By Larry Miller
They called him Aleck. I don’t know if he liked the nickname, or not. What I do know is that he showed up at our house and didn’t leave. It kind of reminds me of an old Monty Wooley movie, “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
You don’t know the movie? Hmm. You must be one of the younger generations. Which is all right. It gives my older generation at least one thing to crow about, to know something that you don’t know.
Anyway, Aleck came. But unlike Monty Wooley, Aleck was invited. And like Monty Wooley, he stayed. Oh, did he ever stay.
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In fact, Aleck was invited into a lot of homes. Eventually into millions. And these days, he not only is invited into our homes, but also into our cars, into our places of business, and verily into our lives.
We cannot escape Aleck. He is with us, it seems, wherever we go.
Confused? I understand. So, please let me explain.
Aleck is, really, Alexander Graham Bell. You might have heard of him.
He’s kind of famous, although he did not start out in life in pursuit of fame.
Apparently, his early interest in experimenting in sounds and hearing devices led him to related fields. And one thing led to another, until…. Yeah, Voila. The telephone.
Of course, it is not as simple as I have made it seem to be. Many others made their contributions, along the way. In fact, a history of the invention of the telephone comes with a history of other claims and lawsuits. But this little essay of mine does not come accompanied with the sordid details.
Suffice it to say that the world changed dramatically with Bell’s alleged spoken words to an assistant: “Watson, come here! I want to see you.”
So it is that I address both the vicissitudes and the sometimes-awful impositions of one of the world’s most useful and yet most hated devices. Examples abound.
I think it was around 5:30 one evening, a few years ago, when the phone rang. I was on the sofa, my wife had not arrived home yet from playing bridge, and the phone was next to her recliner, over in the far corner of the room. I might have been napping. Whatever the case, I was being disturbed.
Now, please understand that for a long time I had built up a distinct distaste for the phone. It’s gotten to the point that I hate it, absolutely hate it. Too often it has been disruptive and/or demanding, and less frequently of useful purpose. And too often it has occupied the position of a toy.
So, I emerged from my cocoon and made way to the source of my now-irritation. I picked up the receiver and immediately was assaulted by a male voice that was filled with such enthusiasm and pseudo-friendliness that I was, immediately, turned off.
“Mr. Miller?” the voice asked.
“Yes,” I replied in a tone that I usually saved for used-car salesmen.
“This is your lucky day,” the voice went on.” You have just won a free trip to the Bahamas.”
Caution flags went up. And my blood pressure rose in accompaniment with the raising of the flags.
“Really,” I replied. “And just what did I do to win this?” In other words, what is it that you are selling?
“My name is Rick, Mr. Miller. And I have been informed by my boss that your name was selected from more than ten thousand names submitted to be a recipient of one of the ten grand prizes that our company is offering to promote a product that is destined to change the way America thinks about investing.”
The voice had not changed appreciably. It still rang with that initial enthusiasm. And it still came across as glibness.
“Well, I’ll tell you something, Rick,” I interrupted, “I really don’t think there is a thing that you can sell me that would greatly benefit me, at this point.”
“But you haven’t heard the best part, Mr. Miller,” Rick vainly tried. “We have here…”
“I am sure you have something there,” I once again interrupted, “but I am inclined to believe that the only ones who would benefit from your product, whatever it is, are you and the inventors of your scheme. “But thank you for calling.” And I hung up the phone.
I can see most of you nodding your heads at all this. Probably most of you have had similar experiences. And probably some of you have been burned by the villains who lurk out there in the ethereal wilderness.
Now, I have to admit that not all my experiences with these people have been unpleasant. And I also have to admit that my reactions to such calls have had a lot to do with how I have handled them. After all, we are all influenced by factors that elate us or anger us or depress us.
There was one particularly friendly woman, a Leeann, who almost got to me. She was, during the entire process, pleasant, seemingly sincere, and never confrontational. In fact, I had the feeling that if she were in my immediate presence, we might become genuine friends.
But she was selling something. She never denied that fact.
And please let me state, here and now, that never did I lose my temper with her. She was…well, to put it succinctly, nice. Very, very nice. But she was good at what she was doing. No matter how hard I tried to cut off her sales pitch, she had a subtle way of maneuvering the conversation back to what it was that she was selling. All that, without angering me, in the least.
Finally, in a desperate attempt to extricate myself from the affair, I interrupted her pleasantness with: “Excuse me, Leeann, but could I please have your phone number?”
A slight pause ensued.
“Well,” she finally began to reply, “our toll-free number is…”
“No, no, no, no,” I interrupted once again, as pleasantly as possible, “I mean your personal phone number. I’d like your personal number.”
Another pause, this time a trifle lengthier than the last.
“Well, I can’t give you my personal phone number, Mr. Miller.”
“That’s strange,” I replied. “You have my personal number.”
This time an even longer pause.
“Are you saying that you don’t want me to call you anymore?” she asked. And the pleasant tone of her voice was still there, for which I applaud her.
“Thank you, very much,” I said, and I hung up.
Perhaps the greatest problem with these encounters is that most of the callers do not have the personality of Leeann. Try pinning them down to what they actually are trying to do, and you are likely to meet up with Attila the Hun.
I have taken it upon myself to do battle with those who think it okay to annoy us via technology. I have used all kinds of pre-planned strategies. I have kept them online long enough to wind up annoying them. I have replied in a faked mixture of foreign languages. I have replied when asked if Mr. Miller is available, that Mr. Miller is in the upper reaches of the Congo and must be contacted through his representative in Paris.
I even interrupted a call one time to say: “Please excuse me,” and then called out, as if talking to someone in the background: “Agnes, will you keep the cow out of the refrigerator!”
A rather long pause ensued on that occasion and the caller hung up.
Our daughter Heidi was visiting, at the time, and she roared with laughter at my prank.
I love getting back at them. All is fair in love and war and phone conversations. Oh, yes, I love getting back at them, by any and all means.
I have been led to consider the following idealized scenario. The phone rings at the home of Ima and Ura Batch, of Little Pea, Arkansas. Husband Ura answers with “Hello.”
“Ima Batch?” the voice asks.
“How would I know?” Ura replies. “I’ve never met you, have I? I couldn’t possibly know if you are a batch, or not, could I?”
Obviously, that answer is enough to cause the caller to cipher what had been said. Eventually comes his reply.
“No, I don’t think so. Anyway, this is Frank, from Lotta Bunch Waste Removal. And I’m looking for Ima Batch.”
“How can you possibly look for something over a telephone,” Ura asks. “You can look, all you want, but you will never make eye contact that way.”
“I realize that,” Frank says, bewilderment obvious in his voice. “But I’m calling for Ima Batch.”
“Why doesn’t Ima call, herself?” Ura says. “Why are you calling for her? Are you her secretary?”
“No, no, no,” the voice says, bewilderment becoming more pronounced. “I wish to speak with Ima Batch. Is she there?”
“This is Ima,” Ura replies.
“You can’t be Ima,” comes back the further bewildered reply.
“Well, I certainly can,” Ura replies. “My mother may have wanted another boy, but she got a girl instead. I am Ima. I would rather she had named me Gonna, but she didn’t.”
More obviously thoughtful silence, then: “But you can’t be a girl,” protests the now very confused Frank.
“Well, I certainly can,” Ura replies with as much indignity in his voice as he can manage. “Unless my mother had chosen to make some kind of medical procedure, of which I am unaware, I am who I am.”
“Well, you…well,” he stammers, “you just don’t sound like a girl, like a woman.”
“Well,” Ura says, “if you had as bad a cold as I do, then you might sound like a man, too.”
“Oh, then, I’m sorry.”
“But I thought you said you were Frank.”
“I am Frank,” Frank says quite demandingly.
“Oh, I thought you said you were Sorry.”
Seconds pass before a very befuddled Frank returns.
“I didn’t mean that my name is Sorry,” Frank protests. “I mean, I’m sorry that I got you confused about who you are.”
“Oh, I’m not confused at all, about who I am,” Ura says quite matter-of-factly. “I’ve always known who I am.”
“Yes,” Frank says somewhat perplexedly. “Yes, I see. You are Ima, not Ura. I see.”
“No, no, no,” Ura hurriedly puts in. “How can you possibly see? Egads, man! We are on the phone. One can’t possibly see another person via a phone. And, by the way, just who are you?”
“I’m Frank like I said.”
How can I know for sure you are Frank? Maybe you are someone else, and are just saying you are Frank.”
“But I am Frank,” comes a harsh, demanding answer.” I am Frank,” he repeats, this time in an angry voice. “And I am a man and not a girl, and I am…..”
“And I bet you are sorry, too, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps I’d better call back another time.”
“Okay, but Ima will be disappointed.”
Now, granted that such is far more whimsical than realistic, but the idea does feed the imagination to come up with other schemes. I imagine that there are millions who would love to have the opportunity to get revenge with telemarketers and hoodlums and other bothersome culprits who invade our lives.
I am waiting for just such an opportunity to confuse any person who dares to interrupt my nap, or who does the unthinkable: interrupt my watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show.
But it isn’t just the salesmen of unwanted products that besiege us. Perhaps the most annoying callers are those who are calling on behalf of political candidates. And at this stage in my life, I am having great difficulty in trying to come up with the name of any political candidate who deserves my attention, or my respect. I have the useful habit of cutting them off quicker than I would the snake-charm salesman.
But getting back to Aleck. Oh, how he changed the world. I recall the days when I was a youngster and we had a party line. My mother was strict in informing us children that the phone was not a toy, and was not to be used as a toy.
And we were also informed that we were not to interrupt or interfere with those who were on the line. And to eavesdrop…why, to think of doing such a thing was criminal, or an anathema. But it was often done.
Regardless of how Mother instructed us, it always amazed me to learn the gossipy details that abounded in our neighborhood. That they came to us second-hand seemed not to matter.
And oh, how much Aleck has changed our lives. To think that with a simple movement of my fingers, on a little two and a half by a five-inch implement, I can speak with my grandchildren, who are hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away…well, it boggles my mind. Those are the times when I am thankful that Aleck was so inventive.
And now, with the advent of Skype, and such, I can phone and televise (sort of) with my precious grandchildren and their children. Even Dick Tracy, with his wrist-appliance, never had it so good.
Ah, the telephone.
And if all that I just wrote is not enough reason to feel vengeful, there is the ridiculous cost of using what we consider is a simple device. Like all you other folks who have subscribed to a monthly plan, for the privilege of communicating with whomever, wherever, whenever, we have, initially, found it necessary to purchase the cell phone. Oh, yeah. It did not come free, with the plan. We had to buy it. Yeah! One would think that the monthly fee would be enough to cover the cost of the phone. But not so.
I read, last week, that one particular brand of cell phone is available, for $2000. Right! A whopping two thousand dollars. You read it right.
My first reaction was: “What!!!! Two thousand dollars? Two thousand dollars? For a piece of plastic?”
And if that wasn’t sufficient reason to get upset, dismayed, horrified, startled, dumbfounded, then consider that three days later a different company announced that their version is now available, for $2,500.
“You have got to be kidding!” I thought. “Two thousand and five hundred dollars for something that I, most assuredly, can get along without? What is going on here? Is this an auction?”
I said it, and I will say it again. I could get along without it. If I really wanted to. You see, I could use a system of my own design. I happened, by accident, to invent the plan one day while shopping for groceries. I call it the MIBYPP Plan. Translated, it means: “May I borrow your phone please?”
How it all happened was that I had forgotten to take my cell phone with me, on my weekly shopping trip. I admit that, in the past, my phone had previously bailed me out on more than one occasion. A simple call to my wife, back home, allowed me to clarify something on my shopping list.
But I had failed to take my phone with me, on this particular trip. Big problem? Not really.
Dale, the super-nice manager of the store, happened along just when I needed help. I explained my problem, and he solved it, by offering his phone for me to use.
Now, I know just what you are thinking. That a person can’t just go around with the attitude of using others, all the time. But I vividly remember the smile on Dale’s face, which was a healthy reaction to his own kindness. So! Why not? Just think about it. Most people are, basically, kind and benevolent. Most people are very willing to help others. And by inviting them to participate in my scheme, we just might be capable of changing the world, for the better. We invite others to be kind, and they, in turn, ask others. The idea can be infectious. It spreads faster than wildfires.
Oh, the discoveries we make, when least expected.
It is with these parting shots in mind that I register my thanks…well, most of the time, for what Aleck has come to mean to the world, and to me personally.
He won’t go away. He will get reinvented many times, supposedly for the better. And he will, at times, be intrusive, to the point of great annoyance.
But he was a welcome guest.