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 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.

 


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.)

 


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.

 


Oct 19 2011

Chocolate was served

Brownies are not my only criteria for accepting invitations to attend book club discussions of I Feel Great About My Hands, but they don’t hurt.

Award-winning short story writer, Renate Mohr

Last night Hands’ contributor Renate (Levity in the Face of Gravity)  Mohr invited me to attend the monthly meeting of her Ottawa book club. Hearing half a dozen interesting and articulate women talk about which of the essays most resonated with, entertained or provoked them — different for everyone — was a very gratifying experience.

Truth be told, I had no idea chocolate (OR wine and cheese!) would be served: the feedback itself was incentive enough. And the experience reminded me that there are likely enough other insightful ruminations on the advantages of aging to fill a couple of additional volumes of this collection.

If you have some thoughts you might be interested in putting to paper — or know a woman whose analysis you’d like to see in a subsequent book — please let me know.

 


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.

 


Aug 24 2011

Mary Walsh on heartbreaking youngsters

Overheard on the patio of the Wooden Monkey restaurant in Halifax:

I know. I’m so old. When I turned 20 I literally thought I was going to die.

I rolled my eyes, tucked into my fabulous scallop and almond salad, and thought of Mary Walsh.

The Inimitable Mary Walsh (screen capture from canoe.ca)

Yes, that one. She contributed a vintage rant to I Feel Great About My Hands, every word of which leaps off the page in her inimitable voice. It’s so funny that although I’ve yet to have the honour of sharing the stage with her at a launch event, I shamelessly quote a few of her gems about menopause every chance I get, because they always get a laugh.

And towards the end of the piece she writes:

But really, what’s so great about being young? Just looking at the poor youngsters breaks your heart… tottering around with their pants down below their bums with their piercings and cuttings and brandings, as if life itself weren’t going to cut and pierce and brand them enough.

Most of the women in the book, like Mary, wouldn’t choose to trade places with their younger selves. And the feedback so far suggests that many readers find the contributors’ comfort in their own skins — however wrinkled — inspirational.

 


Aug 23 2011

I Feel Great About My Hands: officially launched in Halifax

By the numbers…

2 beautiful venues (check out the Halifax Club and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

2 profile-raising, audience-attracting interviews with lively and engaging broadcasters (tune in to CBC radio’s Stephanie Domet and Starr Dobson on CTV’s Live at 5)

4 happy authors (witness smiles above)

1 pair of bright orange boots (see Sheree Fitch, page 138 – and yes, they matched her outfit!)

1 reference to the irrelevance of cottage cheese and orange peel thighs (see Carol Bruneau in blue, page 230)

? (too many to count) references to peeing (see Dawn Rae Downton in black, pages 130 – 137)

1 supportive, independent bookseller (thank you Bookmark, regrettably not pictured)

45 books sold (all royalties generously donated to Informed Opinions) and

1 extremely grateful, fish-filled editor/catalyst thankful for the support of her roadie/chauffeur/photographer/husband and eager to return sometime soon to deliver workshops to smart women who should speak up more often!

 

 


Aug 12 2011

Celebrated novelist Carol Bruneau August 16th in Halifax

 

heartbreakingly true-to-life”

“empathetic and skilled”

“remarkably intricate, textured and complex”

… These are just a few of the superlatives that reviewers – from the Globe and Mail, the Sun Times, and the Literary Review of Canada – have used to describe novelist Carol Bruneau’s writing.

So I was delighted when she agreed to contribute to I Feel Great About My Hands. Her piece, entitled “Have Genes Will Travel”, pays tribute to both her centenarian aunt, and the mother she lost far too young – both of them inspirational role models with lessons to teach about how one might embrace the aging journey, and why.

On Tuesday, August 16th, Halifax residents and visitors alike can hear Carol read from her essay at the Halifax Club Literary Luncheon (12 noon, $20 buys lunch and entertainment, contact novamedia@gmail.com) and again at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia that evening (7 pm, no charge, RSVP info@informedopinions.org) alongside equally accomplished contributors Dawn Rae Downton and Sheree Fitch.

I look forward to basking in the glow of their reflected brilliance at both events.