I was born in Houston, but most of my childhood was spent in Friendswood, a tiny town just beyond the Houston suburbs (it later became the suburbs) founded by conservative Quakers.
We lived on fifteen acres, with a creek and woods and pasture and horses. Our creaky old house was well-stocked with books. I have lots of memories of riding my horse the two miles into Friendswood to get a coke at the grocery store and other memories of spending hot August days curled up in an easy chair, a fan turned directly on me, reading.
We didn’t even have a key to our house and left the keys in the car when we drove into Friendswood. Everyone in town knew everyone else.
Sounds idyllic, and in some ways it was. You didn’t run into huge crowds unless you went into Houston to go shopping or off to Galveston to go to the beach. People were friendly in that laid-back southern way.
But small towns are a lousy place to be different. What you learn, if you know you don’t fit in, is to either copy the ways of other people or keep your mouth shut.
The only thing about me that fits into a small, conservative, southern town is that I’m fifth-generation Anglo Texan. Meaning I can pass if I keep my mouth shut.
I’ve never been good at keeping my mouth shut.
It’s not just that your social life tanks if you’re different, particularly when you’re a teenager. It’s that there’s nobody to talk to.
I was fortunate in my parents, who were always different despite living in their native culture. I could talk to them. But it’s good to have people outside the family to talk to: friends who share your passions for ideas or stories, teachers who give you a new way of looking at things. Those things were in short supply.
You get very little exposure to different kinds of thinking – not to mention different kinds of people – in a small town.
I left home to go to college at eighteen and haven’t lived in a small town since.
Austin and the University of Texas opened the world up for me. Ideas and people to talk to about ideas everywhere you looked. I was hungry and I gobbled them up in my usual disorganized way.
For a couple of years, I lived in a small city – Wichita Falls – that was just as narrow as a small town. There I figured out that the dividing line between a narrow place and one vibrant and full of intellectual life is not necessarily based on population. A hundred thousand people live in Wichita Falls and the city has a college, but interesting conversations were in short supply, at least back then.
There’s nothing like big cities for providing the ferment and yeast and diversity that allow human beings the freedom to be the person they’re supposed to be while providing them with challenges along the way so that they can grow and expand.
Austin led me into co-ops. Washington, DC, expanded my martial arts opportunities and gave me the opportunity to be the only person of my race in the room (or on the block). I’m still finding my niche in Oakland, but the diversity and culture are giving me more ways to be and act.
Many people accuse us all of living in a “bubble” these days. They usually mean social media and the internet, and imply that we’re all getting fake news because we share things with our friends who agree with us.
As far as I’m concerned, the small towns of this country are the original bubble. The internet opened the doors for those stuck in those towns to realize how much else was out there.
There’s a reason the educated people leave the small towns and migrate to the cities, and it isn’t just jobs. They’re all looking for new ideas, opportunities, people worth talking to about something more than the weather and where you go to church.
Some of them – like me – would love to live in a smaller place if it provided the intellectual ferment and diversity of a big city. But big cities are not just the future, but the present. 83 percent of people in the US live in urban areas these days.
The solution for getting the best of both worlds might be to come up with ways to bring the community spirit found in the better small towns into city neighborhoods.
We’d better leave the horses behind, though.