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Virtual Grandparenthood
(The Jewish Week, January 23, 1998)

I became a grandmother last summer. Usually, one has between six and nine months to get used to the idea, depending on the expectant couple's ability to keep a secret. I had two minutes. Usually, one may assume that the new mother has reached puberty. My daughter Tehilah was seven years old.

Is my third-grader a candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records? No, she is merely the recipient of a virtual pet, sometimes called a Tamagotchi (hers, she will state with maternal pride, is a Dinky Dino). This tiny computerized toy, which beeps whenever it "needs" its caretaker to push one of its buttons, was a gift from Rochelle, Tehilah's honorary aunt. I'm ready to wring her neck. For ever since Dinky's "birth" - on Sunday, August 3, to be exact - my life has been a mess.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. Dinky's first month in our home hardly made a ripple in my life. The reason? Simple: Those marketing executives are no fools! They sprang virtual pets on an unsuspecting nation just before the onset of summer vacation. What mother thinks ahead to the new school year as she watches her captivated youngster dote on the "new baby"?

I didn't. Then came September. "Honey," I remarked as my daughter and I made our way to school orientation, "your backpack is beeping." "Oh," Tehilah replied nonchalantly, "that's Dinky." "Sweetie," said I, "you can't bring that thing to school!" "Why not?" she asked, genuinely puzzled. "Why not?" I echoed, my brain racing to come up with a compelling answer, "Because you're not in school to play with a toy!" "Play?!" came the indignant reply. "I'm taking care of Dinky! If I don't," and at that precise moment my daughter's eyes welled up with tears, "he'll die!"

Next thing I knew, I was in the school lobby, taking my tutorial. "Press here if he's hungry, here if he's thirsty, here if he's dirty, here if he's hot or cold, here if he's sick, here if he's bored and here if he needs to read. And Mom?" Tehilah added with a knowing look, "here if he needs to be disciplined."

Gingerly, she deposited the red plastic oval into my clammy palm. Then, heading for the stairwell, in what seemed like an afterthought, she called out, "Don't worry, Mom. It'll be fun!"

No sooner had I boarded the crosstown bus when three electronic notes, disturbingly reminiscent of the Barney song, summoned my attention. Fellow passengers looked at me askance as I pulled Dinky out of my pocket. His face, pulsating on the toy's liquid-crystal screen, had darkened. I located the shower button. I pressed it. "Water" came streaming down. Moments later, Dinky rewarded me with a smile. I was smitten.

The honeymoon, however, was soon over. Dinky's needs were near-constant. And since his life was in my hands during school hours, I took him everywhere: to supermarkets, restaurants, even business meetings. At first, I felt acute embarrassment; then, when I noticed many otherwise sane adults similarly occupied, I got over it. What's more, I had to admit that although caring for Dinky was draining, I had grown accustomed to - and fond of - his pixelated face.

I was just hitting my stride - juggling obligations to my career, spouse, children and virtual if not virtuous grandchild - when November arrived. "Your birthday's just around the corner," I whispered to Aharon, Tehilah's little brother. "What's a good present for a six-year-old?" Eyes aglow, he begged, "Please, pretty please, can I have a Dinky Dino?"

So here I sit at the computer, my grandchildren by my side. To be sure, I have my quiet interludes, but it's not uncommon for Dinky (the red one) to summon me with his three-note signal just as Mini-Pet (the blue one) emits a sound comparable to that of a garbage truck going in reverse. At moments like these, I consider immigrating to Viet Nam, where virtual pets have been declared a menace to society. ("It is a harmful game that separates children, and even adults, from their normal life," the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee declared in September. "We have proposed that the government ban this game.") What's more, the little guys constantly... Oh, excuse me, gotta go. They're beeping. Okay, okay, take it easy, you two! Grandma's coming.

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