Why I Ditched My Smartphone and Bought a Dumbphone Instead
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During the early months of my son’s life, I became acutely aware of every time I pulled my smartphone out around him. During those moments when he wanted nothing more than to look into my eyes, I wanted to look into a screen. Why?

I didn’t do it often. My aversion started before my son was born. After spending years writing thousands of posts about Android, I became uncomfortable with the amount of attention I was giving smartphones. And not just me. Some politicians and religious figures wish they could draw as many eyeballs as Google I/O.

When I graduated from college in 2012, most of my friends didn’t have smartphones. The boom was well underway by then, but you could say we were late to the party. Now all of my friends have one. If there’s a slow moment at home or out in public, someone’s staring at their phone.

on phone during social gathering
Image Credit: Syda Productions via Shutterstock

A social network or game is more important than interacting with one another. We send this message to our friends, colleagues, family members, and lovers. We claim to have control, that we aren’t interacting with these devices anymore than we want to — but that’s just it, why do we want to?

Apple, Google, and legions of app developers put more thought into human psychology than most smartphone users. Their business models center around holding on to our attention longer than their competitors. They know how to make us want, even crave, what most of us would say we don’t care all that much about. Ex-Googler Tristan Harris had this to say in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

I recently decided to switch from a smartphone to “dumbphone.” I may have already given you an idea why, but there’s more.

I Don’t Think Smartphones Are Good Phones

I still consider the primary purpose of a phone to make calls and receive texts.

Of all the smartphones I’ve owned, my first one (the obsolete-at-birth Kyocera Milano) may have been the best as a phone. It didn’t take up much space in my pocket, had a great keyboard for texting, and the battery could last for days. The pixelated screen and minuscule storage space made it a miserable smartphone, but it was a decent handset.

When I bought the HTC One M7, it was the most I had ever paid for a phone — nearly $600. It remains the Android smartphone I look back on most fondly. But it felt awkward in my hand, and at over half a grand, the idea of dropping the phone, losing it, or having it stolen was terrifying.

I went through two Nexus 5s, and both had a bug where they would randomly not receive calls or texts and not offer any indication whatsoever that anything was amiss. Each also had battery life that was nearly dead in the early afternoon, regardless of how much I used them. Due to their powerful processors, large displays, and various radios, smartphones don’t hold a charge anywhere near as long as flip phones.

I had a better experience with the 2015 Moto G. In general, I think cheap smartphones do better jobs than flagships 5 Ways Cheap Android Smartphones Beat the Flagships 5 Ways Cheap Android Smartphones Beat the Flagships Who says you need the latest and greatest (and most expensive) smartphone out there? The cheaper alternatives are actually really good. Let us show you. Read More .

But luxury and budget phones alike are all largely identical flat slates. Gone are the days when manufacturers differentiated by making phones more comfortable to hold, when the primary difference had more to do with hardware design than software. I like physical keyboards, and typing on a touchscreen has never given me the same satisfaction. I don’t want my phone only one inch away from being a seven-inch tablet.

man using giant smartphone
Image Credit: fizkes via Shutterstock

But there’s an aspect of phone design that rankles me even more.

I’m Bothered by Planned Obsolescence

Smartphones come with an expiration date. On Android, you’re lucky if you get two years of updates. After that, you can continue using your phone, but you will eventually start to feel the effects.

If you’re an enthusiast, you won’t get the new features you see on your favorite blogs. Even if you’re rather apathetic, you’ll eventually lose access to some of your apps because they require a newer version of Android than what you have.

This means, by design Planned Obsolescence: Why We Can't Have Nice Things Planned Obsolescence: Why We Can't Have Nice Things How much money are you wasting due to "planned obsolescence"? In this article, we explain what that is, why it should concern you, and what you might be able to do about it. Read More , most smartphones will be obsolete after only a couple of years. Many don’t make it that long. This planned obsolescence is terrible for our wallets and the environment.

I don’t feel comfortable encouraging this kind of behavior. No, it’s not limited to smartphones. Dumbphones filled landfills long before that, and many carrier plans were designed to encourage upgrading every two years (smartphones merely inherited the two-year contract). But if you wanted to use the same phone year after year, you could, and you weren’t really missing out on much if you did.

I Don’t Need More Distractions

Each new version of Android promises new functionality. After years spent covering Android, including here at MakeUseOf, I’ve grown jaded.

I don’t want to use voice commands to launch apps or search more easily. I’m not interested in virtual reality. I don’t want shortcuts on my lockscreen, nor do I need unread counts on app icons. All of these are reasons to pull out of the present movement and engage with my phone.

I’ve made many efforts to make my smartphones less distracting. I’ve written about how to use them more mindfully 5 Simple Ways to Be a More Mindful Smartphone User 5 Simple Ways to Be a More Mindful Smartphone User It's easy to get sucked into the smartphone world in the modern age and forget about the real world. Here's how to take back control of your life. Read More . In removing Google Play from my phone Here's How You Can Use Android But Ditch Google Here's How You Can Use Android But Ditch Google Want to use your Android smartphone or tablet without Google? Want to use open source software? Here we take an in-depth look at exactly how to do that. Read More , I prevented access to millions of apps. I kept only apps that served a functional purpose, such as the alarm clock and GPS navigation. I disabled email and the web browser. I left only music and podcasts as means of entertainment, since they didn’t require looking at the screen (in theory).

But there were still idle moments when I scanned through lists of podcasts absentmindedly, thinking maybe I should be listening to something. It was my version of turning the TV on and flipping through channels just because they were there.

Leaving the browser disabled helped, but it still only took a few taps to undo that change. It remained too easy to entertain any thought that popped into my mind, too easy to lose an hour of my life falling down a Wiki hole reading information I needed to know for no reason other than a podcast mention or clever hyperlink 10 Insanely Weird Wikipedia Articles You Should Read 10 Insanely Weird Wikipedia Articles You Should Read Giant pink bunnies, upside-down calculator words, and lists of lists of lists. Read More (you’re welcome).

There are apps whose entire purpose is to get you to put down your phone Cut Back on Smartphone Usage With These 7 Apps Cut Back on Smartphone Usage With These 7 Apps Sick of constantly wasting your time on your phone? There are ways to fix that. Read More , but I wasn’t someone trying to stop spending all day staring a screen. I wanted to reduce the number of times my phone intruded into my life, pulling me out of sometimes priceless, sometimes mundane moments that I could never get back. Time is not something we can get more of — at least, not yet Want to Live Forever? 6 Technologies That Could Stop Aging Want to Live Forever? 6 Technologies That Could Stop Aging Only the most arrogant mind could think that death could ever be abolished for good - but those arrogant minds have begun to make real progress towards that goal. Read More .

I Don’t Want to Sleep With My Phone

Many of us are married to our phones, whether or not we’ve signed the papers. Those of us in committed relationships have invited strangers into our beds, often without our partner’s consent.

We tell our partners goodnight, then roll over to spend time with our true loves. Our phones are the last things we see at night and the first things we reach for in the morning. You could describe them as the most intimate relationship in our lives.

man on smartphone while in bed
Image Credit: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley via Shutterstock

This is a hard pattern to break. Smartphones have replaced so many things 7 Household Items Our Smartphones Replaced That Maybe They Shouldn't Have 7 Household Items Our Smartphones Replaced That Maybe They Shouldn't Have Our smartphones have replaced a lot of commons items, but is that really for the best? Read More . They’re our nighttime reading. They’re our source of relaxing music. They’re our alarm. They’re our morning dose of news. They tell us the time. Without active effort, the smartphone isn’t leaving the bed.

For couples, the bedroom is a place for intimacy and connection. It’s also a place for sleep. Smartphones don’t help with any of that. They ruin our sleep Get a Good Night's Sleep by Filtering Your Phone's Blue Light Get a Good Night's Sleep by Filtering Your Phone's Blue Light Your phone's screen is keeping you awake. Don't let it. These apps will help you rest well. Read More , and they have a tendency to make the few inches between people feel like a chasm. Reaching for a phone during a night time conversation can feel like rejection, a major reason phones are now contributing to conflict and depression in relationships.

wife using smartphone in bed while husband sleeps
Image Credit: Realstock via Shutterstock

At the end of my life, I will cherish all of the moments I shared with my wife. I can’t say the same for my phone. One of them will no longer get so much of my time.

You Matter to Me

Romantic relationships are not the only important ones. We all have family members, friends, and acquaintances that make up our lives. Our ability to connect with them is also impacted by phones.

couple divided by their smartphones
Image Credit: WAYHOME studio via Shutterstock

This isn’t new information. Studies go back years showing that even the mere presence of a phone can diminish the quality of our interactions. It doesn’t have to be in use. Scientific American covered one such study in 2012:

“The pairs who conversed with a cell phone in the vicinity reported that their relationship quality was worse. The pairs also reported feeling less trust and thought that their partners showed less empathy if there was a cell phone present.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re one of my closest friends or a stranger I strike up conversation with at a yard sale. I want you to feel that you have my attention. This can be a struggle due to our personalities alone. I don’t want a device to make connecting with another person harder than it already is.

A basic phone can have the same effect, but at least there are far fewer reasons to have it out in the first place.

I Want to Set My Own Values

App stores and social networking apps encourage us to determine something’s worth by its number of downloads or followers. App startup culture is less about offering society a true benefit and more about hooking millions of people onto a simple concept and eventually getting rich when a tech giant buys your company Understanding Why Google Spends Billions on Acquisitions Understanding Why Google Spends Billions on Acquisitions Which Google acquisitions where most expensive? Which companies might Google buy in the future? The answers might surprise you! Read More . Marketing is more important than creativity.

It’s not important if a product is built to last. What matters is that it’s new. The same is true of information. Who has time to read a longform piece? Who cares how much time and effort went into researching a story? Websites and social media feeds put new information at the top and bury old posts. They highlight content with the most shares. What’s new and what’s popular spreads. Whether something is good isn’t relevant.

With enough exposure, we tie our own self-worth to likes and shares. We find it hard to find value in actions that no one else knows about. We’re increasingly uncomfortable with momentary silence and solitude. The constant barrage of information and the urge to respond discourages spending time on lengthy contemplation. Many of us live lives that are more shallow and superficial than the lives we want.

Getting rid of my smartphone doesn’t isolate me from these influences entirely, but it does stop me from carrying them around everywhere I go.

I Hope to Set a Good Example

Returning to the beginning, I’m a father now. My son is learning how to walk and learning from everything I do. Kids pick up on aspects of our behavior that we don’t even notice. I don’t want to send the message that what happens on a phone screen is more important than the people around me and the moments we share.

Even in my downtime, I don’t want to teach that staring at a screen is the best way to spend my day. I cherish books and reading. I love getting out in our garden. I’m someone who enjoys being active. I’d much rather my son learn to pick up a paintbrush, want to go hiking, or learn how to build.

I want my son to learn how to make his own fun alone in a room. Embracing boredom can lead to beautiful things. It’s how you’re reading this now. I developed a passion for writing during the many hours I spent alone growing up in a time before ever-present internet. I can’t expect my son to deal with boredom in a healthy way if I can no longer deal with it myself.

So That’s Goodbye

I could go on, but many of the reasons to get rid of a smartphone are the same that motivated one MakeUseOf author to resist buying one for so long Why This Technology Blogger Does Not Own a Smartphone [Opinion] Why This Technology Blogger Does Not Own a Smartphone [Opinion] "Do you have a smartphone yet?" It's a question my friends ask often, and it's a reasonable one to ask. I make my entire living writing about technology, explaining how to use software and interviewing... Read More .

I’ve gone a week or two without a smartphone now. So far, I don’t miss anything. I feel lighter. When curiosity pops into my head, it’s easier knowing that I can’t search for an answer right now rather than being able to but having to resist. There’s a certain freedom that comes from letting go and doing without.

That said, I’m not hailing dumbphones as some magical solution. I remember the concerns over cellphone addiction in the pre-smartphone days. My best friend in high school was always texting once he got a phone. He was hardly alone.

This is still a device that I take with me everywhere, and at any moment, a phone call or text can snatch me out of the present moment. But at least when the conversation is over, there isn’t an app icon tempting me afterward. Life is now a bit easier to manage. Funny, considering that was supposed to be one of the perks of buying a smartphone in the first place.

What’s your relationship with your smartphone? Is it a healthy one? Cordial? Or is your phone an insatiable nag? You don’t have to get rid of your smartphone to make a change. What approaches have you tried? What would you recommend for others? I’ll be keeping an eye out for your stories in the comments below!

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  1. Anthony Cotton
    November 8, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Glad to see there are others recognizing the "attention" drain associated with smart phones and social media. Have made the shift myself to no social media, no wireless in the home and minimal use of my phone when out and about. The original appeal for a mobile communication device was communication when away from wired devices in the home or office. That is still the main legitimate rationale for me, although I've started leaving my phone at home more and more often. GPS, another truly useful feature does not need cell networks so I'm back with my Tom-Tom.

    I am "surviving" quite well and have taken my power back as to how I direct my attention ;-)

  2. Don Key
    August 28, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    I too went through a phase of couldn't put it down. But these days it isn't unusual for me to leave my smart? phone lying around somewhere and not use it for a day. At all.

    For me the problem with dumb phones is that the keys on all 4 that I've owned have always been too small, so a smart phone was a boon to me. Especially swipe writing. Just need to keep an eye out on bloody autocorrect.

    For what I use my smart phone for the apps are, to me anyway, crucial. But I've ditched probably 90% of the apps I've tried in the past. Some apps are there for use at important times, but my most used are a note taker, calculator (not the bundled piece of shyte) a couple of games for challenging my mind, think Sudoku, and not challenge it, think Bubble Pop.

    Use the camera for price comparisons. Quicker, and more accurate, than writing on paper or even the notepad on the phone.

    The alarm is useful for me to get to appointments on time.

    And that's pretty much it these days.

    Only downside is battery life, and the unconscionable practice of non removable batteries. Ironic removable batteries are available on low end devices but mid to top range all seem to be non removable. Should be illegal in my opinion.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 29, 2017 at 2:46 pm

      I'm happy to see you've established what feels like a more healthy relationship with your phone. Thanks for sharing.

  3. David Brumley
    August 27, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    I’m a baby boomer; I've been using personal computers since the 60s. I’ve owned at least a dozen through the years. Photography is another of my interests. I have film and digital cameras.
    In 2008, I purchased a Nokia 1600b candy bar. I recently had to “upgrade” it to an LG441G when we lost 2G service in my area.
    Smartphones were everywhere, but the Nokia (and LG) filled my needs. It wasn’t long before smartphones began offering HD photography and video including 4K.
    I purchased an Apple SE, about a year ago.
    I still use my "dumbfone" because the cost is reasonable, and it makes a good backup. It seems that I use my digital cameras more often than the iPhone’s camera mainly due to force of habit. I use the iPhone at home where I can take advantage of Wi Fi. I am still learning to use it as a video and still camera, and the results have been very good.
    I don’t use the iPhone much as a phone. I’ve given out its number to a select few. Everyone else gets the other phone’s number. Since I consider myself still a newcomer to cell phone usage, I don’t do much surfing with my iPhone, although that has been increasing since I retired. The other phone is the one for calling anyone.
    Your comments are spot-on; your logic is very good. I am glad to see someone step up to tackle this issue.
    Being single, and a (not angry) loner, most of the social aspects of smart phone usage have not affected me; however, it does bother me whenever a question of a trivial nature would come up at a work social event, it became a race to see who could find the answer on their smartphone…

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 29, 2017 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks for the kind words! Your story is fascinating, as your exposure to smartphones has been very different from my own.

  4. Austin Taseltine
    August 5, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    No, it's because you've gone all hipster... ;)

  5. Che
    August 5, 2017 at 5:47 am

    I gave up on using a smartphone too a couple of months ago. I can subscribe to what you say in your article. Thanks for sharing. For me, the two most important reasons were:
    1. I have a problem with the data and metadata that are shared with tens of thousands of organizations when using a native app
    2. I recognize the dangers of multitasking (especially mental) which increase drastically when using a smarthpone.
    The nice side effect is that it brings a lot more peace and quiet!
    I dug up my old flip phone from 2005. It still works like a charm.
    Note: in some countries (Australia e.g.) they've gotten rid of 2G for mobile telephone use already... shame!!!

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 5, 2017 at 10:54 pm

      Both are solid reasons. I'm glad you enjoyed the read!

      I'd like to see enough interest in feature phones return where we get updated models built for newer networks.

  6. m
    August 4, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    nice article.what you've done is very respectable

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 5, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      Thanks!

  7. fcd76218
    August 4, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Besides being an addiction, a smartphone has become a substitute or even a replacement for their desktop/laptop for many people. They also use them as a Swiss Army knife of electronics (TV, e-book reader, game console, etc)

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 4, 2017 at 2:42 pm

      Very true. This makes it both easier to spend all day staring at the same screen and harder to cut back. "Are you asking me to give up e-books, TV shows, and all my games!?"

  8. Shay
    August 4, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Brilliant read... thank you.

    My thoughts exactly - I found myself being distracted non stop... looking at my phone more than my children. Life is so so short and the time I have with them will pass so quickly.

    I use a Motorola V3 Razr.. an amazing little phone. 2G still has really good coverage here in Ireland.
    The only thing holding me back from adopting it full time is not being able to use Whatsapp. My father took unwell recently so that's how my family communicates to arrange visits etc. But alas - I can't use Whatsapp on my trusty V3 (if someone knows how.. please share lol).

    What phone do you use?

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 4, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      I use a Kyocera Verve. I'm fortunate that my friends and family still primarily communicate via SMS. When that's not enough, we use email.

      Sorry to hear about your father's condition. I wish him and your family the best.

  9. ReadandShare
    August 4, 2017 at 12:21 am

    We're all wired differently. I love my smartphone. I don't touch it when driving or when hanging out with friends. But when waiting alone at a doctor's office or the airport -- it's a godsend!

    Again, all subjective, but 'planned obsolescence' is just about the only negative listed in this article that I also identify with.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 4, 2017 at 2:21 am

      That's a pretty good point to agree on. Glad to hear it!

  10. fcd76218
    August 3, 2017 at 8:13 pm

    Congratulations on kicking your smartphone habit!

    I could not agree with you more. I have had a feature phone now for a number of years. I can count on my fingers the number of times I have actually used it to communicate with anybody. It is in my pocket, turned on, in case somebody wants to call me. So far, the vast majority of calls I have received were for the previous owner of this number. Also so far, I have been lucky enough not to have needed to make any emergency phone calls.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 4, 2017 at 2:24 am

      Nice! Most of my friends still communicate using SMS, so it doesn't matter all that much whether I use a smartphone or a feature phone in that regard.

  11. Chuck
    August 3, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    Technology can have a place in the world. Problem is, it has become an addiction which is not good. Yet I hear nothing about addiction (from the psycho-babble people)when it comes to Technology. People are becoming like their devices.

    I always wondered what so-called great chefs, you know the ones who put a couple of 1/2 inch cubes of medium rare meat with a dash of chive on it and sell it for $100.00. You know what I mean. I found out what some of them eat at home are burritos. lol Is that the technology people? Are they addicting people to technology but live on a boat or island with no technology? Most likely!

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 5, 2017 at 11:33 pm

      To a certain extent, yes. They may not live on a boat or island with no technology, but a number of them aren't quick to give their kids tablets and apps, preferring they play with blocks or go outside instead.

  12. Gabriel Rodriguez
    August 3, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Which phone would you recommend that somebody use in place of a smartphone?

    Do you have any recommendations for unlocked phones that would work for T-Mobile?

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 3, 2017 at 5:33 pm

      I would recommend any feature phone that has good volume and good coverage in your area. Since I like physical keyboards, I went with the Kyocera Verve.

      T-Mobile has poor coverage in my area, so I don't have much first-hand experience with that network. That said, several innovative models out now work best on T-Mobile, such as the Punkt phone or John's Phone (which doesn't have a screen and only does calls).

  13. Carroway1
    August 3, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    There's a lot that I disagree with in this article. So much, that I don't feel like I can effectively respond to all of it. But in the CliffNotes Version:
    * Planned Obsolescence - this is 30% a business decision and 70% a technology decision. The increase in sensors, power, and capabilities of a phone today vs. a phone 2 years are almost not even comparable. The technology is iterating too quickly to have long life-cycles on hardware. The business loves this because it keeps the cashy-money rolling in, users love it because our capabilities of our devices are constantly expanding.
    * A cellphone has been more than a phone for several years now. The concept of holding on to the archiac notion that it has the name cell phone and therefore should only do X things seems silly, and reeks of the idea of "Things were better when X was happening." Our smartphones do far more than just make phone calls, and the way our society is developing they have to. You can make snarky remarks about how Snapchat is ruining society, but we are quick to discard all the positive that comes from smart phones, because it's not as sexy and decrying the latest Downfall of man.
    * The Bedroom - I say good night and read on my eReader every night before I go to sleep. Does that mean that reading books is negatively impacting my relationship as well?

    There's a lot more to challenge in this article, but I can't help but feel its more for the clicks or the latest hipster crap, ironically using dumbphones than an actual legitimate critique of anything to do with smartphones. So much of what the article cites as problems with cell phones are actually areas of improvement for the writer. The device is the symptom of the problem, not the cause.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      August 5, 2017 at 11:30 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I can assure you, I wrote this article after making a lifestyle change, not made a lifestyle change in order to get a few extra clicks that won't make me any more money, since increased views don't increase my pay.

      It's clear that you don't feel that smartphone use has had a negative impact on your life. Cool. I'm not here to change your mind. But I will take the time to respond to your points since I appreciate you taking the time to write all of this out.

      * Planned Obsolescence: You've made a common point. Thing is, if businesses were truly concerned about making products that last but simply couldn't keep up with the rate of technological improvement, they would design devices to be upgradeable. They would encourage research and development of technologies that didn't have to be discarded. That certain types of technologies advance quickly (processing power and storage space) while others stagnate is the result of many separate business decisions by many different companies. The way the industry is currently set up encourages a company to make products that won't last long, even if they don't want to.

      We consumers have become very complacent about replacing everything every few years because planned obsolescence has inched into every kind of consumer product (including those with no technological advancement, such as clothing and furniture). Many of us have never known anything else. So while a relative few of us can speak up, consumer demand isn't likely to push companies in the right direction anytime soon.

      *The idea that a cell phone should only do X things isn't based on nostalgia for the past, but out of the realization that many people are becoming too addicted to, distracted by, and negatively impacted by carrying around a device all the time that can do too much. Writers started writing about (and psychologists started studying) smartphone addiction because people started feeling smartphone addiction, not the other way around. And like I pointed out at the end of the post, mobile phone addiction was a line of concern that developed before smartphones.

      - Responding to "The device is the symptom of the problem, not the cause" separately - I don't believe the device is either. Instead, it taps into elements of human nature that are already there. We humans have a desire for novelty and inclinations toward vanity that can be exasperated by phones. The people who design our technology study the science in order to make their products hold our attention for as long as possible. It's time we users on the other end become more aware of the science as well.

      * A book doesn't have the same emotional and psychological impact as a phone. A phone shows that another person (via a call, text, email, social network notification, or news feed) can take your partner's attention away at any time, for an unknown length of time. You then have to deal with the emotions of your partner being more willing to talk to others than you, or simply ignore you to scroll through inane status updates and tweets.

      You can be in a relationship with a person who spontaneously ignores you to whip out a book at any moment (and always has a second book to read as soon as the first one ends), but that situation impacts far fewer people. Book reading isn't one of the fastest growing causes of relationship dissatisfaction.

      • Bertel King, Jr.
        August 5, 2017 at 11:40 pm

        The part about the device not being the symptom or the cause was supposed to be at the end. Not sure how I got those paragraphs out of order. It may have something to do with my using too many words.

        • fcd76218
          August 7, 2017 at 8:09 pm

          Were you, perhaps, using your dumb/damn (pick one) phone to write the response? :-)