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I Remember NothingAnd Other Reflections
By Nora Ephron
VintageCopyright © 2011 Nora Ephron
All right reserved.
I Remember Nothing
I have been forgetting things for years—at least since I was in my thirties. 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.
In my early days of forgetting things, words would slip away, and names. I did what you normally do when this happens: I scrolled through a mental dictionary, trying to figure out what letter the word began with, and how many syllables were involved. Eventually the lost thing would float back into my head, recaptured. I never took such lapses as harbingers of doom, or old age, or actual senescence. I always knew that whatever I'd forgotten was eventually going to come back to me sooner or later. Once I went to a store to buy a book about Alzheimer's disease and forgot the name of it. I thought it was funny. And it was, at the time.
Here's a thing I've never been able to remember: the title of that movie with Jeremy Irons. The one about Claus von Bülow. You know the one. All I ever succeeded in remembering was that it was three words long, and the middle word was "of." For many years, this did not bother me at all, because no one I knew could ever think of the title either. One night, eight of us were at the theater together, and not one of us could retrieve it. Finally, at intermission, someone went out to the street and Googled it; we were all informed of the title and we all vowed to remember it forever. For all I know, the other seven did. I, on the other hand, am back to remembering that it's three words long with an "of" in the middle.
By the way, when we finally learned the title that night, we all agreed it was a bad title. No wonder we didn't remember it.
I am going to Google for the name of that movie. Be right back. . . .
It's Reversal of Fortune.
How is one to remember that title? It has nothing to do with anything.
But here's the point: I have been forgetting things for years, but now I forget in a new way. I used to believe I could eventually retrieve whatever was lost and then commit it to memory. Now I know I can't possibly. Whatever's gone is hopelessly gone. And what's new doesn't stick.
The other night I met a man who informed me that he had a neurological disorder and couldn't remember the faces of people he'd met. He said that sometimes he looked at himself in a mirror and had no idea whom he was looking at. I don't mean to minimize this man's ailment, which I'm sure is a bona fide syndrome with a long name that's capitalized, but all I could think was, Welcome to my world. A couple of years ago, the actor Ryan O'Neal confessed that he'd recently failed to recognize his own daughter, Tatum, at a funeral and had accidentally made a pass at her. Everyone was judgmental about this, but not me. A month earlier, I'd found myself in a mall in Las Vegas when I saw a very pleasant-looking woman coming toward me, smiling, her arms outstretched, and I thought, Who is this woman? Where do I know her from? Then she spoke and I realized it was my sister Amy.
You might think, Well, how was she to know her sister would be in Las Vegas? I'm sorry to report that not only did I know, but she was the person I was meeting in the mall.
All this makes me feel sad, and wistful, but mostly it makes me feel old. I have many symptoms of old age, aside from the physical. I occasionally repeat myself. I use the expression, "When I was young." Often I don't get the joke, although I pretend that I do. If I go see a play or a movie for a second time, it's as if I didn't see it at all the first time, even if the first time was just recently. I have no idea who anyone in People magazine is.
I used to think my problem was that my disk was full; now I'm forced to conclude that the opposite is true: it's becoming empty.
I have not yet reached the nadir of old age, the Land of Anecdote, but I'm approaching it.
I know, I know, I should have kept a journal. I should have saved the love letters. I should have taken a storage room somewhere in Long Island City for all the papers I thought I'd never need to look at again.
But I didn't.
And sometimes I'm forced to conclude that I remember nothing.
For example: I met Eleanor Roosevelt. It was June 1961, and I was on my way to a political internship at the Kennedy White House. All the Wellesley/Vassar interns drove to Hyde Park to meet the former first lady. I was dying to meet her. I'd grown up with a photograph in our den of her standing with my parents backstage at a play they'd written. My mother was wearing a corsage and Eleanor wore pearls. It was a photograph I always thought of as iconic, if I'm using the word correctly, which, if I am, it will be for the first time. We were among the thousands of Americans (mostly Jews) who had dens, and, in their dens, photos of Eleanor Roosevelt. I idolized the woman. I couldn't believe I was going to be in the same room with her. So what was she like that day in Hyde Park, you may wonder. I HAVE NO IDEA. I can't remember what she said or what she wore; I can barely summon up a mental picture of the room where we met her, although I have a very vague memory of drapes. But here's what I do remember: I got lost on the way. And ever since, every time I've been on the Taconic State Parkway, I'm reminded that I got lost there on the way to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. But I don't remember a thing about Eleanor Roosevelt herself.
In 1964 the Beatles came to New York for the first time. I was a newspaper reporter and I was sent to the airport to cover their arrival. It was a Friday. I spent the weekend following them around. Sunday night they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. You could make an argument that the sixties began that night, on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a historic night. I was there. I stood in the back of the Ed Sullivan Theater and watched. I remember how amazingly obnoxious the fans were-the teenage girls who screamed and yelled and behaved like idiots. But how were the Beatles, you may ask. Well, you are asking the wrong person. I could barely hear them.
I marched on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. This was in 1967, and it was the most significant event of the antiwar movement. Thousands and thousands of people were there. I went with a lawyer I was dating. We spent most of the day in a hotel room having sex. I am not proud of this, but I mention it because it explains why I honestly cannot remember anything about the protest, including whether I ever even got to the Pentagon. I don't think I did. I don't think I've ever been to the Pentagon. But I wouldn't bet a nickel on it one way or the other.
Norman Mailer wrote an entire book about this march, called The Armies of the Night. It was 562 pages long. It won the Pulitzer Prize. And I can barely write two paragraphs about it. If you knew Norman Mailer and me and were asked to guess which of us cared more about sex, you would, of course, pick Norman Mailer. How wrong you would be.
Here are some people I met that I remember nothing about:
Justice Hugo Black
Senator Hubert Humphrey
I went to the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match and couldn't really see anything from where I was sitting.
I went to stand in front of the White House the night Nixon resigned and here's what I have to tell you about it: my wallet was stolen.
I went to many legendary rock concerts and spent them wondering when they would end and where we would eat afterward and whether the restaurant would still be open and what I would order.
I went to at least one hundred Knicks games and I remember only the night that Reggie Miller scored eight points in the last nine seconds.
I went to cover the war in Israel in l973 but my therapist absolutely forbid me to go to the front.
I was not at Woodstock, but I might as well have been because I wouldn't remember it anyway.
On some level, my life has been wasted on me. After all, if I can't remember it, who can?
The past is slipping away and the present is a constant affront. I can't possibly keep up. When I was younger, I managed to overcome my resistance to new things. After a short period of negativity, I flung myself at the Cuisinart food processor. I was curious about technology. I became a champion of e-mail and blogs—I found them romantic; I even made movies about them. But now I believe that almost anything new has been put on the earth in order to make me feel bad about my dwindling memory, and I've erected a wall to protect myself from most of it.
On the other side of that wall are many things, pinging. For the most part I pay no attention. For a long time, I didn't know the difference between the Sunnis and the Shias, but there were so many pings I was finally forced to learn. But I can't help wondering, Why did I bother? Wasn't it enough to know they didn't like each other? And in any case, I have now forgotten.
At this moment, some of the things I'm refusing to know anything about include:
The former Soviet republics
All Housewives, Survivors, American Idols, and Bachelors
Every drink invented since the Cosmopolitan
Especially the drink made with crushed mint leaves. You know the one.
I am going to Google the name of that drink. Be right back. . . .
I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn't it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up. You can delude yourself that no one at the table thinks of you as a geezer. And finding the missing bit is so quick. There's none of the nightmare of the true Senior Moment-the long search for the answer, the guessing, the self- recrimination, the head-slapping mystification, the frustrated finger-snapping. You just go to Google and retrieve it.
You can't retrieve your life (unless you're on Wikipedia, in which case you can retrieve an inaccurate version of it).
But you can retrieve the name of that actor who was in that movie, the one about World War II. And the name of that writer who wrote that book, the one about her affair with that painter. Or the name of that song that was sung by that singer, the one about love.
You know the one.
Excerpted from I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron Copyright © 2011 by Nora Ephron. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Remember Nothing 3
Who Are You 13
Journalism: A Love Story 17
The Legend 35
My Aruba 48
My Life as an Heiress 51
Going to the Movies 62
Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to Be Surprised by Over and Over Again 68
I Just Want to Say: The Egg-White Omelette 70
I Just Want to Say: Teflon 73
I Just Want to Say: No, I Do Not Want Another Bottle of Pellegrino 77
I Just Want to Say: The World Is Not Flat 81
I Just Want to Say: Chicken Soup 87
My Life as a Meat Loaf 99
Addicted to L-U-V 106
The Six Stages of E-Mail 111
Christinas Dinner 122
The D Word 130
The O Word 138
What I Won't Miss 143
What I Will Miss 145
Reading Group Guide
The questions, topics for discussion, and suggested books for further reading are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of I Remember Nothing.
1. In the title essay, Ephron writes, “ . . . I have been forgetting things for years, but now I forget in a new way” [p.5]. How do the examples she uses capture the difference between her past and present ways of forgetting?
2. Does Ephron’s list of the symptoms of old age mirror your own experiences or things you have observed in older friends or relatives [p.6]? What other common signs of aging can you think of? How much of what we remember—or forget—is shaped by its relevance to our personal lives and history? What does Ephron’s inability to identify the celebrities in People magazine, for example, reflect about the different interests that naturally develop as we get older? How does this relate to Ephron’s list of what she “refuses to know anything about” [p. 10]?
3. Ephron writes about the start of her career as a writer in “Journalism: A Love Story.” Does the essay explain the rather unusual subtitle she has chosen? What does the atmosphere she encountered at Newsweek show about the times? How does Ephron respond to the limitations automatically imposed on her and the “institutionalism of sexism . . . at Newsweek” [p. 23]? To what extent do lucky breaks and useful connections play a role in the careers of most young people, including Ephron herself? How significant is her background—and her mother’s example—to Ephron’s confidence and drive?
4. “The Legend” offers a colorful portrait of Ephron’s childhood surrounded by Hollywood and literary celebrities, including her mother, a highly successful screenwriter, and the noted New Yorker writer, Lillian Ross. Discuss the various implications of the title. What does the anecdote at the heart of the essay, as well as the vignette about her graduation, convey about Ephron’s feelings for her mother? How does she capture the ambivalence experienced by a child of an alcoholic?
5. “My Life as an Heiress” provides more glimpses into the dynamics of Ephron’s family. How does she use humor and exaggeration to explore the relationships among her siblings—and the unexpected and less-than-admirable qualities triggered by the anticipation of an unexpected financial boon?
6. What does “Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to Be Surprised by Over and Over Again” reveal about human nature and our tendency to accept conventional beliefs despite lots of evidence to the contrary? What particular needs, emotions, or prejudices perpetuate our “capacity to be surprised”? Which entries resonated with you? What would you add to her list?
7. “Pentimento” chronicles the rise and fall of Ephron’s relationship with the controversial playwright Lillian Hellman. What qualities, personal and professional, initially make Hellman attractive to Ephron? What does Ephron’s description of their relationship— “‘Friends’ is probably not the right word—I became one of the young people in her life” [p.85]—convey about the way Hellman perceived herself and her importance in the literary community? Why does Ephron search for reasons to explain her ultimate rejection of Hellman [p. 89]? What do Ephron’s regrets show about how the passage of time alters our views of the infatuations and disappointments, as well as the missed opportunities, of the past?
8. “The Six Stages of E-Mail” is a very funny chronicle of Ephron’s evolving reactions to e-mail. Do you share her mixed feelings about e-mail and more recent (and, perhaps, more intrusive) technological advances like Facebook and other social networks? Have these new forms of communication made life easier or more complicated? To what extent have they become a less-than-satisfactory substitute for old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face conversations?
9. In one of the most moving pieces in the collection, Ephron describes the traditional Christmas dinners she shared with friends for twenty-two years and the changes that occur when Ruthie, one of the participants, dies. How does the grief the others feel manifest itself? Discuss the repercussions of their attempts to move beyond (or compensate for) her absence, including its affect on the tone of their conversations as they plan the meal; Ephron’s resentment of losing her usual role of providing desserts; the group’s impatience and annoyance with the couple invited as replacements for Ruthie and her husband; and even the inclusion of Ruthie’s recipe for bread and butter pudding. What does “Christmas Dinner” reveal about the particular pain of losing friends as you get older?
10. Ephron turned her 1980s divorce from Carl Bernstein into the hilarious bestseller Heartburn. In “The D Word” she revisits that break-up and also recounts her divorce from her first husband in the 1970s. What do her accounts of each divorce illustrate about the issues she—and other women of her generation—faced? What light does she shed on the difficult challenges parents face when contemplating divorce [p. 120]? Which of her points do you find the most and the least convincing? She describes her second divorce as “the worse kind of divorce” [p. 123]. How do the details she offers provide a sense of the emotional toll of her husband’s deceptions and her reactions to them?
11. Ephron writes, “The realization that I may only have a few good years remaining has hit me with a real force . . . ” [p. 129]. How do her memories of her younger years inform her feelings of loss and how do they shape her approach to the years to come?
12. Several essays are entitled “I Just Want to Say” and go on to explore a specific topic. What do these pieces have in common? What do they and her short, funny, and to-the-point personal revelations like “My Aruba,” “Going to the Movies,” “Addicted to L-U-V,” and “My Life as a Meatloaf” contribute to the shape and impact of the collection?
13. Reread the lists (“What I Won’t Miss” and “What I Will Miss”) at the end of I Remember Nothing and create your own versions highlighting what you cherish—as well as you’d gladly give up.
14. If you have read I Feel Bad about My Neck, what changes do you see in Ephron’s outlook and perceptions over the course of time between the two books?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)