Ten Steps to a Guaranteed Good Day

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

OBSERVATIONS OF AN OCTOGENARIAN OPTIMIST

The following appeared on my Medium.com site, result of a conversation/sort-of-contest about Life Lessons in Ten Steps. (New & improved versions welcome.)

1 – Start positive. Finding one hopeful thing to focus on can kick-start anybody’s day, especially when there’s not a lot of hopeful going around. Finders keepers. 

2 – Pay attention to Mother Nature. The planet needs help: turn off the water, turn the thermostat down if it’s winter and up if it’s summer, eat local. Meanwhile, fight for policy changes.

3 – Move. As long as you’re up, go for a walk. Running is fine – I did that, neighborhood 5k’s, marathon, the whole endorphin thing, for decades. But walking opens up brand new interactions with humankind and the natural universe. Plus, you can pick up litter (see Step 2.)

4 – Listen to your grandchildren. Or anybody under 30. But ONLY if they’re explaining the viewpoints of their generation, or technology. Do not, under any circumstances, let them try to explain – or worse, invite you to try – Tik Tok. Looking at Tik Tok will lower your anticipated lifespan by at least 5 or 10 years. There are kids out there who may never reach adulthood.

5 – Eat pretty. My mother taught me that a colorful plate equals a healthy meal. You know: something yellow, something green, etc. Plus, your lunch guests will think you’re culinarily clever. Chocolate goes with everything.

6 – Do a good thing. A tiny thing, like smiling at a street person (while looking him or her in the eye!) or a bigger thing like accompanying an immigrant to an asylum hearing. Good things may or may not do much for the recipient, but one or two can make your own whole day.   

7 – Dump a bad thing. I for one carry around a long list of Oughts, such as I-really-ought-to- call-Suzie-whom-I-don’t-actually-know-and-it’ll-open-up-a- whole-can-of-worms-but-she’s-driving-me-nuts . . . But most of those Suzies don’t even remember your name. Every such person or chore wiped off your contact list/calendar permanently improves your wellbeing.

8 – Go for another walk. You cannot go for too many walks. Or go to the gym, or do yoga or tai chi or anything else that requires putting away your cellphone. There is life without cellphone.

9 – Think positive. See Step #1. There’s plenty of darkness in the world but light overcomes it (thanks, MLK.) Or, to sort-of quote another great philosopher, Emily Dickinson, hope perches in the soul and asks nothing in return. 

10 – Be kind. It doesn’t cost anything. In decades of being with people as they die (volunteering with hospice, End of Life Choices CA etc) I’ve never seen a mean person suddenly change and die kindly. I’ve seen a lot of kind people die peacefully. Along the way, the world just needs kindness. It perches in your soul, and reaches into infinity.

Wait! We’re so smart? How about those urbane Greeks & Romans?

The author contemplating a Grecian mountaintop (Prophet Elias Monastery, founded 1711, Santorini)

The sky is falling! Breaking news! Our fragile democracy in peril!!

Life still feels shaky. Even without those constant, frenetic tweets threatening to alter the course of world events in moments, truth competes with fake news. Long-established rights and laws are questioned – or disappear before our eyes. American democracy, firm in its 1787 roots & long cherished, now teeters.

Theater of Dionysus, 6th century BC, restored a few times since then. (Author photo)

Maybe what goes around comes around.

Maybe there’s nothing — or at least not that much — new under the sun.

I recently had the great good fortune to spend some time with family and an archaeologist friend in ancient Italy and Greece: Cefalu, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Athens — proud metropolitan centers of a few centuries back, where the elite and the downtrodden went about their daily lives without any futuristic dream of upstart cities like New York or San Francisco. Confronted with visions of that future they might have been awed, but I suspect they might also have sniffed. Oh, really? You think you’re so clever?

Euripides was wowing audiences in the theater above in 400 BC, and nobody had even heard of Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.

Backyards of Pompeii (Author photo)

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean the good people of Pompeii were enjoying themselves at their own amphitheaters, or entertaining at their own dinners, albeit languidly reclining rather than sitting upright in uncomfortable chairs, which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad idea. Those dining rooms often featured gorgeous artworks, and outside the open windows were beautiful vistas. The ladies of the time were adorned with gold and silver and precious gemstones.

Wine flowed. Not from the storied cellars of Napa and Sonoma where someone’s daughter had just completed a destination wedding, but from the nearby vineyards of people who likely knew their grapes and their land very well thank you.

(Author photo)

Maybe, on less formal evenings, they went out for pizza. Our newfangled microwaves are unquestionably handy, but back in downtown Herculaneum they were baking good things in serious ovens seven days a week. In all probability the bakers and assorted other workers did not enjoy the high life of the rich and famous, but what else is new? They caroused on city squares and sang songs by firesides, and while those outdoor venues may not all have been as grand as Athens’ Acropolis there were amphitheaters aplenty. Improv and/or a little lute music kept everybody happy. Performers performed without microphones or electronics, and presumably they could be heard in the cheap seats of the top rows. Given the fact that contemporary movie theaters set their sound levels at ear-splitting decibel levels, and viruses proliferate in crowds, those outdoor venues seem not without merit.

Commerce? Plenty of that too. In the ancient cities they bargained in the marketplaces, without benefit of the Dow. Many centuries after the glory days of Athens and Pompeii the merchants of Santorini watched from their mountaintops (top photo) as sailing ships came and went, just as forecasters and harbormasters in centuries past had watched, waited and done business. Ships were loaded and unloaded just as they are in New York, Houston and Oakland. On-time deliveries were made.

Mt Etna doing its gentle Mt Etna thing, as seen from downtown Catania, May 2022 (Author photo)

We know all this, of course, partly from preserved writings, and partly because many of those earlier urbanites were settled beneath the shadow of Mt Etna (above,) or its more ferocious volcanic neighbor Mt Vesuvius.

Vesuvius stopped the good folks of Pompeii in their tracks some 22 centuries ago, preserving details of daily life under layers of volcanic ash. Nearby Herculaneum succumbed to a flood of lava. Neither seems a good way to die, but we can be grateful for their gifts to posterity.

This reporter is decidedly too far removed from her high school Latin and college Greek to submit any of the above as the whole truth. But I was blessed with the 21st century company of an archaeologist who teaches Italian middle schoolers — about my level — and a grandson who speaks the languages. The takeaway? #IStillLoveSanFrancisco, but our forebears across the seas would likely have thought #PompeiiTheGreatest. And the night before flying home I was awestruck once again by the beauty of Metropolitan Athens — presided over by the brightly shining Acropolis on its eternal hill.

(Author photo)

Little Boxes of the Past

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

In one of her many memorable essays writer Ann Patchett has a throwaway line, something about “little boxes of the past.” And since any throwaway line of Ann Patchett’s is better than most profoundly thought lines of my own, I have brazenly stolen it for this small essay.

It’s what we do, collect little boxes of the past. Beginning with tin cans (well, those are close enough to little boxes) of treasures buried under an oak tree, continuing throughout diary phases and memo books and leading eventually to metal cabinets and computer files.

Anyone who’s ever downsized knows about those Big Boxes of the past: the books and tools and chinaware handed down from generation to generation, the letters tied up with ribbons, the dolls and games and record collections. Some are easier to pack up and toss away than others; but eventually they’ll all move on.

The StoryWorth Book

Stories, though, are the little boxes of the past we keep. They are the ones that can be pure joy to pack up and store — or send into the future, as either fact or fiction.Fact would be the family story. Nifty ways to pack up little boxes of the past can be found in the popular do-it-yourself online storytelling sites. Despite having been a writer and storyteller all my life, the idea of creating an autobiography or a family history was about as appealing to me as re-taking the SATs. But a few years ago my daughter gave me (with my permission) a membership in “StoryWorth” for Christmas. (StoryWorth is thus the one I know; there are at least a dozen others.) The way it works is: they send a question every week — “What was your father like when you were a child?” “Who were your high school friends?” and such — you send back a response, plus photos if you want, and at the end of a year they make it into a book. After I figured out I could ask my own questions I circulated an email. “This is as close as you’re ever going to come to a family history,” I wrote. “So if there’s anything you want to know, ask it now.” They didn’t send me anything easy. “What was the biggest challenge you faced growing up,” my daughter-in-law wrote; “and how did you face it?” Whew. But I plugged along, sent my answers more or less weekly, along with bunches of old photos, and at the end of a year my family had a nicely done book titled “Fifty Stories.” Not great literature, but little boxes of the past.

Blogs and posts are more little boxes. Collectible? Maybe. Some might best be sealed up and stuck on a back shelf forever; some might be just as valuable as the more formal family story. And sometimes a moldy file can emerge from the mythical back shelf. My recently self-published collection of short stories is such an emergence, the latest adventure from this desk. If anyone wants advice or commentary on self-publishing I’m available. It turns out to be mostly great fun – and stay tuned for the audiobook now in progress. These stories had mostly languished in outdated Word files since a detour into short fiction for an MFA more than two decades back; suddenly – well, it took a year or so, but still seems sudden – here they are, all wrapped up. Not great literature, but a new little book I’m proud of.

Here’s to little boxes of the past, and stories everywhere.

A Whodunit Answer to Today’s Woes

Photo by Charanjeet Dhiman on Unsplash

Sometimes books are the only answer. This reporter, whiplashed by the daily news – as aren’t we all – regularly escapes into a book. Most recently as outlined below:

Mrs. Stone wants her husband found – and Dietrich Shanahan, known to his friends as Deets, is the man she’s picked to find him. An aging, down-on-his-luck P.I., Deets finally takes on the search for the rich and prominent Mr. Stone. With a little help from Casey the dog and no help at all from Einstein the cat – Shanahan’s total, faithful staff – Deets will solve this one to everyone’s ultimate satisfaction.

But not without running into a few corpses, a little intrigue involving good cops v bad cops, excursions into both the high life and the dark underbelly of the city, a kidnapping and more. And, bonus for Shanahan fans, a little romance. Enter Maureen, whom Deets met at the massage parlor and who decides to move in and liven up his life.

Tierney, early 2000s (Author photo)

Ron Tierney’s The Stone Veil introduced Deets to the mystery-loving world in 1990, after it won a PWA/St.Martin’s prize. It would be followed by ten more Deets Shanahan mysteries published between 1990 and 2015, all set in Tierney’s hometown of Indianapolis, and each a delight.

In his relatively short life (he died of a brain tumor at 72, in 2017) writer Ronald Tierney published one other mystery/crime series set in his adopted hometown of San Francisco, and several other novels. But in this one reader’s opinion, the Deets Shanahan series tops them all.

Because my late husband gave Ron Tierney early encouragement and support, every new book immediately appeared at my house (usually after an invitation to dinner) properly inscribed. This reporter, never having been much of a mystery reader, quickly became a Deets Shanahan fan. And having devoured the series 20+ years ago with joy, I recently picked up The Stone Veil and started over. Somewhat like the advantage of dementia being you can hide your own Easter eggs, the advantage of aging is that you can enjoy the same book a second time. 

If you’re a mystery buff – or perhaps open to becoming one – do yourself a favor: I hereby happily introduce you to Deets Shanahan.

Adventures in Mountainside Driving

Photo of the mechanic taken by his mom

A travelogue:

The handsome grandson, a Naval officer stationed in Sicily, is functioning as a tour guide par excellence for his mother and grandmother, happy tourists. We are enjoying the incredibly beautiful Sicilian hills and mountainsides en route from Catania to Cefalu, on an incredibly beautiful Sicilian afternoon.

The roads, it is worth noting, are narrow and winding and tend toward steep inclines. Sicilian drivers, it’s further worth noting, can best be described as Oh, what the hell. Intersections are for the stout-hearted, survival goes to the victor. Solid white lines are simply gauntlets thrown down as a dare. I have no idea how a Sicilian driver lives to be middle-aged.

But the handsome grandson, who learned to drive in Manhattan, hardly notices. He does, his grandmother is happy to see, forgo high speeds and motorized challenges. Sicilian drivers in the hundreds owe their lives to his brake pedal. Ours is a pleasant, casual drive.

We three slowly become aware of an extraneous noise — think snare drum — from somewhere underneath the flooorboards. It is the sort of noise that would be unwelcome on any sort of motorized journey; but it is particularly so in a VW Golf that is, ahem, not exactly new. A clicking sound, slightly metallic.

As if by magic, a turnout appears while we are remarking on the interesting new sound. The Golf swings out of the way of daredevil Sicilian drivers, and stops. The daughter and grandson hop out; the grandmother figures there’s enough trouble without her getting out to supervise.

The handsome grandson’s skills — at least those known to the grandmother — run to linguistics, or journalism, or all things nautical; his undergraduate degree was in Chinese, forheavenssakes. Mechanical engineering has thus far not been his career path. However. The daughter and grandson slowly circle the now-silent Golf, spending a lot of time on their hands and knees peering underneath. The grandmother tries not to eavesdrop; she has great confidence in her progeny — but blood pressure issues. Bits of conversation are, however, overheard.

“Don’t you have any duct tape?” the daughter asks. “Duct tape can fix almost anything.”

“Yeah, I should’ve brought some along,” says her son. “But I think I have something else that could fix it.” Whereupon he rummages around somewhere and emerges with a tool that looks very much like a toenail clipper. He disappears from view. Muffled conversation between mother and son continues, accompanied by small mechanical maneuvers.

All seems to be going well. The grandmother is heartened. The mechanic and his assistant eventually get back in the car, but he is heard to utter the words any passenger fears most:

“I don’t know if it’s going to hold . . .”

It held.

Optimism Survives & Conquers

shallow focus photography of yellow sunflower field under sunny sky

shallow focus photography of yellow sunflower field under sunny sky
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Watching the news, as some of us compulsively do, is hazardous to my optimist health. The virus may be in retreat here, but death and destruction overseas overshadow all.

Still: sunflowers in shop windows, blue and yellow everywhere. Flags, banners, whatever anyone finds. Two women, one in a blue coat, the other in yellow, walk arm in arm just ahead of me. A friend with an overseas relief nonprofit says everyone she knows is putting in 18-hour days — without complaint.

Author photo from across the street

San Francisco City Hall has gotten into the act. From Symphony Hall across the street, I listen to soaring music before walking back into the blue and yellow glow. Optimism survives.

A Love Letter to Allan Karlsson

Bruno Martins on Unsplash

Even if he’s a little older than I am

How do you thank a storybook character?

I need to send a giant hug to Allan Karlsson. You know, the 100-year-old man.

Yeah, that one, the one who climbed out the window and disappeared. (If you haven’t read it, just go pick up a copy of The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared.Skip the movie, read the book.)

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.

Why not?

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.

What I Learned on the Streets

Spruce Street at Sacramento one recent night

Wisdom is afoot. Well, actually, underfoot. Celebrate peace, seek justice. Make love, not war. Be here now. Those are three of my favorite etched-in-the-sidewalk messages so far. They may not cover everything, but it’s a good start.

A confirmed cloud freak, I am constantly staring at the sky. But in between sky-watching episodes I like to study the sidewalks. It may have started the day I noticed, etched into the California Street concrete, this cryptic message: I love you anyway. How many stories could be written around those four words? If the sidewalk and its message had not shown the wear and tear of many feet over many years I might have been frantically knocking on doors for the full story. Why was someone kneeling over wet concrete, carefully carving those four words into eternity? What went on between the two of them?! Or were there others involved here? And is he or she still loved, anyway? Maybe there was a happy ending. One wants to believe.  

Sands of time, circa 1993

Most of us have seen or done the traditional sidewalk declaration – two names encircled within a heart. Or “Jamie 12-14-08,” – whatever child happened to live in the house above at the time of new sidewalk installation. Tiny handprints or footprints immortalizing some now teenager. It happened in front of my new old (1905 Victorian) San Francisco house in 1992 and 1993 as renovations required tearing up and replacing sidewalk squares. For the record, the San Francisco property owner whose pipes are being replaced, or whose tree roots have buckled the concrete bears the cost of the new squares. In 1993 that came to $50 per square. Therefore, when the concrete people told me to stay away from their smooth surfaces I smiled politely and reminded them of how much this job was costing us. And as soon as they drove off we went to work. My two eldest grandchildren, then about two & three years old each contributed a toy (dump truck for the grandson, horse for the granddaughter) to embed beside their footprints. We sold the house in 2013, but the memorial sidewalk squares remain. They are carefully supervised by the current owner, whose three children have now scratched their own names into nearby sidewalk sections.

Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC

Sidewalk etchings combine the historic with the enigmatic: Everything will be OK, for instance, will remain a favorite of mine – as it certainly was on walks throughout the pandemic. Across the country from that one was an all-caps query that took up almost one entire sidewalk square: IS THAT SO? it asks. On that same visit to our nation’s capitol, I paused to do a selfie with Black Lives Matter stretching across the plaza behind me. But it’s my walking-shoes-clad toes that  appear in the majority of the other photos in my Sidewalks album. Including the philosophical: If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way. That one took a lonng time, as anyone who’s ever worked in wet concrete can affirm. Someone also spent a long time on the careful scripting of Love Thy Neighbor plus a few hearts etched onto a downtown city sidewalk where a lot of homeless neighbors currently live.   

A small thing done in a quasi-permanent way

With the advent of colored chalk, sidewalk wisdom took on a bright new life. On one San Francisco block, where the lack of rain guarantees a fairly long sidewalk-shelf life, a collection of drawings and slogans appeared virtually overnight. It had to have been a group effort – a group advocating for reproductive rights, adoption, contraception and peace, in no particular order. But as the peace signs were prominently scattered among symbols for ovaries and women’s rights, this group doesn’t seem to want to go to war over the issue(s.)

Photographing sidewalk wisdom in the sunshine

But San Francisco’s “Slow Streets” campaign brought things to a once unimaginable new level. The campaign closed multiple blocks of streets throughout the city to vehicular traffic (excepting bikes and skateboards and assorted other people-movers.) This opened up miles and miles of pavement to kids of all ages. Presumably the illustrations that quickly covered long stretches of macadam are mostly kid-driven (the skill level seemed roughly third grade; I hope I’m not hurting any community feelings here,) but adult-supervised just in case. Whatever the age, these 21st century street decorations skip all efforts to preach, argue, convert or grumble and go straight to optimism: hearts, smiley faces, love, joy predominate.

Graffiti may rule, but sidewalk art rocks.  

1 2 3 4