I don’t know about you, but these seven months of COVID19 lock-down have wreaked havoc on a few of my habits, especially sleep. Yes, I try to keep a regular routine, but my brain doesn’t always comply. For one thing, I’ve had to adjust my evening television and bedtime reading habits.
Years ago, we’d let Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert send us off to dreamland with a laugh. That was before Jon retired and way before the pandemic. Our evening TV these days usually includes something light. British comedy. Cooking shows. An old movie. Maybe a few new movies or series that aren’t too dark. Enola Holmes and Away were both excellent. One notable exception to the “not too dark” rule was the deeply disturbing two-part docu-drama, The Comey Rule on Showtime. Concern over the future the future of my country kept me awake that night, I’ll tell you. (Note: I still recommend watching it, just not at bedtime. Or without a sleeping pill. Maybe two.) We wisely chose not to watch the debate.
Which brings me to bedtime reading. Until recently, I read one book at a time and appreciated writers who could create characters and situations so compelling that I’d keep reading just one more chapter. No longer. Worry about that fates of fictional characters become intertwined with real people in my subconscious. Worries about my family and friends, my country now trouble my sleep and invade my dreams. Reality is scary enough.
So now I choose a “quiet” book to read at bedtime and save anything compelling for the afternoon. But quiet doesn’t have to mean boring. It just can’t be nail-biting or cliff-hanging. As much as I might crave the escape that reading gives me, I can’t care too much.
Enter Hendrik Groen.
On January 1, 2013, Hendrik, an elderly, “civil, ingratiating, courteous, polite, and helpful” Dutch gentleman begins a diary. He thinks it’s about time to give the world a taste of the real Hendrik and promises “an uncensored expose”: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.” The book consists of 365 observations. Short and long. Wry and whimsical. Sad and funny. He admits, “…one of the reasons for writing was to poke fun at the reigning glumness in here.”
As the year progresses, Hendrik writes honestly about friendships, the home’s management, physical limitations, politics, illness, dementia, and death. About euthanasia, Hendrik posits that the Netherlands Right to Die Society “must have a rather serious member turnover.”
To combat boredom and a downward spiral, his small circle of friends forms the “Old-But-Not-Dead-Club.” Their primary rule is “no whining.” They support one another and plan small gatherings and outings to have a little fun. Cocktails. Dinners out. Short excursions to surprise locations. The group believes that having “something exciting to look forward to is crucial to keep up one’s zest for life.” Those extracurricular activities cause more than a bit of jealousy and resentment among the other residents.
As an example of Hendrik’s sense of humor, he listed alternative titles for this book: “Down the Drain, The Living End, Over and Out, Not the Bees Knees, The Last Hurrah.”
On the inevitable infirmities of age:
“We lose some capacities as we age, but being a busybody isn’t one of them.”
“I’ll just have to resign myself to wearing diapers. Not so long ago I used to think that was when one lost one’s last shred of dignity, but I realize that I have now lowered the bar a bit. The frog in the cooking pot, that’s me.”
On keeping a positive attitude:
“…the Netherlands has some million and a half solitary old people…that’s a lot. But it should be said that some old people do it to themselves. In this house alone there are dozens who are to be avoided like the plague because they are boring, bigoted bellyachers. Forgive me for stating the truth, but that’s just the way it is.”
“The older the people are, the more scared they are. At our age, surely, there’s nothing left to lose, so why not be fearless?”
“…we drank to friendship, until death do us part. Not an abstract concept for any of us.”
So, who is Hendrik Groen? And is this a work of fiction or nonfiction? The Dutch News answers.
“Originally published in Dutch in 2014, the author of this book remained a mystery until recently, leaving readers with the question of whether the diary was indeed the work of Hendrik Groen, and hence a biography rather than a novel, although the nod to Adrian Mole should have been the giveaway. In April 2016, NRC Handelsblad revealed Peter de Smet, a 61-year-old librarian with no previous published written work, as the book’s author. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old was translated by Hester Velmans. It is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Books. A great read with characters who will remain in your thoughts long after you have finished reading.”
From what I see on social media every day, I think we could all do well to take a hint from Hendrik and promise ourselves to “report on at least one positive or funny thing every day.” What a difference that would make!
Furthermore, as someone not quite as old as Hendrik, but hoping to get there one day, I found this book quite enjoyable indeed. Not laugh-out-loud funny, no. But hopeful, and one I would still recommend to soothe your soul just a bit during these anxious and troubling times.
Have your reading habits changed during this time? Where have you found comfort, escape, or a laugh? Let us know by commenting below.
Take care. XO