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Free Speech Day

"Really? He's one of them?"

The question was flavored with surprise, concern, and the conflicted satisfaction that can come with baring your soul.

We were on the new bridge in Winthrop. (Those of you now veering off into "that stupid bridge", well . . . thank you for reading this far). The sound of the river was soothing, the view upstream was idyllic. Below, perfectly setting the scene, was a lone fly fisherman arching his line toward the riffles, his happy dog behind him on the gravel bar exploring the world like it was a whole new thing.

The discussion in our group was about construction details and how the bridge might affect the town's future. Then some spawning salmon broke the water's surface and the conversation turned to where one in the group eventually asked, pointedly, "Man, do you know how many FISH BIOLOGISTS there are around here now? How many offices? How much money? It's like the FISH BIOLOGISTS are taking over!"

It was good bait and we all took it, happily dissing the fish saviors and the empire they have built, har har-ing our way through unfair criticisms and accusations until the loud, ending question: "So what happens when the FISH are saved? Then do WE have to save the BIOLOGISTS!." Har har har.

As we continued to the far shore the fisherman climbed up and started across toward us. I recognized him – a fish biologist. After my stilted attempt at approach conversation he said, as he passed, "I liked the part about saving the biologists".

This is where the story began – with the friend who instigated the bio-bashing trying to verify the sighting. Behind the abbreviated laugh it was clear he was running through small town faux pas triage and weighing his options. A small cloud of stress had formed in the crisp, clean autumn air.

You'd think that our little east slope utopia would be anything but stressful. The truth is it's a pressure cooker . . . with good views. And one of the major stressors is being overheard when your tongue has gotten loose from its restraints. If it's a tongue-wag target doing the overhearing, it becomes a class 5 uh-oh that can cause structural damage.

Okay. Maybe not for YOU. But for SOME of us.

Surely there's been a time when your innocent gossip in the condiments aisle wafted to the produce section and before you know it someone you thought was a friendly acquaintance is faking a cough or looking up at an imaginary eagle as you pass in front of the post office. That's what I'm talking about.

It doesn't seem fair – to get the kind of anonymity that lets you blather at will you have to endure city life and the zillion stress factors that come with it. Here you could probably walk your acreage in a chartreuse leopard print robe and badger slippers with no social risk but you still have to watch everything you say in public. It's a job, really, parsing your words day after day, recognizing a fake cough, looking for phantom eagles. A never-ending job. And we're good at it, which means we deserve a break. So, I propose . . .

Free Speech Day.

It would happen twice a year, at the most downer times (we can probably all agree on mud season but the choice for the other could be all over the map). By ordinance we would be relieved, for each 24 hour period, from all responsibility for what we say. Anything approaching retribution or revenge for overheard verbitorials would be severely punished – one winter month with bald tires, firewood restricted to wet spruce, free valley-wide dog-sitting . . . you get the idea. Licensed therapists would be strategically positioned around the valley to help those unfortunate enough to hear an opinion of themselves or their profession of which they were not previously aware.

There would be basic ground rules, of course: no bull horns or sky writing. And nothing could be written down or posted – this is a one day time-out and the painful memories and distorted re-tellings will be documentation enough.

Silly you say? Au contraire. This simple idea could be as constructively therapeutic as a dozen professionally facilitated consensus-building forums (hmm . . . come to think of it, I came out of my last consensus-building session wanting to strangle a couple of people). Okay, more soothing than a year of appointments with one of the valley's 300 licensed massage therapists (no, that's NOT too many).

It just might be exactly what the valley needs and, who knows, could be as much fun as . . . say . . . an all-valley cream pie fight.

Whoa. Now THERE'S an idea.

Everyone gathers to peacefully assemble 2000 tall, fluffy cream pies, chatting and laughing through the task. Then, we collect at the only neutral ground available – the school ball field – and, at the strike of some hour (determined by consensus) we, well, hurl them at each other with every ounce of strength we can muster. Followed by a potluck.

You know what? That thing I said about Free Speech Day? Never mind.


read more of Curtis' astute observations, in the archive