The sign on the door at a neighborhood pub I visited last week gave me pause: “Als,” it said.

Was that the place for me? I wasn’t sure until I checked out its companion, “Gals.”

Yep, I was — for that moment anyway — an “Al.” In recent times, I have also been a “Guy,” not a “Doll,” and a “Cowboy,” not a “Cowgirl.” Most often  (and I appreciate the simplicity) I go into a room marked “Men,” not “Women.” Sometimes, I’m just a stick figure, one that doesn’t wear a skirt.

But, during my most recent trip to Scotland, I registered the reality that, on every occasion when I needed to visit a restroom, I was for a moment or two one of the “Gentlemen,” not the “Ladies.”

Maybe the places I frequent here at home are on the scuzzier side of society, but I have rarely found myself invited to be one of the “Gentlemen” in recent years. We don’t have “Gentlemen” any more, at least in the circles I seem to run in.

Rest assured. This is not a tale about toilets, and I don’t care at all what they are called.

I also don’t aspire, and never did, to be a “gentleman” in the sense that I used to hear the term. Definitely, not an Old South “Southern Gentleman,” a certain affected stereotype that used to be frequently mentioned in this region’s culture. I feel little or no affection for anything about the Old South, nor for the traditional uses of the word “gentlemen” or its equivalents in the British and European worlds. Historically, the term has implied a prestigious family lineage and has been linked to nobility, income and property.

But seeing the term on restroom doors did remind me of a concept that I once aspired to and still aspire to, despite some significant personal lapses along the way.

The best male role models I had in my life were not at all “gentlemen,” but they were “gentle men.” The simplest definition of gentle that I’ve just come across in a quick survey is “mild in temperament or behavior, kind or tender.”

We don’t seem to be living in particularly gentle times. But gentle is not a dirty word, just as “empathy,” which triggered so much political argument during the recent confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice, is not.

Aspiring to be gentle or kind is one thing, of course, and being it is another. I have not been the “gentle man” I would like to be in my relationships with family, friends, co-workers or others on numerous occasions over the years. In the vast majority of those cases, I regret my failures.

Not only am I pretty sure I’m not perfect, but I also know that life can be rough and tumble. Even if we wish to be gentle, sometimes that approach just doesn’t work. At times, we are simply angry and anger is a legitimate emotion, one that those around us might need to know we feel. Sometimes we have no choice. Not everyone respects gentleness. We have to stand up for what we believe in. We have to fight for others or ourselves.

Being a milquetoast is not a good alternative. (Imagine that word on a restroom door.) Being passive, when an active response is called for is not an admirable quality.

Still, recognizing that gentleness is one of our best tendencies is a value to be encouraged.

Many years ago, I heard a group of folksingers, then billed as Eric Nagler, Martha Beers and the Beers Family, perform.

They sang a tune called “The Gentleness in Living.” I’ve never forgotten the electric moment of that performance. I bought a vinyl album by the same name and listened to it many times, but I confess I have lost it along the way. Remember, I said life can be rough and tumble.

A couple of weeks ago, I tracked down Eric Nagler to ask if he could send me the lyrics or tell me where I could find a copy of the record.

At the time I heard him, he was married to Martha Beers. Not long after that show, they moved to Canada because he was refusing to fight in a Vietnam war he did not believe in. They are no longer together and their lives have taken turns of their own since then.

But, as I told Mr. Nagler in an e-mail, their performance sticks with me.

He did not respond for several days, but, when he did, he apologized for the delay. He said he was “a bit disappointed with myself for losing touch with the song.” He could not find a copy of the lyrics and could no longer remember them. He probably had a copy of the recording somewhere, but he could not easily find it and, even if he succeeded, he no longer has a record player.

I could understand, having similarly misplaced many items of value.

But he added this: “All I remember is the line,

“It’s the gentleness in living that makes it all worthwhile

“It’s the tenderness in giving that keeps us from going wild.”

If we’re lucky enough to have a chance to reflect on our lives as we near the end, I suspect the kinds of moments Mr. Nagler refers to are the ones each of us will treasure most. Maybe, those are all the lyrics we need to recall.

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Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/