Living Columns & Blogs

Phone wizardry and other noise

Years ago, I spent one morning each week in my son’s kindergarten class, helping out. It was fun to watch him navigate this world away from home. He was so absorbed in his work that he forgot I was there.

One morning as I manned the scissor station, he suddenly appeared in front of me, his lower lip trembling, speaking words I couldn’t understand. His teacher stood behind him, nudging him to speak up.

“I said, ‘What the hell is this!?’ ” he muttered, tears rolling.

He’d been at the computer – a skill he was just learning – and his little 5-year-old brain was fed up.

It was all I could do to keep from laughing. (The teacher was even smiling behind his back.) I suppose he’d learned this language as they all do: from home. And so began the lesson on what words not to use in school, or anywhere, when you are 5.

We all learned to love this new toy, eventually. The wizardry and wonder of all it could do. And so we kept adding more wizardry, more wonder to our lives.

Only now, I’m the one saying “what the?”

Sliding into the front seat of my car this week, I put my phone in the catchall and started the ignition. The phone lit up with a message: “17 minutes to home,” it said. “Traffic normal.”

That was nice to know, I suppose, except that I hadn’t told my phone anything about where I was going. It had, in fact, never crossed my mind that I should. Yes, I use the Waze app, but only when I’m stuck in traffic or on the way to somewhere I’ve never been (though not when I’m the driver). What if, say, I headed Target or the grocery store or anywhere but home?

On the way, I hoped for traffic jams, considered a longer route, just to prove my phone wrong. And I kept looking at the clock.

Sure enough, as I drove up the driveway, I had, in fact, spent 17 minutes in my car.

The next morning, out the door again. This time, the phone said: “14 minutes to Canterbury. Traffic normal.”

Seriously? My phone actually knew I was headed to work? The fact that I drive to Canterbury Road five days a week didn’t matter as much as my phone knowing it.

And it’s happening everywhere. Just last week, frustrated by television coverage of flooding in Columbia, I surfed The State newspaper site for full coverage of the town where my grandmother grew up. As I searched, a couple of ads showed up – not from a South Carolina business but from Raleigh, about politics no less, though I didn’t tell Google the location of my kitchen table.

Facebook promotions, Twitter follow suggestions, emails from every single place I’ve ever bought anything from yelling for my attention, though I always select “don’t allow” when asked. It’s like having teenagers at home again, the times my wishes are ignored.

I’m weary of all these unrequited connections. The passwords I can’t remember. The cache I forget to purge. My personal email is a litter box for everything I will never need. Personal messages? Buried by the din of all that screaming.

In the middle of it all, my computer froze, it, too, fed up. I shut it down and tried to restart, but the screen stayed dark, and though I am hard of hearing, I could hear the hard drive turning over and over like a flooded ignition.

Though the phone didn’t say I was going to the mall from work, I went anyway. It took no genius at the Apple store to know there would be no post-mortem. On my way home, the phone told me I’d be there in 12 minutes. I presume it knew I would not be speeding.

This morning, my new laptop told me I’d missed a call and had a voice mail before my phone had a chance to. It’s been telling me stuff all day. In the past few minutes, I’ve been asked to unwind in Puta Cana, dine on fiddlehead and start early on my DIY holiday gifts.

I should probably check my phone first, so I’ll know where I should go.

Susan Byrum Rountree is trying to keep from throwing her phone out the window as she drives. She blogs at You can reach her at, but put “scream” in the subject line, because she’s very hard of hearing.