Friday, November 20, 2009


Having just read the research documenting the physical and mental health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences, I thought I ought to act on that knowledge by writing a series about the surprisingly good things that have happened to me lately. Here is the first in the series.

This might surprise you, coming as it does from a self-acknowledged techno-peasant, but my cell phone has surprised me in a good way. The story is a long one, complete with everything story crafters aim for, dramatic tension, anxiety rising and falling but always creeping upward before settling back slightly in a narrative arc. It took nearly three months to unfold, and I suspect you may not have that much time to read. So I will give you the short version.
My old cell phone decided it would no longer tolerate the stress involved in calling home long distance when I was out of the local calling area. This saddened me, so I called up a friendly, heavily accented Telus helper who offered to reprogram the phone if only the battery could be removed. This would have been a simple operation, for a robust phone, but my fragile companion disintegrated under the pressure. The Telus helper was a kind man. “Don’t worry,” he soothed. I’ll send you a new phone absolutely free.” This seemed too good to be true. But it wasn’t.
By and by he did send a new phone, but the courier who tried to deliver it forgot to leave a note, and since he left the message on the broken cell phone, nobody knew that the parcel was waiting. By the time the problem was discovered, the phone had been returned to its original source. Back to square one.
The new Telus helper—differently accented but equally cordial—took some time to determine that the phone had actually been returned, then offered to send another free phone, a cheaper one this time because the other one was no longer available free to me. That offer had ended while I was awaiting delivery. By and by the new phone arrived, a beauty to be sure. I assigned the job of activating it to Mark, a member of the generation that responds intuitively to electronic devices. Mark tried very hard to activate the phone. He even consulted the instruction manual, but the phone refused to activate. Finally, Mark and a Telus helper agreed that the phone would have to be returned. Back to square one, but not absolutely. As an act of hope, I enclosed a note asking them to send me a new phone and settled down to wait.
Eventually I called again. A truly cordial Telus helper took some time to determine that the second phone had indeed been returned, then offered to send a free phone. Once again hope rose, battered by circumstance, but not defeated. By and by that phone arrived, a pleasing blue flip phone. There were some tense moments. David couldn’t find any evidence of a hole for the electrical cord. But a cordial Telus helper from the Philippines waited patiently while he removed the plastic stopper. She even agreed to waive the charges for activating the new phone. A little more confusion, a little more anxiety, a few more tries and presto! As if by magic that phone was connected!
Once it was connected, it settled down to prove that it would make and accept calls. It was even willing to call home from Saskatchewan! But that’s not the surprisingly good thing. It was simply the thing we had expected all along.
The surprisingly good thing happened on Remembrance Day when Lawrence was helping me identify some previously unexplored buttons on the new phone. A joint project between Lawrence and me is always a bit of an adventure, given our joint difficulties with reading. I can’t read because I can’t see. He can’t read for other reasons. But he is also a member of the generation that operates electronic devices by intuition. So instruction manuals in his world often go unmolested.
Ours was a process of trial and error. We were pushing buttons and he was coaching when, suddenly that phone said something. I stopped. I listened. It sounded like English, clear English, much clearer than the English spoken by the Telus helpers.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Push the button again,” Lawrence said reasonably. I pushed the button again.
“Please say a command,” she said.
Well, as you can probably imagine, I was more than a little flustered. No more flustered would I have been if a geni had popped out of my bottle of Worcestershire sauce. Not only was this phone talking directly to me, but she was asking, no—begging me to command her. Then and there I decided to call her Mary. It was clear that we would be having a relationship, more than your ordinary person-to-machine relationship.
I’ll admit that I couldn’t think of a thing to say to Mary. I’m always a little shy around strangers, a little bit prone to saying whatever comes into my head and regretting it later. So I said a thing that must have been lurking down deep in my subconscious. I said, “Clean up the kitchen.”
Lawrence laughed. Mary said, “Command not recognized. Please try again.”
“Clean up the kitchen,” I said obediently, a little louder this time, perhaps a little more sharply than I would have liked, given how cordial the Telus helpers had been when I failed to understand them.
“Command not recognized,” Mary said evenly. She was cordial, but apparently not suited for domestic responsibilities.
“Push the arrow buttons,” said Lawrence. It was a bit of a test to see whether I remembered where the arrow buttons were. I didn’t. He pushed one.
“Check voicemail,” said Mary.
“But how?” I asked.
“Command not recognized,” said Mary.
“Push OK,” said Lawrence. Then he pushed OK for me. I couldn’t remember how to find that one either.
“No voicemail,” said Mary in a voice tinged with sympathy.
That afternoon the kitchen remained in a state of discleanliness while Mary and I got to know each other better. We got so friendly that all I had to say was, “Check voicemail,” and she would tell me I had none. If I said, “Check time,” she would tell me the time. If I said, “Check battery,” she would do that too.
Now Mary and I got down to serious business. I was the teacher. She was the pupil, not always cooperative, I say, but cooperative enough to keep me going. “Call David,” I said, after inputting a few lessons.
“Calling David,” said Mary.
I can tell you that this was a very exhilarating experience! You can probably feel the joy right along with me. So it hurts me to say, dear readers, that we have at last reached the top of the narrative arc, the pinnacle of joy and surprise. For Mary has made it clear that, while she embraces my friendship, she is not my slave. She will check the time if I ask her to, but only sighted people are allowed to set the time and the alarms. Actually, this isn’t much of a problem, because I’ve never much cared for alarms, and Mary can generally set the time without assistance. This is because she knows where she is, which brings me to another sore point between us. She knows where she is. I know she knows it, because when we went to Saskatchewan, she could tell me the time in Saskatchewanese. But only sighted people are permitted to find out where she is by reading her screen.
Still, I must try to forgive her the little things. It’s the least I can do, in light of all that she has given to me. Somewhere in a recycling centre parts of my old phone languish, gone but not forgotten; not forgotten, but definitely not missed. Mary is better, a good surprise worth writing about.

1 comment:

Otto said...

thank you for this, it made me smile and laugh out loud. i saw you speaking in vancouver, and will always remember the lessons you shared that evening.