My Bodyguard, My Answering Machine

WHENEVER a telephone rings in my house, it sets off an outbreak of reflexes that would put Pavlov's dogs to shame. I have a need to answer telephones. I have to know who's calling, even if it's someone selling me storm windows. If I'm not bolting for the phone as if it were my only link to the outside world, I'm trying to figure out ``Jingle Bells'' on the Touch-Tone. Only wet-paint signs have the same kind of allure.

Recently, however, I have been having second thoughts. I find myself on some occasions dancing madly around the room with my hands clasped tightly over my ears, singing loudly to drown out the sound of a ringing phone.

I hope it gets easier.

Increasingly I find I'm not always in the mood to answer the telephone. I want privacy: to finish a chapter in a book, a hot meal, a bath. The ringing phone becomes like junk mail. Sometimes I just don't want to be bothered.

I have a similar relationship, in fact, with my mail. As a free-lance writer, I have unwittingly established a daily (and somewhat piteous) grind of anticipation/disappointment around the arrival of the mailman. Like the telephone, the sound of his truck - which I can now distinguish from all other vehicles, right down to what key his brakes squeal in - triggers a response deep in my being.

Also, as with the telephone, I am generally disappointed. The mail, as a rule, does not bring plum assignments, announcements that I have won the drawing for a free trip to Maui, notes from people who were just thinking of me, or offers of money with no strings attached. More likely it brings bills, coupons, or mail for the woman who used to live here.

I have, however, arrived at a compromise with both my mail and my messages. I got a post office box and a telephone answering machine. I visit the box only twice a week, and I am much calmer. I turn on the answering machine when I am in the middle of a bath, and I remain civil.

More and more I consider that not scrambling after my telephone is an act of justifiable assertion, though it feels more like defiance. I'm defying my elders, who said it was selfish and impolite not to answer when spoken to. The answering machine also makes a great bodyguard; I admit to more than occasionally hiding behind it.

But I'm also taking back some of the privacy I have lost to an increasingly insistent world, one that makes me forget how to draw a simple line and then say, ``OK, for the next two hours, I'm going to stay on this side of the line and I want everybody else to stay on that side.''

By this assertion I find I am regaining that private core of myself, some higher self that I hold a little further and further from extinction each time I refrain from picking up the phone.

Lately, I am learning - with a little help from technology - to deprogram myself from responding in this knee-jerk fashion. I plot out my inviolable time now and stick to it. I declare a certain level of privacy which no one shall put asunder. There is nothing unconditional about a telephone.

So from time to time I let it ring. I inevitably feel as if I'm missing something, but at least it isn't my privacy.

The problem now is, someone is knocking at my door.

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