LOCAL VIEW —THE LITTLE CHILL—

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Yesterday was another lovely day of unseasonable warmth, until around three in the afternoon, when a cold front charged through with just enough of a mist to make burning leaves unwise.  I probably could have gotten a fire going and burned leaves, but repaired the windows in the stable the goats have wrecked instead.  If you try to burn leaves when they are damp they tend to smolder and make A.) amazing amounts of smoke B.) the neighbors complain.

I have to be careful about annoying neighbors. Times have changed, since the days when  our farm was one of only eight houses on a mile of road, back in the 1960’s. Now there are fifty, and the dead end road was made into a through street, and the farm is starting to feel like an island of country in suburbia.

I tend to ask gruff questions, such as, “What did you move to the country for, if you don’t like cows?” My wife is far more diplomatic, and often gives me a certain glance, when she thinks I am going to ask one of my questions.  It is just as effective as putting her finger up to her lips. In such cases I have to come here to my blog to grouse, if I want to grouse.

At times it seems to me that people who move to the country don’t actually like the country. Instead they are running away from the mess they made in their past. Of course, as they are part of the past problems, they bring their problems with them, including a rather glaring inability to get along with neighbors.

Why do they come complaining?
It seems they might as well
Turn their suburbs into heaven
And not farmlands into hell.

In the country people do get to know their neighbors. In fact country folk often strike some newcomers as downright nosy. My wife always would bring a new neighbor a pie or fresh baked loaf of bread, as a way of welcoming them, and I recall one young woman (who later became a great friend) initially wouldn’t even come to her door when my wife “came snooping around.”

I suppose getting to know neighbors was originally important because survival could be at stake. Despite the fact people were amazingly self-reliant a century ago, people also might have accidents out in the fields, or a household might come down with the ‘flu, and then it was good to have your routine known by every person in town.

As a writer I’ve never welcomed interruptions, and have been a private person who tended to keep to himself, only putting my opinions onto a page, and then thinking long and hard before making my ideas public, and sometimes wrinkling the page up and throwing it into the fire (or, in  modern times, hitting the “delete” key.) I figured my problems were my business. However shortly after I got married I had to have an operation just when my wife was clobbered with morning sickness due to pregnancy. (For her it was afternoon sickness and evening sickness, as well.) It was not an easy time for me, as three beautiful kids came along with the beautiful woman I married. I had no idea I was living in some sort of Norman Rockwell painting. What happened next astonished me.

For a solid week, right at lunch time and again at dinner time, fussy church-ladies I didn’t even know would arrive at the door with lunch and dinner, for a family of five.  (I didn’t complain one bit if it often was macaroni and cheese.)  For a toughened artist like myself, who had spent long periods sleeping in his car, in rough places where people are immediately suspicious of you if you look down-on-your-luck, the experience of kindness was unexpected, and completely charming. Like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day.

After that I didn’t mind so much that country folk seem snoopy, and seem to gossip a lot about your behavior, especially your flaws. We tend to hide our flaws, but in the country people seek them out.  What I discovered is that they don’t reject you for your flaws. Rather it becomes part of a sort of resume.  About me they might say, “Caleb’s goats are bleating. He’s late feeding the poor things. Likely he’s writing one of those horrible poems.” As disrespectful as such comments might seem, I understand a sort of fondness is involved, and that, if the goats kept bleating, they’d check up to make sure I was OK.

In the country you have a name and a face, and are a character in not merely your own tale, but in a whole slew of other novels, called “other people’s lives.” It isn’t like that in urban and suburban places, where people don’t even know their neighbors. There you feel faceless, as if you only exist in your own autobiography.

The difference was brought home to me recently by an interaction between two men, one who is a friend of thirty years, and the other who is a relatively new neighbor.

The first describes himself as “a big, dumb Swede,” but I have never thought of him as dumb, and have always chuckled at his outgoing and bombastic humor. We are an odd duo when together, for he is every bit as outgoing as I am not. He asks the questions I’d never ask and says the things I’d never say.  He gets to know people I don’t get to know, and most everyone lights up, when they see him. Their faces light up even when they disagree with his politics, because they know he knows them, and remembers them, and listens to what they say to a degree where he can joke about it.  However there is no getting around the fact he can come across as a bit loud, at times. It goes with the territory. Along with jovial cheer comes some bombast, but people put up with that flaw because he is also generous to a flaw.

An example of his bombast is the fact that in his golf bag there once was an air-horn. He played golf at charity events, and if a person was taking golf too seriously for a charity event, out would come that air horn, to be used just when the person was putting. Sometimes the putt would be shot into the woods, after the air-horn blared.

If I ever tried that I’d likely wind up with a putter bent over my skull, but when he does it everyone laughs. They expect it from him.

He’s also loud when he drives past my house, always tooting his horn.  I never mind, even when taking a Sunday nap. I just roll over and smile, knowing my old friend is out and about, fighting his never-ending battle against the forces of grouchiness with his indomitable cheer.

However my new neighbor didn’t understand. He has lived in the city, and was a landlord for a while, and if anything can sour a man’s attitude toward neighbors it is tenants. He didn’t feel the slightest bit of fondness towards a fellow cheerfully tooting each day, as he drove by.  Slowly the horn became increasingly annoying. Finally he couldn’t stand it any more, and found out where my old friend lived (not from me.)  He went and expressed his opinion.

Because my old friend is such a goodhearted guy, he stopped tooting. Now I see the car swing by, and the silence of the sighing tires seems deathly.  What is it that has died?

If men got wiser
As they got older
They’d grow more kind
As hearts grew bolder,
They’d lose the chip
Upon their shoulder
But fronts push by
And days get colder.

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