“Any story with robots in it is automatically science fiction,” I remember my writing teacher telling me.
I wonder what he would have called a story in which Russian Twitterbots dismantle the US government, and a quarter million women in pink knit caps storm Washington in protest.
I’m something of an expert in robots, it happens, and during the election in 2016 I was writing the final paragraph of my final column on autonomous vehicles for Robotics and Automation magazine. “Manual control at the local level, within the robotic vehicle, is critical.” I typed. “Passengers must be able to take control, in case of system failure or hostile takeover.”
It was a warning call to the thousands of eager young roboticists, men mostly, whose fingers tapped at keyboards around the world, writing the code that will one day control our intelligent transportation systems. Would they even notice my message? Fight to keep manual override, against the pressures of money and the arrogance of thinking we could design perfect systems?
It was my last column because, in part, I’d woken to how our democracy, which I’d long assumed was on auto-pilot, needed manual effort, too. This was why, after a career as CEO of a robotics company, I was devoting my retirement to running for office.
After I hit ‘send’ on my column, I headed over to campaign HQ—the guest suite over our garage.
“Hey,” Steve greeted me as I climbed the stairs. He was in his early thirties, slender and brilliant, polite in a controlled way that’s ideal in a campaign manager. “I’ve got your door addresses and map all printed for you.”
“Can’t we download them to my phone?”
“They’re there, but this is in case you lose cell.”
Steve was right, of course. Mountains, even small ones like Pack, Temple and Monadnock, make for spotty coverage, broken connections.
I’m sure my colleagues in tech wondered, though few ever asked, why someone like me lives in a remote village in New Hampshire instead of Boston or the Valley. Would they understand if I told them I get a dopamine rush from being outdoors, from walking to the tiny grocery where the owner greets me by name and knows that I only buy fish the first day it’s delivered? Where the wealthiest family in town and families in subsidized housing share the same street? It’s an America where people still interact because of common geography. It’s a community.
But for how long? It’s one of the concerns that had me heading out to my car to spend hours knocking doors.
* * *
Canvassing, especially plugging for yourself, is stressful. Skype, Instagram and texting cannot compare with knocking at the door of someone’s home. You’re trespassing on their territory. They may be in the middle of a phone call, carrying in groceries, watching TV or playing with children. Not infrequently, they open the door expecting a friend, a repairman or a delivery. Instead, there you are, your badge and clipboard signaling that you’re here to talk, to ask questions, to learn about them. Some eagerly share their frustrations. Some stare silently. Still others fume.
Nor can you expect to make sense of the lives you glimpse. A young woman I met the day of my final column was eager to talk. Her low-income housing project was fully visible from the highway. Ancient vehicles listed in the project’s semi-circle of tarmac; narrow blocks of struggling grass tiled the area between buildings.
My list of doors included almost a dozen likely primary voters in this complex. I was pleased; that meant the residents realized that who represents them matters.
The young woman lived in the basement level. She buzzed me in.
As I walked downstairs between bare cement walls, a dog began barking. Fortunately, it was not from my voter’s apartment, but from another of the three hollow-core doors that faced the basement landing. At the bottom of the stairs, on my left, stood a sandy-haired woman in her twenties in the open doorway.
“Come in, come in! I just got your postcard! I’m going to vote for you!”
I could see behind her a studio apartment, perhaps 300 square feet, dimly lit by ground-level windows on the far side. On the dresser beside the open door, indeed, lay a postcard with my photo. My campaign had mailed these out earlier that week. The tiny apartment walls were bare white except for a poster on the far side. The t-shirted resident’s lips were moving, but the dog next door was barking so loudly I could not make out what she was saying.
“He does that all day,” she repeated loudly. “I didn’t realize until I moved here that people just go away and leave their dogs all day long. People really shouldn’t do that to their animals.”
She had actually offered to her neighbors to keep the dog, so he would stop barking, she explained. But it had not worked out and they took the dog back. The dog seemed to hear her concern and quieted for a moment.
Before the barking resumed, I asked my standard canvassing question: “Which issues are top of mind for you this year?”
“Mass transit,” she replied immediately. “I need a way to get to my appointments.”
Transportation was a major issue for many poor people in our rural district, but mass transit? I asked, over the barking, if she used the ride-share program, or any of the church groups that offered drivers.
“It’s hard to find someone who goes at the right time,” she shouted, “so I usually ride my bike, except in winter I have to walk.” I shouted back I couldn’t promise bus service—we weren’t big enough to even have Uber–but I would be happy to help her contact a church where members might drive her.
The young woman seemed reluctant. “Well, right now I just want to get my Christmas presents wrapped.” I must have looked startled. It was July. She quickly explained, “I like to have plenty of time to enjoy the holiday.”
Our conversation appeared to have ended—I, at least, was at a loss for words–so I said good-bye and stepped back up the stairs.
Lives may be unique, but themes, and needs, emerge, when you glimpse into enough of them. One was the urgent need to do something about opioid addiction. We have some of the highest rates in the nation. The fact is difficult to reconcile with the beauty of the pine forests, hills and lakes that surrounded our towns. And the fact that at one time our state was a leader in mental-health treatment.
But then legislators slashed funding for mental health, the university system, schools, roads and just about every other investment in our children’s future. Now, our state college’s tuition and our graduates’ debt ranks highest in the nation. Little research drives less innovation, so the exciting, high-paying jobs grow else- where. Meanwhile, the legislature lets minimum wage default to the federal rate, far too low for the area. It is a recipe guaranteed to drive out young people seeking opportunity, and to lead those who remain to seek escape in drugs.
Near the high school, grey and white vinyl-sided townhomes stood in trim, well-maintained rows along parking lots. Though it was mid-afternoon on a weekday, at the first door on my list, a young couple answered. Sure enough, their top issue was opioid addiction.
“Why?” I asked.
“We have so many friends who are addicted,” the tousle-haired redhead replied. She looked to be in her early twenties, dressed in jeans and t-shirt.
“And the treatment is useless,” added the tall, black man beside her. He was about the same age. “They just keep giving them methadone; they don’t even try to cure them.”
“Well, what should they do?” I asked.
“They have to make them work, get them jobs and get them off drugs altogether,” he replied.
They locked the door and headed for their car; I trod a few yards north to the next stop on my phone. The resident, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman, was just starting down the front steps. I introduced myself, handed her a door hanger and asked her chief concerns.
The attractively made-up brunette looked at me and replied without a pause, “Opioid addiction.”
I was startled to hear this twice within minutes. My eyes widened even more when she explained that she and her husband led a recovery group for addicts, which was due to meet shortly. I nodded.
“I’m a former addict,” she told me. “And my husband is still in recovery.”
She continued on down the walk to her car as I stared. How many others, seemingly ordinary people, were in the same predicament, but you never knew until you met them at their doors?
The next time I encountered someone involved with the opioid problem, she had just arrived home. She cracked the screen door, still dressed for work.
“Oh, I thought you were the UPS man.”
“Sorry. I’m running for State Senate, so I’m visiting voters in the district to introduce myself.”
“I don’t have time to talk,” the all-business, well-coifed blonde replied, starting to close the door.
By now, I’d learned to just keep talking. “I’m asking people whether any issues are bothering them these days.”
“You bet there’re issues!” she cried hotly, swinging the door back wide. “These addicts! I work in ER, and they expect us and the police to take care of these people. We already have full-time jobs! They can’t dump these people on us!”
“What should happen?” I asked, to mollify her.
“I don’t know, but it’s not us!” She ignored the literature I was offering. “I’ve had it!” She closed the door definitively, though with not quite a slam.
“Treatment doesn’t help most drug addicts,” a rehabilitation therapist told me later. It was another sweltering day. We stood at the door of her townhome in the secluded end of a riverside development. Her door was surrounded by flowering bushes and vines. “I’ve worked in drug rehab for decades. The state just keeps them for 28 days, then dumps them onto the street. I’ve seen women walk out the door after a month of detox and shoot up. They meet their dealer on the sidewalk, right in front of the center. Treatment’s a waste of time unless you couple it with some kind of 12- step program after they finish.”
The opioid crisis showed in nearly every life, sometimes in oblique ways.
One address seemed to be under construction. It was an old white farmhouse, but some of the sills supported brand-new windows, their labels still on. The rooms along the front of the rambling building looked empty, but cars were parked around back. I turned down the drive to investigate and spied a small outbuilding.
A woman answered my knock quickly. She stepped outside to talk, pulling the screen door firmly closed behind her. She welcomed me, but seemed to want to steer me away from the makeshift structure. Beyond the screen I glimpsed an enormous expanse of pale skin, a shirtless man big as a Sumo wrestler. His head gleamed as bare as his enormous naked belly, which he held in place with a wide, leather belt. To the woman’s consternation, he began opening the screen door. I saw his looming body press forward and his hand reach out toward me. Then I realized that he just wanted me to take a CD he was holding.
“Listen and learn,” he intoned, as I accepted the hard plastic case. He turned back toward his seat inside the small room.
I looked at the CD in my hand. On it was scrawled in indelible marker, “What If Cannabis Cures Cancer?”
“We met on the Internet,” the thin, middle-aged brunette was relating as she led me back down the drive. “I moved here from down South and it was love at first sight: in love with him and in love with New Hampshire!”
My eyes took in her sincere, not unattractive face. She explained to me how they wanted to live free from government, but the government was turning the farmhouse into a drug rehabilitation center. They would soon have to move.
Then came the sunny afternoon in the most remote of the 14 towns in our 75-mile-wide snake of a gerrymandered district. My phone was not connecting to cell, but GPS still tracked me as I moved along the country road to the farmhouse listed on my print-out. Cramped from driving, I parked at the beginning of the long stone drive. That way I could stretch my legs a little.
So far that day, few people had been home, so I was pleased to see two women in stretch pants beyond the end of the drive. They were talking in a garden of tall gardenias and roses beside a walk-way that led to the side door.
I strode their way, smiling, in my campaign clothes, clipboard in arm. The rose’s scent perfumed my path. The sandy-haired woman nearer to the house glanced up and noticed me.
She shook her head and spoke, “It’s not a good time.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I replied, hoping to get a few words in, even though she was busy in conversation with her friend. “I’m running for State Senate and just wanted…”
“My son died this morning.”
I stopped mid-stride. “What happened?”
“He killed himself.” She said it as if she needed to tell it, to spill her anguish across the ground, down the driveway.
I felt her sorrow hit my chest. I was backing up. “I’m so sorry. So sorry…” I didn’t dare ask further, but I wondered, as I got back in my car, whether the tragedy she was facing might have been connected to the opioid crisis, too. Studies have linked opioid addiction to the rising suicide rates plaguing the young and middle-aged.
Mahatma Gandhi’s adage, “Your values become your destiny,” was very much on my mind as I drove away. What actions have led to the terrible problems plaguing this state and this nation?
I came to a single story cottage where an elderly, retired school teacher let me in. I admired the house’s straight walls, carefully painted surfaces, sturdy cabinets, level ceiling and perfectly hung, striped wallpaper.
“I did this myself when I was younger,” she said, proudly. “I hired contractors to pour the foundation and frame, then once they finished, I built the rest, from the roof down.” I pictured her as she must have been, a young woman, strong and determined.
The hardest part had been raising the money. She loved her job as a public school teacher. But, of course, she did not earn enough to pay all the costs outright, even doing most of the work herself. She applied for loans at several banks. As was common in the mid- 20th Century, her application was turned down because she was a woman. Finally, her father loaned her enough so that she could build the shell. She paid for and finished the interior as her earnings allowed.
“But soon I’ll have to move,” she sighed. The state legislature had raided the New Hampshire teacher’s pension fund back in 2010, claiming the recession required it. Meanwhile, almost every year then and since, they cut state business taxes and downshifted more costs to municipalities. As a result, the town raised her property taxes.
This is how it goes. Aging and ill, on a fixed income, she was, at the end of life as in her prime, enduring the consequences a funding formula for schools in New Hampshire that puts 80% of the costs onto local communities rather than sharing them across the state. This means that wealthy seacoast, residents pay lower total property taxes on their million-dollar mansions than she pays for her 3-room cottage. Are these our values? The rich get more, while putting in less, and the poor get less, while putting in more?
There are robots in this story, but it is not science fiction.
On November 8, 2016, voters handed over control of the vehicle of State. They didn’t like where we were headed, so they just threw up their hands and let a bot-chorus that amplified their complaints take the wheel.
Unfortunately, this is not a good program for America.
There’s a National Public Radio website that hosts a faked video of Barack Obama. In it, he appears to claim he was mistaken when he stated, “There are no red states and no blue states, only the United States.” He says, in the video, that his most important role right now is to play golf. An inset simultaneously reveals the actor whose face and voice are manipulating the visage and speech of our former President. It’s a software app.
When trust is at its lowest, in case of system failure or hostile takeover, manual control at the local level is critical. Passengers must be able to re-take control of the vehicle.
This election, we’re building our canvassing team early. We’ll be knocking on a dozen thousand doors, speaking face-to-face to tens of thousands of voters. I can envision us and those like us, simultaneously knocking, all across the nation. Women, mostly, of all races. Our necks crane forward, eyes intent on the eyes we meet, building the connections that will network the American people, town by town, state by state, to steer our country’s future.