By Timothy Harper
Sydney Rubin, an Austin, Texas, public relations consultant, spends at least one week a month in her office in Washington, D.C., and often has other business trips around the country. One afternoon, her 12-year-old son Alexander called her in a mild panic. He needed his mom’s signature on a form for a field trip. And he needed some help completing a lengthy essay. Both were due the next day.
Rubin swung into her “roadie mommy” mode. First she told Alex to take a deep breath and pour himself a glass of chocolate milk. Then she had him scan in the field trip form and e-mail it to her. “I signed it and faxed it directly to his teacher at school, following up with an e-mail to let the teacher know to look for the fax the next morning,” Rubin recalled. “I also logged onto the school Web site to get the details on the field trip. Meanwhile, Alex e-mailed me the essay and sent an alert to my PDA to tell me to check my mail.”
She downloaded Alex’s essay, went through and redlined it for grammatical errors, and made suggestions for additional research and detail. She sent the document back as an attachment, with a note saying she loved him. “Later, from dinner with a client, I phoned him on my cell to congratulate him on a wonderful paper and tuck him in virtually,” Rubin says. “It’s not the same at all, but sometimes it has to do.”
Rubin is one of the growing wave of cyber-savvy work travelers, from salesmen to soldiers, who are embracing new technology not only to make themselves more professionally productive, but to keep in closer touch with their families back home. “Smart” phones allow parents to check school Web sites and monitor their kids’ schedules, attendance, grades, even lunch menus. A service called Webshots allows travelers to point, click and send photos from their digital cameras. Another program called SoundPix Plus adds voice comments: “Hey, this is the view from the room where I’m staying.”
Notebook and pocket computers, e-mail, instant messages (IMs), mobile phones, faxes, scanners, conference calls, camera phones, digital cameras, personal digital assistants (PDAs), family and school Web sites – they’re all arrows in the quiver of the 21st century road warrior.
Joyce L. Gioia and her husband Roger Herman, professional speakers and consultants on future business trends, use telephone “bridge” technology – cheaper and higher quality than typical teleconferencing – to talk to their daughter Samantha when they are away from their home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Marty Kotis, a real estate developer who works throughout the Carolinas, uses a wireless laptop connection to send and receive e-mail and photos from home. Both he and his wife Asheley post photos and messages to their family Web site, and the family calendar is networked so that anybody can check everybody else’s schedule from anywhere, any time.
Dave Menninger, a Winchester, Mass., marketing executive, tries to limit business trips to two or three days, but with five kids ages 16 to 6 months, he notes, “You’d be amazed at how much can go on in two or three days.” Recognizing that kids often offer parents “one version of the truth” about schoolwork, he and his wife Sharron, creative director for a product design firm, check their two teen-agers’ school Web site for quiz grades that day or homework assignments that night. Menninger’s teens may roll their eyes when he breaks into their IMs with friends to say hi, but they don’t really seem to mind. “It’s their way to know I’m still interested in what they’re doing. Your children need your presence more than your presents,” he says – even if it’s a virtual presence.
Tim Carr takes being a virtual presence to a new level. Carr recently took a new job in Hilton Head, South Carolina, as design director for a golf magazine. His wife Kim, daughter Camille, 18, and son Patrick, 4, stayed behind in Trumbull, Connecticut for a few months so that Camille could finish her senior year in high school. Every evening, Carr turns on the tiny camera on top of his computer screen in South Carolina. At the same time, the rest of the family sits down to dinner in Connecticut and turns on their computer camera aimed at the kitchen table. They put a laptop on the counter overlooking the table, and Carr joins the family for dinner, a la Max Headroom. He can see the family, they see him, and they can talk about the day’s events – all in real time, audio and video.
One weekend when Carr was visiting the family in Connecticut and it was time to head back South Carolina, he gave Patrick a hug and said he would miss him. “I won’t miss you, Daddy,” the four-year-old replied. “I’ll see you on the computer.”
Staff Sgt. India Harris is today’s ultimate road warrior. She helps supervise an Iraqi POW camp northeast of Baghdad, and uses technology to keep in touch with her son Corey, 11, back in Omaha. A few months ago, she sensed that Corey was having trouble at school, but he said no, everything was fine. Corey’s school is wired with a program called PowerSchool, from Apple, that allows parents to go to the school’s Web site and check on their children’s schedules, grades, assignments and teacher comments. Harris saw that Corey’s recent grades in math had dropped to C’s. He hadn’t told her because he didn’t want to worry her. Harris got in touch with Corey’s teachers and principal, they set up an after-school study program, and his grades quickly recovered.
Without that technology link, Corey might have hidden his math woes from his mom for months. “I appreciated this service when I was home – I could check from work or at night on my home computer – but now I cling to it like a life raft,” Harris says via e-mail from Iraq. “Corey is still a child, and he needs that push, that motivation. I can’t hug him from this far away, but at least I can show him that I care.” In a twist, she says that now when Corey wants to do something special – go to a certain party, for example – he’ll urge his mom to look up his recent grades.
Palmer Trinity, a prep school in Miami, prides itself on being super-wired through a similar program called Edline. Daniel Forman, a defense attorney who sometimes travels for trials, calls home to remind his son Joro, 14, that he has a quiz the next day, or to ask his 15-year-old daughter, “Hey Ashley, I see you have a math chapter test on Wednesday and you have a basketball game on Tuesday. How are you going to handle that?”
“The kids think, ‘Oh no, even when he’s out of town he’s watching what I’m doing.’ It really is a tool, no matter where you are,” says Forman, whose wife Sherri is a professor at the University of Miami. “I can feel confident that I know what’s going on at home…And I think they’re kind of glad you’re looking over their shoulder.”
Judy Andrews, the head of school at Palmer Trinity, says Edline makes teachers more responsible to parents, and gets parents more involved with school and their kids. Formerly, parents had to telephone teachers to find out how their kids were doing, and often complained: “Why didn’t you let me know what was going on with my child?” Now parents can check every night on how their kids did in school that day, and what is coming up the next day. “It behooves us as educators to look for new ways to communicate with our families,” Andrews says. “We are finding that parents now know there is some accountability on the part of the school. They’re feeling more comfortable.”
Indeed, cyber-savvy road warriors know that newer and better technologies – new tools and new toys, though it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference – are on the way. And they can’t wait to use them, both for work and for keeping in touch with home. Sydney Rubin, the public-relations “roadie mommy” who relies on chocolate milk and technology to comfort her son Alex back in Austin, says, “My firm does a lot of work with technology clients, so I’m pretty much of an early adopter of technologies and all of them have an application in managing my home and caring for my son.”
Of course, the way kids make new technology their own means that keeping in touch with a traveling parent is a two-way high-tech street. Rubin, for instance, often finds some new electronic surprise from Alex. She’ll open an e-mail and hear a song he’s sent her, she’ll turn on her cell phone and it says “Alex Loves You,” or she’ll open her computer and a new screensaver pops up: “Hi Smarty! Yur butiful!” Her son, she says, has “stamped himself on my electronic environment.”
“It’s a weird world, no doubt, but all these things help us stay close,” Rubin says. “And, in the end, wired or not, closeness is what it’s all about.”
Timothy Harper is a journalist, author and editorial/publishing consultant based at www.timharper.com. He and his daughter Lizzie, a June graduate of Ridgewood (N.J.) High School, are writing a book for St. Martin’s Press on how teen-agers can get their writing published.