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Reach out and page someone

The other night, at about 3 a.m., I flew bolt upright from a sound sleep. "Oh my God," I gasped in the darkness. "I forgot to check my voice mail!"

Since I've never had voice mail before, this is a new problem and not one I need to add to the list of complications in my life. In addition to the messages I know about, those written down on pink slips or left on my home answering machine, I now have to keep up with an ever-growing series of messages recorded and stored in something called a "voice mailbox. " If I forget to check my messages, they just remain there, suspended in time, like ghosts trapped in the walls of an old house.

Once I do check my messages, I must decide what to do with them. The cheerful, generic voice on the other end of the line gives me several options: "If you want to hear this message again, press one. If you want to save this message, press two. If you want to erase this message, press three. If you want to forward this message to another party, press four."

And so on. The decision of what to do can be daunting. Erasing a message feels like cutting someone off, devaluing them somehow. Saving one just increases the stockpile of nagging items assigned to the virtual back of my mind. I wouldn't know how to forward one to someone else if I wanted to.

I am besieged by the telephone. There is no time or no place where I can hide from it now, short of a designated wilderness area. The phone in my house rings on average 20 times an hour with either telemarketers in pursuit of a sale, creditors in pursuit of a collection, volunteers in pursuit of a pledge, other kids in pursuit of my kids, or my kids in pursuit of me.

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, I long for the days when telephones were there for us only if we really needed them, not for the convenience of anyone who wanted to track us down.

In the house where I lived until I was 11 years old, our single telephone -- a black, rotary dialer -- sat atop the speckled linoleum kitchen cabinet. When it rang, a shock of excitement rippled through the house. My brother, sisters and I would knock each other over in a race to answer it, knowing full well that the call would be for our mother or father, not for us. My mother always answered it with a slightly quavering voice, hello punctuated by a hesitating question mark. In her lifetime to then, telephones only rang when there was bad news on the other end.

When the phone rings in my house now, my children walk away as if they are deaf. The four of us can be in the same room as the telephone when it is ringing, and we will fight over who has to answer it. The telephone is so deeply ingrained in our lives as to be negligible at the point of impact.

The curse is that we can't really ignore it even if we want to. The person on the other end will pass on his message to the answering machine if we don't answer, or will deposit it into the communications purgatory of voice mail. In the conundrum of modern telecommunications, once we are wired there is no exit.

I know, I know, developments in telecommunications just reflect the way we live our lives in the new millennium. We must be hooked up to succeed, to network, to keep up. And because we spend so much of our time away from home, telecommunications gurus must develop new ways to find us.

A mail-order catalog I recently received at home features a telephone that will automatically connect the caller with the telephone of a chosen person, pictured on a pad of transparent push buttons. I picture a kid returning home from school, in search of his parents. He scans the selection of photos across the top of the telephone. Push here for Mom; here for Mom's office; here for Mom's boyfriend's house; here for Dad's house; here for Dad's office; here for Dad's girlfriend's house; here for the gym. Add to this a list of beeper numbers and cell phone numbers and you're sure to connect.

That is, if the person on the other end picks up the phone.

-- A version of this essay was first published in October of 1998.

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