'I Remember Nothing': Nora Ephron, Aging Gratefully

Nora Ephron i i

hide captionIn her new book, Nora Ephron says the key to aging is to spend as much time as you can doing what you love to do.

Ilona Lieberman/Knopf Publishers
Nora Ephron

In her new book, Nora Ephron says the key to aging is to spend as much time as you can doing what you love to do.

Ilona Lieberman/Knopf Publishers

You might say Nora Ephron — raised in Beverly Hills, the daughter of New York playwrights who moved west to write screenplays for the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — was born to tell stories.

As an adult, Ephron worked as a journalist. Later she made her own name in the movies, writing When Harry Met Sally and directing scripts of her own — including Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia. More recently, the 69-year-old Ephron has been sharing reflections on aging, first in her book I Feel Bad About My Neck and now in a new collection called I Remember Nothing. In the latter, she spins stories on a potpourri of subjects: divorce, disdain for egg-white omelets, and most especially memory loss.

"I have been forgetting things for years – at least since I was in my 30s," Ephron writes in the book's opening paragraph. "I know this because I wrote something about it at the time; I have proof. Of course I can't remember exactly where I wrote about it or when, but I could probably hunt it up if I had to."

Ephron's strategy for dealing with forgetfulness is to keep a list of things she refuses to know anything about — which really means she doesn't have to remember them in the first place.

"I think when you get older, things come along that you know are a test in some way of your ability to stay with it," says Ephron, wryly. "And when e-mail came along, I was just going to fall in love with it. And I did. I can't believe it now — it's like one of those ex-husbands that you think, 'What was I thinking?' The point is that you can kind of keep up for a while and then, suddenly, something comes along and you think, 'I give up. I am never going to tweet. I'm just never going to.'"

So far, the list of things Ephron refuses to know anything about includes:

"The former Soviet Republics, the Kardashians, Twitter, all Housewives, Survivors, American Idols, and Bachelors. Karzai's brother, soccer, monkfish, Jay-Z, every drink invented since the Cosmopolitan, especially the drink made with crushed mint leaves. You know the one."

Ephron does admit that technology can help the aging brain remember elusive details.

"We're saved somewhat by Google," she says. "You can — when you're all sitting around the table desperately snapping your fingers in the hopes of remembering the name of that movie that you can't remember the name of — you can make people think that you are not as old as you actually are because you have the technology to find the answer."

'I Remember Nothing' book cover

I Remember Nothing also looks at how people deal with failures in life. Ephron says she believes that flops stay with you in the way that successes never do, whether those flops are failures in work or in personal relationships.

"These things take up space in your head because it is so possible to lie awake thinking, 'What should I have done differently?' " Ephron said. "This is one of the reasons why Ambien is one of the greatest inventions known to man, because at least it you stops you thinking about that stuff."

I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections
By Nora Ephron
Hardcover, 160 pages
Knopf Publishers
List price: $22.95

Read An Excerpt

At the end of her chapter on flops, Ephron writes:

"By the way, there are people who have positive things to say about flops. They write books about success through failure and the power of failure. Failure, they say, is a growth experience. You learn from failure. I wish that were true. It seems to me that the main thing you learn from a failure is that it's entirely possible you will have another failure."

That's not to say one should just give up when things don't work out.

"My religion is 'Get over it,'" says Ephron. "And I was raised in that religion. That was the religion of my home — my mother saying, 'Everything is copy; everything is material; someday you will think this is funny.' My parents never said, 'Oh you poor thing.' It was work through it, get to the other side, turn it into something. And it worked with me."

She also credits her parents with teaching her to focus on the funny side of even the saddest things.

"My mother (taught) me a very fundamental lesson of humor, which is that if you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but if you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your joke," explains Ephron. "And you're the hero of the joke because you're telling the story."

Despite all the I'm-getting-old jokes in Ephron's new book, the last chapter, called "The O Word," takes on a more elegiac and wistful tone as Ephron considers the serious implications of aging.

"You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can't put things off thinking you'll get to them someday," she says. "If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I'm very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it."

For Ephron, there was a moment that helped bring that realization vividly home. She was with friends, playing a round of "What would your last meal be?"

(Her pick, by the way: a Nate & Al's hot dog.)

"But (my friend) Judy was dying of throat cancer, and she said, 'I can't even have my last meal.' And that's what you have to know is, if you're serious about it, have it now," Ephron says. "Have it tonight, have it all the time, so that when you're lying on your deathbed you're not thinking, 'Oh I should have had more Nate & Al's hot dogs.'"

Excerpt: 'I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections'

'I Remember Nothing' book cover
I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections
By Nora Ephron
Hardcover, 160 pages
Knopf Publishers
List price: $22.95

The Six Stages of E-Mail

Stage One: Infatuation

I just got e-mail! I can't believe it! It's so great! Here's my handle. Write me. Who said letter-writing was dead? Were they ever wrong. I'm writing letters like crazy for the first time in years. I come home and ignore all my loved ones and go straight to the com­puter to make contact with total strangers. And how great is AOL? It's so easy. It's so friendly. It's a commu­nity. Wheeeee! I've got mail!

Stage Two: Clarification

Okay, I'm starting to understand — e-mail isn't letter-writing at all, it's something else entirely. It was just invented, it was just born, and overnight it turns out to have a form and a set of rules and a language all its own. Not since the printing press. Not since television. It's revolutionary. It's life-altering. It's shorthand. Cut to the chase. Get to the point. It saves so much time. It takes five seconds to accomplish in an e-mail something that takes five minutes on the telephone. The phone requires you to converse, to say things like hello and good-bye, to pretend to some semblance of interest in the person on the other end of the line. Worst of all, the phone occasionally forces you to make actual plans with the people you talk to — to suggest lunch or dinner — even if you have no desire whatsoever to see them. No danger of that with e-mail. E-mail is a whole new way of being friends with people: intimate but not, chatty but not, communicative but not; in short, friends but not. What a breakthrough. How did we ever live without it? I have more to say on this subject, but I have to answer an instant message from someone I almost know.

Stage Three: Confusion

I have done nothing to deserve any of this: Viagra!!!!! Best Web source for Vioxx. Spend a week in Cancún. Have a rich beautiful lawn. Astrid would like to be added as one of your friends. XXXXXXXVideos. Add three inches to the length of your penis. The Demo­cratic National Committee needs you. Virus Alert. FW: This will make you laugh. FW: This is funny. FW: This is hilarious. FW: Grapes and raisins toxic for dogs. FW: Gabriel García Márquez's Final Farewell. FW: Kurt Vonnegut's Commencement Address. FW: The Neiman Marcus Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. AOL Member: We value your opinion. A message from Barack Obama. Find low mortgage payments, Nora. Nora, it's your time to shine. Need to fight off bills, Nora? Yvette would like to be added as one of your friends. You have failed to establish a full connection to AOL.

Stage Four: Disenchantment

Help! I'm drowning. I have 112 unanswered e-mails. I'm a writer — imagine how many unanswered e-mails I would have if I had a real job. Imagine how much writ­ing I could do if I didn't have to answer all this e-mail. My eyes are dim. My wrist hurts. I can't focus. Every time I start to write something, the e-mail icon starts bobbing up and down and I'm compelled to check whether anything good or interesting has arrived. It hasn't. Still, it might, any second now. And yes, it's true — I can do in a few seconds with e-mail what would take much longer on the phone, but most of my e-mails are from people who don't have my phone number and would never call me in the first place. In the brief time it took me to write this paragraph, three more e-mails arrived. Now I have 115 unanswered e-mails. Strike that: 116. Glub glub glub glub glub.

Stage Five: Accommodation

Yes. No. Can't. No way. Maybe. Doubtful. Sorry. So sorry. Thanks. No thanks. Out of town. OOT. Try me in a month. Try me in the fall. Try me in a year. NoraE@aol.com can now be reached at NoraE81082@gmail.com.

Stage Six: Death

Call me.

Excerpted from I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections by Nora Ephron. Copyright 2010 by Nora Ephron. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Publishers.

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I Remember Nothing
I Remember Nothing

And Other Reflections

by Nora Ephron

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