Learning Something Every Day

I spent much of the day yesterday in tourist-host mode, first accompanying a visiting friend to bathhouse row in Hot Springs, followed by a short stroll along Central Avenue, popping into a few shops and otherwise behaving as a tourist in a tourist town.  I realized I don’t do that enough; I couldn’t answer several predictable tourist questions, nor could I suggest “things to see and do” that would be second nature to any self-respecting Hot Springs tourist guide.

When my friend first arrived late in the afternoon two days ago, we drove into town for dinner at SQZBX, a pizza joint and craft brewery we’ve grown to enjoy. Though we normally would have ordered the Greek pizza, my friend wanted the Wide Load, a meaty beast with the full array one would expect of a supreme meat pizza, so we went that route. Then, we stopped at Kollective Coffee, where Wednesday Night Poetry was in full swing. Kai, the emcee, greeted us with warm hugs; she was happy to see me finally show up after being absent so long. She is an extraordinary poet, a gracious host, and a political activist whose energy is, I think, boundless. I promised I would make myself visible more frequently, but not until after my upcoming travels.

We enjoyed the poetry, especially the feature poet. She read several powerful poems born of her own painful experiences; many of her pieces were gut-punches, but a few were reminders that, even in adversity, we have the ability to grown and enjoy our own power.

Just a few days earlier, Kai asked whether she could count on me being the feature poet on the last Wednesday of October. I made that commitment, so I shall be there to read my more recent poetry. I look forward to that. Just a few years ago, I would have said I had absolutely no interest in reading my writing to an audience; now, I thrive on it.

Yesterday’s visit to “Historic Downtown Hot Springs” was enjoyable. It reminded me that we ought to take time on occasion to pretend to be tourists and guides in our own environment, exploring our home turf as if we were encountering it for the first time or explaining it to other newly arrived visitors. Not only would that force me to learn (or recall) more about the place I currently call home, it would require me to consider all the disparate things in which others might have an interest.

In Hot Springs, such an endeavor would require me to learn more about the town’s “mobster” past, as well as the era during which it was an enormous draw to people who believed its hot spring waters were healing of all manner of maladies. And I would have to learn more about its time as a baseball spring camp and I would need to know the full story of its days as a gambling mecca and the growth of horse-racing as an economic engine that continues to drive it today. The architecture of the town, too, would need my attention so I could explain how the buildings that are just now being restored (or are in the final stages of neglect and disrepair) came to be.

The real history of a place, whether a town or a state of a nation, has so many stories to tell. Getting to know the real story behind a place forces a person to confront its ugliness as well as its beauty; its shame as well as its pride. I read a story this morning (utterly unrelated to anything I’ve written thus far this morning) that reminded me of the importance of broadening one’s horizons. The story was about the assignment of students to roommates in college dormitories. I think it was the University of Wisconsin that, many years ago, used roommate assignments to expand the perspectives of its students. For example, students from poor families were paired with students from well-off families; students who grew up on farms were paired with city-dwellers, etc. The idea was to expose students to a world-view that differed from their own. The university viewed the process of pairing as part of the educational process of expanding the minds of its students. I like the idea. I wish the private dorms surrounding the University of Texas had done such things when I was a student. I lived in a dorm for my first Fall and Spring semester. I lived in a single room, though, because I had learned the previous summer that my friend, with whom I had already agreed to share a room, was intolerable; a selfish, emotionally and intellectually stunted pig. Had the dorm assigned me a roommate, I might have shared a room with a rich kid from New York or a doctor’s child from Beijing or a poor farmer’s son from the poorest part of Columbia. In any case, it would have been forced exposure to a world-widening perspective. Instead, I roomed alone. My social skills at developing friends were not exercised and improved. But that’s a story for another time.

Though my attention yesterday was directed, primarily, at my friend, I overheard bits and pieces of conversations from other tourists. Some seemed intelligent and interested in history. Others seemed dull and interested in entertainment. Others combined the two sets of characteristics into a slurry of “average Jane and Joe” reality. I wondered whether anyone we encountered in passing might have been an architect or a nuclear scientist or a soybean farmer or a plumber’s apprentice. What stories might they have had to tell? I suspect that, whatever they might have had to say, I would have been exposed to something new, something about which I’d never given a moment’s thought.

All people should be required to spend two years of their lives in service to other people. Part of that service should involve listening to the stories of the people they serve. Not just hearing the stories, but internalizing and understanding them. And it would be appropriate to pair people the way the University of Wisconsin once did (and may, again; I only skimmed the story). Republican with Democrat. Militant atheist with evangelical Southern Baptist. Skinhead with a “foreigner with dreadlocks.” Smart-ass kid with elderly retired diplomat. Man with woman. Homophobic white power fanatic with transgender lesbian Black Panther.

After the wounds had healed and the blood had been mopped from the floors, after the assault and battery sentences had been served, I think the people who participated in the endeavor would be more compassionate, more understanding, and more willing to not only tolerate but to accept and embrace people who differ from them in appearance and belief.

Another friend, who visited the Village primarily because of our guest’s presence (and also to see us and other friends), came over for dinner the second night of the visit. I mentioned to her that one important thing missing from the Village is diversity, both in ethnic makeup and in political perspectives. The number of Black, Hispanic, and Asian residents is tiny. Step out of the Village and the numbers rise, but not to the point they should. Yesterday I looked up the demographic composition of Hot Springs; it’s 73 percent, more or less, white. It would be a more intriguing place, I think, if that number were smaller. Diversity is a strength in every community, I think. And its lack is a weakness. And ignorance of the history of the community in which one lives is a weakness. And knowledge of that history is a strength.

Enough babbling. Our guest just awoke from her night of sleep, so I better get ready to spend time with her and welcome the day.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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