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Rogers: A confederation of cliques

Aspen Times editor Don Rogers
Courtesy photo

I’m always struck when I introduce people who have lived in the same community 10, 20, 30 years, maybe a lifetime, yet don’t know each other. How could that be?

It happened the other day here. No big deal. I was meeting one person myself — everyone is new to me — assuming they knew the other I’d just met, another long-timer. They didn’t.

I’m less surprised in “normal” towns, usually larger towns. But part of the lore and charm ski towns hold for me is the sense everyone knows everyone. Here’s where even I can go into a grocery store and bump into someone I’ve met.



Of course, this is a bit of a cheat in that the person I bumped into last week at City Market was Rachael Richards, and there’s no way I could not know her, though she noticed me first. It’s early yet and I still revel in anonymity, but in time I’ll bump into people who recognize me more often and we’ll talk, usually about the paper or a story or maybe a screwup.

I expect someday it will be the same at the post office, after I finally finish my PO Box paperwork, and on a chairlift, when I’m no longer rehabbing a balky knee, should that blessed day arrive again. No fun gimping around when the snow is falling so early, so often, and so fluffy. Even so, passing the last six winters in the Sierra has me downright giddy now. Easy to forget even powder days are comparative cement there.




Just don’t try to tell the Squaw Valley regulars, the tribe whose hard-bitten refuse to go along with the new appropriate name for the place — Palisades Tahoe — which does sound more minivan than ski area. Olympic Valley must be trademarked or something.

Whatever we call it now, this is the only ski community where I never had that weird moment connecting people who had lived forever in the same place and never met in all that time.

It’s also where I met Dick Dorworth in person. If you ski, you probably should know him, too. I bought one of his books, Night Driving, at a swap this fall in Basalt from a guy who does and met a couple of others of a certain age and set of interests there who smiled at some memory and called him a friend.

A cool thing about books and authors: They don’t have to be present to connect us.

SLICES OF THE WHOLE

Critics I encounter often presume to speak for “the community.” I believe they come by it honestly and as often as not are trying to help.

I get to have a unique vantage with my work. I’m like that MRI machine imaging a body in slices and smaller sections. My surgeon can see my knee in great detail as well as the whole and can understand it in ways I’d never fathom as he heals me.

If I’m diligent enough, I’ll see more of the slices of a community than most. I’ll recognize ski towns and their cartilage as my docs know my knee because they’ve seen a few. Diagnostically, I can check tightness by how many times I’m the one who introduces one long-time local to another.

No community is a community in the way critics tend to portray. I would say most don’t recognize what they call “the community” in reality is little more than their own clique. A community is only a network of cliques, some touching and a surprising number all but disconnected from one another, hanging by a thread.

SOCIAL PRESSURE

We’re highly-social creatures attuned to small groups through 300,000 years or more of conditioning and no doubt our DNA as homo sapiens. Despite the evolution of the prefrontal cortex, we’re still more keen to connect than let such cold elements as logic, evidence or good sense get in the way. A dark companion is an itch also to shun.

So a whipsaw, then, in the instinct to belong, a yearning most obvious in youth that endures only a little more subtly into adulthood. Manifestations of this are as innocuous as loyalty to a sports team while hooting at rivals, and as obnoxious as QAnon, a few more steps down the lane of absurdity.

We’re all vulnerable, along with such anxiety about reputation it can sprout into crippling mental-health issues. But we’re not helpless, either. We’re also very smart creatures who are getting smarter and smarter. We can harness our need to connect in healthy ways.

MORE PERFECT

Invariably when I introduce long-timers, they are happy to meet. They know people in common, they reminisce, they shake their heads how it is they hadn’t met before, they laugh together. Who knows, they may never run across each other again. Different circles by age or wealth or habits or interests or happenstance.

But now they know each other, at least a tiny bit. And I — the outsider — realize, if I think about it, that I had a hand in strengthening community, that a confederation of cliques just shifted a little closer to union.

Aspen Times Editor Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@aspentimes.com.