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 .

Oct 21 2012

Mixed feelings about Botox

I was still raw with grief over the premature death of my eldest sister three years ago when I stumbled into a dermatologist’s office in Ottawa. Sally had lost her life at 55 to malignant melanoma, leaving behind a loving husband, two adult daughters, who spent the last weeks of her life sleeping on gurneys in the hospital corridor, and a 12-year-old son.

And you thought the target market for Botox was middle age! Is the young woman featured in this Botox ad out of her teens?

Although my skin is quite different from Sally’s, a precautionary visit to have my moles checked seemed like a smart thing to do. I anticipated the feelings of vulnerability that I experienced as I entered the discouragingly full dermatologist’s office at 8:30 a.m.; what I couldn’t have predicted, however, was the rage that I felt when confronted by posters celebrating the 20th anniversary of Botox.

My fury was not solely about the popularity or promotion of an injectable toxin that aging women — and, increasingly men — are encouraged to believe they can’t leave home without, although now that you mention it, yes, I do resent that. But on this particular occasion it was heightened by the fact that I’d waited six months for an appointment, and was now about to have to wait another 45 minutes, despite being on time, first thing in the morning.

Earlier this week I received an email from Sandi Berwick, who’d come to the launch of I Feel Great About My Hands in Halifax. A grad student in the Department of Family Studies and Gerontology, she’s currently doing supervised academic research into women’s experiences with injectable facial procedures.

As someone who’s not immune to the wrinkles I see reflected in my mirror (see previous post), I’m interested to learn more about how this phenomenon affects women, and offered to try to help Sandi and her colleagues find additional research subjects. I’ve pasted the text of her notice below.

If you are a woman aged 35 – 65 who has had injections to reduce the signs of aging to your face but have mixed or negative feelings about your experience (for example, maybe you didn’t like how you felt emotionally or physically afterwards, you didn’t like how it looked, or other reasons),

 You may be interested in participating in this study on

Women’s experiences with injectable facial procedures

Participants will be Interviewed Privately and

Confidentially (in person, on-line Skype, or by telephone)

To find out more about the study or to participate, please contact:  (Dept of Family Studies and Gerontology)

OR call 889-4130 and leave a confidential message


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.

Aug 9 2012

Menopause brain: advantages of…

I’ve discovered another unexpected joy of aging that has nothing to do with no longer having to shave my legs (because they seem to have become hair-free of their own accord — who knew?)

The new benefit has to do with my ability to weather the rejection challenges associated with sales.

I never sought an opportunity to test my persuasive abilities in the context of the punishing selling profession. The one summer I spent in retail, flogging suits and dresses at Clark’s Place, a slightly upscale sister shop to Le Chateau in the bowels of Vancouver’s Pacific Centre shopping mall, cured me of any such aspirations.

I discovered that the commission experience was capable of seriously perverting my natural empathic tendencies, converting me into a cut-throat piranha, willing to stretch the truth like the spandex on the woman between me and the mirror, who wanted to know if the outfit she was considering made her look more generously proportioned than she was.

And this for a mere one percent commission, added onto my minimum wage ($3.50/hour at the time)!

The motivator was less the paltry few dollars, and more the competitive nature of the exercise: every week, the commission accomplishments of the six sales staff were ranked and posted in the store’s broom closet/washroom.

I’m not proud of this. But in my defense, having learned a dark secret about my character, I returned to waitressing the following summer in a bid to remain in university and avoid having to take a job in either field ever again.

But back to the aging advantage: It’s not so much that I’ve become more emotionally resilient with age (in fact, those close to me would confirm that I weep as easily as ever — reading newspaper stories about victimized sex trade workers or listening to David Suzuki decry the blindness of a world bent on privileging the economy over the environment).

And it’s not that I immediately bounce back from the disappointment of not hearing from those I’ve emailed in pursuit of a meeting to talk about the value of my small non-profit venture and how it can help them change the world.

It’s more that I often just don’t remember having contacted them in the first place…


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.

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.

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”.

Nov 5 2011

In praise of muted lighting

You know when you stay in that hotel? Yeah, that one — with the designer lobby featuring the funky purple chairs that you’d love to take home (if only “home” were a 2,000-square-foot Manhattan loft?) …The hotel that’s only accessible when you’re traveling on someone else’s expense account?

But never mind the furniture, it’s the bathroom you really appreciate, and not just because it’s spacious and understated (although, of course, it is).

And there you are, leaning over the sink, about to wash the minor vestiges of mascara and blush that still remain on your face 16 hours after you first applied them, and you glance up into the mirror and are stunned by your reflection: because the lighting has taken 20 years off the mug that’s staring back at you, and it now no longer features wrinkles, age spots or, in fact, pores.

But you’re not paying that much attention, not yet. You’re merely noticing that you don’t actually look like you’ve just delivered an all-day workshop in an airless university classroom, during which you consumed not one but two cinnamon swirl Danish pastries and a Nanaimo bar (because all of the supplied sandwiches contained meat, which you don’t eat – and no, you realize this rationale doesn’t make sense).

You think it’s because you’re having a good hair day (you always think it’s your hair – your husband is convinced that’s all you can see when you look in the mirror), and it’s true, you are having a good hair day. But it’s not your hair; not even a good hair day can eliminate the bags under your tired eyes.

No, it’s the lighting. The lighting is muted, gentle. It’s diffused. It eases out from behind the perimeter of the mirror, casting a soft halo of warmth and… generosity – yes, there’s no better way to explain it: The lighting is generous.

And suddenly you feel good. You could look in that mirror all day. In fact, your husband is even now knocking on the bathroom door because you’ve been in there quite some time already. He wants to know if you’re all right.

All right? You wish he’d join you in the bathroom with the camera. The one he occasionally flashes when you’re convinced you’re not having a good hair day, and the light is harsh and punishing, not generous and angelic.

But you won’t fully appreciate what a gift muted lighting can be until the next day when you’re dashing past a department store window in the cold light of an October morning and you catch sight of yourself in its reflective glass – and shudder at the contrast from the night before… and then again later that evening when you repeat the face-washing experience illuminated by the unforgiving bulbs that surround your own bathroom mirror.

It’s at this moment that you mentally abandon all plans to invest in new art supplies and instead start stalking high end bathroom and lighting stores in search of the magical mirror/light fixture, or what you’re now referring to as your “new best friend”…