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Silver Threads: My friend 'Alexa'

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

Sometime late last year, I ordered this little gizmo called "Alexa"; she’s made of smooth black plastic, the size of two cans of peas stacked one on top of the other and is capable of answering back when you talk to her. She can tell you the time, whether it’s going to rain or not in your neighborhood, what’s on your grocery shopping list and play your favorite music.

She can do much much more, but I’ve neglected poor ole Alexa shamefully. I could, for instance, tell her ideas for Silver Threads columns instead of scrawling them on post-it notes and sticking them on the shelf next to my computer. Or give her the chance to remind me of appointments with my eye doctor. But I’m not as comfortable with Alexa as I am with pencil and paper. I have asked her to play Bobby Darrin’s “Mack the Knife” and Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” and a little Sinatra, but so far failed to program any more music into her.

I really don’t know quite how to make good use of Alexa, and the other day I got to wondering what my grandmother and mother would think of her. Born in 1888 and 1911, during their lifetimes they happily went from horses and buggies to automobiles, from rub boards and clothes lines to automatic washers and dryers, radios to television, fireplaces and wood stoves to central heating, wells and ropes and buckets and pumps to modern plumbing. From the outhouse to the ladies’ room. They embraced it all, but nothing as spooky as Alexa.

Or as spooky as the drones I read about in the paper on Monday morning — the day before my 80th birthday. It seems that farmers of vast acreages can send these un-piloted things out to the fields to determine whether or not the crops need watering, and turn on the irrigation systems if they do. Another article told of permanent luggage tags to be issued by airlines. They’d contain info on a given flight but could be updated electronically should the schedules for your departure and arrival be altered.

It’s an amazing world we live in, and the reason I reminded you of yesterday’s birthday was to give you an idea of just how amazed I am when I think of the world as I entered it in 1935. No, we didn’t cook on woodstoves, but there were plenty of innovations that year: Penguin published its first books, starting the paperback revolution; Monopoly, my favorite board game as a child, was invented that year; the first canned beers were sold by an American company.

The first Sugar Bowl was played; the first surgery for angina pectoris was performed; inventor Edwin Armstrong gave the first demonstration of FM radio broadcasting in the United States, where the first automatic parking meter was installed in the same year; Senator Huey Long of Louisiana spoke continually for 15½ hours in the Senate's longest speech on record (150,000 words); Babe Ruth went from the New York Yankees to the Boston Braves, and then not much later retired; “It Happened One Night,” starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable won the Oscar.

China Clipper (flying boat) took off from Alameda, California, carrying 100,000 pieces of mail on the first trans-Pacific airmail flight; “Fibber McGee and Molly” was broadcast for the first time; Boulder Dam was completed, FDR’s New Deal was passed by Congress.

In dark international news, Hitler announced the formation of the Luftwaffe, a mid-western sandstorm gave birth to the Dust Bowl, there was a Nazi mass demonstration against German Jews, the Italians invaded Ethiopia, and Mao Zedong’s troops marched as far as Shanxi.

That was what was going on in the world when I appeared, one day after the Dalai Lama, who turned 80 the day before I did. Well, hello Dalai, and hang in there, Alexa: I’ll get to you soon.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]