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?

What I wish I’d said

There are some concerts I attend and whose audiences include a lot of older people. A while back, I frequently observed that the water had been left running in the men’s room sink. As I stepped up to the sink one time and stuck my hands under the flow left running by the elderly man who had just left, I was aware of another man just approaching the sink to my right. Without turning to look at him, I shared my observation, “Some men just don’t seem to know how to turn the faucet off.”

Then I glanced to my right to see an old friend. “Oh, hi. I didn’t realize I was talking to someone I know,” I offered cheerily.

Yet his reply was, “You’re not talking to me.”

Wait. What? Did he think I was accusing him of leaving the water running? I wouldn’t confront someone in that situation in the first place, but how could I think that someone just about to wash his hands could’ve possibly left the water on?

I couldn’t muster any words before the brief encounter ended. Not long after, it occurred to me that my best response would have been, “To you, but not about you.”

You know the situation. 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.

One day in a small workout facility, as I was wiping down the machine on which I’d just been exercising, an older woman said something about how good it was to see a man actually doing some cleaning. All kinds of things went through my head, none of which came out coherently.

The sexism implied was bad enough, but there’s also common gym courtesy — and the signs reminding all patrons to wipe off machines after use. This woman was a regular and the wife of a physical education instructor. That seemed to be two good reasons for her to be familiar with workout room customs. So one of the things I wished I’d said was, “Just following protocol.”

As for the antiquated attitude about gender roles, I thought of saying something about how I’d learned about and practiced housecleaning from an early age. But that could’ve involved more time than I had as I moved on to the next machine.

I was working in the public relations office of a major medical center many years ago. Someone I vaguely knew worked there and was involved in workers’ right. One day she saw me and the job title on my name badge. “How can you do public relations for this place?”

I offered how much I enjoyed the activities I personally got to do, including taking photos and working on the in-house newspaper. By the next day, I knew the best response would’ve been: “Well, somebody has to.”

Sometimes people pick up on one word in what you’ve said and use it to steer the conversation in a different direction. My first mother-in-law, before she was, had trouble with my longish hair in the early ’70s. One time, at the urging of a friend, she got up the nerve to ask me directly why I wore it that long. I said it had been short most of my life, but in recent times, I’d decided to go with something different. She picked up only on “different,” saying that with so many guys having long hair, I’d be different if mine were short.

The sudden change in direction of the conversation threw me, as it always has and does. I’m not sure I said anything. Obviously, she was conceding that I wasn’t varying from the norm of the day, but she didn’t want the norm of the day dating her daughter (or coming in her house). Some time later, I realized I could’ve simply said, “I mean different from the way I have worn it in the past.”

I don’t think this change-of-direction tactic is characteristic of mothers-in-law or women in general, but I did have an analogous experience with MIL2, who at least was more accepting of me. There was a myth in that family that I could “eat anything and not gain weight.” She perpetuated it as much as anyone.

While it was a positive myth, it wasn’t true. After I had slowly put on 40 pounds over a number of years, I pointed out to her that the facts belied the myth. Her response? “Well, you weighed too little to start with.” Again, the sudden change in direction flustered me. Days past before my appropriate response crystallized in my brain: “Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t change the fact that I have been gaining weight all along.”

Btw, it wasn’t true. I had been close to an ideal weight when she first knew me.

I was visiting a church one Sunday. During the passing of the peace, a woman stepped across the aisle, said “Sorry but I’m the congregational hugger,” and threw her arms around me.

What I thought and regret not saying was, “That’s certainly not something to apologize for.”

I was with a small group of people at the home of mutual friends. The hosts had not been married long and were anxious to start a family. Guests included a couple who were militantly anti-children. The wife of that couple noticed, picked up and examined a detailed temperature chart our hostess was keeping.

“I can’t believe someone would go through all this to have a baby.”
I said nothing, but eventually wished I’d thought to have said: “Why not? You’d go through that much not to have a baby, wouldn’t you?”

I’m one of those few people who figures the engineers and law enforcement people who set speed limits know more about it than I do. So, taking my “courtesy” into account, I tend to drive no more than 5 or so faster than the posted limit. On multi-lane highways, I stay over to the right as much as possible. I’m the old guy creeping along at 72 in the right-hand lane of a 65 mph zone. On two-lane roads, I deal with a lot of tailgaters.

One time, I listened as some person ranted about having to be behind someone going too slowly on a two-lane highway. I thought of the times I’ve had someone’s headlights in my rear-view mirror while I was going 60 on a 55-mph road at night. But I decided to give this person the benefit of a doubt and assume she was talking about someone going well below the limit, which does happen.

I just said something supportive and let it go. What I could have said, though, was, “Yes, that is quite frustrating. I’ve been there. And you know what is also frustrating? When you’re going 60 in a 55-mph zone and someone is riding your back bumper, putting you both at risk for an accident, as if you were holding up traffic”

I was a young adult when my mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure. As a hedge against heredity, I stopped adding salt to my food. I found other ways to help it be favorable. At a luncheon one day, as I declined an offer of the salt shaker, I told the others about my mother’s HBP and my desire to minimize my risk.

I then immediately said, “Pass the pepper.” There were giggles, which didn’t seem to fit the situation. I let it go, but later wished I’d thought to have said, “It’s not flavor that is the culprit, just sodium. ”

I’m sure you can think of similar experiences. I could go on, but that’s enough (maybe more than enough) examples. Tomorrow or next week, I’ll probably think of one more I’ll wish I’d included.