Sunday, July 1, 2007

Norah Ephron's Neck

I just finished reading Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck. This is a book of short essays about motherhood, growing older, plastic surgery, and other delights of womanhood. To say I liked it would be putting it mildly. I loved this freaking book. LOVED IT.

The title essay is about how a woman's neck is the one body part that cannot be repaired all by itself. Either you choose to have a face lift with a neck job, or you deal with your neck. Evidently, there are various types of necks; scrawny necks, fat necks, loose necks, crapey necks, banded necks, wrinkled necks, stringy necks, saggy necks, flabby necks, mottled necks and necks that are an amazing combination of the above. Who knew? What I do know is that I hate my neck, too. My neck is short and flabby and has a crapey big right below my chin from weight loss. It is ugly. Nora says that necks define age, and she's right. Isn't that something to look forward to?

I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephrons' latest collection, is subtitled "And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," though it might more accurately be called "A Measure of One Woman's Life." A certain melancholy pervades the humor here. The book opens with the title essay about aging and concludes with a rumination about death called "Considering the Alternative." Between are essays about books treasured along the way, thoughts "On Maintenance" (bodily upkeep), the stages of parenting, a timeline of beloved cookbooks, cabbage strudel, her love affair with an apartment and "The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less."

There's more, but basically this is a kind of retrospective -- wry and amusing, as you'd expect, but also a bit strained and sad. It's a condensation of a life graced with privilege, which can make empathizing with Ephron a bit difficult. We all end up too aware of our own deterioration, but we don't all have our hair done twice a week or have our unwanted facial fuzz "threaded" by a woman who uses "a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal she had learned in Russia." Then there are the three hours every six weeks spent having "four tiny, virtually invisible blondish streaks" added to her hair (which has already had the gray covered over), the weekly manicures and regular pedicures, and vast amounts of skin cream and bath oil. It's all brave (and funny) to talk about -- but odd, because if you've spent all that time and money trying to look younger and better, doesn't it make more sense not to tell anybody you've done it so they can think you just naturally look young and good? And then there's the time and the money. As far as money is concerned, she's earned it, no question about that -- but the specifics of what she's writing about, here and in other essays in the collection, are much less than universal. There are worlds where having your facial hair regularly threaded is as affordable as the judicious use of a pair of tweezers, but that choice is a luxury many women don't have.

Most women will love the essay about her purse. She may "feel bad" about her neck, but she "hates" her purse. She's writing here for women "who understand that their purses are reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away" and who aren't wildly successful at changing -- at the right time -- from a winter purse to a summer one. Her list of permanent purse contents includes loose Tic-Tacs, lipsticks with no covers, leaky ballpoint pens and crumpled tissues that might have been used but equally well might not have been -- who can tell?

There's a lot of interesting advice in a chapter called "What I Wish I'd Known." She tells us that "the last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money," but she doesn't say how you know when the last four years begin. I like "If the shoe doesn't fit in the shoe store, it's never going to fit": So many things could be substituted for shoes in exactly the same sense. She tells us that "The plane is not going to crash," but later she notes "Overinsure everything." The essay's last words: "There are no secrets."

My favorite essay is "Parenting in Three Stages". Ephron defines each of the stages, and then leads into a fabulous rant about how parenting in these crazy times is all tied up in consumerism, competitive parenting, and lo, the mommy wars.

"Back in the day when there were merely parents, as opposed to people who were engaged in parenting, being a parent was straightforward. You didn't need a book, and if you owned one, it was by Dr. Spock, a pediatrician, and you rarely looked at it unless your child had a temperature of 103 or the croup or both. You understood that your child had a personality. His very own personality. He was born with it. For a certain period, this child would live with you and your personality, and you would do your best to survive each other. "

She goes on to say:

"Back in those days-- and once again, let me stress that I am not talking about the 19th century, it was just a few years ago-- no one believed that you could turn your child into a different human being from the one he started out being. T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician who supplanted Spock in the 1980's, was a disciple of Piaget and his books divided babies into three types--active, average, and quiet. He never suggested that your very quiet baby would ever become and active one, or vice versa. Your baby was your baby, and if he ran you ragged, he ran you ragged, and if he lay in his crib staring happily at his mobile, that was about what you could expect."
She then leads into how raising children changed because of the women's movement, which added the gender-neutral term 'parenting', implying that men and women should equally share in the raising of children. She says:

"Parenting was serious. Parenting was fierce. Parenting was solemn. Parenting was a participle, like going and doing and crusading and worrying. It was active, it was energetic, it was unrelenting. Parenting meant playing Mozart CDs while you were pregnant, doing without the epidural, and breast-feeding your child until he was old enough to unbutton your blouse. Parenting began with the assumption that your baby was a lump of clay that could be molded (through hard work, input, and positive reinforcement) into a perfect person who would someday be admitted to the college of your choice. Parenting was not simply about raising a child, it was about transforming a child, force-feeding it like a fois gras goose, altering, modifying, modulating, manipulating, smoothing out, improving.....

And by the say, all sorts of additional personnel were required to achieve the transformational effect that was the gold of parenting--baby whisperers, sleep counselors, shrinks, learning therapists, family therapists, speech therapists, tutors, ad if necessary, behavior-altering medication, which, coincidentally or uncoincidentally was invented at almost the exact same moment that parenting came into being...."
I'll let you read the rest for yourself, but this is a powerful essay on what being a parent is all about.

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