getting acquainted with Alexa

Terry and I have for many years listened to music in the bedroom while the source of the music was elsewhere in the house. We use a Recoton 900 MHz transmitter with a compatible speaker. The transmitter is connected to the internet radio in my office. We listen to jazz on KCSM in San Mateo six nights a week and a station serving up NPR’s Classical 24 on Sunday evenings. The speaker, obviously, is in the bedroom.

Now this is not exactly new technology. It was, in fact, old technology twenty years ago. Back in Gilroy, around 2001 or so, I had to scrounge around on eBay to find additional speakers and transmitters. So replacing components these days is hardly an option.

I had been following the rise of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo for a while, but never had felt the need to buy one. My brother, who was at least at one time a self-admitted Luddite, had two Echo devices when we were at his house for Thanksgiving in 2019. Apparently my dad (we miss him) bought at least one of them for him. Why Dad bought Brian an Echo and not me I have no idea. But that’s another matter.

Fourth Generation EchoIn any case, I was getting along quite well without a smart speaker. But the Recoton speaker in the bedroom had its problems. It would make awful static noises when I would try to adjust the volume, and I would have to spray the knob with contact cleaner, making something of a mess. That worked for a while, but at some point I would have to repeat the process. Then, one recent Saturday evening I really got tired of the snapping and popping which we would experience periodically. I opened the Amazon app on my iPad and started searching for Echo devices. There were cheaper models, but I wanted quality sound in the bedroom, so I ordered a fourth generation Echo with premium sound, and, of course, Alexa.

It has been a genuine delight. It recognizes all of our favorite radio stations, and I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or Writer’s Almanac. I can ask for a local weather forecast and get it. I have even connected my SiriusXM account so I can listen to The Bridge, which is where my car radio is set most of the time. I can also listen to my Pandora channels. The sound quality is impressive, and the device on the table in the bedroom is much less ubiquitous than that big honkin’ black speaker we had for so long (and still have in the dining area).

Of course, once you have one Echo device…

Amazon Echo DotAfter enjoying our Echo in the bedroom it occurred to me that it would be useful to have an echo in the kitchen. (Naturally Amazon reinforced that idea with the many “ways you can use Echo” emails that they kept sending me.) But I thought that when I’m in the kitchen fixing dinner or emptying the dishwasher it would be nice to have an Echo so I can listen to NPR or music or continue with my audiobook.

So I did, I bought a second echo for the kitchen. It is a third-generation Echo Dot, smaller and a lot less expensive than the fourth-generation model in the bedroom, but perfect for the kitchen. One review I read said that the only difference between the third and fourth generation Dot models is the design. That’s fine. I much prefer the smaller third-generation disc design in the kitchen as opposed to the globe design in the bedroom.

I often listened to my audiobooks with my iPhone in the kitchen, but since the sound went through my hearing aid, Terry didn’t know when I was listening and would start to talk to me. She would then get irritated when I asked her to wait a second so I could pause the audio book. Now, listening to my audiobooks in the kitchen with the Echo Dot, that’s no longer a problem.

Of course Amazon can’t stop there. They kept trying to tempt me with a $24.99 smart plug at a “new Echo owner” price of ninety-nine cents. I finally gave in, so now when we sit down to dinner we can tell Alexa to turn on the floor lamp in the dining area.

We have even connected Alexa to our Shark robot vacuum cleaner and I have it set up so I can ask Alexa to play the radio broadcast of a Dodgers game. We’ll see if that latter works: the first spring training game is Sunday.

It’s all a bit unnerving, but wonderfully convenient and enjoyable. I think the millennials are correct when surveys say that they have no expectation of privacy, but I guess that’s the price we pay for convenience and instant access, Amazon’s claims about privacy with the Echo notwithstanding.


farewell to a family home

My dad’s house went on the market recently and we quickly received an offer. On the same day that we said goodbye to Tasha I learned the buyer had accepted the counteroffer that my brother, as co-executor of our dad’s estate, had submitted. That is good news for many reasons, of course, but it is sad to think that a house that contains so many memories will no longer be in the family.

Dads houseMy Grandma and Grandpa Monaghan, my mother’s parents, built it. They moved into the house in 1958, the year I turned five. When I was young the greatest treat I could have was staying overnight with them. I called it staying “all day and all night,” but it really was just late afternoon on Friday to midmorning on Saturday. Grandma would fix my favorite foods for dinner and breakfast. Grandpa would give me a lot of attention.

The house was the site of many family gatherings over many years. We would have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthday celebrations there. It has a medium-sized family room and a big living room, so it could accommodate a lot of people. We had some pretty large Christmas and Thanksgiving events with family members coming in from out of town. I had many birthday celebrations there with more immediate, local family. Those events generally included Broasted chicken and spice cake with chocolate frosting.

Grandpa died in 1980, and when Grandma eventually moved into an independent living community my mom and dad moved into the house. Dad stayed there after my mother’s death in 1989 and remained in the house until his own passing last August.

The house is on a corner, with the front door facing north and the driveway on the other side of the house facing west. Next to the driveway is a gate onto the patio, which takes you directly to the family room via a sliding glass door. Local family and friends always came into the house that way. Out-of-town extended family and less frequent guests might use the front door. One time when Terry and I lived in the Bay Area and were visiting Hemet we went out to see Dad. For reasons I don’t recall we went to the front door. My dad’s greeting: “You think you’re so special coming in the front door?”

So many memories, indeed.


Remembering Tasha

We said goodbye to our four-footed child Tasha on Monday. She had had a very difficult weekend, not being able to keep down any food, and moving around with great pain and discomfort. The vet said that he suspected kidney failure as well and confirmed for us we had made the right decision.

TashaTasha had quite the life and we are glad that she had it with us. We had lost Misty, the fox terrier that Terry brought home from Oklahoma after her grandmother’s death when Misty was already ten years old. Terry was between jobs and had time on her hands, so she went to the local shelter. She was looking at a terrier who looked a bit like Misty when behind her this small, energetic dog seemed to be saying, “Hey, you. Over here. You don’t want that sad, blue-eyed dog. You want me!” Terry and I had agreed that we would name our next dog either Tasha or Kira, both Star Trek names. She called me at work and said, “I think we’ve found our Tasha.” We went to the shelter together to visit her and she did everything she could to entertain us in the play area. We put down our money and visited her every day until we could take her home, after being spayed and getting her shots.

We brought her home on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2005. When we took her to our vet, she told us that Tasha appeared to be about a year and a half. We decided we would establish her birthday as May 1st, in memory of my Grandma Monaghan, whose birthday was that day. That made her two on May 1, 2006. So Tasha was over sixteen years old when we lost her.

On that same visit to the vet she told us that Tasha looked like a beagle-terrier mix. That made sense to us. But one of Terry’s friends gave her a dog calendar each year for Christmas, and one day Terry pulled off the picture for the day and there was Tasha! The caption read “border terrier.” We were well versed in Tasha’s herding tendencies, so we knew that was it: she was a beagle-border terrier mix.

Tasha was always the energetic girl, and she made sure she had two walks a day. She was very active going up and down our stairs in Gilroy. When we moved south to Hemet in 2015 Tasha did a superb job of making that dreaded I-5 trek with us. She was happy to be with us in our new one-story house, and when our furniture arrived three days later she was pleased to have all of her familiar smells.

Tasha was a dog of routine, more than any other pet Terry or I have ever had. Here in Hemet, when 6:30 p.m. came around she wanted to make sure that one of us was in the kitchen starting dinner. After dinner, when it was time to put our feet up on the bed, read the newspaper, listen to jazz, and enjoy our adult beverage, Tasha (being the beagle-border terrier mix that she was) made sure that we were headed in the right direction, and checked up on us if one of us was in the wrong part of the house.

She was always the loyal and loving dog. Terry had her knee replacement surgery in October 2018. I had my intestinal surgery in February 2019 and a setback in March. Tasha was fully there for us each step of the way. Terry’s surgery was outpatient and we were home that evening, but I had two hospital stays. Terry says that Tasha wondered where I was when I was gone, and I experienced her right there for me when I came home.

Tasha had her health issues, as older dogs do. She was on thyroid medication for several years. Later added to that was a probiotic for her digestion, and after that pain medication for her arthritis. Still, she thrived and did well, and she was an integral part of our lives each and every day. She did pretty darn well until the last few days.

We love you, Tasha. We miss you big time. And we are relieved to know that you are no longer in pain.


enjoying our upgraded kitchen

You have probably read all you care to about our upgraded kitchen, but I feel compelled to write about how much we have been enjoying it in the month we’ve had it.

kitchen upgradeI’m not sure I knew how much I was going to love the improvements. What started as replacing the sink and faucet became those two items plus new counters, a reverse osmosis water system, and a new garbage disposal.

The solid surface acrylic counters are great to work with, and the light color brightens up the kitchen. The sink, being stainless steel rather than porcelain, is deeper and wider, making it easier to clean our pots and pans. More of them now lie flat in it.

I love cooking on our somewhat new stove with the new counters alongside. It’s nice to have accessible filtered water at the sink and to be able to make ice cubes in which we can see the ice crystals. We certainly still use the ice maker in the refrigerator, but I like seeing the clear ice cubes with my Scotch in the evening.

In these grim COVID-19 days it’s a delight to have a kitchen that brings us so much joy and pleasure.


an incremental kitchen remodel

When we lived in Gilroy we did a complete remodel of our kitchen. And remodel we did. The contractor completely gutted the kitchen and built a new one from scratch. The only thing that remained was the dishwasher. (Which we had to replace soon thereafter because the contractor didn’t anchor it when he reinstalled it.) We loved that kitchen and hated to leave it.

Here in Hemet we have done a sort of incremental kitchen remodel, but it was not something we planned. Not long after we got here in 2015 the thermostat in our refrigerator (that came with house which had been built nine years earlier) gave out and we replaced it with a Frigidaire as the part for the thermostat was no longer available.

Things were rather quiet for a few years, but in early 2019 the oven quite working. It simply refused to heat up. We called the repairman who returned to the shop and called us with an estimate that amounted to half of what a new stove would cost. Since I badly missed the convection oven we had in Gilroy we went shopping for a new stove. This was in February, before my surgery that month. We found a Samsung model we liked and ordered it. It finally arrived in April, after my surgery and after I had recovered from a setback that landed me in the hospital for a week in March. By then I was ready to get back to cooking. And back to baking bread again, with that new convection oven. I write about the new oven here.

Then, in May, we decided we had had it with the Frigidaire refrigerator. We were constantly fighting with the ice maker, and it had several other annoyances that made it frustrating to deal with. We bought a new Whirlpool with a larger capacity and a bottom drawer freezer. We’ve been quite happy with it, despite the occasional annoyances with the ice dispenser.

In May of this year our built-in microwave, which was also was the same age of the house, stopped working. We replaced it with a Frigidaire and have been quite happy with it. It lacks a couple of features that the old one had, but it’s much quieter and it does everything we need.

sink

Then there was the case of our kitchen sink. It was porcelain and had begun chipping. We tried to repair it, but it simply looked ugly. And the faucet, which had a removable nozzle attached to a hose, had been leaking for some time. I called the contractor we used to install our artificial turf about getting a new sink and faucet. He suggested replacing the countertops as well. Neither of us were fond of the tiles that were in place. We also knew that we were going to be in a COVID-19 world for quite a while longer, and while we have always done a lot of cooking in normal times, current circumstances mean we are cooking as much as or more than ever. So it didn’t take long for us to decide that replacing the counters was a good idea. While we were at it I thought installing a reverse osmosis water filtration system would be a good idea. That meant that we could have nice, clear ice and free up the space in the refrigerator taken up by the Pur water filter. No more filling it up at the sink and lugging it back to the fridge. No more dropping it when it slipped out of my hands, as it once did.

So we ended up with entirely new countertops (of the acrylic solid surface variety), a new sink and faucet, a new garbage disposal, and a reverse osmosis water system. All of that took three days, as opposed to the three months that our Gilroy kitchen remodel took, with everyone who came into the house following COVID-19 protocols and wearing masks.

That’s pretty darn good, and we have nearly the kitchen we want. We are both quite happy.

counter top


Tasha: still thriving

Today is All Saints’ Day: November 1. All Saints’ Day only occasionally falls on a Sunday and I rarely publish a blog entry on a Sunday. But I always blog on All Saints’ Day. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that I don’t write about All Saints’ Day on November 1, but I write about bringing Tasha home from the shelter.

TashaIt was on All Saints’ Day in 2005 that we brought Tasha home with us. When we took her to our vet she said that Tasha appeared to be about a year and-a-half old. That would make her sixteen and-a-half today. She is doing pretty well for an elderly dog.

Our girl has lost some weight, but that in many ways is a good thing, as with her arthritis the weight loss makes it easier for her to get around. She is on three medications: one for her thyroid, a probiotic to help her keep food down, and a pain medication for her arthritis. The original pain medication caused her stomach problems so the vet switched her to a different medication, which is a lot more expensive, of course. But that’s what we do for our child.

Tasha wants much shorter walks these days, but some things have not changed. She still insists that someone head into the kitchen to start dinner at around 6:30. She still leaps and bounds through the great room after dinner when it’s time for her cookie. And immediately after that she herds us into the bedroom where we put our feet up on the bed, read the newspapers, and enjoy our evening libation. That’s when she gets her chew, for which she waits impatiently.

We are pleased and grateful that Tasha continues to do so well.


things that won’t happen again

I rarely write in a melancholy mood, but sometimes the melancholy catches up with you, particularly in these days of COVID-19 and bitter political division.

One thing that has been missing in our lives in this time of pandemic and quarantine is the ability of the family to get together for breakfast on Saturday. Terry and I gathered with my brother and sister-in-law, my nephew and his daughter (later his fiancée became part of the group), and my dad who was the primary reason for this weekly routine. We had our restaurant rotation, but for most of us our favorite spot was DJ’s. We knew the staff, including the owner Grace and her daughter who waited tables, and they knew us. Their lease was up and the owner of the building wanted a long-term renewal. Grace, nearing retirement age, declined. Their last day of business was Halloween 2018.

Far more significant than that was the loss of my father in August. We did not lose him to COVID-19, but because he was ninety-one and his organs had simply reached the limit of what they could do.

I had forgotten that this picture had been taken, but Google found it for me on the DJ Restaurant Facebook page, which is still out there. It is a reminder of happier times.

One day the family will be able to safely gather once again and enjoy a meal out. But Dad won’t be there with us. Not physically anyway. And that I think is justification for some melancholy.

DJs restaurant


familiar voices

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all areas of our lives, even our radio listening.

When Terry and I lived in Gilroy our evening listening Monday through Saturday consisted of the internet stream from KCSM, the public radio jazz service in San Mateo. When we moved to Hemet in 2015 we began listening to the jazz stations in Los Angeles and San Diego. I wanted to avoid any nostalgia for the Bay Area.

KCSM logoAfter a couple of years, however, I switched back to KCSM. I decided that I could listen without undue melancholy or remorse, and I very much enjoy the evening hosts on the Jazz Oasis. When COVID-19 hit KCSM switched to a syndicated public radio jazz service, and we began listening to the Los Angeles jazz station, KKJZ, again. Evening host Steve Tyrell provided an upbeat mood in the midst of a time of pandemic, even if his music selections were a bit repetitious.

Recently, however, the engineering staff at KCSM figured out how to let the Jazz Oasis hosts prerecord their shows from home. It doesn’t matter that they are not live; hearing their familiar voices in the six-to-nine time slot is delightful and comforting in this stressful time.

The KCSM web site states, “Thanks to the College and our staff, especially engineers Rene Renard, Hanns Ullrich, and Chris Cortez, for helping the music to play on!” Terry and I thank them as well. Thank you, KCSM, for returning some peace and pleasure to our evenings.


router woes and recovery

Stuff sometimes happens even when you’re minding your own business. Yesterday before I went grocery shopping I checked my email. All was well. When I got home I had no internet access. My router was non-functional. There were no lights lit up on it. None. Completely dark. He’s dead, Jim. It’s a dead parrot.

routerI called Spectrum and the automated voice support was no help, so I enunciated very clearly rep-RE-sen-TATIVE. After twenty minutes on hold I got a real person who was very friendly, but finally agreed with me that I had a dead parrot, er, router.

While I was on hold I used my Spectrum iPhone app to make an appointment at the Spectrum store to swap out my router, but the first available appointment was the next day. The real person at Spectrum told me that I didn’t need an appointment; I could just head over to the store, which I did.

I had to wait a bit for my turn, but once someone came over to help me the equipment swap was very quick. I brought the new router home, connected everything, and waited. No internet access. Another call to that automated lady, a complete power cycle on both the modem and the router, then voilà, internet access!

I did a speed test and saw that I was getting almost twice the internet speed I had before, which is what Spectrum had been telling me for some months that I should be getting.

It’s a cliche, certainly, but it’s also true: all’s well that ends well.


Jimmy

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic Terry and I agreed, out of an abundance of caution, to discontinue our housekeeping service. Fortunately Pat, the last time Terry spoke with her, had sufficient work to not feel stressed.

Of course not having a housekeeper means we have to do the housekeeping ourselves. That has been manageable, but vacuuming is an issue. Given her bad knee, which will be replaced like the other one after the pandemic is past us, Terry can’t vacuum without pain. I will vacuum when asked, but I really don’t enjoy it.

JimmyTerry, having been laid off like so many others, has plenty of time on her hands and was using some of it, unbeknownst to me, to research robotic vacuums. She decided that the Shark was the best option and announced to me one day that she was going to the Best Buy about a half hour away from us to pick one up. I was dubious, but after twenty-six years of marriage I have learned that when Terry makes a decision there is no point in arguing.

She brought the device home and set it up to charge before sending it off on its first mission. The Shark is controlled by a smartphone app, and you need to give it a name. Terry decided on Jimmy. Personally, I might have preferred HAL, but parrot heads will recognize the reference to a certain Jimmy Buffett song.

One thing you learn from the online Shark forums is that it takes several forays for Jimmy to get to know your house. I had my doubts, but on his third or fourth reconnaissance mission Jimmy found the master bedroom. And with that, as the Monkees sang, “Now I’m a believer.”

Tasha regards Jimmy with a certain level of disdain, but for me, not needing to vacuum? I’m good with that.