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Cambria is as much a melting pot as New York or San Francisco.  Within the community there are artists and farmers, small business owners and the people who staff and run the many shops, restaurants and hotels that cater to the large visitor population that fuels Cambria’s economy.  There are retirees of all backgrounds, and young (though not so many) families who have chosen to build their futures here. Vineyards, microbreweries and tasting rooms share their own creativity, offering inviting places for people to meet and experience liquid art. The hills surrounding the town are dotted with farms and ranches, with cows lowing mere yards from the beautiful PCH or following well-worn paths up and through the hills and canyons.  At times I find myself thinking, as I take in the unreal beauty, that it looks like a painting.  Life not imitating, but being ART.

And beauty is beauty.  The coastline may be on the wrong side of the continent, and the pine trees look different, but the infinite wonder of the clear night sky over the rumbling ocean is as inspiring as a high winter sky illuminating crunchy snowfields and frozen lakes.  Beauty.

 Doctor’s Appointment

When not gazing at the sky, I enjoy talking to people from all parts of the community.  I have long wanted to have a conversation with Doctor Elizabeth Bettenhausen, Ph.D.  Ms. Bettenhausen is a frequent contributor to the ongoing dialog that fills the Vet’s Hall every fourth Thursday of the month. She speaks with an endearing combination of poetry, reverence for nature and education but then easily pivots to a rapid-fire statistical precision (often flavored with the tone of incredulity) that can make a listener sit up and pay attention or chuckle in admiration as she weaves her narrative.  She is always well-prepared, and though her facts and figures sometimes add up to disputable conclusions, she remains open to feedback and discussion.  She has a great mix of ego, passion, curiosity and desire to bring positive action to difficult situations.  In a series of exchanges on social media, we expressed very different views on “how much is too much” interaction with the staff of the CCSD. Anyone who spends more than eighty-four seconds on Facebook knows that more often than not these exchanges lead to less than polite endings.  Ms. Bettenhausen took a different path, inviting me to join her for coffee or tea and a discussion of the issues and the information that led us to our different conclusions. It took a few months to make that meeting happen, though we did run into each other at the Cookie Crock (I just love typing “Cookie Crock”) and at the Vet’s Hall.

I had two CCSD-related questions I really wanted to ask her.  The first question, based on a sentiment that has been expressed by some community members – was pointed and direct – “do you think that the Board is corrupt?”  And the second, and more interesting question to me – “why do you engage so deeply with the issues of the CCSD?”

Outside Benches, Inside Voices

We finally scheduled a time to meet before a special Board meeting. We connected, sans refreshments, on a beautifully sunny afternoon, coming together on the benches outside the Joslyn Center a moonstone’s throw from the Vet’s Hall. Our discussion began as most first conversation begin in this town – “what brought you to Cambria?”  This usually leads to a fun exchange of stories, but in this instance it laid a bit of a foundation for the discussion that followed.

Elizabeth  Bettenhausen is a passionate environmentalist, and a more passionate advocate for education. She devotes a good amount of her time as a volunteer at Cambria’s grammar school, helping the kids with everything from reading to understanding our natural world and the fragility of our environment. She teaches them about our responsibilities in sustaining all that it is.

As much as she is a passionate environmentalist, she is equally an advocate for Social Justice.  This led our conversation back to the reasons we chose Cambria, and the layers of social complexity that both knits the community together and keeps it separated.  After a bit of background and personal history exchanges, Ms. Bettenhausen brought the conversation back to that initial question, and examined it through the lens of her experiences.

Ms. Bettenhausen shared her experiences working with the kids in the grammar school, and highlighted some of the divisions within the community that play out in the classroom.  She spoke about the distance between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities, and between the different tiers of economic advantage.  We touched on the various “sub-cultures” that make up the community, and what each tribe saw as their vision for the town.  We spoke about the realities of the social ills that affect all communities regardless of size, location or economic status.  The painful and not always obvious darkness of drug abuse and the associated impacts on families and communities seem to bring the same pain and destruction whether in Cambria California or Katonah, New York.  Poverty in Paso Robles hurts as much as poverty in Bridgeport Connecticut.

We spoke of faith both learned and earned, and of the beliefs we examined, lived and ultimately rejected. And we discussed the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us.

Three o’clock suddenly tapped us on the shoulder, so we began our walk towards the Vet’s Hall. I remembered I hadn’t asked Elizabeth (by now I am comfortable using her first name) the two questions that had been clanging around in my brain for weeks and weeks. I  I’m glad I didn’t open our conversation with them;  the discussion might have gone a completely different way.

(Oh, by the way, the answers were “No – perhaps not fully competent, but not corrupt” and “I believe it’s my responsibility as a member of the community.”)

Doctor Two

As if talking to one gifted teacher wasn’t enough, I had the unexpected pleasure of joining a discussion with another local legend, Bill Bianchi, Ph.D. I’m sure a lot of people in the community are familiar with Bill’s work; a Google search will lead you to a range of his writings.  Worth a spin!

We were attending a social function filled with impressive locals from all backgrounds.  Bill was quietly sitting at table, engaged in general discussions about a range of things. As often happens around here, the conversation turned to water – a subject Bill knows a little bit about.  With a Doctorate in Soil Physics, his expertise runs deeper that the local aquifers.  In a quiet, light voice he walked us all through the fascinating history of water issues that have always been part of the California story. Bill blended his academic work and knowledge of local history with deep technical and statistical data wrapped in a very humanistic spirit and served up an education that put local water issues into a bigger context. Bill shared his experience and expertise is such a casual, inclusive manner that learning didn’t hurt at all!

Calm Tops Calamity

So many topics often become nothing more than ragged noise fueled by parochial passions that over time blur fact, fiction and feeling and lead listeners far from the kernel.  Both of these discussions reminded me that passion met with education and a thoughtful soul, delivered without arms in hand are so much more inspiring than red-faced and hard-hearted denial of different thoughts and perspectives.

Thank you, Doctors!