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It's His Busy Signal, Darn It, and He's Not Gonna Give It Up

July 26, 1996|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tommy Lasorda and I have something important in common, other than fretting about why the Dodgers don't make the Series more often. Neither of us has call waiting on our phones. Tommy, according to press reports, does me one better: He doesn't even have an answering machine.

Bravo, Tommy! Here's to limited access!

If I were to add call waiting to my phone, I would never have a single uninterrupted phone conversation--and interrupting people, my mother and father taught me, is . . . rude. As a result, people who try to reach me very often get a busy signal.

Right, a busy signal! That efficient burping noise that has become, in the minds of those who carry their cellular phones into the shower, the telephonic equivalent of the raised third finger. Tommy and I are doing our parts to make sure that the busy signal does not become extinct. To us, it communicates with ironclad clarity just what it has always communicated: We are . . . busy.

Sorry, no one is so important that they need to be instantly accessible 24 hours a day. Well, with the possible exception of world leaders, heart-transplant patients, those who staff nuclear missile silos and Madonna. For the rest, there is a madness loose in the land--call it access addiction. An overwhelming compulsion to be available at all times, for absolutely anything. Soon, undoubtedly, there will be a new kind of AA--Access-addicts Anonymous. Imagine the meetings:

"My name is Michael and I'm an access addict. I carry my cell phone into my bathroom, my Lexus, my gym locker room at the Sports Club L.A., my cognitive therapy session and my dog groomer's. If it doesn't ring for more than five minutes, I get sweaty palms, and I chew gum compulsively, just to keep my mouth moving. If I go for more than 10 minutes, I make calls to recorded messages, like the Audubon Society daily bird report, and Indian movie theaters, just so I can use my phone!"

I submit that increased access afforded by call waiting, answering machines, cellular phones and beepers has merely enabled people to take on more business than they can realistically handle--driving up irritability, stress, stomach acid, gun ownership and the incidence of bad movies. (Think of it: How many summer action flicks have been hashed out on international conference calls between limos chock-full of blonds and power cigars?)

It's all more serious than you might think. I would not be surprised if call waiting alone could be linked to an increase in violent crime. Consider: How often has someone put you on hold right in the middle of a critical utterance; an artfully phrased, crystalline exposition or the climax of a spellbinding anecdote? "Hold on!" they blurt--and you're history! Train-of-thought derailed into a smoking heap. You are suddenly, ruthlessly deemed a lesser priority, and the access fiend on the other end of the phone doesn't care a whit if you realize it. Blood is spilled every day for less.

It brings to mind a former friend who chronically answered his phone with: "Rip? Hold on." I would sit there, spending part of my life allotment; my time in this earthly, fleshly state, waiting to become more of a priority in his day. This is one of the reasons we are no longer friends.

The point I am leading to is that a kind of access caste system has accompanied the advent of call waiting and voicemail. I must rank somewhere near untouchable. That's correct, I am being discriminated against for being less accessible. Yes, we're talking access-ism here, folks, and I proclaim myself the first official victim. I provide only partial access to myself and, as a result, am being psychologically abused by enraged access addicts.

*

In the past year, I have heard the words, "You need to do something about that busy signal" as often as I hear Paul, the King of Big Screen, proclaim on his commercials, "I am the king!" (In other words, enough to make me cry.) Note the key word, "need." People are not advising me, here--they are ordering me. "You need to get call waiting!" . . . and . . . "You need to get phone mail. . . ." regularly sing out from my answering machine--often from people I have never even met. Well, guess what:

I need to eat. I need to work. I need to watch "Seinfeld." I need to listen to Brahms. I need to be kind to animals. But I don't need to have interrupted phone conversations and I don't need to pay the phone company for voicemail because, as an access addict told me, "That way, people never get a busy signal."

I think the busy signal is healthy! I like the idea that people are busy being focused on one uninterrupted pursuit! This surly, damnable attitude has already cost me one good working relationship with an editor, who, quaintly enough, resorted to mailing me a note declaring, "It is very frustrating trying to get in touch with you," etc.

My response was to leave the following message on this editor's answering machine:

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