Friday, August 15, 2008

Too many "people like me"

In yesterday's Oregonian, there was an article about how homogenous Portland has become. Based on Bill Bishop's book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, complete with photos of urban chickens, bike riders, and coffee shops, the article describes how the majority of Portlanders live in a bubble of liberalism that makes it hard for dissenting voices to be heard. Though more of a feature than a hard news story (only one liberal viewpoint and one conservative viewpoint are represented), the story got me thinking about how the comfort of living among like-minded people can actually lead to complacency and, as my friend T. describes it, smugness.

Alex and I talked at lunch about whether it was good to truly have diversity in your daily life, challenging moments where people don't automatically agree with what you say or how you live. I've become a lazy thinker because of living in such a blue city and if forced to defend my political and social beliefs, couldn't argue my way out of a paper bag. Those oral skills are atrophied. And though a source in the article says that people can find lots of dissenting views thanks to easy access to the internet, do I have conservative media pages bookmarked on my computer? Of course not. I can extend the bubble as far and wide as I need to.

And homogeneity can also lead to a kind of cultish mindlessness, too. Among "people like me," it manifests in the whiff of competition, and subsequent defensiveness, around anything having to do with food, child-raising, and transportation. People like me explain the genesis of our food in great detail: whether it came from a CSA or farmers' market, what farm it's from (bonus points if you talked to the farmer), and whether it's organic or local or free-range or--ka-ching!--all three. People like me either stay at home to raise our kids OR research preschools, visit open houses, agonize during the decision-making process, and then feel guilty about sending our kids to preschool. People like me go to events that include, as part of the invitation, encouragement to not drive and instructions about bus lines and bike parking. People like me can be pretty annoying. Sometimes, I hate those people. I don't want to be those people. But here in homogenous Portland, I am.

On a good day, I bite my tongue when a friend talks about making asparagus for dinner in the middle of August, let my daughter play with a Bratz paper doll at a wedding reception but later embargo it and claim that it must have gotten lost on the plane, and merely give my husband a look rather than scold him when he chooses to drive rather than ride his bike to the hardware store seven blocks away to buy lumber. I won't flatter myself and pretend that these reactions and behaviors have much to do with altruism; they stem, instead, from those old feelings of guilt and insecurity. I look around and see the chicken coops and Priuses and grain mills that litter this fair city and realize that I haven't been working hard enough to be the best enviro-green-socially conscious Portlander that I can be!

If I'm right and my motivation is, at best, equal parts concern for the future of the planet and a need to belong, this supports my theory that we never completely shake off the social experiment/trial by fire that is high school. Am I still Molly Ringwald, wanting to hang out with Andrew McCarthy and the other cool kids?

But, just like in high school, this sort of cliqueishness also triggers the rebel in me--the side that doesn't want to be one of a faceless mass of people, no matter how right (or righteous) and cool they are. My friend T. and I joked by email about our imaginary next get together: "Let’s be sure to drive wherever we’re going and eat out-of-season food and maybe let our kids play with plastic toy guns, okay?" I wrote. "Sounds like a plan," he responded. "I’ll bring some cold cuts and frozen burger patties from Safeway."

But now, we're feeling smug about not being smug Portlanders, which I mostly am. Just scratch the surface of my tough talk and petulant demeanor and you'll find a neo-hippie do-gooder who feels guilty about not composting, who's worried she's not going to be able to put up enough peaches and blueberries for winter, and who's excited about getting an Xtracycle free radical kit for her bike so she doesn't have to lug her 40-pound daughter to the library in a Burley. In Portland, it's a John Hughes film all over again and nobody wants to be freaky Ally Sheedy, sitting at the corner desk, glowering and dressed in black.


melissa s. said...

let's make a pact to slap each other in the face if we start sounding too portland-y. I saw BB on jon stewart and thought immediately of portland, too.

DomaMama said...

I thought more specifically of the Portland green parenting and food blogs that I visit. On one site, a woman tsk-tsked someone for making salad with tomatoes in June, and on another, people RSVPed to a potluck with long descriptions of what kind of organic, locally grown food they were going to bring and which alternative mode of transportation they were going to use--complete with bus line numbers and transfers! What ever happened to RSVPs that just say, "We'll be there! What can we bring?"

I'm already too Portland-y, by the way. So I'll be expecting a slap in the face soon!

fasenfest said...

You know there is a marketer licking his or her chops to get a part of this. What a piece of cake it will be for them if what we want has specifics; if it has to be grown, made and defined in such a way that we have literally hand them a blue print. More then our own preciousness or liberal judgements, I am frightened about the way this emerging movement will be distilled by our own silly absolutism.

So how to take this work seriously but keep either the liberal junta and/or branders from turning into either a burden or jingle?

For my part I try to keep it stirred up and messy. It's easy since I am messy. I am a contradiction. I like growing food and American Idol. I like free-range and sugar coated shredded wheat. I'm not trying to be a dichotomy, I am. I think humans are messy and I think being honest by outing ourselves and the herky jerkiness of the effort will give each other breathing room and keep the precious police at bay.

It's easy for me. I've always thrown myself up as a foil since I had easy definitions.. Like throwing a pack of smokes on the counter as payment for my organic tomatoes at the farmer's market. Like showing a woman canning eyeballs on my business cards as a reminder not to take me too seriously; so I won't take myself too seriously.

I think the folks at the farmer's market thought I was nuts but it was all so perfect and wonderful at the market that I thought it needed to rearrange the pieces.Sometimes I think it is about theater but then again I like smoking cigarettes when I'm loaded or not. There, I did it again. She smokes, she gets high and she teaching food preservation. I also drive my car to the corner store to get smokes when I'm too tired to walk. Messed up isn't it? And yet when you see my gardens and see what I grow and how much food I preserve or my clothesline or my water barrel or my compost bins folks go......oooh.

I have always been wildly inappropriate and that is because the preciousness of Portlanders can be overwhelming. Yeah, you got all those tatoos but you'd pee your panties in a New York back ally. There's "hard" and then there's HARD, there's walk and then there's talk. And what I found is that the folks taking the time to challenge the markers of privilege and class in their world are busy and honest and humble, or at least try to be. And they know it is messy and it isn't what it looks like all the time to outsiders.

So, let's keep it messy and weird. And if anyone ever sent me an invite asking me to report on what bus route I was taking or yada, yada, yada I just wouldn't go. I doubt they'd be fun to hang with when I caught a buzz.

fasenfest said...

Oops. the first part of the post was eliminated but you get the gist.

DomaMama said...

Messy and weird seems like a good plan. Maybe we should edit those ubiquitous bumper stickers--"Keep Portland Weird"--accordingly. (Not that I support the use of non-organic bumper stickers on anything but hybrid or biodiesel cars, of course.)

Caroline said...

Maybe you need some conservative Christian Southerners in your family, like me. I'm sure they all think our branch of the family is a bunch of judgmental liberal atheists, while we all think they're a bunch of judgmental conservative fundamentalists. Alas, at our occasional get-togethers, everybody is so busy being polite and biting their tongues that no real conversations happen. Sigh.

DomaMama said...

You know, as I mentioned in this post, I'm not sure I could handle true dissent--the in your face kind. My family is pretty politically different from me so we talk around issues rather than through them.

It's one of those things that I perhaps like better in theory than in practice. A little bickering and snarkiness and teasing is more my speed--these are the things that keep my marriage and some of my closest friendships alive!