On a winter’s day finer than a spider’s eyelash, I drove a Rent-A-Wreck with a disagreeable front seat across the Mackinac Bridge.

The Bridge is 28 feet short of being 5 miles long and crosses the Straits of Mackinac, connecting the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, and passing over water connecting two Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

As I drove over the bridge, I saw a Coast Guard icebreaker in the water. An icebreaker is a ship that breaks a passage through icebound waters.

For whatever reason, I thought of that icebreaker as I stood in a line recently. Some memories come out of the blue. I spend an average amount of time waiting in line. Most people reckon any time spent in a line is too much, but I don’t mind queuing up. I’m usually not in a big hurry. I never have a patient on an operating table waiting for my skills as an extraordinary brain surgeon. I even let people go ahead of me in line. There is still no talk of possible sainthood, but it makes me feel as if I’d done something worthwhile. Standing in line is good practice for going to an amusement park.

The folks ahead of me in line looked at phones or clutched purchases-to-be tightly. As time passed, I could hear their high expectations crumble.

When my mother found herself stranded in line, she talked to others. It didn’t matter if she knew them or not. She began each conversation with a smile. Mom had winning ways.

I wanted to warn her of stranger danger, but I didn’t know of such a thing. I didn’t know of most things.

I thought my mother’s behavior was odd, but now I find myself doing the same thing. It’s not that difficult to speak to strangers, but it helps to have an icebreaker — it doesn’t have to be Coast Guard approved.

What is a workable icebreaker? The weather is the old standby. Cold enough for you? Hot enough for you? How about this weather? My father said, “It’s good haying weather.” But, just for now, let’s pretend we can’t talk about the weather. The belief is that Minnesotans are stuck for words if they can’t discuss the weather. That’s not true. We can say, “Hello.” Then we’re at loss for nouns and verbs. We need something to open a conversation. What do you say when you have nothing to say? Here are some suggestions. Try not to involve math.

“What do you know?” This might leave others stumped for an answer.

“How are you doing?” A treacherous question. Someone might tell you.

“I hope you’re doing well.”

“I’m happy to see you.”

“Did you hear about the Florida man?” Everybody has heard about a Florida man who did some idiotic thing. Some of the colleges there must have degree programs in Moronic Behavior.

“How about those Vikings?” Unless you’re in a fantasy football league, you might have to pretend to care. It’s bad enough that the Viking players spend all their waking minutes worrying about us.

“Holy cow! Did you see that?” This works best when there was something that should have been seen.

“Way to stick the landing.” This works well if someone with a great sense of humor dropped a slice of pizza on the floor.

“It’s a glad morning, isn’t it?”

“Are you staying out of jail?” Use this one with caution. They might not be staying out of jail.

“Is this your best day ever? If not, what was?” Probably a little too serious, more suited for a philosophical discussion.

“Do you have that $20 you owe me?” Who knows? You might end up $20 ahead.

If you know the person, you could ask one of these. They might think you’re nuts, but if they know you, they are already aware of your insanity.

“Do you think bacon is the candy of meats?”

“Could you share some wisdom with me?”

“If you wrote a book, what would the title be?”

“Tell me about yourself.” A bit nosey for Minnesotans.

“Your job sounds difficult.” Every job is.

“What was the best advice you were ever given?”

“What’s the last thing you hung on a refrigerator door?”

If you need to leave a conversation, say, “It’s been a pleasure,” “I’ll be seeing you,” or “I have to get to a puppet show in Norway.”

Most of us are conversational. We love to have someone listen to us.

My mother talked to anyone, but she listened to everyone.

Al Batt is a freelance writer and nature lover from New Richland. He can be reached at allenbatt@gmail.com.

Nancy Madsen has written for newspapers in Watertown, N.Y., and Mankato, as well as for PolitiFact Virginia at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va. Nancy is a graduate of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., and Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

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