Small Town Politics and Zen



By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

One recent evening, in the cool aftermath of scorching midterm elections, I listened to a writer read his poetry to a haphazard group of Fallbrookians.

We were gathered at the Café des Artistes. Not the erstwhile Upper West Side watering hole of Manhattan’s creative aesthetes — those aficionados of dining amid the bare-nekid nymphs of Howard Chandler Christy — but the Café's loving replica, brought to Main Street Fallbrook by the charmingly snarky Michael, himself a Brooklyn baby.

Now, Fallbrook is one of those bucolic towns most folks in San Diego have heard of, maybe, but they think it might be out in the backcountry, not abutting the north end of the county’s inland freeway. Up here, groves and chaparral vie for scarce water and battle encroaching development. Fallbrook catches the tailwinds of the unstaunched stream of commuters flowing between the city and countless cookie-cutter communities that ripple farther and farther from the sea.

But in Fallbrook, the landscape precludes any such sprawl, hemming us in with canyons and nature reserves and Camp Pendleton, home to the Marine Corps' largest amphibious assault training facility and seventeen miles of undeveloped shoreline — potentially instructive juxtapositions that are lost on those compelled to spray their scent on expanding territories. With no new lands to mark, and with imported water ever more expensive, Fallbrook is gradually abandoning our agricultural tradition. We raze our groves, scrape the sage and mustard from our rolling hills, boot our pickers from their encampments, and infill the spaces with housing … when the economy allows.

And we are contrarians in other ways.

Fallbrook’s collective conservative vote stands in opposition to our progressive state that gave all but one statewide office to the Dems. And, since Election Day, the most diehard of rightwingers have taken regular breaks from stomping the damn snails and griping about the damn illegals to hopefully check the state website for who is ahead in the attorney general vote tally: Steve Cooley, the Republican would-be Prop. 8 defender from Southern California or Kamala Harris, the damn liberal from the north. Of course, not quite as many diehard liberals have been doing the same, just as eager for their Democratic defender of equality to win out over the damn bigot from the south.

Other than that race, Fallbrook remains relatively unscathed by the elections that shifted control of the House of Representatives from Democrats to Republicans. Besides, economy-driven voters are already suggesting they don’t expect much of anything different from the new majority. And in Fallbrook, politics is mostly, well, local, as in all about me local.

We barely notice the persistent rounds of musical chairs played by our rightwing representatives, bounced every few years by term limits. And, to be frank, most of us don’t even know the names of the folks running for our little Fallbrook advisory committees — unless one of them is a neighbor or coaches the kids’ soccer team or plays Bunco with the wife. We’re too busy sharing pocket gopher eradication techniques and passing flasks at the holiday parade, if we’re not in it.

Sure, we don’t care much for the other party, but for most of us all the wrangling pretty much balances out in the end — or wherever we are at the moment — and we simply live with our differences.

Some of us hope for a new quarry’s approval and the jobs we think it will bring, and some of us tenaciously fight it, for the unwanted things it will bring to our environment.

Some of us welcome back a county supervisor who will continue to swap our votes for grants for things foundational and things frivolous, and some wish we could have our new library without him.

Some of us weep when our gay children are denied a club on our high school campus, and some of us are fearfully relieved.

Some of us are grateful we can make the short trip from here to the coast for an abortion, and some try to talk us out of it.

Some of us wonder if we’ll be jerked from our families and dumped back across the border, and some of us don’t understand why it hasn’t already happened.

Some of us settle before the TV, eager for Survivor or CSI or The Office, and some of us stumble into the Café des Artistes, eager for hope, for enlightenment, for camaraderie. There, we might find a novelist who tells us of the river of weapons that floods the U.S.-Mexican border just an hour away or a professor who wraps tales of her dog around the seeping sorrow of a lost mate or the memoirist who traded a lovingly handcrafted boat for the book he wanted more.

And on this recent evening, we — we romantics and racists, we faithful, atheists and agnostics, we veterans and peace demonstrators, we Republicans and Democrats and American Independent Party members who thought it was the same as being “independent,” so we really need to reregister! — we entered the Café and found the Buddhist poet physicist. He had us look at life with all its suffering and helped us laugh at it, because “Real Zen students don’t have TVs,” even though most of us do.

For all our prejudices and peculiarities, I sometimes wish Congress could make nice at least as well as Fallbrook. But if I understand Zen Buddhism correctly, that bumps me out of the here and now. So maybe I’ll just watch some TV.

Love, K-B

Note: Thanks to poet and author Jon Wesick for the inspiration.

©2010 Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Crossposted at The Progressive Post.

The Howard Chandler Christy mural image is from The Berkshire Review.