Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lessons from Nora Ephron

The news of her passing was shocking and sad. For Nora Ephron was always such a strong, witty and spot-on chronicler of her generation and the human condition. It's hard to believe that there will be no more books or articles or films.

I have admired her work for decades and, in 1975, our paths crossed briefly when she was on a publicity tour for her book "Crazy Salad".  I was one of a number of writers and reporters set to talk with her during a marathon day of interviews at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

She was a delight. Our lunchtime interview was filled with stories and laughter and shared observations about being young women in the mid-Seventies. This was when she was married to Carl Bernstein whose reporting, with Bob Woodward, had sparked Watergate. I asked her if she had ever tried to coax him to reveal the identity of Deep Throat.

She laughed. "All the time, in every possible circumstance," she said. And she went on to tell me that she had always disliked Washington, both when she was an intern at the Kennedy White House (in her perception, she may have been the only intern whom JFK didn't proposition) and then during her marriage to Carl Bernstein. "Washington isn't a good place to be a person in, let alone a woman," she said, declaring that New York was her true home, despite the fact that she had grown up in Beverly Hills, the daughter of well-known screenwriters.

I loved her candor and humor and spirit. And, although I never saw her in person again, I continued to enjoy her work and learn important life lessons from Nora Ephron through the years. Generally, these weren't new revelations.  But somehow the way Nora wrote and lived gave extra zest and emphasis to these life lessons:

1. The importance of embracing change instead of fearing it.  In a graduation speech not long ago, she told those assembled not to fear change, that changes even if initially painful can bring a wealth of new experiences. "I've had four careers and three husbands," she told the laughing audience. But her life has been instructive. In her careers, she took risks, tapping all of her abundant talent as a writer, a reporter, a screenwriter, a film director. Personally, even when life was painful, she was never the victim. She admonished the young women in that graduation class to "be the heroine in your own life, not ever a victim."

2. The treasure of authenticity. She was an original. She spoke her mind. She had little patience with cliches and bromides about aging. In her 2006 book "I Feel Bad About My Neck" she clearly stated her feelings when reading a book about how wonderful old age is and how great it is to be wise, sage and mellow and to understand what matters in life. "I can't stand people who say things like this," she wrote. "What can they be thinking? Don't they have necks?" Her observations of aging in this and her last book "I Remember Nothing And Other Observations" are a combination of witty protest about the ravages of time, the anticipated limitations of the future, stark evidence of mortality in the deaths of dear friends and gentle, deeply sad reflections beneath the humor. At the time her last book was published two years ago, only those closest to her knew that she was suffering from leukemia. So she continued to be defined by her singular and authentic wit, not by her illness. And so often she said the things many of us were thinking, but didn't have the courage to say out loud.

3. The positive power of connection. She was, by all reports, an enthusiastic, loving and loyal friend to an amazing array of people -- some famous, most not. She showed up, paid attention, participated in their lives, in good times and difficult times. Although numerous studies have found that warm connections can benefit both physical and psychological health, her living example was a true inspiration. For those of us who, too often, have used excuses about increasing workloads or being busy with the kids or going through a rough time and preferring solitude when we have neglected our friends, seeing someone like Nora Ephron who balanced her busy life as a writer/filmmaker and mother and wife to make room for cherished friends is instructive.

4. Viewing the past as an inspiration or motivation, not an excuse. Although Nora grew up in Beverly Hills, the daughter of successful screenwriters, life was not easy. Alcoholism plagued her family as it did mine. But she learned from her parents, both professionally and personally, taking in what was healthy and beneficial and keeping a distance from the ugliness of alcoholism. In her last book, reviewing her life, she admitted the pain and confusion of being a child of alcoholics, reflecting on the fact that one loves the parent, but hates the drunk; that these are people you grew up idolizing, but it's increasing difficult to see them as anything but monsters; that they once had power over you and now they have no power at all.  Despite the pain of her past, she never saw herself as a victim, never made excuses. She learned a great deal from her parents' flaws about how she didn't want to live her life.  And she moved on to create a very different life for herself.

5. The importance of celebrating the major and the small pleasures of life on a daily basis. Her last book ends with a list of what she would miss most upon leaving this life.  Her children and husband topped the list. But waffles, walks in the park, fireworks, reading in bed, a dinner for two at home, Paris, Christmas trees, Thanksgiving dinner, taking a bath, coming over the bridge to Manhattan and pie are right up there. It makes one think: what would my list be? And how many of those people and things and experiences can I savor right now, today?

Another item on Nora Ephron's list of favorites was late June "when it doesn't get dark until after 9:30 at night and you feel you're going to live forever!" She left this life the last week of June -- and, indeed, will live forever in the memories of those of us who enjoyed her articles, books and films and learned important life lessons even as we laughed along with her.


  1. We did indeed lose a treasure with Nora's passing. I love that you got to meet and interview her, and you did a wonderful job memorializing her here. A terrific life, and an inspiration for us all.

  2. I adored all of her movies she wrote or wrote and directed, just something about them always rang true, she made Meg Ryan america's sweetheart and Tom Hanks well what can one say, they ended mostly very happily..Why can't movies be about happy people with real problems finding that happiness isn't that really what life is all about, sad sad day she left us, our world was a better place for having her writings, teachings, talks, movies, etc..I so appreciated her books toooooo..what a gal..not many like her anywhere in this world..enjoy your columns a lot, you say it like it is not what it should be...just saying!!!!!!!!

  3. We have indeed lost lately with Nora's passing and Andy Griffin passing. All of the truly ones that I enjoyed watching and reading her books. She was truly a wonderful lady. I just want to transfer what I have learned from her and learning from you to my life to help get me through all of the unknown. Have a great day and thanks for sharing. Your Missouri Friend.

  4. Thank you for a great insight into this special woman. I had seen her work for years before becoming aware of it being her behind the work I was enjoying. "I Feel Bad About My Neck" was the first time I associated a name with the work and I became a fan.

  5. Dear Kathy, as Arkansas Patti said, your posting today is so insightful. You've distilled the essence of the gift Nora Ephron was to the Universe and to all of us. Thank you. Peace.

  6. Going to look for at least one of her books. Thanks!

  7. You did a wonderful job here with this post in capturing the best of Nora Ephron. I have loved reading her books over the years and found the last two especially powerful because they seemed to truly express so much of what I also was experiencing. She was an amazing woman who learned to live life on her own terms. She taught us much.

  8. Hi sweet friend
    Such a wonderful post for a gifted lady. I was quite shocked when I read of her death.
    I also feel bad that the only time I was fortunate to see her in person here in Austin a little over a year ago that Gretchen (my screen writer friend) and I left her show disappointed.
    I realize now we all have our off days and can't please everyone all the time.
    She was a very special person and left her wisdom with so many.
    Been thinking of you wondering if you started this veggie eating with Christi and myself. She is doing so much better than me. First three weeks I did wonderful now I slip more than I should but I really don't miss meat it's the sweets. hahaha
    Love ya

  9. I will read one of her books and articles. Its sad to hear demise. Today, she is now in good-hands of lord in heaven.

  10. She seems to have been a wonderful person, as good a person as she was a writer. What a wonderful legacy she has left...


  11. Nora Ephron has always been one of my favorite writers (and directors) for all the things you mention. I discovered her with "Scribble, Scribble" long ago and never stopped admiring her. In fact, our next book club entry (my choice) is "I Feel Bad About My Neck." Seemed like a good thing and good time to read!