A high school friend got married the weekend before last, which was the perfect excuse for me to drive to my hometown of Shady Grove for a few days. I love everything about going home, from sleeping in the twin bed of my childhood to eating my dad’s ever-perfecting sourdough toast for breakfast, to partaking in miscellaneous projects with my parents (and siblings, if they are home), to the now familiar drive from Providence to south-central Pennsylvania.
There are many times when I wish I lived closer to Shady Grove because proximity would enable me to enjoy all the benefits of home – particularly quality time with my family of origin —more often than I currently do, but taken in and of itself, I don’t mind the driving distance. It’s actually an aspect of going home to which I look forward. With a thermos of coffee, a stack of audio books, the heat turned up, and a queue of podcasts, I find the drive comforting, cozy and entertaining.
On this most recent drive, I listened to the second half of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and an episode of each of my favorite podcasts (Happier and Jesuitical) on the way to Shady Grove, and a few more podcast episodes and Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman on the way back to Providence.
It would be an understatement to say that my return drive to Rhode Island was enjoyable. I loved every single word of Ephron’s collection of essays. She’s a witty and hysterical writer, one of the funniest I’ve encountered, and the audio version of her book was made even better by the fact that it was read by Queen Nora herself. Naturally, she knew just which words to emphasize, where to whisper and when to pause dramatically.
I’m on a Nora Ephron kick, now, and I’m learning things in addition to laughing my head off. Here are three lessons I’m taking away from her fantastic work:
1). The dinner party rule of four: in her essay “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir,” Ephron chronicles the cookbooks and chefs who influenced her personal cooking and hosting style, and she pays special tribute to Lee Bailey. She writes:
The most important thing that I learned from Lee was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate that seemed simultaneously to match it and contradict it. You could go from taste to taste; you could mix a little of this with a little of that. And when you finished eating, you always wanted more, so that you could go from taste to taste all over again.
There’s something so charming about this Rule, isn’t there? It’s both simple and playful, and – unlike a complicated recipe or an elegant environment – easy for someone like me to adopt.
2). The worst possible thing could turn out not to be the worst possible thing: In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen is devastated when the corporate chain Fox Books drives her small children’s bookstore – The Shop Around the Corner – out of business. Why wouldn’t she be? Being forced to close doors is every small business owner’s worst nightmare. But closing these doors ends up opening a different set of doors for Kathleen. No, I’m not talking about the relationship she develops with Mr. Fox himself; she begins writing children’s books. This turn of events might be high on the cheesiness scale, but I do think it illustrates a true point: we don’t know what life holds, and staying hopeful and open in the face of adversity could lead to new and exciting opportunities.
3). The familiar is funny and interesting: “Write what you know” is an age old piece of advice that probably anyone who has ever written anything has heard. Cliche as the advice may be, Nora Ephron proves that it’s sound. She writes about the contents of her purse, her apartment building, her love-hate relationship with beauty products, parenting and food. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – exceptional about these topics, but Ephron succeeds in crafting superb essays about them because she pays close attention to the details, and because she is so honest and open. This is a realization worth keeping in mind, for both writing endeavors and being a good conversationalist!