Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nora Ephron and Lima Beans

No one will ever convince me Nora is gone--she was too contemporary, too smart, too funny, and we didn't even know she was sick.  Very few people knew--she was just that dignified, cool, and unwhiny.  If she was, as I think I just read somewhere, diagnosed in 2006, she stayed that dignified, cool, and unwhiny for six years--and spent at least one of them making Julia and Julia.  

Ever since I heard the news, my dissolving brain has been repeating the same seven words:  If Nora can die, then anyone can.   And since my brain is dissolving (or since, as Nora so perfectly put it, I Remember Nothing), I have no idea what those words even mean.  I spent the whole morning trying to remember when, where, and even if I'd ever written about her, and finally gave up and let Google (who remembers everything) figure it out.  Which of course it did (see below).

Horrifyingly enough, I do not recall having read these words, let alone having written them, and I completely forgot about our both liking lima beans.  I actually have some in my freezer right now and I'm going to cook them up tonight on my hotplate. Yes, after six years, still the sad hotplate.  But the one I have now at least has two burners, and if that isn't progress I just don't know what.

Failing At Living
San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, September 16, 2006

No one has suffered like Nora Ephron -- well, except for me

I've loved Nora Ephron ever since I read "Heartburn," her 1983 roman a clef about getting dumped -- while seven months pregnant with their second child -- by her lowdown husband, dog Carl Bernstein.

Because I was convinced she and I shared the same leaky boat (albeit mine a mere dinghy beside her Titanic), her anguish stabbed me anew with each page. The sharper her wit, the deeper the stab.

She felt, I could tell, savagely butchered, salted and seared. Not unlike a steak which, if she'd cooked it, would have been bathed in a marinade first and served with a ball of fresh tarragon butter.

That was the other thing I loved about Nora. She not only confessed to her life's being ruined, she detailed said ruination's cuisine. She even gave recipes. I, of course, tried them.

We had, I was certain, a cosmic connection. After all, had I not, before ever hearing of "Heartburn," published my very first essay and called it "Cuisine of a Failed Romance"?

Were our two titles not interchangeable?

Did Nora, with her two failed marriages, and I, with my two failed whatevers, not both long for the very same things -- a sane man to love, a kitchen to cook in, and, oh yeah, successful writing careers? Had Nora not begun hers by addressing, in Esquire magazine, her failure to grow gargantuan breasts? Had I not failed to grow breasts as well?

To all questions, a deafening yes.

Nora, I knew, was the eldest of three writing sisters, and I hungered to join their sisterly team. Or at least be seen as a tagalong cousin. Cousin Itt maybe. The wee Ephronette.

When "Heartburn" came out as a blockbuster movie, I wrote a column dissecting the folly of letting two Jews be played by the goyim. (Right, like I wouldn't want Meryl Streep playing me?)

I sobbed all through "When Harry Met Sally" because it was hilarious and I didn't write it.

Oh the horrible horror of envy. Not one of my screenplays ever got off the page. Unless you count Andrew Dice Clay reading the "Pretend You're Sensitive Handbook" in an '88 movie called "Casual Sex?" whose script I "punched up" while going insane in a cottage in the producer's backyard. In Beverly Hills, mind you, where Nora had once gone to high school with starlets and blondes. Another reason I just had to love her. She'd survived that experience. Survived it? She'd thrived!

Nora's triumphs -- from turning her failings into a best-seller to imbuing her work with her passion for food -- were coups I could sort of relate to, at least. But when she became a real live director, I could only regard her with jaw-dropping awe. Directing a film required such genius and massive self confidence that just thinking about it made me pass out.

Which was good, because when you can't relate, you can't envy, either. I finally, sadly, accepted the fact that we did, after all, come from disparate planets.

Until a few millennia later when I saw the logo at the top of this column. I had no idea I was getting a logo, but when this happy surprise appeared in the paper, I recalled in an instant what Nora had said: "When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh." Or something like that. Boy, was she smart.

Actually, it was her mother who'd said it to her, and I just read the passage again in Nora's new book "I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts About Being a Woman." Since I too feel bad about my neck, not to mention what lurks above and below it, I felt that cosmic connection spark up, the sisterly bond, the rapture resumed.

Once gain Nora is speaking the truth, this time about getting older. People do not, in fact, age like fine wine, and the years are not golden so much as jaundiced by losing your friends forever and always. Mortality looms. And then there's the neck.

"Right on, Nora!" I would have said to myself if I were a person who made such remarks. The point is, she made me feel better. I'd known for years I had entered the Crone Zone, and now I knew she was right there beside me.

But then, oops, I read on:

"Here are some questions I am constantly noodling over. Do you splurge or do you hoard? Do you live every day as if it's your last or do you save your money on the chance you'll live 20 more years? Is life too short or is to going to be too long? Do you work as hard as you can, or do you slow down to smell the roses? Are we really going to have to spend our last years avoiding bread especially now that bread in America is so unbelievably delicious?"

Nora, I recalled with a jolt, wasn't beside me in the Crone Zone at all, but beside her third husband, writer and mensch Nick Pileggi. Plus, she's been beside him for the past 20 years, all through which she's probably cooked on a stove with, at minimum, six working burners. As for the question of "splurging or hoarding," I happen to know that every time Meg Ryan sneezes, Nora's income is squared and then cubed. Or something like that. Am I an accountant?

I don't know why she feels bad about her neck. Personally, I think if you have a husband who knew your neck when you both still felt good about it, no one cares how much it disintegrates. The experience of the good neck is, you know, internalized. Anyway, I can't imagine a man like Nick leaving a woman like Nora over something so banal as a neck.

Then again, it wasn't my neck that was publicly guillotined by the grand executioner named Carl Bernstein.

Talk about internalization. An experience like that can make a gal feel bad to the end of her days. Trust me, I know. I still have nightmares about my whatevers and even I don't remember their names.

OK, so Nora and I really are just the same!

Except for the man and, you know, the money. Plus the fact that I now have only one burner to cook on. And as horrified as I am by my neck, it's as nothing compared to the implications of doom that radiate from my hotplate.

OK, so Nora and I have nothing in common. Except for lima beans. She likes them, too. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What to Do When A Sandpiper Sends You A Joy

All I can say is: Never tell anyone you're going through even the slightest bit of unpleasantness. They  just might tell someone who tells someone else who tells someone else who, eager to help and inspire you, sends you the following email.

Note: Even though it's waaaay too long (as only an atrociously written, flagrantly unedited narrative can be) and possibly something you've already read (though new to me, various versions have been circulating for years), I am presenting this unbidden message in its entirety (all in italics) if only to present the email exchange (not in italics) that ensues once it finally (repeatedly) ends. So here goes:

A beautiful story.... with a good message.   This story doesn't ask anyone to forward it or take any action other than to read and enjoy.

The Sandpiper  by Robert Peterson 

 She was six years old when I first met her on the beach near where I live.
 I drive to this beach, a distance of three or four miles, whenever the world 
begins to close in on me. She was building a sand castle or something and
 looked up, her eyes as blue as the sea. 

 "Hello," she said.

 I answered with a nod, not really in the mood to bother with a small child.

 "I'm building," she said.

"I see that. What is it?" I asked, not really caring.

 "Oh, I don't know, I just like the feel of sand."

That sounds good, I thought, and slipped off my shoes. 

A sandpiper glided by.
 "That's a joy," the child said. 

 "It's a what?"

"It's a joy. My mama says sandpipers come to bring us joy."

 The bird went gliding down the beach. Good-bye joy, I muttered to myself,
 hello pain, and turned to walk on. I was depressed, my life seemed  completely out of balance.
 "What's your name?" She wouldn't give up.

"Robert," I answered. "I'm Robert Peterson."

"Mine's Wendy... I'm six."

"Hi, Wendy."
She giggled. "You're funny," she said. 

 In spite of my gloom, I laughed too and walked on.

Her musical giggle followed me.

 "Come again, Mr.. P," she called. "We'll have another happy day."

The next few days consisted of a group of unruly Boy Scouts, PTA meetings,
and an ailing mother. The sun was shining one morning as I took my hands
 out of the dishwater. I need a sandpiper, I said to myself, gathering up my  coat.
 The ever-changing balm of the seashore awaited me.. The breeze was chilly
but I strode along, trying to recapture the serenity I needed.

 "Hello, Mr. P," she said. "Do you want to play?" 

"What did you have in mind?" I asked, with a twinge of annoyance. 

"I don't know. You say."
"How about charades?" I asked sarcastically.

 The tinkling laughter burst forth again. "I don't know what that is."

 "Then let's just walk."

 Looking at her, I noticed the delicate fairness of her face.  "Where do you live?" I asked.

"Over there." She pointed toward a row of summer cottages. 

 Strange, I thought, in winter. "Where do you go to school?"

 "I don't go to school. Mommy says we're on vacation"

 She chattered little girl talk as we strolled up the beach, but my mind was
 on other things. When I left for home, Wendy said it had been a happy day.
 Feeling surprisingly better, I smiled at her and agreed.

 Three weeks later, I rushed to my beach in a state of near panic. I was in
 no mood to even greet Wendy. I thought I saw her mother on the porch and
 felt like demanding she keep her child at home.

 "Look, if you don't mind," I said crossly when Wendy caught up with me, "I'd
 rather be alone today." She seemed unusually pale and out of breath.

 "Why?" she asked.

 I turned to her and shouted, "Because my mother died!" and thought, My God,
 why was I saying this to a little child?

 "Oh," she said quietly, "then this is a bad day."

 "Yes," I said, "and yesterday and the day before and -- oh, go away!"

 "Did it hurt?" she inquired.

 "Did what hurt?" I was exasperated with her, with myself.

 "When she died?"

 "Of course it hurt!" I snapped, misunderstanding, wrapped up in myself. I strode off.

A month or so after that, when I next went to the beach, she wasn't there.
 Feeling guilty, ashamed, and admitting to myself I missed her, I went up to
 the cottage after my walk and knocked at the door. A drawn looking young
 woman with honey-colored hair opened the door.
"Hello," I said, "I'm Robert Peterson. I missed your little girl today and
 wondered where she was."
 "Oh yes, Mr. Peterson, please come in. Wendy spoke of you so much. I'm  afraid I allowed her to bother you. If she was a nuisance, please, accept my apologies." 

 "Not at all! she's a delightful child." I said, suddenly realizing  that I meant what I had just said.

"Wendy died last week, Mr. Peterson. She had leukemia.  Maybe she didn't tell you."

 Struck dumb, I groped for a chair. I had to catch my breath.

 "She loved this beach, so when she asked to come, we couldn't say no. She seemed so much better here and had a lot of what she called happy days. But the last few weeks, she declined rapidly..." Her voice faltered, "She left  something for you, if only I can find it. Could you wait a moment while I
 I nodded stupidly, my mind racing for something to say to this lovely young  woman. She handed me a smeared envelope with "MR. P" printed in bold  childish letters.. Inside was a drawing in bright crayon hues -- a yellow beach, a blue sea, and a brown bird. Underneath was carefully printed:


 Tears welled up in my eyes, and a heart that had almost forgotten to love opened wide. I took Wendy's mother in my arms. "I'm so sorry, I'm so  sorry, I'm so sorry," I uttered over and over, and we wept together. The precious little picture is framed now and hangs in my study. Six words -- one for each year of her life -- that speak to me of harmony, courage, and  undemanding love.
 A gift from a child with sea blue eyes and hair the color of sand 
 -- who taught me the gift of love. 

NOTE: This is a true story sent out by Robert Peterson. It happened over 20  years ago and the incident changed his life forever. It serves as a  reminder to all of us that we need to take time to enjoy living and life and each other. The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.

 Life is so complicated, the hustle and bustle of everyday traumas can make  us lose focus about what is truly important  or what is only a momentary setback or crisis..

 This week, be sure to give your loved ones an extra hug, and by all means,  take a moment... even if it is only ten seconds, to stop and smell the roses.

 This comes from someone's heart, and is read by many and now I share it with you..

 May God Bless everyone who receives this! There are NO coincidences!
 Everything that happens to us happens for a reason. Never brush aside  anyone as insignificant. Who knows what they can teach us?
 I wish for you, a sandpiper.

What sort of response was the sender expecting?  Confirmation that I, too, had been blind like poor Robert Peterson until reading this email and finally--gratefully--seeing the light?   Alas, like George Washington and Christopher Hitchens, I could not tell a lie.
So I gave her my only and honest response:
Even a dying child should be taught 
not to talk to strange men---on the beach
or anywhere else

To which she said:
Not all of those men on the beach are nasty. 
 Sometimes we all help each other without harm. 

To which, unable to curb myself, I said:
Trust me--even I realize that "sometimes we all help each other without harm" and that
 not all men, or women for that matter, on all beaches are, as you say, "nasty."
I just think it's best not to take any chances.
If that makes me a negative sandpiper, so be it! 

To which she said:
No not a negative anything. Safety is a positive thing. Be Safe. 

To which this sandpiper could not respond, as all this hippie talk gave her a headache. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Most Lovely Otis, Sondheim, and Seuss

Thank you, dear readers,  for your happy responses to my last post.  Here's what happened next with dear Otis:    

Okay, so on my last day with Otis I read my farewell poem aloud (see epic work on previous post) and then--like all pathetic praise-seeking writers, i.e., all writers—sought his face for the glowing grin of approval. 

But there was no grinning. Au contraire, if god had just turned me into a sea horse, he couldn’t have looked an iota more shocked. His mouth was stuck in the shape of an O and so were his unblinking brown eyes. He stared at me, saying nothing. Ohmygod, I thought, I’ve crossed some sort of invisible line and now his mother will have me arrested. Then, even as I was wondering where a gal might find good prosciutto in prison, he spoke.

“How did you do it?” he asked.

Since I couldn’t believe such a question would ever occur to a seven year old--and also since my right ear is dead--I had to make sure I’d heard him correctly.

“How did I do it?” I echoed.

He solemnly nodded and sat back to wait. Weird as it was, I understood then that he genuinely wanted to know, to know how a person—a person he knew to be real because he could see her--had gone about turning a piece of paper into a poem.

A poem, no less, that was all about him. Call me crazy, but, unless you’re interviewing someone on 60 Minutes, the question How did you do it? sounds a lot to me like: How can I do it? and whether or not I’m right about that,  just thinking it was totally thrilled me.

So I told him. I gave him the recipe.  The nuts and the bolts of composing faux-Seussian verse.  Yes, indeed, I explained to Otis:  

1.  How Dr. Seuss likes to rhyme and so I rhymed too.

2.  How Dr. Seuss likes to talk nonsense (a boy, not a moose) (as if you’d ever really confuse the one with the other!) so I did the same.

3.  How Dr. Seuss likes to talk the same nonsense over and over, but with a new twist.  Hence my moose becoming a mule becoming a flea and finally a pup-- but never an aardvark because you can’t rhyme it, and never a dinosaur because the accent goes on the di and not on the saur, which, if you listen--and listen you must----completely throws everything off.

4.  And, oh yeah: how  Dr. Seuss (and every other writer worth reading) takes the time to talk in specifics, hence Green Eggs and Ham and not Just Some Breakfast, ditto Eloise and Ms Frizzle and not Just Some People We Met in Some Books. 

 Naturally, I longed to go on and talk about Sondheim, to explain how he too liked to rhyme words with pup, and did so most effectively in  Losing My Mind, a song from Follies, to wit:

The sun comes up
I think about you
The coffee cup
I think about you 

and how the domestic detail of the coffee cup could wrench the heart right out of one's chest, but his eyes --which were actually still open and on me--were, understandably, starting to glaze.   Anyway, I can always tell him next fall, if he still needs a tutor and if that tutor turns out to be me. For which I of course am crossing all fingers.