Sunday, February 04, 2007

"Happy Birthday" bounces off satellites

Conference calls don't need to be limited to business use when access to user-friendly technology is available free of charge. Last week, on my mother's 84th birthday, she sat in her wheelchair in Calgary while my sister Judi helped her chat with her extended family. Besides the calls being placed from all over Western Canada, one grandchild stood in a bathing suit at a phone booth on a beach in New Zealand, another phoned from a booth in Mexico, while my brother Steve in Africa phoned at 3:30 in the morning, his time. My role was to lead the group in singing "Happy Birthday". Despite my countdown and an "all together now", the song got mashed as each of us speeded up or slowed down, trying to compensate for the delays. Mom got the point, anyway.

We seven siblings use email to communicate with each other, but neither of our parents use computers. My sister Janet went to a website to set our family's conference call account after she used it in her organization, and found there were no catches or hidden costs. The only down-side is that cell phone people have to use a land line (hence all the phone booths). Even with fourteen people, the sound quality was good after we all figured out how to mute ourselves when we weren't talking. We were also able to have a free recording made, and each of us can phone up and listen until it gets overwritten by our next taped call. I've put a link to their website in the section on the right.

Last night I went over to the house of a friend in order to make a permanent copy of that recording using a tape recorder connected to the jack on her extension phone. The website offers a way of downloading the sound file to a computer, which will be my next challenge. In the meantime, I'm glad to know that I have a cassette tucked in a drawer of those relaxed voices and cacaphonous song.

With our parents so old, and in the light of their increasing health problems, the tone of the next recording could easily be very different. We plan to use conference calling regularly -- showing up together for our parents during difficult times, as well as for celebrations.

Here is the link to the site which offers free conference calls.

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