Friday, February 20, 2009

Liberal college towns rock my world...

My family and I had the great fortune of spending a recent Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin, that bastion of progressive values in the middle of dairy country. For those who haven’t been there, I highly recommend visiting. At the same time, if you’ve been to Ann Arbor, Austin or Athens, Georgia, you’ve probably got a good sense of Madison even without having been there. It has struck me that college towns, with the exception of Christian fundamentalist college towns, have similar characteristics that make them seem a little indistinguishable from one another with relatively few qualities that set them apart. I say this as someone whose soul alights at the liberal college town milieu, so much that I hope to eventually settle in one of my very own. It’s just that the cultural identifiers are laid on pretty, well, liberally.

If you should ever wake up one morning uncertain as to where you are because maybe, say, a window fell on your head during a particularly intense twister and your whole house lifted up into the darn thing, I have put together this handy guide to help you determine if you have landed in a liberal college town. If you did happen to touch ground in such a cheerful place, you are in luck, because there should be plenty of herbal tea to help you sooth your headache, not to mention amateur acupuncturists who learned about this or that point a few years ago at a party. Or was that the point for nausea? In any case, if you did not land in a liberal college town, then I would like to suggest that you try to locate one. They are truly magical places. One day, I hope my house lands in one, too, right between a vegetarian restaurant where the servers wear sandals and a big ol’ oak with a tree-sitter in it.

Marla’s “You Know You Are In A Liberal College Town When…” Guide

* There is a propensity of Salvation Army and alley-pedigree couches on porches.

* There is a much higher concentration of Nepali/Indian/Ethiopian (insert virtually any far-flung culture here) restaurants here than anywhere else in the state.

* It is the state capital of Caucasians with dreadlocks.

* The people of the town have collectively (and correctly) determined that a dog’s cuteness quotient is increased exponentially by the addition of a bandanna around the neck and they are dressed accordingly. Dogs wearing bandannas do appear to have a permanent contact high, though.

* Basic public restroom sanitation principles are often held in disdain.

* That sound? It is the ever-present sound of Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze.

* The town’s official scent is patchouli. Unofficially, it’s sandalwood.

* The server at the fair-trade coffee shop has a tattoo on her lower back. There is an ordinance requiring the tattoo and its placement.

* The chakra system is understood as well as the local transportation system. The third eye has 20/20 vision.

* The cannabis leaf is an indispensable design element on shirts, hats, hemp wallets, Frisbees, etc. It is used freely and without irony. Dancing bears as well.

* The main retail area sells enough bumper stickers to cover each car five times over, and message-oriented buttons can sorted into dozens of political and personal lifestyle preferences.

* The town has it’s own feminist bookstore, and, aside from a period ranging from 1978 through 1982, humans with a Y chromosome have not been expressly barred entry. Still, the grey-haired lady sipping tea behind the counter remembers 1978 through 1982 with fondness.

* Also: somewhere a lesbian feminist has named her cat Sappho despite her (non-practicing) heterosexual nature.

* You catch the occasional waft of burning sage. Or, hmm, was that…?

* If the college town had its way, Mumia, Leonard Peltier and Tibet would all be free.

* Breakfast is served all day, every day. There is a higher than average rate of cheese omelet consumption on Sunday mornings at 3:12 a.m.

* One’s incense lighting technique has been practiced and mastered.

* Urban Outfitters and American Apparel create the overarching aesthetic, but no one will admit to shopping at either place and instead all claim to have “thrifted” items.

* The diaphanous skirt and dress market remains strong despite the vagaries of the economy.

* There is a table from Food Not Bombs and they very much want to feed you a warm Dumpster-dived meal. Please, won’t you try some stew?

* Palestinians are favored over Israelis 650 to one.

* There is a local natural food co-op and at the membership meetings, people argue about a) whether or not meat should be sold, b) if the guy who manages the bulk department is a misogynist or if he's like that to everyone, c) if they can’t extend more of an honor system to customers, like back in the old days, d) who keeps leaving the damn cooler open?, e) if this is consensus or majority rules for the fiftieth time that meeting, f) can we dictate if the guys working behind the deli counter come to work high?, g) the burning need to remove all Hain products because someone heard that the guy who owns them is an anti-choice Republican, h) precisely to what degree Bush and Cheney suck…U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan NOW, i) What were we talking about?, j) keep the corporations out! k) the vegans are threatening a walk-out unless the first discussion item is addressed.

I love liberal college towns!

Shalom, everyone.


  1. Me too. Me too! Where I live there are pockets like that. There are some small islands around here that are very hippy and hipster but unfortunately the wealthy from Canada, the US and Germany have discovered that there is beautiful waterfront real estate being wasted on hippies and the nature of these islands is changing. Saltspring Island is managing to be wealthy hippie/artsy, which makes it a pleasant place to visit and somewhat like a university (or as you say, college) town.

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