Nothing surprises us anymore. Not so many years ago, when the phone rang we had no idea who was calling. There were no displays, no numbers flashing on a screen, just the cold hard plastic phone. We picked up the receiver and said, “Hello?” a question in our voices. Family, friend, colleague or stranger, we had no idea. If we didn’t answer the phone, we would never know, especially back before answering machines and voicemail. In fact, if we weren’t around to hear the phone ring, we would never know that it had. Does the phone still ring if there’s no one to hear it?
It was up to the caller to identify him/herself. I have always been chicken about cold-calling strangers. But now the phone identifies me before I have a chance. For example, I call my friend Pat’s house, and before I can spit out, “Hi, this is Sue,” her husband John says, “Hi, Sue. How are you?”
This can be good and bad. Back in my newspaper days, we didn’t always want people to know the press was calling. Sometimes we could get more information if we pretended to be ordinary people. Now the phone blows our cover. You’d be surprised how many people with seemingly nothing to hide don’t want to talk to reporters.
I have five landline phones, two with caller ID. I will run through the house to my office or kitchen to see who’s calling before I pick up the receiver. Caller ID may not give a name, but at least I have a phone number with an area code that tells me where the call is coming from. Newport? Okay. Florida? I don’t know anybody there. San Jose, where my father lives? Uh-oh. And then there’s “anonymous,” which 99 percent of the time is Dad.
Once I see who it is or might be, I have a choice: Answer it or not. If I’m not around the phone when it rings, I can still see who called, even if they don’t leave a message, so I can always deal with it later.
My cell phone also tells me who is calling. I can look and say, “Hello” or nope, don’t want to talk to them. Or I can tell yet another stranger that this is not the Sanchez family. I guess they had the number before I got it.
The only hiccup in this system comes from robocalls. Those clever robots have figured out how to call me with what appear to be local numbers. I look at the number, see South Beach or Newport and think: I don’t know that number, but it’s local, so I should answer it. It might be a friend or someone from church. “Hello?” Here comes that chirpy voice wanting to offer me a new credit card or a resort vacation. Grr.
The other night when I called my father, he didn’t answer the phone. This always scares me. While I leave a message and wait for him to not call back (he rarely notices the blinking red light), I go through the litany of possibilities: He’s in the bathroom, he’s outside, he’s talking on the cell phone, someone took him out to dinner, or maybe he’s lying on the floor and nobody will see him for days. If you have elderly parents, you know the drill.
But Wednesday night, he called me back. He said my call was the seventh that evening. The others were all salespeople, but he had to answer them because he didn’t know who it was. By number seven, he had decided to ignore the phone and finish washing his dishes.
Dad does not have caller ID. He has barely graduated from dial phones to push buttons. Plus Caller ID costs a few more dollars. Yes, I put his number on the “do not call list,” but the calls come anyway. My father still lives in the age of surprises. His cell phone will tell him who’s calling, but in letters and numbers too small for him to see. The landlines in the kitchen and bedroom tell him nothing. This drives me crazy because I’m not used to surprises anymore.
The phone isn’t the only non-surprise these days. For example:
* I get an email every day from the postal service showing me pictures of the envelopes that will be delivered to my mailbox. Today it’s a charity plea from the National Parks Conservation Association, plus the local newspaper. If you want this service, sign up at usps.com.
* When I submit stories or poems to publishers, I immediately get an email that they have arrived. Sometimes a rejection shows up the same day. Before online submissions, I had at least a few days of suspense while the work was traveling through the mail.
* If I go out to lunch and use my debit card, the charge appears on my online bank statement before I get home.
* We don’t have to wait for the morning paper anymore to know about the latest shooting or presidential tweet. It’s on our phones, pads and computers. I have to avoid the Internet if I don’t want to know who won “Dancing with the Stars” or any competition that has already aired on the East Coast because the results go online before we can watch the show on the West Coast.
Sort of like my mother’s mother, who could never keep a secret.
No surprises. That’s kind of sad.
I welcome your comments.