Rose In Morning Light photo by Todd
The following is a revamped version of Falling Behind, an article I first published in 2011. I was moved to revisit this article while listening to a piano tune of mine on YouTube called What Comes Around.
In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing success was turning steeply downward, my humorless Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.
In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages. Most of the people who called me seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change them lest they go mad. Thus I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days, which habit caused my regular callers to complain I was erasing good messages before their friends got to hear them.
Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral existed. I’m speaking about a time before the ascendancy of the interweb, which was not very long ago, but now seems prehistoric. And I tell you, if by some miracle I could remember that message and put it on YouTube today accompanied by a movie of a woman walking on the beach with her dog, or a movie of three cute kids making cookies from scratch, or a movie of a man reading a book with a cat on his lap (with my piano music as soundtrack)—I have no doubt the message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from hundreds of millions of hits and links and apps and downloads and streams and billions of pennies such prodigious sharing and streaming would bring me.
Sadly or ironically or luckily, I only remember the feeling of that once-in-a-lifetime message, not the words. The feeling was one of deep contentment—of thoroughly enjoying the moment. I recall the day was sunny and warm, my office flooded with light, and I remember being massaged from head to toe by the feeling—the knowing—that simply being alive was a profoundly fulfilling adventure.
Within a few days of recording my message, the phone was ringing off the hook. Many of my friends called multiple times so their friends could have a listen, and then I started getting calls from people I did not know, people who had heard about the message from friends of my friends. And over the next few weeks I got hundreds of calls from all over America and around the world—people calling to hear my outgoing message and leave responses.
A poet called from Germany, and after hearing my message, he recited a poem by Rilke, first in German, then in English—something about the coming of spring.
People partying somewhere in England called, and when the beep sounded, those Brits applauded and shouted “Bravo!”
An elderly woman called from Seattle and said, “I see why my daughter wanted me to hear your message. I can’t stop smiling. I’m going to call again and then tell my friends to call you.”
A man from Scotland left a long friendly-sounding message ostensibly in English, but no matter how many times I listened to his enchanting spiel, I could not understand him.
A bunch of children called, and when the beep sounded, they laughed and giggled—one kid shouting, “You a silly poo poo!”
A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated for me: “I adore what you say and want to have your child.”
I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.
That message made people happy. Those words made people laugh and cry and rejoice; and many callers responded with impromptu continuations of the message—addenda full of love and humor and gratitude. That message was an elixir, a soothing salve, and some sort of answer to the question: why are we here?
I kept that globetrotting zinger on my answering machine for a month until one day I got a call from a friend who had heard the message one too many times and asked me to please make a new one. So without a thought for posterity, I hit the Record button, improvised a new greeting, and thereby erased the greatest outgoing answering-machine message I’ve ever made.
I only heard the message one time, and that was immediately after I recorded it and checked to make sure it sounded okay.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke
Fast-forward thirty-four years. My wife Marcia and I both have web sites where we display our wares and talents to entice people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs a chamber music camp for beginning adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her camp and sells her CDs and gives away sheet music of her compositions. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD downloaded and streamed by thousands of people every month. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to her customers.
My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell handsome coil-bound copies of my many books that publishers, so far, are indifferent to. Thankfully, several dozen people love my self-published books, so I persevere. I also sell my five CDs of original piano music, two CDs of original songs I recorded with Marcia, story CDs, birthday cards, postcards, and notecards of my zany drawings. Visitors to my web site can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) and read articles on my blog. In contrast to Marcia’s ongoing deluge of listeners, I am not so besieged—my creations purchased, on average, by three people a month—three insightful unique magnificent people.
And, yes, my experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering-machine message, as well as a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse that have befallen me over the course of my life, keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again.
Oh I wish I could remember those remarkable words that inspired so many people to call and leave such lovely messages. I remember the tone, a tender fearlessness—but the words elude me.