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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

One Ringhy Dinghy

The Secret To Successful Snooping...





Someone Else...

And I think I will. I blame my mother and her relationship with Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. No, not that kind of relationship. She wasn't THAT old. But she did play a part and so did her generation.

My mother was a switchboard operator. A connector. One of the "hello girls" in the 40's. The voice on the other end of the line asking "Number Please", then glancing up at the little flashing light above the plug on the manual switchboard in front of her and plugging into the corresponding jack. She was polite and cordial no matter how rude or nasty the voice on the other end of the line became.  Her job was not to judge, merely to connect two parties one to another. When the call ended and the light went out, she pulled the plug.

It was a repetitious job, and the professional ethical code required her to face forward, answer and end each call in a proper manner and to ignore the other operators sitting close beside. It was not her job to eavesdrop on other conversations. But she did. They all did. Once in awhile. Just to pass the time, mind you. Not to pass along information.

Not all switchboard operators were so above board. Many, in fact, knew more about the employees and their trysts or peccadillos than anyone would ever have imagined. But they kept it to themselves.
Next up, the party line. The source of Saturday night entertainment for small towns and rural communities across the country. It was inevitable. You needed to make a call. You picked up the phone, and it was "in use". The respectable thing to do was to lower the the receiver and to try again later. But sometimes, on a boring eve, the conversation sounded much more interesting than what was on TV, and believe me, back in the day, TV on a Saturday night left a lot to be desired. So, maybe a touch of gossip. A bit of inside information. To be shared in the hair salon, in soft secretive whispers and knowing smiles. Innocent. Rather, a more expansive version of the game of "Telephone", with the details slightly exaggerated to be more tantalizing.

Enter the entrepreneurs. The marketing whiz kids. The Ozzie and Harriet Nelson team. Why not call people up, make them feel special and ask them what they are watching on TV at a particular hour on a particular night. Ah, now we have a rating system. Innocent. Just call up, ask an innocent over-your-shoulder-peek-a-boo question like..."What are you watching right now?" If you call enough people and get enough answers you can drive advertising to the perfect spot, at the perfect time and at the perfect rate.

Neither Ozzie nor Harriet ever called my house. Not once. Not ever. But then I didn't have caller ID, back in the golden olden days.

I never had a party line. I didn't work on a switchboard. I was not a tattletale and I guarded my privacy, as far as the cord on the rotary dial phone situated in the hallway within earshot of my parents, could take me.

Spring forward a number of years. I started cutting coupons. Lots and lots of coupons to help stretch the dollars for a growing family with a stay at home Mom.

Enter the next available entrepreneur. The inventor at the end of the check out counter at the supermarket. Believe it or not, when I was 14, I worked at a grocery store and there were no prices on any of the products. I, the check out girl, memorized them. All of them. Even the daily specials. Once in awhile, the owner used a black crayon and wrote the price on the top of the can, but that was a luxury, and he rarely did it, so he could be more "flexible" with the going rate.

As Mom and Pop stores were replaced by larger supermarkets, the products had to be stamped individually. A time consuming chore. You probably remember the young kids with the towers of canned peas and the purple inked stamp.  Clack. Clack. Clack. I am positive that one of those kids went home one night, and on their PC, decided there must be a better way.

Tah! Dah! The Universal Bar Code.

A bar code that could be scanned.


Lots and lots of good information. How many cans of canned peas sold on Monday or Tuesday, which brand the most popular, when inventory was depleted. When to restock.

Innocent. Useful information.

And then, what was innocent became a bit more invasive. How to beat the competition at their own game. Lower your prices but ONLY for very special customers. Your customers. The ones with the coupons that are a pain in the neck. Give them a card, and in return for just the tiniest pieces of information. Name, address and phone number. Then whenever I, your loyal customer want a bargain, I simply slide my card across the scanner and I get a discount on my items. The person behind me, without the magic card, does not. Ha! I am special and I just tattled on myself.
Until my salad days are over and I see the magician behind the screen. If I buy 9 salads, the 10th is free. But how will I know? How will I keep track? The switchboard operator, check out scanner, item encoder smiles at me and says, "Don't worry we have your information on file."

On file? My information?

They actually have a print out of all my favorite foods and what I like to buy and when I bought a few extra candy bars and which brand and if I paid cash or charged it and which charge card I used...and now I have new mail in my mailbox from guess who? The manufacturers of the brands I buy. The exact brands. Thanks to another enterprising entrepreneur, the information stored on my behalf by my local supermarket, is for sale. Can be shared. Without my permission. Someone is eavesdropping, overhearing, listening in to my conversation with candy bars and snickering all over town and not just at the hair salon.

So what to do. What to do.

Well, like just about everyone else, I shrugged my shoulders.

When I was young, I had a library card. The librarian knew what I was reading. I never thought that she snitched.

When I was young, I got report cards from school. The only person I worried about having access to that information was my wait-until-he-gets-home father.

I did, however, like everyone else, enjoy knowing how I ranked. Who had it better or who had it worse, than me. Where I fit in. My place in line.

I liked being in the know.

Welcome to the computer age. The age of instant communication and instant information. Right at our fingertips.

And we all loved it and for the most part still do.

So much so, that when social websites started up, our personal success could now be measured by how many people like us.

Or not.

So we all became eavesdroppers. Willing to give up a little bit of our privacy to be liked. Or disliked.

Just for a bit of attention. Just to prove we have connections and the bigger the number the better.

You know how you feel when you are the last to know.

An outsider.

Out of touch.


So to make life more interesting, why not add pictures of our houses and our kids and our dogs and our cats? Why not meet up with "friends" from our high school year book and chat with their friends too? Like pen pals, sort of.

Oh and while we're at it, why not include what we ate for breakfast and flash pictures while sitting on the bus and text who has a big nose and that our new puppy is lactose intolerant?

What do you mean anyone can see? What do you mean anyone can know everything about me? I thought everyone was being a professional and ethical switchboard operator and keeping their eyes to the front and not whispering to their friends.

It's a party line folks! And the party is in full swing.

I'd like to think that there is some way to opt out of this folly, but as I look back I played a part. Stuff usually only happens because we let it. Occasionally, we can be too trusting in the decency of our fellow man.

So I sit here and think to myself, in my advanced age, someone is watching.

Someone is watching me all the time.

Where I go and what I do and what I say.

Someone knows I didn't shave my legs today because I haven't bought a new razor in waaaay too long. I got a coupon in the mail today for a Lady Bic. Perhaps the next time I pluck my Groucho Marx eyebrows while sitting on the back porch, because I need the sunlight and an extra pair of reading glasses, I'll look up and smile, in case a drone is flying overhead and taking my picture.

Or I'll set out a pot of geraniums in front of my house for better curb appeal when the Google car cruises by. I might just sit in my shorts with my unshaven legs and wiggle my wooly eyebrows at them too.

The bottom line is this.

Once upon a time, I believed that someone was watching over me.

And had a pretty good idea of my every move.

I have to admit that that makes me a bit more cautious. Just in case my name IS in a ledger somewhere and someone IS keeping track. Someone with professional and ethical qualities urging me to behave as though someone just might be listening.

Someone just like my mother. 

Someone I admire and respect. 

Someone who admires and respects me. 

Someone without an axe to grind or a bone to pick. 

Someone looking out for my best interests. 

I still believe there is someone out there like that. 

Connected. To me. One on one. 

I know it for sure.

I have caller ID. 

There is still a sense of innocence in all of us that no one can ever take away, unless we let them.


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