Several years ago, whilst perusing the used books at a library sale, it occurred to me that without James Patterson and his assembly line there would be little to sell. I was there to find coffee-table art books originally costing $100 marked down to $2, my kind of discount. I also shop used-book sales for hardcovers I wouldn’t read outside of solitary confinement because they make interesting surfaces for pastels and prints.
I don’t save books as I used to. Right out of college, the first thing I did in any new hovel was to construct bookshelves out of cinder blocks and planks and fill them with my books, randomly arranged. It was a way of telling whoever came inside, “This is me.” Now whoever comes inside has to find out for herself. I still keep a hundred or so copies of first editions and books inscribed by their authors, some of whom were friends or acquaintances. This is not to say I can’t be seduced by a trim little number with a cute cover.
Those of us who love books talk about the sensuous experience of approaching a new one, the pleasure of running our fingertips over the face of it, the flush of anticipation, and then, yes, opening it, smelling it, and turning the first page, keeping our left index finger under the page as we read, slowly, savoring the language if it’s good and moving that finger, yes, stroking the underside or teasing with little bounces while the thumb of the other hand holds down the opposite side of the book with fingers firmly against the backside of the cover, over the picture of the author, which we save for later, and then, yes, spending the night with it, yes, and falling asleep with it in our arms, satisfied. Smoke?
Anyway, a book by Nora Ephron caught my eye. I Feel Bad About My Neck. I knew of the author and had enjoyed her movies. The book was promoted as “wry, amusing, marvelous.” Usually I would have moved on at “marvelous,” a description I’ve never trusted about anything, and one that makes me not want to stand too close to whoever is uttering the word. It’s much like “awesome” at the other end of the social scale. The book, I read, had been on The New York Times Best Seller List, which should be a warning instead of an affirmation if you’ve been burned more than once by the books on The New York Times Best Seller List. The reason these books are on the best seller list is that everyone is reading them. The same could be said about watching the Kardashians.
I stood in the windmill of elbows snatching up bargains, the bright yellow paperback in hand. Why would a woman feel bad about her neck? Why keep looking at your neck in the mirror if it makes you feel bad? Is it the male-gaze thing? (Which is itself one more thing I’ve never understood.) It started, I think, with how women were viewed in movies. Dudes would not mind having the thing reversed: gaze all you want. The male gaze isn’t much different than the female gaze. Women look at other women the same way dudes do, without the accompanying fantasy, perhaps, and more often down the nose.
So the neck thing. I’ve never heard any man or woman make a comment about someone else’s neck, unless it was grotesquely inked. (“My God, she’s got a zipper tattooed around her neck! It’s partway open! Something’s trying to crawl out!”) Can you say the same about a dick? You feel bad about your neck, Nora? I’ll see your neck and raise you a dick, if a dick I can raise.
I tossed the book back into the bin and browsed in other genres, but I was inexplicably drawn back to it. I was curious about someone who feels bad about her neck. The book had the virtue of being low-slung, a one-seater, and I had nothing going on that afternoon except a bottle of Ram’s Gate chardonnay chilling in an ice bucket. I paid my dollar and went home to read the book.
Once finished, I didn’t know what to make of it, and it wasn’t because the bottle of wine was now empty. Miss Ephron, I thought, was all about things being delivered to her and worrying about how she looked to the world, how she cooked and parented and lived and everything like that. In her book written for older women she pointed out with no irony that “There are all sorts of books written for older women… I find these books utterly useless.”
Brady T. Brady, to whom this book is dedicated, is a literate friend of mine who makes other pessimists appear, if not cheery, at least hopeful by comparison. I told him I had a gift for him and tossed the book across his desk. He looked at the title, then up at me. He said, “Yeah, and I feel bad about my dick.”
The rest, as they say, is sophistry.
I went to work on drawing a parallel between women’s necks and the dicks of dudes. But then Nora died and the fun went out of it. The moment of respectful silence stretched into several years, which in the life of a writer is looked back upon as no more than a lost weekend. A day came when I shuffled through some old notes, as writers always do, pruning the branches that were never going to bear fruit, I came upon a list of possible chapters I might write (See also “Chapters That Did Not Make the Cut”) if I were to write a dude’s answer to Nora’s lament.
I get it that as a woman ages she comes to worry about things she never thought she would. She worries about what she shows to the world: cellulite, thinning lips, expanding thighs, parts of her that jiggle when she dances, and, why not, the neck. If a dude worries at all it’s about the stuff no one sees: the prostate, the heart, the pancreas, parts of him that hurt when he hurls, and, for sure, the dick.
I decided to have another run at it, and here we are. As Nora’s book at times veers into some serious territory, there is a risk that this one will, too, but it will all come out okay in the end.
During the ten years it took from having the idea to writing the book, I moved around a bit, which accounts for why this stuff does not appear to be chronological. When I write, for example, I live in Seattle, I may or may not, but once I did. When I write that I moved to the desert, be assured that I did, but I may not live there now, regardless of what it says under, “About the Author.” Though out of order, everything in this book is the truth, the whale truth, and nodding but the truth.
(From “I Feel Bad About My Dick,” released in April from Pleasure Boat Studio)