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.  

How to Build a Village: You May Need it One of These Days

three person riding bikes on green grass field
Dikaseva on Unsplash

Does it really take a village? Probably.

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.

person's hand over brown floral field during daytime
Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

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.

The good news is that villages are everywhere.  

The Luxury of Hope

sun rays coming through trees
Wonderlane on Unsplash

“We don’t have time for the luxury of despair,” said a recent political pundit. Because this space tries to avoid politics the source will remain anonymous. But the pundit had a point. 

Despair is easy to come by these days. Even if you’re not just a teeny bit worried about the future of democracy, or the loss of civility in today’s world, or fill in the blank: (homelessness) (pollution) (nuclear weapons) (immigration) (gas prices) (prejudice) (create your own fill-in) – despair hunkers down behind every one of them. And if none of those get to you, roam around California for a while and consider the thought of one errant spark sending the state up in flames. Planetary extinction can sometimes out-despair everything else you can come up with.

The anti-despair forces point out that it is a crippling state of being, that nothing changes if we the despairing are pulling the covers over our heads, as we are some days inclined to do. Luxuriating in despair is the coward’s excuse for inaction, they say, a surrender to the bad guys. OK, we say from underneath the pillow, go tell that to (fill in the blank.)

As it turns out, though, there is an anti-despair mechanism lurking within most of us. It’s called hope. I got that word straight from Rev. Marci Auld Glass. After writing the above first two paragraphs on a Saturday night, my friend Marci threw out an unsolicited follow up on Sunday morning. “We’re wondering if we can hope,” she said (from the pulpit, for goodness’ sake) “because we are exhausted by despair. But we are not in the despair business, we are in the hope business.” The message here was obviously for me to go home and finish this essay.

 On Monday afternoon, a sentence or two farther along, the mail arrived. It bore this word from my friend Ally McKinney of Justice Revival. “The political violence of January 6th surprised me,” it began, “but it did not steal my hope.” Imagine. Among other things, Justice Revival is working to get the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution formally adopted. You thought the Equal Rights Amendment was a done deal? Actually, no. It’s been ratified by the required 38 states, but women (to cite one category of humankind) still have no constitutionally guaranteed equality here. Anyone working to finish a bill proposed to Congress in 1923, reworded in 1943 and first sent to the states for ratification in 1972 – who is still hopeful – that says a lot for hope.

Despair gets lonely; groups offer hope. Here’s where I find hope, in addition to the above: Climate One. Greenbelt Alliance. Trust for Public Land. Doctors Without Borders. Ploughshares Fund. Fill in your own nonprofit blanks. Throw in a little music and art and the ancient Sequoias still standing despite the drought and hope begins to win out.

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces,” Martin Luther said, “I would still plant my apple tree.” Maybe we should all go out and plant a tree.  


 [FJ1]

Optimism in Five Easy Steps

Image from The News International

We’re still here. The Optimists of the World Society may hold its annual meetings in ever-smaller closets, but it is a relentlessly ongoing – optimistic, you could say – society. Here are a few steps with which you can guarantee continued inclusion.

Faith. For example, I live in a 12-story building with two elevators, both of which currently operate on faith. Oh, they are reportedly safe – a nice touch – but the electronic system involved with button-pushing has spun into its own inscrutable non-pattern: the Up or Down button may or may not light up, or both buttons may have already been pushed by some passing ghost. This is the current passenger system: If an elevator stops at your floor, you get in. Say you want to go from Floor 7 to the lobby, but the elevator decides to go Up. Not to worry. When it gets to 12 it will eventually go Down. If you’re lucky it will make fewer than 11 stops before attempting to deposit you in the Garage, but hang on, it’s likely to go straight back up to the lobby, which is where you wanted to go. There are very few enthusiasts about Kone Elevators in my building, but we are nothing if not patient. Which brings up the second step –

Patience. I know, I know. Still, just as the elevator will eventually come, your turn in the phone queue will too. This morning I was informed, after finally getting through a dozen or so menu options, that I was #14 in the queue to speak with a person who might cancel my account. Speaker phones are good for this step, as they allow you to put the thing in a far corner until you find yourself at position #1. Position #1 will drive you to a chat, which often leads to a solution. In this particular instance, my patience led to a happily cancelled account.

Kindness. Always works. Will conquer pessimism, even when malfunctioning elevators and phone menus have rendered you temporarily pessimistic. For instance – speaking of pushing buttons – those buttons in drugstore aisles that say “Push for Customer Assistance”? These require patience and kindness in the extreme. Unlike the elevator buttons which summon no elevator, they summon the Assistant to your precise location – – eventually. Sadly, the Assistant tends to be a grumpy little guy in a rumpled blue jacket who answers any question by saying, “Just tell me which one you want!” He probably just got yelled at by the last customer. Try to be kind. Once he unlocks the little shelf, just pick any one of the 17 varieties of medication on which you wanted his advice. They’re probably all about the same.

Perseverance. See above. The elevator will eventually get you to the right floor, the scammer will give up and the drugstore Customer Assistant will unlock the shelf so that you can pick one of the medications whose 17 varieties had so bewildered you. If you persevere.

And last but not least –

Hope. That business about faith, hope & love? That’s a given with optimists, who tend to love people/times/circumstances largely because it’s easier than hating. But with some people/times/circumstances being so thoroughly unlovable these days, one is left only with hope. Hope that the anti-vaxxers will wake up before they nurture new variants to come after us all, if they don’t get covid and die first. Hope that the rains might miraculously come before drought and wildfires consume the west. That members of Congress will decide to get together and do stuff rather than pointing fingers and playing power games.

Hope springs eternal.  

This essay appears also on Medium.com

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