Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On Civility

"Civility costs nothing, and buys everything."

Mary Wortley Montagu

I had a pleasant reminder Sunday of why I love living in the DeKalb/Sycamore area. A lingering sense of small town values still presides in these communities. Case in point: My family and I were playing a round of disc golf at Prairie Park in DeKalb, and two teenage boys were playing in front of us. On the fifth pin, we waited and waited for them to step away from the basket before we tee'd off. This waiting tee'd me off. A bit of disc golf etiquette is that if someone is waiting at the tee, take only the necessary shots on the basket and then move on so that others can continue their game. These rules are not written down anywhere, but are understood by those who play with courtesy towards their fellow disc golfers.

On the sixth tee, these young boys lost one of their discs in brush near the river. Once again, we waited. Another unwritten rule of disc golf is that if you lose your disc, motion those waiting at the tee to play through, and stop your search to look out so you don't get hit. These boys were unaware of yet another breach of etiquette. I broke etiquette by playing first. The rest of my family can't make long throws, so the boys were in no danger of getting hit.

But when the boys lingered again at the basket, I'd had enough. I yelled, "Come on!" and spread my arms out wide, feeling the maximum of my Sicilian ire rising to the surface. The boys perked up in the distance, and when they retrieved their discs walked our way.

I expected cursing, "An 'F You, man,' or 'what's the big deal?'" Some kind of confrontation. Instead, one of the boys looked me in the eye and said, "Sorry, sir." This remark cut me to the quick. My ire subsided. I felt chastened. "It's no big deal," I blurted out. "If you see people waiting to take a shot, it's a good idea to not dilly dally at the basket." Yeah. I said "dilly dally."

Later, recalling this incident and laughing at my "dilly dally" remark, which instantly made a curmudgeon of me, I thought about how the boy's reaction made me feel bad about my impatient and confrontational, "Come on!" Sure, I had every right to yell out, though I didn't need to exercise that right. And if the boys had been typically confrontational as well, I would have felt justified in my remark. But "I'm sorry, sir," left me feeling embarrassed, like I was the uncivil one. Which I guess I was.

The reaction of these boys also reminded me of why I want to raise my child in this community. The area is small enough that whenever I go out, I will see someone I know, someone I know well enough to engage in small talk about their lives. When I was a university student here, I never felt that. It takes a few years to build those bonds, something the college crowd doesn't have time for en route to careers and weekends back home in the comparatively soulless suburbs.

For us townies, the community is small enough that one feels a sense of accountability to his or her neighbor. If you are rude or discourteous, somehow, some way, through the Byzantine networks of karma, it will come back to bite you in the butt. But the area is large enough that I do not feel claustrophic, as if every move I made was being watched and recorded behind closed curtains. I felt that way years ago when I lived in a small town.
There is only a few miles of cornfields separating DeKalb/Sycamore from the encroaching suburban sprawl. Its crime is already seeping in. Let's not paint a too rosy picture. But there still prevails a civility here that is absent in the relative anonymity of suburbia and the city. For my sake, and the sake of my son, I hope it never goes away.

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