Different people are … different

As my previous post mentioned, my mother has been visiting me for the last nine days, leaving yesterday. As it’s unlikely to happen again in the near future, we did all the local sites, and I think she got a good picture of what life in Pasadena is like.

But that’s not what this post is about.

Last Friday we headed out, with Greg, and Heidi’s brother BJ, to Santa Monica and Venice beach. It was a beautiful day, sun shining and very little pollution, so the mountains were stunning. We saw lots of sights, and so forth.

But that too is not what this post is about.

What I noticed in particular, that day, is how easy it is to fit into a particular way of living, in this case the Caltech community, and almost lose sight of the very different ways of living that other people have. If I had to try to describe life at Caltech in Pasadena, I would say that it’s a very comfortable, but somewhat insular life. There is little division in people’s lives between work, leisure and spending time with friends — inevitably, whenever some people get together, others will be working. There is a strong emphasis on logic and making sense, and all things technological or flashy are very cool. On the other hand, there is very little emphasis on appearance or how one comes across — as long as one does or can talk about someting interesting (often scientific), then there’s no problem. Hanging around talking about stuff is valued above heading off to the latest and greatest nightspot in LA.

But on our day expedition to Santa Monica and Venice, we came across two entirely different communities. Venice Beach has a long street market, filled with all sorts of esoteric stands. Everything from fortune tellers to street comedians, glass smoking equipment stores (for tobacco of course) to artists, or buskers to beggars, were there. You’d pass a store selling leather jackets and playing punk rock, then a store selling colourful kitted hats playing reggae, then Tshirts and playing hip-hop, and a million others. The beach was dotted with groups of people playing drums, or guitars, or anything they could find, really. My favourite guy was on roller blades, with an amplifyer somehow attached to his body, and an electric guitar, skating along and playing for tips. Sporting dreadlocks, of course. What seemed to be important to the community was not what clever things you had to say, but how you felt, or what art you had inside you. Or alternatively, how much money you could be persuded to part with, for the art.

Then we headed over to the upmarket Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Again, some buskers and tons of shops, and people everywhere — but now the shops were all displaying brand names out front, and the people were all dressed to impress. Groups of teenagers would wander past, chatting about the latest and greatest fashions, or young business people would stride by, chatting on cellphones. Perhaps I should be ashamed of this, but there was something alluring in the crowds of attractive people, with a sense of unlimited possibilities that come with opportunity.

What is the moral of this meandering story? In that one day I saw three entirely different choices of lifestyle that people had made. I’m not going to say one or another is better, and in fact I don’t think it IS possible to make that judgement. What stood out for me was that here were three different ways of living one’s life, all equally valid and plausible, but very different.

It is all too easy to become trapped in a mindset that dictates that only one sort of thing is the most valuable — at Caltech, that would rationality and the scientific method, say. But we should not forget, or look down at, people who decide that feeling and art, or alternatively the pursuit of personal success and aesthetics through fashion, are more valuable to them.

And let’s not even talk about Muscle Beach.