“No particular accomplishments but she had lots of friends and loads of fun/See Ya!”—Freddie Webb, 92
I love that the hilarious, colorful Freddie Webb wrote this about herself, for her own obituary. And I also love that Dunedin, Florida, residents organized a golf cart parade in her honor, a couple weeks after she died on June 27.
The carts were decorated with an array of bright, shiny ornaments and stuffed animals, and the drivers wore quirky orange hats, like she had.
"Lots of friends and loads of fun." As I previously mentioned, I didn't personally know her, yet she inspired me to write about her (twice now) because her big smile, friendly wave, and perfect uniqueness—her utter authenticity—brought me joy. And spreading joy while reminding people through example to just be themselves is one hell of an accomplishment, Freddie.
You can read the Tampa Bay Times article about her tribute parade here. [Photo courtesy of Barbara Ferguson Carrier via the Tampa Bay Times]
I recently watched If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast on HBO. It's about a group of famous nonagenarians, and it examines whether you can still enjoy yourself at that late life stage. The documentary interviewed such well-knowns such as Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Betty White and Dick Van Dyke. The latter, besides being a bit of a cornball, is a wonder — the man moves like he's 35. And that's what he says is vital to enjoy your 90s: keep moving, and use your brain. (Meanwhile, Betty White is writing books like a demon.)
Since I think, as humans, we are generally wired to be afraid of aging, I found this film both inspiring and reassuring. Because what we can't avoid is that our bodies, like cars or pretty much everything else, start to act up a bit as we age. So Dick's advice is good, and since I have a sedentary job, I have to up my game on the moving front. I have a back full of hardware, thanks to spinal surgery, but that's not an excuse: I can swim. I can walk. I can run. I can cycle. I must do better.
And I can still wreak havoc if I want. In fact, I intend to. There was a woman named Freddie who was 92 in my small Florida town, and she was a rip. She died last week, and I shall miss seeing her. Freddie was a rule breaker: She zipped round downtown in her golf cart, which was decorated with plastic flowers, and she was always accompanied by big stuffed animals. She smiled, waved, and pretended as though she was about to run people over, and then swerved at the last minute while laughing her head off. She loved colorful, floppy hats. She loved color — in fact, she embodied color. She once gave a woman a ride, and Freddie drove her cart where she wasn't supposed to be driving it. The woman asked her, "Aren't you worried about getting in trouble with the police?" Freddie replied, "I'm faster than they are!" and let out a naughty cackle.
She was funny, and fun-loving, and lived life by her own rules. Some people would complain on social media that she was dangerous, or inappropriate, or a menace. I don't ever want to be that kind of person. I shall miss seeing her, and I won't forget her. If I catch myself feeling agitated because of pain, or complaining about having a sore back, or feeling tired, I'll think of Freddie, who was decades older than me. Then I'll shut the hell up, and get off the sofa and go have a good time, and perhaps break a few rules, and laugh my head off. Because we only get one go at this life thing. So I'd better start moving.
I would make a terrible police witness. If I witnessed a crime and had to testify, I would have to write the victim a profuse apology note for my crap observational skills. As I previously mentioned in an earlier blog, I need to pay a lot more attention to what's going on around me.
See, I have a tendency to live in my head. I have lengthy dialogues in there, as I suspect many people do, and sometimes, I'll even repeat those conversations out loud. In other words, I talk to myself a lot.
My husband (who has amazing powers of observation) has caught me doing this in the shower. He silently peeks through the curtain, not unlike Jack Nicholson in The Shining because he thinks he's funny (although I'm now onto him, so he can't scare me anymore), and says, "Who are you talking to?" The first time I was a bit embarrassed when he caught me, and now I don't care. "Myself! Duh! Get out!"
I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to start reading a new book: How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Chapter 2 is called, "How to live: Pay attention." That chapter might as well have been subtitled, "Michelle Lewis, I am talking to YOU." The French Renaissance writer learned to pay attention, halfway through his life, by deciding to write about everything. "Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are," writes Bakewell.
So I thought, Let's give this little exercise a go. Right now. If it worked for Montaigne in a tower in a 14th-century French chateau, then it might work in a 1957 Florida bungalow.
I work from home. I spend most of my day, and frankly, my evenings, in one room. The room is called ... surprise ... a Florida room. In Britain, it would be known as a conservatory. I look at these objects in this room, and the view outside, every day, all day, but I don't LOOK -- really look -- at them. And so that is what I'm going to do. Right now. Let's take a little trip round the ordinary, shall we?
So many words for just one room! It's hardly a tower in a chateau. And I sure as hell am not Montaigne. But there are so many memories and experiences in this room that span centuries, beyond my lifetime — of people I know and people I don't. If you put all the people who have touched every object into this room together, they'd barely fit. And if I don't pay more attention, then I will miss the narratives of everyday things if I'm always inside my own head.
This may not have been all that interesting to read, because these objects belong to me, and there are many houses just like mine — thousands. Millions, perhaps. But perhaps try this exercise in one of your own rooms. See if it evokes memories that make you smile, or think.
Montaigne was right: Writing really does open one's eyes to how marvelous ordinary things are. I hope it never happens, but perhaps, I'll become a better crime-scene witness, and ultimately, be more present.
My BBC iPhone notification pinged. Notre Dame was on fire. Cue nauseous feeling, like when the Glasgow College of Art caught on fire - twice. Go to Twitter, look at photos of the flames shooting out of the roof. Burst into tears when the spire falls, and sob for a half hour. Yell, "No!, No!, No!" at my phone.
I look at Slack, to see how my Fast Company colleagues in New York and San Francisco are scrambling to cover this horror with our unique angle. (I work from Florida. That's another story for another day.) Of course we need expert input, so architects/engineers/construction experts are discussed. I suggest my husband. (Hey Scott, who asked the headline question on Facebook: this is how it happened.)
Ed is a construction project manager at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He is also British-born and raised, having grown up in Essex, and before he went into management, he was a master plasterer. He knows how to parget. He renovated our Edwardian house in Saffron Walden. He also knew how my previous Tudor house was put together, and why the floors were slopey and what those funny carved symbols were by the wooden door frame and fireplace (answer: to ward off evil spirits). He taught me that my old walls were stuffed with horse hair for insulation.
When he and I spoke about Notre Dame, he instantly replied, "Renovations. Happens all the time." So he had a chat with Sean Captain, the writer of what turned out to be a super post. (Sean later quoted him a second time about how Paris could go forward from this tragedy, and bottom line, there's a heck of a lot of safety checks and testing to do before they even begin to plan. IMHO (and Ed's), President Macron's five-year plan is more than a bit ambitious.
So the first Fast Company story goes live, and the clever comms team at USF pick it up. That's where the fun began for Ed, and he got a taste of my world, and how quickly stories can move in media. Within hours, he had an interview scheduled with a radio station in San Francisco, the Tampa Bay Times, and the CBS TV affiliate, who came to our house and filmed him.
I gave him a crash course on being filmed (don't look at the camera; he did anyways, lol), helped him anticipate the questions journos would ask, and made ridiculous charades movements during his phone interviews to help prompt him. It was the first time our career worlds had truly collided, and it was frantic, funny, exciting and slightly stressful.
I always thought Ed and I could never work together; that we'd end up bickering. But we worked as a team, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. I'm also glad he better understands what I do; he's often said it's hard to get what I do all day on my Mac, as it's abstract, where what he builds is concrete (no pun intended).
And it just ever so slightly distracted from the pain of the fire of a beautiful building in a city I know ever so well, and sharing thoughts made us both realise that, in the big picture, this is yet another step in Notre Dame's evolution. It is not gone; it changes again. As it always have, and always will. Kind of like everything in life.