Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage — a village is the place. There you can know your man inside and out — in a city you but know his crust; and his crust is usually a lie.” So wrote Mark Twain more than a century ago.
After living in the village of Vineyard Haven full-time for the past 15 months, I see signs of cracking in my crust. Whole pieces are falling off. Life is looser here. Truth pads around on little fur feet, lapping up the crust dust. And where Truth lurks, karma is just around the corner.
The community spirit continues to pervade. The friendships continue to develop. City ways of alienating give way to small-town ways of bonding. I feel as if I’ve become part of a karass.
Now there’s a good word. A karass is a group united by unpredictable links that spontaneously forms and actually accomplishes something. The term was invented by Kurt Vonnegut, who described it as a team that does “God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing.” These people can be seen as the fingers in a Cat’s Cradle, the title of the novel in which Vonnegut coined karass. This term goes right along with karma or even kismet, two types of fate that weave through the fabric of a small population, for better or worse.
There’s much to be said for living between the cosmic and the coincidental. One quality I love about living here I call serendipity-do-dah — the Island way of navigating the societal eddies. You’re trying to connect with someone and you don’t have their e-mail or phone, or they don’t answer their e-mail or phone? No worries, chances are fairly good that in a short period of time you will cross their path in a store, post office, on the street, on the ferry or behind their car in traffic. Somewhere, sometime soon. This easy yet random access makes the Island its own Facebook.
Obviously, the smaller the town, the better the odds this can happen, that is meeting people you are actually looking for — real as opposed to virtual friends or even hard-to-find service contractors.
In winter the post office may have the longest line. In summer it’s been moved to State Road. Bumper to bumper. And then serendipity-do-dah can stop working its magic. My Island friends who know the score about what happens in July and August tend to stay indoors or at least off of the well-traveled paths so they won’t have to engage in that virtual video game known as Vineyard Vacation Traffic.
Summer is transformative. In my short time as a washashore, I now see the summer through different eyes as our major traffic arteries go through a quintuple bypass. I feel as if I’m beginning to grow local nerve endings and find myself looking askance at the summer people (my own previous status), the day-trippers and the tour groups as if they represented another remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My light side and dark side go into conflict. They tussle as if Jung has been dropped onto my yin and yang. Wait, I hear a haiku.
Who would dare heckle
Doctor Jekyll knowing there
Was a Hyde inside?
People go in and out of the stores, jaywalk and park every which way. Kind of explains why only two things come in sprees. Shopping and shooting.
Of course, I am just as guilty of contributing to this chaos simply by inviting or allowing house guests to descend on us and, therefore, the Island. Summer can be like Samuel Beckett in reverse. You find yourself waiting for Godot — to leave, before he becomes the Man Who Came To Dinner.
Guests, however, are not the only jam in the traffic. There is also the summer event calendar to blame. Seems like every hour there are two or three choices of events to consider. Once you’ve picked one, you have to pick a way to get to it.
I’d like to take this opportunity to salute the angels among us, those who do not get hot under the collar but instead put their street smarts on cruise control. Simple heroics for me these days are displaying road politeness and common sense. Heroes come to the rescue by graciously avoiding gridlock, a grand gesture in an age when most super heroes have gone off in a blasé of glory. You have to be the captain of your own fate, the driver of your own Daisy.
Climate is not the only thing that heats up in summer. Let’s try to get along. Drive patiently and safely. As we shuttle our way among house parties, beach parties, golfing tournaments, fishing tournaments, jousting tournaments, movies, plays, lectures, concerts, restaurants, art shows, light shows, umpteen fundraisers and trips to and from all boats, let’s stay cool. If you promise not to tailgate my karma, I promise not to kick your karass.
I look forward to the autumn return of serendipity-do-dah.
For a future column, I am currently researching William Barry Owen, the man whose name is on the seaside park off Main street in Vineyard Haven. If you have any facts or anecdotes about this man you’d care to share, please send them along to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.