STORY BY Marion Winik

phone_homeWhen my older son Hayes turned 16 back in the dark ages of 2004, I bought him a cell phone for his birthday; soon after, I was guilt-tripped into getting one for his 14-year-old brother Vince. Now the bar has dropped again: I seem to be buying a phone for their 11-year-old little sister Jane, and she will be far from the first mobile carrier in her sixth-grade class. This slope has become very slippery, I feel, and I can only hope I will not soon be adding our dachshund to the family plan.

Like other boomers, I grew up when Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone was a sci-fi joke and came of age in an era when only doctors and drug dealers had pagers. I got my first cell phone for my 40th birthday. At first, I never turned the thing on and didn’t even know my number.

Six years later, my wall sockets were a rat’s nest of chargers and I had my sons on speed-dial (speed dial! how quaint!). And while I’d initially seen the cell phone as a ridiculous indulgence, I had come to realize it was a parenting essential.

We lived in the country back then, so I was able to keep tabs on my boys’ locations until they and their friends started driving. After that, I spent larger and larger chunks of time picturing their mangled bodies in a wreck by the side of the road. It was a blissful relief to be able to dial and hear a voice.

“Huhhh-lllllooo,” it would drawl, or “Yeah?”, or “Whuuut, Mom?” These greetings were delivered in a zombie-like tone of profound exhaustion and irritation.

But zombie or no, he was alive!

Unfortunately, the fact that he still walked among the living is all I had learned for sure. “Where are you?” I would demand.

He was “on his way to Mike’s,” or “at the varsity girls’ volleyball game,” or “at Ben’s house.” Really. I soon realized I had no idea if this was actually the case. Okay, what’s the landline number at Ben’s house?

One time, I recall, it was claimed that “Ben” did not know his own phone number – or address.

And it gets worse. When they see the caller is Mom, they simply ignore the call or let it go to voicemail, where you leave a detailed message to which no one will ever listen. Ever.

“Why didn’t you answer when I called you today? I called three times!” you say when the AWOL child appears at dinner.

By now the kid is a seasoned cell phone user and has a ready explanation. “I had no service,” he mutters glumly. “There’s like a black hole on the track field or something.”

Try to argue with this and you will be informed that if you had only selected a better cell phone provider, you wouldn’t have this problem.

In response to these evasions, you must develop tricks of your own. Like calling his friends (it’s important to acquire these numbers casually, when you see your chance). Since the friends don’t have you programmed into their phones, they unwittingly answer, hoping that the unknown number is that of a cute girl or someone with an extra case of beer.

“Jake,” you say. “Are you with Vince?”

“Um,” brief pause for moral dilemma, “yeah, he’s right here.”

Other ruses: Place your call to your child’s phone from an unknown phone number, or have someone else call him for you. “Mom” he will say angrily, when the bitter truth becomes clear. “What do you want? ”

Well, you are angry too. “COME HOME RIGHT NOW!” you shout. “Or I’m taking away that damn phone!”

Ah, there’s the rub. If you take the phone away, you’re back to the mangled body on the side of the road scenario. You could take away the car, but then you’d be returned to your former life of carpool slavery. Yes, you could raise your kids Amish-style, with no cell phones and no cars – but, really? You’re a big selfish bourgeois American parent, and you do have your own life to live.

Once the kids go to college, cell phone interaction takes on a more positive note. Now that your role as idiot enforcer is over, your position as omniscient world expert and personal banker begins. Questions such as “Do you put milk in an omelet?” or “How do you change the margins in a Word document?” are resolved with a call to you, the All-Knowing. Or you find polite, sweet messages in your voicemail: “Hi, Mom. How are you doing today? Can you put some money in my bookstore account?”

Apparently a girl with a cell phone is a different animal than a boy. According to a Pew Research study, girls text almost three times as much as their male counterparts. One mom told me her daughter sent 50,000 messages in a month. (From past experience, I can imagine the reaction of this girl’s boyfriend, who doubtless “lost” his cell phone for hours or days at a time.) Far from being out of reach, girls send their mothers video messages from the dressing room at Hollister and hourly updates on breaking news at school. A girl will apparently call her mom to chat just so she doesn’t look like a loser while loitering at Starbucks.

Maybe I won’t feel this way a year from now, but at this point the grass still looks greener. Here’s your cell phone, Jane. Don’t be a loser. Call your mom.

Marion Winik, author of eight books including First Comes Love, The Lunchbox Chronicles and Glen Rock Book of the Dead, is a former Howard County writer-in-residence, and a regular contributor to the website baltimorefishbowl.com.

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