Monday, July 18, 2005

Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?

Can you believe the rapid advances in phone technology going on these days? Just a few short years ago, phones were used only for conversations and to occasionally thwack bad guys in movies. Nowadays, you can use your phone for e-mail, Web browsing, instant messaging, photography, mapping, and, in some rare cases, conversations.

At the rate things are going, phones will soon have even more powerful capabilities, such as global thermonuclear warfare. We haven't seen such rapid advancement in an everyday product since the public restroom faucet-reengineering craze of the 1990s.

These advancements are especially gratifying to those of us who hate the phone. In the dreary days of yesteryear, ignoring a ringing phone meant annoying some unknown soul who was trying to reach you. Fun, but not completely satisfying. If only there were a way to bask in the giddy thrill of knowing exactly which poor soul you were pissing off. Eventually, a flash-in-the-pan technology came along called the "answering machine." It had one fantastic feature lost to us today: the ability to screen a call. You'd let the phone ring until the machine began recording, and then listen in, giggling to yourself while the frustrated caller implored you to "Pick up! Pick up! Pick up!"

Later, voicemail came along and added a lot of enhancements the answering machine didn't offer, such as the ability to befuddle callers with a confusing array of options. Thankfully, most callers today hang up in frustration without leaving a message, which is why major corporations love voicemail so much.

Nowadays, phones offer a tantalizing array of services, such as Call Waiting, Call Forwarding, Caller ID, Caller Telekinesis, Caller Actualization, and Caller Ejaculation. And yet, out of all these wonderful innovations, one phone technology stands above the rest: Caller ID. Through the miracle of Caller ID, we can now get satisfaction from ignoring a ringing phone immediately, without having to wait for that slowpoke voicemail. Who among us has not heard a ringing phone, checked Caller ID, and thought, "Right! Like I'm going to take HIS call! How that guy got to be the boss, I'll never know."

But for all its advantages, Caller ID has one potential drawback, namely that it seems to be contributing to the steady rude-ification of our children. The other day, our home phone rang and, in a moment of weakness, I answered it in the bedroom, where Caller ID is still but a wistful dream. My daughter wasn't home and I thought she might be trying to reach me because of some emergency, such as a sale on purses at Target. (My daughter thinks of purse shopping the way most people think of breakfast: if a day goes by without it, she gets cranky.) When I picked up the phone, it was a friend of my daughter's calling:

Teenage girl: Is Laura there?
Me: No; would you like me to have her call you?
Girl: Sure.
Me: Um, who is this?
Girl [pausing at length to express her astonishment at the idiocy of my question]: Um, this is Sarah.
Me: What is it with you kids these days… [Sarah hangs up.]

It wasn't until later that I figured out what was going on. Sarah wasn't being rude. She just assumed I had Caller ID and that I already knew who was calling. So she took the opportunity to exercise her rights as a teenager to express her utter contempt at my very existence.

That same day, I tried to call a friend but his son answered. When I asked for his dad, he said, "He isn't home, Mr. Welp, but I'll have him call you." My first thought was, "Ha, he thinks I'm some old guy named 'Mr. Welp!'" And I laughed. But then I realized that by "Mr. Welp" he meant me and so I had to hang up and take a half a Xanax, which is an important member of the "–ax"-suffixed family of indispensable items you'll find at your local Walgreen's, along with Tamp- and Ex-L-.

When happier feelings came over me I thought, "I'll get that little cretin." But then I realized he wasn’t being uppity. It was Caller ID and a Catholic-school education that had conspired to make him insult me so politely. It wasn't his fault.

So what will the phone of tomorrow look like? It's impossible to say. It would be hard to improve upon today's phone technology much. Unless maybe they can restore that thwacking capability. We've got to do something about these teenagers.

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