Life behind Glass

It’s gorgeous outside–gorgeous for Eugene, anyway. The sun is out, the flowers are blooming; my dogs lie, half-dead to the world, on the long green grass, awaiting a companion. And yet here I sit before my computer, chilled to my toes. Yesterday, it was the same thing.

And there it is, another aspect of reverse culture shock: the re-containment of my life between wall and window. While I was in Taiwan, I complained often about the weather– because, in Taiwan, you live in it. You swim through the sticky air from door to door, slice through it on a scooter, and maneuver through it in the schools.

In Taiwan, they take very few cares to separate the outdoor from the indoor; very few climate adjustments to overmaster their environments. There is no internal heating–an obvious adjustment in the warmer parts, but apparently abominable in places like Taipei, where, in the winter, the cold humidity pierces layers without mercy. The little shops that line the main streets frequently go door-less, opening directly onto the covered qilou (騎樓) which serves, alternately, as a sidewalk, scooter parking lot, cafe, shop extension, and front porch. (The concept of the qilou is, itself, fascinating: it’s legally considered a privately owned public space, meaning its owners can do what they like with it, but must, technically, leave a way through for others–even if, as is often the case, that way through is just a narrow passage between clothing racks.)

Even in the tropical south, in Kaohsiung, where I spent the past year teaching, where the temperature routinely rises above the bearable, air conditioning is rarely used, and house plans commonly include an outdoor sitting area–walk down the streets in Kaohsiung, and you’re likely to see people sitting on little red plastic stools outside their houses; go to the local park, and you’ll find elders playing mahjhong in the shade, flapping themselves with fans rather than seek out an air conditioned spot. And that’s normal: the climate is the climate, they live where they do, and there is no apparent reason to ignore it and live exclusively in a climate-controlled bubble.

Even the schools are built to integrate naturally into the surrounding climate: wherever you go, you see classroom walls lined with windows which open onto covered open-air walkways overlooking lush green courtyards. It’s a gorgeous way to build a school, and, in the cooler winter months, it works quite well–but for the majority of the year, teachers and students find themselves at the mercy of the massive heat, all windows and doors flung open, but to little avail. Some rooms have AC, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

Not so here. Here, in the temperate Northwest, we are utterly spoiled when it comes to weather–mild summers and mild winters, with beautiful springs and falls in between–and yet despite, or perhaps because of this, we shut ourselves off from it, except for on the occasions when we determine we would like to “experience nature.” We sit in our air-conditioned rooms, our chosen temperature a mere 5 or so degrees cooler than the outside, and look out at the sun, or we sit in front of a fire or curled up on a couch beside a forced-air heat vent as the sharp air and ice webbing waits outside, unappreciated.

And what do we gain from this isolation? We gain the ability to feel cold in summer, and hot in winter. We gain the ability to control our environment; to reverse nature at will. We gain, as we would tell ourselves, “comfort.” But is that really such an important thing?

When I was a kid, I played outside incessantly. I am fortunate enough to have grown up in the country, and my brothers and I spent countless hours running back and forth by the river, climbing trees and making forts and riding bikes and playing make-believe until the sound of my mom’s dinner triangle (yes, really) called us back in. When I hit high school, that changed, and I remember becoming aware one day that the only time I spent outside was the short trip from my back door to my car; my car to the school, and back again. Even then, I saw that for what it was: a sad waste of my days.

Yet here I sit, gazing out the window as though I had no way to change my situation; no way to stop living within my self-imposed, self-controlled pocket of creature comforts and get out and enjoy the natural beauty of the world as it is; as it’s meant to be. I still find myself choosing, many days, to stay behind glass, like a bug stuck by a pin, or an artifact in a museum, rather than the living, breathing person that I am.

Perhaps it’s time to apply what the Taiwanese taught me, shatter the glass and step outside. The sun is calling.

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