Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

In the early morning hours, you can pretend it’s 1981 again.  §

Thing 1:

I’ve taken to waking up sometime around 2:00 am every day and going back to sleep again around 5:00 am. This has happened organically, and it’s not the first time it’s happened in my life, either.

If I had to estimate, I’d say that on balance I’ve maintained this schedule for most of my life, and that it has been far more common than the periods of “regular sleep” here and there, the most recent of these following becoming a parent having been the longest and lasted several years.

I think it happens because, quite simply, I love the early morning hours so very much. Being awake between 2:00 am and 5:00 am is utter bliss.

Everything is quiet. The world is yours. No one will interrupt you for any reason. Anyone that’s expecting anything of you isn’t expecting it between 2:00 am and 5:00 am. There is no need for manners. There is no need to self-censor. There is no need to negotiate with everyone else to be yourself, nor to explain yourself or defend, justify, or apologize for your idiosyncracies.

These are the only hours during which there is no penalty for being alive, and I relish them.

— § —

Thing 2:

When I was a young child in my first few years at school, it seemed as though everyone was “middle-class.”

This was the early 1980s, and there was a kind of homogeneity to the students in my public school that we didn’t think about much. We all had two-parent households. We all had houses that had a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom for the parents, an additional one to two bedrooms for the children (with sharing, where necessary), and the lucky ones had a second bathroom and a second car, while most had one bathroom and one used-but-reliable station wagon somewhere between five and ten years old as a family car.

All of us had a few toys, but not too many toys, ate mostly home-cooked meals that were nutritious and usually balanced but by no means organic, usually consisting of staples from each food group. We all had clothes that were from department stores—Sears, K-Mart, Gibson’s, J.C. Penny—but they were generally not new for long or very often, as we received clothes for Christmas and Birthdays and were expected to make them last a year or two. If they developed holes, those holes would get patched or stitched up.

Everyone had a dentist and a doctor. Everyone had a parent who worked a job that provided insurance.

And all of the families were on a budget. Everyone knew that they—and their peers—had parents that worked hard to “make ends meet” with used station wagons, dining out and movies reserved for a few special occasions per year, and absolutely no luxuries like vacations. The concept of a big-screen television set was ridiculous—a waste; the concept of a family without health and medical insurance was equally ridiculous—surely someone in the house could get a job of some kind.


© Aron Hsiao / 2002

The yards were all the same—a square patch of lawn, roughly green, roughly even, a tree or two. The older kids in the home would mow it. The younger kids would weed and water it. It didn’t look like a golf course, but it also didn’t look like tundra.

We often knew where our friends’ parents worked. Someone’s middle-aged dad might be a grocery bagger full-time, and we’d see them when we went to buy peas at the store. Someone else’s dad might be an engineer, someone else’s dad a bus driver, someone else’s dad a bank teller, and someone else’s mom a teacher or a seamstress-tailor at the fabric store. These were all solid, “middle-class” careers for middle-aged people—things you “could do for a living” to “support your family,” and all carried with them dignity and entitlement to respect.

I don’t know any people like this any longer. They gradually disappeared over the late ’80s and ’90s, and seemed to become extinct entirely by the mid-’00s.

All of the careers I just named are often part-time, contract, or temp careers now. None of the people in this neighborhood, or in my parents’ or siblings’ neighborhoods today, is “middle-class” in this way. There are two classes now.

The first class doesn’t budget because they really don’t have to. They manage their spending, yes, but it’s more a matter of “financial planning,” “good investing,” and prioritizing their consumption. They live in large, many-bedroom houses with manicured yards—each idiosyncratically different, well-landscaped, and decorated—that are cared for to perfection by paid landscaping contractors that appear once per week. They have very large 4k HDTVs in the living room, in the den, in the game room, and in the master bedroom. The kids each have their own room, and in these rooms each kid has their own 36″ HDTV, their own iPad, their own laptop, and a large number of toys. They have every satellite TV and every streaming service under the sun—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and several that no one’s ever heard of. They have gigabit broadband. There are a foosball table and a vending machine (it’s really just a fun fridge; it doesn’t require coins to dispense a drink and you have to refill it yourself) in the den. There is a trampoline in the back yard, not standing on top of the lawn, but in fact level with the ground, installed over a deep pit that is paved with concrete to control dirt and make cleaning easy. It’s next to the small pool. Everyone wears mall and designer clothes. The kids all get salon haircuts. And have braces. And have had their teeth whitened. The parents both work either in senior management or are “enterpreneurs,” which in both cases means they largely work on a computer all day, as these days managers do not directly interact with employees much and enterpreneurs don’t start shops, but instead found e-commerce or software-as-a-service businesses. Everyone has the latest model iPhone and a major-carrier unlimited plan. Everyone’s had the same phone number for years. There is a roomy two-car carage that holds a mom’s Lexus and dad’s BMW—if mom and dad are still married. Often, they’re not, and each parent has a matching version of this home-yard-car combo in adjacent neighborhoods.

This first class calls themselves “middle class” but they’re clearly not. In the early 1980s, anyone looking at their home, amenities, and lifestyle would assume them to be wealthy at the least, and quite possibly “very” wealthy indeed.

The second class doesn’t budget because there’s no point. They don’t have credit, they won’t be able to pay their bills no matter how they slice the numbers, and they’re relying on public assistance and assistance from private charities and NGOs to get by. They won’t save, and they’ll never plan or invest. They live in apartments, usually two to three per year due to a mix of serial evictions and decisions to “get out” of the worst places, which tend to have a high rate of drug-using occupants or insect infestation. They have one HDTV, usually larger than they can afford, the large room nearest their apartment’s front door. It’s only able to show something every now and then, when “the cable is hooked back up again.” They play in the public parks when they can get there, but they often can’t because public transportation is hard to use and their unreliable twenty-year-old discontinued make-model cars are usually either trapped at the mechanic while they “try to come up with the money” to get them back following repairs or are rapidly repossesed due to highly unfavorable loan terms when they took advantage of the “zero down, got-a-job get-a-car” deal at the local “old parking lot full of older cars” dealership. But those are the only dealerships and loans they can access. Everyone wears clothes from Wal-Mart. Nobody goes to the doctor. Nobody goes to the dentist. They don’t know what an orthodontist is. There’s only one parent at home, and nobody knows where the other parent is—they haven’t been heard from in a long time. That one parent works any other job around (and sometimes two or three) doing anything that does *not* happen on a computer all day. They do it on a part-time, temporary, or contract-only basis. That one parent also has the only mobile phone in the house—a low-end, pay-as-you-go Android phone bought at the local convenience store that doesn’t hold up well, which is fine because they can only “afford” to have a phone some of the time anyway, and these low-end phones, carriers, and plans don’t stay compatible or in business very long. It’s hard to stay in touch with this family because their phone number changes several times a year and the parent in the house is almost always at work anyway, though they never seem to have enough food, money, or time to live much more than a barely-scraping-by life.

This second class calls themselves “middle class” and they’re also clearly not. They would look at the life shown in episodes of Roseanne as something they’re hoping to aspire to, someday when they’re able to “get back on their feet” and “stabilize things a bit.”

There are very, very few people in between these classes today. It just doesn’t look at all like it did when I was growing up in the ’80s.

— § —

It’s between 2:00 am and 5:00 am that this entire second thing doesn’t matter and disappears into ephemera for a while.

And that’s why I love that time so much.