Bucket lists and the like

gray steel cooking pot hanged by brown steel chain

Photo by Peter Fazekas on Pexels.com

As I age, people seem fond of asking if I have made a ‘bucket list.’ Until recently I had not figured out what this meant so I would reply, “No, I have not”. Then I began guessing the meaning and gave the question a bit more thought. What is a soon-to-be 87-year-old wanting to do with the time remains? My questioners seemed to think that I should be planning a parachute jump, a visit to many famous ruins, or even an escapade with a movie star. Those recommending these ideas have many other activities along those lines they imagined I should indulge in, but few, if any actions of this nature, hold any appeal.

Besides, there are some more mundane things I want to do and hope there is enough time to do most of them. If that sounds morbid, so be it. In any event, I don’t see the time problem in that light. Interestingly, one of the items (fairly far down on the list) is to write more blogs, although I seem to be running out of ideas.

What do I want to do? To start with, I want to listen again to all the CDs I have collected. Even better would be to be able to listen to some recordings more than once.  I certainly want to read more books, especially those that have languished on my shelves for far too long. I want to look at more art and stare at more trees and clouds. I want to visit old friends and relive old times.

Much less important is to have a chance to go through hundreds of old files and succeed in refraining from re-reading them. I must get rid of a pile of old electronics starting with my first miraculous hand-held calculator, a Palm Pilot, two ancient lap tops and one, long deceased iMac computer. As well, there are boxes of wires, connectors, plugs, and the like that I have kept but cannot figure out why. They need to be tossed out though I cannot help thinking I will need some one day. I need to decide what to do with precious old scrap books.

[I know, I know. I need to declutter. I agree. Stop badgering me!]

Returning to the top level, I probably need to include fanciful things that could never come about. These include reliving certain experiences and being able to have a long chat with an idol. For example, I have several questions I would like to ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez about Love in the Time of Cholera but I know he is no longer alive. That sort of request could apply to the work of many other favourite writers, especially poets. To be greedy, I would also like Benny Goodman or any other great clarinetist to give me a few lessons and some encouragement. Or maybe just a pianist would suffice. (That put-down ‘just’ is for our son, a wonderful pianist, who insists I will never be a good musician because my timing is so bad.  He is right, of course).

What else? The list could be endless so I will stop here. But, if I were to continue I would  refrain from referring to the topic as a ‘bucket list’. I have no intention of kicking buckets because I won’t be kicking; I will just be gliding off gently into that good night. (I wonder if that concluding phrase is a variant on name dropping?)

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Beard Adventures

When I was a teenager I had trouble getting served in bars or liquor stores. This was because I looked younger than I actually was and no amount of ID, real or faked, could overcome that youthful appearance. I credit my Dad who among a host of other precious gifts gave me some excellent genes. He, too, in his 90s seemed not a day over 70. To address the non-drinking problem and the young women who refused to take me seriously, I decided to grow a beard.

younf me w pipe

I believe I was about 18 when I grew the first one. It was far from impressive. So much so that a few years later when I was in pre-meds a crotchety chemistry teacher remarked: “Tis a fine and manly thing that you do. I recommend trying some extract of bulls’ testes.” I was not sure how to interpret this or how to proceed but did not accept this advice. My  beard remained straggly and small. 


me unbearded age 30



Between the third and final year of medical school another good friend and I spent the summer hitchhiking around Europe. After we split up and went our own ways, I found myself in Ireland simply because a lift took me to the port in Wales from which the ferry sailed for the Emerald Isle. Seemed a good idea. The day after I arrived I proceeded to begin the hitching ritual despite the relatively few cars on the road. I was taken through a series of small villages. In one, as I was proceeding on foot through the town, I was followed by a group of children. Apparently they had not seen a real person who was bearded before and concluded that I had to be Jesus.  

There followed a few naked chin years. Then, right after graduation, a classmate and I went to work at a summer camp readying it for occupancy while we awaited our graduation ceremony. During that time, we both grew beards and when the time came to return to medical school for the big event, we agreed we would show up at graduation with our beards. Note that this was 1958 and, apart from Fidel Castro, beards were far from fashionable. When we gathered for the occasion I discovered that my buddy did not have a beard but I did. Too late to do anything about it, My appearance prompted the Dean to ad lib something along the lines of, ‘over the years we have all changed, Most of you have lost some hair while one other has acquired some in a strange place.’ Much laughter and fingers pointed at the target of this comment. 

On to residency with beard firmly in place. The custom in those days was to move up the ranks from intern, to junior, then senior resident (and for the creme de la creme, only one, to chief resident). At each step the chair of the department sent a letter at the end of the year inviting those who had not ‘blotted their copy books’, to join the ranks of those being promoted. When the time came for me to graduate from junior to senior resident many letters had been received but mine failed to come. Worried and anxious I asked the chief resident if I had failed to do the job well. He said that was not the case but mused that maybe I should try shaving my beard. I did. The letter came almost immediately. I am too good an epidemiologist to conclude a cause and effect relationship, but one cannot help but wonder. 

me white beard

All of that was over 60 years ago. The beard has remained ‘on’ for most of that time. It is now grey, or white, but still straggly and, apparently, somewhat uneven. Consequently, many ‘admirers‘- family, friends, and even occasional strangers – offer to trim it. So far I have resisted because I am determined to eventually achieve the high standard set by the friend shown below. I shall blog again if I succeed. Wish me luck.  


The High Standard to Which I Aspire

PS.. I have a can of shaving cream that I use when I shave the bare bit of each cheek. So far it has lasted over 20 years. This is another, perhaps much better, reason for keeping my eard. 


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Words: good, bad, and ugly

Picky, I know.

There are some words and phrases to which I’m allergic. I don’t sneeze when I come across them, but I do shudder. The first is ‘vast majority’ because I rarely see the latter word without the former and, I reason that not all majorities can possibly be that large. The second, which many experts will disagree with, is ‘multiple’, when it is used in place of ‘many’. A third is ‘small’ in place of ”young. Some young people are small and vice versa, but this is not always true; literally is often used when what is meant is ‘figuratively’. Finally, for now at least, I remind readers that in spite of what POTUS may say, nothing is ‘very unique’.

Ugly or bad

Not really ‘ugly; I simply could not find a better adjective. These are just words and phrases that I dislike because they are so pervasive and so often mindlessly used. They include: “So” (when used to start a sentence); “like” (when it has no meaning whatsoever or when it is incorrectly used in place of ‘as’; “you know” (when I don’t have a clue); “at the end of the day” when it is neither the end nor a day and when it has become a cliche); 24/7 (when it would be simpler to say ‘all the time’. Many of these are clichés and the list of these in extremely long.

Good, unused words

I have decided to start a collection of words whose meanings I know but which I almost never use in speech or in writing.  Ultimately, the list will be long, but for starters here are a few.  The goal of this gathering is to expand my vocabulary and thereby make my writing more appealing. Those here at the beginning of my list  have little in common other than the fact that I have seldom used them.

Inured, skullduggery, largesse, provenance, painfully, coffers, dolorous, attest, iteration, remiss, veer, vexing, opaque, frenzy, flout, flaunt, stupefaction, succumb, craves, exhort, narrative, groundless, repugnance.

When I was younger and smarter, I used to teach a course called ‘Scientific Presentations” to epidemiology students. It was intended to cover both writing and oral presentations. In the written part, I often gave feedback on assignments, and one item that I would highlight with the annotation, ‘CW’, was when the choice of  word needed to be improved, or at least, reconsidered.  Most writers – especially lazy ones – tend to use the first word that comes to mind. But, more often than not, with a bit more thought, we can do better. ‘Nice’ comes to mind: surely, we can come up with something more specific, more colourful, or more informative.

I am not suggesting that you always find a way to work ‘largesse’ into your next essay. But I do want to flaunt (not flout) the suggestion that you give the choice of words more attention. (Actually, ‘flaunt ‘is not the right word either, nor is flout: As the Mirrian Webster dictionary reminds us, “If you treat a convention with disdain you are flouting it. If you make an ostentatious display of something then you are flaunting it.” People often confuse the two.  

As well, there are many misused words. The Web has several lists of these ranging from 20 to 58 words long. Some common examples are ‘bring vs take’, ‘less vs fewer’, and ‘lie vs lay’. Pinker, expert on all things linguistic, insists that ‘irony’ and its variation, ‘ironic’, ranks at the top. But, as a good friend who is both a writer and an artist pointed out, these misuses are far more important in writing than when speaking.

But, to keep pointing out such ‘errors’ may simply be ‘picky’. So, I literally stand picked!


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Marmalade adventures: If at first you fail, use pectin

Each year when the seville oranges arrive, usually in January, our family tradition is to make orange marmalade. Until this year I thought I was getting the hang of it. This time I made a small change in the recipe. To be precise, after using the juicer to remove the pulp, I thinly sliced the skins as usual. Then, unlike past years, I put the skins in the juice in the fridge overnight. The next day, full of hope and eager expectations, I boiled the skins and added what seemed like large quantities of sugar. (My wife taught me to first heat the sugar in the oven to avoid chilling the heating process). I did so and boiled the mixture as usual and then did the cold-plate test for firmness. It failed. So I boiled again and tried again. This time I convinced myself that all was well. Then, after the mix in the large pan cooled, I distributed the contents into 8 sterilized jars and applied the lids. At that point the contents of the jars seemed too liquid, but I convinced myself that after a night in the fridge all would be well.

Alas, the next morning the marmalade remained as runny as before. I consulted my Bible of jam making, Cyril James paperback “The Right Way to Make Jams“. As CJ instructs, I poured all the jars’ contents into the big pot, added more sugar and lemon juice, and boiled again. The cold-plate firmness test was still somewhat ambiguous but having gone to all that trouble I was certain I had succeeded. The next morning – yikes – the stuff was still too runny!

In desperation, I took the ultimate step. I went off to the grocery to buy some pectin. When I returned I discovered that I already had some. Being the skinflint that I am, I was on the verge of using the old stuff when I decided to take the unusual step of actually reading the directions. They stated, with no uncertainty, if the package was past the expiration date it would not work. I proceeded to use the newly bought packets but discovered that the dates were on the box not on the actual containers! Apparently I had discarded the boxes and may have mixed the two up! There was no way to tell which was new and which was the long expired packet. I had no choice but to take a chance.

I added the pectin and this time continued boiling until I was certain I would pass with a good grade. In fact, as suggested by a friend, I went so far as to separate the already well-cooked skins from the liquid juice and only boiled the juice until it was reduced by nearly one half. After returning both parts (skins and juice) to the large pot for a final quick boil that may have overshot the mark, I repeated the cold plate test, this time following the instructions precisely. Still, I feared that this time all the jars’ contents would be rock solid.



But the next day, my virtue and persistence was rewarded! The colour and consistency was perfect, the taste equally so. After three tries I had achieved success! I would offer a moral to this story along the lines of  “If at first….” but I think someone has already come up with it.

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You are never too old

As I approach my 87th birthday and occasionally protest that I am too old to do one thing or another, some people argue that this is never true. Generally, I disagree because as I was once a physician, I know that most elderly folks are definitely too old to do certain activities. Few are able to run marathons, for example, (although one classmate still plays tennis!) But, I am obliged to agree that the reprimand is probably true for many other things such as various mental exercises (including, perhaps, crossword puzzles – see earlier blog about ‘how to cheat’*), trying new foods, certain cultural activities, or making new friends. The list is undoubtedly much longer but I am too old to remember what else I should add.

All of which is to say that earlier today I discovered that addressing and possibly removing some preconceptions should be on the list of exceptions. The lesson I have in mind has to do with painters (and, by extension, composers). I love art and classical music. My favourite galleries are the National, the Portrait, the Courtauld, and, especially the Wallace Collection – all in London. Staring at certain paintings seems to release my endorphins. My preferences in artists are equally broad although there are some who I long ago decided I did not like. Among these were Picasso, Dali, and Calder. My reasons for disliking them varied: I thought Picasso was teasing us; that Dali was exploiting us; and that Calder was sterile.

However, a few years ago after discovering the Picasso museum in Paris, I realized that he was far more versatile than I realized and that even the ‘silly’ bits were splendidly rendered. So I changed my mind about Pablo. I still believe Dali was prone to doing the same piece on different papers to persuade buyers that print editions were smaller than they really were.

As for Calder’s ‘sterility’, well, that is the essence of this blog. I confess I had come to this conclusion without ever seeing an exhibit of his work. I only thought of him in terms of cubes, triangles, bright colours, and bits hanging on strings. That was true until I visited the Calder exhibit now on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. As they say, I was simply ‘gob smacked’! A one-trick pony he is not. Set aside the idea that Calder is all triangles or mobiles. Or bright coloured square abstracts. What I saw covered an astonishing range. He painted; the mobiles are varied and ingenious; his circus is fun and clever; his jewellery breathtaking; and his sculptures intriguing. Above all the wire stuff? Amazing. The gallery has an old movie of him working with pliers and the bits of wire come alive. Wearing my old paediatrician’s hat I especially enjoyed the few drawings and clever bits he assembled as a child.


While I am indulging in this mea culpa, I had also ruled out liking the music of Olivier Messiaen. But after watching an episode of Mozart in the Jungle in which bits of his music is played, I completely reversed that judgment. Similarly, I told a musical son that I did not like Faure’s chamber music. He urged me to listen again and I changed my mind.

The lesson I learned from all this was that it is foolish to convince yourself that your mind cannot change in old age. I am resolved to try to avoid longstanding prejudices especially when it comes to art or music.

*PS – to cheat when struggling with a Crossword Puzzle try using the website Wordplays.com . My own favourite puzzles are the Quick Crosswords in the Guardian Weekly. (Not ‘quick’ for me, only quick for younger folks I guess). For them, when my frustration has reached its limits I go to theguardian.com.

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D H Lawrence’s Rananim: another failed Utopia

As I truly enjoy most everything Richard Smith writes in his non-medical blogs I want to share this with some of my followers, who, I hope include all my children.

Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

During the First World War D H Lawrence wanted to found a society of friends with whom he could “sail away from the world at war and found a little colony.” He called it Rananim after hearing the Hebrew song Rananim Sadekim Badenoi (which unusually I can’t find on Google or Napster and can’t translate using Google translate). It would be in Florida, and its emblem would be a black phoenix.

Florida, the penniless Lawrence soon realised, was impractical and so he opted for Garsington in Oxfordshire, the home of his then great friend Ottoline Morrell. “I want you,” he told Ottoline, “to form the nucleus of a new community which shall start a new life amongst us, a life in which the only riches is integrity of character…We can all come croppers, but what does it matter? We can laugh at each other, and dislike each other, but the…

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My musical career

When I turned 50 I was on sabbatical in London, England. One of our sons – an excellent pianist – was a final year student at Pimlico secondary school. We chose Pimlico because it had a highly-regarded music program. The father of one of his classmates played and collected clarinets. Our son thought this would be a suitable birthday gift and persuaded my wife to buy it for me. I then found an excellent teacher who lived nearby and began taking lessons. My teacher quickly persuaded me to change to a more modern, lighter, clarinet. Because it had fewer keys it helped me overcome many fingering challenges. Subsequently I enjoyed practising and developed a reasonably good tone. Unfortunately, my timing was poor and is still pretty awful.

After returning to Montreal I found a new teacher at the Mcgill Conservatory. Under his patient guidance I managed to pass the Grade II examination. That was truly a proud moment. I continue to play, but as I age I’m definitely slipping.

For my 80 birthday the same son, gave me six lessons with his splendid teacher.  Her unusual teaching technique got me off to a good start. Interestingly, however, the first piece she chose for me to learn was a Bach prelude from the Well Tempered Clavichord.  Six years later I’m still struggling to master it. (‘Master’ is actually a much too strong word! I just want to be able to play the darn thing without making mistakes or having to look at the score!)

The question for readers of this blog is whether I should persist or give up? Having asked questions previously and received few answers, I’m forced to conclude one of the following: few actually read this blog, all the readers are shy, or they simply can’t be bothered with my silly questions. I will continue to ask until I get a good answer. And I will persist with the Well Tempered but not well-played Bach.

PS… I am also trying to learn a Satie ‘Gnossieme’ which is actually a much greater challenge because my hands are not large enough. (That is the best excuse I can come up with.)

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A book lover’s dilemma

A few nights ago an old friend came to dinner. I asked what was new. With considerable excitement she replied, “I just finished re-reading War and Peace! It was much better than when I read it 30 or 40 years ago!” That got me thinking about what I should be reading at age 86. I expect that, like me, most book-lovers have a pile of books beside their bed, favourite chair, or on their ebook reader that they intend to read. But, realistically, if the list is as long as mine, they are not likely to fit them all in before ‘the last page arrives’. (That is another euphemism for dying!) (See former BMJ editor Richard Smith’s blog on Pet Peeves… this is one of them). So, the question becomes: which should we choose – reading or re-reading greats like War and Peace or settling for current favourites like Peter May’s books (see my blog), those of Philip Kerr, or Michelle Obama’s promising autobiography? Truly, I can’t decide. Last year, encouraged by something I read and by one of my sons, I started reading (and listening to) Moby Dick. I was loving it, but it got bumped for something else. I have resolved to finish it come what may. Which reminds me that, for me, and perhaps other elderly folks who belong to a library, thanks to Overdrive, there is often the option of listening to ‘affordable’ (i.e., free!) audiobooks. A bonus from listening,  apart from sparing eyesight, is that most audiobooks are brilliantly read. That poses yet another decision: read or listen?

Readers of this blog are invited to submit their thoughts. But, please do so promptly before the list gets any longer and the time any shorter!

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Help! I’m hooked!!

A few years ago our children bought me a high-end Epson scanner. It comes with holders in which you put slides or negatives. I scanned a lifetime of colour slides years ago but then found a loose-leaf album with old black and white negatives. These were photos I had not seen before, probably because black-and-white prints were expensive in the old days. Although I had a darkroom, printing was also costly and time-consuming. Last year I started to scan these negatives, most of which yielded discoveries so wonderful that I kept going despite the time it took. But i was hooked: driven partly by my curiosity and also because the ‘children’ (ages circa 50) loved most of the results as did I.


The scanner with film holder on top

And worth it because I am retired and presumably have time on my hands. And time in abundance is what is needed because the scanning is fiddly: you slide each negative strip into the holder, attach a thing to hold them in place, run a preview, choose the ones you want, and then look at each for possible editing. This whole process takes about 20 minutes, even at a low (800) resolution.

After nearly a year of off and on scanning I had nearly completed the album. Then came the shocker. As housecleaning continued I discovered a box with 6 (!) more albums including a gigantic one with triple the number of pages. What to do?

Clearly, I shall continue. The upside is the many new revelations that lie ahead. The downside is that I estimate I may have to live until I am 117 years old to complete the task. Below I share one of the lovely photos and the looming challenge of the monster in the box!


The family – about 40 years ago

Below: Left – box of albums.  Right – the Monster!

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Quotes from a favourite author

Peter May is the author of many books, including a trilogy set in Lewis, an Isle in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I became a huge admirer after reading the Blackhouse, the first of the trilogy. Now that I have completed all three, I am more convinced than ever that May is one of the best writers of our time.  His writing is sensitive and his plots are intricate. Interestingly, I recently learned that the Blackhouse was rejected by all the major British publishers to whom he submitted it.  However, some while later, after May left the UK to live in France, he sent it  to his French publisher who immediately acquired world rights. This extract from Wikipedia describes what happened next: “The book was hailed as “a masterpiece” by the French daily newspaper L’Humanité and was immediately nominated for several literary awards in France. It won the Prix des Lecteurs at Le Havre’s Ancres Noires Festival in 2010 and won the French national literature award, the Cezam Prix Littéraire Inter CE …. The Blackhouse went on to be published all over Europe and was bought by British publishers Quercus.” It appeared in 2011 and won major awards in the UK and the US. 

In describing his books, reviewers use such words as “Magical”, “Spell-binding”, “Haunting”. Then there is this marvellous accolade from a New York Times Reviewer, “Peter May is a writer I would follow to the ends off the earth.”A reviewer for the Independent wrote: “This is the sort of novel that will have the reader relishing every tendency of description and characterization… A perfectly formed trilogy.”   

To tempt you further into reading this splendid set of books, here are some quotes from the Lewis Man, the second in the trilogy:

When you are young a year is a big part of your life and seems to last for ever. When you are old, there have been too many of them gone before and they pass all too fast. We move so slowly away from birth, and rush so quickly to death.”

“and the moment was gone, carried off in the wind with their words.”

“of a view, Fin thought, to take with you to eternity: the smudged and shadowed blue of distant mountains beyond the yellow of the Scarista sands; the ever-changing light from a never-resting sky; the constant refrain of the wind, like the voices of the faithful raised in praise of the Lord.”

Final word and a small confession: Instead of reading the last book, The Chessmen, I listened to it. The wonderful Scottish accent hugely enhanced the magnificent reading by Peter Forbes. I warmly recommend readings for  fellow octogenarians.




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