Friday, December 2, 2011

Pretty City Lights

Every winter season, I marvel at the light displays. I love shiny, sparkly things, so this time of year is of particular delight to me. Growing up in Michigan, I found the lights to be even more spectacular when reflected off the snow. My friends, family, and I would often drive around town to admire the lights, rather like art in a gallery. This year, the day after the first snowfall of the season, my roommate Kimmy and I ventured out to do just this.

First, we went through downtown because Kimmy hadn't seen it all lit up yet. The trees and the shopfronts glowed and glittered, making the quickly melting snow sparkle and shine. This was a far more suitable scene to me than what I had seen in San Francisco with slogans like "Let It Snow" plastered all over the place in 70 degree weather. Giant lit up snowflakes line Market Street while I rarely needed a jacket to fend off the chill. The decorations were pretty, but out of place even in that part of California. 

Then we continued through the west side of Ann Arbor and into what Kimmy called rich neighborhoods, because rich people often have the most elegant displays (often paying designers to set them up). What we stumbled upon was richer than we could have imagined. These houses were immense! The kinds of houses I build in the Sims that have so many rooms I don't know what to put in them all. In school, I was friends with kids who lived in private neighborhoods with homes I could get lost in, but some of these dwellings seemed to dwarf even those. We couldn't help wondering what people did with so much house.

The houses were so large and impressive - many looked like modern castles - that we were almost distracted from the winter lights that we had set out to find. There were some lovely displays, but I think they were rendered so much so by their backdrops. There was also more snow on this side of town than ours.

As we finally made it out of that maze of a neighborhood, rounding the corner to be amongst more modest dwellings, and decided to call it a night, stuck in the snow by the side of the road was a lopsided sign that read "We are the 99%." At first this seemed ridiculous coming from where we'd been driving, but even if the sign was for the old farmhouse, ten of which would fit inside one of those other homes, it still holds true for the sprawling mini-mansions. Even most of those people are part of the 99%. 

When I worked at Texas Corners right outside Portage, MI, there was a neighborhood nearby with pretty stupidly large homes - five or six bedroom, two story great rooms, etc. I knew a lot of the people who lived there because they frequently came into the store where I worked. They were not big time bankers with multi-million dollar bonuses, or independently wealthy from their shrewd investments. They were professors at the local colleges and universities, chemists at the nearby pharmaceutical plants, doctors, and lawyers, all rich in my eyes, but hardly what this country deems truly wealthy. These people earned their money through jobs that required a lot of disciplined education. (Though oftentimes their wives and children did not, that is beside the point.)

Even those people are not part of the 1% that owns 99% of America's wealth. If doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and university professors are rich to me, how rich does that make the 1%? Nearly inconceivably. And I think that is a lot of the problem with understanding the vastness of our society's economic gulf. The majority of people can't conceive how rich the ultra rich are, and assume they earned their money the same way the rest of us do, and that simply isn't true. 

At Christmas time, many people's thoughts turn to charity, which is beneficial, sure, but those thoughts rarely last into January. Maybe this holiday season, we should look a little beyond stocking the local food bank and look instead at the big picture. Help the needy, yes, but that isn't going to solve the problem, it only helps in the short term. Something is happening in America today with this Occupy movement, and looking at it now, with feelings of goodwill and charity in our hearts and minds might teach everyone a lesson. 

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