Happy Chinese New Year!
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke
2021. Year of the Ox. I just made a new outgoing message for my answering machine, which reminded me of the true story about an outgoing message I made in 1983. I thought you might enjoy this story if you haven’t read it before or even if you have.
I was one of the last adults in America to get an answering machine to go with my phone, and I only got one in 1983 because my Hollywood agent said he wouldn’t represent me if I didn’t have an answering machine. That Hollywood agent went on to become a very powerful person in the entertainment world, but not before he dropped me as a client. Clearly, I was holding him back.
In those 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 the message lest they go mad. Thus I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every few 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 things going viral existed. I’m speaking about a time before the ascendancy of the internet, 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 neato person walking on the beach with an adorable 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, 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 the 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 I made that message 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. After listening to 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 and one kid shouted, “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 or so 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.
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.
Speaking of tender fearlessness, my two new books of stories Little Movies tales of love and transformation and Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories are now widely available in paperback and as e-books. You can order copies of the paperbacks from your local bookstore or from various online sources, and e-books from all the various e-book sites. Your reviews are much appreciated.
Here are some viable links.
iTunes Apple Books