Where there’s smoke…

This morning I finally had the opportunity to remind my neighbor not to smoke when he sits outside his front door because it goes straight up to my living room. He knows the rules well enough; he was just trying to get away with it a bit longer. (I’d been in Portland for several weeks, and he made the most of it.) I had to come within a few feet of him to relay the message and he became agitated. “We’re supposed to maintain distance!” he said. I said, “Of course you’re right,” adding under my breath, “I’m not that worried though.”

As I walked up the path to my patio, I wondered why I wasn’t worried. I should be! His cigarette smoke (and that of residents much further away) was his breath for heaven’s sake. All those germs! I live in a place full of vulnerable seniors with no means of escape. Alcohol-tinged smoke seeps through the walls and my apartment reeks when the residents, totally against the rules, take refuge from the pouring rains of Reedsport to puff away inside their homes. While I hate the smell, I can see how the stress of this pandemic has led even people who’ve been off cigarettes for years to start again, let alone the at-risk population with whom I share air.

That’s when it hit me. I’d forgotten my science in the fog of fear surrounding us all: the air we have is the only air there is. There’s no giant source of fresh air outside our world we can pump in. We’re breathing the same stuff as Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Hitler for that matter — only ours is much dirtier. We’ve been systematically, carelessly, selfishly destroying it in the name of “progress” for centuries. We’ve conveniently forgotten that this air is all we’ve got.

It’s not just stinky cigarette smoke that alerts us to what’s in the air. When I was looking for house-share accommodation, I noted some potential roomies allowed “no essential oils.” Whaaaa??! I laughed at that then, but now I can see their point. It’s as pervasive as the smell of cinnamon buns. Or farts, for that matter. A silent, violent one can be detected in church, let alone an elevator!

COVID-19 doesn’t smell like freshly baked pizza, unfortunately, nor do some of the world’s most dangerous gases, pollutions, and infections: carbon monoxide, air pollution like that in Salt Lake City, Ebola, AIDS/HIV. And while there’s no way to smell the danger, we know it’s here because people have died from it. Like the canaries of old used in the coal mines, the victims of COVID-19 have made the ultimate sacrifice for our insatiable consumerism.

Their deaths need not have been in vain. Already the positive effects of early containment policies are clearing the airways and circulatory systems of our ailing, suffocating planet. Yes, millions are out of work and economies have ground to a halt, but now we have a chance to do things differently. Humans are nothing if not creative and resourceful — especially when it comes to their survival — once fear has been dispelled.

Economic survival is not the same as physical survival: that myth must die so we can live. Investments do not, hate to tell ya, “grow.” People do. We’ve treated money as if it were alive for so long, we’ve forgotten that it isn’t. It’s a tool and nothing more.

Our real wealth lies within, with the knowledge that we’re all on this earth-ship together and linked inextricably by the air we breathe. I get that people want to do something about the virus, but “social distancing” (there’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one) is not the answer. We’ve been breathing the same air — stewing in our own unhealthy juices, one might say — for years. We’ve gotten so used to it, we don’t notice. Fact is though, folks, our shit does stink. No one of us is stink-less. We might not get the coronavirus, but we are nonetheless infected with false beliefs, one of them being that money can save us.

COVID-19 gives us the perfect opportunity to clean up our act. Since we’ve all either been exposed or will be soon enough, let’s stop avoiding each other and instead pool our resources and talents. There is no need to fear; it’s already here. And look at you! You’re reading this article. You’re surviving quite well, if you care to notice. You’ve got this.

We need clean air, folks. This isn’t a Chinese problem, or a Spanish problem, or even a medical problem. It’s our thinking that’s the problem: thinking that what we do individually is not affecting anyone else; thinking that economics will save us when it’s the very thing that caused the infections in the first place.

Do we really need governments to force us to take measures to protect ourselves? How much better to choose to consume less, to curtail our driving, to forgo the holiday that requires air travel. We can act like adults and stop behaving like spoiled children, with no thought for anyone but ourselves.

I’m so grateful for that smoking neighbor of mine, for he triggered the factoid from my fifth-grade science class: this is the only air we’ve got. We can’t run from it; we can’t hide. Not for long, anyway. It’s all around us, rich and poor alike. And instead of succumbing to the air of fear surrounding us, we can rejoice that we have another chance to save our world. We can let our innate compassion spill out to help our neighbors instead of shun them. With fear out of the way, our creativity and ingenuity will shine and new ways to move forward into a kinder, more inclusive world will emerge.

We can come out of this smelling like roses. It’s up to us.

But Seriously, Folks

Just how serious has our fun become?

This article was published by 99E‘s Sep/Oct 2019 issue. The 99E is a Milwaukie Oregon-based arts and culture magazine not available online.

Walking on Bandon’s beach a few weeks ago, I noticed an octogenarian collecting rocks. They concentrated on the task with a vengeance, never looking up or to either side, and only pausing to drop their tiny treasures into one of several pockets located on their super-nifty, no-doubt-expensive, canvas vest. Not only did it sport eight pockets of different sizes and various toggles, clasps, and zippers, but it boasted a tool belt specially made for those must-have rockhound aids.

I couldn’t suss the beachcomber’s organizing system. One stone went here; a shell went there. Nimble fingers quickly unzipped or unbuttoned or unhooked, and as quickly re-closed, all without the vest-wearer even looking.

As I compared my woeful ensemble—faded jeans with rolled-up cuffs; twenty-year-old sandals; threadbare, oversized hoodie—to theirs, I felt envious. Wow. This person is a SERIOUS rockhound. Look at that gear! Then I stopped mid-squish. Is that not an oxymoron, ‘serious rockhound’? Isn’t rock collecting a hobby? Just how serious has our fun become?

We’re bombarded with ads: designer gear for the SERIOUS runner… for the SERIOUS hiker… SERIOUS cook… or even invalid (the SERIOUSLY ill). NaNoWriMo, the home of National Novel Writing Month and now marketing all year long, encourages would-be writers to buy mugs, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia to show how SERIOUS they are about writing. If you need a T-shirt as motivation, I would seriously question your desire to write at all.

Buying accoutrements for our interests and thus prove to ourselves we’re committed is one thing; but are we also hoping others will believe we’re serious? We might not even have to do anything if the neighbors can see our impressive collection of, say, cycles for every terrain, complete with matching helmets. These items require SERIOUS storage spaces. And a way to bring them with us on the vacays we might take—if we ever get time off, of course. Unfortunately, we must work seriously long hours to purchase, house, display, and insure these toys. No one can see how serious we are about boating, for example, if that boat lives in a storage shed fifty miles away.

It’s not just sports equipment, either. I’ve noticed cooking’s gotten way too SERIOUS. Time was you could buy a decent can opener or a set of measuring cups for a couple of bucks, but those days are gone. Weekend gourmets, who think they’ll create such masterpieces as pomegranate-rhubarb-cilantro chicken on a bed of lightly sautéed ants, have caused prices to skyrocket for the items we ordinary, actual-food-making folks use daily. Color-coordination, I assure you, has absolutely ZERO to do with yumminess. My granny baked for a living; how on earth did she manage with only those basic, non-ergonomic aluminum utensils? Horrors!

It’s scariest for parents, though. If you have children, you’ve experienced the crushing economics of “must-have” lessons, from music to clown school. Parents feel obligated to provide any number of pricy pursuits, with no idea whether their child will even like them. Lessons must be paid for, but so too the shoes; the costumes; the music books; the gas to get there—never mind the untold cost to the environment and dangerous health effects the stress of juggling work schedules, organizing carpools, and breathing exhaust fumes cause.

Who, then, promotes the questionable notion that those who plunge into debt to provide their offspring with a plethora of pursuits are better parents? The promoters are not on the front line of parenting, but marketing. It is not your child’s, but their own financial wellbeing that is uppermost, exploiting every parent’s fear of not providing the best possible childhood experience.

Your child might rather stay home with you. Take that opportunity. If you watch without judgment, you’ll witness firsthand what delights your child. Focus on that. (Be warned: they rarely choose activities you like, or lessons you wish you’d had. Children are individuals, not mini-versions of us.) You might not have to shell out for private lessons, either. Community centers are great places to get excellent classes for reasonable cost. Bartering is another viable option: what can you do that the ballet teacher can’t? (Maybe those color-coordinated kitchen doodads will come in handy after all!)

Marketers have succeeded in convincing us we’ll run like Usain Bolt or play tennis like Serena Williams if we buy a certain brand of shoes, or a NASA-designed racket. A racket’s involved, all right, but a different game altogether. Companies spend millions on brain research to learn how to target their ads to neuron-level, and 1-click systems have us ordering before our higher brain’s reasoning kicks in.

Spending hard-earned cash (or worse, using a credit card so you’re still paying when your child turns 40) is not an indication of how serious you are. Question “put your money where your mouth is.” Actions speak louder than words or money.

Fun needn’t be so damn serious. If you want to run, don old sneakers and jog a few blocks. Do you like it? If you yearn to write, grab a pencil and paper. I assure you, no mug or t-shirt in the world writes novels; people write novels. (Good ones, anyway.) Want to play guitar? Borrow one and see how it feels. We’ve been trained to believe spending serious cash will force us into worthwhile activities; actually, it shows an underlying resistance to them. We always find a way to accomplish our highest priorities: no force required.

Take my beloved beachcombing. In Bandon, I wore no fancy vest. My bare hands scooped up treasures, rinsed them in the sea, and placed them in the pockets of my rolled-up jeans. My ancient Birks didn’t survive the watery adventure, but so what? I’ll go barefoot next time. The point is, I had fun. Seriously.