Jun 16 2013

Of privilege and prostitution

Women advocating for the abolition of prostitution on the steps of the Supreme Court (source: www.ctvnews.ca)

For a few years in the 1990s, I had the privilege of bylining a column in the Vancouver Sun. Every week, I’d write 750 words on pretty much any topic I wanted, and the Sun (a broadsheet not affiliated with the tabloid chain) would disseminate it to hundreds of thousands of readers.

That’s where the privilege came in. Pre-Facebook, Twitter and widespread Internet use, having a newspaper column gave you a singularly influential platform.

After three years, a new editor-in-chief decided to replace my overtly feminist voice with that of another more conservative-minded woman whose opinions more often aligned with those of the new owner (and yes, his name was Conrad Black).  I doubt that my views ever registered on Mr. Black’s consciousness, but from the day he became the major shareholder of the paper, my own editor began second-guessing my commentary, calling me up to inquire, “Are you sure you want to (write about breast feeding, contradict yesterday’s editorial about same-sex parents, or encourage police to do a better job of investigating the disappearance of aboriginal women on the Downtown Eastside)?”

(This was years before the Port Coquitlam pig farmer was finally identified as the man behind those disappearances, and I continue to regret that I only devoted one column to the topic, instead of 5, or 10.)

Yesterday, the Ottawa Citizen gave me space to write about some of the issues currently being considered by the Supreme Court regarding the decriminalization of prostitution. The debate over the wisdom of what’s being advocated by Bedford and company is one that divides feminists, and I respect the perspectives of those who take a different view on the matter.

But I’m siding with Aboriginal women on this one. The Native Women’s Association of Canada is one of seven organizations that make up the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. The Coalition used its intervener status at this week’s Supreme Court hearing to advocate for the decriminalization of prostituted women, but not the legalization of brothels or pimping. (You can read the full column here.)

Although mainstream newspaper columns don’t have quite the same dominance as they once did, being able to focus thousands of readers’ attention on an issue you think is important remains a privilege. I appreciate it every time I’m given the opportunity.

And I am genuinely thrilled every time a woman who has attended an Informed Opinions workshop, or heard me speak, takes advantage of a similar forum to amplify her voice on a topic she knows and cares about.

Our site now features more than 100 of these interventions, with many more to come. And royalties from the sale of every copy of I Feel Great About My Hands support more women in being heard.


Dec 26 2012

Advice on aging

Earlier this year, the broadcaster any author would die to be interviewed by, Eleanor Wachtel, was eliciting gems from American writer, Fran Leibowitz. Although I was listening to their conversation on CBC’s Writers and Company while cooking, I stopped chopping, sautéeing and tasting long enough to transcribe the following:

You should become less interested in yourself as you become older because other people are less interested in you.

You might as well join them; they might be right.

Leibowitz’s wisdom put me in mind of some of the advice contributor Lyndsay Green solicited from the octogenarians she interviewed for her own book, You Could Live a Long Time: Are You Ready?  Although my copy of Lyndsay’s book doesn’t currently sit on my shelf, having been loaned to a friend, I recall her devoting a good portion of one chapter to strategies that could have been summed up in Leibowitz’s quip.

But more important than taking less interest in yourself, were the suggestions offered by Lyndsay’s interview subjects about remaining curious about the lives of others.

At a recent Christmas lunch, I watched a brilliant practitioner of this approach in action. Accomplished pianist, avid traveler and enthusiastic grandmother, Evelyn Greenberg is the kind of person who adds enormously to any table she graces. Although retired a number of years ago from her teaching responsibilities at the University of Ottawa School of Music, she remains as engaged in the world as anyone I know. And if she knows little about social media, her social skills are honed from years of inquiring about others.

Within minutes of meeting my young colleague, Claire, Evelyn had determined that the two shared a birthday, and before the lunch was over, she had my equally youthful stepdaughter  enthusiastically anticipating a promised brunch date in their shared neighbourhood. To top off her tour de force charm offensive, on our way from the dining room to the coat room, Evelyn exercised no false modesty in quickly agreeing to demonstrate her piano prowess, but rather than wow us with an awe-inducing riff from Paginini or Bach, she began to play Silent Night — a song that all of us knew well enough to sing along to.

And yes, I AM taking notes.

 


Nov 29 2012

Do happy people live longer?

Multi-media journalist Kate Adach makes a convincing case for the impact of a positive attitude on longevity in her profile of Dorothy Moore, pictured below, which you can read here. Kate’s story was a finalist for the 2011 Canadian Online publishing awards .


Nov 13 2012

And she won!

Earlier today the Governor General’s Literary awards selected Linda Spalding’s new novel, The Purchase, as this year’s winner.

The recognition will undoubtedly introduce readers not yet familiar with her work to the twin gratifications of beautiful prose and compelling plot.

It’s an honour to have been able to feature Linda’s essay in I Feel Great About My Hands. (see more about her new book and an excerpt from the collection in previous post)  


Oct 29 2012

Linda Spalding shortlisted for two awards

I was riveted by author Linda Spalding‘s 2005 book, Who Named the Knife, an engrossing exploration of her intersection with a murder case in Hawaii many years ago. As a juror who was dismissed near the end of the trial for being 10 minutes late, she  was unable to shake the feeling that her presence at the time of the decision might have made a difference to the convicted woman’s fate. The New York Times called the book “an honest, creepily fascinating memoir/true-crime story”.

Author Linda Spalding with her husband, Michael Ondaatje (courtesy of her website)

So I was thrilled when Linda agreed to contribute an essay to I Feel Great About My Hands — and even more delighted when I received it. In “Face It”, she revisits some childhood memories about the beauty shop in her Kansas hometown, and then tells of her encounter with a plastic surgeon — a tale she renders at once chilling and literary. In conversation with the doctor about gravity’s effect on skin, she refers to “the saggy, baggy elephant in the children’s story.” His blank look gives her pause:

How could I trust a doctor who had not read the story of the little elephant who doesn’t know what he is because he doesn’t look like anyone else in the jungle? When a parrot tells him his ears are too big, his nose is too big, and his skin is much, much too big, the little elephant says he’d be glad to improve himself. But how? I looked at the hand mirror, wondering the same thing, while the doctor spoke softly about the droop of my lower and upper lids. His surgical method involves a good deal of bleeding and bruising, he said. “Do you have sensitivities?”

The little elephant had tried to smooth out his skin with his trunk. He had soaked in a river with the crocodiles to make his skin shrink. A tiger had offered to take some bites out of his hide.

“I tend to weep.”

“With all the cutting, you might end up weeping for the rest of your life,” said the doctor blandly. “Or you might never weep again.”

I listened to a long litany of risks. If I woke up in the night unable to see, I should go to emergency. I should not call him. This is the end of me, sags, bags, wrinkles and all, thought the little elephant. And I put on my coat and went down the marble stairs.

Now Linda’s new novel, The Purchase, described by the Globe and Mail as “eerily compelling” and “an engrossing historical melodrama that reads like an HBO miniseries,” has been short-listed for both a Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

It’s great to see her work getting such recognition.

 


Oct 21 2012

Mixed feelings about Botox

I was still raw with grief over the premature death of my eldest sister three years ago when I stumbled into a dermatologist’s office in Ottawa. Sally had lost her life at 55 to malignant melanoma, leaving behind a loving husband, two adult daughters, who spent the last weeks of her life sleeping on gurneys in the hospital corridor, and a 12-year-old son.

And you thought the target market for Botox was middle age! Is the young woman featured in this Botox ad out of her teens?

Although my skin is quite different from Sally’s, a precautionary visit to have my moles checked seemed like a smart thing to do. I anticipated the feelings of vulnerability that I experienced as I entered the discouragingly full dermatologist’s office at 8:30 a.m.; what I couldn’t have predicted, however, was the rage that I felt when confronted by posters celebrating the 20th anniversary of Botox.

My fury was not solely about the popularity or promotion of an injectable toxin that aging women — and, increasingly men — are encouraged to believe they can’t leave home without, although now that you mention it, yes, I do resent that. But on this particular occasion it was heightened by the fact that I’d waited six months for an appointment, and was now about to have to wait another 45 minutes, despite being on time, first thing in the morning.

Earlier this week I received an email from Sandi Berwick, who’d come to the launch of I Feel Great About My Hands in Halifax. A grad student in the Department of Family Studies and Gerontology, she’s currently doing supervised academic research into women’s experiences with injectable facial procedures.

As someone who’s not immune to the wrinkles I see reflected in my mirror (see previous post), I’m interested to learn more about how this phenomenon affects women, and offered to try to help Sandi and her colleagues find additional research subjects. I’ve pasted the text of her notice below.

If you are a woman aged 35 – 65 who has had injections to reduce the signs of aging to your face but have mixed or negative feelings about your experience (for example, maybe you didn’t like how you felt emotionally or physically afterwards, you didn’t like how it looked, or other reasons),

 You may be interested in participating in this study on

Women’s experiences with injectable facial procedures

Participants will be Interviewed Privately and

Confidentially (in person, on-line Skype, or by telephone)

To find out more about the study or to participate, please contact: sandi.berwick@msvu.ca  (Dept of Family Studies and Gerontology)

OR call 889-4130 and leave a confidential message

 


Oct 7 2012

Judgment of Age vs Wisdom of Experience

I regularly receive emails from my octogenarian father. Because he lives thousands of miles away and the emails are at very least confirmation that the man I’ve adored my whole life is alive and well enough to sit at his computer, I forgive the sometimes inflammatory contents promulgating attitudes that I find ignorant and offensive.
And I’ve also grown to appreciate how alienating the world can become as one ages. Looking in the mirror in the full light of day with my glasses on — an inadvertent act that occurs when I absentmindedly visit the bathroom having neglected to remove my reading glasses — this doesn’t make me feel half as old as noticing my lips pursed in silent disapproval of some revealing new fashion trend or unobserved social convention.
Judgment accrued through aging is not necessarily the same as wisdom born of experience. I’ve noticed in some of my elders, even those I admire, a tendency to censure the new just because it differs from the way it always was. Critical assessment can sometimes happen too quickly, on the basis of relatively little evidence, from only one source. Evolving social mores, changing immigration patterns, foreign religious beliefs — especially when linked by daily news reports and provocative columnists to terrorist acts — can render benign institutions or individuals frightening and dangerous.
I understand this, because I’m occasionally guilty of it myself. But recognizing its pitfalls gives me pause. Because I also notice how unexamined responses can, left unchecked, make an insular world even smaller and more limited. I’m reminded of research I read in the 1990s about the impact of a TV diet heavy on home invasions, serial killers and rape victims. Senior citizens with restricted mobility often became convinced that their safe suburban or rural communities were as threatening as the gang-infested neighbourhoods of Miami or Detroit.
I don’t want to go — gently or otherwise — into that good night. So I appreciate that my life regularly exposes me to people and places, attitudes and experiences that force me to explore and challenge my expectations and assumptions.
In the meantime, I’m always delighted when one of my father’s forwarded emails contains a heartwarming story or gentle humour instead of a fear-inspired rant .
Like this one, for instance, which offered some relevant advice about aging:
Don’t worry about old age; it doesn’t last that long.
Good health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die.

Aug 9 2012

Menopause brain: advantages of…

I’ve discovered another unexpected joy of aging that has nothing to do with no longer having to shave my legs (because they seem to have become hair-free of their own accord — who knew?)

The new benefit has to do with my ability to weather the rejection challenges associated with sales.

I never sought an opportunity to test my persuasive abilities in the context of the punishing selling profession. The one summer I spent in retail, flogging suits and dresses at Clark’s Place, a slightly upscale sister shop to Le Chateau in the bowels of Vancouver’s Pacific Centre shopping mall, cured me of any such aspirations.

I discovered that the commission experience was capable of seriously perverting my natural empathic tendencies, converting me into a cut-throat piranha, willing to stretch the truth like the spandex on the woman between me and the mirror, who wanted to know if the outfit she was considering made her look more generously proportioned than she was.

And this for a mere one percent commission, added onto my minimum wage ($3.50/hour at the time)!

The motivator was less the paltry few dollars, and more the competitive nature of the exercise: every week, the commission accomplishments of the six sales staff were ranked and posted in the store’s broom closet/washroom.

I’m not proud of this. But in my defense, having learned a dark secret about my character, I returned to waitressing the following summer in a bid to remain in university and avoid having to take a job in either field ever again.

But back to the aging advantage: It’s not so much that I’ve become more emotionally resilient with age (in fact, those close to me would confirm that I weep as easily as ever — reading newspaper stories about victimized sex trade workers or listening to David Suzuki decry the blindness of a world bent on privileging the economy over the environment).

And it’s not that I immediately bounce back from the disappointment of not hearing from those I’ve emailed in pursuit of a meeting to talk about the value of my small non-profit venture and how it can help them change the world.

It’s more that I often just don’t remember having contacted them in the first place…

 


Jul 17 2012

Reading and Singing Farewell Tribute to Mother Tongue Friday July 20th


How would you like to share the stage with a jazz vocalist who one critic describes as having

A voice so rich it makes me crave a glass of milk.

Friday night at the final in a series of farewell soirée for the venerable Mother Tongue Books, I get to do just that.

Fabulous Ottawa singer/songwriter Renée Yoxon will be performing her magic, and I’ll read brief bits from some of the funniest and most poignant essays and poems by the likes of Mary Walsh, Lorna Crozier and others who contributed to I Feel Great About My Hands.

I’ll also tell a story or two about Informed Opinions, the project the book is supporting, which is designed to train and inspire women to share their ideas, analyses and informed opinions more often and more widely.

 7 pm  Friday July 20th

Mother Tongue Books

1067 Bank Street

If you’re in town, come join the celebration of an Ottawa institution that has supported local authors and featured a diverse selection of feminist, lesbian and queer literature.


Jul 2 2012

Out of the mouths of babes…

You had me at The Cure For Death By Lightning

That’s what I wrote earlier today to Gail Anderson Dargatz, an author whom I’ve never met but admire immensely. She’s written many other fabulously-received books since her first, of course, but it’s a measure of her evocative and page-turning skill that her first effort, a haunting coming-of-age novel published in 1996, was short-listed for both the Giller and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

Reviewers compared her to Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. And for me, even though I first read the book almost 15 years ago, I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head.

Visiting Anderson-Dargatz’s website today I stumbled onto her “Fridge Door” page and was arrested by a hand-scrawled note from one of her children, that is both deeply endearing and completely relevant to I Feel Great About My Hands.

I could transcribe the brief text, but the message is much more powerful in the hand of the message creator, so check it out here.

And if  you haven’t already been introduced to Gail’s work, new treats are in store!