On learning how to speak to an answering machine

Call it high-tech shyness, if you will, but some of us have trouble speaking to an answering machine. At the sound of the beep, our tongues tie into Boy Scout knots. Words fail us -- all words, right down to "Hi!" To say we forget who we are would be an exaggeration, though a certain victim of answering-machine fright admits to mispronouncing his own name the one time he tried to speak.

For the most part, when a machine answers we hang up. Sometimes with regret. But always in a hurry.

The mere click of an answering-machine tape plunges our kind into bad science-fiction fantasies. We are the otherwise rational -- well, fairly rational -- people who believe an answering machine possesses extrasensory perception. By our breathing, It knows who's calling. If we stay on the line another two seconds, It knows why we're calling. Two more seconds, and It will address us by name -- pronounced correctly, of course -- and tell us in a haughty robot-butler voice: Don't call us, we'll call you.m

It's awful, feeling rejected by an answering machine. On the other hand, it's pretty humiliating also to number yourself among the refugees from the 19th century who are carrying electronic incompetence perilously close to the 21st century.

It makes our kind wonder. If we had been on the other end of the line on that fateful day when Alexander Graham Bell said, "Watson, come here, I need you ," would we have dropped the receiver, tiptoed out the back door, and run away from history?

Certainly if we children of the broken family of Ma Bell can't cope with a simple, elementary, user-friendly answering machine, what chance will we stand with a home computer?

And so we feel we have to speak up,m even though we know this recorded voice we are responding to is not our old friend at all but a sound-alike Doppelganger , luring us into a world of looking-glass images and echo chambers from which we will never find our way back.

We exaggerate? Only slightly. A friend who is at ease with answering machines has provided us with a cassette entitled "Celebrity Answer-Alls." By virtue of this tape, the owner of an answering machine can avoid the burden of saying, "Hi, this is Leonard Wormley. I'm not at home right now . . . ." Instead he or she may record as a greeting a snappy routine by Jimmy Stewart or Bette Davis, George Burns or July Garland, Richard Nixon or Miss Piggy.

Music is even featured, as with Jimmy Durante: "Ink-a-dink-a-dink . . . Stop the music? I'm mortified. Nobody's home again. So don't think I'm being nosy if I ask yuh to leave your name and number at the tone. Goodnight, Mrs. Callabash, or whoever you are. I've got a million of 'em!"

But this is where things get a little bent in the mirror. For the voice, of course, does not belong to a celebrity but to a low-budget Rich Little.

The caller is faced with responding to the facsimile of a facsimile of a voice.

What's next? Obviously the au courantm caller must counter by purchasing another cassette, presumably to be entitled "Celebrity Response to Celebrity Answer-Alls." If, for example, you do get Jimmy Durante on the answering machine , you could plug in your own tape of W. C. Fields: "So you're not at home again, my little chickadee? Drat! Drat! Drat!"

The old joke about answering machines talking to other answering machines will soon become dated by reality.

Those of us who take the beep hard may be in the minority. But the majority may not be quite as cozy with their answering machines -- or any other machines -- as they pretend to be.

Why else are there so many personal books on impersonal machines? Why else are they so full of comforting little cartoons and relaxing jokes?

Our case in point here, naturally, is a small volume called "At the Sound of the Beep: The Complete Telephone Answering Machine Book." This is written with National Lampoon whimsy -- the preferred style, evidently, for the post-technological era. But behind the heavy irony of "Your machine is your friend" and the general injunctions to buck up and become a "machine professional," does a reader detect an excessive touch of bravado?

It's no laughing matter, interfacing with machine after machine, from the time you wake up to a recording of birds singing and the glow of sunrise on your video wallscreen -- the fantasy of one futurologist.

Meanwhile, we're preparing our definitive message for an answering machine. It would go something like this:

"You have dreamed the ancient dream of being in two places at once, friend. You are out, roaming the world, while preserving all the options available to the stay-at-home -- you think.

"But timing is all. The call you might have received can be rescheduled, but it will not be the same call. The job offer you'll never hear about may be retracted. The voice that was about to say 'I love you' may edit down to: 'I think we relate well, don't you?'

"Nobody will ever know. Because life is live, not taped -- something we're beginning to forget.

"By the way, this is a recorded message."

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