Weeds: Rural rules of social interaction

I live on a farm. Pretty much it’s the wife, the kid, and me out here. I don’t get to town much. There’s church, and a couple times a year we go in for supplies: sugar, flour, cooking oil. When I get to town, there are all these people there. I don’t do well around people.

OK, it’s not quite that bad. I do spend a lot of my life on the farm. And a trip to our small town offers challenges. When I am in town, I can’t just put my head down and run my errands. There’s all those darn people.

There are three types of people around here: people I know, people I kind of know, and people I sort of know. The people I know, I have to talk to. The others get some type of greeting. It might be a “Hi, how’re you doing?” Or it might be a simple nod.

If I’m driving through town, there is protocol for that, too. If I see someone I kind of know, I need only give them a wave of the index finger. But if I see someone that I know-know, they get the horn-tap. For the proper horn-tap, you strike the horn on your steering wheel with a sudden, quick fist. It’s not really a “beep.” It’s more of a “bep.”

Sometimes I end up standing next to my fellow man or woman, perhaps at the checkout at Schutz Foods or the counter at NAPA. It always seemed weird to me to not acknowledge a person who is 12 inches away. Often this precipitates small talk.

“Small” talk is held in disdain by some. I’ve never felt that way. I’m a farmer; fuel prices and the weather are big deals to me. And if we end up talking about the Twins, we’re going to sound at least as intelligent as most radio talk show hosts. Besides, I’ve heard a lot of “large” talk by politicians that pales in comparison to some “small” talk I hear at Miller-Sellner.

This is all situational, of course. If I’ve got 40 acres to plant before a five-inch rain, I might hasten the process. Or if it’s 20-below and we’re on the sidewalk, we might shorten the conversation. Regardless, one can’t walk past a human being in a small town like one walks past a tree. Besides, there’s a pretty good chance one is related to them.

While I can yap with the best of them about how much rain fell last night, there is one question that always throws me for a loop. Sometimes people ask me, innocently enough, “How are you?”

What kind of question is that? Some people answer with a peppy, “Hey, I’m great! I couldn’t be better!” I figure they’ve been drinking or are delusional. Life isn’t great; life is complicated. If it was “great,” it would probably get dull quickly.

How am I? How much time do you have? Let’s see:

I. Farm

A. Markets

B. Crop conditions

C. Weather

II. Family

A. Wife

B. Daughters and son

III. Mental state of being

IV. Health

V. And on and on

OK. How about, “Fine. How are you?”

The great fear in a small town is to appear standoffish, uppity. Behind that is the idea that you might fancy yourself better than someone else. “Who do they think they are anyway?” In that way, small towns serve to “level” us, like some sort of social tillage implement. Those who stand above get smoothed over, like ridges in a plow-field.

Of course in this leveling, small towns have the reputation for suppressing those who are exceptional. I suppose there’s some truth to that. But it seems to me that even if you are so gifted, you can still be pleasant to the Old Guy standing next to you at Cenex. A dollop of humbleness never killed anyone.

There. I sound like an Old Guy. Whippersnappers.

I get in trouble when I go to the Cities. As I walk through hordes of people after a ballgame or a concert, I am an alien on a strange planet. I can’t walk through going, “Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi.” I find myself at least glancing up at people. Then, when I strike up a conversation with a stranger at the concession stand, my kids think I’m weird.

When I am at some event in the big city, often I run into someone I know. That always does my heart good; the world doesn’t seem so large. But I guess I’m going to have to live with the fact that I’m not going to know all seven billion people on Earth. That depresses me; somewhere in Asia or Africa, there might be someone who thinks I’m funny.

Of the seven billion, we only end up knowing a tiny percentage. But here and there we cross paths with many more of them: on the streets, in lines, seated next to. Most of our interactions with these others are throwaway moments, seemingly inconsequential. Probably we are thinking about something else.

We get lots of advice on how to be around others: be a good friend, respect your elders, love your enemy. But what about the person we pass on the sidewalk or stand next to at Hardee’s? Might we also be judged in these small, incidental moments? Might some of these be the “least of my brothers” Jesus refers to? I’m not suggesting we go around hugging everyone we meet, but perhaps a smile might be a well-placed seed in someone’s day.

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