The Many Santa Fes

The longer you live in a place, the more you see its different sides. I suppose that’s an obvious truism, but one that also rests on how much you throw yourself into various social strata and subcultures. Me, being basically a boring kind of guy, I’ve only immersed myself in a few, and the rest I just observe from the sidelines.

Last night I tasted two of those somewhat self-contained worlds, as I went from the rarefied air of academia, courtesy of St. John’s College, to the wild and wooly music-and-booze scene that is the Cowgirl on any weekend night. Over the past three-plus years, I’ve spent more time at the latter than the former, I must admit, but last night—most likely because I was flying solo—I felt more comfortable at the college.

Scenes from last year's

Scenes from last year’s

Jazz on the Hill

Jazz on the Hill

St. John’s, our St. John’s, is an offshoot of the original that was founded in Annapolis more than 300 years ago. Its curriculum is built around the “Great Books” of Western Civilization; students read and intensely discuss (I imagine, since I’ve never sat in on a class) everything from Plato and Ptolemy to Kierkegaard and Schrodinger. Students also take ancient Greek and modern French. The emphasis, not surprisingly, is on critical thinking and the clear expression of ideas—the epitome of liberal arts education. It’s the anti-Scott Walker curriculum, and I’m glad we have a St. John’s here, even if I don’t take full advantage of the programs it offers the community (excluding the Jazz on the Hill concert series, which is a great way to spend a summer evening). And in a nod to Asia, the Santa Fe campus offers a master’s in Eastern Classics, an even more practical academic pursuit (and one I would love to take, though the part about learning Sanskrit, I don’t know…).

I went to the school last night to hear a talk about Abraham Lincoln, and yes, I know, that’s a mighty exciting way to spend a Friday night. Being single, poor, and a history nerd will do that to you. I hope to write about the talk itself on my other blog, over at my “professional” website.

I walked in the student center and saw two guys playing chess, which I know happens at UConn and other state schools all the time on the weekends. Tying into the emphasis on classics, there were Greek sayings on the walls, and even Greek numerals on the clocks. Outside the lecture hall, coffee and tea was available for anyone who wanted it (hey, why not, when undergraduate tuition comes in at a little over $47k). Inside the hall, the audience seemed to be mostly faculty and students, though there may have been a few other townies. When the guest lecturer walked in, the folks who know the ritual stood up, as a sign of respect. Not wanting to be the rube, I followed suit, and we repeated the gesture at the conclusion as well.

Sitting in the hall of this pretty exclusive private college, I couldn’t help but think: Santa Fe has some of the greatest intellectual resources you could imagine for a city of 80,000 people plopped into the high desert with no “major” university in site. It’s the home of the Santa Fe Institute, which attracts scholars from around the world, and the almost-equally powerhouse School of Advanced Research. And with the Los Alamos National Laboratory a major employer for the region, an impressive array of research scientists live and retire in the region.

But then, you step back and look at the attitude toward and success with local public education, and you shake your head. The state, by some accounts, ranks dead last in education, a product of, this newcomer believes, deep poverty and a general attitude among parts of the population that education is not that important. Throw in the difficulties kids from different backgrounds—Hispanic, Native American—have in a system that has trouble meeting their needs, and you have the reality that Santa Fe represents in a microcosm—well-educated pockets of people side-by-side with lots of folks who never even graduated high school (not surprising when the functional illiteracy rate is almost 50%!).

Thinking about this educational divide, I remembered conversations I’d had with people—Anglos—who had been here longer than I had. Santa Fe is a small city, more like a town, and certain social and cultural classes never really cross over. You have visual artists and the wealthy people who patronize them. Rich Anglos who come here to retire, art patrons or not. Classical musical folk, Americana folk, folk folk. The Hispanos whose roots go back hundreds of years and who still shape local politics and recent Central American immigrants who keep the expensive, I mean NYC-prices expensive, restaurants humming. Real cowboys, wannabe cowboys, aging hippies, next-generation hippies, New Agers and body practitioners of every stripe. Working artists, artists who work at other jobs, hobby artists, and every thing in between. And don’t forget the fairly large gay and lesbian population.

Farolitos

Farolitos

Zozobra

Zozobra

Now, is it fair to say that all these classes of people never overlap? Of course not. But the events at which you see people of all ages and ethnicities and personal interests rubbing shoulders, at least from my admittedly limited experience, is not large. Maybe Zozobra, our annual burning of a moaning giant puppet, or the farolito stroll on Christmas Eve, but not a lot else.

Which brings me to the Cowgirl, where I ended up after the lecture. I won’t say it transcends all the local divisions, but the contrast between the scene there—live music, booze and conversation flowing, people dancing—and the staid lecture hall was pretty stark. The Cowgirl is sorta funky, sorta kitschy, but there’s music every night and lots of beer—albeit overpriced—on tap. Hippies come, bikers come, music fans come, families come, tourists come. Anglos, Hispanics, and Indians come, and I recently brought some gay friends from out of town. No one feels out of place, and there are certainly no airs. It has some of the “anybody can fit in” ethos that I think attracts so many different people to Santa Fe, for a visit or a lifetime. Me, I’ll be doing something in between, while trying to figure out which of the many “tribes” I can comfortably call my own while I’m here.

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~ by mburgan on February 22, 2015.

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