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.


May 26 2012

Best. Birthday. Present. Ever.


The subject line of the email read:
I Feel Great About My Hands is costing me a fortune…
and inside, the sender — a woman I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting — continued:
…because I love it. Every time I read a piece, I think of someone else to send a copy to. Just now, I’ve realized I have to send one to my friend in Israel, and earlier this week I “amazoned” one out to another friend in Vancouver for her birthday. I received my copy for my 65th birthday last month at a dinner party for my women friends organized by my daughter at a local restaurant. The party favours were books “that her mother would like,” which she hunted down in second-hand stores all around Toronto: works by Germaine Greer, Maya Angelou, and of course a Harper’s Bazaar on fashion, and a Life magazine on women’s hats, dated March 31, 1947.
A physician psychotherapist, my new pen pal revealed that she’d been recommending I Feel Great About My Hands to patients, one of whom was apparently happily inspired by her reading experience to make a list of all her accomplishments since the age of 31.

I engaged in a similar exercise on my 50th birthday which, readers of the book may recall I spent driving to and from a funeral. Confronted by the fleeting nature of mortality, I made a list of all the things I’d done over the past 30 years that I was proud of having accomplished. And then I reminded myself that given the average life expectancy of Canadian women, I might well have another three decades in front of me to pursue similarly engaging challenges. I, too, found the exercise enormously encouraging.
But back to the email, which finished with the following:
So thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s brilliant.
Sincerely,
Sharon Baltman M.D.

I was already having a fabulous birthday when I received Sharon’s email, but her unsolicited and unexpected gift of expressed appreciation put it over the top. (I bet she’s an excellent psychotherapist.)


Apr 18 2012

Crazy, stupid shoes

My husband likes to tease me about what he calls my “shoe ideology” (by which he means I have serious and uncompromising “attitude”). And although my essay in the book mostly riffs on my relationship with my hands, towards the end I confess that:

Notwithstanding my own inability to walk a block in high heels, I also feel great about my feet.

You might not, if they were yours. I have—as my mother informed me at an impressionable age—my grandmother’s bunions. This unasked-for paternal inheritance prevents me from performing a number of yoga poses, dancing Swan Lake with the National Ballet, and wearing what a former colleague used to call “fuck me” shoes.

But I’m good with that. I think stilettos are torture chambers invented by men who feel bad about women.

I wasn’t explicitly referring to Christian Louboutin, about whom I knew nothing three years ago, but I could have been. Today’s Telegraph ran an article quoting the designer cavalierly dismissing the pain women experience when wearing his ludicrous creations. But his admonishment –

“If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them.”

…is good advice that I wish more women would act on. Doing so would not only save them from debilitating pain and a significantly increased likelihood of broken limbs, but more importantly, it would deprive M. Louboutin of a livelihood made at the expense of women’s autonomy and ability to be taken seriously as intelligent human beings. (You see, he’s right, my husband: I do have major attitude.)

A few years ago researching In Your Face – The Culture of Beauty and You, my book for teens, I came across a story in the New York Times about a misguided woman who had had a toe on each foot surgically removed in order to fit into crazy stupid shoes for her daughter’s wedding. Rather than permitting her to wear the punishing stilettos, the surgery ended up consigning her to orthopedic footwear forever after.

Sigh.

For more on this subject, check out my Jimmy Choo revenge fantasy.


Feb 18 2012

Passing judgment, picking winners

I was as nervous and emotional as if my own book were in contention for the $40,000 prize. Which was odd, really, because — as one of the three judges who’d read not only the four finalists but another 130 other titles besides — I actually knew which of the four fabulous books being featured at the lunch was poised to win the prize.

But seeing all of the authors there — writers whose work I had read and re-read, underlined and asterisked, discussed and debated with my fellow judges — and hearing the considerable virtues of each described by others and applauded by all — and knowing what a struggle it is to live on the advance or royalties that accrue, even from a book that achieves “best seller” status here in Canada, I wanted them all to walk away with sufficient resources to sit down and write again.

All four books that Paul Whitney (former Vancouver Public Librarian), Patricia Graham (VP Digital, Pacific Newspaper Group), and I had shortlisted are compulsively readable and offer multiple rewards for the time spent. In future posts, I’ll share some the things I loved about each of them. In the meantime, here’s the happy winner of this year’s prize: an understandably beaming Charlotte Gill.

BC Premier Christy Clark presented Charlotte Gill with BC’s National Non-Fiction award for her brilliantly written memoir Eating Dirt on February 13 in Vancouver.

And here’s how we described her feat:

In Eating Dirt, Charlotte Gill delivers an insider’s perspective on the grueling, remote and largely ignored world of that uniquely modern-day “tribe”, the tree planter. In the process, she enlivens the boom and bust history of logging and its environmental impact, questioning the ability of conifer plantations to replace complex ecosystems of naturally evolving old growth forests. Gill’s astonishingly lucid prose evokes a visceral experience of the frequently wet, often dangerous, yet surprisingly exhilarating hard labour of those working to mitigate the clear-cut collision between human beings and nature. And although by the end of each tightly crafted chapter, you’re desperate for your own 2,000-calorie meal, hot shower and insect-free bed, you’re compelled to read on. She writes the forest like Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven painted it: bringing it vividly to life in all its mythic grandeur with striking details and evocative analogies, using intelligence, verve and humour to illuminate the dangers that live within, and threaten from without.  


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!

 


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 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.