Tuesday, December 07, 2004

does size matter?

It's hard to go on vacation from one of the most beautiful areas of the country. This time we went to Catalina Island, equally beautiful to our home area, and as it turns out, a trip that brought on many ruminations about community. (Catalina Island is part of Los Angeles County – off the coast of Long Beach/LA etc.)

Catalina Island is small. It would be small anyway, but it's even smaller because most of it is maintained as a nature preserve. Cool! I first thought. Pretty! I first thought. And then you get there and realize that the nature preserve status means your ass, and the asses of aaaaaalllll your fellow tourists are confined to the single square mile of downtown with its repetitively charming teeshirt shops and prettily tiled public restrooms, plus the botanical gardens up the hill.

Did I mention Catalina Island is small? Stay there longer than a day and things circle back to you. We met up with our morning's waitress buying Christmas presents for her kid and our hotel desk clerk out and about in street clothes. The same guy who seated us for nachos sold us our movie tickets. It's small. (Cute, but would I live there?)

Then there's small town talk. Since it's an island, this mostly revolves around storms and the weather. We got in some quality eavesdropping regarding this topic. "Sounds like it'll be as bad as the last one!" (Teller and listener shake their heads gloomily.) "Headed directly into the harbor! A Nor'easter!" (Commiseration continues. Whistles are made, their trills peaking quickly then descending in that universal "uh-oh!" sound.) The next day dawned on a cooler and breezier version of its predecessor, but I'm afraid without the most dire threats realized. These are people whose downtown is one square mile and who drive golf carts. I don't begrudge them a little story telling. In fact, I quite like it. (But would I live there?)

Yes, golf carts. Cars are limited on the island. The majority of the residents of Catalina drive golf carts. It's kinda comical to see really, but believe me, I'm all about ditching the Hummer with tinted windows and chugging around in your Yamaha cart. (How would I live with that?)

The whole time I was there I was so fascinated by what the locals did, how they might have gotten to be locals, etc. How interesting to choose or be born into such a community. (In the end, could I live there??)

As parents, I guess you get executive decision making power on locale. Is that a good thing? In whose interest and at whose cost will we be making that decision? Do you think children more often grow to love their first home arena or will they scoff at it no matter its values? The city has cultural diversity in people and experiences. The small town has grass and safety. How do you begin to prioritize these and the million other things that could make the list? Someone told me once with disdain that you "can't be a writer and live here!" Should I mention to him that with less than an hour and a couple addresses I could be at Jane Smiley or Adrienne Rich's house? Should I mention that with two hours the list grows exponentially and includes names like Isabel Allende and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Nah. Let's not tell him. He's an angry little man, and we don't like him.

I think I'm becoming more and more a small town girl. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that, but I think my embarrassment comes from what we've been railroaded to believe about the quaint backwardness of small town USA. Naturally, there are plenty of small towns I want nothing to do with, but it's not so cut and dry for me anymore. When I think about where I'd want my kid to grow up, small or large matters to me less and less, while the ability for community seems the most important element. But do we have that ability anymore? Did we ever? Does community have to mean being in each other's hair and raising eyebrows if someone isn't like us?

There are some really nice things about living in a little place. In my town, I know all the bookstore owners by name. The other day when I asked the local video store owner when my videos were due he said, "When do you need them until?" We all mill around telling each other we look familiar. There's a charm here. It's tricky because I've always been the one to leave. To go. Move. Next place. Next! Am I selling out if I stay? Isn't that what most people do? Is this what they all meant when they talked about "settling down?" Why do I still have a physical reaction to that phrase?

It would seem none of us can make up our minds. We want people in the bar, but we don't want anyone to talk to us. If the bar is empty, we don't stay cuz "this place is dead!" We leave our houses to be out...each of us in our own car. One thing we don't do in my town is drive golf carts. We drive cars and big SUVs named after the things they're helping to kill off. Like Tahoe. Or Sequoia. Add a Jesus fish and it's just like you really care.

In the example of my town, we drive our vial machines often through a small traffic tunnel. There is a dubiously interesting tradition among many drivers here to beep their horns as they drive through it. The Honda Civic goes "Beep Beep Be-Beep Beep…" and waits for its mating call to be answered. If the Ford Bronco goes "…Beep Beep!" we've got ourselves a match. This is apparently the best idea we've had so far in terms of community building. Whoah, people, whoah! Everyone just slow down! If we're not careful, soon we'll be talking to strangers in elevators, and after that, well, it's straight to a national health care system. Try that with a golf cart.

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