Nora Ephron
Photo: New York Times Co./Archive Photos/Getty Images
Editors' note: Nora Ephron passed away June 26, 2012, at 71. She was a longtime friend of this magazine, and this essay—one of our favorites—shows her trademark thoughtfulness and wit. (And here are two more of her pieces—about a late-arriving Aha! Moment and the 6 books that send her into a state of rapture.)

You know what maintenance is, I'm sure. Maintenance is what they mean when they say, "After a certain point, it's just patch, patch, patch." Maintenance is what you have to do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into a guy who once rejected you, you won't have to hide behind a stack of canned food. I don't mean to be too literal about this. There are a couple of old boyfriends whom I always worry about bumping into, but there's no chance—if I ever did—that I would recognize either of them. On top of which they live in other cities. But the point is that I still think about them every time I'm tempted to leave the house without eyeliner.

There are two types of maintenance, of course. There's Status Quo Maintenance—the things you have to do daily or weekly, just to stay more or less even. And then there's the maintenance you have to do monthly or yearly or every couple of years or so—maintenance I think of as Pathetic Attempts to Turn Back the Clock. Into this category fall such things as facelifts, liposuction, Botox, major dental work, and the general area of Removal of Unsightly Things—of varicose veins, for instance, and skin tags, and those irritating little red spots that crop up on your torso after a certain age for no real reason. I'm not going to discuss such issues here—for now, I'm concentrating only on the routine, everyday things required just to keep you from looking like someone who no longer cares.


We begin, I'm sorry to say, with hair. I'm sorry to say it because the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.

Tell the truth: Aren't you sick of your hair? Aren't you tired of washing and drying it? I know people who wash their hair every day, and I don't get it. Your hair doesn't need to be washed every day, any more than your black pants have to be dry-cleaned every time you wear them. But no one listens to me. It takes some of my friends an hour a day, seven days a week, just to wash and blow-dry their hair. How they manage to have any sort of life at all is a mystery. I mean, we're talking about 365 hours a year! Nine work weeks! Maybe this made sense when we were young, when the amount of time we spent making ourselves look good bore some correlation to the number of hours we spent having sex (which was, after all, one of the reasons for our spending so much time on grooming). But now that we're older, whom are we kidding?

I myself have taken Draconian measures to reduce the amount of time I spend on my hair: I never do my own hair if I can help it, and I do my best to avoid situations that would require me to. Every so often a rich friend asks me if I'd like to go on a trip involving a boat, and all I can think about is the misery of five days in a small cabin with a blow-dryer. And I am never going back to Africa; the last time I was there, in 1972, there were no hairdressers out in the bush, and as far as I was concerned, that was that for that place.

I'm in awe of the women I know who have magical haircuts that require next to no maintenance. I envy all Asian women—I mean, have you ever seen an Asian woman whose hair looks bad? (No, you haven't. Why is this?) I once read an interview with a well-known actress who said that the thing she was proudest of was that she could blow-dry her own hair, and I was depressed for days afterward. I'm completely inept at blow-drying my own hair. I have the equipment and the products, I assure you: I own blow-dryers with special attachments, and hot rollers and Velcro rollers, and gel and mousse and spray, but my hair looks absolutely awful if I do it myself.

So, twice a week, I go to a beauty salon and have my hair blown dry. It's cheaper by far than psychoanalysis, and much more uplifting. What's more, it takes much less time than washing and drying your own hair every single day, especially if, like me, you live in a large city where a good and reasonably priced hairdresser is just around the corner. Still, at the end of the year, I've spent at least 80 hours just keeping my hair clean and pressed. That's two work weeks. There's no telling what I could be doing with all that time. I could be on eBay, for instance, buying something that will turn out to be worth much less than I bid for it. I could be reading good books. Of course, I could be reading good books while having my hair done—but I don't. I always mean to. I always take one with me when I go to the salon. But instead I end up reading the fashion magazines that are lying around, and I mostly concentrate on articles about cosmetic and surgical procedures. Once I picked up a copy of Vogue while having my hair done, and it cost me $20,000. But you should see my teeth.

Next: The most powerful weapon: hair dye

Hair Dye

Many years ago, when Gloria Steinem turned 40, someone complimented her on how remarkably young she looked, and she replied, "This is what 40 looks like." It was a great line, and I wish I'd said it. Here's another thing Gloria Steinem said: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." (Actually, the first person who said that was Irina Dunn, but Gloria quoted the remark far and wide and she got credit for it.) I wish I'd said that line, too, even though it isn't really true. "This is what 40 looks like" led, inevitably, to its most significant corollary, "Forty is the new 30," which led to many other corollaries: Fifty is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, and even, restaurants are the new theater, focaccia is the new quiche, etc.

Anyway, here's the point: There's a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don't look the way they used to, and it's not because of feminism or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye. In the 1950s, only 7 percent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no gray-haired women at all. (Once, some years ago, I went to Le Cirque, a well-known New York restaurant, to a lunch in honor of a woman named Jean Harris, who had just that week been released from 12 years in prison for murdering her diet doctor boyfriend, and she was the only woman in the restaurant with gray hair.)

Hair dye has changed everything, but it almost never gets the credit. It's the most powerful weapon older women have against the youth culture, and because it actually succeeds at stopping the clock (at least where your hair color is concerned), it makes women open to far more drastic procedures (like facelifts). I can make a case that it's partly responsible for the number of women entering (and managing to stay in) the job market in middle and late middle age, as well as all sorts of fashion trends. For example, it's one of the reasons women don't have to wear hats anymore, and it's entirely the reason that everyone I know has a closet full of black clothes. Think about it: Fifty years ago, women of a certain age almost never wore black. Black was for widows, specifically for Italian war widows, and even Gloria Steinem might concede that the average Italian war widow made you believe that 60 was the new 75. If you have gray hair, black makes you look not just older but sadder. But black looks great on older women with dark hair—so great, in fact, that even young women with dark hair now wear black. Even blondes wear black. Even women in L.A. wear black. Most everyone wears black—except, of course, for anchorwomen, United States senators, and residents of Texas, and I feel really bad for them. I mean, black makes your life so much simpler. Everything matches black, especially black.

But back to hair dye: I began having my hair dyed about 15 years ago, and for quite a while I was categorized by my colorist as a single-process customer—whatever was being done to me (which I honestly have no idea how to describe) did not involve peroxide and therefore took "only" 90 minutes every six weeks or so. Whenever I complained about how long it took, I was told that I was lucky I wasn't blonde. Where hair dye is concerned, being blonde is practically a career.

Oh, the poor blondes! They were sitting there at the colorist's when I arrived, and they were still sitting there when I left. Their scalps were sectioned off and dotted with little aluminum foil packets; they had to sit under hair dryers; they complained bitterly about their dry and damaged hair and their chronic split ends. I felt superior to them in every way. For the first time in my life, it seemed, there was an advantage to being a brunette.

But then, about a year ago, my colorist gave me several highlights as a present. Highlights, as you undoubtedly know, are little episodes of blondeness that are scattered about your head. They involve peroxide. They extend the length of time involved in hair dyeing from unbearable to unendurable. As I sat in the chair, waiting for my highlights to sink in, I was bored witless. Hours passed. I couldn't imagine why I had been conned into agreeing to this free trial episode. I vowed that I would never ever even be tempted to have highlights again—much less to pay money for them. (They are, in addition to being time consuming, wildly expensive. Naturally.)

But—you will probably not be surprised to hear this—those highlights were a little like that first brandy Alexander Lee Remick drank in Days of Wine and Roses. I emerged onto Madison Avenue with four tiny blondish streaks in my hair, and was so thrilled and overwhelmed by the change in my appearance, I honestly thought that when I came home, my husband wouldn't recognize me. From that moment on, I was hooked. As a result, my hair dyeing habit now takes at least three hours every six weeks or so, and because my hair colorist is (in her world) only slightly less famous than Hillary Clinton, it costs more per year than my first automobile.

Next: Nails


I want to ask a question: When and how did it happen that you absolutely had to have a manicure? I don't begin to know the answer, but I want to leave the question out there, floating around in the atmosphere, as a reminder that just when you think you know exactly how many things you have to do to yourself where maintenance is concerned, another can just pop up out of nowhere and take a huge bite out of your life.

I spent my first 45 years never thinking about my nails. Occasionally, I filed them with the one lone wretched emery board I owned. (A side note on this subject: One of the compelling mysteries of the world, right up there with the missing socks, is what happens to all the other emery boards in the box of emery boards you bought so that you would have more than just one lone wretched emery board.) Anyway, occasionally, I filed my nails, put a little polish on them, and went out into the world. This process took about three minutes, twice a year. (Just kidding. But not by much.) I knew there were women who had manicures on a regular basis, but in my opinion they were indolent women who had nothing better to do. Or they were under the mistaken impression that painted nails were glamorous. They were certainly not women who made their living at a typewriter, the machine that was the sworn enemy of long nails.

And then one day, like mushrooms, a trillion nail places appeared in Manhattan. Suddenly, there were more nail places than there were liquor stores or Kinko's or opticians or dry cleaners or locksmiths, and there are way more of all of those in Manhattan than you can ever understand. Sometimes it seemed there were more nail places in Manhattan than there were nails. Most of these nail places were staffed by young Korean women, all of whom could do a manicure quickly and efficiently and not eat up the clock in any way by feigning the remotest interest in their customers. And they were incredibly cheap—eight or ten dollars at most.

Soon everyone was getting manicures. If your nails weren't manicured (as opposed to merely clean), you felt ungroomed. You felt ashamed. You felt like sitting on your hands. And so it became necessary to have manicures once a week. Which brings me, alas, to pedicures.

The best thing about a pedicure is that most of the year, from September to May, to be exact, no one except your loved one knows if you have had one. The second best thing about a pedicure is that while you're having your feet done, you have the use of your hands and can easily read or even talk on a cell phone. The third best thing about a pedicure is that when it's over, your feet really do look adorable.

The worst thing about pedicures is that they take way too much time and then, just when you think you're done, you have to wait for your toenails to dry. It takes almost as long for your toenails to dry as it does to have a pedicure. So there you sit, for what seems like eternity, and finally you can't stand waiting one more minute, so you gently slip on your sandals and leave and on the way home you absolutely ruin the polish on your big toe and since your big toe is really the only thing anyone notices as far as your toenails are concerned, you might as well not have had a pedicure in the first place.

Next: Unwanted hair

Unwanted Hair

I'm sorry to report that I have a mustache. The truth is, I probably always had a mustache, but for years it was sort of dormant, or incipient, or threatening, in the way a cloudy sky threatens to rain. It was fair, downy, and inoffensive. On a few occasions in my younger years, it turned dark and stormy, and when it did, I dealt with it by going to the drugstore and buying a much too large jar of something called Jolen creme bleach. (I always tried to buy a small jar of Jolen, but no one stocks it, for the obvious reason that it costs less than the big jar. It is entirely possible that the Jolen company doesn't even make a small jar of the stuff.) This trip to the store was usually followed, almost immediately, by the discovery of several other barely used, perfectly good much too large jars of Jolen creme bleach, which turned out to have been right there all along, under the bathroom sink, where I had just looked for them—I swear I had. Jolen cream bleach turns the mustache on your upper lip to the exact color of Richard Gephardt's hair, which is better than its looking like Frida Kahlo's mustache, but it's still slightly hairier than you mean it to be.

But then, along came menopause. And with it, my mustache changed: It was no longer dormant, incipient, and threatening; it was now just plain there. Fortunately, at the time, I was going to a lovely Russian-born hairdresser named Nina on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who, as it turned out, specialized in something called threading, a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal she had learned in Russia and that, as far as I can tell, is the only thing the Russians managed to outdo us at in 50 years of the Cold War. Threading involves thread—garden-variety sewing thread—a long strand of which is twisted and maneuvered in a sort of cat's cradle configuration so as to remove hair in a way that is quick and painful (although not, I should point out, as painful as, say, labor). The results last about a month.

For a long time, threading seemed like a wonderful and not particularly burdensome addition to my maintenance regimen. Nina did my hair twice a week, so it took only five additional minutes for her to thread my mustache—plus, of course, ten additional minutes to thread my eyebrows, not that I needed my eyebrows threaded, because my bangs are so long you can't even tell whether I have eyebrows, much less whether they need weeding. But as long as Nina was doing the mustache, it seemed to her (and, let's face it, to me) that she might as well do the eyebrows, too. Having your eyebrows threaded is much more painful and much more expensive (although not, I should point out, as painful as labor) and causes you to sneeze uncontrollably. But that's a small price to pay. In fact, the cost of threading itself is a small price to pay for the smooth and lovely result.

Unfortunately, though, about a year ago, I moved away from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side, taking my mustache with me but leaving behind Nina and her compelling geographical convenience. So now I must add the travel time (and cab fare) to the cost of threading.

On the other hand, where unwanted hair is concerned, I'm duty bound to report that I spend considerably less time having myself waxed than I used to, because (and you don't see a whole lot of this in those cheerful books on menopause) at a certain point you have less hair in all sorts of places you used to have quite a lot. When I was growing up, I had a friend who was a pioneer in waxing—she first had her legs waxed when she was 15, and this was in 1956, when waxing really was practically unknown. She assured me that if I didn't start getting my legs waxed—if I persisted in simply shaving like all the other commoners in the world—the hair would grow in faster and faster and faster and faster and eventually I would look like a bear. This turns out not to be true. You can shave your legs for many years and they don't really get a whole lot hairier than when you started. And then, at a certain age, they get less hairy. My guess is that by the time I'm 80, I will be able to handle any offending hair on my legs with two plucks of an eyebrow tweezer.

As for waxing what I like to call my bikini, it has become but a brief episode in what the fashion magazines call my beauty regimen, and owing to my ability to avoid wearing a bathing suit, I rarely need to do it anymore. (In the old days, a bikini wax was not just painful—it was as painful as labor. I dealt with the pain by using the breathing exercises I learned in Lamaze classes. I recommend them highly, although not for childbirth, for which they are virtually useless.) I understand that some young women have their pubic hair removed entirely, or shaped, like topiary, into triangles and hearts and the like. I am too old for this, thank God.

Speaking of the pain of labor, which I seem to be, I would like to interject a small and irrelevant note: Why do people always say you forget the pain of labor? I haven't forgotten the pain of labor. Labor hurt. It hurt a lot. The fact that I am not currently in pain and cannot simulate the pain of labor doesn't mean I don't remember it. I am currently not eating a wonderful piece of grilled chicken I once had in Asolo, Italy, in 1982, but I remember it well. It was delicious. I can tell you exactly what it tasted like, and except for the time when I returned to the restaurant six years later and ordered it again (and it turned out, amazingly, to be exactly as wonderful as I remembered), I have never tasted chicken that was crisper, tastier, or juicier. The song has ended, but the melody lingers on, and that goes for the pain of labor, only not in a good way.

Next: Exercise


Exercise, as you no doubt know, is a late arrival in the history of civilization. Until around 1910, people exercised all the time, but they didn't think of it as exercise—they thought of it as life itself. They had to get from one place to the other, usually on foot, and harvest the crop, and wage war, and so on. But then the automobile was invented (not to mention the Sherman tank), and that, plus the Industrial Revolution, pretty much led to what we have today—a country full of underexercised (and often overweight) people—and a parallel universe of overexercised (but not necessarily underweight) people. I myself swing between the two universes. I spend time getting into shape, and then something breaks, and then I spend time recovering and not being in shape, and then I recover and I get into shape, and then something new breaks.

So far, in the breakage department, I have managed the following: I pulled my lower back doing sit-ups, I threw out my right hip on the treadmill, I got shin splints from jogging, and I entirely destroyed my neck just from rolling over in bed. A few years ago, during a wild and committed period of exercise, I happened to be sent a tape of the movie Chicago, and I made the mistake of confusing it with an exercise video. It was, without question, the greatest exercise video I have ever worked out to. I could lift weights forever while watching it. For the first time in my exercising life, I was never bored. I could be Catherine Zeta-Jones, and then I could be Renée Zellweger. I pranced around the apartment waving my five-pound weights here and there and singing "All That Jazz." I have never been happier exercising. But after three weeks, I woke up one morning in horrible pain and discovered I couldn't move my arms. Millions of dollars in doctor's fees later, it turned out that I had not one but two frozen shoulders, the result (naturally) of lifting too many weights for far too long. It took two years for these frozen shoulders to mostly thaw, and in the meantime, I had pretty much resigned myself to the prospect of never being able to scratch my own back (or zip up a dress) ever again. (Not that I wear dresses, but if I did.) But I have taken up exercising again. I have a trainer. I have my treadmill. I have my TV set over the treadmill. I exercise almost four hours a week and I would rather be in Philadelphia (although not in labor).

Next: Skin


I have cream for my face. I have lotion for my arms and legs. I have oil for my bath. I have Vaseline for my feet. I cannot begin to tell you how much time I spend rubbing these moisturizers into myself. But I still get pimples on my face and rough patches on my arms and legs. What's more, the skin on my back is so dry that when I take off a black sweater it looks as if it's been in a snowstorm, and the skin on my heels has the consistency of a loofah.

I have no doubt omitted something where maintenance is concerned. The world of maintenance is changing every second, and I may not know about all sorts of things that women my age are up to. (The other day, for instance, I had lunch with a friend who assured me that I hadn't lived until I had tried having some sort of facial that seems to include a mild form of electroshock.)

What I know is that I spend a huge amount of time with my finger in the dike, and that doesn't begin to include all the things I promised not to go into—the pathetic things. I have never had plastic surgery, but I have done any number of things that fall just short of it. I even had all the fillings in my mouth replaced with white material, and I swear to God it took six months off my age. From time to time my dermatologist shoots a hypodermic needle full of something called Restylane into my chin, and it sort of fills in the saggy parts.

But the other day, on the street, I passed a homeless woman, and as I watched her shuffle down the street, it crossed my mind that I am only about eight hours a week of maintenance away from looking exactly like her—with frizzled flyaway gray hair I would probably have if I stopped dyeing mine, with a pot belly I would definitely develop if I ate just half of what I think about eating every day, with the dirty nails and chapped lips and mustache and bushy eyebrows that would be my destiny if I ever spent even two weeks on a desert island.

Eight hours a week and counting. By the time I reach my 70s, I'm sure it will take at least twice as long. The only consolation I take in any of this is that when I'm very old and virtually unemployable, I will at least have something to do. Assuming, of course, that I haven't spent all my money doing it.

More Wit from Nora Ephron


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