Nora Ephron Essay On Aging

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 hide caption

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Ilona Lieberman/Knopf Publishers

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 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."

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.'"

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

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt: 'I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections'

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 Reflectionsby Nora Ephron. Copyright 2010 by Nora Ephron. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Publishers.

I Remember Nothing

And Other Reflections

by Nora Ephron

Born 136 years ago today, Virginia Woolf was a true writer’s writer. With flowing prose and a courageous pen, she dissected every topic from the idiocy of warfare to the joys of sex. We've picked 20 lines that rank among her all-time best—no easy feat.  

1. ON RECORDED HISTORY

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described.”

— Said to a young acquaintance, Nigel Nicholson, who later became a successful publisher, memoirist, and politician    

2. ON WRITING ABOUT NATURE

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

— From her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography

3. ON TRANSLATING COMEDY

“Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.”

— From the essay collection The Common Reader, First Series (1925)

4. ON TIME

“Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”

— From Orlando: A Biography

5. ON BEING AN HONEST WRITER

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

— From The Moment and Other Essays (1947)

6. ON SEXISM

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

— From Orlando: A Biography

7. ON WRITING FICTION

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

— From her seminal 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”

8. ON QUESTIONING THE STATUS QUO

“Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilisation’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?”

— From her anti-war essay “Three Guineas” (1938)

9. ON FASHION

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

— From Orlando: A Biography

10. ON DIET

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

11. ON GETTING OLDER

“I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

— From her diary (entry dated October 2, 1932)

12. ON ARTISTIC INTEGRITY

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

13. ON THE UNIVERSE

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

— From the novel Night and Day (1919)

14. ON PERSONAL GROWTH

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

— From her 1931 novel The Waves

15. ON SOCIETY

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

— From Orlando: A Biography

16. ON EVALUATING LITERATURE

“The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities… into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.”

— From The Common Reader, Second Series (1935)

17. ON PASSION

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang—there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.”

— From the novel Jacob’s Room (1922)

18. ON PERSONAL PAST

“Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”

— From Jacob’s Room

19. ON WORDS

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

“Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Anthony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

— From “Craftsmanship,” a BBC radio address Woolf delivered on April 20, 1937 (listen to a portion of it here)

20. ON LIFE AND ITS INTERRUPTIONS

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

— From her diary (entry dated February 17, 1922)

BONUS: A COMMON MISQUOTE

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

These wise words are often mistakenly cited as Woolf’s. In reality, another writer came along and gave them to her—57 years after she died! Here’s what went down: In 1998, author Michael Cunningham released his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. This story includes a fictionalized version of Virginia Woolf, who delivers the above line.

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