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.

Monday, July 04, 2005

[This piece appears in the July issue of Louisville Magazine.]

I'll Talk to My Manager

I recently performed one of my sacred duties as an American: I bought a car.

With gas prices reaching near-Tommy-Chong levels, I wanted something economical. So I ruled out vehicles that are popular for their ability to plunge down the side of cliffs to those canyon-floor soccer matches, such as the Range Rover, the Hummer, or the new 2006 Nature's Bitchslap.

But I'm more than just an environmentalist and a cheapskate. I'm also a Kentuckian. So each morning when I take the bridle off my spirit, I want to get behind the wheel of a car with some zip-tang.

My first choice was the Toyota Prius, a hybrid electric car that not only gets 60 miles per gallon, but also makes all your jokes about the Halliburton Corporation up to 75% funnier. Alas, the Prius is so popular that there's a 6-month waiting list and all customers must sign a promise not to hum Woody Guthrie tunes in the showroom. True story: the clamor to buy a Prius is so frenzied that one dealer I won't name (but who may or may not rhyme with Shoxmoor Shoyota) offered to sell me one for a $10,000 premium over the sticker price. Thanks, no. Even with the spectacular gas savings, it would take five or six more wars for me to recoup that kind of dough.

I also looked at the Honda Civic Hybrid, a shlumpy compact car that offers all the gas savings of the Prius but none of the sleek sanctimony. I just didn't think the Civic would properly accessorize the "Overcompensating for your SUV" bumper sticker I had on order, so I ruled it out. Also, my spirit found it too bridling.

Finally, the Volkswagen Jetta came into my life. Stylish, peppy and efficient, it seemed like the perfect car for a gadfly who was taught by nuns. I fell deeply in like. My first choice was the diesel version but, like the Prius, they're harder to find than a capitalist at an Earth Day picnic so I settled for the gasoline model.

Now, there are few things in life that conjure the proverb "Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas" quite as perfectly as car salesmen. It's not that they fib and it's not even that you know they fib. It's that they know that you know that they fib and they fib anyway. It's as if they don't want to disappoint you by being honest.

The other unpleasant aspect of the car-shopping experience is the incredible time-suck of it all. In the time it takes to get from that first greeting -- "Hi, I'm Todd and I'll be pulling your leg..." -- to that moment when you can finally pry yourself out of Todd's deathgrip, your children can grow up, learn to drive, and need cars of their own. There's the friendly chitchat, the faux interest in your needs, and the tedious explanation of options, acronyms and statistics designed to make comparison shopping impossible.

To mitigate that problem, I solicited the advice of friends who claim to enjoy car shopping. This was a bad idea. I soon found out that if there's anything worse than car shopping, it's listening to advice about car shopping. I found myself awash in more opinions than a gay couple in church. I did get one brilliant piece of advice from my brother in law, though. He suggested thinking of the car-shopping experience as theater.

Not only does this trick make the experience entertaining, it also gives you a sense of empowerment. Because the sales pitch is so thoroughly predictable, I felt not only like an actor in a play, but like the playwright as well:

Ruggedly Handsome Car Shopper: Hi. I'm looking for a blue Jetta

Car Salesman (points to green car): Here's a blue one!

The shopping-as-theater concept worked like a dream. Behavior that formerly seemed annoying or creepy became comical and gripping. Will he claim to be offering it at invoice price? Oh, yes, he did! Will he call over the manager to browbeat me? Badda bing! Another character for my play! Is there an outrageously expensive extended warranty available? Boo-ya!

I ended up buying my Jetta from a convincing thespian named Mike over on the Less Cloudy Side of Louisville, where spirits tend to be a tad more bridled. Mike's performance was inspiring. He nailed his lines. He hit his mark. He broke a leg.

And the curtain fell.