Essentially Ashland: By Lance K. Pugh

As the tumbleweeds begin to blow down the street and clouds of dust roil in the distance, I began to understand why our country and world is in the midst of such a downward economic spiral.

All the usual suspects have been rounded up: predatory lending, financial repackaging, unbalanced world trade, two wars a waging, deregulation, Big Oil a gushing, outsourcing, massive deficits, SUVs, a surge in subdivisions, gluttony and greed, though this is just the short list.

I have considered carefully and have clearly identified the root of this massive global mess, something so insidious, so wasteful, reckless, wicked and profligate that it is mainly overlooked by the media: voice mail.

You all know the drill. Call a company for service and hack through a tree of options while being forced to listen to the least creative and tinny tunes until you reach somebody's voice mail, there to leave a desperate plea for a return call, which is rarely made. If you are really up for some punishment, you call back and talk to someone in customer care, which means you have reached half-way around the world in order to be told in fluent orangutan that your issue is being looked into and you will be called back when the problem is righted.

Sure you will be called back, but this time by an automated system asking you to rate your quality of care, this before anything is fixed. Thereafter, you are greeted by only silence or a tsunami of automated calls.

I once innocently thought that things would be easier as I became surrounded by some of this technology. It was like thinking that we would be greeted with flowers and baby kisses after we blew into Baghdad "¦ clearly delusional, though it sure sounded nice.

The other day I tried to reach a particular person at the bank. You know, the place that keeps only $500 on hand, as the rest is invested in coal burning power plants in China, which is only two days and a black lung away from the West Coast. I thought that the bank abhorred hackers, but what really goes on leaves me breathless.

I again called said bank and left six messages and ultimately was transferred to the water cooler, which was probably full of toxic sludge, heavy metals, pesticides and various faux fish parts, just for starters. No wonder no one called back, they were almost certainly in the emergency room trying to get the bubbling goo out of their good lung.

If leaving voice mail is not discouraging enough, I recoiled at the host of calls that went into my system while I was swinging through the voice tree. I immediately began to return the calls, but everyone's line was busy, so I, gulp, left a barrage of voice mails, which will clog up the works for another two days.

Years ago one would actually hear a busy tone if someone was on the line. When dialing these days, one usually hears nothing when the line is engaged and is summarily launched into the gaping moist maws of voice mail, there to be dissected and digested by a digital representative of Hades and left stretched out to dry.

Well, enough complaining, which is easy to do. Samuel Clemens once said: "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." With this admonition in mind I decided to act.

I rerouted all my calls to a central facility, then added the audio of a bubbling hot tub. When on the phone, those who tried to reach me heard the voice of Poseidon most clearly stating through the bubbling froth: "Lance is currently over his head and underwater with an anchor of complexities. Please call back later, should he beach himself and become available to take your call in a respectful fashion."

Within a week my inbound phone calls dwindled to a can of sardines, though the mailman was shoveling snail mail into my mailbox as if clearing the walkway from a freak snowstorm.

So, 90 percent of our working day is consumed by phone tag. One way or the other, the culprit remains the same: voice mail.

Lance@journalist.com was last seen engaged in actual conversation, though it was with his mother's parrot, Jake.