Pass the Progapanda, Please

I live in a town people love to love because it’s, well, lovable. It’s got a real name, but people like to call it the American Riviera. If they’re feeling really extravagant, it’s Paradise. It’s beautiful and beautifully situated between ocean and mountain, has great weather, good food and warm, interesting and beautiful people.

We have a curious custom, though. We don’t talk about our imperfections, oh no we do not. Not publicly, at least.

santabarbaracollageEvery once in awhile, someone will take advantage of a turn in conversation, and sneak in a complaint, as if sharing a secret. One complaint will lead to another and before you know it, those complaints can turn into venting, slightly hysterical notes and venomous hissing.

But that venting only happens once in awhile and then we’re right back to basking in our bliss. I think it only happens at all because the pressure’s so great to talk exclusively about our gorgeous glorious magnificence.

‘Maybe that’s the point,’ said a friend and fan of metaphysics. ‘To be happy. To only see happiness.’  Maybe it is. The point. But have you really achieved happiness if you’ve got your ears plugged and eyes squeezed shut and you’re singing really loud as an added security measure?  ‘Ah. Yes. I see what you mean,’ she conceded.  ‘There are so many serious problems: homelessness and hunger and -.’

Oh, but that’s not what I mean at all.  I don’t mean problems.

moiI mean grit, grime, corruption.  I mean jealousies and ambitions and laziness.  I mean human nature in all the humans that make up a place.  What’s wrong with seeing and hearing imperfections and STILL loving us and our town? (Nothing, if you’re asking me. I’m sure you’ll get a different answer from someone else. But this isn’t their blog.)

When you actually live in a town, you can learn how to love the place and the people as a rich, always changing-and-staying-the-same wonderful mess. Without the propaganda.

Unfortunately, we rarely have the luxury of time when traveling. And more unfortunately, for me, that’s when it counts. I’ve done and thought some ridiculous things under the spell of propaganda. It’s one of the single easiest ways to misunderstand a city.  Which of us hasn’t completely misunderstood another person because we got stuck in our first impression? Multiply that person by thousands and you’ve got yourself a hell of a mistake.

I have this theory. Okay, it’s more just an idea.  I think we get rapturous about a place when what we’re really talking about is us. Ourselves.  We feel so fabulous and so glittery and so, so chic/elegant/lustrous/intellectual (you can pick your own words; otherwise, I’ll be playing thesaurus for the next hour. Ha.).  We also can’t wait to tell people we were mistaken for a local. Because. It’s about us.

It’s a heady, excellent experience I hope everyone gets to feel. But it’s us we’re talking about – not the city. Not the people who live in the city. Not the mysterious clockwork of being human and creating and building. And it’s inside the clockwork that stories begin and the propaganda ends.

So. How does someone just visiting get an experience that’s a little more like the truth? For me, the best place to start is to make a contract with myself.  Think. Ask good questions, not just any old questions. Don’t think you’re doing any one a favor asking about their life.  This isn’t noblesse oblige. Get your curiosity real. Listen. Think some more. Laugh. Tease. Play.

Asking questions is the most valuable part of that deal I make and sometimes, the hardest. It’s a technique worth practicing, though, and one I can hardly wait to write about – that’s how much it changes my experience.

Propaganda’s fun. But experiencing real stories of real people? THAT is golden.

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