Mixed Messages

My dad called the other day for a chat, but not before letting me know my answering machine was full. Since he couldn’t leave a message he just called over and over ’til I finally picked up. But here’s the thing: I don’t have any messages on my answering machine.  It’s not full at all.  So after the call I said to my wife, “Dad’s almost 92. I’ll forgive him a little confusion now and then. Probably mixed me up with one of my brothers.”

I still have one of these

Do you still have a landline in your house, the one with a bulky handset and built-in answering machine?  If you do, it’s tethered to the wall with wires, which then connect to a march of telephone poles outside (more wires), which eventually route your call to wherever it needs to go.  Imagine – in a world of wireless – a phone call with a physical connection from one end all the way to the other.  It’s positively antique.

[Random thought: once the world is fully wireless what’ll we do with all those telephone poles.  Caber toss, anyone?]

Go ahead and mock my out-land-ish outdated phone – at least I don’t have a party line.  Back in the day, if you lived in the sticks you shared a single physical line with your neighbors.  You were a “party” of subscribers who often found themselves talking over each other (“crosstalk”) or connected to the wrong party at the other end.  Party lines it is said, were the birthplace of gossip.

The reason I stubbornly cling to my landline is probably not the same as yours.  I keep my landline exclusively for those calls with my dad (er, and to divert telemarketers from my smartphone).  My dad can’t hear very well so anything wireless is a challenge, especially when you get the occasional syncing issue in the conversation.  On a landline Dad hears LOUD and CLEAR… even if he doesn’t always acknowledge what I say.  Are his calls worth the monthly subscription fee?  He’s 92!  You bet they are.

Now let me ask you this.  How often do you call your own phone number?  Why would you?  Pick up the phone and you get dial tone – all good.  Set the answering machine to “on” so people can leave messages – even better.  Except when they can’t.  Let’s suppose – “hypothetically” – your phone company redirects your phone number to a random voicemail box.  And that mailbox is already full.  How would you know?  Only if you called your own phone number, right?  Or, only if the one person who calls you (“hypothetically” your dad) insists he can’t leave a message.

Damn.  Dad was right after all.

Here’s the best part.  I can’t even call my phone company to fix the problem.  Why?  Because I “bundled”.  You know, where you combine TV, Internet, wireless, landline, and whatever else you have so they’re all billed and serviced through a single provider? Mis-take. Try calling your satellite TV provider to ask about landline phone service.  After you explain what a landline IS, the young person at the far end transfers you to a “specialist” (someone much older who actually understands landlines).  That person acts as intermediary between you and the phone company.  There’s a lot of, “Can I put you on hold for a sec?” and, “You still there? and, “Hold tight, we’re still working on it” and even the occasional, “You did say this was a landline, right?  Y’know, you really should get rid of your landline…”.

Long story short, it took me the better part of a week but now my dad can leave messages on my answering machine again.  He also says I should listen to my father more often.  (For younger readers, this is an excellent example of “eating crow”.  Look it up.)

Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) – the English band of the ’70’s who somehow fused pop, rock, and classical – had their biggest U.S. hit with Telephone Line.  Its final verse begins, “Okay… so no one’s answering.  Well can’t you just let it ring a little longer, longer, longer?”  No ELO, I can’t let it ring a little longer – the phone company rerouted my number to a full voicemail box.

But hey, thanks for calling.

Cause for Alarms

A headline in this morning’s news feed announced , “Flaming Condoms are the Newest Threat to Southern Israel!” Just wanted you to be aware.

Now that I have your attention, let’s turn to a timelier topic. Big Ben, the iconic clock and tower at the north end of London’s Palace of Westminster, has been silent for almost a year now. In case you missed the news, Ben’s Great Bell and Quarter Chimes no longer toll – for another three years in fact – while much-needed repairs are made to the clock mechanics behind his massive face. At least the damage was simply wear-and-tear, and not the result of flaming condoms.

For Londoners, I have to believe the muting of Big Ben took some getting used to. Imagine, heard on miles of city streets, the Great Bell bonging every hour on the hour, and the Quarter Chimes playing every fifteen minutes (a stuck-in-your-head repeating melody of twenty notes). Now take all that away; replaced by uncomfortable silence. I’m sure city-dwellers subconsciously depended on Ben to remind them they had, say, thirty minutes to get to the office, or fifteen minutes left in the lunch hour, or no minutes before church (better start running). How will these people cope for the next three years?

In the absence of Ben, Londoners surely turn to alarm clocks more than they used to.  Not comfortable relying on their own senses (or the sun’s position in the sky), the English probably carry “Baby Ben’s” if you will – whether mobile phones or other portable devices.  I expect the additional chorus of beeps and chimes and other musical bites make a ride on the Tube even more enjoyable, as you’re left to wonder whether your neighbor’s getting a phone call or simply late for an appointment.

Alarms have come a long way since the basic digital LED box-clocks of old.  I wish those old bedside Ben’s were gone forever, but a visit to any Walmart or Radio Shack proves they’re more prevalent than ever.  My wife used to own one of the more potent models – with an enhhh…enhhh…ENHHH screech capable of levitating me out of a deep sleep, my pulse racing faster than an Indy car.  I’ll hear that murderous alarm even after I’m six feet under.

The colorful Beddi

Today – mercifully – we have several alarm clocks designed not so much to levitate but rather to ameliorate your transition into the conscious world.  Beddi – a “designer smart-clock” – is a sleek enough bedside companion.  Along with charging your phone, Beddi controls the dawning of your bedroom lights or the gradual amplification of your favorite playlist or even the pleasing aroma of your coffeemaker.  You choose how you wish to wake up.

The cute Kello

Kello is the spitting image of a toaster, but it’s really a partner for your body clock, with sleep-training modes to wake you a little earlier each day, or guided breathing exercises to help you nod off faster each night.  Kello also offers music in place of an alarm and can restrict the number of times you can whack the snooze button.

The sadistic Pavlok

Some people demand a little more, uh – torture – to get themselves up and out of bed.  Ruggie is exactly what it sounds like – an innocent-looking rug placed just to the side of the bed.  Ruggie is all about blasting music in louder and louder bursts, and the only way to shut the blessed thing up is to stand – full body-weight – atop of its fleeced surface for at least thirty seconds.  Then there’s Pavlok, a wearable alarm clock programmed via smart phone app.  Pavlok begins with a beep or a vibration (my advice – get up NOW) – but left to its own “devices” matures into a pulsing, zapping electric shock when you still don’t respond.  Pavlok is also happy to electrocute for trivial pursuits like biting your nails, smoking, or too much time on the Web.

Don’t know about you, but I have no interest in meeting Pavlok’s inventor.  Mr. Shock Clock is one messed-up sadistic soul, and probably has a host of other torture devices at the ready.  Like flaming condoms.

Office Space Capsule

Yesterday I was thinking about my dorm-room desk from the mid-eighties. On it sat the following essentials: a typewriter, a desk lamp, a month-to-month calendar, a clock-radio, a family photo or two, a few pieces of mail, and the latest edition of the campus newspaper. In the desk drawers I could find a small selection of pens, pencils and highlighters, a stack of spiral-bound notebooks, some textbooks, a calculator, stationery (including envelopes and stamps), a copy of the “Yellow Pages”, my camera, my checkbook, and a few menus from nearby restaurants. Dorm-room desks were solid, but my “office supplies” probably doubled the weight.  They were my band of brothers, helping wage battle on that ever-elusive college degree.

49 - elusive

If I recreate that same desk setup today, I would lug a huge box into my home office (bend the knees so you don’t hurt your back), drop slowly into my chair, reach into the box, and first pull out… a smartphone. I’d set it in the middle of the vast empty space of my desktop, reach into the box again, and pull out… nothing else.  Whoa.  My entire college setup has been condensed into the confines of a shiny 2″ x 5″ silicon wafer.

I forgot to mention the “telephone”.  My college provided a wired phone with the room – (one of those fancy new touch-tone models – ha).  Since my roommate and I positioned our desks to face each other, the phone straddled both desks.  That way either one of us could reach the corded handset when all those girls would call (okay, I think that was a fictional memory boost).

Sadly, only a few of my college-era office supplies have survived the advent of technology.  I have family photos on my desk, but they’re in the form of a digital frame, scrolling every several seconds.  I have pens and pencils in the top drawer, but I only seem to need them for my signature.  Finally, I have a wall calendar, but I really only glance at the monthly photos (of my college campus, ironically).  Heck, I don’t even need my desk.  I can just sit back in my chair with my smartphone and choose any item or activity I was geared for in college.

The convenience of having a desk’s worth of productivity inside a smartphone comes with a drawback.  It is the convenience itself.  When I woke up in the morning in college, my first thought was breakfast; not sitting down to the various tasks at my desk.  In today’s world, we wake up to the instant access and undeniable craving for Facebook and text and email.  The capsule may be slightly larger than those in the pill bottle, but the addiction to the contents can be just as powerful.

Here is my nugget of advice.  Take a lesson from my college days and choose breakfast first.  Avoid the temptation of the smartphone when you first wake up (and the premature stimulation to blood flow – see this Finnish study).  For me, it means simply charging my smartphone within the confines of my home office.  This forces the inconvenience of opening the door and considering the several other temptations and distractions of my work.  Those can wait – bacon and eggs not so much.