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Ming Zhen Shakya

Telephone Atrocities and Other Crimes Against Nature

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

He tried to warn us. We wouldn't listen. Just a few short years ago, that prescient and much maligned young American, Bart Simpson, shared with us the painful details of his encounter with that then emerging plague upon our nation, the telephone robot-voice menu spieler.

His story was chilling. Bart, his leg having been broken through no fault of his own, is convalescing - his limb encased in plaster and his mind blighted with the boredom we usually associate with that predicament. He is given a telescope and with its lens he sits at his rear window trolling the neighborhood like a fisherman after bottom feeders.

Hearing a blood-clotting scream come from the house next store, he trains the telescope upon what surely is a murder being committed by Ned "Okaleedoakalee" Flanders.

Impossible! Ned is known to suffer from an excess of Christian enthusiasmo, and Bart is therefore loathe to consider the possibility that Ned is a murderer even when he sees Ned, smoking shovel in hand, patting down the topsoil of a newly dug barrow in his backyard. Bart, ever fair-minded, refuses to countenance mere circumstantial evidence- until he hears Ned incontrovertibly confess, "I'm a murdidlelee-urdler!" This he cannot ignore.

Bart immediately acts. He summons younger sister Lisa and, as Ned drives away, persuades her to enter Ned's home to search for hard evidence. She goes, and as she pokes around, Ned suddenly returns. Bart is frantic! Lisa's life is clearly in jeopardy, but what can he do? His leg is in a plaster cast! Call 911! He grabs the phone and dials as he watches the confessed murderer mount the steps to where his unsuspecting sister snoops.

With wretched anxiety he whimpers as the phone rings. Then, incredulously, he hears a professionally oiled voice jovially answer, "Hello and welcome to the Springfield Police Department's Rescue Phone! If you know the name of the felony being committed, press one! (pause) To choose from a list of felonies, press two! (pause) If you are being murdered or are calling from a rotary phone, please stay on the line." Bart, violent in frustration, punches phone buttons; and the unctuous voice happily intones, "You have selected Regicide! (pause) If you know the name of the king or queen being murdered, press one!" At this point Bart surrenders the instrument to the Gods of Communication.

For sheer terror, not even Alfred Hitchcock could have improved upon the plot.

Oh, do not sneer and suppose that Bart's dilemma is the exaggerated stuff of comic animation. His distress is real and much worse than it appears; for animation, by its very nature, reduces the atrocity, mitigating pain until it is a mere sketch of itself.

The horror, endlessly repeated in these United States, is as real as your liver. As I myself can attest, there was a time when the Police Department in my very own town once put some good woman on welfare so that it could give employment to a robot. (Another good woman became Mayor and now when we call the police, the police answer.)

A merciful Providence often consigns painful experience to oblivion. I had forgotten about this breach in responsible government until I recently learned about someone else's disquieting experience with this assault upon civility.

A woman in another state had rented a bedroom to a college student whom she suspected was selling hard drugs to kids. When he first applied for the room, he had been rather timid and polite; but as the weeks progressed, he grew considerably more bold; threatening even. She had no proof; indeed, it was not her responsibility to get proof. Proof is what we pay police officers to obtain. She had suspicions, but to whom does one turn when one only suspects that a felony is being committed? Renters have rights, too, and while many of these rights defy ratiocination, they are violated at considerable risk. Visions of the film "Pacific Heights" flashed in her mind. She did not know what to do. Common sense would dictate that she call someone in law enforcement and discuss the matter. Common sense would be wrong.

Reasonably certain of what her tenant was doing, she waited until he left the house and called the police department. A robot voice greeted her and then dubiously warned her that to insure the quality of the communication her call "might be monitored" (pause) and that if she was calling about a traffic violation she should press one. (pause) If she was calling about personnel applications she should press two. (pause) If she was calling to report a zoning infraction she should press three. On and on the spiel went until she was told that she could have the menu repeated by pressing nine. Not knowing which button accommodated the category "tenant/suspect/drug/children" and understandably fearful that her tenant would return before she was able to figure it out, she called 911 and was relieved to hear a voice that actually had lungs behind it - until the voice angrily demanded to know if the suspected felony was in progress. She said, No, that if it were she wouldn't have dared to call. The operator then informed her that 911 was an emergency number and that she was breaking the law by calling 911 for a non-emergency matter. She should hang up and dial the police department. She thought about her situation for quite a while, staring at her phone until her brain began to carbonize. Then she reached the only conclusion she knew how to reach: she said, as if amazed and relieved by the revelation, "I don't have any children."

A few weeks ago I saw an elaborate advertisement for the iMac and wanted to purchase one for our young webmaster in China. China has different electrical specs so naturally I needed information and therefore called the number Apple provided for those who wanted information. I got a robot... no, I got a whole family of them.. but not one of them knew how the unit would adapt to China's electrical system because not one had ears to listen to a question. Before I made this call I would have supposed that everyone knew that however global the economy is, it still has quirky habits. The steering wheel isn't always on a car's left side. Lots of countries have different electrical systems. Plug your hair dryer into a foreign socket and watch the dryer fry. Why wouldn't a brainy company like Apple have anticipated receiving calls from people who had interests that extended beyond the U.S.'s frontiers. And what is more puzzling, why would they spend millions on an advertising campaign if, when the very people they are trying to reach actually do respond, they treat them so contemptuously? I did not buy the unit. This is a pity because I had sent the young computer whiz the whole multi-page magazine insert and he was hot for it. "It is... it is so COOL!" he emailed me back. "Such Beauty!"

Our technology has outpaced our culture. We assume that because we are able to do something, we have the right to do it. No where is this more evident than with the misuse of telephones. More and more some of us begin to realize that our telephones ought to be sacrificed on the altar of some god or other. Satan, in this regard, is worthy of note.

How does it happen that a machine that is supposed to serve the need to communicate, takes on a life of its own and becomes an instrument that inhibits or prevents communication? There was a time that the telephone was a nice user-friendly thing to have around. But then we engineered it until it became a Rube Goldberg instrument of torture. We did not concomitantly impose a protocol, a simple standard of deportment, an etiquette for phone use that paralleled the technological development.

After enduring a series of communication atrocities, I finally pulled the plug on a few of my electronic helpers. It was mercy killing. I disconnected my phone - the one that was listed in the Yellow Pages. I got a new "residential listed" line without "call waiting" etc., and I took my answering machine and disemboweled it.

Then I sent up a white flag. I surrendered and pleaded nolo contendere. I'll give you the bill of indictment's history:

It was dinner time and I was just sitting down to a nice platter of rice, tofu, and stir-fried vegetables... the kind of stuff that tastes like plastic when it gets cold (and is not all that tasty when it is hot.) The phone rang. I got up from the table and went back into my bedroom to answer it. A frantic man spoke to me. He had had to fire his baby-sitting housekeeper under nasty circumstances and needed help in finding a more virtuous replacement. His wife was sobbing in the background. There was anguish in his voice, but as he related the awful events that precipitated the termination, I heard a little bubble in the sound stream. "Hold on a minute," he said brusquely, "I've got another call." He bopped off the line, leaving me to hold empty space. A minute or two later he returned and continued the narrative. A few more facts after that there followed another bubble in the sound stream and he again put me on hold. My dinner was already cold. I had little to lose by being patient. After all, I naively told myself, he can't be blamed for people calling him.

But then, as I later nuked my dinner in the microwave, I thought yes... yes he could be blamed for answering. He had called me. He had, however, the ability to talk to someone else as well... someone whose call to him was possibly more important than his call to me. Naturally, he had to discover who this person might be. I saw myself from his unflattering perspective; and the view did not make me eager to assist him.

A few evenings later, as I was watching television, I received a call from a woman who had just been informed that her daughter wanted to be married at home - in two weeks' time! She, too, was frantic. Would I please help her plan a garden wedding? She simply didn't know where to begin. This is a call for help if ever there was one, and I immediately turned off the TV and started asking the tough questions. But I noticed that often I'd have to repeat myself. Her voice also seemed to fade in and out. Could there be trouble with the phone line? Then I distinctly heard a water faucet turn on and off and the sound of jingling silverware. "Are you doing the dishes?" I asked incredulously. And, of course, she was! Why was I giving her my full attention while she, who had called me asking for my help, was diverting her attention to perform some menial chore. The answer was simple: she had a portable phone and had the ability to do something else besides talk to me. So she did it. I wasn't offended. I was appalled.

The following morning I was in the Food market in the canned foods aisle when a woman who was speaking on a cellphone to someone else in another, competitive market, was comparing the price of peas. She ran her cart into my ankle and as I hopped around, gave me a forced smile and shrug of apology as she continued her recitation, "Del Monte Early June...." I began to think of Midnight Cowboy and Jon Voight jamming the phone down some old guy's throat. The idea really appealed to me.

Some years ago I attended a performance of Tristan and Isolde at Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Zubin Mehta raised his baton and on cue the audience began coughing. If they had had a security check at the entrance and x-rayed lungs the way they x-ray airport carry-ons, barring entrance to those who tested positive, the audience would have consisted of only a few hundred out of towners. The toxic waste Angelenos breathe is something that the local opera lovers cannot do much about; perhaps they have become habituated to the sounds of strangling and death-throe rattles; but why did so many of them neglect to turn off their cell phones, beepers and wrist watch alarms. Between the consumptive convulsions and the ringing and chirping of electronic gadgetry, the rising passion in the overture had all the trenchant eroticism of peristaltic waves. Wagner might as well have scored the rumbling of his intestinal gas.

We also see such self-important arrogance in "unlisted elitism". In my town, in addition to our Buddhist Society, we have a Laotian temple, two Japanese temples, two Thai temples, a Chinese temple, a Vietnamese temple and a Korean style Zen group. Only the Chinese temple and our Zen society were in the Yellow Pages under "Churches, Buddhist". The Chinese temple's name sounded like a state governmental agency and suggested that at the very least callers would get a response in English. They did not. "Wei! Wei!" would come the daunting voice and the caller would soon determine that whatever language it was that was being spoken, it was not English.

My number would be the next one called. It did not take me long to become an efficient Buddhist traffic director. "Oh, you want the Vietnamese Temple at 2611 South Buffalo" and I'd give them the phone number which I also knew by rote. Or, "What color robes do your priests wear?" and I'd fish enough information out of them to direct them to the correct temple. All of these temples had business phones... but none cared to list the phone and get the kind of calls I was getting. One full-moon evening I sat with a congregation member discussing a serious problem and my phone rang no less than six times within two hours. (Buddhist services are traditionally held at no moon and full moon.) I had wanted to take the receiver off the hook but couldn't because my guest was waiting for a call. When that call came in, I did take my phone off the hook and once the beeping stopped, I began to savor the deliciousness of being incommunicado. Should I have my phone number disconnected and a new unlisted one installed? hmmm. Should I kill my phone, or just rough it up a little. It did not take long for me to decide in favor of phone-death.

I truly had become phone-sensitive. Things that I used to tolerate before, suddenly became unacceptable.

Driving on the interstate in the right side exit lane, I noticed a fellow in a convertible in the lane beside me who was arguing violently with someone on his car phone. He noticed that his exit was upon him, but he did not notice that he was not in the proper lane to take it. Without missing a syllable, he swerved into my lane and had I not the good brakes I have, I'd have collided with him. He missed me by millimeters. I laid on my horn. The car behind me, equally discomfited, picked up the chorus. Now the poor fellow couldn't hear his phone correspondent because of the noise we were making and so, for the first time, noticed our existence. He turned around and scowled at us for our lack of consideration.

I have driven behind people who are driving, eating a taco, and talking on the phone simultaneously. If I were sitting in an airplane and the pilot was attempting to land the aircraft while scarfing down a hamburger and talking to his girlfriend at the same time, I'd get a bit nervous. Why do people think they can do this in city traffic? Some people receive phone calls that require that they write down information. And they drive along, drifting from lane to lane like so much tumbleweed, phone cradled at their ear, shreds of Monterey Jack clinging to their chins, a Coke with whatever food it is that's inside the wax-paper in their left hand, scribbling with their right hand on a steering wheel supported notepad. The only thing worse than this occurs when they actually have to look up information. While driving absolutely blind, they invariably spill stuff and have to do a little personal grooming on top of everything else. (And a pedestrian can get a ticket for jay-walking!)

I reached a plateau of intolerance when I decided that I would no longer leave messages on answering machines. As soon as a machine kicked on, I hung up. I had terminated my own answering machine "with prejudice" after I had received one garbled message too many and one message too many from someone who had called me long distance and had the awkward option either of telling me he'd call again, or of asking me to call him back. Of course, he'd ask me to call collect, but everyone knows that this is not likely to happen. It would have been better if, since I was not at home to answer, nobody or no thing answered.

I also had gotten tired of people who monitor their phone calls with answering devices. They listen to the caller's voice and decide if they will answer it or not. Often the caller will shout, "Pick up! This is so-and-so! Pick up! It's important!" Others with more sophisticated equipment turn their attention towards the ringing instrument and read "caller Identification" before making their decision. Sometimes the caller outfoxes them by blocking his number but now, I understand, there is even a device that asks the "unknown" calling number to identify itself or it will terminate the call. (The Communication War continues.) The person who calls and is forced to leave a message wonders, quite understandably, if he is being snubbed or relegated to the nuisance trashbin while the person who monitors calls derives a sense of power that betrays his inability to cope with members of his own society who have his phone number. Like Nero, he makes his decision. Thumb up or thumb down.

I stopped being a voice-mail gladiator. I leave no messages.

I know people who live in a fantasy world of self-importance. Their phones keep a log of incoming calls which they fondle as a miser fondles gold. In their skull's proscenium arch the drama unfolds. They see it all. Some foolish acquaintance dares to lie to them, saying, "Gee, I tried to call you Friday but I got no answer," and they respond, the evidence hot in hand, "Oh no you didn't." Usually, these are people who seldom get calls. They are silly adolescent types or else they have the kind of emotional problems only health professionals or telemarketers should attempt to deal with.

Speaking of telemarketers....

Now, there is a whole body of people out there whom Apple or the Police Departments who use robots so contemptuously to thwart their callers could employ to answer their phones. Real people with, quite possibly, souls.

These people like to talk on phones. They could do the job... were they not otherwise employed as telemarketers.

Left to their own devices, they are as insidious as earwigs that burrow into the brain of the weak or gentle and lay their financially destructive eggs there. Think of what they could do for legitimate corporations.

A caveat... We should never express our annoyance or insult these intruders before hanging up. This response, while righteous, may exact a terrible price. A member of our sangha once confessed to me that when he first came to town he needed a job and the only one he could find was working as a telemarketer. With shame he revealed that when someone he called was rude to him, he'd follow the practice of his confederates and note the rude person's number and for the rest of the day - or until he received another insulting response - he'd leave that person's number on every answering machine that kicked on. "This is Lionel MacCawber of MacCawber, Havisham, Pickwick and Poe" he'd say with some urgency, "Please call me at ( he'd give the rude person's number). I don't care how late. It's important. That's (he'd repeat the number).'" Zen gave him insight into this wretched act of revenge. "We were pretty low on the esteem scale. We actually got satisfaction from thinking about this guy getting a battery of 'wrong number' returned calls."

Be careful out there.

I don't want to appear as though I'm in any way opposed to progress. I'm not. Businessmen and professionals are often 'on call' and require all this electronic support. I'm opposed to rudeness and the blatant egomania a person acquires the moment he acquires the power to be rude. What I seek is a code, a standard that we all ought voluntarily to follow. At the very least we ought to take our civic responsibility seriously. If the law says that telemarketers are allowed to harass us only during certain hours, then, if they call during forbidden hours, we ought to protest to the authorities ... if, of course, we can get through to them. (I can hear the laughter... they know bloody well we've got no way to complain. ("If you would like to register a complaint about telemarketers, press the pound sign!" (pause)). I wonder what's in store for those new machines that terminate the call if the caller doesn't identify himself.)

So, the Zen thing is simple: if we call someone and disturb his privacy on the premise that our call is important, we should sit down and give him the attention we are expecting from him. We ought not pop off to answer call-waiting or busy ourselves with some chore or other. We ought to have the decency to turn off our gadgets and not enter a theater or church sounding like a pin-ball machine. We ought to start viewing car phone users in transit properly... through cross-hairs. We ought to recognize that answering machines are instruments of torture, probably outlawed by the Geneva Convention; and face up to the fact that there is not enough Prozac in the universe to undo the emotional damage done so insouciantly by robot menu-spielers. (I pray for the welfare of some young hero out there who figures out a way to smite them and save our civilization.)

If Zen makes one requirement upon us, that requirement is that we simplify our lives. We do not have to be probed by alien communicators. We are not in their power. We can take the phone off the hook. At 7PM I do. It's wonderful. Try it sometime.

For the record, I can always be reached through cypherspace, Zen's empty circle.  


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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