The new voice-mail of reason Essay: It's OK if you can't come to the phone right now. I don't need to know why.

December 08, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

It's one thing to be away from your desk, another to be on the phone. But that's the full range of possibility. As my friend Bob's recorded voice said the other day: "I'm either on the phone or away from my desk."

The good news is that Bob has apparently simplified his life. I don't recall him turning Buddhist or going on about severing attachments, but there it is. He has apparently pared life to the essentials. Two options, either/or. Count 'em:

1. On the phone.

2. Away from my desk.

It's the sort of thing that makes you nostalgic for the old days when it was enough to say "I can't come to the phone right now. " It's not enough anymore. One must present the possibilities. Bob is hardly alone in this. The trend is clear, and the world, it turns out, is divided into two groups of people: those away from their desks, those on the phone. The latter includes a sub-group of those listening to voice-mail recordings and thinking: "What actual information is conveyed in this message?"

The short answer is not much.

"On the phone" gives you a crumb. In the case of my friend, Bob, you can picture the scene if you know that he writes features for a newspaper. There's the desk piled with notebooks, newspaper clipping files and yellow legal pad sheets covered with Bob's micro-scratch notes. There's Bob talking into a telephone receiver the color of wood putty. A police scanner drones in the background, scratching and barking like transmissions from the early days of the space program. Bob is oblivious to this and to the editors who, invariably, are meeting at the table in the back of the newsroom concocting story angles. At the moment, Bob is safe because, as noted, he's "on the phone."

Or "away from my desk."

Perhaps that's better, but who can say? Virtually nothing to go on. How far away is "away from my desk"? Beyond earshot? Within a two-ring gallop? Out on the loading dock getting a cigarette in 27-degree weather?

Just a quick check of "The Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World" suggests that once you have made that big move "away from my desk," the options are quite exciting. Sao Paulo, for example. Then of course there's Aurapushekaru. There are Ofuna, Dickeyville and Mooselookmeguntic Lake.

The apartment-search agent I called the other day was a bit more specific, yet equally baffling. Her voice-mail recording said she was "either with a client or away from my desk," which did not seem an either-or proposition. Couldn't she be with a client away from her desk? In, say, Dickeyville?

At least it was a step toward definition, although the possibility of her being "on the phone" was omitted, as was "sitting at my desk no more than an arm's length from the telephone but ignoring it so I can continue chatting with a colleague about how if I had seven kids at once I'd make plans to step in front of a speeding MARC train. "

One yearns for specifics, not to mention candor. The imagination reels at the possibilities.

"Hello, this is Peter Angelos. I'm either suddenly realizing that I never liked Ray Miller in the first place or I'm striding purposefully through the lobby of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel wearing a dark suit wondering why nobody in Baltimore appreciates me. Or, I'm on the phone. "

"Hi. This is TV sex bomb Jenny McCarthy. I'm either being groomed for a new life as a wholesome sitcom star in a cardigan sweater or I'm sitting in a meeting with my manager, three image consultants and a publicist who says the 'bodacious ta-ta thing' was working well so why mess with it, or I'm considering life as a recording artist in view of my hit CD 'Jenny McCarthy's Surfin' Safari.' Or, I'm on the phone. "

"You have reached Bill Clinton, president of the United States. I'm either at a $1,000-a-head coffee klatch in Potomac or I'm on the phone with a $425-an-hour lawyer about the nature of the telephone conversation I was having with a certain Taiwanese businessman the last time you called. Or I'm away from my desk ."

"Hey, sports fans, this is Marv Albert. I'm either. "

But then, there is such a thing as too much information.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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