In an early post on this blog, some three years ago, I mused about things I wish I’d said in various situations. You know how it is. You think of exactly the right thing to say — moments, hours or days later. Sometimes I’m just too shocked to think of a response. I just can’t believe what I’m hearing. Sometimes it’s not that I can’t think of a good reply, but the opposite: I think of too many appropriate responses to choose just one. So, I stand there running through the menu in my mind while saying nothing.
In that post, I shared a few examples. Very few. Here, in no particular order, are more. I offer them for your amusement. I’m fairly certain you can identify.
During the get-acquainted time at the beginning of a statewide committee serving a charitable organization, I said, “I live in Chapel Hill and work at the university.” The chair was a graduate of another school and lived where it is located. She cynically remarked, “THE university?”
I don’t remember exactly what I said in reply, but what I meant was, “Yes, there’s only one university in Chapel Hill. If I were from Greensboro or Raleigh, I’d have specified which university. If I lived where you do and worked at your alma mater, I would’ve said, ‘the university,’ It’s like saying, ‘I work at the post office.’ “
Unfortunately, what I was able to compose at that moment was not this lucid.
(Later, a guest of our committee was a UNC medical faculty member. He introduced himself, “I live in Chapel Hill and work at the university.” The chair didn’t say anything, but I’d bet she was biting her tongue.)
Some years ago, a friend and classmate was looking forward to a new grandchild. Both the friend and his son had been talented college football players, while the other grandfather played in college and the NFL. I was having lunch with the prospective granddad and dad, and we were speculating about the chances of there being a third-generation football star. Then my classmate said, “Of course, it could be a girl, and that would be fine, too.”
What I wish I’d said was, “Mia Ham’s a girl.”
I was meeting with alums of a group in which I’d been active in college. We were planning a reunion. It was suggested that we have a live performer. Those who knew me in college knew I played gigs regularly, often for pay. I said, I’d be glad to play and sing gratis for a half hour or so.
As the discussion continued, someone said we should hire someone to perform because a freebie wouldn’t be that good.
What I didn’t say, but regret not doing so, was, “OK. In that case, I’ll do it for $100.”
Over many years, I worked out in a gym on the UNC campus. For a couple of years, a graduate student from China had a locker next to mine. He was often there at the same time, and we talked regularly.
Shortly before Thanksgiving in one of those years, he was asking me about the holiday and its traditions. I wish I’d invited him, his wife and their child to our house to share Thanksgiving dinner.
A friend was justifying sending his daughters to boarding school at an early age. “Birds push their babies out of the nest after a few weeks.”
What occurred to me, but I chose not to say, was, “And when those baby birds are a year old, they have babies of their own and after 2-3 years, they die.
When I was in theological school, societal issues of the day were often discussed. Most students and faculty had progressive views, and several could be rather outspoken. This did not sit well with one of my classmates. He referred to them as “prophets,” and he didn’t mean it in a positive way.
To help decorate the student lounge, I hung a collage I had done, using newspaper photos depicting current events, affixed to a large poster advertising a campus symposium in which such events were discussed. I didn’t take sides on any issue, but rather tried to present a slice of history.
After a few days, I found that someone had glued a handwritten note onto the work, referring to our school as a “home of the prophets.” I had a pretty good idea who had done it. I removed the vandalized collage.
A few days later, I heard that classmate lamenting that there were “so many prophets on campus.” I thought of saying, “Yeah, I know what you mean. Some prophet recently destroyed one of my works of art in the student lounge.”
Many more times that I could begin to count, a conversation has (usually quickly) gone in a direction that has made me want to say — though I usually don’t — “Not everything is a competition.”
At one point, I devoted a lot of volunteer time to a charitable organization to which I also gave generous financial contributions. A local church had raised questions about a policy matter. I was involved in a private conversation in which one of the leaders of the organization derisively referred to that congregation as “those Southern Baptists.”
I could’ve said, and wish I had, “The Southern Baptist church in which I grew up is where I learned to be philanthropic.”
I expect a person to be loyal to their alma mater, including supporting its athletic teams. But some fans are just that — fans and nothing more. They choose to root for whatever team for whatever reason.
Often, it seems the supporters who go overboard in expressing their support are not those who in fact went to said institution.
There have been times when such a person has become so obnoxious, I’ve been tempted to ask, “And what year did you graduate?”
In a discussion via text or email, some cable TV show came up. One person stated that they figured they could find it “since we have 120 channels.” After a couple more comments, I mentioned that we didn’t have cable or a dish. That person’s retort? “Braggart!”
What I chose not to type was, “Let me get this straight. It’s not bragging when you say you have 120 channels, but it is bragging for me to note I have five or six?”
After a church talent show, in which I’d offered a song from “back in the day” — maybe “If I Were a Carpenter” — a friend joked, “You must have been a hippie.” If I’d replied, “I’ve been called worse,” the friend would’ve appreciated it.
Another year at the same event, the printed program grouped my performance and a few others under the heading “It’s a Little Bit Country.” Before the show, I was looking at the program with a friend whose group was on right after me. He saw that and said, “Which country?”
If my thinking had coalesced in time, I would have introduced my song — George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” — from the stage by relaying my friend’s comment and saying, “In this case, the country is England.”
Many years ago, at some kind of meeting, I encountered someone who was a friend of a friend. As we introduced ourselves, she said something to the effect that our mutual friend had been right about my being good looking. That’s, of course, not something I usually (or ever) hear, but if I hadn’t been so dumbfounded, I could’ve said, “I never tire of hearing that.”
I think it was at the conclusion of my second year of college, the last year I returned to my hometown for the summer. That first Sunday evening, I attended the summer college-age youth group. We began by going around the circle of 8-10 people to say where we were now in school.
One of the first attended a school that had recently changed from “college” to “university.” She gave only the name, but another person quickly added “Uni-ver-si-ty!” After that, each person was sure to add an emphasized “col-lege” or “uni-ver-si-ty.”
I was last. I said simply, “I’m at Chapel Hill.”
One guy, who attended a rival school in another state, felt a need to add “college.” I think my non-verbal response, just a subtle facial expression, said all that needed to be said. (Translation, “What a pathetic comment.”) Yet I could have said, and considered doing so, “Yes, in one of the many colleges within the university.” Or maybe, “Yes, I just completed the General College and am entering the College of Arts and Sciences in the fall.”
It was a mid-’60s group discussion of race relations. The leader supported integration and was accepting of interracial romantic relationships. He drew a line, however. He had read or heard about some “young people” having an interracial orgy. The way he said it betrayed a belief that somehow this was more immoral than a monochromatic orgy.
My attempted response, something about swinging the pendulum, was a swing and a miss. I couldn’t get my thinking together enough in that moment to speak directly to what I saw as a problem with his comment.
I realized a day or more later that I wish I’d said, “So if I rob a bank with a Black accomplice, is that worse than if I rob a bank with a white accomplice?”
Seeing me with my then-five-year-old daughter, a colleague smiled and asked, “Who’s this?”
Too late to say it, I came up with, “A big reason I bother getting up each morning.”
Many years ago, I participated in church league softball. One Sunday afternoon, I took my accustomed place at third base as warmups began. Someone I didn’t recognize was at shortstop. When the first baseman threw a ground ball over to me, I scooped it up and gently threw it back.
After a couple of these, the shortstop said I shouldn’t play as deeply since my arm (it seemed to him) was weak.
What popped into my head was, “Who died and made you the coach?” I opted only to stare back incredulously.
Another thing I thought about saying but didn’t, because I didn’t think I owed it to him, was, “These are warmup throws. Throwing as hard as you can without first warming up can cause injury. That’s the purpose of warmup throws. And I play back this far, because it’s much easier to run forward than backward.” (I considered throwing the final warmup well over the first baseman’s head.)
Looking back on the incident later, I imagined offering a short piece of fiction: “Well, I made it to Double A, playing this way.”
I think my non-verbal reply was fine, but eventually I came up with one that also would have filled the bill: “No, I’m fine, but a shortstop has to handle a lot of hot grounders and line drives and bad hops. It may be too much for you. Maybe we should switch positions.”
I’ve always looked for underlying meanings in everything, especially music. A high school teacher seemed to be challenging me when she asked what was the underlying meaning of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Ode to the Little Shack Out Back,” a song about outhouses that was popular at that time.
I thought a moment and came up with something about its being a spoof on people who can’t let go of the past. That seemed to meet the challenge but didn’t feel exactly right.
Eventually, I came to wish I’d said, “It’s just for fun.”
While visiting with some people in Germany, I mentioned that my wife and I often turn on the closed captions when watching a British TV show, because we can’t always understand what the characters are saying.
My hosts seemed surprised. I knew there were many different Duetsche dialects and imagined some might differ from their own as much as British English differs from mine. I couldn’t come up with a reply based on this notion. But maybe I could’ve asked how they fared listening to a German-speaking Swiss person.
At a UNC football game many years ago, Fed Ex Corporation provided free t-shirts with a school-spirited message on the front and a Fed Ex logo on the back. Sometime later I was wearing mine in a context other than a game. It caught the eye of someone who admired it and asked if I’d added the Fed Ex logo. No, I said, it came that way. They paid for it.
He was a Fed Ex employee (or maybe former employee) with such good feelings about the company, the logo was what he liked best about the shirt. He was envious.
When I told someone else later about this encounter, that person pointed out I should’ve offered to give the admirer the shirt in exchange for a Carolina shirt without a commercial ad on it.
Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?