Friday, April 19, 2002
Leave your weapons at the door
This winter I heard a story about a town out West, from a psychologist who's often called to help large groups (500+) work through conflicts. This community was so bitterly divided over some issue that the factions refused even to meet to negotiate, until the mediator got them to agree to leave their weapons at the door of the meeting room. Thank goodness things aren't like that in Carlisle, I thought then, but as the selectmen have deliberated on the warrant and ballot questions, I've started to wonder. Some who watched the usually respectful, civil tone of the town's public life deteriorate around the late '80s and the 1990 vote-that-failed are wary, too.
Much more than money is at stake this budget season most importantly, people's jobs and working conditions and quality of services as well as something less tangible: the "climate" of the community. This year and next will be fiscally tight, setting the stage for routine Town Meeting debates and override campaigns to slip towards rancor. Maybe it's already started taunts on the playground, poison pen letters so as we approach Town Meeting and the election that follows, let's think about the slings and arrows we might leave home the evening of May 6 (and beyond).
The Town Meeting process is actually designed to allow us to explore a contentious question, then decide it (at least for a year). Thus, what could be dangerous is not the debate itself, but how we argue. The fears this year's overrides and other tax issues (e.g. CPA) have roused make it possible to imagine a sensible airing of differences evolving into something more like a shouting match. For instance, if A tries to embarrass or intimidate B, B's friend C calls A's claims "stupid." Then, A criticizes whatever B or C have to say, and B, C and their friends reciprocate.
Of course, such overt attacks on the personality or motives of others and obvious intimidation (i.e. shouting, clapping or cheering) are not permitted at Town Meeting. But more subtle sticks and stones can be equally alienating: recriminations for past decisions, deliberate distortions of others' positions, deceptive or misleading arguments, exploiting fears, oversimplifying complex choices, parliamentary tricks to keep someone from being heard. What we risk is that some hapless A or B or C might set off a cycle of mutual distrust that could last years (as in the bad old '90s).
There are more reasons than simple civility to lay down our arms. First, the forces that hobble our ability to manage budgets and taxation equitably and smoothly will not be present in Corey auditorium. The present spending crisis is not simply the result of some being selfish with others' tax dollars, but of a combination of external factors: the bursting of the '90s bubble, unsustainable growth in the school, and legislative constraints. Cuts in education aid shift more of the burden to local property owners; help with costs for mandated special education is minimal and other aid reduced post hoc; potential tax breaks for older citizens are restricted, and so on.
So, the town's growth and the state's miserliness have set up some hard tradeoffs between the academic excitement of our school and the needs and values of the town's long-time citizens, and we need to recognize the legitimacy of each other's concerns. Almost all are afraid that what we have worked hard for may slip through our grasp. For parents, it's the school they came for. They're not just worried about their kindergartner or sixth grader getting enough attention, but about larger class sizes and a general deterioration of quality. For people without children at home, it's whether their income can rise fast enough to keep up with their tax bills. (The lower override would add $467 to the bill for the average $500,000 home, bringing the total increase over the last five years to nearly 50 percent.)
Nonetheless, though these conflicts highlight resentment, it's important to recognize that what we share as a community is not just a spot on the map. The same people who now are reluctant to support overrides once voted to tax themselves heavily to build the school, to save the open space we all prize, and when possible resisted suburban encroachments on the rural and village landscape benefits newer residents have paid heavily to enjoy. So, as we meet and talk in May, let's try to protect our common jewels the school, and the landscape, and our sense of community and leave the weapons at the door.
Basil in my pocket
My father traveled through life with a screwdriver in one pocket and a sprig of basil in the other. The laborer's Swiss army knife, his screwdriver served as an all-purpose tool to loosen soil around a growing plant, scrape a peeling handrail, pry open a can of paint and generally fix what was broken, spontaneously. Strolling with me through my house, he'd haul out his screwdriver, straighten a crooked hinge and not miss a stride. His right-pocket philosophy, "One loose screw and the whole thing rattles."
But from his left pocket, he would often pull a leaf of basil, rub it gently between finger and thumb, and pass it languidly under his nose. Inhaling the perfume brought a pause, a grin and, undoubtedly, thoughts of warm summer nights, a flowered cloth spread on a long table under a pendulous grape arbor and a Mediterranean sky, children playing, old people drinking wine, giving thanks. Details don't always need attending; the grass can be mown another day. His left-pocket philosophy, "Make hay out of it."
Like onions, we all have many layers and unique histories. What motivates any of us to become passionate about vernal pools or to commute into Boston to practice a profession or to seek public office is a question that can't be answered by making assumptions based on appearances.
One of the most enduring lessons I learned in college was never to underestimate anyone. Back then, I was often caught unprepared by the extraordinary accomplishments of what appeared to be ordinary kids. When my freshman roommate was 17, she devised a system of testing cancer cells one layer at a time by enticing them to grow on the surface of glass beads. Her father committed suicide when she was 12. Once you dig below the surface you realize that, for many people, seeing farther is not the result of standing on the shoulders of giants as much as wrestling down the demons that block their view.
Over the years, this lesson has ebbed from the forefront of my consciousness, but since moving to Carlisle I've often found myself experiencing the same mild surprise as I did in college at what people can accomplish. When I was younger I was more impressed with academic achievements. As I've aged, what strikes a chord are achievements of the spirit a willingness to speak for a minority, a graciousness to adversaries, a sense of humor with regard to a passionately held belief. Therefore, it is especially troubling to see examples of what my husband calls "two-acre zoning of the heart," such as when newcomers are judged by the size of house they buy or volunteers are questioned for their motives. Who knows how many generations stand between them and the huddled masses, how many demons they have conquered, how many of them have basil in their pocket.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito