A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Beth Underwood: Alexa, Alexus, Alfred — whoever you are, this is Aunt Mary and you should do as I say

This past weekend, my Aunt Mary was having some issues with technology, namely her digital personal assistant, Alexa. No matter what my aunt commanded, Alexa was unresponsive. Needless to say, Aunt Mary was none too happy. In an age where we’ve become more and more reliant on smart technology, such dilemmas are frustrating at best, especially when a solution isn’t readily at hand.

For any of you who may not be familiar with Alexa, she is the virtual voice inside Amazon speakers such as Echo. Alexa is quite talented for a virtual voice. She can recite the weather forecast, recommend a dinner recipe, or help you create a shopping list. She can also play the song, “Life is a Highway,” over and over and over. Just ask my four-year-old nephew. This day, though, Alexa was doing none of that.

Aunt Mary’s struggles continued for most of the day. And when the solution finally presented itself, a glitch in technology wasn’t to blame. Operator error was to blame. It seems Alexa only answers to Alexa, and not to Adele (who happens to be one of Aunt Mary’s favorite artists).

The whole episode reminded me of my late grandmother. For reasons that escaped me, she couldn’t call us by name without first going through the names of everyone else in the family. She could look right at you, but the first syllable of everyone else’s name would come out before she’d land on the right name: Cly. Jo. Ar. Leigh. Su. My. Beh…

I found it both comical and concerning, especially when I realized blanking on the names of those you love must be some sort of generational curse. Like the one where your parents curse your unborn children: “I hope when you have kids, they’re just like you.” In fact, it could be payback for the unborn child curse.

Anyway, from what I can gather this particular curse — we’ll call it the curse of names — sets in somewhere after the age of 50.

I know that because I, too, must now go through the names of all three kids, and sometimes the family pets, before landing on the right name. Sometimes, I don’t even bother trying to get to the correct name. I give up midstream and go with “whatever your name is.”

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the curse of names goes over like a lead balloon. Especially with Colton, who happens to be the most serious and set in his ways where my kids are concerned.

“If you can’t get my name right, I can’t hear you,” Colton has said. “Especially when you call me by the dog’s name.”
Fair enough, I guess.

I wonder, though. Maybe it’s possible to tell Alexa the name of my children. Maybe she could keep track of them and help me out when the going gets tough and the curse rears its head.

“Alexa, tell what’s his name it’s time for dinner.”

If Alexa messes up their names, the kids can be annoyed with her. And I’ll come away looking like a genius for having figured out how to program her to do all the dirty work.

Sounds like a fail-proof plan if you ask me. Assuming I can remember Alexa’s name.

Beth Underwood is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. She shares stories of everyday life that entertain, inspire, and encourage others. Her books include Gravity, a narrative nonfiction account of a small group of Tennessee National Guardsmen, and Talk Bourbon to Me, a lighthearted look at Kentucky’s native spirit. Drop her a line at beth@bethwrightunderwood.com, or visit her website at bethwrightunderwood.com.

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