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The Trials and Tribulations of Parenting Adolescent Techies


ReDotPop faces tech-savvy, consumer-primed, expensive adolescence in the form of teenaged cell phone users. Holden wavers between pride and panic as his offspring dabble in art via on-screen decals, and explore a range of music via ring options.

There are only three problems associated with being Todd Holden under conditions of ReDotPop circa 2004. One being: having kids. The second: having kids in adolescence. And the third: having adolescents who have their very own cell phones. None of these issues, of course, are considered problematic by Todd's adolescents, who see cell phones as nothing short of thrilling. For their father, though?: tribulation-city.

I only recently became aware of these dualistic dynamics: the yin and yang of my family's contemporary existence. Contradictory but, as contradictions are wont to be, one and the same. Thrills playing heads to tribulations' tails. Repeated enough times, they meld like the blurred image of a rotating coin; a fusion one might call "thribulation".

This current confluence of contrasts was unleashed about the time that Maya, aged 14, and Alex, 13, contemplated the mirror and realized that the persons staring back at them were no longer sporting pajamas with the little feetsies sewn at the end; no longer were they pups whose soy-fried tofu had to be sliced into bite-size morsels and shoveled into their captive mouths; no longer were they tiny tykes told to hold parental hands before boarding the shinkansen (bullet train). These observations (unfortunately) also coincided with the recognition that they were the only ones in their respective social circles who didn't possess portable communicatory devices. You know, the palm-sized gadgets that their pals were insisting were, indisputably, indispensable "necessities of life" ("And why, exactly don't YOU have one? Hmm?").

Thus was born the concept of inferiority within the Holden brood and their first experience of comparative social disadvantage. Precipitating that interminable period of internecine tussle in our household whereby Maya and Alex employed their variegated willful wiles and guileful gambits to lobby for, engineer, and otherwise finagle their way into acquiring said cells. Delivering unto me, their father, the first of my current "thribulations".

A second quickly ensued. Namely, the exorbitant outlay of funds required to secure these pestilent units. Followed by a third. The amount of time these kids sink into using the devices for meaningless chatter. I mean, the phones are there for a purpose, right? For practical matters, such as arranging pick-up times from school and making sure we've coordinated who's getting dropped off at soccer or ballet, by which parent, and when. For pragmatic, such as confirming whether we need broccoli or kimchi (Korean pickles) and which variant of milk is in low supply as we cruise the supermarket aisles. But, the first time I checked in on the mail bin on the phone (yeah, okay, busted . . . I was snooping), and what does a parent discover?

Alex: "Yo, Kazuki. I'm at Sendai Station now. At Bus Stop 9."
Kazuki: "Hey Ale-chi. Cool. I just left North Sendai Station. I can see my Mom waiting outside . . . but I got a few minutes to talk."
Alex: "Oh, here comes the bus. I'm getting on now."
Kazuki: "How many people on it?"
Alex: "Lots. I'm standing."
Kazuki: "Bummer. Hey you know you aren't supposed to use cells on the bus."
Alex: "I know. I should go."
Kazuki: "Okay. Well, see you in school."
Alex: " 'K. Bye. Hey…"
Kazuki: "Yeah?"
Alex: "I hope the Giants win tonight."
Kazuki: "Yuck. You like Yomiuri?"
Alex: "Naw. But you know . . . when they lose, Yanagizawa-sensei always is in a terrible mood."
Kazuki: "Yeah, he has Giants on the brain."
Alex: "Oh, here's my stop. I gotta pay. Can't let the driver catch me messaging. So, I'd better sign off. Bye."
Kazuki: " 'K. See ya."

Precipitating a fourth "thribulation": the bill. You see, each one of those lines you just read? Whether it's a "send" or "receive", that's 10 yen right there. And all the " 'K"s and "gotta go"s and "I'm at bus stop number 9"s are not communication events as much as cash registers ka-chinging. And what they add up to is like a black hole drilled through my pants pocket and spewing its quarry straight out into the cobbled Sendai street. Making the following tirades a common occurrence at the family dinner table:

"Maya! What is this? You sent 17 mails back and forth just to tell your friend that: one, you had a fun time today; two, you're sorry that you forgot to wave your hand when you said 'bye-bye'; three, you are now passing that store that has that photo spread on Troy and you just have to go buy it tomorrow; four, you don't know where you'll get the money to buy it, and maybe you'll pass on tomorrow night's pre-ballet snack and use the money on the magazine instead; five, you agree that Brad Pitt has nothing over Orlando Bloom, (so why do so many people like him?); six, you wonder whether it looks as if you've gained a few grams or not today; seven, just in case, you'd better make sure not to eat grapes for breakfast. Etcetera, etcetera."

Marketers obviously knew what they were doing when they decided to pair cell phones and kids. For a paying parent, the "thribulations" never cease.

One upside, if you can call it that, is the validation I experienced by watching Maya and Alex work these machines. Belated positives, to be sure, since all these years I'd assumed that the kids' incessant exertions lost in the arcana of RPG (role playing game) manuals boning up on the technique of casting that magic net over the fast-charging, three-headed alien, or roasting that slain beast to perfection on the open plain, was nothing more than wasted effort. One less hour available for them to complete the studies that would get them into the University of Tokyo, I had always fretted; or decipher the subtle phrasings of a Chopin Prelude; or master the intricacies of the running left-hand teardrop in the lane. Silly me, thinking that it was only sloth being subsidized and encouraged by my (rapidly depleting) bankbook. But now, all those years spent forking over piles of yen for a steady succession of increasingly expensive simulators — GameBoys, followed by GameCubes, followed by Puray sutays (Play Stations) — suddenly seemed like a sound investment. Rationalization of a father long played for a simple stooge, you say? Perhaps. But that doesn't alter the fact that what I now beheld with no small measure of satisfaction was something other than an animate blob on a couch mindlessly reacting to preset programs as a means of stimulating his or her Parietal Lobe. Nay! There before me crouched an inquisitive, proactive consumer of contemporary technology. Lo, I declared: in my own self-congratulation: my very own Adolechnic!

What's an "adolechnic", you ask? Why, it's a kid in his or her post-child, pre-adult years who is fluent in the ways of technology. A person who, after nearly a decade of interacting with and manipulating machines toward his or her own ends, is completely comfortable with the concept that technology is a tool that opens up new worlds, if not brings them into creation. Technology is not only a means of navigating the unknown, but of mastering it, as well. An adolechnic is a person who — even when confused by a new situation — is never cowed by it. "Adolechnics" understand that the world is infinitely mysterious, but ultimately negotiable. They are doers and succeeders, in scores of ways, hundreds of times a day.

Sure, my "adolechnics" were still kids using my money to stimulate his or her Parietal Lobe, but at least they are a lad and lass bulking up those brains cells, and building some semblance of a marketable skill in the process. Because in Japan, cell phones — or keitais they are called here — are not just telephones; they are text messagers and internet terminals and radios and cameras and minidisk players all in one. Keitais are the kind of machine to make Bond, James Bond, drool. Keitais are contrivances that enable users to not only hone motor skills, but polish the personal arts of ratiocination and the social arts of communication. Who knows?: maybe they even track enemy spies (there IS a global positioning satellite function installed in our cell phone, after all).

Indeed, for parents who "thribulate" over kids who find it difficult to sit still for two minutes of piano practice, the keitai just may be a heaven-send. For with a keitai in hand, adolescents will actually remain riveted for hours at a time, poring over instruction manuals or searching for information on-line, manifesting a patience they never displayed in other aspects of their daily lives. So, too, do they do this without frustration, and with a curiosity and optimism rarely expressed in other corners of their lives. Wielding a keitai, my "adolechnics" display clear goals, develop focused plans, and achieve concrete results — in contradistinction with most other endeavors in their everyday world. So outfitted, they wade into the tasks of information retrieval and problem-solving with nary a trace of intimidation, confusion or helplessness. My "adolechnics", achieving social and political ends with nonplussed facility and, yes, even panache.

A proud papa pauses to panegyrize.

Unless, of course, they employ these newfound capabilities to capture and send photos of Orlando Bloom to their pals. Which is what I recently learned my daughter spends much of her time doing. Or how about installing message sounds in the voice of Donald-quacking-Duck? — which appears to be among my son's favorite past-times. Ah, more "thribulations". The unending loop returns full circle to torture an anxious parent. Because not only do downloads cost cash, they place my adolescents on adult mailing lists. What's more, they also work at a deeper level of social connection: tucking my "adolechnics" snuggly into the consumer-cultural complex that is contemporary ReDotPop.

"Think of it as our education, Pop," my daughter counsels. She actually talks to me that way, now that she's "almost-a-grown-up", for quacking's sake. Like I'm the one who sees things out of context; it's me who fails to grasp the big picture. Well, what I grasp is that she's now under the grip of an insidious implement of socialization. Kind of like Nineteen Eighty-Four, when O'Brian has just opened the door to Room 101 and my son, Winston Smith, and fair daughter, Julia, are being ever-so-graciously, shown the passage in. Soon to have the cage with the rabid, slobbering, rat attached to their face.

But, then again, it's not all that bad. (And so here we go once more, heading into the thrill cycle). I mean, now, thanks to the keitai my kids spend a little more time dabbling in art — even if it is only adorning photographs of their beloved Pooh dolls with on-screen decals. And, thanks to the keitai, they now know the opening bars to Scott Joplin's "Entertainer". That's an option they can select announcing the arrival of mail. And if they want to find a song declaring an in-coming phone call? Just log into "Free Classic Downloads" and choose from hundreds of possibilities, including "I was Born to Love You," by Queen or "Imagine" by John Lennon. In fact, there are so many options they have them separated into "Foreign Classics" and "Japanese Favorites". The former featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen and Steppenwolf; the latter boasting Spitz's "Robinson", the Southern All Stars' "Ai no Kotaba" and Oda Kazumasa's "Love Story wa Totsuzen Ni".

Bringing a cultural analyst to a final thrill. This epiphany; modest though it may be. What keitais have become is a cultural plug-in, a mainline into the realm of ReDotPop as direct as turning on the TV, as accessible as walking into the local Sam Goody, as immediate and comprehensive as rifling the stack of fashion and movie mags at the local Lawson. Keitais are not simply phones: they are media for recycling, transferring, exchanging, delivering and otherwise consuming popular cultural content. With keitais, users can download and share songs, melodies, videos, films and photos, screen shots, background noises; consumers can OD on news, and even dabble in a little karaoke. Keitais allow users to keep tabs on the current weather blowing through the archipelago, so that they can figure out whether to bring an umbrella to the game (whose tickets they can buy through their hand-held). Keitais also keep them up-to-date on the score and shifting league standings if the rain keeps them away from the game, locked in the Denny's with the all-you-can-soft-drink bar.

Keitais provide modern pop-cultural conveniences that tend to even out the "thribulation" scale. Even if it does mean ceding authority to "adolechnics", who stuff keitai memory and sap cell phone RAM with scores of Orlando Bloom candids and Whinny-the-Pooh artistic renderings. (Oy!)

Then again, what would life be without a little "thribulation"?

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