Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On the road, in Canada

I finished my immensely satisfying week at Clarion West on Friday. The class gave me some absolutely brilliant socks, one pair of which I happen to be wearing at this moment. (They are perfect for the gloomy, raining day it is, with a bright geometric pattern of lemon yellow, lime green, and forest green.) Oh, and the reading last Tuesday (good grief, it's already been a week!) was fun--several audience members asked me interesting--in one case fascinating-- questions.

I'm in Edmonton for most of this week-- Edmonton, Alberta. We took two days for the 800 mile drive, to give us the sense of being on vacation. The first day, we crossed the Cascades, in British Columbia. Then Sunday, we crossed the Rockies. I love the Cascades. But the sheer variety of size, shape, color, and texture of the Rockies riveted my attention for the entire time it took to cross them. It surprised me to find that the Rockies had much less snow left on them than the Cascades in Washington. (The snow there this year was 300% of normal, and some ski resorts were still open the first week of July. Needless to say, the snow level has been so low for most of the summer so far that the possibilities for hiking in the mountains have been constrained.) And I was bemused to note that the terrain between the Cascades and the Rockies reminded me strongly of the Palouse area of Eastern Washington. (A less interesting, though a wetter and greener Palouse, I'd call it.) Throughout, I saw pines that were dying and dead--sometimes huge stands of them. This is caused, I gather, by a very nasty beetle that has invaded the forests here.

Two things struck me, on arriving in Edmonton. First, I was covered with mosquito bites. I have so many, in so many places, that I can't even offer a rough count. They got into the car, I suppose, when we stopped at rest areas along the way to use the outhouses. (Once we got into the foothills of the Rockies, in British Columbia, it was all outhouses for the rest of the way. The beauty of the land fully made up for the inconvenience, and I did have plenty of skin sanitizers and a few wet towels and some water on hand.) In Alberta, though, outhouses were apparently too luxurious altogether, even once we had hit the plains.) Second, before reaching the downtown area, where our hotel is, we pulled into a loading zone in front of a club and heard, pouring through the walls and the cracks in the front door, some guy doing a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." And if there's a third, it's that we're so far north that it's still dusk at ten.

Now that I've been here a couple of days, other things strike me, of course. As in most cities in North America, people stand outside their workplaces, on the sidewalks, to smoke. But there are signs everywhere warning that the fine for leaving a cigarette butt on the sidewalk is $250 (although this may be changing as I type, the Canadian dollar is worth about $1.05 American, which means the fine isn't trivial), and there are long tubular ashtrays provided at intervals. As a result, the sidewalks are a lot less grungy, though there's still the occasional butt littering the sidewalk. Another thing: there's good coffee available here, and lots of coffee shops in the downtown area. Maybe most interesting are the birds. Not the seagulls (though I was initially
surprised, only to recollect that Salt Lake City had seagulls the year I lived there), but some reasonably large perching birds that do a lot of hopping along the ground and have shiny black (or very, very dark blue) heads and throats, white breasts, and dark blue wings and very long dark blue tail feathers that drag on the ground. Also, their legs and feet appear to be dark blue. (And speaking of birds, we encountered some highly sophisticated ravens at one of those out house rest stops in the Rockies, who have no scruples stopping them from venturing inside parked cars in search of goodies when the cars' occupants have been foolish enough to stand outside the car to stretch their legs with the car doors open.)

Internet connections are, again, sketchy-- the story of this summer's traveling life. I don't know why anyone would trust cloud technology. Imagine if I had it, the e-books I supposedly "own" copies of would have repeatedly been out of my reach. Poor internet access seems to be the trend, don't you think? In most cases, inquiries have elicited the information that bandwidth has been curtailed by the providers (where previously that had never been a problem), as a ruse for raising the amount ISP subscribers pay for service. I suspect we'll be seeing more and more of this, now that any form of regulation of such things is going the way of the dodo.

In the meantime, I'm acutely aware that we could be caught by the crashing of the dollar, thanks to the Republicans' willingness to allow the Tea Party tiny minority no-nothings to set the agenda for the entire country (and some would say, planet). We'd intended to make a leisurely return to Seattle after Tom's conference here ends, but we may need to change our plans.

Wouldn't it be lovely if the news media-- not to mention the leaders of Congress (besides Nancy Pelosi, of course, who seems to have mostly been cut out of the"negotiations" loop, perhaps because she is the only one who shows evidence of having a mind that hasn't gone to live in Never Never Land-- and the White House Staff-- were to read Elizabeth Drew's New York Review of Books piece on the insanity of Congress making an issue of the spending they themselves proposed and voted for? (Okay, so Drew calls on Lewis Carroll instead of Barrie for her cartography.) What is also infuriating is the suggestion that the Treasury can decide whether or not to make social security payments--when the income for doing so is already in place. Does that mean they're thinking of borrowing from social security to pay, say, defense contractors? Or the salaries of, say, the politicians and their staffers who run the institution known as the US Congress? My sense is that nothing is to outrageous, absurd, or indecent to preclude its actually happening. Consider this brief bit from Drew's piece:
The Republicans, with Alice in Wonderland logic, termed any elimination of a tax break a tax increase. Moreover, the breaks included in the tax code were there because they had been sponsored by an important member of Congress, or supported by a powerful lobby on behalf of one interest or another. After the President, in a press conference in late June, inveighed against tax breaks for corporate jets, the industry quickly insisted that such a change would cost jobs.

The very basis of the negotiations was odd. A vote to raise the debt limit simply validates spending decisions that had already been approved by Congress, and it is usually automatic. It does nothing to curb spending. But there is nothing usual about the current Congress. The recent negotiations over raising the debt limit could have been seen as having an absurd, antic quality, if they hadn’t been so risky to most people living in this country and so unfair in their potential impact on the various income groups, with consequences, too, for the global economy. The negotiations were ridiculously contorted—when one side refused to discuss a major topic, such as taxes, were they actually negotiations at all?

I also notice that for the last few days the Federal Aviation Agency has been (sort of) running without an operating budget. Its budget is apparently the focus of a dispute involving the Republicans wanting to make it harder for FAA employees to unionize that's the primary reason the FAA no longer has an operating budget. I don't quite know why we still have air traffic controllers on duty, but I suppose we all must be grateful for small mercies.

This debt-ceiling bullshit coincides with an unofficial unemployment rate of something like 20%. (For minorities, it's worse--16% unemployment for black people. And of course that doesn't include underemployment.) The politicians want to pretend it doesn't matter (big surprise, hunh--I guess for them, it doesn't.) I was talking recently to someone whose unemployment compensation has just run out, due to the two-year limit Congress established for the recipients of unemployment "benefits" (which is too "generous" as far as the Republicans are concerned). I gather that she and everyone else in her situation are not counted in the official unemployment statistics (which is around 10%). What matters, of course, is making billionaires happy. Complementing that terribleness, most of the new jobs opening up are service-sector jobs that don't pay a living wage. It's a bitter reality.

We've known for a long time that the US was headed for this situation. And it's not as though the US has believed for a long time (if it ever did: I'd need an Americanist historian to give me the answer to that) that it has any obligation to future generations. And now that future generations include, basically, the entire planet, it's of course impossible to make the argument that the future matters (any more than the well-being of the non-rich), since hegemonic US culture has long been driven by the conviction that what is good for anyone who is not (US) American must be bad for the US. For me, though, it has always been a kind of science fictional extrapolation existing only inside my own head. Now it's here, the public sector is being dismantled at the state and federal levels, the prison population is on a path of infinite expansion and involuntary prison labor is taking over paying jobs at an ever-accelerating rate, and the news media are owned by a handful of corporations that are corrupt to the core. (They probably think they look good compared with Fox and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, but that's not saying much.) The only thing I didn't anticipate was that this situation would hit young people the hardest. (I think I always assumed that people over 40 would be booted out in favor of the young.) What does it mean, to graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, only to discover that the only job they can find is pulling espressos for the minimum wage-- or flipping burgers? For individuals, it means a sense of being considered disposable and unnecessary. But for all of us, it means at the very least a degree of alienation and deeply rooted despair among the very portion of the population that is usually counted on to bring change and hope and new ideas. As many people have pointed out, a similar reality is behind some of the revolutions still in progress in the Middle East and the youth rebellions in Greece, Spain, the UK, France, and other European countries where some of the same processes are unfolding. And of course that's not even taking into account the fact that they will have to bear the burden of the effects of ecological catastrophe that are facing us in the coming decades--effects that only the Pentagon and intelligence services alone in the US government or paying any attention to. (And what does that tell us, that the Pentagon is preparing for devastation and consequent political upheaval that the rest of the government has no interest in preventing?)

Pardon my rant. You may wonder why I am I thinking such thoughts when I'm on vacation. That's easily answered: this is the first time I've had time to pay attention, and traveling outside the US, wondering whether our currency will crash, concentrates the mind wonderfully.

1 comment:

Josh said...

You know how far right the discourse has gone when the refreshingly liberal statements such as "The biggest problem the country has right now is not the budget deficit. The biggest problem the country has right now is the jobs deficit" are coming from Larry Summers.

P.S. "no nothings" is a good pun, Timmi, but I didn't think you did puns!