nest

Is There An Echo In Here?

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Which is smarter? Amazon Echo or my plastic IKEA houseplant? 

My husband is a geek. And he is becoming more of a geek with each passing year. In the past, I would never have complained about this because, well, he’s my personal tech support. He’s the geek I go to when I’ve already rebooted and don’t know what the hell to do next. He is the one who talks me off the ledge when my phone is doing that thing again. He totally understands what an HDMI cable is. I simply understand that an HDMI cable is. He’s all about embracing new technology. And, despite the fact that our house contains several plastic bins filled with antiquated tech (my kids tell me that is the correct term) that he still hasn’t taken to the electronics graveyard, much to my chagrin, I have struggled to make my peace with his curious addiction to the latest and greatest invention meant to make life better. At least, I thought I had made my peace with it. That was until the Amazon Echo arrived in our home early in 2016.

It seemed innocuous enough. One day he came home with this curious new speaker thing. I vaguely recall being a little peeved because, as I pointed out at the time, we didn’t need another speaker thing. Because of his tech addiction, we already had four wireless music players. That’s right. Four. This one, he told me, this one was different. You could talk to this one, like you do with Siri. He prattled on for a bit about how this was not just a speaker because this could also turn our lights off and on remotely. While he spoke, I went to my happy place because when something like this catches his eye the only way to get him to stop talking about it usually is to let him have it. So I did. I rolled my eyes, sighed and, like a parent accepting the stray dog her son brought home, told him Echo could stay as long as he took care of it.

Since that night, Steve has been working with Echo to transform our house into what I assume is supposed to be a much more convenient, high-tech haven. He started by adding the special light bulbs necessary and then programming it to operate our lights, at least in the living room and hallway. Then, against my wishes, he persisted in teaching me the commands so I too could turn off our lights by barking orders across the house.

“Alexa (for that is the damned thing’s name), turn off the LIVING ROOM light.”

Emboldened by the success of having this electronic entity controlling our interior illumination, he added more bulbs in our bedroom so we could yell across the room at the thing on the dresser to turn off the lights on our nightstands, a process that takes longer than simply reaching over and turning off the lights by hand. Undaunted, he persevered with his toy. I told him that the technology creeped me out because occasionally, for no apparent reason, Alexa will start speaking, telling me about the weather or giving me some random definition for a word about which I had not inquired. It all feels a bit Big Brotherish to me. He shrugged off my negativity. This is the future. He expects me to assimilate.

Last Christmas, Steve decided our son might be an ally in the ongoing Alexa battle. So he bought a $30 Hue light strip Joe could attach to his bunkbed, presumably so he could read in bed (ha), and he bought him the smaller Echo Dot which doesn’t have its own speaker. Joe seemed semi-interested in the technology aspect until he realized that the light strip made his bed feel like the tunnel between Concourses B and C at O’Hare Airport. Then he too noticed that sometimes Alexa would start speaking out of the blue. Unbeknownst to his father, Joe unplugged the Dot and tossed it into his closet where he found it creeped him out much less.

Undeterred by his family’s lack of enthusiasm for his home automation, Steve continued in his quest. He added more light bulbs to control in his office. He added another Dot downstairs so we could use it as an “intercom” to beckon the boys upstairs when we wanted them. (Side note: It turns out we never do this because we prefer to yield to the more organic and primal habit of screaming at them from the stairs as parents have done for generations.) He programmed Echo to interact with our smart Nest thermostat so we can shriek at her to turn our heat up or down. He set Echo so now if we bellow at her she will play Sirius XM radio on our Sonos system. Most recently, he’s connected Alexa to our home security system so we can clamor for her to turn on our home alarm. Never mind that, aside from the lighting, we are able to do all these things via our iPhones without caterwauling through the house.

Last night, I caught Steve asking to Alexa to do his bidding again.

Alexa…turn off the Living Room light,” he called out.

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” came Alexa’s reply.

Steve repeated the command more slowly and firmly, as if Alexa were a disobedient child who simply needed to be told twice.

“Alexa…turn off the Living Room light.”

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” Alexa replied again, rolling her eyes.

It occurred to me that perhaps Echo’s name is quite intentional.

“Alexa…turn off Living,” I said, remembering Steve had recently changed the command so it included both smart bulbs in the living room lamp.

“Okay,” she said, and the damn living room light finally went off.

“Sometimes you have to wonder just who is controlling whom,” I said and strolled smugly off to bed for the night.

Steve might have an overactive case of Jetsons envy. He longs for flying cars and homes equipped with every possible automation. And I get it. We Gen Xers are experiencing an amazing shift from our childhoods when we tuned in on one of a few channels on a cumbersome television box with a rabbit-ear antenna on top to watch George, Jane, Judy, Elroy, and Astro living in their sky home with their robot maid, Rosie, attending to their every need, to a time when home automation, or some semblance of it, is reality. It is exciting and fascinating, and it’s easy to get caught up in the Jetson fantasy in 2018. Still, my hope for the future is that the speed of advancing tech becomes so rapid that Steve is at last unable to keep up or technology becomes more efficient so I can stop commanding the black cylinder on my kitchen counter to turn off the lights that all three men in my house seem incapable of operating either on their own or with Alexa’s brilliant assistance. I am not surprised Echo was given a female name. If you want something done, you ask a woman.

The World Is Full Of Loveliness

Ruby's tree

Ruby under her tree

A couple weekends ago, I noticed our dog was staring a little too zealously at the dwarf blue spruce tree near our back patio. Ruby counts that tree as her personal property. Since the first night that she arrived at our home, a tiny border collie puppy accustomed to life outdoors, she’s claimed ownership for that tree and used it as a protected spot for sleeping. She guards her tree like an old man sitting on his porch and waiting for the next interloper to happen by so he can angrily shout, “Get off my lawn!” But in the spring, nearly every year for the past 11 years, a few renegade birds have chosen to brave the threat of dog, and employ the dense, weighty branches of that tree, branches that barely sway in the wind and provide excellent coverage from rain, as their prime nesting spot. In years past, many nests have been built, many eggs have been hatched. One year, our dog Buddy made a meal of two sparrows from one of those nests and broke my heart. I didn’t care if he was a bird dog. That was bad form. The sight of Ruby staring with a bit too much interest into the middle branches of the spruce gave me PTSD. There were more birds there. Birds Ruby was interested in ingesting.

I shooed her away and started poking around to determine the source of her interest. About midway through the tree on the back side, I found her draw. There among the clustered branches was a Eurasian collared dove sitting on a nest. It eyed me cautiously. I began to move some branches to see if I could catch a glimpse into the nest, and with that the bird flew to a nearby tree to watch me. I used one hand to hold the branches down and my other hand to position my phone for a photo. My suspicions were confirmed. Two small, white eggs sat cradled in the center of a nest made from fallen, Austrian-pine needles. I grabbed Ruby and headed back indoors, curiosity satisfied. I waited about fifteen minutes then snuck back within viewing range of the tree to make sure the nesting bird had returned. The bird was there.

The eggs that gave way to birds.

The eggs that gave way to birds.

Over the next couple weeks, I watched the nest waiting to see if the eggs had hatched. We had a cold, rainy and snowy spell in Denver, and I was anxious about my little yard guests. When the sun finally returned today after a nearly 6-day hiatus to dry our drenched yard, I went out to check the nest. There was a bird on it again. My presence shooed it away, and I peered in and found the two eggs replaced by two dark-colored birds with sparse and pale-yellow feathers. I had to do a double take because the birds, at least I thought they were birds, looked more like threadbare tennis balls with the fuzz nearly rubbed off. With the snow melting from the weekend, the temperature was hovering around 45 degrees so I hurried inside, not wanting those babies to be left in the cold for a second longer than necessary. When I checked on the nest shortly thereafter, the father bird (it is the male birds, I read, that nest during the day while the female remains on the nest at night) was in place on top of the babies. All was right with the world. Good papa.

I’m going to be keeping my eye on Ruby over the next few weeks as the baby birds head toward their fledgling state. I’m not up for once again finding out my dog opted for take out rather than nightly kibble. I’d like to know that I helped keep these babies in my yard safe. After all, their parents chose our sturdy, protective spruce tree within close proximity of our perpetually stocked sunflower-seed feeder to raise their brood. Clearly, this shows they have wisdom, not to mention inimitable taste.

Tonight, a friend shared a news story about a toddler boy who was beaten to death in Utah, the apparent victim of anger related to his not toilet training quickly enough. I tried to read the article, but never made it past the title and the first line. I just couldn’t stomach it. When I think back to when my precious sons were three and pooping behind the couch and using their spray hose to put out pretend fires on our heavily textured bathroom walls, certainly there were times when I was frustrated. It happens to the best of us. Luckily, most of us are able to cope. Yet, we humans are animals sometimes. While we have the capacity for great good, we also have the capacity for murder. When events like this hit the news, I think about the birds that have nested in my tree. I appreciate the work they are putting into their parenting gig. Even if it is only instinct, it’s a beautiful ritual that plays out every spring, nature setting an example of patience, dedication, and duty in parenting. Maybe that’s why I am drawn to the doves in our tree. They’re a reminder of the good in the world when we’re focusing on the bad can crush the soul.

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He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.

When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to open up your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is
To be alive. 

–Anonymous child in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, 1941