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.)

 


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 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!

 


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.

 

 

 


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.

 


Jul 29 2011

Following Dawn Rae Downton “Into the Void”

I first met Dawn Rae Downton over the phone 15 years ago during a board recruitment exercise for MediaWatch (now Media Action). Even though the position was voluntary, we had more than ten applicants for the Atlantic Representative and most of them looked pretty desirable on paper. But Dawn Rae’s obvious intelligence, impressive experience and sophisticated sense of humour clinched the deal.

Shortly after joining the board, her administrative, process and financial abilities propelled her into the treasurer’s chair, and it was my great pleasure to serve with her for the next half a dozen years. But my fandom reached unexpected heights with the publication of her two memoirs, Seldom and Diamond. (Who says crackerjack administrators can’t also be gifted artists?) I find her singular voice both entertaining and seductively hypnotic: she lulls you in with the cadence of beautifully wrought sentences and then arrests you with a surprising image or irreverent aside.

Both of these traits are evident in her contribution to I Feel Great About My Hands. Her title – “Facing the Void” – is a play on words that hints at her essay’s focus on an aspect of aging that can keep one up at night. But in Dawn Rae’s inimitable hands, the essay introduces readers to some precious characters and offers an around-the-world privy tour that ends up in Anne Murray’s back yard. 

If you live anywhere near Halifax, you can hear Dawn Rae read aloud from the piece on August 16th. At noon she’ll be featured in a Halifax Club literary luncheon along with sister contributors, playwright, poet and performer, Sheree Fitchnovelist Carol Bruneau (more about her soon),and me. For lunch tickets — a steal at $20 — contact Stephen Patrick Clare at novamedia@gmail.com.

That evening, we’ll all be reading at a special event in the theatre space at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, accessible through the Bedford Rd entrance. RSVP info@informedopinions.org

Books sold at both events will benefit Informed Opinions, a non-profit project working to encourage smart women to mouth off more often. Really.  


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. 


Jun 8 2011

Bloomingdale’s supports the girls

It’s 36 degrees centigrade outside but in the lingerie department at Bloomingdale’s, the temperature is very comfortable, and the “intimate apparel” (that’s what they call it here), even more so.

Galina, the friendly and authoritative woman staffing the fitting room has convincingly demonstrated that – like the women on Oprah referred to in Marlaina Gayle’s essay (tellingly called, “How Drooping Breasts Led Me to A Truck-driving Life of Adventure”), I, too, have been wearing the wrong bra size.

“Your selection is overwhelming,” I tell her. “Yes, she says, it is. But –” (and here she sizes me up in a glance and pronounces my size, in advance of confirming her accuracy with a tape measure), “we can help you.” And she does.

Half an hour later, she and her equally professional and supportive (pun intended) colleague Erica have equipped me with four new bras and (who knew) relevant insights into how best to wear, adjust and care for them. (It pains me to say this, but I can’t think of when I have ever, ever had remotely this good service in a department store in Canada.)

Is a career change next? (That’s the trajectory followed by Marlaina.) (And will I, too, start to adopt “the girls” terminology used by Galina as she coached mine into place, and cheered when they stood at attention?)

Finally, should I be approaching Bloomingdale’s to encourage them to stock copies of the book that has the potential to boost their sales just as Oprah’s episode no doubt did a few years ago?! (Ok, that may be wishful thinking…)