Ashton-Kutcher-Wallpaper-_8I had an interesting exchange on Facebook today, which started when someone quoted Ashton Kutcher. Yeah, I know, Ashton Kutcher is as amusing to poke fun at as Gwyneth Paltrow. And I admit, I couldn’t resist. But aside from Ashton, it got me thinking about what I’ve always thought is one of the root problems here in the West — especially in light of the fact that the West is a place so many come to from other places. Stay with me here. But, first, that quote:

“The greatest natural resource in Iowa isn’t the corn, it’s the people…The people of Iowa have a genuine care, and a genuine compassion, and a genuine interest in making other people’s lives better, and that’s a value that you don’t get when you leave Iowa.”

I won’t argue with the first part: from my visits, Iowa does seem to have some nice people. But, of course, I couldn’t resist pointing out that the clueless buffoon who is Aston Kutcher is hardly the poster boy anyone should want for “Iowa niceness.” From blaming the pedophilia victims in the Jerry Sandusky scandal to showing profound disrespect at the funeral of a Rabbi by wearing his team hat to shaming his wife and her children with his very publicly conducted flings, I’m not seeing a lot of niceness here. Or at least not “niceness” that those of us outside of Iowa would recognize. But several people shot back with very Ashton Kutcher type responses:

“I absolutely agree about how genuine people are in Iowa. I remember driving around the gravel roads and every car we’d pass by, the driver would wave to us. And how someone would always pull over to help a person whose car broke down on the side of the road. You’d constantly see people go above and beyond, out of their way, to help others. Unless you’ve lived in Iowa, or stayed there for a period of time, you simply wouldn’t know.”

I’m all for boosterism. And I certainly practice that here on the subject of Sonoma, San Francisco and now San Jose. But that second attitude is one of my pet peeves. In fact, beyond a peeve, I think it’s responsible for many bad things we are facing today on all levels of our lives. People who can only praise their town, state, country, by putting down someone or someplace else or, even worse, declaring a complete monopoly in all the world on whatever feature they are claiming for their turf, are people who need to … well let’s just say they should get out more. Such people may go places and be tourists, but they sure aren’t travelers, if you define travelers as those who are insatiably curious  about and profoundly respectful of the customs, people and geology of new places and open to learning new ways of doing things. Because really….REALLY…nobody in the whole wide world anywhere at any time has any understanding or history of helping or friendliness except for Iowans? Seriously? NOBODY? With that attitude, would you really recognize it if you saw “niceness” practiced by anyone outside of that state?

Again, I’m not here to knock Iowa or Iowans. But — and I’m not going far out on a limb here — after traveling the world extensively and living in several countries other than my own, I’d say that there is a lot of kindness, knowledge and goodness in all countries, states and cities. And when you aren’t blinded by the attitude of “well only in my [whatever] do we do things right”, you also see ways that other people and areas deal with situations and issues in ways that are different and maybe even better, or better for this particular environment, than what you are used to doing.

I’ll give you one example on the subject of niceness. On my second trip to Africa, Andy and I found ourselves walking through the largest urban slum in Africa with a group of former street kids. It’s a long story that has to do with a program Andy’s involved with where Silicon Valley CEOs mentor people trying to start enterprises for the social good in emerging economies. But anyway, here we are walking through Kibera — among people whose entire collection of possessions was probably less than we had in any one of our drawers back home. Yet, we were not harassed or intimidated or even stared at. We were met with nothing but smiles, waves, shouts of “Hello Muzungu” (White person), and finally with some of the best sales advice, I think I’ve ever heard. Let’s balance those scales. Being an Iowan with an operational car and perhaps an X-box and plenty of food and clothes who waves and stops to help someone with their car: good. Seeing someone with material wealth beyond your imagining walking through your slum, while you scratch out a subsistence living and stand ankle-deep in mud — and still being friendly and open and helpful: well, I think I’m going to give the latter a higher rating on the “niceness scale”. And I bet not a single person we met in Kibera had ever been to Iowa!

"We learn who we each are and we start to trust."

A paragon of niceness: the wonderfully wise Wangae of Nairobi.

Oh, I kid Iowa. And I do reiterate, there are some mighty fine people there. But there is also another side of the coin. When I lived in Tucson Arizona as a kid, there were two things I remember well: 1) Nobody had a yard. Even in the rich neighborhoods. People had cactus and yucca gardens, or gravel yards with sculptures either purchased or made from old mesquite wood. And 2) it was one of the most multicultural places I’ve ever lived. I went to school with Tohono O’odham, Apache, Navajo and Hispanic kids and kids from the Fundamentalist Mormon compound. The teachers were equally diverse. We all got along and we all showed up at each others’ festivals. So how did Arizona suddenly become this place of lush green lawns that boasts one of the most racist sets of public officials outside the Deep South of the 60s? Many sociologists attribute it to all those retirees from Iowa and other not so diverse states. They came to Arizona and brought all that Midwest “niceness”. But they also brought their predilection for Kentucky Bluegrass lawns and their discomfort with all those Brown people who’d been in Arizona since the 1500s (if you are talking about the Spanish) or since wayback if you count the Native Americans.

Former Tucson resident, Linda Ronstadt has spoken out many times about how she doesn’t even recognize  — either ecologically or politically — the wonderful region of her birth:

“…I love the desert. I love those big, wide, sweeping vistas. During the time I was gone, developers came in and scraped it all away with bulldozers. They put up the ugliest tract houses you’ve ever seen, which aren’t built to last. They’ll be tomorrow’s slums because people won’t be able to live in those houses very long. They’re starting another Dust Bowl era by scraping away the topsoil. People don’t realize how serious that is. The Dust Bowl was the biggest natural cataclysm of the 20th century, and it’s starting again and no one’s taking an interest in it. They just continue to scrape off the topsoil and turn the desert into a wasteland.”

When they aren’t scraping away the topsoil, newcomers are madly planting lush lawns and non-native plants to the point that Arizona — which used to be a haven for people with allergies —  now has one of the most noxious pollen counts of anywhere.

Is it a stretch to think true “niceness” should go beyond waving and helping a person whose car has broken down and perhaps extend to learning about, respecting and preserving the customs, first residents and ecology of an area? Maybe respecting incredibly scarce resources, like water in a desert environment, and not using it wastefully would be the pinnacle of niceness. Perhaps this starts with dropping extreme attitudes like Kutcher’s that certain virtues are completely unknown outside the boundaries of one’s own state. (And I would posit to Kutcher that he is welcome to go back where he came from — although, until lately, he’s seemed too enamored of partying with various starlets. Something he perhaps can’t do in the suburbs of Dubuque.)

More high desert.

The ecology of the West is fragile and has a special beauty. If you can’t — or won’t — learn to love it and respect it, don’t come here. Because otherwise, it’s a safe bet you are going to be instrumental in destroying it.

Well, you knew I’d get it back to ecology. And here goes. As I noted in the post where I discussed taking out my lawn, perhaps part of the reason we are in the water crisis we’re in is that so many transplants to the West have come here, but never bothered to learn about this fragile semi-arid region and have never tried to find it beautiful. So please, people, as The Beach Boys said, “Be True to Your School”. Keep your regional pride. But also keep an open mind. Especially if you come to a new area. No region has a monopoly on anything — be it know-how or niceness. (Well, except for Vermont and maple syrup. I’m simply not ready to admit that any other state has better maple syrup.) But many places have ways of doing things — evolved through centuries of culture and living within a certain environment — that are more appropriate for a specific place. It might be hard to discern them if you are closed off in your own bubble of exclusivity.

Imagine if all those “nice” Midwestern people who came here had embraced and learned about and respected the unique ecology and cultures of the West? Imagine how nice that would be.

As John Lennon said: “Imagine”.

So Ashton Kutcher, don’t tell me people from your state have a monopoly on “a genuine care, genuine compassion, and a genuine interest in making other people’s lives better”. I’ve seen your new house. And until you show some basic knowledge of and respect for the ecology of California, don’t give me your sanctimonious crap. Because using fifteen thousand times the water you should be in the desert of LA is not making any of our lives better. And we’re not feeling the “genuine care and the genuine compassion.” WE. ARE. JUST. NOT. FEELING. THE. LOVE. Talk to me when you’ve ripped out those acres of lush bushes and grasses in favor of a native plant xeroscape. In fact, I know some guys who can help you.