Uncanny and mysterious, mushrooms abound in woods and meadows worldwide. Clinging to tree trunks, peeking from leaf-litter, nestled in the grass, mushrooms astonish and delight us with their outlandish shapes, bizarre tactile qualities, and weird aromas. They pop up suddenly, profuse wildly, and confound our taxonomies. Discovering weird new varieties, like one I found in the Oregon woods with a ruffled base and conical fruiting body that oozed pineapple-scented goo when squished, thrills me. The hobbits’ thievery in Fellowship of the Ring always struck a chord: Good mushrooms are worth the risk. Wandering London’s Chinatown as a child, I was endlessly fascinated by the jars of dried fungi that crowded the window displays of apothecaries and grocery stores. I love mushrooms. Celebrated as they are, ritually, artistically, and culinarily, mushrooms are also feared and reviled: Darwin’s daughter Etty famously hunted and destroyed stinkhorns, lest their phalliform appearance corrupt the morals of those who saw them. Ayurveda proscribes the consumption of mushrooms because they grow in the dark and feed on decaying matter. And some people simply can’t abide their earthy flavors and spongily meaty textures. I, for one, can’t get enough. A walk in Bainbridge Island’s Grand Forest after an autumn rain several months ago yielded no chanterelles, but many pictures, plentiful inspiration, and a piquant reminder of the wonders of the natural world.
A cortado at the Anchored Ship on a grey cloudy afternoon: bliss. Warmth and rich coffee smell, brick walls and a staircase and a little kitchen like a galley, in shades of cranberry and turquoise. I am fortunate to get a spot in the cozy upstairs, and my neighbors at their laptops don’t mind Ayla, who sleeps placidly between table and couch.
Unfurling of leaves long dormant
Ensconced in timid tightness
Overflowing of essence once hoarded
To spark and spill opulent lightness.
So fortunate so stirred so rich am I
To meet with lavishness unseen
Unlooked-for in the everyday demesne
But hinted at, in soul’s unceasing brightness.
My roommate and I were having a lighthearted chat about novel technologies and their effects on human evolution, the potential for autonomous AIs, and the disembodiment of sociality brought about by social media. She was decrying the coldness and inhumanity that she perceives as an outgrowth of these phenomena, and brought up the introduction, in Japan, of robot caregivers for the elderly.* Japan is, of course, a natural place for humanoid robots to replace human workers: It has a demographically skewed society in which the old outnumber the young, as well as what is probably the robot-friendliest culture on earth.
I argued that robot workers are a logical solution to the problem of labor shortages in a society facing demographic collapse; she countered that immigration was a better one. Japan’s notorious aversion to immigrants aside, what’s more inhumane – using robot labor, or immigrant labor? People who leave their families, communities, and homelands to care for other people’s relatives generally do so out of economic desperation. As someone who has worked as a caregiver for the elderly, I can say with assurance that it is an extremely difficult job in which the challenges outnumber the rewards. Even for those who are deeply invested in the wellbeing of the elders in question (their own children, for example) the challenges associated with caring for people who are physically and mentally compromised – and who will only continue to decline – are massive. Bathing incontinent old people, dealing with the rage, confusion, and inability to perform basic tasks that accompany dementia, is a job for family members with lots of time on their hands or for people who are desperate for money. I recognize that there are many caregivers who are passionate about what they do, who genuinely love the elderly and don’t mind the unpleasant aspects of the job. But they’re in the minority, and they’re never paid enough.
The very structure that necessitates hiring caregivers for the elderly – as opposed to having relatives care for them at home – strikes me as anti-humanistic. We practice medical heroics and don’t let people die, their relatives are too busy/disinterested to care for them, elders are accorded low social value and perceived as burdensome. If we’re really talking about what’s best for the elderly, the roots of the issue need to be examined: Is it intrinsically less compassionate to have robots that care for them than to warehouse them in nursing homes, to relegate them to social irrelevance, to keep them alive long after their bodies and minds are robustly functional?
And what of the workers? Well-educated young people don’t want to wipe folks’ bums for a living. In order to have enough labor to perform service jobs (eldercare, childcare, customer service) you either need a substantial indigenous underclass willing to work for low wages, or immigrants who are desperate enough to leave their communities and families in an attempt to achieve financial security.
This line of inquiry bring us around to another fundamental question – is it morally sound for humans to do labor that would be better suited to robots (the question of robot rights is a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’m not going to get into in this post)? The argument can be made that there is dignity and value in caring for elders. But other types of dirty, dangerous, or disgusting jobs – cleaning toilets, for instance, or plucking chickens – have few redemptive qualities to make up for their dehumanizing nature. With our ever-growing technological capabilities, shouldn’t there be an ethical imperative to free humans from such drudgery?
“Yes,” you might say, “but people need jobs!” The only reason human workers still dominate in service jobs is that they are, for now, cheaper than robots: Automation has already taken the place of human labor in many industries. Plus, many of the jobs that are available don’t actually enable workers to support themselves.
Of course, there are no easy answers to these questions. But here’s a few thoughts: The elderly deserve better than to be shoved to the margins of society, regardless of who’s taking care of them. Given the poor working conditions and low wages associated with professional caregiving, using robot caregivers is not inherently less humane than using human workers. The type of society I’d like to see – in which humans are freed from drudgery and want and are instead given the opportunity to satisfy their material needs by doing meaningful, dignified work – is almost certainly quixotic pie-in-the-sky. Finally: As someone who cleans houses for a living, I would be delighted to be made obsolete by a robot.
*While their use is not yet widespread, it’s trending that way.
This blaze that issues from the embers
Of a spirit made restive through wonder
Stirred by delights and sorrows remembered
By light-smitten leaves, roiling seas, thunder
That stirs itself to kindle kindred flame
To burn, illuminating fierce and bold:
A force that quickens life and death as one,
They would stifle through shame
Cover with ashes, make quiet and cold
Snuff out the light of its burgeoning sun.
Cunning and persuasive in deception
In their fell sway little flames oft perish
Their violence disguised as meet correction
Falsehood creeps in attached to what’s cherished.
At us, they cast imperious gaze
Declaring that our glow is fading fast
As a flower’s petals, once lush and taut
After a few hot days
Shall wilt, their time of glory swiftly passed
The lingering fragrance that they hold for naught.
Entrapping are humility and awe
When facing enemies so shrewd and cruel
Obeisance to their insidious laws
The course it is of cowards and of fools.
Though slander issues from their vacuous maws
Defiant, I will choose to brook it not
When mock is made of tender nascent fires
I’ll clamp shut their vile jaws
To be held in their thrall is not my lot:
My triumphant spark shall ignite their pyre.
A time of instability, of change, of liminality. A state of limbo. A temporary space. A KITCHEN WITHOUT A COFFEE GRINDER.
This was where I found myself a couple of months ago, when, fed up with bleak, plodding, coffee-less mornings, I resorted to a technique that I sometimes use to grind spices in a pinch. (Pre-ground spices, like pre-ground coffee, are never a good option. Unless you’re camping, in which case Nescafe paired with fakey-flavored instant oatmeal represents an acme of sensory delight.)
I took a glass jar, a wooden cutting board, and some coffee beans. I pounded, crushed, and rolled. After several minutes of effort, I had broken the beans into smaller pieces. Success! A novelty mug in the form of a misshapen breast, its handle a contorted nude woman, its nipple featuring a felicitous hole, served as an ersatz Melitta.
The resulting brew was weak and unsatisfying, but still recognizable as coffee and thus, better than nothing (my grind was too coarse for the pour-over method. It probably would have made a decent French press).
Ah, the many-faceted pleasures of existence, among which community, vigorous movement, eating, and sunshine are high on the list. Essential to the human animal, extinguishing neither existential angst nor impulses toward violence and vileness, but tempering them, perhaps.
I’m lucky to live in a temperate climate where chaos is kept at bay by a functional (albeit clunky and inequitable) economy. I get to go to farmer’s markets where good food abounds in glorious profusion (donuts! Local smoked salmon! Squishy handmade raspberry marshmallows!) I am blessed with a sound and strong body which enables me to stride purposefully and caper joyfully.
I am troubled that not everyone has it so good. None the less, I am profoundly thankful.