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.
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.
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.
I am a hopelessly public social being. The annoying kind who says Hi there! and Good Morning! to every passerby on the sidewalk or the park trail. Who stops perfect strangers pushing strollers to comment on cute toddlers in puffy snowsuits. At random moments I’ve been known to walk up to frazzled moms in grocery stores whose small boys are demolishing the place and say, “One day he’ll be 26 and he’ll send you flowers for no reason at all, and you’ll know it was all worth it.”
So now, along with all the rest of you, I am silenced. Who can toss out a muffled Hi there! before the passerby has long passed? Masked strangers in their faces have to be pretty scary for toddlers in strollers. Increasingly isolated from friends and family by the coronavirus itself, we’re getting more isolated from our fellow masked humans by the day.
In the interest of brotherhood and sisterhood, I offer the following solutions:
The raised eyebrow hand salute. Starting about a yard or so from the passerby, raise both eyebrows simultaneously with the hand nearest the passerby, palm out. Works every time. Nobody even opens his or her mouth (risking the escape of those scary droplets) but you’ve acknowledged your fellow human, and your eyes have done the Hi there thing.
The eye-laugh. Trust me on this. The eye-laugh says Hi there, friend! If you actually (silently) laugh behind your mask, your eyes get friendly. Passing humans see a friendly passing human, which encourages us all to believe there is still humanity and friendliness in the world.
The open-eyed head tilt. If you don’t feel like laughing, you can try opening your eyes wide and tilting your head toward the passerby. This is the most abbreviated of Hi there!s. But interestingly enough, it often evokes an eye-laugh from a passing stranger.
Thanks to the ubiquity of Zoom gatherings, our colleagues and pods – friends & family & such as qualify for frequent contact – still recognize the bottom halves of our faces. The rest of humankind, though, are consigned to eye contact alone for now. When we’ll all be able to wander around unmasked again is an open question that only the very brave or very foolish are likely to try answering.
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex summed it up nicely in an op ed published recently by the New York Times: “We are adjusting to a new normal where faces are concealed by masks, but it’s forcing us to look into one another’s eyes – sometimes filled with warmth, other times with tears. For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another.
I brought this on myself. Not by committing a crime, I hasten to point out, but by leaving the building, which is forbidden. Two months behind on a medical appointment, and confronted with signs of problems ahead, I broke out. And the policy of the geezer house where I live was thus: leave the building, return to 7-day isolation. Solitary confinement.
There are limitless varieties of isolation these days: young singles working 12-hour days from within tiny apartments; frail elderly trapped in inaccessible homes; wheelchair-bound and disabled – we’re all in this together, but alone. My own isolation is embarrassingly fine by comparison: three meals a day delivered to the door, a sunny balcony with lovely views, plenty of music with which to interrupt the nonstop news on TV. But total isolation, for the vast majority of us hopelessly social creatures, is tortuous.
This is a commentary on solitary confinement. There is a reason why solitary confinement is employed as an ultimate punishment, and I think I have a tiny glimmer of insight into what that’s about. More relevant to the outside world, and to these days: all those mentioned above are facing today’s viral version of solitary confinement. It’s not intentionally punitive – though it so feels punitive – but this corner of Covid19-Land is a world unto itself. What follows is a report from inside Solitary.
Day One: On first closing the door behind me, there is a shock of desolation. I grab a glass of water out of the refrigerator, sit down at the computer and find myself in tears. I cannot imagine what it must be like to hear the cell door bang shut, but I have a sense of what isolated others felt on first hearing that Stay Home order. When talking on the phone later with a working-at-home friend she uses the term “unmoored,” which feels particularly appropriate. We highly social creatures are moored to each other just as are boats tied to docks; cut loose, we tend to drift, and the seas feel turbulent and full of danger.
Day Two: For someone who has seldom been bored, I feel myself fearing boredom. I consider calling my friend on the second floor, a noted poet and retired professor now totally blind, but there’s no way to phrase a question about boredom to her without seeming cruel. And as to my unmoored working-from-home friend, a union organizer/justice warrior – her workdays can run well past 12 hours; I think she’d welcome a little boredom. Still, it looms.
Day Three: Zoom and FaceTime have their benefits, but in some ways only heighten the yearning for real-time human interaction. Isolation leads to lethargy, which manifests as physical. With absolutely nothing wrong, I still feel unable to eat. I fix a bowl of plain rice; comfort food is comfort food. I wonder if any condemned prisoner has ever specified plain rice for a final meal? Also: why should anyone start wondering, ten minutes after a nap, when it will be bedtime again? Thankfully, the Rachel Maddow rerun – if I skip the 6 PM (PST) broadcast in favor of PBS NewsHour – sails unmoored boats, now reminded of real problems in the real world, straight into 10 PM.
Day Four: The interesting thing about lethargy and unmoored-ness is that they are interspersed with moments of anxiety. It’s an unspecified anxiety, but then, that may be how anxieties work. As I am one whose moments of anxiety usually happen about once a decade, I can’t say. All I know is that solitary confinement comes with anxieties. In addition to having generally been anxiety-free most of my life, I have also always loved periods of solitude. The difference between chosen solitude and enforced solitude is equal to the difference between night and day. Chosen solitude = peace, beauty, tranquility. Enforced solitude = anxiety.
Day Five: I feel myself having tipped over into something that would probably just give any self-respecting psychotherapist the creeps. Or the shakes. In five days, I have morphed from sane person to blob. I have, however, been firing off a lot of pathetic emails to the Resident Care Director and the Executive Director, they who are in charge of my case. They show up, together, at my apartment. They tell me they (presumably with the approval of the Virginia corporation which owns this plus several hundred other geezer houses) have re-thought this policy. If someone goes from Point A (here) to Point B (doctor’s office) using maximum caution (latex gloves, outside shoes to change, mask, hand-washing at either end, clothes washing on return) one need not be isolated. I resist pointing out how nice it would’ve been to have reconsidered that policy five days ago, because I am way too happy. And besides, I’m in a hurry to go down to the exercise room.
I think it is not irreverent to hear Martin Luther King Jr’s voice booming in my ear, “Great god a-mighty, free at last.”
This essay appeared first on Medium.com, a good site for which I’ve been writing for several months. You might want to check it out.
“Six die, 53 ill at nursing home,” reads the San Francisco Chronicle headline. It follows a similar, recent headline, “Coronavirus: 27 test positive at Orinda nursing home,” and seemingly endless others: “New cases in Alameda County facility,” “Another death at Gateway Manor”. . . These are the sorts of headlines that the management of my particular senior housing community most fears, and that strike a little dread in the aging hearts of my neighbors and myself. I live in a 12-story assisted living building near downtown San Francisco. It includes some 90 apartments housing singles and a few couples with a median age of, say, 87. That is a random number, chosen only because it puts me in the younger half. I generally refer to our place as the Geezer House, but the marketing materials use slightly more refined wordage. Those materials do not lie: this is not the ritziest senior living place in town, but it would fall in the “upscale” category.
There are hundreds of senior living facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, ranging from minimum-care to rehab to lifecare to nursing home; all of us are, to one degree or another, the scariest target populations for COVID-19’s quiver of poison arrows. At the center are the nursing homes, source of the horror stories that seem to increase daily; my community is somewhere around the second ring out from the bullseye. Though we are somewhat less vulnerable than nursing homes, if one COVID-19 virus particle managed to sneak into our building it would be Katie-bar-the-door. We’ve had practice runs, with flu or norovirus, but those moved in slowly, two or three new cases per day until the mini-epidemic retreated. With COVID-19 we’re staring down a mystery virus that, in neighboring senior facilities at least, seems to move in and take over in a blinding flash.
Extreme measures are underway to prevent that from happening in my building. Think San Quentin, but with better food. We began with Mayor London Breed’s shelter-in-place decree on March 16; this being San Francisco, Mayor Breed got a three-day jump on Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 19 statewide order. Life in geezer houses took a sharp turn toward confinement at that point. I encountered the new reality head-on when innocently heading out to drop some mail in the box across the street. “If you step out that door,” my friend the concierge remarked, “you must first sign this document.” He handed me a paper declaring that I “understand that by departing (the facility) I am violating Public Health Order No. C19-09, enforced by the San Francisco Police Department” and that I “may be excluded from (the facility) and not re-admitted.” I thought better of mailing my letters.
There is a stillness here. Sometimes it’s eerily pleasant, the silence broken by birdsong in nearby trees. But often it is ominous. Having worked as a hospice volunteer and with other end-of-life organizations, I know the sudden stillness that is death, and others here have experienced it when losing a loved one. So here we are, in a place where most of us have come planning to stay until we die – and we’d just prefer not to be thinking about it in the middle of a pandemic. Listening to the stillness, watching the quiet streets no longer bustling with cars and people – manages to equate with death and become just a tiny bit stressful.
Life in confinement turns out to be something for which many of us were remarkably ill prepared, and there’s little comfort in knowing we share that woeful lack with millions of fellow citizens and certainly the Trump administration. Comfort is in short supply under social distance guidelines. Most of us here were children during World War II, memories of which have a certain nostalgia: there was shared sacrifice then too, but it felt noble rather than resentful. And there were Mr. Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
I don’t remember the first of these, which was given a few months before I was born, but I well remember some of the last, during the war, when we’d gather around the big Philco radio to hear that deep, cultured voice. Grammatically perfect, unfailingly calm and reassuring. It’s hard not to yearn for such a voice when listening to our current president’s egotistical bombast and vulgar, vicious divisiveness. I think the memories of very different times accentuate the vague feeling among residents of senior living facilities that we are imprisoned against our will.
On the upside for my fellow inmates here and me, our fortress is pretty posh. Three good meals delivered daily in compostable containers, creature comforts like views of the San Bruno mountains to the south, or the San Francisco sunsets from our west windows. On the downside, it is possible to spend days at a time without seeing another human being, other than the masked person who shows up every day to take your temperature. For those of us still mobile there are decidedly other upsides: a small exercise room with treadmill, weights etc, and an outdoor terrace on the second floor (barred gate at the bottom of its stairs.) Walking from one end of the terrace to the other requires 180 steps. The exercise room being too small to accommodate more than one socially-distanced person, I get my best exercise walking from the 7th floor to the 3rd to see if anyone is on the treadmill. Eight or ten of us are also known to go walking at the same time, appropriately distanced, and thereafter to hang out for also distanced but at least human-to-human, conversation – though it does include frequent remarks in the “Did you see who that gurney came for?” category. Some of us are more obsessive than others about checking the case/death numbers posted every morning at 9 by the San Francisco Department of Public Health; everyone talks less and less about when the country may “open up.” Or about politics at all, for that matter. Political discussions pretty much begin and end with “What about Trump saying . . .” This place is not a bastion of conservatism.
What’s not heard a lot? Complaints. If we chafe at confinement, we’re grateful to wake up without a fever. Most of us have friends or family in New York, Atlanta, New Orleans or Seattle and we worry about them far more than they need worry about us. All of us have friends or family who are doctors, nurses, first responders and others on the front lines. Somehow, gratitude seems to edge out the fear in our geezerly hearts.
This essay also appears on Medium.com, a fine site committed to the exchange of ideas, knowledge and perspectives, on which I’ll be posting in the future. But I’ll still be holding forth right here on franjohns.net. So stick around!
I don’t know about your neighborhood, but Covid-19 is making life interesting here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Difficult for many, devastating for some, and interesting for the rest of us. As of this writing (I recommend the CDC site for accurate data on other areas, other updates) we have sped past the first hundred confirmed cases in the state, and who knows how many of the 10,000+ Californians in self-quarantine are also my Bay Area neighbors.
This little virus brings with it a large bunch of life lessons. Some of them are shared here, as a public service.
First off (I hate to bring politics ever into this space, but what can you do?) if you ever believed anything said by our commander in chief, this is a good time to mend your ways. Covid-19 is not a Democrat hoax, it is not going to disappear in a short time, you really shouldn’t go to work if you’re sick, a vaccine is at best many months away, and good luck finding those test kits that anybody who wants can get. This is only a life lesson in the sense that, in today’s crazy information-overload reality, Truth is hard to find. So, Life Lesson #1: Seek Truth. Read several newspapers if you still read news. Otherwise, visit the CDC site and scroll through more than one mainstream news source, please; do not believe Facebook will give you Truth. Watch PBS and occasionally Fox News; if one disseminates truth, the other reinforces your neighbor’s version of truth – and we’re all in this together.
Other life lessons are happier, and equally easy to learn. For instance, at my church we very quickly learned to replace hugs and handshakes with fist bumps and peace signs. Not as much fun, but whatever. The ushers are equipped with bulletins and hand-sanitizer. Choir members last Sunday spaced themselves three feet apart, which looked rather elegant – but they sounded the same, i.e. gorgeous. We also learned translations of the word Covid into Hebrew and Yiddish, which I have already forgotten, and which doesn’t matter anyway since the name was chosen by the World Health Organization thusly: Co and Vi come from coronavirus, D stands for disease and 19 (as in 2019) = the year the first cases were seen. To connect all this: I belong to a Presbyterian church that is heavy into hugs, scientific truth and interfaith understanding.
As to flexibility, this viral pandemic is teaching us, wisely, not to be so rigid about stuff. I was dismayed when the San Francisco Symphony cancelled a concert on my regular series that I really wanted to hear; and the political roundtable at the Commonwealth Club, a favorite regular program at which I always volunteer, similarly disappeared. But symphony season will resume in good time, and do we really need to talk politics late into the evening when it invariably produces nightmares? Sleep is better. That long-planned trip to Tucson in a couple of weeks? Probably not the wisest thing for my octogenarian cardiovascular system. Purpose of trip, however, was to join my daughter for a visit with a childhood friend of hers (whose mother, lost to cancer decades ago, was a good friend of mine) – and they can definitely have a ball without me.
So take deep breaths and wash your hands. We and the planet will survive in good time.
I have taken to waking up at three or four AM in a state of (pick one) sadness, anxiety, unidentifiable angst or worry over the future of the planet. It’s not something I recommend, and hopefully it will not become a permanent habit. But I do note that I wrote about it on May 22, 2016. Had totally forgotten that profound essay, which may say something about its profunditiy. This one, however, is about solutions! The earlier one did in fact have a bunch of potential solutions, because it was inspired, at least in part, by a wonderful New Yorker piece that the inimitable Patricia Marx wrote about the limitless assortments of insomnia aids currently on the market. What follows are the things that get me back to sleep – – – eventually.
Watching the night skies. This has to be #1. Works best for me, thanks to the happy circumstance of having a large window that looks westward over San Francisco 7 floors below. I often get reflections of the city lights onto the clouds (or fog) above; occasionally I get a setting moon. Staring heavenward does not require turning on the lights or getting out of bed – unless the sight is so remarkable I feel the need to capture it with my iPhone camera. The conviction that something more competent than the planet’s current inhabitants is in charge enables me to talk myself down from whatever woe has me in its grip.
If I do the turn-on-the-light-&-make-a cup-of-tea thing, there are the wonders of modern technology for #2. My smart phone spends the night in another room (something I find necessary to my sanity) so accessing it requires a measure of wakefulness (see above.) But then there it is with its handy little Calm app. Or better still, I will pick it up to find my friend Liz has just sent a video of tall trees in a Georgia forest sending their fall leaves off into a symphony of gentleness. If that doesn’t lull me back to sleep, there’s an entirely other solution now that the accursed device has injected itself into my insomnia. Ninety percent of the non-existential things about which I am stewing have simple answers that Safari can provide: Yes, that book I need is available at my Western Addition Library branch! Here are the directions to a repair shop! An email just arrived from the editor I thought didn’t like my story! (What’s he doing up at 4 AM? Not my problem.) Spirits calmed or problems solved, I can then manage to go back to sleep.
And now that the light is on, the book is there. I am pretty careful not to keep Bram Stoker or Franz Kafka on the bedside table, or any of those excellent books about apartheid or the Holocaust, however fine they might be for daytime reading. But I’ll have A.S. Byatt, or Laurie Colwin, or Edith Wharton – any of those lovely friends who can pull you so deeply into a story that they will displace the cause of the insomnia. Of course, you might not want to put the book down, but that’s another problem altogether.
Insomnia is not an easy foe. It may indeed require calling in the troops Marx uncovered – eye masks, stretchy hats, blue lights, Valium, whatever. But before you go to all that trouble and expense I hereby recommend the good book, the internet solution or the celestial assurance that the universe is in good hands – if you’ll just go back to sleep and quit worrying about it.