Monday, October 31, 2011

A Sense of Place

For the past three years, if I were to wake up in darkness, I had to rouse myself by five in the morning. Even then, gleams of a paler shade of black shone at the edge of my eastern view and then lavish streaks of gold and pink--and then the sun, already in full blaze by six. If I slept much past eight, I awoke in a little pool of sweat.

Where I live now, the dark sky doesn't brighten until after seven, turns an opalescent grey and then a bright eggshell with a barely visible, tentative back-layer of faded pale blue. The spruce trees that edge the freeway are black cut-outs beyond the squares of dark brick and the headlights that never stop moving. Slowly the seagulls move in to see what the garbage trucks might have dropped the night before.

Even though daylight savings means that dawn and twilight will both come an hour earlier in a few days, this ridiculous manipulation of time matters very little in the Northwest. Soon we'll all get up in darkness and face nightfall before five in the afternoon and then after Christmas watch our daylight increase by a few minutes every day. Until that light begins to count, happy hour is a city-wide ritual in Seattle.

For people who live in one geographic area all of their lives, the end of the day holds no sense of wonder. In Bangkok, nighttime is when the air cools, the food carts hit the streets, meals take on a leisurely pace at the end of a workday; every sunset begins a new little festival. In Alaska, being out at night for much of the year could well mean death; home was an essential retreat where heat and light were weapons against what lay in wait outside. In Seattle, the difference between the gloom of day and night is often miniscule; winter is flatline time when heavy drinkers perfect their skills and the rest of the city stays home. For each of these parts of the world, this is the way it's always been; this is the way to live.

In Bangkok, I sometimes wish for a storm to sweep in and turn the air into the fresh crispness of an autumn apple. In Seattle, I want the night sky torn into rapid flashes of light, dancing like snakes and x-ray beams and blankets of fire. In Alaska, the darkness sends me as quickly as possible to the nearest airport.

Eight am in Seattle and the light is ashen; on the other side of the planet, Bangkok at ten pm is still eating. My day begins at a time when only three months ago it was winding down. Schizoid with the weird gift of having lived in more than one place, I yearn for both, now, for the ability to toggle between one and the other like windows on a computer screen.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dazed and Confused to the Max

I usually write to try to make sense of things. When I'm feeling confused I begin to put down what puzzles me into words and flounder my way through what I think and feel to find a small point of clarity. As that last sentence clearly illustrates, clarity eludes me now.

In the three years I was away from the U.S. my country lost stature in the eyes of the rest of the world in almost every way you care to name. And nobody--not our President, not our elected representatives, not the majority of our citizens--seems to acknowledge this, or even care. The country that owns most our debt, the People's Republic of China, is excoriated for not reducing the value of the yuan by a country whose own currency would be valueless were the Chinese not holding our paper.

I'm in a US city that has been less hard hit by what nobody will call a depression than most of its counterparts. In true Pacific Northwest fashion, income isn't a topic of discussion and results from the 2010 census aren't yet available online.However, some things are obvious to a newly returned former expat.

There are a lot of very poor people on Seattle's streets. There are a lot of people who are just getting by, at least in my Chinatown neighborhood. Although I myself make about as much as I did when I left to live in Thailand at the end of 2008, it's no longer enough in 2011 Seattle. And I'm not at what my country considers poverty level ($11, 344 per year for a single person). However, by the time I pay my rent, phone, internet and electrical bills, there's very little left over to cover more than food. My big monthly splurge has become a copy of Vanity Fair and I use the library almost daily, with deep gratitude.

Every week I pick up Seattle's two free weekly papers and look at what's available for fun in this metropolis. Movie theaters abound here, but at 10-11 dollars a ticket. I haven't gone to one yet. Music at a club? 10-18 dollars to get in. A reading at Town Hall costs 13 dollars, the cheapest theater tickets are 12 dollars. It didn't take long for me to understand that to have a social life, I would need a credit card--and we're not even beginning to discuss buying clothes, shoes, an occasional 9 dollar sandwich at a downmarket delicatessen, or a cocktail from one of the newly-fashionable artisan bartenders.

I would make a bet that many of the people who do have a social life in Seattle are heavily in debt--and that's nothing new. I certainly was in the '90s when I tried to juggle rent and food and going out on a bookseller's salary. But we're in an economic downturn now, right? Shouldn't prices reflect that somehow? I foolishly thought so, before I returned to the US.

What is wrong with the picture I see here? People are walking away from houses they can no longer afford, 8.7% of the population in the Seattle-Tacoma area is unemployed, 12% of the population of Washington state is said to be using food stamps: and a friend who is lucky enough to qualify for low-income dental work has to put his share of the bill on a credit card to afford emergency tooth repair.

It's been estimated that to buy a 1980 US dollar would take $2.75 cents in today's currency. To those who fume about China's currency, I'd say they have a severe problem of their own at home. Why isn't it being addressed in a meaningful way? Why hasn't the IMF stepped in? They certainly are quick with solutions for other countries, many of which are painful and stringent.

I'd say off hand that we can't afford the wars we're fighting, that our defense budget is killing us, and that equal taxation for all income levels needs to happen now. But I'm no expert--just a returned US citizen who becomes more and more confused every day.