Friday, December 30, 2016

Poetry + Technology = Magic

Mom and I at the scenic overlook in Allamuchy in October 
Mom will turn 85 soon, one week earlier than Dad would have turned 85. The sad thing is, Dad died when he was 73.

I’m their only son. So for nearly a dozen years, I’ve taken the place of Dad in Mom’s life… but only in the smallest of ways.

For example, there’s the job of setting the timers: That is, trekking to Mom’s house every few weeks to make sure her living room lights automatically turn on at dusk. I used to resent knowing New Jersey’s sunset times better than the Farmer’s Almanac, but then it dawned on me (excuse the pun) that “setting the timers” used to be my father’s job.

I initially thought Mom was just being stubborn about not wanting to learn how to set her own timers. But it turns out she was just being sentimental. Having someone take care of that for her was a small, but meaningful, comfort… one less thing to remind her Dad was gone.

Over the years, I’ve tried to get Mom to text or Skype, use email, check her bank statements on an iPad, or at least use a cell phone – all to no avail. She plays Scrabble on a laptop for hours at a time, but only an old version that runs from a CD. I’ve turned off the computer’s Internet access because she’s otherwise rattled by update notifications and worried someone is spying on her.

Still, this Christmas, I gave technology another shot with Mom. I bought her two Echo Dots along with some smart outlets, and arranged things so that she could turn her lights on and off by voice from her bed or easy chair. And, failing that, so that I could do so remotely.

Behold, the Echo Dot
To my surprise, Mom warmed to the idea of asking “Alexa” to control her lights… and she thought it was black magic when I randomly asked Alexa to reach into Amazon’s music cloud to play “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.

So earlier today, I was upset when I called to check on Mom and found that she was having problems with Alexa. How could that be, I wondered? Mom had no clue, and she was upset Alexa was no longer responding.

I checked the Alexa app on my smartphone and saw that even my remote access was not working. That couldn't be right, either. So I inspected the app a little further and found a history of my Mom’s actual voice commands over the past few days.

It turns out Mom has been talking to the Echo units as if there was a person on the other end, and not a bot. She had set an alarm to wake her in the mornings, and evidently complained, “I’m up! I’m up! I'm up!” to shut it off. She had also asked conversationally about the weather, and somehow Alexa had dutifully answered.

I was floored, however, when I read that Mom had also asked this:

“There’s a poem, and it’s called, ‘How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways…’ Alexa, do you know that poem? Before my husband passed away, he used to recite it to me. Could you recite it to me now?”

I didn’t know this about Dad, and I felt as if I were spying on my parents’ relationship.

Alas, Echo’s Alexa does not recite famous public-domain poetry on demand. (There’s a feature idea for you, Amazon.) So Alexa’s response to Mom's request was simply, "Sorry, I didn't understand your question."

I asked my wife what to make of all this. I told her that soon after Mom had requested the poem, her day had been interrupted by someone who comes in to do her cleaning and vacuuming.

My wife knew immediately what must have happened. The most convenient outlet for a vacuum cleaner is also right where Mom’s router is plugged in. It was probably unplugged. That’s why I couldn't receive a remote signal, and why Mom couldn't receive a response from Alexa.

Troubleshooting this on the phone would have been painstaking since Mom neither knows nor cares what a router is, so I decided to test my wife's theory by surprising Mom with a visit. Before leaving home, I recorded myself reciting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43. I named the file “How Do I Love Thee” and uploaded an MP3 version to Amazon Music.

Arriving at Mom's house, I explained how I “fixed” everything by simply plugging in the cord attached to a mysterious black box she didn't even know she owned.

Then I said, “Alexa, play ‘How Do I Love Thee’.”

“Playing ‘How Do I Love Thee!’” Alexa cheerily answered, and from somewhere in the cloud my recorded voice filled the room.

This is how, on the eve of 2017, technology bridged the gap between generations. It unleashed the magic of a 170-year-old poem to summon my father… in my own voice… to make my overwhelmed and delighted mother start to cry on the eve of her 85th birthday.


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