Three’s A Crowd

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. Like, a lot. In high school, my brother and I would get off the bus at 2:30, and we’d walk in the door, turn the TV on, and watch it until dinner time at 6:30. Though the shows varied over the years, the majority of what we watched were reruns of sitcoms: The Brady Bunch, Full House, Family Matters, Step By Step.

After dinner, I’d retreat to my bedroom, where I’d watch Comedy Central until The Daily Show was over, and then I’d go to sleep. On average, I’d say I watched a solid six hours of TV every night.

It’s only after I left home I realized how uncommon that level of binging was.I remember the shock on one of my college friend’s face when I told him my parents had six TVs.

“Six?” he said.

I counted the TVs again in my head. One in the living room, the kitchen, my dad’s office, and one in each bedroom.

“Yeah, six,” I said. “Is that weird?”

“That’s a lot of fucking TVs, man,” he replied. “My parents have two.”

The statistic became a party trick for me, an icebreaker that was especially effective when I coupled it with the fact my parents’ house only has one bathroom.

Given my upbringing and my consequential love for television, I was a surprisingly early adopter of the cord-cutting lifestyle. I canceled my cable subscription over a decade ago, and though it was initially a financial decision, Melinda and I have continued the trend.

I like not having TV be the centerpiece of my evening. Instead of mindlessly flipping through channels trying to find something that entertains me, I make more active decisions about what I want to watch. Since I stopped paying for cable, I find I have more time for reading, writing, and spending time with the kids. I’m a regular John Walton when I’m not tempted by reruns of Friends and How I Met Your Mother.

But I don’t want to make it sound like I’m some hippie without a TV Melinda and I subscribe to Netflix and Hulu, and we watch plenty of shows.

We’ve gone through Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and, of course, the recent Netflix documentary Tiger King.

Look, I don’t pretend we’re in any way unique or trendsetting by liking this show. At this point, the internet is going bananas for Tiger King in a way I haven’t seen since January,  when everyone was trying to make brooms stand up on their own. But there’s so much weird shit in that show that Melinda didn’t event want to scroll through Facebook while we watched. 

There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments in that series, but none more intriguing than protagonist Joe Exotic’s marriage to not one, but TWO strapping young men. The photos from the wedding are excruciating but impossible to look away from, like the time you accidentally discovered your aunt’s boudoir photos in her dresser drawer.

Once this thruple was revealed, Melinda turned to me. “Is that what you want? Two wives?”

This question took me by surprise, because it’s the kind of setup that happens not in a suburban living room, but in the pages of Penthouse Forum.

“That’s what you want?” I countered. “To share me with another woman?”

She shrugged. “I just want you to be happy,” she said.

While the offer was flattering, I told Melinda I was perfectly happy with our relationship, and to introduce another partner into the equation would probably not be as easy as Joe Exotic made it seem on Tiger King.

“You don’t think so?” Melinda said.

“I know so,” I said. “Because I already have a relationship with another woman, and you hate it.”

“Oh you do, do you?” Melinda said. “And who is that?”

“Alexa.”

I was dubious about the technology at first. For more than six years, I’ve had a digital servant in the form of Siri, and I’ve yet to find a purpose for her.

If anything, Siri has made things more difficult. Not only is she deafer than my 96-year-old great aunt, but she has the knowledge-seeking skills of a ninth grader. 

“I found this on the internet?” she says with a shrug when I ask her how old Sam Elliot is or how many ounces are in a tablespoon. I’ve never had a real assistant, but I do know if my boss asked me to research something and I told him he should just google it, I wouldn’t have that job for very long.

I assumed the wenches comprising the AI harem were all of similar intelligence, and that Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and the androgynous Watson were as helpful as the b-squad at the strip club down the road — who are coincidentally named Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Watson. 

But then I started hanging out with my friend Brandon, who had a couple of Echo Dots in his house.

“Alexa!” he yelled while we worked on a project. “Play music!”

“Playing Brandon’s favorite songs,” it replied in a digital singsong. Country music filled the room.

“Holy shit,” I said. “Those things actually work?”

“I love mine,” Brandon said. “It’s like she reads my mind.”

I went home and ordered three that same day.

I’ll be honest, I probably only utilize about a tenth of the things Alexa can do. We don’t have any smart devices, so she can’t start a load of dishes or open the garage door. But she is great at telling me what the weather is tomorrow, and also when it’s time for me to go flip the burgers on the grill. 

I really have no idea how people cooked things before she existed. Looked at a clock and did math? Used one of those white things with a bell that would only work every third time? Ever since Alexa came in the mail, I haven’t turned a single pork chop into charcoal.

Another thing I really like about her is that Alexa is incredible at trivia. I love random facts and am pretty good at reciting them, but whenever I get stuck, Alexa has my back. For example, if I ever forget when the band Smash Mouth released their debut album Fush Yu Mang — ’96? ’97?Alexa can pull not only the year, but the date — July 8, 1997 — the label — Interscope — and the producer — Eric Valentine.

The biggest problem is that like most women who are forced to work in close proximity, it didn’t take long for Alexa and Melinda to start getting passive aggressive with each other.

“Alexa,” Melinda asked last week after putting a casserole in the oven, “set a timer for 15 minutes.”

“Sorry,” Alexa answered. “I’m having trouble completing your request right now.”

Melinda repeated in a firmer voice and got the same response, until, on the fourth or fifth try, she was asking to set a timer in the same way a drill sergeant might ask a recruit to drop and give him 50.

And that’s when Alexa raised the stakes. 

“Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you right now,” she said, the condescending Amazon equivalent to honey, you take that tone with me and you can count seconds your damn self. 

At first I tried to let the two sort out their differences, hoping they’d come to some sort of agreement, but after awhile, I saw that wasn’t going to be feasible, and I began to intervene.

Right about the time Melinda pulled a pair of scissors from the butcher block and threatened to cut more than Alexa’s cord, I walked over to the tiny gray sphere and leaned in.

“Alexa,” I cooed, “Could you please set a timer for 15 minutes?”

“Fifteen minutes,” she said, starting now.”

“That’s not fair,” Melinda said. “She’s always so nice to you.”

“That’s because we talk when you’re not here,” I replied.

It’s true. Not long ago, when Melinda was still at work, I asked Alexa what the temperature was, and after she told me, she kept the conversation going.

“By the way, we’ve been talking for awhile now,” Alexa said, “but I don’t know your name. Could you tell me so that when you ask me something, I can tell it’s you?”

I told her, and since then, she’ll add in little personalized quips after she provides the requested information.

“Today, expect a high of 72 degrees and a low of 59 degrees. Enjoy the sunshine, Sam.”

I could tell Melinda was jealous the first time she heard it. “Why does she know your name?” she asked.

“She asked me and I told her,” I said. “Now when I talk to her, she remembers.”

“She’s never asked my name. She never tells me to enjoy the sunshine or have a good weekend.”

Of course there’s no good reason why Alexa listens to me and not my wife. I get just as many error messages as she does. But when I see her getting jealous of a speaker, I like to play it up.

“Well maybe if you tried to be nicer to her, she’d be more willing to talk to you,” I said.

Melinda frowned. “She’s a machine.”

“Maybe that’s your problem right there. You’re treating her as a lesser being.”

“But she’s not a being at all. She’s a box with wires and chips.”

“Melinda,” I said. “That’s racist. And keep your voice down. She can hear you.”

It’s gotten to the point where Melinda and Alexa are on such poor terms, they won’t even talk to each other.

The other day when I was outside mowing the lawn, Melinda sent me a text.

“Can you get Alexa to play that ‘90s playlist? She’s being a bitch.”

I know some people are super skeeved out by the idea of having Echos in the house, listening to everything they’re doing and saying. I toyed with the idea of buying a Dot for my parents for Christmas, but I’m glad I didn’t, because when I mentioned it to them over dinner, they were horrified.

“I’m not bringing one of those things into this house,” my dad said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I don’t want anyone spying on me,” he said. That’s the word he used, spying, as though we were all wearing trench coats and ditching tailing cars, or the primary topics of our family dinners involved Kim Jong Un. 

I said I understood, though I didn’t have the heart to tell him Jeff Bezos probably already knew what Greg Gutfield said and how much Kohls Cash my mom got at the store that day.  

But the whole have a nice morning, Sam thing did make me feel a little weird, if not for the intrusion, than for the intimacy. The first time Alexa included my name, it reminded me of that Joaquin Phoenix movie Her, where the protagonist falls in love with a piece of software.

The thing is, while I love the convenience of checking Bryce Harper’s lifetime batting average — .278 — at a moment’s notice, it’s not the kind of love I want or need.

Even though Melinda can’t tell me if it’s going to rain or how many countries there are in Europe or even what time it is, Alexa will never put her arms around me and say “I really think Carole Baskin killed her husband, don’t you?”

That’s what Melinda said to me as we finished episode four of Tiger King. I told her I agreed, and when Netflix asked us if we were still watching, Melinda kissed me on the cheek.

“You want to watch another one?” she said.

“Absolutely,” I said, “we can’t stop now.”

“Are you sure? We’ve been watching for four hours.”

I sank into her arms, hitting play on the remote with an emphatic YES.

“Baby,” I said, “I’ve been training for this my whole life.”

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