3 Things I’ve Learned From Nora Ephron Recently

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!

Photo by Daniela Cuevas on Unsplash

Monday Manners: Dealing with Dominators

Etiquette

Several years ago, when perusing through the Harvard Coop, I found and fell in love with Emily Post’s Etiquette.  I asked for and received the 18th edition for Christmas that year and have since enjoyed skimming through it here and there and consulting it with particular etiquette questions when they arise.  A recent goal of mine has been to read Etiquette from cover to cover, and to hold myself accountable to this goal, I am going to incorporate Monday Manners posts onto this blog.  Each post will address a thought or topic that was inspired by what I read in Emily Post’s cream and turquoise beauty. 

It took the entire two-page introduction for me to know exactly what I wanted to write my first Monday Manners post about.  In her introduction, Emily (I know that my edition of Etiquette is written by Post’s descendants, but I like to pay homage to the Queen of Manners, and also to pretend that we are dear friends, on a first-name-basis) names the fundamental principles of good etiquette: respect, consideration, and honesty.  Manners are fluid, but they all rest on these three foundational qualities that enable us to interact thoughtfully with all of the people whom we encounter.  In my experience, acting with respect, consideration and honesty is much easier in some situations — and with some people — than in others.  Read more

Slowing Down

red doorI have neither read nor had the particular desire to read anything by Marcel Proust, and yet, when Gretchen Rubin (one of my favorite contemporary authors) recommended Alain du Button’s How Proust Can Change Your Life in her monthly book club blog post, I was drawn to the title.  I am glad that I was.  Offering historical information, humor, and bites of wisdom, this easy-to-read blend of literary biography and self-help was a gem.  I gained a tremendous appreciation for Proust without having to slog through his seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which I also tremendously appreciated.   

Ironically, avoiding a slow process (reading In Search of Lost Time) is very anti-Proustian.  A central theme of the book is that much can be gained from taking things slowly.  Du Button tells the story of Proust meeting Henri Nicolson, a young French diplomat, and asking him to recount his experience at a peace conference after the Great War.  When the diplomat began “we generally met at 10:00” Proust stopped him, wanting to hear all the details.  The diplomat went on, and Proust was enraptured.Cover Image How Proust Can Change Your Life

“An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.  For Nicolson, an early morning that had been summed by the terse statement “Well, we generally meet at 10.00” had been expanded to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons – the macaroon acting as a useful symbol, in its seductive sweetness , of what gets noticed when we don’t go trop vite” (46).

Proust’s attitude called me to think about my reading process.  I read quickly, which I usually consider an advantage, and especially when I dislike the book I am reading.  Recently, I re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and despite my desire to like it (I feel sloppy admitting that I don’t like Virginia Woolf), and my attempt to like it (I hoped that reading it for leisure rather than for school might change my outlook) I found it dull, and so I rushed through it…only to turn the last page with a disappointing aversion.  When I spoke to Caleb about my distaste, he asked what I thought about a particular scene that had captured him.  Though I had just finished the novel, I had no recollection of the scene.  I rushed through a novel that I considered boring, but perhaps if I had moved more slowly, like Proust suggests, I wouldn’t have missed the very details that make the novel compelling to so many people. 

The next time I find myself desiring to rush through a book, a meal, or a process, I’m going to channel Proust and slow down.