Elijah Verdoorn

Programmer, Designer, Musician

Please Leave a Message at the Beep

I’m thankfully old enough to remember a time before cell phones. I know that I’ll never forget my family’s home phone number, the answering machine message on said phone featured a 5 year old me letting callers know to “leave a message at the beep”. We kept this message until the phone number was finally disconnected after the entire family adopted cell phones. In this time before cell phones that answering machine was crucial to communication: anyone who called when the house was empty would leave a message and wait for a reply. For most cases that was perfectly fine: it was rare for anyone to truly need the kinds of instant response time that is expected of most of us today. I really believe that there is something that is healthy about that: interruptions to our focus on important tasks were less frequent, we didn’t feel badly for not being connected 100 percent of the time, and it was normal to sometimes go a day or more without receiving a reply to simple messages.

What if, however, those messages were a little more urgent than an answering machine would allow for? I remember a few occasions as a kid where I needed to be connected only to hear a younger me say “please leave a message at the beep”, frustrating present-day me. In these days should emergencies arise we would find a way to get a hold of the people we were attempting to contact. If we were lucky we would have an idea of where the person was, this made it all the more important for us to communicate our plans with one another before heading out; we might try to call that place and ask for the person that we were looking for. I can remember walking through a big-box store back in the day and hearing over the loudspeaker “Would John Smith please come to customer service for a phone call”; that would seem quite odd these days!

Calling a big-box store to ask for someone clearly requires knowing that they intended on going to that specific location, but what if we didn’t know where someone was going? In those instances we’d need to rely on our knowledge of that person’s habits. If it was critical to get a hold of someone we’d start calling around to their usual haunts and checking if they were around. The clear first two options would almost always be someone’s home then their workplace, things get a little more interesting after that.

Where would be the third place someone would call if they were looking for you in this time before cell phones? Where would round out your top five? I’ve been thinking about this for myself lately, especially connected to the idea that we “vote with our wallet”; I think that even more than voting with our money we vote with where we spend our time. Time is a finite resource that we can never recoup, in the 2022 “attention economy” I think that it’s even more directly connected to our values than the amount of money we spend on something.

As I’m thinking about where someone would go or call if they were looking for me I’m asking myself “am I proud that someone would associate that place with me?”. I want to be sure that I align that list with my values. If I say that I value my health, for example, I should be sure that somewhere active is on that list: a gym, for example. Prioritizing my faith means that a place of worship would be high on the list, keeping volunteering a part of my life would mean that my chosen cause would be a option. I encourage you to similarly take an audit of where someone would call looking for you in a world without cell phones. Having identified the places someone would look for you, remember that you can change your habits if you find that these places don’t align with your values. To make that habit change easier I encourage you to make going to the places that you want to be easier and more attractive: if you dislike your home, you are unlikely to spend time there. If you don’t like the atmosphere of your gym, it’ll be harder to make that a regular part of your routine.

Spending a little time and a little money on making these places enjoyable is going to make everything easier for you. I’ve done this at my home: I have decorated with art and objects that make me happy. I do this with the gym by buying workout clothes that make me feel good or supplements that make the experience more fun. Make the trip out to these places simple, bonus points if you can find a way to put these on places along your commute routes. Spending money isn’t necessary, however: you can also make yourself more likely to go somewhere by making connections with people there; a personal example for me would be recognizing that attending church is more enjoyable when I see familiar faces there who are happy to greet me. If you need an extra push to make sure that you’re consistent with your attendance, make a commitment to volunteer: you can bet that you’ll be more likely to show up when someone is counting on you to help make events successful.

Looking back on the past and some of the norms that we had then can be fun, and can help us reconsider what we’re doing in the moment. With the pace of life seeming to accelerate ever more rapidly it seems that one doesn’t have to look back too far in the distance to find dramatic differences between then and now, each dissimilarity likely hides a lesson, or at minimum can encourage healthy self-reflection.