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'I Remember Nothing': Nora Ephron, Aging Gratefully

Nov 9, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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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.'"

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