Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Definition of Community

Pretty Lady had no idea things had gotten so bad. Well, that is disingenuous. She knew things were bad; what she did not know is that they were so bad, people are unaware of just how bad they are.

Pretty Lady is aware that she is not making any sense.

It seems, dear friends, that the social isolation among Americans is now so severe, that ordinary Americans are no longer able to comprehend the term 'social isolation.' Pretty Lady has often noticed the tendency of the mind to enter a self-protective state of Denial under conditions of severe stress; it is though mental parameters are automatically re-arbitrated to accommodate scarcity. Certainly when she addressed the matter, tangentially, in discussion, it seemed to her as though the waves of unwarranted, ignorant abuse which spewed forth in her direction contained more than a note of irrational hysteria.

Now, darlings. Calm down. Do not concern yourselves; Pretty Lady has plenty of friends. Having friends is not what she is talking about, when she uses the term 'community.' Any person who equates 'community' with 'friendship' has obviously never lived in one. Because the definition of 'community,' in realistic terms, is 'living in circumstances where one is physically unable to avoid persons that one absolutely cannot stand.'

It is Small Wonder, then, that hedonistic American society should have evolved in such a manner as to geographically minimize encounters with objects of personal loathing. In the words of one of Pretty Lady's Californian ex-friends, 'we just don't need that.' If someone offends us with their looks, attitude, personality, religion, odor, sense of humor, personal style, social class, or choice of romantic partners, we simply drop the acquaintance. And this is facilitated by an architectural structure which ensures that we need never come face to face with an unapproved specimen of humanity in the entire course of our existence.

Not so, when a person lives in a town which was constructed before the invention of the automobile. Such places dispense with such luxuries as garages, lawns, detached dwellings of all kinds, cubicles, and air-conditioning. They are big on Narrow Alleyways, Communal Plazas, and Rampant Gossip. A person should not attempt to live in such a place unless he or she is prepared to have the most intimate details of his or her private life Bandied About; not only this, but one must be prepared to confront the purveyors of Slanderous Lies about oneself, face to face, when one least expects it.

Oh, the stories Pretty Lady could tell.

One thing she notices, regarding the tragic dearth of true community in the U.S. of A., it that it enables us to remain, mentally and emotionally, in the third grade for the majority of our adult lives. Thus, when such a stunted American is transplanted to an expatriate colony, this person is highly likely to embarrass herself.

Okay, Pretty Lady will tell you a story.

Once upon a time, she was meeting Sophia for lunch. They met in Café Dada, of course. When Pretty Lady arrived, Sophia remarked, "Katia is joining us."

Pretty Lady said, "Hi, Katia!"

Katia said, "I hate you, Pretty Lady."

"Does this mean we're not going to have lunch?" responded Pretty Lady.

"Oh yes," said Katia. "We live in the same town."

(Of course, there was a Backstory to this encounter. There always is. Suffice it to say that when the gentleman with the curly hair and the tuxedo invited Pretty Lady to go biking after the symphony, she had no idea that Katia even knew him, much less that she was nursing an obsessive and unrequited passion for him. And Katia didn't let on either, until, all of a sudden, she snapped.)

And this fracas was the result. "I do not wish to have lunch with someone who hates me," Pretty Lady declared. "That is my boundary."

Katia unleashed a stream of rather horrible invective, which distorted her features alarmingly; Pretty Lady grabbed a quiescent Sophia by the hand and fled. Katia pursued them through several alleyways, like a rabid lapdog, until they finally shook her.

The word on the street was that Pretty Lady must be a lesbian; she was holding hands with Sophia all over town. Also that later that day, Katia accosted the curly-haired gentleman in front of the Teatro Principal and accused him of raping her, two years earlier, more or less.

Such fun!

The moral of this story is this: if we are not confronted with our Nemeses on a daily basis, we do not develop the strength of mind and character to deal with them. We fail to understand exactly how crazy these people are; we continue to attribute a modicum of controlled rationality to their actions, instead of viewing them in all their lunatic glory, year after year.

When a person lives thus cheek-by-jowl with village idiots, however, she learns, gradually, a certain compassion for the Human Condition. She learns that Gretchen will undoubtedly tell the entire town that she is a filthy pig with a kleptomania problem, but that this is okay because the entire town knows that Gretchen is a mendacious, amnesiac narcissist. She learns not to take it personally when Larry yells at her, because everybody knows that Larry has Anger Issues, exacerbated by a glandular disorder. She learns that Joel is an alcoholic, Anna is a misanthrope and that the gentleman with the curly hair is a compulsive womanizer.

And she learns that this is all okay; that people do not have to be Perfect to be integral members of Society. In fact, that there is no such thing as Perfect. And what a relief that is.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. Interesting take on this thorny issue. My biggest problem with small communities is precisely the fact that they often encourage a simplistic, reductive and definitive characterization of individuals. Larry has Anger Issues, Joel is an alcoholic, Anna is a misanthrope, the gentleman with the curly hair is a compulsive womanizer. And this is mostly what these people are - or so we are led to believe. They become archetypes, cliches, caricatures because small communities encourage these kinds of superficial interpersonal relationships.

Notwithstanding my mistrust of small communities (full disclosure: I am a person who would never want to be part of a small community, but at the same time I have many close friends -- scattered all over the world -- and I'm more than happily married -- all of which means that I have very little tolerance for the superficial acquaintanceships that a small community engenders, while I do need very deep and close personal relationships), I found your post very interesting. You certainly do make a point worth thinking about.


Chris Rywalt said...

I grew up in New York City, and not in one of those enclaves which form their own little communities within the larger city; I was in one of those far-flung appendages of the city where everyone lives under the shadow of the Great Colossus which Provideth All (NYC Board of Ed, Department of Sanitation, FDNY, NYPD, and so on). I knew my immediate neighbors, of course, but beyond that was a mystery, pretty much. I was helped by going to schools outside of my assigned district for most of my life.

So it was quite a surprise to find myself, one day, ensconced in an actual community. I now live in a small town in New Jersey. It wouldn't seem like a small town, because it's shoulder to shoulder with several other small towns; you can't tell where one ends and the other begins (and after eight years there I'm still hazy on our borders). But it's a small town just the same, with its own volunteer fire department, police, liquor store, pizza places, bagel places, schools, and so on. Having kids helped connect us to the community, too: I coached soccer for five years, hang out with other parents when waiting to pick kids up from school, my wife is on the PTA, I'm a Cub Scout leader, all that good stuff.

So I cam late to the idea of community, but now that I'm here, I can say I love it. It's wonderful feeling like I'm a part of something. I like walking down the street and waving hello to people I know. I like going in to the school and knowing half the kids by name because I coached them at one point or another. I like having Family Fun Day where the Scouts cook hamburgers and hot dogs for everyone in town and anyone else who shows up.

It has its negatives; I worry about D's point, about being labeled. More for my kids than for me, of course. My son, for example, had some discipline problems early on in school. I realized one day that he was going to have to deal with these kids for twelve years, and that the town police were parents to some of these kids, and if William got labeled a troublemaker, he'd be hassled by the cops in the local park, he'd get looks on the street, and it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rumors get around, too, although my family hasn't done anything really interesting in a long time, so we're safe on that score.

Still, having had both -- and even being a New Yorker at heart, with no desire to befriend random people -- I find being part of a community is really great.

Pretty Lady said...

My biggest problem with small communities is precisely the fact that they often encourage a simplistic, reductive and definitive characterization of individuals.

Now, D. Larger communities do this all the more, because the number of interactions one has with any given individual is exponentially fewer. If I were to have met Larry in Brooklyn, and viewed him in the throes of one of his rage attacks, I would undoubtedly have thought, "That man has a problem," and written him off completely. Living in a small community, I had, by default, dozens of long and short conversations with him which gave me a much deeper and more nuanced view of his character, of which anger was only a small, and indeed biologically inflicted, part.

Stereotyping will always happen, because it is both a human defense mechanism, and a symptom of our besetting sin of laziness. My point is that in a small community, the habit of lazy indifference toward other people is constantly counterbalanced by the fact that life keeps presenting you with opportunities to reconsider, again and again and again.

Additionally, if a person is of relatively decent character, malicious slanders by nefarious persons are much more easily balanced. People would say, "Of course Gretchen is complaining about you again, but we all know both of you, so we know to take her comments with a grain of salt." That was a great comfort.

Pretty Lady said...

Furthermore, I found that in a small community, my friendships found their appropriate level without my having to work so hard at picking my friends on the basis of slim interactions, and running the risk of making Terrible Mistakes. I naturally gravitated toward some people more than others, and this was no big deal; I was on good terms with the vast majority of people, but also had my 'group' of closer friends.

Interestingly, these groups did not so much become 'cliques' as fluid sets of intersecting circles. My closest friends all had different sets of people they resonated with; thus I was connected by only one or two degrees of separation to nearly everyone in town.

Anonymous said...

If someone offends us with their looks, attitude, personality, religion, odor, sense of humor, personal style, social class, or choice of romantic partners, we simply drop the acquaintance.

Never - have I ever - read anything so truthful about today's average American.
Sad... but true.

Oh... you missed racial preference.