Mar 11 2012

Advanced Style -

Renate Mohr (who contributed “Levity in the Face of Gravity” to the book, and is a regular source of levity and style advice in my life) sent me a film trailer on International Women’s Day.

Watching it made me smile.

It reaffirmed my appreciation of cut and colour.

It reminded me of what pleasure can be had from fashion — the kind that one chooses because it’s personally appealing, vs the kind that’s imposed by some external taste arbiter of the day.

And it drove home one of the truly great benefits of aging:
Becoming increasingly oneself and embracing what you like with little regard for how such self-expression may cause others to perceive you.

Bien dans sa peau, comme on dit en francais…

Here’s the link to a four-minute teaser for Advanced Style, a not-yet-released documentary about stylish New York women “between 50 and death”.

Jan 27 2012

Wanted: Aging Role Models

This week Toronto artist Meri Collier, whose beautiful line drawings of older women grace a few pages of the book, sent me the link to a 4-minute video featuring Maia Helles, a 95-year-old former Russian ballet dancer. It’s a lovely tribute to a woman who clearly lives by the dictum of use it (or should that be “move it”?) or lose it…

And it reminded me of another inspirational woman who seemed not to let growing old interrupt her rich, creative way of being in the world.

I only got to know Doris Shadbolt during the last few years of her rich and extraordinary life, but she left an indelible impression on me and remains a role model for how I’d like to live out the end of my own. Curator, writer, philanthropist, gracious host, inveterate traveler, and recipient of the Order of Canada, she had enormous grace, intelligence, energy and spirit. Although her physical capacities diminished in her later years, making movement and therefore travel more challenging, her frailties were never the focus of her conversation; she remained completely engaged in the world of art and the art of the world until the day she died. Even though she’s been gone now for seven years, I think of her often and the impact she continued to have on people well into her 80s.

Are there any things that you imagine you’ll stop doing once you get to be a certain age?

Which aspects of aging do you genuinely appreciate in yourself or others?

Can you think of examples you’ve experienced of the phenomenon noticed by researchers that older people are better at managing their emotions?

Among the older people you know, who do you find the most inspirational? Why?

Reading the pieces in I Feel Great About My Hands, do any of the contributors strike you as likely role models for aging? Which one(s) and why?

Can you think of any older people whose ways of resisting or dealing with the aging process serve as cautionary tales — roads down which you don’t want to travel?

What’s your favourite memory of the parent, grandparent or other older role model to whom you feel or felt the closest?

How would you like the young people in your life to describe you to their friends?

Nov 30 2011

On Laura Secord, long skirts and women’s history

My mother grew up a Secord near Niagara-on-the-Lake, so I pay attention when someone slags my famous ancestor, and the story makes headlines. When it happened last week I took the advice doled out by screenwriter Nora Ephron’s mother (“it’s all material”), and turned the slight into an op ed, which appeared this week in the Ottawa Citizen, the Edmonton Journal and the Vancouver Sun:

As insults go, it’s a pretty mild one. But as Canadians gear up to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle that secured our future as an independent country, a gauntlet has been thrown down, and the bravery of our most famous heroine has been dismissed as a mere walk in the park.

Trashing the iconic Laura Secord has proved to be an effective way to generate attention for Betsy Doyle, a previously unheralded American patriot who apparently went the extra mile for her own country during the War of 1812. Now news reports are pitting the feats of one heroine against the other with headlines trumpeting “SURPRISE ATTACK” and “Round Two.”

I forgive the hyperbole – it made me read the story. And I don’t blame Catherine Emerson, either. She’s the U.S. historian who’s responsible for promoting Betsy Doyle’s compelling heroics. (The woman trekked 400 kilometres – with her children! She loaded guns – with red-hot cannonballs!) Apparently Emerson made her disparaging comment about the lameness of our Laura during a presentation to a group of New York lawmakers. My guess is she was merely seeking to underline how unfortunate it was that Betsy Doyle’s country had failed to recognize her feats. Contrasting the U.S. heroine’s low profile with the celebration heaped on Laura Secord this side of the border was no doubt designed to shame them into correcting the oversight.

I hope it works. Because really, in the context of a historical event that boasts a host of male heroes, and a media culture that focuses a lot of attention on under-dressed women, surely there’s room for one or two more fully-clothed female models.

Chances are that the War of 1812 inspired heroism in many other women whose lives were profoundly affected by the conflict, but whose stories haven’t yet been told. History is full of amazing women who – while they may once have been written out of the official records – are now being posthumously feted for their intelligence, inventions and artistry. French sculptor Camille Claudel has recently emerged from the shadow of her lover, the more famous Rodin; author Beatrix Potter apparently had some claim to the discovery of penicillin; and Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, may have contributed to his Nobel-winning research.

As for Laura Secord, even if the length of her 28-kilometre walk pales in comparison with the 400 km clocked by Betsy Doyle, that doesn’t make her act any less heroic. (You try negotiating a ten-hour journey through dangerous territory on an unseasonably hot June day sporting an ankle-length dress and inappropriate shoes.) And the cow that she was supposed to have dragged along with her for cover while crossing enemy lines? That was a bit of fiction, apparently invented by a government official.

They say history is written by the victors, but even victorious women – unless they happened to be queens – generally lacked the “room of one’s own” that would have permitted them such a luxury. When Laura Secord returned home after warning General Fitzgibbon of the impending American attack, it was to five children, an invalid husband and no washing machine, microwave or nearby supermarket.

And even if she’d had the time, she was apparently a woman of admirable discretion and humility, declining to boast of her exploits for many years after the fact for reasons of national and – no doubt – personal security.

Her silence, and history’s chronic erasure of women’s contribution on all sorts of fronts, is given new context by recent research into the persistent under-representation of women’s voices in mainstream media two centuries later.

Informed Opinions, a non-profit project that helps to connect female experts to journalists, has found that even in 2011, qualified women are much more reluctant than their male counterparts to provide commentary and analysis to the news media when asked. Lack of time remains an issue, but so does the tendency to discount the value of their knowledge or the importance of their contribution. Dozens of the more than 200 women surveyed have also indicated a discomfort with any activity that might be seen as self-promotional.

This is unfortunate, not just because it will perpetuate the absence of attention to women’s accomplishments, but because it robs us of their capacity to help make sense of the many pressing issues we face.

So I salute Catherine Emerson for raising awareness of Betsy Doyle’s story; her heroism is worth celebrating, and in no way diminishes Laura Secord’s. We all benefit from inspirational role models, of any gender, from any age.

(Note: My sombre expression in the photo was an attempt to determine whether any family resemblance persisted six generations on… What do you think? If you worked behind the counter at the Laura Secord store, would this photo convince you to give me free chocolate?) 

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.




Sep 2 2011

Rita Shelton Deverell extolls the virtue of “Power Wrinkles”

I’ve just read a wonderful essay I wish was in the collection. Penned by performer, broadcaster and playwright, Rita Shelton Deverell, current holder of Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. Called “Power Wrinkles”, Rita’s essay lays out how this celebrated  and productive artist/activist apportions her time in her 60s, versus how she used to divvy it up in her 20s.

Rita ends the piece with a story about “breathtaking visual artist” Lorraine Malach. She writes:

Lorraine used to say “I have to get this painting, this series, this ceramic mural done while I’m alive.” Some of our friends worried. They said Lorraine was brooding on death.

Lorraine died in 2000 while working on a mural “The Story of Life” for the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. Go see it. It’s unglazed, as Lorraine left it, in the foyer of the grand new museum.

I know now that Lorraine was not brooding on death. She was simply expressing a complex truth. The work we have been given to do we can only do while we’re alive. Do we think someone else will get our work done, make our contribution, for us? 

The power of wrinkles is to get the job done.

Originally published in CanPlay magazine in 2007, Rita’s essay is available online in its entirety courtesy of Women in Film & Television Atlantic.

Aug 31 2011

Not your typical retirement role model

I have seen my future – and if I’m lucky, it may look a bit like Editta Sherman’s present. The prospect fills me with an astonishing sense of satisfaction.

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve entertained the fantasy that one day I would grow up to live in a large unstructured old style converted warehouse loft apartment. The floors would be hardwood and hard worn. Natural light would flood in from a bank of leaded – and no doubt drafty windows – along one wall, the furniture would be minimal but comfy, and I would have lots of room to dance and make interesting and beautiful things with my hands.

In my youth, I imagined I would realize this ambition sooner rather than later. I saw it as a natural accompaniment to the work I believed I was intended to do in visual art. And even though I didn’t identify as a feminist until a decade after I came of age, there was no man in my picture. (Which is odd, now that I think about it, because I’ve always been pretty attached to having romance in my life. But I envisioned creativity not kids as my destiny and so perhaps the loft took the place in my imagination that was left vacant by the fantasies others had of white picket fences and children.)

And although I’ve spent much of the past two years thinking, writing and speaking about aging, until now, it’s been very difficult for me to conjure up a picture of what I want my own advancing years to look like. (Maybe this is classic denial, and holds for everyone?)

But it’s been years since I had a secure job from which I might yearn to retire (and, correspondingly, a pension that might support me in doing so!) I have no children of my own, and no immediate prospect of even step-grandchildren, either…  No interest in playing golf or cribbage, in moving to a warmer climate… And no inclination to take up bridge or travel a lot more than I already do.

Yet I’ve never thought it likely that I would just keep on keeping on… I have imagined that eventually things would shift into what Jane Fonda refers in her new book, Prime Time, as a “third phase” where things would be different somehow, if not appropriately described as “retirement”. And now, courtesy of Eddita Sherman, I have a picture of a potential final act that’s enormously appealing.

A New York City portrait photographer in her late 90s, Sherman makes a guest appearance in the recent documentary film about iconic New York Times fashion columnist/photographer, Bill Cunningham.  Like Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Sherman lived for half a century in an artist’s studio at Carnegie Hall, only losing her battle to remain there last year. Does she still take photographs? It’s not clear in the film, but her identity as an artist is undeniable. Watching the footage of her inhabiting her studio, I felt a strong emotional tug, and could suddenly envision myself aging in a place where most of the space was given over to a creative laboratory. (Fortunately for me, the love of my life is open to this vision. And in the unfortunate event that he should predecease me, I now have an alternative that holds some allure.)

Aug 29 2011

Jane Fonda sums it up…

In an interview with Kate Fillion of Macleans magazine, the two-time-Oscar winning, famously  anorexic fitness guru, who left her third marriage to Ted Turner so she could be a “whole person”, Jane Fonda responded to the question, “Why do you call life post-60 ‘prime time’?” with this concise summary:

Most of the time, contrary to popular opinion, it’s happier, less stressful, you have fewer hostile emotions. That’s been the case with me, and studies show this is true for most people, whether they’re rich or poor — though rich helps! — men, women, married, single.

Fillion also asks Fonda why late-life sex is such a focus of her new book, Prime Time. Fonda replies:

I’m fascinated by it. I know it’s not part of some people’s third acts, but it’s part of mine… I know that a lot of people my age and older are getting it on, but nobody talks about it — it’s yucky to a lot of people.

Enough of the contributors to I Feel Great About My Hands talked about some aspect of sex that I grouped them into one section of the book and called it “Desiring”. Lorna Crozier leads the way with her graphic, hilarious and beautiful “My Last Erotic Poem”,  in which she asks:

      Who wants to hear about
      two old farts getting it on
      in the back seat of a Buick,
      in the garden shed among vermiculite
      in the kitchen where we should be drinking
      Ovaltine and saying no?

One of the things I love about the poem is that despite the question’s implicit acknowledgement that eager listeners may be few, she ignores the anticipated reluctance, charging ahead anyway to tell us all about

our old bodies doing what you know
old bodies do, worn and beautiful and shameless.

I read Lorna’s poem in its entirety out loud to my former in-laws, both in their nineties, a few months ago. Maude loved it but Allan allowed that “I could have used a warning for that one!”

The author of more than a dozen celebrated collections of vivid imagery and arresting insights, Lorna has a new book out out called Small Mechanics, packed with perfect gems. They have made me laugh out loud and weep in equal measure. I read them one at a time before lunch to slow my brain down and whet my appetite for the sensual pleasures of eating.


Jul 4 2011

Christine Lagarde: role model for millions*


I think I have a crush… Christine Lagarde is my new favourite role model. She’s a smart, hard working, bilingual, vegetarian, feminist lawyer who enjoys men and yoga, demonstrates an impeccable sense of style, and laughs readily while holding down demanding and influential jobs in bastions of male power. And at 55, she has magnificent white hair. What’s not to admire?

It was her new position as head of the International Monetary Fund that caused me to make passing reference to her in the op ed I submitted this morning toThe Ottawa Citizen about Women’s Worlds 2011, the biggest women’s conference ever to take place in Canada.

But some of the other factors – her obvious ease in her own skin, ready smile and yes, even that striking white hair – may have influenced the choice of the image used to illustrate my commentary. It’s a winner: Lagarde sits in the French National Assembly, smiling indulgently at one of her male colleagues, looking at one and the same time like a woman who not only gets the job done, but is great fun to hang out with.

screen shot from photo of Christine Lagarde printed on Ottawa Citizen's website


Her photograph provides a welcome contrast to the usual male suspects that still dominate news pages, and will increase the readership for my piece considerably. So will the headline supplied by Citizen editor and Informed Opinions’ supporter Kate Heartfield: “Gender inequality isn’t a ‘women’s issue’”.

(* cross-posted to Informed Opinions blog)