The jury may still be out on whether cell phones cause brain cancer, but I can tell you from experience that cell phone bills can drive you crazy.

I mean, what should a family cell phone plan cost a month? Maybe $200? A little more, a little less. Try $863.55.

That’s right. That’s what our friendly phone company tried to charge us last month for the use of four cell phones. How could that be? Since I assume cell phones do cause cancer (and because no one ever calls me on my cell phone), I’m not the problem. I only use my antique flip phone a couple of times a week, we don’t get cell phone reception in the house, and I don’t think I’ve ever made a call from the road that lasted more than a minute.

“Do we need anything at the store, hon?”

Nominally, the cause of our whopping cell phone bills is daughter Tess, who is away at college. Actually, the problem is the phone company itself. But let’s back up a few months.

The first sign that something was amiss was when we received an unusually large phone bill and discovered that text messages between Tess and her friends were adding up to a telephonic novel of “Sups?” and “Chillin.’” So we changed to a plan with unlimited text messaging and unlimited nights and weekend calling. Case closed.

Then two months ago, we received a bill that was twice what we expected. Carolyn got on the phone and discovered that the increase was due to $150 for international calls? International calls? It seems that while Tess was volunteering to teach ecology at the Passamaquoddy Indian Reservation in Perry (That’s right, all my girls are liberal tree-huggers like their old man) over spring break all her cell phone calls to her boyfriend were bouncing off cell phone towers in New Brunswick, Canada.

Naturally, being a hothead, I went ballistic when I heard this. Not only did she not leave the country, she didn’t even leave the state.

Carolyn, who is a much nicer person than I am and far more diplomatic, spent an hour on the phone reasoning with the phone company rep, who just kept telling her that Tess should have pushed *228 to update her preferred roaming list. In the end, however, she agreed to forgive half the roaming charges if we switched to a U.S. and Canada phone plan that only costs $3 more a month than the plan we were on. Case closed.

Then came the $800 bill. What the cell? When your cell phone bill is larger than your mortgage, there’s definitely something very wrong. I was prepared to threaten legal action, news coverage, cancel my service, a pox on all your cell phones. But Carolyn spent another hour on the phone quietly reasoning with the rep, who explained that Tess had made several calls that were four and five hours long. What the cell, indeed.

“I fell asleep before I hung up,” Tess explained when I ran up the street in the middle of the night to call her on my cell phone while Carolyn was still reasoning with the phone company.

“But those calls were after 9 p.m.?” Carolyn pointed out. “They’re not supposed to be charged against our allowable minutes.”

Long story short, the phone company rep the month before hadn’t explained that night and weekend calls do count against your minutes on the Canada plan, a plan we only enrolled in in order to get her to forgive the roaming charges. Thus we were 500 minutes over our allotted 1,400. To his credit, when the phone company rep realized what had happened, he forgave half the $800 bill and switched us back to our old plan.

Case closed? Let’s hope so. But we won’t be sure until next month’s bill arrives. Can you hear me now?

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.