Tuesday, December 29, 2015

All I ever needed to know I learned from Jon Carroll

For Thanksgiving we tried something different — a picnic in San Francisco with our children. Low frills, simple, light on preparation and heavy on just spending time together.

That was my plan, and I was shocked that anyone had even listened to me when I uttered it long ago, let alone agreed to carry it out.

We ended up having the traditional Thanksgiving anyway — in addition to the picnic. It was the multiple-meal, multi-meat, Armageddon-in-the-kitchen Thanksgiving that inspired me to propose a picnic in the first place.

Even the picnic became an extravaganza, our son's girlfriend making something, our daughter making something, all of us bringing too, too much.

Change is hard.

We tried something else different — well, Nancy carried it out, since I'm often useless beyond instigation — called the Untied Way®™. It's not branded, but it should be.

The Untied Way©™is Jon Carroll's idea of charitable giving, and it too is low frills and simple: Withdraw money from your ATM — take out an amount that would sting a bit — and distribute your $20s in a part of town where people might ask for money. When someone asks, give him or her a $20 until you're done.

That's it.

The Untied Way®™ makes no judgments on recipients, Jon Carroll would say, and has its flaws. For example, a giver really doesn't know how the recipient would use the money, and couldn't control it anyway. It could be used for drink or drugs, for example.
You might expect gratitude from your clients, but you may not get it. Some of your clients may not process the denomination of the contribution, and therefore your special virtue will go unremarked. Sometimes, alas, your clients will say insulting or incomprehensible things to you. Other times, they may be overly grateful, and follow you down the street asking in stentorian tones for God to bless you. The Untied Way is not a particularly comfortable charity.

Jon Carroll wrote once of his non-traditional charity.
Sometimes people ask: Won't the Untied Way clients use their money foolishly? Won't they buy drugs or cheap booze or unsavory companionship? And the answer is: Yes, they might. Have you ever spent your money foolishly? Have you ever behaved unwisely? Untied Way clients are human beings like you.
Jon Carroll's words on this and any other subject are harder to find, because Jon Carroll is gone.

Not gone gone, but a funereal gone nonetheless. He retired as columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, about Thanksgiving time, and with his retirement went the weekly dose of words joined remarkably well, words I would have loved to have heard in person across a coffee table.

Carroll started with the Chronicle in 1962 as a reporter, joined a new venture called Rolling Stone Magazine, joined a variety of pioneering journalism projects before returning to the Chronicle in 1982 as a columnist. He's been there, done that.

His are words of level-headed mirth and just the right mixture of satiric rage at so much I rage against but don't have quite the way to say it.

Besides the Untied Way, he spun a description of circus life, specifically the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, which his daughter belonged to, so joyful I wanted to join, and got the next best thing when that circus — no animals, just acrobats galore and hilarious clowns (yes, they can be funny!) in an itty bitty performing space — came to out-of-the-way Hanford, where Nancy and I were working, long ago.

He delighted in Mondegreens — writer Sylvia Wright's coinage for misheard lyrics — and his readers delighted in his delight, sharing their own over the years. "Mondegreens" come from Wright's own mishearing of a Scottish poem: She thought the enemies had slain Earl o' Moray and Lady Mondegreen — when the enemies had really "laid him on the green."

Rock songs are shot through with Mondegreens: Jimi Hendrix singing "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy," or Elton John pleading, "Hold me closer, Tony Danza."

Jon Carroll always sounded like he was just having a conversation — an erudite riff on the day, with witty asides so plentiful they pushed against the main point. Too often I've thought, "I'd like to write like that," and have emulated his writing, whether or not I wanted to.

Now he's gone.

And yet.

In his retirement — while he figures out what to do — he started a blog. His latest post: Make-believe answers to his annual really difficult Christmastime quiz, which he hasn't published in many years but which readers still clamor for. As with everything else, it's a fun read.

I give thanks.

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