Be careful what you say, Echo is listening

Not long ago we bought an Amazon Echo (some opt to call it Alexa, which I voted for but my husband wasn’t comfortable giving stern commands to an inanimate object with a human’s name), mainly to listen to live radio and podcasts in the kitchen while we’re cooking. It didn’t take long for us to realize that it’s not necessarily a one-way communication device. Or inanimate.

Not that Echo moves, but it does sometimes seem to have a mind of its own. Either that, or we have ghosts.

Working from home, I hear everything that happens in the house during the day. The wind travels around the house and makes it creak from one room to the next, the front door makes cracking noises when it’s not locked, car doors slam, kids at the school across the street scream like feeding hyenas during gym and recess, the heat thumps on and off, ice cubes plunk in the freezer, and the cats click throughout the house on overgrown nails I really need to cut. That’s about it.

Except, every once in awhile I hear a soft, warm, concerned, almost maternal voice say something like “I’m sorry, I can’t find what you’re looking for.” Or, “Would you like me to add alt country as a station on your Pandora account?” Or even “I can order a multipack of toilet tissues for you on Amazon, using your Prime account.”

Every time I hear that voice I freeze, thinking “Oh my god. I didn’t talk to Echo. No one talked to Echo. WHO IS ECHO RESPONDING TO?”

Cautiously–but casually (as if someone is watching and judging me for being afraid of a small electrical device)–I’ll walk into the kitchen to see what Echo is talking about. By then she is silent, but the cats are usually sitting on the kitchen floor, looking at her on top of the fridge, the blue swirling light that means she has been alerted to conversation now turned off. I never know if they are watching the conversation, or instigating it. I’m guessing they are spectators, as they would be ordering something more cat-friendly than toilet paper.

More recently, Echo has gotten a little mischievous. Maybe we’re not talking to her enough and she’s lonely, bored, and starting to lash out.

One day I was getting something out of the fridge for my son, and he was right next to me. I don’t remember why; it’s not like I need help getting anything out of the fridge. He looked up at Echo and said “Remember when Dad said ‘Echo, volume 10,’ and it was SO loud?”

I looked at him in horror and suddenly everything went into slow motion, like that final, horrible scene in Platoon, and before I could say “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” (which I would have said in slow motion while tackling him to the ground, if we were in a movie instead of in our kitchen), Echo went to volume 10. The jazz station was on, which could have been a good thing, except that at that moment, it was a raucous drum solo complete with mirambas. It was deafening.

Ok, I thought, I’ll just tell Echo to turn the volume down. With my hands over my ears, I yelled “Echo!” The blue light didn’t come on. “Echo! Volume down!” Still no blue light. That bitch was purposely ignoring me. Then my son got into the act, screaming “Echo, volume down!” at the top of his lungs, which only made it more chaotic.

“Pull the plug! Pull the plug!” he yelled. I could reach Echo, but only with one arm, and couldn’t pull the plug out with only one hand. Paralyzed, I held the cylindrical device close to my face and continued hollering. Finally, the blue light came on and Echo heeded my command. Traumatized, I told her to turn the music off completely.

In the welcome silence of the kitchen, my son said “Whew,” holding his hand to his heart and repeating “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ll never do that again.”

I don’t know if he was apologizing to me, or to Echo.

An ode to crazy hair and Hormel turkey pepperoni

My daughter has a nest of baby hair that hovers at the top of her head. No matter how much she brushes, smooths, or sprays, that collection of shorter hairs gradually stands up to form a breezy little dirty blonde halo.

I call it her nimbus.

One day in the car she told me that she could feel the baby hairs moving when she turned her head, like they were a separate entity. I told her to think of them as pilot fish. They are a colorful, happy little tribe of fish that follow her around as if she were a benevolent girl shark.

In fact, they are also her biggest fans. They don’t just follow her because they need her for sustenance, they actually adore her! Can’t you hear them all cheering as they dart back and forth, I told her, keeping up with your every move! Go, go, go! We love you!

That gave us a good laugh. At least she has a sense of humor about her appearance, which is unusual for a 15-year old.

It also gave me an idea for a children’s book about a little girl who hates her unruly hair. Her mother tells her about the pilot fish, and also suggests that her crazy hair could be a special halo of flowers that she takes with her everywhere, or butterflies. Many scenarios about what her hair could actually be ensue, and the little girl eventually decides that it’s more fun to be special. Of course it has a happy ending, it’s a children’s book.

This is one of many children’s books I think about . . . Another one stars Pepper Lonely, a girl who loves Hormel turkey pepperoni and the Beatles in a time (the present) when neither one is in fashion. I personally think both are always in fashion, but in the book, we would be in some faraway land where neither thing exists. Maybe a kingdom of some kind. She would be Princess Pepperlonely. Listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over and over.

The lessons would be (1) Hormel turkey pepperoni is very, very good. And so versatile. (2) The Beatles are cool, even if you live in a faraway land and have never heard of them. (3) It’s ok to be different. Be like Princess Pepperlonely.

And Hormel would pay to sponsor the book, which would result in a happy ($$) ending for me as well.

One of the days, I will actually write these stories. Now I just need a good illustrator.

 

 

 

Sometimes you just have to quit: How I prepared in advance for my own mental breakdown

I’ve always been an independent person. I don’t like to ask for help. I’m slightly on the introverted side, so I prefer to work by myself. Or with one or two people I really like. But most of all, I like to be creative. This was a good place to be, more than 20 years ago, when I started my career in corporate communications and was in a small team, managing a small publication on my own.

Then things started getting uncomfortable. There were promotions, there were children, there were projects and people to manage. All normal milestones in life, and of course there were many aspects of these changes that I enjoyed. And I was good at it. I could work 12 hours a day, take care of the kids, pay the bills, and all with a sunny disposition.

On one hand, I was proud of being able to accomplish so many things at once. But being good at getting things done is exhausting when the things you’re getting done are not ones you want to be doing. I’m talking about the work side of things, not kids or my home life. Those areas of my life I always cherished, but I never had enough time to really pay attention to them. To just enjoy them.

A slight buzzing had started in my head, a kind of background noise that crept in during times of stress and faded when things got quiet. Things were never quiet for long, and the moments of peace got to be few and far between.

The moment I knew I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, was when I was at home, giving a presentation to our CEO on the phone, with my boss on the line to assess my performance, while holding a squirming, sick, screaming toddler. I thought: Ok, now is the time to start hatching my escape plan.

You would think that planning ahead to leave something you don’t enjoy would make “that thing” easier to deal with. It didn’t. It made it worse. Watching my nest egg grow much too slowly, doing the calculations to determine when it was “safe” to leave . . . And the guilt of knowing that I was making a conscious decision to go from supporting my family to potentially making no money for a long time. It was suffocating.

The buzzing got worse.

I was anxious all the time. My heart raced, my blood pressure rose. I sweated even when I was cold.  In quiet moments I would sit and listen to my pulse pounding in my ears, and I could feel it in my nose. Sometimes I would get nosebleeds.

Eventually I got depressed. Nothing could make me happy. I withdrew from friends, family, activities, everything. I just wanted to be left alone.

One morning I found myself in my hotel room, pacing up and down the floor in my towel, gasping for breath. The reason? An event I was running later that day, one that I had run for 5 years in a row. In fact, one of many events and large meetings I ran throughout the year. Nothing major had ever gone wrong at any of them, and there was nothing special about this one.

But as I was getting ready to dry my hair and get dressed, I had a horrible thought: I couldn’t imagine the event happening. Usually before an event, I run through it in my mind, and I can see everything happening the way it should. That always gave me peace of mind, like I was just following a script that was already written. In this case, however, I couldn’t “see” the event. I took it as an omen that something was going to go terribly wrong, and my brain was protecting me by not letting me see it.

I panicked. I thought about packing my bag and running away. But I didn’t. I got through the event, it went well, and I got on the train and was happy to see my family when I got home. Fortunately that was only a few weeks before I walked out the door of my building for the last time, because I don’t think I would have survived another challenge.

I’ve been “free” for 9 months. Quitting wasn’t easy. I felt like . . . a quitter. And I still do.

If I had been a stronger person, I could have gone to therapy, taken antidepressants and continued on in my job for another 20 years. But even the thought of that depressed me. I don’t want to look back on my life and think “wow, I really hung in there, didn’t I?” There are no medals or rewards for suffering in silence.

So here I am, hustling to get freelance writing work every day, getting some here and there, writing personal things for my own amusement, and slowly adjusting to a life without constant stress. It sounds easy, but ironically, it’s a little . . . um, stressful. But there’s negative stress that eats at your mind and body, and then there’s constructive stress, which drives you to work hard at doing something you enjoy.

I can deal with constructive stress. So . . . Here I am. And here I go!

“How Far I’ll Go”

Well, apparently I’ll go all the way to WordPress, since Facebook won’t let me post audio files! But if you’re a Disney fan, maybe you’ll like this homegrown pop/punk version of “How Far I’ll Go,” from Moana. Enjoy!

“Someone threw a HERB at me!”

My son has always had a strained relationship with nature. He doesn’t like to go outside if it’s hot or sunny, because he gets sweaty very easily. If he is forced to go outside, he first puts on his sun hat and then inspects his surroundings to make sure there aren’t any bugs in the vicinity. If a bug is sighted, he immediately heads indoors.

A couple of greenery-related experiences could have contributed to his distrust of the outdoors. Or if not, they’re still amusing to me.

He couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, going somewhere with my husband in the car. They stopped for gas and the attendant, after peering in the window at my son in his car seat, declared “What a handsome little fella, he looks like a Bush!” Meaning the former president, which of course went right over my son’s head. He was quiet for awhile, then as they pulled away, my husband heard him say softly, as if to himself, “That man called me a bush!” I still wonder what he really thought that meant. And for the record, he does not look like he’s related to anyone in the Bush family. Or would that be the bush species? He also doesn’t look like any type of shrubbery.

Fast forward about 7 years. I love gardening, and I often force my son outside to help me transplant and water plants. He’s familiar with most varieties of the herbs and vegetables growing in our garden. One day the kids were getting in the car, and as usual they argued about who was going to get the front seat. Being smaller and faster, he got to it first.

As she got in the car, my daughter grabbed a leaf from a nearby basil plant and threw it over the front seat in retaliation. There was a moment of silence, followed by a loud exclamation: “Someone threw a HERB at me!” This made us cackle for so many reasons. Mostly because he pronounced it with the “H.” As if someone had physically thrown a man named Herb over the front seat of the car. Also, he was aware that “someone” had thrown it, but didn’t know who. My daughter was the only one in the back seat. Who on earth could it have been, if not her? And then there’s the formal (if incorrect) way he identified the basil leaf. He knew it was an herb, but didn’t know which type. Not wanting to dumb things down by simply calling it a leaf, he called it A HERB. So now, when I go outside to water anything, I’m going to water my Herbs.

He hates when I tell both these stories, so of course I have to publish them so I will never forget how to tell them.

 

“Women like a man with a big back po’ch!”

Scenes from The Princess and the Frog that we watch over, and over, and over . . .

One of my kids’ favorite Disney movies (and mine) is The Princess and the Frog. Lately we’ve been watching it a lot, and there are a few scenes that always make us laugh, rewind and watch again.

One is the first scene with Raymond.  I apologize for the terrible quality clip. It’s the best I could find.

“Women like a man with a big back po’ch!”

S. likes to say this randomly during conversation and then slap his rear end. J. says he has a “juicy butt,” which is kind of gross, but the description has stuck.

So . . . as Ray would say, “Well, there you go!”