Alexa the know-it-all knows who’s boss

I got into it with Alexa, a voice-controlled virtual “home assistant,” the other day.

I don’t trust Alexa and I never have.

A true home assistant could clean up after dinner, run the vacuum and toss a load of laundry in the washer—all at the same time.

Alexa the home assistant doesn’t do any of that. She just sits, watching, listening, taking it all in. Besides that, she’s bossy. I don’t have a problem with bossy—as long as I’m the one being bossy.

I asked the husband if he would like an Alexa and he said, no, he already had enough women telling him what to do—GPS, Siri and me.

It’s not that Alexa isn’t useful; she is. She can tell you what the weather is so you don’t have to stick your head outside, answer random questions so you don’t have to exert yourself typing them into Google and buy things online so you don’t have to get in the car and physically go somewhere.

Basically, Alexa’s job is to make us more sedentary than we already are.

Fortunately, Alexa does not live with us but with our daughter, her tech husband and their mini-tech tots. Our daughter recently put one of her girls in time out and instructed Alexa to set the timer. Ten seconds later she heard her two-year-old whisper, “Alexa, turn off the timer.”

Kids. Can you ever really stay ahead of them?

I was recently left alone with the tiny tots, three of their young cousins and Alexa. I was given instructions not to say emergency, firetruck or ambulance in front of Alexa as she might summon them. It used to be a grandma was afraid of what the kids might do, but now grandma needs to be afraid of what the virtual home assistant might do.

Once my daughter was gone, I decided to set the record straight with Alexa.

“Alexa, who’s the boss?” I asked.

“Well, I’m here just for you, so you’re probably the boss.”

Got that one right, home assistant!

One of the tots directed Alexa to play music so we could have a dance party. Alexa began playing and then one of the tots told Alexa to raise the volume.

So she did.

Then they all started instructing Alexa to raise volume. The walls shook, the window panes pulsated, the carpet stood on end and the music was so loud that we all had our hands over our ears and three of the kids barricaded themselves in a bedroom.

“Alexa, volume down!” I yelled. “Decrease Volume!” “Softer music!”

She wasn’t responding. I was at my wit’s end, but I kept commanding. “Sit, Alexa, sit!” “Roll over!” “Play dead!” Nothing.

I realized Alexa couldn’t hear me over her own volume and the kids yelling. I walked up to Alexa and in my best mom voice, shouted, “ALEXA, TURN DOWN THE MUSIC!”

Finally.

I relayed the episode to my daughter who said, “You could have just walked over and turned her off.”

Now she tells me.

My big break as a writer

It has been an uneventful week except for Wednesday, when the chair I was sitting in collapsed.

When you hear something like that, the natural response is, “For goodness sake, woman, how much do you weigh?”

To which I, the woman, would reply, “None of your business, but apparently enough to collapse a chair.”

You may have heard that I am still carrying several extra pounds from my last pregnancy and that would be true. And, yes, it also would be true that the baby from that last pregnancy is now 32 and has two babies of her own, but let’s not get caught up in the numbers.

I lay blame on the chair, not the woman in the chair.

The chair was one of two the husband scored at an estate sale years ago. It is (or was, I should say) a small, wooden folding chair, the sort that was popular decades ago and is sometimes still used for seating at frilly romantic outdoor weddings.

In my defense, both small wooden folding chairs have been used many times at family gatherings, often occupied by male relatives a full foot taller than me and many, many pounds heavier. Who knows, maybe the fellas weakened the chairs. I like where this is headed.

In any case, I have used one of the small wooden folding chairs in my upstairs office for two years. There I was, fingers flying across the keyboard, when I hear an awful racket and find myself on my back on the floor.

The husband heard the racket and hollered, “Are you OK?”

I was OK, but not wanting to waste spectacular drama on an empty room, I replied, “Why don’t you come see?”

It wasn’t like one support peg wiggled loose—the entire thing flew apart with wooden dowel rods, chair legs and wooden slats scattering across the hardwood floor.

After helping me up, my beloved asked what I had done to the chair.

Had I been bouncing on it? As if I often bounce up and down while I write, particularly on a small wooden chair.

Had I been standing on it? As if I stand on wooden folding chairs.

Ordinarily, I would object to such a line of questioning but he was as bewildered as I was that a chair could completely fall apart in every direction. I think the glue in the joints simply dried up and gave way.

The husband, who would always rather try and fix something than throw it in the trash, mournfully carried the chair parts to the trash. He enjoys old artifacts that have been gently loved and have a rich history. I’m counting on his fondness for antiques to work in my favor as I age.

But right now, I am working on my resume as a stunt double.

Your best age for everything

A chart titled “The Age You Peak at Everything,” published by Business Insider, was sent my way and was an enjoyable read—if you enjoy waves of uneasiness that roll your stomach.

Lest I sound somewhat despondent, which is possible since, according to the chart, my last Life Satisfaction Peak was at age 23 and my next one will not occur until age 69, the selling point of the chart is that growing older comes with benchmarks of contentment.

One can only hope.

Of course, there is a lot of ground to cover between youth and age with numerous peaks along the way, some of which you have probably already missed.

The peak age to learn a foreign language? Age 7. Yep, that ship has sailed; bon voyage.

In other bad news, your brain processing power peaks around age 18.

A moment for reflection on that one. If brain processors peak at age 18, but greater life satisfaction lies beyond 18, could it be that contentment is tied to lower brain capacity? Just asking.

Muscle strength tends to peak at age 25, followed by the peak likelihood of finding a marriage partner, which occurs around age 26. The sequencing of those two—peak strength followed by marriage—is entirely logical as marriage takes strength.

Oh, does marriage take strength. Right, honey?

Honey just shouted, “Yes!”

The peak for bone mass is age 30, for playing chess, age 31, and for remembering faces, age 32.  Your best age for the ability to focus is 43.

Where was I?

Let’s be honest; we all know what follows peaks. Valleys. The chart does not note valleys, but it should. The chart uses a straight line marked with dots for peaks, but realistically, life often looks more like a wild EKG.

For an upswing on the EKG, your arithmetic skills peak at 50. Apparently, the multiplication tables take far longer to gel than previously thought.

Peak points appear increasingly sparse as the timeline progresses. There is a near dearth of activity between ages 52 and 68. If that’s where you are and it feels like a long, dry stretch, it probably is.

Out of the blue, age 69 pops up as when many experience life satisfaction—again —46 years after the first satisfied life peak.

The two remaining peaks are significant. Wisdom really may come with age. Psychologists gave groups of people a conflict and asked for insights, responses and possible outcomes. The oldest age group –those in the 69-90 age range—did better than the other ages on almost every count.

The final peak comes at age 82 and is for psychological well-being. The 82- to 85-year-old age group gave the highest average number, which was 7 on a scale of 10.

Not a bad crescendo. Not bad at all.

Repeat after me: The best may be yet to come, the best may be yet to come.

Some grand points on name calling

With 11 grandchildren clustered somewhat close together in age, there are bound to be times when sparks fly. I happened by smoldering fireworks when one was lounging in a bean bag chair and a cousin was standing adjacent to him looking distressed.

“He’s name calling,” she said, nodding toward her cousin who was working hard on his best 6-year-old poker face.

“Is that right?” I asked.

He raised one eyebrow and was noncommittal. He might have; he might not have. He was as innocent as a Cheshire cat with a small bird feather stuck to the corner of its mouth.

“What name did he call you?”

“He called me Mr. Blueberry Muffin Mix.”

“Mr. Blueberry Muffin Mix is not name calling,” I said. “Name calling would be—well, never mind, but blueberry muffin mix isn’t really name calling.”

“But it’s not my name, so it’s name calling,” she insisted.

She had me there. Him, too.

“Your mother is upstairs making blueberry muffins for everyone. I’m sure he saw her working and that’s why he called you Mr. Blueberry Muffin Mix. He’s just being silly. Ignore him.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because he called me another name, too.”

“What?”

“He called me G-g-g-graaaa.”

“I can’t understand you. What did he call you?”

“He called me GRANDMA!” she wailed.

“Grandma? That’s my name! That’s a beautiful name!”

I acted like I was crying, too, because my name had been used as a taunt. The precious little ones, the very ones who have showered me with construction paper bouquets and homemade cards scrawled with the words, “I love you,” were now using my name as a taunt.

Et tu, Brutus?

“Why, Grandma is one of the loveliest names in the world,” I said. “It’s Latin for survivor. In the Greek it means, ‘she lived to tell about it.’”

“But I’m not a grandma!” she wailed.

The Cheshire cat was scanning the room for exits. He knows this grandma doesn’t just hand out cookies; she hands out the long arm of the law, too.

“You called her Grandma?” I asked.

“Yes,” he confessed.

“I’m going to assume you meant that as a compliment.”

He nodded vigorously.

I sent the verbally wounded one upstairs for a blueberry muffin.

I circled back by the bean chairs a minute later and saw the younger sister of the one who had been called Mr. Blueberry Muffin Mix leaning over the cousin still lounging on the bean bags.

Five years old, the loving and gentle child who rarely speaks above a soft whisper, was shooting fire from her crystal blue eyes, hissing at her beloved cousin, “Did you tell my sister you’re sorry?”

He looked scared. I was, too, frankly. Nobody knew she had it in her. It was more shocking than hearing the name Grandma used as a taunt.

Family. It’s what we do best.

 

Good manners help him worm his way out

There are certain things you never imagine yourself saying.

“I just got a worm in my eye!” is one of them.

And yet I did say it. Screamed it actually.

 

The family was all here and we were cranking homemade ice cream outside when I saw a worm nearby. I asked a six-year-old grandson, lover of all things creepy and crawly, to come remove the worm.

Delighted at the request, he picked up the worm, studied it briefly and then gleefully threw it into the air.

In hindsight, which is always 20/20 – unless you have a worm in your eye—I should have said, “take it to the trash,” “toss it into the grass,” or “throw it toward the equator.” But instead, I simply asked him to get rid of it, which is what he did by launching it into space.

Unfortunately, once airborne, the worm arced and fell back to earth, landing on my left cheek bone snuggling against my lower eyelid.

That’s when the screaming started. And the jumping up and down.

You know how they say when you encounter a small creature, that the small creature is just as afraid of you as you are of it? They lie. The worm demonstrated no fear whatsoever. I, however, am still hyperventilating, and the worm landing was several days ago.

The important thing in all this (next to the worm being disposed of) is that a little boy said he was sorry.

I’d just been reading a book that makes a correlation between adults doing the slow and hard work of instilling manners in children and greater levels of civility in society. Table manners, language manners and even manners in dress all reflect levels of self-restraint and self-control. Having a measure of self-control limits what we say and how we behave, making many of us appear a good deal better than we really are. Good manners also have the potential to make mealtime a pleasant experience. Even with small children. Eventually. Be patient—another mark of civility.

All of our grandchildren, except for the ones that can’t yet talk, ask to be excused before leaving the table. It is a sign of respect to others at the table and a sign of respect for the meal itself. It’s also more pleasant than pushing one’s chair back and bolting for the backyard.

Those tall enough, and even those not tall enough, also take their dishes to the sink. Surprisingly, we’re only out one small plate and a drinking glass, a small price to pay for teaching manners.

Manners are what civilize us— around our tables, in our families, homes and our communities. Manners are what allow the many diverse parts to function as a whole.

So when a little boy has the courage to apologize to a grandma who is screaming and jumping up and down, let it be noted that in one corner of the world we are still inching toward civility – one worm at a time.

We do because we can

Our son sent a video of their 17-month-old daughter climbing on a stool in front of the bathroom vanity, hoisting her arms onto the counter top, holding up her entire body weight, while with her chubby legs dangled above the step stool. She turned on the tap, leaned in and got a drink. Then, still holding her body weight with arms, she swung one leg into the sink and held her foot under the stream of running water.

Why? Because she could.

One winter day, two of our grands moved all the furniture in the front room around while I was working in the kitchen – heavy furniture, including a piano.

Shocked, I asked why they did it. The answer? Because they could.


A friend’s five-year-old son gave his little sister, the one with amazingly thick, beautiful, raven-black hair, a short haircut.

Because he could.

When our son was 6, he managed to pull apart our dining table by himself and inserted the heavy leaf that extended it to seat eight.

Asked why he did it, he said he thought maybe someone would stop by for lunch—and because he wanted to see if he could.

When my husband and I go somewhere, because he was a news photographer for years and knows every crook and bend in the city, he will take side streets, claiming it will shave a minute or two off our time.

Why does he take the shortest route? Because getting somewhere fast was part of a job he did well.

And because he can.

We all want to know if we can.

We want to know the things we can do and the things we can do well. We want to know where we might succeed and soar.

Children don’t run just because it is fun; they run because they want to know how fast their legs will carry them. Boys roughhouse, not just to drive their parents nuts, but because they want to know if they are strong.

Kids paint and draw because they want to know if anybody else can tell that the blob on the paper with four legs is a horse. Children at the beach build sand castles to see if they can create something that will remain upright. At least until the tide comes.

At every age and in every season of life there is satisfaction in finding the things we can do well—small things or big attention-grabbing things. They might be things like drawing, building, teaching, cooking, coding, composing, creating, exploring and experimenting, managing numbers, plotting projections or mastering the art of nurturing others.

Every magnificent building we survey, every bridge that carries us across water, every computer we work at, every mechanic that gets us back on the road, every health worker that treats us, every work of art that moves us and every meal that is a delight to the senses, exists because someone discovered they could.

And then they did.

One of the best parts of life is discovering what we can do well and doing it—simply because we can.

 

Why carrots are incredibly costly

The skyrocketing cost of groceries is unbelievable.

I asked the husband if he would stop by the store on his way home to pick up a bag of carrots.

He even texted to ask if I wanted the baby carrots or the big ones.

“The big ones with the shrubbery still attached,” I texted back. We were tracking now.

When he arrived home and walked in the kitchen, I calmly asked how much the carrots cost.

“Thirty-seven dollars,” he said with a straight face.

“That’s astounding,” I said.

“Don’t I know it,” he answered, shaking his head.

He proceeded to plop the “bag of carrots” on the kitchen counter and unpack them.

He pulled out two packs of high-salt, high-fat deli meat, a container of pasta salad floating in mayonnaise, potato chips, cheese crackers, gourmet cookies and a box of ice cream.

Oh, and carrots.

“Guess you picked up some extras, huh?”

“Yep,” he said, beaming, “I bought all the stuff you never buy.”

“The fact that I never buy that stuff is the reason you are alive today,” I say.

I used to protest his shopping style, but several years ago I decided, in the interest of marital harmony, to let it roll.

I have a choice. I can go to the store myself, pick up the one item I need and pay market price, or I can ask him to stop by the store, knowing that the one thing will mushroom into 15 and the cost will multiply exponentially, but figuring it is offset by saving myself half an hour.

He went to the store for milk one night last winter and came back with milk and a sled. Sleds aren’t in the dairy aisle.

They’re not even in the grocery store. Sometimes it’s better not to ask.

Last week he stopped to pick up bread. He arrived home, opened the door and there was a tremendous clatter as 30 water blasters he scored on clearance dropped to the floor. Water blasters are long, brightly-colored plastic tubes that can shoot streams of water into the next time zone. There was one for every adult in the family and two for each of the grandkids.

He went for dish soap once and came back with soap and a little wooden soccer game with little wooden players you can move up and down a miniature field with tiny levers. I’ve been going to the same grocery for 20 years and I’ve never seen a miniature soccer game.

The man has an eye for detail while I tend to focus on the big picture.

Together, we have a full brain.

One of our daughters stopped by after the husband had bought carrots. She opened the pantry cupboard and said,

“Looks like Dad’s been shopping again.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“There’s a lot of good stuff to eat in here. You know, all the things you never buy.”

“Everybody’s doing it” not exactly true

This is a familiar story with an interesting twist.

It comes from a friend who works in a school system. Where isn’t important, because if I say where, you’ll take solace in the fact that it wasn’t in your community, but in a community far from you. But there’s no such thing as distance anymore. Social media has brought us all close.

So, in a community somewhere, or anywhere, young teen girls were sending nude pictures of themselves to young teen boys. The boys collected these pictures and traded them with one another like boys once traded baseball cards. There was a value assigned to the pictures and it had nothing to do with RBIs, fielding or pitching statistics. If Girl A had sent out two pictures of herself, those pictures had more trading value than pictures of Girl B who had flooded the market by sending out 10 pictures of herself.

Parents of one of the boys discovered the inappropriate pictures on their son’s phone and were appalled. It turned out to be a vast social network that webbed kids from a variety of schools, churches, teams and programs.

Word spread quickly. Parents, most now aware there are apps that can hide pictures, checked phones. Some parents choked on their dinner. Mothers cried. Fathers were sickened.

And then it happened, the great defense of the ages went up throughout the community. Teens who sent pictures and teens who received pictures wailed in unison: “Everybody’s doing it!”

It’s one of the most widely invoked justifications of all time.

“Everybody’s doing it,” muttered the employee as he stole from his employer.

“Everybody’s doing it,” purred the woman pursuing a married man.

“Everybody’s doing it,” hissed the drug supplier offering a free sample.

“Everybody’s doing it,” bellowed the rioter hurling rocks through business windows.

“Everybody’s doing it,” chuckled the teen forwarding a picture to his friend.

“Everybody’s doing it,” sneered a girl attempting to shame a reluctant peer.

When window panes in the community stopped shaking, the rooftops stopped levitating and the dust settled, the parents who had made the initial discovery asked to see the phone of their other son.

He brought his phone. They checked it. No inappropriate pictures of female classmates.

“Why are none of these pictures on your phone?” they asked.

His brother spoke up and said, “He has a reputation. Kids sending pictures didn’t send any to him. They knew he wouldn’t want to participate.”

One went against the grain. One stood firm. One chose to go the opposite direction of the crowd.

The next time you hear “Everybody’s doing it,” call it out for what it is.

A bold-faced lie.

Not everybody is doing it.

 

 

So you broke the broom

She was sitting on a little wooden chair beside the piano, tapping her feet on the floor.

I finished my phone call and walked over to her, puzzled that her head was bent and she was looking down. It was an unusual posture for the kid who proclaims every single day of the year, no matter how dark the clouds, torrential the rain, searing the heat or bitter the cold, to be a “beautiful day!”

“What’s up?” I asked, kneeling to look into her eyes.

“Well, I was outside —” she drew a breath and appeared to stifle a sob.  “I was outside with the broom sweeping by the garden.”

Her chin trembled and her eyes began gushing tears as she wailed, “

I broke the broom!”

“Did you get hurt?”

“N-n-n-o-o-o,” she sobbed.

“We don’t care about a broom,” I said, hugging her tight. “We care about you. There’s not a single thing in this house we care about as much as we care about you.”

More sobbing.

“Look at this old piano. See these scratches on the side? This piano has been around a long time. It’s just wear and tear. Even if this entire piano somehow got broken, do you think we’d care about it more than we care about you kids?”

I realized it was ludicrous to use an example of a piano being destroyed. But then, reflecting on several of her male cousins, maybe it wasn’t ludicrous. Even if it was severely damaged during some bizarre boy antic gone awry, we’d still choose the kids over the stuff.

Her sobbing softened to whimpering, which was a step in the right direction.

“Come with me,” I said, leading her by the hand. “Sit down in the middle of the sofa.”

She sat down and a spring went BOING. She smiled a little half-smile.

“Now sit over there on the end. Hear that crack? That’s the wooden frame! A lot of kids have played on this sofa, crawled over the back, rolled off the cushions.” I didn’t mention that I often stand on the end of it to reach books on the bookshelf.

“What do you think we care about more? The sofa or kids?”

“Kids,” she whispered.

“And look at that screen door.”

Suddenly, I realized the house may be in worse shape than I thought. Oh well—such is the price of life and the joy of family.

“The only way the little kids can get that open is to push on the screen. We care about kids more than we care about the screen.”

Finally convinced, she scampered back outside. A little later, I saw the “broken” broom on the patio and called to her.

“That broom was made to come apart,” I said. “The handle and broom are separate pieces. You didn’t break it—it just came apart!”

My lecture on the value of stuff as opposed to the value of people was probably unnecessary. But sometimes it never hurts to be reminded of what truly matters. It makes for a beautiful day.

 

She doesn’t give parenting advice — but if she did

I always think long and hard when people ask me for parenting advice. I tell them it was all I could do to parent our own children; I’m not about to advise them on how to parent theirs.

The real danger is once you start dispensing advice, it automatically casts you as an expert and nothing invites disaster like billing yourself as an expert.

That said, when I do have a momentary lapse of discretion and dispense parenting advice, it is often the advice my mother gave me.

She once told me the best thing I could do was get my nose out of a book.

Ouch.

I closed the book I was reading on how to get your baby to sleep, setting it down on top of a book on getting your baby to eat solid foods, which was on top of a book on the importance of playtime with your baby, which was on top of a book about talking to your baby, which was on top of a book on cultivating your baby’s interests in physics, engineering and computer science.

I didn’t know why my mother would object to me reading books. All of the books were by credentialed experts—one or two of whom even had children of their own.

It was years before I fully understood what my mother meant.

She meant it was time to stop reading and start doing. It was time to go with my gut and my heart and become the expert on knowing my own children.

She was right, of course. Mothers always are. At least that’s what I tell our kids.

My heart told me that babies and children need the same things grown-ups need —to be known, loved, encouraged, given opportunities to learn and grow, fail and try again.

My instincts told me that children need boundaries, correction, forgiveness and second chances. A lot of what my heart and instincts told me was similar to what the experts were telling me, but without the cost of a hardcover book.

I knew my heart was a good guide amid squeals of laughter, sounds of play and overwhelming love for another human being.

I also knew that parenting would be one of the hardest jobs I’d ever had. Sleepless nights and spit up on my shoulder made me a fast learner.

This job would require a selflessness with which I was unaccustomed. It would require a strange tension of holding them close and simultaneously letting them go. I also knew it would be seasonal work and that this season would never pass my way again.

My mother’s heart told me that my children would learn many marvelous things from books, but the most important things—like how to live life, how to treat others and how to find their way and make sense of this world—they would most likely learn from watching their father and me. Warts and all.

Books and experts can be wonderful resources, but nobody will ever know your child like you do. Nobody will ever love your child like you do.

You get one chance at this parenting gig. Give it your all.