Features & Stories

Story and photo by Trudy Frisk

Kurt and Ralph Frisk communicating with each other
It was a message I’d never heard before.  “This is not an answering machine.  This is a personal screening machine.  It is now a federal offense to activate this phone.  Phone solicitors do not call.  For personal and invited business callers, press five to continue.”

I was aghast.  Intending only to chat with a friend, I’d obviously misdialed and disturbed some dark power.  Carefully, very carefully, I dialed again. And got the same response.  I panicked.  “They’ve moved! Been abducted by aliens!  Maybe the phone company’s at fault.” 

On the third try, with trembling fingers, I pressed five. To be met, not with a cheery familiar voice, but a recorded monotone. “No one is available to take your call. Leave a message after the tone.”  In despair I hung up. 

So help me, if I had the power to annihilate just one thing on earth, it would be that dreary, arrogant message. I don’t object to answering machines. They’re useful, even necessary. The tinny, impersonal recording is not. Individual messages used to be the norm.  Oh, there are still some.  The friend who advises that she’s out watching the grass grow, or another who apologizes because she’s lost her phone and is looking for it, give callers a chuckle as well as ensuring they do leave a message. Granted, some people over did it. One who gave detailed instructions about responding including “Wait for the beep. If you don’t wait for the beep, we won’t get your message.”,  then continued with several bars of the  Moonlight Sonata, as long distance charges piled up, left her callers fuming “Where’s the beep?”

It was far preferable to the monotone messages, all by the same bored voice, on almost every machine I call today.  I’m never quite certain whether I’ve reached the feed store in Dunster or the farrier in Darfield.  They all sound the same. Makes leaving a message awkward.  Imagine leaving “Drinks at 7:00 tonight, dinner at 7:30” and having your house painter and his crew turn up, instead of the cousins from Pemberton who were expected.

Of course the thought behind the answering machine was that people who were away actually wanted those calls and would return them.  Hah!  So many people now ‘screen’ their calls that, in comparison, companies which assure us we’re their treasured customers as we stay on the phone for hours really seem to care. Eventually we’ll get an answer. From a call center in Morocco, maybe, but an answer.  The same can’t be said for the call screeners.  Not only do they not answer their phones, they don’t return calls.

Why, I wonder are people screening out friends, family and acquaintances?  They want to keep the line free in case John McCain invites them to be his running mate?  They believe Reader’s Digest is already dialing to inform them they’ve won the big prize?  They’re hoping to hear that the money transfer from Uganda has been completed into their private bank account?

Alternatively, overcome with life’s sorrows, are they sheltering in the walk-in closet, sipping the last of the Chardonnay, sporadically kicking bitterly at their stock portfolio?

Something must guide them.  Perhaps they’re being harassed.  You know how it goes.
“Margie, this is Brad!  What do you mean, ‘Brad Who?’ Pitt, that’s who!  Brad Pitt!  The one who’s been phoning you for weeks.  Margie, I can’t take it any more; the kids, the pressure.  I need a little adult companionship, if you know what I mean.  Now, Margie, don’t hang up!  Margie..”

Or, “Stefan, it’s Madonna again.  Stef, you know there’s nothing between me and A-Rod.  Just a ruse to deceive the press.  Why would I want him when I can have a maple-leaf waving sapsucker like you?  Your chateau or mine?”

Day after day, that’s bound to get tiresome.
Whatever their reason, in a world where, given Skype and a minute or two, we can chat in real time with a stockman in Queensland, screeners seem determined to ignore others as much as they can.  

Makes life difficult, though, for people who need answers now.  The question of who’s driving whom to the quilt guild meeting on Wednesday has to be resolved before Thursday. Did the neighbour remember to pick up a new block heater cord on his trip to town, or do I have to do it?  When the hay truck arrives, do you call Alex to see if he feels like answering the   phone so you can find out if he still wants those eight bales of hay?  Or, do you just ask the driver to deliver them to Fred, who phoned last night to inquire if there was any extra hay?

One could try leaving fake messages to lure them out.  “Say, Alex, wasn’t your Black Angus bull supposed to be in the front pasture?  I think I saw him walking down the road at-oh, you probably don’t want to be bothered- forget it.” It’s tempting.

Sure, e-mail’s a backup, except that these retiring people often don’t answer it either.
The truth is that e-mail, though handy, can’t replace the give and take of discussion.  Nor does it offer a chance for spontaneity. When you see a rainbow, or a spectacular display of northern lights, you don’t want to call and leave a message, or e-mail.  You want to say, “Go out right now and LOOK at this!”  Of course, depending on geography, the one phoned may not see quite the same thing.  One January I put on winter garb over my night things and walked out to an empty field to look at the sky because a friend in California called to tell me about an unusual arrangement of the planets.  “Go see it!” he insisted, since we were in the same time zone. Unfortunately the sky over Santa Clara was crisp and clear.  The sky over my chilly head was obscured by an air inversion.  But we shared our enthusiasm for an actual immediate event.

Care to go for coffee?  Have a spare ticket for a hockey game? Think it’s a nice afternoon to take the horses for a ride? Don’t call the screeners to go along.  Make friends with spontaneous people.

Oh, the person with the screening machine called me back.  She has call display, too, so she knew I’d called.  Technology: sometimes it’s good. Depends on who’s using it.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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