Madam, Will You Talk?

Kage Baker often talked to the telephone.

Not on the telephone, mind you. She hated being on the telephone, despite  – or more likely because – she spent most of her 9 to 5 career as a Customer Service representative. That meant she mostly talked to people who were already angry, usually wrong, frequently traumatized, and flat out insane a surprising amount of the time.  People don’t call up Customer Service to commend a company.

Kage worked most of her life in various forms of the insurance industry; you get some of the worst situations there, as most people are already up to their ears in shit by the time they remember about their policy. Funeral insurance is probably the worst. It doesn’t pay a lot, it’s frequently borrowed against (which diminishes claim value), and people call the company because – well, someone they know has died. And it goes downhill from there.

For the 20 years we lived in Pismo Beach, Kage worked for one of those tiny little magazines that are all advertisements; like the Pennysaver, EasyAd or PhotoAd. People who call in to place cheap ads for weird objects and services are not as angry – but they are a lot crazier. The good thing about the job was that it gave Kage constant human interest scenarios to mine for stories – because what people want to sell (or buy) is really, really astonishing. You learn that some amazing things are actually legal … except when they’re not, but some airhead wants to answer or place an ad for them anyway.

Anyway, the bottom line was that she rarely accepted phone calls at home. We always had an answering machine and we never picked up until we knew who was calling. Sometimes, not then.  And  Kage never picked up at all – unless she was home alone and it was me calling her. When I was home, I picked up any call we decided to answer; and Kage only took them if she felt like it. That was seldom. Many of our family and friends became convinced we were always sitting there listening to the machine and making rude gestures; but we weren’t. We only did that some of the time.

However, Kage would talk to the phone while the hapless caller was leaving a message. What she said was usually rude, frequently derisive but always honest – things like, I will never in life speak to you, you horrid little man! You dwarf, you minimus of hindering knotgrass made, you bead, you acorn! – to a particularly annoying editor. Shut up, go away, I’m working on it now! – when her agent called about a project nearly due. Or often, a simple, heartfelt Screw you! to the entire universe of people who wanted her to work faster, buy a condo, let them power wash the rugs, donate money to causes. She didn’t have to answer them, but she could yell at them. And she did.

I assume it was cathartic. It seems to be for Kimberly, who also does it. And after all, some people talk to the television – I do, and there’s nothing wrong with me, he he he. But that drove Kage nuts; she hated it when people talked to the television shows. Sadly, the entire family did/does it … but we never watched much television anyway, she and I. So my occasional outbursts weren’t so bad; and half the time, she was doing it as too.

We had to stop watching the news, though. We’d gotten into the habit when CNN first came on the air; watching its birth in the light of the tracer bullets over Baghdad  was mesmerizing. But somewhere along the way CNN lost its mind and its mandate and became too painful to watch. The local and national evening news programs were no replacement; they were even worse. Unless we were looking for news of something that had happened in Pismo Beach, we tended to get our news from the papers and the Internet. The traditional sources just went sloppy nuts …

They’re even worse now, most of them. My family talks back to the few mainstream news media we watch, and I do believe it’s largely self defense. If we just sat there and absorbed the crap being spewed from even the good ones, the entire lot of us would likely die of apoplexy. We don’t dare watch Fox News; nothing could prevent my head from exploding, I am sure – I can barely make it through the choice bits excerpted by the few news people I can bear to listen to at all.

Sometimes Kage and I recited along with the television, of course. We were the generation that grew up with Sheriff John and Engineer Bill and Captain Kangaroo – interactive television was soaked into our genes.  Then there were the cult-level call and response movies like Rocky Horror, and the rock concerts that invited 18,000 voice choirs to join in, and then the street shows of Renaissance Faires. Our life was interwoven with things that expected us to join in; nay, required us to do so to keep the story rolling!

Small wonder we talked back to the telly.

Even smaller wonder that Kage held conversations with the telephone. Though she often denigrated and cursed people she didn’t like – especially while they left desperate messages on the answering machine – at least the process got it out of her system. She never let loose with the truly creative damnings and obscene speculations where anyone but Harry and I could hear; her emails to these unfortunates were always a model of ladylike professionalism.

Personally, I wish we could put Harry on – all he’ll say is Hello? Hello? in his funny high-pitched parrot voice. Plus whistle like a steam engine, and then sing Rule, Britannia endlessly

Kage would approve of that.






About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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7 Responses to Madam, Will You Talk?

  1. Brad Campbell says:

    I also hate talking on phones…always have. Further, I always hated big crowds and automobiles. For my sins in some other life, I guess, I spent 35 years Managing California DMV’s. Phones, crowds and cars. No wonder I found peace in the quiet wonder of Kage’s worlds. At lunch, a few words into a page & I WAS NOT at DMV. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.


  2. johnbrownson says:

    I’ve noticed that my telephone conversations are getting more and more infrequent, as other, seemingly more attractive, modes of communication take their place. We’ve long since discarded our land line- with its answering machine, who’s messages we’d ignore or, yes, talk back to, and our smart phones are more likely to show text messages with a little, musical tone, than to ring with an actual call. Sometimes I miss coming home and “checking for messages”- in fact, I still have the occasional urge to do so- and I cannot remember the last time I had a good ol’ long phone conversation with anybody, the way we usta. Who would have thought that the telephone itself would become anachronistic? But, my more colorful clients still talk about “diming” (as in “dropping a dime on”) somebody, so at least some part of the old culture survives.


  3. mizkizzle says:

    Put Harry on the phone! That’ll flummox the sellers of replacement windows and timeshares!
    We still have a landline, which rarely gets calls from people who aren’t selling things. Despite being on the Do Not Call list, we get calls from sneaky businesses that pretend they’re taking some kind of consumer survey and then try and sell us stuff that we don’t want.
    I rarely answer but when I do (Usually when the phone rings while I’m preparing dinner) I tell them, when they ask to speak to the homeowner, “Sorry, they’re not home. I’m the cat.”
    At this point you’d think they’d hang up, but instead they say, astonished, “You’re the cat?”
    I tell them yes, I’m the cat. I’m a talking cat who can answer the phone. It totally blows their minds. I like to think it puts a little bit of magic and wonder in their day to have conversed with a talking cat.


    • Kate says:

      I woke up this morning to the sound of hysterical laughter as Kimberly read out your answer here. She loves the idea. I suspect people calling us may soon find themselves talking to a very sarcastic cat.


      • mizkizzle says:

        I’m glad to have brightened Kimberley’s and your day. My husband thinks I’m terrible to toy with telemarketers but I like it.
        I told one salesman of thermopane windows that my home doesn’t need replacement windows because I live in an underground bunker that has no windows.
        “Really?” he said incredulously.
        Yes, I said. It’s a former missile silo. I bought it from the government for $25,000 and it’s very cozy.
        “Cool,” he breathed. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Kate says:

    One must assume that these telemarketers are not the sharpest tools in the shed, or they wouldn’t be doing this. I know they are usually astonished when Kimberly or I advise them about the Do Not Call List. Often, they are outraged by the idea that THEY would be subject to that list. I’ve actually had some of them tell me that they were refusing to honour the list because it was “invasive government”. Just what I need – Tea Party telemarketers. The very best one, though, was the self=assured young man who earnestly told Kimberly: “Oh, no, Ma’am, Obama killed that program!”

    You’d think some that clever could find a better job.


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