Allan, who climbed out the window to escape a sappy birthday party in his Swedish nursing home, is my new BFF. I owe him big time.
I read the book (as have more than five million others around the globe) several years ago, but recently decided to listen to it through my earbuds while walking around San Francisco – something I do most days for three or four miles. So people gave me strange glances, as I burst out laughing in the middle of the crosswalk. It was entirely worth it. My friend Allan lifted me out of the doldrums, obliterated the daily news and generally made life better for weeks.
Hard as it is to choose, here are two favorite messages from my favorite fictional geezer:
Teetotalers (I’m one, thanks to unfortunate conflicts with booze) are generally a threat to world peace. And – this next is a little hard to condense, but until you get hold of the book:
Allan and friends at one point are raking in profits through sales of hundreds of beautifully produced Bibles that they fished out of the trash. Why were they trashed? (Spoiler alert!) Well briefly, the typographer slipped in an extra verse at the end of the book, creating a final sentence (Revelation 22:22) that reads And they lived happily ever after.
I do try very hard not to threaten world peace. But thanks to Allan Karlsson, and his Swedish author/creator Jonas Jonasson, I am laughing more happily ever after.
Some of us need a sturdier village than others. But villages are good. Worth both the cultivation and the acknowledging. I admit to needing a LOT of villages; some cultivated, some spontaneous, most acknowledged, all appreciated.
For instance. On getting home from a recent cross-country trip rather late one evening I did a little unpacking, a little going through the mail, and eventually I played the accumulated messages on my land line phone.
“Hello, Mrs. Johns,” said a pleasant voice. “This is gate agent Sheiako with Alaska Airlines. We have your wallet, that was left on the plane . . .” This is news that’s particularly welcome before one notices the absence of the wallet and enters full panic mode. And it definitely proves the existence of the village: cleaning crew, miscellaneous supervisors and agent Sheiako all together. I’ve no idea when or if I’ll fly Alaska Airlines again, put I’ve paved any future path with letters of sincere gratitude to and about every member of that village I could think of. Villagers usually appreciate knowing they’ve been of help.
A similar village assembled only a short time later to retrieve my Discover card at the local grocery store. One would think some earlier lesson might have been learned, but anyway. What’s interesting here is the fact that when I went to collect (with extreme gratitude again) my credit card from the store manager, she opened a drawer literally crammed with credit cards, miscellaneous cards and at least a half-dozen driver’s licenses. Are all those owners unaware of their villages?
My friend Pam’s husband was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, not long before their 50th wedding anniversary. She offered to make their planned overseas celebration trip happen anyway, but he was apprehensive about being away from his physicians. So instead, Pam joined with her son and daughter-in-law (relatives are primary villagers) to send invitations around the country to a giant anniversary party. Her husband, as it turned out, did not live to make the party. But she found herself not only widowed in an unexpectedly short time but also surrounded by a village. In her case, it is strengthened by her unfailing habit of recognizing every birthday, anniversary &/or significant occasion in the lives of her friends and family with a hand-addressed, snail-mailed card. Some villages are cultivated over the years.
When my own good husband died I was fine with attending him through the very few days it took to complete that journey; but I balked at being nearby when the cremation people came. So from another room I heard the front door close on their departure – and realized, with a sense of utter desolation, that I was the only person in my suddenly silent apartment. Next, I realized I was in a retirement building into which we’d moved a few years earlier so I could see us through this. “So, why am I here?” I asked myself; by now it was 7 AM. Thereupon I went down to the dining room and surfed among the tables saying, “Bud just died; I need a lot of warmth and hugs.” Not what most folks want for a conversation-opener while they’re having their morning coffee, but everyone blinked a few times and then surrounded me with comfort. Some villages come about by design. Or a reluctant move.
But back to the lost-and-found department. My friend Carol is a retired schoolteacher and thereby knows stuff. Such as: put a card with the phone and address of your building into your wallet. (Some villages need advance planning.) Returning from a visit to a nearby town she stopped at a downtown bank to get some cash. And – you guessed it – dropped her wallet into the cushions of the chair in which she was reorganizing things. A few minutes later she was seated in a Lyft car, having quickly made friends with the driver. (All villages function better with friends.) She soon realized she was without money or identification, and her wallet was somewhere in an unfamiliar bank. But she had her cellphone. Not to worry, said the concierge at her building. “The bank has already called, and all you need to do is show up and utter the magic code: Star Star 7.” So the Lyft driver did a wheelie and returned to the bank, she uttered the magic words and was reunited with her wallet. Some villages seem downright weird.
Here’s the thing. It really does take a village to get us through this life.
Well, not totally disappeared yet, although I recognize that could happen any day now. So far, I’ve just been made essentially invisible. It happens. I do understand one should not get one’s feelings hurt by an app, but still. Facebook algorithms, I further understand, are managed by some faceless Facebook Artificial Intelligence machine, and no actual human beings are involved other than the evil cabal sitting in a dark room somewhere setting in motion mysterious controls over the most intimate details of our psyches.
My psyche is in pain.
Ten or fifteen years ago my granddaughter created a Facebook page for me because, she said, it was imperative that I get into the 21st century and besides, this was how I could keep in touch with my grandchildren. They, of course, have now moved on to Instagram and Twitter and who knows what other wondrous technological barriers to personal interaction. But meanwhile I have come to enjoy Mark Zuckerberg’s toy. Long lost, faraway friends have become friendly and familiar, friends and nodding acquaintances from other pieces of my convoluted life have arisen, even some current friends and (older than the grandkids) family members reappear on my merry page. And try as I might to avoid patronizing the maddening ads I’m satisfied that I spend enough on its sponsors to keep Mr. Zuckerberg in the style to which he is accustomed and thus have repaid my free-space debt a few zillion times over.
So now I resent being disappeared by his algorithm crew; it seems an undeserved case of disinFacebookfranchisement.
Here’s what does show up on my feed – after “Fran, we care about you . . . Your memories on Facebook . . .” In order of appearance:
Something posted by a nice young woman whom I did like (in the original sense of the word) when she waited tables in my building six or eight years ago.
Something re-posted by a distant friend of my daughter.
Something else re-posted from a 4-year-old post by someone whose name is vaguely familiar so I must have Facebook friended him sometime in the distant past.
Something posted two days ago by a woman who lives in Borneo and whom I must have Facebook friended at some point because we do have a few things in common even if we’ve never met.
Two more ads. At which point it’s time to give up and quit scrolling.
Here’s what does not appear in my feed: Anything posted by my children or other family members, anything posted by good friends, Facebook ‘Close Friends’, or by others with whom I’ve been happily, frequently interacting over the past 10 or 15 years.
I assume Facebook is sharing my own posts with one or two people who are Facebook Friends but don’t really remember who I am – since part of my disappearance is the total absence of comments or emojis of any sort on the three photos I have bravely posted over the past week. This, of course, is the final blow to one’s fragile ego: Nobody likes my posts!
It is very dark down here in the dungeon of the disappeared.
“If you voted for Biden,” she wrote, “you are still my friend. If you voted for Trump, you are still my friend. We are all friends and neighbors, no matter what.”
Can you argue with that?
The writer is a 20-year-old college student; smart, pretty, popular and well-grounded. Someone who actually believes that business about loving one’s neighbor, and doing unto others as one would like done unto oneself. The problem is, she wrote those lines not on some old-fashioned email or piece of paper; she wrote them on Twitter – which commands a worldview of its own. It was posted months ago – eons, in Twittertime, but nothing in Twitterworld goes away.
Thus the post was discovered recently by an erstwhile friend who decided a lesson needed to be taught: This tweet clearly indicates that the writer is a Trump voter, the friend decided. No sensible non-Trump person could befriend a Trump voter, therefore the writer is a bigot and a racist and no longer welcome in any known friend group. Shunning followed. Friends took sides. Incredible amounts of time were wasted.
Yes I know, it all strains credulity. The re-tweeter is obviously unstable or worse, someone with a distorted self-image and too much idle time. Truth does not figure in, anywhere. But Twitterworld does not seek truth, only agitation and activity – which quickly develop once such stupidity begins.
Here is the question: In a world where Twitter rules, is there any hope for Truth? When words taken out of context can quickly become distorted and accepted as ‘fact,’? When scrolling through a couple of cellphone feeds passes for being informed and ‘friendship’ twists and turns with a tweet?
Maybe, if we ever slow down.
For a while it appeared the pandemic might teach us to slow down; but then came zoom and we zoomed ahead at breakneck speed. What might have been slowed down at in-person events was instead accelerated via digital and social media. But here is the gleam of hope:
What if, on spotting an argumentative tweet, post or whatever, one were to bite one’s digital tongue and NOT hit Reply? Or even better, not hit Retweet/Share/Re-post? What if, instead, we could cultivate the old-fashioned practice of speaking person-to-person? Even on an old-fashioned phone of some sort? What if we could revive the old-fashioned practice of saying, “Tell me what you mean, what you’re thinking.” The old-fashioned custom of cordial dialogue.
That would bring us all the way back to “You are still my friend.” A long, slow journey.
Should be a very good year. Having just turned 88 on the 8th, I am assured by many of my Chinese friends of an especially fine time ahead: Double joy! Prosperity! Wealth and success! Devin, my extraordinary acupuncturist, tells me that when he was racing motorcycles (a few decades ago) his number was 88 – and here he is, still alive and practicing acupuncture. I may not be Chinese, but I’m a believer. So I hereby embrace it all, the whole cloud of blessings.
With a little help from Wikipedia, the TravelChinaGuide people, and even a few highly questionable biblical reference sources – I offer this look at the year ahead for the Eight-blessed. Even if you aren’t turning 88, surely you can find an association that will let you in.
Lucky number 8 people, it is said, have strong intuition and insight, and thus “the potential to explore things undiscovered.” Can’t argue with that. We are supposedly also able to complete our plans step by step; somehow I missed this trait. It conflicts, I believe, with the Gemini inclination to zizz around from one thing to another before completing any plan at all. But I’m into numerology today, rather than astrology, so am decidedly accepting that insight thing.
Number 8’s are reportedly mild and honest to others. “Their characteristics would never lead to arguing with other people or causing them to be depressed. In order to avoid hurting people around them, they always hide their real emotions.” I’m only partially sure about this one, being decidedly mild and honest and inclined to avoid hurting anyone anywhere. But hiding my emotions? They are written on my very forehead.
The number 888 is a triple confirmation of the biblical meaning of the number 8, one of my questionably reliable sources reports, but I’m going with this too. “It is ostensibly the number of a new creation, new beginning, resurrection . . .” If the world ever needed new creations and new beginnings it’s now; and while we’re at it we could resurrect a little kindness and compassion to spread around. And double joy.
Her name was Joyce Almeida. An 18-year-old student, she was killed instantly by one shot through her lung. Joyce had been on the edge of the downtown crowd with her parents, who had fled for cover behind their car and at first failed to notice Joyce’s soundless collapse onto the pavement. One man in uniform, though, was seen at the exact same time, on horseback, galloping away but firing behind him in all directions at the crowd of mostly civilian men, women and children.
A sadly familiar story today. I was stunned to discover it, reported in a familiar script, in a letter written by my mother to my father on November 1, 1923 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
In the midst of digging through files of documents, mostly letters, that remain un-sorted even after countless moves and major downsizes, surprises keep showing up. On the date of this letter my parents were not yet engaged – that would happen the following spring, and they’d marry on November 18, 1924 – so where my father was is a mystery; probably just somewhere else in Porto Alegre. Phone calls were rare; notes and letters were the preferred means of communication. My mother had been in Brazil a little over a year, under the auspices of the Methodist church; her job involved teaching music and folk dance to preschoolers and young children while also teaching English at all age levels. She and her roommate Mary Sue lived in the girls’ dorm of a school that housed students from elementary grades into the equivalent of junior college. I think neither of them were trained to deal with protest mobs.
“I ran a couple of blocks,” my mother wrote, “to catch up with the Red Cross people.” The Red Cross people had come to notify them of a student being wounded, but given the name Joycelina; moments later the two young teacher/chaperones realized it might be Joyce. “She had gone with her family to welcome Setembroio the Minister of War from Rio. The mob lost itself while he was making his speech and firing began. A stray shot struck her in the lung and killed her instantly. All this we learned later at her home.
“Immediately then Mary Sue and I went to take home the few other externs who were here. All we have is a great deal of hearsay centered around a core of fact. It seems now, after things have quieted down, that 50 or more people were wounded, a number fatally, and one rumor says 18 killed.
“Of course the children were all very much frightened. Before going out, Mary Sue talked to them about the need for calm, and of the comparative safety of the college compared to other places. They took it all very well and after dinner settled down quietly to sewing – after calmly taking a collection to send flowers to Joyce. Only Mary Sue and I went to the Almeidas. It is very sad. Mr. Almeida looks so crushed. Igaleilita’s dress was still spotted with blood from the wound.
“Yet with all this the people continue to move to and fro on the street just as they have been moving to the cemetery all day. The federal soldiers have taken charge, and they have asked for an Estado de Sitio permission from Rio. Things are apparently quiet now – 10 PM. The school children went to bed calmly. Mary Sue and I are really more nervous than they – after the stress of going to the Almeida house and then carrying the news to many of the school mates. I folded up all the costumes of the ‘May Festa,’ to have come off on Tuesday, and laid them away.”
My mother – a ferocious seamstress who could whip up a dress or costume in minutes – had started “May Festa,” a May Day celebration that continues to this day. It involved all-day singing and dancing and unfortunately had been scheduled for a few days after the shooting. “Joyce was to have a new white net dress for the festa,” my mother wrote – “and it was her shroud.”
The discovery of this century-old letter is fascinating on more levels than I can count: some things change; some never do. But it’s tempting to reflect on the similarity of mob violence whatever the century, and the difference of news reporting in the days before TV (or effective radio, for that matter.) Possibly the biggest difference? News transmission via pen-and-ink paints pictures of a singular sort. My mother’s letter concludes:
“Strange – Mary Sue and I sat taking coffee instead of dinner, and discussed the use of the basement of the other building in case of necessity – of barricading the spaces between the pillars at the back – you don’t think about being afraid when you are actually in it. Most absurd of all, I loaded the revolver – in case we should have trouble on account of absence of police.” I am satisfied that my mother never fired a gun in her life.
No amount of internet searching can confirm the details, so please don’t consider the above to be historical fact. Some things I don’t know – the correct name of the Minister of War, what the riot was about, how the students and families coped. But some things I do. My parents exchanged letters every day they were apart (a LOT of days) throughout their long and happy marriage – 1924 until my mother’s death in 1970 – and this story fits with their lives in Brazil and the low-key but thorough communications they exchanged. I am struggling over what to sort and what to keep, but I believe this story contains truths worth keeping.
Brazil’s history is not unlike our own – various European countries conquered and abused the indigenous people for centuries (beginning in the 16th.) The young Republic was established in 1889 and its democracy is still fragile. We’ve had better luck holding off dictators and autocrats than have the citizens of Brazil, but recent years have shown us all – north and south of the equator – how easy it is to distort or snuff out the Voice of the People.
Let’s hear it for the Voice of the People. Surely there’s still time to set things right in THIS century.
One more strange thing during the dark days of Pandemia was my sense, much of the time outdoors, that I may have been the only person in San Francisco without a dog. Crossing the dog play area while doing my par course thing at Mountain Lake Park, skirting the similar space in Lafayette Park, or walking along any of San Francisco Bay’s limitless varieties of woods and beaches – I have felt acutely dog-less. Despite having had and loved a long list of family canines; I am currently without. And in recent times that has seemed particularly unseemly.
“You want to know how to stay busy in a pandemic?” my daughter Sandy said to me, early on; “get a puppy.” Scooter had joined her household as lockdowns were just beginning. Although theirs is a multi-dog household that leans toward rescues, Scooter was chosen because he was a purebred Catahoula Leopard Hound, and in a sense a replacement for Blue. Actually, no creature could replace Blue, who had been at my son-in-law’s side for 17 years before succumbing to cancer and the vicissitudes of very old dog age. In one of his countless obituary remembrances someone wrote, “Blue taught all the dogs at the lake how to be dogs.” But eventually Scooter, a multicolored Catahoula with one brown eye and one blue, was chosen to join the family.
While I was a continent away from the growing Scooter, I followed his progress throughout the pandemic on Facebook and on countless videos as he learned (more or less) where to dig or not dig, what to chew or not chew, all those niceties of canine upbringing that are far easier to watch online than to teach onsite. But they kept me entertained and Scooter’s family busy.
Two other dogs close to my heart were central to pandemic survival for their human moms and, by extension, me. Unlike young Scooter, Ringo and Delilah are both certified old dogs. I am partial to old dogs. This is partly thanks to my excellent late husband Bud’s book Old Dogs Remembered, but also because, well, we understand each others’ aches and pains and geezerly stuff.
Ringo, 14, whose official name is Ringo Dingo Django Durango, or RD3, was not partial to me in his youth. He customarily started barking about the time my car entered the driveway, and didn’t stop until he had sniffed and grumbled for at least five minutes. But we soon became cordial acquaintances, and by his middle-age and my confirmed geezerhood we were fast friends. One of Ringo’s primary daily occupations is patrolling the exquisite rose garden spilling down the hillside from his home. The back-breaking daily work involved in keeping the roses, fruit trees and other flowers flourishing perhaps doesn’t require Ringo’s attendance. But I’m satisfied that his company helped get my friend Margaret (the Ringo-namer and chief gardener) through the pandemic and constantly able to post beautiful photos of blooms to get me through.
But briefly back to Scooter. Sadly, Scooter went way too far in providing diversion from the pandemic. Several months ago, just before his family was heading back to the east coast from a winter vacation, Scooter went missing in the Wyoming forests near Jackson. No amount of searching, calling, whistling or pleading to the canine gods could get him to appear. So the family went mournfully home, finally accepting, at the end of the four-day drive (drives with large dogs take time) that he was likely dead of hypothermia in the sub-zero snows. Hypothermia, we all agreed, would not be that terrible because you fall asleep before you die. (Please don’t try to clear that up with scientific fact; it’s a comforting thought.) But the next day came a report of a Scooter sighting.
Thus began the most exhaustive search and rescue operation in this reporter’s long history of tracking operations of every sort. After flying back to stay with generous friends, Sandy took to getting up at 5 AM in order to ski out and fry bacon on camp stoves in areas where a sighting was thought to have occurred – the smell of frying bacon being something most of us, including dogs, as it happens – find worth following. No luck. She left articles of family clothing inside comfy kennels in the snow. Game cameras positioned near foodstuffs got some excellent photos of foxes – but no Scooter. Flyers were posted. Rewards offered. Drones flew around the forests to no avail. Even with the remarkable assistance of a Boise-based nonprofit called Ladies and the Trap, whose fit and determined volunteers devote themselves to finding lost pets and reuniting them with their humans – no luck.
In the end – or perhaps it’s still the late-beginning, or the middle – no one knows Scooter’s whereabouts but Scooter himself. Unless he has a secret admirer and protector. His family has settled into a three-possibility resolution: He did indeed die, quickly and relatively painlessly, of hypothermia in the Wyoming snow country. Or. Someone took him in and began to love and care for him; someone unaware of (or uninterested in) the microchip beneath his skin or the rewards posted for his return. Or. He will, one day, mysteriously reappear. Stranger things have happened, say the Ladies who Trap – and others.
And meanwhile, all along there has been Delilah the Wise. Delilah lives in Southern California with her family, which fortuitously includes my cousin Jan (we have Virginia roots; cousins extend in Virginia to the 7th in-law generation at least.) Jan, a comedian, keynote speaker, comedy writer, and author, was available – thanks to the virus cancelling every gig she had lined up – to help Delilah find her voice.
So. “Good morning, everyone! Delilah here,” said Delilah, brightly, on a regular basis, via Facebook and thanks to the miracle of modern video-manipulation. “I hope you’re enjoying the day.” (Or words to that effect.) Delilah was consistently anxious to get us all through the darkest days. Early on (3/26/20 to be precise,) this was one of her suggestions:
“Today we’re going to play a new game! It’s called Guess What’s in That Zip-Lock Bag in the Freezer! All you do is dig wayyyy back into the back of the freezer and pull out all of the zip-lock bags. So far, Jan has found one full of orange stuff, and another with, umm, chicken bones? Just eat whatever is in it! Enjoy your dinner and relax. Let me know how it goes.”
Thus did Delilah get us through week after tedious week. Sometimes it would seem even too much for Delilah herself – at which point she would scramble to the end of the sofa and commence digging a hole all the way to China. At last report, she had not yet made it through, but if a virus variant returns she may get there. Delilah, who her family says is perhaps a “pugzu” – some sort of pug/shih tzu mix rescued years ago from the Burbank Shelter, is somewhere around “12-ish” in dog years. With age clearly comes wisdom.
So with apologies to playwright John Patrick, to whom the original version is first attributed:
The pain of the pandemic surely made us think; what else was there to do? Thought makes us wise. And wisdom – especially the wisdom of old dogs – makes life bearable.
On moving from a four-story, century-old Edwardian into a 1600-sq-ft condo eight years ago I wrote a lengthy feature for the local newspaper (The New Fillmore, May 13, 2013) titled “Lessons Learned from Downsizing.” It drew editorial applause and a bunch of affirmative comments. But it seems not to have sunk in all that well.
I am back in the downsizing business. This time around it is partly a matter of trying to get organized, but despite the donating/tossing/selling/shredding activities of 2013 I am once again (or still) overwhelmed with Stuff. You don’t have to be a Marie Kondo drop-out to know how quickly Stuff can overwhelm. (I applaud every KonMari success story out there, but frankly never got past Step One.)
Here is the Big Truth: downsizing is good for the soul. Whether it’s moving from a 4-story Edwardian into a 3-room condo or reducing a tall pile of photo albums into one small box, there is a lightness akin to joy in the afterglow.
Looking back on it, there was some pretty good advice in my 2013 article. But as it ran to something over 5,000 words I’ll spare you the whole thing. (Digital copy on request.) I itemized its wisdom in eight lessons learned, which included: Treasures are your enemy; and The Fast-Disposal Plan: put it on the sidewalk with a large sign taped to it reading FREE. Also, even eight years ago much of what is cluttering up the planet (and our lives) could be digitized and made to disappear.
Downsizing is probably good for the soul at any age. What’s your teenager going to do with that wall of blue ribbons from hockey games or dressage events? Maybe one Little League trophy could be representative of the other 57 after the other 57 go to the Goodwill? Or wherever the trophies of our youth go to die. And that, of course is the other half of the Big Truth: wherever our souls go when we leave planet earth, our Stuff remains.
Award-winning (multiple major awards at that) author Ann Patchett confirmed my theory of the Big Truth – this writer uses any crafty means of mentioning herself and Ann Patchett in the same sentence – in a recent, reflective article in The New Yorker. Letting go of an old manual typewriter was particularly problematic for Patchett, as it was for me. She had several more of these treasures than I, and solved the problem by keeping two that had maximum meaning and giving another to a delighted eight-year-old. I solved mine by giving Pearl the Pert Pink Portable to my daughter, in whose family room it is respectfully, somewhat regally, displayed. Although Pearl will live forever in my heart for getting me through college and launched into my literary career, she is undoubtedly happier on display in a room of constant socialization than on my dark closet shelf. (Patchett noted the tendency to anthropomorphize our treasures.)
Back to the issue of departing souls and remaining Stuff. “I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death,” Patchett writes. “They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated.”
Disposing of the shiny trinkets, along with the ancient documents and the favorite jeans from the 1980s and the shelf of folded paper bags – there’s an unwritten law about getting rid of paper bags that came bearing bottles of wine or small gifts? – and even beloved manual typewriters is a liberating act. If the disposer has begun to realize that he or she may, in fact, die some day, it is liberating to the extreme. With every drawer-cleaning comes lightness.
I may die? Worse things have happened. At least no one will have to curse my ghost while clearing out this junky drawer.
When my beloved mother-in-law died I remember flying to Detroit with a sense of dread about dealing with her house and the trappings of 93 years. My husband was her sole survivor. But nobody had had to tell Isabel Johns to downsize. We would find in a drawer one carefully folded, tissue-wrapped sweater. In a closet, perhaps several dresses and two pairs of shoes. In the pantry, the barest minimum of canned goods and a broom clipped to the door. There were no mysterious piles of documents and receipts, no dusty boxes of unidentified photos, no collections of sermons written by her Methodist preacher husband of fifty-plus years – worthy though a few of the hundreds might have been. In lieu of Stuff, Isabel left only the enduring memories of a life well lived. And a lightness in the afterglow.