Jun 27 2012

Ignominious endings

Helene Anne Fortin shot many photos of my hands for cover consideration

What body part would you like to be defined by after you’ve departed this life for whatever destination awaits you? What image indelibly associated with your name?

As a postscript to the previous entry, a brief tribute to writer and director, Nora Ephron, I have to say that reading the obit printed in today’s Globe and Mail (a condensed 6 column inches penned by Hillel Italie of Associated Press) gave me pause.

Although the piece quoted one of Ephron’s classic putdowns (a dismissive reference to a male character, widely acknowledged to be modeled on her ex-husband, Carl Bernstein, as being “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”), the obit’s final words were devoted to some of the writer’s musings about her famously lamented neck.

Notwithstanding the best-seller status of the book known for its confessed concerns about wattles and creases, this still seems wrong to me.

The woman was a wildly successful screenwriter and director, who made highly watchable movies, wrote laugh out loud material, and was adored by colleagues. And the neck piece, although good enough to lend its title to her essay collection, wasn’t her best work.

More importantly, however, the title made clear how she felt about her neck. (Bad!) So it seems a bit callous, if not cruel, to allow the last image of the tribute to reinforce the unfortunate associations that the deceased — like women everywhere, encouraged by a physical-perfection-obsessed culture — despaired.

(Italie is probably young and male; this likely never occurred to him. And possibly it was the Globe editor who chopped a longer piece that ended differently.)

But here’s the YouTube link again, revealing a strong and confident, beautiful and gracious woman, holding forth — hilariously — in front of an audience of her peers.

(In the meantime, although I’ll never be remotely as famous as she is, I’m still relieved that I focused my own title essay on a part of my body that I actually like.)


Apr 23 2012

Great opening lines

“I remember the exact day it happened — the very moment I became invisible.” (From “The Pleasures of An Older Man”)

“Hello, My name is J’moi White. I am in grade 10. For my history assignment I was assigned Judy Rebick. Hopefully this is you.” (from “Struggling to Become an Elder”)

“Let’s be candid: no one wants to be known as a ‘mature student’.” (from “Back To School”)

Are you intrigued by one or all of these sentences? Does your mind immediately respond to the implicit questions they evoke with questions of your own?

Mine did, which made me happy to include them in I Feel Great About My Hands. (They begin the reflections by Harriett Lemer (at right), Judy Rebick (below), and best friends and co-authors, Susan Delacourt and Susan Harada.)

There were other reasons, too, of course: each of the essays made me laugh, resonated with some aspect of my personal experience, and contained a few insights about aging that hadn’t occurred to me.

I’ve always been a critical consumer of opening sentences, but in an age of humming bird attention spans and 140-character Twitter posts, they’re  more important than ever.

And in the context of the Informed Opinions workshops I lead these days (Writing Compelling Commentary), I’m regularly reminded that investing a few minutes in coming up with a strong opener is well worth the effort. (Op ed page editors are busy people who have to sift through a lot of submissions, some of which are dreck. You don’t want to give them a reason to lump your insightful analysis in with those who can’t conjugate a sentence by putting them to sleep with your first paragraph.)

And yet sometimes in an attempt to establish the relevancy of the topic they’re addressing, aspiring op ed writers will start their pieces with an unassailably true declarative statement that everyone will recognize as such. (“The population is aging.” “Wait list lines are too long.”)

This is not a good strategy. What’s the incentive to read further when the opening line tells us something we already know? (“News” is, by definition, ahem, new.)

 


Apr 11 2012

Use it or lose it

Two weeks ago I uncharacteristically attended four yoga classes in the space of 6 days, and — from my intercostals to my hamstrings — my body protested. Then last week, because I had four consecutive days off, the weather was fine, and I didn’t want to push my luck on the cobra-chattarunga front (did I mention my vulnerable wrists, my aching back?), I went for a run three days in a row. (I know, I know.) But I didn’t go far, nor fast and — for two of the days — not even on pavement (the gym I sweat in sports four bouncy rubber treadmills hooked up to TVs to keep your mind from convincing you that you’re tired, when you’re really just lazy.) What can I say? It’s spring.

The truth is, even if my muscles groan a bit when I push them, or my problem hip threatens to keep me awake at night, there’s no good reason for me not to be moving around. I feel better when I do. I sleep better. Work better. “Move it or lose it,” my father says. (Or does he? Do I just imagine he says that because in his ninth decade on the planet, he’s still playing tennis three times a week?) He aches, too. Runs after the ball less, is slower. But he plays.

I am inspired by this, and by choreographer, Twyla Tharp, who writes in her book, The Creative Habit:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours.

This woman — who has created dances for the Joffrey, the Martha Graham Company, and the Paris Ballet Theatre, to music from The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan to classical composers and jazz artists, who has played on Broadway and toured the world — is 70 now, although when she wrote the book, she was in her early 60s.

But still… Every day? At 5 freakin’ 30 in the a.m.? For two hours?

I can’t really conceive of how many occasions remain in my life when it would make sense for me to attempt to fling my right leg into the air above my head as Ms. Tharp does here, much more successfully than I ever could have, even at 15. But I’m guessing the two-hour daily workout helps explains why it’s possible.

And you can’t help but admire her for it.

 


Feb 18 2012

You can tell a lot about a woman by her hands…

My friend Melanie, who has the gift of making me (and most everyone else lucky enough to know her) laugh almost every time she opens her mouth, came across the following image recently and sent it along for my — and now hopefully your — entertainment.

(Just to be clear, I am in no way advocating this particular use of hands, but in addition to being amused by the unexpected punch line, I loved the disconnect between the medium and the message.)


Feb 6 2012

“What happened to Gracie’s eggs?!”

… That’s what the woman standing in front of me urgently wanted to know.

Sheila Deane explaining the significance of Gracie's eggs to a rapt audience at the National Arts Centre

I was as delighted with her question as she had been with Sheila Deane’s essay, “Kick the Can” — even though I’d only read a brief excerpt from it, along with sections from a few others, and my own at the BC Truck Loggers Convention Ladies Luncheon taking place recently in (unusually) snowy Victoria.

Equally gratifying was the experience of reading “My Last Erotic Poem”, Lorna Crozier’s contribution to the collection. I had to pause for laughter after EVERY SINGLE LINE.

Not surprisingly, all of the books I’d brought to the event were snapped up by eager readers, and the organizer said to me afterwards that the stories I read and told from I Feel Great About My Hands resonated so well with the diverse group of woman (ages 30 to 70)that they probably should have skipped the fashion show component and just given me more time to talk about the book.

The assembled audience’s engagement extended to the project it’s helping to support: Although I only spoke briefly about Informed Opinions, which receives a 10% royalty from every book sold, when I ran out of copies, two of the women still in line to purchase  one handed me their $20 bills and said, “We’d like to donate these to the project.”

Apparently the complementariness of the two goes both ways: recently after I delivered a half-day Informed Opinions workshop to some quick studies at the Canadian Nurses Association in Ottawa, one of the participants ordered three copies, just on the basis of a promotional postcard featuring all of the contributors’ names. (Because they’re an interesting and impressive bunch!)

As for the answer to the question above? All I can tell you is that if you want to learn what happened to Gracie’s eggs, and what they had to do with the benefits of aging, you’ll just have to buy the book! (Fortunately, it’s still widely available.)

And if I can’t make it to your luncheon or book club meeting to read a funny or inspirational excerpt or two, one of the other contributors may well be available!

 


Nov 24 2011

Book signing at Britton’s

… in the Glebe, Sunday between 1 pm and 3 pm — 846 Bank Street — thanks to the generous support of Ted Britton — the kind of guy every neighbourhood should have.

In fact, last night on CBC Radio’s As it Happens, Carol Off interviewed the Orange-prize-winning author Ann Patchett about her newest venture: opening an independent bookstore in her neighbourhood after all the existing ones had closed down. Given the precarious states of both publishing and book retailing, the act seems above and beyond the call of duty (shouldn’t it be enough that this fabulous writer has given us the pleasure of being transported by Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty, and Run, among other titles?)

But one of the things that makes a neighbourhood is the quality of the local retailers. And Britton’s, a Glebe fixture since 1966, keeps an impressively diverse collection of newspapers and magazines. Ted Britton has run the business since 1978, and he goes out of his way to stock books on issues of both local and national interest, and to support writers with informal signings.

If you were inconvenienced by my unceremoniously cancelled appointment earlier this week at Chapters, I hope you can make it to Britton’s on Sunday instead.

 


Nov 24 2011

Google alerts a mixed blessing

It’s a mixed blessing when the google alert you receive in your email inbox links you to a website which tells you that although BC’s Okanagan Regional Library system possesses five copies of your book, all of them are in circulation, one has given you a four-star review, and 12 people have placed holds on the collection.

Because at first you think, wow, five copies, all checked out, and a dozen readers eagerly awaiting their return!

But then you wonder, well, how eager could they really be if they’re prepared to wait for a copy to become available?

And, moving into decidedly uncharitable waters, you grouse, come on, people: four stars! couldn’t you go out and buy the damn book? So Chapters won’t return it to the publisher?

But then you remember that even 22.95 plus tax is a luxury for lots of people, libraries are critically important institutions, and you should feel grateful that the book is being acquired — and read — in communities across the country.

Speaking of Chapters, however, I’d like to express my abject apologies to any Ottawa readers who may have showed up at the Rideau Centre outlet last night, thinking I would be on hand to sign a copy of the book. It’s painful for a professional communicator to admit that miscommunication was responsible for the mix-up that saw Chapters book someone else into a slot that had been reserved for me, but there you are. And I’m sorry if anyone was inconvenienced.

In the meantime, I can assure you that the power of the collection without my signature is in no way diminished. (However, since I live in Ottawa, if you really wanted a copy of the book personally addressed to your beloved Aunt Mimi, or your best friend, Pat, that could be arranged. See next post.)

 


Nov 13 2011

Apparently I’m a fascist…

And to think I was concerned about critics calling the collection “uneven”…

Instead, the reviewer — a female writer over the age of 50 who I didn’t know and therefore didn’t think to invite to contribute to the book — began her broadcast commentary on I Feel Great About My Hands by describing me as “left leaning” and my organizing principle as “fascistic”. (But what does she really think, you might be wondering.)  And then she went on to complain that I had failed to include the voices of any welfare moms or plastic surgery queens. (um… really?)

The rational part of me dismissed the critique because she, did, after all, allow that a third of the pieces in the book were brilliant. She quoted from the entries written by Mary Walsh, Lorna Crozier and Meri Collier. And — I’ve done the math —  she must also have appreciated at least another eight or nine.

But the sensitive, occasionally insecure, emotional part of me (and yes, it likely is the bigger part), was a bit stung. A week later I’m still writing her pithy notes in my head and having fantasy encounters which involve me delivering withering refutations in front of a large and sympathetic audience of people who laugh at my witticisms and line up to get their copies of I Feel Great About My Hands signed afterwards.

Let’s start with “left-leaning”. I think the reviewer in question may have lazily cobbed this characterization from another review, but the truth is, in the 35 years since I became eligible to vote, I have cast ballots for candidates representing every major political party. Not even my husband is privy to the details, let alone which ones I endorsed for reasons of partisan affiliation, support for a particular issue, or the ultimately unfulfilled promise of a financial kick-back. (Kidding.) But if my purported lefty-ness was truly a crucial component, wouldn’t I have gone out of my way to include the missing welfare moms (or at least a union organizer)?  Really, what was I thinking? Why didn’t I badger a few women raising children in impoverished circumstances to donate their labour and talent to my cause with no expectation of compensation?!

I confess, it didn’t occur to me. Every month when I’m paying the smaller portion of my bills, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to share my life and corresponding expenses with a financially successful partner.  I well know what a luxury it is to be able to marshall the kind of time and energy necessary to tease insights and entertainment out of tightly crafted sentences. And although I also know a few financially struggling writers (apologies for the redundancy) who rely on coffee shop wifi and/or work retail to supplement the meagre income that writing often affords, none of them are currently collecting welfare or raising children. Sorry.

In fact, in recruiting contributors to the collection, I emailed twice as many interesting and outspoken women as ultimately appeared in the book. Recipients of my invitations were racially diverse, geographically spread out, and affiliated with every major political party. Some of them were more enthusiastic than others; more than a few promised to send me something but didn’t get around to it;  but only one sent me a snarky note ridiculing the endeavour and the cause it supports. C’est la vie.

As for ignoring the voices of any plastic surgery queens, well, um, OK — guilty as charged. Unfairly perhaps, I generally imagine that people who are addicted to needle- and anaesthetic-assisted cosmetic enhancement are perhaps less likely than the average woman to welcome the sometimes dubious benefits of aging. And yes, that was my organizing principle: I didn’t forbid anyone from acknowledging the gravity-induced disappointments of extra years (see pages 1 through 243; nor did I edit out the nurmorous references to hot flashes, gray hair or memory loss. But because I did encourage contributors to also share something that they genuinely appreciated about having been on the planet more than half a century, apparently I’m a fascist.

The ultimate irony, however is this: the reviewer dissed the collection for being “derivative” (riffing off Nora Ephron‘s title, collecting women’s voices like Dropped Threads — and countless other anthologies — have.) But she’s named her own blog a variation on “Stuff White People Like”…

So, really.

 


Nov 5 2011

In praise of muted lighting

You know when you stay in that hotel? Yeah, that one — with the designer lobby featuring the funky purple chairs that you’d love to take home (if only “home” were a 2,000-square-foot Manhattan loft?) …The hotel that’s only accessible when you’re traveling on someone else’s expense account?

But never mind the furniture, it’s the bathroom you really appreciate, and not just because it’s spacious and understated (although, of course, it is).

And there you are, leaning over the sink, about to wash the minor vestiges of mascara and blush that still remain on your face 16 hours after you first applied them, and you glance up into the mirror and are stunned by your reflection: because the lighting has taken 20 years off the mug that’s staring back at you, and it now no longer features wrinkles, age spots or, in fact, pores.

But you’re not paying that much attention, not yet. You’re merely noticing that you don’t actually look like you’ve just delivered an all-day workshop in an airless university classroom, during which you consumed not one but two cinnamon swirl Danish pastries and a Nanaimo bar (because all of the supplied sandwiches contained meat, which you don’t eat – and no, you realize this rationale doesn’t make sense).

You think it’s because you’re having a good hair day (you always think it’s your hair – your husband is convinced that’s all you can see when you look in the mirror), and it’s true, you are having a good hair day. But it’s not your hair; not even a good hair day can eliminate the bags under your tired eyes.

No, it’s the lighting. The lighting is muted, gentle. It’s diffused. It eases out from behind the perimeter of the mirror, casting a soft halo of warmth and… generosity – yes, there’s no better way to explain it: The lighting is generous.

And suddenly you feel good. You could look in that mirror all day. In fact, your husband is even now knocking on the bathroom door because you’ve been in there quite some time already. He wants to know if you’re all right.

All right? You wish he’d join you in the bathroom with the camera. The one he occasionally flashes when you’re convinced you’re not having a good hair day, and the light is harsh and punishing, not generous and angelic.

But you won’t fully appreciate what a gift muted lighting can be until the next day when you’re dashing past a department store window in the cold light of an October morning and you catch sight of yourself in its reflective glass – and shudder at the contrast from the night before… and then again later that evening when you repeat the face-washing experience illuminated by the unforgiving bulbs that surround your own bathroom mirror.

It’s at this moment that you mentally abandon all plans to invest in new art supplies and instead start stalking high end bathroom and lighting stores in search of the magical mirror/light fixture, or what you’re now referring to as your “new best friend”…


Oct 25 2011

On Maintenance, Marion and Maude

It’s not that I’m not attached to how I look, or spend more time than you would imagine on fixing my hair or sweating on an eliptical machine, but when I read Nora Ephron’s essay “On Maintenance” a few years ago (it’s the second piece in I Feel Bad About My Neck), I wasn’t really feeling the pain of the hours she catalogued.

However, in the past week or so, my daytimer has had to accommodate  two mammograms, one ultrasound, a bone densomiter test, a visit to my dermatologist and a treatment from my friendly osteopath. None of these were precipitated by actual health problems; they’re all preventative and would therefore qualify as “maintenance” (albeit health, not beauty).

My new colleague, Claire, wise beyond her twenty-something years, has refrained from  commenting on the crater this time investment has created in my productivity, but I’m concerned about the message it’s sending: I’m only 53, after all.

Maude Carlyle: no resemblance to your stereotypical mother-in-law

But it reminds me of the conversation I had with Marion back in April, just after the book was published. When I told Marion, a scientist now in her 80s, that the subtitle of the collection was “and other unexpected joys of aging”, there was a pause on her end of the line, and then she asked — not unkindly –

and what would you know about aging, Shari?

I had to admit, she had a point. Relatively speaking, a 53-year-old knows almost nothing about aging. And — having witnessed up close the plethora of health and mobility issues affecting Marion’s sister, Maude, my beloved former mother-in-law — not to mention her dear husband Allan, and my own much cherished parents — it’s not like I don’t appreciate the difference.

But that underlines one of the insights I had in the process of writing and editing the book. As I recalled in my introduction, reviewing a series of TV commentaries I taped in the 1990s was an illuminating experience.

I remembered the experience as deeply fraught. Unlike crafting arguments for the newspaper or radio, where my unshaped eyebrows or unsuitable clothing in no way interfered with the persuasiveness of my prose, TV commentary demanded an unprecedented degree of appearance vigilance. Borderline brilliant wit could be easily and irrevocably hijacked by wind-whipped hair, my nose in profile, or visible evidence of my face’s recent intimacy with a pillow.

But watching the commentaries 15 years later, what struck me more than anything was how surprisingly okay I looked—if only relative to today. What exactly was my problem, I wondered. And that’s when I made the leap into the realm of French novelist Colette.  It was she who famously observed, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I had realized it sooner.”

At that moment I vowed to keep on realizing that how I look and feel this year is likely better than I will next.