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 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 15 2011

It’s come to this…

This falls under the category of “you know you’re old when….”

We arrived in Halifax yesterday to glorious sunshine and enveloping heat with a beautiful breeze. In other words, perfect vacation weather. Once in the car, David driving and me navigating, it became apparent that fulfilling my responsibilities with the aid of one pair of spectacles was not possible: I needed two.

What can I say? I know it’s not a good look, but  the readers permit me to distinguish the lines and names on the map, and the sunglasses stop me from going blind.

And I’d like to be able to read from my own essay in I Feel Great About My Hands this afternoon on CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon, when Carol Bruneau and I get to speak to the lively and engaging Stephanie Domet.

In the meantime, I’m praying the predicted showers occur while I’m in the studio because CTV’s Starr Dobson has reserved a few minutes during the 5 pm show to devote to the book and the two events we’re doing tomorrow. (see Upcoming Events sidebar for when and where). And I know from experience that bad hair on TV has the magical ability to render a speaker mute (your lips move and the words are projected, but the bad vibes coming from your ruined coif intercept and disable the sound waves such that only the most evolved of viewers can actually hear what you’re saying).

Jul 13 2011

Betty Ford, Sharon Carstairs great examples of power of voice

I read the news about Betty Ford’s death at 93 the same day as I learned a good friend had developed breast cancer. A passing reference in the obituary provided unexpected comfort regarding my friend’s unfortunate diagnosis.

Ford – an enormously respected former first lady who triumphed over both cancer and addiction, while challenging taboos with her characteristic candidness – went on to live another three decades after her mastectomy.

I don’t know what the survival rate was in 1974 when she had her surgery, but I’m certain that the numbers have improved since. According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, women diagnosed today in this country have an 87% likelihood of living for at least five years. I take additional solace from having watched three close friends emerge resolutely healthy from their own battles with breast cancer in recent years. 

But I also think about some of the observations shared by Vancouver physician, Gabor Maté, who wrote about the implications of the mind-body connection in his 2004 best seller, When the Body Says No. Featuring scientific research and case studies alongside Maté’s own experiences in palliative care, the book devotes an entire chapter to the relationship of emotional stress to cancer. It’s been years since I read it and my copy now sits on the bookshelf of a friend, but I remember being struck by his message about the importance of acknowledging and voicing one’s feelings.

Sharon Carstairs using her inimitable voice last year (screen shot from CBC site)

In her moving contribution to I Feel Great About My Hands, former leader of the Manitoba Liberal party and current senator Sharon Carstairs writes explicitly about this. Indeed, her piece is called “Finding My Voice.” In it she recounts the abuse she experienced as a child from a trusted family friend, and how terrified she was of the potential consequences of speaking up and accusing him.

It was several years later – when my younger sister caught the eye of my abuser – that I found my voice and spoke out. I told the abuser that if he did not stop, I would tell. The abuse stopped. Unable to find my voice to protect myself, I found it to protect my sister. That act of speaking out was a pivotal moment in my life. I learned that I need not be silenced by my fears, I learned that by using my voice, I had the power to seek change.

…Which she’s been doing ever since, arguing passionately for constitutional, health care and criminal justice reform. 

Jul 11 2011

“Magical thinking”, Groucho Marx and the power of denial


Author of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, speaking at Tulane University, screen capture of image on university website

Joan Didion explored the notion of magical thinking in her compelling chronicle of the period immediately following the death of her beloved partner, John Gregory Dunne, when her yearning for his presence fed a disbelief that he could actually be gone. The book is a brilliant treatise on love and grief, on the ways a heart can inexplicably keep on beating, despite its broken state.

I haven’t experienced that particular kind of intimate loss, but I do think that the attachment many of us have to our own youthfulness constitutes a milder form of magical thinking. At the age of 35, despite physical evidence to the contrary, I felt much the same as I had at 16. And when I reached 50 a few years ago and was forced by the milestone to take serious stock, I was only willing to concede that my sense of my self had matured marginally – to about 25.

But there’s nothing like pop culture to remind you that in some arenas at least, the intervening years have, indeed, made a difference.

Standing in line adjacent to a magazine rack yesterday, I scanned the guilty-pleasure tabloid covers for some juicy gossip about the stars. But as my eyes moved from one unfamiliar face and barely recognized name to another, I was forced to acknowledge that time is, indeed, passing. Absent references to Angelina, Brad and Jennifer, or the starving or bad-behaving starlets of five years ago (when I must have been paying more attention), I was traveling in unknown territory. (Not that this is a bad thing: think about how much more room I now have in my brain for more important, illuminating or inspiring content.)

Let's subvert Groucho's famous line...

In the meantime, I take solace in the wisdom of Groucho Marx — adapted to a feminist perspective. “You’re only as old as the woman you feel,” he said, chewing on his cigar. I’m pretty sure the “you” he had in mind when he delivered this insight was male, but I am the woman I feel most often (so to speak), so 25 it is!

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 25 2011

“At least I’m not married to him”

That’s what acclaimed British editor and author Diana Athill used to say to herself when she felt particularly tried, having to deal with the talented but sexist and egotistical VS Naipal. And recently, when the Trinidad-born writer dismissed both women generally, and Ms. Athill specifically, for penning “feminine tosh”, she said,

I can’t say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh … (Naipaul) has “always been a testy man and seems to have got testier in old age. I don’t think it is worth being taken seriously … It’s sad really because he’s a very good writer. Why be such an irritable man?

Athill didn’t start writing her own books until she was in her 70s, and at 93, she continues to display the healthy sense of self that gave her the strength to work with Naipal and other (ahem) shrinking violets like Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler.

Her matter of fact equanimity reminds me of some of the attitudes expressed by a number of contributors to I Feel Great About My Hands, including Heather-jane Robertson, a formidable author in her own right. In her essay, “The Joys of Mostly Good Enough”, Heather-jane argues that advancing age is largely incompatible with common failings and neuroses, and that’s a good thing. In retirement, she notes,

Narcissists soon learn that while co-workers may once have tolerated a self-absorbed albeit productive or powerful colleague, the post-employment world doesn’t cut much slack for people who expect it to be all about them. Folks who at one time found dealing with you irritating but necessary can become folks who don’t have to bother dealing with you at all.

Jun 13 2011

Older women disrobe… and run!


I admire the confidence that allows mature models to disrobe before a group of people…

So wrote Meri Collier in the email she sent accompanying some of her beautiful, loose, spontaneous drawings of older women, like this one: 


Mature bodies are particularly challenging because they’re usually hidden, not displayed publicly. The visual vocabulary is not so familiar. My challenge is to look, see and believe what is in front of me. I derive pleasure as I explore and learn.

She hadn’t intended her words for inclusion in the book, but I found her observations a compelling complement to the images themselves, three of which I’m delighted to feature in the collection. The drawings’ economic lines speak volumes, evoking many of the same insights and reflections that appear in other essays.

Today, Meri — pictured here reading from her observations at Ben McNally’s bookstore in Toronto — sent me another intriguing email, this one introducing me to Olga Kotelko.

A 91-year-old Saskatchewan track star, who began her athletic career at the age of 77, Olga has since earned more than 600 – that’s right, 600 – gold medals. She explains her success this way:

It takes discipline, but I train a lot, I like doing it, it’s good for my body. I enjoy the camaraderie on the field. I love competing. I love to win.

Olga is a walking, talking (running, jumping, throwing…) advertisement for the “use it or lose it” philosophy. And even if you have no desire to run track yourself, she’s an inspiration.


Jun 7 2011

Contemplating one’s imminent demise

The real prospect of one’s potentially imminent death has a way of focusing  the mind and not only making one grateful to be alive in the event that the grim reaper is ultimately avoided, but clear about what’s actually important.  In a recent issue of New York magazine, American broadcaster Chris Licht, who last year survived a mysterious brain hemorrhage, commented on the perspective this provided for a new risky job change. Even in the event of his subsequent firing, he said,

I’d still have two amazing kids, an amazing wife and my life, you know? I mean, I almost died. What could you possibly do to me?

Reading his comments reminded me of the insights on offer in Ann Cowan’s funny and thoughtful piece, “On Birthdays and Bibliotherapy.” A long time senior administrator at Simon Fraser University, Ann is one of the most literate and interesting conversationalists I know, and she has an uncommon capacity to link disparate bits of intelligence and observation together in ways that surprise and delight — even when the subject matter is mortality — her own and others.  

She writes about being forced by an uncommon form of cancer to plan her own “endgame” and confesses:

Bibliotherapy and retail therapy are my usual supports when faced with any life crisis—the former reminding me that whatever is happening to me has happened or been imagined before, the latter providing a distraction. I’ve already bought a condo, and my bank account is pouring down the drain of its expensive bathroom sinks—appropriately called vanities— and so the time for bibliotherapy is at hand.

Then she moves seamlessly — and entertainingly — back and forth between Wordsworth and Rob, a pop-up advertiser on the Internet who’s flogging an apparently fail-proof fat-burning strategy.  Funny and thoughtful in equal measure, the piece is vintage Ann.

(And it helps to explain why a woman ordinarily protective of her holiday time with her husband would be happy to share their yoga vacation with such great company!)