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Thursday, June 29, 2017

U-Turn II: Back to the Music

I grew up in a pretty musical household. My father sang in a barbershop quartet; my mother played the piano and the organ; my brother sang, played guitar and the ukulele; and I played the piano and sang in the church choir. Given that my parents were also drinking fairly heavily during those years, many of the songs sung at their alcohol-fueled parties were unfortunately a bit on the slurry side. But that’s another story.

The music continued into my 20’s, when my brother, his new wife Pati, and I sang as a little down home trio, mostly for friends, and mostly the folk songs that were popular in the 1960s.

This is the information I gave to the choir director at my church—except for the drinking parents part—when I asked to join the choir. This happened a mere four weeks ago, following the 10:30 am Sunday mass, and just a few weeks after I’d officially joined the church.

I’m not quite sure that any of my previous singing or piano playing much mattered to the director, as he immediately told me to write down which monthly masses the choir regularly sang at. Then he told me to show up the following Wednesday for rehearsal. I said, “Fine, I’ll audition for you then.” To which he responded, “No need to audition. Welcome to the choir.”

That’s when I got nervous. I used to sing alto, and used to be able to read music, and used to play the piano, but I also last did all that nearly 50 years ago.

Welcome to the choir indeed.

I’ve now been to several rehearsals and sung at three masses with my choir colleagues—all of who have been singing together for years and were also immediately welcoming to this newcomer. So far, I don’t seem to have embarrassed myself: I do sing on key, though I couldn’t tell you which keys they are. I’m also not sure I’m an alto anymore, though I might be once I re-learn how to read music.

Mostly though, I feel grateful to be surrounded by this group and this music, especially the toe-tapping churchy stuff. Here’s an example of one of the songs I’ve kinda, sorta mastered, meaning I’ve practiced and sung it enough times to have learned it by ear.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Living in Vertical Time

I first tried meditation in the mid-80s, while trapped in a mind-numbing, soul-destroying job at a local university. Fortunately, it would turn out to be the last of its kind, but in the midst of it I needed to find some way to calm my raging anxiety.

And so the meditation, which actually did help. Anxiety, after all, is usually a function of living in the future, of worrying about what could or might happen. Meditation helps keep us focused on the present, on what is actually happening in any particular moment.

Now I haven’t maintained a consistent meditation practice over the years, but will be taking it up again, this time inspired by what Lewis Richmond has to say about horizontal vs. vertical time in his book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice (2012).

Here’s what I just found Richmond wrote about vertical time in a 2008 blogpost:

The experience of aging is an exercise in comparison that happens inside of horizontal time. What I mean is that we tell ourselves a story. I am 61 years old. I have sixty-one years of memories. I am older than I was a year ago. Ten years ago I could do X but now I can’t, I’m older. And so on. We picture ourselves somewhere on the timeline of a life, and begin to see more of that timeline in the rear view mirror than out the front windshield. This leads, inevitably, to a sense of loss, and perhaps sorrow or regret.

There is a whole other way to experience aging and time, and that is through vertical time. Vertical time is the time of this moment.

In his book, Richmond gives us a helpful way to "see"what vertical time actually looks like: “this present moment: this room, this book, this body, this breath.” And so it would appear that as with meditation vertical time can keep us anchored in the present, a place I live way too infrequently.

But as I age, I want to spend lots more time there.  I mean, here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

“If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast"

I don’t have access to HBO to watch this documentary, but as soon as it’s out on DVD, I’ll find it. Featuring Carl Reiner and “His Fellow Nonagenarians,” I know it will challenge so many of the stereotypes related to aging, especially those mentioned below by Norman Lear (in bold).

To read more about the documentary, see the New York Times article below. I hope it will inspire you to, as Mel Brooks, says imagine aging as a time to still “crack a joke…sing a song…tell a story.”

“For Carl Reiner and His Fellow Nonagenarians, Death Can Wait”
By Dan Hyman, June 2, 2017

The title of Carl Reiner’s most recent book is “Too Busy to Die,” and this 95-year-old comedy legend can thank his vivid dreams for inspiring many of the (sometimes wacky) ideas that keep him going.

There was the “selfish-y,” a self-indulgent selfie he introduced on “Conan” in which the photographer blocks the other person in the picture from view. And “Gnarly Carly,” the rap alter ego he debuted on “The Queen Latifah Show.” His nighttime reveries also spawned the concept of his next book, his 22nd, a compendium of the films that enraptured him growing up, including “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Mark of Zorro.”

“My mind keeps popping,” Mr. Reiner, who created “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and directed the movies “Oh, God!,” “The Jerk” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “So I’ll keep going as long as it lets me.”

It’s stereotype-shattering nonagenarians like Mr. Reiner who inspired the documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” which debuts Monday, June 5, on HBO. The film, directed by Danny Gold, takes its name from Mr. Reiner’s daily activity of checking the death notices to make sure it’s safe to go about his business.

A look into those leading vital lives well into their 90s, the documentary is also a toast to Mr. Reiner’s career and to those of his famous peers. He serves as narrator and plays something of a host throughout: There he is interviewing Kirk Douglas and Dick Van Dyke and enjoying freewheeling, reflective conversations with the longtime friends and colleagues Mel Brooks and Norman Lear.

Mr. Brooks, 90, first met Mr. Reiner in 1950 while working on Sid Caesar’s early television series “Your Show of Shows,” and the pair still watch films together at Mr. Reiner’s house several times a week. (In 2012, Jerry Seinfeld joined the two men at Mr. Reiner’s home for deli sandwiches on an episode of his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”)

Mr. Brooks said the thought of him slowing down in older age is heresy. “There is living and dying; there’s no retirement,” Mr. Brooks said in an interview.

Mr. Brooks, the comic mind behind “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “The Producers,” is currently revamping the Broadway version of “Young Frankenstein” for its reopening in October in London’s West End. And on June 30 and July 1, at the Encore Theater at the Wynn Las Vegas, he’ll perform his one-man show, during which he’ll sprinkle in comedy bits and film clips while recounting tales of his life.

“If we die, then we can’t do much,” he said. “But as long as we’re alive, we can still tap dance, we can still crack a joke, we can still sing a song, we can still tell a story.”

Mr. Lear, the creator of “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son,” has been having a bit of resurgence lately. A remake of his 1970s and ’80s sitcom “One Day at a Time” will be returning for a second season on Netflix, and he reviews scripts and attends nearly every casting session and show taping. He also hosts a weekly podcast, “All of the Above,” talking comedy with guests like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Poehler.

“The culture has an impression of aging that is not realistic,” he said. “To get the laughs, it paints a picture of older people as infirm, as whiny, and as incapacitated and foolish. I don’t think that’s who we are.”

George Shapiro, the film’s producer (with Aimee Hyatt) and Mr. Reiner’s nephew, agreed. He’s been thinking about such a documentary since 2010, when he started a paper file marked “Vitality After 90.” Last year, with Mr. Reiner’s blessing, he went ahead and self-financed the documentary, tapping Mr. Gold to direct after Ms. Hyatt showed him the filmmaker’s recent documentary “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” which tells the history of Jewish culture in Poland. (Mr. Shapiro, a longtime talent manager whose clients include Mr. Seinfeld, declined to disclose the budget.)

Mr. Reiner wanted the documentary to land at HBO, and it found a receptive audience there. Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, said she’s overseen “a lot of sorrow onscreen” in her career, particularly as it relates to older people. Most documentaries featuring older subjects “are about elder abuse or diseases,” she noted. “To suddenly be able to laugh is a very rare thing in a documentary.”

Early in the film, Mr. Reiner asks a rhetorical question: “How come we got the extra years? Was it luck, good genes, modern medicine? Or are we doing something right?”

The film then sets out to answer that question and attempts to serve as something of a how-to guide, proposing the maintenance of close friendships and passions for hobbies as paramount.

Mr. Seinfeld, who appears in the film to offer a perspective on aging and reveals he often wakes up depressed every morning thinking about yet another day of tasks, first met Mr. Reiner as an 8-year-old seeking an autograph at the Westbury Music Fair. Mr. Seinfeld said he’s a firm believer in remaining dynamic in one’s later years. “That song ‘Young at Heart,’ I don’t believe in that,” he said with a laugh, referring to the Frank Sinatra hit. “You gotta do something! You may start with a philosophy, but you got to actually act on it. It doesn’t happen just because you have a sunny disposition. You actually have to do some work.”

Mr. Shapiro said he’s already booked the 63-year-old Mr. Seinfeld for a 100th-birthday comedy show at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, in 2054. “We even have a hold-the-date certificate,” Mr. Shapiro said with a laugh. “He will be there. I don’t know if I’ll be there.”

Mr. Reiner admits to still being surprised on occasion by his contemporaries. During his research for the book about films from his youth he learned that Olivia de Havilland, who, in 1938, starred alongside Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” was still alive and living in France at 100.

“It makes me so happy,” Mr. Reiner said. “To know you can go on like that and still have your wits about you.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 4, 2017, on Page AR23 of the New York edition with the headline: Hey Death, Hold on a Minute.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

My Spiritual U-Turn

It began in earnest last fall. Here’s how I describe it in an essay I’m writing for the National Catholic Reporter:

Then on my 73rd birthday last year—on All Saints Day, no less—I had myself a good old spiritual crisis. While wandering through a local nature preserve on that crisp November morning, I asked myself two pretty hard questions:

            What’s your life been about so far?
            What’s it going to be about from this point on?

As is my wont, I write to discover what’s at work in the stories I tell about my life. In this instance, why did those two questions feel as if they were, at their core, spiritual ones? I really wasn’t sure. And so I hoped that by writing about it for NCR readers, I’d figure it out.

Especially this part: how do I account for the fact that not long after that innocent stroll in the preserve, I, a “cradle” Catholic, have returned to the church after an absence of close to 50 years. I mean, can a person get more lapsed than that?

Now I know that one 800-word essay will not be enough to make sense of this for me—and likely for many of my friends, including those who profess no faith of their own.

But it’s a start. So I hope that after reading my submission NCR will decide to publish it. Who knows? Maybe there’s a growing market of lapsed Boomers & Beyonders--of any faith--who have started to ask themselves their own pretty hard questions.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Lightning Strikes

In his book Aging as a Spiritual Practice, Zen Buddhist priest Lewis Richmond lists what he considers to be the four “recognizable stages and emotions” of aging: Lightning Strikes; Coming to Terms; Adaptation; and Appreciation. He goes on to write that “any stage can arise at any age, and stages do not necessarily appear in any fixed order.”

Richmond’s book is one of the sources for my newest workshop, Journaling as Spiritual Practice: A Workshop for People 55 and Over. While reading it, I found myself especially interested in that first stage, in which Richmond describes the “dominant emotion” as surprise. “We are taken aback to realize, ‘I’m really growing old,’ and then surprised again at how long it took us to see it.”

It was that emotion of surprise that I was reminded of last Friday, while at lunch marking the 74th birthday of one of my high school friends. “This is the last birthday I’ll be celebrating, “ she said as our glasses clinked, “75 just sounds too damn old.”

Now I imagine someone in their 30’s or 40’s wondering what took my friend so long to realize that she’s actually been old for a while. But I knew exactly where her comment came from; as I told her, the “lightning” Richmond refers to struck me last November when I turned 73. And not only the lightning, but the surprise part.

I even did some journal writing trying to figure out why. In the process, I remembered the night before I turned 50 calling my sister-in-law, who’d already reached that milestone, and said, “Well in a couple of hours I won’t be 49 any more. In fact I won’t be 40-anything.”

And yet I didn’t feel “old” then the way I felt “old” last November. Nor apparently has my high school pal felt old until now. I have some ideas about why this might be true, including this “new” old age phenom visited on us by the Boomers.

Would love to hear from any of my Boomer & Beyonder readers who have experienced Richmond's Lightning Strikes stage of aging. And when. Feel free to comment directly on this post or email me at