Monday, January 05, 2009


It started with the weedwhacker. It was 1998, and Jon unpacked it on the living room floor while I moaned about affluence. It started with a weedwhacker, but where would it end? A leaf blower? A crepe pan? A shiny new minivan with a bow on the hood, parked in the driveway on Christmas morning? I don't know where our path to affluence is going to end, but I'll tell you where it is right now: it's where one cell phone, shared between six people is an unbearable deprivation.

If you were to travel back to the year of my birth, and tell people that you had a phone that you could carry with you anywhere and use it whenever you wanted and that you could make long distance calls for free, send text messages, and take pictures with it, they'd think it was something out of science fiction. Now, at any given moment, no matter where we happen to be, each of us can be in instant contact with hundreds of people. Soon we'll be texting our pizza orders from the top of Mt. Everest. And yet Miss G, who is already engaged in almost uninterrupted simultaneous conversations with several friends at a time, via facebook or IM, is behaving like she will have a stroke if she does not get her new cell phone RIGHT NOW.

I had to resort to "Back when I was a kid..." Back when I was a kid, people didn't own their phones. AT&T owned them. If you wanted to add a line you had to get permission from AT&T and go to their store and if they determined that you were worthy, they would rent you a phone and your monthly bill would increase because you had to pay for each line. Or you could get an illegal phone. My aunt and uncle had a phone in every freaking room in their house, including the basement. All but two of them were illegal, i.e. not sanctioned by AT&T. You could tell which ones were illegal because they didn't ring. Then came the big shake-up of "Ma Bell," some time during the Reagan years and suddenly the phones that AT&T had grudgingly allowed us to borrow were our very own to keep and you could have as many phones as you wanted and the phone company wouldn't know the difference.

And yet our troubles were not over. My parents were thrifty and had "limited phone." This meant that we were only allowed so much time each month to talk on our phone and were charged extra if we exceeded the limit--and the limit was stingy, if I recall correctly. Something like twelve hours per month, which translates to 144 minutes. My teenage years were shadowed with, "Get off the phone! Can't you remember that we have limited phone?" By the time my sister got to high school, my parents caved and we got "unlimited phone."

And then there was the party line. Actually, party lines were long out-of-date when I was growing up, except in Canada, where my aunt and uncle, they of the illegal phones, had a cottage. I would spend extended periods there, in the summers, with my cousin, and the party line was a source of both amusement and irritation. When the phone rang, you listened to the tone because each party had its own ring: three shorts, or one long, two shorts, etc, and when you heard your tone, you knew the call was for your house. My cousin and I would sometimes try to eavesdrop on other conversations, but people have an irritating habit of knowing when someone is listening to them. The annoying thing about the party line is that if you want to use the phone, but someone else on the party line is talking, you can't make your call until they get off. I remember one time, my cousin met a boy she liked. His name was John Smith, or something like that, and she decided to try and find him by calling all the "Smiths" in the phone book and asking for John. This caused much exasperation down the party line and we'd hear people picking up their phones and then slamming them down in a huff because we weren't done with our task. I think someone finally told us to get the hell off the phone. And it's not like I'm 100 years old. This was in the 1980s.

My sister-in-law had one of the first cell phones. This was in the early '90s. It was HUGE and she'd hook it onto the side of her bag--it was far too big to fit in the bag; an incongruous look with an evening gown. Nowadays, the only thing smaller than a cell phone that you are likely to find in a woman's purse is a tampon.

And so, it is with the weight of all this history behind me, that I finally, grudgingly, accepted the fact that we need more cell phones. The kids have been begging me for ages. Drama Queen stated her case in a long letter. (Did I know that fifteen year old girls are more likely to be abducted than girls of any other age?) And it's not like we're a family that can't share. The six of us share a single closet. During our bathroom renovation, we shared a single toilet for over a month. We share a computer. (Sharing one computer among six people is much, much more difficult than sharing one toilet.) And up until now, we shared a cell phone. Yesterday I caved and upgraded to a family plan and bought four new phones, each with a tiny pullout QWERTY keyboard and reorienting screen and camera. Our plan allows us to share 1500 minutes--it sounds stingy, but remember the measly 144 minutes we had when I was growing up-- plus unlimited minutes on nights and weekends plus unlimited texting. Because why would you want to talk to someone when you could text him instead?


  1. My 10 y.o. is already asking for a cell phone -- a request that I deny every time and have no intention of granting any year soon.

    I will confess, however, that we have two family computers, plus my work computer, which is strictly off limits for any non-work use.

  2. You positively crack me up! My son wants a cell phone, but he never calls anyone nor does anyone ever call's become almost an accessory as much as a homing device. I loved this trip down memory and I are very kindred spirits when it comes to issues of affluence I think.

  3. I love this post. I also appreciate drama queen advocated for the cell phone so effectively.
    I also have to think hard about the purchases we make, not only for the boys but ourselves. Having grown up with not too much, I appreciate we didnt have so much, yet why wouldnt we get a Wii for the family (but no way are we getting X-Box that would be ridiculous- right?).
    Insightful stuff in your post. Thanks for sharing

  4. I think all of the sharing of the other stuff has earned you a couple of extra cell phones.

    My kids keep asking when they'll be getting cell phones. My son's a 7th grader and it seems more kids in his school have them than not, but I just haven't been able to justify it based on any kind of imaginable need. He's only ever at school, his friend's house or home, which all have phones. My 3rd grader has also been asking about a cell phone. One of her friend's got one in 2nd grade and several of her classmates have them. When are these 7 and 8 year olds alone and some place where their only possible contact with an adult require a cell phone? I don't get it.

    And I loved all the phone stories.

  5. My kids (9 and 12) are famous for asking for stuff that they don't even really want, but that other kids have. Cell phones, a Wii, and iPods are all at the top of the list. I'm raising a couple of sheeple!