Sunday, 1 February 2009

Storms in a teacup, and birds of a feather flocking together



Several years ago, when I was dreaming wistfully of relocating from Calgary to someplace quieter, I came across a treatise on the impact of settlement size on social interactions outside the family. At one end of the scale, it pointed out that life in a populous city can, paradoxically, be very isolating, enabling a person to live their lives anonymously without much interaction at all. At the opposite end, living in spatial isolation in “the outback” also, naturally, involves little interaction. In between, as the size of the settlement shrinks, the degree of necessary interaction increases until, at some level, the community size reaches a tipping point and interaction quickly drops – perhaps for self-preservation, to avoid individual absorption into “the collective”.

I suspect that the core Gringo settlement of Todos Santos is around the critical size where the degree of expected social interaction is maximized. Add to this potent stew of interactions a paucity of tasks to occupy the mind, tropical heat, and a collection of alpha personalities not seen in many places, and it becomes easy to see why social anthropologists could have a field day here.

One observable effect of this bubble community is how minute perturbations in the smooth flow of social interactions Рmere trifles measured on any rational scale Рbecome magnified. Slights to individuals ricochet off the hard surfaces of our gringo enclosure, germinate in the tropical heat, take root and, nourished by gossip successively enhanced in each telling, grow into full seven course gourmet dinners featuring spleen saut̩ed in bile. Parties become polarized into polar opposites, flashing sparks at each other when they meet (as inevitably happens frequently), all the while attempting to conceal the generated bad energy under a translucent mantle of projected good humour and politeness.

Of course, rationally, this is all pretty silly. While I am here, though, I find myself being sucked into the vortex, spinning storms in a teacup and playing the game while at the same time laughing at my stupidity and gullibility. The observer effect visible in real life; the observer is impacted by, and influences the very phenomenon he is trying to observe. Once removed from this location on the Tropic of Cancer – how appropriate in this emotional sense – the fog of silliness lifts, and I wonder just how I could get so caught up in the process. But for those who remain in Todos Santos fulltime, there is no escape from the laboratory. Grudges, generated by emotional storms, can become ossified, becoming, for them, reality; an armour that is put on by rote each day.

Effects are observable at the other end of the emotional spectrum. Magnetised, perhaps, by the electricity flowing in the emotionally charged atmosphere, some people gravitate into happy “flocks” of like-minded souls.

You can observe these flocks moving through life in Todos Santos and the surrounds as a moving cloud of people, sometimes with a clear leader attended by acolytes, sometimes just as an amorphous mass, always together. Such groups act as a mini universe for the inhabitants, self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Within the group, all is peace and light, a place of haven. Outside the group, people either don’t exist or are seen as diminished, less worthy beings.

The closest parallel I can think of for these Todos Santos flocks is perhaps cliques at high school – or teenage “gangs”. In fact, both examples of behaviour I have described are more often associated with hormonally-induced teenage angst, and associated lack of self confidence, than one might expect here given the “mature” adulthood of those people populating this town. Maybe it is that the hormonal imbalances of menopause and andropause that most of us suffer from evoke a reflection of our earlier lives, and cause us to act like “middle-aged teenagers” as a friend expressed (albeit in a different context!)?

1 comment:

Chris+Lynn said...

Hmmm...think we'll stay off the dinner party circuit lol! Very fascinating reading.