Ghosts today

Paul Simon has counted “50 ways to leave your lover.” The TV show “Seinfeld” explored many of these, including the rocking the coke machine analogy and the classic “It’s not you. It’s me.” Romantic relationships can run their course for a variety of reasons, and there’s a lot of precedent for ending them.

But how does one “break up” with a friend? (Yes, Jerry Seinfeld did try this in one episode and botched it.)

Friends may naturally drift apart and mutually turn attention and affections elsewhere over time. Yet when the relationship, for whatever reason, ceases to work for one, though apparently not the other, there’s little protocol for calling it quits. The one who wants out seems to have two options. Either continue to endure or resort to what has come to be called “ghosting” — i.e., ceasing to communicate without any warning.

Most, if not all of us have done it — reached a point in some relationship where we chose, for whatever reason, just to let it drop. In a casual relationship, this ending may not be particularly troublesome for either party. In many cases, acquaintanceships come and go naturally. Yet when you’re invested in a friendship, it can be painful when circumstances bring it to a close; bewildering when a two-way street becomes a one-way street that becomes a dead end.

I realize that ghosting can be and is used in romantic situations, too. It’s reportedly a common go-to in on-line dating. But the deeper the level of involvement, the more difficult that can be. Plus, there are many more proven ways to leave a lover than there are for leaving a friend.

Someone I know — let’s call him “Bill” — has told me about some of his experiences of being ghosted by one-time close friends. He’s allowing me to share parts of our conversations, provided I protect his identify, as well as that of the ghosts.

“The antagonists in my childhood nightmares were not ghosts,” Bill says. “To me, ghosts were fanciful creatures, subjects of entertaining, even amusing stories. They were nothing like the ghosts I have come to know, and be haunted by, as an adult.”

He said three of those current ghosts are former co-workers who had become close friends. All moved away. “Each has returned to the area occasionally, which I find out after that fact. They make no effort to get in touch with me when they do.”

Two continued to send a Christmas card each year. One of those was a friend as part of a group of close friends. “When they’ve been back for a day or two, they get together with one, sometimes two members of the group, but never me, and I’ve known them longer than any of the others have,” Bill said.

“I don’t think the other [card sender] has been back as often. One time they were going to a local event that I would be likely to attend. It would have made sense for them to email and ask, ‘Are you going to be there?’ and maybe meet up for a brief face-to-face, but that didn’t happen.”

The third had been a colleague in a service organization. This person has never even sent Christmas cards, though Bill felt they had been even closer than he was with the two who did. They’ve been back several times over the years. A couple of those visits included being at the same place at the same time as Bill. “Both times, I was greeted like a long-lost brother, but nothing — no contact at all — otherwise in all these years.”

Another former friendship began when Bill was in college. He and this person seemed to click immediately. “We had mutual interests, of course, but also we each brought complementary characteristics into the relationship that helped both of us grow.”

They stayed in close touch for many years. Bill and his wife invited the friend and spouse for visits around events all enjoyed. “And we arranged to stop by and see them several times when we were traveling near their town,” Bill said.

Bill says he didn’t give it any further thought when one of those visits couldn’t happen because of the friend’s busy schedule. “But when we showed up for one scheduled visit, which they’d forgotten about, it gave me pause.” In time, the other couple was too busy to visit Bill, no matter how appealing the itinerary might seem.

“Our communication had mostly been by phone to set up either their coming here or our stopping by there,” Bill explained. “When email came along, I was never able to get an address for them.”

Bill was, for many years, very close to someone in his extended family. There were letters and phone calls, then also emails and, in time, conversations on Facebook around something one or the other had posted. Bill and friend visited each other’s homes, despite the miles in between.

“They bascially invited themselves to my house two or three times, which I took as a compliment. And there was a family event evey two years near where they live. My wife and I would spend a couple of days at their house before or after. Did it for years.”

One year, though, the friend had other things going on and would not be able to host Bill. He chalked it up to unavoidable scheduling. When the same thing happened two years later, Bill chose not to read anything into it at that time. Now, he sees it as the beginning of the end.

During this time, the two friends gained vacation homes, an easy day trip apart. There was vague talk about getting together, but nothing definte until a time when each would be at these homes and Bill said, we’ll be at our place on these dates and can come to your on this day.
There was agreement, though Bill sensed some reluctance on the part of the other. Then just before the time arrived, he got a message with a lengthy list of all the reasons his friend couldn’t host him at that time.

“It wasn’t simply saying ‘something’s come up’ or ‘we’re overloaded,’ maybe giving an example or two. It was too much like begging the question. As the list went on, the more tangential the excuses became.”

The friend said maybe they could meet somewhere when things settled down a bit. (“Meet somewhere.” Not in my home.) They said they’d be back in touch about it. Never happened.
Rather abruptly, Facebook interactions stopped. “Their posts no longer show up on my newsfeed, unless they are ‘public,’ such as a new profile photo. I can see what they post only by looking at mutual friend’s Facebook,” Bill said. “Comments and ‘likes’ from them on my posts went from ‘almost all’ to ‘none.’ Maybe they unfollowed me.

“I guess with the others, they just moved on to other people and interests that edged me out of their lives. It’s sad, but at least I don’t worry that I did something to alienate them. But in this case, we had been like siblings until suddenly we weren’t.”

I asked Bill what seemed to be an obvious question. Why not ask a ghost what happened?
“If someone has made it that clear they don’t want any more contact, what can you expect would hapen? You risk appearing needy. You set up a short-lived awkward situation. Or if possible, they don’t respond at all.”

Many of us may identify with elements of one or more of these scenarios. Ultimately, we can’t do anything about being ghosted. We can’t control another’s actions. We do, however, control our own. We can choose to move on from extinct relationships. We can also try not to ghost other people.

A sermon I won’t get to preach

One time, long ago, I was asked to preach at my church. It was a small church at the time with co-pastors, both of whom would be gone. Being the first Sunday of the month, the service normally would’ve included communion. But it was skipped because I was not ordained.

I had led communion in small-group situations a few times in the past without any lightning bolts reigning down, but the book would be followed on this occasion.

I’ll never get to preach a communion sermon, but sometimes I think about what I might say if I did. Several experiences, some more directly associated with the celebration of communion than others, come to mind. Here’s a draft of a communion homily.

As a young minister, I was helping plan a weekend retreat, along with a senior minister and a facilitator who was a graduate student in psychology at a nearby university. Though it would be consciously unchurchy, the other minister and I suggested we conclude the weekend with a communion service. The facilitator balked at this. A few minutes later, I suggested our last activity could be sitting in a circle, listening to music and passing around a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. He thought that was a great idea.

Sometimes words aren’t needed.

Yet often we do rely on words, and they can certainly get one’s attention. Another time when the bread and wine were passed from one person to the next — this time in what was consciously a religious observance — my seatmate went off script. We were to say some simple phrase about the body/blood being symbolized as we offered the cup and loaf. Most of us repeated familiar words. My neighbor, however, said, “This is the blood of Christ, who was murdered for your sake.” That surely got beyond the usual ritual and down to the nitty gritty.

The elements are powerful symbols.

But do they have to be bread and wine? At a communion service during a student retreat when I was in college, the minister leading it used potato chips and orange juice. He explained, “Jesus used what was on the table. This is what I found on the table today. Jesus took ordinary items and touched them with significance — just as He touches you and me with significance.”

For that matter, are they merely symbols?

At one time many years ago, I was a member of the same church as the well-known theologian Harvey Cox. Harvey preached one communion Sunday. He reminded us that as Protestants, we see the bread and wine as symbols, while Catholics believe Christ to be present, the elements literally becoming His body and blood. He suggested they were right that Christ is indeed present, though not in the bread and wine themselves, but rather in the act of sharing them with one another.

One last anecdote doesn’t come from a communion service, but from what was nonetheless a communion experience.

Our community and the world were reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A large auditorium on the University campus was packed for a memorial service. As I was leaving I spotted a friend through the crowd. He was one of two Black (a term a few of us were beginning to use at that time) students with whom I had lived in a house during the previous spring semester. My white guilt made me try to be invisible as I slipped away along the edge of the crowd.

He saw me and called out. It was a short hi-how’s-it-going exchange that concluded with his saying, “Well, stop by the house some time. We still have parties.”

I felt he was saying, You are welcome at the table.

If speaking from a pulpit, I would conclude with an invitation to the table, attempting to tie together themes drawn from these anecdotes. In other contexts, I would and do offer no liturgical words, as special people and I partake of whatever food is on the table and in our sharing of it are touched with significance.

We relied on the kindness of strangers

It would be our second-longest trip in our 16-year-old VW van. But only if we could complete it.

We — my wife, two daughters, aged 8 and 3, and I — were passing through Pennsylvania on our way to a family wedding in Toronto.

Outside Pittsburgh, we stopped for provisions. As we tried to leave, I had trouble getting the van into gear. After all the years and miles, it could be finicky, but it finally slipped into first and shifted easily as we returned to the highway.

A short hour later, we turned off Interstate 79 at the Lake Arthur exit, where we planned to spend that night. As I slowed to merge onto US 422, I attempted to downshift. The gear shift went to neutral and stayed there. We coasted onto the shoulder. I spent several frustrating minutes trying, without success, to engage any gear.

So, there we were, nearly 500 miles from home, not knowing how, when or if our vehicle would go again. This was not just our transportation. It provided accommodations. We had modified the interior for camping.

The first car we hailed stopped. It was a local couple who gave Nancy, my wife, a ride to the nearest public phone and back. They stopped, they said, because of our North Carolina license plate. They had been involved in an accident while driving through our state a year or so earlier. Several of our citizens had been so kind and helpful during that ordeal, they didn’t hesitate to return the favor.

Nancy checked the Yellow Pages for a tow truck that honored AAA membership. Fortunately, this service was available in nearby Portersville, which was not shown in our Rand McNally Road Atlas.

The owner-driver arrived shortly and hooked up the van. We all piled into his spacious cab. He ran one of two auto-repair shops in Portersville. His specialty was domestic cars. In the meantime, his wife was trying to contact the meachanic who handled the foreign market to see if we could drop the van off at his place. The latter mechanic and his wife were out for the evening, and the babysitter didn’t have the authority to accept the vehicle.

The van spent the night at the domestic-auto repair shop, across the road from the owner’s rural home. The owner’s wife gave us a ride to the local motel, which she had already called on our behalf. She would continue arranging to get the van over to the foreign-car garage.

We took the cooler and a few groceries from the van. Supper was an indoor picnic at the small motel, which sat behind its owners’ home. It was definitely economy class. The black and white TV picked up one channel. But it was adequate, and the charge was $20 for the four of us. Even in 1983, that wasn’t a lot for a motel room. The owners let us use the phone in their house freely the next morning as we talked with both mechanics and looked into the possibility of renting a vehicle to continue our journey.

We walked to a nearby diner for breakfast, after which the foreign-car mechanic’s wife, in their wrecker, picked up the van and then me and took us to their shop — beside their house. Nancy and the girls waited at the motel, unsure when they would see me or the van again. The motel operator graciously extended their stay well beyond check-out time. Nancy volunteered to change our beds in return.

I continued to wonder if we would be back on the road that day and, if so, whether we would be in our van or in a rented car. The foreign-car mechanic was cheerfully optimistic. It was probably just the clutch, he said. No big deal.

I had to wait while he and his son-in-law finished fixing a Datsun. Then I learned that to get to the clutch of a VW van, you have to pull the engine and transmission out. No big deal. They removed both in 10 minutes flat, and showed me the pieces of what used to be the clutch. Of course, he had a clutch for a 1967 VW. (Who wouldn’t?) Within an hour, I was ready to roll.

The repair bill was $85, parts and labor. I had paid more than that for a tail pipe at home before the trip. My personal check was fine without accompanying identification.

We were back on I-79 by midafternoon. We decided to drive through to Toronto, no matter how late it got. A campsite awaited us. We wanted to put a lot of distance between us and the trying experience of the preceding 20 hours. Yet we left with warm feelings for all those we encountered. They treated us as guests rather than customers, friends rather than strangers. They were determined, one way or another, to make sure we got out of our predicament with as little distress as possible.

Physical benefits of communing with nature

Most people who know me know of my fondness for sunrises. (See ) Watching the sun rise, as I do often, makes me feel good. I’ve recently been not surprised to learn that the benefits are not only emotional, but also physical.

For me and many others, a sunrise evokes a sense of awe. Experiences of awe, medical scientists tell us, significantly reduce unhealthy levels of cytokines, which are associated with disease, depression and ill health. Sources of awe are certainly not limited to nature (music and art, for example), but here I want to focus on nature.

I recently read about some of the ways experiences in nature have been shown to benefit us physically. There was a lot more to the article — “Rewilding Our Minds,” Lucy Jones, The American Scholar, Summer 2021 — but here are some points I gleaned.

–Exposure to certain chemicals emitted by trees and other plants significantly increases natural killer cell activity, which helps fight infection and cancer. “Even just looking at a natural scene can decrease levels of inflammatory cytokines.”

–Studies suggest that in natural areas, our parasympathetic nervous system is more likely to be activated. This slows the heart and helps us feel calm. It is associated with better sleep, feeling of contentment and safety, as well as high resting levels, enhanced emotional regulation, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.

–You know how great the air smells after rain? You’re not just smelling the clean earth. Oil from soil and possibly plants is in the air, triggering brain activity associated with calmness and relaxation.

–Getting your hands dirty is also beneficial. When you dig in the dirt, you pick up microbes (mycobacteriun vaccae) that activate serotonin neurons, associated with mood and well-being. “The microorganism also increased stress resilience and could suppress inappropriate inflammation within cells.”

As I noted above the article deals with a lot more than the points I’ve listed here. This is just a brief summary of what I found especially interesting and useful. If you want to read the article itself, here’s a link:

Blogger’s note:
The article writer’s source comprises “robust evidence based on countless studies from scientists in various disciplines from countries across the world,” some of which she cites specifically. Were it a scientific journal article, there would have been countless footnotes. Were I writing a graduate-school paper, I would dig down to primary sources, rather than relying only on this secondary source. I think, however, we’re fine in this context. I haven’t been graded for years on anything by anyone, other than myself. And my therapist suggests (and by “suggests,” I mean “insists”) that I stop doing so.

Trying to outrun a scary enemy

Back when I was still physically able to run, I did so. A lot. Sometimes I would describe that day’s run on Facebook. Once when I did, a friend jokingly asked, “Who was chasing you?” My answer: “The aging process.”

With another birthday upon me, I am thinking about how my celebration has changed. In my early 30s, I finally accepted that I’m not immortal and began to get serious about taking care of my health. My primary form of physical exercise was running. Soon, I started entering road races as incentives to run regularly. Over time, running regularly became its own incentive.

I decided I would mark my 33rd birthday by running a mile that day and I would add another mile each year to my 40th birthday, on which I would run eight miles. I knew it would take some work to increase the distance I could run, but surely I could get from one mile to eight miles, gradually building up my strength over that many years.

I ran two miles on my 34th birthday, three on my 35th and so on to eight miles on my 40th. Exactly as planned.

It didn’t take me eight years to work up to being able to run eight miles, though. In fact, I ran a half marathon a few months before my 36th birthday.

After 40, I did not keep adding miles to my birthday celebration. For my 41st, I ran for 41 minutes, then 42 minutes on my 42nd. I don’t remember how many years I continued this specific plan, but for a number of years I came up with something along these lines.

I also don’t remember when I began letting my birthday be a day of rest and relaxation. Probably around 60, which is when my knees began to complain. I still exercise regularly and at a level appropriate for a septuagenarian, but I take my birthday off now.

I’m continuing to run from aging, mostly via a bike in the gym, but certainly not from birthdays. Continuing to have — and enjoy — birthdays is kinda the point.

Faith of our fathers and mothers

Some time back, my kids asked me a series of questions, the answers to which were published in a book for them and their offspring. One of those questions was “How is your faith different from your parents’ faith?” Here’s my answer. As with all my personal reflections, I offer it here in hopes others might find something with which to relate.

My parents’ faith was simple, traditional and seemingly based on a literal reading of the Bible. They attended all activities at the church and had little social life otherwise. Sometimes this need to attend appeared to border on obsessive, though I’m sure they did get a lot from being there.

For 18 years, I bought into all this with little or no questioning. It worked for me. And then it didn’t.

In the journey that followed, I soon realized that music, poetry and other art forms affirmed for me that there is something beyond the physical world. I felt a connection with other people, a connection sometimes called “love.” There was something spiritual about that.

In the midst of all this, the musical “Hair” came along. In it, a character named Claude sang, “I believe in God, and I believe that God believes in Claude. . . .” I had never thought about that relationship in that way. The phrase played often in my head. I was struggling to understand the nature of that which we call “God,” but somehow — maybe because of the power of music and poetry through which the idea was presented to me — I couldn’t help thinking that “God” believed in me.

I spent years redefining virtually every Christian symbol and ritualistic phrase from my childhood. Eventually, not only could I affirm those symbols and say those phrases again, but also they took on deeper meaning. Or maybe, I could affirm and say because they took on deeper meaning.

It wasn’t about merely reading the Bible and mindlessly following it as a road map, never mind that the map was hundreds and thousands of years old. It was helpful to hear someone point out that the Bible is a book of Truth, not a book of facts.

It worked for my parents to view what they read in the Bible and heard at church fairly literally. If the Bible said it, there was no reason to question it, even if you don’t understand it. I think it’s all more complex than that. I want to understand. I don’t think trying to understand denigrates religion. Yet I’ve come to accept that it is not possible to understand everything, and I’ve learned to affirm and celebrate mystery.

I’ve also become able to accept that my parents’ faith was just as real for them as mine is for me.

Embarrassment — a legacy?

A number of years ago, a local classic rock radio station advised, “Turn the volume up and sing along loudly. Embarrass your kids.”

It’s probably in the nature of the job for parents occasionally to do or say something that their offspring find embarrassing. Some may do so more often than others. Usually, it is unintentional. Sometimes the purpose may not be to embarrass the son or daughter, but there’s no thought given to avoiding the embarrassment. I’ve been on both sides of this, as you likely have also.

Sometimes the embarrassment is delayed.

There were two times etched in my memory in which I was laughed at — to the point of mild embarrassment — for doing something I had learned from my parents.
They fixed fried eggs sunny-side up. They cooked them in bacon grease. To get the top sufficiently done before the bottom overcooked, they used the frying pan spatula to splash the hot grease up on the egg. It was a rapid, continuing motion for a few moments.

I was using this method, as I always did, one morning at their house. A visiting member of the extended family observed and said bemusedly, “You’re going to beat that egg to death.” Now, aside from the fact that I was not touching the egg at all, I was blindsided by a critique of my following what seemed a perfectly good way to get my eggs just so.

When my father stirred sugar into his coffee or tea, he rapidly moved the spoon back and forth, making a not-unpleasant ringing sound as the spoon rhythmically hit the sides of the cup or glass. I adopted this same method, it never occurring to me to stir any other way. Until . . . .

Late in my college years, I was about to enjoy a glass of iced tea with a couple of other people. I put in some sugar and stirred as I always had. I had never noticed any reaction from anyone up to that point. This time, however, a peer smirked as he watched (and listened).

After those two incidences, I never again fried an egg or sweetened a beverage using those methods. There have been times when I’ve repeated something my parents said or did something I learned from them that caused me embarrassment, and I’d wished they’d set a different example. Yet, in these instances, I didn’t, and still don’t blame my parents, from whom I picked up the techniques, for my embarrassment in these situations. My resentment is reserved for those who chose to react as they did.

A Friday night college experience

One Friday night, early in my senior year in college, I gathered with four other English majors at a bar across the street from campus to wind down after a long week. (The University still had Saturday classes at that time, but some of us had discontinued them for ourselves.)

After a couple of beers, we were about to leave when two professors from our department made an entrance. I’m pretty sure this was not their first stop of the evening. We were in a corner both. They sat down, one on each side, trapping us in.

They proceeded to ply us with more beer while they debated fine points of English literature, which had not been a part of any of our discussion to that point. One was Irish American, complete with red hair. The other was a transplanted Englishman with a commanding presence. The intensity of the discussion grew with each pitcher. It got personal at times. “Castrated Celt!” “Nerd from Northumberland!”

When they finally left, we sat there in a state not unlike shock. One of my friends broke our silence with, “I feel drained.”

We all enjoyed our classes and were serious students. Yet we valued strategic breaks from our studies.

We stumbled out and wandered through campus in a gentle, early-autumn rain. It seemed to be the best way to recover. The rain eased our minds as it slowly penetrated our clothes. That was good enough for most of us. The two females in the group, however, took it a step further. At the construction site of the new student union, they acted on an impulse to roll in the mud.

It didn’t occur to me until decades later to write about the experience. I wonder what the Celt and the Nerd would think of this meager literary attempt. I don’t doubt they would find a way to argue about it.

What I wish I’d said — round two

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?

It wasn’t about coffee

As I noted in a previous entry, I used to post good-grammar reminders on Facebook but stopped nearly a decade ago. Since then, I’ve avoided venting openly, despite regular fingernails-on-the-chalkboard reactions to frequent assaults on our mother tongue on Facebook and elsewhere.

I have tried to demonstrate good grammar in my FB posts and comments. When I could do so without being too obvious, I’ve slipped in a response that followed a rule of grammar violated in the original post.

For example, say the post was, “Today’s sunshine made it a nice day for Zelda and I.” After several other comments, I might enter, “It gave Nancy and me a chance to do some hiking.”

Then, in May of 2018, I came up with another way to demonstrate good grammar subtly. As with the pre-2014 posts, I had no illusions of educating anyone, and my entries most certainly were not directed at any individual. It was just a way to vent. Well, maybe I also wished it might be like hiding a pill in a piece of meat before giving it to a dog.

Unlike in an incident I described in another, unrelated post, I was trying to be “sneaky.” Using colorful backgrounds Facebook offers for short posts, I created a series of memes. The first read, “It’s never too late to have two cups of coffee.” There were a number of “likes” and an enjoyable discussion of the wonders of coffee.

But it wasn’t really about coffee. It was about “too,” “to” and “two.” “It’s never too late to have two cups of coffee.” These are among the homonyms that can confuse some people. This phrase showed all three used correctly.

I created the memes while having my morning coffee. So the invigorating brew was a natural subject. The next two also had coffee as a theme.

The second was “It’s time for coffee to work its magic,” demonstrating a difference between “it’s” and “its.”

(In an English-class assignment during my junior year in high school, I wrote an “it’s” that should have been an “its.” My teacher, one of the best I ever had, circled the error and wrote “Ouch!” in the margin. A teachable moment. Since then, when I see the mistake, I think “Ouch!”)

A few days later, I attacked the often confusing (for some) “you’re” vs. “your” with “Early starts can be difficult, but after a little coffee, you’re on your way.” See? You’re on your way.

In the comments, I was able to add a treatment of “they’re-their-there.” I noted, “Not too difficult, though, because I’m headed to 7 a.m. Bible study. Some don’t have coffee at home before they leave. They’re content to wait to have their first cup there at the church house.” (Italics inserted here.)

And then there’s always the apostrophe. Very useful but often misused. I had already addressed the it’s-its problem. Also troubling is that many people seem to think the letter S must always be preceded by an apostrophe.

The Carolina Hurricanes once had a goalie named Peters. In a Facebook discussion, I saw a fan insert an apostrophe before the last letter of his name. His name! More recently, on a Seinfeld-themed page, someone did the same in a reference to Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer. “Richard’s” either means “belonging to Richard” or is a contraction of “Richard is” or, occasionally, “Richard has.”

One day I came up with a way to show the apostrophe’s proper use in a possessive and its proper absence from a plural: ” ‘Hey Jude’ was 1968’s top hit and one of the biggest for the 1960s.” It generated some discussion of music and memories associated with that song.

At another time — maybe a couple of times — I’ve posted, “If you visit the Bectons’ home, you may see two or three Bectons, and you might get to hear Daniel Becton’s music.”

I don’t know if the subliminal messages about grammar registered in anyone’s subconscious. I’m sure the number would be between zero and “pretty small.” Likely closer to zero. But in any case, thinking up the posts was fun and a worthwhile mental exercise for me.

Hold onto your hats. Chances are you’re going to see more of these nuggets later in the 2020s. They’re forming in my mind, and I won’t want them to stay there.