Sunday, January 27, 2019

Hendrik Groen: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 3/4 Years Old

And now I have finished reading The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 3/4 Years Old, though never to be truly finished with it. 


Have you noticed?
Very few novels feature a senior citizen or elderly person as its main voice. I myself can only think of a few that I have read. I think I have simply not given it any thought or made any effort to do so; now I look forward to reading more books with mature characters. The author of this book has written a follow-up to this book called On the Bright Side. I might give that one a go.
(Not right away; my stack of books is TALL...)

So Hendrik.
A Dutch pensioner living in a retirement home in the Netherlands in 2014, keeping a journal for a year in order to amuse himself and to keep his negativity to minimum in the real world of being institutionalized. 
Wednesday, January 2 ~ For I, Hendrikus Gerardus Groen, am ever the civil, ingratiating, courteous, polite, and helpful guy. Not because I am really all those things, but because I don't have the balls to act differently. I rarely say what I want to say. I tend to choose the path of least confrontation. My specialty: wanting to please everybody. My parents showed foresight in making me Hendrik: you can't get any blander than that.

I read about a dozen reviewers of this book who didn't care for the read at all. Henrik is grumpy.  People are unhappy in the nursing home.  It was boring.  He is surrounded by bothersome people.  People are obsessed with death.  Interestingly enough, I think that that was the point! That is what it is like in a nursing home, tedious, unpleasant, annoying, end of life. 
So, good call.

On the other hand, I found Henrik's voice compelling, even important. Can't we listen? Can't we hear? People at that point of life do think about death; they even think about bringing about their own death. Living in a crowded facility is annoying. Having overseeing bodies monitor your behavior and maintain bullshit rules over you makes all of us fricking grumpy. No one enjoys living in an institution that smells. No one likes to lose their autonomy bit by bit, or all at once, for that matter.

Henrik shares The House of the Setting Sun, the assisted-living center, with the usual group of advanced-age miscreants and chair-sitters: those who complain of their stomach issues, those who hate the pea soup, those who love the custard, those who gossip incessantly, those to report rule-breakers to the local authorities, those who fear losing their memories, those who focus on the indignities of getting older, those who complain about the food, those who sit silently, those who fart or who smell or who have bad hygiene, those who consider suicide, those who are lonely. Sure, Henrik is grumpy.
It's real life, Man.

But it wasn't all grumpy. NO!
In fact, it was amusing, wise, irreverent.

In response to the deathly hallows and hallway deaths, Hendrik and his closest friends create the Not Dead Yet Club and decide to take themselves out into the world to enjoy life on their own terms. And I admired their chutzpah. I'm pretty sure they went out for fun more often than I have this year. They certainly imbibed more than I have this year! The Not Dead Yet Club looked for, and found, sunshine and joy. We all need a group of friends like this.

Reading this book, I laughed out loud enough times and I stopped-to-give-it-some-thought enough times that I have to give this book a very glowing review. I enjoyed Henrik and his wonderful band of friends. I loved their sincere love and affection for one another in the ever-shrinking life and times of a person living in an old folks home. I even appreciated the less-than-savory realities of denying, fighting, accepting the aging body and the aging mind.

Give it a go.

Some of my favorite moments in the book include a day trip to a winery, Henrik's friendship with Evert, the woman who broke her leg climbing onto kitchen cabinets to clean them, the hilarious fire drill, the dead fish, and Henrik's freedom brought to him by his motorized vehicle. 

Here are a few excerpts from various days in the diary, for your reading pleasure

Friday, June 21 ~ Humans really are rather misshapen and ugly animals, I fear. With a few exceptions, people are much nicer looking with clothes than without. Only children are beautiful when they're naked. But the older you are, the more layers of clothes, please.

Sunday, June 30 ~
"What are you scribbling all of the time, Henrik? Let me read it!"
"I'm working on my memoir. You can all read it, but not until it's finished."
Then they'll usually want to know if they're in it, and I'll say they are, no matter who it is. "Only good things," I'll reassure them.

Saturday, September 28 ~ When the elevator doors slid open, there were already two rollators and one mobility scooter inside, but Mrs. Groenteman thought there was still room for her and her scooter. She revved the engine a little too hard, sweeping the others into a great pile up. It took half an hour to extricate all the dinged and trampled oldies. The groaning was deafening, although the injuries were barely perceptible to the naked eye.

Saturday, October 19 ~
"Ah yes, we live in uncertain times," I chip in. "Life is a five-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture to follow."

For sheer chutzpah I give Henrik and his 365-day diary 8 stars.


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Saturday, January 26, 2019

Austin Labs

My husband has been working with a company called Austin Labs. Austin Labs is an IT company that works with something called Big Data and Data-Driven Optimization. I know this because Jer uses those terms all of the time to describe to me what he does for a living.  😁

The team of Austin Labs has been working together for closing in on three years now and I've finally had the opportunity to meet most of them at their annual meeting, this year held in Orlando. The team got together several years ago with the goal of creating a company that they'd built together and that allowed them to be creative and dynamic in the field. It must be working because I can honestly say that I've never seen my husband happier...which is why I'm writing this blog post about something so outside of my usual purview.  
After spending time with the guys, I'm just that impressed by them...

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be able to join them all in Florida where they held their annual January Team Meeting. I was delighted that all of the guys with Austin Labs were all so welcoming of me because I planned on commandeering one of their cars to visit Florida friends and to get some beach time...and I was determined to get them out of meetings and out to decent dinners each evening!  😁 

And now I can put faces to names. 
Please indulge me as I say a few words about these guys.

First is my husband Jerry. You know, you live with a guy for twenty-five years and you think you know a guy. But seeing him in action was an eye-opener for me. This guy who, to me is funny and friendly and lovely, is so much more than that. He is truly dedicated to this company and he so admires all of the others on the team. Jer is a super intelligent man, I've always said this and, somehow, I've known that he's quite high on the intellectual food chain. So when he continually acts amazed with the brains on this team, well that says something about them, don't you think?

At Austin Labs Jerry is VP of Data Something or Another. Something about data architecture and, um, optimization... I'm exceedingly proud of him.

The president of Austin Labs is Sushil Verma. Can you say out-classed? I have to admit that, of everyone, I was looking forward to meeting two people. The first was Sushil, prez and CTO of the company. Jerry has been talking about him for years, always saying what a genius Sushil is. While I have no idea why IT guys need scientists, Sushil is the scientist on the team and he brings his considerable presence to the meetings. While sitting in on some of the team meetings in Orlando I noticed that Sushil observes everything, seems to lead by following, and has, somehow, brought a quiet sophistication to the group. Don't believe me? Go check out his Austin Labs blog!

Jerry has often commented on Sushil as a CTO. I simply found him to be a gentleman and a hilarious father. I happened to be in the car during a phone conversation that Sushil had with his daughter where she was giving him a great deal of shit. It was hilarious and very endearing. There is nothing like the pride of a good dad.

Simon Drake: What the heck does Simon do?
This guy seems to be everywhere all of the time doing everything. He's the Chief Operation Officer of Austin Labs, whatever that means. I can tell you that he spent hours on the phone with clients while the rest of the team continued their meetings. He also seems, inexplicably, to know and understand all of the enormously complex applications that the guys were talking about during meetings. He reminds everyone to eat and drink, takes the meeting astray, keeps the meeting on task, and generally manages the joint. Simon was a storyteller, group facilitator, and host of the party. Honestly, I found him a lovely guy. Simon and I talked about our kids, homeschooling, our keto diets, his apparently amazing wife Aimee, their kids, and their family ski trips during the time that he and I chatted...that is, when he wasn't giving Jerry shit for one thing or another. I think he might be the main contact between Austin Labs and their clients. But I could be wrong.

He also seemed quite concerned that I was able to get this nice shot of him when he doesn't cooperate when his wife wants a pic!  😁

I truly enjoyed meeting Dave Brown because he was quite unique in this bunch. A real outdoorsman, Dave showed me pics of he and his wife's vacation in Alaska fishing with the black bears; in one pic, his wife had caught a huuuge fish! He and his wife Trish have a nice bit of property where they raise their chickens and their beloved dogs...I'm quite sure he would have preferred to have been home in solitude than hanging with this rather loud bunch of friends and team members.

But the moment Dave got in front of the team and started talking about some bit of client...stuff, I really saw his passion for the project, for Austin Labs, and for his work. You know, sometimes you can just see that in a person.

I could not wait to meet Renato Akamine, General Manager of the Austin Labs Brazil team, and I know Jerry felt the same way because this is the person who my husband talks to even more than he talks to me in any given day! Renato is a part of the Brazil team and he and Jerry finally met one another for the first time while at this meeting in Orlando. When Renato wasn't taking my money in Texas Hold 'Em, he and Newton were sharing the growth of their work in Brazil.

A neat thing about Renato is that he sings in his spare time, as well as playing drums and guitar. I challenged him with some Led Zepplin karaoke and he wasn't at all intimidated by that. Now that's impressive! He has been singing with bands for much of his adult life. Now he can say that he's sung in Orlando.  😁

I was surprised to meet Newton Neiva, Director of Brazil Stuff, because I thought that Renato was the only human being in the country of Brazil.  😁  Of course, I found I was wrong. Renato and Newton make an amazing team. Newton seems to have brought tremendous momentum to the Brazil team and I was super delighted to meet him, especially when he shared pictures of his freaking adorable children Pedro and Isabella! OMGoodness! He and his wife Julia are doing something right there.  😉 

Newton is a sweetheart of a man and I know that, although he enjoyed Orlando and although he has tons to contribute to the meetings, he was missing his wife and kids.

And finally is one of my favorite people Aashish Bansal. He told me that he has worked in oil for many years and he now enjoys working at Austin Labs with their energy apps. In his quiet way, he's a brilliant addition to Austin Labs. He is a truly lovely man and I'm so glad we were able to spend time together as Jerry and I taxied him around town most of the week. He is a complete gentleman. I know he and his wife Bela will enjoy their upcoming trip to SPAIN!!!

Aashish also confided to Jerry and I one night that he and Bela have been thinking about moving to a smaller house now that they are in the "empty nest" part of their lives together, but their daughter's dog  prefers their house, so they stay. He even showed me a picture of her...the dog, not the daughter.

Our dinner at Capital Grille in Orlando was delicious, but the lighting was a bit too dark for decent pictures of each guy. Here's a nice shot of the entire team. And if you've ever been the lone woman in a group of men, trying to take their pictures...LOL...well you know how difficult this was!

P.S. The eagle now has a management position at Austin Labs.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Border

I've been thinking alot about borders. Not just the southern border of the USA but all borders. The shifting, the allegiances, the wars, the tribalism, the keeping people out, the keeping people in, the hiding behind the borders, the hiding within the borders, the allowing of the world to ignore activities and humanitarian crises because that border tells us that it is not our issue, separation, and historical conflict.

If our species was better, if we could handle it, I see no need for borders. If our species was better, more exalted, truly advanced, we would find that borders do nothing other than separate people and prevent all humans from truly succeeding and from truly living lives of peace and harmony.

But our species is not better.
We are nearly indistinguishable from primates launching fruit at one another to frighten one tribe away from the other. Our intellect has evolved a bit, but not enough, I fear. Some have critical thinking, tools, technology. But so many of our species still lives by superstition, fear, separation, oppression, and survival of the fittest, rather than by critical thought, empathy, community building, technology.

We seem to be enormously limited by fear, tribalism, and superstition. Our primate brains may be the reason we continually draw and redraw city/state/national borders. It is why we fight to claim one property over another. It is why we attempt to take yours and make it ours. It is why we reject one people over another. It is why we have class, status, and gross economic disparity as we do.

But imagine, if you will, a world where we are all equal brothers, humans who have plenty, who support one another, brothers and sisters who don't require passports, who never know an immigrant, who build longer tables and no walls whatsoever. Equally distributed wealth and opportunities, equal pay for equal work. A single class. A single economy. A single governing body. A single people made up of an infinite number of colors, creeds, cultures. Developed peoples sharing with underdeveloped peoples. Human beings existing as they are, with no need to become a part of a melting pot or of a metaphorical soup. No group superior. No people inferior. A movement toward inclusivity and cooperation. A world without borders.

It is not an impossible concept because, the truth is, borders are completely made by men. They exist only as long as we respect their existence. 

It is less than possible, however, because of our species' strong, innate tendency to draw lines, to label, to abdicate personal power and knowledge for easy solutions, to look for similar others, and to get away with as much ineqality as possible, to give in to ambition, to be led by greed, to oppress others, to allow belief systems and history or mythology to tell us who truly belongs, and to hold on to grudges of the past. Our species is addicted to grabs for power.

Is a global society possible? 
I don't know, it might actually be inevitable.
But I'd be proud to see our species recognize the underlying barriers to this utopian idea and maybe, just maybe, embrace the idea of world peace and complete brotherhood and not just give it lip service as so many ideologies do.

What would it take to raise a generation of global humans who choose, at the same time, to humanely and willingly create a society such as this?

Oh, I know, I know! I'm freakishly liberal. Tell me something I don't know.

From space, says astronaut Anne McClain, you can’t see borders. What you see is this lonely planet. Here we all are on it, so angry at one another. I wish more people could step back and see how small Earth is, and how reliant we are on one another.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 3/4 Years Old

When I started reading this book The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 3/4 Years Old, simply because the book flaps read interesting, I had no idea that the book is completely nonfiction and that Hendrik Groen is the author and not just an invented character in this epistolary-like novel. Hendrik was a pensioner in a Norwegian retirement home when he decided to keep a journal of his experiences...and the reader can be so grateful to this lovely curmudgeon, lovely-hearted man for doing so.

Hendrik Groen is an alias, and Meulenhoff Publishing released the book as fiction. As Hendrik cryptically explained: There's not one sentence that's a lie, but not every word is true. It turns out, Hendrik Groen is the pseudonym of Peter de Smet, a Dutch writer. The book was published in 2014, leading to several years of speculation about who could be credited with authorship; de Smet wanted no notoriety whatsoever for the book, even after a stage play came out a few years ago. Now, he is out and proud with the second book in this series called On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen.

The entire time I am reading the book I'm constantly thinking of my friend Jamie who is a social worker at a nursing home about an hour from me. I knew she would appreciate the humor, the grumbles, the realism, the darkness and the affection of this book. And I was right. It's on her list.

I'm about a hundred pages out at this point. I'll be back with a review in a day or two. Stay tuned.
“Another year, and I still don’t like old people,” he writes. “Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching.”
~Hendrik Groen

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Barbra Kingsolver's "Unsheltered"

Sometimes I think Barbra Kingsolver gave birth to beautiful language. Her writing is richer than the best chocolate and more luscious than the sweetest, most juicy peach. Voluptuous. Woke. Pregnant. Sublime. Reverent. Exquisite.

Many people read her Poisonwood Bible  when it was released back in 2008 because word was, this was something new. And it was new. Her lush voice was undeniably evocative and fresh and needed in the landscape of American novels. Whether or not you loved the book, story, the reader had to acknowledge that the writing was fierce and delicate and simply gorgeous. Because of this book, I read every single thing that Barbra put out. 

I borrowed Poisonwood Bible from my mother-in-law sometime in 2010 and read all 600+ pages in a giant gulp. It was something I could not put down. Morning dawning and I couldn't stop reading.

One of my favorite books of all time is Prodigal Summer  by this author. It's something fresh and unique and I simply devoured it...several times. Her books are made up of nuggets of gorgeous prose and sublime moments of meaningful, magical prose. I can't say enough. This author is a once in a lifetime gift to the reader.

If you are a Kingsolver groupie, here is her newest book Unsheltered.  The reviews on the book are many and varied, but one thing is for certain, she has not lost it. Reading this book was like a long stroll through the loveliest landscape, still.

That said, my sincere love and affection for Barbra, this was not my favorite of her books. I found it a hard read. Several times my reading stopped and I had to check how many pages I had left and I had to decide if I wanted to continue reading. I did continue and I'm glad I did. But it was still a bit of a difficult slog at times. I can promise you that this writing will be inadequate to the depth of this book.

The book seesaws back and forth between two different families occupying the same house about a hundred and fifty years apart. The idea appeals, doesn't it? The storylines are compelling. The characters, real and imagined, are interesting focal points. I genuinely loved the real people in history. The problem, I think, is that the author couldn't seem to figure out what she wanted to write about. Her many focus issues in each century were truly relevant and compelling and pregnant with possibilities, the suitability and importance of science in the 19th century and the poverty of the educated middle class in the 21st century. Kingsolver, as usual, inundates us ever so smoothly with social issues and with her strong opinions on them. I love this part of her writing but not everyone will.

Our 21st century family, in 2016, did all of the right things. Education, wise choices in careers, satisfying relationships, doing all of those things we assume will lead to success in life. But while you aren't looking, the economy crashes, surprise pregnancies, unexpected illness, bad luck in choices in the housing market, bad luck with retirement, poor health in a parent, etc. Good people dealing with devastating problems. These random and disastrous events in the life of a family, rendering the good effort null, prove to leave this family in a dire situation with little chance for rebound. This sad end to the American Dream happens more and more in the reality of our country at this point and I found its exploration very satisfying to read about. I truly cared for the family in 2016, left unsheltered.

In the family of the 1870s, this reader was given a real gift in the introduction of the neighbor, Mary Treat, a very real and noteworthy 19th century scientist, who published many papers of original research, and who maintained ongoing (certainly fascinating) communications with some of the brightest scientific minds of the time, including Charles Darwin and American botanist Asa Grey. Go and check her out, Mary Treat! She's an interesting character who seldom sees the light of day in the American story. Mary plays the curious and ultimately allegorical neighbor to our 1870s family, the neighbor who lives her life for science, even in a culture that distrusts science, fears it, and sees science as ridiculous.

Another minor character, a tertiary character at best, John Landis, represents the one percent, the wealthy man who misrepresents facts and takes advantage of the gullible hopes of the masses. John Landis is also a real person in history, and worth a look, for his is a cautionary tale, this man who leaves so many shockingly, welcomingly unsheltered.

In both centuries, the families must deal with the very real problem of inadequate building quality of the house in which they reside. The title of the book Unsheltered  is given resonance in several diverse ways throughout the book, the cracking, inadequate house is one concrete unsheltering that both generations must address, live with, deal with. Building, rebuilding... Can the reality of our current country's pathos not be described as unsheltered? Can our personal progress through life not contain certain periods of feeling unsheltered? Can our vulnerability not be described as unsheltered at times? 

Allow me to cherry pick and share some of my favorite gems of writing in this book. had been her mother who put Willa back together. When someone mattered like that, you didn't lose her at death. You lost her as you kept living.

A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child.

Thatcher handed over his reins to Cutler and stood watching these timid, full-grown beings poised on the cusp of their fates. Somehow they broke and mended his heart all at once.

"I admire you, then." Thatcher felt a few degrees elevated by a vocation he shared with Mary Treat. How could it not be noble work, to rouse a disaffected humanity and press the world's physical truths into its palms?

"And still your pupils depend on it, Thatcher. Their little families have come here looking for safety, but they will go on laboring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it."

"I suppose it is in our nature." she said finally, "When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order."
"If that is our nature, then nature is madness. These are more dangerous times than we ever have known."

"The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they're applying that to now. It's just so ridiculous."

"One percent of the brotherhood has their hands on most of the bread. They own the country, their god is the free market, and most people are so unhorrified they won't even question the system. If it makes a profit, that's the definition of good. If it grows, you have to stand back and let it. The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell."

Even with the pages that were difficult to slog through, I highly recommend this book, and I highly recommend every single other thing that Barbra Kingsolver has ever written. This book has some wonderful, highly readable, poignant parts to it. Because of the high bar she has set for herself, I think, I have to give this book of hers eight stars for her clarity of mind in today's social world.

All of her other books get a 10.