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 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.

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!

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.)

Jun 27 2012

Nora Ephron, RIP

“To laugh often and much,” Ralph Walden Emerson advised,  was among the markers of a successful person. And those brilliant enough to make the rest of us laugh often and much are in a special category of their own.

Nora Ephron was one of those, and her passing yesterday at a youthful 71 is a loss to all those who knew and appreciated and laughed at her work… In movies, novels and essays, she provoked and entertained, telling it like it is, and inspiring as many sparks of recognition as unexpected guffaws.

She was living proof that women can be just as funny as men, and she alone should have put to rest that old saw about feminists, in particular, having no sense of humour.

Although I own well-thumbed copies of all of her essay collections, and loved When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, my favourite Nora Ephron-written humorous performance may be one she delivered herself at a Life Achievement Award Tribute to Meryl Streep in 2004. On this YouTube clip, you get to see Nora being Nora: smart, beautiful, generous and funny.

I called my collection I Feel Great About My Hands in tribute to Nora Ephron. There are lots of gems in I Feel Bad About My Neck, as in everything she did. And the good news is, we can keep re-reading and re-viewing her great body of work to celebrate the gifts that she shared.

Jun 9 2012

Inspirational Elders in Ireland

Marion, one of my inspirational new friends, at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland

My idea of an ideal vacation does not involve wearing waterproof pants, or trying to retain the contents of my stomach while bracing myself against gale force Atlantic winds. Having to get a doctor to certify that I’m fit enough to climb down the side of a ship and clamber out of a zodiac and up rain-slicked rocky shores does not fill me with the delights of anticipation.

And yet there I was in the early part of May, suiting up into my all-weather gear and serious flotation device along with 80 others. During the 10-day trip circumnavigating the coast of Ireland with an Adventure Canada team the swells were indeed so challenging on a couple of occasions that it was all I could do to stagger down to my bunk and lie prone until the weather shifted.

A view of the Clipper Adventurer from the zodiac.

But those moments — and the occasional soaking from an aggressive wave or two over the side of the sea-pitched zodiac — were more than compensated for by the truly spectacular scenery (and I say this as a former British Columbian who’s seen my fair share), phenomenal music (delivered by multi-talented Irish and Canadian performers), and inspirational company.

I’m now deeply embarrassed to confess my 50-something reluctance to experience physical discomfort in the face of having witnessed fearless men and women in their 70s and 80s who embraced the demands of the expedition with energy, enthusiasm and sophisticated camera equipment. (Equipment which they were not remotely shy to pull out in the most intimidating of swells — the same ones that had me clutching onto the zodiac rope and trying not to envision myself tossed into the white capped water.)

To be fair, some of them were both experienced sailors and veterans of many previous expeditions. And the extremely professional Adventure Canada team were vigilant about safety at all times. But still. Their example continues to inspire me with a sense of the future adventures that may await me well into my own eighth or ninth decade on the planet.

Loading the zodiacs to return to the ship: The water in this particular harbour was deceptively calm, but out past the protective point, the pitching swells made getting back aboard the ship a challenging operation that required the muscular assistance of several practiced crew members.

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.