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 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.

Aug 31 2011

Not your typical retirement role model

I have seen my future – and if I’m lucky, it may look a bit like Editta Sherman’s present. The prospect fills me with an astonishing sense of satisfaction.

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve entertained the fantasy that one day I would grow up to live in a large unstructured old style converted warehouse loft apartment. The floors would be hardwood and hard worn. Natural light would flood in from a bank of leaded – and no doubt drafty windows – along one wall, the furniture would be minimal but comfy, and I would have lots of room to dance and make interesting and beautiful things with my hands.

In my youth, I imagined I would realize this ambition sooner rather than later. I saw it as a natural accompaniment to the work I believed I was intended to do in visual art. And even though I didn’t identify as a feminist until a decade after I came of age, there was no man in my picture. (Which is odd, now that I think about it, because I’ve always been pretty attached to having romance in my life. But I envisioned creativity not kids as my destiny and so perhaps the loft took the place in my imagination that was left vacant by the fantasies others had of white picket fences and children.)

And although I’ve spent much of the past two years thinking, writing and speaking about aging, until now, it’s been very difficult for me to conjure up a picture of what I want my own advancing years to look like. (Maybe this is classic denial, and holds for everyone?)

But it’s been years since I had a secure job from which I might yearn to retire (and, correspondingly, a pension that might support me in doing so!) I have no children of my own, and no immediate prospect of even step-grandchildren, either…  No interest in playing golf or cribbage, in moving to a warmer climate… And no inclination to take up bridge or travel a lot more than I already do.

Yet I’ve never thought it likely that I would just keep on keeping on… I have imagined that eventually things would shift into what Jane Fonda refers in her new book, Prime Time, as a “third phase” where things would be different somehow, if not appropriately described as “retirement”. And now, courtesy of Eddita Sherman, I have a picture of a potential final act that’s enormously appealing.

A New York City portrait photographer in her late 90s, Sherman makes a guest appearance in the recent documentary film about iconic New York Times fashion columnist/photographer, Bill Cunningham.  Like Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Sherman lived for half a century in an artist’s studio at Carnegie Hall, only losing her battle to remain there last year. Does she still take photographs? It’s not clear in the film, but her identity as an artist is undeniable. Watching the footage of her inhabiting her studio, I felt a strong emotional tug, and could suddenly envision myself aging in a place where most of the space was given over to a creative laboratory. (Fortunately for me, the love of my life is open to this vision. And in the unfortunate event that he should predecease me, I now have an alternative that holds some allure.)

May 29 2011

Making a case for laugh lines

Thank god I don’t travel in the same circles as Dominique Browning…

That was just one of the thoughts that occurred to me when reading her provocative and insightful piece, “The Case for Laugh Lines”, in today’s New York Times. Browning confessed that she’s often inclined to greet people she knows but barely recognizes by asking them who they are, as opposed to how they are. She claims that many of her acquaintances have erased the traces of identity, if not life, from their faces.

None of the people I see day-to-day appear to have engaged in serious Botox injections or collagen enhancements, let alone the more invasive skin tightening procedures apparently so prevalent in Hollywood, New York or Texas.

This is not to say that I can’t relate to the phenomenon Browning describes. I do know a couple of women whose faces have been so distorted by surgical interventions that I can no longer hear the words that come out of their mouths, so distracted am I by the damage to their ability to present authentically.

Browning cites an experience of watching a smart and passionate celebrity make the case for disarmament on TV, observing that the woman’s frozen-in-place face

…is grotesquely fascinating — and undermining. Before I know it, the interview is over. The medium overtook the message.

Diana Majury’s essay in I Feel Great About My Hands contains many insights, but one of these is especially relevant. Confessing her unhappiness with her own lines, she recounts how her boredom at a meeting one day led to a “wrinkle revelation” as she watched a similarly aged friend speak.

I looked at her lines and I loved them – they were signs of wisdom, life and learning; they were guides to her responses and emotions. They were entrancing. I stared at her for the rest of the meeting, interpreting its tone and outcome through the lines on my dear friend’s face. I enjoyed myself immensely and saw her, as I always have, as extremely beautiful.