Face to Face: A Reader in the World

Face to Face: A Reader in the World

by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
     
 

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Following her acclaimed Ruined by Reading, Lynne Sharon Schwartz moves from the world of books to the broader world outside, tracing the solitary self as it's shaped and defined by connections large and small. These essays move through a landscape of varied encounters that blossom into self-discovery for the reader as well as the writer. Once again, we find…  See more details below

Overview

Following her acclaimed Ruined by Reading, Lynne Sharon Schwartz moves from the world of books to the broader world outside, tracing the solitary self as it's shaped and defined by connections large and small. These essays move through a landscape of varied encounters that blossom into self-discovery for the reader as well as the writer. Once again, we find ourselves illuminated by Schwartz's relentless, sometimes hopeful, and always fiercely intelligent gaze.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
[Schwartz] shares her humanity with her readers. These essays are candid, refreshingly modest. —Diane White, The Boston Globe

"In Face to Face . . . Schwartz resembles one of her fictional characters: a sensitive family-oriented semibohemian whose tastes are literary but refreshingly unstuffy and whose sense of humor tends toward the sly and offbeat." —Diane Cole, The New York Times Book Review

"Marvelous. . . . Near-flawless reflections on experiences generously savored, couched in an ever-inventive prose." -Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

Diane White
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is a poet and a novelist, but she may be best known as the author of the memoir Ruined by Reading, a passionate personal exploration of the solitary joys of reading that has become a favorite of book lovers. As its subtitle implies, ''Face To Face: A Reader in the World'' is a collection of essays about the author's experiences, mostly with other people and, in the title piece, with a cat.

Schwartz, neither a cat lover nor a cat hater, is compelled to spend four months minding an orange cat, never named. She determines ''to make something interesting of our enforced sojourn,'' and she does, with this essay. The cat's company provokes her to reflect not only about the feline character (''It had no moral nature and apparently did not learn from experience''), but about her own life. Face to face with herself she thinks about her preference for solitude, about the nature of time present and time past, about the limits of love. The animal's presence prompts the unnerving memory that she had loved her own infants most easily when, like the cat, they ''lay docile on my lap, showing no will and making no abrupt movements.''

Schwartz is at home with the personal essay, a form that, ideally, bonds writer and reader into a kind of intimate literary friendship. In an instructive introduction to the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate writes, ''At the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience.'' Schwartz's work illustrates the point. Some of these pieces are a lot more satisfying than others, but in each she shares her humanity with her readers. These essays are candid, refreshingly modest, self-analytical but free of what Lopate calls ''the stench of ego.'' And they're often surprising, as Schwartz's thoughts lead her in unexpected directions, and into unforeseen corners of her self, for example, from considering the cat to contemplating her own limitations as a mother.

Schwartz's main subject is herself, her own reactions and thoughts, but she writes about a variety of people and experiences. In ''Help,'' she faces up squarely to her own liberal guilt about hiring Mattie Lou Colton, an African-American woman, to look after her children and her house while she goes off to work.

Her relationship with Colton was long and warm, but an awkwardness remained between them, a regrettable distance of class and race and occupation that for Schwartz has come to epitomize ''all that is wrong with our human arrangements in this place, in this time.''

Schwartz's subjects range widely. She writes about the sudden absence of a close friend, about a brilliant student emotionally scarred by his war experiences in Vietnam, about sitting for a photographer ''so thoroughly at one with his craft that he can hit the target with his eyes closed.''

She revisits the pleasures of literature when she describes listening to tapes of David Case reading Anthony Powell's epic 12-volume novel, ''A Dance to the Music of Time.'' Hearing actors read fiction, Schwartz decides, is a mixed blessing. ''We're all having a wonderful time at the expense of ... what? The words themselves.''

The importance of words is also the subject of ''Found in Translation,'' perhaps the most interesting of these essays, in which Schwartz writes about the challenge of translating Liana Millu's Smoke Over Birkenau, a memoir of imprisonment in the women's section of Auschwitz. Schwartz struggled with the Italian idiom, with typos in the text, with the role of words in expressing the inexpressible.

''How can words come first?'' she asks. ''What about the truth of a piece of writing, its meaning or content?''

She concludes that words must come first because ''a writer's real allegiance is to language, words and their proper placement, without which there is no truth or meaning.''
Boston Globe

Library Journal
In Ruined by Reading (LJ 4/15/96), fiction writer Schwartz turned to nonfiction to limn her life as a reader. Here she stays with nonfiction but swivels to focus on the lone reader's connections with the world. In these essays, she takes us from the modern perils of connecting on the telephone to seeing herself through the eyes of a photographer who shoots her. She forms a deep though confusing relationship with her maid, thinks about a friend who moved away, reflects on a brilliant student muted by his experience in Vietnam, and notes the grace and beauty of a page-turner at a concert. Even in the essay about translating Liana Millu's Smoke Over Birkenau, potentially a purely linguistic topic, Schwartz focuses on the people she consulted to help her with the trickiest parts. Her essays lack the power of her fiction, but reading them is like sitting down for a long session with a bright, reflective friend. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807072219
Publisher:
Beacon
Publication date:
05/11/2001
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.45(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Only Connect?

* * *


It was tall, erect Miss Mulcare, in the seventh grade, who introduced me to the nuances of telephone etiquette. Lesson one: Never phone a friend and say, "Hello, is Claudia there?" Instead say, "This is Lynne. May I please speak to Claudia?" If we knew the parent answering, she enjoined with a flash of cerulean eyes, we must say, "Hello, Mrs. Jones. This is Lynne," and perhaps even add, "How are you?" depending on our degree of acquaintance and of aplomb.

    Miss Mulcare was austere, and with age the rosy skin of her face had grown softly tufted, like certain pillows. Her hair was speckled gray and white. We, her students, were smooth of cheek, young enough to remember the aura of power and privilege attaching to the phone, the infantile thrill of burbling a few words and hearing, by magic, an answering voice. We had longed to grow big enough to dash for its ring, a prerogative of grown-ups.

    We had phone privileges now, but they came with obligations. Lesson two: Never, under any circumstances, open with, "Who is this?" The caller, the invader of privacy, rather than the callee, must declare herself. "Reach out and touch someone" was plainly not Miss Mulcare's motto. In her civil code, the phone was an intrusion, and the person intruded upon was entitled, at the very least, to a smidgen of courtesy. She was so austere that she might have regarded any social overture as an intrusion.

    Today, a shamelessly mercenary promotional flyer urges, "Go ahead and talk, talk, talk."I'll give you a ring, a buzz, a call, we say, and do it on a whim. The evolution of this most casual gesture—picking up the phone or, nowadays, whipping it out—has been swift.

    In old movies, or new movies and TV shows that portray olden times, we see phones used in a cute, self-conscious manner, as vital elements of the story rather than as narrative aids of no interest per se. I'm thinking of the telephone that entered the lives of the young generation in the televised version of Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. Or the telephone in Upstairs, Downstairs, handled with cautious deference by the impeccable butler, Hudson. These phones are clumsy affairs, a tubular receiver and a box-like speaker on the wall into which the characters shout: sweet campy objects that make us laugh. (Affectionate, condescending laughter at things never intended to be laughed at is the essence of camp.) The Forsytes hardly took their phone for granted; if it rang, both they and we knew something noteworthy was afoot.

    Later, yet not so long ago, the aim of the personal call was usually to arrange a meeting where, in the words of the smarmy slogan, we might indeed reach out and touch someone. The conversation itself might cover every topic under the sun, even ascend, or descend, to intimacy. Still, it was only a prelude, a snatch of delights to come if we signed on for the full experience, like a coming attraction for a movie. Nowadays the phone call is the visit, as though nothing essential or significant would be added were the speakers to meet.

    Physical presence, the sensory awareness of others, counts for little. What does count is abstracted—hearing a disembodied voice and receiving its data. It's no accident that the phone call as a form of social life has flourished in an era of minimalism and conceptual art, when bare allusions are accepted substitutes for the real thing.

    With my obvious bias, how come I'm a devotee of radio, where people exist through voices alone? I have no yen to meet my radio friends, or even to know what they look like. I avoid any opportunity to see them on a screen or in the flesh. I'm not convinced they exist materially, off the radio, just as in school we couldn't visualize lives for our teachers—certainly not for Miss Mulcare—outside of the classroom. They might as well have been locked in the metal closets at three o'clock and released the next morning.

    Radio is an art form that distills immediate presence into the voice—all gross matter purged away—and its best practitioners can make the voice, with its variables of tone, pitch, rhythm, and inflection, as rich a bearer of sensibility as silent dancers can make of the body. Just as speech would not enhance a ballerina's performance, a radio voice needs no face or body.

    Phone conversations are not quite an art form yet, though they're evolving in that direction. Someday soon we may label people as good on the phone, just as we call them good company or good listeners or good dancers or good in bed. In fact I label them so already. There are moments when—too surfeited with work, too restless to read a book—nothing will serve me so well as a long chummy talk, curled up in a chair, analyzing the day's events with an absurd yet regenerating minuteness and concentration. That's when I seek out friends who blossom on the phone. I can feel them settling in, summoning their resources of clarity and empathy, calling forth my own best flights too. (Other friends, equally dear, are no use at all on the phone; they hurry off, saving themselves for the reality of our next meeting.)

    So perhaps I've been hasty. Perhaps what phones offer is not so much a fraudulent and reduced version of human contact as a different kind or quality. After all, pen pals know each other only by letter and have rich connections, are even loath to meet for fear of disturbing the fragile bond so carefully nurtured. (E-mail is a whole other matter, on which I'm not ready to theorize.)

    Likewise, with certain friends who live too far away for a visit, we talk so well and so thoroughly on the phone that we don't ever long to see them. If they do hit town periodically, we feel a discrepancy, a slight jolt when we meet. We're so accustomed to the unfleshed voice that we have trouble compounding and compacting it with the body it issues from. By the time our neural circuits have wedded the voice and the body so that we can speak as naturally as on the phone, the visit may be over, the critical moment passed. We part looking forward to the next phone call; we go home unsatisfied, as if we haven't really enjoyed the friend we know so well. Something was missing. What was missing was the physical absence, the fertile vacuum in which our friendship thrives, a vacuum that bathes our words in its delicate emptiness and suffuses them with a pure floating grace.

    If certain friendships are best cultivated over the phone, certain things are more easily said, too. Asking favors is easier over the phone. So is refusing them, especially for those who find it hard to say no; the phone removes the awkward sight of the other's disappointment. (That kind of vicarious discomfort, of course, is less the sign of a kind heart than the dread of being the object of ill will.) Anger, a sharper way of saying no, is also easier over the phone, at least for the timid, who can hang up when the rising temperature begins to crackle the wires. (The brave and belligerent may relish the heat of confrontation.) The timid, again, profit by the phone when encountering someone for the first time, particularly someone in a position of power, a prospective employer, say. They can sit quaking and unkempt in their bathrobes, attending only to voice and words, heedless of facial expressions, gestures, and all the rest. Apologizing is easier over the phone, though without the sight of a forgiving face, one tends to apologize for too long, hoping to make an abstract absolution palpable. A telephone encounter can be a great equalizer for those who for one reason or another feel unpresentable. (Unless pride makes them flaunt their appearance: Take me as I am or not at all.) And none of these maxims applies if you're phonophobic, an ailment more widespread than is generally recognized; perhaps it will soon have its flurry of media attention and support groups, in which phoning fellow sufferers will be the first step in recovery.

    Finally, saying good-bye is easier over the phone.

    Easier. Easier to avoid the emotion that attends direct experience. One of phone culture's many results—ominous or convenient, depending on your outlook—is to dilute strong emotion, often to the vanishing point. To make everything personal feel, to some degree, like business. The phone makes us businesslike; it makes us conduct our lives like cottage industries, with appointments, calendar juggling, quick jottings of memos, names, and numbers.

    In the world of business there are no interruptions. Or rather, interruption means business—action, transaction, goods and money flowing. A business with silent phones is on the path to doom. So with our lives, we want the phone to ring. It means we have a life, we're in business. And the ways we conduct our little businesses—from hello to good-bye—illustrate what the late social philosopher Erring Goffman so happily termed the presentation of self in everyday life. Some people feel they must greet the world with a steeled formality. They pick up with an officious, off-putting "Hello," then relax immediately into a colloquial tone.

    Others, never having known the likes of Miss Mulcare, dispense with "Hello" altogether and launch into breezy narrative, confident that they're uppermost in my thoughts. How mistaken. Besides, though I have a good ear for music and speech rhythms, I can't readily identify phone voices. More times than I care to remember, I've had to reply to an exuberant rush of anecdote—"So who do you think just resurfaced in my life? That guy from ..."—by asking, "Yes, but who is this?" And certain eccentrics baldly adopt the business mode for personal life—"John Doe speaking"—and in the space of a breath reshape the borders of public and private.

    I've been told my "Hello" sounds a world-weary, "What now?" note—if not expecting the worst, then at least something pretty bad. This doesn't surprise me. Our every gesture shows how we anticipate that the world will impinge on us—for impinge it must, and more and more often right at home, assaulting the open gate of the ear. The world's approach, for me at any rate, is an interruption of the inner dialogue, at once fantastical and mundane, in which I'm forever absorbed. The call that summons me has about as much charm as a stranger bursting in on a rendezvous. Sometimes I even answer with an intimidating "Yes?," trying uselessly to forestall whatever is about to be demanded. I wouldn't want to be greeted by a "Hello" like mine, and luckily I'm not. The great majority, whose comfort in the universe I can barely imagine, pick up with a tone of merry preparedness: what delightful new event is about to befall me?

    Endings tell as much as beginnings. The conversation draws to its natural close, but some people cannot hang up. They cherish the long good-bye. Either they dread the silence awaiting them or, less pathetically, they can't stop whatever they're doing, whether pleasant or painful. The longer they've been doing it, the harder it is to switch gears. A long conversation becomes incrementally longer until the good-bye resembles the drawn-out conclusion of a Romantic symphony. I, on the other hand, am restless to move on once "Well, it's been good talking to you" has been mutually sounded. I begin to hang up, but then I hear the dimming voice come from the lowered receiver. "Sorry, what was that?" Nothing, usually. Except in cases where the speaker leaves the most salient item, the real purpose of the call, for last—"I forgot to mention, I'm getting married and moving to Spain"—and what might that signify?


* * *


The simple contraption into which Don Ameche—as Alexander Graham Bell—so memorably shouted has become a wildly complex global network whose evolution could fill volumes. And the more varied its options, the less human contact. In a New York Times Magazine article of a few years ago by James Gleick, "The Telephone Transformed—Into Almost Everything," technical wizardry is amply documented and justly marveled at. Moreover, a Bell Communications Research representative is quoted as saying, "All this accumulated technology and accumulated vision is like a volcano waiting to erupt." What effects will this volcano inevitably spew on the human spirit? On our ways of being with each other?

    One of the first jarring omens, which in our innocence we didn't properly read, was losing our beautiful and evocative exchanges, our Butterfields, our Murray Hills, our Morningsides. Obliterated overnight as if by an act of God and replaced by digits. One may not feel attached to a social security number or a zip code, but Plaza, Riverside, and Chelsea were no mere syllables or clues to location on a map. They were treasured possessions, tokens of identity. Trafalgar, Cloverdale, and Esplanade conferred traces of their multisyllabic glamour on us all, but there is no glamour to living in the 468 neighborhood. Despite the monotheistic solidity of 1 or the Christian symbolism of 3, the architectural satisfaction of 4, the Satanic connotations of 6 and the fabled luck of 7, numbers will never have the poetry of letters, whose magic conjunction makes names—music on the tongue—and conjures the winds of association and memory.

    We accepted the deprivation meekly; we were taken aback, unprepared, unprovident. We should have seen the loss as political as well as aesthetic and fought for our exchanges, kept using them in nonviolent defiance. A handful of numbers in my address book are in fact still listed by their exchanges—sweet nostalgias, bitter reminders. Perhaps their owners have been tenacious, or else I never bothered to make the change. When I'm using state-of-the-art phones from which letters have been banished, I need to translate carefully, letter by luscious letter, into vapid numbers. Inconvenient, but a small price to pay. Total defeat would come only if every letter disappeared from every phone.

    And this, it appears, is not about to happen. Ironically, letters—of a different sort—are making an unforeseen comeback. In the present global village, or global mall, of 800 numbers, they're replacing digits in part or entirely. Billboard and bus advertising teems with examples. To feel more at home in your chosen land, call 1-800-English. For help getting into college or graduate school, dial 1-800-Kap-Test. Trouble sleeping? 1-800-Mattres (sic). For therapy, 1-800-FEELING. Better still, to reshape your life and prospects, 1-800-55Blemish. The letters, presumably, are easier to remember. Thus the wheel, newly reinvented, comes round again.

    In those days of Axminster, Baring, and Shore Road, my parents' friends would unexpectedly ring the doorbell—"We were just passing by"—and be invited in for coffee. The hour might be inopportune, but these were friends, after all, and they were made welcome. With scheduled appointments the order of our day, doorbells are silent but phones clamor. You're settling into the tub after worrying all day about a loved one who's sick or in trouble. What will the blood tests reveal? Will he get the job he needs so badly? The phone rings. You could let the machine take it but no, love propels you, dripping, toward the news. Hello? you pant. It's Planned Parenthood and they need your help.

    The dinner hour has become a free-for-all. ("Courtesy calls"!) Hosts of strangers prod us to become a charitable point of light. Or to take out a new credit card. Or invest in land in Texas. (During the recent phone wars, competing firms called not to beg but to offer money, in exchange for your naming names, that is, suggesting future customers, as in the witch-hunts of the fifties. If the good-cause callers are irritating, these glad-handed ones are sinister.)

    The voices give them away: unctuous, bright, a tad edgy, prepared for your hostility. Naturally they do all they can to avert it, and the worst thing they do—reading from their scripts—is greet you by name and ask how you are. For me, that "How are you this evening?" is the clincher. I don't do phone solicitations, I reply in the flat tone cleaning women use to say they don't do windows, or prostitutes that they don't do cuffs and chains. It usually suffices for all but the most avid. "I understand, but just let me tell you how worthy our cause is, and how dire our need."

    Hanging up is the only solution. But hanging up, like breaking up, is hard to do—almost as hard as slamming the door in someone's face. I know people who'll hear out the whole script before saying no. True, there've been complaints about telemarketing, and yes, there are ways to keep your name off the lists. But since being a good citizen has come to mean being a good consumer, I shouldn't wonder that such cruel and unusual practices are by and large accepted passively. (Though they have their occasional uses. A recently divorced friend developed a warm long-distance relationship with a charming real-estate salesman. Good practice, no strings attached. She enjoyed the distraction and solicitude, along with the power to say no endlessly without discouraging her suitor.)

    One step beyond the hypocrites who pretend to care how we are leads to a twilight zone: calls from no one. You're expecting your mate just stepping off the plane, and instead a voice severed from its owner says, You are the winner of a three-foot rubber raft, suitable for water sports. Or, This is the principal's office at Urban High School. Are you aware that your child did not attend classes today? Or, This is your telephone company. Press one if you still need service, two if the serviceman has already visited, three if the problem has disappeared.... (Don't they know?) Those virtual voices intoning virtual sentences jar our notions of what qualifies as talk. Is there perhaps something barbarous about using precious ordinary language—and extraordinary technology—to mimic actual communication? Maybe this other, profoundly offensive thing should have a different name.

    I can't imagine ever being pleased to be addressed by a virtual voice. (My ear still holds an eerie echo of the voice in the Atlanta airport tram warning that the doors are closing. How does she know? She's not there. She's not anywhere.) Yet there are times, lonesome or bored or worse, when a stranger's live voice does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We cannot interrupt ourselves, we are too much with us. I remember fondly a nuisance call that transcended nuisance-dom, on one eternal Sunday afternoon when isolation gripped me like a clamp. Release came through the voice of a cordial, motherly woman conducting a survey about insurance companies. Would I participate? What I might have resented on a good day became a link to the glistening world beyond. Sure! Ask me anything! Okay, how would I rate the probity of the following firms on a scale of one to ten? Which of the following words or images would I use to describe each? A good game, even though, as I freely confessed, I knew nothing about insurance companies. My caller didn't care. Maybe ignorance made me a better subject. It was a long survey, lots of questions. I made it even longer with little comments and jokes that she seemed to appreciate. I hated to part with her. I imagined going out and meeting her for coffee, but I was not so far gone as to suggest that; anyhow, she was probably miles away, a different time zone, different weather. Sadly for me, it ended. But I was not so sad as when it began. I had been stirred from torpor and enlisted in the affairs of the world, no matter how inane. From that factitious dialogue I might make the leap to real dialogue. I could see a future.


* * *


Not long after the tragic fall of President, Trafalgar, and Buckminster came the demise of answering services. They were favored by doctors for after-hours emergencies, by actors for the crucial callback, and by those people, ahead of their time, who couldn't stand to miss a call. The diverse and idiosyncratic voices that manned the services are silenced now; also gone forever are comic movie scenes of wires being hastily jabbed into switchboards by rows of operators whose antic garbling of messages drove the helter-skelter plot. Instead we have the answering machine. We wonder how we managed without it, yet manage we did. We must have lived more patiently. We had, perforce, the capacity to wait. But machines shape our nature as much as anything else, and the answering machine has wrought the need to reach out and touch someone—or someone's echo—into a craving that demands instant gratification.

    The messages that greet callers are another Goffmanesque presentation of self. Early messages had a naive transparency, as in any new craft or art; in hindsight they seem touchingly ingenuous, like the great primitive paintings. Some were arch and self-conscious, others gracious—"I'm so sorry I can't get to the phone," or as one friend more elaborately put it, "I'm sorry to greet you with a recorded announcement." One of my favorites, showing a rare existential precision, declared, "This is the voice of John Smith."

    How fast we've moved beyond all that. We're sophisticated, adaptable, ready to explore the possibilities of the form. Greetings range from friendly and functional to bare-bones terse: one close friend simply states her phone number—the ultimate in Mondrianesque. I get the point—this is, after all, only a machine—yet I feel a chill through my bones each time. Must she be quite so stark? It's not the world at large who's calling. It's me!

    In the middle of the spectrum are the playful—snatches of popular songs hinting at the greeter's passing mood, the most famous bars of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," the daily changing homilies from Ecclesiastes or enshrined poetry—and what can only be called kitsch: the family's youngest member piping out a rehearsed sentence, sometimes assisted by a pet.

    What a jolt it was, hearing my very first machine greeting. What was this eerie artifice, this absent presence? Did it actually expect me to say something in return? Over my dead body. I was so boggled by the prospect that I just hung up. Later I was told that hanging up mute is a form of rudeness. I didn't feel rude. How could you be rude to a machine? But apparently you could. How odd Miss Mulcare would have found that: machines legislating manners, expecting all the courtesy due to their owners.

    I made judgments of character, in those frontier days, based on who had answering machines. But as they sprang up like weeds, my categories broke down. It was not merely the trendy, the anxious, or the self-important, but just plain folk. A select few, though, would surely never succumb: too old-fashioned, unimpressed by novelty, temperamentally ill-suited. How wrong I was. In the end, in a revolution that changed forever the nature of human connection and conversation, everyone succumbed.

    Me too. I spent hours poring over the manual. Within a couple of weeks I was able to use the machine adequately, although tricks such as fast forwarding and selective erasing still strike me as risky. After some months, I learned by trial and error how to pick up my calls from outside. One day soon I may even feel ready to erase calls from outside.

    I used to come home each day eager to check my mail. Now I have a double desire. I look for the flashing red bar, I count its flashes. I don't feel especially neglected or unloved if there are none; in some ways it's a relief to be left alone. What I do miss is the frisson called forth by news, happenings, change. Even in the absence of the flashing red bar I sometimes listen anyway, to be quite sure.

    And what do I find? Styles of addressing machines are as varied as voices themselves. Most callers keep their usual patterns of diction and pace and inflection, and their usual personalities too. But a few are curiously altered, the kindly becoming imperious, the reserved loquacious. Romantic, volatile souls turn lucid and precise, and vice versa. Who can say why? Art is a mystery. Listening to one's messages is a study in the varieties of human response to a vacuum. We eavesdrop on a voice alone yet not alone, on a soliloquy played into the dark, in an empty house.

    Gone are the amateur days of fumble and stammer. Now, when we make a call, we're prepared for the canned greeting; we have our speeches set. We talk freely, maybe even more freely than had we reached an actual person. Sometimes we even prefer to reach a machine and are startled by a real voice—What are you doing at home! And we're inhibited, as once we were inhibited by the machine; we need to revise our words to make them fit for live consumption.

    Certain coy messages hint at, but never give away, the essence—"I just found out something really shocking about X"—a transparent ploy that ensures a quick call back. The efficiency-minded rattle off information, sending us scurrying for a pencil, while purists leave austere names and numbers; they wouldn't dream of confiding anything to a machine. I appreciate their Spartan aesthetic, but their opposites are far more entertaining. I mean the callers who make an imaginative leap and address my recorded voice as if it were my receptive presence, telling it everything they would tell me. With those messages, I settle in to listen awhile, chuckling or frowning as I would at any amazingly lifelike performance. Paradoxically, I'm in no hurry to call back, for it seems I've already had the zesty human exchange, and in so undemanding a fashion, too.

    As a rule I return most of my calls promptly and willingly. But what of the others? The machine, with its demand for a response, makes the nuances of connection pitilessly explicit. We can gauge our feelings for people—feelings once serenely vague—by how soon we find ourselves calling back and how eagerly. Even worse, our caller can do the same. In the early days of ineptitude you could say the message was lost or the machine broken, but that excuse won't fly anymore. No, we are fated to discover all there is to know about our attachments, and to those who prize self-knowledge this may be a boon. Not such a boon, maybe, is discovering how keenly others feel attached to us.

    But not all unreturned calls mean we're unloved. Lots of people, never having been schooled by Miss Mulcare, simply take advantage of a new way of being rude. Is not returning calls the same as not answering letters, or is it worse because the human voice—mightier even than the pen—is involved? If we're overlooked do we call again? How soon? More than once? I'm irritated by the nonreturners, and yet I secretly envy them. I wish I had that blithe and awful freedom.


* * *


Until recently, the only mail I received from the phone company was a monthly bill. Now they write constantly—clogging the mailbox, raising the rates, toppling the trees—to persuade me that some cunning new phone game would improve my life. Don't I want Speed Calling, Call Forwarding, Reminder Call? Three-Way Calling sounds piquant, a near relation of the ménage à trois. It might eventually supplant more traditional gathering places such as coffee shops, bars, and park benches. If one of the phone companies' aims is indeed to make human contact superfluous, it had better be planning alternate arrangements for procreation in the brave new world: phone sex can't yet go that far.

    An undeniable aim is to ensure that the sound of the busy signal is heard no more in the land, since more completed calls mean more revenue. Success is imminent. The busy signal has all but died without the proper obsequies. Brought down by what a 1994 New York Times article calls "the demands of a frenetic society that increasingly sees the busy signal as a symbol of failure and lost opportunity, a vestige of the past that is no longer tolerable." Lost opportunity? Symbol of failure? What harsh words! The busy signal could be irksome, yes, but it was reassuring too. The object of desire was nearly within our grasp—tantalizingly there but not there. The preconditions of story, of romance. (Are they, too, a vestige of the past?) A little while longer and our efforts would be rewarded. Granted, we might suffer some jealousy and resentment meanwhile, but they were manageable, tempered by anticipation.

    Uncertainty gives ordinary life the fine edge of suspense. Just so, the chance of a busy signal spiced the banal act of phoning. Now, with all the automated means of circumventing the busy signal, there's almost always success, of some sort or other. These semi-successes offer a restless semi-satisfaction which, as with sex, food, and sleep, is arguably worse than none at all. Moreover, alleged aids like Memory Mode or Redial, which require only one stroke rather than the arduous seven, not only glorify sloth and impatience but create a false sense of urgency. In time they make us less able to recognize true urgency, the way advertising distorts the true nature of need.

    If the busy signal has not been properly mourned, its most common stand-in, Call Waiting, has been too naively welcomed, like the stranger of legend who knocks on the door in a storm and is given a place by the hearth, then makes off with the family heirlooms or worse. Call Waiting titillates the basest of impulses—greed and opportunism. (So sorry, a subsequent engagement, as Oscar Wilde prophetically said.) It plays on our anxiety—the nasty little need to know what or who might be better than what we've got now. More than a need: a fear, tantamount to desperation—given the Pavlovian alacrity with which people respond to the click—that something might be missed. The chance of a lifetime? Or an exciting emergency that requires our participation? And yet no one who's shunted me aside—after having phoned me!—has ever returned saying, I've got to go, my child has taken ill, or, Hey, I won the lottery.

    For the interrupting caller, Call Waiting means being swiftly weighed in the balance. Are you more alluring than the person you innocently broke in on? If so, you feel gratification but also a small tug of guilt, as at any impure victory. If not, you're summarily dismissed. The busy signal avoided such minor abrasions to the spirit; it acted as an anodyne.

    In the end, whatever role we play in the unholy Call Waiting triad, we talk on tenterhooks. Impending interruption, judgment, and competition hover over our words, draining the bloom of the present moment. The exchange is vitiated, the implicit premise of conversation overturned. The goal of the telecommunications wizards might as well be to unravel the social contract.

    A half-dozen other examples of phone acrobatics confirm that our lives, our small going concerns, are important. They must be, mustn't they?, to warrant such high-tech attention as Voice Dialing, Wake-Up Call, or the customized Ring Mate Service—"Why rush to the phone ... only to learn the call is ... for someone else in your household?" Pay for a distinctive ring that's all your own. Or Call Answering, the "revolutionary" message recording service touted as a lifesaving device, the EMS of phone life: "Imagine being in the middle of a call when another call comes in...." Or Call Return, which by the touch of button reconnects the call you missed while racing from the shower.

    One and all, they not only reveal unsightly fault lines in human nature, but widen them. There's something authoritative about a ringing phone, and the new devices encourage us to leap like good soldiers to the sound of authority. Even more, they appeal to latent desperation, rubbing at the sore need to feel connected, though to whom seems immaterial. How, they collectively needle us, can we afford to miss news that might change our lives? The implication is that our present lives are not quite enough, not quite right. And existentially speaking, that may well be. Insufficiency and imperfection are built into the human condition and are the impetus for art and science, love and crime. But they will not be remedied, or at least only temporarily, by a phone call.

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What People are saying about this

Nicholas Delbanco
In Face to Face Lynne Sharon Schwartz continues her journey through the world of words so enthrallingly begun with Ruined by Reading; this "life in books" extends and enlarges our own. We never know what track comes next-the way the wind shifts, what direction she'll take-but always under full sail.
—(Nicholas Delbanco, author of The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life.)
Phillip Lopate
These essays offer a deeply satisfying encounter with a unique sensibility: thoughtful, rueful, amused, compassionate, prickly, vital. Each one delivers on its promise. Disenchanted, they enchant with their worldly understandings.
—(Phillip Lopate)

Meet the Author

Lynne Sharon Schwarz is the acclaimed author of many books, including Ruined by Reading, Disturbances in the Field, and In the Family Way. She lives in New York City.

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