Let thy heart be merry …

Waking to the sound of laughter

Looking through some old family photos for a project I’m working on, I came across one that made me laugh out loud. It’s of my Dad, and it’s at the bottom of this post and you’ll understand why it’s there and why I laughed if you finish reading this.

My father had many wonderful qualities, among them genuine kindness, keen intelligence and a deep well of tolerance for diverse ideas and people. He also had a unique sense of humor that some would call off-beat, while harsher critics might deem it just plain weird.

For example, when the four of us older kids were 4, 2, and 1, Dad taught us to line up at the door, hold our chubby arms up in salute and shout “Heil the Father!” when he arrived home from work. Occasionally, he would give the signal when guests were present, and we would immediately go into formation and perform. We had no idea what we were saying or why, but it made him laugh and that made us do it even more enthusiastically. The custom faded fairly quickly, however, because my mother did not find it as amusing as he did. It wasn’t until years later that we realized we’d been mocking a Nazi salute and why Mom had felt that his ironic humor in this instance was, at best, ill-considered.

Although she had a more conventional sense of the funny than Dad, she was always pretty tolerant of his. She didn’t object beyond a roll of her eyes and an “Oh, Fred!”  when he put a life-size poster of a horse looking out from a stable stall, on a door that was the first thing startled visitors saw after they entered our house. Dad named the horse “Old Trotter,” and had a number of photos taken of himself and various grandchildren standing in front of the “stable.” He then sent them out randomly to old friends, who were perplexed about why Fred had bought a horse.

When my sister Barb was in college and in need of some quick cash, Dad answered her call for $20 by mailing her a bucket of pennies. Only after she had rolled all the coins did she discover the $20 bill at the bottom, along with a picture of a cow. No note, no explanation, just the cow.

During a year when the vacation resort Club Med was heavily promoted with the tagline  “Welcome to Paradise,” we decided to give Dad a special gift for his birthday. We had a bright blue sweatshirt custom-printed for him. On the front, it read Welcome to Paradise. On the back was the headline Club Fred, and underneath were the names of all the local and the famous Freds we could think of: Fred Hunter, Fred Hunt, Fred Ewing, Fred McDonald, Fred MacMurray, Fred Dryer, Fred Flintstone. We expected that he would laugh, and then use the shirt to wear for working around the house. We should have known better. He wore it all around town for years, without explanation or embarrassment, a 60-something bald, bespectacled and not very trim guy presenting himself to the world with the introduction, Welcome to Paradise.

He followed the beat of his own humor drummer all through his life. When he was well into his 70s, he snuck into my sister Tricia’s apartment while she was at work. His mission: plant a motorcycle alarm clock, complete with a wake-up signal of bright flashing lights and roaring engine sounds, under her bed, timed to go off at 3 a.m. Even though he was far removed from the scene of a sleep-dazed daughter jolted from slumber by the sound of a motorcycle racing through her bedroom with lights flashing, just knowing it was going to happen provided him with endless hours of amusement. Long after the actual event, he could still crack himself up recounting the story.

Dad always laughed at his own jokes, and we did, too, because it was impossible not to be amused by his amusement. When something that he said or did was more groan than laugh-worthy, someone would invariably say, “You’re such a Fred!” and then we’d all end up laughing anyway. We still do, when we reminisce about Dad.

So, maybe the best gift he gave us, in addition to each other, is the gift of laughter.

Such a Fred!

To Seek … and Not to Yield

“Come my friends, ’tis not too late”

On my tenth birthday, my mother lit the candles on my cake and said, “Now you’re in double numbers. Now the years will go by fast.” It seemed such an odd thing to say. At that stage of life, when I longed to be a teenager like my cousin Mary Ellen, it felt as though each year was an eternity. It had taken me so long to get to ten, how could time possibly begin to go faster? And yet it did.

It was quite a rude awakening in my twenties when I discovered that the phrase I often used to signify an event that had occurred in my childhood no longer worked. “Ten years or so ago” was once a measure of time that covered half my life. It was a shock to realize that now it only reached back as far as high school graduation, not all the way to Sister Cyprian’s fifth-grade classroom.

That’s when I began to get an inkling of what my mother had meant. Time had moved on and unawares I had moved with it. I could no longer use ten years to give me a point of reference in my childhood. I had to opt for fifteen, and then twenty, and then twenty-five, until one day, I found that even going back thirty years didn’t put me in my grade school days.

That awareness has been accompanied by the loss of that sense of limitless options for my life that youth confers. Now, I have to accept that I am never going to be a heart surgeon. I am never going to be an astronaut. I am never going to understand the theory of relativity, or write a symphony, or win a gold medal in figure skating at the Winter Olympics.

Of course, there are a number of practical and logistical reasons, beyond the passage of time, for those vague possibilities not coming true: an aversion to blood, a fear of heights, a serious problem with math, an absence of any musical talent whatsoever, a distressing lack of physical coordination, among them. Still, my mother’s prediction has proven true—as so many of hers have—time is rushing by.

The awareness that runaway time has put restrictions on even my idle daydreams can sometimes be quite depressing. That’s when I re-read a poem by Tennyson that I first encountered, and only dimly understood, in high school.

Ulysses describes the hero of the Trojan War, returned home after long years of adventure. He rebels at the quiet sameness of life to which his age has relegated him. He determines that he will not surrender to a life of quiet desperation. He urges his long-time friends to join him in pushing forward with whatever measure of courage and strength they still command, for as long as they are able.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Now, all who know me will quickly agree that heroic temperament is not the first phrase that leaps to mind when describing me. I shall not soon be setting sail with or without brave companions to confront a Cyclops or battle wits with the witch-goddess Circe. I won’t even be driving forth in a Winnebago for parts unknown.

However, I will feel free to indulge my random musings about future possibilities, regardless of the rapidly passing years. There’s my idea for STAB, Susan’s Twitter Advice Bureau, wherein, in 140 characters or less, I will give you clear instructions on how to live your life. It’s time I make my skill at clearly seeing what other people should do available to a wider audience than friends and family.

Also, there’s my great concept for a podcast: Susan and KK Talk Through A Movie, a weekly live stream of my sister and me talking over the unfolding Netflix action and then asking each other “Who’s that guy that just died?” or “I thought they were in Indiana. How did they get to Mt. Everest?”  And then there’s … well, I shouldn’t say more, or someone might beat me to the punch on that idea.

Time does move quickly after you hit double numbers. And as Yogi Berra (less lyrical than Tennyson, but strong on succinct) said, “It ain’t over, ’til it’s over.”




Someplace to go …

“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.”

Sue Grafton died a month or so ago, and it’s left me feeling oddly bereft. She’s best known for writing the funny, smart and very successful Kinsey Milhone mysteries. Some people refer to the books as the alphabet series, because she begins Kinsey’s adventures with A is for Alibi, which first appeared in 1982, and progresses through the alphabet. Now, sadly, it ends short of completion with Y is for Yesterday, published in 2017.

Of course, I don’t feel the same searing sorrow at Grafton’s passing that the death of a family member or a close friend would bring—I never met Sue Grafton, never even saw a live interview with her. And yet, I do feel a loss. I’ve experienced that same sensation at the passing of other favorite authors—Robert Parker, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill. I’ve finally realized that it isn’t actually the death of the author I mourn, it’s the end of their characters. Because they, not their authors, are the friends that I’ll miss.

I won’t ever know what happens to Kinsey Milhone. Does Henry continue to be her steady and sure father figure? Does she ever truly reconcile with her unexpected family? I won’t be able to see what Ruth Rendell’s wise and clever Inspector Wexford is doing in retirement. I can’t follow the further adventures of the irascible and not-fit-for-polite-society Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his more sophisticated but less intuitive underling Peter Pascoe. Nor will I learn how Pascoe’s precocious daughter Rosie grows up. In the case of Robert Parker, because the family has chosen someone to continue the series, I could check in on Spenser. But I won’t, because no matter how skilled the substitute writer, I’ve never found any that really capture the voice and spirit of the author they’re trying to emulate.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy stand-alone books—To Kill a Mockingbird, Possession, Pride and Prejudice, A Prayer for Owen Meany—are among the favorites I happily return to. But, I really commit to a mystery series. I like the sense they give of restoring order in a disjointed universe. I enjoy the intellectual pull of the puzzle and the satisfaction of seeing things resolved, for good or ill. But equally engaging to me are the worlds my favorite series authors create. And it’s always a pleasure to discover a new one. Louise Penny, who writes a mystery series set primarily in a small village in Canada, explores in lovely, lucid prose not only the investigation of a murder in each book but the ongoing interplay of characters and the ebb and flow of their lives. I look forward to going back to Three Pines the same way I look forward to catching up with old friends.

So, when a favorite author like Sue Grafton dies, I have to say goodbye not just to one person, but to an entire group of friends. I can rekindle memories and enjoy the pleasure of their company by rereading, but it’s a bittersweet experience. Like looking at photos or family videos when the people in them are gone.

A friend pointed out that when a writer doesn’t bring a series to completion, it allows us to imagine whatever adventures or endings we’d like for our favorite characters. Unlike in real life, the people in books don’t have to die. They can live on in our imaginations. We can choose to believe that things end happily for the characters we care about, and there’s no author to contradict us.

I suppose that’s true. Still, I’m going to miss Kinsey and the immersion in her world that Sue Grafton provided, as I miss Reg Wexford, and  Andy Dalziel, and many other characters whose stories ended too soon for me. But, there is one thing an avid reader can take comfort in—there are always new characters and new worlds to explore.





Between the Idea and the Reality … Falls the Shadow.

newproject_1_original-e1515519360110.jpgThe header from this post is taken from “The Hollow Men,” and I use it because it so aptly describes the outcome of many of my creative visions. I have ideas, lots and lots of ideas, but bringing them to fruition is the challenge. Something always seems to go amiss.

This was brought home to me just today. As I hope you notice, you’re reading this post on a newly revamped Leah Nash Mysteries website. I launched it yesterday, feeling pretty pleased with myself after more than a month of tedious, painstaking, hair-pulling-out effort. Because, as usual when I leap into a project, I way underestimated what was involved and way overestimated my ability to achieve it while maintaining my sanity.

Even with the expertise of a professional and patient web designer (Matt Ogle of Ogle Computers, who deserves a shout-out for enduring with equanimity the many, many, many, texts, emails and phone calls and changes I subjected him to during the process), this was a major undertaking.

I knew I’d have to generate new content. No problem. I wrote an author Q&A, an interview with Leah Nash, new book descriptions, some Readers Circle promotional copy. I even managed to conquer my fear of short-story writing. Readers of the Leah Nash series know I tend to write long, not short. But I’m hoping to entice visitors to the website to sign up for my mailing list. So, I wanted to offer a free short story as an incentive. And I even managed to get that done.

The technical pieces–inserting new back pages and clickable links in all my books, generating four different files for each book to upload on the four different major ebook retailers (none of which accept files in exactly the same way), updating the sites where the books were advertised, it all got done. It all came together. Yay! The idea had been transformed into the reality. My vision was realized.

But no. The inevitable shadow that fell between my idea and my reality was that I accidentally uploaded a draft version of the short story, not the final edited copy. In addition to some typos, there was also a note to remind me to get a link from my web designer for the upload of the story.

It is not earth-shattering, I know. I hope the people who got the story before I uploaded the corrected version this afternoon are not too disconcerted to come across a misplaced comma or an unintended text note. But still. A mistake like that is the written word equivalent of giving a speech in front of a hundred people, only to discover after-the-fact that you had spinach on your front tooth. And yes, I have done something very similar to that, too. And I no doubt will again.

But even with all that, I’m pretty happy with the new website. And with the short story. I hope that the visitors who stop by are, too.

Everyday Kindness

Everyday Kindness–every day

During the Christmas season, I often wish that I’d spent the past year being a better person—kinder, more thoughtful, more actively engaged in helping. As a result, I often make a futile year-end attempt to cram 12 months’ worth of doing good into a spree of charitable giving, cookie baking and good will toward men.

While some of those efforts might be positive actions, they are not transformative. Typically, I move into the new year with the same inclination to do only those good or kind things that are convenient—or at least minimally troubling—to my daily life.

I can ease my guilt by noting that I’m busy. It’s not my responsibility. I don’t have time. But if I’m honest, I know there are other people who are just as busy, just as time-pressed, just as pulled in multiple directions as I am. Yet they still manage to extend themselves for others. In fact, I live with one of those people.

I’ve written several posts that reference my energetic, extroverted, husband Gary, who can make a friend in a minute and decimate the English language in a nanosecond. He won’t enjoy being a featured player in this post, but he illustrates my point. There are people who pick up the slack for those of us whose good intentions are rarely matched by our actual actions. People who give of themselves, not just during this season of giving, but all year round.

Gary does the ordinary good neighbor things—lend some tools, pick up the mail, give a hand with the shoveling. But while a good neighbor might lend you his snow blower to clear your driveway, a great neighbor, aka Gary, will use his snow blower to clear your driveway and all the others on the block, and all the sidewalks, too, before you can even ask to borrow it.

Gary is a man in motion, but he always has time for a cheerful greeting to everyone he meets. And on hot summer days, he can often be found handing out freezer pops, ice-cold water, or ice cream treats to postal delivery workers, UPS drivers or anyone else in the vicinity of our house who looks like they could use a break from the heat.

But he doesn’t confine himself to the quick and easy kindnesses. He tackles the hard things, too. When my mother was sinking ever deeper into Alzheimer’s, he took her for countless rides, which soothed her agitation, and brought her butter pecan ice cream cones, and teased her gently, and made her smile, when I could not. When a friend was terminally ill, Gary visited regularly, and carried out tasks for him that he could no longer do, and eased his mind by pledging to take care of unfinished business after he was gone.

And Gary doesn’t only come to the aid of family and friends. He does things for people he scarcely knows. He mobilized a group of his friends to donate $200 worth of diapers to a struggling new mother, and to buy bus passes for a woman who walked miles through all kinds of weather to get to her job at a fast food restaurant. He didn’t know either young woman, beyond a quick chat while purchasing a morning cup of coffee. He just saw a need and stepped up to help.

When people became dismayed by the declining health of our local river, marked by high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, aquatic plants choking the channels, and large algal blooms each summer, Gary didn’t just talk about it. He reached out to the local college for help from experts there, began working with the area health department and local governments, and organized the Healthy Pine River citizens group to work on restoring the river. And though meetings and bureaucracy are among his least favorite things, he deals with both in order to help make things better.

Gary is not the only person with a gift for giving. He’s just the one I know best. Through him, I see the value of everyday kindness over seasonal generous gestures. To paraphrase a line from the movie, The Bishop’s Wife, the meaning of the season lies in each of us putting forth loving kindness, warm hearts, and outstretched hands—in acting with everyday kindness, every day. Instead of big plans for character reform that come to naught this year, I’m going to focus on doing just one kind thing a day, large or small. I’ll let you know how that worked out next year.  Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to all.



Lost in Facebook

Where’s Fim?

Growing up in a family with seven children and two adults, the phone was always ringing for someone. My sisters and I fought over phone time, often interrupting each other’s really important phone calls with demands that the phone be relinquished for our really, really important phone calls. We sparred verbally, and on occasion physically, as we struggled to claim what we perceived as our fair share of phone time.

Not so my brothers. Neither of them were on the phone often, and never for the long, intense conversations that my sisters and I engaged in with our friends. My youngest brother had an almost pathological dislike of talking on the phone, and would go to great lengths to avoid answering it. If forced to pick up an incoming call, he would just hang up the phone if the caller failed to make her need clear within the first five seconds. As he got older, he became more at ease with communication technology, but for a long time he refused to make the switch from flip phone to smart phone, and he resolutely refused to engage in the next communication wave, social media.

So, when one of my sisters mentioned that a friend had said our youngest brother—let’s call him Fim—was on Facebook, we were all astonished. My sister Barb—her real name, Barb has no privacy concerns—and I immediately went online to verify, but were unable to find his profile. We checked to make sure we’d gotten the story straight, and were assured that his profile had definitely been spotted on Facebook.

We searched again and again came up empty. This time, Barb messaged a good friend of Fim’s, thinking that he, if anyone, would know if Fim really was part of the Facebook Nation, but had contrived somehow to stay invisible to his older sisters.

Her message was worded thus: “Hey, we can’t find Fim on Facebook. Do you know where he is?” It seemed innocuous enough. But remember that old game “Telephone,” wherein one person whispers a message to the person next to her, and that person passes it on to the next and on and on until the circle is complete? The last person to receive the message then repeats it out loud for the group. Usually, it’s become such a mishmash of original content and misunderstanding, that it seems like an entirely different message.

Well, with lighting speed Barb’s original query traveled throughout the universe of Fim’s friends, both on and off Facebook. The final version of the message was that Fim was missing, and his family didn’t know where he was. As a result, both Barb and Fim received responses from concerned friends inquiring and theorizing about Fim’s fate. In addition, Fim, who had no idea any of this was happening, was flummoxed to find his phone blowing up with voicemail and text messages from friends asking if he was all right.

On one hand, the level of engagement and concern from friends could be seen as gratifying. On the other, to a person like Fim, who uses the phone for talking and texting as sparingly as if he were being charged $5 per word,  the result was extremely unsettling.

When we finally got hold of Fim ourselves, we learned that he had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to set up a Facebook Page for a business he was launching. However, instead of a flood of interest in his products, he received a number of messages from former girlfriends, some of whom were single and interested in reconnecting. Which was rather awkward, given that Fim’s significant other, with whom he was and is very happily partnered, was handling his Facebook business page. Thus, he had some ‘splainin’ to do.

His deep-seated wariness about modern communication having been validated, he took the Facebook page down immediately, which, in keeping with the law of unintended consequences, ultimately resulted in him playing the leading role in his own version of Where’s Waldo.

I don’t think we’ll see Fim on Twitter any time soon. It wouldn’t even surprise me if he reverted to his flip phone. But his Facebook misadventure is a permanent and welcome addition to the collection of family stories that never grow old–except, perhaps, to the person they’re about. 😉