Jun 27 2012

Ignominious endings

Helene Anne Fortin shot many photos of my hands for cover consideration

What body part would you like to be defined by after you’ve departed this life for whatever destination awaits you? What image indelibly associated with your name?

As a postscript to the previous entry, a brief tribute to writer and director, Nora Ephron, I have to say that reading the obit printed in today’s Globe and Mail (a condensed 6 column inches penned by Hillel Italie of Associated Press) gave me pause.

Although the piece quoted one of Ephron’s classic putdowns (a dismissive reference to a male character, widely acknowledged to be modeled on her ex-husband, Carl Bernstein, as being “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”), the obit’s final words were devoted to some of the writer’s musings about her famously lamented neck.

Notwithstanding the best-seller status of the book known for its confessed concerns about wattles and creases, this still seems wrong to me.

The woman was a wildly successful screenwriter and director, who made highly watchable movies, wrote laugh out loud material, and was adored by colleagues. And the neck piece, although good enough to lend its title to her essay collection, wasn’t her best work.

More importantly, however, the title made clear how she felt about her neck. (Bad!) So it seems a bit callous, if not cruel, to allow the last image of the tribute to reinforce the unfortunate associations that the deceased — like women everywhere, encouraged by a physical-perfection-obsessed culture — despaired.

(Italie is probably young and male; this likely never occurred to him. And possibly it was the Globe editor who chopped a longer piece that ended differently.)

But here’s the YouTube link again, revealing a strong and confident, beautiful and gracious woman, holding forth — hilariously — in front of an audience of her peers.

(In the meantime, although I’ll never be remotely as famous as she is, I’m still relieved that I focused my own title essay on a part of my body that I actually like.)

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.

May 26 2012

Best. Birthday. Present. Ever.

The subject line of the email read:
I Feel Great About My Hands is costing me a fortune…
and inside, the sender — a woman I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting — continued:
…because I love it. Every time I read a piece, I think of someone else to send a copy to. Just now, I’ve realized I have to send one to my friend in Israel, and earlier this week I “amazoned” one out to another friend in Vancouver for her birthday. I received my copy for my 65th birthday last month at a dinner party for my women friends organized by my daughter at a local restaurant. The party favours were books “that her mother would like,” which she hunted down in second-hand stores all around Toronto: works by Germaine Greer, Maya Angelou, and of course a Harper’s Bazaar on fashion, and a Life magazine on women’s hats, dated March 31, 1947.
A physician psychotherapist, my new pen pal revealed that she’d been recommending I Feel Great About My Hands to patients, one of whom was apparently happily inspired by her reading experience to make a list of all her accomplishments since the age of 31.

I engaged in a similar exercise on my 50th birthday which, readers of the book may recall I spent driving to and from a funeral. Confronted by the fleeting nature of mortality, I made a list of all the things I’d done over the past 30 years that I was proud of having accomplished. And then I reminded myself that given the average life expectancy of Canadian women, I might well have another three decades in front of me to pursue similarly engaging challenges. I, too, found the exercise enormously encouraging.
But back to the email, which finished with the following:
So thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s brilliant.
Sharon Baltman M.D.

I was already having a fabulous birthday when I received Sharon’s email, but her unsolicited and unexpected gift of expressed appreciation put it over the top. (I bet she’s an excellent psychotherapist.)

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.


For more on this subject, check out my Jimmy Choo revenge fantasy.

Apr 11 2012

Use it or lose it

Two weeks ago I uncharacteristically attended four yoga classes in the space of 6 days, and — from my intercostals to my hamstrings — my body protested. Then last week, because I had four consecutive days off, the weather was fine, and I didn’t want to push my luck on the cobra-chattarunga front (did I mention my vulnerable wrists, my aching back?), I went for a run three days in a row. (I know, I know.) But I didn’t go far, nor fast and — for two of the days — not even on pavement (the gym I sweat in sports four bouncy rubber treadmills hooked up to TVs to keep your mind from convincing you that you’re tired, when you’re really just lazy.) What can I say? It’s spring.

The truth is, even if my muscles groan a bit when I push them, or my problem hip threatens to keep me awake at night, there’s no good reason for me not to be moving around. I feel better when I do. I sleep better. Work better. “Move it or lose it,” my father says. (Or does he? Do I just imagine he says that because in his ninth decade on the planet, he’s still playing tennis three times a week?) He aches, too. Runs after the ball less, is slower. But he plays.

I am inspired by this, and by choreographer, Twyla Tharp, who writes in her book, The Creative Habit:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours.

This woman — who has created dances for the Joffrey, the Martha Graham Company, and the Paris Ballet Theatre, to music from The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan to classical composers and jazz artists, who has played on Broadway and toured the world — is 70 now, although when she wrote the book, she was in her early 60s.

But still… Every day? At 5 freakin’ 30 in the a.m.? For two hours?

I can’t really conceive of how many occasions remain in my life when it would make sense for me to attempt to fling my right leg into the air above my head as Ms. Tharp does here, much more successfully than I ever could have, even at 15. But I’m guessing the two-hour daily workout helps explains why it’s possible.

And you can’t help but admire her for it.


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.  

Feb 18 2012

You can tell a lot about a woman by her hands…

My friend Melanie, who has the gift of making me (and most everyone else lucky enough to know her) laugh almost every time she opens her mouth, came across the following image recently and sent it along for my — and now hopefully your — entertainment.

(Just to be clear, I am in no way advocating this particular use of hands, but in addition to being amused by the unexpected punch line, I loved the disconnect between the medium and the message.)