When my family moved to Seattle from Santa Monica last September, I knew there would be a lot of things I would miss. I would miss our awesome upstairs neighbors, a pair of lovely economists who would invite us up for pizza, beer, and vicious games of Settlers of Catan (note: never play Catan with economists). I would miss the beach and going body-boarding with my kid. I would miss the farmers market and all its luscious produce.
One thing I wouldn’t miss was local politics.
“But Adam,” I can hear my Twitter followers cry, “your Twitter feed was nothing but local politics! You went to city council meetings and Tweeted with the ferocity of a superfan at a sportsball event! How could you say you wouldn’t miss the thing you cared about almost as much as life, liberty, and the pursuit of tacos?”
Good question, Imaginary Voices In My Head. Good question. It boils down to the problem of local politics: it means having to interact with locals.
Santa Monica is a small city that has seen a hell of a lot of changes in my lifetime. Once a dumpy sleazebag of a town, it’s now filled with yoga studios and kombucha refineries and zillion dollar houses. It has more Priuses per capita, and it will probably have more Tesla 3s per capita once Elon Musk completes his Mind-Bender Machine and enslaves the state of Nevada to finish his Megafactory. It’s also chock full of homeless people begging for change, tourists seeking whatever it is they seek, and a class of politically active residents who all seem perfectly reasonable until you talk with them.
And I was one of them.
It started with the occasional letter to the editor over some city policy that got a bee in my bonnet. Then it turned into comment fights with people over new bike lanes (I was pro, they were anti. Go fig). Then I fell down the rabbit hole and never came back, because I was a dumbshit who joined my neighborhood association.
If you live in a place that has a neighborhood association, please do what I didn’t do and ask it two things: what is your budget, and what actual power do you have? If the answers are “less than five thousand dollars a year” and “we speak for the neighborhood,” run, do not walk, away. This is a group that will suck your life dry. Don’t get involved.
Me? I got involved.
In my defense, I didn’t know better. My neighborhood group got an annual grant from the city for a few thousand bucks, and they seemed to spend most of that money putting together an annual newsletter that a) touted all the great work they did to make the neighborhood great, and b) begged me to join. I looked around my neighborhood, with its terrible school traffic and substandard bike infrastructure, and threw the newsletter in the recycling bin. No way would I get involved.
Until the newspaper ad came.
At the end of my street was an old hotel called the Miramar. It was owned by Michael Dell, and Michael Dell wanted to knock it down and turn it into a great big tower with a whole bunch of condos. I wasn’t crazy about this, because it would have dumped a lot of car traffic right into the main bike lane I used, and, really, the last thing the city needed were more condos for rich people. I prepared to scribble a letter to the editor when I saw that my neighborhood association had joined the chorus of developers, land use attorneys, and other people who would make a killing from this project in approving Michael Dell’s dream. My neighborhood association thought this was a great idea.
I didn’t, and I wrote the neighborhood association to say as much. I promise that I did not use any swears, though I’m pretty sure I accused them of getting paid off to shill for the project. I thought that would be the end of it.
It was not the end of it.
A group of residents who also didn’t like Dell’s project (and didn’t like the neighborhood association’s chair, either) went to meetings and ran to join the board. The chair responded by hiring a lawyer to send them cease and desist letters. Somehow, I got lumped in with this group, which I have written about here. tl;dr: she lost, we won, and I started going to these meetings because after all this effort I was morally obligated to go. (Note: moral obligations are some bullshit, and I recommend not having any.)
At first, I thought it was great. The new board sent surveys to the neighborhood, made a point of going to planning commission and city council meetings, and talked about what was going on in the neighborhood and city hall. Sure, there were some grandstanding loudmouths, but who doesn’t have a few of those in their organizations? As long as there were people doing good work, the group would continue.
But it all soured quickly. I started to dread going to meetings. I could see that the people who showed up were old and cranky and more concerned about where to find parking than anything else. The loudmouths became louder, and one of them kept control of the group’s social media accounts, which he insisted on doing because he was a “social media expert.” He was mostly an expert at posting xenophobic bullshit and muttering about how “those people” would use the new light rail line to come to Santa Monica.
Still, I knew the board was in good hands because the new chair was awesome. She kept everyone in line, she kept meetings focused, and she was a cheerleader for civic engagement. When she asked me to run for the board, I did.
Readers: don’t do this. Just don’t get involved. Not unless you have real power and a real budget.
I saw that the grandstanding loudmouths were even worse on board emails than they were in public. I saw that the people who wanted to do good work were getting tired and burned out. I saw that this entire enterprise was a crock of shit, but for one thing: we had a teeny, tiny bit of influence. That, and I could reserve community rooms at the library for free for community meetings, which I did in order to help a friend’s street safety group.
Yes, residents of Santa Monica: I stayed on the board just so I wouldn’t have to pay to use the community room to help promote my anti-car, pro-bike agenda. Call up the city attorney, launch an investigation, and fire up the lawyers. I look forward to your subpoenas.
Somewhere in there, my wife and I hatched our plan to move to Seattle. As the dream became a reality, I realized I was looking forward to the move just so I could extricate myself from the board. I wasn’t about to quit because of my frustration with the loudmouths or with the xenophobic jerkhole or with the sheer bloody uselessness of it all. Oh, no. Not after all the crap I’d been through to join. Plus, I’d been elected, and I am stupid enough to believe in honoring the wishes of the people who’d chosen me and all that horse pucky. Quitting would not have been right. But resigning because I was moving a thousand miles away to a land that had water? That was totally cool.
Of course, I’m not quite free of it. I still get the occasional email because I’m listed somewhere as being on the board. I still look at the Facebook chatter and the letters to the editor and all that, even though I’m now up to my armpits in PTA business, working on grants to update the playground, and wondering how we’re going to meet the healthy snacks budget shortfall. Big surprise: my PTA, a group that has a real budget and real power, has had zero bullshit. The lower the stakes, the higher the drama, and vice versa.
I worry about Santa Monica’s future, because we have friends who live there. Our awesome upstairs neighbors are still there, as are the kids my daughter went to preschool with and all of our old cycling and running buddies. I worry that the continuing clashes between the people who want the city to change and the people who want it to stay exactly the way it was back in the Seventies when it was a Sleepy Beach Town will work their way up the coast to here. I worry that the aging population of renters will get chucked out into the streets, and I worry that the aging population of renters will fight every single change, even the ones that could make their lives better. You can’t spend twenty years caring about a place and just quit it cold turkey. There will always be cravings. Though, as the months tick away, I find it easier to forget.
What does this have to do with Padma Mehta, and Like A Boss? Everything, probably.
I started writing this book in December of 2014. That Christmas, we visited family in Tacoma and went on a tour of Seattle with a realtor. I spent the next six months working on the first draft, one eye on our present in Santa Monica with the other on our possible future in Puget Sound. As I wrote, I knew I wanted to bail on the board. I knew I wanted to wash my hands of Santa Monica politics and burn that bridge on the way out of town. I wanted to have what Padma had won at the end of Windswept: freedom from the responsibility of having to give a shit about a place that didn’t seem to give a shit about her.
Padma never quotes Michael Corleone’s line from Godfather III, but I’m sure she felt it in the opening chapter of Like A Boss. She’d spent all her hard-earned savings and blew her sterling reputation to protect her planet and all of Occupied Space from the mutant black stripe and the Ghost Squad, and her payment was scorn, a terrible job, and a metric pantsload of debt. When the President of the Union comes to her with an offer she can’t refuse, Corleone’s words probably run through her brain: Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Padma’s not a Mob boss, but the sentiment remains: I gave everything for these jerkholes, and they still want more?
Padma’s previous job as Ward Chair meant that she was in charge of making sure every Union member in her neighborhood got what they needed. I’ve never formalized exactly what that meant, partly because I’m lazy, but mostly because I wanted her job to be flexible to meet the needs of any story. She’s motivated by the desire to do her best and make sure people’s lives are better. Oh, plus spite. A whole lotta spite. Spite for her former employers, spite for corrupt bastards like Evanrute Saarien, and spite for people like Vytai Bloombeck, whom she has to represent even though he’s a scheming, skimming, sack of compost.
If there’s a theme to Padma’s adventures, it’s this: caring about people and places is exhausting, because entropy always wins. But, if enough people come together and hash out their differences without beating each other up, they can slow that entropic slide. Put in the work, stave off chaos. Put in a lot of work, and everyone can have a great life. Sometimes, that amount of work is overwhelming to the point where the only sane response is to walk away from it. Maybe you’ll luck out and someone else with integrity and compassion will take your place. Or some xenophobic loudmouth might do it. Shit, what if the xenophobic loudmouth does? Goddammit, I have to get back to work to make sure everything I’ve built doesn’t come tumbling down.
It helps that the stakes for Padma are a whole lot higher than they were for me and my neighborhood association. Padma is fighting for herself–in the form of her battle with The Fear–and she’s fighting for her neighborhood, her planet, and for everyone else who’s getting screwed by the Big Three. Shaking my tiny fist at Michael Dell’s condos is nowhere near the same scale as Padma’s efforts; they also make for a boring story. But I’m sure plenty of my own desires to say “Screw you guys, I’m out of here” and walk away leaked into Padma. As I wrote Like A Boss, I was looking at my family’s future bolthole in the Pacific Northwest, just as Padma looked at her beloved distillery. They were both far removed from our day-to-day surroundings, which, to be frank, sucked. Going to meetings, dealing with the endless litany of “What Can We Do?”, and rallying people to show up and do something is a pain in the ass. Padma, at least, could buy people off with rum.
And, as weird as this sounds, I’m glad I’m now buried in PTA stuff, because it’s work that matters. It’s also easier, because I’m not going to upset anyone by saying that it’s important to raise money for books, art instruction, food, the school nurse. There’s no risk in doing that. There probably wasn’t a risk by telling people that their complaints about parking were ridiculous, but I just didn’t feel like having that confrontation. Padma would have laughed in those people’s faces and told them to get off their lazy backsides and walk. If that makes her my Mary Sue, I’ll take it.
That need to stand up and say “No, that’s wrong, and that’s also bullshit” is hard to shake. It’s hard for Padma, even before Letty comes to her with a deal to erase her massive debt. It’s hard not to care, not to demand a better future. Or it’s hard for me and Padma. Plenty of people don’t give a fig about anthropocentric climate change or rolling back civil rights or the plight of refugees or any of the other giant problems of the world. It takes effort and time and money, and not all of us have enough to spare. Everyone has the same twenty-four hours a day to spend, and most people would rather spend it Not Giving A Shit.
I don’t blame them. Giving A Shit can be overwhelming and exhausting. It can also be boring as hell. Who wants to go to a city council meeting on a work night and wait through the endless drone of lawyers and cranks just for the opportunity to tell a group of bored people that you think this construction project should include protected bike lanes? Who wants to be bored when there’s a new season of UFO Archaeologists available on Netflix?
…where was I?
Right! Padma, neighborhood councils, and Giving A Shit. They’re all tied together. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes it’s a disaster. Usually, it’s a situation somewhere in between. Give as much of A Shit as you’re able, because your future depends on it. Even something as small as writing a letter, making a phone call, or asking someone about that new, mysterious factory on the edge of town, you know, the one that glows at night and makes sounds like the shrieking of a thousand tormented souls can make a difference. Small differences add up to big differences, and that big difference can mean a new park, a corrupt politician getting indicted, or getting that soul-harvesting factory rezoned. Being a citizen requires effort, and effort is a pain in the ass, but so is the horrible, entropic future that awaits us all. Better to do something about it.
Man, that ended on a much darker note than I’d planned.