JH Mae

A ringing phone is not a welcome thing in my house.

It usually heralds a conversation with someone I don’t like, news that someone’s sick or dead, unpleasant family gossip, or maybe -- my favorite -- a telemarketer or wrong number.

I barely ever use my landline. The most frequent human caller is my mother -- who, by the way, is always welcome to call -- but more often than not it’s a computer calling to tell me a car I don’t own has been recalled, a Congressman asking for money or Peebles letting me know about a sale.

And then there’s the telemarketers. My husband’s brother-in-law once kept a telemarketer on the phone for an hour and talked about random nonsense, luring the telemarketer into the belief that he was going to buy or sign up for whatever was being offered. He didn’t -- he was just torturing the guy.

I’ve had a couple heated confrontations with telemarketers. I screamed obscenities at an Amnesty International representative for her daily calls asking me for money (I made a donation once). I told her that because of the organization’s nagging, I’d never donate again. It’s not my proudest moment.

My parents do the same -- threatening these random strangers whose annoying sales calls are just part of their jobs. My father gave one a heated lecture, the vein in his red forehead that warns of an impending explosion popping out three inches. My husband is the only person who will actually listen to a telemarketer run through his speech before politely telling him he’s not interested. He’s a rare species.

What about unwelcome calls gets people so riled? It’s not like anyone is splitting the atom when the phone rings, interrupting groundbreaking, history-altering scientific research.

Even a wrong number sends me into a tailspin. Someone in a neighboring town called my cell phone the other day after I’d gone to bed. I didn’t much mind that. But the next day, I went for a walk with my cell phone in my pocket and I accidentally "butt-dialed" the number, unbeknownst to me.

Suddenly, my phone started ringing and when I answered, a peeved young man asked me: "Why did you just call my mother’s house?"

"I did no such thing," I said. "I don’t even know who you are!" And I hung up.

Yes, I behaved poorly. But in my defense, why was that guy so angry? His absentminded mother dialed me first, let us not forget! I couldn’t enjoy the rest of my walk I was so upset by the interruption.

I remember a day when there was no caller ID. The rotary phone rang and you had to answer without knowing who was on the other end, clearing risking life and limb in the process. The caller was an unwelcome surprise, so be it. Today when the phone rings at my mother’s house she always screams "don’t answer it! I want to know who it is first!"

I think it boils down to control. We can control nearly everything these days -- we can pause live TV, instantly download music, ignore an incoming call. Caller ID allows us to avoid people. Texting lets us have a conversation without really being committed to it. We don’t need to be stuck on the phone with a chatterbox anymore.

Perhaps the unwanted call reminds us that we can’t control everything. That we have to give our time and energy where we don’t want to, if only for five seconds. And that we should be nicer to telemarketers.

Maybe that’s a stretch.

JH Mae is a Banner columnist.