Real Contact

I’m reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It’s a fantastically strange novel, almost like a collection of short stories that span through a few decades and show the connections between a huge cast of characters that hardly seem like they should be related and yet are.

I don’t want to spoil it for those who’ve never read it, so I’ll just say that there’s a portion in it that deals with characters living a decade or so in the future, a time at which it seems that texting is the primary method of communicating with people. One of the characters seems profoundly uncomfortable with real speech and much prefers the cleanliness of the short messages we sent to each other via text, or T as it’s called by then. This disturbed me profoundly and I’m having a hard time getting through this section. The notion of real contact between people being something that’s disappearing is something I dislike. I also don’t really believe it’s true.

As a child of the generation that has grown up with increasingly small cellphones, increasingly faster internet and the increasing ubiquity of social networking in our lives, I still don’t believe that the near future contains the loss of real speech or contact between people. In my world, at least, social networking is another means of communication, true, but it’s far from being the only one or the most preferred one. I know few people who spend more time communicating with friends online than face to face.

Thoughts? Comments? Opinions?

Please Hold, We Will Be With You Shortly

Dear Sir, Madam, Non-Binary Identifier or Automaton,

I would like to point out an apparent flaw in your system. By “you,” I refer, of course, too all companies in general, whether they are private medical practices or credit-card companies. I hope you will forgive me for lumping you all in the same group, and believe me when I say that after extensive research I have come to the conclusion that the issue at hand is relevant to each and every one of you.

It is not a very big problem, to be truthful, but I believe that you could solve it quite simply. Let me come at the matter in a roundabout fashion – please imagine yourselves using a telephone in order to reach a particular service you wish to use or inquire about. Now, think of automated recording that answers. It tells you, in some form or another, that your call is very important, but that other clients are being served at this time. It requests that you stay on the line, and promise to be wish you shortly. After some variation of this form, music begins to play.

I shudder to refer to the tinny loops of notes as “music” but I suppose that it is the best and least offensive name for the noise. In a world that has birthed string-quartets, orchestras, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Elvis, The Beatles, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, it is incredible that such sounds still exist outside of the endearing false notes of a beginning violinist. Furthermore, in a universe that has come to use radio waves as well as the Internet for transmitting music, it is hard for me to believe that the options for cheap, or even free, music is so hard for companies to come by.

It is my opinion, and I am sure that others will concur, that the collective “you” to whom I write, that such alienating and disturbing music is the cause of many a headache, not to mention heartaches, missed dates and other inconveniences. I will check the statistic on bleeding ears and get back to you on that when I get more information.

If you truly value your customers, will you please consider trying to play something that doesn’t loop every fifteen seconds? I can almost guarantee that your callers will be in a much better mood when one of your highly-trained service providers answer the phone, thus causing quicker and more efficient service, which would lead to more satisfied customers who would use your services more often.

As a Good Samaritan, I am not asking for any share of the extra profit.

Sincerely,

Slightly Ignorant

Remember Where You Came From…

Pat clutched the phone and slammed it into her ear with her long fingers. “Hello?” she barked.

“Pat? Patty?” The voice on the other end was more than a whisper, but barely. It was hard to distinguish whether the speaker was male or female, such was the rasping quality of the words.

“Yes?” Pat drew a long drag of her cigarette into her mouth. She watched herself in the mirror, and couldn’t help admiring her own red lips curling around the end of the thin white cylinder that was held in her talons, the nails of which were painted ruby to match. “Hello?” she added, annoyed, distracted from her own wonderful image.

“Remember where you come from, Pat.”

The line went dead. Pat took the phone away from her ear and looked at it for a moment, as if it would reveal who the caller was and what he or she had meant. Slowly she returned the pink receiver to its cradle. She blew smoke out of her mouth slowly, watching the dramatic effect of her open mouth filling with blue-gray tendrils. Remember where I come from… she thought.

The mirror seemed to shift and waver in front of her, and she was confronted by an image that it took her a moment to recognize. The girl across from Pat was was about fifteen, wore a sweater that was clearly knit by hand and fit rather badly, had too much bright pink lipstick smeared on her mouth (and some on her teeth) and had more acne than seemed possible. Pat stared in horror and clutched at her own face; the image disappeared and she saw only herself as she was now, fifteen years later, smooth-skinned, fashionable, beautiful.

Jumping to her feet, she hurried to her address book and flipped through it quickly until she found the correct page. She opened up her laptop and began frantically typing an e-mail to her youngest sister, a girl who was, as Pat always moaned to their mother, a completely hopeless case and who would end up a spinster working in back-rooms so that no one could see her.

Her life was different after that day. She remembered that she’d had flaws once too, found a therapist, and began to work on what everyone around her knew to be her painfully inflated ego. It took her many years, but she became less judgmental, more accepting, and happier for it. She spent less time staring at the mirror and actually lived her life. She often wondered, and spent many fruitless hours with her therapist obsessing over the matter, who had called her with such a poignant message that day.

It was probably better that she didn’t know who the mysterious caller was. She would have probably been frightfully disappointed if she’d discovered that seven other people got the same mysterious phone call that day, and that twenty-two others got a similar call with the message “Seven days…” and another thirty-four were told that “I’ll always know what you did last summer…” Pat really wouldn’t have appreciated the two fourteen-year old boys who’d spent a lonely, boring afternoon ringing up their parents’ phone bills.

Survey

“Hello?”

“Hi! My name is Cheryl, and I work for SFTW, a worldwide survey company. May I take up a few minutes of your time, Ma’am?”

“Huh? Wait a sec – PICK THAT UP, TOM! – sorry, this is a survey?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Would you like to participate?”

“Uh, sure, it’s not long, is it?”

“No, not more than a few minutes.”

“M’kay. Just a second, the cat’s on the table… GET OFF. Good boy. Yeah, I’m with you.”

“Here we go. What sort of cereal do you own?”

“Uh, let me check, let’s see… Cap’n Crunch, Cornflakes, Kellogg’s, and wait, we had one just this morning – TOMMY, WHAT CEREAL DID YOU FINISH THIS MORNING? OH OKAY, THANKS. Yeah, and Quaker Oat Squares.”

“Thank you. Now, how would you rate each of those cereals – let’s start with Cap’n Crunch. Would you say Cap’n Crunch is a very good brand of cereal, a good brand of cereal, a mediocre brand, a bad brand, or a very bad brand of cereal?”

“It’s okay, I guess, I don’t eat the cereals, my kid does.”

“I understand. I still need you to answer the question to the best of your ability. As far as you know, is Cap’n Crunch a very good brand of cereal, a good-”

“I get it, I get it. It’s good, okay? Are you going to do this for every brand?”

“Yes, ma’am. So let’s move on to Cornflakes-”

“Can you just list them all as good brands? I really don’t have a lot of time here, sweetheart.”

“Well, I’m really sorry, but I really have to read you each of the questions. It’s the survery policy.”

“Well, honey, I can’t stand around here listening to you read each of those brands and if they’re good or not. No offense or anything but – TOM, WILL YOU GET YOUR SHOES ON, WE’VE GOT TO GO SOON! – I’ve got to drive my kid to soccer practice soon.”

“Alright, okay, just for you, ma’am, let me just write the brands as good… Okay… Yup… Now, let’s continue.”

“There’s more?”

“Not much, ma’am, please stay with me, just another couple questions.”

“Fine…”

“Out of the cereals you mentioned, which you would say is your favorite?”

“What? I just told you, I don’t eat them, my kid does – TOM, HURRY UP – and I really need to go.”

“I understand that you don’t, but still, to the best of your ability, please. Which is your favorite?”

“Lord, I don’t know – darn I need to fill the cat’s food bowl, hang on a sec, I just need to get – ouch! TOM LEONERD DAVIES, I TOLD YOU NOT TO THROW YOUR GREENS IN THE CATFOOD!”

“Ma’am?”

“Listen, hon, this isn’t a good time, let’s say it’s Cap’n Crunch, okay?”

“Okay, now I just need to ask some statistical questions for our database, okay? I’ll be quick about them!”

“How many of those are there?”

“… Just twelve.”

“…”

“Hello? Ma’am? Hello?”

“…”

“Damn. Lost another one.”

2. Amanda [2]

Amanda walked towards the register, picking up a bag of miniature chocolate-chip cookies, an orange juice and a rather unappetizing ham-and-cheese sandwich along the way. She smiled at the woman who rang up her things, gave her student ID to be swiped and then carried her dinner over to the furthest table she could find that was still more or less clean. She sat down, tipping her things onto the table, and pulled out her cell-phone. She had found Jake’s number in her phone book and was almost about to hit the “SEND” button to dial it when she stopped herself. She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t bug Jake too much this summer. He had told her that he was doing much better and needed her to give him some space. It was hard, though, after spending all of her freshman year calling him two or three times a day to see if he was doing okay – and he hadn’t been, at first. He had forgotten to buy groceries and had gone hungry, not knowing what to do. He’d gotten so engrossed in his latest novel that he’d forgotten to go to job interviews. He’d been as helpless as a puppy, and Amanda’s heart ached for him.

But he’s doing better now, she reminded herself sternly. Ever since he’d gotten the job waiting tables at Lila’s, a twenty-four hours diner that was in downtown Hartscreek, he’d been able to pay his bills, he’d been buying groceries and had learned to make himself mac-and-cheese and some other basic dishes, and he was even doing his own laundry. Amanda suspected that the change had to do with a certain Bo, another waiter at Lila’s, who’d been slowly creeping into her conversations with Jake. That was a good thing, though. Maybe he’ll be able to get over what Mom and Dad did to him after all.

Putting her phone firmly back in her bag, Amanda pulled out a well-worn copy of Pride and Prejudice instead. She had a biography of Elizabeth I in her bag, as well as a stuffy book about politics – she was doing some reading in order to decide which courses to sign up for in the coming semester. But it was still vacation time, damn it, and she was going to read a comfort book and not study for a while.

1. Mr. and Mrs. Adams [2]

By about seven, the sky had darkened enough that Mr. Adams was squinting hard at his crossword puzzle and Mrs. Adams had given up on her needlepoint, staring instead at her husband with amused eyes.

“Come on, old man,” she said. “It’s officially night. Let’s go inside.”

“Oh, alright,” grumbled Mr. Adams. “I need to Google a few of these clues anyway. I swear, whoever writes this crossword is either getting smarter or just obnoxiously obscure.”

Mr. and Mrs. Adams both got out of their rocking chairs with ease and grace – ballroom dancing and standing in lecture halls for hours kept them spry – and headed into the house. Their home was warm, cozy and lived in. It wasn’t filled with antiques, nor did it exclude technology from within its walls, but nevertheless, the furniture was worn and squishy and the clutter looked homey and comfortable.

Mr. Adams went right into his study and began to search furiously for the answers he was missing. Mrs. Adams went into the kitchen and put water on to boil. She made herself a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table, picking up the latest novel she was reading. Before she finished reading a page, however, the phone rang shrilly.

Now, Mr. and Mrs. Adams were the kind of people who had an answering machine and expected people to leave messages if they ever wanted to speak to them. They didn’t like picking up the phone when it rang, because it seemed to them both that people usually called when they weren’t in the mood to talk to them. This is one of those unnatural occurrences that seem to plague people who enjoy relaxing at home – the phone always rings during dinner, or when they’re in the shower, or when the film is reaching a particularly engaging point.

So Mrs. Adams, as usual, raised her eyes from her book and waited for the machine to kick in so she could hear who was calling and decide whether or not she wanted to pick up.

“Hi,” her own voice rang through the house. “This is the Adams residence. Please leave a message, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. If this is an issue regarding academics, please call our offices at Valley University and leave the message there. Thank you!” A shrill beep sounded. Then-

“Uh – Caroline? Dan? Anyone home?”

Mrs. Adams leaped from her seat and grabbed at the phone. Mr. Adams emerged from his study, his face white. He stared at his wife as she spoke into the mouthpiece.

“Marty?!” She shrieked.

Lucy’s Diary, May 23d

May 23d, Afternoon, Grace Hospital, Room #304

Dear Diary,

I’m thoroughly exhausted. I cannot even explain to you the levels of exhaustion I have descended to in the last few days. My cousin, the one who sent me here, said before she sent me away that I was wild and lacked responsibility in my life [stupid cow, she didn’t know one thing about me nor my life, she just decided that, being sixteen, I MUST be wild]. Well, she would have been proud of the responsibilities I’ve taken on in the last week.

But I’m confusing you, I’m sure. Let me begin again, my dearest, and you shall have the story entire by the time I’m done writing.

The morning after I wrote in you last time, I got a phone call on my cell. It was during history class, and of course I couldn’t pick it up right then and there. It was buzzing in my pocket, and I was so shocked at the fact that it really WAS ringing for once [silently, though, obviously] that I immediately raised my hand and asked to be excused to the ladies room. As I’m a good girl and have never asked to be let out in the middle of a lesson since arriving at Pratt and Smith, the surprised teacher let me leave at once.

You can guess my utter astonishment upon seeing the name “Michael” on the screen of my cell phone when I escaped into the hallway and took it out of my pocket. It was Michael! The guy from the diner! I took the call, and all I could hear at first were some garbled noises. Then, I heard something like “help” and then “ouch” and then some monumental swearing. Then, just as I was starting to really panic, I heard him yell out “Oh god!” and then the line went dead.

Oh, Diary, I stood there in the hallway with the phone pressed to my ear even after the line went dead. I was in utter shock for a few moments and could only stand there, trying to figure out what I should do next. Eventually, my mind began to function a little and I dashed to the offices of P&S – a long run from where I had been, to be sure – and breathlessly had the kindly old secretary there call emergency services.

I had no idea where Michael was, of course, but I told them that I believed he was at or around a place called “Gaitec’s Reach.” The man from the rescue services made loud exclamations at that, and asked if I thought he’d been there during the night. When I said that I supposed he had been, the man got very nervous and then very business-like, and I gather that the area is quite traitorous to one who’s not familiar with the terrain.

You may wonder, Diary dearest, how I dealt with P&S on this whole matter – for of course, Michael was found, and I wanted to get to the hospital to see him as soon as I could. P&S are now laboring under the delusion of his being a distant relation of mine, one who was coming to visit me and who I was very worried about because he had been a dear childhood friend of mine, from the days when I still lived with my parents and not with my evil cousin [this lie was necessary to explain why my cousin has no idea who he is].

All in all, the school has been cooperative and my roommates have been life-savers – Sophie and Maria have been bringing me the homework every day, and Peggy even brought me some makeup [“because you look SO dreary, my dear”]. I’ve been spending most of every day here in the hospital, because poor Michael looks so frail, so very weak. I don’t know why, but I feel responsible for him. I can’t, just can’t leave him here to wake up all on his own! I heard his English accent last time we met, so I know he must be so very far from home, the poor thing.

The doctors say he had a bad concussion, and they think he should wake up in a day or two, but I’m worried. He’s been in and out, mumbling nonsense sometimes and groaning from the pain at others.

Diary, Michaels’s stirring, he may want some more water, so I shall have to resume my conversation with you later.

I am ever yours,

Exhaustedly,

Lucy

P.S. Oh, one other thing – I’m going to tell him my real name when he wakes up, if he tells me what he’s been doing here.