As they age, women learn: Necks don't lie

September 17, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

NORA EPHRON, THE WRITER who gave us When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, has published a collection of essays meant to debunk the New Age myth that menopause is the gateway to a vital and unself-conscious second half of life for women.

I never bought that idea -- I don't want to like being 55. I want to be 35. But I know lots of women who did, and they are still waiting for some fairy godmother with unruly gray hair and a moustache, wearing pants with an elastic waistband and comfortable shoes to appear and make all things dewy and new.

Ephron, with her smart-aleck New York wit and her Jewish sardonicism, might be the best we can hope for. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, $19.95) is time spent with someone so hilariously neurotic and self-absorbed that we can feel almost normal -- whatever that is for a woman of a certain age.

Ephron is 65. (I remember when she and Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein were newlyweds. They're divorced and their sons are grown. How old does that make me!) And she hates her neck. The publicity photo on the back cover of this book shows her with a turtleneck sweater pulled up to her nose.

A woman's neck, she writes, is the great truth-teller. Hair color, makeup, Botox and wearing a lot of black can hide a multitude of years. But then a woman's neck just gives it all away. Chicken necks, gobbler necks, stringy necks, saggy necks, crepey necks. "Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth," she writes. "You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck."

I hate my neck, too. In fact, I could draw a map of me, all divided like a butcher chart, of the places I like and don't like. As I age, more and more of my body parts are decamping from one category to the other, but my neck led the way.

If you think you are OK about getting older, that you are cool with being "wise and sage and mellow" and that you now know what matters in life -- just look at your neck.

In another essay, "On Maintenance," Ephron tallies all the time and money she spends keeping herself on the road, and I can only conclude that writing for movies pays a lot more than writing for newspapers.

It is an essay that took forever to write because she was so busy keeping herself presentable in the very unlikely event that she will run into an old boyfriend -- one who rejected her -- in the check-out line of the grocery store. If she wants him to feel overpowering regret -- if she doesn't want to have to hide behind a canned-goods display -- she'd better be wearing eyeliner. Better yet, she'd better have just come from a blow-dry and comb-out, which she does twice a week.

A blow-dry and comb-out twice a week? How rich is she?

Ephron divides maintenance into two categories. Status quo maintenance and what she calls "Pathetic Attempts to Turn Back the Clock" maintenance.

Routine maintenance would include manicures and pedicures, to which even teen-aged girls now believe they are entitled. She blames young Korean women, who can do a manicure in minutes because the language barrier prevents them from "feigning the remotest interest" in their clients, for the fact that she has to get her nails done once a week or she feels unclean.

This, she says, after spending the first 45 years of her life without thinking about her nails at all. I know just what she means. I came to manicures late in life too, and I was embarrassed at the self-indulgence they required. Now I get my nails done regularly and I gesture madly with my hands to keep people from noticing my neck.

All of her maintenance -- and there is plenty more than I have mentioned here -- takes time and money. Ephron concludes that, though she will never be a bag lady, she is about eight hours and several hundred dollars a week from looking like one.

That about does it for debunking the menopause myth. But the other essays are just as amusing, especially the one on parenting. Reading it made me want to quit this column and take a job manicuring nails.

She ties a bow at the end of this slim little book with an essay about death, the life event that comes after menopause but which is even less appealing, if that's possible.

In it, she looks back over her life for lessons she can pass on to younger women. One of her chief regrets is that she did not wear a bikini for the entire year she was 26, because she hasn't been able to wear one since.

But her final words are the most memorable: Use more than a capful of bath oil in your bath, she advises.

Heck, use as much as you want because it will make your skin smooth and you will look younger and you will feel like an idiot if you die tomorrow and you've skimped on the bath oil.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.

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