Five Steps to Guaranteed Optimism

Today’s word is – – Panglossian

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Optimism is dead! I was told this by a good friend yesterday. He said, “It is no longer possible to look at what’s happening with politics, or global warming, or civility, and be an optimist.

Well, no. Wrong. Optimism is alive and well, and we, Optimists of the World, want to invite you to join us. We have even outlined a fail-safe pathway to optimism. It is shared at the end of this essay if you want to skip the middle and go straight to the instructions.

The ultimate optimist is the Panglossian. This came to light one afternoon while musing about a potential publisher ID for my short story collection with my friend Margaret. We stumbled upon the perfect name: Panglossian Press (now the official publisher of my self-published book. Self-publishing is another story but not under the Optimism tab.) It may or may not be pertinent to report that Margaret was drinking absinthe while I was cold sober. However, we reached this conclusion simultaneously: I am the poster child of the Panglossian.

The name may have come from Dr Pangloss, the rather ditsy old tutor in Voltaire’s Candide, who said, among other things and while surrounded by overwhelmingly bad stuff, “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

The Merriam-Webster people tell us it comes from the Greek pan (all) and glossa (tongue), “suggesting glibness or talkativeness” — maybe they are thinking happy talk. In any case, it seems true that Panglossians are seldom silent or politely subdued. What they are is excessively incurably optimistic.

Look at it this way. Optimists may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but that doesn’t mean their eyes aren’t working. It might mean their hearts are lighter. In the dark days we seem to be living through, won’t a little light-heartedness help?

If you think it might, here is the pathway to Panglossianism:

Listen. Try to shut up for a while (admittedly hard for most Panglossians.) Take in as much Stuff as you can. This initial step can, alternatively, be watched. Or Read. Just not on Facebook. Or, for that matter, any social media currently in existence. Then –

Question. A lot of that stuff is hogwash. If you ask enough questions, you might figure out which. Next –

Toss. Discard as much of the Bad Stuff as you can. Just hit Delete. The Inspiratbrain has only so much storage space. (At least, mine does. My brain has reached the point at which when a new iota comes in; some old iota has to go out — which can make you pessimistic if you’re not careful.) But you can do this; after which you need to –

Assess. Really now. There’s more Good Stuff than Bad Stuff in the world, right? If this seems incorrect, go back to Step 2 and discern what more you need to toss. Eventually, though, you’ll be ready for the final step. Which is –

Reach out. Volunteer at the soup kitchen, protest, whatever strikes your fancy as long as it’s for somebody else and not dull old you yourself. That will bring you back to Step one whenever you’re ready for another round of persuasion. Meanwhile, you will have had at least some tiny positive impact on one of the things my grumpy friend declared as having brought about the death of optimism. Take that, Scrooge.

Now, don’t you feel better? Welcome to the Panglossian Club.

A (Summer) Book for All Seasons

Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

The Summer Book was recommended to me as an antidote to the fall blues: stressed over climate change, midterms, earthquakes, disinformation — I needed a little literary calm.

“You need to read this,” said a friend, handing me The Summer Book. Friends are the best.

This small gem of a book contains a large enough dose of beauty and calm to restore the soul of the weariest American. Or Swede, or any other citizen of the world for that matter. It’s been offering that calm for fifty years, since first published by Swedish author Tove Jansson and translated by Thomas Teal in 1972. London’s Sort Of Books published a new edition in 2003 that has so far been reprinted seven times.

In The Summer Book, six-year-old Sophia (inspired by author Jansson’s niece) spends the summer on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland, in the company of her wise and often cantankerous grandmother. The two slowly build love and respect for each other and the planet. The novel unspools in a series of jewel-box vignettes that make for easy short reads, though you’re likely to become so entranced with the characters and their world that you won’t want to put it down.

Grandmother and granddaughter clamber over rocks and around rugged coastlines, watch storms at sea, glorious days and threatening skies. But they are noticing the tiniest specs of nature at the same time, and discovering lessons in them all. The book is a constant unveiling of wisdom and wonder. Moss, for example, will recover if stepped on once. A second time it will slowly recover. After a third careless footfall it will die.

As Sophia edges resolutely into life, while her grandmother winds her own way out, the two develop a ferocious attachment to each other and to the natural world. They build tiny boats of tree bark, study bugs and weeds, watch seabirds, listen for the breath of the wind. We readers are swept melodically along like invisible guests with VIP passes.

The Summer Book will have you smiling, laughing, nodding in appreciation and discovery — and feeling better about the world.

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.

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