Master weaver of the

It's around 7:30 in the morning, and John Gould, still in his pajamas, has finished his oatmeal and muffin. Now he's working on a dish of fruit. Dorothy, his wife of 68 years, is there as gatekeeper, detail manager, and protector.

"Never a dull moment," she says as the roommate of one of America's most beloved humorists, a man who makes us laugh with a Maine accent.

After breakfast, still pajama-glad, Gould is either banging away at his typewriter or rewriting his stories at a computer. He has written a column for the Monitor for 59 years. Gould's most recent book, of the 30 he has written, may be his funniest and most forceful.

"Tales From Rhapsody Home, Or, What They Don't Tell You About Senior Living" (Algonquin Books, 2000) is the inside story of Gould's 4-1/2 years in a retirement home he says was plagued by bureaucracy and inattentiveness. As Dorothy puts it, "They seemed more interested in making a profit." The book is into a second printing. Paperback rights have just been sold.

Gould's approach in the book is mildly civil, curmudgeonly funny, but clear as a cow's bell. He skewers the mismanagement and their blunders at Rhapsody Home (not its real name) with self-deprecating humor and laugh-out-loud mini-stories such as why the window couldn't be opened in their bedroom, what happened when he slipped in the bathtub, and why the food was so bad.

"Everything was of the finest quality," Gould says. "and then they cooked it."

Over the years, loyal readers have sent thousands of letters attesting to their love for Gould's tickling, universal slant on the fun and foibles of mankind. Readers from around the world send gifts (jars of jelly, for instance), ask for advice, or visit. One reader came to his house unannounced many years ago - and stayed for a week.

Many letters sympathetic to "Tales From Rhapsody Home" reflect the serious problems in dozens of senior-care facilities. "One lady wrote to me about a home where 40 residents signed a petition asking for acceptable and accessible exit doors," Gould says. "They got nothing. It seems to me if 40 people complained, there must be some justification. But the tearjerker in the story is that the 40 people were blind. It makes me shiver."

Concerned letters have also come from professionals such as dietitians and nurses.

Gould says he spends at least $200 a month on stamps. "There is a tendency among Monitor readers to enter into a long negotiation with me," he says, smiling. "They write. I answer. They write again. I don't mind a bit."

We thought Monitor readers would enjoy catching up with John Gould a bit, after so much eventfulness in his life. The following are excerpts from a recent interview held in the living room of the Goulds' new apartment in a different - and to them a superbly caring - senior home in Rockland, Maine.

What happened when you left "Rhapsody Home" for this one?

Management didn't say a peep. They didn't say anything to us while we were there, either. When the book came out, we had invitations from four other places that said, "Come on over. We won't be like that." The difference is in people, and here the people care and the staff is compassionate and responsive.

I wrote a letter to the governor of Maine about "Rhapsody Home," and he never answered it. When I had a book signing at L.L. Bean, he came because he wanted his picture in the paper. I said, "Why don't you answer your mail?" He said, "Oh, I do." I said, "You do not."

Among other things, I told him that the doors at "Rhapsody" were never locked, and they didn't have a night watchman. And the police and fire department in the town said they had no authority to do anything.

One night we had an emergency, and the guy at the desk didn't know what to do. I said, "Let's call the two emergency numbers." The first was the daytime number of the regular maintenance man, with a message saying no one was able to come to the phone, and the other number was a message saying the number was no longer in service.

What surprised me at "Rhapsody" was that so many people there felt that the way they were treated was the way they should be treated in one of these places.

You've said that hardly anyone writes essays in "the old style" any more except you. Describe "the old style."

You start with an idea. You say, "Today is a good day," and then you write your pages. When you come to the end, you say, "That's why it's a good day." It's as simple as that. You don't do it consciously; you just do it, and bring it to a conclusion with a "golden thread" in between.

You disagree when you are described as a "regional writer."

This whole "regional" thing is foolishness that the publishers of America have thought up. I don't think it exists. Human nature is the same the world over. I don't care who or what you are. According to publishers, there never was a writer more "regional" than Mark Twain, but the [publishers] say, "not him - we mean you other writers."

I get letters from people from Indiana, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, from Prince Edward Island, and all over the world. I was taught that there is one thing that everybody does, and that is eat. If you get something in there about a ham sandwich, you've got a readership....

I don't know how many boxes of molasses cookies have been sent to us over the years. They send them to us and ask, "Did I do it right?" I have a faithful readership, and they always wonder what you're going to do next, and that keeps you ahead of people.

What are people for? Why are we here?

To read books, what else? [Much laughter.] Are people to cheat each other, or are they here to be nice to each other? We have both kinds, don't we? [Long pause.] I think people are here to laugh at. I think they are ... stewing around in great seriousness, and they are awfully funny and don't know it. Well, maybe they think they are here to burn up gas, too. But what are we going to do when we don't have any more fuel?

Is there anything still that you'd like to do?

I don't know that I have done everything, but I've come close. Never been to Florida. I don't want to go to Florida.... I've always been a great believer in the nonsensical.... In the House of Commons, a fella got up and asked what time it was. He was refused an answer because they said it had been answered before. A foolish question gets a foolish answer, and it's fun if you know how to do it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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