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.

 


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

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.


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.)

 


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”.


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.  


Jun 30 2011

Tina Fey on turning 40

Tina Fey rocks.

In her new best-selling memoir, Bossypants, the seriously funny Tina Fey devotes an entire (one-paragraph long) chapter to “What Turning Forty Means to Me”. She writes,

I need to take my pants off as soon as I get home. I didn’t used to have to do that.

Which is, let’s face it, one of the primary reasons yoga pants were invented (see I Feel Great About My Hands, page 241).

I love Fey’s personal brand of self-deprecating, socially conscious honesty; the book made me LOL, as expected, but also offered genuine insights into managing people, balancing motherhood and work, and the ambivalence she felt about parodying Sarah Palin.

Then there was her searing analysis of why older men who can barely clothe and feed themselves still get work in comedy, but brilliant women of a similar vintage don’t… It’s a painful gem.


Jun 3 2011

Aging gracefully on “Lines of Beauty”

 

Louise Cady Fernandes is a “50-year-old felted wool texture lover, color connoisseur, a funny bone collector, swimmer and a mom.” In addition to creating whimsical sweaters, accessories and housewares from recycled felted wool, she blogs about aging gracefully, “one wrinkle at a time.”

Appreciative readers of I Feel Great About My Hands are likely to find some relevant inspiration at one or both of her sites.


Jun 3 2011

Caring for the “fragile elderly”

 

A Bitter Pill is a fascinating and enlightening read. Written by Dr. John Sloan, a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia (and an MD in the unusual practice of making house calls!), it explores why and how our health care system doesn’t work for old people who are in fragile health. Only a third of the way through it, I’ve already underlined or asterisked dozens of insights and am eager to share it with my family. The book is written in clear, accessible prose and enlivened with stories and case studies. It should be a must read for anyone supporting an elderly friend or relative.

Which is to say, almost all of us!