Thank You Very Mulch by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Some things just go together: peanut butter and jelly, eggs and bacon, Mother’s Day and mulch. Wait! What?

It’s kind of a long story in our family, but Mother’s Day has become intertwined with the annual springtime chore of weeding and mulching the garden and so my wife declared that last Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day, was Mulch Day. Kingstown delivered and stacked fifteen big bags of jet black mulch this year, my wife and I supplied the wheelbarrow, a rake, and some sweat. Load, distribute, dump, and spread. Slowly but surely, the garden began to take on a more tamed aspect as all those blemishing weeds disappeared and a warm earthy aroma enveloped the backyard. There was even a little leftover mulch so my wife planted a row of white impatients under the boxwoods out front. By day’s end, our backs were a little sore, there was dirt under our fingernails, and the washing machine was working overtime. But there was also the satisfaction of a job well done. The red rose buds, the white peonies, and the purple wisteria seemed to like all that shiny new black footing; the day lilies, lavender, and hydrangea are just awaiting their cue so they can show off all their summer finery, thanks in large part to all that lowly mulch.

Mulch is simple stuff, nothing more than a layer of decomposed material added to the surface soil to help preserve moisture by reducing evaporation, or to regulate temperature, control weed growth, or just add healthy organic material to fertilize the mix. Mulch may just be background material with no fanfare but it’s absolutely essential to a healthy garden. OK; maybe there’s also a little cosmetic value to mulch, but after that first application, it goes about its work pretty much unnoticed, doing its task silently and thanklessly. It’s the overlooked tech crew that makes a Broadway star shine, the string section of the orchestra that gets taken for granted in a symphony, the harmonic drone that underlies the flashy notes of my bagpipes. (Sorry; couldn’t resist.) The point is that mulch does most of the work and gets none of the credit; it’s the unsung hero of a healthy garden.

I know a few people like that here in town; I’m sure you do, too. They are the ones who shun the limelight; the applause meant for others is more than ample reward for all their behind-the-scenes toil. They find satisfaction within; theirs is a secret smile. I admire them beyond measure for they are the foundation upon which we continue to build this town. Without them, the garden that is this place wouldn’t be nearly so healthy and bright.

Woodchips, bark, sphagnum peat, or straw all make fine organic mulch. So does composted raw food or grass clippings or leaves from deciduous trees. Even cardboard and newspaper make for a good winter mulch under a layer of snow. And just as there are a lot of ways to mulch a garden, so, too, does a rich and diverse array of people doing good quiet work add health and color to our own patch of green here along the banks of the Chester. The policeman, the volunteer fireman, the nurse, the teacher, the handyman, the waitress. I thank them all very mulch!

I admit I like bright flowers; I suspect we all do. But just remember this: without mulch, nothing grows quite so well.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Fresh Cuts by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Ever since Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett came to town, I’ve been thinking about fresh cuts. Not of meat or hair, but rather of grass and lawns. It’s that time of the year when the roar of the lawnmower drowns out early morning birdsong and the smell of gasoline hangs heavy in the afternoon air. Annoying, maybe, but there’s nothing like the lines, the look, and the smell of freshly mown grass.

Many of you already know that I’m an inveterate porch sitter. My porch of choice overlooks a postage stamp of a front lawn that, although tiny, presents some unique cutting challenges. First, there is the coracle bird bath to contend with. (In case you don’t already know, a coracle is a small round boat traditionally used by the ancient Celts. The name is derived from the Welsh word “cwrwgl”—good luck with that one. It was likely the kind of boat St. Columba used to cross the Irish Sea when he brought Christianity to Scotland back in the 6th Century; maybe that’s why the birds like bathing in it. But I digress; back to grass and the cutting of it…) Beside the bird bath, there are other front yard impediments to a crisp cut—like the rose bush in the corner that doesn’t leave much headroom for the lawnmower to get at what grows beneath, or the picket fence that protects a thin band of clover that always seems to prefer the company of the sidewalk. I would need a weed whacker to attend to that business, but that’s a tool too far so I get down on hands and knees with a clipper to finish off the front before getting back to my rocker on the porch.

But then there’s the back yard…

That’s bigger business with some contour and texture to it. Heavier impediments, too, like the hammock that needs to be moved or the outdoor table and chairs which make cutting long, clean lines impossible. One of these days, I’ll get around to putting in a flagstone patio under the arrangement so I can delete that section of the yard from my cutting routine. Until then, I’ll continue to move things around while cutting the grass in smaller sections. Whew!

Then there’s this: to bag or not to bag? That’s a good question. I have access to a mower that collects the clippings in a great sack, but then the question becomes how to deal with all that residue. Putting clippings in a great paper bag and leaving that bag on the curb awaiting town removal seems to me like a lot of wasted labor—mine and the town’s. The alternative solution involves using another mower that simply distributes the clippings as mulch which, in addition to saving some sweat equity, has some positive environmental benefits. Old grass begetting new grass, a kind of green reincarnation, if you will, that reclaims all the good photosynthetic properties of the clipped material to fertilize the next batch of grass which, of course, will have to be cut again a week hence. Round and round we go, all summer long.

But eventually, all the grass front and back does get cut and I get to go have a rewarding glass of lemonade on the front porch or a quiet swing in the hammock from which I can survey my freshly cut domain. But even as the lawnmower cools, I think I can hear all that grass regrowing, the countdown already beginning until it’s time for next week’s project.

Gotta go. I’m due for a haircut. I hear there’s a new barber in town…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

May Day by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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May Day goes in lots of different directions: for some (like my friend Eggman), it’s an international holiday commemorating the Haymarket riots in Chicago of 1886 that now honors all laborers and the working classes. For those in peril on the sea or in the air, it’s a universally recognized distress signal. (How did that come about?Apparently, ‘May Day’ is a corruption of the French phrase “M’aidez!” or “Help Me!) To a bell-clad Morris Dancer, May Day means tall maypoles decorated with flowers and long ribbons and another happy pagan reason to celebrate the arrival of spring. Oh—and one more: in case you’re looking for another reason to party, May first is also National Chocolate Parfait Day. Who knew?

The first of May can be moody—the photograph that accompanies this Musing was taken on May 1, 2016—but it can also be bright and sunny, full of promise, and oh-so-colorful, thanks in large part to all those lovely flowers that sprouted during those chilly April showers. May first is our reward for both patience and anticipation: patience (winter is over!), anticipation (summer is here!). As a former student and teacher who spent many years in schools on both sides of the desk, I know that we’re all still kids with an atavistic case of spring fever that always seems to hit at this precious time of year. Kids think “Summer!” but teachers dig a little deeper: May means we’re on the doorstep of June, July, and August, the best three reasons to be a teacher.

Everything seems to be in bud; that’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that pollen drifts down like snow and the sound of sneezing is heard throughout the land—or at least in this part of it. The Mid-Atlantic region and our very own Eastern Shore, in particular, are home to all manner of beautiful flowering trees and shrubs, but all that natural splendor comes at the suffering cost of allergies and hay fever. It’s the price we pay for spring.

If you’re a Taurus or a Gemini, May’s your month. If you’re born in May and like precious stones, emeralds are your thing. If you’re a gardener, think of May’s colorful palette: cornflower blue, peony pink, lily-white, lilac purple, sunflower yellow, and of course, green grass. Come to think of it, I guess it’s time to bring the old lawnmower out of winter retirement. If birdsong comes with May, so does the roar of lawnmowers. Sigh.

May is named for the Greek goddess of fertility, Maia. Anglo-Saxons called May Tri-Milchi, meaning three milks because the grass was so lush and green you could milk your cows three times a day. In Native American culture, May is The Full Flower Moon, the Corn Planting Moon, or the Milking Moon. (I guess Anglo-Saxons and Native Americans have more in common than I realized!)

If you want to maintain youthfulness or enhance your natural beauty, legend has it that you should wash your face with dew collected on the morning of the first day of May. If you missed that chance, put a note on your calendar for next year. Don’t worry: you’re beautiful just the way you are!

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Earth Daze by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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The tea crabapple and tulip trees in the pocket park behind the White Swan are exploding. The sycamore just outside the front gate is in bud busily creating the leaves that will shade us in summer and keep us busy in the fall. There is a quiet riot of daffodils in my neighbor’s front yard, the bleeding hearts and peonies are poking up out back, there are new tendrils of wisteria climbing along the garden wall, and is that lilac I smell? A pair of industrious house wrens are building a nest under the eaves of the front porch—they’re welcome to make their new home with us. The hummingbird feeders are full and ready to refresh any weary traveler coming up from the south. It’s just warm enough to drink my first cup of coffee outside in the Sunday morning stillness and while I know full well that there may still be an uninvited snow squall or a frost warning or two ahead—we live in Maryland after all!—I think I can safely declare that spring has finally found its way to the banks of the Chester.

Spring: that most welcome of guests who admittedly arrives with some decidedly unwelcome baggage, like the sheen of pollen on the car every morning or my wife’s allergies. Nevertheless, Persephone’s reemergence heralds cool-but-not-cold mornings, warm-but-not-stifling afternoons, and fresh-but-not-sultry nights. Open windows, lingering evenings, hammock naps, and porch gatherings. Baseball games; golf without wool hats, two gloves, and multiple layers of clothing. Flip-flops instead of boots. College kids in shorts and tee shirts, the splash of water in Fountain Park, sunset cruises on the River Packet, and plans for Tea Party.

Fields are plowed and dressed and while the unmistakable smell of manure can come wafting into town on even the most gentle of breezes, soon green, not brown, will be the order of the day. Now on Saturday mornings, there are bright hanging baskets and fresh, new produce at the Farmers Market; maybe we’ll see the first hot-house tomatoes in a week or two! Big wheel keep on turning!

One of the things I most appreciate about living here is that we’re never far removed from the land, the weather, and the seasons. When I lived in that big city over on the Western Shore, it was hard to feel the subtle changes in the days or see the stars at night. Here, all I have to do is sit on the front porch or walk out in the backyard. I know I’ve said this before, but I just feel closer to God here. I feel as though I have a front row seat at a heavenly concert where I can plainly hear the music of the spheres.

I know that spring can be a fickle tease and that soon enough, we’ll be complaining about the heat or wishing it would rain or longing for cooler weather. That’s all part of the story. But this chapter is one of my favorites and I like to savor it like pie right out of the oven. Strawberry-Rhubarb, please.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

My Lizard Friends by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Gavin, who just turned five, knows I have a thing for lizards. We go around the house counting all my “lizard friends” as he calls them: one day we got up to thirteen but then had to start over because we weren’t sure if we had already counted one or two. His favorite is the lizard clock from Twigs and Teacups that keeps the time in his bedroom. Its little red tongue darts back and forth counting the seconds until he falls asleep.

I’m not really sure how all this began. I went through a Southwest phase many years ago. I spent several summers knocking around New Mexico and Colorado and maybe my love affair with lizards began then. I’ve toyed with the idea that they are some kind of spirit animal for me, but I can’t quite find the connection. One year I even spent several months working on a historical novel about the Pueblo Revolt which took place in 1680—the first truly indigenous American revolution against a foreign occupier. It was led by a mystical Native American named Popé who devised an ingenious method of coordinating an uprising by the various pueblo peoples against the Spanish colonizers in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, present day New Mexico. The working title of my book was “Axolotl,” an Indian word for a type of salamander found in the region known for its adaptability to its high desert environment. (Interesting tidbit: salamanders are a New World phenomenon, hence the Indian nomenclature. Apparently there were no salamanders back in the Old World. Who knew?) Sad to say that axolotls are nearing extinction due to pollution and invasive species of fish, but I digress…

Lizards are part of a group of squamate reptiles of which there are more than 6000 species inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. They are as small as geckos and as large as Komodo dragons which can exceed ten feet in length. Lizards are quadrupedal and unlike my friend Eggman, they are carnivorous. Most are “sit-and-wait” predators who enjoy a diet of insects; Komodo dragons, however, have been known to eat an entire water buffalo which is perhaps why my fascination with lizards does not extend to Komodo dragons.

Lizards are good at fooling their predators. They often have natural camouflage but their best method of escape is their unique ability to sacrifice and then regenerate their long tails. If a predator snatches a lizard by its tail and bites it off, the lizard gets away and grows another. Maybe this ingenuous adaptability is why I have such a thing for lizards—not that I need to escape anything, mind you. Nor, for that matter, can I grow another tail, although I must admit I haven’t tried that yet.

Then there’s this: lizards like sunlight; so do I. I don’t know how you feel, but as the Beatles once sang, “little darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter,” so if it’s finally time for “here comes the sun,” then the lizards of the world and I am all in!

Back to counting with Gavin. We got to nineteen lizard friends around the house recently, but that’s not counting the secret one that only my wife and few close friends have ever seen. Hmmm…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Moments By Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Did you happen to catch this? If you did, you can skip ahead, but in case you missed it, allow me to set the scene:

On the Wednesday of Augusta week—cue the theme music—there is a unique event called the Par 3 Contest. It takes place out on the east end of the Augusta National property (formerly the Fruitlands Nursery) where nine lovely par three holes have been carved out of the azalea. A few of these holes surround Ike’s Pond and require only a moderate carry over water—I believe the longest hole is only 164 yards long, an easy wedge for one of today’s pro golfers. The tournament itself is almost always a lovely walk, not spoiled by golf. Players’ offspring, dressed in the iconic Augusta National caddies’ baggy white overalls, somersault down the slopes in front of the tee boxes or toddle onto the greens carrying miniature putters—it’s a family picnic and a celebration of the game we all love all rolled into one.

At this year’s event, one threesome featured a veritable Mt. Rushmore of the modern game: Tom Watson, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus, a walking (sometimes limping), moving tableau of golfing history that has accounted for a total of eleven green jackets. (Nicklaus six, Player three, and Watson two.) Usually the Par 3 Contest is less about winning and more about fun, camaraderie, and the enjoyment of springtime in a spectacular environment, but this year’s event produced a bit more drama than budding azaleas. Watson birdied the first four holes, added another to tie for first, then birdied the eighth to take the lead at -6. Remember: Tom Watson is 68 years old; the oldest golfer to ever win the contest was Sam Snead who was 61 at the time (1960; the first year of the Par 3 Contest). Watson only needed a par on the final hole to win by one and claim the crystal trophy; he made it look easy.

But that wasn’t the moment. This was: in the spirit of the day, it’s not unusual for a caddy to hit a ball on the final hole—just for fun, of course. This year, GT Nicklaus was carrying his grandfather’s bag, sharing the honor with his younger sister, Nina. GT is 15 years old and (no surprise here) already an accomplished high school golfer, the “best” (at least according to his proud grandfather) of Jack and Barbara’s 22 grandchildren.

But accomplished as he is, GT had never had a hole-in-one. Until that moment. He took his one swing, flew the ball twenty feet past the hole and drew it back into the cup—an absolutely superb shot that stole Watson’s show. Not that Tom cared. When GT’s ball trickled into the cup, the crowd roared, Watson and Player jumped for joy, and Jack cried. Just think: of all Mr. Nicklaus’ memorable moments on golf courses around the world—73 PGA victories and 18 major championships—this one small family moment now holds pride of place in the Golden Bear’s bank of memories.

Life is all about moments. We’ve all had them, maybe not a hole-in-one at Augusta, but ones that are just as sweet to each of us. Mine include the births of my two children, my bride in her wedding dress, a World Series foul ball off the bat of Mickey Mantle that rolled right to me, and watching the sun rise on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Even now, thinking back on those special moments and a few others, I feel the tears well up in my eyes.

Just like Jack.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Moments By Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Did you happen to catch this? If you did, you can skip ahead, but in case you missed it, allow me to set the scene:

On the Wednesday of Augusta week—cue the theme music—there is a unique event called the Par 3 Contest. It takes place out on the east end of the Augusta National property (formerly the Fruitlands Nursery) where nine lovely par three holes have been carved out of the azalea. A few of these holes surround Ike’s Pond and require only a moderate carry over water—I believe the longest hole is only 164 yards long, an easy wedge for one of today’s pro golfers. The tournament itself is almost always a lovely walk, not spoiled by golf. Players’ offspring, dressed in the iconic Augusta National caddies’ baggy white overalls, somersault down the slopes in front of the tee boxes or toddle onto the greens carrying miniature putters—it’s a family picnic and a celebration of the game we all love all rolled into one.

At this year’s event, one threesome featured a veritable Mt. Rushmore of the modern game: Tom Watson, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus, a walking (sometimes limping), moving tableau of golfing history that has accounted for a total of eleven green jackets. (Nicklaus six, Player three, and Watson two.) Usually the Par 3 Contest is less about winning and more about fun, camaraderie, and the enjoyment of springtime in a spectacular environment, but this year’s event produced a bit more drama than budding azaleas. Watson birdied the first four holes, added another to tie for first, then birdied the eighth to take the lead at -6. Remember: Tom Watson is 68 years old; the oldest golfer to ever win the contest was Sam Snead who was 61 at the time (1960; the first year of the Par 3 Contest). Watson only needed a par on the final hole to win by one and claim the crystal trophy; he made it look easy.

But that wasn’t the moment. This was: in the spirit of the day, it’s not unusual for a caddy to hit a ball on the final hole—just for fun, of course. This year, GT Nicklaus was carrying his grandfather’s bag, sharing the honor with his younger sister, Nina. GT is 15 years old and (no surprise here) already an accomplished high school golfer, the “best” (at least according to his proud grandfather) of Jack and Barbara’s 22 grandchildren.

But accomplished as he is, GT had never had a hole-in-one. Until that moment. He took his one swing, flew the ball twenty feet past the hole and drew it back into the cup—an absolutely superb shot that stole Watson’s show. Not that Tom cared. When GT’s ball trickled into the cup, the crowd roared, Watson and Player jumped for joy, and Jack cried. Just think: of all Mr. Nicklaus’ memorable moments on golf courses around the world—73 PGA victories and 18 major championships—this one small family moment now holds pride of place in the Golden Bear’s bank of memories.

Life is all about moments. We’ve all had them, maybe not a hole-in-one at Augusta, but ones that are just as sweet to each of us. Mine include the births of my two children, my bride in her wedding dress, a World Series foul ball off the bat of Mickey Mantle that rolled right to me, and watching the sun rise on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Even now, thinking back on those special moments and a few others, I feel the tears well up in my eyes.

Just like Jack.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Fool and Cruel With a Chance of Showers by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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There’s a lot to be said for April, much of it bad. I know it’s only one of our four shorter months (I don’t even count February as a month), but it certainly seems to me that a lot of negativity has been packed into April’s thirty days. Just consider:

As far as I know, April is the only month to celebrate fools. It’s not a new phenomenon. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer mentioned playing pranks on friends way back in 1392. In France, the custom was to slap a paper fish on an unknowing victim’s back (“Poisson d’Avril!”) while in Scotland—my ancestral home—April first was traditionally called Huntigowk Day, a “gowk” being Scots for a cuckoo or a foolish person.

Other countries around the world as far away as India and Iran have joined the fun, sometimes with not-so-fun consequences. In 1957, the BBC broadcast a film on April first purporting to show Swiss farmers harvesting freshly grown spaghetti plants. The BBC was subsequently flooded with requests for spaghetti plant seeds. Most people thought it all harmlessly fun but a few disappointed pasta lovers thought it a cruel hoax.

Speaking of cruel, the opening line of T.S. Eliot’s elegiac poem The Waste Land (1922) sets a dismal tone for April:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Poor April! It may never recover from such a dreary assessment.

Were this literary pummeling of April not bad enough, the IRS in its infinite wisdom set the seal of doom on April when it made April 15 (or thereabouts, depending on the weekend) the deadline for filing income tax forms to federal, state, and local governments. Exceptions to this deadline abound (see “Trump, Donald J.”), but like another famous date on the calendar, April 15 has a certain ring of infamy to it.

And then there’s the weather. Every child knows that “April showers bring May flowers,” but May is then and April is now. It’s as though we should overlook this poor month in favor of the next, effectively making May the teacher’s pet and April the poor stepchild. Sigh.

But I guess we shouldn’t completely give up on the fourth month. This year, April kicked off with Easter, a joyous celebration of renewal and rebirth, a day on which all rabbits have an uncontrollable urge to hide colored eggs. Go figure. Opening Day of the baseball season often falls in early April although this year, that honor fell to March, the renowned lion and lamb of the calendar. And I would certainly be remiss not to mention that my lovely wife’s birthday falls in April, as do the birthdays of one daughter-in-law, one grandchild, two nieces and a nephew, and numerous friends. Lots of cards, but then, ours is a large family.

Come to think of it, there are all manner of reasons to celebrate April. Marathon runners converge on Boston on Patriot’s Day (April 16), an official holiday in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. A few days later, we’ll celebrate our planet on Earth Day (April 22) and on the last Friday of this month (April 27 this year), we should all go out and plant a tree in honor of Arbor Day.

I guess maybe April’s not such a lousy month after all. No fooling!

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Thumbs Up! By Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I imagine the first thumbs up might have come from somewhere deep in the cradle of civilization when, in an early simian celebration of opposable thumbs, one of our primate ancestors looked down at his or her hand, realized there was one digit unlike the others, and showed it off to a treetop friend: “Hey, Bongo! Look at this!” And with that simple gesture, humanity was off and running.

By the time the Roman emperors were offering bread and circuses to the good citizens of the empire, the thumbs up salute—pollice verso— was well entrenched in the common language of the times. Thumbs up and a gladiator’s life was spared; thumbs down and, well, you know what happened next.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages: some lexicographers like the idea that thumbs up was the signal used by English archers to indicate that their longbows were properly strung for battle, specifically, that the fistmele (the brace height) was set at the appropriate length of seven inches, the approximate length of the archer’s fist with the thumb extended. Ready to launch, men? Raise your fists, thumbs high!

In more recent times, the ‘thumbs up’ signal has been used by soldiers and pilots—our modern gladiators—to mean “we’re ready” or “let’s go!” Time to move out, start the engines, launch the plane. It’s obviously a dashing gesture so now everyone wants in on the thumbs up act. On FaceBook, thumbs up means “I like that!” To a movie critic, thumbs up means “go see this picture” while two thumbs up means “go see it tonight!” Athletes love to give a thumbs up to their adoring fans: Arnold Palmer made it his signature gesture for years and now Phil Mickelson is the pro who carries on Arnie’s tradition. Basketball referees used to give the thumbs up sign to indicate a jump ball but sadly that’s been replaced by the dull but more technically precise possession arrow. Back in the day, baseball umpires used their thumbs to signal “Out!” but that has changed, too; now, they simply punch the air with a closed fist, whatever that means. Of course politicians have hopped on board; they love to flash a thumbs up to their base, and when Mr. Trump wants to double down on some new mischief, he will raise two thumbs up, one for each 15%.

Whatever its provenance, in today’s stylized world, thumbs up has come to be recognized as the universal sign for “Yep,” “OK,” “Thanks,” “I like that!” Thumbs up is everywhere these days, even on our keyboards where the popular thumbs up emoji has become an all-purpose and comprehensible symbol that’s useful in any language—the most commonly accepted shorthand (so to speak) for anything signifying agreement or acceptance short of a non-disclosure agreement.

There are of course a few exceptions to the thumbs up rule. To a scuba diver, a raised thumb means it’s time to ascend which understandably can cause a bit of confusion one hundred feet below the surface. Hitchhikers use the gesture to ask for a lift, the thumb even pointing in the direction they want to go. In some cultures the seemingly friendly thumbs up once had a pejorative meaning: in some West African countries, Iran, and even Greece, thumbs up had a slightly more personal connotation but fortunately for world travelers these days, it seems the new, more positive interpretation is gaining traction while the negative old meaning has been ceded to that other digit, the index one. Whew!

So come on: keep up with the times; be like my granddaughter Annie and join the party. The next time someone offers you something nice, don’t say “thank you,” just flash a big grin and a thumbs up and hope you’re not offending an old Greek who has never even seen a smart phone.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.