Catching up on the news is easier than inventing a ditty for one's answering machine

When we returned from Mexico I didn't have any messages on my telephone answering machine because I hadn't turned it on.

The only catching up I had to do was with the newspapers. A neighbor saved them for us and it took me a week to go through them. It is astonishing how much news can happen in a week.

President Reagan accuses five terrorist nations of acts of war. . . . Hutton executive accused of ordering branch offices to overdraw their banks' accounts, for the interest. . . . Atty. Gen. Meese attacks the Supreme Court's rulings on religion. . . . Stockman quits. . . . Admiral relieved of duty in $630 ashtray scandal gets his job back. . . . Senate approves bill to ease gun sales. . . . Coca-Cola gives in, promises to bring back the old formula. . . . FBI arrests a CIA clerk on charges of spying. . . . Navy investigates theft of more than $1 million in supplies from carrier Kitty Hawk. . . . Guerrero injured. . . . President Reagan undergoes surgery. . . . U.S. prepares to ask Supreme Court to overturn its abortion ruling. . . . Shuttle launching halted three seconds before blastoff. . . . Brock hits two homers. . . . Chicago judge convicted of selling justice like apples. . . . Dodgers take first place. . . .

What a drama it all is.

I felt like the Englishman in Somerset Maugham's story who received a month's copies of the London Times when the river boat arrived each month at his station in Malaya, or wherever it was, and who disciplined himself to read one copy each day, not looking ahead to see how things turned out.

Meanwhile, in my mail at the office I found that many readers agree with me about the difficulty of inventing an answer for one's answering machine that doesn't sound too stuffy, too theatrical or too cute.

One of the pitfalls is the standard promise to call the person back, if he leaves his name and number. What if you don't want to call him back?

Art Dowling of Manhattan Beach suggests a way of avoiding that pickle:

"Hello. We're not at home now. If you'd like to let us know who called, please leave your name and number."

Lucille Wilson of Anaheim suggests an even simpler one:

"This is (number). Please leave your name and telephone number."

She comments: "Tells nothing, promises nothing."

Vance Geier reports that his son, who teaches music, uses one that is appropriate to his profession:

" 'Please leave your name and number, and I will get Bach to you.' Then he plays a bit of Bach."

Arthur R. Vinsel of Costa Mesa, a free-lance writer, reports that his brother-in-law, "the yuppie wine salesman," has a very convincing imitation of Humphrey Bogart as Rick, in "Casablanca," on his machine, with background music from the film.

Vinsel encloses a piece he had published in the Orange County Register last August. His wife had given him an answering machine 18 months previously, and up to that time he had not used it.

"The only machine I have truly mastered," he wrote, "is my coffee percolator, which has but three moving parts."

"After getting through to so many of them (machines)," Richard L. Barnaby writes, "only to have to listen to 20 seconds worth of 'Hi, this is blah, blah, blah,' I was relieved to call a machine that had replaced the 20-second tape with a two-second tape stating merely, 'You know what to do. . . . Beep.' "

Winston Miller of Beverly Hills writes that his brother-in-law, Niven Busch, "has, literally, the last word programmed on his answering machine. It simply says, 'This machine does not take messages.' "

Donald G. Way sends me a column by Miss Manners, the arbiter of excruciatingly correct behavior, in which she deals wisely with the problems of answering machines.

In the first place, she says, it is not rude to have one, since everyone has "a right to be unavailable." It is rude, though, she says, to subject the caller to stale or silly "entertainment."

"All that is required is that one repeat the number that has been reached, in order to dismiss misdialers, and give succinct instructions on how a message may be left. You don't need to give your name unless you want to. You certainly don't need to offer an excuse for not answering the telephone. . . ."

True Boardman insists that "the damned machine can actually be a friend and a blessing. All it requires is a little thoughtful attention and imagination."

Boardman recommends a message that uses all the time up to the beep, so the caller doesn't have a boring wait, and also using a tone that indicates you're "glad" the person called.

"Of course maybe you're not glad that person called. Maybe it's your ex-wife about the alimony, or a bill collector. No matter. It may make even them feel better. And make their message more friendly than it might have been."

As for imaginary classic messages that might have been left by famous people, several are suggested:

Ruth Tubbs of Upland suggests: "Cleopatra: 'I've gone out for a bite.' "

Pat Shroyer of Monterey Park submits a few suggested by famous paintings:

"Whistler's Mother: 'Can't always reach the phone from my rocker. Please leave your number.' "

"Nude Descending a Staircase: 'Hold the line. Phone's on a lower level.' "

"Grant Wood's American Gothic: 'We are outside with our pitchfork. Will return call after sundown.' "

I'll try a few more myself:

U.S. Grant: "I'll call you back if it takes all summer."

Abraham Lincoln: "Sorry, we've gone to the theater."

Harry Truman: "This is Harry Truman. The buck stops here."

Douglas MacArthur: "Please call back before I fade away."

Richard Nixon: "I'm not saying anything on tape."

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