticker board. Some European airports have them, too. I miss them like crazy, and when I pull into Philly I always take a minute to stare at them and wait for a train to pull in, if I have time, so I can watch the board move.

The board is linear, but those moving numbers and letters–they turn something hard-edged and linear into something fluid, sinuous. Gorgeous.

Answering Machines

This is very like the last answering machine I ever owned. I kept it through my move into  Manhattan, and I can’t actually remember if Jim and I had one in Croton Falls, but I pine for it every time I look at my sleek cordless handset.

Why? Because I love coming home and seeing the blinking red light. Someone’s left a message for you! Not only are you home–home!–but you have something extra! Quick, put down the groceries, press the big blue button, find out who it was!

Now it’s like, oh, hunh! Looks like I missed a call. Gotta dial into voicemail. Gotta listen to that annoying digital lady tell me how many messages I have. Gotta press three to delete–that person called my mobile line right after she tried my landline.

What a hassle. Voicemail. I hate it.

Road maps

Maps tell me everything has gone right. Maps tell me that some things are as they should be. Maps are backstops and works of human diligence and art. And orienteering, a sport that uses map-and-compass skills, is one of the reasons I trust myself as much as I do today. If you can read a map, you’re never really lost. And you have constant reminders that you are on the right track. And you have backstops: “If you cross this river, you’ve gone too far.”

I wish more people understood how great maps are.

Analog Clocks

When I was growing up I had one of these. I think my parents have it now. More important, it is still wearing the little orange cap my dad made for it that said something like:

“Good morning Yi Shun! I am your clock. Please do not forget to wind me up every night before you go to bed.”

Big Ben, Baby Ben. I can’t remember what model it was. I do remember the ringing it made. I do remember the ticking. And I remember my dad’s handwriting. I wish I had that clock now, only Mr. Gooddirt hates ticking clocks. Oh well.


This is my agenda from the year 2000. I wrote everything down in this book. Even today it’s fun to look back over it and see who was in my life back then. As you can see, I not only wrote down what I had to do, but reference notes and telephone numbers. Elsewhere in the book, I’ve clipped membership cards, notes on the backs of business cards, things like that. What a trip.

I still keep an agenda of sorts. But it’s only if I don’t want to screw up the nice lighting in a bar with my mobile phone while I plug in an appointment, or if I can’t be arsed to do so.

I’d much rather write things down, anyway. Now I carry a blank notebook and my mobile phone. And sometimes a third notebook that is specifically pertinent to whatever meeting I’m going to. Obviously, I’ve become far less efficient that I used to be. Might be time to regress.

On another note, Christ, I looked like I was busy back then, didn’t I?

What are some favorite “obsolete” items of yours?



  1. I too had an agenda back in the day! It was a huge thing from Franklin Covey or Filofax and I used it during a professionally formative time in my life. I loved it! My life was planned out and viewable a month-at-a-glance. Phone numbers, agendas, to do lists, notes. It weighed a couple of pounds and became too cumbersome especially since I became addicted to using it for every little thing in my life. When I didn’t have it with me I felt lost without it. It was as if I didn’t know what I was doing or needed to do unless I could refer to it. Eventually, I got a pocket sized digital organizer. I felt so hip and cool when I got that! All my phone numbers and yadda yadda yadda info went it to that but typing my to do’s and keeping a schedule was more cumbersome that jotting it down so just didn’t bother. I started keeping that info in my head! Can you imagine! lol! Actually, I think that’s when I started procrastinating alot more.

    1. Thanks for reading, Amalia! Man, I miss my agenda. And it’s funny that you say you became more of a procrastinator once it went away–I feel like the fact that you can turn OFF a PDA or an iPhone or smartphone just makes it easier to turn off your responsibilities! Maybe we should start a movement. 🙂

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