When I Get Older-: the hundred year old man who climbed out…

It was 1967 and like all good Canadians, my husband and I had set out to show our 100- year-old country to our young children. We were on our way back from the east coast when we stopped at my grandparents’ farm is Quebec. The next afternoon, we got a call on the party line: could my 33-yr-old husband go up to my great aunt’s farm to help get the last load of hay in before the threatening storm broke. He set off, eager to give himself a workout after days of driving.

While we were eating supper a few hours later, he burst through the door from the woodshed. “You’d never believe it,” he cried. “There was an 88-yr-old woman driving the tractor. A 78-yr-old woman up on the hay wagon and a 71-yr-old man pitching the hay up.”

We turned to stare in incomprehension. Yes, and …

That was my grandmother’s sister, Eva, driving, not an actual tractor, but an very old stripped down Ford pickup, my other grandmother’s sister, Betsy, building the load and her husband, Ralph, pitching up. They hayed every year. Evidently, an outsider regarded such work as beyond the elderly.

I never worried about having to work hard when I got old. I never expected to get old. I almost exited when I was two weeks old, and again when I was starting school at six. That was only the beginning of my almost ends. Then, suddenly, I woke up one day to discover that I was almost as old as Aunt Eva, the tractor driver. The young husband, no longer mine, was even closer to Eva’s age. What’s more I found myself in the unlikely role of caregiver to a 90-yr-old friend. When she handed me a beat-up copy of Jonas Jonasson’s novel, The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, she said, “I couldn’t get into it.”

The hundred-year-old man is Allan Karlson, a Swede – the novel is translated – who was born in 1905.

My grandmother, Eva’s sister, was born in 1900, and much to her chagrin, she lived to be 96. For at least 20 years, she went about wondering out loud why she was still here. I found this alarming, but I couldn’t convey to her how she was the center of the world for me, and, I suspected for all the other grandchildren she was so fond of enumerating. Not having her would be like not having the earth’s axis.

She lived within the same ten square miles her entire life. She never traveled farther away than 500 hundred miles. She had five children, three of them were born after me, her first grandchild, and two of these were twins. When she was already a grandmother, she had three babies. Diapers had to be washed then. She had no electricity, a tin tub with a wash board and only a clothes line for drying. Or – when she got desperate – she hung the damned things over the wood stove.

Allan Karlson, the Jonasson’s hero, who lived to be 100, had a much more exciting life. At the age of 10, he went to work in a nitroglycerine factory and taught himself to be an explosives expert. So much so, that he ended up helping out, in a strictly informal if significant way, at Las Alamos. He had already met General Franco in the Spanish Civil War before he met Harry Truman on the day President Roosevelt died. He went on to meet Churchill, de Gaulle, LBJ, Stalin, among other heads of state, and to intervene, however inadvertently, at crucial points in history. He learned many languages, spent long periods in various prison camps, walked across the Himalayas and blew things up just to be helpful. In short, he had the fabulous adventures that only a character in a satire can have. On the last page – spoiler alert – he finally overcomes the forced castration he suffered in his 20s.

The Hundred Year Old Man Who... is the work of a vivid and quirky imagination but it also contains insight: “The following spring he would be seventy-eight, and Allan realized that he had gotten old against all odds and without having thought about it.”

Exactly.

Meanwhile, my ninety-year-old friend has had her car keys confiscated. I’m pretty sure she had been driving for awhile with no idea of which dial was the speedometer. She is not happy to have her independence curtailed. Me neither. Everyday, I find myself driving her wherever her whim takes us. My dear friend with her sparkling blue eyes and her ready wit has to have me identify friends we meet in our forays, and all our conversations are conducted at the top of my lungs. Don’t talk about hearing aids, please. They are tiny, the batteries are impossible to change and they have feedback. She dreads the loss of her short term memory. Too late.

My once young husband has run through every treatment for his stage 4 cancer in the last ten years, and reports that he is unaccountably tired. He speculates that he may have to give up flying to Miami for Caribbean cruises or at least stop zip-lining in ports of call.

I have never been robust (see exit above). Unlike my friend and my ex-husband, I have spent my life not feeling up to par. I have numerous vertical and horizontal scars. I have to eat carefully, exercise carefully and rest half of every day. Yet here I am, completely unfit for the task, but still pitching hay.

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Blue Jasmine: too deep for tears

Imagine Shakespeare’s King Lear as satire or more aptly Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. If that works for you, you will love Woody Allan’s Blue Jasmine. You can readily embrace its tragic comedy.

Who am I to complain, prone to black humour as I am? I confessed in an earlier post (https://115journals.com/2012/06/22/black-humour-despair-young-and-never-look-back/)
that Samuel Beckett’s advice – Despair young and never look back- was an article of faith for me.

And yet I do complain.

The movie opens with Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), in the first class cabin of a flight from NYC to San Francisco (a seat she can ill-afford, we later learn) regaling her seatmate with the story of how she met her husband. The band was playing Blue Moon. As it turns out the seatmate can’t wait to be quit of her: “She never stops talking.”

She arrives laden with Louis Vuitton luggage at her sister (Sally Hawkins), Ginger’s, modest flat where she proposes to stay while she finds herself. She blissfully ignores the fact that by doing so, she is preventing GInger’s boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), Chili, from moving in as planned. Gradually flashbacks reveal how Jasmine fell from her Park Avenue/Hamptons height of wealth and privilege to this nadir.

The script is a riff on the tragic Streetcar with Jasmine, Ginger and Chili modeled on Blanche, Stella and Stanley, but it is also a satire. It takes aim at the self-indulgent, spoiled and narcissistic Jasmine, at the shallowness of the wealthy, philanthropic set, and in an equal opportunity way, at the beer-drinking, sports-loving lower class. It is worth noting that both have deplorable taste in art.

Now for the spoilers.

I stumbled out of the theatre traumatized by the last shot of Jasmine’s face. I was half way through a cup of tea before I began denouncing the logical holes in the script.

How believable is it that a woman who signed whatever her husband put in front of her without a glance was able to call up the FBI and cause him to be arrested. (Have you tried turning in anybody? It’s a long and complicated process during which you are questioned like a criminal yourself.) Let’s assume that her impulsive decision was the result of a psychotic break brought on by the sudden discovery of her husband’s (Hal French, played by Alec Baldwin) serial infidelity, not to mention his announcement that he is in love with a teenaged au pair and wants a divorce. Otherwise, nobody could possibly make a decision to turn in the family breadwinner without securing a portion of the ill-gotten gains first.

And is it possible for Jasmine to be quite so reprehensible as to let her sister invest her once-in-a-lifetime lottery windfall of $200,000 in Hal’s Ponzi scheme if she truly understands that’s what it is? Unconscious, willfully blind perhaps but genuinely evil?

Then there is the question of the stepson. He is so humiliated by the revelation of his father’s fraud that he quits Harvard in his final year and disappears. Of course he too turns out to be in San Francisco, selling second-hand musical instruments while his stepmother tries her hand at computer night school and a day job as a lecherous dentist’s receptionist. When Jasmine hunts him down, he tells her he never wants to see her again. How believable is it that such an apparently ethical person would turn so totally against the woman who blew the whistle?

But all of this is mere nitpicking.

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine had got in under my defenses. I identified with her profound loss – and very possibly her narcissism. She had lost her role, the elegant settings, the Manhattan apartment, the beach house, that propped her up. She retained some of her couture costumes that might have made the proffered second chance possible if she were not, at heart, so self-destructive.

At the end of Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois is led away by people in “white coats” as she declares that she has always relied on the “kindness of strangers”. Jasmine has no such comfort. That last shot of her sitting on a street bench, homeless, without a purse, her hair wet,her elegant beauty gone and totally absorbed in a conversation with no one, is heartbreaking.

Some things are “too deep for tears”. Maybe this loss, which is being repeated around the world as jobs are lost, homes are foreclosed on and people plummet into the abyss, (sometimes literally) is such a tragedy. Woody Allan realized such downfalls can be borne only by comedy.

Dress Code #2

In the list of search terms that brought viewers to my blog post, Dress Code, I found “panty hose worn with short shorts”. I cringe a little wondering whether this was a search by a girl seeking sartorial instruction or a guy with a fetish. Nevertheless, it spurred two of us to come up with the rest of the outfit. The shorts have to be white and the shoes white, high-heeled strappy sandals. A tube top in hot pink and yellow stripes is the perfect addition to this outfit, which will be just the thing for a summer funeral.

You’re Not Special, letter to the National Post

A Fulfilling Life Is an Achievement Not Something That Falls into Your Lap – June 12

Today’s children are apparently becoming smug and self-entitled because they are being told they are special. Turning over the ideas presented by the Massachusetts high school English teacher at graduation and by letters to the editor, I finally concluded that here is the niche market I need to supplement my pension income.

I can offer today’s soft, kindly parents just what they need to toughen them and their children up so they can face the real world and be less irritating. For a nominal fee, I will tutor all comers in parental abuse. I am more or less an expert having grown up in an earlier time with less than perfect parents. I will, of course, limit my instruction to verbal abuse and hostile silence, the other kinds of abuse having lately been deemed illegal.