The Trouble with Filling in the Blanks: Another Lesson in Assuming Less Before Jumping to Conclusions

When I drove out of Mystic Waters the day after Easter, I saw a blue plastic bag hanging from the tree above me. With a quick glance, I could see that it was full of something heavy. Seeing trash on the ground is not that unusual. Seeing it hanging from a tree full of something mysterious got my attention, especially given what I thought I saw. “Surely not,” I thought as I drove on to my next appointment.


The way the bag was hanging didn’t look accidental. I got that deep feeling that something was off and have to admit, I was spooked by it. Last year, we discovered an ATV “abandoned” near our rental cabins. We knew someone had bypassed our gate and could be anywhere on the 162 acres of Mystic Waters. We later learned that, indeed, the trespasser had the audacity to go right to the heart of the camp – my sanctuary - where we have meals, play with the dogs and sleep when we are staying there. When confronted, the person showed no remorse, and acted as if we were the bad guys for expecting them to respect our property line.


In the time that we’ve had Mystic Waters, I’ve lost count of the many ways that we’ve found people in places they don’t belong. Most are just curious and harmless. A few have required the help of law enforcement to encourage them to move on. At first encounter, we usually can’t tell the difference.


Given the history, I realized this was something I couldn’t just brush off as trash that might have blown in. The positioning just wasn’t right. And had my eyes deceived me? Was this bag hanging in full sight of my special place full of dog poo?


When I came back from my appointment, I decided to investigate. I truly couldn’t imagine that there was a bag of dog poo hanging over my road. I was wrong! I took a picture and sent it to Jen, asking her if she agreed with my assessment.


Indeed, without a doubt, there was a blue plastic bag full of dog poo hanging a little higher than I could reach from a tree over my road. It most certainly did not get there by itself.


Before my mind started running wild, I checked with the others who are on the camp regularly. This was a formality to validate what I already knew. None of us had hung it. Jen had seen it, but thought it was something for getting rid of bugs.


I texted the picture to Jen and said, “Someone who is not us literally had to come in and hang it from the tree.” Jen said “WTF. Literally someone then came onto property and intentionally left us something to let us know they’ve been there. Wait, is that dog s#$%?”


So much for keeping my mind from running wild. There seemed to be only one option. It could not have blown there with the weight of the poo. It could not have been a bag of poo from our dogs, because we don’t bag.  This part of the road is behind a locked gate. It could not have been an accident. The location clearly sent a message, in full view of our main center of the camp. It was too high in the trees to have been placed there by someone on foot. They had equipment! The encounter with last year’s trespasser loomed large. I had to hand it to the person behind the message, which seemed unmistakable.


Who in the world had it this sh$5ty message for us, who also had managed to get either a vehicle or ladder there to hang it?


The more I thought about it, the more incensed I got. My stories started running away with me like a band of wild horses. I instantly decided that I would be living on high alert for the foreseeable future. We would need to install more cameras. We would also need to tell everyone that works around the place to keep an eye out. Definitely would need to confront any and all suspicious activities. I wondered whether it was safe for me to walk the camp alone. All this was just in the first ten minutes!


Now the question was how to find the culprit. We had a couple of cameras we could check, but I didn’t hold out much hope. What kept haunting me was the message. What was our s$%t bag trespasser trying to say?


I was one step short of calling the sheriff when Jen called. “I checked the gate camera. The trash truck came through this morning,” she said.


“What does the trash guy have against us?” I thought, my mind jumping to the same conclusion that supported all my other insane conclusions.


“Wait a minute,” I thought. “What else could explain this craziness?”


Before I voiced my first conclusion, I said “So somehow, this bag was on the trash truck and it got caught on the blackberry thorns when he drove under the bush?” Jen came back and said “Looks like it. Either that or it’s a complete coincidence that on the same day the trash truck came through, we had an evil trespasser manage to sneak onto the camp with a vehicle or ladder and hang a bag of dog poo to scare the bejeezus out of us.”


Well, when you put it that way…


Immediately, my mind settled down. Now I could see the humor in the situation. I was also extremely grateful for the cameras! Can you imagine how many more ways I would have jumped to conclusions without them? Never would I have guessed the truth – it was the trash truck.


So what is the antidote to jumping to conclusions? It starts with this magical question: “What else could explain this [inexplicable thing]?” I need to use it more.


With this incident, I was reminded just how unsettling the unknown can be. Plus, it’s super difficult to fill in the blanks when the pressure is high. While waiting for a ride on vacation recently, Russ and I killed time by watching the show “America Says” on the Game Show Network. The object of the game is to fill in the blanks for answers to questions covering a variety of topics. They give a big hint, with the answers shown on the board with the first letter of the word and a blank approximating the length of the word. Even with a solid trail of breadcrumbs like that, most contestants don’t get close to getting all the answers. Out of desperation, the contestants often yell out answers that match nothing on the board. Others grasp for words that don’t fit the question but match the letters on the board. Filling in the blanks is more difficult than it looks!


My brain had the “Game Show Problem” with this excrement incident. Most of my conclusions did not match the breadcrumbs in front of me. The experience of the trespasser deeply colored my experience, even though the two incidents were not connected. It was a classic case of my past interfering, rather than my past informing me.


“What else could explain this [inexplicable thing]?” It’s a question I’m going to use more often – if only I can remember when it matters!