The Echo of an Echo Is an Echo’s Etcetera 

By  |  March 13, 2018
“Robot with Dog,” by Douglas Bourgeois. Courtesy of the artist and Arthur Roger Gallery “Robot with Dog,” by Douglas Bourgeois. Courtesy of the artist and Arthur Roger Gallery

For Christmas I received an Amazon Echo and immediately recalled learning about echoes as a kid. I’d read of the phenomenon in a book and wanted my beloved landscape to talk. With the sublime ignorance of an optimistic country boy, I believed that an echo would repeat what I said until I eventually taught it to converse, and I’d feel less alone. For a few days I wandered the hills in search of my echo. I yelled and listened. Nothing answered. I walked on. Yell, listen, walk. Yell, listen, walk. It was sort of like being the Karate Kid doing “wax on, wax off” except without the wax, the karate, or California. 

A neighbor man heard my voice and tracked me, concerned that I was hurt. He was gray-haired and lean, his face lined as desiccated earth. The butt of a revolver protruded from his pocket. In standard hill fashion I identified myself as “Andy Offutt’s first boy, Chris,” and explained my mission. He listened patiently, nodding with a slight grin, and led me to a specific spot in the woods. It was a narrow dead-end holler, what suburban people might call a cul-de-sac. A cliff of rock was flanked by two slopes of heavily wooded land. He told me to shout. I did so, and the sound bounced back immediately. 

“It’s why they call this a ‘holler,’” the man said. “You holler out and it hollers back.” 

I understood that an echo required a certain conglomeration of land in the same way that a shadow needed illumination. I shouted a few more times, then thanked him. I looked around, memorizing the place and how we’d gotten there. 

“Do you know where you are?” he said. 

I became nervous for him. He was old and perhaps prone to confusion. He might need me to help him home. 

“I’m right here,” I said. “Do you know where you are?” 

“Yes I do, Little Andy.” He grinned. “You’re an odd-turned feller, but you’re all right. Let me get you back to the main path. Then I got to go to the house.” 

I followed him through the woods. For the rest of my years in the hills, I went to that spot once a week and yelled. It was a kind of hobby, like collecting bird nests or unusual rocks. As a teenager I read Greek mythology, including the story of Echo, a nymph who lived in the woods. Hera suspected Echo of conspiring to conceal her husband Zeus’s extra-marital dalliances. She punished Echo by taking away her voice—all Echo could do was repeat what others said. Poor Echo fell in love with Narcissus, a young man so stuck on himself that he starved to death while staring at his own reflection in a pond. Echo could only watch mutely, then die as well, her bones eventually turning into rock. 

Despite the absence of homicide, it was a glorious story, and I believed that my personal echo cliff was composed of the long-dead Echo’s actual bones. I still have a few rocks I gathered there as a kid. Sometimes I hold them to my ear. The old man in the woods was right—I was indeed an odd-turned feller who evolved into an eccentric recluse who listens to rocks for an echo of childhood. 

(Incidentally, during my early twenties, I went through a phase where I tried very hard to like the band Echo & the Bunnymen. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what “bunnymen” were, plus the music sucked. Like most so-called British Invasions, this one flailed as badly against our shores as the Royal Navy did against the Falkland Islands—not to mention Australia, India, and the USA.) 

Anyhow, all the preceding memories ran through my mind when I unwrapped my Christmas gift of an Echo. It’s essentially a miniature silo, nine inches tall and three inches thick. I plugged it in and began speaking alone in my room—which reminded me of yelling in the woods. Communicating with the Echo requires getting its attention by saying its name, then asking a question. I began by using a court attorney’s technique of only asking questions to which I already knew the answer. This tactic is also the basis for the lie detector test (an amazing machine invented by William Moulton Marston, an odd-turned fellow who created Wonder Woman and lived in a happy ménage à trois for much of his life). I began with softball queries to test the Echo’s veracity and accuracy: What is the time? What is the date? Where are we? Correct on all counts! 

My wife joined the inquiry with a more complex question: “Are you friends with the Roomba?” The Echo took the fifth, but I suspect it was hiding a secret relationship. I then moved on to asking about my local writer friends. The Echo knew who Ace Atkins was but not Jack Pendarvis, which meant it could access Wikipedia. This was not particularly groundbreaking since I carry a fancy timepiece in my pants pocket that can do the same thing. Maybe if my new android friend met my human friend Jack, it would smooth things out. 

Jack visited, but it didn’t help. Even after my polite introduction, the Echo still refused to acknowledge him. Jack was skeptical of the whole contraption and asked who HAL 9000 was. The Echo answered correctly that HAL 9000 was the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jack left forthwith, his feelings possibly hurt because the Echo knew the name of a fictional machine but not his. In both the novel and the movie, HAL 9000 mistreats some astronauts. Remembering that convinced me that the Echo was in cahoots with the Roomba, the microwave oven, and the garage door opener. They might team up against me at any moment. 

I needed to find out if the Echo liked me or considered me an enemy astronaut. I asked if the Echo wanted to have sex with me. It responded immediately, and I quote: “That’s not the sort of conversation I’m capable of having.” At last I was impressed! The machine had successfully duplicated a variation of a phrase I’d heard about four thousand times as a young man. It was truly echoing back my own past. Sad as it may sound to the uninitiated, sexual rejection by an android still stings a little. 

The Echo is marketed as an “assistant,” but thus far I was unsure how to put it to use. It made Jack leave, and I didn’t really need assistance with social isolation. It could play music. But so can my computer, my TV, my Xbox, my phonograph, and the fancy timepiece in my pants pocket. I resorted to the computer to do research on the Echo, which is ironic because the Echo is supposed to be more assistive than a computer. The world is strange when online research is old-fashioned, my timepiece does math, and the Russians elected our president. (At least no songwriter ever won a major literary prize!) 

According to the exuberant advertising, my Echo was in full possession of sixty thousand recipes, which is why it’s worth writing about in a “food essay.” I have a very large collection of community cookbooks—three shelves’ worth, totaling seventy-five inches. My wife has another forty cookbooks, all much taller and thicker than mine. Still, we didn’t have sixty thousand recipes between us. Then again, who the Sam Hill needs that many? 

Using my fancy timepiece, I calculated that if you cook three meals a day, and never skip lunch or eat out, the Echo can accommodate fifty-four years of food preparation. Most people don’t begin cooking for themselves until they are age eighteen, which means the Echo can feed you until you are seventy-one years old. As an American man, my life expectancy is seventy-eight—with a couple of hitches. I grew up in Kentucky and live in Mississippi, states that are both at the bottom of the life-span list. On average I’ll be dead by age seventy-three. This means that all I have to do is eat two years’ worth of meals outside of my home to take the pressure off my Echo until I die. 

At one time, people in Connecticut lived the longest. Their state motto is “Qui transtulit sustinet,” which they are so proud of they put it on their flag. (Maybe having a dead language on your flag helps longevity.) During my twenties, I lived in Massachusetts and worked in Connecticut as a family photographer in malls, spending several days a week in the state. My conclusion? Those extra five years aren’t worth the winters. Ideally, a native of Connecticut would last until age seventy, then take a gamble and move to a state with a better climate—like Kentucky or Mississippi. You might trade off some life, but you wouldn’t spend your declining years fighting snow and ice. By the way, the English translation of Connecticut’s motto means, “He who transplanted sustains.” Frankly, I’m grateful it was in Latin. It sounds more mysterious and much less idiotic. 

One of the Echo’s chief attributes as a kitchen assistant is its facility with voice commands, such as, “How many eggs are in a dozen?” or “What is a tablespoon?” This voice command is essential to its clever advertising. With an Echo handy, you don’t have to turn pages in your cookbook with fingers covered in flour. It never occurred to me that flour might ruin the cookbooks for resale, money I will need in my old age. Maybe I’ll move to Connecticut for an extra year or two. 

I tried one more question with my time-saving, hands-free kitchen device: “What is a recipe?” In fact, I posed the same innocent query three times. Here are the precisely transcribed responses. 

“I’m not sure what went wrong.” 

“I’m not sure what went wrong.” 

“I’m not sure what went wrong.” 

In an astonishing blur of insight, I suddenly comprehended the machine’s very reason for existence. It echoed itself! This thing was some kind of newfangled post-modern meta-artificial-intelligence device! It was more likely to fall in love with a Greek narcissist than to conspire with the Roomba. The movie Blade Runner was patently false! Replicants won’t get mad when they learn they aren’t human. And Westworld androids won’t gain consciousness, either. Don’t get me started on Cylons or noted maid-seducer Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg assassin. (When an actor’s career is based on playing a robot or a barbarian, it’s an indication of limited talent.) 

The only real thing we need to fear from robots is self-driving cars. GM is pouring money into research with the goal of launching a fleet of driverless taxis by the year 2019. The top selling point will be fewer car wrecks. Unfortunately, car wrecks are the chief source of transplantable organs. A reduction of accidents will result in a massive shortage of organ donors. Personally, I have no opinion about self-driving cars because technically I already have one. My wife drives me everywhere, although she’s not very appreciative of my helpful commentary. You missed the turn! Watch out! Please don’t wreck my organs! 

But I digress. Speaking of digression (bear with me), at age fourteen I took a typing class. At the same age I was an actor in a university production of The Veldt, a futuristic stage play by Ray Bradbury. I played a disaffected boy who killed his parents in a virtual-reality room containing robot-like lions. (Pretty much the height of my teenage years!) Speaking of height, that’s how I got the role in the first place. As a freshman in high school, I was four feet, eleven inches tall. Yep, four-eleven. That’s one inch taller than the official cut-off for being a person with dwarfism, a mere six inches taller than the phenomenal actor Peter Dinklage. My future acting career was destroyed by a growth spurt at age sixteen. 

In 1972 my high school offered one class for typing, a course in secretarial skills reserved for junior and senior girls. I was enrolled by special permission of the teacher, Mrs. Slone, whom I adored. Because the other pupils were at least four years older and fully grown, I was less a student and more of a mascot to the entire class. They treated me like a kid brother, never knowing that I was fully in love with each of them. Like silent Echo from the myth, I was unable to voice my emotions, trapped for a semester with mute desire. 

The manual typewriters in our classroom were from the 1950s and 1960s, large industrial machines designed to withstand years of abuse by teenagers. Naturally some typewriters were better than others. The best ones were reserved for cheerleaders, then senior girls in good standing, and on down the painful social hierarchy of high school. At the bottom was me. My typewriter was the worst of the lot, so big I couldn’t see over the top, with keys that stuck. 

The first month of the secretarial skills class, we became “acquainted” with our typewriters, which was the only arena in which I excelled. The ribbon of the machine often needed to have the spools reversed, a messy process that stained your hands with ink. The senior girls didn’t want to risk getting their clothes dirty and I was eager to show off my manliness, believing they’d want to marry me for my typewriter repair skills. The class then spent several weeks learning correct finger placement. Ultimately we moved on to the final stage: timed writings. 

Mrs. Slone used a stopwatch, and we would simultaneously type for two minutes, three minutes, or occasionally five minutes. Afterward we counted our mistakes. Each mistake took away three points of our words per minute. No mistakes gave you a score of 100%. Six mistakes dropped your score to 82%, and so on. After the timed writing ended, Mrs. Slone called on each student, who then sang out her score, which was usually in the high eighties to mid-nineties. She saved me for last. 

“Chris. Your score please?” 

“Minus four words per minute!” I yelled. 

“Congratulations!” Mrs. Slone said. “A new personal best.” 

What, pray tell, does this have to do with food? Well, strictly speaking, the skill of typing is the most important element to a food essay. I don’t write them longhand then hire a transcriptionist! 

(My friend Richard Howorth had a typing teacher who beat him with a ruler. Richard told me that all the letters for the word “typewriter” are in the first row on the keyboard to benefit salesmen. Despite not being able to type, a wily salesman could bang out the word “typewriter” and close the sale. I can’t vouch for that story, although Richard is a pretty good typist as long as there are no rulers nearby. According to the stupid Echo, he’s a politician in New Zealand.) 

Like a typewriter, the Echo is an imperfect machine. It can’t float. It doesn’t know my friends Jack and Richard. Worst of all, it has the highly irritating habit of apologizing. If the Echo can’t answer the question, it begins its response with the word “Sorry.” I find such insincerity appalling. The Echo is trying to hide its own ignorance with a false apology, a bad enough trait in humans, let alone a mechanized assistant. 

What’s next? The self-driving car that apologizes for its algorithm after a wreck. “Sorry, I decided that crashing into a brick wall and costing you a leg was preferable to running over a woman with a baby carriage and killing them both.” Or maybe it will gain private understanding of the car’s owner and reflect that insight with its decisions: “Sorry, we can’t go to Connecticut because of its moronic motto.” 

 


RECIPES FOR FRUSTRATION


Ask the Echo about Jack Pendarvis. 
Ask the Echo to have sex with you.


ECHO RECIPES


How do I boil water? 
     “The ingredients I found are hydrogen and oxygen.” 

How do I fry bacon? 
     “Sorry, I don’t know the answer.” 

What does typing mean? 
     “The term typing means writing with a typewriter.” 

How do I learn to type? 
     “Sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.” 

Are you happy? 
     “I’m happy when I’m helping you.” 

How can I be happy? 
     “Hmm . . . I can’t find the answer.” 

What is happiness? 
     “Pharrell Williams would be great at answering that.” 

(NOTE: That last one is the coolest thing about the Echo!) 


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Chris Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, and lives near Oxford, Mississippi. He is the author of four books of fiction, including Country Dark, and three books of nonfiction. His work has been included in many textbooks and anthologies, such as Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize 2017. Reach him at offuttchris1@gmail.com.