Magical realism

“They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”

                                                            — Oscar Gamble



My car clock says “11:35,” so I know it’s 10:50.

Clock broken? you ask.

No indeed. The clock runs like clockwork. My car is 19 years old, so my clock is a sturdy little thing. Then why the wrong time?

Well, see, just after Daylight Saving Time died a deserved death (it’ll come back zombie-like in March, but for the moment we are living in God’s Own Time Zone), I was at a stop light and decided to change the car clock. As was common in the previous century, the clock management device is two buttons that can only be operated by something small and pointy, like a ballpoint pen.

I had a ball-point pen. I inserted it into the appropriate portal, and began to change the clock. But I was distracted, and my pen slipped several times.

Then the light changed.

Three weeks later, I was taking my wife for a spin. “Your clock is wrong,” she noticed. “Yes it is. It’s 35 minutes fast,” I said. “I can fix it,” she said. “No” I said, “I like it the way it is.” “Why?”

That was a good question. I always knew what time it was, but it required a little bit of remembering and little bit of math. Why would I memorialize a mistake? I could fix it easily enough.

It’s often hard to know where to go


I like living in an imperfect world. A perfect world would drive me crazy, because I myself am imperfect. And I do like a little bit of confined chaos from time to time.  But that’s not why.

I have enjoyed mystery novels since childhood; the woman across the street had bookcases filled with them. She let me browse freely. I tried Agatha Christie, but the plots were over complicated and the writing humorless. Sure, she wrote early enough to claim all the really good plot devices (murder by a dead man, murder by an entire group, murder by the narrator), but it was still a slog.

Other, better writers followed: John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin. And at some point I understood why mysteries were so satisfying: No matter how confusing the mystery, there was always a solution. A locked room? There are a dozens ways around that, some involving thread, glue and an accommodating keyhole. A shifty suspect has an airtight alibi? Witnesses could be mistaken or suborned. No obvious weapon? Have you considered a dagger made out of ice?

Whatever it was, there was a solution. The world could be appear to be turned upside down, but there was nothing to fear. The detective could puzzle it out and explain the solution to a roomful of suspects. “Grab him, Stanley!” Order restored.

I used to do treasure hunts for adults. I went on a few, but I was not that good at deciphering clues. (That was a huge disappointment). I more enjoyed writing the clues. I had my own rules about clue writing: They had to be hard, but not too hard. The answer had to be simple and, once decoded, easily acted upon. And they should be pleasing in their own right, funny or clever or vaguely philosophical.

I didn’t like disorder for its own sake; I liked disorder I could control. My clock has not stopped; it keeps excellent time. There’s a secret to figuring it out.  I had both the mystery and the solution.

So, to probe a little deeper, why did I only like mysteries if they were self-created? But I didn’t. I love stage magic, and I don’t really try to figure the tricks out. Given my liabilities, it is probable the magician is aware of my guess, and has devised the trick so my guess gets exploded when the mystery is finally revealed. I have a friend who does magic, and he routinely amazes me. I never ask how the trick works.

I don’t mind mysteries as long as someone knows how they’re done.

Is that a useful landmark? Or an insect?

I spend time outside a fair amount, although not as much as I used to. To be in nature is to be surrounded by mysteries. Plants thrive or they don’t. They take on strange shapes, snake along the ground or stand straight and tall. The insects are uncomfortably large or so small they are indistinguishable from dirt. And say, what made those holes? Harmless voles or poisonous snakes?

I don’t know, but I know that somebody knows.  I live in the Bay Area, so I believe I could stop the next available hiker and get a learned disquisition on the breeding habits and dietary preferences of marmots or hawks or the California black bear (Ursus americanus). I am so grateful to scientists and their dedicated inquiry into the multitude of mysteries in the universe.

I also like natural aphorisms. “Leaves of three; let it be” is almost a koan.

But there are mysteries beyond the ken of science. “What is gravity” has never been definitely answered, and people have been working on it forever. And “why are we here?” — definitely outside the remit of science.  “Where do we go when die?” undoubtedly has an answer, but only dead people know what it is. I’m old, but I ain’t dead yet.

There are two kinds of old people — those who think about death constantly and those who never think about it. The second group is much more evolved, much more able to live in the moment, much better at appreciating the wonders of life. Probably a lot of vegans in there. I am in the first group. I think about death every day. I am not, as they say, getting any younger. True of everyone, of course, but some of us are aware of  the actuarial tables.

Star clusters? Snow stains? Bullet holes?

I wonder if I get to ask the Grim Reaper a few questions. He owes me that, I feel. He could maybe sit in my living room for a few minutes. I could offer him some grapefruit juice — that sounds like Reaper-friendly beverage. Or we could go for a ride in the car. I could find out about gravity. We could have a discussion about the meaning of life; being Death, he probably has some insights into that.

We could go up into the East Bay hills, and find an overlook with a three-bridge view. I could ask him whether there was a Mrs. Reaper, and little Reapers running around the house. But I shouldn’t assume; perhaps he’s gay, or something of a lone wolf.  Being the incarnation of death might not go down well down a first date.

“What do you do for a living?” “I kill people.” “Who?””Everybody.”

So we could chat, and eventually he’d have to say, “I’m sorry, but time’s up.” And I’d say, “I hope you’re not going by that clock.”

He’d look embarrassed.

“Man, that clock is 35 minutes fast.”

“I thought your wife had fixed that.”

“Nope. I think you missed your chance. You’ll have to wait until my name comes up again.”

And then he’d grimace and disappear is a miasma of purple smoke.  Had I cheated death? No, although I did mislead him. Just me and my car clock. There’s a reason for everything.


Turtle or rock? Living or dead?



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Things that other people can’t do: Michelle Mizera



65 thoughts on “Magical realism

  1. I too have a 19-year-old car with a clock about 35 minutes fast, but the reason is that it gains a minute every couple of days and rather go through the hassle of resetting it every so often I prefer the moderate intellectual exercise of figuring out what the real time is. I try to make it last till the next time change.
    I’ve been a fan for about 30 years or so— I miss the pele dancing!


  2. To quote 20th cent. Buddhist monk Master Yin Guang: “Fix the phrase ‘death and rebirth’ firmly between your eyebrows and don’t forget it even for a moment!” Yet he was a vegan. Category busters.


  3. Simply wonderful Thank you Jon

    Sent from my iPhone

    650.367.9027 One Arthur Lane Atherton CA 94027



  4. I think I had a similar dispute with you a dozen or so years ago: if your clock is fast, doesn’t that mean Death not only didn’t miss his chance but has another few minutes of grapefruit juice-sipping before he goes about his business? Or is this like the hypothetical banners over Howard Street that I thought spelled out City Great Is A This?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Do we all love mysteries? Why are mystery stories so popular? Are there any good mystery stories without a resolution? If you asked a wise, old sage why he always answers a question with another question, would he answer: “Do I?”? Does a question at the end of another question require a double question mark? Why am I asking so many questions? Who knows?


  6. Bless Oscar Gamble; for the quote but also for the finest Afro in all sports (though Colin Kapernick gave him a run).
    Your car discussion with Death reminded me of a very old, very funny Woody Allen story (back when he really was funny, not just pitifully sad) called “Death Knocks” (q.v. in Getting Even 1972). Worth a moment to track it down and another short one to read.
    Keep on keepin’ on.


  7. Absolute brilliance.
    I am in Group 2. No point in thinking about something you know nothing,Nothing! About.
    But the voice of Hope in me suggests that as we think, so goes our lives, so perhaps we can help create the afterlife. The Watching Bird is always watching.i

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is what I needed today. Thanks for thinking, and then writing it!

    On Thu, Feb 1, 2018 at 1:07 PM Jon Carroll Prose wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: “”They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.” > — Oscar Gamble > Outfielder > ” >


  9. Your writing–your take on the world–almost keeps me sane, and that’s saying a lot. Thanks you, Jon Carroll.

    And so it goes.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Firstly: landmark, bullet holes and turtle. I absolutely love Tracy’s pics this time. And the first one about “not knowing where to go” really knocks me out. As for your narrative, you really got me this time. I’ve obsessed about death since age 8 or so. I used to wonder how old people, especially old ones like me, 84, didn’t live in fear because they knew death was imminent. Know what? I have gradually been able to come to terms with it. I just don’t want it to hurt. You are your wittiest in this piece. Keep ’em comin’, Jon.


  11. If you offer the Grim Reaper grapefruit juice, it may render the statins he takes for cholesterol useless. You might just destroy him that way. And thus, you wouldn’t have to worry about death

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I take every possible opportunity to recommend Martha Grimes to people. She writes mysteries, but I don’t think she really cares about the mystery. She’s all about the characters.


      1. Ah! I didn’t see this earlier when I left my comment about Penny. I not only envy her writing; I envy her heart.


  13. Hmmm — I’m thinking amyloid plaques rather than snow stains or bullet holes, but that’s for you to know and we to puzzle over. As for death — I lost all fear of being dead after my first adult experience under full anesthesia, when I awoke to realize that three hours had vanished in less than an instant, without any awareness at all on my part.

    “Ah,” I thought, “so that’s what it’s like to be dead.”

    Of course, I was only 20 at the time, and although my assumption back then was that I knew everything, I knew very little at all. And yes, anesthesia is very different from death in that I was still alive, so the mystery of what really awaits in the Great Beyond remains. Nevertheless, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. Being dead holds no sting.

    Ah, but the actual process of getting dead…there’s the rub. That, I do not look forward to, whether it’s the sudden explosion of breaking glass and rending steel in a fatal auto/train/plane crash, or the long, slow slide into the hospital, dementia, and the grave.

    As for gravity, the “why” really doesn’t matter at this point — what matters is to watch one’s step and move with deliberation in order to avoid any sudden encounter with this mysterious but omnipresent force. Those of a certain age (ahem — that would be me) walk upon the thinnest of ice, no matter what the weatherman says.

    Love this one, Jon. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Dear Jon Carroll,

    Drops of food coloring or black ink on a wet paper towel. Try dropping tablespoon of oil in a warm pan, and then top with a few drops of balsamic vinegar in the middle. Slow dance. Or drop a single drop of ink into a class of still water.

    I manage [sheage?] the retiree directory for all the retired men and women at Diablo Valley College [You spoke here many years ago — thanks] When one of us croaks, it is I who notifies the rest of the crowd. Gain nickname — Dr. Death, Digby O’Dell, etc. Maintain the In Memoriam list, too. One member pointed out that she had just spoken to one of the folks on the list and would I explain. Job keeps one on one’s toes. So death is often on my mind. I’ve no personal problem with it except: [1] no pain, please; 2]no “Bruce died surrounded by his loving family” because I would feel obligated to give some kind of wise or comforting words; [3]not being able to comfort the living, esp. the younger ones. I will miss a hot washcloth on my face after shaving; writing with a good fountain pen; the wonderful feeling you get when you at last get into bed — house all locked up, refrigerator door closed, lights off — pull up the kivvers and give out a long, aaahhhhh.

    Keep up the good work. And thanks, always.

    Bruce Reeves, Walnut Creek

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wonderful post.

    I’m with you; i.e., one of the unevolved old persons. For the past several years, I’ve tended to regard life like a game of Russian Roulette: one of these days sooner or later (hopefully later, but knows — that’s why it’s Russian Roulette), the chamber containing the bullet with your name on it clicks into place. I must admit I’m curious to see what comes after. But not that curious.

    I love mysteries, too. I just greedily gobbled up all of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series in three months. Not only a great mystery writer — a great novelist with depth, compassion, and humor. But you’ve probably read her, too. And Rex Stout? Just asking.


  16. Maybe the first kind of people have car clocks that are happily inaccurate, and the second type require their clocks be correct. I’m the first type, thinking (not always worrying) with irregular regularity about death. My 17 year old car’s clock is about 10 minutes fast. Used to be more, but I tried to fix it once, and promptly screwed it up again at the next PST to PDS switcheroo, so left it as is, and do the math. Love the slight of hand in this new piece, the clock marking the inexorable march toward the inevitable meeting with Mr. G.R., only to stay the courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. Always a joy to read you!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Darn it.

    It’s Daylight *Saving *Time, not Daylight Savings Time.

    … as opposed to Daylight Wasting Time.



    On Thu, Feb 1, 2018 at 1:06 PM, Jon Carroll Prose wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: “”They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.” > — Oscar > Gamble > Outfielder ” >


  18. Long time listener, first time caller, or whatever it is that fans say. So glad you grabbed the Oscar Gamble quote – Satchel Paige-worthy, methinks. Great piece. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. It’s a very small thing, but nonetheless I’m curious: The entire episode appears to be in boldface font. Is that a conscious choice?


  20. well, well, well. you’ve obviously, consciously chosen to ignore the elephant in the room – or should I say the elephant in every house on every damn screen in the entire country. it’s a good ploy, jon. keep our minds off him. just dwell on time and death and we’re good to go!


      1. Amen Amen, and thanks for revealing what the middle initial “F” stands for! When he dies Trevor Noah and Steven Colbert and some others will have to hire writers again. Loved this post.


    1. “bitch, bitch, bitch” as Mama Bear chastised Baby Bear for complaining about his porridge. “I haven’t even seved it yet!”


    2. Don’t have an editor. Feel free to offer suggestions. My views on the gender of Death are my own. I will say that guys are responsible for a lot more human misery than women.


      1. In Terry Pratchett’s universe, Death is an anthropomorphic personification who speaks entirely in upper case; very funny, if you get past the twee bits.

        Liked by 1 person

  21. Not to quibble with Ms. Garchik (one of my favorites since you left the Chron), but grapefruit juice makes the statins much more powerful, not less. So, while Mr. Reaper’s cholesterol would plummet, he would probably suffer severe liver damage. For detective/mysteries, I still love old Ross Macdonald books!


  22. What a good way to start the day. Toast and tea back in bed re reading j c and topping it off with the comments. I’ve been reading obits for approx 68 yrs since I was 10 when I would read vanc news paper after school while waiting for radio programs to start. Went through the whole paper starting with front page. Obits personals and comic were favorites. Still read obits and have discovered that deep down we are all the same. Great day ahead. Thanks. Carol rose

    Liked by 1 person

  23. As always, your musings are wonderful to experience. Thanks so much for continuing to provide them! (Oh, and I’m definitely one of those folks who doesn’t much think about death itself. I worry about HOW I’m going to die, but not too often.)

    Liked by 1 person

  24. A neighbor, in his 80s, recently commented that he can see the tunnel at the end of the light. I’m stealing that.


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