Reach Out But Don’t Touch Someone

I saw this posted on Instagram last week and I was certain that had they had more than this in 1918 we would still be in the throes of the Spanish Flu pandemic although by now it would be epidemic because only in the U.S. would there still be people claiming “it’s going to go away.”
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Imagine being able to share your opinions with only the closest of friends and family. It had to be with only those closest to you or you’d be broke long before your mask wore out. In 1918 when this ad was published*, although local service was only $1.50 a month, long distance was pricey, and long distance started not that far away. A cross country call ran about $5 per minute, cross state a little less than $2, and cross town, as much as 15 cents per minute. All in a time when the average 3 bedroom apartment was renting for $10 a month and a laborer was clearing $5 a day when a day’s work was available. 
 
There was no hue and cry over masks, isolation, soap shortages, or whether college football will be played this fall. Well, they may have been huing and/or crying but you kept it to yourself rather than passing yourself off as some sort of an expert because you read something in the Evening Star. (Although in fairness to this pandemic’s questionable coverage, that of 100 years ago was also often sparse, conjecture laden, contradictory, or all three.) (And then some.) (But then 1920 was also a Presidential election year so why should they have expected any less.) (Or more.)
 
There’s a particular hue being cried in our neck of the woods. A local amusement park is being sued because it is requiring all patrons to be masked at all times and on all rides, the exceptions being in their food venues while one is eating. The suit is brought by the parent of a child with sensory challenges and cannot wear a mask and the prohibition to entry without one violates to his rights. I don’t claim to be a Constitutional lawyer but my cursory review of the document didn’t reveal reference to the freedom of rollercoastering. Perhaps she’s hanging her mask on the line “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the Declaration of Independence. The suit led by a mother who states she also has anxiety and cannot wear a mask had gathered the support of several other families and seeks compensatory and punitive damages for pain, suffering, anxiety, humiliation, emotional distress, and “the loss of the ordinary pleasures of life.” 
 
Silly me, I always thought the ordinary pleasures of life were music, reading, sitting under a tree on a sunny day, friends, food, and chasing dreams never meant to be caught. I suppose I should call my lawyer for further clarification. Fortunately it’s not long distance. 
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*The person who originally posted this noted it was an actual ad from 1918 and I have no reason to doubt her, she not being one prone to hype, hysteria, or hyperbole**. However, that phone looks more like what was most common after 1920. But then on the other however, it is an ad from a telephone company so they would likely illustrate it with the most cutting edge equipment they have. You don’t see T-Mobile pushing iPhone 6’s.
 
**Okay, I have to ask this, what do you think about hype and hyperbole? In the dictionary, “hype” in the sense of extravagant promotion includes it first entered the English language in 1920 from the United States but with no etymological origin, or more often, “origin unknown.” I’m thinking it came about when fast patter was taking hold in informal speech and was most likely just a shortened version of hyperbole, which was convenient because it shortened the word dramatically and important because it shortened a word most people tend to either misspell or mispronounce. 
 
***You can stop looking for three asterisks in the post body, there isn’t one. Well, actually there is one asterisk but there isn’t one instance of 3. Anyway…speaking of misspellings, I had a heck of a time getting spellcheck to let me keep “throes” in the first paragraph. It insisted I really meant to type “throws” or “thrones” and would not take my word for it that not only did indeed I want “throes” I want it added to the dictionary. This from a program that has no problem adding words I legitimately misspelled and then have to go through Tartarus**** and back to remove. 
 
****That it knows!
 

Farm to Fable

Now things have gone too far! Oh, hi. Sorry. I seem to have started in the middle. Let me back up.
 
As I approach the Doddering Years I have three joys. A good long chat with a dear friend, Sunday dinner – cooking and eating – with my daughter, and a few hours spent each week fondling ripe produce. (Fondling ripe other stuff is pretty much now confined to unconscious sleep time activities and with much thanks to dreams that forever live in the pre-doddering years.) [Sigh] Now where was I? Right, doddering.
 
Phones calls, text messages, emails, and a video now and then contribute to maintaining contact with those not with you during this time of not allowing those to not be not with you. I don’t know what others think but I find the art of phone calling rebounding. For a while text messages and direct contact through the various social platforms seemed to have phone calls going the way of pay phones. I believe the desire to hear another voice is driving an increase in calling minutes. Regardless of how much we’ve retreated into a world of contact by social medium, social media isn’t all that social. But the tone of a familiar voice, the lilt of emotions not requiring emoticon augmentation, or the thoughtful pause of reflection contribute to the experience of communication that go so much beyond “on my way, there in 10.” Even isolated I continue to experience the joy of a good long chat with a dear friend.
 
For some time now every Sunday my daughter packed up her dog and his toys, occasionally added an onion or select chicken parts to her parcels, and made her way to me for a day of cooking, eating, and reporting of the previous week’s activities and upcoming week’s plan. Although we have both been careful with our contact with everyone just about to the point that there is almost no contact with anyone, we have suspended these food fests for the duration or until whenever we say “oh enough of this already!” But still she brings me groceries every 2 weeks and we still cook a big meal each Sunday in our own kitchens and share our results electronically. It’s not perfect but it works for us and keeps some version of Sunday dinner in the joy category.
 
Our Sunday cooking extravaganza always left me with enough meals and meal compontents that I could spend a good part of the following week just reheating. Several days each week though I still had to construct a full dinner on my own. These days were always such fun. I would rarely wake and say today “I want [insert specific food here]” but would often wake and say “I wonder what looks good at the store today” and then plan a trip to the market to critically examine meats, sniff fish, and squeeze produce. I am very fortunate that I have a small Italian market within walking distance of my kitchen (and uphill only in one direction!) where you are encouraged to use up to four senses before adding a purchase to your basket. (You could sometimes use the fifth after asking.) (Yes, you do know which one I mean!) In the absence of the little market, and it is now absent since the owner decided he would be happier staying alive than staying open, the nearest supermarket has an excellent produce section, a well stocked and maintained fish counter, and a butcher ready to butcher on request. One way or another I had sufficient opportunity to find something that looked good with which to build dinner.
 
But now I’m stuck at home and the only tomatoes I get to choose from are those my daughter had the pleasure of putting under her thumb – so to speak. No sniffing the blossom end of a cantaloupe, or peeking between the leaves of an artichoke. No examining the fat marbled through a New York strip or glistening in a filet of salmon. No losing oneself in the intoxicating aroma of cheeses and sausages ready to be sliced or portioned to my specifications. [Sigh] [Again] 
 
Bad as that is, its going to get worse, even as it appears it may be getting better. Last week the pronouncement came down from on high. No farmers’ markets this year. Farm markets to be sure. You can still go to them, but no weekly gathering of all the local farms at a convenient park or parking lot with their most recent hauls of fruits and vegetables, their just baked breads and pastries, their hand cut cuts of beef and pork, their eggs and chickens, or even their kitsch and tchotchkes. [Big sigh]
 
No, even if I get the chance to go out and shop on my own this summer it won’t be the same. The joys of fondling fresh fennel fronds straight from the farm are just not to be. [Sigh] [Still] But al least I can still dream.
 
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Hello, ‘stat You?

A dear friend of mine is in a speech contest. The winner would have been eligible to go to Paris for an international competition. Instead she is competing for the chance to speak in front of her computer and whomever joins the Zoom audience.
 
Let me digress here for a moment. How many people heard of Zoom four months ago? Okay, thanks. Just making sure.
 
As I was working with her, listening to thoughts turn into ideas turn into words turn into new thoughts I started thinking about how much of our communication isn’t just words. A good book notwithstanding, words alone have never been an effective means of communication. If they were, Scott Fahlman* would only be known for his work on early artificial intelligence. Communicating includes tone, movement, gestures, and pace to get the point across. I grew up thinking it was my heritage that made me gesture so much but when I got to high school I realized many non-Italains did the same. And it isn’t only the speaker who uses non-verbal skills. I find as a listener I use my eyes often as much as my ears to grasp the message.
 
We live in a time where we can use those non-words to communicate even when we aren’t in the same lecture hall. Facetime, Skype, Duo, and other communications apps moved video calls from the comic books to our living rooms. Zoom, Chime, GoToMeeting and conferencing software took the calls to virtual boardrooms. One hundred years ago during a different quarantine period you would have been lucky to have had a phone. That was only if you lived in the third of the country serviced by the telephone company and you had $3 a month to spend on it (about $40 equalivalent today). Otherwise you were left to pen and paper or very loud yelling to communicate with anybody outside your home. 
 
Next week I have a doctor’s appointment. I won’t be going anywhere beyond my dining room to keep that appointment. I figure that to be where I’ll set up for the video appointment using the hospital’s electronic chart’s telemedicine function. With the proper sensors it will even record my blood pressure, pulse, and respiration rate. I’ll have to weigh myself though and tomorrow I will go in person to the lab. Those results then will be automatically loaded to the charting software. It’s as close to hands-free medicine as you can get so far.
 
TelDoc
I’m okay with some of this. Personally I like a doctor to thump my chest and peer down throat. Hands-on. But in a pinch, this will do. However, I hope all this remote stuff doesn’t take hold too strongly and we can get back to those in person appointments. 
 
And speeches,  live speeches. Let’s not forget about them. (I was hoping for an invitation to Paris too!)
 
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* Scott Falhman is credited with originating the smiley and frowning emoticons in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon University to distinguish serious posts from jokes.
 
 

I’ll Have What He’s Having

The Academy Awards are behind us and the Oscar hoopla has pretty much faded away. I have a few more old Oscar nominees to watch. I’m still used to the awards being presented in March and February being the time to relish in the performances. Is it just me or do actors tend to speak better when reading somebody else’s lines as scripted than when they try to go their own way on the award stage? Anyway, I prefer the movie actor to the award show actor and often the movie world to real realty. Ironic, no?
 
Something that hit me this year watching my usual overdose level of film history is how much out there in movie land we can really use in real people land. Television land also has some pretty nifty gadgetry that we mere mortals could benefit from. Take for instance in 1966 just asking “Yo computer, how much longer till we get to the Romulan border?” and sure enough some snarky female voice speaks back “the. border. is. one. hundred. forty. light. years. away. and. will. be. reached. in. twenty. eight. and. one. half. minutes. if. you. don’t. stop. for. take. out. on. the. way.” Did Gene Roddenberry know Siri and Alexa were coming? If we’ve been able to harness computer power to become our personal assistants, why not some other seemingly outlandish inventions.
 
For example:
Movie people must have dishes that dry and put themselves away. I’ve seen dozens of movies this month with people eating and drinking and even in some instances washing dishes. But nobody ever dries them or puts them away. The only Oscar nominated movie I recall seeing somebody with towel in hand, drying dishes was Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey. She didn’t do a really great job of drying and didn’t put them away but she was a millionaire socialite so I guess just the attempt at drying part was something special. They all have self-cleaning carpets also.
 
TelephoneThis one we sort of had but then technology took it away and we need it back – a phone you can pick up the reciever and just say who you want and somebody gets them for you. You need to go back to the 1930s for this invention. Everybody from cops to robbers to femme fatales to innocent bystanders could go to any phone and say “Get me John Smith” and sure enough, an operator would find John Smith, and the right John Smith. Progress took this away quickly (The Front Page). By the 1940s people were dailing their own numbers (Going My Way), by the 50s were getting wrong numbers (Anatomy of a Murder), by the 60s they were tearing pages out of phone books (In the Heat of the Night), and eventually we’ve worked our way to a time when there are no phone books and if you ask your computer assistant for John Snith’s number, unless John Smith is among you personal contacts, the answer will be, “I’m sorry I don’t have enough information.”
 
Cars run on no gas. Imagine not just driving for days, week, even months without filling up, but driving hard, fast, and often in multiple countries and never visiting a fuel station. Racing movies aside, nobody ever stops to fill up. The French Connection wouldn’t have stood a chance for Best movie if Popeye Doyle ran out of gas on 86th Street. The only movies I recall seeing somebody at a gas pump are High Sierra and National Lampoon’s Vacation and neither were Oscar nominees in any category. (I should note that in Vacation, Chevy Chase is seen wiping and putting away dishes but I believe they hadn’t been washed yet, so…)
 
Since I brought up non-nominees there are some things in almost every movie I’d like to see happen. 
 
Airplanes with aisles wide enough to walk down two abreast (with a refreshment cart even) and seats with more legroom than in my living room. Sticking with the travel theme, cruise ships with cabins bigger than my living room. Entire blocks unoccupied in front of the building I want to enter so I can just pull up and park – and never having to parallel park (nobody parallel parks in the movies), and airport parking lots that never charge for parking. Formal wear for casinos. Subways never overcrowded and always on time unless being hijacked. And those telephones that when they are set to vibrate you still know a call is incoming even if you are 3 rooms away. 
 
And – a hot tub time machine. Hey Alexa, let’s kick some past!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Who’s Calling?

It’s no secret mobile phones have reshaped the very notion of communication in today’s society. From the electronic equivalent of 2 cans and a string to commonplace video calls in a little over 100 years is remarkable. But with progress so comes loss. A not often recognized victim of telephone’s technological advances is film noir. The character in noir, and in its print cousin the hardboiled detective novel, is the phone itself. Aficionados of the genre easily recognize the pivotal shifts in plots telephones make in the telling of the dark tale.
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It’s not by accident the protagonist spends so much time on the phone. The telephone is as important to the story as he is (always a he) (hey, it was mostly the 30s and 40s) (and these guys weren’t known for their “sensitivity” you know). When the good guy needs to determine if the bad guy (also almost always a guy) (they weren’t so sensitive either) is home (which is always a two-bit hotel room), he (the good guy) looks up the number and calls him (the bad guy). If he (the bad guy) isn’t in, he (the good guy) rips the page out of the phone book and heads over to lie in wait. If the bad guy wants to make a quick escape from the good guy, he (the bad guy) ducks into a phone booth, breaks the overhead light, then slinks back into the shadows. Fast forward to the 21st century and none of those scenes gets played out.
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In a classic example of “none of the above” where nobody seems to be the good guy, the phone in “Double Indemnity” is the only point of contact between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck after they do what they do. (I’d be more specific but I won’t spoil even a 75 year old movie by giving details. Know that’s it’s frightening even for 2019.) Today the authorities would just subpoena their cell phone records and the last 40 minutes of the movie would be anticlimactic. Heck, they be unnecessary!
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In some case entire movies would be jeopardized. In the absence of an good old fashioned phone, how could you “Dial M for Murder” with a keypad that just beeps and boops. Nobody even answers “A Phone Call From a Stranger” not recognizing the caller ID. With everybody not reaching everybody else “This Gun For Hire” would never have been since that’s not the sort of message one leaves in voicemail.
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Of course in the 1946 classic “The Big Sleep,” Bogart and Bacall could have been using smoke signals and you would still need to sharpen your knife between scenes to cut through the tension. But then every good rule needs an exception and those two were particularly exceptional.
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Never Can Say Goodbye

As we get close to saying goodbye to 2016 I have discovered that we suck at saying goodbye.

In this last month of the year I spent a lot of time on the phone. I had to pick a new insurance and because it is a milestone change I used a broker. I have a car due for service and inspection. I was in the hospital, a couple of times, so I got a couple of “Hi! How are we doing?” calls, and I had to make a couple of rounds of followup doctor appointments. And it was the holidays so I had to check in with some folks to see how they were doing. So, when otherwise I might use my phone primarily as an alarm clock to not miss any of the several doctor appointments throughout the year, this month I used it as an actual communication device.

And thus discovered that we suck at  saying goodbye.

All the calls started out right. And calls with people who actually know my first name as opposed to those reading it from a computer screen were mostly able to successfully end a call. But the others. Oh, the others. It was like the final dress rehearsal for the bad movie scene in every bad movie where two people try to go through a doorway at the same time. After you. No. After you. No, no. After you.

It seems that those who have been trained to make appointments had training stopped somewhere before “Thank you for calling. Have a nice day. Good bye.”  Instead it goes more like this.

“You’re all set. Is there anything else I can do?”

“No, thank you. Good bye.”

“Well, thank you. And don’t forget to bring your insurance card.”

“Right. Good bye.”

“And please arrive 15 minutes early.

“Got it. Good bye.”

“Well then, you are all set. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No thanks. Good bye.”

Thank you for calling. If you need to cancel, change, or…”

–click–

See you next year. Probably 15 minutes early. Good bye.

That’s what I think. Really. How ’bout you?

 

 

 

Feel free to ignore this greeting. Our menu options have not changed.

It seems to us that every time you call a bank, an insurance company, some retail store, the local ballet company, your drugstore, your spouse’s work, your work, anybody’s work, or even your kid’s school you are greeted with, “Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed.”  Really?  And when was that change anyway?  We’ve been calling the same numbers for years and they all connect to the same recording that starts every call with “Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed.

We don’t remember what the choices were from yesterday so how are we to know if they really did change today.  The only thing that we are sure of is that the option we really want – to speak with a human being – isn’t one of the options!  Never is.  We’re certain that it used to be.  We’re pretty sure the last choice was always, “Otherwise, please press zero or hold on for an operator.”  That one used to get you to a human.  It said so right in the description – hold on for an operator.  Now it’s code for “Press zero and we’ll hang up on you.”  And there used to be one that said, “If you are calling from a rotary phone, please hold on.”  That got you a real person also.  Did you ever hold on even though you were calling from a push button phone?  They couldn’t tell.  Could they?

We think we know what the problem is.  There are too many choices.  People are probably clogging up customer service lines with complaints about that company’s automated line saying there wasn’t a choice for their problem when there might have been.  But because there are menus within menus within still other menus, sometimes finding the right choice isn’t a reasonable option.  So we’re proposing our own universal auto-attendant menu that any company can use.

 

–Thank you for calling the First National Insurance Company of Discount Ticket Sellers and Drug Store

–If you want to check a balance, make a payment, transfer funds, request a quote, refill a prescription, get our mailing address, get our e-mail address, access your most recent statement, access older statements, buy a travel mug with our logo on it, order tickets for a sporting event, concert, live theater event, movie, ballet, upcoming auto, home, garden, flower, RV or boat show, commend an employee, or file a complaint, hang up and go to our web-site and take care of business there.  If you’re willing to do it by phone you’ll do fine with it on-line.  With the proliferation of tablets, mobile sites and apps, you don’t even need a real computer to take care of business on line.  You can stay put on your couch, access our site during the commercial, do whatever you want to do, and never miss any of your show.  If you don’t have a tablet you can use a smart phone but the screen is a little small.  Don’t complain to us if you hit a wrong virtual button on a cell phone screen.  Now really, we’re well into the twenty-first century and you don’t have a tablet?  Next you’ll claim to still have a rotary phone.

–All other callers please hold on and listen to our commercial for easy to use personal tablets.

 

There you have it.  It has only two choices and it even works with rotary phones.  And it’s guaranteed not to need changing.  Ever.  Or until somebody invents something more convenient than cell phones or personal tablets.

Now that’s what we think. Really. How ‘bout you.

Please disregard this message

He of We should have taken heed of his computer.  The e-mail header said, “This message look suspicious to our filters.  Do you want to open it?”  He thought he’d take a chance.  After all, the message was from the local blood bank.  The subject was Happy Birthday and it was his birthday.  How suspicious can it be? 

Both of We have long been donators of blood.  It’s almost painless, fairly quick, you get cookies and juice when you’re done, and most of the time the blood bank has some cool premium just for raising, or dropping a pint with them.  So a couple times a year we find our way to a blood drive and do the right thing.

He should have taken heed.  Lately we have been going round with our local blood bank.  All of a sudden instead of impersonal post-cards touting specific blood drives that we can read, study, or throw away, the blood bank has taken to impersonal phone calls to cajole those with intact veins to high-tail it to the nearest donation center and start bleeding.  Lately these calls have been coming every day.  Multiple times a day.  So many multiple times that they managed to make She of We call them damn vampires and He of We called them blood sucking blood suckers.  On the same day.  From different telephones.  That’s when we confirmed that Each of We has the same tolerance for annoying telephone solicitations even when the solicitor isn’t trying to sell something.

He didn’t take heed.  He opened the message and read on.

On your special day we wish you a bright and happy birthday.  If you recently donated blood, or have scheduled an appointment to donate blood, please accept our thanks on behalf of the area patients whose lives you touched. If you have recently been told by our blood center, or another blood center, that you are ineligible to donate then please disregard this message.

Even the Happy Birthday part?  Gee these guys are tough.  You’d think a blood sucking vampire would have a heart.  Where else do you drive the stake? 

Now, that’s what we think.  Really.  How ‘bout you?

 

Can you hear me…

The greatest invention of the nineteenth century might well have been the telephone.  From nothing when the first commercial line was strung in 1877 to 48,000 subscribers some ten years later, the telephone may have had the greatest initial impact on American households alongside the regular provision of electricity. 

Some one hundred years later the telephone really hadn’t changed much.  Commercial wireless handsets were becoming more popular in the home and telephone calls no longer meant being tied to the boxes with the dials or buttons where it hung on walls or perched on tables.  Freedom to walk around the house came with only the restriction not to wander too far from the base unit.  It could have be then that telephones started taking on a more positive role among our families.

The phone had always been more positive than negative.  It allowed us to speak with relatives who lived across town, state, and country.  It allowed us to check on our homework answers.  It allowed us to check on friends not feeling well and family who just added another member to the family.  But there were still specific reasons to use the telephone. 

Although relatively economical to maintain local service, local usually meant very local.  Long distance and metropolitan services could be quite expensive.  And phone calls were still often an intrusion into our lives.  They usually came while we were eating, watching TV, playing a board game with our parents and siblings, or out back tossing baseballs, footballs, falling off sleds or pulling weeds depending on the season.  Other than when we were pulling weeds, most of the time the calls came when we really didn’t want to be interrupted. 

Although it might have been more intrusion than necessity, the advances made in the telephone were remarkable.  The twentieth century saw direct dialing, multiple extensions at a single number rather than multiple households on a single line, picture phone, push buttons, memory dialing, built in answering machines, and the first truly portable communication devices – the mobile phone.  Yes, the greatest invention of the twentieth century might well have been the telephone.

Now another thirty years have gone by and we all have a phone attached to our hips or in special pockets in our purses.  We no longer look at the phone as a service or a utility as much as we look at it as an essential that we’d not leave the house without.  We’ve both done it.  Before we leave the house we do our ritual check – wallet, keys, watch, and phone.

We don’t just talk on our phones, we send messages by voice, text, e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook.  We play games on them and with them.  We watch short clip videos on YouTube and streaming videos of live sporting events.  We flip a switch and some satellite finds us and we get turn by turn directions from them.  We maintain our contacts so seamlessly that if someone asks for a phone number for someone we call or text many times a day, we have to look it up.  We don’t know it because we never “dial” it.  We speak the person’s name into the microphone or tap the person’s picture on the screen to be connected.  We no longer have to clip coupons or write shopping lists.  It’s literally at our fingertips.  We aren’t sure but it seems very much like Star Trek.  But if we aren’t sure it’s ok because we can search for and watch episodes of vintage television on our anything by vintage telephones.

Quite an accomplishment for an instrument that at the turn of the century was still fairly impressive to see and use.  When even as portable a phone as it was, it was really just a portable phone.  And in less than a decade it has become as ubiquitous as flies at a picnic.  And as diverse as being able to be the instrument used to look up insect repellant for back yards.  Even though we’re only a little more than a tenth of the way through, the greatest invention of the twenty-first century might well will be the telephone.

Now, that’s what we think.  Really.  How ‘bout you?