Sunday, September 24, 2006

I Don't Like My Neck

I cannot say enough about Nora Ephron.

Nora Ephron, if you don't know, wrote When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle and a bunch of other extremely successful screen plays. She also wrote a book called Crazy Salad, which is a collection of essays that she wrote in the early 70s when she was both part of the feminist movement and a journalist writing about the feminist movement. I found this book when I worked at the used book store on Orcas and promptly fell in love with her candor and hoped that my blog essays were something even close to her style of writing.

She spoke at Columbia College this afternoon and my friend Jess, who is a MFA student there, got us tickets to attend.

She was everything I wanted her to be. She spoke on a series of epiphanies that she has had throughout her life as a child of screenwriters, a journalist in the 60s, her marriages (one of which was to Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame), her filmmaking career and now her "golden years," of which she has just written a new book.

I have so many thoughts that I don't know how to collect them all.

My brother David mocked me this morning when I said that I was going to hear her speak later on. Actually, most of them mocked me this morning for that. He asked if then I would write a paper about the talk, implying that I was an egghead of the worst sort. What is sweet about this little anecdote was that as the conversation moved on from mocking me (it always come back to that point, never fear), I looked over at David and while everyone else was talking he said, "It's OK for you to be smart." And I think he really meant it. I like it that he and I can be grown-ups together rather than stuck in our childhood roles of older-brother-tormenter and younger-sister-screamer.

I asked a question at the end of the talk. Most of the attendants were older women of the best-dressed variety, with expensive brooches and well-cut, boxy jackets made of silk. These were society women who had fought for women's rights and then married men of wealth so that Sunday afternoons could be spent enjoying the products of their labors. Because God knows that feminism doesn't pay. Maybe that's a terrible interpretation. Maybe those women earned those brooches through their own sweat and toil. Regardless, it was interesting to think about how old the original feminists are now. They are 60. Those that were in their 30s or even 40s during the movement are in their 70s and 80s. But you could still see the spark in their well-coifed, undyed hair, I mean, eyes. So, as I was listening to other questions about what advice she would give to aspiring writers and what the original ending to When Harry Met Sally was, a thought bubbled up in me. When she called on me I asked, "We live in a world where we are now studying the history of feminism. I know who you are because I found Crazy Salad in the used book store that I was working in. It's neat that now you're here. Thanks. Can you speak a little about feminism today?" You may now be agreeing with my brother David that I am an egghead of the worst sort after reading phrases like "We live in a world . . ." and the word "neat." But what can I say? I have to give you the truth or lose all credibility.

Anyway, when I asked about feminism, she talked about her dismay (more than dismay - almost disgust) at women who do smug interviews with the New York Times saying that they want to just be a housewife. She said, "Don't they realize that 'just being a housewife' means that you have to marry someone successful? And that is a bet at the craps table that is not even 50-50." Earlier in the question and answer period, she was talking about people that graduate from college and move to Hollywood to become screenwriters. She said, "They will write their coming-of-age story. Then, they'll write their summer camp story. And then they'll be 23 and they'll have failed to sell either of them." Her point was that all writers should be journalists first to let them learn how to really write and to give them time to have a few experiences. As part of this point before she listed off the archetypal young writer experience she said, "They haven't even been divorced yet!" I felt like part of a fellowship of women who had learned the hard way that they couldn't pin their hopes on marrying the right man to make them happy. Yesterday, I was thinking through what I would write in an ad for myself to get someone to let me join their folk band. I debated writing, "I am NOT in my early 20s." Why is that distinction so important to me? Nora answered that for me: "They haven't even been divorced yet!" How can I take their relationship angst seriously?

Nora bookended her talk with this mantra of her mother's: "Everything is copy." She said that when she would come to her mother with tales of woe of something terrible that happened to her, her mother would stop her before she even began and say, "Everything is copy." What she meant was that everything that happens to us is fodder for a story. Basically, her mother was saying, "I don't want to hear about it until you have gained enough perspective to tell it as a funny story." She acknowledged that she did not follow her mother's parenting model with her own children because it was awful. However, as she told stories about her own life when she realized that a novelist COULD NOT MAKE THIS UP, she realized at pivotal moments that her mother was right. Everything is copy. Slip on a banana and people laugh at you; tell people that you slipped on a banana and the experience becomes your joke. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I've comforted myself in the midst of a terrible situation with, "At least this will make a good story." Even before I had the blog as an outlet, I distinctly remembering thinking that an experience on my honeymoon wasn't so bad because I could make a scrapbook page with before and after pictures of the rainshower. Since I wrote about that epiphany in the ultimate scrapbook page, I'm somewhat flabbergasted at just how very "meta" I am and just how trendy that makes me in the world of Tristam Shandy. I was lucky in a way that my husband turned out to be an honest-to-God pathological liar. My unbelievable pain makes for really good stories. Like the time he took me on an impromptu tour of the campus that he was getting his "teacher certification" at on Tuesday and Thursday nights. We were heading to a friend's house and he asked if I wanted to see his classrooms since the campus was on the way. Since his transcripts show that he did not take one of the classes that he claimed during the time that I knew him, this was a pretty bold tour to take me on. Like men watching another man get a good'un in the nuts in a slapstick comedy, people never fail to groan appreciatively when the prevailing conversation leads me to tell that part of the story.

The last thing that struck me about this Nora Ephron event was the reception afterwards. Fantastic food abounded and I had three glasses of wine in the hour and a half. I bought a copy of Nora's new book and my copy of Crazy Salad signed. Jess and I flirted with the jazz trio with our eyes and smiles and ate fantastic hor's devours and took home extra desserts. Since I had asked a question, women I didn't know thanked me for it and we had beautiful conversations about feminism and men and art. We talked with Jess's department chair and his wife about the fact about the fact that she recently won an award for her fiction. We had our pictures taken for some media venue. We talked with a woman about WITASWAN, which is an unruly acronym for Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now but allows for swans to be worn in support in jewelry and the like. I felt a little bad about that conversation because although I support pushy, slightly unattractive feminists in theory, Jess's department chair walked up and I had to turn away from her and so could not support her in reality. The interesting conversation took place with a woman who advocates and works with women in trades, which is fascinating to me. Most women that construction companies hire to satisfy federal requirements are stuck as flaggers, which is the lowest paid of the positions, offers no satisfaction and has no potential for advancement like the skilled labor of driving a tractor, grader, forklift or bobcat can. I knew this before meeting Mary and was moved by the information and so was fascinated to meet someone who was actually helping women do something about this. We talked with women in the lobby on our way out about husbands and their expectations and how much money we make and retirement. My mother will be shocked that I enjoyed talking to so many strangers. But I did!

Thanks, Nora Ephron, for yet another experience that is unique to living in a city where college environments are close for free talks with wine and food served afterwards.

1 comment:

Jan Lisa Huttner said...

OUCH! The "pushy, slightly unattractive feminist" is... me! I guess waking-up to Nina Totemberg's intro to the new Roberts Court on NPR this AM wasn't bad enough; thanks to Google Alert, my day is now complete. But, seriously, the shoe fits, & I'm happy to wear it :-) And yes, Nora Ephron was terrific last Sunday! FYI, for more info about WITASWAN, visit: -- Pushy is as pushy does! Best always, Jan