Queen Walter of the Little Pond

There is one largemouth bass in my pond. By bass standards she is not particularly large, but by small pond standards, I would call her a lunker. I say she is the only one because in three years of observing and fishing my little pond, she is the only one I have seen. The pond is populated mostly by red-eared sunfish and frogs. These more abundant residents, no doubt, fall prey to the patrolling behemoth who I suspect eats just about anything she wants.

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Spring Peeper at Pond Edge

I had just moved to the little farm on the mountain when I first encountered her. While casting a small spinner to see who lived in the neighborhood, I saw her lying along the south bank in the shade, ignoring the sparkly lure that easily fooled one shell cracker after another. I switched to some larger baits, tried topwater and jigs. When I tossed a rubber worm in front of her, she ran so fast you’d think I had thrown a stick of dynamite in the water. That was when I named her after the giant trout of legend in the movie On Golden Pond. “Henceforth you will known as Queen Walter of the Pond,” I told her. “The one who will not be caught.”

Over the seasons, I have pulled countless sunfish and a handful of crappie from the pond, but mostly I stalk the edges for frogs. Beginning in February, there is a succession of them—chorus frogs, peepers, cricket frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs… Year round, bullfrog tadpoles dart from my shadow as I make my way along the bank. I always feel little guilty for flushing them from the safety of the shallows to the deeper water where Walter lurks.

Young Bullfrog
Young Bullfrog

When the water is low I find crawfish holes, each surrounded by telltale mounds of excavated mud, and imagine Walter eating them, too. Occasionally, I hear a kingfisher chattering in the direction of the pond, but he never sticks around. Slightly more frequently, a great blue heron can be found wading in the shallow end and, somewhat regularly, a pair of Canada geese spend their morning foraging the shallows.

But it is Walter who, for me, defines the pond. An apex predator with no full-time rival, her movements and feeding schedule surely dictating the habits of all other inhabitants of the little pond.

In some ways, she is like the giant buck who lives in the woods where I hunt. Last year, on the final day of the season, he and I entered into a standoff lasting nearly twenty minutes. From twenty-five yards, we stared each other down, each waiting for the other to make a move. In the end, he made a swift turn and disappeared back down the path, his ten point rack fading into the forest. Since that encounter, I cannot visit those woods without thinking about the big buck, and although I was hunting deer when I met him, I am glad he escaped my rifle. Knowing he is still out there makes sitting in those woods more exciting. Had I killed him, that ultimate potential of the woods would be lost. Without him, I might still hope to see a big buck, but there would be no reason to expect one. Similarly, Walter provides that highest possibility when I fish the pond. Every time I cast a lure into the deep end, I know there is a chance of hooking Walter. But there is a fundamental difference between the buck in the woods and the fish in the pond.

This season, as winter rains refilled the pond, I took my spinning rod out to see what sunfish survived the drought. Usually, a sixteenth ounce spinner practically guarantees red-ears. I slipped through the broom sedge on the east side of the pond, found a break in the blackberry, and flipped a cast to the middle of the deep end. On my third cast, the spinner had no sooner hit the water than it was hammered. I set the hook and my ultralight rod doubled. Walter dove deep, then shot to the surface. In the air, she twisted and contorted, giving her all to shedding the offense embedded in her jaw. She ran, she jumped, she dove, but ultimately, she tired and I lifted her from her watery home.

In the sunlight, Walter is a beautiful fish covered in rich green spots with a shiny, silvery-white, fat belly. Concentrated food in a drought-shrunken pond had clearly treated Walter well over the past several months! I removed the tiny hook, and admired her for a moment, then gently slipped her back home where she quickly turned and disappeared.

The ability to handle and release is the difference between bass and buck. There is no returning a buck once he is caught. Had I shot the buck, his woods would be forever changed (until another matures to take his place). His presence would no longer determine the status of every other buck in his woods, his DNA would no more influence the traits of so many fawns who begin life in the woods each spring. Of course, being the only bass in the small pond, Walter will have no opportunity to pass on her genes, but her presence will will continue to be felt by all who swim her waters.

One evening last week I spent an hour casting for red-ears while waiting for the frogs to begin their seasonal daily ritual. Over that hour I caught no fish, leaving me concerned that Walter might have taken a large toll on the sunfish during the drought. How else can I account for catching not a single shell cracker on a warm evening with a shiny spinner?

Following my hour of fishing, I went about the more important work of stalking and photographing spring peepers. I photographed a half dozen males, their vocal sacs full of air, calling for mates. At times, I was surrounded by so many peeping peepers and chorusing choruses that traffic on the nearby road was drowned out. I have read that largemouth bass can decimate frog populations in a pond, but clearly Walter has not had that effect. I wonder, though, if last summer was the year for her to thin out the red-ears, might next year be the time she thins out the frogs? Another difference between bass and buck is that I don’t have to worry about a buck eating my amphibians.

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Peeping for a Mate

Since long before this tract of land was domesticated, the ephemeral creek that forms its east border, and the marsh it flows into, have supported frogs and plenty who might prey on them—crows, raccoons, perhaps herons in the open areas… Now they are also preyed upon by Walter—an extension of man’s hand on the landscape.

People who preceded me on this mountain based their decisions on who gets to stay not on what is best for ecosystems, but on what made them comfortable. There are too many deer in the woods because they were uncomfortable with wolves and lions. At the same time, they dammed the waters and added predators they were comfortable with—namely largemouth bass. Now I am left to decide how to manage the aftermath. I am confident the big buck’s presence or absence has little effect on overall deer population, but I am not yet certain of the effect of a big bass on the frog population.

Bass, buck, and frog—one in hand, one in my memory, one preserved digitally, all left to fill their niches, at least for now. Next year I will have my camera in the woods with me in case the buck wanders my way again. I like the idea of capturing him the same way I do the frogs, and will decide then whether he ends up in the freezer. I will continue to stalk, camera in hand, the many amphibians who make the pond their breeding grounds throughout the spring. But as for Walter, I don’t know if she will be granted a second pardon should the opportunity arise. That is something that will require more thought. One thing I am certain of, is that knowing there is a bass in the pond holds little appeal for me if I cannot hear frogs on a warm, late-winter Georgia night.

March night peepers 1

All Things Must Pass

I am departing from my usual themes to share my thoughts on the state of the Union this morning as we near the end of a very tough year. I return to birds and persimmons, butterflies and chestnuts next week.

All Things Must Pass

(But I would like to wait a while.)

There is no denying 2016 has been a tough year. Week after week this year, headlines announced the deaths of our great artists from the too-young Prince and David Bowie to the gracefully aged Leonard Cohen. We discovered that unsafe levels of lead in our drinking water were being ignored by government officials in Michigan. Our primary elections descended in one party into playground insults, in the other party into chicanery. It seemed like every week another black man was shot by police. Zika virus ran rampant. Syria fell apart. Insurance rates under Obamacare began to skyrocket. In Nice, 87 people were killed when a cargo truck plowed into a crowd. And in Orlando, 49 people were killed while dancing, just for being who they were. The year I turn 49 has been the worst year in my memory, and I am ready to see it end.

As terrible as all the aforementioned events of the year were, there is something else that happened in 2016 that might been seen, eventually, as the greatest calamity of this deplorable trip around the sun. If a pattern that started this year continues, 2016 just might go down in history as the year democracy in America began showing clear symptoms of its death.

In North Carolina, barring some radical intervention, democracy is already dead. The North Carolina legislature, in an emergency session (because, to one party in NC, not having  absolute power is an emergency) has stripped an opposition governor of authority, and ensured their party’s domination far into the future. That is not democracy.

While NC was changing the rules of their game, the US Senate was refusing to perform its constitutionally mandated duty in 2016 by refusing to consider a Supreme Court nominee. That is not democracy.

I am very disappointed in President Obama for not ceaselessly fighting the Senate at full volume, then at least attempting to seat a justice without the their approval had they not acquiesced, and I suspect that history will eventually view him as milquetoast when the Union needed a bull. In North Carolina, at least some people turned out to protest, and a few were arrested, but that all ten million North Carolinians were not in the streets of Raleigh protesting suggests that they are not fully aware of the precedent being set by their representatives’ actions.

Following the throwing of our political and military weight at the Soviet Communists for their one-party rule over decades, and at Saddam Hussein for receiving 100% of the vote in his re-election, one might think the United States would be the last bastion against threats to functioning democracy. It is, after all, what we have held up as our standard for two-hundred forty years. But I am afraid 2016 might mark the end of any legitimacy for the US as standard bearer of democratic rule.

In that they serve to create a single ruling party, the legislative actions in North Carolina and Washington D.C. are no different, in effect, than those performed by the Ba’aths in Iraq, or the Communists in the Soviet Union. We did not see jailing, torture, and execution of dissidents in the United States in 2016, and I am not saying that the NC and DC representatives are as bad as Ba’aths, but the brazen acts of these two bodies could easily have been taken straight from Ba’ath and Communist playbooks.

Eight years ago, when then candidate Obama used “lipstick on a pig” to describe his opponent, the analogy was rightly deemed offensive, as he seemed to be calling his opponent’s female running mate a pig. President Obama would have been well-served to save his analogy for 2016. In this case it would have been perfectly applicable, and I don’t think many of us would find “pig” to be offensive when applied to our representatives. When we do not act like a democracy, we are not a democracy, no matter what we call ourselves. We can cast all the votes we want, but if the people we elect to represent us choose to serve party over constituency, they are as illegitimate as the Communists and the Ba’aths, and we, as citizens of this once-great nation, no longer live in a democracy.

If there is any good news in this worst news of the worst year in memory, it is that we do not all live in North Carolina. For those of us who do not reside in that most beautiful of southern states, perhaps there is still time. The crooks who are drawing the lines and rewriting (or simply ignoring) the rules get their power from voters, from us. If we care enough about the future of this great American experiment, we can replace our representatives, and in doing so, let them know loud and clear why we are doing it. If we do not, we have only ourselves to blame when democracy comes to an end in this land.

Following the successes of the US Senate and North Carolina majorities in defying the constitution and denying voters’ representation, Americans will see more of these attempts to take away all meaning from our votes. You can be sure that these events are being studied, and plans are being drawn. So the question is, how will we respond? Will we follow in the footsteps of the president by saying our piece then sitting down and allowing the trampling of the constitution? Will be be like North Carolinians and stay home while our governorships are stripped of authority? Or will we speak loudly and long, will we take to the streets, and most importantly, will we vote to replace those who do not represent us? All things will pass, but I sure would like to see democracy in America pass on someone else’s watch.

Here Am I!

A sign at the trailhead tells us how to get along. Cyclists, runners, horsemen and walkers share the trail that winds through my woods. I call the woods mine, because I am the only one who wanders in them, best I can tell. At least I have never encountered anyone else in them. Others use the trails through my woods. Some race through on two-wheeled machines. Others lope along on pack animals, never dirtying the soles of their own feet. A few jog through wearing their special go-fast shoes, hydration packs on their backs. Those folks need rules. In order to remain safe, get along, avoid collision, users of the trails through my woods must obey the signs. Not me. The rules do not apply to me, because I am not on the trail. I am in the woods.

I begin at the trailhead, but the first butterfly, birdsong, bloom, or memory of an old stump where a favorite fungus grows will quickly pull me into the woods. This morning, it is a purple iris that catches my eye. It has been a month or so since the smaller, native flag iris bloomed. I am not familiar with this one and wonder if it is introduced. I move from one to the next. Iris, deep and richly purple, have me lying on my side, waiting for the breeze to still. Photographing purple flowers can have unique challenges.

Purple Iris 2
Purple Iris

A birdsong keeps my ear busy as I photograph one flower and then another. Where are you? Here am I! Where are you? Here am I! Compelled to answer, I seek out the one calling. “I’m over here,” I say to the woods softly. The chosen lens for this walk is a bit long for flowers, but a bit short for birds. The red-eyed vireo poses perfectly on high branches, but 200 millimeters cannot bring him as close as I would like. His song has no trouble reaching me. Where are you? Here am I! Where are you? Here am I!

Distant Vireo
Red-eyed vireo asking where am I from the canopy above.

A pair of cyclists buzz by from a few yards away, startling the vireo, and I set a course deeper in the woods. Evidence of last year’s heavy acorn crop blanketed the floor of the open woods with the kind of green that is only found in spring. Joining the young oaks were scattered sassafras trees with their odd mitten leaves. Though the showers of the past two days failed to water my garden, accompanying lightning added enough nitrogen to the air to electrify already brilliant young leaves. I stop by a log known for producing chicken of the woods, but find the cupboard bare. I will return.

Spring Tree
Sassafras, years before its roots will be ready for tea.
White Oak
A white oak, electric green, in its first spring.

Wild waist-high blueberry bushes are throughout my woods. Unlike the selectively-bred bushes on the farm, these show no sign of fruiting yet.  On the farm, they are already covered with flowers, and in the valley, the same bushes would have tiny, rock-hard berries by now. But in the woods, good old fashioned plant sex allows the randomness of genetics and the harshness of natural selection to determine that these bushes will fruit later. I suspect that many generations ago, blueberry bushes with early blooms lost them to April freezes, so that trait was not passed on. When these bushes do fruit, the yield will be high, and the berries much smaller, sweeter, and tastier than what I will harvest from my neat rows.

Sweetshrub 2
Bosom Bush Bloom

Another bush—sweetshrub—is in bloom in my woods this morning. Old-timers remember the day when the reddish-purple flowers from the so-called “bosom bush” were crushed up and used as perfume. The vernacular name comes from the part of the body where the perfume was applied. I pick a bloom and crush it in my hands. It certainly smells better than anything you might buy in a store, and is a heck of a lot cheaper!

The ubiquitous screams of red-tailed hawks behind me, pull me away from thoughts of sweet-smelling antebellum breasts. A hundred yards through the woods, I find three hawks chasing low above the trees—diving, twisting, carrying on. I was not quick enough for photos and soon they rise, chattering on the wind, and depart.

Little Purple
Violets abound!

Before my mind can drift back to the bosom bush, more flowers catch my attention, and I kneel to look at a clump of little white flowers with a subtle purple tinge. Familiar as I am with these delicate blooms perched atop the slenderest of stalks, I do not know the species. That lack of information does not lessen my appreciation for their beauty, however, and I take several photographs. Beyond them, a violet keeps me on the ground until a tiger swallowtail brings me to my feet.

I follow the flutterby on a seemingly random path around the woods. Although she never lands long enough for me to photograph her, the journey is worth it. As she disappears into the treetops, I look down to see a white slant-line moth blended so well into azalea blooms, that I almost missed him. He poses for as long as I care to watch.

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White slant-line moth on azalea flower.

My woods are perfect for wandering. They are open and easy to traverse. The trees are young, but the forest is old. It has survived the gashes of mining and the horrors of clear-cutting. It has been dissected by roads, and patch-worked by development, yet it bustles with biodiversity.

Here I have sat beside a newborn fawn, discussing with him where to find mushrooms. I have gently held a just-hatched turkey while her momma watched nervously from a few yards away. I have seen the woods explode with orange when the chanterelles fruit, and discovered lion’s manes high in the trees. I have carefully encouraged copperheads safely away from trails and humans, and watched box turtles flirt. I have taken naps, gotten lost, and found myself.

People travel great distances to find adventure, excitement and beauty. They flock to national parks and forests hoping for escape, renewal, and a feeling of wildness. I, too, pursue those things on occasion. Every now and again, I need to experience the aloneness and vulnerability of grizzly country. Most days, though, all the wildness and magic I need is right here in my neighborhood. All I have to do is stay off the trail. Here, the woods are old, the trees are young, and on this day, all the flowers are purple. Where are you? Here am I!

Lindsay’s Point

The playa was littered with a sea of colorful shotgun shells and brass casings left behind by hunters and sport shooters, but there were no sportsmen there in March, and Lindsay had the desert largely to herself as she wandered away from the group. Part of a bird watching group visiting the Blanca Wetlands of south central Colorado, Lindsay was not there for the birds. Rather, she was there watching the bird watchers, photographing us for a magazine article.

I, too, had strayed from the group and was watching a handful of American coots on a small pond when I heard Lindsay’s voice forty yards behind me. She was talking with Chuck, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee, and the two of them were focused intently on Lindsay’s outstretched hand. Intrigued, I walked over.

At first I thought she was holding some trinket from a gumball machine—so clear, colorless, and perfect. It must be a plastic toy replica, I thought. It couldn’t possibly be real… But I quickly realized what they already knew: the perfectly-knapped quartz arrowhead she held was very real.

Lindsay
Lindsay showing her find to birdwatchers.

The little point, roughly an inch-and-a-quarter long had no visible nicks or chips. It was flawless. In her hand, it appeared slightly milky white, but when Lindsay held it up to the sun, light passed through barely hindered. It was nearly as clear as a diamond.

I have seen plenty of flint-knapped points, and found a couple of them over the years, but never had I seen anything like this. A piece of quartz, worked by a master craftsman into a form that was, to my eye, more appropriate for exhibition as art, than for hunting.

Soon, a small crowd of binocular-wielding tourists was gathered around us, passing the wonder from hand to hand. An announcement that it was time to board the bus interrupted the show-and-tell, followed by an expected but unwelcome follow-up from Chuck: “I marked the spot with my jacket… Time to put it back.”

The three of us walked out to the spot where Lindsay had first seen the point. Chuck picked up his jacket and turned back towards the bus, trusting that Lindsay would do as instructed. Lindsay surveyed her surroundings, as I looked over my shoulder at Chuck who was back out on the dirt road and paying no attention to us. We looked down at the point, clearly thinking the same thing.

After a silent moment, she set the point back on the ground where I photographed it. We said nothing, but I was certain she was thinking the same thing I was. I looked back at the bus. Chuck was nowhere in sight. Nobody was watching.

Arrowhead 1

As we walked back to the bus, I picked up a 12 gauge shell and smelled it. The sweet smell of gunpowder was still faintly present. I thought it curious that this modern tool served the same purpose as Lindsay’s point and, like that artifact, was left behind by a hunter. Yet nobody would have complained had I walked off with this one. I suspect, in fact, I would have been thanked for picking up “litter.”

The next day, I considered driving back out, parking at the gate, and walking the mile or so to find the point. I was confident I knew exactly where we had left it. After all, I reasoned, it is only a matter of time before it is found by another, and I am equally confident that when it is, without Chuck there to police the situation, it will be pocketed by someone, and taken home.

I appreciate the value of protecting archaeological sites from looting. There are things to be learned by uncovering snapshots in time from cultures long extinct, migrated, or evolved. But Lindsay’s point wasn’t part of a site to be excavated. It was a solitary artifact on a hunting ground. I could understand requiring Lindsay’s point to be turned over to the BLM for display in a visitors center or museum. But a single arrowhead lying in the desert isn’t going to serve to enlighten archaeologists about ancient life in the San Luis Valley. Left behind, it is far more likely to end up on that mantle beside a piece of petrified wood, beneath some mallard, teal, or wood duck, to be shown off to friends.

We want to honor the people who inhabited the land before us—especially after the unspeakable atrocities we committed against so many of them, but do we honor a people or a history by lugging weapons of mass duck destruction into the wilderness, and littering the landscape with hunting detritus, then leaving their ancient art in the dirt for anyone to trample, pocket, or sell on the black market?

I wish I had slipped Lindsay’s point into my camera bag, and slipped it away unnoticed, taken it home, and later, mailed it to her. Not because she has some inherent right to it, but the BLM wasn’t interested in giving it any place of honor, and at least Lindsay is an artist who appreciates things of beauty. Personally, I would rather it be on display in a museum honoring a time, a people, and a way of life long past. If the BLM hasn’t such interest, however, I would prefer that it in the hands of a photographer from NY who will treasure it, protect it, and photograph it, than for it to end up on the mantle as one more trophy harvested.

Perhaps, next time I am in Colorado, I will revisit the Blanca Wetlands and go on a treasure hunt. If I do, and if I am successful, I will not write about it.

What Would Aldo Do? TSA Version

I was putting on my shoes and thinking about how much I enjoy the ease and efficiency of flying in and out of our little airport in Chattanooga when a gentleman stepped from behind the x-ray monitor.

“Is this your bag, Sir”

He was looking at me and gesturing towards my backpack.

“Yessir.”

“I need to look inside. Come with me.”

I followed him to a station at the end of the conveyor where he placed the bag on a stainless steel table and typed something into a keyboard in front of him. An image of the contents of my bag appeared before us.

“Is there anything sharp or pointed in here…” Thinking he was finished I opened my mouth to answer, but was cut off, “…besides this knife?”

“Well, shit… I wondered where that knife was.”

“Now you know.”

The agent quickly confirmed everything I already knew about my options, and I called my friend Sarah, who kindly offered to come back and pick up the offender.

Fifteen minutes later I was back in the same line being patted down for an imaginary something-or-other that clearly was not in my front right pocket when the same gentleman from before pulled my laptop from the conveyor.

“I have to run this again.”

No worries, I thought to myself, I am almost to third base with this guy in the blue rubber gloves. Take your time…

Molestation complete, I was presented with my laptop and a question.

“What would Aldo do?” Clearly, the inquiry was one more of who, than what?

“Aldo Leopold,” I offered, “Author of A Sand County Almanac…”

Five minutes and a half dozen questions and answers later, I was digging through my suitcase for business cards as two TSA employees passed a copy of the Almanac back and forth.

“You mentioned wilderness,” the man who had taken my knife said. “I fly, and on my maps I see big chunks of land in North Georgia labeled as wilderness. Does that refer to a specific topography?”

“Not at all,” I began. “Leopold envisioned what he called ‘roadless pack country’…” Another agent, a short woman who had joined us from the next line over, leaned in curiously as I spoke of Leopold, the Gila, Stewart Udall, the Wilderness Act, the Cohutta Wilderness (over which he likely flew), and current efforts to protect land.

The gentleman who had started this whole encounter eventually introduced himself as Alan as he scanned a gallon of milk for… whatever TSA looks for in a gallon of milk. I was stowing my laptop (the one with the What Would Aldo Do? bumper sticker on it) as the woman who had been listening so intently asked me if the Dell laptop sitting in an adjacent bin belonged to me.

I could use a new laptop, I pondered before telling her that “nope, it was there when I got here.”

Eventually, things got busy enough that the agents had to get back to work and I headed to my gate, but not before shaking hands and being offered a flight over wilderness areas “anytime.”

I tucked Alan’s card in my wallet, boarded the plane, and sat down beside a woman named Laura who was reading No Country for Old Men.

“Great book,” I said. “Have you read much McCarthy?”

“No, but I saw the movie and loved it. What’s that you’re reading?”

“A Sand County Almanac,” I said. “Again.”

“Again? Must be a good one. Tell me about it.”

“Well,” I began, “Have you heard of Aldo Leopold…”

Boarding Group One

As I hung my cane on the edge of the counter, an agent appeared through the jetway doors.

“Welcome to AmeriJetWestnentalHorizoDelt Airlines! How may I help you?”

“Do you have any upgrades for this flight?” I asked. “I was hoping for a better seat.”

“May I see your boarding pass?”

I handed the bright-eyed, smiling gate agent my pass and waited as she pecked away at her computer.

“I see you are in the middle seat of the last row… No, I’m afraid there is nothing else available on that flight. I’m so sorry… For a small fee, though, I can upgrade you from Boarding Group Five to Boarding Group One. That will only cost you $49.00.”

I pondered for a moment the difference between Groups Five and One. It would be nice to board before everyone else, not have to deal with all the luggage jockeying, climbing over people to get to my seat. “Sure,” I responded less than enthusiastically to her concessionary offer.

As she handed me the new pass, a well-dressed, greying gentleman approached the counter. I took my cane and turned around.

“Welcome to AmeriJetWestnentalHorizoDelt Airlines! How may I help you?”

“I was hoping for an upgrade,” He said, handing her his pass.

I could hear her keystrokes as I walked away, and wondered why she didn’t give him the information she had just ascertained on my behalf.

“Well, Mr. Dunwoody, there is nothing left in the main cabin, but I have three first class seats left. Would you like one of those?”

I paused.

“How much would that cost?” asked he.

“Since we are about to board, Sir, I can give you that upgrade for only $29 dollars.”

I turned around.

The agent ran his card.

I stepped back up to the counter.

“I would like to buy an upgrade to first class, please.”

I was reaching to hang my cane back on the counter, when she responded: “I’m sorry, Sir, there is nothing available in first class. This flight is full.”

“But you just told that gentleman that there were three seats.”

“Oh, there are for him. He is one of our campers.”

“Campers?”

“Yes, sir. That is our Club Advantage Million Mile Platinum Emerald Ruby program.”

“Can I join the CAMMPER program?”

“Of course! Just fill out this form, then after you are approved and spend $5000 in the first sixty days, you will be awarded 50,000 miles. Once you have purchased two round-trip international tickets, not including Canada and Mexico, you will qualify for your first checked bag for free on all domestic flights for ninety days. If you fly at least one round trip per month for eighteen months you will automatically qualify for Boarding Group One on all subsequent flights during that same calendar year. And you can earn miles any time you rent a car or hotel room from our partners, as long as you make your reservations through our system and pay full price. Oh, and just for being approved, the $495 annual fee will be waived for the first 6 months. And, after you reach 100,000 miles you will receive a plastic travel mug and be eligible for $29 first class upgrades at the gate within twenty minutes of boarding on all domestic flights as long as you paid full fare for the original ticket and made the purchase using your CAMMPER American Express Card. Offer is void for any calendar year in which you purchase any flight on Southwest Airlines. Would you like to be a CAMMPER?” She asked, impossibly not out of breath and still smiling.

I turned back around and found my place among the other waiting passengers. At least I am in Group One, I thought to myself.

A few minutes later, the boarding process about to begin, a second agent approached me. “Sir, would you like to board early?” Her gaze moved deliberately from my eyes, to my cane, then back to my eyes.

“Oh, that’s okay. I don’t really need this thing. I’m an actor. It’s a prop. It won’t fit in my bag, so I have to carry it.”

“Are you sure?” She asked, as if I had made up the actor thing to hide the sad truth that I had a bad back.”

“I’m sure. I’m in Boarding Group One, anyway. Thanks.”

The familiar voice of the bright-eyed agent came over the loudspeaker: Now preboarding all passengers needing special assistance and uniformed military personnel through the silver lane on the left.

Two young men in uniform and an elderly woman made their way to the front and disappeared down the jetway.

First Class passengers may now board using the silver lane on the left.

Nine passengers, including the gentleman with the upgrade, walked down the lane.

Platinum and Emerald customers may now board using the silver lane on the left.

A handful of passengers made their way to the front and down the lane.

I looked down at my new boarding pass and smiled at the words Group One. Any second now, I thought.

Now boarding all AmeriJetWestnentalHorizoDelt American Express members through the silver lane.

Another dozen had their tickets scanned and disappeared.

At this time, all those needing assistance, military personnel, first class passengers, Platinum and Emerald customers, AmeriJetWestnentalHorizoDelt American Express members, and all qualifying CAMMPER club members who have that designation printed on their boarding passes may now board using the silver lane on the left.

The last few specially designated passengers joined the line and I reached down for my bag in preparation for being the first Group One passenger on board. As the last person in line passed through the doors and down the jetway, the agent went back to the microphone. I lifted my cane and took a step forward.

Now boarding through the silver lane, all passengers wearing the AmeriJetWestnentalHorizoDelt team colors of Red, Blue, and Silver.

I looked down at my green shirt. I guess there is something to be said about esprit de corp, I thought with a silent chuckle, as several proud passengers passed me by. Now, it should be my turn…

If your mother is a Pisces…

Six more.

If you are not able to curl your tongue…

Two college-aged women tried curling their tongues, then high-fived and advanced along with three others.

If your middle name is Ruth or Jackson…

“Yeah, that’s me! Woohoo!” shouted a thirty year old man in an Under Armor sweatshirt as he wheeled his bag past me.

If you are shorter than the outstretched wing of this wooden cutout of a stork…

A set of curly-haired twins left their parents to board the plane.

If you are from a state spelled with at least three A’s…

A family decked in Crimson Tide hats and shirts boarded along with a barrel-chested man in a flannel shirt with a long gray beard.

If you drive a Subaru with an automatic transmission, you may now board through the silver lane on the left.

If you have one leg that is shorter than another…

If you color your hair…

If you are wearing socks and sandals…

With each category announced, more people excitedly took their places in line. I was standing next to a clean-cut twenty-something man in a buttoned down shirt and penny loafers who was listening hopefully like a senior in a Bingo parlor in need of B7.

If you have been to the dentist in the last three weeks, you may now board through the silver lane.

“Yes!” said the preppy with a fist-pump before making his way.

Please check the group number on your boarding pass, and only board when your number is called.

Finally, I thought, as I gripped the handle of my rolling bag with my left hand, planted my cane with my right, and stepped into the lane.

Now boarding through the blue lane on the right, GROUP ONE.

The agent placed the microphone back in its cradle and turned to see me approaching. Without hesitation, she made a swift move to block my path, pulling a retractible barrier in front of the lane.

“Sir, the Silver Lane is for our special customers, please turn around and come back through the Blue Lane.”

I turned around. There were no other passengers waiting behind me. Nobody headed for the blue lane but me.

“Thank you for flying AmeriJetWestnentalHorizoDelt Airlines,” the agent said as I handed her my boarding pass. “I’m afraid the overhead bins are all full at this time, so we will have to check your bag through to your destination. That will be an additional $49. Would you like me to charge it to the card you used for your Boarding Group upgrade?”

“Why not…” I replied, as I planted my cane and hobbled forward into the jetway.

Alaska Time

What time is it? If you are like most people I encounter, when asked that question, you reached into your pocket and pull out your phone to answer that question. The age of extending your left arm all the way out to reveal your watch from beneath your cuff, then bending 90 degrees at the elbow to reveal your timepiece seems to be going the way of the pocket watch before it, the road map, and the home phone. I suspect that by the time my generation passes, wrist watches will be largely a thing of the past, looked back on with chuckles in the same way we now remember eight track tape players, typewriters, and marriage relegated to one man and one woman.

I am still fond of my wristwatch. It is a simple analog watch cased in a solid block of stainless steel with a white face and a black nylon band. I wear it less and less these days only because I play a character on stage who wears on watch, and I don’t like having an obvious tan line to tell the audience that I am really Jim and not my character. But I still wear it some, especially when I travel. I prefer leaving my cell phone in the truck, or when I am on the road, in the hotel.

Relying on last century’s technology does have its drawbacks, though. My watch relies on a battery which has died on me at less than ideal times in the past. And when I travel, unlike a cell phone, my watch does not automatically adjust to my current time zone, leaving me trying to remember when I last reset it, and if I went ahead and set to my destination, or to the current timezone. I like setting it as I go. If I board a plane in Charlotte, bound for Denver, I like to set it back an hour when I reach central time, then again when I reach mountain time. since I turn my phone off on planes, I have no place to check the time, and end up bothering other passengers for the time (usually more than once) as I try to keep my watch up to date.

Recently, I flew to Alaska and back, taking me from Eastern, through Central, Mountain, and Pacific, to Alaska Time. And, yes, I was confused more than once in airports where I found myself sitting leisurely with a newspaper then suddenly feeling flushed as I realized I was late for my flight, running to the gate terrified I had missed my flight, then realizing I actually had two hours to kill. All the while, my cell phone was in my pocket with the correct time, but rather than pull it out, I expended my arm, bent it 90 degrees at the elbow, and archaically looked at my watch.

But in Alaska that action seemed, somehow, less archaic. I found Alaska to be a place where not everybody had high speed internet, where people had home phones and got together to play board games, and where when I joined a dinner party, there weren’t ten smart phones on the table being coddled and stroked with every beep and blip. Don’t get me wrong, there was one at the table, next to the plate of the youngest among us, but enslavement to them was not the dominant paradigm.

I don’t like being tethered to my cell phone, being in constant contact with everything and everybody. In fact, I don’t like spending time with people who are tethered so. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like those people, but that I want my time with them to be our time rather than time with them and whoever texts, instant messages, posts, emails, calls or updates.

For a year, at the urging of a friend, I experimented with a smart phone, assured that after a short time I would be unable to imagine life without it. Clearly, I have a better imagination than she gave me credit for. For twelve months I carried in my pocket what seemed to me to be a rather unnecessarily fragile pane of glass that could have served as navigator, movie screen, status checker, shopping assistant, and who knows what else, but instead acted as a phone with which I had great difficult hearing or being heard by my fellow conversationalists. I am now back to a flip phone.

The camera was convenient in my smart phone. I photographed mushrooms and texted those photos to friends for help in identification. I captured young fawns bedded down in the woods, and frogs I rescued from the pool cover. But in Alaska, I found the limits of my iphone camera to be frustrating. For one day, the clouds parted and Denali showed her face. I pulled out my phone, held it out in front of me, and zoomed as far it was willing… Granted, the grandeur of such a mountain is a thing for the soul, not truly capturable by any instrument, but the result of my best effort with my phone was not even worthy of triggering nostalgic memory.

I do like the audio recorder in the phone.  I have great recordings of green frogs, spring peepers, chorus frogs, cricket frogs, and bullfrogs, towhees, and Carolina wrens. And I enjoyed the mp3 player when on the tractor or the mower.

In the end, however, the nuisance of a phone with a will of its own that I had to be extra careful not to drop, or scratch, or even rub the wrong way far outweighed the couple of features I liked. I have an ipod that will serve me fine for tractor work and frog listening, and before my next trip to Alaska, I will definitely buy a real camera.

That is the way I like it–the right tool for the right job that doesn’t try to do everything–a phone for talking, a camera for shooting, and a watch for telling the time.

Following my Alaska trip, I drove to the Midwest for a couple jobs, and that is where having my phone can be a time-keeping lifesaver. Time zones in the Midwest never cease to confuse me, and this trip was no different. Indiana, on time zone map, appears to be wearing an Eastern Time Zone thong, and it makes no sense whatsoever that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan  is not Central Time.

Point is that if I relied on my wrist watch while driving through the route I took up to Wisconsin for one job, over the UP and down to Roscommon, MI for the next, then around the south shore of Lake Michigan to the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows for my last gig, I would have been either late or early for everything! Having a phone that automatically sets itself to local time is, at times, a godsend. Nevertheless, without thinking, I pulled my watch out of the console and strapped it to my wrist as I began that final leg.

I planned a leisurely drive down the shore, stopping here and there to see the lake, sip coffee, stroll through small towns before beginning the stressful descent into Chicago. I wasn’t due in Rolling Meadows until supper time, and if I timed it right, the drive should only take me three hours. I had time to relax and It would be nice to know the time without having to carry my phone.

I looked at my watch. Eight o’clock? That’s not right, I thought. Battery must have died. No worries. I had plenty of time.

Stopping for a late morning cup of coffee in Benton Harbor, I turned to the barista in the lakeside cafe. “Do you know where I can get a watch battery replaced?” I asked, extending my arm, bending it 90 degrees at the elbow, and looking at my watch as if she needed a grand gesticulation in order to understand my question. “You see, I need to time my approach to Chicago, and my watch died at exactly… uh… never mind, I’ll have a cup of decaf with room for cream and one of those scones, please,” I said.
I walked back out to the truck and retrieved my cell phone. It was 12:56 pm in Michigan. I looked back at my watch. It was 8:56… in Alaska.

Navigating Chicagoland traffic is never fun, and I wanted to hit 80/94 at the right time to minimize my stress level and blood pressure escalation. The Metropolitan Chicago area has, last time I checked, around 9.7 million people in just under 11,000 square miles, compared with fewer than 750,000 people in 663,300 square miles in Alaska. While we’re talking numbers, I did a little research on the the Googlewebs before going to Alaska. Along with the three-quarters of a million people, there are roughly 130,000 bears in our largest state. Chicago has only 53, and they all live in Soldier Field. To my tastes (and for my blood pressure) the circling ratios of acreage to people, people to bears, and bears to acreage in Alaska wins hands down!

Later, as I jockeyed for the cash-only tollbooth lane, I felt my blood pressure rising, my chest tightening. I checked both mirrors then remove my left hand from the wheel and turned my wrist towards me.
My watch read 10:30, but I didn’t care what time it was. It didn’t matter, I was bound to whatever the traffic willed. But seeing that reminder on my wrist of a far off place where traffic is more likely to stop for wildlife than toll booths gave me a smile and a brief calm. As I slowed to pay my toll, I did some quick, rough math. For every five square miles in Alaska, there are roughly four people and one bear who I suspect carries neither phone nor wrist watch.

Why I Did Not Miss Facebook One Bit, and Why I Went Back in Just a Few Hours Anyway

It took one day. That is all it took. In fact it was really just a few hours before I realized that I do not miss it one stinking little bit. I awoke this morning, started my grits, poured a glass of milk, checked my email, took a shower, and never even thought about it.
During my breakfast, I did not miss the How Well Do You Know Beatles Lyrics? and Which Christian Denomination Should You join? quizzes.
As I loaded my recycling in the back of the truck for a trip to town, I did not miss 4,584 videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads.
At Crabtree Farms while teaching 6th grade girls about honey bees, I did not miss all the irrefutable proof positive that Barack Obama is still an anti-American, Kenyan, Muslim, fascist, nazi, socialist commy, bent on bringing down the greatest country in the world.
While hosing down my left foot after stepping in a fire ant nest in my Chacos, I did not miss seventeen daily posts about how Scott Walker is destroying Wisconsin. (Sorry, Tom.)
As I wrestled two goats released by aforementioned 6th graders back into their pen, I did not miss a single cat video, or Rick Perry’s mug shot.
Bottom line: I did not, I do not miss Facebook!

I made the decision a week ago, and to make sure I stuck to my guns, I immediately announced on my Facebook wall that in a week, I would be ending it. Enough! I shouted. I do not need this!
Believe me, I put a lot of thought into this before making the decision. I weighed the cons of leaving: There are some friends I only hear from via FB… but I have their phone numbers, their email addresses, and for some of them even their mailing addresses. I can still be in touch. I will miss out on so many invitations to concerts, events, parties… But I don’t go out that much anyway. No big deal. I will miss out on the opportunity to market my storytelling events and plays… This one hit a little closer to home. After all, this is my livelihood… But, hey, the vast majority of my gigs are out of town these days, while the majority of my FB friends are in or around Chattanooga. Plus, the job of marketing should fall on the folks who hire me, right?
And I weighed the pros: Facebook is a time- and attention-sucking vampire. I say I am just checking in, and next thing you know… remember the 4,584 ice bucket videos? Yeah, that’s what happens. From my list of pros and cons, it certainly appears as though the cons of leaving FB far outweigh the pros, and certainly in quantity they do, but in quality? The time wasted simply cannot be outweighed, I thought.
The vortex that is the Facebook rabbit hole can be a tough one to escape. I can drink a beer, and not need another one, but my history suggests that perhaps I cannot watch just one pointless, mindless, trivial video on Facebook.

So, last night, before going to bed I clicked: deactivate. You know the story from there…until lunch time.
I had lunch today with my friend, and play director Trish who asked how the Kickstarter campaign was going.
“Well,” I said, “I started off okay last night. By morning, I had almost $300, but in the several hours since then, there has been no increase.”
“That’s okay, she said, you just need to hit it hard now. You have two weeks to make it work.”
I stared at her blankly, both of us knowing exactly what I was thinking.
Every Kickstarter campaign I have ever supported, I discovered on Facebook. Yes, last night I sent out an email to my list, and in a few days I plan on sending another one, but that will go to the same list as the first one. Even if as many more contribute as already have, that still only doubles my total, and gets me just a little more than a quarter of the way to my goal.
If I want to make this campaign go… I need Facebook. And… if I want to be productive during the day, I need to stay off Facebook.
On its surface, that sounds like a bit of a dilemma. I need exactly that which I need to avoid… or do I?

As I pondered this, I quickly realized the same thing you realized in the first six paragraphs of this essay: the problem is not Facebook. The problem is me.
I have a friend who is an alcoholic. He still comes to my house where he knows there will be liquor in the cabinet and beer in the fridge. He does not drink it, because he knows he has a problem and is committed to not going there. Yet, he still comes to the house.
Of course, there is a big difference. For the alcoholic (arguably, for all of us) there is no redeeming quality in alcohol, but there are redeeming qualities in Facebook. The question is: Can I resist the rabbit hole?
The answer is: If am to successfully promote my campaign, I have to. I don’t know another way, but I do not want to go back to the mindless distractions that Facebook delivers.
I thought about what sucks me in when I visit Facebook. It isn’t checking my messages. It isn’t accepting friend requests. It isn’t following up on comments to my posts or responding to invitations. What sucks me in… is scrolling.
It is when I scroll down the page to see what others are posting that the vortex spins, the rabbit hole opens, ice buckets fall, cats leap, and I join Alice in the rabbit hole.
So, I have made a decision. I will face the ridicule of those who shout, “I told you so!” I will admit my error to those who warned, and I will return. But, in returning, I will change my behavior.
If others can give up cigarettes, stop drinking, quit watching porn (okay, I don’t know if they really give that up, or not, but for the sake of my argument I need to assume they do) then I can stop scrolling. Let the I-told-you-sos begin, and with any luck, some of those same folks who told me so, will consider making a small contribution to my campaign in honor of just how right they were!

Bonnaroo Morning

The festival grounds were quiet when I arrived at the performance tent. Bonnaroo is mostly asleep at 7:30 in the morning. I set my coffee on a table and looked around the space. We would need to rearrange some chairs and move tables to the margin. My simple set was already at the front of the tent along with the plastic bin containing oil lamp, pipe, glasses, shoes. The two-man crosscut saw was already mounted over the window. To the right of the window, hanging from a couple nails in the stud, were my clothes, cane, and…

Showtime was looming a little over an hour-and-a-half ahead, and my hat was nowhere to be found.

I turned to Sarah, my assistant for the morning. “Have you seen my hat?”

“It was hanging on the nail by the window.”

“When?”

“…yesterday… sometime.”

“It’s not there now.”

Sean, who was there to help set up the tent, wasted no time. “There is a hat vendor not far away, I’ll see what he has.”

“I’ll check next door,” Sarah offered.

With the tent now empty, I had time to think. The grief of losing my favorite hat of 15 years was quickly supplanted with concerns about the show. How would I recast a hat on such short notice?

The hat does little in the show. I doff it at the very beginning and only don it again at very end of the show. For most of the performance, it sits on the table or, when I am using the reduced set, it hangs on the nail by the window, but it plays a big role nonetheless.

In the final seconds of the play, while reaching for his hat, my character realizes he is still clutching his beloved book. It is an emotional moment for the character, and for me personally.

Now I would have to find another way to “discover” the book in my hand, another way to let go, another way to say goodbye, another cue, another path.

As I stepped into the morning sun to ponder this re-direction of the scene, movement caught my attention. I turned. Two hundred feet across the grass to my right, a young woman frolicked, nay pranced merrily through an archway towards me. Wearing nothing but the tiniest of white, cotton panties, her milky white skin soaking up the morning sunlight that danced through her wild blonde hair, accentuated her slender neck, arms, and lit her perfect curves, she bore the smile of one knowing that everything in the world is more than good, the expression of one in the throes of a passionate affair with the sunlight itself, still angling low and horizontal like her morning lover, casting a shadow from her lithe frame that stretched to the near horizon.

In most settings, I would try to be a gentleman, try to avert my gaze from such a woman (though there are scant few settings where such a woman would cross my path) whose joyous smile caused my heart to tingle, whose radiance almost belied her attire. Almost. Prancing towards me on a path which, if maintained, would lead this singularly sexy young woman within six feet of me, this stunning vision of youth, beauty, rapturous freedom and love for the moment, she slowed to a bouncing stroll (oh, did she ever bounce), then stopped for a moment directly in front of me.

In that instant, as I gazed into her eyes, her smile broadened impossibly.

“Good morning!”

Her voice was as lovely as her bright blue eyes, high in pitch but full with the perfect hint of breath softening her words. In that moment, under that gaze, whatever shred of self-awareness I had left evaporated, and I took in the fullness of her presence. I did not scan her up and down, did not undress her with my eyes (that was hardly necessary). I just smiled back at her, honestly, purely.

“And good morning to you…” The words barely escaped my quickened breath, their cadence dictated by the rhythm of a heart pounding visibly through my t-shirt. I didn’t care if she could see how vulnerable I was, how captured and defenseless.

Her eyes never wavering, her smile never changing, she turned and tilted her head back slightly towards me as she raised her hand in a gentle, slow, dreamlike wave, her blonde hair falling off her shoulder.

“Good morning…” I whispered to myself as her gait began anew, slowly increasing to the skip of a little girl within the womanly angel (her parts otherwise moving in ways not girlish at all). As she passed through the next arch, she glanced back (to look at me one more time, I pretended), before turning to the right and frolicked on to brighten more mornings.

There went the sun, I thought.

Slowly, shards of awareness of the missing hat slipped in and out of the vision I did not want to escape, the vision of perfect beauty that had illuminated my morning, had brought sunshine to my momentarily darkened world.

Somewhere in the timelessness, still aglow from the warmth of a passed sun, the fullness of the morning crept back in. Hat or no hat, the stage was set. The curtain would open in 45 minutes. Yet, in this moment, everything was okay. It had to be. Or, was it? Suddenly, my heart sank. The lightness that had accompanied my other symptoms moments ago was relaxed with a heaviness of heart.

Lost to the weak frailty of my own humanness, had I failed to recognize the human within the radiating vision? Who was this creature? Perhaps she was everything I perceived her to be–angelic, confident, a young goddess with the world on a string, but what if I was wrong? What if I was blinded by a Y chromosome into not seeing the fragile young woman, the powerless girl, the poor young girl whose night of unexpected and indefensible atrocity left her without clothes, clinging now, perhaps out of desperation, to an illusion of normalcy, forced to summon from her depths a shred of strength to carry her forward, wearing a facade made possible only by the loveliness that had overtaken this shallow man and who knows how many others? What if it was vulnerability I saw in those eyes, forcing her, in spite of the humiliation, to somehow embody a countenance the world has no right to force upon her?

What if an innocent young girl who came to this festival for fun, freedom, and music was not frolicking freely but, having had everything including her dignity stolen from her, was left with nothing but deceptively bright eyes, a painful smile, a tarnished young body… and her underpants? What if her gaze into my eyes was really a plea for safety? What if my middle-aged angst and a self-imposed delusion, fueled by the cruel trick played on an aging man whose libido has not caught up with his degenerating discs blinded me to the grandfatherly role I could have–should have–played for a young, wounded, vulnerable girl needing a safe embrace, or at least a blanket.

It was at that moment of guilty self-examination that I saw the first stream of ticket-holders making their way across the field towards my tent. Leading the crowd, two young women held hands and skipped through the grass. Neither wore a shirt. Both had breasts painted as daises whose stems extended down until they disappeared beneath their skirts. Daisies suspended in air, floating on a breeze borne of careless youth.

Everything was okay, I realized. I was okay. The play would be okay. Even my hat, wherever it was, would be okay. And the young woman who shined her light on my morning would be just fine too, with or without her clothes.

Now I just had to figure out how to get those images out of my head long enough to perform a play…

Truth or Consequences or What I Learned from Watching Downton Abbey

Image    “Did you have their best interests in mind?”

“Yes.”

“Did you tell the truth?”

The office was filled with toys, small beanbag chairs, and children’s books. Were it not for the very adult desk and bookcase filled with psychotherapy and relationships texts, we could have been in a daycare center or kindergarten classroom.

This was, however, a very serious conversation. I was struggling with the recent loss of some friends, and my therapist (who happens to specialize in children) had just listened to my somewhat sesquipedalian story outlining the events leading to the loss.

“Yes,” I told her. “I was completely honest with them. That is why this hurts. I told the truth, and I had everyone’s best interest in mind.”

I left her office that day feeling much better about myself. She explained to me that any relationship runs its course. Some are long, others short, but they all end. She encouraged me to celebrate what made those relationships good when they were good, mourn for a brief while, then move on. Relationships will come and they will go.

She is right, of course. Relationships do come and go. Very few last a lifetime. And, sometimes they end in tears. I have been through enough friends, lovers, and acquaintances in my lifetime to know that it is the nature of life for people to pass into and out of our lives. But I knew that answer was not enough. In the course of being completely honest, I lost friends. That didn’t seem right to me.

Weeks later, I found myself examining the two questions about truth and intention. As a child, I was taught in sunday school to always tell the truth and to “do unto others…”

The truth part of the lessons seemed pretty black and white. Truth is truth. Anything else is a lie. But the do unto others part always seemed a little vague to me. It still does. It is simple on the surface, but in a given situation, just what do I want done unto me? And now, even telling the truth looks a lot more grey than black and white.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been watching old episodes of Downton Abbey, and have noticed a pattern among the family and some of the servants living in His Lordship’s manor. They don’t always tell the truth. There is a code among this class as they are presented on PBS. There are certain ways of interacting with each other, and with those of different classes. They have dress codes, expected manners…

Much of the code is superficial. Parts are designed to separate them from those of a lesser class. But part of the code also seems to include honesty. As I sit here thinking back, I cannot recall lies being told between them. Yet, I clearly remember them not telling the truth.

In the episode I watched last night, one of the servants was concerned about the well-being of another who had not been acting herself.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked.

Something was very much the matter. She had just come from the doctor who examined and drained fluid from a lump in her breast. She did not yet know what she was facing, and did not want anyone else to know of her situation until she had confirmation.

“Good night,” she said, ending the conversation.

She neither lied, nor told the truth.

Granted, she could have told the truth and would not have lost friends as a result, so her situation (aside from the fact that it was fictional) was very different from mine. Nonetheless, she showed great dignity in choosing not to answer.

My most recent loss of friends is not the only such loss I have encountered in the past few years. And in both cases, I told the truth. And, in both cases, I could have said “goodnight.”

A confidante suggested that it might be best to steer people towards an answer, rather than give them an answer. That is what the servant did. By saying “goodnight” a clear implication was sent that, indeed, something was wrong, but that it would not be discussed at that time.

Along with the revered golden rule, we bandy around the notion–usually attributed to the speaker’s mother–that if we have nothing good to say, we should say nothing at all.

This idea, too, seems flawed in its vagueness. What does “good” mean? Is it always “good” to speak the truth? Should we be only complimentary in our speech?

In giving our children hard fast rules about truth and goodness to live by, however well-intended, we run the risk of painting them an unrealistically black and white picture of a very gray world. Perhaps, instead of rules golden or otherwise, we should be asking them questions. What would you do in this situation? What might be the results of saying this or that? When might telling the truth be best substituted with a simple “good night”?

But I am forty-six. I am not a child. I should know better by now. And yet, I find myself surrounded by stuffed animals talking to a child therapist so that I can learn the lessons I failed to learn decades ago.

All this talk of honesty and lessons, rules and questions reminds me of the time I… er…

Goodnight.