NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Last Call

We finally did it — we cut the cord. After a lifetime of landline telephony, we pulled the anchor and sailed away from Ma Bell.

No wonder, then, why I’m feeling just a bit adrift.

We’d been thinking about doing it for a long, long time … every winter when new directories are dropped off on our front step, and we deposit them straight into the recycling bin; every time I dial a number retrieved from my ancient Rolodex, only to find it’s no longer in service; and (for years now) every time that dadblasted ringy dingy blares forth at the most inopportune moment, only to bring on the umpteenth idiot robocall or another hapless taker of surveys.

Though we left the official Ma Bell a long time ago, we’ve still maintained that connection to the civilized world via our cellphone company’s home service. We needed it in case of emergencies, we thought. We needed it so our older relatives can reach us (though we’re now the oldest ones left). We needed to keep the line open for the Publishers Clearinghouse Giveaway, who we somehow assumed would place an old-style call with the good news.

In other words, we dragged our feet. Though both Russ and I rarely lay down our Androids from sun-up to sleepytime, the thought of disconnecting the “real” telephone seemed so … final. Was landlineless life worth living?

So I asked a small question on Facebook: Was this a good idea? Turns out, my virtual friends are passionate about this issue and were just waiting for someone to ask them. One hundred forty-four replied! Exactly three of them told me, “Don’t do it,” two citing the possibility of cell towers going down and a third mentioning faxes. As a survivor of Michael Damron’s notorious assault on Fargo-Moorhead phone lines in 1995, the tower thing doesn’t scare me much. As for faxes, I haven’t needed to send one for a decade; a modern-day Damron could sabotage that service, and most of us would never notice.

The most common reaction on Facebook: “OMG, you mean you still have a landline? LOL.”

It seems that Russ and I were blithely unaware that we’d fallen in among the last of our kind — antique specimens still hardwired to humanity. So we joined the modern world ourselves. I’m beginning to relax.

What kept us wired, I think, was a combination of inertia and sweet memories. There was a time when installing your first telephone in your first apartment was an unmistakable sign of adulthood — a confirmation that you were so grown up that Northwestern Bell trusted you to forward a monthly check. For the first few decades of adult life, I couldn’t wait to get the new directory; the first thing I did was look up my own name. Yep, there I am! I’m somebody!

Until now, I’ve never lived in a home without its own telephone. Oh, sure, we shared a party line when I was a child and more easily impressed — three shorts. Like all the neighbor kids, we mastered the subtle art of picking up the neighbors’ calls, then giggling silently until our mothers caught us. It was rude and unethical, she’d lecture us, to eavesdrop. I never caught her practicing the stealthy art herself, though I still have my suspicions.

Our family moved often, as we followed her teaching gigs in the fall, then returned to the farm in summer. Getting the telephone hooked up was the universal signal that we’d, so to speak, arrived. Our state-of-the-art connection to the outside world was always black, always equipped with a rotary dial that chipped Mother’s fire-engine-red manicure, always mounted in its place of honor on the wall in whatever kitchen we inhabited. Though anything but mobile, it did come with a twisted spiral cord long enough to pull into the coat closet by the back door for highly sensitive teen-age conversations.

The phone’s thoughtfully designed receiver was sturdy and fit the hand just right, with the listening part snugged against your ear and the talking end nicely resting near your mouth. Conversation was crystal clear (or as clear as teens ever managed). Calls never ended abruptly except when my parents said, “Enough is enough.” It didn’t require any ritual of recharging. No one I knew ever dropped it, not even once, in the toilet.

But progress shuffled it aside. After 20 years of ever more demanding cellphones, I’ve become trained to not jump when melodic tones blare out of my back pocket. I’ve come to depend on the built-in phone directory that tells me whose call is coming in and relieves me of any responsibility to try to remember digits.

Texting has finally bewitched me, after years of the haughty conviction it was for the birds. Pecking at the “6” button thrice to achieve an O was way more trouble than it was worth, back in the era of flip phones … especially for someone who needs more than 140 characters just to say “hello.” Now, of course, that’s been replaced by a not-so-smartphone that arrogantly attempts to guess every word I’m trying to type, coming up with some of the most hallucinatory blurts since Timothy Leary’s heyday.

Today, in fact, I’m as inclined to avoid flexing my vocal cords as any text-crazed Millennial.

But maybe that’s because of all we have left behind. Remember when you could hear every word of both sides of a telephone conversation? When you and your caller could step on the end of each other’s sentences or interject without the sound gapping out? When you could carry on conversations while fixing supper, with the receiver safely ensconced between your shoulder and your cheek?

And do you recall being able to reel off your number without even trying whenever someone asked — instead of pulling out your screen to be sure? Oddly, though I still must double-check to be sure I haven’t mangled those cellphone digits, I can reel off the long-outlived cadence of my first Fargo phone number without a moment’s hesitation.

And that, at last, sums up what all this progress has cost us. Before robocalls, before phishing, before endless sneaky, slanted “surveys” — telephones deserved to be answered.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — No More Ringy-Dingies

Remember the last time the sound of a ringing telephone made you smile?

I think I do. I was probably still in school, pining for some fabulous high school hunk to finally call.

Perhaps, for you, it had less to do with teenage hormones and more with family ties. It could have been a birthday call from Grandma while you could still count your years on one hand … or, much later, word that your own new grandchild had arrived. It could even have been a nurse reporting the tests had come back negative.

Or maybe it will still be the Publishers Clearing House prize patrol.

Nope, not the Clearing House. If the Prize Patrol picks me to win $7,000 every week for life in their latest sweepstakes, I do hope they plan to let me know in writing. If they intend to call our telephone, they’re guaranteed to go to voicemail.

I’d hate to miss out on the riches … but it’s worth taking the chance. Nowadays, I hate the telephone.

I can’t come up with even one more recent ringy-dingy that’s produced more than an annoyed grimace. I flinch when I hear it. It’s irksome enough at home, where we still cling to the landline we’ve had for 33 years, but my mobile is even more tone-deaf. It either interrupts at the most inopportune moments — when I’m in class, for example, and have just admonished students to turn off their infernal devices — or shrills its head off, unheard and forgotten in the car.

The modern miracle called the telephone is choking to death on its own success. Shouldn’t the post office have forewarned AT&T? Over the past 50 years, the delicious pleasure of pulling a much-anticipated missive from the mailbox has been smothered to death by an avalanche of unwanted, unneeded and unasked-for opportunists who’ve stuffed the mailbags with junk.

Clearly, that flood of and fund-raising must be generating big bucks for someone, somewhere. Why else would your letter carrier have to trudge along his route beneath a back-breaking ballast of bales of unsolicited paper … nearly every page destined for garbage cans up and down both sides of the street?

The Postal Service (if not its well-toned work force) clearly benefits when people who want to sell stuff shower them with money. But the love affair has dimmed considerably for the rest of us on the “occupant” end of the transaction.

Remember when you’d actually anticipate gathering the daily mail? I just barely recall that — when it held the promise of a well-penned personal note, sweet greetings or even, perhaps, a check.

Now, we tread the well-worn path to and from our mailbox … right past the big wastebasket in the garage. And Russ and I don’t even gather it daily: Our faithful mail carrier has been known to show up and ring our doorbell in person when the mail receptacle is too full to accommodate another day’s delivery of junk mail.

Telephony, it turns out, has swallowed the same bitter pill. Since the late 1970s, telemarketing — a money-maker for the telephone companies — has stripped away all the excitement of jumping up to answer the phone. The goose has been choked with its own golden egg. The more businesses find innovative ways to use the telephone wires to snare reluctant customers, the cagier we have become at eluding their trap at the other end of the line.

And now it’s come to this: We don’t answer. Here at home, we let virtually all calls from unfamiliar numbers go straight to voicemail. At the same time, we find ourselves clearing messages far less often, as the clouds of chaff overwhelm what’s left of the wheat. Yesterday, for example, Russ felt the need to go through our tardy log of voicemails. He turned up 15 in the cache — 14 from telemarketers and robocallers, and just one from a regular human being (who’d already made contact with a text).

An informal study of friends and neighbors suggests that the Hanson household is not alone in the throes of its phone-phobia. Every single person I questioned confessed — sometimes sheepishly, sometimes in defiance — to ignoring calls from unfamiliar area codes and numbers. (That doesn’t include the several Millennials who asked, surprised, “You mean you can ‘talk’ on that thing?”)

Security is one issue. Phone scams abound — both the traditional, fleecing the elderly with mumbled tales of grandchildren in dire trouble, and the higher-tech kind leads to unwanted charges on your phone bill. Hint: If you pick up and someone asks, “Can you hear me?” — don’t say a word. Hang up. Your “yes” can be recorded and used to authorize scam purchases. Also, beware numbers beginning with 900. They are “premium service” accounts where the caller may pocket part of a jacked-up fee.

C’mon now. Did you really expect to hear from a mysterious dreamboat calling from the Cayman Islands, area code 345, or Trinidad and Tobago, 868? That one’s fairly easy to sort out, at least for those of us who lead more humdrum lives. (You can make sure by typing the number into a website like shouldIanswer.com or 800calls.com.) Automated robocalls that spoof a number that appears to be local — 701- or 218-, for example — can be harder call to pick out. When in doubt, we listen for the tell-tale hollow, empty gap — the sound of intergalactic space — before a voice begins … and answer with one finger on the hang-up button.

I long for the telephone days of yore. I’d love to dial an office or business again and be greeted again by an actual human instead of a robotic voice asking me to enter an extension. I’d adore getting a quick response to a simple question, the kind a receptionist could deal with in five words or less, instead of half a dozen recorded options, none offering the help I need.

If my party wasn’t able to take my call, I’d be deliriously happy to imagine a competent adult filling out one of those little pink message slips, then leaving it for the person who really, truly was “away from his desk” and honestly would return my call “as soon as he is available” … blissfully confident that she’d nag him later if he failed to get back to me.

But no. It’s over. Progress has offed our faith in Alexander Graham Bell. Remember the Ma Bell commercial that warbled that we should “reach out and touch”? We’re still busy touching our untrustworthy phones … but only to text a message.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Press ‘Pound’ And Give Up Hope

Gone are the days when its ring heralded something good — and something human. The technological wonder of the 19th century has become the scourge of the 21st. A once-useful device for connecting — to “reach out and touch someone,” as the phonesters so often reminded us — has officially been high-teched past the point of no return.

I spent five hours yesterday trying to find answers to to three fairly straightforward but urgent questions. These frequently repeated calls — two to specific individuals and one for tech support — concerned issues that really did matter to me. My inquiries could have been answered easily and quickly, had I reached an actual human. In the end, though, I talked to no living, breathing hominids whatsoever. I finally gave up.

Yet I did gain something valuable from my endless interlude — climbing telephone trees, trying to decipher fuzzy instructions, pressing buttons and listening to blaring taped music in the endless purgatory that is “please hold.” It gave me plenty of time to ponder one of the great existential questions of our curious age: How could the blessings of technology turn a once-useful convenience into this darkest of curses?

Like lots of once-simple tasks that we could take for granted, using the telephone has been “improved” to the point of being virtually useless. That fits the phone to a T.

From the party lines of my childhood and the miracle of direct-dial, the technology we once took for granted has been complicated, miniaturized, set loose from its moorings and cluttered up with so many frivolous functions that, today, it’s easier to drive across town and talk face to face.

Once upon a time, calling was easy. You walked over to Alexander Graham Bell’s amazing invention — usually black and hanging on the kitchen wall — and followed a simple protocol. You effortlessly picked up the receiver, always easy to find at the end of a long, spiral cord. You used an index finger (or, if manicured, the eraser end of a pencil) to spin the rotary dial to pick out a local number starting, perhaps, with ADams or CEdar or CApital or CLinton (Jamestown’s old prefix — how prescient).

A phone rang in some unseen location. Someone answered it — “Hello?” You could hear each other just fine. You chatted for a moment, asked whatever was bugging you, thanked the other and hung up.

Then … technology struck … and has kept on striking ever since. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for our chance to hit it back.

I’m not sure which came first — cordless phones or telemarketers. Both were the harbingers of dark days to come. Cutting the cord enabled everyday Americans to lose their phones all over the house, only to find the batteries were dead when they were finally uncovered.

Telemarketing — need I say more? What a miracle! Now perfect strangers could interrupt anything you were doing at work or at home at any hour of the day or night. The phone company’s marketing phrase, “reach out and touch someone,” came only half-true. Sellers and survey-takers could tap us on the shoulder with impunity. We, however, had no reciprocal option to wring their necks.

Businesses saw other possibilities, too. Receptionists — those smart, cordial (mostly) women who answered the phones for corporations and government — could be eliminated by paying big bucks for the latest in automated answering systems.

Every single person you know, including you and me, despises them. Press 1 if you’re calling about your account. Press 2 if you’re calling about a service problem. Press 3 if you know your party’s number. Press 4 for an endless list of everyone who works for us — which will not include the one person you want to talk to. Press 5 for a scratchy, bad rendition of vaguely remembered music from the 1950s. Press 6 to endure an unnaturally loud on-hold tape of self-serving sales pitches for products you will never want in a million years. Press 7 if you recognize the futility of modern existence. Press 8 to repeat these options endlessly until an asteroid finally obliterates the earth or you throw your phone through a plate-glass window. Hold, please.

That’s how my afternoon went.

Cell phones seemed like a miracle 25 years ago. I could drive by myself across darkest North Dakota, knowing that if a tire went flat or a fuel pump died, I could summon help … or at least commiserate with someone at a distance.

But the air went out of that happy balloon in short order. When pocket-sized phones were still a novelty, it was easy to cut them some slack. Your connection faded in and out as you traveled the hills of central North Dakota? Annoying but understandable. You’ve misplaced your phone? Just call it. Perhaps it’ll ring-a-ding from under a load of laundry. And mercifully, the telemarketers couldn’t get your number.

Sadly, technology waits for no one. Those trusty little old flip phones — with their speakers stationed at ear level and microphone next to your lips — have been “improved” into fragile slabs of glass, silicon and overarching ambition. Now that they’re “smart” and even call themselves “I,” they can snap pictures, play games, show movies, throw a brilliant beacon of light, calculate math problems and send itty bitty smiley faces all over the planet.

What can’t these modern marvels do so well? Transmit a clear conversation. Our ears squint hopelessly to make out the words. Perhaps the caller is using Bluetooth, a technology designed to enable them to hear perfectly, while you can’t make out more than half of what the user is trying to say. Or maybe your connection picks up just enough background buzz from other conversations in the ether that you can’t hear your own call clearly … or make out what the anonymous pair are saying clearly enough to sate your curiosity. At least eavesdropping on party lines was loud and clear.

Meanwhile, the wizards of dialing for dollars were busy perfecting the single worst high-tech scourge in human history: robocalls. They’re everywhere — on the land lines that linger in businesses and some homes, and now on the smartphone in your pocket whose number you’ve guarded so jealously. The sales genius who long to sell long-distance have figured out how much we hate live telemarketers … and how caller ID enables us to ignore unfamiliar numbers and funky area codes.

So instead of placing them from call centers full of desperate humans, some of whom even speak passable English, they’ve replaced them with … more technology! Automated robocalling enables them to pitch their Google optimization and shady loans without having to listen to their victims’ response.

The phone rings — or buzzes, or barks, or sounds out the first bars of the latest Justin Bieber sonata. When you answer, you hear that hollow, soulless blast of the silence of deep space. Then the prerecorded blather begins to roll. Hang up quickly! That’ll keep the line open for the next sales caller.

I’ve always been a skeptic about text messaging. Why take the time for fat fingers to flit across a tiny keyboard — a mode of writing only slightly better than carving runestones — when you have an actual doggone telephone in the palm of your hand?

As society devolves, though, I’ve begun to get it. Telephones have become a sorry second-best way to talk to one another. You might as well type out whatever you have to say. To add a more human touch, don’t forget the exclamation points!!!!!

Or you could convey what you’re trying to say in smileys, frownies, cat icons and that brown heap that isn’t really chocolate Dairy Queen. True, no one will be quite sure of what you truly mean to say. But, at least, they won’t keep repeating the most pressing question of our age: Can you hear me now?

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — The Robots Are On the Line

If I’d had to choose an icon for my teenage years, it might have been the telephone. Phones were the social media of our day, a glorious gift of technology that connected us with our friends — heaven for teens!

Though the black rotary-style phone was mounted on the wall in the kitchen, its spiral cord was long enough to streeeeetch into the next room, offering a perfectly private way to gossip and giggle … around the clock and, theoretically, out of range of prying parents and snoopy little brothers.

Those were the days when hearts leaped at the sound of that ringy-dingy. It was a more innocent time, when not answering was as unthinkable as not washing your hands before dinner.

In days of yore, the grown-ups were paying dearly for the privilege of those pretty princess phones, due in no small part to the now-quaint practice of “long-distance charges.” A call from beyond the city limits was a big occasion; you talked fast and hung up quickly.

No more. On the one hand, the cost of telephony has dropped dramatically. We get far more and better services at a lower comparative price, especially with cell phones. On the other, progress has made it almost laughably cheap for every Tom, Dick and Carmen to reach out and try to touch — no, grab you.

The friendly sound of a ringing telephone seldom signals a pleasant connection anymore. Even at work, that once-welcome sound of impending business has lurched toward sheer irritation. Chances are, that’s no longer opportunity calling. It’s that shady company in Tijuana that once sold you cheap recycled toner cartridges that leaked yellow all over the printer.

We are now receiving 12 to 14 telemarketing calls a day. The phone has rung at 7:15 a.m. and at 9:55 p.m. Unsolicited and unloved, virtually all of these unwanted interruptions come from 800 numbers and unrecognized area codes. More than half these days are robocalls — the soulless, automated, recorded messages that fly in the face of our conventional telephone-answering habits. They threaten to make the whole technology obsolete.

“Do-not-call” lists haven’t really done the trick, at least at our house. Who knows? Perhaps enrolling our numbers back in 2003, the year that the list began, did stem at least a fraction of a percent of the maddening calls. But those would have been the good guys — the telemarketing sellers who actually follow the rules as set out by the Federal Trade Commission.

The majority of live telemarketers who reach out today — at what seems like the least convenient moments — are legal and utterly kosher, thanks to those rules, which specifically exempt charities, political campaigns and companies with whom you’ve had a prior business relationship from the telemarketing ban … the entities who just happen to generate most unwanted calls in the first place.

Human callers are easy enough to deal with. Just say, “ No, thanks — have a nice day” and hang up, resisting the urge to smash the phone into the wall or throw it through the window.

But then there are the others, the devil’s spawn, the scourge of marketing technology run amok … the maddening inhuman exasperators we know as robocalls.

Robocalls target our eardrums via computers and the Internet. Dirt cheap to launch and impossible to annihilate, these evil automated avatars have grown like science-fiction alien spores that overpower the planet.

Today, Consumer Reports estimates that at least 35 percent of telephone traffic is made up of automated calls — unwanted, despised, yet perversely resistant to any and all attempts to stem the invasion. That’s literally billions of calls every day, and the number is still rising.

You know how much you hate them, too: that brief pause, followed by a cheerful pitch offering to cut your credit card interest in half … if only you pay a modest fee upfront. How about the sincere-sounding gentleman who claims the government wants to slash your mortgage rate? Or the helpful lass who points out how badly your Google listing is out of date? Worst of all is that stern, alarmed fellow who learned English as a second language, warning you that Microsoft has detected a terrible virus on your computer. Naturally, he offers to save you.

It took a little more than 150 years to carry us from Alexander Graham Bell’s miracle device to Carmen the credit-card robocaller, but sadly, here we find ourselves: Success has ruined the telephone.

The slide toward these end times began when the first telemarketer slid out of the primordial slime. Now, instead of once-thrilling convenience and connection and pleasure, we view our phones — land lines or wireless — with the same unease as a once-cuddly puppy grown into an unpredictable beast that bites the mailman and defies every attempt at house-breaking.

Yet most of us still feed and harbor the devil-dog in our home or in our pocket. A majority of homes stubbornly continue to maintain landlines, either due to a deep fear of missing some vague good news or plain, everyday inertia.

The percentage of traditional phone lines continues to shrivel. Recent CDC data suggest that more than 40 percent of American households have already ditched them. Common sense seems to be propelling the rest of us toward losing those listed numbers.

But resorting to cell phones is much less defense against telemarketers than we once hoped. After all, it’s been against federal law to robocall cell phones since 1999.

But how is that working out for you?

The rules require telemarketers to only call cell phones whose owners have explicitly given their permission. (Check the fine print before you click “I agree.”) Yet Russ and I get random calls like clockwork — fewer, perhaps, than on our land line, but their number seems to be accelerating.

Technology enables the pests to stay a step ahead of the agencies that would enforce them. Thanks to VoIP calling, or voice-over-Internet-protocol, it’s possible for one call to reach literally millions in minutes for a fraction of cent each.

Your phone may be able to block some numbers, but that’s not a realistic defense when the automated callers can switch their originating numbers with a few keystrokes. They can force your Caller ID to label them “private callers.” They can “spoof” a number by displaying an area code and number from literally anywhere on earth.

Responding only to known area codes like 701 and 218 no longer helps, since the number that pops up now has no connection to a physical locale. We’ve even received calls that register as “000-000-0000” – clearly from an alien planet.

Weirdest of all, though, is glancing at your caller ID … and seeing your very own number blinking back. Remember those horror movies in which cops trace the threatening mystery call and shout, “It’s coming from upstairs!” Run!

Laws and regulations aren’t going to solve the dilemma. The Federal Trade Commission has shrugged and admitted defeat; the powerful-sounding federal agency’s best hope now seems to be its annual contest inviting the public to come up with solutions.

Beginning in 2012, the agency has awarded substantial prizes to innovators who dream up tools to thwart evil with innovation. The first victor, an app called Nomorobo, promises to intercept and dump automated calls after the first ring, and it’s free. Unfortunately, it currently works with only a limited number of providers. If you use AT&T or Verizon, it may be worth checking out.

A Google search for other solutions turns up pages with headlines like “Rage Against Robocalls” and “Reaching Out to Avoid Someone, Like a Telemarketer or Politician.” They echo the kind of bland advice you’ll find on the FTC’s own website: Keep your number to yourself. Hang up right away. Ignore unknown numbers.

Or consider the most radical, lowest-tech solution of all: Don’t answer the doggone thing. Turn down the ringer and screen your voicemail. From a technical standpoint, this seems akin to telling someone who drives a broken-down clunker, “Get a horse.” Nevertheless, it costs you nothing and it really does work.

No matter how the little voice inside your head shrills, “Pick up the phone” … ignore it. Just keep your fingers crossed that, when you win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, they contact you by email.