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.


Nov 13 2011

Apparently I’m a fascist…

And to think I was concerned about critics calling the collection “uneven”…

Instead, the reviewer — a female writer over the age of 50 who I didn’t know and therefore didn’t think to invite to contribute to the book — began her broadcast commentary on I Feel Great About My Hands by describing me as “left leaning” and my organizing principle as “fascistic”. (But what does she really think, you might be wondering.)  And then she went on to complain that I had failed to include the voices of any welfare moms or plastic surgery queens. (um… really?)

The rational part of me dismissed the critique because she, did, after all, allow that a third of the pieces in the book were brilliant. She quoted from the entries written by Mary Walsh, Lorna Crozier and Meri Collier. And — I’ve done the math —  she must also have appreciated at least another eight or nine.

But the sensitive, occasionally insecure, emotional part of me (and yes, it likely is the bigger part), was a bit stung. A week later I’m still writing her pithy notes in my head and having fantasy encounters which involve me delivering withering refutations in front of a large and sympathetic audience of people who laugh at my witticisms and line up to get their copies of I Feel Great About My Hands signed afterwards.

Let’s start with “left-leaning”. I think the reviewer in question may have lazily cobbed this characterization from another review, but the truth is, in the 35 years since I became eligible to vote, I have cast ballots for candidates representing every major political party. Not even my husband is privy to the details, let alone which ones I endorsed for reasons of partisan affiliation, support for a particular issue, or the ultimately unfulfilled promise of a financial kick-back. (Kidding.) But if my purported lefty-ness was truly a crucial component, wouldn’t I have gone out of my way to include the missing welfare moms (or at least a union organizer)?  Really, what was I thinking? Why didn’t I badger a few women raising children in impoverished circumstances to donate their labour and talent to my cause with no expectation of compensation?!

I confess, it didn’t occur to me. Every month when I’m paying the smaller portion of my bills, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to share my life and corresponding expenses with a financially successful partner.  I well know what a luxury it is to be able to marshall the kind of time and energy necessary to tease insights and entertainment out of tightly crafted sentences. And although I also know a few financially struggling writers (apologies for the redundancy) who rely on coffee shop wifi and/or work retail to supplement the meagre income that writing often affords, none of them are currently collecting welfare or raising children. Sorry.

In fact, in recruiting contributors to the collection, I emailed twice as many interesting and outspoken women as ultimately appeared in the book. Recipients of my invitations were racially diverse, geographically spread out, and affiliated with every major political party. Some of them were more enthusiastic than others; more than a few promised to send me something but didn’t get around to it;  but only one sent me a snarky note ridiculing the endeavour and the cause it supports. C’est la vie.

As for ignoring the voices of any plastic surgery queens, well, um, OK — guilty as charged. Unfairly perhaps, I generally imagine that people who are addicted to needle- and anaesthetic-assisted cosmetic enhancement are perhaps less likely than the average woman to welcome the sometimes dubious benefits of aging. And yes, that was my organizing principle: I didn’t forbid anyone from acknowledging the gravity-induced disappointments of extra years (see pages 1 through 243; nor did I edit out the nurmorous references to hot flashes, gray hair or memory loss. But because I did encourage contributors to also share something that they genuinely appreciated about having been on the planet more than half a century, apparently I’m a fascist.

The ultimate irony, however is this: the reviewer dissed the collection for being “derivative” (riffing off Nora Ephron‘s title, collecting women’s voices like Dropped Threads — and countless other anthologies — have.) But she’s named her own blog a variation on “Stuff White People Like”…

So, really.

 


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.

 

 

 


Apr 26 2011

I Feel Bad About My Neck

…by Nora Ephron – Of course! I loved this book; it made me – and countless others – laugh out loud. And even though the irrepressible screenwriter and essayist finds little to celebrate about aging (hence the necessity for I Feel Great About My Hands), she’s very good company.