I grew up in Brawley, California, which is in an agricultural area irrigated with water from the Colorado River and surrounded by desert. The closest city was technically Mexicali, Mexico, but I’ve only been there a handful of times in my life. The closest U.S. places you may have heard of are San Diego (120 miles west) and Palm Springs (90 miles northwest).
It was politically conservative, socially segregated by class and race, and largely racist. It was, nonetheless, a very multicultural place. No one had lived there for generations (it was only settled in the early years of the 20th century), and there was no way not to encounter people who were profoundly different on a daily basis. California public schools required Spanish classes in the 5th and 6th grades. In junior high I promptly switched to French, and by my senior year of high school I had individualized instruction by the French teacher. Sadly, I do not speak French nor Spanish.
The desert is an amazing place. It’s beautiful, and it can kill you. It doesn’t hate you (it’s not a person), it’s just that you’re a delicate human, and the desert is a dangerous, difficult place. This shaped a lot of my deepest assumptions about the world.
I’ve been very bookish since early childhood. I have fond memories of the public library and the summer reading contests. I first read Pride and Prejudice sometime during junior high or high school, and I remember laughing out loud as I sat on the couch in the living room while the rest of my family were watching TV. I took private oil painting lessons during high school, and was on the debate team and the swim team. (I was an okay swimmer. The swim team was just getting started, and I actually got a varsity letter.) I was valedictorian of my class.
In high school I was in the Future Farmers of America. I learned leadership and parliamentary procedure (and how easily people are manipulated). As part of my agriculture classes and FFA activities, I got to travel to events within California, to Kansas City, and to Europe. I spent the summer between my junior and senior year working on a dairy farm in the Netherlands, and at the end of the summer a “if it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium”-style tour of Europe with other participants. It’s really impossible overstate how important this was in broadening my horizons.