Don't forget your stuffed owl

Let Hollywood pitch their sexy wares to the 20-something set. John Gould is aiming at America's real growth market: the over-80 crowd.

His latest book, "Tales from Rhapsody Home," is "a defiant old geezer's effort to help young and not so young folks prepare to become residents in a retirement home."

Indeed, if you become a resident in a retirement home, Gould is exactly the kind of neighbor you'd want. If, however, you run a retirement home, you might be tempted to poison his soup. "Because of the nature of this guidebook," Gould whispers, "I feel it's best we keep our exact whereabouts unknown."

As America's longest running columnist - he started writing for the Monitor in 1942 - Gould has developed a style that's as smooth and deceptively deep as a Maine lake.

"Tales from Rhapsody Home," to be published next month, is a collection of sketches, complaints, tall tales, recollections, and advice written in the annoying quietude of a retirement facility "somewhat in Maine." What thin structure the book has rests upon Gould's battle to open the window in his bedroom. From such adventures, he can spin tales as heroic as Homer and as silly as Twain.

Gould and his "best wife so far" boast that they've not experienced any of the signs of advancing age, though they have "curtailed their weekly skydiving sessions." Now in his 90s, he grouses that the Rhapsody Home is "a happy haven for hapless has-beens," but the sharpness of his wit belies that characterization.

"When we arrived," he writes, "we were ready to believe all the nice things Rhapsody Home had to say for itself in the come-on brochure." The administration is solicitous, kindly, and completely unhelpful. Whenever he goes to complain, he discovers that the Management has left no forwarding address.

What could be a grating rant runs smoothly in these well-oiled passages. Gould proves that it's possible to express regret without sounding pitiful, to complain without being a grouch. He's constantly ruffling up his feathers in outrage and then winking at us.

Like any boarding-school kid, he finds little to like about the cooking at Rhapsody Home. He knows he sounds like a grumpy old man, but when forced to eat something called a "jelly omelet," who can blame him? "Everything is of the finest quality," he assures us. "Then they cook it."

Perhaps the most significant adjustment for Gould is being denied so many of life's ordinary responsibilities while having his day filled with Scheduled Activities. "The poet Wordsworth somewhere mentions somebody so bereft for something distracting that even a stuffed owl was enough to cheat time. At places like Rhapsody Home, everybody willy-nilly gets a stuffed owl."

While his wife dutifully attends sessions for the residents to make suggestions (all ignored), Gould turns to guerrilla tactics. He puts his complaints in verse and leaves little poems on the bulletin board. Management removes them just moments after he shuffles away.

"You want to tell about the good things, too," his wife admonishes him, "not just the bad."

"Both the good things?"

"What was the other one?" she asks.

Even when he's raging against the cold bread, his real battle is against all the world's modern inconveniences, inhuman efficiency, and mindless bureaucracy. (Insurance companies come in for a delicious flailing.)

He's not just a funny old crank, though. Some of the best moments in "Rhapsody Home" are tall tales about his friends and relatives, like Grammy Benck, who "had the feminine traits of a wheelbarrow, looked a good bit like a Clydesdale, and had the loving heart of a front-row angel." He provides sweet reminiscences of the old country doctor, the uncle who grew perfect tomatoes, and the neighbor who invented a vertical windmill (and then got trapped in it for 10 days).

He also makes light fun of the residents' obsession with their physical challenges and medical adventures. Ailment gossip is a favorite pastime. One friend sent out pictures of her spleen on Christmas cards.

Readers will see Gould's ribald side, usually repressed in the demure pages of the Monitor's Home Forum section. Having outlived embarrassment, he writes about sex and bodily functions with spirited delight. (His treatise on the physiological effects of baked beans could keep up with any schoolyard wag.) Spotting an attractive nurse, he wishes he were 80 again. But, always a gentleman, he's moved to profanity only once: when decrying the mixture of green peas and carrots.

If there are moments of flippancy or silliness in this charming book, give him time. He's bound to mature with age.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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