I won't call you back if you don't leave a message

My sisters hang up and expect me to call back. Why don't they follow the rule?

Published December 7, 2009 8:01AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Nothing new on the medical front. Holding steady until surgery Dec. 17. I plan to write daily through the 15th. Then I'll be out of commission for a an unspecified number of days, and  will get back to writing as soon as possible after the surgery. The logistics will take some figuring. Maybe I'll use the iPhone. And I'll let you know where I am in case you want to bring fruit.

Dear Cary,

I'm not the most articulate person but I read this column most days and today I want to throw a little problem of mine out there.

I have read questions of life and death and everything in-between here, but mine involves the use and abuse of my cellphone.

What troubles me is when people, well, almost always family, my three sisters in particular, call and do not leave a voice message but expect me to respond to a missed call.

My message says if you want a call-back please leave a message. Still, I have been chastised for not returning calls from a simply dialed-in number.

And I stand my ground. I use my phone for my business five days a week and get many calls and messages. I always return voice-mail messages and answer my phone most of the time. On my time off I don't carry it with me on walks, at movies, in the bathroom, while driving, whatever, but I check in for messages regularly and return calls when I can.

I have stated to them that it is not personal if I do not answer the phone when it rings but they don't seem to hear my side. Writing this, I realize that it is not my problem but the caller who won't leave a message and expects a quick call-back. But I have not found a peaceful solution or a way to not be defensive about this. Honestly, I realize that this is a small problem in the scheme of things but it is a recurring theme in my life and I am troubled by the negative input I get for it.

Is this a cellphone etiquette thing that I missed? I usually call my mom back in that circumstance because she is older and may need me in an emergency. Otherwise, is this an obligation I am missing?

Now that it's written, it does seem rather peevish and nothing funny about it but again, the little things can hold us back, dammit.

Thank you.

Please Leave a Message

Dear Please Leave a Message,

We're all busy constructing hoops for each other to jump through. We say, Here is the hoop you must jump through to reach me.

See how you have to scrunch down to get through it? It diminishes you, doesn't it? I stand on a chair with my whip and I observe you scrunching down to get through the hoop. Nice job. Now maybe I will call you back if I think it's important.

When your phone rings and it's your sister, do you say to yourself, "Well, she did not leave a message, so she must not want to talk to me"?

That must be why she called: because she does not want to talk to me.

That makes sense.

Or she must not want to talk to me strongly enough to follow my rule.

She must not want to jump through my hoop.

New rule: Everyone is holy and deserving of our love, even people who do not follow our cellphone-answering and callback rules.

It is a lot of work having all these rules. I ought to have a police force. Then if people leave the door open at the cafe, or people talk on their cellphone next to me in the wrong manner, my police would intervene.

They would have to intervene silently. I don't want to know about it. I don't want a scene.

On the other hand, I want certain people to know that they have been intervened with, that they were wrong about whatever it was.

I have rules for where to put the sponges in the kitchen sink. It's not enough to just have the sponges put where they belong. I want the misplacer of the sponges to hear about it. I want the satisfaction.

I would be a demanding emperor. It would suck up all my time.

I would get sick of all my rules and complain. I would blame other people for how much time running my empire is taking. Someone would say, but sir, these are all your rules.

That person would get thrown in the river.

People would form opinions. They would say, "ruthless dictator." "Petty tyrant."

They would get thrown in the river.

Soon the river would be clogged with bodies and I'd ask, Who clogged the river with bodies? Someone would answer, But you did, your highness!

That person would be thrown into the river.

This would not end well.

So I abdicate. I step down from the throne. I celebrate the holiness of every individual, even the one who takes calls "during a religious service."

Look closely at the caption of the "photo" (that's a cheesy stock image, no?) for the Reuters story by Patricia Reaney quoted above and you will see that someone doesn't know an etiquette lapse from a pair of tight pants.

For a long time I was a copy editor. I worked for King Kaufman. We had rules. You had to follow them. That was heaven. We made sure you knew the difference between etiquette lapses and tight pants.

However, giving me the power to make rules about usage was a little like giving bourbon to an alcoholic.

It's just the rule thing. I have too many.

I have rules for the stars. I have rules for the sun, how bright it should be, where the clouds should be placed.

I have rules for how you should walk down the street. I see some people and I think they're walking all wrong. They're too close to the edge of the sidewalk or they're waiting for the bus in the wrong spot or they're leaning out too far into traffic when I'm driving by, or they are not watching carefully walking down the street because they're on their iPhone. I have rules about when you are allowed to talk on your phone in my presence, and if you don't follow my rules then a little alarm bell goes off inside me and you have been marked. You have been downgraded. I put a little mark on you in my head. So now my head is full of people who have been marked.

It is my spiritual quest to stop making up rules for people. It is my spiritual quest to try to see everyone as holy. The driver in front of me who does not go when the light turns green does not seem to be holy. She seems to be an obstacle. But people are not obstacles. We make them into objects when we are living in our little control booth but people are full of light and joy. If some small elderly person of surprising agility steps in front of me on the bus, it is not very spiritual of me to elbow an old lady in the neck just because she cut in front in the bus line. She has been shopping in the open air market and she has many bags. It is ingenious how she has all the bags tied together so she can carry them in one hand and elbow people out of the way with the other.

The old lady who cuts in front of me in the bus line is holy. She is a creature of light. But she does not seem that way. I could knock her over with my elbow (I could do this rather unobtrusively, I think) but then I would not seem holy. I would not be following my new rule: Do not elbow the old ladies out of the way on the bus.

So I know what you mean about people not obeying our rules. We don't even follow our own rules ourselves. Our rules get us into trouble. They lead us into contradiction. They arise from illusion.

If we have rules for people, then what we are saying is that they must obey. But who is the emperor?

A child puts on a crown and pretends to be the emperor. You! To the guardhouse! You! Bend before me. Bring me jelly beans. Bring me my Xbox. Bring me tribute from the Apple Store.

Right now, as I get ready for surgery on Dec. 17, I am preparing to be both an emperor and a child. I will be in the hands of a team of skilled surgeons who will slice into my body with sharp tools and remove things. I will be hooked up to machines that listen to me, machines that hear things in me that I cannot even hear. I will be helpless. At the same time, I will be like an emperor. People will attend to my every need. They will come and check on me. I will be like a child emperor, powerless but doted upon. Bring me that. Raise my pillow. Raise my bed.

So will I act imperiously? Will I say to the surgeon who wants to save my life, "You'd better leave a message or I won't call you back!"? Ha! World-renown surgeon, I say: You'd better follow my rules or you're out!

Ha ha.

Get my drift?

Everyone is holy. The knives are holy. The tumor is holy. We are all bathed in unearthly light.

Leave me a message. I'll call you back.

We're still selling books out of the house, one at a time as long as they last!

SYA cover

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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