Simple Life

They Only Come out at Night

by Jim Dodson


They came out of the darkness the other night, devouring everything in their path.

I simply opened the front door to feed the cat his supper and there they were, maybe forty or fifty strong, creeping ever closer, waving their little doo-dad tentacles. 

No, it wasn’t the Walking Dead, seriously early Trick-or-treaters or even yet another pesky campaign poll worker getting a last-minute word in before the presidential election. 

It was, in fact, Helix Aspersa, better known as the common American brown snail, a veritable army of ravenous garden slugs on the move. There must have been a dozen already tooling around our front porch, sluggishly speaking, with maybe 30 or 40 more scaling the porch steps while a Seal Team Six of snails ruthlessly swarmed our innocent Jack-o-lantern. 

Rufus the cat looked strangely oblivious to this mayhem, I should add, waiting calmly by his outdoor bowl which, I hasten to mention, was half full of snails finishing up his evening leftovers. 

I quickly shut the door, trying to decide what to do, wondering if our cat had begun herding homeless snails in his free time. It’s not every day one’s home, family and holiday decorations fall brazenly under siege by common garden slugs.

Following her long day at work, my bride was 20 feet away in the kitchen calmly listening to relaxing New Age piano stylings and making adorable ghost cookies for her staff and to mail our grown-up children who can explain the theory of relativity but never learned to check a bank balance or bake. 

“What’s, up?” she casually wondered, noticing my suddenly pale countenance. “You look as if you’ve seen a real ghost.”

“Remember the snake?”

She shuddered. “Thank God I wasn’t here to see the snake!”

Earlier in the week, while she was off at a conference sorting out the state of higher education, I blithely opened the kitchen cabinet to fetch my morning Quaker Oats and discovered a small, brown snake with an exotically banded black head curled up gazing curiously at me, more or less at eye level. He or she looked almost as surprised to see me as I was to see he or she. 

What does one do when one finds an exotic snake with designs on one’s preferred oatmeal?

I calmly put the small snake in a large juice glass and carried it upstairs to my computer to see if it might be the rare Black-headed Amazonian Fruit Tree Snake that, if bitten by it, gives victims hallucinations in which one appears to be on tropical vacation with a Hollywood movie starlet. Victims are frequently known to awaken feverishly calling out a young and fetching Kim Bassinger’s name, pre-Alex Baldwin, but in this case there was no such luck. It was just something called a Southeastern Crowned Brown Snake, a small and harmless little dude with a big name that likes to eat bugs and probably decided to come in from the cold and see what bugs we had on offer. 

My wife’s response to news of a snake in our kitchen cabinet was immediate and quite emphatic, even though I pointed out that I carried it out to a nice rotten log in the adjacent woods and sent it on its way. 

“Eew, eew, eeeewwwww,” she said, more or less direct quote. 

“Did the snake come back?” she demanded to know now, setting aside her cookie cutters. 

“Nope. But we have other visitors from the wild,” I was forced to tell her. “I think Rufus may be inviting them home. By my count, at least 60 or 70 are out there. Come see for yourself. Prepare yourself for a shock.”

She poked her head anxiously out the door and her floury hands flew to her mouth reminiscent of Tuesday Weld in Psycho. Come to think of it, maybe it was Janet Leigh who actually starred in Psycho, though whoever it was she was as crazy with fear as Kim Bassinger was after years of marriage to Alex Baldwin. 

“Eew, eew, eeeewww!” wife exclaimed. “What should we do with them? No trick or treaters will get near our porch with 500 garden slugs on it.”

I quickly looked up garden snails and discovered that in many countries the common terrestrial gastropod mollusk – which is in the same family as abalone and whelks – are regarded as a culinary delicacy. The Helix pomatia, in fact, is the famous garden snail favored by millions of French diners, an actual cousin of the very slugs devouring our Jack-o-lantern. 

“Maybe we could eat them,” I suggested, wondering if perhaps this was what Rufus had in mind when he invited them home. “We could harvest and deep fry them and serve Southern-style escargot to our friends this weekend.”

Another possibility related to snail mucous, I added, which has been shown to cure everything from acne to gunshot wounds. Moreover, in certain places in rural Italy, live garden snails are swallowed whole as a remedy for ulcers – which would make a decent Halloween movie if nothing else.

This idea – and the one that preceded it – got about as much traction as a slug on roller skates, I’m afraid.

“I don’t care what we could do with them,” she protested. “Just make them go away the way you did the snake. Just look at our poor pumpkin!”

She was sadly correct, of course. Slugs eat everything organic in their paths, leaving behind only a silvery sheen once their mucous trails dry. In ancient times, according to Pliny the Younger, seers read the silvery residue for accurate clues of coming plagues and social upheaval. I’ll confess I wondered if slug mucous might actually predict who would win the presidential election, which seemed at least as accurate as most polls in swing states.

Okay, in the interest of not frightening the children, a brief pause here for some much-needed levity: the world’s only known Halloween joke actually involving a garden slug! Fully appropriate for all ages!

So this old guy who hates everything about Halloween – the annoyingly cute kids, the absurdly over-priced candy, the over-bearing parents who roam the neighborhood in chatty packs armed with flashlights and hip-flasks – hears his doorbell and opens the door to find a tiny princess holding out her pumpkin candy bucket.

“Trick or treat!” the princess chirps sweetly. 

The old guy grumbles and gives the child a quarter, slamming the door, hoping that’s the end of it.

A few moments later, though, the bell rings again.

This time he finds a small garden slug standing there holding out its own cute candy bucket.

“Trick or treat,” says the garden slug.

“Are you kidding me!” explodes the old guy, who in a fit of fury snatches up the slug and hurls it as far as he can into the darkness, shutting the door and turning off his lights.

Three years later the doorbell rings again and he opens the door to find the same garden slug standing there. The slug is not amused.

“Hey, pal,” he says, “what was that about? It took me three years to be back here. Forget the quarter. You owe me a buck!”

A common way to eliminate garden slugs, I learned in the midst of our pre-Halloween ordeal, is to put out a cup of beer and let the snails drink themselves to death. Another approach is to put salt on them, which causes their little bodies to shed water and shrivel up in agony.

In truth, I couldn’t bear the thought of having the painful deaths of 75 garden snails on my conscience, so I shut the door and decided to sleep on it. That night I dreamed that Kim Bassinger had invited me on a trip down the Amazon, but that’s quite another story and not appropriate for all trick or treaters. 

In the morning, the slugs were gone – vanished back to their little snail beds with tummies full of our fresh pumpkin. I carried our decimated Jack-o-lantern to the same woods where I let the snake go and tossed it into a place where other wild critters might enjoy it. 

Rufus the cat tagged along. I’m still convinced he’s somehow at the center of this little drama.

Then I went back and spread a little salt on our porch and put out a nice new pumpkin for any trick-or-treaters – or presidential poll workers – brave or foolish enough to knock on our door.

For the record, the silver slime said the presidential election, alas, was too close to call. 


This Simple Life was originally published in October 2016. 

Simple Life

Some years back, I wrote this in tribute to a beloved colleague at the magazine who was preparing to move home to England. We share a love of beautiful English slang.

Bob’s the Word

By Jim Dodson 


A beloved English friend named Serena returned from a lengthy visit home and popped into the office the other day.

Naturally I asked how her trip to England went. 

“It was lovely,” she said. “Though the weather was perfectly awful. As usual, lots of whinging about that.”

She wondered why I was smiling.

I explained that I hadn’t heard that word since the days of Sid Vicious.

She smiled. “What word?”


The English have given us many fine things across the Ages, from Magna Carta to mushy green peas, from the Beatles to Rumpole of the Bailey. But for my money their slang is without peer on the planet, almost Shakespearean in descriptive scope, probably the reason the Bard used so much of it in his own writing.

To “whinge,” it should be perfectly obvious, simply means to complain to the point of being such a nuisance someone is likely to advise you to “stuff it.”

That’s also a nifty phrase I picked up on my first trip to England in 1977. To set the stage, Elvis had recently toppled off a toilet in Memphis and the Queen was celebrating her big Jubilee party, 25 years of sitting on a throne of her own. 

I rolled into town on a stormy night, a day earlier than friends of my folks were expecting me to arrive, and found that every hotel was filled to overflowing  with  Jubilee revelers.  A grim youth hostel on the Belgrade Road agreed to take me in for five quid, however, providing a mattress in a basement full of Bulgarian teenagers on holiday who’d never heard of deodorant. At least in the morning the establishment sent you on your way with a free bowl of corn flakes.

As it happened, I had a date in the country that beautiful Sunday morning, catching an early train out of London to the ancient Roman spa town of Bath (which properly rhymes with “moth”] to have Sunday lunch with the family of one of my dad’s old Army chums. All I knew of the Turner family was that they resided on a “estate farm” outside of town and had two daughters about my age. What followed was nothing shy of a bloody crash course in British slang.

As rain clouds gathered outside Bath’s ornate train station, the tiniest car I’d ever seen wheeled up with the most beautiful girl I’d laid eyes on behind the wheel. Her name was Claire. She had violet eyes like Elizabeth Taylor, a face that could have made Heathcliff leap into the sea. The car was a wheezing mustard-colored Austin Mini. I could barely get both legs and my backpack inside. 

“Looks like it’s about to start raining stair-rods,” she declared, slamming the Austin in gear and zooming off. “Mum fancies a walk to the Black Swan after lunch so you can see a real English pub. Do you have your Wellies?”

I had no idea what she meant and was too tongue-tied – or simply terrified by her driving – to ask as we banged along frightfully narrow hedgerow lanes. 

“Cool car,” I managed to say as a giant truck loaded with hay ran us partially into the ditch. Claire barely flinched.

“Bugger these lorries,” she swore. “Yeah, it’s a bit of an old clanger, this. My dad restores them. This one belonged to him and mum.” She glanced at me and grinned. “I believe they shagged in it like bloody rabbits.”

Here was a word I knew thanks to my Southern exposure to Beach Music.

“I can shag,” I volunteered. “My brother’s girlfriend showed me how.”

Claire gave me a disturbed look. 

She turned out to be the Turner family’s spirited youngest daughter, 17, in her sixth form and about to take her A-levels, whatever that meant. She had plans to soon go off to college in Bristol and become a pre-school teacher. She asked how old I was.

“Twenty-three,” I replied, feeling like a babe in the woods.

“Ah,” said Lady Claire with a knowing nod. “Almost a gaffer, I reckon.”

Her older sister Kat came out from the city in her own elderly Austin.  She was my age exactly, a resident of the South side of London – the “grotty end of Clapham,” she explained over a lunch that included bangers and mash and a baked aubergine that turned out to taste a lot like my mom’s eggplant parmesan. 

 Kat of Clapham had florescent pink hair and a safety pin through her right earlobe. She’d moved to London hoping to become a news presenter for the BBC but was studying international relations at the University of London. In the meantime she was working as a hostess at a punk rock club in Chelsea.

“Couldn’t stand this bloody boring place when I was growing up here,” she confided to me during our after-lunch hike to the Black Swan for a pint with Claire and their folks, Jack and Silvia. “ All rich toffs and blue hair pensioners in Nike trainers round these parts nowadays. Know what I mean, Bob?”

I simply nodded, wondering who Bob was. 

Silvia and Jack, parents of Kit and Claire, couldn’t have been more welcoming. Jack was retired from IBM and restored Austin minis for fun. Silvia worked for a local solicitor, which sounded like dodgy work. What exactly was this  most attractive mother of two, I wondered, soliciting? Mum and Dad were both dedicated ramblers, I learned from Silvia as we drank warm beer at the Black Swan.

This turned out to mean that Silvia and Jack were active in Britain’s charitable walking society, an organization that had nothing to do with my brother’s first car. Silvia and Jack believed it was every walker in the nation’s God-given right to enjoy complete legal access to every piece of property in the realm, including the Queen’s.   

“Oh, bollocks,” grumbled Kat. “Here comes Tom the yob.”

“Oh stuff it, Kat,” her younger sister told her.

Tom was Claire’s boyfriend, a strapping lad who looked like a young Albert Finney. He’d just gotten off work from a local stable. Claire wished me well and went off with Tom, breaking my heart.

“You must stay the night,” Silvia insisted. “Kat can show you the baths and drive you back to London tomorrow.”

I was in no hurry to sleep with the Bulgarians again so I happily agreed.

The next day Kat showed me the town of Bath’s famous Roman baths then she drove me back to London, inviting me to “crash” at her “flat.” My modest Southern nature prevents me from telling what happened next. Let’s just say it was a fine example of international relations. I’ve never been able to look at florescent pink hair the same way ever again.

 On the plus side, Kat turned out to be a great tour guide, walking me all over the city of Shakespeare and Sid Vicious. She even took me to her punk rock club where I stood out like a pork chop at a bar mitzvah. I showed her how Americans “shagged,” which caused her to punch me and dissolve with laughter. We had a fine week in each other’s company, swapping native slang and hitting museums and pubs.  Kat was fascinated by the American South and wondered if my daddy might be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  I almost hated to have to tell her he was just an ordinary advertising executive.

“I love how y’all talk down there,” she declared with the worst Southern accent ever attempted by an English-speaking human being. “It’s so bloody primitive.” 

Finally, she drove me to Kings Cross Station to catch the Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh. Or maybe it was the Caledonian Express. I forget which.

Truthfully, I hated to go.  Kat and London had charmed and cheered up my primitive soul. I think I fell a little bit in love with both sisters that week.  Eat your bloody heart out, Mr. Dorsey. 

“Righto, Bob,” she declared, giving me a firm peck. “On you go. Watch out for Scottish blighters in wooly skirts! No soppy whinging now. Stay in touch.”

We did, too – at least for a time. 

 I later learned Kat got married and went to work for John Major. Someday I half expect to see Britain has elected its first prime minister with pink hair.

This is why I thanked my lovely English friend Serena for unexpectedly bringing back some nice memories from my first trip to her homeland. 

Looking back, I can’t whinge too much about how things worked out. 

Know what I mean, Bob?


Simple Life

October’s Surprises

By Jim Dodson


As sure as October nights arrive cooler and earlier, stories about dark clowns may soon begin circulating again, as they did four years ago when I posted this frightful ditty for my Simple Life column.


I first heard about dark clowns on the radio several weeks ago while driving home from the country at twilight. The BBC presenter sounded skeptical, even amused by reports out of Greenville, South Carolina, where people dressed as dark clowns were reportedly trying to lure children into the woods with candy and money.

“So …is this just a silly hoax or something people there are really concerned about?” the host asked a local reporter covering the story.

“I can’t say it’s a hoax,” she replied with a note of unease in her voice, “because the police are taking this very seriously. They have warned parents and doubled patrols. This really has a lot of people in South Carolina really freaked out.”

So-called “dark clowns” have been spooking America quite a bit lately, it turns out, most recently in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where a photograph of a dark clown roaming early morning streets carrying black balloons set the Internet ablaze. Not long ago, moreover, residents of Bakersfield, California, were also spooked by photographs of “evil after-dark clowns” roaming their streets after hours, showing up under lamp posts and on idle kiddie rides. Since then, reports of dark clowns have cropped up in a dozen other places around the country.

“The police don’t know whether the stories are coming from the imaginations of children or something sinister is afoot, but panicked residents seem to be taking the law into their own hands,” The New York Times noted about this latest outbreak of menacing clowns in upcountry South Carolina, adding that shots had been fired into wooded areas where the sightings occurred.

Whatever else may be true, clowns occupy a peculiar space in American popular culture, somewhere between perfectly innocent and deeply disturbing.

Just in time to either fuel or inform the mania, my September issue of Smithsonian notes that clowns have been with us since man’s earliest days in the guise of everything from mythologized tricksters to painted medicine men. Pygmy clowns entertained bored Egyptian pharaohs and Medieval court jesters were entitled to thumb their warty noses at the king without fear of losing their heads. Ancient Rome had professional clowns whose job it was to pacify unruly crowds at festivals, bumbling peacekeepers who kept an eye out for troublemakers. “Well into the 18th and 19th century,” writes Smithsonian’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, “the prevailing clown figure of Western Europe and Britain was the pantomime clown, who was sort of a bumbling buffoon.”

Once, standing in a crowd of camera-wielding tourists next to my young daughter on Jackson Hole’s main drag in Wyoming, awaiting a parade of local rodeo riders, I spotted a mime working the crowd in our direction. My daughter was delighted. Her father not so much.

Mimes have always made me uncomfortable, a modest phobia I trace to a powerful moment in my early childhood in South Carolina where my father worked for a local newspaper. One evening in the late fall, he took my brother and me to a political rally in a corn field just outside of town where politicians made speeches and a group of people showed up in a neighboring field wearing white robes and hoods and stood around a bonfire. We didn’t stay long, just long enough for the hooded figures to frighten the bug juice out of yours truly. On the drive home, I asked my dad why those men wore white hoods. “Because people who wear masks are weak people often up to no good,” he replied. Our mother gave him holy hell when she found out where he’d taken me.

Forty years later, picking up on my post-Klan jitters, the mime paused right in front of us and attempted to make me smile. He made a huge happy face followed by a manically tragic sad one, rubbing away imaginary tears when I wouldn’t yield. The crowd ate it up.

“Thanks,” I said through gritted teeth. “Feel free to move along now.”

Clowns were everywhere in the America where I grew up.

Most were fun-loving and perfectly innocent in those faraway days of Ozzie and Harriet and “Father Knows Best” – Clarabelle the clown on “Howdy Doody” and Bozo the Clown with his internationally syndicated show – which according to Smithsonian had a ten-year waiting list for tickets.

There was even a clown I liked on my favorite weeknight TV show, Red Skelton’s eponymous Clem Kadiddlehopper, a bumbling painted-up fool who was tolerable because he often broke up halfway through his skits. In my bedroom, I even had a harlequin desk lamp, sitting astride a miniature world. The first chapter books I ever read – almost all were adventure tales featuring unexpected heroes and dark characters up to no good – I read by the light of the harlequin’s lamp.

The first time I attended a performance of the Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, on the other hand, I felt badly for the animals and truly bothered by the antics of clowns. Only the acrobats appealed to me.

“So the question is,” Smithsonian’s McRobbie wonders, “when did the clown, supposedly a jolly figure of innocuous, kid-friendly entertainment, become so weighed down by fear and sadness? When did clowns become so dark?”

The truest answer is, long ago and far away.

Classical operas and Shakespearean dramas, after all, have long used clown figures as sinister messengers of mystery and intrigue. But in the modern American context it may well have been an evil clown named Pogo who established the motif of the dark clown haunting the streets of heartland America.

His real name was John Wayne Gacy, a friendly chap who entertained children in the Chicago suburbs for years during the middle 1970s before he was arrested, tried and convicted of killing 33 young men. “You know,” Gacy reportedly told investigators with chilling ease, “a clown can get away with murder.” Before he faced execution in 1994, America’s Crown Prince of Killer Clowns spent his time in his jail cell painting pictures of clowns and self-portraits of himself as Pogo the clown.

In the mid 1980s, I officially swore off watching horror films after writing a piece for Boston Magazine about a reclusive teen in western Massachusetts whose mother allowed her son to gorge himself on the Friday the 13th films only to have her troubled son don a hockey mask one Halloween night and slash several kids before hanging himself in the woods. The psychologist who’d been treating him for years told me that “his identification with Jason seemed pretty harmless.”

A toxic flood of even more ghastly films continues to flow into your local Cineplex, feeding our insatiable desire to terrify ourselves. Heath Ledger’s brilliant if disquieting Joker in the 2008 Batman remake The Dark Knight seemed almost too real and sadly prefigured the gifted actor’s own demons rising to the surface shortly before he died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose.

I sometimes wonder if we aren’t simply hardwired to value a good harmless scare in a world that appears full of very real dangers, providing life to whatever bogeyman has always lurked beneath the bed. In another age, after all, fairy tales and fables of trolls loitering beneath bridges and witches in the woods were meant to instruct children on the dangers of straying too far beyond the light or down the road of ruin, real or imagined. “Always hold tight to hand of nurse,” went a famous British ditty, “for fear of finding something worse.”

Perhaps this explains why Americans can’t seem to get enough of Halloween’s faux gore and fright wigs, projected to shell out a record $7 billion or $75 per ghoul among those celebrating the holiday this year – second only Christmas retail spending.

It’s all part of the funhouse ride that thankfully isn’t real, and every town larger than the hips on a snake seems eager to cash in on the phenomenon with its own haunted corn maze or “woods or terror” peopled by chainsaw-wielding psychos and evil clowns, bless their dark little hearts.

According to Smithsonian, only two percent of grown-ups suffer from excessive fear of clowns, technically a phobia called coulrophobia.

Indeed, maybe the way to fight back against this intense fear of clowns is to simply make light of such darkness the way John Candy did in the 1989 John Hughes classic Uncle Buck. It’s one of the great moments of Hollywood comedy.

When a stumbling clown shows up at the door from an all-night bachelorette party to entertain children at a birthday party where Uncle Buck Russell, good-natured loser – played to perfection by the late great Candy – is babysitting for his nephew and two nieces, Uncle Buck discovers that the clown is drunk, refusing to let him enter.

The offended clown declares, “Don’t you know who I am? In the field of local live home entertainment, I’m a god!”

Uncle Buck calmly points to his rodent-themed VW bug and calmly tells him, “Now get in your mouse and get out of here.”

The clown snarls violently at him, “Hey, you! Don’t you know who I am? Let me tell you something you low-life, lying, four-flushing sack of sh…”

He never gets the words out. Uncle Buck flattens his big fat rubber nose. Twice.

I cannot speak for the anxious parents of Green Bay, Bakersfield and Greenville, but – between us — I’m more worried about some of the dark clowns we’ll have to decide about in the voting booth a few days after Halloween.

Talk about a scary October surprise.

In the meantime, if some dark clown is foolish enough to show up at my door on Halloween night, don’t be surprised if I give him a shot of John Candy just to remember me by.



This Simple Life was first published in October 2016.

Simple Life

The Dash of Life

by Jim Dodson

In an early episode from one my favorite British dramas, a charming program called “Delicious,” a roguish head chef, speaking from his grave in a Cornwall churchyard, muses on the symbolism of markings in stone.

“On a gravestone you see two dates – a beginning and an end, with a tiny dash in between. That dash represents everything you’ve ever done. Everywhere you’ve ever been. Every breath, kiss or meal between birth and death. It all boils down to just one little dash…”

As a veteran wanderer of ancient burying grounds and longtime collector of clever epitaphs, I decided years ago that gravestones “speak” about the lives contained therein, telling tales and offering wisdom to those who will listen.

Or sometimes just a much needed smile.

Here’s one I fancy from a Wolverhampton churchyard dated 1690:

Here lies the bones of Joseph Jones
Who ate whilst he was able;
But once o’er fed,
He drop’t down dead
And fell beneath the table.
When from the tomb,
To meet his doom,
He rises amidst sinners;
Since he must dwell
In heav’n or hell,
Take him – which gives best dinners!

At a moment when more than 200,000 of our fellow citizens have succumbed to the Covid virus, the subject of death is hardly a laughing matter. For most of us, in fact, the question of one’s mortality is one we would politely defer …indefinitely.

Yet when the end comes – delivered by a killer pandemic or a slowly ebbing pulse from natural causes — the meaning of the dash may suddenly become clear.

Life is brief, as an Irish friend likes to say – and subject to change without notice.

Out west over the past few weeks, more than 150 wildfires incinerated thousands of homes and property, burned up lives and landscape roughly the size of New Hampshire, forcing half a million people to flee for their lives. At last count, more than 100 people perished and dozens more are unaccounted for from the apocalyptic inferno, which is already in the books as one of North America’s worst natural disasters.

Some say it’s merely a preview of things to come.

Every credible environmental scientist – an endangered species in their own right – agrees that we have reached a perilous breaking point in terms of protecting the life of the planet from our own ecological abuses. As California and Oregon burned, a report all but overlooked from the International Wildlife Foundation noted that since 1970 more than 70 percent of the planet’s wildlife has vanished, including dozens of species that have gone extinct. Moreover, man’s invasion of remaining wild places threatens to see more exotic killer viruses jump between species.

Meanwhile, down on the Gulf Coast, a series of hurricanes have battered the Alabama and Florida coastlines this month, flooding streets with biblical-sized rainfall and destroying untold numbers of lives and property, with more death and destruction on the way from a deadly conga line of tropical cyclones coming off the west coast of Africa. According to the NOAA, barely halfway through the tropical cyclone season, for only the second time in recorded history, authorities have run out of assigned names and turned to the Greek alphabet to identify further storms this season, the Alpha and Omega of natural disasters.

I have a hunch Bill Buynak would have been fascinated.

Bill was my father-in-law.

Earlier this month, quietly and without much fanfare, in the midst of all this cinematic death and destruction, he passed away from a lengthy heart ailment. He was 85.

Though we disagreed on global warming, Bill and I enjoyed talking about the drama of weather and debating sports, two subjects where we found comfortable common ground. For that matter, we could also talk history and even religion since Bill was a well-read man who fiercely embraced his Catholic faith.

Of the three dining room table taboos guaranteed to ruin any holiday gathering – sex, religion and politics – only politics was the true buzz killer, especially at Thanksgiving when big Bill occupied the head of the table.

I learned this several years ago when I made a lame joke about Sarah Palin and watched Bill simply rise and leave the room. We heard the front door open and shut. He walked home.

A long life may not be good enough, Benjamin Franklin was supposed to have said. But a good life is long enough.
Joseph William “Bill” Buynak certainly had a good life.

I knew him for more than 20 years. But it took his passing, I regret to say, for me to learn who he really was – the dash of his life, if you will, between his birth and passing.

Bill grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of Czech and Lithuanian immigrants, joining the army after high school to become a top instructor at the army’s famous Fort Dix Radio School.

Electronics and computers were his career passions. He went on to become a computer engineer and worked for one of the country’s pioneering computer firms, earning several key patents on a mobile sports graphic program still in use today.

Music was his deeper passion. As teenager, he played accordion in a polka band and apparently could dance like nobody’s business. That may be how he wooed and won the hand of his bride of 55 years, Jeannette Ward, a spunky Irish lass.

His oldest daughter, my wife Wendy, remembers how after she and her two sisters Karen and Amy had had their evening baths, they would come downstairs in their nightgowns and dance to Russian folks dances their papa played on his state-of-the-art stereo. His record collection was vast, more than 500 LPs from every genre — Bach to the Beatles, ZZ Top to Gustav Mahler.

On Sunday mornings, big Bill would slip out to get The New York Times and fresh baked Kaiser rolls from the local deli, putting on an opera called Peter Grimes – a tale about a fisherman who gets lost at sea – to awaken the household.

As teenagers, Bill taught his girls how to play tennis and drove them to Vermont to properly learn skiing. “He was surrounded by strong-willed women,” Wendy points out. “We had him out-numbered four to one. But he never complained. He also documented everything.”

Being a true tech geek (Star Trek was naturally his favorite TV show) Bill was filming the life of his young family years before video cameras became the rage of suburban America. Not long before his passing, Wendy and her papa transposed some of his early 8-millimeter films of family gatherings, anniversaries and birthdays to digital.

“Everyone looks so young. What a handsome guy he was,” Jan Buynak murmured wistfully as she watched her husband’s restored film. True to form, Big Bill Buynak makes only brief and momentary appearances in the watery film. For in more ways than one, he was always the man quietly behind the scenes.

Due to Covid-19, Bill’s memorial service has been postponed to sometime next year back home in Connecticut.

Given this upside-down year in which weddings and funerals and every thing between have been delayed, postponed or simply cancelled, it’s uncertain if an actual grave stone will someday mark Bill’s final resting place in a veteran’s cemetery in Virginia, with a pair of dates and a dash in stone to speak of his well-lived life.

His one wish was to make it to this year’s Thanksgiving table.

We plan to honor that wish, placing his boxed ashes at the head of the table.


Parts of this “Simple Life” were adapted from a previous publication in May 2018.

Simple Life

Brief Notes from a Transcendental Trout Stream

By Jim Dodson


Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that life comes with compensations.

I’ve long believed this to be true, and this week did nothing to dispel this ancient wisdom.

We’d planned to spend the early part of this week hiking with our dogs and tossing a fly line into a tumbling stream deep in the Pisgah National Forest.

It seemed like the perfect getaway.

Because of the heavy rains that followed us to the mountains for our much-needed four-day break, however, fly-fishing proved to be an elusive hope. The Edenic pool 40 feet below our rustic cabin, fed by a roaring waterfall, was the perfect place for our dogs to take a swim and their masters to cool their weary urban feet and appreciate the awesome power of gravity and water.

The beautiful hand-made dry flies I picked up at a local outfitters shop, alas, never touched the stream. Though the shop’s owner did warn me that, given conditions, little more than the mosquitoes might be biting. Instead, we played like children in the water.

Our other ambition to hike to the top of Mt Mitchell also proved problematic. Our cabin by Bolens Creek sat at the end of dirt road and the head of a trail that ascended to the top of the east’s highest peak. It all sounded divine until we discovered that the trail on offer turned out to be rated the most “difficult” on the mountain, requiring a “hard ten-hour hike one way to the top,” i.e. a full day and night to make it up and back. We settled each morning for a quarter of a mile hike up the steep and stony trail to a serene spot where a moss-wreathed footbridge crossed a quieter stream pool beyond which the ascent became even more daunting.

It was a good place to pause and rest in a living cathedral of trees, water and stone, elements that are vastly older than any human footprints.

So what were the compensations?

Pretty simple, really.

Rain on a tin roof was one. Sleeping with open windows and nature’s air conditioning was another, conducive to deep sleep without dreams.

Beneath these natural sounds of stream and rain lay an understory of silence that felt almost holy. The philosopher Paschal said that most of our problems arise from our inability to sit still in a room. Meister Eckhart observed that nothing in the universe resembles God more than silence.

My wife Wendy took four books into this healing silence – a novel about a muralist, a book of culinary secrets, a wine atlas and a book about race – and read parts of them all. She cooked some wonderful meals as well.

I took two books but read only one from cover to cover, naturalist Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope, a bestselling exegesis on how we can save our endangered planet from a sixth mass-extinction by transforming our suburban yards into natural habitats for native plants and wildlife, natural corridors where eco-diversity can not only survive but thrive in the face of development that is systematically destroying our last wild places. When native plants and animals disappear from our landscapes, he argues, our lives won’t be long to follow.

The other book was Irish poet John O’Donohue’s Walking in Wonder, a beautiful little book I turn to whenever the world down in the flatlands of America seems riven with fear and loathing. The Year of Our Lord 2020 seems a banner year for that.

“One of the reasons our post-modern mind is so packed and tight is that we have lost touch with our wildness,” O’Donohue writes. “One of the most natural ways of coming home to your wildness is to go out into a wild place.”

I happened to be reading this very paragraph when the sun came out and something quite wonder-filled happened.

An Eastern Blue-Tailed butterfly settled on my page-turning hand and stayed there for at least ten minutes, checking out my book and maybe its reader. After a bit, the beautiful creature flew away but soon returned and stayed even longer, taking inventory of my bare knee and the end of my stream-soaked sneaker for almost an hour. I briefly dozed off in the sun, and when I awoke, to my amazement, he or she was still there.

The afternoon was sunny and warm and suddenly the water meadow below the cabin was full of butterflies – magnificent Swallowtails, Cabbage Whites and Cloudless Sulphurs. At one point, a squadron of stunning Monarchs swarmed around the meadow, pausing to dine on milkweed for their long flight to Mexico.

The message was clear.

In this same meadow, the wild phlox and larkspur were barely hanging onto their colors and the Joe Pye Weed and yarrow were fading fast. Ditto the last of the Indian pinks and toad flowers, fading to rust and bowing their heads to summer’s end.

All in all, though I never tossed a line at a trout, I found exactly what I’d hoped for in that cabin by a wild mountain stream – a reminder that all life is fleeting and beautiful, a winged thing that feels as miraculous as an answered prayer.

It was the perfect getaway after all.


High Browsing

Last Laughs

By Nancy Oakley


It’s no joke: In recent years comedians have been bemoaning the slow death of comedy, owing to the trend of public shaming or outright cancellation of material deemed offensive. Excuse us (or perhaps not), but comedy is meant to offend. Which is why, to borrow a phrase from standup comic Rodney Dangerfield, it don’t get no respect — and never has, since Aristophanes’ day. Comedy is inherently subversive, holding up a mirror to the human condition, so rife with foibles. It’s pathos in disguise, really, but when artfully done makes us double over with laughter.

There are far too many masters of the medium to illustrate our point, but since we trade in words, we’ll pick a comedic legend whose signature was a facility with language. More than any persnickety editor, the inimitable George Carlin examined the uses, abuses and idiosyncrasies of 20th-century American English, notoriously breaking ground with his 1972 monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” A radio broadcast of the routine ultimately led to a Supreme Court decision, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, addressing the extent to which the federal government could regulate speech on radio and TV.

But Carlin didn’t stop with vulgarities. He also targeted “advertising b.s,” mundane expressions and sayings, such as “have a nice day,” and what he called “soft language,” euphemisms that disguise direct, honest speech that also shield us from life’s realities. Combining his razor-sharp wit with slapstick and the exaggerated facial expressions of a clown, while moderating the tone of is voice, Carlin gleefully savages the banality of modern verbiage, noting how “toilet paper” has become “bath tissue;” how “shell shock,” has evolved into the eight syllable, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” and how anyone who’s been fired, is simply the result of how “management wanted to curtail redundancies in the human resources area.” None of them laughing matters in and of themselves, but in Carlin’s deft hands? Hilarious.

Simple Life

The Life I Never Had

By Jim Dodson

Sometimes before dawn on the late summer mornings, I let in the cat from his nighttime rambles and put on the coffee, then spend a few quiet moments with Ruby Jane.

She’s old and nicked up from years of travel, but has a body that’s spectacularly curved in all the right places. And if you know how to touch her the right way, she still makes the sweetest music.

Ruby Jane is a beautiful Alvarez guitar I purchased the summer after I graduated from high school in 1971 with money I earned giving guitar lessons for Maurice Weinstein at Lawndale Music company for the princely sum of five bucks an hour. Today she’s a symbol of the life I never had.

She went off with me to college along with a window fan for my dorm room, a portable record player and a wooden crate full of record albums.

At that time, I was seriously thinking of postponing college and heading to Nashville to try my luck as a songwriter. Instead, I settled for playing a few coffee house gigs around town and becoming an English major and columnist for the school paper.

Some years back, I told this story to a musical hero of mine, the Grammy winning Alabama singer-songwriter Mac McAnally, whom I helped bring to the Maine Music Festival in the late 1990s.

I first heard Mac perform at a bar in Athens, Georgia during the years I was the senior writer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday Magazine and Mac was already a star in country music. One of his earliest albums, No Problem Here, is a anthem to the small town Southern life and still my favorite album of all time.

After his appearance in the main performance tent at the Maine Music Festival two decades later, we shared a cold beverage and talked about how our careers had gone since that night we met in that Athens bar. We even jammed a bit with a couple local musicians before he packed up to be driven back to the airport by his host.

On the way there, he complimented my playing and wondered if I’d ever thought about making music a career.

I thanked him for saying this but felt sure he was just being kind to his appointed limo driver – in my case a well-traveled, mud-freckled Chevy Blazer in which he seemed right at home. I admitted that, once upon a time, I came dangerously close to heading for Nashville the year I graduated from college in 1975.

“But that’s another life,” I said with a laugh. “The one I never chased.”

With two small kids and a busy journalism career that literally took me to a lot of interesting places in the world, I confessed, my beloved guitar rarely left its case these days.

He told me about his own musical journey.

Mac grew up in rural Alabama, studied classical piano and played for his Baptist church before going on to a stellar career performing on his own and eventually writing Billboard toppers for the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Alabama, Kenny Chesney and Sawyer Brown. A dozen solo albums, seven CMA Musician of the Year awards and one Grammy nomination later, he remains one the most respected songwriters and studio musicians of modern times.

“Funny how life works out down the road,” he agreed. “Any regrets?”

None, I admitted, recognizing the line.

It’s from one of MacAnally’s most successful songs, “Down the Road,” a moving anthem about a father and his daughter that was nominated for a Grammy in 2010.

We turned out to have much more in common than I realized.

I told him about growing up in North Carolina, singing in the church choir and teaching myself to play a second-hand Stella Concertmaster beginning around age 10. The guitar was a gift from a former bluesman who worked for my dad at his weekly newspaper down in Mississippi.

I taught myself to play this road-worn Stella, first copying the folks songs of Peter, Paul and Mary before falling hard for the music of George Harrison and jazz greats like Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery.

In the fifth grade I formed a band with two buddies. Our biggest gig was playing “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Louie Louie” for Fall Festival at Archibald D. Elementary School, prompting Della Hockaday to accept a mood ring afterwards, proving musicians always get the girls. Not long after this I took Della to the Greensboro Coliseum to see Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bobby Sherman and the Monkeys, whose show – or so I’ve been told — was opened by one Jimmi Hendrix.

Greensboro in those days was a major stop on the Chitlin Circuit and East Coast live performance music circuit. Everybody who was anybody came through the Gate City. Around age 13, I even saw a UNCG nursing student named Emmy Lou Harris perform somewhere down on Tate Street, and was a regular at (former) Aycock Auditorium where I saw road shows by B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Ike and Tina Turner, Jerry Butler and Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.

By high school I was writing songs and teaching guitar and performing with a traditional quartet out of the Grimsley choir called the “Queens Men,” performing for everything from Rotary luncheons to weddings.

In college, I found a few paying gigs playing some of my own music at a coffee house and popular restaurant on weekends, never quite able to shake the allure of Nashville.

But I was also the son of a newspaperman with printer’s ink in his blood. At that time, Woodward and Bernstein were almost bigger rock stars than Jimi Hendrix.

Instead of Nashville I wound up in Atlanta, covering everything from presidential campaigns to Klan rallies across my native south. The two things I basically gave up during those dark years were my love of playing my guitar and my boyhood love affair of playing golf. In the city that made legendary Bobby Jones, I believe I played maybe three rounds of golf – with borrowed clubs, no less.

It couldn’t last. At age 30, I turned down a dream job at the Washington newspaper where my father had worked and fled to a trout stream in southern Vermont to go to work for legendary Yankee Magazine, the smartest move I ever made.

I found a pup at the local animal shelter, bought a secondhand set of Hogan golf clubs and began pounding the accumulated rust off my game. On long winter evenings beneath brilliant northern stars, I sat by my woodstove and played my old Alverez guitar, feeling my heartbeat slow down at last. It was like being with an old friend.

One Christmas my new wife gave me a beautiful classical guitar. When our children were still small, I began playing for them. Soon they were performing in school shows and even singing on a local country music station with their old man accompanying on his guitar, singing background vocals. I turned out to be a natural background singer.

That’s why I was so happy with my life in Maine when my music hero Mac MacAnally came calling to perform at the Maine Festival.

The last thing he said to me as I dropped him off at the airport, however, was kind of a kick. “Better keep playing that guitar. It’s like riding a bike. You never forget how. Who knows, you may wind up down in Nashville yet.”

Too late for this old road warrior.

My children grew up to be splendid singers and musicians, as did my second wife Wendy’s sons. Like their old man, my two became writers, choosing the family tradition. But Wendy’s oldest is a musical polymath who can play any instrument and her youngest, Liam Frank, has already released two Extended Play CDs of his original music with his band, State Function. You can hear his music on Spotify and Apple Music.

My favorite Mac McAnally album is called “Simple Life.” It’s amazing how often I still play that album — and play along with it on Ruby Jane.

A line from the title song goes: A simple life is the life for me / a man and his wife and his family / and the lord up above knows I’m tryin / to lead a simple life in a difficult time.

I don’t miss the life I never had.

I also never thanked Mac McAnally for inspiring me to pick up my guitar more frequently. Playing in the early morning quiet gives me much needed peace and pleasure, reminding me I’m exactly where I should be in this life.

That song, by the way, inspired the name for this column.




This “Simple Life” first appeared in O.Henry magazine in June 2015.

Simple Life

Blue Angels of the Garden

By Jim Dodson

As August wanes, dragonflies begin to disappear from the garden. Their lease, like summer’s, is far too brief.

I’m always sorry to see them go.

The other evening I was watering my parched perennial bed when a pair of iridescent dragonflies zoomed up out of nowhere, performing a delightful pas de deux in the gentle spray of my hose. Though I don’t know my dragonflies as well as I’d like to, I believe these might have been male (blue) and female (green) Eastern pondhawks on a dinner date.

According to a recent piece in the New York Times, new research shows dragonflies may be the keenest hunters in the animal kingdom, snatching and devouring 95 perfect of their prey on the wing – not bad for a dainty insect that belongs to the shortlist of insects most people like, alongside lady bugs and butterflies.

Equipped with compound eyes that are believed to be the sharpest the insect world, a dual sets of wings that flap only 30 times a second (compared to a bee’s 300) enabling a dragonfly to stop mid-flight and move in all directions at will, these ancient acrobatics are believed to be the swiftest predators in the air, capable of reaching speeds of 35 mph or higher, which perhaps accounts for their voracious eating habits and need to consume up to thirty house flies or mosquitoes in an hour, all while inflight.

For this simple reason alone we should honor theses beautiful killers of summer, which prey on any number of stinging and annoying insects that make being outside for a lowly human on a fine summer evening sometimes more painful than it’s worth. Despite their fearsome optics, dragonflies actually can’t sting humans or animals, though in their aquatic nymph form– which takes up well over half their lives — they can indeed deliver a sharp but harmless bite.

The research team that determined the dragonfly’s impressive flying and eating habits also points out that their sophisticated nervous systems can lock on and track specific targets through clouds of other flying insects with such impressive skill a mosquito or house fly rarely sees the creature that swallows it whole.

The public clamor over the growing use of unmanned aircraft or drones by military and private commercial entities – promoting drones as an efficient way to deliver everything from intel on natural disasters to Fedex packages but raising significant concerns about the right to privacy – takes on an interesting new level of meaning when you learn that our military studied the killing efficiency and acrobatic brilliance of dragonflies for decades in order to decipher how they operate so efficiently. A dragonfly’s brain, it turns out, may be the closest things in the insect world to our own, the ultimate onboard computer designed for hunting and gathering – only better.

As a species, they predate us on this earth by hundreds of thousands of years, dating from the carboniferous period 300 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth and at least one species of dragonfly, long extinct, was two or three feet in length and weighed approximately the same thing as a medium sized dog.

Dragonflies belong to a relative small order of species called Odonata, which translates to mean “Toothed ones,” a reference to the serrated mandibles that crush their prey to a pulp on the fly, with just 7,000 different species that includes their related cousins, lesser-winged damselflies. Species of butterflies and bees, by comparison, number in the tens of thousands.

The fearsome name derives from ancient lore that dragonflies were indeed the progeny of flying dragons. In some places – the bush of Australia, for instance – dragonflies were considered (incorrectly) tormentors of horses and livestock, capable of delivering poisonous stings, while in Medieval Sweden some believed they were sent by evil spirits to weigh the souls of unhappy people.

Most cultures welcome them, though, as signs of vibrancy and good environmental health. In China they’ve long been regarded as symbols of spiritual harmony and prosperity, in Japan chosen by the Samurai warriors as symbols of courage and integrity — creatures balanced in nature. The Irish see them as the preferred winged transport of fairies.

They enter our dreams and our gardens displaying a curiosity that prompted some to believe they might actually be messengers or angels in insect form. One common interpretation holds that dreaming about dragonflies – symbols of beautiful movement and grace – means your life is about to change for the better.

A dragonfly’s life, in fact, is a compelling study in physical transformation. Most of its life is spent in nymph form under the surface of the water, sucking up nutrients like mad until it achieves pupae form and eventually sheds its carapace before flying away for its brief winged dance, rarely living more than a month or two in the air. Perhaps nature’s only compensation for such brevity of life is the dragonfly’s unrivaled flying skills, intelligence and fragile beauty.

Several species have been known to fly 10,000 miles across India and Africa in search of a mate – the real purpose of their glorious colorings and acrobatic skills. Dragonfly love lasts only a few seconds and often takes place, impressively, on the wing. A female lays her eggs in warm freshwater shallows and the males venture off to eat and soon die, a story as old as time.

Several years ago, I was fishing on a lake late in on a drowsy summer afternoon when a small squadron of iridescent blue dragonflies came out of nowhere and swarmed my boat, circling and whizzing by the end of my nose and the end of my casting rod, before flying off in perfect formation. I’d never seen anything like it, a jaw-dropping airshow show of synchronized flying worthy of the Blue Angels themselves. One of the performers even briefly alighted on my low-hanging fishing rod, seemingly as curious about the creature at the other end of the rod. Just then a huge bass lurched brazenly from water, just missing his prey, who darted away in the nick of time.

Last evening after a rain shower cooled off the sweltering afternoon, I had a second chance to study a dragonfly up close and personal, stepping out near dusk in a rush to meet my wife for an early movie only to find a lone pondhawk dive-bombing the upper garden birdbath. I decided it must the same courting male I’d been watching all week. But his beautiful baize-green female companion was nowhere to be seen.

As I watched, this angel of the natural world perched on the edge of the birdbath and let me come close enough to actually get a look into his extraordinary translucent eyes, curious what I might see there. Pride of a new dragonfly papa? Or maybe the grief of a beautiful killer who knows his duty is done, his time left on this earth measured only in day if not hours?

Time, wrote James Thurber, is for dragonflies and angels – the former live too little and the latter live too long.

If nothing else, as summer wanes and the days begin to shorten, the dragonflies of my garden remind me to pause and take note of this world’s passing beauty before it vanishes too – and takes us with it.

Which may explain why, after a moment of sizing me up, the beautiful blue dragonfly zoomed away to dine on a few dozen delicious mosquitos on the moist evening air before life, beautiful life, flew away from him.

Simple Life

Ask The Garden Guru

By Jim Dodson


Summer is here.
The Garden Guru will now take your important gardening questions.


Dear Garden Guru,
I’m new to gardening this year and eager to learn all I can in a hurry. What would suggest as a starting point? A bit worryingly, I hear the hobby gardening can be kind of expensive. Is that true?
A Frugal Beginner from Burlington

Dear Frugal,
Like keeping a mistress or owning a vintage British sports car, gardening is not for the faint of heart or weak of wallet. The proper hand-crafted English tools, glamorous plant seminars, costly trips abroad to study the Great Gardens of the World — it all adds up so quickly. Pretty soon you’ll be dropping mortgage money on rare fruit trees at the garden center, hopelessly addicted to spring catalogs (a somewhat philistine friend refers to these as ‘porn for gardeners’) or blowing through the kids’ college fund to turn your backyard into a southern Gardens of Versailles. The GG suggests you start small to determine if your interest is genuine or just a passing fancy. We suggest a small and inoffensive African violet in your kitchen window. If you manage to kill that, try bowling instead.

Dear Garden Guru,
A few years ago, following a dream golf vacation to New Zealand, my hubby Ralph and I met an intriguing couple who shared their love of golf and something called ‘natural gardening.’ Ralph fell hard for the concept” they practiced and, in a nutshell, has taken it up with gusto. The guiding tenet of the NG movement, as I understand it, is for proponents to become “one with nature.” In his effort to get “closer to the source,” as Ralph puts it, he has quit playing golf with his buddies, refers to himself as “The Green Man,” and has taken to gardening fully in the nude save for a ratty old golf cap he wears on rainy days. We’re both grandparents in our mid 60s and happen to reside in a classy gated golf community where everyone is beginning to avoid us at parties. This is so embarrassing. My golf handicap is in tatters. Any suggestions?
Worried (and still fully clothed) Wilma in Wilmington

Dear Worried Wilma,
Ralph’s unnatural attraction to the natural world simply reflects the addictive dangers of gardening. Clearly he’s gone “native” on you, Have you considered divorcing him and marrying one of his golf buddies? It could make dinner at the club so much nicer.

Dear Garden Guru,
My wife Brenda is an award-winning flower gardener. I’m a serious vegetable grower who has won numerous ribbons at our county fair. Every March we have the same argument over space allocation in the raised beds of our rather smallish condominium terrace. Her zinnias are always encroaching on my heirloom snap beans, and don’t get me started on the times she’s heartlessly flattened my tender artisan squash plants trying to prune her Sugar Moon hybrid teas. A reproachful war of silence has developed between us. We rarely speak between my first decent tomato crop and her final lace cap hydrangea bloom in late summer. Is this any way to grow a garden or keep a marriage?
A Brooding Veggie Dude in Durham

Dear Veggie Dude,
Botanically speaking, you’re a classic mixed marriage, a tale as old as Adam and Eve and their famous domestic squabble over the proper use of fig leaves (To wear or eat, perhaps humanity’s first great question!) Have you pondered getting a larger terrace or, even better, finding separate garden plots in adjoining counties? You might try moseying down to Pittsboro to find a patch where your Tuscan zucchini can roam happy and free. The most successful gardening couples, the GG finds, are those who insist on separate bathrooms and growing spaces where cosmos and cucumbers never meet.

Dear Garden Guru,
I recently accompanied my son’s fourth grade class on a field trip to the White House and was pleased to see gorgeous camellias blooming in the East Room – until, to my horror, I discovered they were completely FAKE! A week of so later, I attended my great aunt Sissy’s funeral in Burgaw only to discover that the lovely spray of Asian lilies adoring her coffin were – you guessed it – UTTERLY FAKE! Honestly, how do you feel about FAKE flowers at important public events? I feel like our president and the dearly departed deserve SO much better than FAKE flowers!!! Don’t you agree?
Still Fuming in Fountain

Dear Fuming,
Sadly, we live in an age where many things are FAKE – news from the Internet, bridges to nowhere and half the hairpieces in Congress. For all I know yours could be a FAKE letter, too. But assuming it isn’t, dear lady, one suspects neither your grade-schooler nor your expired great auntie gives a FAKE fig about the flowers in the East Room or silk lilies on her goodbye box. By the way, gardening is all about “faking” out Mother Nature – bending her wilder inclinations to your domestic desires. As a rule, a little fakery never hurts unless elected to Congress or performing a Super Bowl halftime show.

Dear Garden Guru,
Why do I keep managing to kill every fragile Bonsai plant I ever buy? I water them religiously every morning. Any interesting thoughts?
Herbicidal in Ahoskie

Dear Herbicidal,
GG has lots of interesting thoughts. But none he would care to share with you. Two possibilities occur, however. A) Always read up on proper maintenance, for every Bonsai plant has unique characteristics and needs, and/or B) You’re indeed an herbicidal idiot who has no business gardening. I can recommend a reader who is taking up bowling instead.

Dear Garden Guru,
Remember the lady who found the face of Jesus in a taco and went on national television? Well, my husband Bobby Ray has an incredible gardening talent. He grows fruit and leafy greens that look amazingly like all kinds of famous Americans! I can show you a Valdosta onion, for instance, that looks uncannily like the late Yul Brenner and a head of curly endive that could be little Shirley Temple’s twin sister! (See enclosed Polaroids.) My question is, given America’s dual love of gardening and celebrities, do you think there might be a profitable business in growing celebrity-lookalike fruit and veggies? I phoned up “America’s Got Talent” but they thought I might be some garden variety crackpot. Who should I contact next?
Signed, Betty from Brown Summit
P.S. Bobby Ray won’t reveal his growing secret but I think it may have something to do with the load of rhino poo he obtained from the state zoo last year. Also, I am NOT a crackpot!

Dear Betty,
Gardening is full of great surprises. A few years back, I grew a dozen Yukon gold potatoes that looked amazingly like the Founding Fathers. They were a big hit at our cookout on Independence Day. The truth is, celebrity fruit and vegetables are far more commonplace than you think. Just the other day at Harris Teeter I saw an organic head of cauliflower that was a dead ringer for Justin Timberlake. That being said, there’s also rumor that HGTV plans to replace decamped rehab goddess Joanna Gaines with a new show on – wait for it – celebrity fruits and veggies! So they may have some interest in Bobby Ray’s talents. Failing that, the Garden Guru thinks a much surer bet is his secret Rhino poo. Any chance I can a load of that for my autumn garden?

This “Simple Life” was originally printed in O.Henry in March 2018.

A Conversation with John Grisham

Best-selling author John Grisham chats with David Woronoff, publisher of O.Henry, over Zoom on July 15, 2020. The conversation was sponsored by The Country Bookshop of Southern Pines.