Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Duty Call"

I write my stories hoping people will identify. But sometimes they don’t. Case in point: My confession about not eating eggs (and how that might seriously threaten my aspirations as a actor.) I could sense from your polite but eyebrow-arched responses that, when it comes to that aversion at least, I am pretty much on my own.

Well, I’m taking another chance. Maybe you’ll be on board, maybe you won’t. There’s nothing I can do about it. These are the stories I tell. And I tell them for one reason. They’re the only stories I’ve got.

Today, another, for me, normal, but, I’m betting, soon to be exposed as bizarre, personal admission:

I’m uncomfortable talking to people on the phone.

Goodbye, if you’re leaving. For the bold ones amongst you, moving on.

Today, Anna and I are flying to Toronto to visit family and friends. One person we’re scheduled to meet up with is my Auntie Bea. Auntie Bea is a dream. I have no problem talking to her on the phone. Which I recently did, to arrange a time for us to get together. Making that call was hardly difficult at all. I only put it off for a week.

The call, however, reminded me of another call I was required to make. I was in my twenties, and about to travel somewhere I’d never visited before, Miami Beach, Florida. Not all that exciting, I suppose, but for some reason, probably laziness, I was resistant to trying to decipher a foreign language. So I remained on English-speaking terrain, choosing a city my (paternal) grandmother visited annually, but had never taken me. I wanted to see what I had missed.

We had a distant cousin living in Miami. Learning I had chosen that destination for my holiday, my mother insisted that I call her. Which brings up an area I really don’t understand.. Somehow, though we have the technology to call anyone, from anywhere, at any time, there seems to be some duty-binding obligation, when you’re in the city of even the most distant relative, to call that person on the phone. I have seen this issue dealt with on Curb Your Enthusiasm. This time, I agree with Larry. It makes no sense whatsoever.

“Cousin, Harriet? Earl Pomerantz. I’m in town. I don’t know you, and I don’t have time to see you. I just had to call you on your local telephone system.”


But my mother was unbending on the matter. “You can’t go all the way to Miami without calling her.”

That’s the rule. Going to Miami and not calling your cousin – forbidden. Absolutely “No Can Do.” Don’t think about coming home if you don’t make the call. Die in Miami, or disappear from the earth. Not calling is totally unacceptable. It’s unheard of. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. End of story.

Well, if you feel that strongly about it…

I’ll call.

S there you have it. I had a cousin in Miami, who I had never spoken in my life, who, though I was uncomfortable doing so, I was obligated to call her. I will now add some weight to the problem, one seriously compounding obstacle.

My cousin’s name was Boo Boo.

You heard me.

Boo Boo.

Now you’ve got it all. Somehow, I was expected to call the number my mother had given me, and when they picked up on the other end, I was expected to say



“Is Boo Boo there?”

“May I speak to Boo Boo?”

“Is that Boo Boo?”

“Have I reached the residence of Boo Boo?”

That was my challenge. Earl Pomerantz, a person, uncomfortable with telephones at the best of times, was expected to call up a stranger, and deliver some form of an introductory sentence that, before it was over, would include the word

Boo Boo.

I found that very difficult to do.

So I stalled. I went to the beach. I went to the dog track. I made a pilgrimage to the Cardoza Hotel, where my maternal grandparents used to stay. I ordered a steak dinner sent up and watched the hockey playoffs on television (much to the confusion of the Room Service waiter who delivered my food. “You come all the way to Miami to sit in your room and watch hockey?”)

I did a lot of things in Miami. But I didn’t call Boo Boo.

At least not yet.

It’s the last night of my vacation. I have a ticket to see the original Shirelles, one of my favorite singing groups from the sixties, who are performing in the lounge at my very own hotel. (It turned out the be a particularly small lounge. The room was small, the tables were small, the stage was small. The only thing large were The Shirelles, who, through the years, had expanded considerably in girth. This resulted – and the diminutive stage didn’t help – in the ladies’ continually bumping into each other while executing their patented Motown moves, choreographed for them when they were a totally different size.)

Okay, so I’m dressed up for the show. One “duty call”, and I’m off to my reward – a musical nostalgia trip with the sensational Shirelles.

I pick up the phone. My hands are sweating. I begin dialing the number my mother had written down…

I’m not sure how much time went by. I’m only sure of the next words I heard. And the next words I heard were these:

Soldier Boy

Oh my little Soldier Boy

I'll be true to you...

I was sitting in the lounge, watching The Shirelles.

The Road Not Taken is paved with decisions not made. How different my life might have been, what lofty heights I might boldly have scaled, what daunting challenges I might bravely have taken on, what achievements and successes I might gloriously have attained, if only I had gutted it out, confronted my demons…

and finished that call to Cousin Boo Boo.


Joe said...

I wasn't with you on the eggs, but I am with you on the phone thing.

God bless email.

Jim Lynn said...

I'm definitely with you on the phone fear. The sooner email completely replaces that 19th century contraption the better.

Anonymous said...

I too agree about the phone thing. Especially cold-calling an unknown person with a patently ridiculous name (no offense to your venerable cousin Boo Boo).

John said...

Here I was thinking that if you get nothing else from confronting a difficult situation in life you get an interesting story. Something to talk about later in life. And now I learn that if you're a good storyteller you can make even non-events entertaining.

Miriam said...

Hi-larious. Did they call the person "Boo Boo" straight from the womb or did she acquire the epithet along the way? I know, I'll give you a call and you can tell me.

A. Buck Short said...

As frequently the case, I know I speak for many of us when I say, “Earl, our hearts go out to you.” But I’m also with John on this. You have this gift of taking a single small fact or event and really turning it into something. Or is that a curse? Maybe both? Either way, it’s apparently more contagious than this swine flu thing. Please let me know if feeble attempts at emulation are not what you’re aiming for with this blog; but I hope you will indulge me as in the past, because, since we’re all opening up like this, I think we may have the beginnings of a great therapy group. Or at least therapy groups that might want to play each other on Thanksgiving.

OK, I’ll say it. I too have an aversion to phone. And to be honest, while having reached a certain accommodation with eggs, I really can’t stand that little white strand that you almost always find attached to the edges of the yolk. Or if you’re lucky it’s on the edge, because then you can scoop it out into the sink with a spatula without breaking the yolk. Heaven forbid one should break the yolk unintentionally before proceeding to smash it up intentionally and officially – or as we commonly refer to that process here in the South – scrambling.

And for those of you in the Pomerantz readership who may not share this aversion, perhaps you will once you know that this tiny strand of protoplasm has a name – charaz. Or to be more technically correct, charazae, since there are actually two of them in every egg, one on each side of the yolk. They apparently just huddle together when we crack the shell in fear of being scooped out with a spatula, because, as we all know, there is strength in numbers – even if that number happens to be only two. (One of my favorite Phillip Roth confessions is where the thinly disguised Phillip Roth character in one of the novels says he was reluctant to ever actually use the word “spatula” in school, because, whenever the utensil had been referenced at home, he assumed that was the Yiddish word for it.

Don’t know about you, but I always find it harder to eat anything that’s been given a name. Or even worse, when you have difficulty dissociating the name from its function. Hence the euphemism sweetbreads. I mean who’s fooling who?

I think there may also be a slight degree of umbilicism involved, very close to the right to life/choice dialectic. It looks like that white squiggle has something to do with the development of what you have in front of you into a thinking, breathing life form. That prevents us from dismissing what you are about to ingest as just another substance or ingredient. I have trouble with lobster, because I find it, to say the least, unsettling to try to eat something that’s looking back at you. Or tongue. I never fully appreciated the appeal of eating something that could possibly be tasting you back. In order to eat another life form, it’s much more comforting to have it pre-divided into conveniently packaged parts, the less to look like it was once alive. You can keep that whole fish in the Chinese restaurant, I’m going with the noodle dish with the diced fauna.

If they weren’t already disgusting enough, let me tell you where those squiggly white egg cords come from. They are believed to be formed when a portion of the egg white twists at the very moment the egg drops from, well you know where, into the nest. Hopefully there is at least the semblance of a nest, because without one to catch the egg, the entire exercise would be rather futile.

There’s another euphemism for you, egg “whites.” Why would you name something for what it looks like only after you cook it? Perhaps “phlegm” loses some of its appeal in a cook book.

Sorry, but we have to break here for a commecial message - now that we know what's commercial -- because blogger cuts you off at 4,096 characters. Why not an even 4,100, I don't know. But stay tuned.

A. Buck Short said...

Wrapping up our eggsercize in free expression on the subject of charzae, this brings us to the issue of function, which, according to the noted architect Louis Sullivan, normally should precede form everywhere but alphabetically. These little squiggles act like little shock absorbers to protect the egg yolk in two ways. Primarily, they are there to keep the yolk in the exact center of the egg at all times. Why this is necessary is uncertain, but in any case, once you advance beyond the molecular level, it may be one of the earlier manifestations of obsessive compulsive disorder. The second way they protect the egg is to make it unappetizing to those of us who are the least bit discerning.

For years I have attempted to purchase eggs based on how small and innocuous the charazae appeared to be when revealed in the traditional manner. Those arriving from free range circumstances seemed to be among the best in this regard. However, depending upon how far away they ranged, these eggs can take a long time to get here. Once you remove the chicken wire, they can get as far as Manitoba before having to turn back. So you can imagine how disconcerting it was to learn from nutritionists that the larger and firmer the charazae, the fresher the egg. Talk about your approach-avoidance conflict!

A. Buck Short said...

Now where were we? Oh, telecommunications.

Earl, if I may be so bold, there’s one point you missed that has nothing to do with eggs in your actual post du jour. It is a little known fact that one of the things that brought Detroit – i.e. Motown -- to its knees was some auto executive’s decision to make the shirelle a unit of measurement. Once they all ballooned up like that, there was no consistency. Automobile assembly calls for slightly more precision. The new parts just wouldn’t fit.

The only other place in the world measuring things in shirelles is, of course, the Seychelles, or more formally the Seychelle Islands. Only nobody knows, because they’re out in the middle of nowhere, 1,500 km. – 1,784.3 ks (kiloshirelles) off the west coast of Africa. Which is just fine with them, because they like to keep their distance. The main reason they like to keep their distance is because the place on the west coast of Africa they are 1,784.3 ks from is Somalia.

I too am discomfited by talking to people on the phone – or as it would be called if doctors didn’t mind sounding silly – telephonophobia. As we both recognize, and you have so elegantly related, this can be a considerable disability – given the fact that, if there is anyone you are likely to be talking to on the phone, it’s people. Nothing else really makes much sense.

I have a theory this all relates back to the dawn of man in the Seychelle Islands, before they migrated west to the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania –- I’m told because the schools were better. Certain among us may want to keep our distance from others in person as much as on the telephone -– it’s just that, with the phone it’s easier. You don’t have to answer it. Or even more revelatory – what’s that archaic terminology? – dial.

This may not necessarily be an original insight, but I think at the subconscious level, humor is a way of keeping people at a distance, and maybe ultimately life in general. An existential question, “Where would you like to be right now?” Answer, “I don’t really care, just anyplace but here.” We make these associations out in left field where the average sane person doesn’t even think to go, because, not willing to make eye contact with life, we choose to come at it obliquely. A lot less confrontational.

The problem with this way of being in the world is it’s also a lot of work. When someone, or God forbid, more than some one, is right there in front of us, we have no choice, and the “anyplace but here” part of the brain kicks into overdrive. It’s a reflex, and we bring it to the fore. (Through transcendental meditation, some have even been known to be able to bring it to the three, but that’s only after years of practice.) It’s like, “May I share just a little of this ‘anyplace but here’ with you, what the heck, I’m there already, why waste a trip?” But it’s exhausting. I’m in such a hurry to rid myself of this albatross, I joined an 11 step program.

The phone really does limit our distractional mechanism to the verbal, and even there you don’t get the body language and facial expression opportunities to really sell it. It’s like losing half your act. Driving to Vegas only to see Siegfried. What pressure! It’s like the arms reduction treaty you never agreed to.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, when called upon to do so, I can give great phone. However, on several occasions, it has been brought to my attention that I am sometimes so eager to leave the field once business is done, that I hang up without actually saying good-bye. Honest. I spend much of life doing what I’ve been doing here sort of stream of consciousness. On the phone, hey, it’s all business.

A. Buck Short said...

ACT 4I would be remiss, if not necessarily succinct, if I didn’t burden you with these final thoughts.

Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe the phone is actually less threatening and the experience therefore somehow less satisfying. We are not giving our defenses a chance to perform at their best. Everybody knows ultimately the point of any act is to find out if you can get off – with your life. Not much of a challenge when you can always just hang up. As I remember, if even took the early Robert Klein years to find an actual finish for his act, rather than simply leaving rather suddenly when time expired.

In contrast to my own traditional hasty egress, my wife views the phone as an appendage, a means of bonding with friends, family and humanity in general. Conversations are entirely open-ended. I do not believe she has ever been known to say good bye first. If the other person didn’t, you’d ultimately find the skeletal remains of two conversationalists at each end of the line. She has also never been the first one of us to observe it’s time to leave the party. Yet in person, she’s invariably reticent. For example, when I am driving somewhere, her way of communicating that I need to turn right is to point to the right. Let me say this only tends to work when at least some part of the driver’s psyche is already looking to the right. With any presentation, if you do not respond with at least some sort of acknowledgment at intervals while vamping up to the central point she ultimately wishes to make, you may never get there.

It may be inherited. Once while hiking in the Rockies, during which the family had been, of necessity, virtually inseparable, her brother, a physician, as usual had remained extremely pleasant but relatively silent. A week or so went by and either my wife’s mother or sister turned to David and asked, “So what’s new?” David’s reply after eight days in the wilderness with only this small intimate party, “Well, I’m getting married.”

Getting back to phone theory (not to the eggs, which, of course, is string theory), I’m guessing the aversion might be a little less to the talking on the phone then to the calling. If you’re already on the phone, you can make the best of a bad situation. But if you’re not – why look for trouble?

As has been suggested, perhaps indirectly, that’s part of the beauty of email; and even more directly pertinent, texting. You can relax the fight/flight mechanism, not always having to immediately react in some way. Or at all. You also have the time to think – although it’s surprising how few of us, myself included, take advantage of that. Remember spellcheck? What ever happened to that? Ultimately, the most satisfying element is undoubtedly the narcissism: Unless we happen to be instant messaging, right now this conversation is all about – uh, me. Even better, it’s sort of supposed to be, so it’s OK, right?

A final anecdote related to your highly entertaining observations on the “calling when in town” phenomenon. It’s even worse in a major airline domestic hub, like here in Dallas-Fort Worth. Our exchanges frequently sound something like this. “Hey, we’re in Dallas and I just thought I’d give you a call.” “Oh, great, where are you staying? “Well, we’re not staying anywhere. We’re just changing planes at the airport and had about a half hour.” “Well, thank God you got through.”

And this concludes our broadcast day.

growingupartists said...

I'd blame it on the old feud between Graham Bell, and all the others who invented the telephone at the same time. Oh, the lies we tell.

Try Twitter, much more convenient.

MikeThe Blogger said...

Earl, you'll be in Toronto? Hope you'll give me a call. ;-)