For my friend Nan, a ringing telephone holds the delightful promise of a handwritten letter. "It could be something wonderful," she says.
For my widowed mother, a ringing phone means lunch, dinner or a day out with a friend.
"I'd sooner do without my can opener," she says.
For Diana, a stay-at-home mom, a ringing phone means someone wants her to volunteer. Nancy says her phone rings six times while she is exercising and not at all the rest of the day. Linell thinks phones are a petri dish for colds and ear infections. Cynthia says she could serve dinner at 2 a.m., and the phone would still ring and interrupt it.
And I so often hear the phone ringing as I fumble my key into the front door that I have come to believe that it starts ringing the minute I leave the house -- and stops the moment I stumble over the threshold with my groceries.
The telephone. I have friends with cell phones and answering machines -- never out of touch in case a child breaks a tooth on the playground. I have other friends who have pointedly rejected both, and hang up on anyone who interrupts a conversation to respond to the beep of call waiting.
A woman's relationship with a ringing phone is charged with emotion, and it changes as she moves through her life -- from lifeline to ceaseless nuisance to lifeline.
When my sister's children were babies, her husband bought her a portable phone so she would not run away. "I could talk while I did my housework or watched my children play. It was my connection to the world. I was very happy."
Now, her children are teens and she has a job and she'd like to rip the phone out of the wall. "It is nothing but an intrusion. I don't have time to talk because I feel pressure to use my time more productively. And I can't just watch my kids anymore. I have to listen to them when they want to talk."
Soon enough, those of us who feel so harassed by the phone will again appreciate its way of connecting us to the outside world. "I sit by and wait for it to ring," says my mother. "And when it doesn't, I make somebody else's ring."
Syndicated New York radio host Debbie Nigro, who produces "The Working Mom on the Run," has developed something she calls "PHONEfitness," with advice on how to move gracefully through the stages of our relationship with the phone.
"There is phone fatigue, when you don't have the stamina to make all the calls you need to make," says Ms. Nigro. (My friend Betsy is often so afflicted. She looks at the list of calls she must make and feels so overwhelmed that she leaves the house or sits down to read a mystery.)
"If you try to make all those calls, you will lose your marbles," says Ms. Nigro. "Make a list of the top three and if you make one, you are a winner.
"I know you want to talk to everyone, but you have to get over that. Screen your calls and then set the microwave timer. When it goes off, hang up."
In a rather shameless collaboration with Bell Atlantic, Ms. Nigro has meshed the company's many services with the busy life of a woman. Her advice will appear in a soon-to-be-published book, also called "The Working Mom on the Run."
There is Call Return for the number of the caller you just missed as you searched frantically for the portable phone your children have left out in the yard. Busy Call Return to redial the pediatrician's phone for up to 30 minutes -- because it is always busy during flu season.
There is Call Waiting and Call Answer, which will answer your calls waiting -- a must for the parents of teens. ("A busy signal is totally annoying in the '90s.")
To filter messages, set up a voice mail box for each member of the family. (A Debbie Nigro tip: Issue the numerical passwords yourself, so you can check their messages if you are suspicious.)
There is Caller ID, so you know if your child really is checking in from his friend's house; Call Display, so you can see who is calling and decide whether you want to answer; Call Screen, which diverts up to 12 calls to a recording that informs the caller that you are not taking calls from that number. Your phone will not even ring! And you can add telephone solicitors to that list simply by using the Last Caller option.
"A lot of information comes and goes over the phone for us," says Ms. Nigro. "We need to respect it and use it properly."
Or we can just rip it out of the wall.