Last week, as I was leaving work, I got an alarming text message. It was a warning from our cell phone company. With only four days to go in our billing cycle, we had reached 90 percent of our data usage for the month. I quickly did the math in my head. (Actually I didn't. That's kind of a hard one to figure out.) The message was clear, though: I could fork over extra money each month to avoid this problem in the future, or be a cheapskate, take my chances and possibly incur additional charges this month.
The cell phone people clearly didn't know me all that well. I immediately put down my briefcase and group messaged the three children, our twin 18-year-old girls and a 20-year-old son, who were still on our phone plan. "NO MORE DATA! NO FACEBOOK, NO MOVIES, NO GAMES, NO NOTHING TILL THE END OF THE MONTH!"
Any reasonable person who had never had or maybe even met children would assume I'd get three quick responses along the lines of "NO PROBLEM, DAD. ANYTHING YOU ASK!" or "WHAT CAN I DO 2 HELP?"
Instead, my phone started lighting up as the kids took time out of their busy lives to make vague excuses: "I only use my phone to listen to music!" to backtalk, "Excuse me? Who used the phone as a GPS last week when he couldn't find his? #Dadsfault." And to completely disregard my distress "LOL!" I would have texted back with a long, angry diatribe, but I am not completely sure whether text messages count as data, so I just stood there and tried to resist the urge to throw my phone across the parking lot.
As background, you should know that with five smartphones on one plan, each month my wife and I pay more for cell phone service than some people spend on their mortgages. To be fair, the cell phone company allows us to "bundle" our cell phone plans, our Internet and home phone into one humongous bill that makes my eyes water each month when I write out the check. So while you might call me cheap for refusing to up our data plan, I prefer to think of myself as "tapped out."
It's not that I couldn't afford the 20 extra bucks -- It's that I can't afford the hundreds of ones that came before that.
And I would be less aggravated if we were using our smartphones to actually get smarter. Instead, I suspect most of that data was spent on text messages that said nothing more than LOL or ROFL, Snapchat pictures of friends making duck faces and videos of flash mobs, dogs doing cute things and soldiers surprising their kids at school by pulling off Santa beards. Data started out as something boring and technical that helped us control our lives. Over the years, it's evolved into something meaningless that controls our lives.
We might get through until midnight Tuesday, I figured, rationing every byte, if we all worked together. I sent one final text message, "No Data till nxt wk, K?" (See how I saved on vowels? Smart!) and turned off all unnecessary programs on my phone.
The next couple of days, I was disciplined. I only responded to texts that could be answered with "Y" or "N." I resisted the urge to check Facebook for updates on stuff that meant nothing to me. I rooted through the trunk of my car until I found the GPS.
Saturday morning, my wife and I went to Eat'n Park for breakfast with our daughters. Midway through the meal I looked up to see all three of them bent over their phones, tapping and swiping away. I let out a muffled scream, sounding much like a small, scared girl. They all looked up in alarm, and our elderly waitress almost dropped her coffee pot.
"No more data!" I hissed like Gollum. "It's precious!"
The girls stared at me, my wife pretended she didn't know me, and the waitress declined to refresh my cup. The whole rest of the weekend, I followed them around, barking out warnings whenever they looked at their phones.
Tuesday night, I heard my phone beep at exactly 8 p.m., and I tensed up. It was the dreaded phone company. "Your data plan limit has been reached," it said. This was crunch time -- four hours to go, and all I had to do was trust my kids to stay off data until midnight. As God is my witness, not ... one ... more ... byte.
Just then, my phone lit up with a Facebook notification. Someone I barely knew had just invited me to play Candy Crush.
I sighed. #Dadsfault.
Peter McKay, a longtime Ben Avon resident and syndicated columnist, can be reached at his website, www.peter-mckay.com.