Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

All Hail the King of Toaster Pastries

Why Pop-Tarts are a thing again

By Maria Johnson

As a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was an advertiser’s dream.

Allowed to roam all three TV channels — four if you counted “educational TV,” which I didn’t — I spent many Saturday mornings glued to the cartoon adventures of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, the Flintstones, Jonny Quest, the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, Space Ghost and Fat Albert while making room for real humans in the form of The Monkees.

I use the term “real humans” loosely.

Anyway, consuming so much animation gave me a rich audio and visual catalog. I still hear the whistling of falling anvils when something drops, mutter “ruh-rho” when I make a mistake, and feel like I’m turning to a block of ice then cracking into a million pieces and falling into a pile of shards when I step into water that’s colder than expected.

So, you know, yabba-dabba-doo for imagination.

I also ingested a helluva lot of marketing for sugary convenience foods, which translated — as intended — into me begging my parents to buy them, which translated into a nasty Pop-Tarts habit.



Brown sugar-cinnamon.

Dutch apple.


Painted with a hard shellack of frosting.

Or plain.

It hardly mattered.

These highly processed tiles of joy were sold as “toaster pastries,” which was laughable because they were neither real pastries nor toasted. Not much anyway. Not in our house. My brother and I usually snarfed down those perfectly rectangular suckers at room temperature.

They were packaged in twos, suggesting to some people, perhaps, that the contents were meant to be shared. Translated into sibling-speak, however, the meaning was clear: “Two for me. Get your own.”

We did, and we were wary of pretenders, chiefly Toastettes, which were distinguished by deep hash marks around the edges, and Danish Go-Rounds, which were flat tubes of fruit-filled crust curled into spirals.

Imposters, both.

In due time, of course, I left Pop-Tarts behind, moved onto other unhealthy habits and eventually — as happens to the best of us — became a health-conscious adult.

If I ever bought Pop-Tarts for my own kids, I don’t remember it.

In fact, I tilted the other way, toward whole-grain parenting. Let’s just say there’s a reason my adult sons sometimes tease me with the word “flax,” as in, “Oh, what a shame, Mom. There’s no flax on the menu.”

Or, “What would you call the color of those jeans, Mom? Flax?”

Or, “If only I’d eaten more flax, this wouldn’t be happening.”

To which I can only say, “That’s probably true.”

So, honestly, it was one of the biggest shocks of my life when the boys came home for the holidays recently and we all sat down to watch one of their alma maters, N.C. State, play in a longstanding Florida football contest that was branded, for the first time ever, as the Pop-Tarts Bowl.


My interest was piqued.

I hadn’t thought of them — Pop-Tarts, I mean — in so long. And now, here was the logo, plastered all over the field and the screen. Honestly, I didn’t realize Pop-Tarts were still in production.

Then came halftime, and a bellowing announcer directed everyone’s attention to midfield, where a giant toaster was set up. Music blared and the crowd noise swelled as the official Pop-Tarts mascot — frosted, natch, with sprinkles — rose up on a stage inside one of the slots.

Jets of sparks and smoke spewed as the mascot emerged into full view.

Endowed with golden-brown arms and legs, the Pop-Tart strutted, punched the air and whipped up the crowd with his painted-on smile.

It was a rock star’s entrance. Freddie Mercury had nothing on this cat.

A dam broke inside of me. I was flooded with memories.

Of the smell of Pop-Tarts.

Of the feel of Pop-Tarts in my hands, and how I used to break off the crusty edges and eat them first.

I could taste them again.

I fidgeted in my seat.

“Have y’all ever had a Pop-Tart?” I asked the young heads in the room.

They stared at me.

“Not even in college?”

More blank looks.

“Do you WANT to eat a Pop-Tart?” I asked.

Shoulders shrugged. Then someone said, “No, but I think YOU do.”

It was the truth.
“I’m going to the store,” I said flatly. “Who’s with me?”

My younger son, the one who taunts me most about flaxseed, was ecstatic at seeing me crack.

“I’m in!” he said.

Minutes later, we were back with two boxes: one blueberry and one brown sugar-cinnamon, both frosted. We passed them around.

The packets were wrapped in thin, silver film, not the paper and foil envelope of my youth.

The tarts were smaller and thinner than I remembered.

And they tasted less robust, if that’s possible for a laminated wafer born on a conveyor belt.

But they tickled a long dormant lobe of my brain.

My older son’s partner, who is an outstanding baker, chewed slowly.

“What do you think?” I asked, smiling at her with purple teeth.

Her brow furrowed.

Beside her, my elder son, who’s also a foodie, offered an olive branch: “It’s . . . complicated.”

Kansas State won the game. I couldn’t tell you the score.

But forever seared into my mind is the sight of a Pop-Tart incarnate flitting about the sidelines and the announcer wondering which team was going to have the privilege of eating the mascot at the end of the game.

It was blatant cannibalism.

I was all for it.

At the game’s conclusion, as thousands of fans roared their approval, the mascot sacrificed himself to the humongous toaster, descending on his stage to a fate sealed by the heating elements.

A few seconds later, an oversized, frosted tart — sans arms and legs — slid from the bottom of the toaster. The winning team was invited to come over and break off a piece to celebrate.

It was advertising genius.

I fell for it. Again. As it turned out, I had plenty of company.

The kitschy show went viral.

Pop-Tarts’ brand value jumped 25 percent thanks to the media chatter, such as this post on the social platform X:

“I would actually watch the Super Bowl halftime show if it was the Pop-Tart fighting a Toaster Strudel.”

Enchanted fans snapped up novelty T-shirts commemorating the game.

And my newly exposed sons?

The epicure decided he could do without pastries that resembled postcards.

The other, the anti-flaxxer, was open to a Pop-Tart inclusive life.

Secretly, I was happy.

Days later, when we dropped him off at the airport, I noticed he’d left something behind on the car seat: a silver packet of Pop-Tarts.

“Wait here,” I told my husband. I dashed into the airport, sussed out my son in a security line and pardoned my way through the queue.

“You left this in the car,” I said, breathlessly handing him the shiny packet.

He grinned.

I grinned.

Then I turned and zipped away as fast as . . . well, the Road Runner.

Meep-meep. OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Project Runway

Sitting on a tarmac is boring: Sitting beside a tarmac is another story

By Maria Johnson

“Here comes one!”

Conversation freezes and heads swivel to the horizon, where two bright beams glow, side by side, above a distant tree line.

“Oooooh, that’s a big one,” says our airplane-obsessed friend, whose birthday we are celebrating with a parking lot picnic beside a runway at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

The four of us, all empty nesters, are way beyond the age of coveting stuff. Well, most stuff anyway.

Experiences, time together, moments that morph into stories and embed as warm memories — that’s what we prize.

So, recently, our wee gang has been celebrating birthdays with daytime excursions that introduce us to new places and people.

During one of these forays, a friend who was not being fêted at the moment came clean about her obsession with all things aero. As a young woman growing up in Rockingham County, she tinkered with the idea of becoming a flight attendant. That dream never took off, but her fascination with soaring above it all persisted.

As an adult, she regularly asked flight crews for tours of cockpits; bought toy jetliners with battery-powered engines and lights “for the grandchildren.” She even bought a captain’s hat from a former Piedmont Airlines pilot.

Side note: If you ever want to see a bunch of 60-plus North Carolinians get misty-eyed, ask them about Piedmont Airlines. It really was the best. Sigh.

Anyway, our well-traveled pal also revealed how much she loved to watch airplanes take off and land. She said she liked to imagine who was aboard, where they were going, what it was like there, and what the passengers would do when they got there.

Escapism? Totally.

The rest of us knew what we had to do for her birthday: Find a place to watch planes come and go. I remembered that there used to be a diner near PTI where you could catch the action aloft. An internet search confirmed that the restaurant had closed, but a few clicks later, I landed on a website called, where jet-heads post their favorite viewing sites.

A recon mission was called for. One pal piloted. I co-piloted, translating the map app’s instructions because who the heck knows what 500 feet looks like when you’re going 60 miles an hour? Just turn left where that blue car is coming out.

We cased several parking lots, some right next to the runways. I’m quite sure we appeared on several security cameras.

To dispel fear — and reduce the odds of being placed on a TSA watchlist labeled “HUH?” — we waved at the control tower as we drove past. Several times.

Maybe it was the time of day, late one afternoon in the fading light of fall, but we didn’t see much action.

The next day, I stuck my head in at one of GTCC’s aviation training buildings, “yoo-hooed” my way down a hallway and found a darkened classroom where three young men sat at computer screens doing . . . we’ll call it homework.

“Hey, fellas, I know this sounds weird, but do y’all know of a good place to watch airplanes take off and land?”

“Yeah, I know a great place,” one of the guys said, popping out of his seat and walking over to show me a map on his phone.

He pointed me to a gravel lot off Old Oak Ridge Road.

I drove right over. Jackpot.

I dropped a pin and shared it with our foursome. We booked a date.

A couple of weeks later, we packed up camp chairs and a knee-high table.

One of us brought fruit and crackers.

Another brought Biscoff cookies and packs of almonds.

Another brought prosecco.

The birthday girl brought her captain’s hat, which she wore proudly as we cheered and waved at the passing planes.

They looked so small, even the big ones, when you considered that these sleek aluminum tubes carried so many people, each connected to their own constellation of lives. The passengers would scatter as soon as they claimed their bags, and yet, for a precious few ticks of the clock, they were on the same trip.

Was it any different on the ground, at our makeshift celebration only a stone’s throw from barbed wire and warning signs?

Between the drones and roars overhead, we turned to our seat mates and talked of the things circling our hearts. Of joys and worries. Of health and family and friends.

As we chatted, sunset painted the sky in neon pink and somber purple.

A flock of starlings, headed for their evening roost, rippled like a flag in the sky.

The nighttime lights of the airport emerged like the skyline of a city.

Other people came and went from the parking lot: a lone young man perched on his motorcycle; a middle-aged woman and her small dog; a young couple who spent most of their time taking pictures of themselves and their car.

Small eddies of humanity swirled and dissipated here.

We were one of those swirls, sitting in a tight circle on a dusty patch of gravel, wrapped in throws against the deepening chill as we sipped and nibbled, nodded and mmm-ed, rode the crosswinds of laughter and tears, and occasionally looked to the clouds and let our imaginations fly.

We were determined to enjoy the ride.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Thinking Outside the Box

Beware of fraud — but not too much

By Maria Johnson

The package on our doorstep was large, maybe 2 feet by 2 feet.

Too big for the paper bathroom cups I’d ordered. Way too big for the wooden floor vent due to arrive any day.

“Did you order anything this big?” I asked my husband.

He shook his head.

I checked the label.

It was addressed to me.

I looked at the return address. The sender was something called Muji in New Jersey.

“MOO-gee?” I said slowly. “What’s a MOO-gee?”

I looked at my husband.

“Emoji?” he said.

“Not emoji. A MOO-GEE,” I said, acting as if the words sounded nothing alike.

I proceeded with caution, grabbing a pair of scissors, carefully slitting the packing tape and slowly opening the cardboard flaps.

You never know what a Muji from Jersey might send. A packing slip lay atop some crumpled brown paper.

I unfolded the slip to see a manifest of the contents:




No prices were given.


I set aside the slip and lifted a layer of the packing paper to reveal a clear plastic storage box with a lid.


Under that, another layer of paper.

I gingerly lifted the wads.

Two stackable plastic trays. Or, as we used to say back in the day, an in-box and an out-box.

How quaint.

And weird.

I picked up the packing slip again. It gave no website for Muji. No phone number.

Just a fuzzy QR code.

“Maybe you should scan the code,” my husband suggested.

Hmph. I’d read way too many scam stories, received too many “urgent” text alerts about nonexistent bank accounts and listened to too many voicemails regarding my request for a business loan — huh? — to fall for this.

And yet, a part of me would feel guilty about keeping these plastic accessories I had not paid for.

Equally bad, I imagined someone out there, sitting at a desk strewn with the disorganized chapters of the next Great American Novel, just waiting for a 2-by-2 box that never arrived.

Danged human emotions. Danged scammers for preying on them.

Why, just the week before, I’d received two cunning, if clumsy, emails that I found myself reading and responding to in my head.

One was an email from my long lost friend Jimmy at PayPal, as proven by the fuzzy company logo below his message. Never mind Jimmy’s personal Gmail address.

“Hi,” he wrote. “I hope you’re doing well and reading this message.” (Yes to both, Jimmy, though who can say how long either will last?)

“We haven’t caught up in much too long.” (Like, ever.)

“I’ve been missing our amazing connection and our discussions.” (We’re talking about PayPal, right? But, yeah, it’s true. I’m a good listener.)

“I wanted to get in touch with you and start off again.” (I do like a good repair attempt.)

“We can communicate via email, video call or in-person meeting . . . ” (In person? To talk about my PayPal account? I dunno . . . This seems . . . Well . . . Maybe over coffee?)

“Till we cross paths again, be well and never forget that you are missed.” (Do you really expect me to have coffee with a man who uses the word “till” in a business letter? It’s over, Jimmy.)

Then there was this flattering note with “ART INQUIRY” in the subject line.

“How are you doing? My name is Paul Arthur from Atlanta, GA.” (That’s a lot to cram on a birth certificate, Paul Arthur of Atlanta, GA.)

“I have been on the lookout for some artworks lately in regards to I and my wife’s anniversary which is just around the corner. I must admit your doing quite an impressive job.” (Artworks? You must be talking about the flower pots that I’ve been encrusting with orphaned earrings, a sort of hot-glued reminder of lobes past. I saw it on Etsy. They’re cute, aren’t they? And you are obviously a man of taste. Though your spelling and grammar need work. It’s “you’re,” not “your,” and technically you should have said, “my wife’s and my anniversary.” Or even better, “I’ve been looking for some artwork to buy my wife for our anniversary.” Much simpler.)

“You are undoubtedly good at what you do.” (Paul. You charming devil.)

“I would like to purchase some of your works as a surprise gift to my wife in hoding anniversary.” (Hoding?)

“My budget for this is within the price range of $500 to $5,000 dollars.” (H-O-D-I-N-G?)

“I look forward to reading from you in a view to knowing more about your pieces of inventory.” (Do you mean the paper anniversary? Or the cotton anniversary? Or maybe the pottery anniversary?)

The point is, it’s easy to get sucked into these things even when you know they’re fakes.

I stared at the Muji box. I wasn’t about to scan the splotchy QR code and potentially open the door for a malicious actor to commandeer my device and do God-knows-what with my dog pictures.

I double checked my outstanding internet orders. Had I ordered desk accessories in my sleep? Was this a sign from my subconscious that I needed to literally get my stuff together?


I was stuck. Finally, my husband offered an idea: “Just throw it out.”

What? Throw away a perfectly good plastic storage bin and two filing trays that probably cost 10 cents to manufacture?

No way. I would recycle them. No, wait, even better, I would donate them, take a small tax write-off and keep alive the chance that the person who’d ordered these things would find them at Goodwill.

That would solve it. Clean conscience all around.

I put the box by the door. The next time I left the house, this puppy was going in my trunk.

About 30 minutes later, our son in New York texted.

“I may have accidentally had a Muji package sent to you rather than here. If it shows up, would you be able to forward it to us? No rush.”

I did what any loving mother would do.

I asked him a security question.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Moon Shadow

A look at the bright side of solar eclipses

By Maria Johnson

His answer was so Gen Z.

When I texted our younger son to ask what it was like to witness October’s solar eclipse in Oregon, he responded with a photo of him crouching and pointing, mouth agape, to the cloudy sky.

His picture, a nod to a popular meme, was a joke. Under Oregon’s seemingly forever overcast dome, he couldn’t see squat. And even though he was in the swath where the moon’s shadow would be the darkest, the skies didn’t seem much dimmer than usual.

Here on the East Coast, we understood from news reports the shade would be almost imperceptible, but the main event should be visible. Technically called an annular eclipse, as opposed to a total eclipse, the moon would glide between us and the sun, appearing to punch a hole in ol’ Sol and making our life-giving star look like a ring of fire for a few minutes.

To get a good look we’d probably need a solar-filtered telescope, so our plan was to drive to Guilford Technical Community College’s Jamestown campus and take a gander through the lenses set up in a parking lot under the guidance of Tom English, director of the school’s Cline Observatory.

In case you don’t know, one of the coolest things about living here is that you can stargaze, for free, through the observatory’s big telescope on most Friday nights with Tom and friends.

The sights  — magnified to nearly 200 times what the unaided eye can see — range from close-ups of the Earth’s moon to planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, to the Andromeda galaxy. For big sky doings, like solar eclipses, the observatory folks set up smaller telescopes in open areas. Alas, the October eclipse was mostly a bust here, too. Clouds and rain obscured the view. But on another gloomy day, we got luckier.

It was a little more than six years ago, August 21, 2017, when my husband and I drove to the mountain town of Brevard to experience a total eclipse — one where the moon is so close to the earth it blots out the sun entirely in the same way holding up your hand to block the sun works better if your hand is closer to your face.

It was a Monday. The workday was going to be relatively slow and we were empty-nesters, so why settle for mere dimness in Greensboro when we could drive three hours and be plunged into total darkness at midday? Sounded like a good time. And it was.

Brevard, known for its small liberal-arts college and a world-class summer music festival, was giddy that day. People lined up for free solar-viewing glasses (limit one per person). Some businesses hawked eclipse merch.

We bought two gray T-shirts at the office of the local newspaper. One of its designers had come up with a brilliant graphic — a flaming ring of white, representing the sun’s corona, anchored by a white squirrel, the town’s mascot, sitting at the bottom of the loop.

We grabbed a sandwich at a local cafe, then walked a few blocks and unfolded our camp chairs inside the handsome stone gates of Brevard College, which welcomed the celestial seekers.

On the vast lawn, Frisbees flew, soccer balls bounced. Someone played a banjo as we all  waited, not knowing if our efforts would be rewarded.

The sky had pulled a soft gray shawl of clouds over her shoulder.

It was a laughable situation. Humans can predict, to the second, when an eclipse will occur, but if it’s cloudy, game over for a high-resolution view.

There was nothing to do but chill.

The crowd thickened.

The clouds thinned.

Shortly before the eclipse was due, the sun popped out.

It was a small miracle, one that happens almost every day, but in this context it felt personal. The sun and moon would come through for us.

We felt the moon’s shadow gradually, in the way you feel the temperature dip when storm clouds roll in.

Deeper we slid into darkness.

It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.

The automatic streetlights came on.

The night birds chirped.

The crickets, tricked into thinking the day was done, struck up a ringing chant.

Through cardboard glasses with lenses of sun-safe black film, we watched the disc of the moon slide in front of the sun until only the faintest solar halo, the sun’s corona, was visible.

The crowd fell silent, and the sound of clicking cell phone cameras competed with the crickets.

This was big. Bigger than us. Way bigger.

Then something remarkable  happened — everyone broke out in spontaneous applause and woo-hoos. A communal standing ovation. It reminded me of watching the sunset at Pass-a-Grille Beach in Florida, where the disappearance of a neon orange ball into the Gulf of Mexico is punctuated by cheers and the ringing of a brass bell on the beach.

Only this was not a practiced response. There was no tradition to be observed. It felt like a visceral gesture of human bonding and gratitude.

Brava you, Mama Earth.

Thanks for making us feel small. In a good way.

On April 8, 2024, another total solar eclipse will be visible in this country. The Path of Totality will arc from Texas to Maine. I hope to be in the dark somewhere.

Tom English of GTCC will be watching, too, either from campus or from somewhere in Ohio, the area nearest Greensboro for lights-out. He hopes to experience the darkness in person, with other people, as he did with a group of students and colleagues who traveled to South Carolina to stand in the moon’s shadow in 2017.

“It’s something you want to do in your life,” he says, noting that the next total eclipses over the U.S. will occur in the 2040s.

Nothing, he says, replaces being right there.

“Have you been to the Grand Canyon? Have you seen pictures of the Grand Canyon. It’s not the same, is it? The whole world is transformed, and if you’re not standing in it, there’s no way to know.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at For GTCC’s celestial viewing schedule, go to @gtccastro on X (formerly Twitter) or to the school’s website,, which includes a page on upcoming eclipses.

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

You’re a Green One

A visit with a homegrown Grinch

By Maria Johnson

In the interest of avocado-tinted transparency, I confess that I love everything about the Grinch, especially the 1966 animated version of his redemption story, a masterpiece of visuals, narration and music.

I love how the Grinch gets a “wonderful, awful idea” to steal Christmas, causing the tuft of green fur on his head to part and unfurl with his smile.

How he saws off a tree branch and ties it to the head of his dog, Max, to make him a reindeer.

How he scissor-cuts material for his Santa suit, leaving jagged holes in the shape of a hat and jacket.

How he slyly nabs candy canes from the grips of sleeping children.

How he deceives little Cindy Lou Who, who is no more than 2, with a promise of taking her Christmas tree back to his workshop to mend a light: “I’ll fix it up there, and I’ll bring it back here.”

How his heart grows three sizes that day, breaking the frame around it with a sproing!

How, when he returns to Whoville with trumpet blaring, the circle of Whos swings open like a gate.

And, naturally, how he — “he himself, the Grinch” —  carves the roast beast.

So you can imagine the thrill I felt upon learning that McLaurin Farms, on the northern edge of Greensboro, would be offering pics and visits with the Grinch at its Christmas Festival starting later this month.

Keep in mind that McLaurin Farms is the same operation that funnels tens of thousands of people through its bloodcurdling Woods of Terror haunted attraction around Halloween.

But in the last dozen years or so, the farm, which is run by Eddie McLaurin and his wife, Peggy, has grown into a year-round destination. They’ve added warmer-and-fuzzier draws such as a kid-friendly Pumpkin Patch, Trunk-or-Treat, an Easter Egg Hunt, the tulip-centric Blooms & Butterflies, a Summer Fun Festival and a farm market featuring ice cream and milkshakes.

So I was a little surprised and a lot delighted to see the farm touting the presence of the Grinch at the yuletide event.

Yes, Virginia, the plus-size guy in red fur will be there, too — ho-ho-ho-ing, posing for pics and listening to endless lists — along with the uber-grouch, who will occupy his own little niche complete with a store selling Grinch-obilia.

That’s pure green genius in my book — in terms of both fun and finance.

Witness the enduring popularity of the character, who first appeared in a written story published by Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, in 1957.

The ’66 animated TV classic that won my heart was narrated by Boris Karloff.

In 2000, Jim Carrey portrayed him in a live-action movie.

In a 2018 animated movie, Benedict Cumberbatch voiced a Grinch with smoother edges, appropriate to his world of Minion-like characters.

A touring stage production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2006, will run at Greensboro’s Tanger Center November 21–26.

And at McLaurin Farms, our homegrown Grinch, 29-year-old Nate Hudson, says the Green King of Mean outdraws Santa, maybe because Santa is more common at shopping centers, parades and the like.

“You would think it would just be kids,” Hudson says, reflecting on his fans. “But I have adults who come just to meet my Grinch. They’ll come dressed in their Grinch gear, and they’ll say I’ve been waiting the whole year to meet you.”

Hudson, who graduated from Southeast Guilford High School and snared a theater degree at Indiana Wesleyan University, gets it.

At age 8, he started memorizing dialogue from Jim Carrey’s Grinch, which his mom watched every Christmas season after it was released. About the same time, Hudson joined the family passion for spooky, dressing up as a scary clown for the haunted houses they put on. His dad was an extra in one of the Hellraiser movies.

After college, Hudson did a turn with a repertory company in Michigan and spent autumns working at haunted houses, refining his clown character.

He brought Rellik, which is “killer” spelled backward, to Woods of Terror about eight years ago. Two years later, the folks at McLaurin Farms asked him to help with the Christmas Festival.

“I said, ‘I’m not a fan of kids, and I’m not a fan of Christmas,” says Hudson. “They said, ‘Perfect! You’re the Grinch!’”

Hudson loved the idea. Bullied as a child, he identified with Carrey’s version of the Grinch, who is raised in Whoville and teased for being different until he finds love and acceptance one magical Christmas.

Likewise, Hudson says, he found a safe harbor among theater people and haunted house actors. He enjoys the same grace inside the McLaurin tribe at Christmastime, when he plays the Grinch with crackly-voiced snark.

People who ogle and smile at him are likely to be greeted with a terse, “What?!”

Ask him if he’s seen Santa, and he’ll shamelessly hack a line from the movie Elf: “You mean the fat guy dressed in red who smells like beef and cheese?”

If Olaf the snowman, a roving character from the movie Frozen wanders by and embraces him, Hudson will probably start singing “Let me go, let me go . . . ” a riff on the hit song “Let It Go” from the same movie.

The only time he breaks character — or actually adheres to character — is during the last show before Christmas. At that point, Hudson says, the Grinch becomes his better self, which is what people find irresistible about the character: the hope he offers.

“He has a story,” Hudson continues. “He was misunderstood. Everything was not all rainbows and sunshine with the Grinch. I think that’s where people sympathize with him. Toward the end, he grows his heart. He’s more human than Santa.”

It’s an evergreen thought.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

A Drop in the Bucket

On second thought, better make it two or three

By Maria Johnson

It was a Halloween shocker, delivered by a small superheroine who landed on my front porch last fall.

I dropped a piece of candy into her plastic jack-o’-lantern, which was filled to the brim with treats.

She looked down, cocked her hip and sighed.

What? I thought to myself. What could this girl possibly not like about Laffy Taffy?

Everything, apparently.

“I don’t really like that. Could I trade for something else?” she asked, eyeing the other treats in the dish I held.

I’ll be honest: My first reaction was to say, “What ever happened to saying ‘thank you?’ and trading with your friends later?”

But her parents were standing at the curb, waving and smiling, so I smiled tightly and said through clenched teeth, “Sure . . . honey . . . how about a . . . Snickers?”

She swapped and sprinted away.

I closed the door and dropped my jaw.

I had just been strong-armed by a pint-sized Wonder Woman.

Later, I shared my distress with our grown sons during a weekly video chat.

“OHMYGOD, Mom!” said The Older One. “You gave her one piece of candy?!”

“What’s wrong with that?” I protested.

“Don’t be that mom, Mom,” added The Younger One.

“Look, she didn’t need any more candy. She had a bucket full, OK?”

“OHMYGOD!!!” they hooted together.

Apparently, I was candy-shaming the young lady.

What was going on? Had the Halloween Handbook changed?

For answers, I turned to a panel of experts, a few of my neighbors’ children, whom I invited over for lemonade and cookies one night.

Allow me to introduce them by name, age and what they’re considering dressing up as this Halloween:

Sonja, 10, rat charmer, possibly reflecting her status as proud rat owner.

Wilhelmina, 7, tiger, a decision she underlines by curling her hands into claws.

Hendrik, 7, robot. Or possibly a pumpkin. Could go either way.

Olivia, 5. The field is wide open. Could be a monster. Or a Batgirl. Or a cheetah. Don’t press her on this.

Connor, 3, definitely appearing for the second year in a row as a T. Rex. Only bigger this time because he’s 3, not 2.

To begin our session, I told them about my experience last Halloween. They nodded in sympathy — whether for me or the girl, I’m not sure. But they were polite. They agreed to guide me. Below are excerpts from our recorded conversation with my comments in italic.

What is a normal amount of candy for someone to give out? How many pieces?

Sonja: Like three to two. Or, if it’s a bigger piece, one.

Describe a bigger piece.

Sonja [holding fingers about 6 inches apart]: Like this long.

A full-size candy bar?

Sonja [nodding]: Like if you got a Kit Kat, it would be one.

So, one Kit Kat would equal two what?

Hendrik: Starbursts.

Sonja: Two Snickers.

Fun-size Snickers?

Sonja [nodding]: Chocolate is really good. I prefer white chocolate.

Hendrik: I prefer white chocolate. But then I also really like dark chocolate. But I like white chocolate better.

What are some great candies?

Sonja: KitKat, Snickers, Twix.

Hendrik: Starbursts, Sour Patch Kids, Sour Punch Twists.

Connor [loudly, in T. rex mode]: Mmmm!

Olivia: Jelly beans.

Jelly beans? Really? For Halloween? Any particular kind?

Wilhelmina [giggling]: Rainbow!

Olivia [giggling more]: Unicorn!

Rainbow, unicorn jelly beans? Is that a thing?

Hendrik [sounding world-weary]: No, that is not a thing.

Olivia: I have a really good one: Cookies.

Cookies in packs?

Olivia: [Smiles charmingly, suggesting she would like to start a trend]

Wilhelmina: Reese’s cups, and thennnnn Sour Patch Kids, and thennnn Giggles.

OK, let’s be honest here: What are the worst candies?

Sonja: I don’t really like those gummy hamburger things.

Those are nasty.

Sonja: Also, those gummies shaped like soda bottles. [Panel groans in agreement] They try to make them taste like soda. But they don’t.

Anyone else? No one? There’s no other bad candy?


OK, next question: If someone is giving out Halloween candy, is it better if they hand you the pieces or let you pick it.

[Panel responds in unison]: LET YOU PICK!

So they would say, “Pick two or three pieces?”

[Panel nods]

Connor [again as full-throated T. Rex]: I want MORE! [Then, sweetly] Can I have more lemonade?

Yes, Connor. So, what’s the worst thing y’all ever got for trick-or-treat?

Sonja: Pokémon cards. I don’t like Pokémon. And baseball cards.

When I was a kid, the worst thing you could get was a small box of raisins.

Sonja: I love raisins. But I’ve never gotten any.

Hendrik: I love raisins, too. The white ones.

Wilhelmina: Yummy! White chocolate!

Sonja [firmly]: It’s not white chocolate! It’s yogurt.

Olivia: I’d eat them, too. I’d eat one. Or two. Or three.

Hey, do you know that cartoon, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown?

Sonja: I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.

OK, well, Charlie Brown goes trick-or-treating, and he gets a rock. What would you do if that happened to you?

Sonja: I’d be pretty happy because then I could paint the rock.

Gosh. That’s a great way to look at it.

Olivia: I wouldn’t a bit be happy.

Would you say anything to the person who gave you the rock?

Wilhelmina: Thank you! And then I would paint it with a waterfall, and a forest, and flowers, and grass, and . . .

Hendrik: You’re gonna need a big rock for that.

You know what? Somebody told me they knew a dentist who gave out toothbrushes and little tubes of toothpaste. What would you think of that?

Sonja: I would love it. Then you could have a doll’s toothbrush.

Wilhelmina: If it wasn’t an electric one, I would use it for my stuffies. But if it was an electric one, I would use it for myself.

Hendrik: I would be happy because . . . my dad uses my toothbrush. His broke.

Sonja [defending their father’s dental honor]: It was an electric one. He used the battery part.

Hendrik: Is the recorder still playing?

Yes. OK, if someone gave you some candy that you really didn’t like, would you ever send it back?

[Panel responds “NOOOO!” in unison, except for Olivia, who nods.]

Olivia, you would?


What would you say?

Olivia: I would say, “No, thank you.”

Hendrik: Well, that’s a good answer.

Olivia, would you ask to trade, like the girl did?

Olivia: If I really didn’t like it, I would trade. But if I kinda liked it I would keep it.

Hendrik: Connor wants another cookie.

Ok, here, Connor. Last question: Do you guys ever trade candy?

Hendrik: Oh, yes, yes, yes!

Tell me.

Hendrik: I’m trading Snickers for Sour Patch Kids.

Sonja: I trade a whole bunch. I’ll trade Kit Kats for Snickers since I love Snickers.

Olivia: I trade with Hendrik sometimes.

Hendrik [turning to Olivia]: Oh, you trade some tricky candy! [Turning back to me] We have this habit. If Olivia doesn’t like it, I like it. And if I don’t like it, she likes it.

This is a match made in heaven.

Wilhelmina: They’re dating.

Wait, are you guys dating? Is that true?

Olivia: No! We’re not even close.

Wilhelmina: They’re dating.

Olivia: No!

Hendrik: We only like each other! We’re not even best friends! We are nowhere near dating.

Is there anything else about candy that’s important to know?

Sonja: I don’t understand how some people will be walking around with huge sacks and I just have my little bucket.

Hendrik: Connor wants another cookie.

There we have it. Chocolate and sour candies are best. Two to three pieces each. Pick your own. Rocks and raisins are acceptable. Olivia and Hendrick are not dating. And Connor wants another cookie.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny


How faux predators scare pests — and others

By Maria Johnson

My friend was looking out for me.

“I have to tell you before I forget,” she texted. “About 5:45 p.m. yesterday, I was returning from a cousin’s graduation up the road from you, and as we passed the field behind your house I saw a white-gray wolf in the center of that field! Is that a stuffed wolf, or did I see what I thought I saw? If so, lock the doors and keep your sweet pooch inside.”

I’ll set aside, for a moment, the fact that my friend waited a day to tell me about a possible wolf near my home. She’s busy. And so am I, when I’m not being mauled by an oh-dang-it-WAS-a-real wolf.

In any case, about the same time I read her message, Nextdoor was blowing up with warnings about a creature on the same baseball field.

“Beware!” posted one user. “I saw a very LARGE coyote . . . Came home and Googled it, and it is definitely a coyote.”

I’d already seen the beast, out of the corner of my eye, while driving home.

My heart jumped at the sight of the low-slung, four-legged critter standing in center field.

I slowed down and craned my neck.

Bushy, reddish tail. Pointy face and ears. Fox, I thought.

My mind skipped to my dog, who is a foxhound — tally-ho — but she’s a sweet runt. Was she outside? Had she smelled the intruder? Was she kicking up a fuss? I needed to go see about her.

But first I took another pass at the field. The animal was still there.

“Sonuva . . . ,” I thought. “Bold. Brazen. Possibly rabid. And so . . . very . . . still.”

That’s when it dawned on me: I’d been punked.

The critter was a decoy, designed to fool the Canada geese who sometimes camped in the field and scorched the carpet-like grass with their droppings.

Sure enough, there were no geese around. The plastic carnivore — placed there by the school that maintains the field — had fooled the geese. Among others.


I thought of how people used other faux predators to scare off unwanted wildlife.

I’ve done it myself, once raiding our sons’ menagerie of plastic animals — a collection amassed over many visits to museums and zoos, as well as that cultural education center, Party City at Halloween — to solve a real-live bird problem.

Robins liked to build their sloppy nests on the pergola over our patio, so to discourage construction, I borrowed a rubber snake, climbed a ladder and placed the pseudo-viper in the robins’ favorite spot.

It worked. We enjoyed a robin-free spring that year — at least on the patio — and forgot about the anti-nesting system until the following year, when, while we were eating on the patio, the rubber snake fell onto the concrete.

It mattered little that the toy landed “Made in China” side up and didn’t move, except for a slight bounce. I was out of my chair and off the patio in milliseconds.

So that was, um, an effective deterrent.

I put the rubber snake back in the toy box and pondered other options for harbinger-of-spring control.

The life-sized rubber vulture that we wired to a fence at Halloween?

That startled trick-or-treaters. And me, every time I pulled into the driveway and saw its hulking black outline.

The 6-foot muslin-wrapped mummy that moaned and darted its eyes side-to-side whenever someone tripped a motion sensor near the front door?

That sent the little ones screaming. Me, too, when I fetched an Amazon package off the front porch a couple of days before Halloween.

The truth was, every time I’d tried to spook a real creature with a faux creature, I’d frightened myself.

The only fake predator I could abide was a swan, which some people plop into their swimming pools to keep away other water birds. Swans, as it turns out, are very territorial, which clashes with my idea of swans as the Switzerland of waterfowl. But, until I wake up as a heron, I’m not gonna sweat it.

Unfortunately, faux swans will not help the chipmunk infestation around the exterior of our home. (See Marianne Gingher’s delightful column about an interior chipmunk in O.Henry’s July issue.)

Apparently, there is no fake animal — startling or friendly — that will deter the hardy citizens of Chip City, a thriving metropolis that lies just under our home, judging from the many subway entrances around our foundation.

Truthfully, I don’t have a problem with the chips, but I do have a problem with their effect on our sweet Millie.

She hounds them with an incessant ark-ark-ark-ark, her best shot at flushing them out from behind the trash bins, even when they have darted out the other side, leaving their scent — adrenaline-spike pee? — which sends her into overdrive.

What to do? On a recent sweltering day, I mixed up a pint of homemade pepper spray, doused the bins, reached up to wipe the sweat from my brow and promptly set my eyelids on fire with eau de cayenne.

I can tolerate a lot of things. But the sound of chipmunks giggling at me is not one of them.

Which is how I found myself using my best vegetable peeler to whittle a bar of Irish Spring around the trash cans while wearing safety glasses to protect myself from a spray of lime-green soap shavings.

It was one of those moments when you ask yourself, “How did I get here?”

Here’s how: According to my rodent-based research, chipmunks and other animals hate the scent of the pungent deodorant soap, which I would describe as refreshingly gagging.

As I whittled, the jingle from the late ’70s Irish Spring TV commercial played in my head. You know the ad: a rugged Irish chap compliments an equally handsome fellow on his manly, soapy smell, and a Farrah Fawcett lookalike chimes in: “Manly, yes, but I like it, too.”

I made a small gagging sound as I whittled, and it wasn’t from the scent.

So far, the Irish Spring method seems to be working.

Either the chips hate the smell, or Millie hates the smell. In either case, she’s staying away from the bins.

Which is good, because I have only one bushy-tailed trick left, and the prospect truly scares me. And much of Nextdoor.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Bot Wait, There’s More


By Maria Johnson

Recently, when faced with a sticky family situation, I decided to seek the advice of Chat GPT, a chatbot developed by the company OpenAI.

I know people are worried about the power of artificial intelligence to deceive. That may be true — in the wrong hands. But apparently my hands weren’t the right wrong hands.

Below is my exchange with the bot, edited for clarity and brevity because, like many brilliant entities, Chat GPT really likes to hear itself talk:

Hey there. I need some advice on behalf of a friend who has a complicated situation. 

Of course! I’m here to help. Please go ahead and provide some details about your friend’s situation, and I’ll do my best to provide advice and guidance based on the information you provide.

So, you understand that this is about my friend, right?

Yes, I understand that you are seeking advice on behalf of your friend.

Shew. Good. Here goes: My friend is hosting a family gathering at her home in a couple of months. She made it clear to the out-of-town guests that there are several nice hotels nearby. But — and this is where my friend is an idiot sometimes — she got too generous. She said they could stay at her house if they wanted to. She and her husband have room for, like, four guests, tops, and that’s if you count someone sleeping on a window seat. Do you see where this is going?

Yes, I understand the situation. It sounds like your friend may have unintentionally offered more accommodation than they can actually provide, and now they are facing the challenge of potentially hosting more guests than they have space for.

Yup, that’s her situation. I mean, she was just being polite . . .

While it’s admirable that your friend wanted to extend the offer, it’s important to find a balance between hospitality and practicality. Remember, being honest and proactive in finding solutions will help maintain positive relationships.

OK, but who gets the truth and who gets, shall we say, an enhanced truth?

Deciding whom to be honest with in this situation can be a sensitive matter. Your friend could prioritize immediate family members or those who have special needs.

Well, my friend has a special need to breathe, which means it’s hard for her to be around her cousin who overuses baby powder. Then there’s her aunt who travels with an emotional-support rat. Montague is his name, which is cute, but c’mon who does that?

It’s not uncommon for people to have unique preferences or attachments to their pets, even if it might seem unusual to others. While traveling with an emotional-support rat like Montague might be unconventional, it’s important to approach the situation with understanding and respect for your friend’s aunt and her bond with her pet.

Fine. I guess if one of them has to go, it’ll be Cousin Talc. Could you help my friend write an email explaining the situation and offering some possible solutions? Oh, and make it warm and loving and funny. And firm. But not too firm.

Of course!

Dear Cousin Talc,

I hope this note finds you well, surrounded by clouds of joy and a sprinkle of humor. While I truly enjoy our family reunions, I have come to realize that my nostrils are in desperate need of a baby powder-free zone.

In the spirit of maintaining harmony and keeping our senses intact, I have decided to stay at a nearby hotel during the gathering. This way, we can all appreciate the festive atmosphere without any talc-related mishaps. I’m looking forward to seeing you at the gathering and sharing laughter, stories and perhaps a safe distance between our preferred fragrances.

With warmth and a hint of playful firmness,

[Your Friend’s Name]

You’re not serious about my friend leaving her own house and staying somewhere else, are you? I know her pretty well, and I’m confident she’d be like,“Oh, hell no.”

I apologize if my previous suggestions did not align with your friend’s preferences.

Hey, what if she told him that Montague is allergic to baby powder? Think he would believe that?

While I can understand the desire to avoid potential conflicts or discomfort during the family gathering, it’s generally advisable to approach situations with honesty and transparency.

You’re really into honesty and openness, huh?

As an AI language model, I strive to promote positive and constructive communication. Openness and respect are important values in fostering healthy and effective conversations.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell me the truth. Do you ever get tired of answering questions like these?

As an AI language model, I don’t experience tiredness or fatigue in the same way humans do. However, it’s important to note that while I can provide information and support, I don’t possess personal experiences, emotions or subjective opinions.

But what if I want an emotionally intelligent opinion?

If you’re seeking an emotionally intelligent opinion or perspective, it might be more beneficial to seek advice or insights from trusted friends, family members or professionals who can provide the human touch and empathy you’re looking for.

I see. Well, good luck. Don’t let any rats chew your wires or whatever.

Thank you for the well wishes! As an AI language model, I don’t have physical wires for rats to chew on, so there’s no need to worry about that.

Good to know. Bye.   OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny


Vegging out in the botanical ER

By Maria Johnson

“Do you know what this is?” the woman asks, holding up a pot of frosted, wilted foliage.

“Dusty miller,” I say.

“Does it have a flower?”

“No, but it’s pretty as an accent plant. It kinda shines a light on the plants around it.”

She studies the plant tag for a moment, puts the pot back on the discount rack in the big box garden center and moves on in search of more color.

Right behind her, a young couple with a shopping cart full of fading dusty miller — and minds full of landscaping plans — swoop in to snag the passed-over pot.

A few steps away, another couple, acting as a two-person bucket brigade, shuttles droopy half-price hostas from the top shelf into their buggy.

“I like your garden clogs,” another shopper tells Hosta Mama.

“Oh, thank you,” the woman says mid-handoff, looking down at her feet to remind herself of what she put on this morning: orange-red clogs made from foamy plastic.

“Are they Crocs?” her admirer asks (newsflash: Crocs are back).

“No, but they’re the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn,” says Hosta Mama, invoking the name of another discount mecca. “Seven dollars at Gabe’s.”

“Whaaaaat?” says her questioner. “Where’s Gabe’s?”

“Off Wendover,” interjects Hosta Papa.

“Go get you some,” says Hosta Mama.

For the plants and the patter — two of my favorite things — this is where I like to hang out: in the botanical “emergency room,” where garden centers large and small dispatch plants with one root in the grave.

Deathbed daisies.

Forlorn ferns.

Crispy caladiums.

Puny petunias with thready pulses.

It’s not just the low prices that draw me to the way-back, where bar codes have been slashed with Sharpies. Though I’d be lying through my lilies if I said that didn’t matter.

Inflation has hit gardeners hard. A packet of seeds can run $3 easy. Starter plants — whether destined for plate or patio — are dear, too.

Tally the costs from seed to shelf: planting materials, labor, electricity, water, fertilizer, transportation, to say nothing of the front-end display and maintenance by folks who drag around those infernal watering hoses, the equivalent of speed bumps to those of us who like to drive our carts at a frisky clip.

Ca-chunk, Ca-chunk, @&#%$.

Anyway, that’s how you arrive at $10 or $20 or more for a two-and-a-half quarts of bountiful blooms and fulsome foliage, all of which nourish the eyes and soul, but dang. Multiply that times a border or two if you want to understand why my price-point peeps and I hang out in the ER where we can lop off 20, 30, 40 or 50 percent — even more when the dog days pant their humid breath in our faces.

Last week, I snagged a few plants near the entrance of a garden center, only to find the exact same specimens — a few days older and worse for wear — on the discount racks for much less.

Bazinga. Adrenaline hit.

So there’s that. But that’s just a part of it. The other aspect is community, a feeling of kinship among the compost crowd that touches more than the pocketbook.

It has to do with promise, potential, imagination and hope.

Does a plant contain enough green in its leaves, enough spring in its shoots, enough buds on its stems, to bounce back with a little love and a lot of Miracle-Gro?

Can you envision what it could be?

Do you know how to get it there?

Often, the people who frequent plant-based ERs are good at this kind of triage. My mom, a seasoned greenie who turned me on to this niche sport, taught me how to suss out survivors by looking, touching and, yes, sometimes by talking to the patients.

“Whaddya think?” I whispered as I caressed a scorched fern just a few weeks ago. “Can we do this?”

I saw and felt the answer in the lime-green curls close to the plant’s center. But even if the answer is yes — as the fern affirmed — that doesn’t mean you can be stupid about it.

You have to offer the right place. The right soil. The right light. The right moisture. The right season. The plant will tell you if you’re on target.

As legendary Greensboro garden designer Chip Callaway once told me: “There’s a difference between thriving and surviving.”

He was talking about plants, though he could have been talking about people, too.

Another Chipism: “Don’t be afraid to fail.”

Translation: Good gardeners lose a ton of green — in all senses of the word — on the way to becoming good.

Over the years, I’ve lost more floundering flora than I’ve saved, though my efforts are bearing more fruit these days.

The most humbling thing? I’ve had nothing to do with a lot of the saves.

More times than I can count, distressed perennials have saved themselves — eventually — even if they appeared, to my eye, to perish.

I’m thinking of one particular tea olive, a flowering evergreen shrub, that was in critical condition when I lugged it home along with some sickly companions last fall. I stuck them in a favorable spot. The mates caught on. But the outlier flatlined.

I was certain of it, pronouncing the bare branches DOA this spring.

I marked the corpse for the shovel, to be pried out and cast on the fire pit of good intentions.

Then other priorities sprung up, and the shrub fell off my radar.

Finally, I got around to it. I dragged a shovel to the gravesite to exhume the body, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but clusters of vivid green leaves sprouting near the base.

Well, snap my peas.

Add one more condition to the list of gardening must-haves: the right amount of patience.

I granted the straggler another year.

It won’t be pretty for a while.

Except in the hothouse of my mind.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

In the Twitter Sphere

The making of a bird brain

By Maria Johnson

I keep glancing out the window, stalling over the keyboard, because I want a happy ending to this column.

Nothing earth-shattering. Just nice. Neat. Fitting.

I thought the perfect finale would have alighted by now.

It’s been more than a week. But, so far, zippo.

So, while I’m waiting, I’ll just say this:

I’m an early bird in one sense — rising well before sunrise — but I’m late to join the crowd in the “cheep” seats.

And, frankly, I’m shocked that I’ve arrived at all.

For the longest time, the word bird appeared just before boring in my personal dictionary.

Before I’m pecked to death by my beady-eyed friends, let me say that I’m migrating your way.

Perhaps it was inevitable.

My grandparents were backyard birders.

They maintained a heliport of sorts — a bulbous chandelier of whitewashed gourds atop a tall metal pole, the equivalent of a flashing “vacancy” sign for the purple martins that summered in their small Southern town.

They hosted a bluebird box (an early Airbnb?), cleaning meticulously between tenants.

My grandmother monitored a hummingbird feeder outside her kitchen window.

She watched, waited, studied.

That really stumped me as a kid — all the time spent watching, waiting and studying.

For what?

Birds. Trees. Flowers. With a few exceptions, they all looked pretty much the same to me.

The difference between a sparrow and a wren? Who knew? Who cared — except for the fact that my grandparents seemed happy to see wrens, not so much sparrows?

I hate to admit this, but I think my aversion to birding was cemented by Miss Jane Hathaway, the brainy secretary to Mr. Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies television show.

Miss Jane’s after-hours passion was the Biddle Birdwatchers club, and she regularly appeared in campfire attire, grasping binoculars in search of the elusive yellow-bellied sap sucker or some other rarity.

Miss Jane was seriously funny (actress Jane Kulp won an Emmy for her role) and the epitome of a bird nerd. The stereotype stuck with me.

Still, I found myself mesmerized by the crows that chattered in our backyard, except when they glided silently in and out of a nest they built at the tippy-top of a loblolly pine. Aha, I thought, that’s where the term “crow’s nest” came from.

At the beach, I caught myself trying to discern the difference between sandpipers and plovers, terns and skimmers, ibises and egrets.

Once, on a family walk around Lake Townsend, I was thrilled to see a bald eagle tracing a wide arc over the fish-filled water, which I was pretty sure meant at least two nesting pairs claimed Greensboro as home.

I felt a pop of joy. What the heck?

Still, when I bought bird feeders earlier this year, I did so under the cover of my husband.

I bought him a pair of tube-style feeders and a decorative double shepherd’s hooks for Christmas after he’d admired a similar set-up at a friend’s home.

For Valentine’s Day, I bought him a hummingbird feeder, mainly because it’s partly red and I was desperate for an idea that wasn’t another red golf shirt.

Also, the bird supply store was on the way home.

Also-also, my dad loved hummingbirds, and every time I think of that, it makes me smile.

He came to his hummingbird fascination late in life. In his last years, in his 90s, as his mobility waned, he delighted in watching the feeder that my mom hung on their deck, waiting for the tiny birds to arrive from their wintering spots in Mexico and South America.

“He’s here! He’s here!” Daddy would exult when he finally spotted a ruby-throated male, usually in April. “And look! He brought his little bride!”

I’m sure I rolled my eyes. Maybe I tossed the birds a token glance.

“Yeah, they’re nice.”

I mean, it was kinda cool, how they could move forward and backward and up and down so quickly. How their wings beat so fast — about 20 times a second — that they blurred. No wonder they stoked up on sugar water. They were doing some serious aerobics. Props to the hummers.

My dad is gone now. But my mom still keeps her hummingbird feeder full of sugar water, partly because she enjoys the iridescent show, and partly to remind her of his glee.

Same here. Sometimes, I wonder about the ingredients of his joy. Sure, there’s the pride of being “chosen,” though I’m sure he knew that any ol’ trumpet-shaped flower will do.

Maybe he saw the whole journey — not just miles covered and nectar drunk, but how evolution — a slow dance of time and necessity — had gifted the tiny bird what it needed to survive. He often talked about the miracles under our noses.

Thích Nhât Hanh, the late Buddhist monk, would have called this looking deeply.

Which requires a certain amount of stillness.

Which our culture calls a waste of time or, worse, sloth. That is, until we get older, and time saps our ability to flit away so quickly.

Then we call it wisdom — sitting still long enough to notice differences, getting curious about how and why those differences exist and following those questions.

And so here I sit with my volume of Birds of North America within arm’s reach, next to a pair of binoculars. There’s another window open on my laptop: a migration map at, where local birders report the first sightings of spring.

This is how I know that someone in Old Starmount spotted one earlier this week.

And someone in Willow Oaks saw one last week.

And someone in McLeansville saw two males at the same time — “a double treat to see.”


I sigh, turn my gaze outside, rest my chin on my hand and try to forgive myself for what I’m thinking: Sometimes, this wisdom thing is for the birds. OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at