Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vow of silence

Remember a time when one could make a phone call and someone would pick up on the other end and say, "Hello"? Nowadays whenever that happens to me, I'm so shocked that I'm almost unable to continue the conversation.

Finally, I think I would rather even play Russian Roulette than phone tag; thus, I've decided that I will never again speak into a telephone answering machine. Once upon a time---the before time, that is---three things happened when you dialed a phone number, i.e. it would be busy (signaling that the party to whom you wished to speak was not there and you could try again later), or else it would ring and ring and ring (you do the math), OR someone on the other end would pick up. I am getting just get so friggin tired of starting out my day making at least a half-dozen calls before a real, live human being answers and NOT a machine.

AND, there's the additional problem of unreturned phone calls even after one has left a message. (You know the old saying, "He who ends the day with the most unreturned phone calls wins.")

AND THEN, when you pile on top of that the way people use cell phones as a cudgel against organizing their day. ("I'm running late. . ..") is it any wonder that this nation (the U.S.) has most likely gone into what appears to be---as physicists term it---a "skid," i.e. a state of irreversible out-of-controlness.

There was a time not so long ago when email seemed as if it might be at least a partial solution to some of the communication problems engendered by the answering machine. But what with the chaos caused by spam and the resultant spam filters, email is simply no longer a viable means of communication either.

I am just old enough to recall the initial era of the answering machine. At the time I thought it just about the niftiest thing to come down the pike since sliced bread. In the immortal words of Gomer Pyle: "Golleeee!" One day my rather spoiled and sheltered grandmother rang up the gas company to inquire about her bill. She dialed, waited a beat, then threw the phone across the room. "They answered my call with a record player," she screamed. At the time, all I could think was 'Get with the program old lady.' Now I can see that her instincts were spot on.

And don't get me started on voice mail. Fortunately, one of the wisest women on the planet said it all for me from the stage of NYC's Walter Reade Theater in February 2006. Ladies and Germs, I give you Ms. Elaine May:

". . look how quickly we all get used to eating shit. Really, about seven years ago, if somebody had answered the phone saying,“We really value your call. Please hold on for the next hour and twenty-five minutes,” we’d have hung up. We get used to it very fast. We get used to skim milk very fast. Whole milk tastes like cream. We adapt very quickly to being treated very badly. . . To simply actually stop. I’m just taking this “Your call is important to us” thing as an example because, having visited a large corporation, some executive is getting a $100 million a year and saving money not giving some woman a job for $30,000 a year. And he says we don’t want to take the shareholders’ money. And you say, well, you pay it, deduct it. But there’s no way to enforce that. We all know that that’s true, we all know that that’s bad, and we all know that there’s something about the tiny things in life happening to you that devalues you, that lessens you, that makes you numb. You have to become more and more numb not to get offended. And pretty soon you get pretty sick. . .it seems to me, at some point what you really want to say is I won’t deal with a company that doesn’t have a real operator. For one day, I’ll make them lose that much money. For one day, I won’t go to a bookstore where the guy says, “Huh, I don’t know.” For one day I won’t say, it’s so hard. I won’t run home to a rerun of Cheers, I can’t bother with it. For one day, you’ll take the trouble to make trouble for someone else, because it’s the only thing that keeps you from getting sick, from sort of retreating. I think that’s what dumbing-down kind of is. It’s too much trouble. And there is such a thing as too much trouble."

Elaine May: A bright light shining in a bad old world.

You can't blame everything on 9/11 and George Bush. Surely some of the cause of the advanced state of alienation, disorganization. and de-evolution we find ourselves in these days lies at the feet of Mr. Willy Müller. And just who might he be?, you ask. None other than the evil scientist who invented the first automatic answering machine in 1935. Après Willy le déluge.

If you want to talk to me, you're gonna have to PICK UP.