Confessions of an e-parent

It’s hard being an e-parent.

When I gave up my paper calendar for a hand-held electronic organizer, I experienced nothing short of a revolution in organizational capability. Never again would I misplace a phone number or neglect to turn in my timesheet. Everywhere I needed to be, everything I needed to do, and every person I needed to call was in the palm of my hand—at the mercy of just two mini batteries and the accuracy of a tiny pen. I was always organized before. Now, I was meta-organized.

E-parenting does come with heavy responsibility, however. A battery change every 3700 miles, a wipe of a screen now and then, and strict avoidance of physical trauma (no dropping her on the concrete porch step when trying to carry too many things in the door, for example). These requirements are a stark contrast to those of a basic paper calendar—which only need to be kept dry and away from open flame.

When I threw away my pencil and lightened my load, I joined the ranks of the organized who cart leading technology everywhere—to work, to the hairdresser’s, to bed. And colleagues could no longer tease me about the thickness of my calendar (when I got married, they said I’d probably tote my daytimer down the aisle instead of a Bible).

No one knows how much data I keep in my e-baby, not even me. So what else do I get from my few hundred bucks and the regular attention I bestow on my organizer?

• I will never forget a birthday, because I have entered my 73 closest friends and family in my organizer and set those dates to “repeat” every year, with a reminder to buy a card five days before. (Of course, remembering all those birthdays costs a fortune.)

•I am now truly bilingual—I know a special graffiti that only other e-parents and my organizer recognize. Try doing a handwriting analysis on me now and see what you learn!

•I will always remember Monday morning staff meetings, even in my job ten years from now, because the alarm goes off at 10:55 am every week. This is a reliable feature—it worked even on Christmas and New Year’s.

• I have access to the tiniest keyboard on the planet—on which I have learned to type with a plastic pen smaller than a Q-tip.

•I can add up how much I owe the babysitter in the car on the way home from a night out, using the backlight and calculator functions. This saves a good five minutes. Over the years, the time savings will really add up.

So what’s the downside? It is harder to keep an e-baby healthy. For instance, a few weeks ago, mine took a mini-sabbatical…without my permission. This e-revolt brought me to just short of a panic attack—my life’s daily drama unfolds on the screen of that thing! And not being able to watch it was like missing an episode of Survivor and not realizing the group voted you off the island. The only thing my organizer doesn’t do is cook dinner (and change her own batteries).

It started with periodic teasing at first—she began winking, blinking, and nodding in funny lines at random points throughout the day. If I pushed down on her grey plastic face, her screen went clear—but only long enough to review the day’s appointments. The greatest challenge was pushing on her face and writing with my stylus pen at the same time. She eventually got tired of all that pushing and her screen went midnight black.

And that wasn’t the first time I had problems. My former model developed a pinstriped screen just six months before (and everyone knows pinstripes are not in vogue). The parent company informed me that because she was 13 months old, they would take no responsibility. Repairs cost a minimum of $100 and it would be cheaper to buy a new one. Or I could do without.

So, did I go back to paper and pen and a wall calendar? Of course not. I bought another one. $100 more than the first—faster, a sharper screen, and a fine nightlight for when I must check my to-do list in a dark movie theater. This time, she came with a 2-year health plan.

This one didn’t wait long to develop unfamiliar scraggles. (And I hadn’t dropped her on the porch step even once.) The extended warranty company referred me to the parent company, who referred me to repair, who said I had to call customer service so they could troubleshoot over the phone. (Was there a button for removing pinstripes that I somehow overlooked?) Customer service suggested I change the batteries. What a good idea! Wish I had thought of that.

When I finally did reach the e-doctor, he said they’d pay for the surgery. But she had to go away for five to ten business days—alone. If I wanted, they would send an “advance replacement.” That sounded intriguing. But it just meant I’d receive a refurbished model and never see mine again. (And they’d fix her for a dollar and send her off to the Silicon Valley.) Or, I could mail her in and wait a week or two for her to come home.

So I packed her up in a styrofoam-lined box, and printed a hard copy of my calendar and to-do list, which I toted around like a neanderthal for a week.

When she was returned by express courier, I found a disturbing sheet of paper in the box. The form stated that I might notice that her serial number has changed. “The nature of your repair may have led us to replace interior parts linked to the serial number…” Yeah, right. If it costs a minimum of $100 for a repair, wouldn’t it be cheaper for them to send me a new one, and just pretend it’s mine?

I am left feeling quite suspicious. But there’s not much I can do about it. I am certainly not going to go back to writing with a No. 2 pencil.

There is one more downside to e-parenting, which is worth mentioning. What’s that? I really am a poet at heart, and I’d just as soon skip all those meetings and items on my to-do list and lock myself in a room with a notebook and felt-tip pen. As much as I love my organizer, she does absolutely nothing for poetry. So sometimes I sense I am stuck in a codependent competency trap of the e-kind.

But, on the bright side, my organizer does keep my left-brain occupied. And even with a few breakdowns now and then, that’s probably a good thing for us all.