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.

“Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto”

One of my fave Twilight Zone episodes is “The Lateness of the Hour.” An inventor and his wife are waited on hand and foot by robots who do everything for them, no backtalk. Their daughter, however, wants to get out and “do something with her life!” Alas, she must stay inside lest she betray the family secret. If the townspeople see the robots, everyone will want one. Then Daughter finds out her own robotic roots. Guess who was reprogrammed to fit in?

Humans are so messy, aren’t they? All those emotions…often late to important things like work…prone to illness (especially if they’re stuck in jobs they hate). Annoyingly (if you’re trying for mill/billionaire status), these humans want to be PAID for their mostly boring, sometimes dangerous work. They also insist employers put money aside so when they become too old or ill to work, they will STILL get paid. Imagine that! Not only do they want money for nothing (and their chicks for free) so they can buy life’s necessities, they want to accomplish items on their bucket list. Leisure pursuits, indeed. Ridiculous.

Moguls know employees comprise their biggest expense. Thus, they use all methods at their disposal to reduce the costs associated with the very persons whose efforts result in the mogul’s own wealth. Surely using robots would increase profits. Am I the only one worried about this?

Robot and AI technologies are developing at an alarming rate—alarming if you’re an average Josephine, anyway. Yet we’re aiding and abetting the perpetrators’ plans. We allow constant surveillance even Orwell couldn’t imagine. “Oh, it’s just marketing,” people say, but it’s not. AI developers need data on how we think and act so their robots will be truly lifelike. (Check out the Institute of Art and Ideas “The Case Against Reality.” IAI)

Think your job is safe from robotics? We’re not talking “Danger, danger, Will Robinson” models that fall somewhere between a vacuum cleaner and the Tin Man. Robots have come a long way, baby. Read Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and see how far.

We’re told robots will mean more free time for us. Instead of driving ourselves, for instance, we can hop into a self-driving car. Think of all you can accomplish there!(?) But what if you’re a taxi or bus driver? And O, how handy it will be when you’re sick, to pop into a health clinic manned by robots—unless you’re a health care worker. True: as robots become commonplace, our free time will increase. But folks, we’ll have no money.

Case in point: When I was declared disabled, I was forced into taking Social Security. What a financial shock. But when you leave the game early, you leave with less money: the dreaded words “fixed income” describe it. Even those with a decent pension are discovering they don’t have enough for basics, let alone indulging their creative side. My “retired” friends all work, or are looking for work.

Meanwhile, government finds more ways to slash money from program budgets for housing, food, healthcare, and clean air and water. I can’t imagine it ever deciding to give people MORE money for nothing, let alone private corporations. Yet AI enthusiasts swear we’ll be free to pursue wants because needs will be met by robots: this idea wars with reality.

One reality is, we hasten the robots’ arrival every time we complain about not receiving PERFECT, SMILING, SPEEDY service from human customer service personnel. Only robots needn’t pretend they’re not bothered or offended. Only robots can be programmed to smile 24/7. And a boss never has to say to a robot, “Don’t bring your personal life to work.”

Employers may desire automatons, but we as consumers needn’t aid and abet them by requiring perfection of their staff—and what the hell is ‘perfect’ anyway? One person’s ‘perfect’ is another’s ‘disaster.’ It’s all a matter of perspective.

None of us wants to be judged harshly and irrevocably for all-too-human behavior displayed in a particular moment. Do you operate better when someone stands over you, judging every keystroke or burger flip? Do you do your best when someone’s yelling at you? (If so, you’re in a minority.) I’m reminded of Keeping up Appearances’ Elizabeth, who so dreaded the summons to coffee with her judgmental neighbor Hyacinth, she invariably spilled or broke something.

To keep the robots at bay, we can stop expecting perfection—theirs or ours. Try this simple experiment: For one week, greet each person with a smile whose job it is to serve you, no matter whether your dog died that morning or you just received a speeding ticket. Notice how the employee reflects your expression, effortlessly. People cannot resist a heartfelt smile meant just for them.

Then, find something in every transaction to be grateful for and acknowledge it out loud. “Thank you for leaving room for milk.” “I love that there’s always a place to park my bike.” “Did you know you’re the only store whose restrooms are always clean? Thank you.”

I enjoy visiting places like Freddie’s (Fred Meyers, if you’re in Oregon) and noticing how, for example, the dairy manager, whose aisle sees more traffic than O’Hare, arranges her stock for easy reading: labels out and pulled right up to the rim. I’ll say, “How inviting your section looks!” Or I say to the guy cleaning up yet another spill on Aisle 7, “I appreciate how you always clean up messes right away.” He beams. Think how you feel when someone gives you an honest, unprompted compliment—especially when you were “just doing your job.”

If you go to a manager give kudos, not criticism. Employees get enough criticism, don’t worry. Only a robot could smile while cleaning shit from a restroom floor or making its hundredth soy latte of the day. Before you Yelp or criticize, exercise a bit of compassion.

Domo arigato, but you can keep your Roboto. I prefer flawed humans.

This article will appear in the January issue of 99E, a new Portland publication