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That’s my friend Matt, kind enough to go golfing with me. He’s a good enough golfer to know how to help you, and a good enough teacher to make you feel like you’re learning instead of being taught. We’re out for my first round in years, as a practice round before league play starts in a couple of weeks.
We’re standing on the first tee of what I would call a pretty picturesque view of a pretty decent golf course, brown-ish spring grass aside. I’ve started to feel a bit self-conscious, though, not only because I haven’t golfed much since I stopped going home for summers in college, but also because I just watched Matt bomb one down the middle of the fairway, hopping and skipping over the winterized grass like some sort of steroidal and over-determined bunny. The ball, I mean—not Matt.
And, well, Matt golfs. As in, had scholarship offers to golf at small colleges. I hadn’t been on a course in a while, but I was taken aback at Matt’s swing. I’d never seen one like it, I don’t think. It’s like watching an F-150 carry the Dairy Princess in a parade: it glides along smoothly, effortless, but you can tell there’s power there, if you notice it at all.
My swing, meanwhile, is more like an intoxicated clown on a unicycle, juggling, even if I have much smaller shoes. Nonetheless, I remind myself to swing easily but still swing—the kindergarten-roundup of golfing instruction compared to whatever masterclass about spin velocities Matt is reviewing in his head—and hope for the best.
So, I also shoot one into the fairway, though mine is much easier to see, being how it’s so much closer. Also, mine had a bit more Jedi magic going for it, or against it, spinning and turning and bending to make things interesting. A PGA cameraman would have gotten vertigo, which would have paired nicely with the commentator’s laughter and the gallery’s snickering. At least I didn’t hurt anybody.
“Did you say you played in high school?”
Ha. No. Matt is being polite, again, I think. Or, maybe he’s being politely incredulous. But while we drive the cart to my ball—a theme for the day, as mine was always closer—we talk about basics of golf swings and how I learned to golf in a small town, which was nice because the greens fees were so cheap that we could go pretty often on our bikes, but it also meant that I never really, you know, was taught to golf. Which he found surprising, apparently, because he’s seen swings far more awkward—I’m guessing one unicycle, but two clowns, maybe also trying to carry the Dairy Princess. More significantly, he claimed that I’d undersold my golfing abilities, with some sort of Minnesota Modesty misleading into self-deprecation, I guess.
But if the self-deprecation had been intentional, it was out of politeness. I knew Matt was a good golfer, and it had been years since I’d touched my clubs—I didn’t want Matt to think that I golfed. But Matt made clear that my simultaneous downplaying of my golfing ability and my confidence that I could golf in league had puzzled him. He doubted that I would set myself up for a summer of torture (and set him up at the same time) if I had been awful, yet my self-assessment sounded pretty awful indeed. This goes beyond Minnesota Modesty into a downright communication failure, seemingly.
The paradoxical combination of humility and confidence seems natural to me, for better or worse. Maybe it’s because I’m from the stoic Midwest, but maybe more so because I’m from a small town, with its shallow pool of leisure options. At home, if you want to be active and outside in the summer, before hunting season, you’re kinda stuck with golf, unless you find hiking through sections and sections of flat farmland fascinating, which no one does. It doesn’t mean you’re a good golfer, but you can pass as passable.
Maybe this circumstance alone breeds a certain level of humility, because participating in activities that aren’t your favorite or for which you have no obvious talent reminds you exactly how untalented you are. This becomes obvious when you actually try hard at something and still stumble or fail, which neatly describes my relationship with golf. It becomes especially obvious when you try hard and fail in front of other people, which describes my relationship to all other sports in high school. In front of crowds, you can be made aware, even painfully aware, that you can utterly lack talent, at least at some things. That can be demoralizing, but at minimum, it’s humbling.
This flavor of humility can seem foreign to people from bigger cities. Bigger systems have enough people to create sub-communities centered around specialization, and it would be silly to expect them to spend time thinking and talking about the things they do poorly, or that make them uncomfortable. You see this in big high schools, or even when small-town kids go to big colleges: band geeks and jocks generally travel in different circles, and neither has to meaningfully confront the reality—on a daily basis and with people they know—that they’re just so untalented at so many other things. They certainly don’t risk vulnerability and attempt those things in front of other people, setting themselves up for ridicule.
That’s different in a small town, where there are too few people to form many “sub-communities,” resulting in semi-forced comraderie between people who excel at different, even non-overlapping, activities. Yet, this is how friends are made, especially among young people: in the shallow pool of options. Bigger systems aren’t paradise, either, of course, but there is a bigger menu of leisure, and you can make friends with people who choose the same items on the menu, and you can collectively live your lives as if many of the other menu options didn’t exist.
In a tiny town, you weren’t a band geek or a jock—you were probably both, which meant you were neither. And if you hated football—the only boys’ fall sport offered in my high school at the time—you’d better get in the weight room or sit at home.
It’s important to emphasize that this special flavor of humility in small-town people isn’t necessarily due to principled modesty or self-flagellation. Nor is city people’s aversion to generalism necessarily due to elitism or a unique discomfort for failure, obviously. It’s just a natural result of having small and large systems. Many small-town people are more comfortable confronting and wrestling with mediocrity and failure in this way in no small part because their lives are full of other people who are also outside their comfort zones, wallowing in the same mediocrity. It all kinda works out as a certain kind of normal.
As one example, rest assured that the men’s golf league on Tuesday nights in my hometown does not boast anyone trying to qualify for the PGA circuit. I used to golf with people who golfed once a week: on Tuesday nights. They’d come screaming into the parking lots in their pickups, straight from work, buy a sixer in the clubhouse, squirm into some golf shoes (probably still tied from last week), take three practice swings, and let ‘er rip. That was “golfing” to me. Actually, that was the “big-time,” after I got older—golfing pre-men’s-league-eligibility involved kids in flip-flops and too-big Twins caps lugging the hand-me-down bag of clubs from Target. Frankly, for a lot of us, driving someone’s family’s golf cart was our first experience learning to maneuver anything larger than a bike or pedal tractor. Farm kids—at least those who still lived on the farm—were naturally excluded from these casual get-togethers on the links, as they were learning to drive bigger equipment.
Imagine my surprise when I golfed league in the “big city,” population approx. 100,000, whose residents insist is still a “nice, small town.” Everyone in branded golf shirts. Many fewer people drinking beer. Beer sold by an attractive young woman driving a golf cart modified into some sort of battle tank of beverage service, making sales with her megawatt smile under a glistening-white Titleist hat. This is in stark contrast to home, with the open keg at the seventh tee, sponsored by rotating local businesses, each the employer of a couple of the league players, probably. That keg would effectively slow down play on the whole back half (“Back nine?” There were only nine.) as men would cart across every adjacent fairway to get their SOLO cups a hole or two early, or to refill a hole or two later. It was self-serve, or maybe pumped by the guy who beat you to it, probably with a significantly lower-wattage smile, in a less glistening hat, and in much longer shorts, thank God.
No, these city guys were serious. They had decidedly non-Target clubs and watched the Golf Network in the clubhouse. They carried golf bags that didn’t look like they rolled around in the pickup bed all week, along with the 6, 12, and 18, etc. empty beer cans that accumulated throughout the season. These city boys golfed.
And this wasn’t one of the fancier places “in the city,” either; Matt and I opted for a boondocks course a few miles outside of town. Which, it should be noted, was still a different animal than the course back home. Sure, my home course was nicely kept and well managed, but it was in… farm country. Flat as a pancake, though with maybe a pool of butter as a hazard on nine, and a little river of syrup through seven. But flat. Not so much in not-so-farm country, where I’m golfing with golfers, who seem to be comfortable teeing off into what seems to be the Big Sky abyss, a blind dogleg hard left over a hill and over a river and through the woods and you’d better hope you don’t plunk Grandma. Oh, I’d bet you’ll be fine with a five iron, they say. Like hell—here comes the five wood and the bug spray.
I’ll take an octuple-bogey and a PBR, thanks.
Regardless, this just-outta-town course didn’t attract the fancy-pants country-club types—they were just regular golfers. But no one back home would ever call himself a “golfer” at all. There, the dreaded “Are you a golfer?” is met with the immediate squinting of the eyes: “Well… I golf, I guess…” immediately sizing up his conversant, especially whether he is wearing some sort of Callaway apparel over tanned skin, and probably a nice watch. To use the term “golfer” at all is to fall victim to the fallacy of specialization that undergirds the fragility of an identity whose supposed bedrock is a sand trap of leisure. Unspoken in the small-town mind, instead: “I work at a bird-seed plant—who the hell is a ‘golfer?’”
This seems like alien humility to the city person, to whom “I’m a golfer” translates in the native tongue, roughly, as “Yes, golfing is one of the things I have consciously chosen from the dizzying array of leisure options available to me, and because that choice was probably driven by some sort of talent—don’t we all like to do things that we’re good at?—I’m pretty good.” Or something.
This exercise in lexicalisthenics is barely fictional. Some extended family of mine live in an affluent suburban neighborhood in a major metro area, and a few years ago I was informed that their “little neighborhood golf tournament”—for reference, my entire hometown can barely field a tournament during its annual “festival,” probably because people are getting their tractors and combines ready for the parade—had a foursome that was only a threesome, and they were looking for a stray player to fill the void. So I hesitantly agreed, and a relative of mine was kind enough to make the arrangements with a neighbor of his, and even to introduce me to someone on his street who would also be in the tournament, because “he golfs, too.” Which was nice of him, sure. But it turns out that this guy on the street used to golf at a Pac-12 school that you’ve heard of, undoubtedly on scholarship. This guy was literally going to the same meets and tournaments as Tiger Woods (who played at Stanford); the conversation quickly died an awkward death. My experience was somewhat different as I waited to tee off while someone from the bird-seed plant crossed the fairway in a NASCAR-themed golf cart to get his third refill of light beer. But we both “golf,” I guess.
But you see how it’s a bad combination of well-meaning suburbanite and gun-shy country mouse: true, I can hit a golf ball better than people who “maybe golfed at a work-thing that one time,” but I’m not sure that I’ve ever golfed three days in a row, and I’ve never, ever had any kind of one-on-one instruction. Which, if you ever see me re-landscape a bunker with a sand wedge or snap a hook like I’ve pissed off Yoda, you’ll immediately understand. But I don’t “golf.” I just grew up in a place where golfing was one of the, like, six things to do, and where somewhat literally everyone golfed accordingly.
But as promised, there’s a flip side, a paradoxical kind of confidence that comes with that humiliation-driven humility. I, Captain Generalist, don’t “golf,” but I do kinda golf. And I kinda play basketball, and I can kinda play trombone, and kinda act onstage, and kinda sing, and kinda know what a nickel defense is in football, and kinda distance run. In fact, I lettered in all of those last six things in high school. Again, the humility shines through: I did not belong on a varsity basketball court in any meaningful way (which was probably why I sat on the bench), and I stopped playing football in tenth grade, and became the manager instead, which bafflingly still earns someone a letter as a senior. Yet again, that’s the point: I had no grand desire to help manage a football team. (What am I, the coach’s kid? Am I seven? No, and no.) I had no grand desire to call plays for the scout-team sophomores (we gained a yard!), especially at whatever dark time of the morning those practices were (before school in the seemingly barely sub-Arctic, to boot). But literally the majority of boys in my graduating class were on the football team, so, hey, why not. (Also, that meant less time for cutting grass in the fall.) But if I had been stupid/unaware enough to tell a girl in college that I played basketball in high school, she’d probably look me up and down and think I meant on PlayStation, and run away, fast.
Alas, small-town kids do indeed do lots of these things, albeit sometimes poorly—when there are only six things to do in town, small town kids are more likely to do them all. And that can give them an odd confidence, one that focuses on an increasingly uncommon state of being, a state of being that is so foreign to us in these hyperspecialized times: willfully accepted mediocrity. Sure, I can “do” something. Anything, maybe. It might not be very good, though. It might be awful. But that’s okay: I’ve been awful at stuff before. In front of people. People I knew. Whole towns’ worth of people. Meh—I’ll let ‘er rip.
The subtly obvious case in point is this little website that you’ve visited just now. RuralityCheck.com is not the New Yorker, or even the Upstate New Yorker, and my only MFA is my Master of Failed Attempts. But if you’re one of the nineteen people reading this, it’s either because you feel obligated to patronize someone you know, or because you’re able to find at least some value in something that’s overwhelmingly mediocre.
What, are you from a small town?
This is that weird intersection of humility and confidence. Some of us, regardless where we grew up, have developed the humility to understand that we won’t excel, yet the confidence to know that failure won’t kill us. And that the fear of failure might be worse than the failure itself. In fact, the failing can be wildly fun, as long as the expectations were right. In small towns there are plenty of opportunities to hone these skills. Or, maybe there aren’t many opportunities, which is the same thing.
For people who grew up in more specialized worlds, though (the kids who quit Scouts because they’re “hockey players”—in first grade), these can be foreign concepts, and sometimes scary. “No, no,” they say, “I don’t do that. I do this other thing.” I empathize: in a bigger system, there’s always someone better, and no one revels in doing something poorly, even relatively poorly. Also, in a bigger system, there are just so many more things to do—why dwell on something you don’t like, or aren’t good at? The ability to specialize, even in leisure, is a luxury, and many people from small towns would do the same thing, if they could.
But they can’t, so they don’t. In general, anyway. Sure, everything’s a shade of gray, and we all go to specialists sometimes—countryfolk don’t exactly crack their kids’ chests open to do surgery, emboldened by the confidence of generalism. But even if we’re all qualitatively similar, maybe small-town kids are quantitatively different, slightly. Their ratio of willingness to “give something a try,” even a mildly important something, might be different. The willingness to let themselves fail at something, especially not professional somethings, might be different, too. After all, in a small town, miles past Nowhere, it’s actually conceivable that there’s no one else who’s better. Sometimes there’s no one else at all. I’m biased, but that’s probably a good mindset for us—all of us—at least in doses. That’s probably good for our kids to see, at least more than they do.
In many ways, it’s probably just good, period.
I enjoyed golfing that summer in the city, outside the city. I got better at golfing, that’s for sure—playing with people who are serious forces the upping of one’s game. But sometimes, I kinda missed home. I didn’t want to “golf”; I just wanted to golf.
“Do you golf?” Hm. Maybe. Kinda.
Why, where are you from?
P. A. Jensen (@RuralityChecker) lives in Minnesota with his wife and son.