Friday, 28 October 2016

My Fortnight of Positivity: Dream or Reality? (Or...My Feeble Attempt to Reclaim My Social Media Feeds)

If you have somehow missed my last two posts, (I'm genuinely stunned into silence!) I am currently engaging in an exercise to bring civility back to our social media feeds by posting ANYTHING that isn't related to the shitstorm of ugliness we all are dealing with leading up to November 8th. Please join me in this exercise by refraining from posting ugly partisan memes, badly sourced pseudo-stories, and nastiness in general. We could all use a healthy dose of nice. Let's put the "social" back into social media.

As we sit and wallow in the eyes of our own personal hurricanes, it is so very easy to forget that there is much to be grateful for. Sometimes that joy can be blindsiding. Such is the case with my nephew's Bar Mitzvah which we will be celebrating this Shabbat.

As a parent of adult children, I've long since put the B'nai Mitzvah "circuit" in the rearview. I've grown complacent when it comes to celebrating these rites of passage of other people's kids and sometimes I have even bemoaned the need to attend and wrongly viewed it as a chore. But, this one feels different. This particular Bar Mitzvah is the second to last in our immediate family and I am experiencing a real sense of life's impermanence and fleeting nature. In the very near future, it is entirely possible that I will ascend the ladder of generations. No longer the parent or the aunt or the cousin, but instead one step removed. That idea has me a bit freaked. My dad used to say that he knew he had aged out when they started asking him to do the Motzi at simchas. That, he says, is the quintessential old man's job.

So this weekend I plan to revel in my family's joy and not take a single moment for granted. I will feel pride as I watch my youngest nephew take a giant leap forward. And...I will bake mounds of chocolate cookies for the occasion because that's what you're supposed to do when faced with good things.

Stop and smell the chocolate.
Shabbat Shalom to all who observe. 

Thursday, 27 October 2016

This Cynic's Continued Attempt At Positivity (or..How to Keep Social Media Out of the Gutter Until After November 8th)

If you missed yesterday's post, I am currently engaging in an exercise to add niceness to our social media feeds by finding ANYTHING that isn't related to the crap we all are seeing leading up to November 8th. Please join me in this exercise by refraining from posting ugly partisan memes, badly sourced stories, and misery in general. We could all use a healthy dose of charm. Let's make social media social again.

Today's posting of good news comes from Sea World in Orlando.

I must admit that this is the last place whose virtues I thought I would be extolling, given their recent negative history with large marine mammals and my natural hostility towards keeping them in captivity. That said, sometimes...and I do stress sometimes...these places can do good work towards the care and protection of vulnerable creatures.

Such is the case of this female Adelie penguin who is suffering from feather loss, the penguin version of alopecia. Apparently, this sort of thing can occur from time to time, but it can be fatal as penguins require their feathers to swim and therefore eat. The good people at Sea World came up with a solution. They made this fine lady her very own, customized, penguin-sized wetsuit.

If you follow the link, there is a little video showing our girl joining in all the normal penguin games and doing all the everyday things that penguins do.

What a remarkable time in which we live whereby we can recognize that all life has merit and that we should attempt to find dignity for all creatures. Please don't kill my happy buzz with talk of how this penguin is taking precedence over more important things. Sometimes, we all need to find some measure of peace. Today, this little Adelie is mine.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A Cynic's Journey Towards Positivity. (Or...How to Get Through to November 8th Without Committing Mass Murder.)

I am blogging today because, in all honesty, I am finding my social media feeds and television to be downright depressing. If I see one more meme about ANYTHING I might just have to chop down the closest tree, whittle it thinly into toothpicks, and then very slowly insert each one most painfully into my eyeballs and ear canals thereby rendering me blind and deaf until after this shitstorm is over.

Please just make it stop already. All of us. STOP!

So, my pledge to whatever faithful readers I still have left is my unwavering commitment to post nothing but my version of positivity until after November 8th. If I should falter, you all have my permission to inundate me, until the end of my days, with a continuing loop of the most heinous disco music ever recorded. I plan on posting quite a few in this sanguine series, so I apologize in advance for making myself a nuisance. Call it my coping mechanism.

Today's entry into this confirmed cynic's view of "What Makes My World Great" is a brief moment of my day.

You know that feeling you get when a stellar song from a favourite Broadway musical enters into your playlist, and it makes you smile, and you realize that the real reason you're smiling is because you actually saw this person perform said number live, and you recall greatness?

Yah. That.

Today I had that moment while on the treadmill with Andrea Martin singing "Just No Time at All" from Pippin. By the way when we saw it? She flat out stopped the show. A five-minute standing ovation. This is so worth the 8 1/2 minutes you will spend watching it. Trust me. It's Bigly.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

My Canada

In yesterday's Toronto Star, columnist Chantal Hébert wrote one of the best missives I have read this election cycle about the fundamental differences between Canada and the United States and where our two countries are headed politically. I urge you to click on the hotlink above and read it, not merely because I have asked you to, but because I do believe that many of my American friends are fundamentally stunted when it comes to understanding the Canadian psyche. A case in point was the totally vapid and mindless "comedy" essay that Jim Gaffigan did on Canada on CBS' Sunday Morning today.

In his defense, Gaffigan was going for satire and a comical turn basically informing Americans fearing the final election results that Canada is an odd place with odd likes and customs and that fleeing here might not be in an escapee's best interests. He peppered his routine with tired Canadian tropes and stereotypes about poutine and hockey and he finished up by questioning why we have a maple leaf on our flag. Frankly, it was lazy, based on zero research, and fundamentally the worst kind of comedy in that it was profoundly stupid. George Carlin was moaning someplace in the great beyond about the death of the esoteric comedian. And all of this is coming from somebody who really likes Jim Gaffigan.

I realize that there are a lot of Americans who are turning an eye northward in this time of profound schisms and misery. This election has been a holy host of horrors and if I were one of you, I might also be investigating an exit strategy. Of course, realistically most Americans will deal with the fallout of whatever happens because, when you get right down to it, this is what is most endearing about Americans; the strength and resilience to fight through the tribulations. This fighting spirit has kept them on top of the world's stage for almost two and a half centuries and I have little doubt that they will persevere for at least a bit longer.

But, if there really are Americans thinking about Canada as an option, (and please understand that it isn't as easy as merely showing up at the border wearing a Josh Donaldson jersey) and if it is a truly serious thought, it needs to be said that we are so much more than the butt of a hockey stick or the scarlet tunic of a Mountie. We are a people with everyday issues, everyday problems, and everyday feelings of pride.

We are a country who...

Has rallied as an entire country behind a single team, the Toronto Blue Jays because Major League Baseball sent our only other team to Washington. The ratings this fall for Blue Jays postseason games show that more than seven million people watched the final game of the ALDS. Seven million!! In a country of not quite 35 million. This is a rating's number that clobbers even the biggest hockey game of the year, including the Stanley Cup finals. It rivals the number of Canadians who watched Andre DeGrasse win bronze in the 100M at this summer's Olympics. (Yes..we celebrate great achievement, not just winners.) We are a fierce and proud people and we will defend our own with passion and poignancy. Canadians cheer on Canadians, even if they hail from the US, Dominican Republic, and Mexico, no matter what. Yes. It is true that hockey is a national obsession, but our national self-esteem is all about supporting those who display the best of who we are even if they can't skate.

We are a country who...

Values achievement and collective responsibility. In a television program entitled The Greatest Canadian that aired on the CBC back in 2004, Canadians were invited to vote on who they thought best fit the title. There wasn't an entertainer or sports figure in the top five. Coming in at number 1 was Tommy Douglas, the father of universal health care and a former premier of Saskatchewan. (OK. He was also the grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland, so I suppose that there is a wee bit of entertainment value to this pick.) Rounding out the top five were activist and humanitarian Terry Fox, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Dr. Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin, and environmentalist David Suzuki. We can argue fiercely about politics and there are still people who think that Pierre Trudeau was the devil incarnate and therefore Justin is his evil spawn, but we tend to look at our politics through a uniquely pragmatic lens. I would venture to guess that while there are many who would like to improve upon our flawed health care system, there are very few who would like to abandon it altogether.

We are a country who...

Tends to cherish civil discourse even amongst our most polarizing figures. When Rob Ford passed away earlier this year, the entirety of city council was there to pay their respects, even those who voted to strip him of his magisterial powers and his most vocal critics. This weekend, former Harper cabinet minister and conservative Alberta premier Jim Prentice, was tragically killed in a small plane crash. He was praised and eulogized by politicians on all sides of the political spectrum. We are far from perfect. The problems and conditions that allowed for Rob Ford's horrific mayoralty in the first place still plague us, but even those who despised him while in office and the brand of politics he practiced, found some small modicum of decency in the man himself and felt sorrow for his family. We don't always succeed at civility, but we certainly aspire towards it.

We are a country who...

Cherishes our inherent beauty. Mr. Gaffigan asked, "why do we have a Maple Leaf as our national symbol on our flag?" It's because we look upon the beauty of our natural environment with pride and deep gratitude. Yes, it is easy to make maple syrup and pancake jokes and in fairness it is one of our great commodities, but the Maple Leaf symbolizes our deep and abiding love for the earth we were entrusted to protect. Our flag is reflective of that emotion. (I should mention that the final flag design was a compromise representation that consumed Canadian passions fifty years ago. In typical Canadian fashion, neither side was rewarded with the win. Today, our flag is recognized the world over as a symbol of inclusivity and we Canucks don't slap those patches on our luggage simply because we don't want to be mistaken as Americans, but rather because we are fiercely proud of the red and white.)

We are a country who...

Tends to adopt the best of others and make them our own. Ours is a cultural mosaic rather than a melting pot. We encourage diversity and we welcome the changes. It isn't always easy and we have  had major battles from all points on the political and cultural spectrum that has threatened the very fabric of our collective consciousness, but we do tend to move positively and timely with social mores. As Ms. Hébert correctly states in her column,
That is not to argue that unanimity reigns supreme in Canada or that it should. But clashes over the best approach to policy are symptoms of a healthy democracy, as is dissent. The noise that attends both does not alter the fact that on many of the principles that polarize other comparable societies there are Canadian consensus views that stand to outlast the popularity of the current prime minister, just as they did the Harper decade.
Yes, it is true that we are a country who loves our hockey, poutine, Mounties, maple syrup, moose, beavertails, toques, and coloured plastic money. But it is also true that we are an incredibly diverse people who are profoundly exhausted by the ignorance of our closest cousins, neighbours, and largest trading partner as to who we really are. Yes, we have a bit of an inferiority complex brought on by living next door to a behemoth and yes, while we tend to export the best comedians on the planet south of the 49th, we do often have a bit of difficulty laughing at ourselves. But, this election season offers a perfect opportunity for our American friends to lovingly discover just who we are and what we stand for. This country isn't perfect and it isn't a quick-fix for all that ails disenchanted and disenfranchised Americans this cycle, but it is home and I couldn't be more proud of it.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Shana Tova

I have been giving quite a bit of thought over the last week to the upcoming Yamim Noraim (The Jewish High Holy Days) and what it means for people of faith and for people who are questioning. This season is a time of reflection for Jews around the world, and while many of us look inward in order to find a sense of purpose and meaning for our lives, others choose to take a more arms-length approach to self-examination.

But here's the thing.

In whatever manner we choose to observe these sacred days, we need to be less critical of those who do not do as we ourselves might do and those who do not believe as we ourselves might believe. We are a fragmented people, us Jews. Some will attend synagogue this week and next and some may not. Some may have family dinners or break fasts and some may choose to eat alone. Some may pray and some may abstain. Some may be altogether uncomfortable with the notion of God and some may actively attempt to summon a Divine Spirit. Some may hopefully seek to right their wrongs and some may not believe that there are wrongs that need to be righted.

After spending a career trying to understand community needs and responses for these days, I have finally come to the conclusion that there is no cookie-cutter approach that will work. We as a people must seek to discover and actively maintain a sensitivity for those who have become disenfranchised by the product our organized religion has been selling. There is a reason that putting "Jews in the pews" has become so challenging and most of it stems from our lack of listening to those concerns. So, in order to start the new year off with some much-required balance, I offer a few tips for all of us observing over the next ten days. Hopefully, we can put these days into their proper perspective.

For those attending synagogue.

1) Stop worrying about what the people next to you are wearing. This is supposed to be the time when judgement should come from a higher place and not you. Are my prayers any less worthy if I choose to wear jeans? What matters is what is in the vessel, not the vessel itself.
Once Rabbi Elazar son of R. Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He rode along the riverside on his donkey, and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.
 There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man, who greeted him, "Peace be upon you, my master!" R. Elazar did not return his salutation but instead said to him, "How ugly this person is! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?"
"I do not know," said the man. "But go to the craftsman who made me, and say to him: How ugly is the vessel which you have made!"
Realizing that he had done wrong, R. Elazar dismounted from his donkey, prostrated himself before the man, and said to him, "You are right. Forgive me!" But the man replied, "I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, 'How ugly is the vessel which you have made.'" (Talmud Taanit 20a-b)
2) Don't search for fault in the rabbi's sermon and stop with the critiques. You may not always agree with what she/he has to say, but understand that great thought and care went into those remarks. Try and find the meaning beneath the surface.

3) Don't be so caught up in your own experience that you neglect the stranger or the newcomer. Find that person and invite them to sit with you. Synagogues can be giant cliques. Seek out the new person. We make new members when old members remember what it was like to be new.

4) Take five minutes during the service, any five minutes, and close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Listen to your own voice, your own thoughts. Try and remember why you decided to come. Make this place your holy place. You have to do the work if you want the results.

5) Stop looking around for who isn't there and focus on who is. Other people's decisions should have no bearing on your own. Remember that repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgement's severe decree.

For those who gather outside the synagogue.

1) Try and remember that there are reasons for these days that don't only involve food. Have some serious discussions at your tables about the themes and realities of the Yamim Noraim. Jews around the world are facing some difficult realities today. Let's not whitewash them with honey cakes and gefilte fish.

2) Add one extra ritual to your tables. Maybe it is some environmental experience for the "Birthday of the World" or maybe it is simply lighting festival candles that you haven't in years. Let the youngest amongst you hear and try to blow the Shofar. Do something to make the experience more than just dinner.

3) Make an effort to understand why some members choose to go to synagogue instead of gathering for dinner. Their feelings and beliefs matter too.

4) Don't dismiss religious observance as fantasy or fairy-tale. We who find meaning in it have our reasons for prayer, just like those who have no use for it have theirs. We need to respect each other's choices.

And to those who won't be doing anything during these days.

We will miss you. This is a time when all Jews can hopefully find some common ground for our concerns and our experiences. If this is not the year for you to rejoin us, then maybe next year will be. We just want you to know that you are always welcome. We are your people.

Shana Tova U'Metukah. I wish everybody a happy, a healthy, and a peaceful New Year. May we write our own stories and our own pathways, whatever they may be, in the Book of Life.