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Being 70 – Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016: I don’t feel it, but 70 sounds old

This is blazing candles night, the last night of Hanukkah, when we light up the whole menorah. It’s the cusp of 2017 with the New Year’s Eve party in the Common House beckoning, and my second day as a 70-year-old.

Seventy. It certainly sounds old. Elderly. As a young reporter, I referred to people in their 70s as elderly; probably people in their 60s too. One friend has welcomed me to my eighth decade. Yuck. Other friends say 70 is the new 50.

Maybe. When I turned 61 I wrote it down on a sheet of paper, turned it upside down and said, “The new 19!” Within a month I was diagnosed with cataracts. So not 19 again.

We’ll see how this new phase of life unfolds. You may see “Being 70” posts from time to time. I will be seeking advice about whether I can take the more than 110 “Being 69” posts of the past year, flesh them out with reflections and make a book that would be more than a vanity project.

After having designed and proofread books, and written a small chapter of another, I do want to have my name on the cover of a book. I was inspired by Globe & Mail writer Ian Brown who kept a diary of the year he was 60 and turned it into a popular memoir, Sixty. But he’s such a good writer – funny, introspective and absorbing.

I’m grateful that some people have enjoyed my blog posts. But the posts were seldom shared or stimulated discussions. I was thinking that writing as a 1946 baby I might be able to offer some insights to the millions of Baby Boomers whose 70th birthday is still distant.

Anyway, I had a fantastic party to mark my Big Seven-Oh. Upwards of 60 people joined me in the Common House at Vancouver Cohousing for an evening of great food, warm company, and dancing to the fabulous music of a mini version of the Jewish World Music group Sulam – Wendy Rubin, Laura Duhan Kaplan, Charles Kaplan, Martin Gotfrit and Joe Markovitch – with fellow cohouser Wally Watson, drummer for the legendary Vancouver band Doug and the Slugs, sitting in with my djembe.

I led a singalong of a couple of my favourite tunes, “I Shall Be Released” and “Forever Young,” both written by Bob Dylan. And I faced a creative challenge, publicly singing a most favourite but musically challenging song, “Whispering Pines,” written by Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel of The Band, my all-time favourite group. It’s quite lonely and desolate, but beautiful too.

For several days I practised with another fellow cohouser, Ian Beaty, who played piano for me. And when I sang it at the party, it went well. Not exactly jumping out of an airplane at 70, but still a challenge met.

Fellow cohouser Cam Dore shot stills and video at the party and made a lovely 10-minute video: https://goo.gl/photos/vMD4DY8TSGNgzSiF7

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Being 69 – Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016: Not everyone makes it this far

On Friday, insh’Allah, I’ll be turning 70. I recently learned that Patti Smith, the American singer-songwriter, poet, visual artist and activist who performed at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan, was born on the very same day in 1946.

But it seems like every day, the news reports the death of someone who hasn’t made it this far. Carrie Fisher has just died at 60, an icon for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies. David Bowie and Alan Thicke came close at 69, but George Michael was only 53.

Not so well-known was David J. Steiner, a Chicago documentary filmmaker, who was killed Monday at 51 in a mini-bus crash on his way to a Hanukkah celebration in the Ugandan village where I used to live.

Some significant Canadians died this year after living into their 80s, such as Leonard Cohen at 82 and “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe at 88.

Approaching a milestone and contemplating mortality makes me think of my own father, Hyman, who made it to 85, while my mother, Molly, died at only 50.

I am determined to stay as healthy as I can, to be grateful for every breath I’m given and be an active zaida – Yiddish for grandfather – come this spring. I can hardly wait for this precious and exciting stage of life.

 

 

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Being 69 – Monday, Dec. 26, 2016: First time in almost 40 years

When I lit my first candle after sundown on Saturday, it was the first time since 1978 that Christmas Eve and the beginning of Hanukkah coincided. In fact, only the third time since 1872. Following Jewish custom to share the light, I placed the menorah in my window at Vancouver Cohousing while my neighbour’s Christmas lights reflected off the glass.

The coincidence this year – the Jewish calendar is lunar and events are at different dates on the more common calendar every year – has me reflecting on my relationship with Christmas and Hanukkah. As an introvert, it’s easy for me to feel like an outsider, and that feeling is deeper at this time of year when the dominant culture is saturated with Yuletide shopping, music and celebrations.

I grew up in a secular Jewish family in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. As far as we knew, we were maybe the only Jewish household around. We weren’t religious, but we weren’t assimilated either. We never celebrated Christmas, although I did love to go carolling.

We lit Hanukkah candles, ate my mother’s yummy latkes and exchanged gifts on the first night. It was a sore point for me that with my birthday on Dec. 30, I was often told that “this will do for Hanukkah and your birthday.” That was usually for bigger gifts, like the metallic red bike I received one year. Not so much for new pyjamas.

Hanukkah is a minor holiday – not appearing at all in the Bible – but has a much higher profile because it comes around the time of Christmas. And Jewish kids want presents too. By the time I became a father in 1983, it was customary to give kids a gift every night for the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Over the years I’ve continued to light Hanukkah candles and my offspring in the nation’s capital does too. I have no hesitation to place the lit menorah in the window, but that’s not taken for granted everywhere. An American writer, Edmon J. Rodman, writes in the Jewish Telegraphic agency website: “. . . in the uncertain light of political change in our country, I was worried about what was emerging from the shadows: anti-Semitic iconography online, attacks on Jewish journalists, the re-emergence of Jewish conspiracy stories, Jewish college students being confronted with swastikas. Was this a wise time to let our light shine?”

And in Europe, some public events have been cancelled in the light of terror attacks. Seems like an odd turn of phrase – in the light – in this context. Cnaan Liphshiz writes in the Times of Israel about candle lighting in Europe this year.

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Being 69 – Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016: No more Mo’stache

Today I shaved off my Mo’stache after the month of Movember raising awareness and funds for men’s health. You can still donate to my campaign here.

1. Make man time.

Stay connected. Your friends are important and spending time with them is good for you. Catch up regularly, check in and make time.

2. Talk.

You don’t need to be an expert and you don’t have to be the sole solution, but being there for someone, listening and giving your time can be life-saving.

3. Know the numbers.

At 50, talk to your doctor about prostate cancer and whether it’s right for you to have a PSA test. If you are of African or Caribbean descent or have a father or brother with prostate cancer, you should be having this conversation at 45. Know your numbers, know your risk, talk to your doctor.

4. Know thy nuts. Simple.

Get to know what’s normal for your testicles. Give them a check regularly and go to the doctor if something doesn’t feel right.

5. Move, more.

Add more activity to your day. Do more of what makes you feel good.

  • Take a walking meeting
  • Park further away from the station
  • Get off the bus a stop or two earlier
  • Instead of the elevator, take the stairs
  • Cycle to work instead of driving

 

 

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Monday, Nov. 21, 2016: Refundable Mondays

Every Monday, I go down to the garbage/recycling room at Vancouver Cohousing and haul out refundable bottles and cans plus stretchy plastics and white styrofoam to the nearby Return-It depot.

This is my regular duty as part of the garbage/recycling  committee, one of many teams that help make it possible for us to maintain our 31-unit complex, increase our sense of caring, sharing and sustainability, and keep our condo fees down.

We pay a waste management company to take away garbage, plastic containers, glass, mixed papers and some of our organic waste, while the bulk goes into our compost bins.

Since I sold my house in 2004 I’ve lived mostly in multi-family buildings where the level of awareness about recycling has been very spotty, leading to all kinds of inappropriate junk being thrown into recycling bins.

I’m proud of how much we divert from the landfill, including batteries, small electronics, non-stretchy plastics, ink cartridges and CDs. We also have a share shelf in the common house where we leave things other people could use. And we loan stuff to each other all the time.

Our members are very careful to identify and sort our recyclables. About every two weeks, I take my garbage and recycling down to the room and I can generally hold the amount going into the garbage bin in one hand.

At the Return-It depot, I further sort the refundables into categories like wine bottles, beer and pop bottles, beer and pop cans, juice containers and plastic bottles. And then I take them to a cashier.

This week’s haul was  $17. Since we moved in at the end of February we’ve collected $575 for our general revenue.

 

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Some of the conscientious ways we sort our recyclables.

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The refundables in the back of my Honda – they don’t call it a Fit for nothing.

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Cashing in refundables at the Return-It depot.

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Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016: Sealing Shabbat with a kiss

Celebrating Harreson Sito’s birthday capped an action-packed Shabbat – certainly not a restful sabbath, but very fulfilling.

At the end of the evening, Joan de Verteuil and I gave Harreson a birthday smooch at a party at his family-run restaurant, the Blue Moon Cafe, on West 4th Avenue.

The long day began at 5:30 when I woke up for one of my passions – tennis. Not playing, in this case, but streaming a semi-final match between Canada’s No. 1 player, Milos Raonic, and the world No. 1, Andy Murray, at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, England, where only the top eight players compete.

I set up my laptop on my treadmill desk, plugged it into a larger display, turned on the treadmill and started watching and walking. It was a thriller, lasting three hours and 38 minutes, the longest in the tournament’s 46-year history. While Milos won the first set 7-5, he lost the next two in very tight tiebreaks 5-7 and 9-11. But still he finishes the year as world No.3, his highest ranking yet.

So while my guy lost, I logged more than 24,000 steps toward my Movember Move goal of averaging at least 10,000 steps a day this month. You could donate to my campaign here.

I arrived late for Shabbat morning services at Or Shalom, my spiritual community, and left before the potluck lunch afterwards to attend the demonstration and march against the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline that would triple the amount of oil coming from Alberta to Burnaby, the Vancouver suburb where I grew up, and dramatically increase the number of tankers in Burrard Inlet. The consequences of a spill would be catastrophic.

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Demonstrators begin the march against the Kinder Morgan pipeline project.

I really only made a token appearance, arriving at Vancouver City Hall where thousands had gathered to hear speakers, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, and then joining the march downtown for a mere half-block before rushing home to Vancouver Cohousing for a three-hour workshop on conflict transformation.

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David Hatfield leads a workshop on Conflict Transformation at Vancouver Cohousing.

The workshop was led by David Hatfield, who specializes in the design and delivery of transformative, experiential education. An excellent facilitator, he led about 35 of us through two processes. One is pictured above on the flipchart where we formed dyads to work through past conflict scenarios to shift from polarity where the two people are separate to fluidity where we could take more than just one side.

When we finished at 5, I grabbed an hour’s nap and drove to Harreson’s gathering with my triple-chocolate brownies. It was a beautiful evening of food, song, friendship and sharing. We passed a mic around and spoke of where we find joy in our lives and how we met Harreson. I talked about knowing Harreson from the chant world in Vancouver. When I’ve seen him he’s invariably smiling, and his smile makes me smile.

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Birthday boy Harreson with a few of his friends.

 

 

 

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Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016: Engaging the heart

This past week, our Chanting & Chocolate Band loved presenting a night of Hebrew chant and niggun for enthusiastic participants as part of a series called “5 Ways of Engaging the Heart: Experiences in Inter-Spiritual Practices.”

It was wonderful to be invited by the Ecumenical & Multifaith Unit of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster and St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver’s West End to bring our band to the Labyrinth Hall at St. Paul’s.

All of the audience had signed up for the five-night series that includes Sufi, Hindu, First Nations and Christian practices. Few had any experience of sacred chanting in Hebrew and, while some struggled to pronounce the words, their voices rang out in the acoustically live hall.

And they all seemed to dive into the meditative silence at the end of each chant when we paused to offer the possibility of experiencing a quiet mind and connection with the Divine.

At the beginning of the evening, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, spiritual leader of Or Shalom Synagogue (at left in the photo above), spoke about the tradition of niggun as evocative melodies, usually without words, developed by the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s, and Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who formerly held that post at Or Shalom (seated next to Hannah), explained the centrality of music in Jewish spirituality. She is currently director of Inter-Religious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology.

I spoke about Hebrew Chant as a meditative/spiritual practice, and was joined in the band by Martin Gotfrit on guitar, violin and vocals; Eric Brown on bass; Charles Kaplan on guitar, oud and vocals; Charles Cohen, on percussion, synthesizer and vocals, and Wendy Rubin on keyboards, flute and vocals.

I am always so grateful to these marvellous musicians for playing with me. They do it for love, with all of the donations we receive at the door going to support the education of five orphans in Uganda, where I lived 2009-10.

Please join us for our next chant evening at Or Shalom, 710 East 1oth Ave., at 7:30-9 pm and stick around after for tea and my triple-chocolate brownies. Details at chantingandchocolate.com.

I want to thank Tom Esakin, organizer of the “5 Ways” series and a regular at Chanting & Chocolate, Fernando Esté, people’s warden at St. Paul’s, and Dale Pleven, sexton and building manager who wrangled the sound.

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The Chanting & Chocolate Band in the Labyrinth Hall at St. Paul’s Anglican Church.

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Participants sinking into the silence at the end of a chant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday, Nov. 14, 2016: Investigative journalism matters

On the weekend I went to hear Walter “Robby” Robinson,  the former head of the investigative team at the Boston Globe who was portrayed in the Oscar-winning 2015 movie Spotlight by Michael Keaton.

The paper’s Spotlight team exposed the coverup of widespread sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, which led to more than 20 priests being convicted and jailed, and a Pulitzer Prize that Robinson accepted for the team in 2003.

Robinson, now the Globe’s editor-at-large, was speaking at the University of B.C. on “Spotlight on the church: How sex abuse went unnoticed for so long, and what it took to expose it.”

While he’s been called a hero, Robinson said the real heroes are the victims who came forward to tell their stories, many of them for the first time, some of them more than 50 years after they were abused.

I fear that with the death of so many newspapers and shrinking news staff of the ones surviving so far, that a scandal like the one in Boston wouldn’t be uncovered now.

The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency is scandalous in itself. Robinson was asked in the Q&A after his talk about his take on it. He said Trump has such a hunger for attention, he may end up with the most transparent administration ever.

“Reporters are conflicted,” Robinson said. While they are horrified by the results, they realize it’s the most extraordinary story.

 

 

 

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Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016: Creativity makes my day

From time to time I visit the Circle Craft Store on Vancouver’s Granville Island, a co-op featuring the creations of B.C. craftspeople, to ignite and delight the senses. Then once a year, the Circle Craft Fair at the sprawling Vancouver Convention Centre presents more than 300 artisans from across the country over five days.

I caught the last day and was overwhelmed by the creativity. On entry, I was drawn to the work of the Stinson Studios from Tamworth, Ontario, as shown in the photo above. Their handcrafted wooden bowls and sculptural burls from red and sugar maples, yellow birch and white oak are really fine art.

I love wood, as reflected in the floors, furniture and masks in my home. I treasure the purple heartwood salad bowl that a close family member brought back from volunteering in Guyana right after high school. Which reminds me to get up from the keyboard now and oil it.

There are too many standouts from the market to mention here but let me picture a few.

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From Steidle Woodworking in Vancouver. The canoe, wow, and the exquisite paddles. Even bee hives.

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While it rained heavily outside, these colour-drenched glass bowls brightened my day.

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More colour! Hand-dyed yarn by Yuriko Ito from Fibre Art Studio on Granville Island.

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Beautiful English and Hebrew calligraphy by printmaker Ian Kochberg of Richmond Hill, Ontario.

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Finally, a favourite saying by Oscar Wilde, in wooden wall art by Big Bear and the Wolf from Salt Spring Island.

 

 

 

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Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016: The one and only Leonard Cohen

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On Friday before guests arrived for Shabbat dinner I set up a simple shrine with my 1969 edition of the “Songs of Leonard Cohen” songbook and a candle in the common house lounge. Dan brought his guitar and we sang several of my favourites from Leonard’s earlier days – before his baritone dropped to a bass where my tenor fears to tread.

As the Montreal Gazette reported, “His funeral took place Thursday afternoon in Montreal, at the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on the slopes of Mount Royal. As had been his wish, Cohen was laid to rest in a traditional Jewish rite in a family plot, beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.”

It was such a double whammy this past week. First the unimaginable shock of the U.S. election Tuesday, then the news on Thursday about Leonard, although he had actually died in Los Angeles on Monday. Thursday evening some of us sang a few Leonard tunes at the piano in the lounge.

I blogged about Leonard when the Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan was announced last month. I was first exposed to Leonard when I was high school age, to his poems in “Love Where the Nights Are Long,” the first anthology of Canadian love poetry. I bought it for $2.50 at Duthie Books with a gift certificate won at a public speaking contest. “Leonard is now 82,” I wrote, “and I hope he lives long enough to be receive such an honour as the Nobel Prize. To me, his books, poetry and songs add up to a body of superb work greater than Dylan’s.”

One of his poems from that 1962 book offers a hint of his future direction toward songwriting and singing, a shift he made to make a better living than from writing prose and poetry.

Song

I almost went to bed
without remembering
the four white violets
I put in the buttonhole
of your green sweater

and how I kissed you then
and you kissed me
shy as though I’d
never been your lover

You can hear the music in those phrases. When I read those words in 1962 I was hooked on Leonard Cohen, especially because I fancied myself a poet too. Here’s one of mine from 1963.

The Pageant

Just remembering when I was Lead Bunny
in the Grade One pageant.
I was loud, my folks were proud,
even louder than the crowd, I was.
Louder than the Third Rock.
I sat on her, she cried.
Sure don’t make rocks like they used to.

My favourite 21st century Leonard song is “A Thousand Kisses Deep” from the 2001 album Ten New Songs. I treasure having seen Leonard perform in 2012 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver with my friend Ellen. He was so generous, seemingly singing forever, frequently dropping to his knees to croon – he absolutely rocked on stage.

But my all-time favourite Leonard song is “Hallelujah,” (the word is Hebrew for “Praise God”). We sang it at Shabbat dinner, and Shabbat morning at services to the Hebrew words of Psalm 150. And then on Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon, dressed as her Hillary Clinton character in a cream pantsuit, played piano and sang “Hallelujah.” And when she finished, she said, “I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”

 

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