A little bit of self-consciousness in a small town goes a long way

In rural communities, we’re quicker to see our impacts on others

Last weekend, I drove to the coast to reconnect with some friends, and for the first time in my back-and-forths, picked up a friend who lives in the Keremeos area, population 2,500 in the winter, perhaps even double that in prime fruit-picking season.

After catching up – how’s work, how’s life, when was the last time you saw so-and-so – we started talking about what it’s been like moving back to more rural areas.

My friend and I met during undergrad in Victoria, where we could throw headphones on, climb up onto the upper deck of the bus and disappear into anonymity on our commutes to school, to the grocery store, and really, everywhere.

He now has a public-facing job in Keremeos, so everyone knows his face and he knows everyone’s business too. Driving down the highway past all the orchards, my friend can tell me how man bins of cherries or honey crisps each one of them filled last summer (incidentally, last year was apparently fruitful for the southern Okanagan and Similkameen growers – he should know, his family has been farming the area for two generations).

The first day my photo was on page 4 of this paper, I went to a coffee shop and saw someone do a double take.

It’s a funny discomfort that we both shared with the idea of being recognizable, not necessarily because we are at all prominent but more so because there are just not nearly as many people to recognize where we live. Inevitably, it affects the way we – all of us in small communities – the way we act outwardly in public.

In my view, there are a few ways that such a self-consciousness can go. To liken it to a pilot friend’s experience, you can either be an F-18 fighter jet or regional commercial carrier (he works for the latter). Apparently, the F-18s out of CFB Comox on Vancouver Island use the call sign “Nightmare” when up in the air. The local carrier just uses its brand name.

“Nightmare,” in its name, in the object it identifies and in the impact those planes can have, commands attention. (Oddly, as a pilot of a commercial plane, you’re made aware that they’re near you, but they’re so difficult to spot in the distance and at the speed they travel).

Pushing the metaphor a bit, we all got to talking about whether we would rather be nightmares or regional air carriers.

I feel a bit like in smaller communities, many of us may be self-conscious enough to think that maybe we’re nightmares, in that we feel recognized, but some perhaps long to be a local commercial airline. In a big city like Vancouver or even Victoria, it is so much easier to be a middle-of-the pack airline, rather than stand out as a nightmare, and perhaps that’s why many more (it seems) try to stand out in a big city. It’s hard to stand up in a small community and be hardy enough to withstand what you may feel are peering eyes.

It’s a funny thing to consider, but by our nature as individuals I think there’s a very real chance that we feel like so many more people are looking at us than may actually be the case (thank goodness). I don’t think it’s a bad think to act as though someone else may be paying some attention – what we do impacts others, regardless of how we perceive of ourselves. You can be the nightmare F-18 jet announcing your presence (or maybe just thinking you are, but really you’re tip-toeing), or the regional commercial airline that buzzes along predictably and maybe even helpfully.

Even on the way into Vancouver, tearing down Highway 1 against the Friday rush hour traffic inching east, I felt a bit like the nightmare. Having been on the other side, dreading staring at the same license plate for another hour before getting home, I imagined that the drivers going the other way were jealous of my use of cruise control.

Realistically, they were probably just thinking about what they were going to have for dinner.

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