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John's World: I Used to Be Somebody

January 26, 2011
By: John Phipps, Farm Journal Columnist

I have become invisible in my own community. My disappearance is below the radar of ordinary life, but remarkably effective—and all I did was change my vehicle.

In rural America, passing on the road is the equivalent of meeting in a hallway or those faintly awkward encounters in the men’s rest room. (Thanks a lot, Senator Craig.)

There is an expectation of ritualized etiquette and recognition. With our brains’ remarkable powers of pattern recognition, we can identify friend and foe from afar by their vehicle’s features or even, during the summer, a signature dust plume.

So we are ready to wave instinctively with appropriate goodwill not so much at people, but at cars and trucks we know. Not only that, but depending on how the vehicle is driven, we can differentiate between the many owners of indistinguishably muddy F-150s, for example. If it’s a blur, it must be Wayne; if it never displays a turn signal, it must be Bob.

The system works remarkably well, since even nearsighted acquaintances have a chance to respond in the two to three seconds available in passing. In fact, many of us often pause for a few moments after waving to sort through our data bank and recall who the driver was.

Who was that? But this system can break down, or at least produce an awkward confusion. People sometimes change their outer appearance without our knowledge: they trade cars.

So it was for me a few weeks ago, when on the spur of the moment I succumbed to rebates and other blandishments to part with Zippy the Car.

Zippy had been my ride for four years or so, and no short ride it was, either. Sporting 160,000 miles, this faithful companion had carried me all over the Midwest and on my weekly 400-mile commute to South Bend, Ind., to tape "U.S. Farm Report." (I always tell folks it’s like commuting 40 miles one-way all week—only you do it all at once.)

Such long use had firmly fixed our combined identity, much like old married couples whose names

become fused together, such as Danandwanda, Steveandjudy and Johnandjan.

As a result, trading cars was not just an outward makeover; it had some overtones of a breakup. Or worse, the suggestion that I am dallying with some "wheels on the side."

The new me. I had forgotten about this phenomenon. As I drove about in my new transport—a silver Equinox I’ve dubbed the Gray Lantern—I was puzzled by the cold nonresponse and head-whipping glares from passing neighbors as I waved greetings to them.

What had I done to warrant such shunning? Or, more to the point, what had they found out I had done?

Then it dawned on me that I was camouflaged, especially if my hat was worn a little lower or if I had my sweatshirt hoodie up (a surprisingly successful disguise).

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - February 2011

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