On Turning 65

I turned 65 today [July 18]. I’m a senior now under probably any definition of the word that has nothing to do with formal schooling. I’ve reached one of life’s major landmarks: I get to expound on life’s meaning because my mature (my assessment), enfeebling (people younger than me’s assessment) mind believes that I have achieved wisdom through experience, and that others who are younger than me will be fascinated by my anecdotes and conclusions.

I’ve learned that life is a journey of transitions and that we have our flows, some positive and some negative. The more you fight a negative flow, the worse it gets. As soon as you accept it, it begins to change toward positive, even though it may take a while before you recognize the difference. Think trying to fall asleep. You can’t do it. But as soon as you stop trying and give in to your sleeplessness, you begin to relax, and you become asleep—a much more comforting image, by the way, than any image that includes the same verb that precedes “out of bed.”

As soon as I learned that lesson, my negatives became less negative and my positives became more positive. And even though at times my life’s flow seemed to descend so low that I had to look up to see down, I always knew that wondrous times were ahead. This is the partial essence, as I interpret it, of zen. It’s what I call “the old zen thing,” and why, humbly, I consider myself a master zen phony. (Hence, in case you were ever curious, Azenphony Press.)

But landmarks, unlike flows, represent dramatic points that push us forward or backward in sudden spurts. Yesterday you were in school; today you graduated. Yesterday you were single; today you were married. Yesterday you had a job; today you got dumped. Yesterday you partied with your best friend; today he died.

Some of these transitions are positive; others are negative. Still others are what you make of them. So yesterday I was younger than 65; today I’m 65. Good or bad?

No mystery on my end. I love it. I love growing old, with all of its perks and despite its perceived disadvantages. I spend more time looking back than when I was younger; when I do I’m reminded that I’ve lived a blessed life. But I also am fully involved in embracing the present and looking forward, with project ideas popping into my mind faster than I can learn the new technology that’s required to carry them to completion.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a great city to be living in while you grow old. First of all, birthdays are filled with treats, no matter what your age, especially from restaurants in the area. This morning, I had a free late breakfast at Denny’s. Tonight, accompanied by Emily and David, I enjoyed a free dinner at Real Seafood Company.

But Ann Arbor offers special perks to us seniors. For the past year, since we became a one-car family, I’ve been a regular rider on Ann Arbor’s incredible bus system, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. As an over-60, I got to ride half price. Today, having reached my 65th year, I have achieved Senior Gold status and get to ride for free. I got my pass yesterday at the AATA office, then returned with Emily, my young bride, so she could get her half-price pass.

But free bus rides aren’t the only perk you get for turning 65 in Ann Arbor. If I want to take a taxi ride anywhere in the city, all I have to do is make a reservation beforehand and I can ride one way for $3 (plus tip unless you’re a social boor). The $15 bus ride to the airport is now available for $6. And, though I haven’t checked it out yet, I’m told that I can take classes at Washtenaw Community College for free. Medical care rivals care anywhere in the world. It’s no wonder Ann Arbor always rates high in “Best City to Retire” surveys.

Retirement is a funny concept, one that probably will forever elude me because it isn’t in my nature and because I was a late bloomer. The outside world, beyond the Jewish suburbs of Cleveland, where I grew up, was overwhelming to me. I embraced it, got lost in it, got found in it, made lots of friends, including more than one who thought I was “the titsest Jew” they’d ever met, dropped out of college for seven years, and spent a major amount of it organizing against the Vietnam War, stoned, and hitchhiking around the country looking for myself and trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

By the time I realized what I wanted to be, I had discovered that such definitions may be important in the job market but for personal growth they are self-limiting and I was more interested in personal growth than financial gain. So while hometown friends were working their ways up their respective ladders, I couldn’t get off the ground. But did I cover a lot of ground! Now my friends are retiring and I’m just hitting my professional stride. That’s okay, I learned on the road. We all travel our own highways and create our own paths.

I love what I’m doing now and look forward to every new day. If Emily wasn’t so passionate about our taking vacations every year—bless her heart, I might never even take a day off. It takes a special occasion, and today was one. So, I rewarded myself by taking a half day off from work to celebrate my birthday. After Emily’s workday ended, I took my first free bus ride and she her first half-price ride as we went downtown to visit the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

Emily entered the bus first. Then, much to the surprise of the driver, she took a picture of him together with me, flashing my Senior Gold card. History must be recorded so there is no doubt that it happened.

The first seat on each side of the aisle faces inward, with its back against the side of the bus. The sign above each informs bus patrons that those are intended for seniors and the disabled. We walked past them and sat in the first row of seats intended for average people. A couple was sitting across the aisle from us in one of the old-people seats. They wore AATA “Senior” cards in lanyards around their necks. I commented to them that this was my first free AATA ride. The woman smiled. Her two teeth shined back at me. My friend, dentist Tom Poirier, says, as his business tag line, “Where you only floss the teeth you want to keep.” Clearly, she loved those two teeth. I wondered what she had against the others. I thought, is that how I look to others? I concluded that I looked pretty good. But then, before I could hold back the compulsion to qualify, I added the phrase that will be with me for the rest of my life: “for my age.”

Two young women laughed hard though they had no idea what was happening because they hadn’t heard my words. “My first free bus ride,” I told them. They thought I was pretty funny—for my age.

So what do you get for the guy who has everything?

Emily started asking me what I wanted for a gift as soon as the calendar registered July. I said, “I just want to be with you.” She hates when I say that but the truth is, I have everything I want from the physical world. My dad was like that. He accepted birthday cards but he really didn’t want gifts. He was just happy to have his health, his social activism, and, most of all, to be with his beloved wife and family. I’ve inherited those priorities. I’m fortunate beyond wishes.

He also was practical, a trait I teased him about when he was alive and now mimic. So when Emily persisted, I thought of the gardening I’ve been doing around the yard, and the weeds that keep popping back up as soon as I pull them because we don’t use poisons in our yard, and I declared my choice for a birthday present: “Mulch.”

And that’s what I’m getting. And to be with her. Is life great or what?

If I’d known it would feel so good to turn 65, I would have turned 65 years ago.

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Digital Project Welcomes East Village Other, Others

It was a good week for Independent Voices, the underground/alternative/literary press digital project that has consumed the better part of my last four years. I won’t detail every connection I made with rights holders or prospective rights holders. Getting an official okay can take many weeks and require my sending of multiple reminders. That’s just the nature of email communication. This project has taught me patience.

Today, I’ll just mention a few of the major agreements that I received.

After a long campaign to find out who the rights holder was, I was thrilled—yes, that’s still an understatement—to welcome East Village Other and Gothic Blimp Works to the project. I ended up not finding one rights holder. Rather, I sent my invitation to a list of every EVO veteran I could find, and even some folks peripheral to EVO who weren’t really in a position to say yes or no anyhow but might have been able to provide input, and then I responded to everyone who got back to me. I found strong support for being included, and no opposition, which is what I anticipated. EVO was one of the most important underground papers of the Vietnam era and was one of the first five members of Underground Press Syndicate, the first nationwide network of underground papers. In fact, as the story goes, the name Underground Press Syndicate came out of their office. Gothic Blimp Works had a brief run of eight issues in 1969. It was published by EVO and was billed as “the first Sunday underground comic paper.”

Along the way, I developed a nice email friendship with veteran Alex Gross. I’m currently reading his memoir, The Untold 60s: When Hope Was Born: An Insider’s Sixties on an International Scale. It’s a huge book, approaching 700 pages, but it’s a fast, enjoyable read, taking on his adventures in England, Germany, and the United States, including his time with East Village Other and London’s first underground paper, International Times (a.k.a. IT).

Another major paper to come on board was Southern Patriot, published by legendary civil rights organizer Anne Braden. I got the okay from her son, who is her estate executor. Along with Independent Voices, we are developing other Civil Rights- and Vietnam-era digital collections, including the archives of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the archives of the Highlander Center, and the news packets and photos of Liberation News Service. Having connected to Jim Braden, we’re now talking about creating the Anne Braden Digital Archives. Just in the talking stage so far but exciting to me.

Meanwhile, speaking of the East Village Other, I should mention that three new literary publications that have recently come on board are Yardbird Reader, Y’Bird, and Quilt, all co-published by EVO co-founder Ishmael Reed, who gave me the okay.

Other recent additions to the literary collection: Reflections from Chapel Hill, Personal Injury, Fire Exit, Not Guilty, d.a. levy’s The Marrahwanna Quarterly, and the feminist Earth’s Daughters.

And then I topped off the week by getting the okay from Tessa Koning-Martinez, daughter of Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, to include El Grito del Norte (The Northern Call), an important bi-lingual (Spanish and English) paper from New Mexico, co-founded by Betita and attorney Beverly Axelrod, that covered news of the Chicano movement, workers’ struggles, and Latino political prisoners from 1968 to 1973). I thank Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz for connecting me to Tessa.