Monday, June 25, 2018

Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck

Told with a breezy, easy intimacy that dips into humor as effortlessly as gliding sunbaked toes over the dock’s edge into the lake on a summer evening, Nora Ephron’s collection of essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck address some of the most compelling narratives of femininity and womanhood during the dawn of the twenty-first century in the United States.
My favorite might be “Maintenance, in which Ephron shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of intricate machinations -- with their heightened volume and sheer force of work, let alone scheduling regimen -- required to look like a natural woman, the easy-going femininity of our time. This is required of all women, Ephron says, but becomes especially cumbersome to manage when one becomes a woman “of a certain age.” She handles the land mines so deftly, with such matter-of-fact fluency, that we trust her not only to be our guide on the matter but enshrine her expertise to the point that we let her be our guru.
Throughout the collection, she masters and deploys the female version of locker-room talk* and she holds our attention rapt and we are bound with her assumed intimacy. This is no easy feat, and she does it so well she seems to take it for granted that we will follow her, and then we do, too. Having caught our hand and our hearts as she walks us through her life, she delves headlong into every topic that we aren’t supposed to discuss, without preamble or apology, never looking back.
Failed marriages, lawsuits, creative blocks, wrinkles, children, friendship disasters, life implosions: she handles them all with a grace of perspective that makes them immediate and digestible, without ever succumbing to campiness or tawdriness. We are her confidant, and we feel we always have been, and that is a beautiful offering.
When Ephron takes up her (and by extension our) truly uncomfortable relationship with comfort food, she strikes a balance of being the authority and the the supplicant, letting us comfort her, inviting the reader to let her know that it’s ok, we understand pining after a pastry that no longer is made in the neighborhood, even decades since we last had it.** She shows us our utter dependence on service providers from beautification to laundry as well as food, and in the process holds a mirror up to the ways in which we relate to the world around us, how we craft our lives and our relationships; nothing is too big or too small for Nora, as I now think of her.
She share and gives voice to the pressure to be Just Right and she confesses how far she falls from the mark, showing us that to be “as expected” means outsourcing everything, from food to simply doing one’s hair, and then she takes it further: she shows us that she has been engaged in this matrix of consumption for fraudulent representation for so long that she likely wouldn’t recognize her natural hair color if she saw it. We laugh with her and at ourselves, before groaning and wondering if there is a deeper chord of authenticity being struck, wondering what this says about us as a culture, as women and as individuals, as people striving to have meaningful lives, as adult women, especially those of us “of a certain age.”
Her mid-life or a bit later look at the landscape behind her is a tender one, and ultimately a very human one, a vision that allows us to accept how far we might have strayed from the path we imagined as we clutched our newly-minted bachelor’s degrees and set off for far horizons. But through Ephron, we are able to embrace the humanity we unexpectedly found along the way when we strayed.
*salon-chair talk? Manicure moments?
**I have dreams about Evie’s maple mustard vinaigrette, the way she used to make it, or maybe the way the sous chef made it. Something happened in 2014 or so, and the dishes aren’t the same anymore across the board. But it’s the maple mustard vinaigrette that haunts me.